Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

The health facet of martial arts in East Asia

The martial arts originating in East Asia are saturated with health elements.
The first two logical questions that arise, and rightly so, are:
What is the relation between art and health? And is the relation between fighting and health?
Martial arts are also the arts of movement, body and mind, or physics, physiology and spirit respectively. The art of motion may have many and varied purposes such as sports, entertainment, martial arts, health practice and even therapy.

In this article we will focus on the bond between martial arts and health, or in other words, the health facet of classical (traditional) martial arts from East Asia. The topic is broad and we will focus on the relation between karate and health. There are significant differences among the practice of karate in the various fields such as classical, professional sports, popular-modern and therapeutic, I will therefore reduce the connection to that between Okinawan karate and health practice.

In fact, as early as the 16th century, elements from ancient health practice began to seep into the martial arts empty-handed. It was a period of reward for empty-handed fighting in the professional military environment. Factors such as philosophy, religion, politics, economics, society, culture and medicine were added to the empty-handed fighting. Taoism in China, which existed even before Buddhism, had a profound effect on empty-handed fighting. Such example of body strengthening and flexibility is "Tao-Yin", which were combined with bare-hand combat. All of these were added to the main practice of the combatants with weapons: sword, spear, bow and such.
For those interested in additional material:
[Karate Uchina-Di 沖 縄 手, Elements of Philosophy and Health in the Martial Arts, p. 253].

Until this period, combat was taken place mainly on the battlefield or for defined security purposes such as securing sensitive locations or securing personalities. While true is the fact that in order to enable high abilities for a warrior, he had to maintain his health, and to develop physical and physiological abilities like strength, flexibility, coordination, diaphragmatic breathing, endurance and also withstanding mental stress. Alongside all this, however, most of his exercises were aimed at one and only goal - combat. To do this he sometimes had sacrifice his health, just as is the case today with professional dancers or athletes. For the Japanese samurai for example, it was important to use his sword effectively, even if required to offer his lower back health in the long run. If we focus for a moment on "Kobudo", we find that most of the practice was done on one dominant side, where the warrior used the weapon. That is, there is no symmetry between right and left with sword, spear, bow and also weapons such as "Bo / Kun", "Tinba", "Echo", "Sai", "Nonchaku", "Kama" and so on. Even when there is almost complete symmetry in kata’s structure, the way weapons were used clearly tends to be with the right side as the dominant side. The reason is clear and obvious. The warrior had to sharpen the technique and strengthen the hand holding the weapon as much as possible. He was not required to be aesthetic, win the competition or balance his body so when he will be older, he could walk with straight back. All of his beings were subject to one goal - to win a battle and survive. The guiding principles were pragmatism and efficiency.
Well, these principles are exist even today, however, the reality has been changed. The work environment today does not focus on battlefield and survival. Slowly and in accordance with the change of environment and goals, the essence and way of practice also changed and were adapted to present time, as a popular activity, sport achievements, therapeutic, traditional and the like.
Most of the classical martial arts from Far East contain complementary exercises with the aim to prepare and optimize the body for the loads applied to it, and to develop significant combat components such as speed, agility, coordination and proprioception, strength and power, posture and movement and various endurance. To this end, there are in ancient martial arts such as the Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan ones, different practice series under different names such as: Tao-yin, Neigong, Hitori-Geiko, Tan-Ren, Hojo-undo and the like. The difference between these series lies in the atmosphere and cultural perception as well as in the essence of martial arts (e.g. Kung-Fu, Koryu-Jujutsu and Iai-Jutsu, Okinawan-Karate). At the same time, the parallel lines between them are many. Everyone practices the same principles, with each method leveling its way differently to the same goals.
Hitori Geiko 稽古 稽古, that is, in free translation “Instruction Guide”.
Tao-yin / Dao-yin 導引
Neigong (Neigung \ Nei Kung) 內功 exercises, that mean “Internal Skill”.
Tan-ren 鍛 錬: Forging / hardening / disciplining / training - Body and mind.
Hojo-undo 運動 運動: Supplementary exercises

As early as the 16th century, well-known Chinese generals such as Qi Jiguan and Yu Dayou, attached great importance to bare-hand combat practice, not only from a physical or technical point of view, but also as an effective mean for mental and moral improvement. They stated that even if this was not the preferred choice in the battlefield, Bare-hand contribute significantly to the technical perception of combat, positions and the fighting spirit among soldiers.
[Karate Uchina-Di 沖 縄 手 / P. 519].

In some of the frameworks, fixed methods and series of exercises were established, which were connected to an integral part of the method or the school. Other frameworks allowed for freer practice, which was an accompanying or complementary part to the method or school.
In any case, the purpose of the practice was same, and in many cases as I mentioned, despite the difference, we recognized an amazing similarities between the exercises in the various methods from China, Japan and Okinawa.

Health facet of Martial Arts

This practice also addresses the nervous-muscular system, the respiratory system and the mental realm. Includes warm-up exercises, flexibility, strengthening and power, muscle endurance, coordination, proprioception, balance, posture, movement in space and body mechanics. The practice builds up and strengthens the practitioner's abilities as well as contributes to recovery from injury. It is a type of preventive, constructive and maintaining treatment. The exercises are varied. Some focus on specific muscle groups while others influence on more extensive muscle groups or systems in the body. It can and should be tailored to specific goals and to specific group or to the individual.
And as I mentioned, the practice series can be contained as an integral part of the martial art system or shell practiced as a separate system.

In my humble opinion, every martial artist should and must practice such series. In addition to all the virtues I have mentioned, these exercises sharpen awareness of the body, physiology and movement and also contribute greatly to the warrior's abilities. The series of exercises can be focused on the health field, so that you can practice for any practitioner, regardless of the fighting. I will give two clear examples. One is respiratory: diaphragmatic breathing. The second is the training of thigh adductors and abductors, which contribute to posture and movement as well as removing unwanted loads from the knee. For karate-ka, these muscles are important for fast and focused movement in space (such as progression or sideways movement) as well as for solid posture and maintaining the body in solid structure. These two features are important for fast motion and power maximization. At the same time, diaphragmatic breathing and strengthening of the core and posture muscles will contribute to the health and quality of life of every person.

For this purpose, a "modular" exercise system can be adapted to a group or individual, and used in different ways and for different purposes both in the field of combat and in the field of health. It is important to distribute loads correctly and intelligently, to use correct pace and to pay attention to small details during the practice. In short, to perform it correctly and accurately.
The results over the years have proven itself both in the normative field as health practice, in the therapeutic field, and in the martial arts field, for those interested in deepening their understanding and improving their awareness and ability.

Itzik Cohen

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