Friday, 27 November 2009

Martial Arts requires Application AND Beauty

I have just read a blog post by Mario McKenna (Okinawa Karatedo and Kobudo) which was both inspiring and refreshing to read. It was titled Yo-no-Bi which, as Mario explained, means 'application' and 'beauty'. When applied to martial arts it means practicality should be balanced by aesthetics. In other words martial arts is not just about fighting and learning in the fastest, most practical way but must also give regard to the efficacy, fluency and beauty of the techniques.

For some martial art practitioners the point of training is purely to get better at fighting and the more pragmatic the chosen art the better. Some of these people think that kata is a waste of time and is just flowery nonsense. The problem with reducing a martial art to its 'practical bones' is that in the end what ultimately counts is brute strength. The big, strong guy is likely to win whatever his technique is like. Purely practical fighting arts may offer a fast-track way to learn some self-defence but the practitioner will ultimately lack the higher skills and understanding that will make techniques dependent on skill rather than brute strength.

In his post Mario describes 'aesthetics' as those things that perfect distance, timing, composure, balance and other similar concepts. These things can be learnt through kata and then, when they are applied to self-defence, enable techniques to be executed exactly, fluently and effortlessly - no brute strength required!

Of course to transfer skills learnt through kata to self-defense takes time, experience and patience. It is not the fast track route. However, it is ultimately the best route to highly skilled (and beautiful) technique.

Thank you Mario for your excellent post.

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Indomitable Spirit said...

Hi Sue

I certainly agree with you on the need for kata / forms.

This assumes of course that the martial art in question utilises forms appropriately. I believe that some arts use forms simply as a method of physical training, with no bunkai interpretations. Whilst this is not 'wrong' in any sense - the body is certainly committing the movements of the form to muscle memory which has applications elsewhere - I think that any art which doesn't permit bunkai is simply missing a trick.

I trained in one 'eclectic' system which used forms as a catalogue of principles, concepts and theories, and there were one person, two person and weapons applications. As a beginners the forms were taught as a means of learning 'technique', whilst at more senior levels you began to incorporate 2 person variants of the forms where you actually applied the techniques to attacks. At the most senior levels, the forms shifted to incorporate weapons.

Basically there was an awful lot buried in what were sometimes deceptively simple movements. This is effectively lost to those arts which don't have kata / forms.

Sue C said...

Hi Avril,

That 'eclectic' system sounds very well thought out and organised.

How well bunkai is taught is probably down to the instructers experience of it. In our old SKU syllabus bunkai didn't become part of the training syllabus until the dan grades, whereas in our new SSK syllabus simple bunkai is introduced right from the junior grades so it is starting to be seen as something that is very much an integral part of kata, which is clearly a much better way to go.

Anonymous said...

Are you implying that disciplines that don't have kata are inferior or less effective than the ones that do have them? I'm sure the greats in MMA can pretty much wipe the floor with almost all traditional martial artists, including masters and grandmasters. Reality based self-defense systems like krav are inherently more useful than traditional arts: for one you'll learn much, much quicker (for comparison: it takes months to get to a decent level in krav, in karate or taekwondo it usually takes you years to get fairly good) and krav abides by Murphy's law (what can go wrong will go wrong, especially in combat, so keep it simple) and Hick's law: the more options you have the longer it'll take you to decide on one and the less effective you'll ultimately be. On top of that karate and other traditional arts program their students with fairly obsolete and unrealistic techniques and attacks: in karate what you learn is to fight another karateka. On the street attacks are sloppier, less predictable and inherently chaotic and that is why alot of traditional martial artists freeze up when they're actually being attacked but not in the way they were taught at the dojo. Basically your mind will always look for a blueprint or previous experience you might have with a similar situation, if you don't have it chances are you'll blank out and in a streetfight this means getting your ass kicked or worse. MMA, krav, JKD and others may not look pretty but they actually work and they do prepare you for the reality of streetfighting, something I find sorely lacking in most tradtional styles.

Your claim that systems that don't use kata will end up relying on strength is a non-sequitur: while MMA requires one to be fairly strong and weightlifting is almost mandatory if you want to compete self-defense systems are designed to negate even severe differences in size, strength and conditioning. Taking krav as an example: you don't fight strength with strength but with superior body-mechanics and you always strike the most vulnerable parts of your opponents body with either weapons of opportunity or your sturdiest body-weapons (elbows and knees mostly). The very fact krav-maga has been used frequently by women and even children to succesfully defend themselves disproves your claim that 'the big, strong guy will usually win whatever his technique'.

My advice would be to do some proper research before you go out and make claims that you can't substantiate, especially when they're clearly based on your own or another's prejudice. This reeks of 'my child, beautiful child': because I practice this art it's the best art and it's principles and methods are sound no matter what.

Sue C said...


1. I am not prejudiced against practical fighting systems - if what you are interested in is learning some effective self defence techniques quickly then they are clearly the way to go.

2. I am not interested in just learning to 'street fight', I am interested in learning an art form - that is why I do a traditional style. For me (and people like me) the journey is as important as the destination. I am prepared to take the time to learn from kata and to practice kihon. I do not think about fighting when I am training, except in the part we call Goshin waza (self-defense techniques). But goshin waza is just one element out of about eight that we study.

3. "I'm sure the greats in MMA can pretty much wipe the floor with almost all traditional martial artists, including masters and grandmasters." You also make a claim that you cannot substantiate.

4. You may be interested in a blog post written by the editor of Martial News - Phil Doherty. It is in the current edition and you can link directly to the blog post from my side bar: Scroll down to 'Martial News blog roll' and click on 'Below the belt', the link will take you straight to his blog - when you get there scroll down a bit to the post titled 'A load of B*llocks'

John Vesia said...

I like Sensei McKenna's blog, I read it when I can. He said something that caught my eye in the article you provided, though:

Using this outcome as a measure, then by default, strength emerges as the dominant factor.

He's talking about the effectiveness of a technique, and I have to respectfully disagree with this assertion. Really, as I see it, technique's effectiveness is designed to circumvent size and strength liabilities, not the other way around. Actually, the key word here is "technique."

Look, real combat is never pretty or aesthetic. But... it is called martial arts. So the practice and development of the trainee should be with an artistic agenda in mind, i.e. artful living, martial arts as a path, etc. According to historian Donn Draeger the true purpose of traing in a budo system is not to develop combat effectiveness (this is gleaned only as a by-product as he describes), but to develop other traits such as character, spritual forging and so on. Military commando tactics, MMA, sportified karate or whatever belong to different categories.

As far as kata goes I have mixed feelings. Kata works from a script; a real fight is utter chaos. That's the dilemma. The idea of kata as a catalog of techniques to be passed down or to be practiced solo makes perfect sense. As a viable training method for the real thing... I'm not sold.

Sue C said...

John - thanks for your comments and I do understand where you are coming from. I'm sure if I found myself in a street fight (God forbid!) I wouldn't be worrying about what I looked like.

However I think I may have confused people about what I meant by 'aesthetics' (or a least what I interpreted Sensei McKenna to mean by aesthetics). By aesthetics I meant executing techniques with perfect distancing and timing and with good control of body position and balance. Techniques will clearly 'look' better when executed with attention to these details and hopefully work better than just grabbing, stepping in an pushing/pulling without any thought to 'aesthetics' of the technique. The 'looking good' is therefore a by product of doing the technique well.

I think these 'aesthetic' qualities can be learnt through the practice of kata as well as in free sparring, pre-arranged sparring and actual practice of self-defence.


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