Today martial arts are viewed as a collection of techniques one has to study to recall them on demand and use them in a certain situation. Combat becomes a question-and-answer game: If the attacker does technique A) I can counter using C), D), X), or Y).
A system like this is built upon conscious application of movements meaning my consciousness decides on one technique and instructs the body to carry out the movements. Without going into too much detail one can say that this is a cortical (emanating in the cerebral cortex) type of movement.
So I always have to consciously decide which technique I want to use because one movement is linked to precisely one application in my brain („If he holds his arm like this, I can do that technique“). Even if the movement of one „technique“ has been ingrained for so long that it has been transferred into the unconscious mind (in the striatum) it will only be recalled when precise and concrete parameters come true (e.g. „arm in this or that position“).
To learn movements through abstract images (Qi) and emotional links derives from a totally different level. I am activating unconscious centers like the nucleus accumbens, the limbic system, the formatio reticularis (and through it the autonomic nervous system), the ARAS and create a link to the basal ganglia and thus motor function.
Certainly a movement is still cortically controlled (I am „thinking“ these images consciously) but it is abstractly filed. Images are the foundation for principles of movement (e.g. „dropping the center“ or „straightening the spine“). Through establishing certain „framework requirements“ for my body I am letting it do the rest on its own, as it is the most effective.
This requires a relaxed and loose body with healthy statics. I have to learn to dissolve tension and reduce too much tonicity through images. A method that is also widely used in the west (e.g. Feldenkrais- or Alexander-method). The health exercises of chinese systems (the „standing like a post“ and the plethora of other qigong systems) are using exactly this. The exercises are ancient (more than 2000 years old) and originate from shamanistic traditions of central Asia that also gave rise to Daoism (and later Zen-Buddhism). Various Yoga traditions also arose from there which can be verified by observing the use of relatively similar images.
Abstract images are the foundation of a loose, functional, body and a relaxed mind. Through these images I am initiating movements that use basic principles (rotation and translation of the center, alignment of the spine, coordination of breath and movement).
The expansion of these images leads to basic applications in combat. I learn through these images to „stick“, „push“, „pull“, „divert“, „fill“, „deplete“, „explode“ and much more. I can put these abstract images (I don’t „push, „pull“, etc. my opponent but an image inside of him) into practice in all kinds of movements.
Now we have reached what separates martial arts: The basic compound movements. Every system has a certain fundamental repertoire of movements and hand positions that are taught through various means (e.g. Hand positions in Bagua, „fists/forms“ in Xingyi and differing forms, kata of the martial arts). In Karate Anko Itosu combined these fundamental compound movements in his Kihon by extracting them from older exercises.
Additionally the martial arts teach principles of throwing, choking and grappling that are closely connected to the anatomy of the human body. If one understands how the human body is constructed and how to block joints then one also knows how to hurt the body. The images are combining this knowledge to application.
I for instance am not throwing an opponent consciously by using a throw but my body realizes that the center of my opponent is disturbed and I can throw him. Through images my body realizes (subconsciously) the power chains in my opponents body, disturbs them or rather positions it for me to do an „O-Soto-Gari“ in which I break his neck. If my opponent reacts to my movements my body instinctively changes to „Uki-Goshi“ (to stay in Judo terminology; this is a judo-blog after all). The image in my mind stays the same, even the compound movement is just marginally changing.
How are images and principles linked?
Images are the basis for movement principles and a „functional“ body. A little expansion of these images leads to basic combat principles. Additionally there is knowledge about human anatomy and functionality. From that the principles of punching, kicking, throwing and grappling can be derived whereupon every punch and throw can also be a throw or grab.
These images and principles are combined with basic patterns of movement. A Bagua and Yiquan teacher that I more than respect once formulated it like this:
Principles are like seeds and techniques like trees. I can hold a whole forest in my fist if I teach through principles…
This article can of course be just a rough summary of a teaching system using images and principles. Many things in this text are probably unclear or too abstract or „esoteric“ for some readers. The exact implementation of this concept can only the shown „on the mat“ because the effects the images are generating have to be felt to be understood.
A big part of this work is taking place, as one might have guessed, inside the mind. For me martial arts are „thinking in relaxed movements“. Operating like this with body and mind has ripple effects on other parts of life because the previously mentioned brain centers have multiple functions and precisely emotional connections are strongly assisting in our consciousness.
The images that are used in martial arts are also used in various schools of meditation (they also originate from shamanistic traditions) and can therefore influence growth and healing processes. A process known as LTP (long-term-potentation) causes often and continually used connections in the brain to grow stronger. Operating through images strengthens these connections in the brain between different emotional centers and the body. My consciousness is getting a stronger connection to my subconsciousness through image work. This increased access is affecting us outside of martial arts training and influences us.
The way to the innermost core of our being does not bypass our deepest fears and emotions but leads right into and through them.
Martial arts are confronting us with our fears, with our rage and can teach us to embrace and resolve them with love. The images and bodywork can help us with this whereas a pure „training of techniques“ can never create these links.
Combat is always fear and its handling, which is why combat is a good catalyst to learn how to handle our day-to-day fears.
Violence and handling violence is what results of our fear and also our rage. The images provide a possibility to look at all this, accept it and let it go, in all areas of our life.
Training by using images and principles thus amounts to something good for the whole person and facilitates an access to our „True-Self“.