Finding The Value In Your Practice

by Bok-Nam Park and Francis Hriadil
[Adapted and re-edited by F. Hriadil]

I was fortunate to study with my teacher, Lu Shui-Tian, for 17 years.  Over that time, he taught me many important lessons concerning Ba Gua Zhang.  However, one of the most important things he did was to develop within me the wisdom to understand what is really valuable in the study of martial arts. Ask yourself, why you practice the art or arts you have selected, what is important, and what is the value you have obtained?  Do you study an art because of its reputation or because it looks good?  Is it the lineage of an art or a teacher that is important?  Is it the notoriety or fame of the people who practice the art?  Do you practice for sport, for health, for self-defense?  Are more forms better than less?  Are forms important at all?  After years or possibly a lifetime of practice, have you really learned anything that is of true value?  I hope with this article to inspire and challenge you to think about some of these questions, as Lu Shui-Tian inspired and challenged me.

Lu Shui-Tian taught me to think deeply and to not be enticed by merely what is seen on the outside or surface of a martial art.  He did this by asking thought-provoking questions that forced me to reflect on the concept he was trying to teach.  Often, he used analogies to make his points.  One that he used with regards to the martial arts was that of a cup.   Consider that you have two cups.  One is a gold cup that is very expensive and beautiful.  The other is a simple wooden cup, plain but functional.  Now, the wooden cup is filled with water and the gold cup is empty.   So, which is the more valuable cup?  Clearly, the empty gold cup, no matter how beautiful, will never quench your thirst or nourish your body because it contains no water.  Likewise, a martial art that “looks good” but has no depth will provide little true or lasting value no matter how many years you practice.

There are many good martial arts.  But, today’s martial arts society is very different than in the past and the way martial arts are practiced is very different from the past.  The focus is different.  The training is different.  And, the relationship between the student and teacher is different.  Although some change has been for the good, I see a lot of evidence that the content or depth of many martial arts has been lost or watered down.  This is very sad for me to say but it is based on many years of talking with practitioners from around the world.  I have met many martial artists who have had numerous years of experience in their chosen arts, some even more than I.  But, it has been a surprise for me to discover that these experienced practitioners cannot answer even simple questions as to why they do their movements in the specific ways that they do. 

They tell me that they have studied for years, decades, or even longer.  They tell me that they have studied many styles, learned many forms, or won many tournaments.  They tell me that they have studied in China, that they have studied with this famous person or that famous person.  But, they cannot tell me “why” they do what they do.  They say that it is the way their teacher showed them or that it is just the way it is done.  Does this indicate true understanding?  It is clear that many practitioners have spent a lot of time and some have spent many thousands of dollars in their studies but to what end.  Practitioners who do not understand the “why” behind the requirements of their art have obtained little true and lasting value from their practice.   Is this the fault of their art, the fault of their teacher(s)?  Or, is this their own fault? Every serious practitioner must look within and face this question.  You must all ask yourselves, “What have I really learned that is of true value?”

I often speak to my students, as Lu Shui-Tian spoke to me, about the importance of understanding the difference between the “surface” and the “depth” of a martial art.   Martial art forms represent only an aspect of the total art.  There is more to martial arts than mere choreography.  Far too many practitioners today focus just on learning forms – thinking that this implies greater expertise or credibility as a martial artist or as a teacher.  This view is flawed and misguided.  Forms, exercises, and techniques mean little if the practitioner does not understand what is beneath the surface.

Anyone can learn or copy any form for, at its lowest level, a form is simply a sequence of postures and movements. The “secrets” in the martial arts do not lie in forms practice.  The “secrets” lie in the fundamental ingredients and the understanding of how to combine or “cook” them properly.  Let me give you another of Lu Shui-Tian’s analogies.  At the grocery store, there are many kinds of food available.  You can pick whatever you like.  But when you get home, if you do not know how to combine the ingredients properly and how to cook the ingredients together, how do you think your meal will turn out?   It is likely that the meal will turn out badly and you will not eat it.  Or, the meal may make you sick.  Either way, you will not be nourished.  Ultimately, you will starve.  You cannot choose the correct ingredients.  And, you cannot integrate or “cook” them in the proper manner without the correct recipe, the necessary experience, the proper monitoring, and without a full understanding of the preparation process.  A single mistake or omission at any stage can ruin the final result.  Too many people in the martial arts community today are just following someone else’s recipe without any real idea of whether the recipe is good or bad, whether it is complete or missing critical elements, and whether it will help them or hurt them or ultimately accomplish nothing.  This is a serious issue.

There are instructors and publications that focus strictly on the mechanics of fighting to the exclusion of everything else. They practice or teach methods to improve fighting skill that do not properly address or account for the health of the body.  At the other extreme, there are instructors and publications that remove all aspects of fighting skill from the arts that they teach.  Here, they state that their focus is strictly on fitness, or health, or whatever.  And, there are numerous variations between these two extremes.  Whether due to a lack of proper instruction or experience, or some inherent deficiency or flaw in their approach, training methods are promoted that ultimately accomplish nothing.  And, in many instances, these methods can actually cause harm to the body – eventually leading to serious injury, crippling arthritis, high blood pressure, or some other debilitating problem in later years.  What is the value here?  Characteristic of these situations is a lack of natural balance in the training approach.

We all desire good health, whether you practice martial arts or not.  In the West, many people perform physical exercise – which leads to high fitness.  But, fitness and health are different things. Fitness is related to the ability to perform physical activities and carry out physical work.  Health, on the other hand, is related to longevity and the condition of the organs, nerves, and energy systems of the body.  Both good fitness and good health are required for one to excel in the martial arts, and, more importantly, for one to achieve a long and happy life.  The Chinese recognized this important fact centuries ago and developed methods specifically designed to promote good health.  These practices were called Qi Gong (or Chi Kung).  They are based on the cultivation and manipulation of Qi (or Chi), the internal energy of the body.  And, they are an essential element of internal practice and Ba Gua Zhang training.

Today, more and more people know some kind of Qi Gong training; but, few have a deep understanding.  What role does Qi Gong play in health?  What is the source and the nature of Qi?  How do you breathe and why?  Where do you focus your mind and why?  What kind of movements do you do and why?  Why must the movements be performed in very specific ways?  How do you properly integrate all of the required elements of Qi Gong practice?  What role does Qi Gong practice play in the development of fighting skill?  What is the relationship between Qi cultivation methods and Qi release methods?  How do you properly combine and integrate these methods to reach the pinnacle of your fighting art?  When…?  Where…?  What…?  How…?  Why…?  The point is that if you cannot answer these questions, how can you continue to practice, or even teach, something that you do not properly understand.    What is the benefit?  Where is the value?

In sport, we all desire great performance skill.  In martial arts, we all desire great fighting skill.  This is true whether you practice Ba Gua Zhang or any other martial art.  There are literally hundreds of systems and styles that you can choose to follow.  What remains the same, as Lu Shui-Tian often pointed out to me, is that no matter what martial art you practice, it is still based on the use of two hands, two legs, and one body. The key in assessing any martial art, then, lies in how these body elements are coordinated and integrated into a cohesive and comprehensive method of attack and defense.  Fundamental to the effectiveness and longevity of any martial art are the principles that form the foundation upon which it is built. 

A system or style without sound principles is simply a collection of techniques, just as a form without substance is mere choreography.  Both are of limited use and limited value.  You will eventually encounter an opponent who does something not covered by your repertoire.  Then, what will you do?  And, what has been the value of your practice?  Or, after reaching a certain level, you may find that your progress has slowed or stopped completely.  Ask yourself, why has this occurred?  This circumstance often leads many practitioners to look to other styles to augment, or even replace, their original martial system.   Is this a reflection of a problem with the practitioner or is it an indication of some inherent deficiency with the martial approach and its instruction?  As age, poor health, or poor training methods begin to affect performance, many practitioners become frustrated at their lack of progress and eventual decline in skill.   In the end, most will stop practicing altogether due either to a loss in desire or a loss in physical ability.  What is the lasting value or benefit in this?

My instructor, Lu Shui-Tian, helped me to understand that a martial art that has depth, that is based on and emphasizes sound natural principles, that integrates and “cooks” the fundamental skills in the proper manner, and that properly balances both health needs and fighting needs, is a martial art that provides the greatest lasting value and benefit to its practitioners.  I was very fortunate to have studied with a teacher the caliber of Lu Shui-Tian.  He challenged me mentally, as well as physically, to strive for a high level of expertise and a deep level of understanding in Ba Gua Zhang.  He enabled me to see what is important in the martial arts, and where true value really lies.  During my time with Lu Shui-Tian, I came to recognize the incredible and lasting value that the proper study of his art offers to its practitioners. Just as he challenged me to think deeply, I leave you to contemplate the following question as it applies to your own studies, “Where is the value in your practice?”

[ Above is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Inside Kung-Fu Magazine – Vol. 27, No. 8 – August 2000, which is published by CFW Enterprises Inc Versions of this article have also appeared in Qi Journal – Vol. 10, No. 3 – Autumn 2000 under the title “Where is the Value in Your Practice?,” which is published by Insight Publishing and Qi Magazine – Issue 49, May/June 2000 and Issue 50, Jul/Aug 2000 under the title “What Value in Practice?,” which is published by Tse Qigong Centre (United Kingdom). These back issues may still be available from their respective publishers.]