Posted by: B Gourley | July 16, 2008

The Missing Cultural Context

I had an epiphany of sorts while sitting in a park in Beijing. Seeing a spry old man doing tai chi, I realized I could not imagine still being capable of training as an octogenarian – even in as slow and low-impact a martial art as this man’s style of tai chi. Furthermore, I could not imagine many of the martial artists I know training at that age. Myself and most of the martial artists I know are in their 30s and 40s, and, though some have developed impressive powers such as the ability to tell when it will rain beforehand (albeit from the shooting pains in their knees), most seem to suffer from premature aging. I, myself, have joints that on occasion produce sounds not unlike dry gravel being rolled around in a wet sock. It is clear that the practice of martial arts can take a considerable toll on joints and bones.

Besides acting their age (i.e. adjusting their training to their stage in life), there seems to be a great deal inherent in the culture of various Asian countries that help keep older martial artists spry – rather than disabled. These factors are not necessarily directly related to the martial arts, but they form a context within which these martial arts developed and are practiced in their nations of origin.

In Japan, a lifetime of getting up from low seated position builds up joints, muscles, and connective tissue in a manner that is hard to duplicate for people who move off the floor by the time we are in kindergarten and only return for events such as tornados and bank robberies. Even spending a couple hours a day doing seated techniques (suwari gata) is not likely to compensate – particularly if one begins this practice as an adult when the skeletal system is mature and connective tissues have lost their pliability. Chinese people often squat in place rather than standing, and this too makes a life-long habit of working the legs through their full range of motion. Moving through the full range of motion seems to be quite important to developing a combination of flexibility, endurance, and strength.

There are other parts of this cultural context that serve Asians well such as the Japanese fondness for hot baths, a more holistic view of health and medicine, and a tendency toward a lean diet with less fatty foods and less refined sugar. I have been reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine as of late. It is interesting, while a fair amount of what I read does not seem to literally jibe with anatomy and physiology as modern science knows it, it is clear that that there is an understanding of the interconnectedness of body’s systems based on centuries of observation and practice.

Of course, the value of cultural context can be seen in mental as well as physical aspects. Buddhism emphasizes the value of living in the moment and non-attachment, both of which are invaluable in the martial arts. These issues, of course, do not tend to be a major point in Western religion or philosophy.

I’m not entirely certain what my point is here. It is certainly not that one needs to forsake one’s own culture in order to practice budo. However, I think just being aware of how a broader cultural context influenced these martial arts is useful to the ability to make subtle beneficial changes in one’s life that may extend one’s training life.

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