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Insights into Modern Day Martial Arts Training

Striving to make each generation better than the last.

by Nicholas C. Yang, February 17, 2009
Nicholas C. Yang

Nicholas C. Yang

Anthony asks:

"If we are not able to dedicate our lives to a master and if we are not able to train a minimum of 2 hours a day. If our work consumes most of our time and if we have to spend the last few hours we have left in the day with our family, what are we to do? What is the essence of martial arts and does it necessarily come from years of training? Was its goal not to learn how to fight? How to defend one self? Or was it something else? I know that patience and other character strengths are developed through training martial arts but these are also developed in the work place and from other sports. Do we have to get every stance 100% right? Do we have to get every punch or kick 100% right? Knowing that we will never perfect the results with the time we have (or the culture we are in), should we not try to perfect the effort and not the results? Should we not leave the fitness up to the individual. Should we not leave the flexibility up to the individual? What is the most important thing that should be passed on? How to do a perfect split or the understanding/wisdom behind every move? The application behind every stance? So, we will not be able to get every stance right because our hips are not flexible enough... And we will not be able to get low enough because our knees are not strong enough. So, cant we develop a western form of this lovely art. One that is less strict on the body and more strict on the mind? In conclusion: I believe that the essence of martial arts could more easily be passed down if we focused more on the application of the art. Or does this all depend on the perfection of the stances, punches, kicks or basics? What does YMAA think about trade-offs? The world has changed, and so should our training! Will everything be lost if we are not able to keep our hills on the ground? Will everything be lost if we are not able to keep our hips square? What can we change if we want to?"

Anthony – Monday, February 16, 2009


Hi Anthony:

Thank you for the insightful comment. It creates a good discussion.

I share your concern about not knowing exactly what to do to preserve martial arts in the constrictions and constructs of modern day society. I know my father has also pondered a solution to this problem for many years, and it resulted in the establishment of the YMAA Retreat Center. I hold on to hope that while we are striving to find a way to adapt martial arts training to modern day societies, the Retreat Center, which has recreated the environment of training in ancient times as best as possible, will be a viable solution in the meantime. It is an intricate problem, especially when most people have commitments such as jobs and families, but I am optimistic that through a bit of perseverance, we will be able to find a good compromise and resolution. Naturally, there will be trade-offs in today's society. We cannot, for instance, simply ask practitioners to abandon their families or expect them to sustain themselves with no job and no money. The training does have to be adjusted and changed for modern day, but the principles and essence should remain the same. We are constantly striving to preserve the teachings of our masters, and we should be very cautious about only modifying them when we feel confident that our knowledge in merely the past few decades can improve upon the knowledge of hundreds of years of teachings and experience.

The original intention and meaning of martial arts was indeed to defend ourselves, as well as to defend our families, and friends. Few martial arts styles were created or practiced with the intention of fighting and killing, although they did exist (i.e. Xingyiquan was created by Marshall Yue Fei as a militaristic combat style). Some monks of ancient China sought enlightenment as a final, ultimate goal – essentially discovering the meaning of life. In ancient times, when the world was more cruel and violent then present day, the pressure and necessity of training for defense helped to fuel the success of practitioners. Today, however, because that threat no longer exists and much of our society is no longer in constant fear of attacks and violence, that meaning has evolved into something different. There are different levels to which we can take the training, but the most common form of martial arts that we see today is in sports and entertainment.

You are correct that the same type of physical and/or mental training in martial arts can be achieved through other modern day sports and activities. Recall that the meaning of "Kung Fu" is actually "energy" and "time," so in fact, anything that requires extreme energy and time (essentially, hard work and effort), is considered Kung Fu. In the end, all forms of training, whether in sports, martial arts, or other, are just different methods of achieving the same goal. The old saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome." They all train the mind, and all the ones that involve physical exercise also train the body. What we hope to prevent is losing such methods and their ways, because every method of training has a specific set of advantages and disadvantages. It is analogous to languages. We have so many, and we can convey what we want to say in so many different ways. However, there are words, phrases, and peculiarities in some languages that simply do not exist in others, and they cannot be correctly or fully translated to a person that hasn't grown up in the language's native country. Because we have so many cultures, it has so far been impossible to have one universal language. Thus, we constantly strive to preserve and pass down languages, very much in the same way that we preserve basketball, track, soccer, or martial arts from generation to generation. Choosing another activity over martial arts is simply choosing one method, one path, over the other. There are pros and cons to either choice.

What makes martial arts training different for me is the emphasis on self-discipline, morality of deed (respect, righteousness, trust, loyalty, humility) and morality of mind (will, endurance, patience, perseverance, and courage). Morality of mind exists in modern day sports, in the work environment, and other forms of physical exercise. However, morality of deed is not always present. It is the unfortunate result of putting too much emphasis on competitive environments, and that is why I do not always support competitive martial arts training environments. I believe that a competitive environment is necessary, however, to promote and further a practitioner's courage and to set clear goals for oneself. But once arrogance, pride, ego, and dignity get involved, I find that I usually become quite disappointed with the change of character in such people. I'm not saying that morality of deed cannot be developed in regular sports and non-martial arts activities; I'm merely saying that there is less emphasis on maintaining that type of mind. In society, we tend to be prey to the media, money, and our peers in society.

Martial arts is also different to me because of the amount of focus and dedication that is required. Again, this can be said of many other sports and exercise as well, but take for example, working out on machines at a gym compared to something like say, weapons training. One requires a significantly more focused and concentrated mind over the other. We often see TVs at gyms, or there is loud music playing in the background. It's a sort of "laymen" type of exercise where exercise can be achieved with very little mental effort. Of course, you can take it to a whole new level by simply focusing hard to for example, build muscle in specific areas of your body. Physical trainers are great for this. But back to my point, I believe this is where star athletes or pioneers distinguish themselves from their colleagues: having that additional level of focus, awareness, and intensity. This is where it again, mostly depends on the individual and what goals that person is looking to accomplish. Martial arts inherently and naturally requires this added level of concentration.

The definition of the essence of martial arts can be very biased or relative, so I can only offer my personal opinion and belief. To me, the true essence is like the Dao – "The Dao, once spoken, is no longer the Dao, and will be worth no more than 2 pennies," meaning that the true essence of martial arts is not something that can be easily described or conveyed. It simply has to be experienced, and achieving this experience will differ from person to person. In this respect, I do believe that it requires many years of training – oftentimes, a lifetime. It is easy to learn superficially, but to truly feel and understand requires much experience and an open mind. For example, we can learn how to play a song on the piano, in perhaps, one month. How many people actually put feeling and emotion into the piece, though? Why does it sound different when an accomplished pianist plays it over the student who has only practiced it one month? What does it sound different when 2 accomplished pianists play it? Any art is infinitely deep and can be expressed in many ways. Learning the song is just the start. The essence is what develops naturally through the process, and the depth of it will depend highly on feeling.

"Perfection is a disease," so the saying goes. Especially with a humble mind, nothing will ever truly be "good enough." Also, who or what determines what is right and what is wrong? The answer can be a bit ambiguous, and this is why I caution students against gauging how far they've come in their training. It is a good lesson in humility. My father often tells the story of Grandmaster Cheng saying, "When you're working in the field, why do you stop so often, raising your head, and looking all around you. Just keep your head down, keep working hard, and one day when you take a break, you will realize that the field is empty because you have left everybody far behind you." If you keep looking around, you will be distracted by how far ahead or how far behind you are, compared to others. My recommendation is to find a training routine and method that is most suitable for you. Train for yourself and your life, not for others and not even for the sake of the art. Do not expect perfection, but do expect progress if you dedicate the proper amount of effort and time into your training. Applications of the art will naturally come from experience, feeling, and understanding.

I do believe that you should leave the training (fitness) up to the individual. If an individual simply wishes to get in shape, why force any additional training in say, advanced body conditioning, sparring, or martial applications? That is, unless the individual chooses to use those methods. The depth and level of the training will depend on what goals you set and hope to achieve. That is the freedom and luxury of training in modern day; you can simply go through the motions, or you can develop a deeper level of sensitivity and awareness to the way your body moves and the way your mind thinks. Some people will always set impossible goals to achieve, even subconsciously, so that they are constantly pushing themselves to become better. Some people, on the other hand, might just set a concrete goal, like losing 40 pounds, and then be done with it. That is fine as well. If the training benefits the individual for even that short period of their life, then it was worth it.

Martial arts has long been a method of learning about life and applying its philosophy to everyday activities, and that is why it is oftentimes a lifelong journey. It becomes much more than just a form of physical and mental exercise. Again, I do not believe that a lot of modern day sports or other non-physical activities put as much emphasis as they should on things that martial arts training touches upon, such as the development of morality and character. Of course, in everything we do, sports and other non-martial arts activities included, we learn about life. Martial arts has simply proven to be a particularly effective way of training both body and mind simultaneously, benefiting physical and mental health, and that is why it has been so highly regarded for hundreds of years.

We do have physical limitations, whether through injuries or from birth, and it was true in ancient times as it is in modern day. The problem with today's society is that technology has contributed to the deterioration of our physical strength and health. For example, we do not walk, run, or exercise as much as before, primarily due to the advent of transportation technology. As a result, our joints, muscles, and tendons have weakened because they are simply not as conditioned, and they are not as strong, compared to ancient times. Today we commonly hear of knee, ankle, and hip problems. There was also a significant increase in cancer-related illnesses in the past few decades, because our bodies simply don't move as much as before. It's common to see "in a car, out of a car" or "sit at a desk all day." We tend to hear less about sicknesses in people who are more physically active, whether in their work or free time, but of course, it is still possible to get injured from excessive physical actions, such as in repetitive stress syndrome, or from an unfavorable environment.

Every individual is built differently, physically and mentally. The most successful way of training is to adapt, adapt, adapt. In ancient times, the master would help determine what techniques, weapons, or forms were best suited for whichever student, and oftentimes one student would learn something different from another, under the same master. Of course, the fundamentals and basics have to be trained first by all students before they branch off in their training. As an example, Grandmaster Cheng created the White Crane Tiger sequence Yao Gu for a particularly bulky, stocky but strong student of his, who was a butcher. The movements in such a sequence don't translate too well to somebody who is tall and skinny. An extreme disadvantage to some ranking systems in martial arts societies today is that students are often tied down to too strict of a rigid training routine, even after basics have been covered and practiced to a fluent level. It restricts the range of practice. If a student has a particular knack or inherent talent in say, spear training, why hold that student back for years and years before they even begin learning the fundamentals? Ranking systems are necessary, however, so that advanced material is not practiced before having built a proper foundation. There are many schools today that teach primarily forms, and students do not truly grasp the depth of advanced training techniques, only touching the surface. That is the benefit of having an experienced master guide you through the training process, telling you what to train and when.

I do hope to contribute to a community-driven impetus to create a modern-day adaptation of Kung Fu. This doesn't have to be restricted to martial arts, although it is my personally preferred method. Martial arts has changed my life in a way that sports and other activities did not, and in the end, even after taking several breaks from martial arts training, I found myself going back. Every time I return to the training, I regain a sense of stability and feeling in my life, and I cannot stress enough how that has helped me develop as a human being.

The YMAA Retreat Center was designed to help preserve and pass on the original essence of the art. I believe the most important thing to pass on is this essence, this feeling, and it cannot be simply explained or achieved in a short amount of time. What we need to do as a community is to educate the public about this art, what it truly means and how it improves us, and why it is beneficial to us as people. From there, we can begin to get more in-depth into the history and culture of its roots. If we are not successful in reviving the art, it may indeed be lost or reduced to bare minimum scraps. In such a case, we will have to begin from square one, and hundreds of years of experience will have been dissolved in the changing times. Our goal at YMAA is to continuously strive to make each generation better than the last.

Related Articles: Martial Arts Training in the 21st Century

Nicholas C. Yang (楊志豪碩士) began training martial arts as a child under the tutelage of his father Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming at Yang's Martial Arts Association (YMAA) in Boston, Massachusetts. He has competed in several international and national traditional Kungfu tournaments, including tournaments sponsored by the U.S. Wushu Kungfu Federation, U.S. Kuoshu Federation, U.S. Wushu Union, International Chinese Martial Arts Championship, World Tai Chi Federation, and Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine. He has won several medals and awards for forms events in both barehand and weapons categories.



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