Physiology - Our Common Bond
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Martial arts have developed all over the world out of necessity and most nations have, or had, their own styles. Through the course of world history martial arts have developed to fit the needs of the societies people lived in. In the west technology has led to the slow increase in weapon development to the point where weapons far and away succeeded the physical arts, so much so that the martial arts of the west, e.g. quarter staff and bare hand fighting, have largely been lost. Some people would argue that guns are a latter day Martial art - and with a gun in their hand who am I to argue?
Putting the gun culture to one side, let's examine the physical arts. There are, of course, many types of martial art, which have developed within societies fulfilling the needs and requirements of the people in them.
Firstly, self-defence answers a basic need using simple physiology to overcome grips, unsophisticated attacks and greater strength. Some self-defence schools have taken their techniques further. These techniques are used to combat a wide range of attacks from all sorts of situations. This could involve dealing with the more sophisticated attacks and various weapons, including guns. For instance, the types of self-defence used by police forces and armed forces around the world.
The external styles, which make up the majority of arts available, have taken this further still; developing into art forms (my understanding of an art is about acquiring a skill, or skills, that can be constantly refined). Again, they have developed from the need to defend yourself but through many years of growth, usually times of tyranny and/or adversity, they have become far more intricate, with many more techniques, both offensive and defensive.
All the while, these arts have manoeuvred around the social or physical constraints of the societies they developed in. An example of a social constraint is where regional warlords prevented peasants from having weapons to avert insurrection. Peasants, therefore, developed weapons from the tools they had to hand. A good example would be the development of empty hand and weapons technique in the Ryuku islands and Okinawa under Japanese occupation.
The internal styles have taken a different approach to the question of defence. More emphasis is put on the use of the body, and how it co-ordinates in relation to the action being performed. These styles developed out of the Taoist philosophy of harmony with nature, combined with their internal breathing techniques. However, no matter what style you practice they all have one thing in common - YOU. Human physiology is our common bond and the most significant limiting factor; no style can work outside of this. Nature cannot be denied. There is only so much that our bodies can do (well, at least until any aspiring genetic scientists get their way).
Take a look at the people around you; we are all different shapes and sizes with varying degrees of strength and flexibility. The various styles offer a way forward for the many types of people. For example, tall people would probably suit a distant fighting art, such as White Crane or Tae Kwon Do while short, agile people may be better suited to Monkey. Most arts have been developed over generations and we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors as will those who follow us. Many years have been spent improving the systems to make them as efficient as possible. This is true of all traditional styles and something all styles aspire to. The expression 'a punch is a punch, a kick is a kick' may be true but the way it is performed expresses stylistic differences, and not the differing techniques. As all techniques are opened to all styles, it is the method of training, the pattern and thinking behind the styles that varies them and truly describes the art.
So, when choosing an art for yourself, keep this in mind. Just as much as when you are discussing different styles with a fellow martial artist. Look to discover what it is that his or her style does in offence or defence, perhaps in a way your style has not offered you. Physical size and strength do make a difference. Although all styles claim to redress this imbalance, the saying "a good 'big un' will always beat a good 'little un'" has more than a modicum of truth in it. This is also true of the male/female divide (apologies to any offended women reading this). Biologically speaking, women have 25 to 30 per cent less potential physical strength than men do (all complaints should be directed to Mother Nature). This is not to suggest that women cannot be formidable adversaries. Some styles have succeeded in redressing this imbalance very effectively and none more so than the internal styles. However, the price for this is a far longer apprenticeship than with the external styles. The point is that; when everything else is equal whatever advantage is left to one side or the other will usually carry the day.
Nonetheless, the facts remain the same; as members of the Human Race we all possess the same potentials, limitations, physical strengths and weaknesses. The physiology we all share is what allows these arts to work and is why the martial arts techniques are all so similar. Just take a look at the different arts - most use kicks and punches, some include throws and locks, others preclude punches and kicks using only throws and locks. No particular style or group of people does anything so unique that other styles, or people, are excluded from doing the same. Only the method is different.
Sifu Donald Kerr, LSOM