The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, April 18, 2008

Question on Martial Arts

ᅠA student asks:


I have a question for you on physical fitness regimes. The question is when do you know that something is not working for you? I understand that part of getting to be good at anything is having the discipline to stick through the difficult and boring times, but when is it time to realize that a particular discipline or method is not working for you. I believe that you have mentioned that at some point you realized that bodybuilding wasn't a sound method for achieving a useful and healthy physical condition.

I've been training at a kempo school in XX for about a year now. Prior to that I had studied at a non-traditional self-defense school in YY for about 4-5 years until I moved to XX. While I still think that I can learn from the Instructor, who has a wealth of knowledge, it is starting to feel like a chore to me. I rarely if ever feel that I'm being pushed at during class. I'm in decent shape, by no means great (used to be, when I was in the Army, but that is another story), but I barely break a sweat in the class. There are several other schools in the immediate area that have compatible schedules and I think that I might get pushed a little more at each of them.

So, the question is, at what point do you move on to another discipline in your goal of achieving excellence (or at least "pretty-good-ity," yes that is a word) in one of the three areas? I guess this would be similar to the question of when do you get out of a relationship (spirit) or find a new job (mind)?

Your thoughts are appreciated?




Your question has a lot of different strands. Let me try to wind them together. In my philosophy, the physical body should be treated with a level of importance roughly equal to relationships and career (although in actual fact my family comes first, followed by my career, followed by martial arts). This moving toward balance creates a situation where your personal flaws and demons are pretty clearly exposed, allowing you to engage with them directly and profitably.

That said, any physical activity that is wholesome and pushes you past previous limits will have a positive effect. The reason that there is no "ultimate" martial art is that there is no standardized human being, or human context. What exactly are you looking for? The Three-Dimensional Performance Pyramid (slightly adjusted) suggests that the order you should look for is:

1) Sanity
2) Health
3) Fitness
4) Skill
5) Competition

Only the first three are absolutely essential. Martial arts CAN cover this entire range (depending on the school and the instructor), but not always, or even usually. The average MA school covers 2-4, maybe 2-5. The average weekend athlete makes the mistake of concentrating on 4-5, and ends up getting injured because there is no cardio-muscular foundation to support the neurology. The result is Injuries Galore (younger sister of a certain James Bond babe, no doubt).

Understanding the relationship between stress, strain, and breathing can turn any martial art, sport or exercise into a meditation, so that's really up to you to do the supplemental research necessary to ground yourself spiritually/emotionally. So what's left is the question of physical stress and artistic or practical skill.

Let's say that you want to increase your skills, but see useful skills in multiple arts. It sounds to me like you are hungering for a discipline that will leave you pleasantly exhausted or exhilarated, dripping with sweat and with that overall "glow" after class. You'll get that from an art that twists your body through the Six Degrees of Freedom at the same time that it takes you through the gateway called "Second Wind." Achieving flow state during maximal exertion while letting your Predator mind out to play...Yowsa! Talk about a neurological cocktail!

Now, you don't have to choose a martial art based upon fitness. In fact, it is NOT optimal to try to get in shape in a martial arts class--they are too skill intensive. When fatigue climbs, skill declines. As coordination breaks down under fatigue, trying to reach a high level of fitness gets problematic. This is why most fitness activities are very simple coordination-wise: you want to be able to push into that fatigue zone even after the lactic acid has built up to the point that the muscles aren't firing perfectly any more.

So the optimal thing is to make a MA class a place to learn and express skill, rather than fitness. In other words, you go to the gym to develop fitness, and then go to the MA school to test and enjoy it.

That said, what is MOST important about any physical activity is that you do it. And the easiest way to ensure that you do it is to enjoy it. That means that the activity has to match your goals and values. That you have clarity on what YOU want out of it, and to the degree possible, EVERY TIME YOU GO, you get both what you want and what you need.

So...if I read you right, you want a wringer of a workout. You have the right to get what you want. As long as your body can handle it, then, look for something that fits the "feel" that you desire.

One exception: if you have a history of quitting things half-way through, be careful: this might be a way for your mind to trick you into quitting something that would change you. ANY time you approach an activity that triggers deep change, your ego will fight back. If this behavior is NOT part of your history: hell, you're a grown-ass man. Find a school where the students move the way you'd like to move. Where they form a community that you would be proud to join, and their bodies look the way you'd like your body to look. There should be people of approximately the same age. If there are women there, they should be treated with respect, as if, pound-for-pound, they are as dangerous as the men (there are multiple reasons for this, not just Political Correctness).

To finally answer your question: leave a school when it no longer matches your goals or values.

Have fun!


Mike Ralls said...

Found this rather interesting;

A new study suggests fat itself breeds a well-known appetite-stimulating hormone

"Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is an appetite-stimulating hormone produced by our brains, which is responsible for a lot of our drive to eat. Scientists had previously thought that overweight people simply had more NPY flowing from their heads than they needed. As it turns out, the UWO study found that not only do our brains produce NPY, but our abdominal fat makes it as well."

The good news would be that once you got rid of the abdominal fat, NPY would decrease and so would hunger.

Steven Barnes said...

We just didn't evolve to live in a world in which food is readily and easily available. Bushmen spend about half as much time as we do earning their daily breadfruit. But the amount of work NECESSARY to feed yourself is down to an hour a day: one salad bar can easily feed you for the whole day (see: THE WARRIOR DIET). I feel so sorry for people caught in that spiral. Perfect example of a survival mechanism turned Terminator.

Reluctant Lawyer said...


As always you provide extremely useful prespective. I guess part of the problem for me as that I really loved my former school back and that I haven't really found a new school that measures up.

I think my plan will be to sick with my current school for the next few months. I'll have to take off for a little while with the birth of my second child and I'll think long and hard about returning. There are just a few other schools in the area, so I may try a new one out. I'm tempted to try judo.


Anonymous said...

My 71 year old sister attended her first yoga class this week. She found it a little more strenuous than she expected, but is determined to keep it up. What do you think of someone her age starting yoga. Is it reasonable or is she likely to end up hurting herself.

Marty S

Steven Barnes said...

Yoga would be GREAT for her--but she must approach it sanely, and safely. Her best bet is to start with a class that has several other people her age. Never take yoga to the point that the breathing is no longer smooth and deep. NEVER. No matter what the teacher says. But yoga performed while playing close attention to your body is one of the healthiest things imaginable. There are books and videos on yoga for seniors...they would make a great investment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the input I was a little concerned.

Marty S

Chris | Martial Development said...

Just discovered your blog, and I am delighted to find another martial artist who places sanity at the top of the pyramid.