Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement applications; as competition, physical fitness, mental and spiritual development; as well as entertainment and the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.
Although the term martial art has become associated with the fighting arts of eastern Asia, it originally referred to the combat systems of Europe as early as the 1550s. Some authors have argued that fighting arts or fighting systems would be more appropriate on the basis that many martial arts were never “martial” in the sense of being used or created by professional warriors.
Martial arts may be categorized along a variety of criteria, including: Traditional or historical arts vs. contemporary styles of folk wrestling.
Techniques taught: Armed vs. unarmed, and within these groups by type of weapon (swordsmanship, stick fighting etc.) and by type of combat.
But what are the similarities between martial arts and magic?
When reading about how to direct an opponent’s energy, it felt almost like reading a manual on misdirection! Shortly after this I met Stanley A. Skrabut, a long-time teacher and practitioner of martial arts. We had a very interesting conversation over dinner about magic and martial arts, and the things they have in common.
Aikido is a form of Martial Art. The word “Aikido” is made up of three Japanese characters: AI – harmony, KI – spirit, mind, or universal energy, DO – the Way. Thus Aikido is the Way of Harmony with Universal Energy. One of the key points of Aikido is to redirect your opponent’s energy instead of trying to stop him.
If you stop him, you will have to absorb his energy. But, if you yield to his energy, he will continue around your body and cannot do any damage to you.
If your enemy throws a punch at you, you should not try to block his attack – that will hurt you! Instead, you should try to lead his energy past your body, and his attack will lose its power. Mr. Skrabut gave me a very good lesson on this: “Push me,” he said – so I pushed him with quite a bit of force.
He just went limp and rotated; the result being that I continued forward, became unstable and almost fell because I didn’t meet the resistance I anticipated. He directed my energy away from and around himself.
Could the same be true for Magic? If the spectator is not thoroughly engaged in the magic effect, he might not fall for the magician’s persuasion techniques. But if he is involved, or even provoked, there is a better chance that he will be fooled.
As long as you can get the spectators interested in your magic, you will be able to redirect their energy where you want it.
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The key to good Aikido is redirecting energy and throwing the opponent off balance. When Mr. Skrabut yielded to my pushing attack, I lost my balance and almost fell forward before regaining my balance. In a real fight, an Aikido master will never let you regain your balance. He will throw off your balance and let you fall.
Here’s a similar situation in magic: You vanish a coin, using a fake transfer from the right hand to the left. Then you open the left hand and show that the coin has vanished. Your spectator is now mentally off balance, and tries to regain his balance by looking at your right hand, expecting to find the coin there. Now one out of two things happen:
You have the coin palmed in your right hand; the spectator finds out and regains his balance. No magic…
You have disposed of the coin somewhere else, and you show the other hand empty too. He’s totally off balance – and has “fallen” for your deceptive techniques. Magic!
You must never let the spectator regain his balance. You always have a new place for the spectator to focus, and you force his energy there by using your choreographed movements to lead his eyes. It’s the spectator’s own determination to closely follow what you do, that makes him look in the wrong place!
I find it to be a general rule that if you simply vanish something, it becomes a kind of challenge. Let’s look at the difference between a vanish and a challenge. Let’s say you do a coin vanish. The audience will try to figure it out where the coin went. This is a natural thing for them to do, but in effect it’s also an attack on you.
If they say “It’s up your sleeve” and you say, “No, it isn’t,” you have begun a verbal battle that you are sure to lose, no matter how wrong their conclusions are. To avoid this kind of challenge, you must have something else to direct their attention to.
One solution is to make the coin appear somewhere else shortly after the vanish. Find the coin in your shoe or under a cup of coffee, or under a salt shaker, and your “enemy’s” attention will be effectively redirected.
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Ascanio has done some thinking about redirecting thoughts, an equivalent to balance throwing techniques in Aikido. He says that you cannot make people not think about something. You can only make them think about something.
If I don’t want you to think about money, and I say, “Don’t think about money,” you will think about money, so I have to find another way to redirect your thinking. If I say, “Think about elephants,” you will get a mental picture of elephants, and you will certainly not think about money! I have effectively redirected your train of thought!
A common problem occurs when a spectator is burning your hands as you’re about to do a move. Classic magic theory tells you to ask him a question so he looks up at your face. When he is misdirected, you do your move. The problem is that the spectator will know that he has been misdirected.
Tommy Wonder has a weapon that he calls Ricochet. The idea is to ask a question not to the spectator who is closely watching your hands (A), but to another spectator (B), preferably the least suspicious of the group.
Then spectator A is likely to look up at spectator B to anticipate his answer, and you can do your move. Highly elegant use of Aikido principles!
THE FEINT OF DEATH
As a Martial Arts expert, in order to control the situation in a fight, you lie. You pretend to attack with a knife you’re holding in your left hand. Your opponent will focus on the knife, and that’s when you knock him out with your right hand. Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing when we’re fooling people!
When we pretend that something is important, when it’s actually not, we are basically lying to them. When we ask them questions about the innocent object in the left hand, while the right hand is doing the dirty work, it’s the same thing. They focus on the wrong spot and we “knock ’em dead” unexpectedly.
Another way of “lying” is to fake our attitude. In some of my routines I hand the cards to the spectator to shuffle. It is of vital importance that he does not examine the cards closely, so I just give him the cards and immediately move on to something else, like introducing a new prop, pretending that the shuffling is not important, and that I don’t care about the cards. The spectator’s interest shifts towards the new prop, and he does not examine the cards.
Good magicians use Aikido principles and good martial arts performers use misdirection!
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As Western influence grew in Asia a greater number of military personnel spent time in China, Japan and South Korea during World War II and the Korean War and were exposed to local fighting styles. Jujutsu, judo and karate first became popular among the mainstream from the 1950s-60s. Due in part to Asian and Hollywood martial arts movies.
The later 1960s and 1970s witnessed an increased media interest in Chinese martial arts, influenced by martial artist Bruce Lee. Jeet Kune Do, the system he founded, has its roots in Wing Chun, western boxing, savate and fencing.
Following the “kung fu wave” in Hong Kong action cinema in the 1970s, a number of mainstream films produced during the 1980s contributed significantly to the perception of martial arts in western popular culture.
These include The Karate Kid (1984) and Bloodsport (1988). This era produced some Hollywood action stars with martial arts background, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris.
Also during the 20th century, a number of martial arts were adapted for self-defense purposes for military hand-to-hand combat.
The question of “which is the best martial art” has led to inter style competitions fought with very few rules allowing a variety of fighting styles to enter with few limitations.
MARTIAL ARTS FRAUD
Asian martial arts experienced a surge of popularity in the west during the 1970s, and the rising demand resulted in numerous low quality or fraudulent schools. Fueled by fictional depictions in martial arts movies, this led to the ninja craze of the 1980s in the United States.
There were also numerous fraudulent ads for martial arts training programs, inserted into comic books circa the 1960s and 1970s, which were read primarily by adolescent boys.