Magic in the small things

Somewhat synchronously, I have recently had a number of different reminders of something that is fairly fundamental to martial arts study.

First, I have only just discussed the importance of basic or fundamental skills, such as stepping in stances.

Second, this excellent essay by Scott Sonnon reminded me of something I've said to my students for many years:
    "There's magic in the small things."
By that I mean that the true essence of martial arts does not lie in being loosely familiar with hundreds of techniques, but in truly understanding all the subtleties of a few.

And last, earlier today a beginner in the martial arts sent me a query directly relevant to these issues. Essentially his question was this: when, if at all, would it be appropriate for him to start cross-training in different disciplines?

My answer to him was as follows:

My first teacher, Bob Davies, told me that it was inadvisable to dabble until at least nidan - which in our case corresponded to at least 8 years training. I can see the wisdom in this: that is how long I trained before dabbling in arts outside those my teacher taught me. You need to develop a strong foundation in one system before looking at others.

If you choose to train in multiple disciplines, I think it is best to do so under a teacher who does all those disciplines as part of one system. That is how I started (my first teacher taught multiple arts). In that way your teacher can present the information in a way that is not contradictory or confusing.

For example, we teach a bit of Filipino stick and knife fighting from day one with our karate because we've found that they don't contradict each other (at least, not in the way we teach them). I also teach multiple internal arts because the Chen Pan Ling system has rationalized them as different facets of the same system. Where in some schools xingyi and bagua are very different, in CPL they are recognizably different sides of the same coin.

So in essence, I recommend that you stick with one system/teacher, attain a level of competence and familiarity in it and only then cross train. Alternatively, if you simply must cross-train, pick something totally different (eg. judo and karate).

Bear in mind that time spent on other systems will be time taken away from your primary system. This means that you will spread yourself thinly and slow down your progress in all the arts. Unless you have no other work or home life, this will necessarily be a limiting factor.

And, most importantly, in martial arts, it is far better to master a small set of techniques than to have shallow knowledge in a large set.

I credit a solid foundation in one art with my ability (whatever that might be) to understand and absorb other arts. When it comes down to it, that foundation is what I rely upon. The rest sits on top. While I know my way around multiple martial arts now, you have to remember that I've been training continuously for more than 3 decades. Most of those 3 decades have been spent developing one set of core skills. I've found that these core skills are transferable to other arts. But I had to truly understand and internalize those skills (ie. make them "my own") before they became transferable. Without that deeper understanding, I would not have recognized the same skills arising in different contexts. I would have focused on what is different rather than what is the same. And the differences would have confused me.

For example, some systems punch with a vertical fist, some with a full corkscrew action. Which is better? How do you decide such an issue as a student faced with 2 competing pedagogic paradigms? It is only when you've understood that they are both part of one continuum (decided by reference to things like range) that you see how there really is no conflict between the 2 methodologies. [For more on this topic, see "Why 'corkscrew' your punch?".]

To come to my own understanding of the punch, I had to do many hundreds of thousands of them - in the air, against makiwara/bags/shields etc. So when I came to study wing chun, I didn't see it as a different, diametrically opposed, system, but rather a discreet focus on one aspect of something I already did. It wasn't a marriage of alien systems. It was a deeper exploration of a part of my existing "system".

Accordingly, you should commence "cross-training" only when you realize that there is no "crossing" at all; there is merely emphasis.

Remember: there is magic in the small things. Having a good understanding of the punch is better than having a catalog of one hundred different strikes in the back of your mind somewhere. Stick with one art, make it your own. Then you will be in a position to absorb other systems' methodologies within one cohesive, integrated framework. Until then, the various cross-training methodologies will remain separated in your mind. Separated, but similar, methodologies will compete and confuse. In order to be able to use your martial arts (ie. apply it reflexively under pressure), you need one harmonious system in your mind, not competing, antagonistic ones.

It is only in this way that you can aspire to "transcend" form - ie. see fighting for what it truly is - and not from the perspective of a particular style (eg. as a judoka, karateka, gongfu or silat practitioner, etc.).

Form (how a technique looks in a particular style) is a mechanism designed to teach a principle. Each style's form approaches the understanding of that principle from a slightly different perspective. That is it's function; to help you understand and absorb the principle. Until you really, truly, understand that principle and have totally absorbed it, you won't recognize it in different forms. The outward difference in the forms will be what is at the forefront of your mind, not the shared underlying principle.

So learn one "form". Study it until you understand the principle inside and out. When it is truly part of you, you will begin to see it in other forms. These other forms might "value add" to your understanding by approaching the principle from a slightly different angle.

Then, and only then, might you be able abandon all of these forms. That is the goal (albeit a hypothetical one) of traditional martial arts. It is why my first teacher called his school "Wu-Shin" (no form) - even though it was chock-full of different "forms" taught in a particular order.

An interview with Bruce Lee where he advocates "unnatural naturalness" or "natural unnaturalness" (set to start at the right point).

Abandoning form is what Bruce Lee advocated. Unfortunately, many people don't seem to know or acknowledge that Bruce had already attained a fairly high degree of understanding of principles through traditional art forms (in particular wing chun) before coming to his realization. It is no accident that none of his students (except perhaps Dan Inosanto) rivaled his own expression and multi-style ability. They had not mastered one form sufficiently before delving into "no form". They had failed to attain what Bruce Lee called "unnatural naturalness" or "natural unnaturalness" - the ability to translate formal technique into a dynamic, unpredictable and resistant environment. This ability can only be attained through mastery of form.

For this purpose, no particular form is better than another. For Dan Inosanto it is kali. For the Gracies it is BJJ. For you? Take your pick and master it. Only then can you abandon it.

A demonstration by Dan Inosanto: note how he absolutely "owns" the techniques; they are part of him to the extent that he doesn't have to "think" - they just emerge. This is the mark of someone who has truly mastered form - to the point where he can "abandon" it.

When the form is abandoned you will be left with principle. That is when you will be in the best position to see that style is just a path, not a destination.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. it's incredible how the subtleties seem endless.... i guess the the magic is endless, too... nice post.

  2. Again, in complete agreement.

    Many students that are over eager to widen their horizons I also advice that if they are going to cross-train, then choosing something quite different, such as your Karate and Judo example.

    Honing done your skills to principle, is, ultimately the great aim.

    I was lucky when I started practising Hapkido I had an instructor who had also done ITF Taekwon-Do. Because he was able to show me the commonalities, I was able to identify the underlying principles much quicker and must say that it sped up my Hapkido training tremendously. The same has occurred in other practises as well.


    The concept of shuhari is something that feels very true and is very close what you said, although from a Japanese pov.

    Often people ask about katas or forms on YA martial arts section. One person asked if learning 15 katas was "enough". I told him he should stick to learning one kata until shodan.

    I heard from competition type karateka that an average was learning 2 kata per rank. I said that hopelessly diluted their learning process. One guy reduced his curriculum to 1 kata per rank and his students had far better technical proficiency, even though the knew less kata. Now I could easily have gotten this conclusion wrong since I don't even practice karate and never have, but the conclusions seemed obvious to me. Even if Okinawan/Japanese kata didn't have the "hidden applications" that required a key for the student to unlock, and we were just talking about a Chinese gong fu form, the same would be true.

    While all forms may be misleading, the Taiji Chuan one certainly is... intentionally avoiding movement=applications seen in public, karate kata is the only one where I've known students that learned it for decades, and they didn't know what was in their kata until somebody showed them. Their instructors maybe didn't know that either. A combination of old style secrecy and mass production learning is the villain I believe.

    The easiest way I've made to explain this concept of pyramids and foundations is:

    1 principle = 1000 movements
    1 movement= 1000 applications
    1 application= 1000 techniques.
    1 technique has many variations.

    Each variation of a technique contains at least one principle, one movement, and one application. Yoshinkan aikido has somewhere around 4500 techniques/variations, if you combine the base controls with 20 different attack types plus the other techniques.

    For modern students that only train 2-5 hours per week, I recommend that they only learn 1 kata until shodan. Then 2 kata per yudansha rank promotion. They'll still get "15" kata near the end of things, more or less.

  4. I forgot the irreducible complexity issue.

    If you take all the lock techniques from Yoshinkan aikido, it would derive only from SIX base locks. And those SIX base locks aren't even principles, but movements, and the "real" principles are hidden out of sight beyond the six base locks. The six base locks come from 3 types of locks, you just add in 1 direction and its opposite.

    So while novices are learning the thousands upon thousands of techniques, and going slow, the people who learn from principles only need to know six things, and they can apply it to any locking technique in any style. Which one is easier to learn from?

    Nikkyo, kote gaeshi, ikkyo, those represent an application of the 3 types. Ikkyo uses hyper extension on the elbow, but that can be used on the wrist as well. I've gotten into the habit of categorizing lock techniques based upon which of the 3 they are. If they are a hybrid, I mentally add up which components make up the hybrid. Some hybrids are too complicated to do that mentally with. But normally it's a good idea.

    In Japan, we transmit and learn culture through forms, often becoming captive in those forms, so much so that our culture has been called a "culture of form." Forms are the heart/mind of our forebearers and a mode of transmission of the same. It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

    Some of the martial artists on YA I've conversed with knowingly admit that they are at shu and wish to see ha, but ri is something they detest or wish to avoid.

    This actually greatly impacts the training and learning methods in martial arts, which is something I believe greatly impacts a student's rate of progress. Far more than the student's own comprehension or talents.

    I have found myself following shuhari unconsciously in the little things I do. It's a micro process, as well as mental changes stretching over years.

  5. I know it's not at all the point of the post, but... Is that first photo of Nenad with Dan Inosanto? What an amazing workshop that would have been if so! What year was the photo taken?

    Always a pleasure to read your writing, Shihan. And to Ymar Sakar, really interesting food for thought. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough comment as well.

  6. Indeed, that is Nenad on Dan's left, together with our brother-in-law Trevor (to Nenad's left), and Gavin (Trevor's brother) and Tim on Dan's right.

  7. Xin, you're welcome if you found any benefit there.

    One of the things I noticed in sport and boxing matches is their tendency to always remain with one front leg and one back leg. Even a decade ago, I found that... strange. Unexplainably strange. There was just something very wrong with that picture, although for reasons I had yet to discover back then.

  8. I think that last video, with Dan Inosanto, was the perfect video to illustrate your point.

  9. Cross training is an interesting concept, at what point do we consider ourselves cross training. When in time will say MMA clasify as traditional art? Does cross training relate to practising the 3 internal arts or for eg should one concentrate on Ba Gua alone. I like Bruce Lee's point we all have two arms/legs. It is not so much the development of chinese arts in regard to Japanese or even now consideration to eskrima, silat, etc. Agreed you need a sound base in an Art that understands and structures concepts and nurtures a beginners development but each individual needs to develop their own style, hence why it is important to not only to look around for the right school but the right Art/Organisation. Which may lead to cross training that complements your style (being build, height, flexiblity)and nurtures your ability.

  10. I agree Darren. The beauty of James' and Master Chen's systems is that they guide you through myriad systems. I teach multiple systems myself, and many students have queried how this sits with my comments about cross-training. My answer is simple; it isn't "cross-training" when it is done under one instructor who can explain how systems complement each other. It is only "cross-training" when the training seems at "cross purposes". The latter happens when you have different instructors conveying concepts that seem diametrically opposed - and when you don't have enough experience individually to see that they are not!

    Thanks for your comments my friend!


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