The Art of Breaking - The Reasons Why and Why Not
by John Stewart
Many of us have already seen a martial artist crush concrete slabs into catbox filler. We may have been there when someone decided to bash a brick to bits, or to make eight-ounce tumblers out of 16-ounce whiskey bottles by chopping off the tops with his hand.
Then, just when we think we've seen everything, someone comes along and converts, say, granite into gravel. Or takes large, round rocks and pounds them into small, jagged pieces. Or caters an affair in which he crushes a stack of ice blocks into party cubes for 5,000.
Breaking is not necessarily difficult, but it can be very dramatic. A large part of breaking any object is making the firm decision that this brick, this board, or this piece of rock is surely going to give way under the force of your most powerful strike.
And usually, it does. If the elements of power are all present‹speed, focus and proper form‹most martial arts practitioners can break several boards or concrete slabs at once. And when attempted by a highly skilled martial artist, someone with a strong mind and proper conditioning, it is pos'sible to break an astounding array of materials.
Actually, it should come as no great surprise that these things are possible‹human bone has recently been proved to be many times stronger than wood or concrete, partly because most of the bodys bones are filled with a network of tiny cross-bracing struts that provide a resiliency that wood, brick, or concrete does not possess.
Highspeed photography has shown that the hand actuaily flattens out on the object on impact, behaving for an instant as if it were a liquid under the stress of impact. That the hand can survive such deformation, even momentarily, is a tribute to the structure of human bone.
And yes, it hurts. Even when the boards or bricks give way as planned, there is likely to be a residual soreness, a long-lasting ache that usually hurts more the next day than immediately upon impact.
"When I am doing a demonstration with the crowd out there I don't have pain" says Hee Il Cho, the well-known Los Angeles-based martial artist who consented to do some breaking for our cameras.
"Afterward, yes, there is pain‹of course there is pain. 8ut the pain is in your brain, and it takes patience to endure it afterward. You have to expect that and discipline yourself to take it," he says.
But why is breaking part of the martial arts, and why would anyone want to try it? And if one succeeds in breaking an object, what has been accomplished? It all depends on how one approaches breaking‹according to Cho, how you break is more important than what is broken.
"Breaking should be a test of skill' not strength. How many is not important - it's how you do it," Cho says. To him, breaking a board should be a test of how powerful a certain realistic a useful technique has become over the years of practice. To use a technique that one would not ordinarily use in fighting for breaking is to Cho to accomplish nothing. For example to practice and acquire a powerful downward palm strike from a kneeling position - a common breaking technique - does little or nothing for one's perfection of form. That it allows for easy breaking of a stack of boards is irrelevant.
In short, to break with a meaningless technique is to accomplish nothing. "They should use a favorite technique," Cho explains. "lf they have a good hook kick, they can test theirspeed and focus by using it for breaking." And as Cho implies, if they can break boards or bricks with that technique, theycan feel fairly confident that they can rely on that technique in a fighting situation. "But getting down on the ground and hitting with the palm - who uses that kind of technique in fighting?"
Cho's attitude is based on his knowledge of the traditional reasons for breaking. The art is said to have been a traditional way of testing power during the birth of karate, when the. Japanese occupied the island of Okinawa. The Okinawans of that time, forbidden to possess weapons of any kind, conditioned their hands and feet to an extreme degree of toughness. Since they never knew when they would have to fight against armed assailants, they religiously practiced their technique and tested it against inanimate objects. Since they had to rely on their abilityto land a killing blow in one hard strike, it was impossible to test the full power of their blows any other way.
Thus breaking, according to some, should be to test one's favorite and most realistic techniques - a test of confidence, of concentration and of focus.
Today, breaking is sometimes used in testing situations, but more often, for demonstrations. Sometimes these demonstrations are a legitimate performance of fighting techniques, but more often, they are a way for the performer to appear as though he is a consummate martial artist.
The temptation is to confuse awesome breaking ability with awesome overall ability. In fact, the great technician can pull off great breaking accomplishments, but the great breaker may not be a good technician overall. The art of breaking is, after all, only a facit of the martial arts.
"A martial art is for self-realization," Cho comments. "It's for joining the mind and body; not just breaking. People who only go out and do breaking are like baseball players who only bat, or tennis players who can only serve. Yes, it's part of the martial arts, but it's not all of it"
And it's not for beginners, even though beginners can betaughtto breakwhatwould usually be thought of as fairly demanding objects.
Cho says he feels the demonstrations he sees today are based on an adolescent fascination with breaking, and that these exhibitions are a disservice to the martial arts.
"With those things they show on TV and what they show for demonstrations, the general public doesn't understanding breaking," he says. "These people with hands like girls, breaking with wine glasses or newspapers‹ that's just fooling the public. How stupid to believe those things. If you don't have the skill, what good is it to trick the public?" he asks.
"Let the public realize that breaking shouldn't be a trick. Most of these tricks you see these days, football players or weightlifters could do them better. There should be no reason to cheat."
Cho is equally adamant about the types of techniques he sees in breaking situations.
"The breaking techniques they show usually are not used in fighting situations. The measuring, setting up, remeasuring‹in fighting you can't do that. You gotta go‹you can't change anything by getting up and down. Breaking is like fighting in that you need speed, balance and technique. But you can't go out on the street and measure, and remeasure, and then summon your ki," he says, allowing himself a small smile.
And then there is the role of the student in the demonstrations - a role that demonstrates the extreme degree of loyalty of a student to his instructor. Cho feels that when accidents happen, the public should realize that it is inexcusable.
"These demonstrations where they break their helper's fingers‹you should never have to make that kind of mistake. When students get hun, that makes me angry‹why should they have to stand there and take the parn? That's no good‹I don't think that's right," he says. "Without control, it's really sad."
Cho prefers to demonstrate his own degree of control and power in ways that few other manial anists attempt He has developed the ability to throw a board into the air and execute a spinning back kick, striking the board at about head level as it falls. When the heel of his foot makes contact, one half of the board falls down at his feet, with the other half frisbeeing off into the distance at high velocity. When Cho breaks, peopie nearby take cover.
The spinning break is a "speed break," a break accomplished on sheer speed and precision of technique. "You spin rightthrough with speed to do it; keep the knee bent. To have a straight knee with the spinning kick is wrong‹your knee's not going to take it. The knee has to be bent," he said.
Cho is also fond of demonstrating the power of his spinning back kick by kicking through as many as five tightly held boards, a feat which he sometimes prefers to do blindfolded. To him, the blindfold really doesn't change anything: During the photo session in which the photos that accompany this anicle were taken, Cho was photographed repeatedly executing the spinning back kick. Careful examination of the~photos shows that Cho will perfotm the technique with his eyes closed 90 percent of the time; he knows exactly where the target is, and so he concentrates on his form, rarely bothering to look as he spins through the kick.
"There are people who can see through their blindfolds," Cho says. "But for me, there is no reason to cheat."
There are other ways to look good breaking cenain objects. Ice can be scored so that it breaks cleanly and with relative ease. Concrete slabs or blocks can be baked to increase their tendency to crumble. Rocks tend to look hard, but there are some rocks that crumble in the hand. Boards are all different‹dry, kiln-baked wood breaks much more easily than green, narrow-grain lumber.
Cho is a aware of these ploys‹most manial anists are‹and he repeats his point about there being no legitimate reason to fool the public. There have been times when Cho has fallen shon of his goal of breaking say, six two-inch slabs of concrete laid on top of each other, using the knuckles of his fist. As with any athletic endeavor, there are times when one's energy level is so low that a "best-evet' performance is not possible. Even so, even when the boards or bricks get the better of a person, it need not be a disaster, according to Cho.
"Even if it doesn't go through, you don't have to feel bad about it. If you can hit that hard, over and over again, even if you do not break, then they know it(the stack of concrete) is real, and they know something about your spirit. When you can hit hard, over and over without huning your hand, they know something about your conditioning.
Cho smashed $50 wonh of building materials during the three photo sessions required to get the right shot for our cover. His hands and feet were subject to considerable wear and tear, and yet he held up well. We asked him about hand conditioning, and he replied ~ that he "builds the calluses during demonstration time."
"Originally, in the old days, they (the Okinawans) had the calluses, and they could chop through anything. They didn't have contests, so they did breaking. Today we use our hands more forwriting and working," he says, adding, "I don't recommend that they get their hands all crumbled up‹you can still train in the manial ans without that. But people who want to be professionals, they may need to. And if you do callus the hand and foot, you can hit harder. Its like the difference between hitting with a rubber hammer compared to a metal hammer if your hand is conditioned," he says.
"If you play piano or are a magician, then you need sensitive hands," he says thoughtfully. But other than people involved in those occupations, most students can afford to undergo some hand conditioning, and Cho mentioned specifically toughening the skin on the knuckles by use of a makiwara.
Cho's personal ideas and methods for breaking are contained in a book he has been preparing for several years entitled "The Complete Martial Artist (Some of the points made in this article have been taken from the book, which is quite comprehensive.) Cho has also occupied himself teaching; with his yearly open tournament; and with the formation of a new martial arts organization "Action International Martiai Arts Association."
One of the most sensitive and sincere persons involved in the maniai ans, Cho is also a true professional who is capable of genuinely astonishing perfection of tech nique, panicularly with regard to kicking. His trademark kick, the spinning back kick, bursts enough heavy bags that the Everlast people are always glad to hear from Cho.
And his evaluation of the role of breaking as an element of the martiai arts is one that many people would do well to consider Breaking should be a way to test the power and focus of a technique, rather than be an end in itself. To break for the sake of assurring a seif-important attitude‹or to break with a meaningless technique‹is to accomplish nothing of value.