Traditional Martial Arts vs. Modern Martial Arts

by Sensei Luis M. Auza


As I live through my journey in the martial arts, I am constantly reminded of how martial arts “used to be” as opposed to “what they are now”.  Plenty of people I come in contact with every day comment on how they would prefer to train a more “traditional style” of martial arts, and none of those newer and much more extravagant styles that have come out nowadays.  I would argue that the word traditional has been thrown around with much liberty, but symbolizes a  way of life only very few would truly want to experience.

The word traditional, in the martial arts world, refers to a series of customs, or “traditions” that have been passed down through generations for over 3000 years, to us, the new breed of martial arts practitioners.  Traditions such as the practice of forms, open sparring, hard conditioning, and others abound, as effective ways to build your body, mind and spirit.  Although these methods have been used in the past with much success, let us consider some other factors that may have plenty to do with their development.  For example, the practice of forms.

In ancient Japan, in the era of the Samurai, the practice of forms was viewed as a way of developing a series of effective self defense techniques, put together, for better retention through repetition.  You practiced an organized sequence of movements, and eventually developed involuntary muscle responses to different attacks.  It is also important to remember that feudal Japan also lacked such modern technologies such as gun powder-based weaponry, global positioning devices, and warfare machinery, which meant that hand-to-hand combat was very likely in the case of these fierce warriors.  People in Japan revered the Samurai as warriors of honor, who would protect them, and their Emperor, even with their lives.

In the modern United States, these practices are no longer required, since a technologically advanced standing army became the norm.  No longer does a child need to learn any sequence of Self Defense tactics, in order to one day defend his or her family from imminent harm.  They only need to dial 911, and effective police enforcement can be reached within minutes.  Saying that nowadays, you may want to practice forms in a traditional sense loses its meaning, if indeed you take into consideration these facts.  However, the importance of forms has lasted for other reasons.

One of the main reasons forms, or katas, still exist, is that even though they are not used to defend against imminent threats, they are still effective ways of Self Defense, and can be applied in such situations.  In fact, they are so capable of producing harm on others, that most instructors ban explicit explanations of these techniques on their students in order to protect them while practicing.

Hard Sparring has changed its meaning just as well.  In the same manner a football player tackles another player to develop an effective way to stop an opponent, a Martial Artist spars others in order to prove his or her skills as effective ways of fighting.  However, the way sparring was practiced in the past led to multiple injuries and permanent damage on the participants.  Nowadays, professional gear is used to protect every vital part of the body.

Let us look also at the traditional sense of living the Martial way.  Even though, as a Professional Martial Arts instructor, I am a firm believer that the principles of Martial Arts can be applied to everything in your life, I still see the traditional sense of living the arts, a bit out of reach.  In China, disciples of different martial arts styles, would travel for long periods of time, suffer through painful trials, and experience several disheartening series of events, in order to have the privilege to be called “disciples” of a certain “master” and train, with him.  Masters were in a great majority males, so the idea of having female students was simply non existent at the time.   What most people fail to realize is that just as much work you had to put to be selected, much more of it was awaiting you at the entry way, as you had to maintain the establishment were you lived in, say the temple, clean it, preserve its gardens, harvests its crops, feed other disciples, train, clean yourself and on and on and on.  You basically enslaved yourself and placed your free agency at the disposition of your master.  In many ways, these practices died off, but still some want to rescue them these days in order to claim training under a “true” martial discipline.

Nowadays, as our lives become more and more full, training in a traditional sense becomes less of a reality, which does not mean that Modern Martial Arts has become worthless.  It is also important to point out the benefits of training in a Modern Martial Arts society.

Practicing of forms and sparring, can be done safely and without losing any of its original meaning.  Training of weapons, can as well be performed, with minimal risks of injury.  Finding a Master becomes a matter of where and how long are you willing to devote googling one.   And finally, living in the martial way, can be just as rewarding, as you apply the principles of the Martial Arts to your day to day activities.  Maybe the next time someone cuts you off in the middle of the freeway, you can practice Self Control, and understand that they are not doing it against you.  Maybe when your boss stresses you out, you can stop by your studio after hours, and hit the bags for 30 min, instead of losing your in front of him, and getting yourself fired.  And maybe next time someone tries to start up problems in front of you and your family, you can defend yourself effectively and get away without hurting anybody.

I am a firm advocate of traditional Martial Arts, but as our society grows, certain aspects of them will no longer be available to us.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just different, and we ought to learn how to appreciate it.