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Principles Based Martial Art Seminar

Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th of July 2021, Beverley, East Yorkshire

Before you book on this event please read my article below.

An Introduction to Principles Based Martial Arts

Creating the coloured belt system and convincing the world that gaining a black belt made the holder into a fighting force of invincible magnitude was a brilliant marketing exercise. Some martial artists get into competition where a martial art can be tested to the max in aggressive competitions such as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) without really hurting anyone. Which does seem suspiciously like spinning where you ride a bicycle terribly fast without actually going anywhere. Then of course there is Reality Based Martial arts for self-defence training which is often taught by people with a degree of real life experience such as Geoff Thompson. When you learn from someone like Geoff what you are actually paying for is to hear the war stories first hand. The training scenarios maybe good as far as they go but, again, what are the chances of actually getting hurt? Of course training for dealing with psychotic maniacs has to be safe so that everyone can go home an expert, with maybe the odd bruise as a souvenir to impress their friends.

Is martial arts training a waste of time then? As a vehicle for development in body, mind, and spirit martial arts may have a great deal going for them. As preparation for self-defence martial arts can provide physical conditioning and a range of very effective tactical skills. As a context for learning and gaining understanding martial arts have enormous potential. Potential which is rarely fulfilled. Why? One reason is that people generally don’t look for something that they do not know is there. Another reason may be ego. Once an instructor has managed to become the big fish in his or her little pond it is hard to admit that there is a vastly bigger pond out there where they would once again be a minnow. Experts are usually respected for the amount of knowledge they possess. Is enough consideration given for what an expert actually does with that knowledge? Can you be considered to be an expert if you admit that you still have much more to learn? I am not denigrating anyone’s achievements, it is just my opinion that it is very easy to stop developing when we fail to learn from using what we know.

One of the main things that appealed to me about Stav when I first got involved nearly 30 years ago was that Ivar told me that there were not really any techniques, just principles. The techniques we do have are there to teach principles and have little or no value apart from that. At that point I realised that I could learn something that I didn’t already know and began my journey in Stav. Ivar also said that he could only really teach people with a fairly advanced knowledge of martial arts because the aim was to understand principle, not just learn techniques. When I began teaching myself I found that I was often instructing beginners and a context for teaching was required as a foundation on which to build an eventual understanding of principles. I also discovered that it can be very difficult to take a person from beginner to one who genuinely understands principles. Human beings naturally want the easiest route to a goal.

A student may think they understand principle through verbal explanation and thus have no need for practisingthe techniques designed to nurture true understanding of principles. This is like building a very fine house with no foundation which will not last long. Another student might learn the drills and perform them faultlessly but never actually learn anything from the practice. This is as pointless as creating a solid foundation and then building nothing on that base.

Laying a solid foundation, and building something worthwhile on top, is a lot of investment in time and resources. Short cuts are always very tempting so it is hardly surprising that few get as much out of martial training as they might.

Principles based martial arts is simply awareness that there are principles to be discovered through martial arts. When guiding someone into principles based martial arts some clues are provided as to what these principles may be. For the beginner this approach may provide an aspiration to keep them training past the basics. For the experienced practitioner awareness of principles may be a reason to look again into the wealth of knowledge they have and discover treasures they did not realise that they already owned.

There is one book at least to be written on this subject and maybe I will get around to writing it one day. For now, here are just three principles which I would like to share.

First, as already mentioned, learn from working with what you know. A fixation on perfect technique or learning as many kata as possible enables you to demonstrate lots of dance steps. I believe that there is much more benefit in really drilling down into one training exercise and being willing to discover what it can teach you. An understanding of the 80/20 principle is immensely helpful for working out what parts, of of all that you do know how to do, actually brings you the greatest benefit.

Second, all martial arts come down to action, intention, and movement. If something does not seem to work there is a temptation to just do it harder and faster in the hope that eventually your technique will become effective. It might be better to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing and what you really hope to achieve by it? Is blocking to the right more effective than moving to the left? Would you be better off intercepting and countering simultaneously rather than backing off to block and then moving forward to counter? Training is a lot safer, more realistic, and a much more fun when you practice to get the most benefit from the least effort through a balance of action, intention, and movement.

Third, any tactic will work in the appropriate strategic context, nothing works in the wrong context. You will have heard of strategy and tactics. You may not be familiar with the concept of the operational art, or method. Strategy is your overall intention to manage a situation. Tactics are the assets you have at your disposal with which to fulfil your strategic aim. The operational method is the ability to match tactics to strategy. Or, if your tactical assets are limited, match your strategy to the assets you realistically have at your disposal. Most martial arts teaching is just collecting up tactical assets, rarely is strategy considered, almost no one has even heard of method.

So, what would be involved in developing a principles based approach to martial arts?

My first priority would be simplification. Most martial arts training is far too complicated for no good reason. A principles based approach is going to use a few very simple drills which are designed to teach, explore, and develop a deep understanding of specific principles.

Secondly, true learning happens on a kind of flat spiral, the student needs to keep coming round to the same practice over and over again with a slightly deeper level of understanding, and a higher level of awareness, each time. True masters of any art may not know a great deal more than a relative beginner, but they have experienced their practice on a much deeper level over a long period of time.

Thirdly, if you would practice a principles based approach it is necessary to let go of any idea of winning or losing. Even concepts of 'success' or 'failure' are irrelevant. You could talk about '‘letting go of the ego', or 'learning humility', but even these can easily become goals when all that really matters is practice and seeing where that practice takes you. It could be suggested that the goal of principles based martial arts is to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but even that idea may be unhelpful as, once again, it sounds like a goal to aim for, rather than an experience to learn from.

An article like this is incomplete without a quote from the late, great, Bruce Lee and this one has lingered with me since I first read it about forty five years ago:

'The idea of hard versus soft and internal versus external is not important. The yin and yang is in reality two halves of a whole. Each half is equally important and each is interdependent upon the other. If one rejects either the firm or the gentle, this will lead to one extreme. Those who cling to either extreme are known as the physically bound or the intellectually bound. But the former are more bearable; at least in combat they do struggle.'

These words resonates with me because it would be easy to see a principles based approach to martial arts as an intellectual exercise with no real need for physical training. In fact physical training, practice, and even taking opportunities for actual combat, are essential to learning so long as we are open to the discovery of fundamental principles. True principles are only revealed to those who struggle with significant challenges in any aspect of life.

Graham Butcher – April 2021

If this approach to martial arts training interests you then please sign up for my free, nine module programme which is delivered by a series of daily emails. Just put your name and email in the box below and enjoy the programme. Do not forget to confirm your subscription using the link in the message which will be sent to your inbox.

The Principles Based Martial Arts Seminar will be held at a private address in Beverley. The programme will cover the topics described in the article using practical exercises and drills which have been developed and used over the past 20 years of Stav training and practice.

Instructor, Graham Butcher

Maximum 8 people training, Cost: £80, Ice and Fire Stav members £50

If you are interested in reserving your place please email Graham so that we can discuss whether or not this is the event for you. If it is agreed that you would benefit from attending then you will be given details of how to pay for your place.