Practicing Together

Coming up through the many years I’ve practiced Chinese martial arts, one of the more unique qualities was that 80-90% of the time we practiced by ourselves. The repetition of the various hands forms, leg forms, and form sequences are necessary to develop a true “kung fu body”: loose, coordinated, connected, and focused.

There is an idea in our martial arts training that solo practice is how we work on and perfect ourselves; partner practice is where we work on and perfect how we interact with others. When there are unpredictable energies that we need to respond to (i.e. a partner offering various punches, kicks, and reactions to yours) then our practice better corresponds to simulating everyday life.

Working on yourself is a difficult and unending task, but so much can be in vain if it is not put to the test with the interaction of others – many others. The more variety the better, because although one may have a specific response to your idea, another may respond with something completely different. Just as people come in various shapes and sizes, so are their perspectives and reactions varied.

Can you maintain your own center and respond spontaneously to what is offered by different partners? Maybe one is overly aggressive while another is overly passive. Think maybe developing skill in this area is just as applicable in the worst-case scenario on the street as it is in dealing with people in your normal day-to-day life?

Working With, Not Against
A real key to progress in the practice of martial arts is our ability to get over ourselves and stop trying to win something. When someone matches up with you, competing to see who has the upper hand can and does hinder the practice. This attitude only contributes to building up the ego – whether from a perspective of, “I did good”, or from the perspective of, “I didn’t do so good,” this line of thinking holds you back from making meaningful progress.

There is a large percentage of practitioners practicing various fighting arts as a sport. Competition is their focus. They judge whether or not they are getting better based on whether they can beat someone or not. These are not “martial arts”. I believe the term “combat sports” is more appropriate.

In this kind of environment, where there are winners and losers, there will always be some who excel and others who don’t. The ones who mostly win will feel better than others. The ones who mostly lose will feel inferior.

One of my teachers used to say, “When you win, you lose; when you lose, you win.” What did he mean? Simply put, when you think you are winning, you develop less drive to improve yourself. You think you’re already good and so there’s no need to work very hard. When you lose, it teaches you to keep working harder to improve.

Is competition of any use? However, this isn’t always the case. many who lose give up.

Is competition of any use?
Well, for one thing, winning and losing in competition is only within the parameters of the given rules. That makes it sport. In ancient times a true test of one’s skill very likely meant someone would die or at least be injured so he could not continue.

In my opinion, martial arts were never meant to be sport. In its purest sense the martial arts are not helped by competition. In competition there are always winners and losers. It increases our perception of separateness. It takes us further into the illusion that we are separate from the whole of life and that we are here to conquer or overcome instead of living in harmony.

The place of training is known as a dao chang, dojang, or dojo, for a reason. These terms are properly translated as “place of the Way”, where the “Way” means Enlightenment, Self-Realization, Awakening, Nirvana, Samadhi, Heaven, etc. To become One with your Higher Self or to find your true nature.

With this kind of profound origin to the practice of martial arts, how can we think to make progress toward that ultimate goal by competing? We can’t.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, once said, “It is important not to be concerned with thoughts of victory and defeat.” He believed true martial arts were, and thus created Aikido as, “a way to lead human beings to live in harmony with each other as if everyone were one family.”

The founder of Shotokan Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, said, “The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the characters of its participants.”

One of my greatest influences in the martial arts early on was my second teacher, Master Yang Jwing-Ming. He said, “The goal of the training is to find the meaning of life.”

And Master Park Bok-Nam, under whom I’ve studied since 1991, has been relentless with me in his teaching about right character, respect, and humility. He has always stressed the importance of how we care for and treat others.

What about sparring?
Here is where it really gets tough. Most of us are so self conscious that “letting go” in a sparring practice becomes nearly impossible. We want to look good to others; we want to feel good about ourselves; we want people to think highly of us; we want to win. Nobody wants to lose.

Therefore, in order to truly learn properly; to truly learn deeply; there should be no winner or loser, no victor or vanquished, but only practice and learning. The only victory we should want is victory over ourselves. The only defeat we should experience is the defeat of our egos. Then we can make real progress, the kind that permeates all that we do in our lives.

If while practicing with someone you get hit, and then you acknowledge that hit by cursing yourself or shaking your head, you’re now stuck in the past and not in the present – where the next strike will be!

The same goes for planning your attack. If you are trying to consciously figure out what to do and strategically calculating something like, “The next time he throws that sidekick I’m going to pivot and use my backfist,” you again are not in the present – you’re in the future – and while you’re gearing up for that sidekick, something else can get to you now!

Picture the worst case scenario: you’re in a real situation and the attacker has a knife. Do you think it will help your cause to focus on the knife and what it might do to you? Will it help to worry about it cutting you? If you’re already cut will it help if you focus on that? These thoughts can only hurt you.

Dan Millman wrote, “When faced with just one opponent and you doubt yourself… you’re outnumbered.”

Moving Meditation
The way to practice properly is to work on getting into more of a calm, meditative state. This state is something we can learn to recognize more quickly when we consistently practice meditation. Let go of yourself and be completely in the moment. Gaze the eyes, and “look at nothing, but see everything.”

When you are in this state you will find that you more easily can react spontaneously and handle the unpredictable. There is no you. There is no opponent. There are just two arms and two legs and whatever energy is given to them for movement. Go with it, and like water, you will find the path of least resistance. Your arms will work like antennas giving you the signals for where to go next – without thought.

“I don’t like to spar, I just like to practice Forms”
The Forms have their place and are important. However, in most cases the person who says this is either afraid of or uncomfortable with sparring.

One of our main goals in our practice is to work on our weakest links so as to improve our whole person and our whole experience in life. If we settle for what we think we are then there is no longer room for growth.

Going after and overcoming our fears is one of the greatest habits we can acquire, and the dojang is a great place to do this.

None of us lives in a bubble. We all have to be able to act and react according to the people around us every day. We all face people in good moods and bad moods; friendly and not so friendly. With society as crowded and busy as it is today, our ability to interact effectively with others can be our greatest ally and help to reduce an awful lot of stress.

You think keeping your cool in an emotional storm would go unnoticed by your superiors in the workplace? What a powerful trait to help you move up the ladder at work!

Being a good partner
Each of us have different levels of comfort with sparring. Certainly, experience makes most more comfortable. However, not everyone becomes more comfortable with experience. If the experience is a bad one then you will likely not want to do it again. And if that’s the case, how can you expect to ever get comfortable? You won’t. And now you miss out on a necessary component of the martial arts experience.

Most will feel safe if they work with someone who has good control. Other students will even gravitate towards those who they can trust with control. Are you one of the people others like to practice with? If you’re not, then that is surely something to work on.

But is good control the only element of a good partner? Absolutely not. There are plenty of students who can avoid striking someone, but they still have this inner need to end with the advantage. They want to have the upper hand all the time. They want others to know how good they are. And they’re back to being concerned with winning and losing and the ego boost.

A really good partner is one who not only keeps the practice safe, but one who also makes sure their partner is feeling success. That their partner is getting it too. As a partner, if my main goal is to help my partner grow and improve, and if my partner’s goal is the same, then we start to create a very different environment. This is one where you cheer for other’s successes. You are happy when they “get you”. When a truly good technique is executed on you, the feeling is one of satisfaction for the other, not disappointment in yourself.

When I see someone execute a clean technique that appears to come out of nowhere – meaning no thought – I get excited for them. It’s like a taste of what’s possible and the road is suddenly clearer for all who see it.

Only if I actually put a piece of chocolate in my mouth can I know the taste. Words can never do it justice.

Overcoming the ego
Being a good partner can be taken to another level – one that begins to transform the ego.

As you work with other students of various levels of proficiency, can you adjust your intensity? Can you give each what they need in order for them to be learning and growing? Can you get any partner to experience success with you regardless of their level?

That last question is a tricky one. You see, it is one thing to leave an obvious opening so that your partner can get in their technique, but it is quite another to be less obvious. If in your heart you still need to be sure that your partner, or others watching, know that you are the higher skilled, then you are not destroying your ego, you are strengthening it. If your partner gets off some good techniques on you and you then wink at others watching or somehow let them know you’re not going all out then you’re missing the point.

In my experience with Native American ways I discovered a very traditional way of teaching. They called it, “Coyote Teaching”.

Coyote teaching, in a nutshell, is a way to educate where the student doesn’t realize they are learning. A good Coyote Teacher could conceal the educational process so well that the student thinks that they are discovering it all on their own and even can believe that they are teaching the teacher while it is going on!

Here’s an example where I used this method with my niece, who was about 6 years old at the time: She wanted to go for a walk in the woods with me. As we walked, I was telling her a story about how easy it is to get confused and get lost in the woods. It all starts to look the same. So we began to use various landmarks and made up a funny or somehow memorable story about each.

We continued this for a while, long enough so we were fairly deep in the woods and easily could be lost. We came to a point where she said maybe we should go back to Grandma’s now. I said, “Sure.” Then, as we took a few steps in the opposite direction I hesitated. I began to look around and acted a little confused. I told her I wasn’t sure which way was home. She started to look upset and wasn’t sure what to think.

I asked her if she remembered any of the things we talked about coming in. I told her I was counting on her to remember because I didn’t have a very good memory. Then I said, “Hey, what about those two trees that look the same over there? Didn’t you say something about that just before?” She answered, “That’s the twins! That’s the twins!” And she ran over to that spot, and quickly spotted the next landmark, and the next, and the next.

All I did was continue to act confused, offer an occasional hint, and got excited with her as she would get us to the next landmark. Wouldn’t you know it, after over an hour, she got us all the way back out of the woods!

That was about four years ago, and to this day she believes that her “uncle the woods expert” was really lost and she was the one that got us out! (hope she doesn’t read this!).

That’s your goal as a partner. To be like a chameleon where each person you work with can’t tell if their skills are better than yours or not. And you don’t care.

Originally published February, 2005

Practicing Together | Blue Dragon School of Martial Arts

Shifu Ahles
Shifu Raymond Ahles, the owner and Chief Instructor of the Blue Dragon School, is a certified instructor of Ba Gua Zhang Kung Fu & Chi Kung and a 7th Generation Lineage Disciple in the Ch’iang Shan Pa Kua Chang Association. In addition to his 30 years plus teaching experience in the martial arts, Shifu Ahles also holds a B.S. degree in Exercise Physiology, he’s a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has an extensive background in the healing arts of Oriental Medicine including certifications in Advanced Amma Therapy, Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture. He is a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist in NJ.



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