What makes a martial arts performance exciting to watch? Speed, power, stances, body mechanics, and correct form are all important. These are just the physical attributes. They require many years of training before a student can attain a certain level. Even then, many people are limited by age, injuries, and lack of body coordination. What a student lacks in these areas, he or she can make up for with spirit and sense of enemy. They are not to be confused with aggression. Aggression is characterized by offensive attacks and assaults, or overt hostility.
Students often use the terms “spirit” and “sense of enemy” interchangeably, but they are not the same. Spirit is manifested in raised energy and in the performer’s interpretation of the sequence and style. It can been seen in body movements and in the eyes. Most beginners appear as if they are thinking about the next movements. Until they know the movements, they will not be able to interpret them in their own way. Experienced students can put their emotions or even the characteristics of an animal into their form. They may choose to express power, fearlessness, focus and precision, deliberation and control, playfulness, or a combination of emotions. A sequence performed with spirit can reveal a lot about the performer as a person.
While spirit is the manifestation of a martial artist’s persona, sense of enemy is awareness of opponent. Students typically train amongst fellow classmates in a brightly lit open space. It is difficult to imagine an enemy while practicing in a comfortable and controlled setting. There is no real danger. Without danger, it becomes a challenge to develop sense of enemy. A fellow classmate can stand nearby and pose as an opponent. In addition to having a target, students must have an understanding of how to use the techniques. This includes knowing how to use a strike or block, as well as the specific target on the opponent’s body. A student’s mind must be focused on the target, but the eyes are alert. Have peripheral vision and be aware of possible surrounding danger. Only when a student can visualize the opponent and know how to use techniques against him or her, does he or she have a basic level of sense of enemy.
A seasoned martial artist uses spirit and sense of enemy to inject his or her flavor into the sequence. To have both spirit and sense of enemy, students must understand the essence of the sequence and style. This refers to using the mind (yi) to lead the body’s energy (qi) in order to energize and activate different muscles and parts of the body. Develop an inner feeling for the sequence. Without it, the form is empty. Martial artists express their inner feeling through body movements and their eyes. Body movements can be apparent, subtle, or contain signature moves. They say eyes are the window to the soul. Observe a performer’s eyes to see what he or she wishes to express.
Projecting spirit and sense of enemy is not easy. It takes a certain level of understanding of the sequence, maturity as a martial artist, emotional maturity, and many hours of practice. The best performers have it all: physical ability and personal expression through spirit and sense of enemy. Achieving high levels of physical abilities takes many years and is not attainable by every student. Perhaps you can use your physical limitations as motivation to improve your spirit and sense of enemy.
Special thanks to: TN, NY, CF for enriching conversations about spirit and martial arts