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Episode 10: The 4 Pillars of Martial Arts


Before I talk about the most important lesson in all of martial arts, I want to address what I call the pillars of martial art training. Typically, I call them the four pillars. I used to like to conflate two of them, since a three-legged table doesn’t wobble. But I have learned that things that wobble a little can actually be more stable than things that don’t.

The four pillars in this case are: Technique, method, conditioning, and the mind.

Technique: What you do.

In martial arts, there are the techniques that you apply, like punches, kicks, joint locks, throws, pushing, pulling, pressure point manipulation, grappling techniques, etc. There are also weapons techniques like stabbing, slashing, hacking, shooting, barrage, etc. There are even verbal and psychological techniques like “Does your mother know you dress like that in public?” or “Look! It is an obvious distraction?” or “Oh! My!”

These are techniques. The decision of what technique you use is called tactics. Your tactics will depend on your awareness of the situation, and how effective you are at making certain techniques work when it matters.

This brings us to the second pillar: Methodology.

Method: How you do what you do.

Method is about the way you use your mind and body to affect the other person. This is how you make the technique work. How do you achieve and maintain mechanical advantage in a changing situation. How do you adapt to changing force and changing resistance. How do you adjust to the opponent’s changing positions and attitudes, both subtle and profound, changes that can happen in a decisecond or a centisecond.

Making the technique works will depend on understanding the laws of physics involved, and the psychology of the combatants, and condition of the combatants, and the environment, and so on. Method involves ways of transferring momentum, applying leverage, affecting elasticity, plasticity and various moduli. It requires subtle awareness and understanding of various vectors of things like force. velocity, angular momentum, as well as willpower, emotion, and intent.

The thing about techniques is that it is not enough to just practise the technique itself. You must also practise making it work in a complex and adaptive situation. Some people say, “in a realistic situation.” But realistic training is not practical. Because a truly realistic situation is one in which is very dangerous, and which you often don’t see coming. The risks of realistic situations are far greater than anyone should face in regular training. A fellow came into our school once and said he needed to learn how to fight in the fastest way possible. The teacher directed him to a biker bar and told him to go there and start insulting the meanest people he could find. That is the traditional way. Give swords to a bunch of farmers and woodcutters and send them into battle. The ones who survive will become very good very fast. That is the traditional, shall we say Darwinian approach.

That’s not for me. I’d rather have the vaccine.

Choosing what method you are going to use is called strategy. This will depend on the tactics available to you. But it will also depend on your understanding of yourself and your opponent.

This brings us to the third pillar: conditioning.

Conditioning: How you are.

This describes the qualities of your vehicle (your body, and mind). This involves the nature and structure of your body and mind at any given point in time.

Are you strong or week? Are you flexible or stiff? Are you agile or clumsy? Are you quick or slow? Are you balanced or tipsy? Are you calm or anxious? Are you relaxed or rigid? Do you have a lot of endurance, or do you sweat when you eat? Are you motivated, and in what way? What is your emotional state?

Internal stylists like me might ask if you are rooted (meaning connected to the ground… not rooted in the Australian sense.) Are you péng? Are you aligned. Do you have centripetal engagement. Do you possess the appropriate elastic moduli. I’ll talk about that later.

Conditioning includes inherent qualities. These are conditions that you cannot change. Are you tall or short, old or young, handsome or pretty, sober or inebriated. Your inherent condition will inform the kinds of techniques and methods that are available to you. Many people focus on learning and mastering techniques that suit their inherent condition.

There are also acquired qualities.

Martial artists have many types of conditioning exercises. There are vigorous calisthenics, and so-called external exercises like knuckle push-ups, acrobatics, iron body training, stretching, resistance training etc.

There are also internal meditative yoga-like exercises called neidan, neigong, and qigong, which cultivate subtle and profound qualities. Internal training exercises condition the alignment of the body and mind. They change the way that the emotional and physical structure spontaneously responds to internal and external influence.

This brings us the the fourth pillar: the mind.

The Mind:

Your awareness and action. What your mind can absorb and what it can manifest.):

Essentially, what you are.

It is said, “Know yourself and know your enemy and you will never be defeated.” Of course, this means knowing yourself and your enemy better than they do.

The hierarchy of needs in martial arts begins and ends with understanding what a self defence is, and that means understanding what the self is, and what it means to defend it.

If you don’t understand these two things, then you will end up fighting against yourself, and defending against things that are no threat to you.

Real self defence is an infinite game. It has no beginning and no end. We improve our ability to defend ourselves by recognizing the nature of conflict before it happens. This requires awareness. The punch that hits you is the one you do not see…or at least the one that you do not remember.

  • If I see the punch, it is too late to stop it. But I can mitigate the effect it has on me if I have awareness, conditioning and a method.
  • If I see the energy of the punch forming, then I can intercept the punch before it hits me.
  • If I see the intent behind the punch, I can prevent the punch.
  • If I see the motivation behind the punch, I can stop the attack before it manifests.
  • If I can see the cause of the motivation, I can prevent the conflict that started it all.
  • If I can see the shape and nature of my relationship with the world, I can improve my chances of living a life in peace.

This comes down to understanding how I define myself and my place in the world.
This is where meditation and education are important. Improving your awareness of your self can change the world. At the very least, it can help you block a punch.

It is an interesting term, “self defence.” From the one perspective it implies that you are doing something to defend the self. The thing that you are defending is the weapon that defends. This is more or less profound than it sounds, depend how you read it. But think of an attack as some external force attempting to upset your balance and harmony, by pushing, throwing, tripping, or by knockout, or by killing. You want to defend that balance and harmony.

Well, the better you are at being balanced and harmonious, the easier it will be to defend it. So, the primary weapon is the very thing that you are meaning to defend.

The goal of a martial art is to have no enemy. This is not achieved through force of arms by by force of virtue. Power buys respect. Restraint of power buys admiration. Virtuous power buys allegiance.

Being balanced, or being very good at balancing yourself and being good and harmonizing with the world… This is what a martial arts is.

The different approaches

The Technique-Based Approach

If the martial art school you attend has a technique-based approach, then you will learn form, and choreography, and geometry. You will learn a number of different techniques to be practised in specific situations, under specific scenarios. The techniques won’t work at first, except in very controlled situations. But with practice, you develop a method for making that technique work.

If you learn techniques, you will find one or two that suit you. You will find some techniques easier to apply, based on who you are, how you are built, and the level of your conditioning. With practice, you will develop a way of making them work in different situations.

In order to avoid being predictable, you will need to learn more techniques and find different ways of doing them.

In order to make them work against different types of people, you will need to improve your method, deepen your conditioning, and learn to understand yourself better.

Techniques only work against someone who is cooperating. The method is about catching them when they are cooperating, or tricking them into cooperating.

Some people are always cooperating because they lack technique, method, quality and self awareness. You should not be fighting them in the first place. You should be teaching them and empowering them.

The Method-Based Approach

If your school has a method-based approach, they will teach the mechanics of movement, and show you ways of moving efficiently and dealing with varying degrees of force. Over time, you will begin to find different martial applications and techniques. But many of the exercises will be flowing drills with no particular beginning or ending.

If you focus on method, the techniques will be incidental. But you will probably find some techniques that happen over and over again because of the way you are built and who you are.

The trap you will fall into is thinking that you don’t need to explore technique, or that your method will work against people of all shapes and sizes, and people with superior conditioning who use unexpected techniques.

The Conditioning-Based Approach

If your school focuses on conditioning, then you will spend most of your time doing exercises to make you stronger, faster, more flexible, more agile, more focused, more resilient.

If you focus on Quality, you will work to be flexible enough, strong enough, fast enough, coordinated enough, relaxed enough, aware enough, etc. to apply the method to the technique? If you are, then you will naturally be able to do things that the opponent cannot deal with. People with extraordinarily good conditioning may find that technique is irrelevant, and method is incidental.

There was a time when I did so much standing meditation and push hands, that all I had to do was walk toward my opponents and they fell down.

The problem with this approach is that someone with superior technique, method, and strategy, and a little bit of conditioning, will eventually come along and make you look foolish.

Another problem with this approach is that your skill only lasts as long as these qualities last. When you are old or injured, the skill disappears. If your martial art depends on you being the strongest, fastest, most flexible, etc. then it should only appeal to people who are big and strong. That is not much a martial art. A superior martial art should work for people of all shapes and sizes.

Awareness-Based Approach :

What you are ( defining your relationship with the world.) (Why is there a fight?)

If your school focuses on Essential nature, then you might do a lot of meditation, observing how thought, emotion, posture, and action are connected. You might study philosophy psychology, sociology, physics, economics, politics, and law. You might study conflict resolution through the local Justice Institute. The mind is the beginning and end of martial arts training.

“To know your enemy and know yourself.”

But, as I always say, “This cannot be done by hating them.”

The process of learning to understand yourself and others is so intimidating that few martial artists have the courage to face this kind of training.