|this article published in Black Belt magazine||.|
The martial arts have evolved over the past 100 years and their purpose has changed. In old times the arts were mainly used for warfare. A martial artist trained to become a superior soldier and better serve is country, or his emperor. His highest honor was to die in combat. The emphasis in training was on physical ability, while the values centered on loyalty, devotion and discipline. The health of the martial artist was of low importance; no one trained for self improvement, and some traditional methods were detrimental to the physical well being. Example: punching used to be practiced with the mouth closed, exhaling on impact. Although it boosts speed and power, practicing it daily will take a toll on your health. Of course, soldiers back then didn't live long enough to develop health problems.
Today, many martial artists regard what they do as sport, which means importance is placed on trophies and tournament victories. Indeed, modern Taekwondo is an Olympic event, and as such it emphasizes tournament fighting. During training, practitioners learn how to perform fancy moves, defeat their opponent and win medals. During demonstrations extreme acrobatics and deadly looking movements are the focus. This misses the true purpose of martial arts.
Sparring should benefit both parties. There should be no winners or losers. Additionally, tournament fighting sets the stage for martial artists to lose sight of the goals of training. They may be left thinking that after passing their prime there is no reason to train more. So the question becomes, what is the true purpose of martial arts?
The purpose of martial arts today is to promote health and longevity, and training must reflect those goals. Students today aren't preparing to die for their country, and fortunately for us, rarely do we encounter a physical attacker. Modern day enemies are internal rather than external: stress, depression, worry, insecurity and so on. You must fight these enemies on a daily basis and defeat them through your training. That requires mental and physical balance. By developing mental and physical balance you can easily overcome the challenges of the 21st century, which is why achieving balance should be the most important aspect of martial arts training.
SOME MASTERS BRAG about going to the gym, about how they stay healthy running on treadmills and lifting weights. In reality, traditional Taekwondo forms have everything a person needs to stay healthy mentally and physically. At the same time, if you practice forms the wrong way, the have the power to harm you. Focusing only on speed and power is like taking small amounts of poison every day, while practicing forms the right way has the power to heal. When I started martial arts we had to figure out most things ourselves while training to exhaustion. We weren't taught proper breathing. Many of us suffered serious injuries such as broken bones and kicks to the groin. The instructor's attitude was that the toughest would survive. Most students didn't see the benefits of training and often got injured----as a result they dropped out.
I SUFFERED SERIOUS HEALTH PROBLEMS while training. Within three years of starting I developed a bad ulcer. A couple of years later, I had rheumatism. A few years after that, it was a lower-back problem. All of this was because of poor training methods. Ironically, I became less healthy than people who didn't practice martial arts. After enduring pain for ten years, a doctor recommended surgery for my back and said I had a 50-50 chance of getting better. The surgery would require me to stay in bed for a long time, so I chose physical therapy, traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture instead. However, nothing provided much relief.
One day I exited the health studio-- it was a gorgeous day with a bright blue sky, but to me it looked gray and gloomy. My future looked bleak as well. The thought of the martial arts making me sick had taken me to that low point. But through meditation and training, I came to the understanding that the principles and teaching methods I was using were wrong-- and that was the real reason for my poor health. Instead of doctors and acupuncturists, the solution to my problem lay in training. In essence I was putting too much emphasis on the technical and physical aspects. It dawned on me that focus should be on balance, breathing, rhythm and body-shifting.
THERE IS A BALANCE of movement and balance of mind. When techniques or forms are practiced they must be balanced to ensure the body isn't harmed by repeated unbalanced movements that may strain the anatomy. We also need balance in life in general.
Breathing is fuel for the body. The air we breathe is free, invisible energy-- which is perfect because performing techniques and forms requires a lot of fuel. Without proper breathing your health will be at risk.
Proper breathing establishes proper rhythm. The body can then follow the rhythm of the breathing to execute a safe, powerful technique. Running provides a useful comparison: you may be able to run five miles without rhythm, but if you run like that every day your health will suffer. You must have rhythmical breathing when running or practicing martial arts.
So how did I cure my back problem? I practiced aforementioned principles while training. I practiced Basic Form No. 1 with a new focus on breathing, rhythm and body-shifting. I practiced every day over and over. In correct training had harmed my body and correct training was healing it. My way of teaching these principles became to be known as "natural way martial arts," or Chayon-Ryu. It's goal is to preserve and enhance the martial artist's health.
I'D LIKE TO SHARE another personal story. A friend sent me a shocking demo tape. He was performing fancy moves-- moves that looked impressive but lacked balance, breathing and rhythm. When I saw him a few months later he said he couldn't sleep or eat and felt nervous and anxious all the time. I said I wasn't surprised. His training lacked proper breathing and rhythm. He could kick high, and do impressive things, but there was no balance. I told him his problem was his own workouts.
The simple question of whether martial arts is good for your health can be answered with a not so simple answer: yes and no. Taekwondo can save your life, but it can also destroy it. You have to practice correctly using the right principles. The traditional Asian method of instruction is sometimes the problem. Few people have the patience to train long enough to understand the basic principles. It's tough to figure out those principles by yourself. Instructors must follow them when demonstrating techniques and teaching students the important concepts.
Ever wonder why so few adults in Asian countries do the martial arts? This is the reason. It's even worse in my home country of South Korea, where the student base is composed mostly of children. Few people train long enough to develop long-term health problems because most students quit after two or three years. Martial arts teachers in Korea are astonished to learn that I have students who have been with me for 20, 30 or 40 years. That fact strengthens my message that incorrect understanding of the purpose of martial arts results in poor teaching methods, which leads to wrong attitudes and injuries and ultimately to students giving up. Today, people study the arts to increase personal happiness, not to die in battle. They're seeking health, longevity and relaxation in addition to self-defense.
THE MARTIAL ARTS are more than a sport, more than tournament fighting, more than self-defense. When taught right, they are a way of life that combines philosophical insight with physical training to create mentally strong and independent individuals who can fight frailty and weakness, as well as internal enemies like doubt, insecurity and stress.
Kim Soo is a Houston based martial arts pioneer and member of the black belt hall of fame. For more information visit www.chayonryu.com Demetrios Gakidis assisted in the writing of this article.