What does it take to be a martial artist? Perhaps there are many factors that work together to make one. To identify these, and their relative importance, we can begin by looking at what keeps many from being the martial artists that they want to be. I have met people who claim to be interested in martial arts, but do not practice because they don’t find an instructor who’s good enough for them. There are others who want to do only a particular style which is not taught in their neighborhood. Some want to do it, but feel that they lack the talent, or do not have enough confidence that their body can live up to the expectations of the art. And then there are others, who just can’t find the time to practice. In most cases, these are all petty excuses, but they still throw some light on what are considered prerequisites for martial arts practice.
Finding a good style, one that’s genuine, holistic, and aligned to one’s personality, is definitely important. It can help in bringing out the full potential in a practitioner. However, one does not have to wait until they find this perfect style to start practicing. Most martial artists start with the style that is most accessible to them, and gradually expand the scope of their training as and when an opportunity arises. Considering the commonality between different arts, it is quite an effective strategy to train in whatever art (or even non-martial athletic activity such as sports) that is available, and switch to the preferred art when circumstances are favorable. For one, this will make progress with the chosen style much quicker because flexibility, speed, strength and focus (or some combination of these) – which are essential components of any technique – will already have improved. More importantly, it is only when we start practicing that we will understand more about our body and be in a better position to take an informed decision on what styles we want to make our own.
|Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art form of my home state is one that I want to practice some day, but finding a good instructor is difficult
An instructor, in my opinion, is far more important than the choice of martial art. Most styles of traditional martial arts are near complete and, under the guidance of an able maser, can be adapted to suit different people and be applied in diverse situations. Further, a good martial artist does not confine himself to the boundaries of a single art – rather, he will draw from multiple sources to make his own style more versatile, complete and balanced. Learning from such a master can greatly help in the progress of a student irrespective of the style that is officially taught.
That said, the most important factor in the making of a great martial artist is, however, the practitioner himself. My master’s master, who heads Japan Shotokan Karate Association (JSKA) in India, once remarked that the teacher can do only 10%, and the remaining 90% has to come from the student. It is seen that different students under the same master, undergoing the same training, exhibit different rates of progress, and reach different levels of accomplishment. This diversity can only be attributed to differences in qualities (both intrinsic and extrinsic) of these students.That brings us to the question of which quality (or qualities) of the student is most important in determining their progress in martial arts. While it is clearly not possible to identify all helpful qualities, based on my limited experience there are three which I deem absolute prerequisites, which I discuss below (in no particular order)Firstly, as in any other field of endeavor, the one quality that makes greatness possible – one that is the requirement of every learner and the sign of a true master – is humility
. It is said that Karate begins and ends with courtesy, and this principle is equally applicable to other martial arts. Just as water flows from high to low head
, knowledge also flows only into a person whose head is bowed in humility. Study of martial arts is a lifelong journey, and one cannot think that he has learnt everything except out of ignorance arising from pride. There is always more to learn, there are always people who know more than us, and there is always something to respect in everyone.
Master Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate who has played a big role in making modern Karate what it is, stresses this point while laying down the guiding principles for karateka:
All too frequently one hears teachers speak of trainees as oshiego (pupil), or montei (follower), or deshi (disciple), or kohai (junior). Such terms should be avoided, for the time may well come when the trainee will surpass his instructor. The instructor, meanwhile, in using such expressions runs the risk of complacency, the danger of forgetting that some day the young man he has spoken of rather slightingly will not only catch up with him, but go beyond him in the art of karate or in other fields of human endeavor. No one can attain perfection in karate-do until he finally comes to realize that it is, above all else, a faith, a way of life.
Considering that martial arts is a lifelong pursuit and that progress can be slow at times, another important quality of an aspirant would most certainly be patience. This, again, is applicable to any non-trivial effort. However, in areas such as scientific research, spiritual quest and martial arts practice where result is not time-bound or certain, the patience required is on a much higher scale. Seeking quick results will only lead to disappointment, whereas continuing practice for as long as it takes, without caring too much about the result or when it will come, will lead to eventual success.
Finally, it is the third quality that makes this consistent practice over a lifetime enjoyable, or even possible. This, is the love of the art, or, the heart to practice as I like to refer to it. The reason I use these phrases almost interchangeably is because practice is the soul of martial arts. To say that I love martial arts but hate practicing, would be like saying that I love apples but don’t like to eat them. Just as love for apples does not typically mean that you love looking at apples or reading about them, love for martial arts, in my opinion, has to be the love of practice. It is this love that provides the drive for a martial artist.
Once while discussing with a friend and training partner, he mentioned that those who pursue martial arts for self defence or fitness or any goal other than their love of the art will drop off after some time. For any of those objectives, there are probably easier means – for self defense, one can carry a firearm, TASER or pepper spray; for fitness, there are milder forms of exercise. Those who do stick with the practice of martial arts and love it see in it a greater purpose. In their practice of the art, they enjoy a state harmony and perfection that is hard to find elsewhere. This is very similar to the beauty and absorption that people seek in music, art and philosophy. “Art for art’s sake” is perhaps more applicable to martial arts than to anything else.
Most of the “petty excuses” with which we opened our discussion will not stand before this love of the art. If one has true interest and the heart to practice, everything else will fall in place – if not immediately, at least over the course of time. And without this one quality, all the other factors together do not amount to much. Athletic talent and physical ability, for example, are no doubt useful. But if one doesn’t practice, those skills will always remain unpolished and mediocre at best. Those who practice continuously in spite of lesser talent, on the other hand, will constantly refine their skills and over time be much more accomplished than those who have only their talent to rely on. In fact, for many with talent, easy success at an early stage can become an impediment to further progress which takes hard practice.Finally, on a closing note, these thoughts are based on my limited experience with martial arts and will likely evolve as I practice more. When that happens, it will be my endeavor to update my findings here. Also, if you are into this field, I would love to hear your views on the subject – so please feel free to make use the comments section.Happy practicing!