Shihan Ashley McKellar: Physics-fu

An exploration into the less tangible aspects of karate training

Ashley McKellar

 Jun 2017

In previous essays I have written about technical aspects of karate. I stopped my exploration when I encountered concepts that I couldn’t apply hard science to. But martial arts are personal, artistic and connected to the hearts minds and souls of those who practice, so science can only be part of the picture. My aim in this paper is to explore some of the more intangible concepts with as much objectivity as possible whilst still allowing my heart to speak. Anecdotal accounts seem to carry less weight so I have read upon and included definitions where appropriate.

My western upbringing has instilled in me a dogma of what is possible. I have seen and felt experiences that seem to contradict this. Rather than hooking up the ammeter to try and measure my ki flow I have just accepted that different aspects of my being speak these different languages and I should not try to interrupt or upset the balance. This paper is my attempt to document my experience and approach to these concepts.

The key ideas I want to explore are: Art, Inspiration, Meditation, Energy, Motivation, Imagination, Nature, Play, Perceptions

An artform is inherently artistic and the artist must be emotionally connected to his actions. It is this emotional connection that makes art so difficult to describe on paper. The drivers that culminate in a person intertwining their existence with their art are more subtle and personal. Karate can be approached as a sport, a hobby or as an artform. Most serious practitioners probably use all three. There is something about treating a pursuit like an art form that is tremendously rewarding to the spirit. I have a vision of my ultimate martial arts where the body has an unlimited capacity to accurately express the constructs of the mind. Let’s examine further these mental processes to clarify.

Inspiration comes from within. The literal translation of the word is to breathe in but the word has come to mean internal power or even divine guidance. Tasks you are inspired towards, do not seem like chores as the core of your being is driving you to do it. I should also clarify that whilst inspired you may perform nothing outwardly productive. It is Inspiration that makes you create, dream and innovate. This state is characterised by a lightness of being and a slow burning passion.

Whilst I don’t feel particularly affected by posters on the wall of eagles soaring above the mountains and a catch phrase beneath there are some great martials arts truisms that have been succinctly put by others. “Train to beat your yesterday’s self”, “Martial arts is a never-ending journey”, “A black belt is a white belt that never gave up”. All these turn the mind inward to help create more energy.

Like the famous philosophical book by the same name, it is said that above all else ‘man’s search is for meaning’. Being on a journey that has no apparent end certainly helps add meaning to my existence. Furthermore, the knowledge that the only limit on my success is my own narrow thinking serves to propel me, rather than act as a restricting mental device.

Meditation on a basic level is calming the mind and body to increase concentration, mental focus, stimulate the autoimmune system, changing to healthier brain waves patterns. On a higher level, it leads to a radical transformation of character through the observation of one’s own mind and also fushin (no mind) training. The early martial arts were all influenced by the meditation practices taken from the religions they were intertwined with. A definition that resonates with me is by Dimitri Kostynick who defines martials arts as “practices of combat outside organised warfare, utilised for self-actualisation, augmented with noncombative practices”. 

There have been times, over the years, that I have maintained a structured meditation practice but never for more than a few months at a time. The meditation that I do practice is creating a feedback loop of introspection into my own mind state. So that while I am experiencing something I am also trying to be aware of my reaction to the experience. This is my mindfulness training.

Energy manipulation is a practice that complements the meditation training in martial arts. Most traditional martial arts prescribe methods for training, gathering and releasing ki. Meditation, relaxation, visualisation and movement sets(kata) are used for this purpose. Ki is commonly taken to mean vital breath, bioelectric energy, directed intention or spirit. It is a vague concept that is difficult for most westerners to understand but over time I have reconciled myself with the cultural difference. For myself I never use the word ki, chi or prana as there are inherent connotations of magic. When teaching karate, I use the words energy or consciousness and give practical examples so students understand that they possess these features already but only need to develop them rather than starting with nothing and trying to find the power from somewhere.

Whilst I have difficulty understanding internal energy I know that I, like all people I have it and can manipulate it to some degree. This feeling of internal power is unable to be shared or explained properly but is so deeply moving. I don’t profess to know much about transcending the physical body during martial arts practice but I have felt sections of movement that seem to be powered from something other than the muscles. This phenomenon is especially noticeable during slow tai chi or do-in exercises.

Motivation is all about action. Although it may be a brain process, motivation is making you do something because either the rewards are to your liking or the repercussions are not palatable. You can be motivated be external factors as well, the best example being the analogy of the stick and the carrot. Either way motivation is using external factors to compel you to act.

My instructors motivate me by forcing me to ask more of myself. I feel the weight of the responsibility of continuous improvement. Likewise, fellow classmates motivate me to train hard when I am flat. In a broader sense, my place in the school demands a certain attitude whilst in class. I feel there is a sense of unspoken agreement between all the teachers and students in the school, a commitment to train regularly and to train hard. I have resigned myself to an understanding of my inherent level of motivation. I need an instructor and I need a dojo and I need training partners. Whilst I do my own training, it is not regimented in the same way classes are. I let my current interests dictate the direction on the training.

Over the years I have explored other movement disciplines and these have been and continue to be a source of motivation. When I see someone doing a sport like parkour or gymnastics it I never long before I try the moves they are doing. The reaction to seeing other athletes move is not jealousy, I sense the shared love of movement and give thanks.

I have always loved martial arts films and grew up watching the 70’s Shaw Brothers Wuxia films with stars like Jimmy Wang Yu and Ti Lung. My father loves these films and I would watch them with him before I started karate. As the martial arts film industry has expanded I have stayed connected to popular offerings. I used to travel to Chinatown in Sydney to get imported films but now the internet has allowed foreign films to be downloaded easily. 

Although watching movies seems peripheral to training in karate I cannot overstate the profound influence that seeing martials arts glorified has had on my motivation. The best films show highly skilled actors performing but also touch on the realm of the impossible and ignite the imagination as well. To see an actor fly through the air is obvious wire trickery but when wire work is seamlessly integrated into a fight scene and used sparingly it is difficult to tell where the limits of the actor are and where the help starts. There is also much of the folklore or of old training methods and techniques woven into the plotlines. 

More recent films show the actors seamlessly transition from wushu into BBJ during a single fight scene. There are now movies with all the martial arts of the world being showcased by very skilled practitioners. I see diverse techniques and styles and they plant the seed in my mind for future experiments.

Imagination is creating a new object or concept in the mind using related external inputs from the senses. From computer programming, to fictional worlds in literature the imagination has created it all. It may be the process that most separates humans from other animals. 

I believe that imagination is extremely important for martial arts practice. Without an imaginary opponent kata training would become lifeless. Imagination in this sense is intense with tactile and other sensory illusions occurring. Expressing emotion during kata practice and using it to shape movement requires imagination on an emotional level. There is also benefit in having an active imagination whilst sparring. The individual techniques and drill are known but a creative way of linking them together often has an unsettling effect on an opponent. 

It is difficult to talk about imagination without involving the concept of Shu Ha Ri. The levels of skill acquisition also involve different mind states. Whilst one must mostly be motivated to acquire the basics needed for the Shu phase the Ha phase requires imagination.     

Nature should be the first place to we look for a lesson on anything but we often look to books or the internet. Studying kata that have movements taken from animals or elements allows me to expand my training into every aspect of the world around. A simple walk around the garden can teach so much about speed, power, patience and different styles of movement. I find that by observing and the emulating different animals in my practice I can grow my movement range and repertoire. Sometimes the focus is the movement of the animal at other times I think about its spirit and temperament; is it fierce or meek? etc. The way most animals move is because of their inherent bodily attributes but the observation of the way it utilises the body to its maximum is fascinating. Most animals have very relaxed muscles and transfer power very well. These are the ideas I toy with.

The same process is true of the elements. Not the elements from the periodic table but rather the classical elements of earth, wood, fire, water and wind. The examination is mostly done by the mind before any moving takes place. What is this thing I am trying to emulate? What are its inherent defining characteristics? What are its strengths and weaknesses? In this way, every relatable experience can be used as a training tool. To this effect, the old saying is true “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I believe this for myself and many other martial artists. Once you have come to think of life as a martial arts lesson it manifests itself. The concept is deeper than just constantly punching doorframes and trees it involves the mental processes described above also.

Play also features heavily in my training, and I suppose is an extension of the imagination or playfulness of the mind. Without a sense of fun and newness all this brain and body training would be draining. When the thought process is playful and the movements are experimental the artist is truly engaged. Unfortunately, the initial rigidity of the martial arts learning structure means that some practitioners never leave this linear thinking. The flexibility of both mind and body is what children do so well and what the most interesting adults haven’t forgotten.

Narrow perceptions are the limits of growth and for me it is constantly thrilling that I am unsure where the limits of reality are. Yogis levitating, Chigong masters using chi to set paper on fire; I won’t say that these feats are impossible only that I haven’t yet worked out how they are done. In this sense, it could be said that martial arts are about achieving your own impossible, redefining it and constantly breaking through your own narrow perceptions. Techniques or methods of training that I know exist but find it hard to understand are important to me if only to extract wonderment.

Dimak is the Chinese art of pressure point striking. It can be used for temporary paralysis,