意 Intention, Movement, and Results

The dojo just did a short demonstration as part of an evening of traditional Japanese arts. It was a lot of fun for us and I am proud of the dojo, everyone did a great job. The other artists there- taiko, dance, and music- did some fantastic work. Being part of a group of artists like that is always rewarding. For some of us it was also a bit of a flashback. When we trained out of Green Street Studios we used to participate in the annual community show. It was always good fun, and indeed rewarding to see so many fantastic artists and movers at work. Every year we also got a kick out of the different feeling our embu would bring to the show; after various types of modern and folk dance we would come on with a very different energy. This show was similar in that it was mostly dancers and musicians and then us, even though we were all presenting various Japanese arts.

Preparing for the embu made me think about that difference in energy, and in what some Chinese arts call Yi, 意, intent. While preparing we took some time to remember where the audience was, and how some of our movements would look to them. I think that when doing a demonstration you should have your audience in mind, otherwise why are you there? The goal, for us anyway, is to both give them some sort of window on how we train, and to entertain folks who know nothing about what we do.

That last is a real tripper for some traditional martial artists. “We are not about entertainment!” Yup. But if you are so opposed to entertaining anyone, I would suggest you don’t do demonstrations at all. We didn’t do anything other than snippits of our practice, but in doing them thinking about whether the audience could see what was happening or if someone was were presenting their butt to them seemed pretty reasonable. Choosing material that is interesting to watch is a good idea too; who wants to watch interminable rounds of fundamentals, stretching, calisthenics, and so on? I don’t, and I love this stuff. We also adjusted some timing- a little more hang time before or during finishing techniques, making sure they were “big” and visible, and more “pause” at them so people could see what was happening (which has made me think some interesting thoughts about “kime”…). If you understand your art, you should also be able to understand how you might present it to an uninformed audience.

Some arts take this pretty seriously. I wound up comparing 3 section staff techniques with an Eagle Claw teacher a number of years ago. He demonstrated a form and then I did one and he said something to the effect of “oh, yes, fighting techniques only”. I was not sure what he meant, so he demonstrated another form. It had some very acrobatic movements- jumps, spins over and under the body, and so on. It turned out in the system as he had learned it there were forms that were designed solely for demonstration. The idea was that as part of being a professional martial artist you had to support yourself. Paying students were not likely to generate a decent living so as a professional you also had to be able to entertain an audience, among other things. These demonstration forms featured techniques chosen for flash. Big movements, impressive acrobatics, timing and physicality that drew and held attention. The intention, purpose, of the forms dictated differences from the pure martial aspects of the system in what was done, and how it was done. And whomever designed them was aware of this. They understood the art well enough to understand the difference, and keep that clear in practice.

A number of years ago a friend of mine asked about learning something from our practice as research for a piece she was working on. She is a very skilled modern dancer, a well trained athlete. Working with her was a learning experience. First off, she was a much better mover and learner than most martial artists. Balance, body control, timing, her training had prepared her at least as well as any martial artist I have met. She was also a faster learner; part of her practice is doing short focused movement pieces that change weekly as part of taking class. In other words, learning a kata in an hour or so and being able to perform it. Something most martial artists cannot do.

But there were some fascinating differences as well. She was as strong as most of the people I train with. But while that strength was under excellent control her body’s reactions to pressure and presence were different. It wasn’t that she couldn’t move another person- have you ever seen the lifts in some modern dance? It was that she had no training in how to either absorb or resist aggressive pressure, or how to apply aggressive force to another body. So strength, flexibility, agility, posture and coordination alone did not make up the entirety of even the solo movement, what those things were intended for had an effect as well.

Most interesting to me was that even with a broader vocabulary of stance and posture some of our stances and our style of movement were a little difficult for her to move into. She was able to demonstrate places were what we do was less biomechanically optimal than what she was doing, at least based solely on the motion and posture. But here is where intent, Yi, really showed itself. Our stances and movement have a number of purposes. One is moving with control. But that is just part of it. The body both projects and defends against aggressive intent and power so the movement and structure are interacting with external forces, not just internal ones. And the difference that wound up standing out the most was sneakiness. The movement conceals. You want to hide your breathing, the initiation of your motion, your vital points, even your weapons, from the opponent. Throughout our forms this concealment and protection, while often subtle, affects our movement in a variety of ways. She, on the other hand, had been trained for decades in making sure her movements expressed to the audience what she wanted them to, that instead of concealing they showed. This contrast affected arm and leg position, alignment, and a host of other minor things.

In the end, this difference made it hard for her to really copy my movement at times. It also made it hard for me to figure out how to correct her movements, and to see exactly why they were not “right” in my eyes. Her body and hands were in the right places, she learned really fast and very precisely, she moved really well. Why wasn’t it right? It took me a while to see the through line- that the knee position was a tiny bit off because it allowed her to present her torso differently, that the shoulder didn’t naturally cover the movement of the hands and elbows in certain postures but was being shifted to expose them. That opening and shifting the weapon was happening a little further from the body, keeping it visible instead of hidden.

These movements in her body were unconscious. They were accompanied by a precision of movement and fluidity most martial artists cannot match. This quality of movement in ways made it harder to see what the differences were, as there is always variation between people and in general it was all “correct”. While being correct, they were subtly not. Why? These differences were primarily about mental state. They came from different intent. Yi.

As we prepared for the embu, and then again as the show went on, I found myself thinking about Yi. Making sure the audience could see what we were doing required more preparation than the techniques. Our energy was really different from that of the dancers, but so was the taiko- different energy, different intent.  And what does that mean in practice? It means that intent matters. Mental state is crucial. In a good system, in my opinion anyway, one goal is stacking the field. Taking a lot of little things and getting them to add up in your favor. Structure, using two hands, disruptive timing, entering, concealment- none may win a battle on its own but if you have a slight edge on all of them they might add up to an advantage. Giving up the edge in one or two might be what defeats you. With a limited testing field it may not matter much- a competition with no real injury or practice in the dojo say. And that is why intent, mental state, is so important. You cannot really replicate self-defense conditions without serious risk to yourself and your students. So various training methods stand in. We talk about mental training, but rarely clearly describe what various aspects of this are and how you use them. Focusing your intent, understanding what it is and what it means, is one of them.

Changing your intent can create possibly invisible changes in your technique and training in a host of ways. Focusing on kata for demonstration or competition is equally demanding but it might teach you to show more than you hide. It might put pauses on “finishing” techniques that highlight them but also change timing and tension and relaxation. It might also change other elements of mental training, like your zanshin or fudoshin. Focusing on pair work for demonstration might result in hard, fast, powerful technique but with a little more space and larger movements. It might shift timing or targets, for example keeping away from the hands. (And again re-focusing yi away from finishing the opponent to doing the set.) Cooperative partners might make breaking your frame safer and allow for quicker entries but difficulty taking the opponent’s center if they resist. None of these things might be noticeable, indeed depending on the rewards in the environment some might be preferred. Intense training in any of them might also  result in a more capable practitioner than someone who trains less with more “martial” intent.

But intent works unconsciously. It helps us teach ourselves to conceal, coil, keep our frame, protect as we enter, go for vital areas, prevent follow up attacks, and so on. It is a gestalt tool, allowing the mind to juggle too many variables to maintain individually. In some ways it creates order out of chaos, taking the variables and maintaining them in concert while at the same time freeing up thinking space. It is always there, a through line that helps us keep stacking the field. Any through line will work this way. Showing, hiding. Power, speed. Cooperation, resistance. All intent creates incentives that then feed back to the intent.

The show was a great time. I am really glad we did it and hope to be involved if it becomes a periodic event. I am also really glad for the reminder, that these elements of “mental training” that are often given lip service are important in ways that we cannot really even describe without some thought. That I need to keep my intent clear, and focused, to see how it continues to change and focus my practice. And that I need to be mindful of when I am shifting it, so I can remain flexible and use my mind to guide my practice, not the other way around.

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