Monday, June 29, 2009

Why wear the get-up?



The question of why we bother to wear the traditional garb of a given martial tradition is an old one. Bruce Lee, and others since, felt that one should practice in the clothes they would most likely be wearing when actually engaged in a fight "on the street". Which makes a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, I know a lot of martial artists, and not many of them have ever had to use what they know "on the street."

So why do it? A special get-up is not reflective of reality, and it doesn't improve the technique. They're certainly not cheap, either. Well, over the years, I’ve thought of a few reasons why we would, although the reasons might well vary from person to person (I'd love to hear anyone else's two cents), and here's one or two.

First of all, in terms of sheer practicality, no, it’s really not necessary.

One reason I do it (I owe this perspective to the acute insight of Lowry Sensei) is because of the focus it gives you. It’s for the same reason practitioners of a particular religion might dress up in special robes and go to a holy place to pray and to worship. Do they NEED to go somewhere special and wear special clothes to gain spiritual direction and enlightenment? Probably not.

But all of it has a way of focusing the mind on the task at hand in a way casual observances can’t. It tends to shut out the rest of the world, just for a little bit. I feel different in a gi, and particularly in hakama, the same way I feel different in a nice suit and tie than in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Jeans are more comfortable, but a suit has a way of making me feel... sophisticated, smarter, smoother. (Whether or not I actually am is debatable). Something about the way we dress, the way we take care of our bodies, the way we keep our environment, effects our mindset.

So the keikogi and hakama remind me to take what I’m doing seriously, to pursue it with a sober mind, with honor and dignity. Presumably, we study these arts for reasons other than just sheer self-defense, and the vestments which are unique to budo remind me of it. Otherwise, well, it’s just a fight club.

I also like the idea that everyone is dressed the same. When we enter the dojo, we're all wearing something different: some people may be wearing expensive, stylish clothes, while others wear the only threadbare pants and worn-out shoes they have because they can't afford anything better; some prefer to exude a sophisticated style, while others prefer a waggish or even more subversive one. But once we don our white keikogi, we step into a world where everyone is more or less on the same level. Oddly enough, any latent judgments regarding class, age, status or even race tend to evaporate.

We are family. Not a perfect one; we still bring with us our own dysfunctional attitudes and philosophies. But something about the identical uniform prompts us to remember that we're all in the same proverbial boat together, and our goal is a mutual one. There exists a unique sense of fealty to each other, to the school and to the art that I have yet to find anywhere else. Is it any coincidence that the dojo to which I belong has given me some of the most meaningful, enduring and unflagging relationships than any other organization (including church, sad to say)? I don't mean to suggest that this is due entirely to what we're wearing, but I believe it's a small piece to the puzzle.

These are a few of the reasons, at any rate. I may remember more as time goes on.

Of course, there is also something to be said for training in "street" clothes. I'll have to save that for another post!

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