People like tradition. Turkey at Christmas, eggs at Easter, fireworks on November 5th etc. We like traditions in sport, the Haka in Rugby Union, Tennis Whites and so on. Some Martial Arts are older than Christmas, let alone the other examples, and the traditions run deep. The traditions are respectful, spiritual, and sometimes mysterious. Some governing bodies place more emphasis on traditions, and honouring the heritage of the art, than progress.


Whether we like it or not, the world moves forward. Not always in the right direction, but change is one of the inevitable things in life, like death and taxes! Yet we still feel the need to cling to our past while continually adapting to the constantly evolving world around us. But then, do we lose the essence of what we’re doing if we ignore tradition and go with progress alone?


One analogy a Karate practitioner offered in a discussion with me years ago was;

“When breeding dogs, it’s nice to keep them pure and looking nice.” Okay, but my counter to that would be that if you over do it, without any fresh genes then the dogs have genetic defects and health problems, whereas mongrels tend to be healthier and live longer.


I spent thirteen years in the Royal Navy, a profession steeped in tradition, with far too many to list here. However, some traditions remain, and others fall by the wayside. I remember talking to an ex sailor, of senior years, and he was complaining that on board ship, the tradition of ringing a bell every hour was no longer observed. I would argue that this practice was removed as most people have their own watches and alarm clocks to keep track of their shifts and duties, but he would not be appeased. I am however, fairly confident that when he joined, there were old practices that had been removed, and that his seniors would have been complaining about their absence. Wooden ships are traditional, and beautiful, but where would the logic be in refusing to progress to modern warships just to preserve this?


So how does this apply to Martial Arts? An example within Karate is ‘Kata’. In Tae Kwon Do these are referred to as ‘Patterns’, and in Freestyle Martial Arts, and some styles of Kung Fu, they are called ‘Forms’. These are formal displays, where the practitioner demonstrates a set sequence of combinations within its own ritual. A Kata starts, and ends at the same point, with a bow. Karate was hidden within Kata for years when it was disguised as a kind of dance or exercise routine while it was banned by the Japanese occupiers when they ruled the Ryuku Islands. Karate survived because of Kata, and it is still considered an important part of Karate training. But what is the benefit of practicing Kata, and other traditions in the modern world?


Using Kata as an example, ignoring the traditional and spiritual significance, done correctly, it is an exercise in timing, movement and technique. It also helps to develop fighting spirit, body conditioning, and focus, as well as presenting an important element of Martial Arts, respect. This is done in different ways in arts such as Muay Thai, Boxing and Win Chun, where training drills and pad work are used. Muay Thai, although a Combat Sport, has as many traditions as Karate, due to its ancient roots in Muay Boran and links to Buddhism.


However, if we reject adding new techniques and more effective ways of achieving the aim, don’t we get left behind? Doesn’t what we’re doing just become a flowery display? I don’t think many people start training in a Martial Art without at some point considering its potential to be used as a self defence system. During my time practicing Karate, one thing that I noticed was that we spent a lot of time working on defences against Karate techniques. We occasionally practiced a kind of improvised self defence scenario, but as a percentage this was limited, and it is difficult to play the ‘aggressor’ when you have been practicing sharp, clinical techniques for years.


Some traditional Martial Arts uniforms, such as the Karate or Judo ‘Gi’, or the Tae Kwon Do ‘Dobok’, are based on the style of dress in the time and region of the arts. They have no practical design, and can actually be quite restrictive and uncomfortable to train in. We may experiment and use different, more advanced fabrics, but the basic design stays the same. In Muay Thai we are lucky with the traditional shorts, but they were designed for purpose to allow freedom of movement during competition. Some more modern fighting systems are more interested in practicality than uniformity, and this is sometimes reflected in what the practitioners wear to train.


As time goes on, new traditions can be adopted as older ones are replaced. People evolve too. I do not miss practicing Kata now that I train in Muay Thai instead of Karate, but that does not mean I regret spending years doing so. Quite the opposite. I feel that it has had a massive influence on my life and personal development. If something is labelled as ‘Traditional’, it does not automatically mean it is better or worse, it just means that it has been around a long time. It is true that self defence in 19th Century Okinawa differs from that of 21st Century Britain, but both have basic principles in common.


So is tradition a block to progress, or is progress an insult to tradition? Surely there has to be a balance between the two. Everything has to evolve to fit into the modern world, but keeping positive traditions alive can actually aid progress. I would be sad to see, for example, the bow taken out of the ritual of Eastern Martial Arts, as it is a gesture of respect and humility, which are qualities that can help make us better people.