There’s a famous quote from Bruce Lee: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” The common wisdom in martial arts is that it’s better to dive deeply into a single art than to skim the surface of multiple arts. That said, life is messy. I’ve personally trained no fewer than ten different arts (kenpo, aikido, kenjutsu, Destreza, xingyi, bagua, taiji, yichuan, kung fu, escrima), and that’s not even counting subtler distinctions like the different flavors of aikido or taiji.
I didn’t set out to collect a whole bunch of arts, stuff just happened: I studied karate as a kid like so many people do, then I did aikido while I was in college. After I started training kenjutsu and Destreza with Sensei, he decided he wanted all of his students to cross-train in a bunch of arts he knew, then he got in a motorcycle accident and stopped teaching. I trained kung fu for a few years, then I moved to Pittsburgh for a job and started training escrima here.
Is that “good”? Well, yes and no, there are advantages and disadvantages. I’d say, though, it’s probably pretty normal for a serious practitioner – the days when somebody can go live on a mountaintop and train one art for eight hours a day their entire life are largely gone. So, given that this is probably unavoidable for most modern practitioners, it seems reasonable to look at how one should go about training multiple arts.
One thing every teacher hates to hear from a new student is “that’s not the way we did it in my last school.” Different people do specific things differently; sometimes it’s a matter of taste, sometimes it’s what works for the specific person. If you ask me why I do something a particular way, I’ll give you an explanation, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it, just the one that I’ve found best for me. When you come to a new school, a new style, or a new teacher, it’s absolutely critical to leave your ego at the door. You may be hot stuff in your previous art, but there are reasons why your new teacher is telling you to do something, and you may not have enough experience to understand them properly.
An example: Sensei taught us all circular structure. Elbows were always out, in the “hugging a barrel” position. When I came to Sifu’s school and started training kung fu, he wanted me to put my elbows down by my sides. I thought “this is wrong, this isn’t structure”, but I did it anyway because that’s what Sifu was telling me. Now, with more experience, I understand that circular structure is excellent for exerting power on an arc or to the side, and it’s adequate for exerting power straight forward, but it’s not optimal – if what you want is specifically linear power, you’re better off with your elbows down.
Another example: I first studied escrima with Doug Marcaida (though he uses the name kali). I stayed with him for only a few months before deciding that what he was doing wasn’t what I needed at that time, but I learned a few things in the process. Years later, I came to my current escrima school, and I mentioned that Doug had wanted me to hold my sticks close to the end, with very little punyo (the butt end of the stick) sticking out. Doug’s explanation for this was that it makes it harder for you be disarmed – and he’s right – so I asked my current teacher why he did things differently, with two or three inches of punyo. My teacher said “does Doug use knives?” The reason I was given (there may be others that I’m not aware of yet…) for leaving punyo sticking out is that it behaves like a knife held in what Pekiti Tersia escrima calls a “pakal grip”, with the blade edge along your forearm. By holding the stick in what might be considered a suboptimal position, they’re creating greater crossover between the aspects of the art.
Asking questions is good, but don’t assume you know what the right answers are. If the answer doesn’t agree with your preconceptions, throw away your preconceptions and do what you’re told, and have faith that it will make sense eventually.
Different arts are based on different principles, but there are only so many ways to move a human body: structure, root, balance, distance, and timing are universal. It’s important to understand the principles of the art you’re practicing and use them appropriately, but it’s impossible to keep the principles of one art from bleeding over into all the others if you’ve internalized them properly, and it’s usually not important or even desirable to do so.
If you’ve learned to step in balance, your movement is going to be improved no matter what style of movement you’re using. If your art wants you to leap, you won’t be able to do that in static balance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start and end in balance. If you’ve learned to maintain structure in your body, that will serve you well no matter what movement you’re making.
That said, you do have to understand the needs of your art. If you’re using a yari (spear), it’s critical to move with the weapon – it’s so heavy and unbalanced that it’s effectively impossible to muscle it around, all you can do is steer it. You need to understand how your body structure interacts with the weapon, how to guide the weapon into the movements that you want, and how to stay out of the way once you do. If you’re using a knife and you try to apply those principles, you’re going to have a bad time; the knife is so light and fast that it doesn’t have any momentum to speak of, and you have no real choice but to muscle it around.
When I studied kali with Doug, he was always telling me I had too much body movement, because I was trying to make my sticks behave like a sword. Using the katana in my style is closer to the yari – it’s relatively heavy, and it’s important to understand how to guide that mass rather than fighting it. Sticks are closer to knives; they’re too light for that kind of thing to work, and if you try to generate all kinds of power in your body all you’ll do is slow yourself down and reduce your effectiveness.
If you go from Muay Thai to taekwondo, you’ll run into a similar problem: both of them use kicks as a primary weapon, but they’re so different that translating principles between them is going to leave you in a bad place. At some point you have to understand when to treat what you’re doing as a new and different thing and forget what you know; after you’ve studied it for a while and understand it in itself, then you can try to synthesize it into your existing knowledge base.
Again, there are only so many ways to move the human body, so lots of arts have similar techniques. You’ll find straight and hook punches in every art that punches; front, side, and round kicks in every art that kicks; inside and outside wrist locks, straight arm bars, and hammerlocks in every art that includes joint locks.
Once you understand how to do these techniques, they’ll largely translate from one art to another – but only largely. Every art has its own subtleties – round kicks in most arts chamber the leg horizontally, for example, but in Wan Yi Chuan kung fu the chamber is the same for every kick and the change in direction happens only as the kick is launched. My kung fu steps end with the rear heel raised for more forward power, but escrima wants me to leave that foot flat for maximum mobility.
In general, it’s best to try to forget all your previous techniques when entering a new art. If you go in with a “beginner’s mind”, assuming you know nothing, then you’ll learn the techniques as they’re intended. If you go in thinking you’re an expert, your techniques will always be a little bit off from the perspective of the art you’re practicing. Again, once you’ve learned and internalized them in their proper context, then you can start trying to synthesize them with your previous arts.
Eventually, of course, you need to put things together. When I spar, unless I’m specifically trying to fit myself into the mode of a single art, I use bits and pieces of all of my arts. I throw round kicks and vertical straight punches in the kung fu style and hook punches like a boxer. I step like I’m doing kung fu, I use heavy weapons like a bugei (practitioner of budo, a Japanese martial artist) and light weapons like an escrimador (practitioner of escrima).
Did I plan all of that? No, of course not. Each technique comes out the way I was trained in one of my arts, whichever one I’ve internalized the best. I hope that I’ve chosen the best parts of each of my arts, but probably it’s just the most comfortable parts. As long as they form a cohesive art in practice, I’m happy with how it came out, and I’ll keep polishing it together.
If training multiple arts is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is to maximize the advantages of having multiple perspectives and minimize the downsides of having less depth in each art. Just understand your own limitations, and don’t think that you’re going to know as much about any of your arts as someone who has focused entirely on that style.