Building a martial arts method X

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Building a martial arts method X

by Kenji Tokitsu


The trunk is the seat of life

I was born in Japan two years after the end of World War II and so saw numerous amputees during my childhood, an experience that left a profound mark on me. I still have vivid memories of the horror I felt as a child whenever I saw someone missing all four limbs but who nevertheless was able to make astonishing movements.

I wouldn’t wish such a fate on anyone. “How lucky to have kept our bodies intact!” But with more detachment we can say that despite horrible conditions, people who have lost all their limbs have at least managed to survive, whereas no one can survive without their trunk, since the trunk is life itself. And activating the trunk is essential to energy exercises.

Fortunate are those who are able to keep their bodies whole. If we could make even a few efforts comparable to the exertions made by people missing a limb, we could progress a great deal in our practice. So let us turn our attention to our trunk. How is it activated? How do we learn to activate it? Can we truly distinguish the different dorsal and ventral areas of the trunk, as well as the different parts of the spinal column?

Does activating the chakras constitute a secret?

Not many “normal” people are in the habit of moving their torso independently.  They see its mobility as secondary, or even as the simple continuation of limb movements. They are not used to making their trunk move independently of the movement of their limbs. Many even seem to live as though their trunk were totally or partially immobile. In any event, we think we can live without any particular need of resorting to the independent mobility of the trunk. Life can go on without ever needing to attach any importance to such movement.

Must it be said therefore that having a normal body means there is no need to try to activate the trunk, just as people who enjoy good health hardly think about how to stay that way?

As can be seen daily in the technical context of different physical activities, we are not used to creating complex movements with our trunk. In effect, there are very few articulations that can be seen in the trunk, apart from the shoulders, the shoulder blades and the hips. To caricaturize, I could say that many people tend to regard their bodies as though they were just like Pinocchio’s.

Here is my personal view.
Occasionally we chance to see a military parade, with soldiers marching in time to military music, stepping high and swinging their arms. Some people find these scenes beautiful and reassuring, since such parades represent a kind of order, a force, a system holding up society. Personally, I don’t share this impression. To me it’s like watching rows of marionettes. My image of the warrior is quite different – but that’s my personal opinion.

Sometimes I’m tempted to compare this orderly military marching with classical ballet, where the dancers also express the beauty of their gestures through the movements of their body. I am sensitive to the elegance of the body and its movements. But after having studied and worked on the martial dance (jian-wu), I can’t help seeing the agility of the trunk in a different way. For the essence of the martial dance is generated through activation of the trunk, however difficult this is to see.

The martial dance – jian-wu

Researching the martial dance (jian-wu), I have closely studied the article by Wang Xhiangzhai (1886-1963) in “O Kôsai den” (Transmission of Wang Xhiangzhai), translated by T. Ishikawa, co-authored by Sun Li and Sài Shiming, ed. Bêsu-bôl (journal), Tokyo 1996.

Here are some excerpts:

Wang Xiangzhai, fundador del Yiquan

“…. Technical expressions such as: ‘dancing waves’, ‘playful dragon’, ‘white crane’, ‘surprised serpent’ each designate a technical form in boxing. The fist dance (boxing) is also called jian-wu (lit. dance of health or of strengthening) or wu-wu (lit. martial dance). This form of dance was very popular in China in the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) periods. It was practiced as a method for well-being and health, and also as a method of sparring. It was performed not only by martial arts practitioners, but also by scholars and pundits. After this period, the tradition of the dance was lost.”

“Recently, Master Huang Muqiao, a martial arts researcher, reconstructed various forms of jian-wu based both on his long years of practice and on his study of drawings of dancers such as those found in the Dui Huang murals and on ceramic bowls and pottery.”

“During the period of the Northern War (circa 1925), I travelled to southern China and was fortunate enough to meet Master Huang Muqiao in Huan Nan. I attended his jian-wu classes and learned the essential line of this dance form, but was unable to comprehend its hidden subtleties. I have taught this dance to some of my pupils, but only about ten of them were able to learn its subtleties.”

“The indispensable condition for learning the boxing dance is mastery of the ‘four similes’ – i.e.,  ‘the body is like a foundry, as though it were full of lead, as if all its muscles formed a single block, and its hair had turned into wire’.”

“Unless you fulfil these conditions, your dance will only represent the superficial movements of the limbs, and you’ll never be able to dance well. I also said that ‘power (jin) resides in the body and strength (li) emerges from it’.  When you attain the level of realisation of the ‘four similes’ by working on zhan zhuang, it will mean that you have obtained internal power (nèijin).”

“Working on the ‘four forms’ is the best exercise for acquiring efficiency in combat, by learning how to make internal power (nèijin) explode into external force...”

From these writings, we can see that the dance known as jian-wu or wu-wu was a physical practice entailing a much broader cultural context than the one we have encompassing dance today. The transmission of this dance was interrupted in the course of history and was only reconstructed in the 20th century.

But even though this practice was lost in times past, we can imagine that an essential part of it became impregnated in different Chinese physical practices. I believe that this tradition is implicitly present in the different currents of Chinese martial arts.

Secret knowledge

The ballet dancers of today all have very supple limbs, and the elegance of their movements is undeniable. However, I am not at all happy to see how little agility they have in their trunks, for I truly feel that this part of their body is not very mobile at all. Is this just a prejudice of mine?

Each of our energy zones or chakras is located near the central line of the body, whose sides can be activated like accordions. But few people know that these areas can produce subtle, complex movements that generate great dynamic power. In the practice of kiko (qi-gong) and of martial art, activating the trunk is crucial for effective well-being and motion. It is not easy, of course, to put into practice, because few people seem aware of this possibility. In fact, these qualities are submerged in our physical habits and therefore remain hidden.

Knowledge can be kept hidden spontaneously due to our ignorance or lack of perspicuity, but it can also be hidden intentionally by people who wish to keep it secret for their own ends. A secret is born when someone tries to keep something hidden.

Let’s look at this more closely.

The existence of the trunk is obvious to all. When something is deemed readily apparent, it becomes couched in a banality that will constitute the best refuge for keeping a secret. There is an old saying: “Secrets are like eyelashes: they’re so close to your eyes that you can’t see them.” Until something obvious is made evident, it will be ignored and remain hidden. Such secrecy is of even greater importance for the martial arts, since it safeguards essential clues for producing power and speed, and also for creating a particular mode of perception.

(See essay No. 7 on first and second physical capacities.)

For example, the speed, power and subtlety of Iai (the art of Japanese swordsmanship) are attained through activation of the entire body, particularly certain areas of the trunk including the hips. Unless you know how to activate them, you cannot excel in this art. The speed of a movement is not produced by moving the hand, but by the entire body based on the central line of the trunk.

The different schools of martial art transmit the subtlety of bodily movement, particularly activation of the trunk, which constitutes a secret of their teaching. Efficiency is obtained through exercises that put this secret into practice. But unless it is put into practice, the exercises cannot be productive.

As we will see later, what is known in physical practice as the “secret”, or essential knowledge, ends up hidden out of ignorance while people look in the other direction. The secret exists… I invite you to reread Essay no. 8.

But a secret is like a map for finding hidden treasure on top of a mountain. Even if you manage to get hold of the map, you have to be able to get to the top of the mountain where the treasure is hidden. And then, if you’re lucky enough to find it, you still have to be able to carry it home, for otherwise no treasure will be of any use to you.

The equivalent of the map is the method, while the effort necessary to bring the treasure home so you can benefit from it is training, or implementation of the method.

Without that effort, having the map won’t do you any good. However, without the map (method) you could never find the treasure. So the method is essential, but by itself it is insufficient.

Activating the chakras

The kiko of the Yayama method applies the yoga concept of chakra as it is understood in Chinese medicine. Here the chakra is defined as an area where vital, dynamic energy is collected. I apply the dynamic aspect of this concept in my method.

If you activate the ventral part of the body, the corresponding dorsal area will get a workout as well. The front and back of the trunk move simultaneously. This dynamic corresponds to that of the yin and yang parts of the body, which touches on the essence of tai chi chuan. Because the technique of this discipline can only be formed by the dynamic action of the yin and yang parts of the body. Otherwise, there would be no sense in calling it tai chi chuan, for tai chi means the dynamic integration of yin and yang. So there is no tai chi chuan without mobilisation of the yin and yang parts of the body.

If you mobilise the chakras according to the principle of tai chi, they will be activated as if each of these zones served as a hinge.

In the front part of the body, these areas are found at the level of the:
- base of the throat
- sternum
- solar plexus
- navel
- lower abdomen

Note that for each zone, we must include the corresponding dorsal area. The dorsal and ventral parts are inseparably linked.

In practice, you can think of your body as containing five balls of energy that bulge a little in the front and the back parts of the trunk. You can activate these balls by following the method. As we have seen, these five areas move like articulations, which is why in our method, we refer to them both as chakras and as hinges.

A secret arises when you think you have understood

Whatever the discipline in martial arts, activation of these areas is essential, because it is the source for increasing your dynamic capacities beyond the ordinary level. This is why the method for activating them is often hidden in transmission. Remember that when physical arts are transmitted, there is a visible part and also a part that is invisible.

One of the most flagrant examples of this is the exercise known as zhan-zhuang (ritsu-zen). This is an (apparently) immobile exercise for obtaining different results, such as whole-body strength, forming the sensation of qi (ki), a deep sense of physical relaxation and well-being, improved health, etc.

The visible aspect of this exercise appears to be a simple posture, whereas the effect you seek varies according to the way and level of your comprehension. That is, you will interpret the aim of the exercise according to how you understand it. This is the beginning of the secret. I’ll try to explain this with the help of an image.
You have before you a precious object.
Let’s imagine two possible reactions to this situation.
Reaction 1:
You can treasure it as an object of unquestioned value and bequeath it to your family to hand down from generation to generation.
Reaction 2:
You’re not satisfied with simply keeping it as a precious object. You want to find out its composition so as to be able to reproduce it yourself.
After several years of hard research, you find the component material of the object, and you say to yourself, “That’s it, I’ve found its composition.” Having invested so much time and energy in it, you think, “I’ve finally understood the secret of this precious material”.
You believe that you’re the one who holds the secret. But in reality, the object is made up of ten layers of materials having a homogenous appearance. You have only found the first layer of this object…

As long as you’ve made up your mind that the object is composed of a single material – the one that you found – you will be convinced that you know its composition. You wouldn’t dream of thinking that there could still be nine other elements making up the object...

This imaginary situation illustrates the complexity of research, where the way is long and full of snares.
Many people believe that they only need to learn physical techniques and move their limbs systematically.  But as we saw in Essay no. 8, a technique worthy of the name involves subtleties that are hard to execute and that may constitute a secret in teaching and transmission. The secret is whatever is kept hidden. Things may be kept in the dark intentionally for tactical advantage, or we may not see them due to our own ignorance.

To be continued...



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