Three hundred and fifteen children, including 244 boys and 71 girls, from a variety of schools and economic backgrounds in Hong Kong took part in the study, which was aimed at evaluating “the impact of Chinese martial arts on young children” and exploring Chinese martial arts as “an aggression-reducing intervention,” as described on CityU’s site.

The study’s finding showed that children who received education in martial arts skills and ethics exhibited significant reductions in aggressive or antisocial behavior such as bullying or fighting. They also found it easier to focus.

-Leo Timm, “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Can Reduce Aggressiveness in Children, Says Hong Kong Study”, Epoch Times

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Throughout time, martial arts have been promoted for their character-building qualities. In addition to qualities such as self-discipline and perseverance, which can be easily observed as being engaged in the training of the body, more elusively connected qualities such as mercy, benevolence, and peacefulness have long been attributed to these complex physical practices across cultures. Europe has a longstanding history of such character training within the many classical fencing academies that have existed. Earlier, in the medieval era it was understood that young men should practice wrestling not only for its martial effectiveness- but for its character development. When Japan was finally united under singular leadership, and its government desired to promote peace, it redirected the war-focused martial endeavors of its samurai from combat to self-actualization- at which time the suffix “jutsu” (way) became “do” (art). And as exemplified in the quote above, China today has been attempting to preserve its cultural heritage both amidst its own people and within the global theatre through the promotion of kung fu as a character developing art. The question as to the success of this final example’s campaign lies not as much in the technical efficacy of kung fu, as in the narrative war between the many stories of virtuous kung fu heros and the hubristically rockstar-like moneyed fame promoted by the now dominant world of mixed martial arts.

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What is going on here? How is it that physical exercise, involving the training of movement, strength, flexibility, etc , can simultaneously be effective for the cultivation of character? And if people do martial arts for exercise, (since such things are indeed exercise), why would it matter what stories are told about old kung fu masters or modern day MMA champions? Shouldn’t we judge a physical exercise by its ability to exercise our physicality? What’s with all these characters and character development? Why all the stories? This is supposed to be about muscle and maintenance, about the cardiovascular system and sweat, about fast hands and strong bodies. This is supposed to be about exercise, right? If kung fu and mma are going to duke it out, it should be with their fists, not their stories, right? If mma is winning in popularity today, surely it is because it is a better physical exercise- since it is a physical exercise, right?

It really all depends on one’s understanding of exercise.

The word “exercise” comes from the latin word “exercere”, which means “to keep busy, practice”. Exercere traveled through time across Old French and into Middle English, whereupon it took its current form as “exercise” and its subsequent meaning as the “application of a faculty, right, or process”. Today, we use the word exercise in a variety of ways, as there are many faculties, rights, and processes, which we can apply ourselves to. The military runs battle exercises, students are given math exercises in the form of handouts, protesters exercise their freedom of speech, and children are exhorted to exercise self-control and patience ad nauseam.

Nonetheless, today when people refer to “exercise” sans any explicit direction as to the object of said exercise, the assumption is that physical exercise is being referenced. Doctors exhort us to “take care” of ourselves via “diet and exercise”. Magazines exhort readers to “try yoga” or “try biking” because they are “good exercise”. Running is classified as “exercise”, and yet soccer, which includes an immense amount of running, is still merely “exercise”

The curious thing about exercise, however, is that it is never merely physical exercise- even if we classify it as such. A soccer game involves more than the mere application of bio-mechanical processes. Nobody watches (or plays in) the World Cup out of a mere appreciation of excellently applied physical faculties. And when people listen to their doctors, and take up exercise to improve their health, more is involved than a mere physical process. People who bike or do yoga are not merely engaging their muscles and cardiovascular system. In any of these examples, the physicality of the “exercise” is located within a story, which includes a world far more complicated than something which can be reduced to mere physical faculties, rights, and/or processes. The importance of this observation can perhaps find no better evidence than in the (in)famous “P.E.” class of modern education.

It is a well known fact that most children hate P.E. This hatred tends to find expression in two archetypes. You have in the first: visceral, athletically inclined, materialistcally-prone children who yearn to play competitive sports, rather than engage in routinized bodily maintenance. In the second, we find the headier, more academic, gnostic-ier children who find no joy in hurling bouncy balls in nets or increasing the circumference of their biceps because neither of these things appear to their mind to have any effect on one’s ability to succeed in all the classes that colleges “really look at”, or in “getting a good job”.

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Nobody likes P.E. Not even adults. In the film “School of Rock”, Jack Black’s satirical character reiterates the commonly held belief (thanks to George Bernard Shaw) that “those who can’t do, teach” adding at the end “and those who can’t teach, teach gym”. (A quote which ultimately comes from Woody Allen.) There is no glory for the gym teacher, no “Friday Night Lights” movie or television series celebrating the work such people do. In many schools today, gym teachers are called “coach”, as they prefer to be viewed primarily by their worth in training athletes for sports- whereas teaching P.E. is merely something they’ve been saddled with by a scholastic program that requires all children to get their doctorly recommended dose of bodily maintenance.

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Has our culture missed something here? Have the children, teachers, and society at large missed out on appreciating just how important physical faculties, rights, and processes really are? Are we taking P.E. for granted? Or perhaps we simply aren’t being egalitarian enough- failing to grant gym teachers due equality with science teachers, math teachers, etc? Or even better yet- maybe its all just an issue of preference, on par with choosing the flavor of tootsie roll pop we desire, where some of us prefer academics, and some of us prefer sports, and maybe one or two of us like P.E.- and its really ok that we all prefer different flavors…hah!

It is the author’s contention that our failure in understanding and participating in physical exercise comes not as much from a need to improve our love of P.E. exclusively, as our need to reunite P.E. with the rest of the story of life. Our love of P.E. can only be made right, when it is rightly ordered within the context of life- not in isolation from it. The reason why the athlete loves his sport and hates P.E. is because his sport is included in the cultural story, while P.E. is merely a mechanistic practice. The reason the intellectual hates P.E. but loves his academic pursuits is because he has caught a vision of life in which academics find their transcendent meaning in, whereas P.E. does not transcend beyond mechanistic maintenance in said vision. The reason gym teachers are derided in ways that the rest of a school’s faculty is not, has everything to do with a culture which fails to see how their embodied life has anything to do with life– and subsequently has attempted to reduce and isolate physical practice into what it is now experienced in a modern P.E. class. The success of yoga has more to do with its envisioned “holistic” lifestyle than the efficacy of its physical techniques. Cyclists were deeply affected by both the triumph and the downfall of Lance Armstrong- not because it directly impacted the mechanisms of their physical practice, but because the total impact of their P.E. discipline involves much, much more than just the creation of lithe bodies.

Re-contextualizing P.E. will involve more than simply catching a storied vision of our physical faculties, rights, and processes. We will need the correct  vision. Such a vision will ultimately be a work of sanctification- always improving by Grace as we move through life, through the generations of Believing men and women. Nonetheless, we must realize that this isn’t essentially a preferential task, where we might recognize that the average football player sees the meaning of their world as very different from the average yogi and “that’s ok” so long as everybody’s P.E. is storied somehow. God isn’t a pluralist. While license can be granted to expression of different characters in this story, (e.g. football players, yogis, etc) they must ultimatley strive to see and participate in the same, singular, Great Story that is life.

Furthermore, re-contextualizing P.E. will not be limited to placing gym class within the story of life, or correcting the deranged stories that may have been developed with some of our physical practices. To truly re-contextualize P.E., we must recognize that as incarnate creatures, there is no area of life that does not involve physical faculties, rights, and/or processes. Math may require alot of mental processing, but that doesn’t mean our physical posture is meaningless while we scribble away at our desks. Math might engage one’s mind, but it also engages one’s lungs- which are mechanistically inhaling and exhaling. Math might sharpen one’s mental faculties, but many of us can testify to the power of a neighborhood walk in cleansing and reinvigorating said faculties when one is engaged in a prolonged and challenging assignment. Indeed, all of life is fundamentally physical.

What’s wrong with physical exercise? Is it simply an inherently tedious task of ignominious bio-maintenence, on par with the paying of taxes and dental work? Or is it rather that modern scholastic “P.E.” represents a malnourished educational program best ameliorated by technical reform? No, and no. Although we may do well to recognize that physical exercise before the fall of Man was undoubtably far from ignominious, and that not all physical techniques are created equal, these issues are not the primary source of our modern failure regarding gym teachers, students, and all other modern humans engaging in (or not engaging in) physical exercise. The primary reason why P.E. sucks, and gym teachers are losers, and why yoga is so amazing, and football is god, has everything to do with the story of our physical practices. No amount of scientific breakthrough, social reform, or other rational effort will alone put these things in their right places. Until we recognize that physical exercise is more than physical, and cease to view it in isolation, our attendance to our bodies will remain broken. Until we recognize the inextricably incarnate nature of all of life, the work of our children in math, science, english, history, and P.E. will all be incomplete and insufficient.

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On this note we may wonder as to what a “P.E. class” might look like if its efforts were connected to more than just the routine maintenance of biomechanical processes. Whatever the case, when we have imagined such a class, we can be certain that we will have largely restored the dignity of P.E. in our schools, testifying to our success. Perhaps with a scholastically storied vision of our physicality, (rather than an isolated and reduced vision of physical faculties, rights, and processes), we can educate students to become citizens of a society that can recognize that there is more at stake than sweat, exertion, and mechanical efficacy when Kung Fu and MMA face off. And perhaps, as martial arts evolve, such citizens will be responsible for the creation of newer models of ritualized combative practice which are able to facilitate virtue formation on par with those we associate with classical fencing, samurai, knights, and kung fu heros- avoiding the hubristic developments so oft characterized by modern MMA’s reductionistic denial of story in physical exercise.

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