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4 Ways Knowing Your History Can Improve Your Skill

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Even among martial artists who take their history seriously, there are many people who see martial arts history as nothing more than an interesting diversion–a distraction from real training.  They have a point.  The best way to gain skill is to train.  But understanding your history is certainly not useless!  Here are four ways that knowing your history can help you in your training.

1. Technical details are sometimes recorded but no longer taught.

There are many specific instances of forms applications being recorded in old texts, but here’s a more in-depth example that I learned by paying attention to Iain Abernethy.  Suppose you are practicing Jindo.  You might know the form well from many repetitions, and you might have the conditioning and balance to perform it well.  You might also have a good sense of how to analyze a form.  The original applications are lost to time, so it is often left to the student to make interpretations.  In this, a little history can help a lot.

Jindo is the Korean version of Chinto, a form created by Matsumura Sokon.  Matsumura was the martial arts instructor and bodyguard to the king of the Ryukyu islands.  The king sent him to deal with a shipwrecked sailor by the name of Chinto, who had taken up residence in some local caves and had been stealing from farmers’ crops to survive.  But when they fought, neither could defeat the other and they arrived to an agreement–Matsumura would take care of Chinto and help him get home to China in exchange for teaching him his techniques.  He created the form to record what Chinto had taught him.

Sokon Matsumura.jpg

Matsumura Sokon

From this story we can make some guesses to help with our interpretations.  Since Matsumura was already the king’s instructor and bodyguard, he must have already been a very competent fighter when he began learning from Chinto, so we can eliminate any applications that are very common or basic.  Consequently a student should not study this form too deeply until other simpler forms are well understood.  We can also assume that there are no applications that are not highly effective in practical situations, as these would have been useless to Matsumura.  We know from another story that Matsumura hated the flying front kick, and it is very weird that we see one in Chinto.  It is very likely that this move is a modern development.

Jindo

Author practicing Jindo

By knowing the history of this form, a student can optimize his or her training time by focusing on applications that are consistent with the skills and goals of the people who created it.  (For more on this specific example, this podcast episode is an excellent use of your time.)

2.  Understanding the roots of your art can help you optimize your cross training.

Many martial artists cross train in other arts.  Usually they do this to cover material that is excluded or minimized in their regular training.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that cross training can also help you understand your primary art more deeply.

For example, I have studied Kang Duk Won taekwondo for years.  By understanding its history, I know that it was founded by a student of Yoon Byungin.  Yoon’s primary art was Chinese chuan fa, and his second art was Japanese karate.  The influences of both on Kang Duk won are very obvious, and I have learned a great deal about Kang Duk Won by cross training in karate.  Sadly, it is impossible to do this with the art’s Chinese roots.  “Chuan fa” is a broad term that encompasses far too many styles to even dabble in, and the specific style that Yoon studied is simply not known.  There have been efforts to rediscover it, but no definitive answer yet.

3.  Knowledge of the history of your art can open doors among its practitioners.

The first time I was in Korea, I met Grandmaster Park Chull Hee.  I knew him only by his martial arts achievements–most notably founding Kang Duk Won taekwondo.  I knew enough that I was able to seek him out, even though I had no contact information and he was retired without a school or a website.  When I met with him, I was able to ask intelligent questions about the history of our art.  I’ll never know for sure if that was a factor, but by the end of our meeting he promised to teach me.  Without the history knowledge I had, I may never even have found him, and everything I have ever learned from him might never have come.

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4.  Your history can inspire you.

Grandmaster Park once told me a story about another instructor who forced his new students to sit outside of his house without food or water for three days.  If they were able to do so without giving up, he would accept them as students and begin their training.  Grandmaster Park said he never did that to his students, because it was harsh and unnecessary.  He didn’t tell me whether this story was true or if it was more of a fable or legend, but ultimately it didn’t matter.  After he told me that, standing in a deep stance for an impossibly long number of minutes didn’t seem quite so impossible.  Because surely I was tough enough to pass the 3-day test, so this measly little stance drill should be easy!

Every style has its stories–some true, some wildly untrue, and plenty in between.  Take from them what you can, maybe knowledge, maybe inspiration, maybe something else entirely.

All that said, no amount of history will help you without the practice to go with it.  Happy training!


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Nervousness and Readiness

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Martial Journeys of Madison recently performed in a public demonstration, which doubled nicely as a lesson for some of the more advanced students about the confluence of nervousness and readiness.  We tend to associate nervousness with being unprepared, with not having practiced enough or trained hard enough to get ready.  Certainly preparation is essential whether you’re performing in a demo, competing in a tournament, taking a test, or giving a speech.  There’s no replacement for adequate preparation.  However, being very well prepared does not prevent nervousness!

This performer’s nervousness had nothing to do with the sheer number of hours he spent practicing.

Nervousness is what happens when your brain tells your body that what is about to happen is important.  That’s it.  Your body responds by making itself as ready as possible.  It tells the airways to expand, the lungs to breathe faster, and the heart to beat faster, all to get oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible.  Your brain releases adrenaline, making you more alert.  Your pupils dilate, letting more light in for improved vision.  You get a sudden boost of energy and a reduced sensation of pain.  Your entire body is primed for whatever comes next.

Most of the effects of nervousness will help you if you’re about to compete in a martial arts tournament.  There are other effects, though, which are less helpful.  Your blood vessels constrict.  You may feel the need to go to the bathroom (or in extreme cases, your body may just do this without waiting for you to actually get there).  Not to mention the most noticeable symptom–the discomfort of feeling nervous.

All this happens because nervousness is the younger cousin of the fight or flight response.  Your body has made itself ready for anything, up to and including a fight for your life.  If you were to be cut, the contracted blood vessels would reduce bleeding, giving you a better chance to survive.  Removing waste from the body decreases the chance of infection should your bladder or intestines become compromised.  While this is of limited use today in our daily lives, it kept our ancestors alive.  Just like the awful feeling that accompanies all these benefits–if our ancient ancestors actually liked the sensation, humanity would have died out long ago by constantly seeking out dangerous situations.

SelfDefenseDemo

These two are not trained actors, but their roles required a little performance. Additional preparation may have helped their showmanship, but probably not their nervousness.

I hate to see students perceive their nervousness as a punishment for inadequate training.  Certainly, the better your preparation, the better your performance is likely to be.  But thinking, “I’m nervous, I guess I should have trained harder,” does not help, and moreover is likely untrue.  In fact, training harder may cause you to feel even more nervous.  After investing so much time and effort, you are likely to attach more importance to the event, which in turn makes it more likely for your body to respond.  If you don’t feel nervous, it probably has less to do with your preparation and more to do with misjudging the seriousness or difficulty of the task.  The usual term for this is “overconfidence.”

The next time you feel nervous, work with your body instead of against it.  Millions of years of evolution have conspired to give you the best chances of success.  Nervousness doesn’t mean you’re not ready.  It means that you are.


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The Meaning of the Double Phoenix Certificate Design

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If you practice a Korean martial art, there is a good chance that your certificates include an image of a double phoenix.  The image is so widely used, I even found it on this attendance certificate:

DoublePhoenixCert

The double phoenix image is very popular on almost any kind of certificate.

As an aside, the flower in the image is the rose of Sharon, which is South Korea’s national flower.  It’s not unusual to find it depicted on formal certificates as well.

The double phoenix image is very widely used in Korea, even outside of martial arts.  It is depicted on South Korea’s presidential seal, again with a rose of Sharon.

South Korea presidential seal

When we westerners hear the word “phoenix,” we generally think of the Greek phoenix, an immortal fire bird that always rises again from its ashes.  Despite the similar names, this bird has nothing to do with that.  Instead, the Asian phoenix is a mythical heavenly bird.  In Korea it is called a “bonghwang,” but it has its roots in ancient China under the name “fenghuang.”  If you’re interested in the Chinese roots of the fenghuang, I highly recommend listening to this episode of KungFu Podcast.

The Asian phoenix is depicted as being made up of parts of a variety of birds, including the tail of a peacock.  With the tail being such a prominent feature, the image is sometimes mistaken for a peacock.  It also has the body of a mandarin duck, the head of a golden pheasant, the wings of a swallow, the beak of a parrot and the legs of a crane.

golden pheasant head

Head

parrot beak

Beak

mandarin duck body

Body

peacock tail

Tail

swallow wing

Wings

crane legs

Legs

The bonghwang is rich in symbolism.  It represents virtue, beauty, prosperity and morality–essentially, the “art” in the martial arts.  Correct training develops character, justifying the “virtue” connotation.  Correct techniques should be effective first and foremost, but coincidentally when perfected they produce a stunning aesthetic, making the “beauty” meaning appropriate.  The “prosperity” aspect was perhaps more relevant in older times when martial artists may have needed their skills to protect their homes and livelihoods, but even today the benefits of martial arts training can extend to all areas of life.  The “morality” meaning emphasizes that we should never misuse our physical skills.  It is no surprise that so many groups find the phoenix to be a fitting image for their certificates.


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