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Nine Lessons From Over 50 Years Studying Health and Martial Arts

Lessons learned from a life in health and martial arts

Barry Westley and The Black Country Buddhas

If you missed Barry Westley’s appearance on the Black Country Buddhas podcast, you need to watch (or listen) to it now!

Having spent over 50 years studying health and martial arts, we knew Barry would be a fountain of knowledge and he did not disappoint!

Not to miss out on an opportunity, we asked Barry if he would kindly write an article for our site, giving him free rein to include whatever he wanted.

The patron in him kindly agreed to write an authentic article that would benefit the MHV community and here it is… nine key lessons Barry Westley has learned in over 50 years of studying health and martial arts.

There are no fillers to reach a “top ten,” no editorial meddling, just pure quality lessons from a wise and inspirational man…

Take it away Barry…

1. Posture is everything!

Without good posture, your strength is compromised. You will have a weak base and will not be able to transfer power from the ground upwards to adequately perform a strike or ward off.

With good posture, your muscles can relax because you are not relying on your muscles to hold you upright.

With good posture, you can move smoothly and quickly while staying relaxed.

Also, if you posture is correct and all your “gates” are open, your internal energy will flow freely, powerfully and safely. If your gates are closed, then, over time, your health will deteriorate.

Your posture dictates your mood. If you are strong, open, relaxed and full of free flowing energy, you feel more able to cope with whatever life throws at you. If you are hunched and depressed your energy will sink to your boots and you will feel week and inadequate [check out The Black Country Buddhas clip with World Series winning physician Dr Alex Vidan for another professional opinion on this].

If things are going wrong with your health or martial arts, look to your posture first.

I have learnt to fear the relaxed, calm, happy opponent much more than the aggressive, scowling individual.

In terms of the health arts, if you are not open and centered, how can you be a blueprint for your patient to get well?

2. It is all conjecture.

A very important one, this – OPINIONS ARE NOT FACTS!

You are allowed to do things differently and find your own way, provided you have first put in the time to fully understand what you have been taught.

Just because a great master did it in a certain way hundreds of years ago does not mean that that way is appropriate now or even that it is right for your personality or body type.

There is no such thing as the perfect health or martial art for everyone. You do not follow a path, you make a path by walking!

Bjorn Borg strung his tennis racket too tightly, stood too far from the baseline, hit with too much topspin, etc, etc. But how many Grand Slam titles did he win?

We need to be respectful of our teachers (and students) in all our systems, but should not become straightjacketed by them. We are allowed to question and try new ways. If we do not, our art will become static and cease developing.

It is a poor martial or health art if we do not discover something new every week.

3. Learn to let go.

Even after 50 plus years I still try too hard! I should have learnt by now.

This does not mean that you are lazy and sloppy. On the contrary, your posture and technique should be the very best you can manage. Only then can you relax into the movement and work at your most efficient level.

Too much attention and effort will burn up your energy, you will quickly lose that feeling of being ‘in the zone’. We need to let go and allow things to happen.

This ‘letting go’ also applies to preconceived ideas about a martial art, another person, a health art and about ourselves.

In Zen parlance, you cannot receive fresh knowledge until you first ’empty your cup’ and let go of all your historical preconceptions.

4. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Master Chee Soo used to say that you had to do a movement 1,000 times before you started to understand it.

Unfortunately, in today’s world we want everything yesterday and have no patience.

Just knowing something is not enough, we have to practise it over and over again until it becomes a natural body awareness.

Bruce Lee said that he did not fear the man with 1,000 techniques, he feared the man who has practiced one technique 1,000 times.

5. Don’t be in a hurry.

We all want to learn as quickly as possible but just trying hard isn’t enough. It comes down to patience again.

In the Chinese arts in particular, you may be told something that may only makes sense decades later, when all the other ‘bricks are in the wall’. You cannot hurry this process.

I am often amused in my class when a student grasps an idea and then asks why he hasn’t been shown this before. In fact, he had been shown it lots and lots of times over the years but his mind wasn’t ready to accept it, it was not the right time.

When the mind is ready for the knowledge, that insight seems to be simple and is absorbed without effort.

6. Listen to everyone, irrespective of status.

Not all great martial artists or health practitioners are great teachers! These are totally different skills.

Sometimes a lesser skilled instructor has had to work hard to develop the skills he has and so is better equipped to explain the process of learning.

If someone is ‘just a natural’ they may not be able to explain exactly what this naturalness is.

The humblest student can give insight to the most experienced teacher by asking a simple, innocent question. On the other hand, the most experienced teacher can cloud and confuse by over-explanation or too rigid an adherence to tradition and lineage.

A moderate practitioner who can teach you three things is preferable to a magnificent master who is so far above you that he cannot teach you one.

It is not important (except for your ego) that you are the student of a great master, only that you learn.

7. Your system is not better than anyone else’s.

It is the practitioner not the type of practice that is important.

I have been fortunate enough to train under wonderful teachers in lots of different disciplines; including: powerlifting, meditation, Shiatsu, healing, Tai Chi, Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu and Systema. The one that all of these systems had in common was that there were people with awesome talent in all of them.

I could never hope to come close to equalling their level of skill and I strongly suspect that they would be brilliant whichever system they adopted.

One of my Tai Chi and Kung Fu Masters had already been a European Karate champion. My Shiatsu and Meditation teacher had been a French Table Tennis champion. I am sure there are more examples.

My point is, it is practitioners who make a system work and if the practitioners are not skilled and dedicated then it will appear to be a poor system. If, on the other hand, they are skilled and work hard it will appear to be a great system.

All systems have strengths and weaknesses.

Sorry to quote from Bruce Lee again but he maintained that Kung Fu was a fantastic system but took a long time to master. If you wanted to learn to defend yourself in a short time and become a competent fighter, he recommended going to a Western Boxing Club!

The growing popularity of mixed martial arts is Testament to the fact that serious Fighters recognise that no one system probably has all the answers. So, don’t criticise other systems, learn from them.

Even if your way of doing things is a great way, always remember that it is not the only great way.

8. Your biggest enemy is your ego.

Your ego will constantly undermine you. It will flatter you if you win a competition and depress you if you lose. It will encourage you to compare yourself with others in a flattering or unflattering light. It will sew in you the fear of failure, the fear of looking an idiot, to the point where you are too scared to try anymore.

There is a Taoist proverb that, if an archer is shooting at a target for fun he will hit the target almost all the time, if he is shooting to win a pot of gold he will often miss. Only when we let go the desperation of the ego will we be free to perform at our optimum best.

Focusing on the process, not the prize is the sensible way to get the best out of ourselves.

A good boxing coach does not burden his protégé with telling him he wants him to win. He will tell him to keep his left hand high, chin down, to watch out for that looping right over his left hand. Practical, sound advice. If his boxer follows that advice there is a chance he may win and, even if he does not, he can be proud of his performance. If his only agenda is to win, and he loses, where does he go from there?

9. There are some wonderful people out there.

In an often depressing world there are few things as good as working towards a goal with a group of friends.

I am proud to say that, in my time studying the health and martial arts, I have met people who have changed and enriched my life. They have kept me grounded, encouraged and helped me believe in myself to reach my potential. They are people who would watch your back, help you in your time of need and give you a kick up the backside when you needed it.

Disciplines as disparate as powerlifting and Taoist Yoga have produced one thing in common. They have gifted me with lifelong friends and for this I am eternally grateful.

So…go find a club, with an Instructor you like, a system that suits you and start making some great friends.

Barry Westley 2018

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