Mysticism in the Martial Arts: Separating Fiction from Reality

Personal development is what many of us here at Martial Journal believe to be at the core of Martial Arts training. You learn a lot about yourself throughout your personal journey in the Martial Arts and no two stories are the same. Now, I am first to admit, this is coming from the perspective of a white-presenting person, who lives in the USA, and studies a modernized blending of three traditional martial arts. 

Those three arts prior to their marriage within my school’s system came from countries where the arts weren’t just personal development, they were deeply rooted in their respective cultures. Japan, China, and the Philippines each have rich cultural backgrounds with their own folklore and mysticism about great warriors of old. Is there wisdom in some of these fables? Absolutely. Is there exaggeration and elaborate metaphors? Probably.

There are great epic tales of warriors that could harness great inner metaphysical powers of Ki and attack opponents with invisible energy, or prevent themselves from being harmed. In the modern world of Martial Arts and Self-Defense, it is imperative we separate myth/mysticism from reality. Now before I get too far, I’m not taking the position that there is “no such thing” as Ki, only that perhaps Ki is an internal force, not an external one. Rather I would posit that harnessing one Ki, is to truly understand your mind and body can be put into a state of hyper-focus and inversely extremely calm.  

Now before I get too far, I’m not taking the position that there is “no such thing” as Ki, only that perhaps Ki is an internal force, not an external one. Rather I would posit that harnessing Ki, is to truly understand that your mind and body can be put into a state of hyper-focus and inversely extremely calm.  

There seems to be a common reaction across martial arts schools to the highest ranking practitioners in their discipline. Some of it is earned through years of training and earned respect, other times it’s effectively demanded from a position of entitlement. I’ve trained with my teacher’s teacher who has been training in the martial arts for nearly twice as long as I have been alive. People who have devoted their lives to their arts deserve the utmost respect, and most of the time have done a lot to earn it with great humility. Sadly, there are some that have manufactured or perpetuated mysticism in their art; claiming they can cause harm, and even knock people unconscious without touching them. This is blatant abuse of their position as an instructor, and it requires the faith of the students in their instructors in order for the techniques to work. Rather than any actual martial arts techniques.

As folklore and fairy tales get passed down through generations, the media takes these and builds strong archetypes to apply to characters in movies, cartoons, comic books, graphic novels, fictional novels, and more. As a lover of martial arts movies and media, I love these fantastical representations of great warriors. Renowned warriors that can effectively fly from rooftop to rooftop like in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” or the final scene in the 90s video-game-to-movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat (spoiler alert) where Liu Kang strikes down Shao Tsung with a bolt of fiery Ki. This form of entertainment is fun but in no way a reflection of reality.

As part of my primary instructor’s advanced Dan (black belt) grading, I was allowed to train with his instructor, and one of his other students. We flew to San Francisco, met at his old dojo/gym, and we trained for five hours. His instructor has had both hips replaced, is over 80 years old at this point, and he doesn’t move too fast when he’s not training. Get him into training, and he had new life in him. Sure he doesn’t kick as high anymore, and he’s not as fast as he was when he fought Benny the Jet, but his strikes were dead accurate. Every time, on every person in the room, regardless of body type.

This required no mysticism to achieve, but a great deal of skill learning to react, and target muscle groups or connective tissues on hundreds of different people and body types. At the end of the day, the places he struck me (and he is from the era of MA where they hit each other a lot harder) were sore for days afterward. This expertise, rather than mysticism, is what makes him such a great instructor.

So what about these no-touch knock-out artists? Let us look first at the organized group/system called “Yellow Bamboo.” A group that believes they can harness the energy of Ki for the application of self-defense. This is dangerous territory because it is one thing if you are doing things that help people feel good, it is another thing when you bring those ideas into the realm of self-defense. In this video, you can see the effects of Yellow Bamboo against an unbelieving skeptic. This is similar to how events might unfold should you actually rely on Yellow Bamboo for self-defense.

Now Yellow Bamboo doesn’t proclaim to be a Martial Arts system, but there are those that are actual martial artists, with real martial arts skills, that have bought into this mysticism hook, line, and sinker. Those who claim to have the ability to execute a no-touch knock-out have been (with no surprise) met with a lot of skepticism from other traditional, and modern martial artists. In one example, a no-touch practitioner was so confident in his abilities that he posed a challenge of a cash prize to anyone that could beat him. A mixed martial arts practitioner challenged him, and this is how it went.  Now I could post a lot more links, but I will let you dig around for yourself to find more video documentation of skeptics challenging no-touch/knock-out artists.

Again, I’m not discounting the great value in arts like Tai Chi, or Qi-gong, nor the practical applications of the movements therein, only when the physical claims become metaphysical claims. There is a lot of personal value in learning about the power of self, and what is inside you. I wrote about this on my personal blog, and I believe there is a great importance to doing things that make you feel good as a human being. Though there is great psychological damage that can be done when you start feeding people/feeding into pseudoscience. Martial Arts (in regards to self-defense) is very much grounded in science, and the understanding and harnessing of Ki is in the realm of things that help us “feel good.” When you make those things overlap, we end up discussing things that just aren’t founded in reality-based techniques that won’t be able to protect you in a self-defense situation.

Daniel Hartz

Daniel Hartz

I am a bit of a renaissance man, but one of my passions is the Martial Arts. My primary art is the blended style: Kenpo Jujitsu Eskrima. I've been practicing for over 10 years now and hope to train until I am no longer able. I currently live in Northwestern Vermont with my wife (also a martial artist) and young daughter.
Daniel Hartz

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Daniel Hartz
About Daniel Hartz 2 Articles

I am a bit of a renaissance man, but one of my passions is the Martial Arts. My primary art is the blended style: Kenpo Jujitsu Eskrima. I’ve been practicing for over 10 years now and hope to train until I am no longer able. I currently live in Northwestern Vermont with my wife (also a martial artist) and young daughter.

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