In previous posts I have written a little about martial arts and a lot about medicine. Here I’d like to explore the connections between the two. The most obvious connection is that the practice of martial arts comes with the occurrence of injuries, and the treatment of those injuries requires some sort of medical knowledge. Because the major martial arts developed in East Asia, the treatment of martial arts injuries tends to utilize the methods and theories of traditional Chinese medicine – especially acupuncture, massage, and medicinal herbs. Conversely, martial artists throughout history have contributed to the medical arts of Asia their own field-tested methods and formulas, so much so that a large part of traditional East Asian traumatology – the treatment of bone, tendon, and sinew injuries – can be said to be descended from martial arts traditions. The various Shaolin lineages of China are the best-known example, with their "dit da jow" trauma liniments used by martial artists wordwide. Much of "tui na" (traditional Chinese massage and physical therapy), especially bonesetting techniques, co-developed with martial arts as well. In Japan, there has also been a close historical relationship between martial arts schools (especially styles of jujutsu) and bonesetting, and wandering martial artists in search of teachers to study with (or to challenge!) would look up the bone doctors when they first got to a new town.
Because of their common cultural origins, martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine share a common terminology and worldview. Most importantly in this regard, they both take as a fundamental premise the existence of qi, the life force. Qi, also known as “ki” in Japanese and Korean traditions, is thought of as the animating principle in all life, indeed in the whole universe. It is qi that the acupuncturist affects as he inserts fine needles into the channels or meridians through which the life energy flows. It is this same qi that is affected in a martial arts strike to a pressure point. The exact same point can be used to hurt or to heal; what varies is the amount and direction of qi flow through the point. It is said that the ancient sages sat in contemplation and felt the life force flowing through their bodies. From their initial observations developed three interrelated studies: martial arts, medicine, and meditation.
My own introduction to traditional Chinese medicine came through the martial arts. I grew up in Japan, and attended the local judo dojo since I was seven years old. The way we trained in those days was basically free play, or “randori,” all the time. We would get a partner, bow, and go at it, trying to throw our partner to the tatami-mat ground. At our teacher’s command, we would switch to ground-fighting: after the next throw, we would try to pin each other. After about age twelve or so, we were allowed to incorporate chokes into the ground-fighting. Most of the time, the person being choked would tap out and nobody got hurt. But every once in awhile, someone would lose consciousness, and our teacher would revive him. He would use the resuscitation techniques known as “kappo”, and the unconscious student would promptly revive. My interest was piqued.
As a teenager, my family moved to Southern California, and I had the great fortune to study with Joo Bang Lee, the grandmaster of a Korean martial art known as hwarangdo, and with his eldest son Henry Taejoon Lee. Grandmaster Lee is also an acupuncturist, and it was from him that I received my first acupuncture treatment, after a wrist injury sustained at a demonstration. I was fascinated with this exotic healing art, and by the fact that in its advanced levels hwarangdo incorporated "kookup hwal bop" (acupuncture for resuscitation), "chim goo sul bop" (acupuncture for the treatment of disease), and "jyub gol sul" (bonesetting). During the course of training I learned several first aid techniques, such as pressing the middle knuckle into the acupuncture point Du-26 between the nose and upper lip to revive an unconscious opponent, and slapping (or jumping on) the point Kidney-1 on the bottom of the foot, for injuries to the testicles.
Finally, when I was in college I studied taijiquan for a few years. My teachers, Tsuei Wei and Jim Douglas, were both licensed acupuncturists. With taiji I was introduced to the idea that martial arts techniques themselves – movement and breathing – could be healing. In judo we didn’t talk much about ki, and in hwarangdo we practiced techniques to develop and circulate the ki but didn’t really incorporate it into our martial arts techniques (except for breaking techniques, which were basically an extension of “kihap chagi” ki coordination methods). But taiji was different – in taiji, it was all about qi. With taiji it all came together for me, and I began to see the human body not as a conduit through which a mysterious energy flowed, but as a kind of concresence of energy itself. If energy and matter are a continuum, then qi is something more on the energy end of the spectrum, and blood and flesh are more on the matter end. But it’s all the same stuff, and acupuncture is more about affecting the body from the energy end, and herbs are more about affecting it from the matter end. It was ideas like this, plus the persuasion of my teacher Jim Douglas, that made me consider acupuncture as a career.
These days, I am not as active as I once was, and no longer practice martial arts regularly. But it gives me great satisfaction to watch my son Lukas train under instructor Michael Laird of Laird’s Academy of Martial Arts. Instructor Mike teaches ho kuk mu sul, a style that is very similar to the hwarangdo of my youth. Training in martial arts has improved Lukas’ coordination, memory, and motivation, to say nothing of the self-defense skills he is learning. It might seem ironic that an activity that produces injuries is actually health-promoting, but in fact the practice of martial arts does improve health. There are the obvious cardiovascular benefits from the aerobic exercise aspect of training. There are the benefits to bone and muscle from all the stance work, blocks, kicks, and strikes. The qi gets a workout from the "kicho chagi" breathing techniques. All the stretching keeps the body limber. The entire body gets conditioned from the "nak bop" falling techniques. Perhaps most importantly, martial arts training produces an attitude of calm confidence and in-the-moment awareness that counters the stresses and ills of our modern lifestyle and lets us face life with courage and balance. So if you are a martial artist, I would be honored to treat your injuries and illnesses using the techniques of traditional Chinese medicine. But you should know that you are already doing something far more important for your health: you are treating yourself daily by training in the martial arts. And if you have no experience in martial arts, you may want to start - it's good medicine.