Three Types of Martial Arts

For many interested in a spiritual path (a study of the nature and conversion of spirit/consciousness) it can be difficult to understand the importance of the warrior arts. Many eastern spiritual traditions have long had connections with the martial studies though it can be difficult to understand exactly why said connections exist. To understand the usefulness of the martial arts within the context of inner development we really have to break down martial arts into three main categories:

  • The martial arts of periods of warfare
  • The martial arts of competitive sports
  • The martial arts of peace-time

Understanding the nature of the martial arts for a spiritual study requires that a person understand which of these three systems they are engaging with. During periods of warfare martial arts training is violent, bloody, painful and focused upon the efficient destruction of an opponent. There is little in the way of ‘forms’ study or aesthetics. Competitive sports-based martial arts are a relative modernism based upon the winning of medals or the achievements of specific physical goals. Training is tough with a focus upon ‘peaking’ your physical performance and fitness. The martial arts of peace-time are an adaptation of the martial arts of warfare. Though stemming from the same traditions, the focus upon bloodshed and efficient killing/survival is switched for efficient body movement, perfection of form and technical proficiency with the mind and body.

Confusion comes when a person does not understand the nature of the martial art they are studying or they try to learn it within the wrong context. Warfare-based martial arts are no good in competition and will rarely lead you towards elevation of the spirit. Sports-based martial arts do not contain the mental conditioning for the taking of life and ignore the elevation of consciousness altogether. Peace-time martial arts may well teach you to defend yourself from a mugger but they are not adequate to turn you into an efficient killer nor are they going to allow you to win in the competitive arena. These three different forms of martial arts are completely different entities and should be understood as being so.

  • Warfare-based martial arts are to ‘stop your opponent from killing you’
  • Competition-based martial arts are to ‘stop your opponent from beating you’
  • Peace-time martial arts are to ‘stop inner conflict on a spiritual level’

Peace-Time Martial Arts

I personally practice and teach ‘peace-time martial arts’. I am under no illusion that I am teaching anything different. What this is, is a study of efficient of movement, internal principles and combative techniques with a focus upon integration of body and mind into one unified whole. Through a study of the nature of martial technique a person learns how to unify Ming (health and life) and Xing (inner nature) whilst working through the various layers of distortion which lead to inner feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity and frustration. In short they tackle many of the things which prevent a person from reaching a state of inner peace.

Alongside this, students learn how to defend themselves from an aggressor, as ultimately one of the worst things for your spiritual development is to be violently dominated by another. What we do not study, however, is the conscious-less taking of human life through violent technique. We live in times of relative peace and therefor the focus should be upon the most likely and common opponents within our life, inner turmoil and physical illness. Few of us will be killed by a violent assailant but many of us will die early from heart disease or a similar ailment.

The path of the spiritual warrior is a path of discomfort, inner questioning and arduous repetition, but it is a solid and long-established way to reach a state of spiritual elevation.

Practicing ‘peace-time’ martial arts does not mean that they no longer have to be practical. It is simply to do with mindset and the level of aggression involved in the training. ‘warfare’ based martial arts need a very particular level of violence involved and a mindset that is really not healthy in modern times. I have met many martial artists who had this mindset when they practiced. In the vast majority of cases they were slightly unhinged people. With the attachment of violence to what they were doing they pumped up their mind with aggression and negativity every time they engaged in their training. Perhaps Karmically appropriate, this kind of training also tends to damage the Liver (it is emotionally connected to anger in Chinese medicine) which then causes tendons to tighten which results in many long-term injuries appearing. All this stress than damage the body and the result is that peoples lives are shortened or at least less pleasant to live due to injuries and sickness. Many of the ‘old-time’ martial artists that I trained with when I was a child fell into this trap and now live out their older years plagues with injuries and stress-based disease. remember that in ‘war time’ the aim is not necessarily to live well into your elderly years but simply to main and destroy the opponent; to survive in the short-term.

The same can happen with ‘sports’ martial arts based in a competitive mindset. All of the driving and competing against others ends up generating a very driven and inflexible ways of thinking. It is essentially a lesser version of the ‘war-time’ mindset. Though this can actually be okay in younger years when there is an abundance of this kind of ‘driven’ energy to play with; it can be highly detrimental at an older age. This is why, when students ask if they should compete, I say it is fine to do so when younger but I would highly recommend against it in later years if they wish to develop in the healthiest way possible.

The ‘peace-time’ martial arts practice should have a more calm and centred approach to practice. Focus should be on health, mental development and inner cultivation. This is the surest way to build ‘art’ into the soul and maintain health into old age. That being said, there is a trap here too. If the idea of combat is completely dropped from practice then the mind becomes too soft. The arts are still based around the study of violence, this should still be a core facet of our practice, it is the mindset and the percentage of our time we spend studying this that is the issue. For myself, around 25% of my martial arts training is combat-based. the rest of the time is focused upon form, efficiency of movement, internal development and other aspects of the study. For me, this is the perfect balance for the times and place that I live in. I develop myself in a healthy and calm manner, building the body up through my practice whilst focusing on martial aspects of the art and partner work enough that I am still able to use them in order to defend myself and cultivate a sharp and focused quality to my mind. If I lived in more violent times or a more violent place these percentages would obviously change.

I am sure that some reading this will disagree but I once again ask you to consider this question: What is most likely to kill or defeat you in your life? Is it a violent aggressor? or is it more likely to be the deficiencies that build up in us as we age and possible chronic disease? I don’t know the answer to your question but I certainly know that your practice should match the nature of your life.