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What is the Martial Art?

This is a Blackbelt submission for 2nd Dan Grading. The subject - What is the Martial Art?

This student has a good understanding of the Martial Art


Master Ron Brennan

Throughout history ancient civilisations have needed to struggle for survival and have been, of necessity, involved in fighting/war and hunting. As a result, most cultures have developed some form of martial art or fighting system of their own. So what is a Martial Art?


Wikipedia states – ‘Martial Arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons; self-defence, military and law enforcement applications, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nations intangible cultural heritage’.  Encyclopedia .com offers – ‘Martial Arts cover a broad range of activities that involve fighting techniques, physical exercises, and methods of mental discipline among other skills’.


There appear to be any number of ways to consider Martial Arts. Traditional/historical styles (Jujitsu, Taekwondo, Karate) contrast with modern styles of wrestling and mixed styles (MMA). We can look at the techniques involved – armed (sword, staff, knife) or unarmed, focussing on punching (Boxing, Karate), kicking (Taekwondo, Capoeira), grappling/throwing (Judo, Hapkido), joint locks/holds or pinning.


The majority of the most well known Martial Arts developed in the ancient cultures of Asia. Artefacts found in China and India date back 2000 – 4000 years and Korean artefacts in a royal tomb of the Goguryeo dynasty dates Taekwondo (then Taekkkyon) to around 50BC.  Throughout the east Martial Arts have been influenced by a range of philosophies - Buddhist yoga and meditation techniques from India, Taoist philosophies prescribing balance and harmony within nature and Chinese Confucianism concerned with ethical behaviour. In Korea, Martial Arts grew within the different Kingdoms, with the highest form being developed in the small and geographically vulnerable kingdom of Silla. Here, the constant attacks made good defence essential. Young elite warriors (“Hwarang”) were taught military fighting skills alongside history, poetry and philosophy. The training developed both mind and spirit – talents which would aid them both in battle and in everyday life.


It appears that Martial Arts, while sharing a range of major principles, vary widely in the specifics of their practice and what each art considers to be its priorities. There are numerous traditional/ancient Martial Arts (Jujitsu, Taekwondo, and Karate) which have different priorities to modern or mixed styles (wrestling, MMA). Martial Arts may be armed or unarmed, for sport, fitness, meditation, or self defence and may be ‘internal’ (tai chi) or ‘external’ (MMA). So it would seem that if we add the individuality of the human practitioner to the range of Martial Arts to be studied, we can expect a level of shared practice alongside an immense range in what the individual gains and experiences within their training as a Martial Artist.


On many occasions I have heard Martial Arts training referred to as a ‘journey’, and the longer I train, the more appropriate that analogy feels. When I began my training I had no real idea of what this would entail. The class I observed before I joined just looked like ‘fun’ and appeared ‘different’ to any previous exercise I had done. After   looking at the higher grades in the class – and realising that I could not move like that – I gave my attention to the lower grades and thought ‘yes, I can do that’. So I joined and journey began.


As a Kup grade beginner, Taekwondo was almost purely a physical discipline, everything I had in class was focussed on listening to instruction and moving each part of my body in the correct way or sequence. While no stranger to exercise, no other activities had ever challenged my coordination and concentration in this way and a new level/type of fitness began to be developed. The five tenets of Taekwondo at this point made sense but did not have the depth of meaning that, as a black belt, I feel I can begin to appreciate. Etiquette was largely about manners and courtesy. Modesty and humility was spontaneous; as everyone else appeared better than me anyway and I needed perseverance just to be there every lesson. Self-control was, at this time; about controlling my technique and the indomitable spirit needed to overcome obstacles was something which, as 47 year old mother of three, I felt I had some experience with.


Throughout the last six years my training has moved forward on many levels. Physically I have gained in body tone and technique and feel able to train in a way I would not have considered possible when I began - and it only gets harder! As a higher grade I can now recognise and appreciate the need to practice in a way which involves the mind and not just the body in order to strive to be a martial artist.

My journey in the Martial Art has gradually developed, and will continue to do so, through perseverance in training. It is only through persistence in the physical aspects of training and constantly trying to correct errors, that I have come to appreciate and begin to experience some of the deeper facets underlying the visible external techniques. Being able to internally consider the underlying focus of the Pal Chung Do system (righteous spirit, righteous loyalty, etc), while performing Jung Shin, Jung Eui, etc is something I struggle with but will keep trying. Through correct breathing into the ‘ha-danjeon’ I have begun to ‘reach’ for internal energy (qi) and begin to control the movement of that force around my body and control my mood and state of mind. 


I remember, somewhere around blue tag/blue belt, beginning to feel the benefit of the jumbi. It no longer felt like a chore which had to be performed before a pattern but genuinely became what it was intended to be – a small breathing meditation for settling the mind, gathering energy and focusing internally, in preparation for what followed. Now, as I try to breathe properly, into the ‘danjeon’, throughout a pattern/in meditation or use restricted breathing I can sometimes –though not always – feel the benefit. When done properly I can feel that the breath creates flow within the physical techniques and there is a feeling of ‘rightness’ or balance in what I’m doing both physically and mentally. Meditation does not come naturally to me and ‘moving meditation’ is something I’ve had to work on. Its gentle, controlled movements quite quickly became in some way restful   yet it took more time for it to become more than just a series of movements and become a time for inner peace. Just recently during moving meditation I had a first ‘how did I get here?’ moment – it was a good moment.


Now, as I bow and enter the dojang I am free to let go of the outside world and centre myself in the here and now of training. Perhaps master Kim Sang Tae would say ‘I am here’. The fresh white of my dobok is like a reminder of a new start for every lesson. Each session there is always something more to learn or improve on – better technique, greater flexibility, more focus or greater understanding.


The rules of behaviour instilled within martial arts etiquette  means more to me now than it did as a kup grade. The use of bowing as a respectful form of ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘excuse me?’ was only the beginning and now I feel that etiquette not only guides manners but provides a structure within the Taekwondo family. I respect both higher and lower grades regardless of age/culture/social standing and know that I am respected in return. I have confidence in my Masters/teachers/seniors guidance and can rely on them to understand my (and everyone else’s) capabilities and limitations - sometimes even when I am unsure of them myself. A Masters/teachers faith in me supports my faith in myself.


When I train it is my time, and while I can no longer describe it as the ‘fun’ it looked to be as a white belt, it is now rewarding in a way I did not foresee as a new recruit. With the guidance and support of Masters and higher grades the improvement in my physical and mental self-control during training has increased my confidence in my own practice and though I have never been a volatile person, I feel that my martial art  has given me a new level of assurance in myself which carries over into everyday life. Through Martial Art I have greater reserves within myself to deal with the times when life is most difficult. These benefits outweigh the discomforts and inconveniences of striving continually in my training. Perhaps this is why, after a significant injury, I never doubted that I would return to training even when family and friends, for all the right and loving reasons, thought I was foolish.


Overall, my Martial Art is about balance – physical and mental/spiritual. Over time Martial Art has extended beyond training time and gradually helped to improve balance in my life as a whole. My Martial Art is, in some ways a selfish thing.  It is about me, helping me to be safe and happy in myself so that I can be the best me possible. In this way I can be there for those around me – husband, children, father, brothers, friends, taekwondo family and perhaps they can, in turn be of benefit to others – like a positive domino effect.


Many years ago I came across a saying – I don’t remember where I found it, or who wrote it – but it struck a cord. It goes ‘Life is not about waiting for the storm clouds to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ I have not yet referred to myself as a ‘Martial Artist’, it just feels pretentious to me. I train in Taekwondo, I strive to be a Martial Artist and in the meantime Martial Art helps me to dance in the rain.








Gillian Dunstall                                                               September 2018

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