Monday, June 05, 2006

Martial Arts Origins

Ever since I saw my first Bruce Lee movie, I've had a passion for martial arts. My first years in Karate started when I was 11, where I won my first gold medal in a competition. Since then, I've taught Karate, trained in Judo, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Kali, and now Capoeira Angola.

What has made the learning process enjoyable for me is the fact that I'm pretty good at figuring out patterns, because I can understand the meaning behind them. For this same reason it's difficult for me to learn songs in Portuguese for my Capoeira class, but that's another story.

This story is about the pattern I've begun to see in all martial arts. Just as science has proven that the earliest man most likely came from Africa, then migrated north to Asia and Europe and eventually to the Americas, I am beginning to believe that martial arts probably followed that same pattern.

Whether it's manipulating weapons or grappling, it's not a far reach to believe it may have been first performed and elevated to an art in Africa. Through Capoeira Angola, though, which hails its African ancestry as being from Angola, and prides itself on its commitment to authentically maintaining its history, I've found some far more complex concepts.

Concepts like warming up through natural movement rather than stretching, not using force against force (e.g. parrying rather than blocking), and using hands to pivot and change direction in addition to feet are all pretty new age when it comes to what most of us think of when we think about martial arts.

If we assume that all of these complex concepts originated first in Africa and migrated with man, then it would explain the early origination of Jiujitsu and Yoga in India and Western Asia along with the development of advanced weapon-making techniques such as the use of Damascus steel for swords. Each of these areas could easily have taken the warrior concepts developed in Africa and advanced it further.

The pre-fight warm-up ritual could have turned into Yoga (which shares many of the same warm-up movements used in Capoeira Angola), while Jiujitsu would have taken open-hand and weapons-based concepts to the next level.

Jiujitsu is the precursor to Chinese Kung Fu, which moved further east and developed into Japanese Karate. These both eventually turned into the sporting arts of Judo (Japanese) and Tae Kwon Do (Korean). Kung Fu also encompassed a whole host of weapons-based styles that further enhanced the use of weapons in addition to the concept of what a weapon is.

Of course, all the martial activity didn't just travel eastward. Moving north and west from Africa there's the development of Greco-Roman wrestling and fencing, as well as advanced uses of the sword, spear, and shield within Greek and Roman armies. Then eventually to more advanced weapons like guns and cannons. There's also the development of open hand combat in it's purest form, boxing.

Now, I should clearly state that much of what I have written are only assumptions that I've made based on the histories I've read, and the stories that have been relayed to me by masters and teachers that I greatly trust and admire.

What is most interesting to me is that in the advancement of particular arts, older philosophies seems to have been lost. Even the meaning behind the movements that still exist in some arts have become ritualized, while the meaning behind the rituals can't always be meaningfully explained. A horse stance is a great for stopping a Judo throw, but in Karate or Kung Fu, where it's taught as a basic, it's never actually used in sparring.

I've found that in my practice in Kali, in what I've learned about Bruce Lee's philosophy, in the advancement of mixed martial arts in recent years, and most extraordinarily, in my discovery of Capoeira Angola there is a pattern emerging. As advanced as martial arts have become, they have all lost knowledge at some point, but what was lost is being rediscovered.

Jet Li in his DVD interview for "The One", or on "Unleashed" (I can't remember which) makes the same realization as Bruce Lee did in one of his early interviews when he acknowledges the effectivenes of the fluidity presented in western-style boxing. In the super-masculine yang environment of eastern martial arts, rigid styles that rigorously use drills, forms, and stances have lost the meaning and significance behind the open and feminine yin properties of blending, flexibility, and subtlety used in arts like Yoga, Judo, Capoeira, and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

Likewise, those "Yin" styles, without a masculine component of rigidity, structure, and brute force leaves a gaping hole that their practioners can't easily accomodate in combat.

To me, what's most important about these patterns of creation and loss, of authenticity and renewal, of yin vs. yang is that they all exist and have maintained a certain level of purity. It's this purity behind each of the styles that tells the story about the origins of martial arts. To say that one style is better than another is like saying jeans are better than slacks. None are good for all situations, but one may be better than the other depending on circumstances.

A mixed martial artist can't reliably defeat an armed weapons expert. A weapons master with the wrong weapon can be beaten by someone proficient with kicks. A fighter whose primary techniques involves kicking will eventually fall to a grappler. And so on.

Through this discovery I've learned the importance of maintaining the authenticity of martial artistry, regardless of background. I've always been open to new ideas, but now I'm no longer so critical of the people who seem to blindly cling to the historical dogma of their art. That strong desire to retain history is what will provide the foundation for new styles and interpretation.

Without that foundation and history we lose thousands of years of knowledge and are forced to rediscover the benefits of warm-ups, drills, conditioning, open-hand combat, weapons, grappling, strike combinations, and so forth. We lose the meaning of concepts like feminine and masculine energy and movement, of internal and external energy, and of when these concepts apply.

The fact that this all seems to have some African heritage is significant to me in that it leads to an important path of discovery. Capoeira Angola isn't the end all and be all of fighting, but its ancient concepts have added a great deal of perspective and credibility to what I've been learning in Kali for the past 3 years, and returns value to what I both taught and learned all those years ago.