Not good. Good. Really bad. In my opinion, anyway. Martial artists always talk about one another. It’s somewhat essential…we train in combat arts, we’d be stupid to not be paying attention to what everyone else is doing and how they are doing it. Hanging out with older and more deeply experienced eastern martial artists, there are some common critiques of western martial artists and instructors. Most critique can be brushed off simply because they aren’t seeing what they expect to see, but some is more telling.
Walking through a local mall recently, there was this very old south asian guy walking by. He didn’t stand out at all, but to my eye he immediately lit up as a very scary dude. The vibe was that of a serious martial artist, one with teaching and practical experience. To my eye, it was clear.
I have no idea if I was right or not, but I do recognize what it was I saw that equated with threat in my eyes. It wasn’t just his perfect posture, but how he moved that posture through space. It’s a thing many western martial artists lack. It’s a result of poor, but well intentioned, training. Focusing on just the sword leads to some really sloppy mechanics.
I’m teaching a stretching class tonight. At least, that’s what we call it. It really has nothing to do with stretching. It’s really a range of motion class. What we do is work on moving our body and limbs around their different axis, using only muscle power. Instead of trying to do the splits, we see how far we can pull our legs apart using only the associated abductors. We aim for a functional flexibility based on strength. Range of motion is developed by contrasting active relaxation and contraction of opposing muscles.
It forces good posture. Working through our set sequence of exercises, everything in the body is re-aligned. It’s not always an enjoyable process, but you become very aware of your favoritisms in muscle use. Habitual mannerisms show in painful ways, and you learn how you should correct yourself.
We always finish out this special class with a series of exercises designed to integrate what we have just learned into our practice. We re-learn how to sit, how to stand, and how to walk. We touch again on our basic hollow body and arch holds. Sometimes we try to move our new alignment understanding into handstand and cartwheel work. And then, we take the same lessons and move into swordplay. We re-learn how to hold a guard that works for us, how to lunge and maintain our internal alignments.
I’m half tempted to rename the class “Prana-bindu” just because some of us are hardcore Dune geeks. Posture is important to all martial artists because it’s our foundation for all movement. Good posture is individual and has to be learned from internal observation. It takes work. Everyone can move, perform, compete and even succeed without putting in that work, but they will never reach their own potential without it.
And this is what a lot of martial artists see wrong in western martial arts practice. People get excited about swordplay, and work on learning the mechanics of the sword while ignoring their own less-exciting mechanics. It happens in eastern martial arts as well, but it’s less common since a wider range of body motion is the norm. There are western martial arts schools that pay attention to body mechanics, I know of at least three, but a quick glance at youtube will show you how uncommon such practice is.
I know that I started to add posture training to my own practice as a way to get past the epidemic of rotator-cuff wear injuries in the rapier community. It’s certainly worked to fix that problem for me and for our school.