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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > September, 2006 - The Gentle Art of Cat Fu

The Gentle Art of Cat Fu by "The Mirror"

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This article was written by Katherine Derbyshire.

Two years ago, I began studying another martial art. My aikido practice continues, but I also adopted a pair of four month-old kittens. That was my introduction to the ancient art of cat fu.

Human martial artists often wonder if their practice is "real." Will it save them from muggers, protect them in bar fights, give them "combat skills?" Humans endlessly debate whether the written and unwritten rules of dojo practice have drained the realism from their arts.

When you're only 12 inches tall, all fights really do go to ground.

For animals in the wild, fighting is a matter of life and death. It's how hunters capture their prey and how prey species survive. Animals fight to take and hold territory, to earn the opportunity to reproduce, to protect their young. It doesn't get more real than that.

Though my cats live pampered, sheltered lives compared to their wild cousins, they clearly take their hunting skills very seriously. They focus on potential prey with the lethal intensity of military snipers and Olympic biathletes. They circle each other like gunslingers, watching every twitch for a threat or an opening. They pounce with speed that defines the phrase "catlike reflexes."

In hot pursuit.

Yet they're surprisingly gentle, with each other and with fragile humans. Wrestling with each other, they bite, kick with their strong back legs, slap with their front paws, but never break the skin. Only rarely will one complain that his brother is being too rough. They understand that human skin is easily damaged, too. While they might pounce on fingers and toes, they almost never leave even a scratch.

In martial arts terms, I would say that cats know how to protect their practice partners, and know the difference between play -- however serious -- and a real fight. They didn't learn the difference by reading a sign in the cat fu dojo or a post on Aikiweb -- written language still eludes them. Rather, they learned it from their litter mates and from older cats, humans, dogs, and other practice partners.

Analogies can be stretched too far. Humans are not cats, and a human dojo offers far more complex social interactions than a litter of kittens or a pride of lions. Still, the cat fu model of healthy socialization isn't really that far from the way a healthy dojo works. New students want to be convinced that their technique is "real" -- otherwise they're wasting their time -- but they may not be sure what "realism" actually means. They probably don't mean to hurt anyone, but they don't necessarily have much control or sensitivity. It's up to more senior students to tell them when they're being too rough or otherwise violating the unwritten contract between uke and nage.

A successful hunt.

It's also up to senior students, and ultimately the instructor, to define the lines that cannot be crossed. Cats have boundaries, too, and a clear vocabulary that other cats and sufficiently observant humans can read. Crossing these lines can turn play into something very serious indeed: a real fight.

We adopted an elderly cat at the same time as the two kittens. Though the kittens quickly grew to nearly twice her size, they also learned not to challenge her. Cats warn others that they are serious by growling, hissing, and finally attacking with claws extended and ready to do damage. The difference between play and a serious fight is obvious to human observers, and certainly to the cats involved. It might be anthropomorphizing to say that cats consider the consequences before entering a serious fight, but ours do seem to avoid fights while taking every opportunity to play.

In human dojos, drawing live steel on overly aggressive beginners is generally frowned upon. Still, clear lines separate acceptable practice, however vigorous, from real fights. It's up to senior students and the instructor to avoid crossing those lines, and to warn beginners when they approach the boundaries.

Atemi is very important.

When human martial artists try to add realism to their practice, they sometimes look to "ultimate fighting" competitions, competitive sparring, or some other practice that's perceived to have fewer rules. Yet "real" cat fu looks pretty much like practice cat fu. Two lions fighting over territory look pretty much like my two kittens wrestling on the floor. A cheetah bringing down a gazelle uses moves very similar to those my cats use on their toys, or even on each other. The difference is intent, manifested in claws that stay retracted, or not, in jaws that do or don't quite close.

The dilemma of "realistic" practice is that reality is too dangerous to practice. Intent offers a way out. Humans don't have retractable claws, but they can decide whether to continue a wrist turn against resistance, whether to land a punch, whether to support uke's shoulder during a break fall. We don't practice to recreate reality, but to develop the skills that give us choices in real situations, the skills that allow us to manifest our intent.

All photos are Copyright 2006 by Katherine Derbyshire

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