Monday, March 12, 2007

Meeting Mushtaq Ali

The martial arts world can be a curious place. In its most elemental state it is about the quest for personal power. One can say that about politics or business, for that matter, but martial arts distill this down at the primal level, dealing with physical ownership of one’s personal space on physical and emotional levels.

Whatever the reasons people come to train, the arts act as a filter that reveal our personalities. Some come to validate themselves by testing their courage. Many earn recognition through hard work and dedication, which might be rewarded by titles or rank, though some aggrandize themselves with the illusion of such achievement.

At its best, martial arts strip away pretense. We learn success through failure, enduring challenges of pain and frustration to refine ennobling characteristics of perseverance and fortitude. There is a saying that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” referring to the process by which the ego is put in place by the reality of experience. So it is that those who rise authentically to positions of leadership are often very genuine in their dealings, demonstrating humility that reflects accumulated wisdom of direct experience.

This weekend I finally got to meet Mushtaq Ali, the “Traceless Warrior,” who embodies those qualities I admire most in anyone, not just martial artists. It is said of angels that “they can fly because they take themselves lightly,” and so it was refreshingly delightful to experience the unpretentiousness with which he shares his broad skills and knowledge. I’ve always been picky about those with whom I train, and so though I’ve known Mushtaq for a few years online and by reputation, it was more than a little gratifying to feel my expectations were not misplaced.

The orientation of this seminar was interesting as it was not geared towards those already immersed in S.E. Asian martial arts. The majority of participants are involved in Scott Sonnen’s Circular Strength Training (CST), as is Mushtaq, and this seminar was sponsored by D. Cody Fielding, a certified trainer in this system. This brought an interesting dynamic to the weekend.

First, the participants overall had a very deep sense of kinesthetic awareness in body movement. Mushtaq joked a couple of times about the California mentality, but in truth this was an unusual group even for here, which included body workers and energy healers. At times it felt more like a gathering of somatic psychologists in the ways in which the participants were able to tap into and articulate subtleties of their class experience.

Second, because of the nature of this group, Mushtaq proposed to do an experiment, which was to teach a complete martial system in one day. Now before some of you get huffy or indignant, let me point out that a martial system is not the same thing as a complete and detailed art. By focusing on fundamental principles, the goal was to impart a framework that can be filled out through later experience.

The first day did not even touch on martial arts, but was oriented to ways in which we learn, and how the body and mind interact. Skill is based on sensitivity to a changing environment, and so the first session was devoted to visualization and movement exercises designed to promote integration of left/right coordination in order to accelerate the physical learning curve. Most people are unconscious of their own movement, creating habituated and often limiting gaps in both mental and physical responsiveness. Deepening self-awareness increases one’s potential by accessing those hitherto neglected resources. This is a key to Mushtaq’s concept of “splitting time,” which is a significant aspect to controlling centerline as well as the larger kinosphere (the space around us which we can fill with our movement).

Day Two was devoted to principles of movement in martial arts. Keys around which drills were practiced included the three dimensions of physical movement, nodes of rotation and integrated body movement. Weapon orientation was addressed in terms of point up, forward or down, and outward, center and inward. Exercises were done first with sticks, progressing later to blades. It was fun to watch the progression in skills of participants over such a short period of time.

Many martial art systems overcomplicate these natural tools with formalities that feel counter-intuitive until thoroughly mastered, a process which can be artificially elongated. Yes, there is the necessity of time to develop physical conditioning and responsive techniques, but if one can build on natural movement, the whole process becomes easier.

I’ve long been a believer that self-defense skills are innate. We all know how to shoo a fly away, or wipe a cobweb from our face, building blocks for more powerful applications. I’ve taught core movements in as little as a single session, even taking raw beginners to a high level of sensitivity to empty hand flow in an hour or so, but in general I teach Serrada inductively, using the specific techniques to derive the general principles.

My Tai Chi teacher, the late John K. Wong, was a master at going straight to the underlying principles as a way to create and develop technique. He showed us how to improvise on the fly through sensitivity according to basic precepts, and Mushtaq is the first person I’ve seen in many years to use this methodology.

This seminar was a bold yet crafty way to maximize the limited time available in a weekend workshop. Too often people are taught a bunch of fancy techniques which are quickly forgotten. By presenting simple and easily remembered techniques within a logically memorable framework, Mushtaq gave participants enough clues for years of development. Though this does not negate the value of further guidance and instruction, it was a gift of great value. There are far too many in the martial arts who can parrot movement mindlessly, without that sense of “aliveness” that is so apparent in truly competent practitioners. As one instructor watching another, I truly admire Mushtaq Ali for the skills to impart such a lesson.

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