The Japanese martial arts, for the most part, adhere and follow the overarching philosophy of budo. Budo, or Martial Way, strives to develop the practitioner into a polite, courteous, and productive member of society. Traditionally and within this budo philosophy, many instructors place their students through the rote practice of mental, physical, and spiritual techniques and other aspects of the art that light the way for practitioners to fully understand the art and its curriculum. While the traditional method is considered the tried-and-true way of understanding the knowledge of the chosen art and curriculum, such a way may not offer an ample avenue to fully understanding the various applications of the art’s technique design. An application of a technique differs from knowing a technique. Application refers to using the principles associated with any given technique in a multitude of situations. For example, a practitioner who understands the application of osoto gari or nikkyo can use those techniques (or any variation thereof) no matter how they are positioned to their partner. In other words, a practitioner who knows the principles of the stated techniques can take the steps to ensure the execution of those techniques. Therefore, to fully understand the applications and principles of the techniques and kata, a practitioner should consider experimenting with their chosen art’s techniques within different situations and contexts.
Some may ask, “Why should we even experiment if there are situations already present in the art’s curriculum?” True, given any number of arts, there are many different situations that puts the practitioner at a disadvantage. These situations, however, are largely based on social contexts from a bygone era and may not fully address other factors in today’s modern world. While there needs to be a foundation for everyone, those progressing into the higher ranks, especially those in the yudansha rankings, should begin to think and wonder about other situations and positions that exist outside of the art’s curriculum. These other situations and positions may entail working against a wall, on the ground, while one is getting up off the ground, and in different body holds. This is where martial arts training starts to become a self-propelled study.
Additionally, experimentation will tell you how much of that technique and its principles you know and can apply. It can be like a gauge – showing where you are good at one principle or aspect of the technique and lacking in another. This is the time where you go back to the basics – that traditional rote practice – to isolate and refine the lacking aspect(s) so you are better equipped when you head back into the experiment again.
The principles of the technique are what makes that specific set of movements a technique. Many techniques that either look the same or have the same type of outcome follow some, if not many, of the same principles. These principles can be best understood as movement – handwork, footwork, or even body movement. Once properly understood, these principles then can be used outside the context of the technique. Take as example, aikido’s ikkyo, a technique that rolls the partner’s elbow while bringing them down. The underlying principle is rolling the elbow. You can use this principle if you are cornered against a wall or move past your guard on the ground. This rolling of the elbow essentially moves the partner’s/opponent’s arm out of the way for a second as you maneuver yourself to that open space to either launch your counterattack or to escape.
Furthermore, participating in experimentation makes you think critically of not only the techniques being experimented, but of the types of situations you are dealing with. If a certain technique works in only a handful of situations, that is amazing! You have found the context in which you can best apply that technique. Likewise, you have found the context to where you can apply the principles of the technique. Thinking critically forces you to look at the art and its curriculum from an objective perspective. If done correctly and honestly, this method will allow you to be honest with yourself and figure out what aspects and principles work from the curriculum that work for you.
In the end, it is ultimately your decision to take that step into the larger world of martial knowledge. Doing so will expand your understanding of the art’s curriculum and its application in different situations and positions. With this newfound knowledge, there is a possibility for the art to not remain static or fall into stagnation when being passed on to others. As we continue on our Martial Way, such understanding should occur simultaneously, for the path diverges further ahead and it will be up to each of us if we want to experience an adventure that will only lead to more explorations of the knowledge we have gained.