This is the fifth guest post in our short series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. As with most of our discussions at Kung Fu Tea, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history. To some degree we all fall into both camps. That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
“Reflections on Training Alone: Martial Arts in a Time of Pandemic”
by Jay O’Shea
Rehearsing Other Ways to Live
I’ve spent several years writing about the individual and societal benefits of physical play through the example of martial arts. In line with theories of play, I’ve suggested that since games are acts of imagination, they can offer us a glimpse of other ways to live than what we see before us if we’re reflective about our experiences. This is true of open forms of play, structured games, and even organized sports with set rules.
Because play has this element of imagination to it, one of the downsides of high-risk play – aside from the fact that it’s dangerous – is that it can feel like a value in its own right. It can seem like hard training that manages danger effectively accomplishes something in the world, that it has an almost ethical value to it.
That realization got me thinking about activism and about social justice initiatives in which advocates deliberately put themselves at risk to affect change. Activism is, in a crucial way, the inverse of play. The whole point of a game is that it serves no outside purpose. A game may have a goal – sometimes a literal, physical one – but achieving that goal doesn’t change anything in the world beyond the game. (This changes when a game becomes a professional sport but that’s a conversation for another time.)
Activism hinges on the achievement of a goal: the whole of purpose of social justice advocacy is to achieve an end that will change circumstances for oneself or others. And, yet, most forms of activism also value process, sometimes as much as the goal.
Activism, like play, provides the opportunity to rehearse other ways to live than what we see before us.
My plan was, and still is, to spend the next few years focusing on three disparate examples of social justice activism – urban cycling, border humanitarian aid, and farmed animal rescue – looking at how they protest unjust conditions by living out an alternative. Emerging from a long research project and from three years of heavy lifting on the academic service front, I turned eagerly toward wholly new field work: joining group bicycle rides in major US cities, participating in water drops in the Sonoran Desert, and volunteering at animal sanctuaries.
Then the pandemic struck, turning nearly everything – work, play, social life, and activism – virtual. Even as individuals and communities continue to confront the devastating conditions that demand justice intervention, many of us with the time and the resources to do something about it are at home. We are either alone, and possibly lonely, or crammed together, as spaces meant to handle denizens coming and going are suddenly filled with everyone home at once.
We need to figure out how to continue to do what we love and what is necessary in a situation of both too much proximity and too much distance.
Other ways to live, indeed.
A Gym of One’s Own
I am fortunate. I live with one adult, an almost tween child, and an elderly dog, all of whom understand the need of others for space and all of whom grasp what it is to work as a team. I have a stable job, one that continues virtually. My partner holds several part-time jobs. One of them, an essential service in manufacturing, requires on-site work but into a space emptied of most other employees. We are safe. We can pay our rent. We have soap, running water, and food in the kitchen. We have WiFi, devices, and enough space for adults to work and the child to complete assignments.
But I am lucky in another way, in the sense not of privilege but of a fortuitous turn of fate, one that pertains directly to my martial arts training and the possibility of it continuing through the pandemic shutdown.
We moved in February, arriving into a new space three weeks before Mayor Garcetti ordered a lockdown in Los Angeles.
In January, we were living in a third-floor apartment on a busy boulevard in a non-descript neighborhood of Los Angeles. The building had no courtyard, no front or back lawn, no open parking lot even; the nearest green space was in driving, not walking, distance. The only training I did at home was shadow boxing and the occasional footwork drills. There was no way I could swing a stick, throw kicks, or grapple there.
Faced with unreasonable demands and flagrant neglect on the part of new landlords, we turned an eye toward the possibility of moving. Although it was a beautiful space, with a balcony and a view of the skyscrapers of Century City, although it had been home for almost ten years, it was time to move on. But that option seemed impossible in a city founded on sweet real estate deals but now keeping pace with the eye-watering property costs of New York, London, and San Francisco.
Then I got an email about a vacancy in a small building on a quiet street next to a park. It had a garden off the kitchen and a courtyard behind the smaller bedroom. When I read the rent, I thought it was a typo.
It’s not perfect, not yet anyway. We have an extra fridge in the dining area-turned-office because no one will send a truck to pick up a donation in the midst of a pandemic. No one is accepting donations at all so boxes of things we planned to get rid of on the other side still sit in the living room.
And yet: I can swing a stick in the garden. I can train silat with only a little discomfort on the cobbled walkway. My daughter and I practice kicks in the carport behind the building, when we’re not passing a soccer ball back and forth. I’ve devised a workout that includes snippets from JKD, muay thai, boxing, wing chun, and kali. On weekends, if we get our timing right and avoid the early morning joggers, we run through it in the park that abuts the building. My partner, out walking the dog, stops by to join us for the wing chun part of our practice. We can train a little BJJ in the living room, if we move the coffee table and keep clear of the couch.
It’s not a gym of my own but it will do.
The Angel’s in the Details
One of the things that came to worry me about risk play wasn’t its physical dangers but the ways in which it can demand ever more from its devotees. Here, in Los Angeles, martial artists recount driving from the far end of the valley to the sprawl of Orange County in search of the best classes and the most luminary instructors. (They’re not alone in this; serious skiers make the five-hour drive to Mammoth every weekend in the winter.) I understand this impulse and yet I can’t help but think of the environmental cost, the impact on public health and civic well-being, the strain on an infrastructure that, at least in this city and at least on a normal day, feels pushed to the breaking point as each one of us sits in our metal boxes crisscrossing freeways in the pursuit of individual goals.
I would never argue against the accumulation of knowledge but there is always the possibility of more. More drills, more techniques, more seminars, more training camps, and new instructors. Martial arts, like anything else, can become a commodity, one where a lust for learning turns into a greed for knowledge. The space, mental and physical, can always be filled with more.
I had been thinking for a while that maybe it was time to do more with less. It was pre-covid, this recognition that it was time to dig down, instead of foraging wide. The old adage of work smarter not harder wasn’t quite it. It was rather: work hard, selectively, and with precision.
Slow makes smooth, smooth makes fast as the military saying goes.
In truth, though, I have never been good at woodshedding, at honing in the details that make a solid practice. My impatience is an unfortunate trait in someone who has made several major changes in physical avocations. I struggled with this in dance as I sped rapidly toward repertoire without lingering over the particularities of articulations of a foot, a knee, or an elbow. Rock climbing brought me closer, by necessity, because of its puzzle-like nature. Yoga got me there by accident when I moved countries, switched styles, and learned to find insight in the specifics of movement but even this happened in a style for its dynamic, even acrobatic qualities.
Just as I found the beauties of play and encountered movement magic in hard-contact, fast-moving, sparring-based modern martial arts, I found the love of details, of the basics, of doing the reps in hybrid training. I have spent more hours capturing the precision of an upper cut and perfecting my right cross than I ever spent on my footwork in dance.
Now, in this time of restricted movement, I train kali taking virtual private classes with my primary instructor as we work on blade awareness, of angles of strikes, on rhythm and timing. We used to focus on techniques and mechanics that could realize themselves in flow drills such as sumbrada. Now we focus on what I can translate into carenza, shadow boxing.
Different days see the same sequences of boxing punches and head movements. Thai kicks in the carport are focused not on power – because there’s nothing to land them on – but on the rotation on my heels and hips. JKD snap kicks are about imaging a target to find a greater precision than landing on focus mitts has thus far brought me.
It fits with this new slowness, the narrowed nature that my life, like most of our lives, has taken on.
This isn’t acquired without loss. My life as a martial artist has been built around friendship. This is true for most, if not all, of us. We train in communities. We find training partners who bring out the best in us, and instructors who push us in the directions we need to go. My devotion to live practice – sparring and grappling – leaves this loss feeling poignant. I feel adrift even as I try to redefine what terra firma might be and what it might feel like when I land on it.
Scattered Speculations on Economies at Speed
I don’t want to romanticize the current moment. The global economy cannot withstand slowing down. The cracks in the just-in-time supply lines have turned into fissures. As the environment begins to bounce back from human over-activity and some indexes of public health paradoxically improve while others plummet, livelihoods are lost in the millions. Food insecurity has turned, overnight, into hunger. The gig economy has required a scramble to figure out how those who never, on paper, had regular employment can receive hardship benefits. Economies run on undocumented labor are now left with ranks of the invisibly unemployed. Underpaid workers take the risk the rest of us refuse.
In the US and the English-speaking world, we’ve occasionally seen the lionization of slowness but also its limitations. We have a slow food movement but its adherents run expensive restaurants and boutiques where few can afford their offerings (despite the slow food’s original emergence among Italian socialists). We speak of slow scholarship typified by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s book The Slow Professor but I can’t tell you what’s in it; I’ve never had time to read it. Neither have my colleagues.
Martial arts – whether traditional or modern, classical or hybrid – thrive on slow learning. The karateka working his katas, the aspiring boxer hitting her trainer’s focus mitts, the escrimador swinging a stick for hours: despite training for physical speed, these are pedagogies of the slow, the repeated, the continuous.
And, yet, martial arts are no exception to this crisis of speed. Martial artists are small business owners or they are gig workers. Martial arts academies and dojos run with high overhead and low profits. The struggle to maintain a training gym is part of the martial artist’s life. Kids classes, seminars, private classes, self-defense trainings, training videos and online tutorials: all part of the struggle to make martial arts pay.
Even in the lucrative world of sport fighting, most aspiring fighters are just that, aspiring. Contenders get a shot at the big time but bear the risks, financial and physical, themselves. The real profit accrues not to the athletes but to the promoters.
Like everyone else who can afford to be, martial artists are on the move all the time. The value of a martial artist, like other creative professionals, is measured in air miles.
There are important conversation being had now as to what the post-covid world will look like. We’ve learned that even the most libertarian of governments can step up and provide some elements of a safety net. We’ve seen that far more of us can stay off the highways for our daily commute than we thought. We can fly less. A lot less. We can make do with less shopping, humbler foods, fewer commodities, and less entertainment. Kids can thrive without their every moment being scheduled. Our lives can be less frantic.
Martial arts studies can raise similar questions about economies fast and slow. Martial arts are physical practices; they are interpersonal. They value live presence and real bodies in contact with each other. In a world that even pre-covid was increasingly mediated by screens, this is sorely needed. I don’t think we want to downplay how important this is.
And, yet, as with the larger world pre-covid, the state of martial arts economies can, and should, prompt us to ask questions about how we learn and practice what we do, under what circumstances.
It’s worth thinking about what economies of the slow could look like in martial arts. I may just be speaking for my own little corner of martial arts studies, located in the humanities. But there is a deep and intricate relationship between intellectual work and the imagination. Imagination rarely happens at speed. We can only reimagine how to live, how to train, and how to relate to one another if we give ourselves the time do so. We may not have chosen the slowness of our current moment but we can choose what we do with it.
About the Author
Jay (Janet) O’Shea is author of Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training (2019, Oxford University Press) and At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage (2007, Wesleyan University Press). She is currently working on a book on risk, vulnerability, and activism entitled Bodies on the Line: Physical Risk and Social Justice. A practitioner of jeet kune do, kickboxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, Filipino martial arts, and empowerment self-defense, she is professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA. When she’s not swinging a stick or reading theory, she writes short fiction and general non-fiction.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Varieties of “Tradition”: Work, Play and Leisure in Martial Arts