Finding Balance Through Traditional Martial Arts

The pressures of modern life impact most of us. It’s all about performance. Where do we live? What do we drive? What do we wear? Competition, competition, competition…! Even exercise has evolved into other dimensions. What to wear to gym today? Will I still look good after the aerobics class? Who will notice what weight-settings I am capable of on the super-circuit?

Who cares? Those that you are trying to impress will only notice you as a point of reference to their own self image. Their ego sees themselves measured against you…; they don’t actually see you. For as long as you sweat these issues, personal emotional balance will elude you.

Traditional martial arts training is a way to step back from it all. The new world that awaits discovery in the dojo removes all of the frenetic posturing and ego induced stress. Stepping into this world offers the promise of a whole new outlook on life.

The Japanese have a word to describe a prospective student. The word is monjin and it is a particularly evocative word. The kanji (symbols) for monjin describe ‘a person at the gate’ and as one stands at the doorway of the dojo for the first time, there is no telling how far past the gate you will go. The monjin has no real idea of what goes on here, only preconceptions and misconceptions. The reality, for those who step inside, is always very different from the expectation.

Initially, there would be some physical training. Blocks, kicks, punches. Stances. Stepping. Balance. All very awkward and nowhere near the stuff that Chuck Norris seems to do effortlessly. The simplest arm movements make you feel totally inept and embarrassed at your own lack of any form of motor control – fine or gross (probably gross). Is this the same person that has just come from a high-powered business meeting? Is it possible that as the Head of your department at the office, you can be found to be so totally inept?

And so the process has started…. you are beginning to find balance, or at least, it is finding you.

In traditional karate the mental benefits of the training are both multi-dimensional and far reaching. Since the training is geared towards achieving balance, both the aggressive and the timid benefit. During the training, one develops a greater co-ordination between the two hemispheres of the brain. We know that the left hand side of the brain is responsible for structures such as language and analytical detail, while the right-hand side synthesises perceptual detail and creativity.

Through learning basic physical techniques in the early training period, the left hemisphere of the brain is stimulated. Indeed, more and more so, as more intricate and complicated sequences and combinations of techniques are repeated over and over. Once a level of proficiency is reached, and a monjin (it’s that word again!) is competent enough to work safely with a partner, he/she may begin to explore and improvise with the techniques learned, resulting in ‘free-style’ sessions called randori (sparring). This free-style randori encourages the creative and intuitive side of the person, thus calling on the right hemisphere of the brain. The overall training results, therefore, in improved hemisphere specialisation abilities within the student, enabling greater control of cognitive processes in all aspects of life. (Lack of specialisation leads to confusion in the control of verbal and non-verbal behaviour which, in turn, leads to emotional stress.) And so it can already be seen that the training can be a passport to lifelong mental and physical fitness.

By this stage, the student is no longer ‘monjin’ but has become a ‘gakusei’ or ‘deshi’ (part of the family). Small changes in emotional make-up are probably starting to become evident. There is perhaps more tolerance of the shortcomings of others, and more acceptance of personal shortcomings. Confidence levels have crept up and the one will feel more physically comfortable in the presence of others. But in the dojo, you begin to realise more and more of how little is known, and how much more effort is required to progress. And so as one becomes more comfortable outside the dojo, inside the dojo becomes more demanding. The stresses of life are being channelled out of the daily routine, and into the one-and a half hours, twice a week slot that has become ‘sacred time’.

Personal balance is on the horizon, and slowly drawing closer.

The formalities found in the traditional dojo would seem odd initially. Always bowing for this and for that. Almost everything that happens from the point of crossing the threshold upon entering, until one leaves again, is done according to the dictates of martial etiquette. In some (less traditional) schools of martial arts, excessive etiquette is scoffed at and said to be pompous and of no value to self defence. On the other extreme, the ‘pompous’ schools see the non-traditionalists as being little more than barbarians wish only to fight.

The true schools will find their balance. The harder they train, the more etiquette and formality should find its way into the fabric of the training. Manners and respect, mixed with strong discipline allows students to train harder and more effectively without the risk of injury. There would be no purpose in learning martial arts for self defence if each class was little more than an extended ‘tea ceremony’. At the same time, and to stop the training from becoming a brawl, rigorous conventions of respect and self control are enforced.

Under the guidance of a competent teacher, there will be a strong sense of respect amongst students. Monjin, gakusei and deshi will all show respect for sempai (senior) and sensei (teacher), in the same way that the seniors will respect those who are newer. Any lack of respect can be a cancer in the school, and the true sensei will ensure that respect flows equally (even if differently) in both directions – up and down. Indeed, what the monjin don’t recognise is that the seniors view them with great respect because of the long journey they (the monjin) have undertaken. The sempai know by now, how long and arduous the journey is, and they will help the monjin along in ways that will not be understood at first.

Indeed, by the time the journey is well underway, and there have been new monjin, and new gakusei, and you are now called sempai by all, life would have changed. You will wear what’s comfortable, drive what’s practical and live wherever you can afford. Gym will just be a place you go for an additional workout, and you will hardly notice the others. And if your eyes meet with one of them (those ‘others’ that you were once part of), you will probably, without thought, respond with a big open smile while realising that you have found balance, and, perhaps, remember when you were once ‘a person at the gate’.

Brian Woodland

Durbanville Karate

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