"You know too many forms"

My recent trip to Taiwan and my preceding discussion about some of the differences between karate and xingyi stepping/punching raise the following question: Why do I study "so many" martial arts? How much is "too much"? Isn't one art enough? Alternatively, if I want to cross-train, why not go the "obvious" route and take up BJJ to complement by "stand-up fighting"?

In my case, I'm not interested in just learning a new skill. I train in multiple arts precisely because I want to improve my existing skills - not because I'm desperate to learn new ones.

I'll try to explain what I mean:

To me, the kinds of differences I highlighted in my previous article are precisely the reason I choose to study the various arts that I do. It is only the differences between the arts that gives me a reason to study them.

I've often been told "you know too many forms". I understand this criticism, but I reject the notion that it applies to me.

For example, I don't see the need to learn more karate kata; such additional kata would add little to my skill-set because the principles are still more or less the same. There might be added techniques, but I would not be learning a completely different method of movement. The 14 or so karate kata I know are adequate and provide enough material to study karate for a lifetime.

But every so often I find a methodology (be it training or fighting) that is completely alien to me - a new way of moving that just stumps me, and not just because it requires extreme athleticism, but rather because it approaches things from a totally fresh perspective. When I find such a methodology, I know I have already improved (even before I've started studying it). Why do I say this? Because I know of the existence of yet another "gap" in my knowledge, which gap I intend to explore and eliminate or at least minimise.

Of the 3 internal arts, xingyiquan is the the simplest, yet the hardest - precisely because of this "strangeness element". It is like karate, and yet it is not. Clearly it is just like karate in its outcomes at an advanced level. However its form is subtly, but significantly different (as I discuss in my previous article).

So I agree that there is no point in "collecting forms" for the sake of it. The forms must add value. Practically any of the established karate forms would add some value, but its a question of how much they would add; there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms that are built on more or less the same principles.

And just as there is a diminishing return in adding more and more forms built on the same principles, one needs to be aware that there is a similar diminishing return in restricting one's practice to the same small group of forms without ever looking elsewhere.

Then there is the time-honoured comment that "you can't possibly focus adequately on more than one martial art".

This is true - for those who are beginners or even intermediate students. But after 10 or 20 years of karate, I found I had ample "spare time" to start learning the internal arts. It did not detract one iota from my karate. I had space and time aplenty to study them side-by-side.

Had I attempted the internal arts earlier, I would probably have diluted my available time and possibly confused myself. But as it was, I started internal arts training when I already had a strong foundation in the art of karate. I knew enough to keep them separate, enough not to question the principles of either and appreciate them for what they are.

I am quite surprised by the multitude of advanced students (30 years plus) who haven't looked beyond their "garden walls". I wonder why they don't - there really is no imperative to stay within those walls. Nothing stops such a student from learning a new "alien" method of movement. It doesn't necessitate giving up your core art.

I sometimes get asked by Chinese martial arts practitioners whether I am now going to "abandon karate" since I have "seen the light". Yes, my focus nowadays is on the internal arts (specifically xingyi, but increasingly bagua and taiji). But I see no reason to abandon karate. Why should I?

And learning a different, complementary art needn't take up an inordinate amount of your practice time. However it could just give your base art a whole new lease of life as you see things from a different perspective. Courtesy of the internal arts, every day I see karate from fresh perspective, finding it richer and deeper in its lessons. This is particularly the case after a trip like my latest visit to Taiwan. Knowledge is power. I firmly believe this.

And looking at your base art from a fresh perspective might just end up saving you a whole lot of time. I can confidently say that in studying the internal arts, I have come to understand certain principles of advanced karate in a matter of months - principles that I suspect I would not have discovered for another 10 years had I not looked further afield. Studying a new art should be like having a new person, brimming with fresh ideas, join your creative team.

I have specifically chosen the internal arts to complement my karate because they assist me in seeing karate from a softer perspective. This is because the internal arts are "soft". It's not so much that they can be practised in a "soft" way - rather, the movements require this softness from day one.

What do I mean by softness? I mean the sort of movement discussed in my previous article: a kind of "pliability" that allows your whole body momentum to be used; a kind of flow or connectivity that is only possible when you really understand what it means to relax in movement.

This is the kind of relaxation we don't often allow ourselves in karate or other "hard" arts, where we want "power" (force) and don't really credit softer, slower movement and flow as having much benefit. Or if we do credit softness, we lack the appropriate paradigms to learn the right kind of softness.

As I've said elsewhere, internal arts like xingyi start with softness and add hardness. Arts like karate start with hardness and add softness. The eventual goal of both, as Chen Pan Ling famously said, was the same: the optimum mix of soft and hard techniques.

In a sense, the internal arts "institutionalize" what I see as karate's advanced practice, ie. to be softer and more pliable. In fact, they assume that softness in order to work since they start with the idea of building flow and connectivity and worry about "force" later. This might not seem very practical, and it probably isn't for combat purposes. But it certainly is a very different approach - the opposite of karate, which starts with "hardness" and becomes progressively "softer" - and as a result it can be very beneficial in providing fresh insights in relation to an art like karate at its advanced stages. [As an example of such an insight, note my article: "The enigma of tiger mouth in cat stance".]

You might well get the same insights without ever setting eyes on xingyi or any other internal art. But I've found that it's made my progress into "soft karate" a whole lot easier - if for no other reason than it provides that fresh perspective, one that puts "soft" practice methods and techniques to the fore (often at the risk of ridicule from martial artists engaged in more immediately practical systems).

So I choose to learn and practice karate, xingyi, bagua, taiji and all the other arts that I do, not because I'm "collecting forms", but because I want to "build" on what I've already learned. I want to practice arts that dovetail neatly into what I've previously studied so that they form a kind of progression.

It might not be essential to do this, but I find it helpful and, ultimately, time-saving. I'm not going to be around forever. I don't have forever to learn what I wish to learn. And I very much want to learn as much as I can about my existing skill-set in whatever time I have left. That is my purpose in training the martial arts - to keep learning. Personally I can't see how I can achieve this without looking beyond my garden wall. But it goes without saying that I'm going to be very selective about where I look. I have to be!

My friend Bob Tallent (who I met in Taiwan) just reminded me of another good reason to learn new arts - you get to have a whole lot of new experiences and meet new people. That alone made my latest trip to Taiwan more than worth the effort, time and money!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic