Classical combat oriented martial arts like Northern Shaolin test and develop your athleticism in a way no other activity does. Northern Shaolin is extraordinary in its vibrant, athletic use of strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. The body mastery and control developed from consistent practice is magnificent. All of these attributes are incredibly important, but they do not necessarily make you an expert martial artist.
The essential nature of martial arts is different from sports, athletics, and dance. The essential nature of martial arts is to systematically cultivate your ability to survive real combat. Martial sports and marital dances have many fans. Martial arts like Northern Shaolin, Lan Shou Quan, Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, Tai Chi Chuan, or San Huang Pao Chui all were created by professional fighters responsible for guarding valuable cargos or protecting elites. Although beautiful, health promoting, and developing fantastic athleticism all of these are true martial arts in their heart and soul. The heart and soul of these arts is their ability, in a positive and life enhancing way, to prepare you to protect yourself and your family in the direst circumstances of combat.
I love the athleticism of the arts we practice. I love their fun choreography and deep lore. But I also treasure the pure martial caliber of these arts. There is a vast gulf between practicing effective martial arts and mimicking them for the sake of entertainment or exercise. People do need exercise and some diversion from the modern worlds stresses. To practice as an effective martial art, especially during forms practice, requires the ability to demonstrate and manifest continuously and at will three things: raw power, tactical awareness, and intentional delivery. These make your forms practice martial.
Raw power means killing power. If you do not have the power to kill another human being then in the worst case scenario, they can kill you and your family. Throwing a strong punch is a decent start. Throwing real heat, real knock out, dang my whole body hurts looking at that, kind of power is what we are talking about. When you see people who actually know how to punch, punch, you and everyone else immediately thinks OWW, yikes!! Let’s make sure not to get hit by that. In classical Chinese martial arts, there exists a great variety of techniques. Yet the quantity of techniques is utterly and completely meaningless and worse than useless if none of them has any power at all. If you don’t have power and you aren’t striving to develop power let’s not pretend, we are doing martial arts. If we aren’t developing power, we are doing martial dance, martial exercise, or marital sports but not true martial arts.
Tactical Awareness means being precisely focused on the exact position of your body in its totality in relation to your opponent’s body in its totality and the moment to moment relationship between you both. Tactical awareness means being aware of how each technique begins. What is your position relative to an imaginary opponent with whom you are engaged in combat? What advantages does your current position have.? What weaknesses or vulnerabilities does your position have? What strengths and vulnerabilities does your opponent show in their position in your imagination as you practice your form? How do you contact the opponent, and create an opening, precisely while minimizing your vulnerabilities, and delivering maximum force? Maintaining tactical awareness also simply means keeping your head up and staying aware of the space around you rather than looking down or worse yet checking your own body position constantly. In the beginning stages of forms practice it is important to constantly check your technique, your structure, your angles and positioning. But, looking at your toes in a fight will surely result your head getting hit! Maintaining tactical awareness means using your body method, structure, and sequencing to make sure you deliver your power while also maintaining constant awareness of your surroundings and the moment to moment tactical situation between you and your imaginary opponents.
Intentional delivery means, did you break your fingers, knuckles, wrists, strain your elbows, or tear your shoulders? There is a bit of a process to learn how to deliver real striking power including strengthening your hands, learning how to form fists or other viable striking positions like palms, and how to correctly and perfectly align your hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and hip so nothing in your body is injured and everything works together. Developing striking ability almost always involves striking some sort of target or bag or pad. Everyone that I know who has good striking power has gone through plenty of actual striking practice. It is pretty easy to get minor injuries. When I teach people how to strike, I spend a majority of the time on how not to hurt yourself when practicing striking. Because this is the problem, you may be strong, you may be generating massive power, but if you break your hand with the first punch you are in trouble. It is surprisingly easy to do this. Most people are simply far too wild and inaccurate in their punching to hit anything at all with a focused powerful strike. If they do land a powerful punch, they are likely to hurt themselves as badly as their opponent. Once you can do this yourself, and you have spent enough time striking targets, and attempting to strike your friends, you can instantly tell when other people simply don’t have good striking skills and are merely mimicking punching and making expressive gestures. When experts see people punching it is simply, instantly apparent whether they would break their fingers, knuckles, and wrists by the end of their form or whether their hands would have broken every board, brick, tile, block of ice, stout rib, jaw, and thick skull in their path.
Martial sports and martial dances are great and have a long history. However, to say we are practicing martial arts we must retain its essential focus on the hopefully unnecessary skills of practical self-defense. When I watch you demonstrate your form, I know none of us are truly preparing for mortal combat next week. I know we are all living in the modern world and for all of us the exercise, entertainment, and socializing are incredibly more important day in and day out than self-defense skills. Yet, self-defense skill is what makes what we do valid as a martial art. Obtaining real self-defense skill yields enormous changes in self-confidence and capability in all parts of life, transforming many peoples nature profoundly. You don’t need to be ready to beat down a real life time of commandos, although it might be nice to have that capability, but you do need to head a little bit in that direction, at least to call yourself a martial artist. If you want to be respected as martial artist, especially as an expert martial artist, a high caliber martial artist you need to have real “oops that was an accident” bone breaking power, cunning, perceptive, tactical awareness, and the ability intentionally deliver a simply frightful amount of power with virtually all of your movements.