On Teaching.

Teaching martial arts is a big responsibility to take on, shaping a new generation of students and passing on and keeping a style alive is no small thing. Without real understanding and perspective on the art one is teaching it is very easy to become a passer on of simple rhetoric rather than a living breathing art. It is the depth of understanding the context of the art itself and its skills while teaching that separate a martial arts instructor from a real master – teacher.

Perspective is the first part of the formula of being a good teacher. The longer one trains and further into the depth of the art one gets the better one’s perspective becomes when teaching students. For example, if a teacher has been training five years and suddenly becomes an instructor taking students when they themselves have only begun to cultivate higher level skills and as such do not yet have the perspective to see how the teaching of the art is organized as they are still going through the process of growth and cultivation themselves. Of course, it can be argued that the process of cultivation and growth never stops, which is true, but the perspective of the long-term effects of training can only be seen from where the teachers themselves stand. The view from five years deep into training is very different from that of thirty years.

To have a real understanding and broad perspective on teaching others the arts it is important to have not only a breadth of knowledge but a reasonable depth of knowledge as well. Taking the Chinese Martial Arts as an example, breadth of knowledge for a teacher should include knowledge of Chinese Culture, History, Language, Medicine, Philosophy, Writing and Fighting skills. One does not need to be an expert in every field listed here but the depth of knowledge in each of these areas will overlap to make the understanding of the Chinese martial arts deeper and more broad, thus making the person who has this knowledge a better teacher with a wider perspective.

Looking at fighting skills of Chinese Martial Arts alone we can break the art down into many different parts and aspects of training that one should know. The four aspects of Chinese martial arts include: ti (kicking 踢), da (striking 打) shuai (throwing 摔) na (seizing 拿). Each of these four aspects can again be broken down to find more depth of knowledge, for example qin na (Grasping and Seizing Control) is having four aspects: tearing tendons & breaking bones, sealing the blood, sealing the breath, and attacking acupoints. To continue with this line of thought understanding applications of the arts can be seen in four aspects as well. Level One: the obvious application of a movement. Level Two: Application of the movement but changing the attack or direction of the attack from the opponent. A right-handed punch becomes a grab from the side or behind and seeing how one uses the same movement to affect the opponent. Level Three: What aspect is missing? Using the first two levels to find what aspect of the movement has not been looked in to. For example, a hand technique having been applied on the first two levels is most likely overlooking the role of the stance, steps and legs during the technique itself. The same hand technique may have cutting the stance, destroying the opponents balance, attacking the joints or outright kicking applications hidden beneath the upper body during the movement. Level Four: Better, more thorough targeting. If a hand technique is being applied and striking the head of the opponent, what exact targeting could one use to have more effect on the opponent? There is a difference between driving a punch into the opponent’s head and taking a more exact approach and striking an acupoint for a more dramatic effect. Some examples of this may be Jian Jing (Shoulder well gb21 詹静) rather than just the head. Jian Jing is one of the most down bearing points in the body and a heavy strike here will buckle the knees of the opponent. Another example may be Tai Yang (Greater Yang ex3 太阳) located on the temple of the head, which a heavy strike can concuss the brain, cause swelling, and a great deal of damage with a transfer of real power.

From a teaching perspective of a single technique, be it an application or a movement pulled from a form during instruction, a teacher can pass on many answers to the question “why?” like multiple ways of thinking, depths of understanding and levels of damage and application for each movement. An even better way of looking at this is teaching students these ways of thought so that they can disassemble and investigate their art on their own, which teaches critical thinking and methods of application they can use in their lives outside of martial arts.

Cultural context, language, philosophy and history play important roles in the understanding of the arts as well as they each give us context to look at the art we are studying or teaching and not only how things are done or described, but why they are. An old martial saying states “do not seek to be like the men of old, seek what they sought.” It is this that changes the perspective of a student learning an art. It is not enough to learn the movements, forms, and weapons of an art from a famous master. One must try to understand what it was that master, that icon we are emulating was working to understand that made them gain the high levels of skill they became famous for. Understanding how the Chinese were affected like all cultures by their language and philosophies and thus their thought processes gives one an understanding of what the originators were thinking (or an approximation thereof) when the art was being created or added to.

A good example is the native philosophy of Taoism from China. The idea of Taiji (太極 – Great Ultimate – the study and understanding of the points of transformation from yin to yang when studying aspects of anything) is all permeating to a certain extent in the martial arts. Each movement is executed in a way that demonstrates the great Ultimate idea, showing each aspect of yin/yang and the transformation between. In a more modern way to describe it on a basic level, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For every part of the body moving forward another part must move backward and so on. In any single movement there are multiple examples of the yin/yang reversal in the body. Understanding and studying this will allow the martial arts teacher to see more deeply into their own techniques and as such help their students to balance and harmonize the movement of their bodies. This of course is a crude and basic consider the topic of yin/yang reversal but demonstrates the thought model one can use based in Taoist philosophy for deepening understanding martial movement. The deeper one goes into each of these subjects the more one can see its influence on the arts already and allow us to have a guideline to correct our own movements.

Language influences how we as human beings not only communicate as we grow and age but also how we think. The Chinese language is very different than English and as such affects the very base line of thought for native speakers. Chinese written language is contextual, meaning that a single character can have multiple meanings depending on the context it is found in. A good example is the word Qi (氣) when found in a writing about martial arts or qigong it is generally translated as “energy” “life energy” or the like. But when found in a weather report in a Chinese newspaper it is generally referring to air as in air quality, context means everything.

As such when training or teaching Chinese martial arts it is doing them a disservice to not investigate the poetry of the names of the movements and forms as a great deal of information is stored in these characters about the methods themselves. For example, on a basic level the name of the basic stance “Ma Bu” (馬步) is generally translated as “Horse Stance” and taught to young students by describing sitting on a horse’s back. But investigating the context and characters used to describe the method we find that the second character is not stance but instead step. This changes greatly how we should be thinking about the Ma Bu. It is not copying sitting on the back of a horse but rather describes the horse itself, powerful, immovable and ready to move at any moment. It implies potentiality of movement and not being seated and relaxed on the back of an animal. It is easy to see how more complex movements like for instance “Wild Horse Parts It’s Mane[1]” (translated often as “Parting the Wild Horses Mane 左右野馬分鬃) or “Bear Exits the Cave” (熊退出山洞) have many aspects of each movements contained in the poetry of the name of the method.

By taking your own training to a place of deep understanding and investigation many “secrets” of the arts reveal themselves. If one is to be a teacher of others and take on the responsibility of passing on and keeping the arts alive it is worth the effort of finding deep understanding to help others. Each of the arts has a great depth and breadth to it that gives it a beauty all its own. The richness of the arts is their beauty and taking on students is a responsibility one should not take lightly. Becoming the kind of teacher, you would want to follow is a good guideline when continuing your training as you accept students. While there are many differing ways to approach this, any profession will benefit from teachers of deep knowledge passing on their skills. We owe it to ourselves, our students and our arts to drink deeply of the information found in them to pass them on in a way that respects their richness. Keeping things to ourselves or only our own students is what kills the arts. The martial gene pool needs diversity to thrive and survive and so studying deeply what we are taught and teaching it with the same depth is important for the life of the arts we love.

[1] Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane is an excellent example of translation harming understanding for English speaking practitioners. Many TaiJi (Tai Chi) players when asked refer to this as brushing a horse’s mane with its head in your hands. But the characters imply instead that the player themselves are the horse, a wild horse. This being the case a wild horse parts its own mane by shaking its back. This movement is like a dog shaking water from its body, it is wild, uninhibited and powerful, a very different understanding. One translation will affect the players’ movements very differently than the other, context, language and culture affecting the depth of understanding about a single movement.

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