Artist of Life: Can an Athlete Be an Artist?
"To be a martial artist means to be an artist of life.” - Bruce Lee
In the past several years of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time in a martial arts school/boxing gym as both a student and instructor. Though I consider myself an artist, both in a martial and a creative sense, I never really felt walking into that gym as if I were walking in to an artist’s studio. Somehow seeing a boxing ring, heavy bags swinging back and forth, and folks wailing away on Thai pads doesn't feel very arty. Now maybe watching the internal arts folks, such as the qi gong practitioners, feels a little like dance and seems to correlate more to art. Even then, calling it a home of artists feels like a stretch.
Still, that word ‘art’ is associated with the martial arts, and even MMA includes the word arts. Really though, does anyone think Georges St. Pierre or Anderson Silva are artists? Surely people who throw kicks and punches as a profession or practice aren't artists, are they? A group of students from Juilliard or Cal Arts and a group of students/fighters from Greg Jackson’s can't possibly be from the same tribe, can they? Well, Bruce Lee would certainly contend and argue that we, martial artists, are indeed artists. It still seems like a tough parallel to draw without Mr. Lee's sentiment.
Like many things in life, the truth lies somewhat below the surface. In defining art, one doesn't always know how to quantify what they see, they just know they feel. What they feel is truth. Art is real when it is truthful, and truth comes from being alive in the very moment one is in. When one looks at a gifted fighter and is able to see beyond the blood, sweat, and anguish of those punches and kicks, they see rhythm, dance, and the artistry of complete and utter focus. There is art in the rhythm of the movement and there is art in the expression of truth, as brutal as it may be.
There is a commonality that martial artists share with performance artists, from singers and dancers, to actors. That commonality is breath. Utilization of breath in the martial arts is sometimes referred to as the energy concept of chi, or qi. In order to be present and effective, an artist must breath efficiently and correctly. To do so, artists connect with the origin of their breath and source of energy. Connecting with our chi means breathing from our center, where our breath originates in the abdomen. Breathing from one’s abdomen enables the artist to draw breath and keep the body relaxed. Those who have not been trained in such a way instead often breathe with tension and from the chest.
In the martial arts, we find the ability to breathe efficiently and express beauty in the moment in a similar way to those in the performance arts. Bruce Lee’s point wasn’t that kicking and punching is art, his point was that a true martial artist is an artist in and out of the ring, the dojo, or the gym. A true martial artist practices art in his or her daily life. Artists don’t simply perform their craft. They work and live at doing so. Actors spend countless hours doing research and in rehearsal. In a similar sense, martial artists and boxers must perfect their rhythm only to break it in playing the game of chess with their opponents. This takes a true sense of workmanship and development of craft. Developing such a craft is a lifelong discipline.
Art happens when one is able to find truth in the moment. We as martial artists must find what it means to be in our bodies and observe every situation with a heightened awareness. This sense is what makes one an artist of life - the ability to be truly present. A martial artist is never reacting but constantly flowing and adjusting seamlessly, the way a surfer dances with the wave or a skier glides down the mountain.
There is a saying that art imitates life and there is truth to this sentiment for martial artists as well. Sometimes the fight is with aggression, fear, or anger in others and sometimes the fight is with the fear or hesitation in us. We are artists of life when we make our way through these situations with grace and presence.
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