On looking for secrets within your martial art study

posted in: MASRN, MASRN Conference 2016 | 10


This article is based on a lecture given by Dr Ben Spatz at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference at Cardiff University –  Embodied Research: An Epistemic Context for Martial Arts Practice


My friend is talking about another friend of hers. She says: You’ll have to meet him – I think you’d really get on. He plays Kung Fu, and he’s as crazy about it as you are about Aikido.

I correct her. The appropriate verb here isn’t play. It’s train in. We both laugh.

But that day and conversation seem very distant now. Since then, Karate has replaced Aikido, and in my new dojo the appropriate verb is no longer train. It’s now study.

At first this seems odd, but then one of the senseis explains why they prefer this word. Training can be defined as the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour. And that’s certainly a large part of what we do. But there’s so much more.

So we use the word “study” to indicate the rich depth of reflection, exploration and possibility underpinning the kata and other physical training. His face lights up as he talks about the rich, satisfying immersive experience of studying Karate.

I love listening to his explanation. But I’m also left feeling that it’s out of my reach. He’s been training in this art for so many years, and understands a lot of things that I can’t access yet. I know it’s different (and good) to study in this dojo, but can’t yet capture or express that feeling in language. I think: What exactly is this experience he’s describing? And how will I get there too . . . ?





In the end, I find an interesting take on this outside the dojo. I’m listening to Dr Ben Spatz (an expert in the field of embodied knowledge) lecture at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Research Network Conference at Cardiff University. 

And all I can think about while listening to him is: ahh! so this is why we call it study!

The heart of Ben’s talk is an intriguing idea from the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina.

Cetina argues that when we look at normal everyday objects from the outside, they seem fixed and complete – like “closed boxes”. But objects of knowledge (for example a martial arts kata or technique) are different to physical objects. Like Mary Poppins’ magic carpet bag, they can be opened up and explored from the inside to reveal endless surprises! Cetina writes,

knot-242409_640[They] appear to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely […] But this also means that objects of knowledge can never be fully attained.

Ben shares this quote with us, and says: When I read this I almost fell over! I thought: this precisely describes my experience. When I learn some pattern [he is a Drama specialist] I go into it – then I go into it some more. The more you go into it, the bigger it gets. That’s not how it works with an object you buy from the store.

With something like a song, or a martial arts form, you go in and there’s more. It’s not that you go in and you dominate it and it closes off and then you have it – you’ve mastered it. Something else always appears . . .

A shiver runs down my spine. He is echoing and expanding on the ideas I hear in my dojo. It feels weird to sit in this neat, sweat-free University lecture theatre, hundreds of miles from home, hearing these informally shared ideas rearticulated as hard, dense academic theory.

Only last week one of the instructors said, enigmatically: you will never master this kata. There’s always more within it. But the more you practise it, the more you will change as a person. And the more you change, the more you will see in the form . . .




In his lecture, Ben fleshes out this idea of the learning opening up and unfolding forever. He says:

It’s a pathway, in the sense of: if I do this, then this becomes possible. But if I don’t do the first thing, I can’t even understand what the second thing is. And most pathways are obviously wrong. That’s what makes it research. That’s what gives you that feeling which Cetina is fantastic at describing – she calls it libidinal which is really nice.

That feeling – it’s somehow sensual.

That there’s something out there that you’re wrestling with, in this very push-hands way. There’s something there that pushes back, because most of those things are just dead ends. Could we . . . ? No . . . No . . .can we . . . ? maybe . . . ?

Ah! This one . . . !

And that feeling of “ah; this one!” is the one that gives you the feeling you’re discovering something.

So how do we imagine that? The easy way is to imagine a kind of tree. But this is not a neat, schematic “tree diagram”-type image. It’s much messier. It looks more like an actual tree – a continuous branching.

First of all, the branches are different stree-675073_640izes. So it’s not a case of having four equal choices. There might be a big choice, and then a kind of little choice, and the little choice might lead to something really interesting.

It’s hard to locate yourself in this. You can’t say: I’m at node three now.

We go in, and it’s fractal, so there are more choices and more possibilities. And we’re always searching.  

And most of the space is white, meaning most things are not possible. I can’t jump up and stay in the air for five seconds. I can’t close my eyes and still see.


I recognise the experience he is describing with excitement, and realise that my sensei’s profound experience of study may not be so far out of reach after all, albeit we may access it on very different levels. It’s a gift and a revelation to now have such clear, accurate words to break it down and describe it.

I never “studied” Aikido in this deep sense, for all the fifteen years I trained in it – or even dreamed the possibility existed. I’ve only been exposed to this alternative approach through learning Karate for a relatively short time so far, but it feels like coming home.

The most noticeable difference is that I now regularly practise at home, which I never did with the Aikido. I used to try sometimes, but in those days it just made no sense to me how you could train alone, without a partner. Now, exploring the kata and kihon alone is an essential supplement to the full-contact elements of training in class.  




I transcribe some of Ben’s words (the lecture has helpfully been posted up on YouTube) and show them to two of the senseis, and a couple of more senior students. I say: this was written by a Drama guy who doesn’t know any martial arts. Do you recognise the experience and the feeling he’s describing. They read it carefully and nod approvingly; he’s nailed it.

One of the senseis says: When you get to a high level in any art, it’s all the same, just as he describes it. It doesn’t matter if it’s martial arts, or music, or painting – or anything else.




After the conference, I read Ben’s recent book: What A Body Can Do, to try to understand more. In the book, Ben talks about practising technique as being a kind of research. This research can happen on three levels:

– Level one is a “weak” level and comprises personal research. The student is discovering things about the techniques that are probably well known to others, but new to him or her.

– Level Two is stronger. It involves discovering things that are new to your own community of knowledge, to use Ben’s phrase.

– Level Three is the “strongest” level of research. It entails discovering something completely new – a pathway that had never previously been known to anyone.

(Just to add that splitting up the three “levels” like this is my own take on what the book says.  Ben’s comment is: I agree with you that those are the three levels I discuss in my book, but personally I would probably not break them down in such a clear numerical way because it is not always easy to tell them apart.)

Perhaps my favourite quote from the whole of Ben’s book is this:

Specialized knowledge in any field is not directly accessible from the surface of everyday, commonplace knowledge. One has to find one’s way into it, proceeding step by step along its paths (page 45).


We all know that the fantasy of secret martial techniques is a chimera and even a joke.

journey-1550312_640Yet many of us in the martial arts are still somehow drawn to the idea of arcane mysteries, even if we don’t admit it openly. And here is an approach that gives us genuine secrets and hidden wonders – but free of superstition or credulity, and firmly grounded in our real and practical physical training experience.

So I’m delighted with Ben’s ideas. They’ve helped to elucidate the mysteries I’m brushing up against in my new dojo, by putting them into words that even a Karate beginner can access. What’s more, I now have the first elements of a new, precise vocabulary to describe and reflect on the joy of practising – or should that be studying kata. Until now, it’s just been more of an abstract good feeling – but with no name.

I also feel like I have a deeper understanding of a helpful mindset with which to approach Karate study – and a tentative roadmap for the long journey ahead . . .

Related article: “To see a world in a grain of sand” – The awesomeness of training with beginners 

ben-spatzBen Spatz is Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance. He moved to Huddersfield from New York City in 2013 to join the Centre for Psychophysical Performance Research. Ben holds a PhD in Theatre from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2013) and a BA with Honors from the College of Letters at Wesleyan University in Connecticut (2001).

Ben is the author of WHAT A BODY CAN DO: TECHNIQUE AS KNOWLEDGE, PRACTICE AS RESEARCH (Routledge, 2015) and several essays and articles published in academic and artistic journals. His research focuses on the transmission and innovation of embodied knowledge across physical culture, performing arts, and everyday life. In New York City Ben has performed and shown work at New York Live Arts, Abrons Arts Center, Movement Research at Judson Church, and Lincoln Center’s Rubenstein Atrium. He is an experienced performer and teacher of physical and vocal training for actors, drawing on a wide range of cultural and pedagogical sources.

Ben lived in Poland from 2003 to 2005 as an apprentice performer at the Centre for Theatre Practices Gardzienice and a Fulbright Fellow at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw. For more information about Ben’s artistic projects, visit www.urbanresearchtheater.com.

10 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Bravo! Most folks don’t see the depth in our art – all they see is a bunch of kiddos waving their hands and feet in a vaguely aggressive way 🙂 Thanks for this. Maybe it’ll help someone understand there’s depth and riches enough to satisfy adult minds and spirits, and that the black belt should never be viewed as the ultimate achievement and the end of learning.

  2. Quentin cooke

    A nice article, which I can relate to. I’m just frustrated that you never got this from your aikido training and I fear that this is largely true across the art. I’m glad to say that I have largely followed my on path now for a large number of years and the journey has been rich, surprising, expansive and seemingly never ending.

  3. Kai

    Dear Quentin please don’t feel any frustration on my account 🙂 I’m in a good place with training (study!) now and the years before were the path to get here, so nothing is wasted. And you have been so important in that journey over the last couple of years. You’ve absolutely opened my eyes to new possibilities re. what a martial art can be, and mean, both on and off the mat, and I will always appreciate that. Take care and speak soon K

  4. Boykie

    “Specialized knowledge in any field is not directly accessible from the surface of everyday, commonplace knowledge. One has to find one’s way into it, proceeding step by step along its paths” – Powerful stuff there.

    I’ll probably have to come back to this post a few more times to get the full value of it. Thanks for sharing :-).

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