Practiced thousands of times, the body method becomes natural.
Gōngfu (功夫) – skill acquired through effort – practicing thousands of times. This is the foundation of martial arts training, as we should all know painfully well!
Zìrán (自然) – natural – this is an extremely simple state of being and movement that becomes extremely complicated the moment we conceptualize it. Because it’s natural, we shouldn’t have to think about it, we should just do it, be it. But since humans are social creatures, we have developed physical practices and habits that form our postures and movements in ways that are socially constructed and that fit our built environments.
Humans, as animals, are part of nature. Yet as members of society, we can develop in ways that remove us from the physical design of our bodies. This is one of the defining aspects of being human. It is one of our greatest advantages, allowing the species to survive and spread across the globe to varying physical environments. But the social construction of our body habits can also can also remove – or make latent – potentials held within our physical forms.
So very much of “basic training” in the martial arts can be seen as trying to reset the body to operate at its full – natural – potential. Repetitive movements practiced thousands of times can make a movement that seems awkward when first encountered feel completely “natural”. Other exercises, like stance training, seek to trick our bodies’ alignment back into a more functional and natural state so that we may move according to our potential, unhampered by the constraints inscribed into us by school desks, office chairs, dress shoes, supported sneakers, etc. [If we think about it, there is a caution here. Be mindful of how you habituate your body and to what – we can make unhealthy movements feel “natural” through constant repetition, which makes the “reset” process that much more difficult.]
As I watch my son (currently 17 months old) move around and explore the physical world around him, I am amazed and almost envious of his natural movement. Without being taught, he drops into stances that I have spent years trying to perfect. He turns with his whole body from his center – have you ever felt how strong an infant’s backhand is? He picks up a six foot long rattan staff and brings it across the room to hand it to me – it would like me manipulating a 20 foot staff – not easy! We are born with these movements accessible to us, and yet so many of us lose them as we age and acculturate. Traditional martial training is one avenue to learning our bodies and accessing their potential.