Beyond The Dojo

Should martial artists be doing more in the community?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about what it means to be a martial artist outside of the training hall, and whether or not we should be doing more for our local communities.

We all define ourselves as martial artists, in part at least, because we train. It may be a weekly class that we attend, or a daily routine at home working on the basics, or a one off training course that digs deep into the finer principles, but we all consider ourselves as Tai Chi students because we regularly practice Tai Chi. Which makes sense, because if we’re not regularly practising our art, there’s always the thought, or the fear, that we’re not on top of our game; that we’re not the best version of ourselves, and that we could try harder, or train more.

Now in the case of external arts, I agree with this belief as I had experienced it myself numerous times, and in lots of different ways. Whether its because your suffering with an injury, and physically cannot train, or due to relocating away from your club and not being able to attend, or due to a mental barrier, such as an overbearing work load that leaves you too tired to commit to a gruelling workout. There are always time when you can’t make class, and while it’s easy to know this and justify it, it’s not always as easy to truly understand and accept it. Which is why you’ll see injured students dragging themselves onto sparring matts despite clearly not being able to perform, or others so tired that they forget the next moves of a form that they’ve practised every day for years. It happens to us all.

There really isn’t an excuse to stop practising Tai Chi.

But I’m talking about Tai Chi, and some of the reasons that I’ve just mentioned don’t necessarily stack up when we’re referring to internal arts, where we cultivate chi and steel ourselves to face any challenges. If we’re tired, either physically or mentally, a series of Qigong exercises to gently stretch and invigorate you is exactly what you need; if you can’t get to class then don’t worry, you can run through the forms solo if you’ve got a little bit of space in a quiet area somewhere. And if you’re paying attention to your movements while you work, gently refining your forms and correcting your posture as you go, then the chances of an injury drop further and further away.

So what I’m saying is, there really isn’t an excuse to stop practising Tai Chi, great news right? But we do draw a line between when we work on our art and when we don’t; every class starts with a warm up, to delineate between our everyday lives and the time that we put aside to train. Likewise, when we end a class session we don’t stay in the training hall for the rest of the week, we head home or go to work, for example. And that’s not mentioning the changing of everyday wear to our uniforms, which is a separate discussion for another episode. Physically it’s plain as day to see when we are training or not.

The real thing I want to focus on is the mental side of it – in the moments before you start training, are you still thinking the same kind of thoughts that you do everyday? When you finish training, do you suddenly switch back to those thought processes? Do you go from “what am I having for dinner?” To “I really need to work on my White Crane Spreads It’s Wings” back to “still haven’t decided on dinner tonight”? If so, then I think we need to start to blur the line between our non-Tai Chi lives and our Tai Chi lives.

All martial arts and their instructors pride themselves on helping their students; it’s what draws us in in the first place. You can improve your health, your confidence and your self defence abilities; you can compete in tournaments or travel the world meeting and working with others with a similar interest. We develop as people in all sorts of different ways, and it’s a fantastic thing – I’m sure you’ve seen fellow practitioners with that slightly evangelical buzz about them when they’re describing their style to others. And for many of us, we go on to teach and pass our knowledge on to more people, helping to keep the spirit alive for generations to come.

Now, whether you’re intending to teach or not, there’s a part of our training that I think we’re overlooking. With all martial arts comes the implicit understanding that we’re potentially able to help others. When I said that, I’m expecting people to immediately assume that I mean leaping to their defence when they’re being mugged for example, much in the way that we see in the movies. And that is a thing, I’m not arguing that this aspect of the arts isn’t valid; but if we’re training and improving ourselves, why wait until someone else is in physical peril to help them?

In ancient China, Kung Fu – and by definition, Tai Chi – schools promoted a strong sense of camaraderie and kinship, with members being expected to assist the others in all ways. What helped tie them closer together was the fact that there would often by other rival schools in the surrounding area, so they would often face the threat of running across these other fighters while on their daily business. And to win over more students and acclaim, their teachers would want two things. The first would be recognition for their martial prowess, often won by fights with those other schools, and the second would be respect from the local people. In this case, it would be helping the community out in all manner of ways; often doing general handyman work and supporting other businesses. This also had the added benefit of showing that true martial arts were not mindless thugs.

Maybe it’s time to start branching out and bringing those Tai Chi skills out.

Here in the modern world it can be volunteering at a community centre, working at a soup kitchen, or working with local councillors to improve the area. Or better yet, teaching the basics to other people who haven’t experienced Tai Chi before; I’ve heard stories of Qigong forms really benefitting those who are recovering from addictions and who need some gentle exercise to help strengthen their body and focus their mind.

So, if you’re tired of those pesky other schools stealing all of your would-be students, or not getting your dues for your amazing fighting abilities, maybe it’s time to start branching out and bringing those Tai Chi skills out into the wider community. After all, there’s a big world out there outside of your training hall.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

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