The Right Coast

January 15, 2005
Martial arts madness
By Tom Smith

It's either blog about something, or go back to reading exams. I have been mentally composing a blog post about some martial arts stuff for some time, and since it is now just about half baked, it is ready. This is the usual law and economics standard.

Our and many other martial arts have a principle called "ki" or "chi" that is pretty cool. It means something like energy or life energy, and it sounds like exactly the sort of new age baloney that gives martial arts a bad name. But it doesn't seem to be. I don't know exactly what it is, but it seems to work. It is related to, or maybe just the same thing, as various visualization techniques that lots of athletes use. You can try it at home! Extend your arm, locking your elbow, with your wrist resting on your partner's shoulder. Now your partner should reach up and try to "break" your elbow by pulling down on it. You try to stop him by keeping your arm straight. If your partner is strong, you may find it quite difficult to keep your elbow straight. Now try again. This time, pick an object, like something on the wall, or the wall itself. Before you begin, feel the thing to get its texture. Now, hold your arm out straight, imagining you are reaching for the thing. Feel its texture in your hand (or imagine you do). Keep trying to extend your arm to the object as your partner tries to break your arm. You will probably find you are much better able to resist. Or maybe not. Maybe your kung fu is not strong, grasshopper. Yet it seems to work for me. Weird. I asked a more advanced student in my Christian martial arts dojo if there was anything spooky or spiritual or whatever going on here. Nope, he said. But it could be Christians don't give proper weight to Eastern mojo of various kinds.

You can also do this with weight lifting. Do curls, but imagine there is a strong elastic band between your wrist and your shoulder (besides the ones that run through your elbow). You would have to work to keep the weight from popping up to your shoulder. It seems to make a difference. Climbing, there is a rope attached to a harness pulling you up. I mean when there actually isn't. As you get better at this, you ki technique becomes more advanced. Climbers who specialize in bouldering, some of them, are said to get spookily good at this stuff. It can greatly improve your striking, making punches much more devastating. You probably shouldn't be killing people, so you can practice it breaking boards. You ki through boards by sort of sending your mind ahead of your hand and sending it all the through your target. Your target is just a little bump along the way. It actually works. I chopped through two of those black belt breaking boards on top of each other, which is actually not that big a deal, except for me, one night when my ki was strong for some reason. This is the equivalent of reading three exams. Another thing that really helps is that the target you send your mind and then your fist to is the back of your target, so if you are punching a guy in the throat (don't unless you have to kill him) your goal is to hit his spine as hard as you can. All that tissue in front of it is just a bump along the way. Or more realistically, the back, not the front, of the punching bag.

There are lots of explanations for how this works. The prevailing explanation in my dojo seems to be that you are disinhibiting the opposing muscles of your motion. So when you punch, you are using your triceps and pecs and who knows what else to extend your arm, but your biceps is actually holding you back. Your force is the outward force minus the inhibiting force. Get rid of the latter and you increase your force. Maybe. Unpronouncable Russian Guy, author of The Naked Warrior, an overpriced, corny, but interesting fitness book, espouses some weird theory of "neurological activation", in which muscular and nervous structures are somehow activated by exercise to be able to attain greater states of arousal by practice. An application of this is, he says, that you should never, never exercise to failure, as this only teaches your nervous system how to fail. You should always end just rarin' to do one more rep. I have tried this, and I can't say I notice any difference, but maybe I need to persist. There seems to be a bit of theme of arousal in formerly communist exercise theory; there are stories of East German cyclists getting themselves sexually aroused before sprints I will not relate in detail. Sounds like a thesis for a phys ed ph d candidate somewhere. Of course, I don't see how any of this will help me learn how to surf, but I least I can really hurt anybody who makes fun of me for my efforts.

In the next part 127 of my pointless ruminations on this and related topics, I will explain to loyal readers how to think about the odd phenomenon of American professional wrestling, how it fits into martial arts more easily than you might think, and why it should not be regarded as a blemish upon the face or torso or whatever of fighting arts, but just an extreme end of a certain spectrum. Stay tuned, and remember to spend at least 20 minutes every day watching a movie or TV show with a fight scene in it.