Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bruce Lee was Wrong...and Right

Or: Why martial arts have styles

The man had style...
    Bruce Lee was an innovator in martial arts.  One of his important philosophical additions to the martial arts world was his idea of formlessness; that styles are a bad thing.  His idea, and I'm paraphrasing, states that styles are artificial contraptions that bind you into a way of thinking; lock you into a way of moving.  His idea was that the human body can only move so many ways, and be effective.  And in many senses he's right.  The laws of physics and anatomy dictate how many martial movements will be be best accomplished, so yes the artifact that is a style will create limitations.  I get what he was saying.  Especially considering how he grew up with the Wing Chun/Choy La Fut rooftop fights, where the style was the motivating factor of these fights.  However, there are many good reasons why these styles exist, have existed and will continue to exist.

The style exists as a learning model.
  The nebulous idea of human interpersonal, physical conflict is vast.  For anyone trying to start off on that path, there is far too much to learn, so the prospect looks daunting and there is no place to start.  It is the paradox of choice idea.  Because there is so much to learn, beginners don't know where to start.  A good system will provide a pathway.  It will say, "here are the basics, once you become proficient in these, then here are the next set of principles, and then the next", and so on.  And then when you've made it through the curiculum, you get to start over and look at the old stuff with a new mind and body.  Every system is different in how it emphasizes or shows the aspects of combat, but every complete martial art should end up covering all the same principles and ideas.  The limitations are a purposeful part of the system of learning.  It is only once you've gotten the idea of how the principles work can you decide to leave some aspects behind, or concentrate on them. 

Someone once told me there's no kicking in aikido...

  Overall, the Mr. Lee's idea was right.  At some point in your training you should get a nagging feeling that there is more.  When I say eventually, I'm talking about after going through the curriculum and have a very good experiential knowledge of the principles, theories, tactics, and techniques of your art. Now you can gain an appreciation of the limitations of the system.  In terms of self-defense, you should never limit yourself to anything.  The answer to self-defense is "whatever it takes."  For example, aikido does have strikes in the system, they are often hidden, and not taught that way, but if you know how, and where, to look they are there.  However, I've never seen kicking included in any aikido school.  Kicking has its place in martial arts.  Every tactic in martial arts is like a tool in your toolbox.  A hammer is really great at pounding in nails, but it sucks at screwing in screws.  You need a different tool for that.  Kicking is kind of like that.  It is great is great in long range, not so great in clinching.  Some tools can be made to serve other purposes.  You could use a wrench to pound in nails, but it really isn't designed for it.  Martial tactics again work the same way.  The overall idea is, keep as many tools in your toolbox as possible.  When you need the right tool, it'll be there.  Some styles naturally have a limitation of use of certain tactics (limited tools).  Study the limitations, but don't become entrenched in the dogma of the system to where you don't know the other tactics.  When you need to use a tactic, use it.  Even if it is not "very aikido to kick."

P. S. The opening line of this section has a second part to it.  I read this one statement (I have no idea where), that said "Someone once told me there's no kicking in aikido... so I kicked him again." I


  1. Good read. I very much agree. Structure is necessary I think in the beginning of any training in any profession.

  2. There are really two issues here. The concept of formlessness is not really a criticism of style. When we talk formlessness we refer to the ability to apply and respond in a way that is not based on memorizing specific responses rather responding to energy flow. Your response then is not predictable or predefined by technique but is rather a response to energy flow from your opponent.

    Second, All styles have their strength and weaknesses. Lee's philosophy was to draw on various systems and incorporate what works for you. Most styles have a range in which they are effective. We as martial artists need to be effective in all ranges. Again a simple answer to what is actually a complex concept.

  3. I'm going to guess by your title, and the response of "we" that you are a Jeet Kun Do instructor? So your knowledge should be more in depth than mine. I'll first off say, I've never practiced the art, so I am not an expert by any means, but I have done some research on Mr. Lee's philosophy. There maybe a use of language problem. There were several interviews where he was critical of styles because of their limitations, but you may be right. The word "Formlessness" may not be part of that criticism, it might just pronounce his martial philosophy of "what works for you."

    I agree that all systems have weakness inherit of being a system. The range one is an easy one to conceptualize. Aikido is best at medium and close range. But it sucks at long range. Every system then, as part of that system, creates patches to close the drawbacks in the system. (Anyone else feel like I'm speaking like the guy in the White Room of the Matrix sequel? Visa vi... ergo...) If you are saying that Jeet Kun Do takes pieces from other systems to optimize those ideas for the individual, then that itself can be a weakness. Which is Okay, as long as it is a realized weakness and can be reduced.

  4. I don't consider myself a JKD instructor. Unfortunately JKD has been "stylized" when it was really a set of concepts. I have trained in multiple systems over the last 40 odd years and there is no doubt of the influence Bruce Lee had on my approach. I sought out a trained with many of his students.

    I have intentional stayed away from the formalized approach now promulgated by those who are trying to turn JKD into a style in itself. I hate the politics but love the arts. I believe the martial arts are a unique vehicle for self expression and personal growth.