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*Huge thanks to Jim Emmons for adding the images to this post*

The first step on the road to being able to discern patterns, principles, and universal aspects of the Art is the one I expect will be the most controversial – you need to spend 3 to 5 years focusing on developing your skills within one system. This allows you to build up a “vocabulary” of how to move your body, how to respond to threats, how to create threats, and ultimately this vocabulary will enable you to start recognizing patterns. And recognizing patterns is key to uncovering principles.

    To deal straight with the elephant in the room (Hi Gerald!) is that several years of dedicated study is hard. Of course it’s hard. A key part of studying anything is the struggle of learning something new. An often used quote about training from Bruce Lee states “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” This is a great mindset and one I wholeheartedly encourage. However, many folks who use this quote fail to mention that in order to know what is useful, useless, and your own, you need to have a base level of understanding. The most common mistake made by beginners is for them to approach any training with that Bruce Lee quote in mind and neglect/refuse to train certain actions because they are uncomfortable. If a movement is uncomfortable when first training it first of all, ask your instructor what to do about it. Whenever we start training something there will be some discomfort as we learn how to move our bodies in a new way. This discomfort is very different from a movement being “useless” but that can be for another paper.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of analogies so here we go: When you start learning to read you need to develop phonemic awareness; the understanding that specific letters equate to specific sounds. From phonemic awareness you move on to learning how those letters combine into words, then the words combine to become sentences, then paragraphs, etc. This process takes years before you are proficient enough to really read. Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill and without it learning to read is exponentially more difficult; even though it’s something that a skilled reader rarely thinks of anymore. In the same way, when you start learning a martial art you learn basic movements (footwork, attacks, defenses, etc) and these components build up to more complicated movement patterns, which creates your “vocabulary” through which you understand your art. This is your phonemic awareness – you are beginning to equate certain words/phrases with certain movement patterns. You cannot begin to recognize patterns without having an understanding of how your art creates patterns.

“Light,” a Chinese character commonly used as a cutting pattern in Korean Gumdo

    Humans love patterns. We love them so much we will create patterns out of whole-cloth! Because of this predilection towards pattern recognition and creation, anything created by a human mind will have an underlying pattern to it. Martial arts are no different. As you spend your time studying your Art, you will naturally start to recognize patterns in movement built into your art. These patterns are HOW your art works.  If you are struggling to find patterns might I suggest:

  • Footwork – how does your art use footwork to attack? To defend? To evade?
  • Attacks – how does your art attack? Are the attacks from certain angles all built the same? Are there any restrictions on attacks?
  • Defenses – how does your art defend? Different motions than attacks or the same?
  • Set plays – does your art feature any set plays, sets of movement that are repeated in different situations?

    Once you have spent time studying your system and have begun to recognize the patterns in footwork, attack, and defense come the fun part – Play around. If your system has multiple weapons try the techniques for one weapon with a completely different weapon (i.e. think about Fiore says about dagger defenses and use that with a single hand sword). Or grab a weapon from a completely different system and try to apply your techniques, your patterns, your Art. 

    In both cases, whether what you tried worked or did not work, ask yourself the important question – Why? If it worked, why did it work? What about that movement pattern makes it work with a different weapon? If it didn’t work ask yourself the same things. Hopefully you will come to recognize two big things:

One – if a movement pattern works no matter the weapon, that pattern will be repeated in your system and other systems.

Two – if a movement pattern doesn’t work then there is something particular to that weapon/system that makes it unique.

One of the hardest things about Universals is recognizing them in other arts. This is because they may not look like what you’ve trained and internalized. So we need to look beyond the explicit movements and look at what the movements are trying to accomplish. A boxer bobbing to avoid a punch and countering with their own punch, a Khevsureti from Georgia dropping to their knees & thrusting to avoid a blow, a tai chi practitioners slightly twisting their shoulders to avoid a punch, a rapier fencer executing a passata sotto, a wrestler sprawling to avoid a double leg takedown. Despite these motions looking very different from each other, each is an example of a Universal Principle: Evasion is an excellent defense. This is why looking at what the movement accomplishes is so important.

Henry Angelo, Naval Cutlass Exercise

    After all, the movements themselves are the means to an end. This is why it is also important to allow students (and yourself) to make each technique and movement their own – so long as it still accomplishes the goal of the technique. “If it’s dumb and it works it ain’t dumb.”. 

    The major benefit to all of this work of finding principles is that it allows one to become a martial arts translator. If you are able to recognize that a particular movement is a forehand descending blow with a weapon then when teaching you can explain that it is a fendente, or an oberhau, or an Angle 1, or a mandritto, or a kesa giri, you are able to translate what you want to see into what the student already knows. This closes the understanding gap and allows them to practice, in a way, their Art with a new weapon which cuts down on the amount of explanation and talking time and increases the hitting/throwing time we all come for.

    So a practice for this is to watch videos or take classes in another Art and translate what you see into your own Art. If there is not a term for what you see in your Art, how can you define what you saw in your language?

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” – Uncle Iroh

If you keep asking why you eventually end up here – why bother? Why do this at all? Why not just study my system, or several related systems, and just do my thing? You can do that and be very happy and a very accomplished student of the Art. But stretching your boundaries does nothing except deepen your understanding of the Art. You understand what things seem to work in a variety of places and what things are heavily dependent on context. 

Ultimately the wisdom of Iroh rings true (as it almost always does). Understanding how to find principles lets you gain wisdom from many sources. I have never studied Japanese sword arts but by perusing “The Sword and the Mind” (Thanks Jim) I have been able to put into practice some new techniques and gain some new insights all without ever picking up a bokken. Could I do this without my years of training in Armizare? I don’t think so. 

I’ll leave you with a final analogy – the Art is a big color wheel. The principles are the primary colors. The multitude of techniques are what happens when you mix all those primary colors. This is how you create works of art. Of Art.

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