Monday, July 8, 2013

Lotus, Tree, and Little Dragon

(This is a post I initially put up last year while I was taking Karate classes at Wossamotta U.  While I don't usually repeat myself in this fashion, this is something I feel very strongly about and it has come up recently in several conversations.  Though my major is no longer in Physical Therapy, training damage is still a serious and widespread problem.  I hope one day to be in a position to address it.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to having Karate class right after dance.  The advantage, of course, is that I don't have to go anywhere right after dancing.  Class actually comes to me.  The disadvantage is that I just finished a dance class and now Sensei wants to make sure everyone works out.

Lauren told me once how she was in a Writing class, and the people there were talking about how great it was to be back in a classroom setting, so they could get writing done again.  “It always seems to make it easier, don’t you think?”  I imagine Lauren doing her best to not look at them all as if they had just grown extra heads.  If you love to write, you’ll write.  Classwork gets in the way – rather than writing your own ideas, you’re working on someone else’s.

Which is how I feel about the first part of almost any Karate class I’ve ever taken.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I love the martial arts.  It’s part of my life.  I’ve been passionate about it since . . .

Okay, let’s just say a long time.

But it seems that just about every martial arts instructor in the US is absolutely convinced that the only time his or her students exercise is in class, and so Sensei needs to make you sweat blood in the dojo.  Which would be bad enough (and for some students, at least, this may be true), but the philosophy of the workouts seems to revolve around the whole “no pain no gain” mentality.  And the idea that you have to be built like a weightlifter and do a hundred pushups every day in order to be a good martial artist is complete bullrush.

I’ll say that again.

The very idea that you can measure a martial artist’s prowess by his or her washboard abs and the number of crunches they can do is a tragic fallacy.  Moreover, it is a fallacy that results in time being lost that could be spent training in class.  Learning new moves and footwork, fine-tuning old ones, endlessly working on the synthesis between body and mind in motion.

In one of his books I read (I think it was Basic Training, but don’t quote me), Bruce Lee mourned that most of the martial artists focused too much on technique, and not enough on physical conditioning.  He set about to correct this imbalance.  And that is admirable.  He not only brought the Eastern martial arts to the west in a very accessible way, but he contributed the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, a new dedication to physical health in the martial way, and through his experimentation established a connection between fitness and diet that was years ahead of anyone else.

demotivational poster IMMORTALITY

I maintain that Bruce Lee should be considered a polymath.  Lee was a linguist, an historian, an actor, a writer (text and screen), a martial artist, and a teacher (plenty of martial artists cannot teach).  He had a piercing wit and a highly analytical mind.  So don’t think that I do not have a high opinion of the man.  I respect him a very great deal.

But just as Einstein denounced an entire field of theoretical physics, saying it was impossible because “God does not play with dice,” so too has Mr. Lee held back some ideas, and done damage in the process.

Bruce had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-tow minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile [Note: when running on his own in 1968, Lee would get his time down to six-and-a-half minutes per mile].
So this morning he said to me “We’re going to go five.”
I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.”
He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.”
I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.”
So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out.
I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” — and we’re still running — “if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles.
Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.
          from Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body by John Little (1998)

Bruce Lee believed in forcing the body to exceed all limitations, in hammering at the limitations of life until something broke.  And in many ways, that's exactly what he did.  And he hammered at his body, making it stronger, faster, and more painful . . . until it broke.

Many people forget that Mr. Lee really started writing while he was flat on his back after training improperly.  He was an innovator, and not all his ideas worked.

"Tut, tut, tut," the doctors said.  "Your back is torn completely.  You may walk again if you're careful, but you will never be active again, and the martial arts will be closed to you forever."

"Watch me," Bruce may have said, and proceeded to force himself out from his bedridden state and back into circuit training and the Art in a matter of months.

Of course, he had chronic back pain and headaches that would kill a wooly mammoth at a hundred yards, but who cares - he'd bulldozed through the injury.  He spent the rest of his life on a variety of painkillers, some for background pain, and the others for the breakthrough pain, and kept on going.
Bruce Lee died at the age of 32 from an accident with painkillers.

When you use your will like a hammer, your body becomes a nail.

Nails are disposable construction devices.  Your body is not.

Or, to put it another way . . .

I started practicing yoga, as I have stated before, at around the age of eight.  I am not in danger of becoming a master yogi – that’s not my goal.  But I couldn’t afford martial arts classes as a child, and yoga was a tool for self-mastery I could learn out of books.

Some time ago, I started finally taking lessons in karate.

Aftersome time in training (who keeps track?), I was sparring with the lead student.  By which I mean I was learning a lot and getting intimate with the mats on a regular basis.  I got a few good licks in, and I like to think that it was at least as much from my being a good student as his being a good teacher.

Now, my Sempai was a huge man, and built like a tank.  He worked out on the weights, and he hit them hard.  And then he'd come straight from working out to the dojo.  And he'd take all comers.  He held fast to the opinion that yoga weakened the body, and that meditation was falling asleep while sitting on your ass.  Work hard, play hard, resting is for pussies and force is the way to the martial arts.  So we both held back enough to avoid serious injury, but we both enjoyed being able to open up on one another at least a little.  And we disagreed on almost everything else.  Good, fine times.

After a while, I bowed out.  I was tired, and by neddy-jingo I knew my body well enough to know when to take a break.  And after a bit of good-natured teasing, he let me go.  I grabbed some water and wandered over to the bench, and started to sit when he shouted, "Coyote!  Don't sit down!"

I froze.  What the hell? I thought, is the paint wet?

"Don't sit down," he continued.  "You'll freeze up."

I blinked.  "I beg your pardon?"

"No, trust me.  You've been moving around a lot, and if you stop now you'll freeze up, you'll lock up.  Hell, I have to warm up and stretch in the mornings just to get moving, and again when I get off my bike.  Trust me.  When you get to be my age, you'll know what I'm talking about."

He did have a higher rank than I.  His belt was brown, mine at the time was blue.  So you may think he knew far better than I.

He was also, at the time, about twenty-seven years old.

I was thirty-nine.

I am now forty-two.  I have continued my studies of the martial art.  And I have yet to experience what he was describing.

If Bruce Lee had lived into his eighties, the US might have a more well-rounded approach to physical training in the martial arts of today.  I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but around here, just about every martial artist I've met is an exercise fanatic.  They run, do reps, do weights, and force their bodies to do more and more of the most creative techniques to strain the human form imaginable.  And it's amazing how many of them habitually take pain medication before they are thirty.

"No pain, no gain."

The world is full of competitive martial artists and athletes who must retire in their thirties, who must leave what they love behind before they even reach old age, just because of the damage done by their training.  Coaches and teachers who want the "win," students who think it's the only way to succeed.  And it's not.  In the short run you may do some impressive things.  But there are women who, as softball pitchers, blew out their arms because their coaches did not have them rest.  There are men who have to be careful of their legs or their shoulders from highschool football training.  There are retired pro baseball pitchers and football stars who cannot throw a ball to their kids or grandkids without pain. 

So, when I take karate classes, yes, I do the workouts.  And, like Lauren, I find it does interfere with my own regimen.  Tired after class, it's harder to focus on my asana, and I can feel my agility and balance suffer despite my best efforts.  But I do my four hundred various crunches, my two hundred squats, my hundred leg lifts, and my significantly less than one hundred push-ups.  I do the drills.  Not my dojo, not my rules.  But my body is my own.  I and I alone decide when I will cry, "hold, enough."  And I wait for the lessons in techniques that come after. 

Because the pendulum has swung the other way now.  The dojos of America, at least, are obsessed with their forceful approach to physical fitness training, and value it over the techniques of the Art.  And I will need credentials and greater knowledge than I have now, in physical health and martial arts both, before I can push that tired old counterweight the other way.

Non serviam,



(Ranma Saotome and Genma Saotome are (c) Rumiko Takahashi; the movie Quest for Fire was written by Gerard Brach, based on the book by J.H. Rosney; Bruce Lee poster from; "no pain no gain" image from; yoga pose courtesy

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