Calm Aggression: A Paradoxical Reality of the Martial Arts

I was working with a young girl who I knew struggled with being aggressive in her sparring.  It was just her and me for that particular class so I could slow things down and explain some concepts that she had not intuited yet in her training.  I mean, she’s pretty young, so this concept wouldn’t have occurred to her anyway.  Whenever she sparred with the other students she would get overwhelmed, particularly if one young boy was her partner and freeze in response. We talked about what it means to be aggressive, she gave me a list of definitions that were most centered on being physically aggressive, I added really going after something and a couple of other ideas to the list.  Then we talked about remaining calm while sparring and what that looked like.  I told her that she could be both calm, and aggressive, at the same time.  She was skeptical of that idea. Through a series of exercises I proved that it was possible, and apparently that was a game changer for her according to her dad.

At this point in my training, certain things have become instinctual so I barely think about them until I’m faced with a higher level of danger or commitment.  Being calm, but aggressive is one of those things. It dawned on me after class that being calm AND aggressive at the same time in the face of danger is a bit of a paradox.  The terms seem mutually exclusive and opposites.  How can one remain calm, yet be also aggressive during a fight, or sparring, or during testing?  

I explained it to the student like this: Calmness happens in the mind.  It comes from what we’re thinking about, and paying attention to during sparring.  If someone is wailing on us with blow after blow, it’s easy to get distracted and worried about what’s happening.  That fear response starts to kick in and panic takes over and the human response to fear is either fight, flight, or freeze.  Learning how to shortcut that system, or work with it, is essential to developing as a fighter or martial artist.  Calmness occurs when we learn to see what’s happening and not give into the urges that comes with the fear response.  Some call this bravery or courage, we’ve heard it quoted several times as “I’ve learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but triumph over it.  The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear” ~ Nelson Mandela.  When faced with someone who intends to mow us down, the trained faces that challenge with bravery and calm.  Calmness feels like peacefulness, relaxation, and steadiness.  A calm person seems very tranquil and at ease.  

Being female, aggression isn’t something that comes naturally.  When I first stepped onto the mats, I was not the teensiest aggressive, or calm for that matter, for quite some time.  A couple of years into it, I learned about aggression during a grappling lesson.  I liked the person I was grappling with so I didn’t really want to hurt him.  I wasn’t angry, or afraid, but was tasked with prevailing, or least not tapping out.  I learned how to think “What a minute!! You can’t do that to ME!!” while I was twisted in a pretzel to find enough verve to fight back.  Mostly that energy resided in my gut, or hara.  As a side note, I’m currently studying kiai and kototama to understand what I missed in my last test (I got dinged a few points for my kiai being messy with the feedback that I need to own my kiai).  According to what I’ve read so far one’s kiai comes from the hara.  Aggression feels like pulsating energy that comes from my center out to my limbs.  My body feels wound up, my limbs tight and ready to explode with power at whatever I’m hitting. Just like kiai is an explosion of sound, aggression is an explosion of power and coming from the same place, they work in tandem.

Given the competing nature of calmness and aggression, how does one take both concepts and apply them simultaneously? I believe, mostly by experience, that calm aggression happens when the mind is clear and free of distraction and fear, but the hara is energized and ready to explode.  In the mind of the trained, the aggression stays where it is until called upon through the transfer of energy from hara to the rest of the body. In other words, the aggression is channeled and targeted.  It is a kind of finesse that one can find in training of this nature.  I find it difficult to kiai properly, and use aggression if my mind is all over the place.  I must trust myself, my training, and my instinct if I am going to be calmly aggressive.

Have you found yourself battling with either concept in training? How have you found a way to remain calm but use aggression?

Let me know in the comments below!

The Breath of a Lion, or a Mouse.

“Kiai is more art than anything else.”

I had asked sensei, for probably the millionth time, if the technique I was doing was defensive, or an attack.  The above was his reply.  No explanations of what he meant, just that cryptic phrase and slight smile.

We normally use two, sometimes three, different sounds with which to kiai, and which sound we use depends on what we are doing in a technique.  It has to be said that my brain frequently switches up what I’m supposed to be doing and any manner of sound escape my mouth.  But, that’s not really my problem.

MY problem is going from squeaking like a mouse, to roaring like a lion.  Heaven help me, but sometimes the sound coming out of my mouth is literal squeaking.

When sensei said that thing about kiai being more of an art, it occurred to me that I’ve been thinking about this all wrong.  I’d been trying to create energy and intent by focusing on imitating other’s sounds, and trying to get it “right” (whatever that means).  As a novice it’s easy to get caught up in mimicry, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but at some point I needed to find my own voice.  What I was missing was the connection between my emotions and the sound I produced.  Sure, it’s helpful to say the correct sound in practice, but what about in pressure situations? Is it helpful then?  Eh, not so much.

To release the lion within, I needed to find something to connect to, like a sense of worth.  To grow as a person, and a martial artist, I needed to understand my own value.  Through various means, my (Heavenly) Dad showed me what He thinks of me, and what I should think of myself.  He installed a sense of purpose coupled with the idea that I had value simply because I existed.  As my favorite Krav Maga instructor put it “We have to protect what God has given us.”

I’ve encountered people who value themselves in way not connected to their usefulness.  Their sense of self is palpable, and if trained properly, can feel like a warning to “stay away.”  A person who values their own existence is not an easy target, it shows in their walk, in how they deal with others, how they deal with conflict.  Their ego is not driven by what they can do, but who they are on this earth.  My concept of myself has changed so significantly in the past year, that I’ve noticed a change in my kiai.  I get it now.

That sense of belonging, value, and self helps me to want to fight back, to release the breath of the lion when I need to.  Putting energy into my defense, or attack, is about focusing my intentions and skill in the right direction, my kiai is mostly the end result of an internal process.  The more protective I feel, the stronger the emotional connection, the more I can let my opponent know exactly how I feel.

Let there be less squeaking and more roaring.