Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Karate as Physical Culture

[Side note: you may have noticed that I've added ads to the blog.  Through the ads it is possible I will make some money out of this.  I seriously doubt it will ever amount to much, but I kind of feel that if there's even a tiny amount of cash flow coming in (and I made a penny on the first day!)  I'll be more likely to post regularly.  If any of you dislike the ads or feel I should pull them, let me know and I'll reconsider.  If you want to support my blogging activities clicking through on the ads will generate cash for me.  Now on to the post...]

The sport/ lifestyle/ practice of bodybuilding has acquired a tarnished reputation in the last few decades, as it has become increasingly associated with unhealthy practices (extreme dieting, drug abuse) and a lack of functionality (professional athletes who look strong but can't climb a flight of stairs).  Interestingly, bodybuilding has its roots in something called physical culture, which had a very different philosophy.

The physical culture movement, which started in the 19th century, was a system of exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle that was designed to address three major areas of life - health/ longevity (I'll group these together in the interest of simplicity), performance, and appearance.  There were lots of physical culturists, many with competing theories about methods of advancing their goals (some of which were pretty weird, but a surprising number of these theories have been borne out by science in the last 100 years).

The promise of physical culture was appealing - exercise and eat right and you could be healthier, be able to do cool stuff (like gymnastics movements or lift heavy objects), and look good.  Strongmen (popular in circuses and the like at that time) were walking, breathing proponents of physical culture, and people all around the world wound up in gyms working out on all kinds of equipment to experience physical culture for themselves.  They would train in ways that would seem familiar to a modern gymgoer, but they'd also practice skills like gymnastics.

Early contests among physical culturists were interesting.  Physique shows (where you were judged based on how you looked) were often paired with weightlifting competitions.  The guys who trained at Muscle Beach might have been after big biceps, but they also practiced tumbling, gymnastics, and other "functional" sport movements.  The earliest "bodybuilders" were accomplished athletes - to them, the idea of looking strong without being strong was anathema.  You can see the remnants of this culture lasting all the way into the 70's - top bodybuilders of that time often put on shows of strength (think of Franco Columbu blowing up and bursting a hot water bottle) when they weren't onstage in their posing trunks.  That idea is pretty much gone - you're never going to see a guy walk off an Olympia stage and into a World's Strongest Man competition anymore.

Not surprisingly, the athletic endeavors most popular with this crowd were feats of strength (formal weightlifting, picking up oddly shaped objects, etc. - the kind of stuff you'd see in modern strongman competition), gymnastics, and tumbling.  These activities fit in with both the health aspect of physical culture (being muscular and lean are both good for health!) and the appearance.  If you can do a freestanding handstand pushup you're probably going to look pretty good!

The negative things that are associated with modern bodybuilding are only possible because of the way bodybuilding has separated appearance from performance.  If competitors were expected to be able to do heavy snatches, tumble onstage, or perform competitive feats of strength, they'd be a lot more careful about their drug use, would have less-cartoonish physiques, and stay a lot healthier at contest time (because when you're as badly depleted as these guys get for contests you can't do any kind of physical competition).

What I find appealing about the term physical culture are the aims embraced by the movement - looking good was important but not the only goal.  I am saddened that the term isn't in common use today.  People who want to look good, be healthy, AND be strong don't have an easy term to describe their interest - "bodybuilding" may have meant those things once, forty years ago, but it doesn't anymore.

Now, long term readers know that I have little to no interest in self defense - if I trained in karate to better be able to defend myself it would be a huge waste of time, given the likelihood that I'll ever be in a position to have to do that.  I mean, it would be like spending hours a day studying music in case I find myself trapped in a life or death version of American Idol.  I train karate because: a) I love it, irrationally; and b) it's my preferred method of physical culture.

Now, before the angry e-mails start, I'm fully aware that karate was not historically part of physical culture - I'm not claiming that 19th century Okinawan karateka trained to better their health or to improve the appearance of their physiques (maybe some did, to some extent, but I'm not arguing that point).  My point is twofold:
  1. Karate practice is well suited to acting as a method of physical culture.  By training all aspects of fitness - strength, flexibility, reaction time, endurance, coordination, and balance, karate is possibly the most complete form of training that exists;
  2. Karate practice can (and should) be marketed as a method of physical culture as well as a method of self defense, if for no other reason than that the number of people who want to look good, be healthy, and do cool stuff is much larger than the number who are seriously concerned about defending themselves from unarmed attackers.
In modern life, for most people, karate as physical culture makes much more sense than karate as self defense.  It's easier to justify the hours spend training, it's easier to answer challenges ("does that even work in the street?" becomes a less-relevant question if you're training primarily for health, appearance, and performance), and it seems less anachronistic.  Perhaps not everyone can appreciate that a solidly performed Seienchin kata is just as cool as a backflip, a muscle up, or a handstand, but I think a lot of people can.  

I'm not advocating that anybody change their karate training - don't stop doing self defense, don't stop thinking about self defense - I just think we should spend a little time thinking about our karate as a method of physical culture.  When we wonder about the expense of training, or choose a school to go in, or make decisions about how exactly we tailor our practices, our choices should be informed by the philosophy of physical culture.

I train karate for many of the same reasons guys at Muscle Beach in the 50's practiced gymnastics - and, I would argue, for the same reason Crossfit adherents practice jumping rope or doing handstands.  

And if we happen to learn how to fight along the way, that's a lovely added bonus.


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