In martial arts we teach and learn ‘from heart to heart’, and ‘from skin to skin’.
Many of the deeper principles in martial arts and Tai Chi are hard to explain and hard to understand from just a verbal description. While the intellect might grasp them on a logical level, it’s an entire different thing for the body to be able to execute them in a natural way (what we like to call ‘feeling the movement’).
We can use books and videos to remind ourselves of sequences in a form, or principles that were taught and explained in class, but it’s almost impossible to learn new content from them in the beginning years. It’s also impossible to spot all the details that are important in a video, and no video or DVD is long enough to allow the narrator to explain them all.
Observe and engage
While later on we extend your knowledge by reading from masters, it is important to learn in class and from a teacher in the beginning. Only with a teacher can we observe all the little details and subconsciously pick up the things, and the energy, that a DVD cannot give us. Only a teacher will be able to spot where we miss important details and correct us before they become hard to change habits.
You learn in martial arts by observing your teacher. Not just through class but also by observing how she thinks about life and behaves when interacting with others. In the dojo and outside. By observing a real teacher, you will understand how the art taught her to live her life, which will unveil many of the underlying principles and patterns to you. Videos can only get you so far.
Open your mind to what’s behind it
In the old days, masters used to have Uchi–deshi (内弟子), inside students, and Soto-deshi (外弟子), outside students.
Soto-deshis were the students that excelled the most at the techniques and the forms. They would win the competitions. They would often be the ones who represented the school and style to the outside world and built up the large organizations. They were also the ones who’s understanding often remained shallow and who missed the hidden core of the teachings.
Uchi-deshis lived with their teachers. They weren’t usually the best with physical techniques, but they spent a lot of time being with their teachers and observing them. They eventually understood what was under the obvious surface of their art and as a result got taught more of the lesser known underlying ideas and principles.
While we all have busy lives today, try to be more of an Ushi-Deshi than a Soto-deshi. Try to observe and understand the principles and drivers rather than the flashy movements. Observe your teacher as often as you can, not just when she performs the form. Good teachers will show the same principles and respect in outside life as they teach in class. If your teacher doesn’t, then run away as quickly as you can.
In martial arts we learn from observing and practicing. Try to learn from heart to heart and from skin to skin.
“Don’t listen to what I say. Watch what I do.”
Alfons’ typical classroom advice