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The Taikyoku Problem

As time passes, and generations go by, it is undeniable that the world of martial arts has undergone a lot of changes since the days of traditional martial arts, such as Karate and older styles of Kung Fu. The world of fighting and techniques has changed - we have moved from knuckle conditioning to bulgarian bag exercises, and from makiwara straight punches to heavy bag rounds.

Spain's Queen of Kata, Sandra Sanchez

I recently began to question why it seems that traditional martial arts are less popular, and are becoming so day by day. Less than a century ago, the efficacy of Karate for self-defence went by almost unquestioned, and martial arts practioners would devote themselves completely to the style they trained, instead of mixing and matching techniques from different ones. The reason Bruce Lee is seen as the father of modern MMA is due to his philosophy of combining different martial arts instead of devoting yourself to one "way".

As I read up on the dwindling popularity of traditional styles of self-defence, I encountered a forum post on this issue, titled "The Taikyoku Problem", in which the poster claims that these all of these older styles have a similar issue, in that the way they impart teaching to begginers is through very dull and boring kata or forms. He specifically points out the Taikyoku kata in karate - the kata, in the writer's own words, is boring, with simple patterns and unrealistic movement.

This kata is designed for beginners so that they may get accustomed to the movements, but the writer claims that it alienises them instead, as they begin to find the kata dull very quickly, sapping them of their motivation and willingness to continue their training.

Unfortunately, that is how these styles are. The original practitioners were extremely strict, and there are accounts of beginners being forced to solely practice the Sanchin kata for several years before even being allowed to move on to technique development, in some styles of Karate. Older arts relied on sheer repetition and the extreme fine evolution of muscle memory. On the flip side, modern combat sports train through a large variety of drills, exercises, and sparring.

The old methods are just not compatible with the modern age that we live in - we are simply too impatient to learn this way. Our information is spoon fed to us in two-sentence tweets, and 15 second TikTok clips. Our attention span and patience have been artificially worn thin to such an extent that is nearly irreversible; it could be argued that it would be much more difficult to train using the original methods in this day and age, than it was back in the day.

However, this is not meant to imply that the old way is superior. Although personally, I tend to lean towards older training methods (especially technique advancement exclusively through repetition), there are many modern movements that I feel would be much more difficult to learn without the newer exercises. For example, can you imagine drilling BJJ without a training a partner, and only through repetition drills on a training dummy? It simply wouldn't be the same. Although older styles also had partner training, they did not place nearly as much emphasis on this - this is evidenced simply by the existence of forms.

Forms were specifically made to pass on teachings from one generation to the next - a master would teach his student a form, and this student would eventually mature to become a teacher themselves and teach the kata to their students. But you don't see this in modern arts. There are no specifically designed patterns of shadow boxing, or hard-coded forms in catch wrestling. In my own words, older arts relied on what I like to refer to as "unidimensional training" whereas modern arts rely on "multidimensional training".

This distinction exists as a result of many factors; nowadays it is easy to look up technique and information on the web, whereas in these bygone eras, such information was spread by word of mouth, books, or kata. Kata, apart from training exercises, were a way of passing on knowledge from teacher to student - each kata has its own lesson to impart upon its practitioner, such as the Taikyoku kata's lesson on basics. Gichin Funakoshi stated this kata to be the most important training tool; its name means "Basic Ultimate", implying its basic yet important nature.

Unidimensional training is the type that requires no equipment or training partners at all - this was the reality for many practitioners; we have the luxury to train, should we wish to, in a martial art during our free time, whether as a hobby or for competition. In contrast, during the times of Okinawan Karate, instructors were commonly very poor and needed to have another job apart from teaching to survive - not many people could afford to train, so many of these teachers would train alone for extended periods of time. They would even resort to picking street fights with Yakuza and other trouble makers in order to test whether the techniques they had developed were effective in combat.

Multidimensional training is what we have in all modern combat sports: Sambo, Boxing, Sport Taekwondo, BJJ and Wrestling and more. All of these styles rely very heavily on training with a partner. Bag work, sparring, drilling and more. In grappling, it is fruitless to even demonstrate a technique without another individual to help. Striking arts such as Taekwondo, some aspects Sambo, and Boxing, do allow for training on your own, albeit unidimensional training.

A healthy, balanced mix of both is always recommended. Unfortunately, that is not alwayss easy; as stated above, some arts are simply better for unidimensional training than others.

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