So, you want to learn a martial art?

So you're keen to learn a ‘Martial Art’?

Maybe we can help you acquire outstanding skills in this challenging area of human endeavour. But first, we need to clarify what exactly you mean by the term ‘Martial Art’. You see, this description has been misapplied over the last 60 or so years, to anything and everything Oriental that involves some punching and kicking techniques. The term has strayed from its original meaning, and in the process has lost its relevance.

I've outlined the various types of training you are likely to encounter in an effort to clarify this rather confusing industry of combative activities, and to assist you on your journey of exploration of all things called 'martial arts’…


1. A true martial art is an art of war

A ‘martial art’ is exactly what the title infers: An art of war.

‘War’, as I am sure you are well aware, is a state of armed conflict. Therefore, learning an art of war would, by definition, exclude any activity not focused almost exclusively on

(a) the use of a range of weapons

(b) to kill another human being

(c) and by default, those activities containing any sporting/competitive elements—for obvious reasons—killing is not ‘fun’ or recreational.

Some examples of a martial art would be the classical arts of kenjutsu, batto-jutsu, naginata-jutsu, so-jutsu, kyu-jutsu; most of the extant arts originate in the Orient, some in middle or eastern Asia. Naturally, training in a martial art would include some pertinent unarmed skills for close-quarter combat should the need arise.

Two outcomes result: Firstly, what most dojo offer are not martial arts, irrespective of claims otherwise; Secondly, for marketing purposes the use of the descriptive ‘martial art’ adds public appeal by inducing some ‘mystical element’ of philosophy, psychology, power, efficacy, and superiority. The term is therefore used with enthusiastic flippancy, while showing disrespect to those ‘warriors’ who put their lives on the line.

Very few organisations, offering authentic tuition in the martial art skills and psychology of hand-to-hand combat involving the weaponry of the warriors and knights of earlier era, still exist worldwide. As an aside, one would not think of the western activity of boxing as a martial art, even though it is unquestionably combative, yet such astute perception is not applied to its oriental equivalent… karate (refer point 2).


2. Recreational combative sports are not martial arts

A recreational combative sport that generally involves (agreed) mutual (unarmed) confrontation is obviously not a ‘martial’ art. The following contemporary activities clearly fall into this category: Boxing, wrestling, MMA, karate (oriental boxing), judo (oriental wrestling), kung fu, jujutsu, taekwondo, kick-boxing, muay thai, kendo, some aikido and tai chi styles, etc., etc. Most of these sports lack genuine ‘self-defence’ efficacy as a result of their over-riding intent.

Certainly, some of these athletic activities have (distant) roots in classical martial art systems, but nowadays they contain very little resemblance (if any) to their forbears, either in technical design or execution. However, the label of ‘martial art’ is far more marketable, and its modern-day use is fervently defended (excuse the pun) both in the East and in the West.


3. Civilian defensive arts are not martial arts

A civilian defensive art, of which there used to be quite a few during the last three-hundred year period (almost exclusively in the Oriental countries), is certainly not a martial art, even though most styles contain some instruction in the use of (civilian-borne) weapons, e.g., knives, batons, baseball bats, machete.

Their syllabi were vast, and required intensive training as they needed to cover every type of conflict situation that a person might face in social interactions. Whether such situations involve single or multiple assailants who might be armed or unarmed, or some familial conflict that has turned violent, the defendant is constrained by law to use only minimum and reasonable force.

These arts were/are designed to function in a completely different environment, set of circumstances, and legal context to martial arts, and their psychology, skills, tactics, and strategies reflect this difference through their nature and approach. Very few of these civilian defence arts still remain as a result of the global swing to sportify, ’recreationalise’, and convert almost every popular human physical activity into cash cows. Some examples would be Todejutsu, Hsing I Ch’uan, Pakua Ch’uan, Savate. Again, most of these activities would be claimed to be ‘martial arts’ by their providers.


4. Arts with a self-development focus

A self-development art that functions to improve the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of its practitioners is also not a martial art. The classical (mental and spiritual) versions of these activities would more closely reflect their original martial-art roots but are practised with little emphasis on their efficacy to kill, maim, or immobilise.

Some examples would be: Iaido, kyodo, naginata-do, and some of the other ‘budo’ versions of the classical ‘bujutsu’ martial art systems; older forms of aikido; traditional t’ai chi ch’uan and other Chinese internal arts. Although not particularly popular, these traditional derivations of older classical arts have retained fairly consistent memberships over the last century, particularly in the Orient, but to a lessening degree in the West.

In the physical domain however, a number of these older arts have become overly commercialised and, although providing some useful exercise to improve the fitness and health of their memberships, they have long lost any capability of stimulating genuine ‘developmental’ outcomes or unique health benefits. For example: Tae bo, capoeira, kickfit-type aerobics (marketed as a useful combative activity), tapout xt, NIA, and most forms of modern and hybridised tai chi—where instructor licences and certification are often awarded after a weekend course or after the study of a few DVDs. Nevertheless, most of these activities would also market themselves as being ‘martial arts’ to add to their allure.


5. Arts that promote a way of life

A way-of-life art, being undertaken without too much concern about the efficacy of the techniques being practiced, but rather driven by the appeal and belief that such an activity offers to uplift the life-experiences of its practitioners (also not a martial art). A number of the aforementioned arts/sports/exercise programmes could be and are approached with this frame of mind, and serve as useful vehicles for the fulfilment of their members. Most of these activities refrain from adopting the term ‘martial art’.


Still want to study a martial art?

If you're seriously searching for an authentic, classical, oriental martial art system that has stood the test of time and validation, and is still following the original teachings of centuries ago—then your task is (unfortunately) simple. As far as we have been able to ascertain after extensive research, we are the only organisation to offer professional instruction in a classical (15th century) martial art in New Zealand, and certainly in the Canterbury region… the oldest extant koryu bujutsu Samurai martial art of Katori Shinto Ryu, a Japanese cultural art using a range of swords and spears (refer: Tenshindo).


Prefer something that isn't an art of war?

If you are seeking some other form of combative activity that might be of greater appeal to you—ignoring the accuracy of the moniker ‘martial art’—then you have a fair selection of activities on offer, many of which I have referred to above. Our Foundation also offers professional instruction covering the domains of Civilian Defensive Art (namely, Todejutsu and Arnis) and Self-Development Art (namely, Tenshindo, Todejutsu, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan).


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18 July 2014, 09:13
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