What is “Martial Arts”?

If we put aside style or system, if we forget about ancient or modern, east or west, and instead simply focus on the nature of human movement, the nature of fighting, and the nature of mental, physical, and spiritual development – what is the result? The result is a process of training through which an individual can realize their greatest potential. That is what martial arts means to me.

This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from a specific style, or that one should discard traditional martial arts for modern methods. My point is to seek the universal, underlying truths which bind all martial arts together.When I study and when I teach, I approach martial arts from the point of view of principles. Through this lens, the dividing lines that separate particular styles or techniques melt away and reveal that they are all variations on the same set of principles that underlay the function of all human actions. When you see martial arts through this lens the validity of every style or system becomes readily apparent, and each can offer valuable insight into your own pursuit of skill.

yinyangIn my own search for martial truth, I have come to see all things reduce down to one simple principle: the Taiji principle. Many people will recognize the yin-yang symbol.

That symbol is actually the Taiji symbol. The black and white halves represent yin and yang in harmony. The circle which contains them is wuji, or “no extremes.” A way to think about this principle is as the perfect harmony of complementary opposites. That is what Taiji means. In literal translation it means “supreme ultimate” and “supreme ultimate-less.” That is to say, it is the supreme ultimate principle that encompasses all things in the universe, yet is not limited by them.

Now, the question may be asked: how does this idea translate into a practical guide to action?

It starts by breaking everything up into complementary pairs: closed and open, resistance and give, present and absent, push and pull, and so on, and then work to harmonize those complementary pairs.Push and pull, for example, are employed together to create circular forces used in takedowns. The push-pull forces applied in the double leg takedown are essentially the same as those used in sumi gaeshi, only from reversed positions. One may even be used as a counter to the other, depending on who is more in control of their center, and has better timing and sensitivity.

Take Down - Darsana

Harmony of absence and presence can be seen in evade and counter tactics. Both the Wing Chun counter-kick and the slip and counter punch utilize this same principle. The opponent is striking at space. If you are absent from that space, you will not be hit. Furthermore, the opponent’s commitment to attack has fixed his position, making him unable to be absent from your counter attack. In other words, his targets are present for you to strike.


Another example is harmony of closed and open. The Escrimador uses a parry to deflect his opponent’s thrusting blade closing one line of attack and opening another for his own cut. The same harmony is employed by the JKD practitioner using a punch to simultaneously close the line his opponent is punching down as he opens a new line for a punch of his own.


We can see harmony of opposites in close quarter combat as well. Both chi sao practitioners and grapplers use sensitivity to identify where their opponent is resisting strongly and where his structure gives in order to slip through the gaps in his posture and apply their own force where the opponent is weakest. They harmonize with their opponent rather than struggle with him.


Most of us can think of a moment where something we did seemed to be just barely successful, yet we did it automatically and with full confidence, as though we were in tune with all the forces at work around us and within us – total harmony. If you haven’t experienced that feeling, you’ve probably seen it while watching sports. An athlete, in the zone, did everything right just at the right moment. When this happens it seems effortless and obvious, but it takes incredible effort to develop a level of skill that makes the extraordinary seem simple and ordinary. In other words, gong fu.

In actual training, the taiji principle is expanded upon and many sub-principles are used to describe and guide actions for particular effects and circumstances. The principle does not replace the need to practice technique. It acts as a beacon to guide that practice and draw all your techniques into a single mental and physical state.

The purpose of this blog is simply to share whatever insights I may have gained during my study and practice in the martial arts. They are one man’s thoughts. That is all. I am happy if they aid you in your pursuit of skill.

“We have two hands and two legs. The important thing is: how can we use them to the maximum?” – Bruce Lee

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