Tag Archives: Martial Arts

Is Sparring the Same as Fighting?


We were talking about breathing again, in class. And again, we started by taking a deep breath together. But this time, I told them to rest a hand on their bellies and  see if they could direct the breath to that magical region called the “tan-tien,” by the Kung-Fu masters, the “hara,” by the Zen masters, and the “solar plexus” by the yogis. We are increasing the oxygen delivery to the brain, and thereby balancing our nervous systems, as well as our state of mind.

One student shared his experience with Judo and the instructions given by his teacher to breathe from the belly in order to combat nerves and conserve strength.

If the martial artist reflects steadiness and calmness, why do they fight? Isn’t that violent? another student asked.

Excellent question.

The point of sparring isn’t to fight, as you might suspect, I said. It is to train.

It is in the face of challenge that you put your tools to use. In the martial arts, you don’t confront, you don’t go against, you don’t use brute force. You learn that you don’t have to reside in a constant state of opposition to what lies within nor to what lies without–impatience, anger, discomfort, provocation from others. You learn that you have power over the impulse to react to all of it.

Thus, there, on the training mat, the martial artist learns patience. He learns to become intimate with his calm center, the source of his power, balance and composure. The source of his stillness–the stillness that gives way to heightened perception and intuition.

The Dojo is the training ground for what would be better thought of as a game of skill, like chess, or a dance, rather than as a fight. The student of any martial art is taught to always avoid confrontation. The point is about personal development, rather than public display.

On this point, here is an anecdote written, in 1979, by Joe Hyams, who took direct study with Bruce Lee:

Some time later I watched a “crossing of hands,” or match, between two martial arts masters. I had gone expecting to see a magnificent display of flashing acrobats and whirling limbs. Instead I saw two men in fighting stance study each other warily for several minutes. Unlike boxing, there were no feints, no tentative jabs. For the most part, the masters were still as statues. Suddenly, one of them burst into movement so quickly that I was unable to grasp what had happened, although I did see his opponent hurtle backward. The match was over and the two masters bowed to each other.

Equally poignant was the comment Hyams’ teacher made afterward:

Now you have seen the power of controlled patience on the mat. The same thing applies to problems in life.

And I would also point out the power of humility, as displayed so elegantly through the tradition of the bow. If only that were a value held dear in life today.

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