The Perfect Martial Arts Curriculum

Recently, several of my students have been giving me a hard time.  They say I'm under playing the importance of structure training.  Perhaps they are right.

In the traditions of India, Japan and China, it is common to teach using an ideal model.  Copy the model and practice like crazy and eventually you will understand how the model was created, both what makes it tick and what raw materials went into it.  "Reverse engineering" is the name techies give for this type of teaching.  It works well in flexible one-on-one learning situations where, if for some reason, a particular model isn't coming together, the master teacher can just change to a different model.

This way of transmitting cultural knowledge tends to be quite effective at creating continuity.  It's weakness lays in it's tendency to "worshiping" the model itself.  If the teacher believes a particular model is so great it should never be changed he will tend to blame the student (or the society as a whole) for artistic decline.  It's also possible that the teacher got an imperfect transmission of the model and ends up transmitting superficial knowledge.

Western Civilization gives priority in learning to cognitive understanding, not models.  Even when faced with an art which is visceral and corporeal, the tendency is to teach with a curriculum utilizing progressive stages of conceptualization.

This type of teaching tends to make efficient use of time and facilitates group learning.  It's very adaptable.  If the students aren't getting it, the teacher will try to develop a new lesson based on the notion that all knowledge is built on previous knowledge.  By working with the pieces, eventually the whole picture will come into view.

Working against this approach is the problem that acquired knowledge based on conceptual notions or utilitarian routines can sometimes inhibit artistic realms of awareness. (That's what the film the Black Swan is about, by the way.)   Artistic skills and ability are not always based on previous knowledge.  Realms of awareness which open up possibilities of spontaneous action can not really be taught, they must be discovered.  In fact, one type of knowledge can inhibit learning in another realm, like hitting the brake and the gas at the same time.

Too often the role of teacher as facilitator is undervalued and the role of teacher as "spoon feeder" is idealized.  My own learning experience in the martial arts benefited enormously from the "just copy this ideal model" and practice like crazy way of doing things.  Getting autonomous students to willingly submit to that form of learning usually requires a huge head fake.  A sort of matador's cape that I've never been particularly good at wielding.  Meanwhile our society exerts an enormous amount of pressure on teachers to create a progressive curriculum.


All of that was just a conceptual prelude to me presenting the problem in the following practical terms.

If you want to understand the value of strength, do some really hard physical labor for an extended period of time.  Try working 20 hour days commercial fishing in Alaska, carrying around 80 pounds of gear all day above 10,000 feet, or tossing bales of hay in Iowa.  (Perhaps people can mimic some of these effects in the gym, but I'm skeptical.)  Once you have this kind of strength you will appreciate flexibility as a total revelation.  Without first developing this kind of strength, flexibility just seems like a convenience.  But build up some serious strength and flexibility will seem like a treasure.

Once you have strength and flexibility, structure is a revelation.  Good or correct structure will allow you to transfer force through your bones, dramatically reducing the need for muscular strength, allowing you to conserve enormous amounts of energy.

Once you have structure you can develop it so that any movement at any angle or curve has integrity.  And then looseness will be revelation.  With looseness you will have the ability to have structure only when you want it.  You can disappear and re-appear at will.

Once you have looseness, momentum is a revelation.  Looseness will give you the speed and adaptability to take advantage of both your own and an opponent's momentum.   It's a whole different way of fighting. (Yes, I'm talking about fighting again, but it's only a frame for the larger philosophical discovery.)

Once you understand momentum, you will feel the value of increasing the unified integrity of your entire liquid mass as a revelation.  Unity comes about through reducing all effort.  Eventually you will experience turning off all specific muscular control as a revelation.

Once you have discarded effort, emptiness becomes a revelation.  Emptiness connects the effortless body to spacial awareness.

No doubt there are revelations to come.

Laozi says that the more focused, differentiated, specific and clear an idea becomes, the more likely it is to begin to stagnate and decay or harden and break.  Shouldn't this be the first lesson?