Mysticism and Magic in Martial Arts – the Three Stages of Practice

Martial arts have always had elements of mysticism associated with them, and this has reflected in most depictions in popular culture. For a person whose understanding of the subject is solely based on these colourful reflections, martial arts is magical, mystical, and supernatural. For the mundane fighter who has picked up his technique on the street through multiple encounters, just as for followers of sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, it comes down to physical skill, athleticism, and guts.  But what is it like, for a practicing student of martial arts? Though it varies from person to person, in general, what is seen and valued as magic in martial arts depends on the level or stage of practice one is in.

Stage one – you think there is magic

You watch movies, read, listen to people, and think that there is some magical force at work. You hope that you will be able to command that force and then be powerful. Call it “Qi”, “Chi”, “Chakra”, whatever, this is something that is supposed to work beyond the restrictions of physical laws (specifically, the laws of thermodynamics).

Street Fighter, a popular depiction of mysticism and magic in martial arts
Hadoken from Streetfighter reflects one of the most popular images mystical moves in martial arts.

For some, it need not be anything mystical, just some extraordinary physical techniques that you can use. This is often what attracts people to something like a two-hour self-defence program, thinking that a secret technique they learn in those two hours can enable them to dispatch multiple assailants with ease. There could even be those who attend such programs and believe themselves to be capable of defending against armed assailants.

Those who don’t stop there, but actually continue practice beyond that, eventually move on to the next stage.

Stage two – you figure out there is no magic

At some point, a martial artist begins to understand that there is no magic. There is only the mastery of techniques that come through diligent practice. That there isn’t even a shortcut to attaining this mastery. Some of those who started martial arts for the mystical attraction lose interest at this point. They get tired of the repetitive practice required for perfecting each technique and decide to quit.

The tenacious and patient practitioner who doesn’t lose heart or get bored, but enjoys the slow but sure improvement over the years, eventually progresses to the next stage.

Stage three – you begin to see the magic

This is when you begin to appreciate the simplicity, beauty, and elegance in various aspects of martial arts practice that are easily missed by those who are looking for something flashy, complex and unworldly. While the specifics depend on the individual, I trust that many would have been equally enthralled by some of the aspects that I find magical.

Among the first of these is the magic of synchronization. The synergy between different parts of your body, your breath and thought is a feeling that can be appreciated only when felt. In the most simple of motions such as a straight punch, the difference between just stretching of your elbow and the synchronous use of shoulders, wrist, and hips not only gives one immense satisfaction in moving that much closer to perfection but also raises their effectiveness to a completely different level.

The magic called endurance is another. It is seen when you realize that the limits you first encounter are imposed by your own mind. Once you break free from these, you gradually get closer to the physical limits of the body that can further be stretched. The way this can be achieved through practice is in itself magical. What is initially hard or even impossible becomes easy and natural through regular, continued practice.

Then there is magic in calmness developed through diligent and patient practice. It enables you to remain in perfect harmony with yourself and your environment, which is an indescribably blissful experience and a worthy end in itself. Once a practitioner gets to this point, there is a good chance that they’ll stick with martial arts, because each day of practice brings with it newer insights and more of the magic.

Now, there would be at least some among my readers who feel that I am shifting the goalpost here by changing the definition of magic itself. Towards the beginning we look for magic as something that goes against the laws of nature, then we end up finding it in much simpler, everyday things that are usually overlooked. This shift in perspective, while a little surprising, is not unintended or uncommon. It reflects the transformation that practice can bring about. When one turns to martial arts as a magical way to defeat his enemies, he may seek in it ultimate techniques or control over mystical forces. But when he understands that the only enemies worth defeating are within himself, he will also see that the unimaginably powerful forces that can aid in this battle are the ones that he had been cultivating from the very beginning.

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