Thursday, April 27, 2017

The everyday walk

My old sempai used to (sort of) quote Musashi by saying "The martial arts walk is the everyday walk." By that he meant that you should be yourself; that you should not have to adapt too much to effectively move if a dangerous situation should arise. In his way of thinking, one should practice until one "owns" the kata; after which your ordinary movement and that of any given technique should become one and the same. (I think the reverse is more true, but that is a topic for another post.)

I never said anything to contradict him; but the truth is, I never agreed with him. While the martial arts walk may ideally be the everyday walk, most people's everyday walks do not stack up in any way.

I once took a class (okay, it was in the theatre department) in which we had to walk around campus and (from a subtle distance) follow three different people around until we could more or less imitate their gait. Then we had to present what we had found about the way different people walked. I really liked this little exercise (which is more than I could say about the program as a whole) because it gave me a sense of how differently people handled moving through space. Age, weight, physical condition, footwear, cultural expectations - all of these factors influence how people move. And most people are not really aware of just how individually they walk. While my teacher was expecting us to pick up some idea of character development for some future acting role, I found the exercise fascinating simply for its own sake.

All of this uniqueness is wonderful, but it's not always effective. To note a very obvious example, walking while looking at your smartphone is not very smart. A number of people have done so with injurious (or even, occasionally, fatal) results. Then there is the sense that some people have of putting as little effort into moving about as possible. As one of my teachers once said, "If you are alive, then you should be lively." The natural counter to this argument is that we are all too tired to feel lively, but that's not really true. Putting energy and good alignment into your "everyday walk" is energizing. When I am very tired (usually around every Thursday morning), I take special care to put energy into my everyday movement. I save the look of exhaustion for when I get home, if then.

So I tell my budo students that they have to work on their footwork not just for their kata and waza when they are in the dojo; they have to work on it on the outside as well. Nothing drives me and my colleagues quite so crazy as watching a student do reasonably good footwork while performing a kata or technique, then plodding back to the line and slumping into a poor resemblance of seiza when they are finished. Outside of the idea that it is good to be lively even when he is not at okeiko, I have found that if a student only corrects his footwork during a given technique or kata, the moment a new set of techniques is introduced, the student has to learn his "kata walk" all over again. If an instructor introduces some hypothetical variation even to a familiar technique, the student whose martial arts walk does not coincide with her everyday walk will have trouble understanding it. Without the proper foundation of good footwork the variation in technique will feel alien to her.

Every teacher involved in movement training, whether dance or budo, has emphasized footwork. As I started to get better at these practices I began to notice that I could judge someone's experience and skill simply by how they walked. Any competent teacher can tell you that as the feet are set, so is the koshi (the area of the lower abdomen, hips and lower back). And as the koshi is set, so is whatever technique, whether in budo, in dance or in walking down a subway platform or crossing a street.

A number of my colleagues have noted that in practicing koryu budo, you adapt yourself to the art, rather than the art to yourself. In that case, if the martial arts walk is truly the everyday walk, then we must adapt our everyday walk to bring it in line with our practice, not the other way around.

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