Congratulations on starting a martial arts practice!
Martial arts can help you stay in shape, protect yourself, and feel happy. But, martial arts are not easy. Martial arts show us our weak spots and push us to new limits. Here is my advice on how to meet this challenge and build a practice that will last.
1. Be Patient
In Chinese the word “kung fu” is 功夫 (pronounced gōng fū in Mandarin). You might be surprised to learn that gōng fū does not mean “martial arts”. It means skill gained by working hard at something for a long time. I like to tell my students that the formula for gōng fū is time + sweat. When learning martial arts, it is important to be patient with yourself and the learning process. Building skill is like building a house, you need to have a solid foundation. In martial arts, you build a foundation by learning the basic skills: stretching, stance work, strikes, and beginner forms. If you do not spend enough time on basics, you are building a weak foundation. This limits how high you will be able to go. In the beginning, don’t change what you are taught. Changing movements and making up new forms is an advanced practice and you are not ready yet. You need to build up muscle memory for the movements first. Sometimes new students walk in with the desire to focus on a particular thing (push hands, sword, etc.) Specialization is fine for advanced students, but in the beginning, it will only get in your way. Set that goal aside for now, be patient, and allow the learning process to happen.
2. There Are No Secrets
I once heard a story about a martial arts master. Every day his students would beg him to teach them secret techniques. The master always said, “later”. When the master was on his death bed, the students asked again. The master whispered one word. . . “practice”. The most serious misunderstanding about martial arts is that there are secret techniques that are only taught to some students. This dangerous belief undermines the importance of hard work and turns students against each other. Some lineages may spread the rumor that they have “secret” techniques to lure in students. Don’t be fooled. There are no secrets.
3. Applications are Important
After you have learned the basic stretches, stances, punches, and kicks, you will probably start learning you first form (or “kata” in Japanese). When learning a form, focus on learning the movements first. If you get really stuck on one movement, ask your teacher about the application. Application means how the movement would be used in a fight. In traditional martial arts styles, all of the movements in the forms will have applications. Even if you are not interested in self-defense or fighting, seeing how a movement is meant to be used will help you remember it and do it properly. Your teacher will show you more and more applications as your level gets higher. It is something you have to look forward to.
4. The Role of Theory
If you are a beginning martial arts student, I recommend you don’t ask too much about martial arts theory. Reading a lot of theory will also get in your way. Chances are, what you read will be from another lineage, written by an advanced student and will not be relevant to your lineage or level. Martial arts are an art form, just like painting. Reading art theory or the biography of a famous painter will not teach you basic painting skills. You need to jump in with an empty mind and gain the knowledge you seek in context. The theory you figure out for yourself through practice is the theory you truly own.
I hope that this advice if useful to you. Your practice will be difficult at times. All of us (even martial arts masters) have had days we wanted to skip class. But, the longer you practice, the more benefit martial arts will bring to your life.
I hope that one day you will look back and know that starting to learn a martial art was the best decision you ever made.
-Zhou Xuan Yun