It is said that elephant trainers can train their animals to be held by nothing more than a small rope tied to one of their legs that is pegged into the ground. When they are very young and much smaller they use the same size rope to tie them and, at that age, it’s more than enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free. Humans do this for many things in life too, it’s in our nature to use predictive reasoning to make our processes more efficient. But sometimes things change and the process no longer makes sense. For this reason, we should always keep an open mind and re-analyze the things we do and the reasoning behind it.
A little while back, I heard a prominent Filipino martial arts instructor question this long held belief in the world of martial arts openly in front of his class. My interest was piqued. I have always believed that line of thinking as that is how we do things in our style. In the Filipino martial arts, they teach weapons first, followed by unarmed combat. The general thinking is that in Filipino society, where weapon violence is more common place, weapons have traditionally been more important for self-defense than unarmed combat, and continues to be the case in modern times. The instructor also claimed that it was more beneficial to learn weapons first because it allows you to transition more seamlessly into the Filipino unarmed combat techniques which stem from the moves learned with weapons. He made the argument that the weapon is not actually an extension of the body. Rather, unarmed combat is an extension of weapon training. He told a story about how he once handed a seasoned martial artist (*I can’t remember which kind, but I think it was one from Japan, possibly Karate) one of his eskrima sticks. He said, “If weapons are an extension of the body, take this and do what I do.” He looked perplexed and didn’t really have any sense of what to do. The instructor used this story to support his hypothesis, which makes for a compelling argument, except…
The martial artist had a completely different training background.
You Can’t Make an Apple Pie with Oranges
Have you ever heard the expression that you can’t compare apples with oranges? Of course you have. In the same vein, you can’t make an apple pie with oranges. The Karate-ka (if that was the art he had studied) could be likened to a person who has really great quality oranges. The person can use the oranges to make orange juice, but if they were to cut it up and use it to make an apple pie, well, that would just be ridiculous, no matter how good the quality of the oranges.
Making Orange Juice
Now if that same Karate-ka were given the stick and told to do a vertical hammerfist strike (tetsui uchi) or a horizontal hammerfist strike (ken tsui uchi), the person probably would have been able to swing the stick in a way that was more useful and applicable. It would not have looked the same as the Filipino martial artist’s way, but it certainly would have been a more usable method he could just pick up and do, by drawing on his prior training. This is how one applies the theory that the weapon is an extension of the body. Now the eskrima stick isn’t exactly one of the traditional weapons in Karate, so it probably doesn’t make use of its movements as effectively as a weapon that is traditionally taught in the style. Take the bo, for example. If you put a bo in a seasoned Karate-ka’s hands, they are much more easily able to apply their movements to the weapon. The striking hand wields the striking end of the staff, while the withdrawing hand helps add speed and power to the strike.
Taking the Apples Out of Apple Pie
This is not to say there isn’t logic to the Filipino martial arts instructor’s argument. It’s just based on his own experience. Because they have such a long track record of teaching unarmed combat drawing from their weapon combat techniques, they would naturally think this is the way the learning flows. And it has been a very effective way of doing things for them. From my own training in FMA, I found it quite an easy transition to do a particular pattern of movements with weapons, then removing the weapons and competently doing a version of it unarmed. For me, it was quite an interesting experience to see unarmed combat taught in that way, starting with the weapon wielding versions of the technique.
6 in One, A Half Dozen in the Other
As to the question, “Is the weapon truly an extension of the body?” I would have to say the answer is yes. For the most part, martial arts draw on commonality of technique to make the transition into weapon work more natural. That being said, just because the weapon is an extension of the body, doesn’t mean you have to learn unarmed combat first. The same concept can be used to make one’s unarmed combat more natural if the martial art prioritizes weapon training as their primary skill set. This is one of the things that makes the martial arts so very cool. All the arts have their differences, but some learning fundamentals, like this, are common to all. And we can all learn from the different teaching approaches that are used in by different styles to better understand the fundamentals of human movement and learning.
Now over to you. Do you do any weapon training in your martial art? In what direction is weapon work taught in relation to unarmed combat in your style? Please share your experiences in the comments.