Summer, and then some

Right. So… a little behind on the blog stuff. Anyways, summer vacation from the mountain was well.. not really a break. I ended up keeping myself busy by teaching, doing demos, and training.

I was given the chance to teach some workshops at YMAA Andover. Workshop topics included tumbling, take downs, and Taijiquan applications. I felt like these workshops were pretty good for me, in terms of expanding my knowledge on the topics. When asked if I could teach them, I was hesitant because I didn’t feel that I had enough knowledge to be able to construct a proper class. However, once classes started, I found it easier than I had expected it to be.

I was also able to teach a few of the regular classes in Andover. It was interesting seeing the progression of some of the students since the last time I had been back. Some of them had progressed by developing more power, speed, and spirit. However, what they still lacked was a strong sense of root as well as an idea of sense of opponent. Looking back at old training videos of myself, I realized that those were what I had lacked most as well. I began thinking about why this was and came to the conclusion that maybe we did not do enough fundamental training or application-geared technique training.

Upon coming to this conclusion, I began to wonder how many students actually practiced at home. I decided to ask some members of the demonstration team and to my surprise, none of them really did. I remembered when I was their age, I would practice with my friends in the backyard, in the basement, or even in the street. We were constantly at each others houses training. Of course we were in high school and didn’t really have a clear vision of how things were supposed to be, so maybe all that practice wasn’t so good? Building bad habits, etc? But at least we were motivated, right? Is that what these students lack? Motivation? If so, how are their instructors supposed to teach them? I mean, granted they are busy with school and sports and other activities, I would have expected a lot more progress to be shown from them in the past three years. Or maybe it was our fault as instructors. We did not emphasize the basics enough with them. All we did was teach, teach teach. Not enough practicing. Maybe they developed the habit of always wanting to learn and never wanting to train?

In addition to finding out that they did not practice much at home, I was disappointed to see how some of them acted in class. When they were told to practice a sequence, they would spend at least 3/4 of the time standing around watching other students or even chatting with one another.

By doing this, they are not improving much. They are supposed to be. They are the demonstration team. They are supposed to represent the best of Andover, not only in technique, but in behavior as well. I feel that besides a select few, many of them do not hold these qualities. I feel that there are some kids in the less advanced classes that although may not have a natural talent, continue to try their best, and will flourish over time.

It seems that the demonstration team’s level of skill has decreased significantly over the past 10 years. The team now cannot compare to the group before them, who could not compare to my generation, who could not compare to the generation before us. This makes me think about Dr. Yang’s purpose for creating the Retreat Center: To preserve Chinese martial arts and culture. Even in a short span of 10 years in a single school in Andover, the skill is going down quickly. Is this going on all over the world? Yes. However, we are also fortunate to have those who are maintaining the level and are also beginning to bring the martial skill level up as well. One example is Nicholas Yang, president of YMAA International.

Over the past three years especially, Nicholas has improved his skill considerably. Sure, he teaches and trains martial arts for a living, but there is no way he could have improved so much without putting a significant amount of time and effort into his training. I feel that the amount he has improved is comparable with our own improvement. The difference is, we train 8-9 hours a day. How much time does he have to commit? He has classes to teach, a school to run, a business building to attend to, a life to live. Although we do have people like Nicholas Yang, what is the ratio of those maintaining or improving the level of the arts compared to those who are not? I would say, very small.

How do we raise the quality of the martial arts? Maybe the first step is to come to the realization that martial arts are not only for fighting, but also for mental and spiritual cultivation as well. Maybe it’s time to stop promoting the physically violent sides, and focus more on the peaceful and philosophical sides as well. Yes, martial arts can be used for combat and self-defense. However, martial arts can also be used to increase stamina, balance, body awareness, and health. They can used to develop awareness, confidence, and discipline.

During the summer I was also asked the question of, “do you really think it takes 10 years to pass the art down?” This was followed with, “the master is obviously holding back the secret.”

For the first part: No. I do not think it takes 10 years to pass the knowledge down. I think it takes longer. In fact, I think it could take a lifetime. Something I am taught today could mean something completely different to me in the next 5, 10, 15, etc years. Which meaning did my teacher intend me to learn? In that sense, I will continuously deepen my knowledge, causing the art to be further passed down from my teacher to myself.

For the second part: Yes. The master is obviously holding something back. But why? Because I am not ready to learn it. How do you expect somebody to run before they can crawl? There are steps to learning, beginning with the foundation. A strong foundation provides a strong structure. In my case, the basic foundation is physical body conditioning and mental self-discipline. If my body cannot support the eventual training, I will break, and I will fail. If my mind cannot overcome myself, I will break, and I will fail.

To learn a sequence is easy. It gets harder as higher levels are applied to it. Add lower stances. Add deeper root. Add more power. Add more speed. Add more spirit. Add a good sense of opponent. Begin to learn basic techniques. Striking. Kicking. Chin Na. Wrestling. Begin to think of additional techniques. Begin trying these techniques in sparring. Be able to use these techniques in sparring. Understand these techniques. Understand the sequence. Teach the sequence. Have questions asked to you about the sequence. Ponder. Understand the sequence more. Ponder more. Have a complete understanding of this sequence. How long does that take? Potentially, forever. There is always something to ponder. There is always more to add to your understanding. Therefore, it is never complete. So, is the art ever really completely passed down? No. I guess not. Parts of it are passed from generation to generation and they evolve from different people’s thinking, but the art is never ever fully passed down. I guess we can only try to preserve what we can.

Oh right. A little off topic. Um… summer. Teaching, demonstrations, and training :P

8 thoughts on “Summer, and then some

  1. Wouldn't it take many lifetimes to pass down thousands of years of the arts? The advantage of being the Avatar.IMHO students and people in general will endure or rebel against extrinsic motivation. They need to be self-motivated to fully realize their potential. As teachers, we try to tap into that, and bring out the best in students. But so few of them truly want to be in class for the sake of learning and improving. Do we coast along until we find a student with intrinsic motivation?

  2. Hear, Hear, Jon…your post stirs a lot in me.I'm somewhat shocked to hear that so many students don't practice at home at all – Granted, I didn't practice nearly as much as I should have, mostly because I didn't have the space to do so, but I still did practice at home, a lot, and I felt inadequate for how little I did. Is it really true that the supposed cream of the crop doesn't take their art seriously? That thought viscerally hurts.I agree with the above comment about the role of teachers, however I would add that the best teachers are the ones who can actually inspire that kind of motivation within their students, who can find some way to connect with them, and excite them, and ignite that spark that will then carry them on their own journey.

  3. Motivated students (of whatever age) who truly want to learn and master an art for its own sake are the ones who apply themselves and practice most. As a younger man, I tended to lack this quality and did not train hard in my chosen activities, although I did enough to improve and enjoy the experience. Now that I am older and understand more about what is important to my life, I am able to focus better and accept what is required, also recognizing my own limitations. I will never be a martial arts master, but that does not mean that I cannot at least walk the same path that others run.In any general student population (however defined), there is a bell curve of ability and commitment, which means that only a relatively small percentage at one end of the curve will be truly self-motivated, talented, and have all the traits of martial morality. Does this mean we should despair for the others? I think not, as at different times in our lives we are ready for different lessons. What is shallow in the beginning may become deep, but this cannot be forced.A "normal" life contains many distractions and it is all too easy to find excuses for not pursuing one's training – and to be fair, sometimes these excuses may be valid or unavoidable. When those external excuses are removed, training can improve geometrically due to the extra time and (just as important, I think) mental focus available. Time on the mountain truly is equal to many times that spent off of it.I like seeing the questions and observations being made. We cannot change and improve ourselves, or lead others with integrity, without asking and wondering. Otherwise we would simply be content with what we already know (or think we know).

  4. Yes! Great post. This post validates the entire concept that there is a minimum of ten years required to truly learn a Master's entire knowledge. You can hear or see something being taught 1,000 times but you will only learn it when you're ready. Five or ten years into your study, suddenly a fundamental principle like Sense of Enemy or simply Rooting becomes actualized, built into body memory, and it takes on a deeper level of meaning.I primarily train Qigong. And I regularly have a similar experience, in which I train one thing for a very long time and have a certain type of experience, awareness, on a sort of plateau…and then suddenly one day it will step up and become a deeper experience, which will last for weeks or months again, until the next step. Things I have learned from MAster Yang in theory suddenly take on new meaning and become more relevant. This is the practice of balancing training time with theory study, and the process cannot be rushed.

  5. Very good post. So true whatever the skill/activity may be its only those who are self motivated that learn it and own it. Others may learn the same material but without the motivation to get up and train while others are asleep will never own it. A great post and good reminder to us all to never get comfortable.

  6. Great Article! I live in a little flat in France (20m² = 2e+1) and I train all day altought I have no place. Chin na, Shang Xia Zhi don't need lots of place. Thank you for your blog.

  7. Great article Jon. You are growing as a writer and have learned how to comment on sensitive issues without being condecending or insensitive. Your comments about practicing were very poignant. Many people have natural physical gifts and they progress quickly for a while. However, since these arts are about truly learning an art and about bettering yourselves, the ones who progress the farthest are those who practice, ponder and practice and have dogged perseverence. It is the same with any art. You do not have to be gifted. You have to practice and allow your body and mind to evolve and grow. As far as how information is passed down, I am amazed at the patience of Master Yang who has realised an incredible level of this art and looks at us as we test and still can give us encouragements at a level we can understand. That is not holding things back, that is giving appropriate knowledge.I think we need to understand a very simple truth…Master Yang continues to practice, and ponder. Enough said.

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