There seems to be a common thread uniting a lot of disciplines from many martial art cultures.
It occurred to me that there is such a wealth of information out there- methods that used to be kept secret are now freely available. In some ways that is a good thing, the problem is that now there is the ‘paradox of choice’: too much information! The sources of information frequently conflict with each other, leaving the student uncertain of what or how to practise. This often results in practising the wrong things, or even worse, just giving up and practising nothing.
With any method, the real treasure can only be found when you make a commitment to regular practise.
Of course – everyone says that you should commit to their method – so how do you know who is correct?
One thing that I have found useful in my research and practise is to look for commonalities rather than differences.
For example in martial arts: If several teachers can make a technique work- but they are showing different details or methods, it is useful to ask: What do these all have in common? Often, this will unlock the ‘active ingredient’. Too often, students argue about the differences and concentrate on those – then they end up with something that is not functional.
It seems to me that by definition- if you can do something differently and it still works- then that is not an ‘essential ingredient’ for that technique. For example: People may have different styles and approaches due to their own personality and body type- they find what works ‘for them’, but there are some principles that cannot be changed or the technique breaks down: leverage, biomechanics and strategic considerations. This is true in striking, grappling and every kind of movement. It is known as ‘Functional Minimalism’
With this in mind, when you watch great athletes, fighters or martial arts masters, ask a better question: What is it that they are ALL doing? What do they have in common?
When you have figured out the really essential points- you can commit to practising them, and improving them daily. With more practise and deeper understanding- these important points become fewer and refined.
It is like writing a research paper: The first part is about accumulating information. The more information to draw from, the better. The second part is about getting rid of the unessential, so you end up with something that is simple, but profound.
That got me thinking: What would be the NUMBER ONE PRINCIPLE OF ALL?
Finding the Primary Principle.
In Kung Fu, which has been my practise for four decades, there is the simple practise called ‘Zazen’ (often translated as ‘Meditation’) which according to legend, was what Bodhidharma did for nine years, sitting facing a wall at Shaolin. Gazing at the wall until he achieved enlightenment. The instructions are very simple, yet it is considered the pinnacle of kung fu.
In Tai Chi, Yang Cheng Fu was the head of the Yang Family, and considered the great master of the art. He compiled some guidelines for his students that are called the ’10 essential principles.’
In the area of modern psychology, Dr Jordan Peterson has a best selling book called ’12 Rules for life, where he distills the teachings from various schools of psychology down to 12 principles that people can apply to their lives.
So- Why do I mention these three seemingly unrelated things?
Because, when one looks for the commonalities, one discovers something interesting. They all agree about what the most important thing is!
“To hold your vertebrae and neck bones vertically is the most important matter in Zazen and this is, in fact, the essence of Zazen (Meditation). When we practice Zazen, if our vertebrae are not erect, we will not enter the calm and balanced condition of body and mind.”
Gudo Nishijima -Handbook of Authentic Buddhism.
In Tai Chi:
1. Elevate the Crown and lift the Spirit.
Empty the thoughts and raise the head as if the crown of the head is pushing up against the heavens. The neck must be straightened to allow the head to be raised. This allows the spirit and energy to arrive at the crown of the head. Do not use force or the neck will be stiff and circulation will be hindered. One must have natural intention and emptiness in the mind.
Yang Cheng Fu- The 10 essential Principals.
Rule #1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
‘Standing up’ means voluntarily accepting the burden of being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe.
Dr. Jordan Peterson- 12 Rules for Life.
So- all of these people considered this to be NUMBER ONE. Coincidence?
The application of this principle:
I think this ‘number one principle’ sets the stage for everything else- the unity of body and mind. Gravity is the strongest force in the universe. Harmonising of the body with gravity means harmonising yourself with the whole universe. If you go through life fighting the entire universe- then you have a very hard time ahead, right?
When you have this centre point- where you are in balance, all movement- mental and physical, becomes easier. The crown is the ‘organising principle’ that pulls all of the vertebrae into place and initiates movement in any direction effortlessly.
When you begin meditation- you start by lifting the crown, finding the balance point where your mind can be alert and yet calm. Not sleepy, but not tense.
When you begin a tai chi form- you need to find the centre point first. This begins by raising the crown. Then the energy can sink to the body’s centre of gravity. Not leaning means that you need to use the minimum muscular effort to perform the movements, and can concentrate on releasing tension from the body and mind.
When you have to go to an interview or stressful encounter, it is natural to want to ‘shrink’- to assume a passive or fearful posture. This makes the person speaking to you automatically assume a dominant position- you will be perceived as weak and of ‘low status’. This will result in you becoming even more fearful, and sets up a vicious cycle. Remembering to ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back.’- you will assume a different, more confident posture, as your physiology changes, so does your mental state.
The scientific basis- the central nervous system, and the endocrine system.
The central nervous system is composed of two parts- the sympathetic nervous system (often called the ‘fight or flight’ system) and the parasympathetic nervous system (often called the ‘rest and restore system.
When the sympathetic nervous system dominates- you are continually aroused- stresses and anxious. The immune system is suppressed (the origin of this system was to give you extra strength in an emergency. After all- if you are about to be eaten by a bear- there is no sense in wasting precious energy fighting off a cold!). Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle causes this system to remain chronically activated and our physical and mental health suffers. We get ‘burned out’, we are susceptible to illness, and we age quickly.
If the parasympathetic nervous system dominates, it is associated with thyroid and kidney disease, and mentally linked to depression and apathy. You are unable to get energised- even when it is important to do so.
The centre point of the first principle represents the balance of the two systems: The central nervous system in balance operates at peak efficiency. Mentally- you are alert, yet calm. You are neither sleepy nor over aroused. From this centre point you can respond appropriately to whatever life throws at you.
In terms of the endocrine system- the central nervous system is responsible for the hormone regulation of the body. When you are hunched over and depressed, it is associated with a decrease in the hormone called serotonin. This is the ‘feel good’ hormone. When levels of serotonin are low-you feel stressed out, lose confidence and age faster. When you are over stimulated and operate in ‘crisis mode’ all the time- this is associated with the hormone adrenaline. Over production of adrenaline causes anxiety and is linked to heart disease and strokes.
Relevance to Martial Arts.
The main lesson here is that the mind and body are absolutely connected, and your psychological state is related to your physiological state, and vice versa. Let us look at some specific examples of how these are important to the martial artist.
What is the first rule of self defence? Be aware! This means seeing what is around you, not looking down at your phone. In other words- head up.
Often in my school, students say that they used to be bullied, then after they had learned to fight, they wished the bully would try something- but they never do! The reason is that they no longer carry themselves as a victim. Their confidence is clear in their body language- hence bullies will not try to engage them- they are looking for an easy target.
In a more serious street attack it is no different- muggers are opportunists; they will look for the easiest prey. Someone who carries themselves with confidence will probably not be their first choice.
If you practise combat sports such as Boxing, Muay Thai or MMA consider this: When you see a fighter turn his head away from his opponent, like he does not want to engage- defeat usually follows very quickly. The mind is beaten, and the body quickly follows.
Consider the fighters who just ‘move well’. You know, those who deserve the title ‘martial artist’ rather than merely a slugger or brawler. We would all do well to achieve such natural and effortless movement, even at times of extreme stress like an MMA match. One thing that they seem to have in common is a sense of ‘balance’. This is an overlooked part of training in contemporary martial arts, but was absolutely emphasised in the traditional arts. From standing to moving- and then during a technique, and then during transitions between techniques, changing direction etc. It is a massively complex thing, and to consciously control it would be overwhelming. But there is one guiding principle that will organise everything else: The movement starts with the head.
Try practising your martial art not worrying about strength for a while. Concentrate on relaxing, keeping your head up and ‘releasing excess tension’- take your foot off the brake! Do this while shadowboxing, hitting pads and eventually- even sparring. You will notice that you use less energy, so your stamina will improve. Not only that, but ‘releasing the brakes ‘enables you to accelerate faster and therefore, be able to generate more power.
So -this ‘central point’ or first principle, is the optimum combination of yin and yang. Manifested mentally as the balance between alertness and relaxation, and physically as the balance between ‘looseness’ and strength- which is the prerequisite for generating explosive power.
Some practical exercises you can do every day:
(There is a video below with the exercises demonstrated)
Chinese martial arts has various practise methods: Sitting, standing and moving.
If this seemed like a lot of rambling, unrelated concepts- then I would suggest that you ask one question: “What do they all have in common?” Then: Use your head 😉