Does Tradition Create An Obstacle and Prevent An Art From Growing? By Michael Aloia

It is not uncommon to hear the sentiment expressed, “training for the sake of tradition.” Such a comment is often professed when there may not be a clear-cut answer or reason as to why things are as they are. More often, in response to a question from a student as to why we are doing what we are doing, or if asked, “Why is that so?” another common response can also be heard, “Because it is tradition.”

Tradition is a legacy within itself. There is a beginning, however, not always a definitive one, depending upon resources; a middle, a present, and with any hope, never an ending. Tradition is something that is passed down from person to person, to one group to another – to one generation to the next. It can be historical, cultural, practical, or even personal, and it can be timeless.

Tradition, as defined by Oxford, is “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.”

Tradition can be strict, adhering to the letter if the law. But it can also be a bit looser, if chosen to be, working more in the spirit of the law; guidelines perhaps, allowing for development and growth of both the tradition itself and those who indulge in the tradition.

Is “tradition for the sake of tradition” worth maintaining if that tradition loses its enriching qualities and becomes more a set of ritualistic practices that are foreign to the current generations, thus, becoming meaningless acts of physicality and mental wonder? In turn, would such meaninglessness and disconnection actually offer any enrichment and growth for one’s being?

Have martial arts become so tied to and in tradition that real growth has been forfeited over time, giving us now a modern-day representation of their former selves? Has their former impact and importance where their real meaning and intended purpose has been lost over time? Has real growth ceased?

Many traditional-based martial art forms have been experiencing a major decline, not only in enrollment numbers, but in overall awareness, thus, overall interest. More modern-day styles such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and other competitive forms have garnished more of people’s attention than in the past. Many of these styles demonstrate an immediate point and purpose and seldomly, if ever, do anything solely for the sake of tradition. Things are often done on a practicality basis – more with a need for better performance, improved application, and more consistent executions, hence building a stronger, more proficient practitioner overall. Tradition, in the traditional sense of the word, to some degree, is often non-existent in many combative styles.

Does this say that traditional based martial art forms are useless? Absolutely not. However, what it does suggest is that forms heavily rooted in tradition may need to reconsider their formats, approaches, and criteria and evaluate whether or not such methods are doing a service to their practitioners or is such adherence creating more of a disservice by way of not updating their specific traditions to reflect the times. Inevitably, this works in everyone’s favor as it would raise a needed bar on questionable martial systems and less than standard instructional/training methods and possibly even develop a renewed awareness and interest in the art. This reconsideration and re-evaluation of standards and practices would create some level of check points along the way that go beyond just “tradition for the sake if tradition.”

I am a proponent of tradition and believe whole heartedly that tradition is essential and has its place in all martial arts. Tradition is a way to honor those who came before and a means of preserving personal, national and cultural history. Tradition in and of itself is not a reason to pass along things that may not be valid, useless, fool hearty, or downright not true. Tradition has its place but so does change.


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