Building a martial arts method V

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Building a martial arts method V


“Until we learn to take advantage of the mobility of these zones, our technical power will always remain within normal limits, whereas martial art seeks to go well beyond the limits of the ordinary.”
That was the last sentence of my previous article. Now I’m going to develop this thought a little further.

 

Strength capital

The reasoning and logic behind this statement are simple. Muscular strength is like the capital you draw on for physical activity. Consequently, in order to increase your force you have to increase this capital. You do that by increasing your mobilisation of muscle fibres in response to commands from your central nervous system.

It is well known that when we contract our muscles as hard as we can for ordinary activity, we are far from our absolute maximum. Our ability to contract our muscles varies according to our mental state.

The Japanese folk expression, “the mad strength of a woman during a fire”, illustrates the relationship between a person’s mental state and the amount of strength they can deploy.

In the Tokyo region of Japan, formerly known as Edo, winters were cold and dry due to the strong dry winds blowing down from the mountains. Edo houses were built of wood, so conditions were right for the propagation of fires. And indeed, until the 19th century, fires were quite frequent. It sometimes happened that in the crisis brought about by a fire, a woman in charge of a household would deploy “mad strength” in order to single-handedly save the heavy (and precious) family furniture.
Once the fire was over and the woman had calmed down, it would be totally impossible for the woman to move the furniture that she had carried out of harm’s way during the crisis. This is the meaning of the folk expression sometimes used in Japanese martial arts to highlight the importance of state of mind for concentrating strength in technique.

Remembering this example, we can think of two ways to increase muscular strength :
1- The first involves building muscle mass to attain greater strength. To achieve this result, people often work out in a gym using weights and different apparatus.
2- The second involves increasing the quality and intensity of cerebral control of the muscles without trying to increase their size, following the model of “the mad strength of a woman during a fire”. The yi chuan method shares a certain affinity with this second alternative. While the first way seeks to increase our dynamic capital by building muscle volume, the second aims at increasing the quality of muscle function by enhancing the command system.

Example of yi chuan

In the collective work entitled Le Yi chuan des Hàn (Han family Yi chuan), Ed. Skijournal, Tokyo 2007, there are articles and interviews by a dozen people concerning yi chuan. The Han school was founded by Han Xingqiao (1909-2004), disciple and later adopted son of Wang Xhiangzhai. That same year saw the publication of the work Yi chuan xué (Studies of yi chuan) Ed. Skijournal, Tokyo 2007.

I am going to extrapolate some of the ideas found in these works, beginning with a quote:
“The usual method of acquiring and developing strength is modelled on work in production. People train by repeating series of movements with the aid of weights. The strength acquired by this method can only be partial, and we call it “broken strength”. By contrast, in the martial arts, one should work on the strength deployed by integrating a large set of muscles, which yi chuan builds through the standing exercise zhan zhuang.”

To help you understand the idea running through these two works, I will provide some comments and explanations. This will not be a summary but my free interpretation based on my own understanding.

The utilitarian work model

First of all, usual muscle workouts follow the model of utilitarian tasks, which naturally  involve movements. The strength acquired and developed under this model is considered “broken”. I’ll try to clarify this concept as we go on.
The yi chuan method is based on a particular idea of strength. They say that “to acquire strength, slow movement is better than rapid movement. Immobility is better than slowness, because it entails the essence of strength and speed.”
As for this last claim, we’re obviously not talking about simple immobility, but about the stillness of zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen). However, this idea will seem paradoxical to many people, so I will also try to clear it up as we go on.

Why is the strength acquired following the model of manual or physical work  considered "broken"?

Here is my interpretation:
To achieve the desired outcome, utilitarian work must be concrete and precise. Therefore the physical exertion expended in performing these tasks is necessarily partial, since it must respond to the precise aim of the work in hand. Precision entails limitation. The effort expended is limited and precise, and thereforre useful. If this effort is expended in different directions at the same time, it will miss the mark and will not be more productive.

Just watch any manual task being carried out in a factory. It is precise and repetitive. But even if it is tiring, it is not a whole-body exercise.
In utilitarian work of whatever kind, its different stages have to be thought out beforehand: use of machines, handling procedures, etc. Human beings, unlike animals, involve the neocortex in any physical task they do.
A monkey does much better than any human being at performing movements on a bar. But he does them differently from the point of view of the systems controlling the activation of his muscles. To perform an exercise of whatever kind on a bar, a human being must think, learn and practice in order to build his skill and improve, whereas in the case of monkeys, these skills appear to be innate.

From broken to whole strength

The physical activities of human beings have been thought out beforehand, but once integrated and stabilized, they can be reproduced without further thought. We can read while walking, drive while learning a foreign language, jog while listening to music, lift weights while thinking about something else…, just as we often repeat manual tasks mechanically, without thinking.

One of the two works that we are examining stresses that the strength acquired in the usual way is considered “broken” because it is necessarily partial or incomplete. In other words: partial strength is considered broken strength. As we have seen, when effort is expended to achieve a precise aim, the force used is partial because it is limited by the desired outcome. It is considered broken.

In effect, in order for work to be productive, the domains where effort is expended must be precise and therefore limited. Hence the distinction between utilitarian strength and martial strength, which aims at becoming whole by marshalling all the muscles of the body. This is what is sought in the yi chuan method through zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen) exercises — oneness, or whole-body strength.

Why do we seek this in martial art?

Here is a simple way of looking at it.

For a fist strike to be effective, you need speed and power. To punch with speed, you have to activate the agonist (prime mover) muscles responsible for the movement, causing the arm to straighten, while the muscles that could oppose this movement and cause the elbow to bend — i.e. the antagonist muscles — must be relaxed.
While the former cause the fist to advance, the latter pull it back. For the fist to achieve optimum speed (essential in a fist strike), the antagonist muscles must be relaxed.

This reaoning sounds logical and undoubtedly correct. But in martial art, it is not necessarily so. According to the text that we are now examining, it’s actually false.

Why?

Here is what I think.

Those who have engaged even a little in contact combat have had the following experiences. Some fighters deliver punches that are fast, but light and easy to intercept or absorb as their impact is not very great. Other fighters, however, are not so fast, but their punches are hard to parry because they land heavily with a penetrating blow.
Why?

The following explanation requires a little thought based on experience.
Let’s recall the teaching of yi chuan:
“Whatever the movements, the whole body must be engaged.”
“The body must behave as though all the muscles formed a single block...”
When working on whole-body strength by holding the “tree hugging” posture of zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen), if someone exerts pressure on your arm in different directions and different ways (pressing down or up, pulling, pushing, etc.), what happens? If you have made progress towards whole-body strength, you will be able to resist these pressures more or less without too much effort; you’ve built up resistance to force from any direction. If not, with each pressure either your arms will move or you will lose your balance.

It’s the same with the consistancy of a fist strike. While one is fast but light, another looks slow but turns out to be hard to parry, like the deep-striking piston of heavy machinery.

Han Xingqiao says in his work:
“Your fist should move forward like a large ship striking a small boat. It ploughs ahead as though nothing were in its way...”
For now, this is all I will say.

To be continued...



 

links

Interesting websites

Rincon del do
Artículos sobre artes marciales en general

Hispagimnasios.com
Best spanish speaking martial arts forum

http://www.tokitsuryu.org
Kenji Tokitsu's official website

http://www.tokitsuryu.com
Tokitsu-ryu Portugal

http://www.dojolello.com
Dojo Lello. Tokitsu-ryu Suiza

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