Building a martial arts method VIII

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Building a martial arts method VIII

 

Dynamic muscle chains


In the work cited earlier, Master Sagawa says on various occasions: “Strength should not be placed in the shoulders… Those who train using the strength of their shoulders have no hope of going further....”
In most of his strengthening exercises, he used heavy objects like the iron bar for spear technique, the heavy-rod, the tsuchi (a weight with a handle), etc. But it is impossible to exercise with these heavy objects, or merely to raise them, without flexing the shoulder muscles.
He says, “I exercise with the heavy-rod a hundred thousand times a year”.
I have made myself a 1.7 metre heavy-rod weighing 3.5 kilos, and tsuchis weighing 7 kilos, 9 kilos and 11.5 kilos. I’ve worked out with them every day for many years and have to say that it is impossible to do such exercises with relaxed shoulder muscles. So what is meant by the phrase, “Strength should not be placed in the shoulders”, the point that Master Sagawa  insists on so much?
My experience shows that it means: “use the strength of your shoulders as little as possible in order to distribute effort evenly throughout the body”.
One day, one of my pupils, a kinesitherapist, told me about the therapeutic concept of muscle chains. By associating this concept with the method of zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen), his explanation suddenly clicked.

In yi chuan, the zhan zhuang (ritsu-zen) method is used to seek a physical state where it seems as if all the muscles of the body formed a single block – as though the body were covered with many muscles forming a long chain. It’s not the same concept as the one of muscle chains mentioned by the kinesitherapist, but nevertheless it is a chain. The concept I came up with was this: dynamic muscle chains or a dynamic chain of muscles.
By associating this concept with the method of ritsu-zen, I think I understand why Master Sagawa had to do 24 different modes of exercise every day.

For example, if you do the heavy-rod exercise with a stick weighing about 3 kilos, it will be hard at first to do 100 straight repetitions. If this exercise is done with a tsuchi weighing 9 kilos, few people will manage even ten repetitions. (If you have any doubts, just try doing it yourself. I certainly don’t wish to talk about this phenomenon in a void.)

The muscles of your arms and shoulders will begin to get tired. Two or three days later, you will have sore muscles and you’ll feel worn out. If you persevere for a few months without missing a single day, you will go through different phases, because before you can stabilise these exercises, you will have to go through several stages.  And so, little by little, you will begin to distribute the effort you exert. By decreasing that of the shoulders, you’ll be able to feel more keenly a wider range of muscle activity, especially in the back, and later your attention will be drawn to your thighs and calves.
Then you will see that certain leg muscles also participate in the effort being exerted by the upper limbs. And so you will realise that your exertion can be distributed over large areas of the body, and that you can effectively make this happen consciously. But this is only possible if you are able to eliminate excess tension from the shoulders.
I saw that the shoulders are important – very important even – but that this is where we tend to develop a certain obstruction of our dynamic muscle chains. If you minimize the effort exerted by the shoulders when you train, you can make the muscles of your back participate as if you were distributing the work. After a few months, you’ll begin to feel that your arm muscles extend right into your back.
This is what I’ve learned from my own personal experience. You can investigate too in your own fashion.

From this, I think I understand why Master Sagawa exercised with 24 routines. It is as though he had built numerous dynamic muscle chains in his body by strengthening them on a daily basis. The exercise variations would be due to the differences existing among the chains.  The same chains can be activated differently depending on the angle of the exercise…, and thus the need for diversity in sets.
I have compared his method to that of yi chuan, where you train to enhance and develop martial strength without using objects. Instead you use different models of yi (intention) to activate the different muscle chains from several angles.
For example, if you imagine that you’re holding a heavy stone block and you really manage to create this image, you’ll be able to activate the corresponding set of muscles. If you imagine a change of position in your way of holding the stone, the muscles flexed will be modified in response to this change. It is not simply a question of imagining, but of forming effective tensions corresponding to the imagined situation. In this way, you can tangibly activate specific muscles in your body  and benefit from the reactions of muscle tensions produced by the dynamism of yi, or intention.
In any case, to develop muscular strength, we need some sort of burden or load. The simplest, most direct way is to use a tangible burden – i.e.,  weights. In yi chuan, one uses burdens created by one’s yi, that is weights created by our mental imagery.

In short, to build up dynamic strength, it is necessary to engage in muscular activity, but there is not just one kind of logic behind this activity. If you can develop this strength using weights or apparatus, you can also build it up by activating your yi, even if the latter is little utilized.
Accordingly, without using any objects the yi chan method is designed to form a body where the whole seems to be covered with a single block of muscles, and this brings to mind the more developed state of dynamic muscle chains.
Hàn Xing-qiao wrote in his work Yi-chuan xué (Ed. Skijournal, Tokyo 2007):
“In the practice of yi chuan, you must train with thousands of different kinds of intentions (yi), varying them according to the moment.”

The thousands of different kinds of intentions mentioned by Hàn Xing-qiao are exactly the burdens or resistances with which you can train.
It is not a question of a simple theory where one can play with the logic of words. The only way of realizing the importance of such exercises is by doing them. In his work, Hàn Xing-qiao uses the expression “ti-rèn”, which means to recognize or comprehend through the body. I truly value this expression.

According to Master Sagawa:
“Without working on strengthening the body, you can never understand what technique is….”
In reading another work about Master Sagawa, I found a passage that really struck me and stimulated me in my workouts.
One of his students, before leaving Japan for a year, asked him for advice about what exercises to do daily in the country where he was to reside. The master told him to do a thousand shiko a day (an exercise similar to a sumo squat). The student responded, “A thousand! That’s too hard!” To which the master replied, “What do you mean? I could die and still be doing them….”
I was very encouraged by these words and since then I have been doing shiko exercises daily for the past dozen years and have developed my own personal variants for percussion techniques. (See bear paws...)

As this chronicle is aimed primarily at my students, I’ll take the liberty of expressing myself in a slightly more familiar and personal way.
Today the domain of martial arts is sold like merchandise, complete with advertising, giving the impression that it’s enough to join a club to learn how to do it. But what do you really learn? What do you practice? To progress in a discipline worthy to be called an art, the first thing needed is the quality of comprehension and the manifestation of this quality in technique. It is not enough just to train by moving the body. Master Sagawa said:
“The essentials of martial art are so difficult to attain that even a person of exceptional quality is not sure of success. Even if you spend your whole life on it, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to succeed. In no case is it suited to the mediocre….”

In studying the history of martial arts, you must understand that the essentials were never conveyed openly, nor massively as we tend to do today.  There are a number of obstacles or “traps” impeding our grasp of what is essential.
What are they?
Well, they can often be found in the moment of transmission. A trap only works if it contains part of the truth. No one would fall into a trap willingly.

A trap can be laid intentionally, or it can arise through a lack of comprehension or through ignorance on our part. For example, in yi chuan they teach the following:
“You must utilise yi (intention) without using muscle power.”
Taken in isolation, this phrase is often understood as the supremacy of yi over physical strength. So people tend to think that it’s enough to work on the mind or spirit (yi = intention) without need of building physical strength. By training in this fashion, some fall into the trap that they themselves have made.

Because teaching in martial art must be scaled over time as students evolve from the beginning stage to that of expert, this instruction evolves for those who have gone beyond the initial stage, and becomes:
“You must manage to activate all the muscles of your body under the guidance of your intention.”
The first instruction is addressed to beginners so that they can learn the importance of yi and how to activate the body through intention. Later, they must learn to activate their body intensely and globally, using intentional thought (yi). This is expressed as follows:
“Yi is the Commander of the forces, and the forces are the Soldiers of Intention.”
If we fail to perceive this progressive vision, we are in danger of falling into our own trap all by ourselves.
However, the teaching conveyed in the first sentence could be applied effectively to patients recovering from some medical condition. This practice has proved to be quite effective. If, thanks to this method, a person who is basically unwell or weak can manage to achieve the same level as a beginner in martial art, we can say that the practice is effective.
But we musn’t confuse these two different ways of understanding this effectiveness.

There are also secrets that mask the essentials intentionally.
Master Sagawa openly said:
“I do not teach the secret of Aiki. Because it is thanks to this secret techniqe that I can overpower anyone. So why would I divulge it?”
During his lifetime, he never gave his permission to be filmed. He said:
“If some very intelligent person saw me on film, he might be able to grasp the technical secret….” 
He died without letting his techniques be filmed, which I find is a shame...
Furthermore he said:
“As soon as you show a technique, you have to consider that you’ve taught it.”
For similar reasons, during the age of the samurai, dojo windows were purposely placed high so that passersby outside couldn’t see what was going on inside. At that time, the fact of letting yourself be watched was tantamount to teaching – a far cry from our day when people tend to think that watching without taking part should be free. We are used to freely watching workouts in a gym, probably because there’s not much you can learn just by watching. However, it’s important to understand that martial art was practiced and handed down in this way.
If people trained where onlookers couldn’t watch or in the dark of night, it wasn’t out of simple modesty...

There exist written works transmitting the technical essentials of the schools, but the role of such writings was different from what it is today. The text was often in code, because the writer wished to convey the esential content to a close disciple, at the same time hiding it from others. Sometimes they were written using terms that proved incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t received the oral explanations as well. Without an underlying practical comprehension, not even a highly educated contemporary researcher in Japanese literature can understand everything.

When I was translating the work of Miyamoto Musashi, I ran into this kind of problem, but Musashi’s text was relatively clear, because in my opinion he wrote it without trying to conceal anything. Later, when I tried to translate the work of Yagyu Munenori, a contemporary of Musashi’s, I finally was obliged to give it up, for there were too many key expressions and words that fell outside the register of dictionaries. Without gathering the scattered oral transmissions, it would have been impossible to understand and, a fortiori, to translate comprehensibly. The text was written so that no one apart from the chosen ones could understand it.

Hence, in martial arts, technical secrets were conveyed by scrupulously sheltering them from the eyes of others, all of whom were considered potential enemies. The essentials had to be handed down without leaving any clues for investigators. Such was the role of writing in martial art.

This warning seems to me to be necessary if you want to try to find technical truth through the study of history.

To be continued...

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