I am sometimes contacted by people who want to learn something very specific: say, tai chi, yoga or cardio-kickboxing. I have done these activities in the past, but I don’t teach them. Not because they don’t have benefits. They do. Strength training, cardio-vascular work, and the rest all have their place.

I have problems with pursuing these activities on their own, and I’ll outline them here and tell you why I think that a well-taught, comprehensive martial art program is better than these activities in isolation.

If you don’t know, tai chi is a very meditative, slow motion exercise that was based in martial art. It has evolved and become something different now, but you can still see the motions there. When someone comes to me asking about tai chi, they aren’t usually asking my opinion. These people know that tai chi will give them the exercise or meditative practice that they want. All they want from me is to tell them where they can learn it.

A lot of martial artists practice yoga. It helps with relaxation, stress relief, lengthening the muscles, balancing strength and so on. I was told the other day by a well-meaning person, that having a yoga studio near their business would be more synergistic for them than a martial art school. They had decided that martial art was about one thing and not another.

So, wanting to learn yoga is not a problem. Wanting to learn tai chi is not a problem. As I see it, the problem begins when martial art students, or anyone really, decide that one mode of training is what they need. The a priori belief that yoga will or will not help you is a problem. The belief that you need to cross-train in something else (other martial arts, strength training, running, whatever) limits you.

Instead of coming to a martial art school and asking about learning tai chi, it would be better to keep an open mind and ask about the benefits of tai chi and whether they apply to the system being taught.

Experimentation is the solution. Approach your training, and your life, as a scientist. If you read an article about something that sounds good to you, feel free to try it. Experiment with it. If it helps you in some way, then add it into your routine. If not, don’t feel bad about leaving it out.

Another important thing to realize, whether you are looking for a martial art school, a church, a physician, or a chef; the style or system that they use is always secondary to their own personal philosophy and personality. If you are a sensitive person who does not like being yelled at, going into a martial art school that has a militaristic style is probably not a good fit for you. Likewise, if you are a thinking person who wants to actively participate in your wellness and healing, going to a traditional physician who is not interested in holistic practices is probably not going to work for you either.

When you decide to do something like enroll in martial art classes, you should check out websites, research the style or system, and understand the basics of how that martial art works (stand-up fighting or ground fighting, kicking and punching or weapons, do they use pressure points and joint-locks, etc.) More importantly, you should spend some time talking to the instructor, other students and/or other parents. The emotional and intellectual climate of the school is much more important than the number of stripes on their Black Belt (or red belt, or whatever).

Finally, can a martial art program really do everything that a strength training program, yoga class, running program, and self-defense class can?

Here’s the thing. Yoga, tai chi, and other martial arts (Kuk Sool Won included) have roots in Eastern religion and philosophy. This is a problem for some Christians and Muslims. For instance, there are certain practices (bowing specifically) that are misinterpreted as having religious meaning, when they are entirely social. Certain concepts in these practices (like “prana” or “ki”) can also be interpreted through religious doctrine.

The reason that martial art practices are associated with these religions were several. First and most obvious was self-defense. In times and places where resources were scarce, monks often had to fight to protect their lives. One of the precepts of many eastern religions is the reverence for all life. These monks wanted to live themselves, but not at the cost of accidentally taking another’s life. They practiced martial art so that they wouldn’t accidentally kill their attackers.

Second was fitness. Young monks who spent many hours in sitting meditation were prone to digestive problems and muscular atrophy. If they didn’t do something intensely physical, they would develop serious health problems. Master Gene Gause posted on Facebook recently his views to the effect that martial art forms were a technology created to allow practitioners to get exercise, continue meditation, and practice martial art all at the same time. Many of the movements, ridiculed as impractical by the modern “practical” martial arts crowd are all about mobility and strength training. Incidentally, most of those same people who talk badly about traditional martial arts will spend long hours in the gym with barbells, kettlebells, and weird machines with cables and pulleys doing very impractical movements that have nothing to do with martial art training.

Don’t get me wrong. As I wrote above, strength training has a place, but I believe that place is primarily remedial. For instance, I am struggling with learning to do pull-ups. I can’t do them. So, I built a bar in my back yard and I practice them. Eventually, when I can do pull-ups, I won’t practice them much any more, but I’ll climb trees, walls, hills, etc. Pull-ups are remedial exercises so that your body can learn to climb. Climbing is an important physical skill to have, I think.

Pushing, pulling, squatting, jumping; these are all practiced in a well designed martial art program, just like they were in the temples in China, Korea, and Japan hundreds of years ago. We may not train to “attain enlightenment” like the Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists back then. Even so, by approaching our training scientifically; researching and testing our way through what our community has to offer, we can become much smarter and more functionally healthy than we are now.

As always, I appreciate your comments and thoughts. Dissenting viewpoints are welcome, trolls are not. Thanks for reading.

Published by Ken Ring

Born and raised in and around Muncie, Indiana, Kyo Sa Nim Ken got married after college, then moved away to learn how to fly airplanes. He came back to Muncie several years later as a Black Belt in Kuk Sool Won, opened his school and proceeded to teach the traditional martial art of Korea to the good people of Muncie.

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