Jizo Sama on Mount Koya Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2014
I’ve heard proponents of various martial arts talk about how “natural” their art is. They proclaim that whatever they are doing is based on natural movements. Some are said to be based on the movements of animals. Others claim to be based on the natural movement of the human body.
I was working with one of my students this morning on some kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. His movement is getting good and solid. It struck me that his strong, smooth movement was efficient, effective and elegant, but not at all natural. When I began to think about it, I realized I could not think of any martial art where the movements are natural to human beings. By “natural” I mean that the movements are ones that people make without having to be trained for endless hours.
Along with Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho I teach Shinto Muso Ryu Jo and Kodokan Judo. Among the movements and principles taught in those three arts, I cannot think of a movement or technique that I would call natural. In truth, the hallmark of good, effective budo seems to be how unnatural it is. Developing proficiency in any budo movement requires years of practice with a good teacher. It never just happens. Even with students who have a natural affinity for an art, it takes years, perhaps half as many as a natural klutz like me, but years.
I’ve written before that all I teach is how to walk and how to breath. I was exaggerating a little there, and Ellis Amdur was generous enough to call me out on that point and several others. However, walking and breathing are examples of unnatural budo movement. There isn’t much that is more natural than walking, and breathing might be the most natural thing we do. Nonetheless, as budoka, we spend years learning to breathe properly from our guts and to stay balanced and stable when we walk.
Why does it take so much effort to learn to do something that we were born doing? Breathing is the first thing we do for ourselves when we are born. We take a breath and let the world know how unhappy we are to have been kicked out of the wonderful home where we’ve spent the last nine months. Once we do that, we never stop breathing. What else about breathing could there possibly be to learn. A great deal when you dig into it. Our natural instincts aren’t very good when it comes to breathing. Even before we get to all the inefficient ways people have of breathing, for all that it is a natural, automatic act, put people under just a little bit of stress and they will actually forget to breathe! I spend too much of my teaching time reminding students to breathe for the first couple of years they are training.
When they do remember to breathe, they usually are doing it poorly; breathing with their shoulders or taking shallow breaths or finding some other way to do the most natural act in the world wrongly. Proper breathing must be taught and practiced until it is an unconscious act. When sparring, you don’t have sufficient mental capacity to think about breathing correctly. If your breathing skills aren’t honed so that proper breathing happens even when you’re not thinking about it, you won’t breathe well under stress.
Walking feels nearly as natural as breathing. No one had to teach you how to walk. You figured it out for yourself, and you’ve been doing it for longer than you can remember. What could there be to learn about walking? From the condition of the students who come to the dojo, or just doing some casual people watching, we can see that most people haven’t learned very much about how to walk properly. They roll their hips. They slouch their shoulders. They slap their feet on the ground. They lean forward past the point of balance. They stand on their heels. New students spend hours hearing me correct their way of walking. Because of all the bad habits people pick up over the course of their lives, learning to walk in a solid, stable, balanced manner takes a long time to learn to do consciously. Learning to do it unconsciously when under stress takes even longer. Good walking isn’t natural at all.
When you consider the discrete movements and actions that make up any budo art, things become even more unnatural. Just about the first thing we teach in judo, and the technique that prevents more people from getting hurt outside the dojo than any other, is how to fall safely. Two year-olds fall pretty well. They are relaxed and comfortable with falling down, perhaps because they do so much of it. By the time we start school though, falling is met with stiffness and fear. There is no technique in judo that we practice as much as falling. Falling well requires coordination of the entire body and I’ve never met anyone besides trained gymnasts who took to it without hours of accumulated practice. It’s an entirely unnatural act: we don’t like to fall.
This doesn’t even begin to approach the mental aspects of what we are teaching in the dojo. Mushin. Fudoshin. Heijoshin. Everything about the mental aspects of budo is unnatural. We strive to override all of our natural reactions under stress: to not stiffen up, to keep our breathing and heart rate calm and steady, to ignore the monkey brain’s insistence on fighting or fleeing, to retain mental control instead of panicking, to adapt to the situation fluidly instead of trying to impose a solution. None of these things happen naturally. All of them take training and practice.
Everything we do in the dojo leads to being able to respond to stressful situations with these unnatural skills. All that physical practice has effects on our mental states. Breathing properly comes in handy when things get stressful and the monkey brain wants to start hyperventilating. Having practiced good breathing statically and in all sorts of kata and free practice that gradually increase the mental and physical pressure, over time it becomes ever easier to maintain the calm breathing and heart rate which anchor calm mental patterns.
Once you can maintain mushin while people are trying to hit you with a big stick, or choke you unconscious, it becomes less of a stretch to maintain that mental state under the stress you encounter outside the dojo. Fudoshin is even better. This is the unmovable mind that isn’t disturbed by anything, no matter how stressful. People with fudoshin don’t seem quite human. They are no more natural than a Rolex is. Both take tremendous work to create. Both demonstrate the pinnacle of human development in their own areas. For all its combined beauty, engineering and functionality, no one would call a Rolex “natural.”
Like a Rolex, the mind developed through budo is elegant, refined and resilient. This is a mind that can make the choice to step inside an attack to evade and counter in the same movement or to slip out of the attack and then disarm the attacker.
Relaxed when the natural reaction is to be tense, calm when nature urges panic, unflinching when nature urges you to dive behind cover, and unmoved when distractions abound, the mind and body of someone well versed in budo is not natural at all. It surpasses what nature gives us by refining the natural core of our beings into something new, with all the naturalness of high grade steel. Budo isn’t natural. It’s better.