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Author Guest Blog: “Everything You Need to Know…”

July 13, 2010

Phillip Starr has authored three books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, with a fourth book, Hidden Hands: Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Martial Arts Forms on sale November 23, 2010 (pre-order here!). Starr shares his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts in a monthly article on our blog, and writes books to help martial artists not only improve their skills but strengthen their minds. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, click on their covers at the bottom of the page.

Some years ago there was book written which was entitled, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. It was a beautiful little book and it held true to its title. The author spoke of learning about things like courtesy and consideration, sharing with others, and my favorite part – milk and cookies followed by a nap.

At the First National Yiliquan Seminar last May I made a statement which, I think, came as something of a surprise to many participants, but only because they’d never thought about it. I said that the whole core of the system (and probably most martial disciplines) is taught in the period we know as “basic training.” As they took time to think about that statement, they all realized how true it is. This statement doesn’t indicate that we necessarily master the many things we learn as beginners; rather, it means simply that we are told about them, shown how to perform them, and encouraged to practice them every day.

Which most students don’t.

Thus, the “mysteries” of the art remain as mysteries because so few martial arts enthusiasts neglect their daily practice and fail to look deeply into the art.

But consider what is shown to beginning students of Yiliquan (and those of you who practice another martial form can list the “core” items that are taught to beginners in your respective arts):

* Courtesy

* Basic Techniques (The most basic techniques upon which all other techniques are built.)

* Basic Body Actions and Body Mechanics (which provide power to the basic techniques)

* Proper Breathing (provides power to the techniques and enhances overall balance)

* Basic Stances (how to stand in a balanced manner)

* Basic Stepping Methods (footwork – how to move from one stance to another)

* Moving From One-Point * How To Fall (breakfalls – there’s more to this than meets the eye)

* Fundamentals of Qigong (Four Principles and basic exercises)

You’ll notice that the items listed above are all interrelated; they “dovetail” into each other although a beginner cannot see how this is possible. Senior practitioners will immediately notice the relationship of these items.

It’s obviously way too much for anyone to thoroughly learn in a short time. In fact, this material will require years of regular and rigorous practice. And almost everything that is taught to the student after this stage is just frosting; training that promotes a deep understanding of the items on this basic list and fosters the development of real skill.

As students progress through the system and learn more complex material they often lose sight of the basic material they were shown as novices. What they fail to understand is that what they learned as a beginner must be applied to everything they learn from that point on. They must learn how to apply these things to their forms which become increasingly complex. They have to learn to apply them when they practice formal Three and One Step Fight, Freestyle One-Step, Freestyle Sparring (!!!), Self-Defense, Weapons Forms, and so on.

For instance, take a minute and run through one of your forms. When you’ve finished go back and see if you used the correct form of breathing. Were you moving from your One-Point? Were your body actions correct? And bear in mind that you must practice each form until it can be executed perfectly without having to check each of these items! That kind of skill can’t be developed overnight. It can’t be developed through haphazard practice, either.

Senior martial arts practitioners don’t possess any secret knowledge. They don’t practice highly advanced, secret techniques. Instead, they simply practice the basics. Every. Day. Everything they really needed to know about their respective martial disciplines they probably learned from their teachers in the earliest stages of training. They’ve simply learned how to fit everything together.

About two years ago, our association’s chief instructor and I attended an iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese sword) tournament and testing in Council Bluffs. I was told that it was probably the largest such event in the entire United States that year! Anyway, during the examinations (which were held for all grades up to and including 6th dan) I noticed that ALL EXAMINEES were made to perform the most basic iaido kata known simply as “Mae” (meaning “Forward”, also known as “Shohatto”). Without going into a lot of detail about the minutae of the kata, it begins in a kneeling position. The practitioner comes up to one knee and draws the sword in a horizontal cut with one hand. The sword is then brough back, gripped with both hands, and an overhead cut is executed. The swordsman then rises to his/her feet, performs a blood shake (to shake imaginary blood from the blade) before re-sheathing it.

It sounds simple enough to do and by the time an iaido student reaches the stage of sankyu or so, he or she can perform it with considerable skill. But consider…someone testing for 5th or 6th dan is also required to do it. Such a person has put 25 years or more in training! You’d think they’d have it right by that time, wouldn’t you?

Sure. They can do it correctly. But they have to do it MORE correctly than someone of a lower grade. All of the items they learned as beginners have to become an integral part of their movement and technique without conscious effort. IT must become them and THEY must become it.

Moreover, the essence of all other techniques and kata are contained within this first, basic kata. Everything you really need to know about your martial art, you learned in kindergarten…


For more info and insights from Philip Starr, check out his books below!

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