How Martial Arts Taught Me To Listen

Here’s the thing about Hapkido (and Judo, and Aikido, and Jiu Jitsu):  our training simply cannot be complete without our partner, and to enjoy mutual benefit with any other person we must be able to take and give trust, and give and take control over others’ bodies, at least for a few moments.

Training has to be safe.  And growth requires a master of the technique of taking and sending our partner’s balance where you want it to go.  To do either successfully we must learn to listen.

Sure, sometimes this means listening to verbal cues like our partners telling us they’re hurt, or informing us of an old injury, or exclaiming in pain or worry.  We must hear those signals, but also internalize how to behave with that information.  Pull back, avoid an injured part, or take emergency measures to end an injury before it begins.

I don’t know about you, but I also frequently use my voice to show how much fun I’m having!  I’ll let out an involuntary cry of enjoyment during a fantastically done throw! My kiyap will be a joyful one when I’m having a great time with my partner! Those kinds of messages given and received tell another important story: things are going well – this is what this is all about.

More than Ears

But the vocal is probably the least significant voice we have doing martial arts.  The most important signals by far come from our bodies.  This is a physical interchange of energy and whether we are in it to win or train – we must listen to be successful.  We must listen to care for our partner.  There is little else that shows a dismissive, selfish attitude than an unwillingness to prioritize this kind of listening.

Beginners can be forgiven for making mistakes – this is a difficult concept to understand at first, and even more difficult to master.  But we must instill in all of our new fellow martial arts how important listening is.  They may have come in with a misunderstanding of what martial arts is about – it’s not total domination.  It’s about self control, community, and harmony.

How to Listen

My partner begins to push me.  She grips my dobok in her hands and she’s leaning her weight into me to force me back.  We’re practicing techniques against pushing.  I can feel her weight is forward, I can feel the tension in her arms – her forearms are taught with the grip, her upper arms keeping her elbows extended and just slightly bent – she’s just lifting up, I can feel each step.  I take a few steps back and turn just a few degrees to the side.  Her wait collapses forward just a bit and I take my moment.  I roll her arm over, her wrist collapses, and she plunges forward.  I gather her up in a lock as she hits the ground.

When I pay attention, I can tune in and identify changes in my partner’s weight and movement,  I can feel how she adjusts to my movements, and I can adjust to hers all in real time.  It took a lot of work for me to get to this level of fluency (and a dance background helps), and I have many more years of work to go.  But if I hadn’t paid attention? If I couldn’t feel the subtle changes? My practice could hurt her.

Let’s go back.

I take a few steps back and turn just a few degrees to the side.  Her weight collapses forward and as I use a free hand to roll her arm over, I feel her drop her weight suddenly – more quickly than my pace would predict.  I ease up on her elbow, I follow her down, I keep the lock very loose as we hit the ground.

She gave me her weight and balance in this practice, and I have to listen and respond in order to take care of it.  I don’t have true control until I know when to ease up.  I don’t have true control until I put my partner just where I want her to be for our mutual benefit.

Keep Listening

I learned to start watching my partner’s face when I locked them; if I lock to quickly or to hard I can see the wince even if I can’t feel the flinch.  I started watching my partner get up from a throw.  Bad knee? Achy back? Stretching out a shoulder?  All of this information makes a good listener, gives me more control, and makes a partner who can adapt to my partners needs.

Another scenario.

We’re doing basic techniques from a wrist grab.  Both my partner and I are standing static. A blank slate.  Nothing to read.  I move my hips under the grip, I flex my wrist in her hand, I slip my grip into the little gap.  My waist, take a step.  But her shoulder doesn’t drop.  Her body doesn’t rotate.  Her face is blank.  Almost placid.  I don’t have her in the slightest.  She might give me the lock, but I don’t want it.

So I adjust.  Sink a bit deeper.  Inch the grip.  Rotate more.  There it is.  Her shoulder dips because the lock in her wrist has tightened to affect the elbow then the shoulder.  And when I have her shoulder,  I have her balance.

Out in the World

So much of what we learn in martial arts has a relevance to our lives.  Lessons of listening to non verbal cues aren’t always easy to apply to our relationships and conflicts but they’re oh so vital.  I should shut my mouth more, I should watch.  I should watch body language and respond in kind.  I should use my body to set the right tone and see how the other reacts.  It’s another kind of empathy to see someone’s balance.


P.S. Funny.  When I was a white belt the prospect of falling for black belts seems scary.  But I learned the secret soon enough: they are the safest in the room.  (Hopefully.)




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