21 April, 2011

Evolution of a Martial Art

Recently I am immersed in two great books by Mr. Ellis Amdur all about koryu, their history and the mental aspects of these arts.  One other thing that I have realized is that the martial arts are living entities that change over time, especially depending upon those who teach them.  The evolution of an art, as it is passed down, interpreted, absorbed in part into other traditions that survive where the main line does not - it is a subject of endless fascination for me, bring up so many disjointed ideas.

One example is that of the formation of judo by its founder Jigoro Kano.  After a lot of serious study as a young adult, he began the first aspects of judo at the young age of 22.  The art continued to change as he and his students were exposed to various techniques and aspects that Kano admired.  He wanted to take the jujutsu that he had learned and adapt it to modern life as he saw Japan change around him.  He removed some techniques from the various ryu, replaced them with others, changed the intent and focus of the studies, tried to include a "more Western" approach to the systematization of his curriculum.

Another similar example is that of Aikido and its founder Morihei Ueshiba.  Ueshiba took the lessons of Daito Ryu, as taught to him, and refined the concepts and techniques, specializing in some and removing others.  Of course, the spiritual and religious aspects of Aikido cannot be understated, and their inclusion is as much as part of the whole as any physical aspect of the art.

When I think of my own dojo, our organization has been collecting arts, forms and techniques for many years (decades, although this is before my time there).  But we don't seem to absorb, refine, and remove that which is deemed extraneous or redundant to our goals.  It seems rather the opposite - we are trying to expand our curriculum base.  While this sounds wonderful, let me tell you that it makes gradings difficult, as knowing three or more versions of a given kata, and being able to differentiate between them at will is very tricky!  Now add to this that over the course of several dan rankings and you can see an almost exponential number of variations to study.  Of course, the purpose of these variations is to present the differing applications of the techniques, but it is easy to feel overwhelmed.

And so, I wonder, is this the way it should be.  We try very hard to maintain the core kata, techniques and curriculum, but who am I to say what should stay and what should go?  How does one know what to focus on (for themselves, for their own repertoire) and what to discard?  Is it that you don't like those techniques, or have a different way to deal with those situations?  I think part of the answer lies in my own ignorance and the lack of completeness of my training.  I don't yet have the entire curriculum of Goju Ryu, so I feel certain this is one aspect of my misunderstanding of the above.

Further questions come to mind.  What does this mean for cross training?  How do you take techniques from totally different arts and integrate them into your own, while maintaining the original intent of your system?  This is incredibly relevant when it comes to bringing in concepts and practices totally outside the scope of your art.  For example, if I wanted to integrate Qi Gong into Karate, how exactly would I reconcile the two into a harmonious whole?  And if I somehow did that, what would I have - a hybrid recognized by whom, to what extent, for what purpose?

I recall an article or blog post, which I will try to dig up if I can find it.  It was about how one should not just add in, for example, a judo throw into karate.  That throw doesn't necessarily fit the intent of the style, and it probably won't fit the kata or application of any move that a karateka of that style would understand.  This is perhaps more applicable when considering jujutsu, where the multitude of  techniques for accomplishing a given type of throw or lock are incredibly numerous between styles, yet very different.  So in this sense, is cross training a hindrance, in that it tries to force a square peg into a round hole?  In many ways, the holes in karate are meant to be filled, but by what often remains a mystery.

There is an essay written by Ellis Amdur in the book Koryu Bujutsu by Diane Skoss.  He writes about how his Sensei in Araki-ryu told him that when he leaves for America, he (Amdur) would need to adjust and adapt the school for his students and his environment.  Call it what you will (Amdur-ryu, Amdur-ha Araki-ryu?) but it is now his expression of Araki-ryu.  It is a very romantic notion that I could be as good someday as recognized masters.  Perhaps that is another driving force in the martial arts.

Another idea, floating around amongst all of this, are stories and the practices of martial artists past.  Often then a teacher would send his students to other teachers, or friends from their days training together, in order to broaden their skills, deepen their understanding, and pursue the martial arts along their own path.  It seems that this practice is not as it once was - I don't think many would approve of introducing their students to a new art and away from their own.  There is a lot of ego in the martial arts, by necessity I think, but this is perhaps one of the drawbacks.

Everyone has their own strengths - some people pick up new techniques more easily than other people and other techniques.  Perhaps this is another side of what your martial arts become in the end.  They are ultimately an expression of yourself, your life, and your abilities as a human, artist and warrior.

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