A new challenge

I’ve always wanted to study the martial arts. I loved watching these national geographic documentaries which featured hundreds of people doing kung fu and at age 10 I even developed my own martial art, largely based on a judo book I lent from the library. My parents disapproved – they tried to keep us from playing ‘war’ with sticks (toy guns were forbidden in our home) so they’d never allow a child of theirs to practise a sport as ‘agressive’ as martial arts.

My dream of becoming really good at ‘kung fu’ gradually diminished as I turned to other interests. However, when I was in the fourth year of high school (10th grade) I discovered that I had absolutely no physical fitness at all. We had two hours of physical education every week and I noticed that I suffered muscle aches after every lesson, worsening to the point where I was aching all over during the weekend. So something had to be done – I wanted to join a sports club because it was just too embarassing. This led to a lot of dinner table discussions about the merits and dangers of martial arts – I didn’t want to do judo because it was too soft and I thought you didn’t need a lot of endurance to do that – I didn’t like karate – and my parents thought ‘kung fu’ was not compatible with a Christian lifestyle.

I’d almost resigned myself to more muscle aches and still no martial arts, when a friend from church told me about an obscure art in which she’d had a few trial lessons in through her school. She showed me a couple of things and I really liked what she showed me. After a short google search I found the instructor’s e-mailadress and I e-mailed him, telling him about my concerns (I also didn’t really like the spiritual aspects of some martial arts*). He responded with the one thing that could convince my parents: he was also a Christian!

Almost 6 years ago I started training in the art of Pencak Silat. At first, I mainly trained to become fitter – I could barely survive our warming-up – but then I rediscovered my love for the actual martial arts. I joined a martial arts forum (MartialTalk)  and learnt all about the various arts and styles that were out there. I even started training in Iaido once a month in Amsterdam – another art from my ‘wish list’. This list encompassed (still does) European medieval sword fighting, tai ji quan from a decent instructor who doesn’t teach all of the fluff, a qi-less chinese martial art and aikido.

However, the annoying thing about martial arts is that it takes a long time to master even one and that the path to mastery is rarely straightforward. In pencak silat, there are no belts or ranks, nothing to keep you going when intrinsic motivation fails.  My instructor only teaches how to learn, not how one should exactly perform the technique, so sometimes you really start doubting yourself. There is no fixed curriculum – we learn what we are taught that lesson – sometimes really advanced material, sometimes stuff that is boring to everyone but the beginners.

And yet, just like I did with harp lessons, I stuck with it and kept training. The last few years I couldn’t attend training twice a week anymore due to medical school, but I went whenever I could and continued to absorb as much as possible. I passed a couple of ‘exams’ that tested our knowledge of the jurus (comparable to kata) – and suddenly you find yourself among the more advanced people of our group instead of being a beginner.

And now I’ve reached the point where I can seriously start training to reach ‘black belt’. As I said, we don’t have any ranks aside from ‘instructor’ and ‘student’ (one head instructor and 3 other instructors). Our training isn’t geared to get everyone to reach the instructor rank as soon as possible, it’s meant to gain a full understanding of our art instead. There are a lot of people who really should be an instructor, judging by their skills, but who decline and are content with  learning. However, for those who want to, it is possible to earn a more tangible proof of their abilities by demonstrating all 36 jurus from both sides and passing a few other skills tests (self defense, being able to construct new jurus etc).

It will take at least another year to reach this level, but I’m very honored to have been told that apparently, this goal lies in my reach. It’s another challenge, next to surviving med school, becoming good at the harp – training for my ‘black belt’.

Still, I’m more than aware that the road doesn’t end there. There is so much more to learn in our art – as far as I know, after the 36  jurus there are langkah (longer forms in more directions), weapons forms, etc. etc. Sometimes I was jealous at karateka whose path to their Dan ranks is much more straightforward, but now I’ve discovered the importance of getting to know the art itself. Yesterday, our training consisted of something ‘boring to everyone but beginners’ – and I still enjoyed myself immensely, discovering interesting aspects to techniques I could do in my sleep, being taught how to ‘unlock’ them.

I’m really grateful to my instructor, who doesn’t demand perfect repetition of forms the way he does them, but rather to make the form our own, to make it adapt to our body and skills. Perhaps he’s a bit like a good harp teacher – one who emphasizes musicality in favor of just ‘playing the notes’.

* Regarding qi and spirituality in the martial arts: sometimes you realize that your own perceptions change as you grow up and learn much more about both spirituality and science. For myself, I am convinced that most ‘spiritual’ aspects can easily be explained scientifically and are nothing to be afraid of. Due to the religious ‘sauce’ that is often present, I personally find that I’d rather focus on the more physical aspects. And yet, as you advance in your understanding of the art, some ‘physical’ aspects also get a more ‘spiritual’, ‘intangible’ feel – the way you can feel during improvising on your instrument, a small glimpse of ‘being swept away’.

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3 Comments on “A new challenge”

  1. Just yesterday I was doing scale work at my lesson. The same scales that I did as a very beginning harp student. But there is so much more I learn now from each cross-over and cross-under, from each pluck. My teacher still does scale work, plays the same two-octave scales that I played in my lesson. She says that we never stop learning from focusing on these fundamental movements and skills. I am earring that same process in your description of learning your martial art. I think your instructor is very much like a good harp teacher, who does not allow mindless repetition, who insists on every note having intent and music in it.

    What a wonderful challenge, made even more wonderful by your teacher saying you are ready for it. I look forward to more stories about your journey with Pencak Silat.

    • CT says:

      The parallels that can be drawn between martial arts practise & music practise are really interesting. I was just thinking – perhaps I’d be a lot more content with my current level if I see it from a martial arts perspective. Martial arts aren’t only about the new shiny stuff you learn but also about accumulating experience – only after doing a certain technique for a while you start to see what’s hidden inside. I might not be where I want to be yet (The Fauré Impromptu is where I want to go) – but perhaps I shouldn’t forget the experiences I’ve already accumulated.
      And indeed – I really hated scales and technical exercises until I discovered how much it pays off to regularly practice these things. Without the basics, the more advanced concepts won’t have a foundation…

      • I find it all too easy to discount the harp skills I have acquired, once I am able to do it. The skill seems so insignificant, until I remember the hours of work it took to get to the level I am today. When I can just be present with the experience of playing, be it an exercise I am drilling, or a piece I am learning, or a piece I can finally play well enough to say it is “in my repertoire” and when I can remember to appreciate what I did to be able to have this moment, I am able to be more content with where I am today with the harp. (The Piscetti Harp Sonata in C minor (2nd movement) is my dream piece, and I don’t even play a pedal harp. Yet….)


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