What style do you teach?
I’m hardly a soccer expert of any sort. I’ve watched soccer. My son is learning soccer. I’ve attended his lessons. But I in no way purport to understand the intricacies of soccer. And while I know many subtleties of soccer elude me, but I still believe that I possess a reasonably founded layperson’s understanding of what soccer is on the whole.
Unlike soccer, I don’t think the general public holds a sound conception of the martial arts, which is fraught with mythological perceptions: The first parent of popular martial mythology is the media--Enter the Dragon, The Karate Kid, Daredevil, etc. I love a good martial arts flick as much as anyone, but they all distort the martial arts into what looks good on screen. (Real martial arts—especially the most advanced—don’t film well at all because the movements are too subtle.) We don’t see the same problem with soccer; there just aren’t thousands of soccer movies mythologizing the mystical, Eastern qualities of soccer or that depict soccer in fantastically unrealistic ways. To be fair, I’m certain that any movies that have covered soccer have also, to varying degrees, distorted it, but soccer movies are hardly a genre the way martial arts/action movies are a genre.
Putting movies aside, the parent of martial mythology is the way the martial arts have promoted themselves. Most people “know” of martial arts according to what they’ve seen at their local dojos. One of the key problems with such observations, however, is that most people have observed classes for kids. Meanwhile, the martial arts we provide to children can be radically different than the martial arts taught to serious adults.
Similarly, many adults now “understand” martial arts based on the classes they took when they were kids, which means they were only exposed to the child versions of the arts in the first place. By way of analogy, we could say that the adults hold a conception of card playing roughly the equivalent of Go Fish, a great game for kids, but hardly the high-stakes Texas Hold’em that adults might play.
Finally, the last and arguably most toxic issue distorts public perception of the arts is the ubiquity of black belts. So many people achieve a black belt in this or that after a few years of training and, often stopping shortly thereafter, continue to conceptualize martial arts from that rather nascent understanding. I’m in no way denouncing people for earning black belts; my only point, having been training for about thirty-five years, is that virtually nothing you understand after a few years grants insight into the deeper qualities of martial arts.
By way of analogy, I always tell my students that a black belt is the rough equivalent of a high school diploma. In high school, you might have learned some important, useful, and accurate things about geology, but you’re by no means a geologist, and you really don’t hold a clue about geology compared to someone working as a geologist for forty years. Your conception of geology isn’t wrong, per se, and it’s great that you learned geology in high school, but your understanding of geology is still very simplistic.
Nevertheless, all of the factors above—movie mythology, child classes, “high school” black belts, etc.—put many senior martial artists in a quandary when trying to answer what is an otherwise fair and earnest question: “What style do you teach”?
Let’s say, for example, that I say that I teach karate (which I don’t; it’s just for example). Once I invoke that term, I simultaneously invoke a tidal wave of connotations: screaming (kiais), white pajamas, rigid movements, blocking and corkscrew punching, etc. I will say karate and my listeners will hear “karate.” They won’t understand how different karate really is from their conception, how supplely the body most move to generate power, how a kiai isn’t about generating power but about rooting the body, how most bunkai—kata applications—manifest in the transition between postures rather than in the final postures themselves, how dedication to a sensei is really about a service to oneself, how the connection between karate and Zen exists but in ways that far exceed just “being in the moment,” etc.
Thus, the problem in saying that I teach karate is that the “karate” (or kung fu, or BJJ, or MMA, or Krav Maga, etc.) that most people understand isn’t the karate I teach, and it might not be the karate that really exists at all. And there’s no easy way to bridge the gap between “karate” and karate because doing so doesn’t just require educating the public, it requires re-educating them. Unlike talking about soccer, explaining what I teach in martial arts requires at least as much dispelling of popular misconceptions and partial truths as it discussing the facts.
In fact, even though my students see me demonstrate all the time, and even though what we always train the applications of our techniques, it still takes me students about a year or two to really get a sense of what the style is capable of accomplishing with more long-term practice. Such is the case for many arts.
Yet if this diatribe seems like a critique of the public, then allow me to correct that: Despite the challenges I’ve enumerated, the problem is that I become tongue tied and search for words. I struggle to communicate against the popular misconceptions of the arts. I struggle to put to words that which can only be experienced. I struggle to do any more than invite people to come and take some classes so that they can begin a journey toward understanding. And I’m hardly alone in that. Many martial arts instructors struggle with communicating what it is they teach beyond the use of a popular term like “karate” or “kung fu.”
As Alan Watts wrote, “The menu is not the meal.”