Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Warrior's North Star: Guide to martial arts

Choice of martial arts and understanding the unifying concept of all forms

Key words: North Star (Polaris), Soft vs. hard forms, awareness, concentration, Judo, Aikido, Harmony with universe

The North Star ( Polaris) has been a guiding star for many wanderers as we may have read in literature or geography in school. It is nature's way of guiding you with the direction of North in the absence of compass or map and may have saved many lives known and unknown with its guiding direction.

Check out the following link for more details on North Star a.k.a Polaris: http://www.ehow.com/facts_5977856_star-polaris.html

Just like a north star helps one in finding the right direction, I maintain the desire to give some inputs from my own experience and understanding of martial arts - especially for parents and young talents who are puzzled with the choices they have in this field.

I classify people who take in martial arts into the following categories:

1. Fitness lovers: Martial arts provides a holistic fitness regimen. Easy to lose weight and gives a healthy appearance and tones the shape of the body in a balanced way.

2. Energy acrobats: Some folks send their children to martial arts classes so that their energy can be properly channeled and keeps them physically and mentally engaged, whilst cultivating a sense of discipline. The young enthusiasts, after watching some special effects action scenes in the movies, wish to learn some acrobatics to impress folks around with impressive stunts and showing off flexibility or breaking boards and bricks.

3. Survivors, Victims and Avengers: Victims of bully, rape, physical/mental abuse, kidnap, robbery, terrorist attack, etc.. who have suffered immense trauma from such incidents, feel the need to take this art. They take it seriously in order to protect themselves from hurt once again; even ensuring the protection of their near and dear ones. Self-defence combined with exercises prepares the body, mind and spirit to face the challenges in their lives. On the other hand, it is a compulsory field of knowledge for the outlaws and the protectors of the Laws alike - terrorists, defence personnel, etc.

4. Inheritors and Seekers: Those born in the family of martial artists undoubtedly end up learning the arts as a way of preserving the heritage. They inherit this skills wantingly or unwantingly and may or may not continue this legacy. The Seekers are those, who most often than not accidentally land up learning the forms, on their spiritual journey - to know more about mind-body-spirit or through some karmic connection they are drawn towards this field. These seekers are not satisfied with just one form. They may go from school-to-school , until they find 'the Way' for themselves.This category of people take martial arts as a life-long pursuit and devote their lives solely to cultivate themselves in this field and serve the society through their skills and experience.

Let it be clear, that no martial arts is complete.. and yet any martial arts form can be considered complete. It doesnt matter what tool you are using. If you know the right way to use the tool, you have found the right tool.

Although, I would hate to categorize martial arts, but in essence - there are two main ways of fighting - the soft way and the hard way. All martial arts revolve around these concepts, yet the fundamental principle remains : MARTIAL ARTS KEEPS YOU STEADY FOR DEFENCE, AND KEEPS YOU READY FOR OFFENCE.

Basic Classification by nature of form:

1. The Hard Way: Boxing, Karate, Muay Thai, Taekwondo, etc. Use of hard force is predominant here.
2. The Soft Way: Judo, Wrestling, Tai-Chi, Aikido, Hypnotism ('Nokku-varmam' in Kalaripayattu) are some of the popular ways. The way is in expending the least energy, by using the opponent's energy against him.
3. Fighting with weapons.
4. Fighting without weapons.

Basic teachings prevalent in most if not all martial arts:

1. Cultivation of strength - physical and mental endurance ( conditioning through exercises)
2. Speed and power
3. Flexibility and agility
4. Discipline and constant practice, improvement and development ( 'kaizen' in Japanese )
5. Concentration, relaxation and meditation.
6. Balance
7. Knowledge and Awareness
8. Values of respect, truth, honour and courage
9. Understanding the way of warrior spirit and applying to daily living
10. Finding a worthy successor (student/disciple).

There are many sources to choose any style of martial arts available today. In my opinion, it helps to understand the ways of the universe and be in harmony with it.

Martial arts can be taught to a child as young as 8-10 years old and there is no age-limit to learn. However, learning at an older age has its limitations by way of limited flexibility, agility and energy. What one loses on this account, one can take advantage of strength and size or inner energy and discipline with focus.

1. are born soft and weak
2. grow and mature in strength and flexibility
3. age and decline, going back to being soft and ultimately weak at a ripe age.
This is a well-known fact of life.

Respecting this truth of cosmos governing our bodies, it makes sense to start a small child with soft and easier forms like Yoga, Judo combined with light exercises gradually increasing the strength and endurance training well into the child's adolescence - where hard forms can be done easily and safely.

If started with hard forms at too small an age, the child may develop aggression, may not connect with the seriousness involved in these forms and there is a good chance of physical injuries. Before the age of 8, even 6, the body is just growing and needs to be in flow with the nature with the least human intervention possible. Yoga and Judo are pefectly suited for such a tender age to begin with. Yoga teaches relaxation, flexibility and breath-control and Judo also teaches discipline, balance, and most important of all the art of falling !

Yes, everybody falls, but if you develop an awareness of HOW to fall, you shall injure yourself to the minimum or not injure yourself at all. Getting trained into falling, put's one's ego in check - a sharp reality check! And that reality is check is that no matter how strong you are, you are not immune to a fall ! And when you fall, you realize what it means to get hurt, to get dropped.. You learn to pick yourself up and regain balance.
Coming back to HOW TO FALL, in Judo and Aikido, the practitioner is trained on how to fall by ensuring  that the head never touches the ground. This is done by reaching the open palm to the ground as the first point of contact to the surface upon falling. By doing so, not only do you reduce the impact of the fall, you also learn to avoid head injuries as head is the most important part to be protected in self defence. This is why boxers are trained to deliver a knock-out punch to the head.
Watch the following video on Aikido - from scratch to perfection - one of the very good aikido training videos I have come across, as each maneuver is repeatedly demonstrated atleast 4 times.

In the second stage of growth - where youth blossoms and heads towards maturity, more hard training can be incorporated and this is the right stage for toning and shaping the body. Hard forms are most suitable here. The essence of this stage is that the student picks up on all basics and starts developing skills with constant training and discipline. Those in Karate for example, shall relate this to preparation to attain Black Belt. All the katas (forms & sequences) are taken one by one to examine, analyze and understand the secret power behind each move.

In the last stage of life, or as goes with the proverbial Black Belt - one has reached a level of gaining as much knowledge, skills as possible. From here, one needs to start perfecting what one has learnt. Perfection simply signifies that one starts using the art to suit one's natural abilities. This means, a lot of unsuitable forms need to be discarded. It is like a sculptor, who gives the final touch to his work by chiselling out the flaws bit by bit. Leonardo Da Vinci called simplicity as the epitome of perfection. The lesser you have, the lighter you are, the more you are ready to flow than sink in the flow of life - as simple as that. This means you are faster because you are lighter. This means you are more powerful because speed is proportionate to power.

In the last stages of life, wisdom then dawns upon the body when it knows that it does not have the same strength and toughness as it declines with time. Hence, one then develops inner strength, conserves as much energy as possible. From the thousands of techniques, the veteran may use one or two of the most suitable yet deadly ones that he/she has been perfecting over time.

Here is when soft forms never cease to be handy. In fact, at any point in life soft forms are very suitable to learn. But the great masters know that only when you have been through the hard, do you really begin to appreciate the soft - for the understanding then becomes profound.
Aikido and Tai-chi hone the body and spirit with the right exercises as well as rely more on inner power in harmony with nature's course and instead of wasting one's own energy, develops the ability to accept the opponent's force and deflect or use it against the opponent itself.

The miracle of enlightenment happens in a warrior's life is when he comes to a brilliant realization - that from the science of consistent conscious practice, flowers the art of spontaneous action - almost as if that the body-mind-spirit are in one flow, simply adjusting itself automatically to each movement in the heat of attack. It is as if the warrior's spirit is a calm and silent observer, centred like the eye of the hurricane, letting the force be as it may like to be in the periphery. No more separated by hard form-soft form, attack-defence.. the warrior gets the flash of understanding - to quote Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon: I DO NOT HIT.. IT HITS ALL BY ITSELF.

The warrior understands that there are no opponents - only action is ! Only forces of energy in their respective opposite-yet-complementary forms: battling out to preserve the universal balance. This is represented well by the Yin-Yang symbol, a representation of the oriental wisdom:

Whatever art one chooses, the techniques may vary, but core values remain same. The teachings of the spirit remains the same.
Victory does not depend on what weapon you use. But how well you know to use the weapon that you possess.
All fights start with the mind. Mind governs action. Hence in the Art of War - Sun Tzu makes it very clear that the greatest victory is that which is gained without a battle.

One of the nuggets of martial arts wisdom states that the greatest opponent is one's own self - one's ego. There remains a path for each warrior - You and I  - to tread upon relentlessly and persevere to perfect ourselves each day with each passing moment.

Ending on a thankful note and by paying my respects to the legendary great warrior-sage Parashurama.


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