By: Renardo Barden
The Art of Breaking Bricks and Boards with Your Hands and Feet
By Renardo Barden
(Contemporary Books, 1985, 78 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Probably just about anyone who has practiced the martial arts has at least dreamed of breaking stuff with their hands and feet. Movie martial artists who’s punches or kicks miss the target often smash through wooden pillars, crunch holes in brick walls, and otherwise tear up the furniture so much one has to wonder why those punches and kicks don’t do the same to their opponents. Well, in a movie, the fight must go on for a satisfying amount of time before one of the combatants is victorious. That’s the nature of drama. But what is the true nature of tamashiwara—breaking—how does one do it and train for it, and most importantly, why does one do it? Renardo Barden is here to explain.
What Barden does not do is attempt to give specific instructions to train the reader. Breaking, he insists, is an art with many elements that require hands-on (!) training under the supervision of an expert, with safety as a primary concern. Instead, his book is intended as an overview that encompasses all the aspects of tamashiwara to help lead the interested student more productively into that world.
The author begins with the basic raison d’être for breaking by quoting that paragon of breakers, Mas Oyama (from This Is Karate):
If the formal exercises and the practice fighting we have seen up till this point are the parents of karate, the stone-breaking techniques are the child. The basic formal exercises without the stone-breaking techniques are like a chestnut tree that bears no nuts.
This is followed, somewhat inexplicably, by Bruce Lee’s famous quote from Enter the Dragon: “Boards don’t hit back.”
Oyama’s rationale for essaying the breaking art is simply that, in a fight, the most powerful blow is the one that wins. As most of us know, this is not absolutely true. One apocryphal story tells of a martial artist who could kill with a single punch but faced an opponent who was too agile to let himself be the recipient of that punch and so won the fight by outmaneuvering the one-punch killer and defeating him.
The author starts with moments from his own journey into tamashiwara, and he concludes:
Likewise, there are countless martial arts books, which come complete with extensive stretching programs and warmup exercises. Once again, the attempt is to be selective rather than exhaustive. In this, I hope to address what may be the most common complaint of serious martial artist about books on the martial arts—that they are swollen with an excess of information about stretching and warm-ups (easily available from other sources) and a dearth of detail with respect to the martial art(s) actually being written about. These serious and experienced martial artists will also tell you a thing or two about injuries: for one thing they are most often the affliction of the ill-prepared. Young people and beginners flushed with enthusiasm, because they are inclined to be both ambitious and hasty, are often both ill-prepared and needlessly injured. So be warned. Take your time and spare yourself some doctor’s bills and many hours of pain and setback.
Being prepared is what this book is all about. While it does not provide specific training in breaking, it discusses all the other aspects that the student needs to be aware of as he or she proceeds.
The first chapter is on chi/ki, and it presents the conventional views of this power, from the gullible through the rational to the skeptical. As usual, it’s up to the reader to make up his own mind about this power, but as Barden points out, “Breakers who believe in ki power unite with breakers who do not in asserting that abundant ki power will not enable the physically unprepared martial artist to break. Nor, agree the experts, will this spiritualizing force protect the student from suffering injuries identical to those suffered by unconditioned unbelievers.”
Chapter two is on mental preparation required for tamashiwara. Barden leads it off with a sketch of famed taekwondo master Hee Il Cho, who, the author states, “has a psychological attitude that he seems to share with many of the best breakers in the country….Pain and fear are obstacles that must be confronted, experienced, and finally surmounted by anyone who wants to become a complete martial artist.” The chapter goes on to examine several of these obstacles, including fear of breaking and ego.
Dealing with pain is the subject of the next chapter. In it, Barden lets a number of experts speak, such as Benny Urquidez, Tak Kubota, and Jean Yves Theriault, among others. They tell how they have worked through pain to become tops in their field. All stress that patience is required, for progress in breaking means that one must develop an increasing tolerance for pain. Again, Barden does not give training tips, but he lets the words of these experts get across the idea that the techniques of breaking, like any art, are not acquired quickly. After all, the real definition of the term “kung fu” is “experience gained through effort over time.”
Next, Barden discusses injuries, how to prevent or lessen them, how to protect assistants from flying debris of whatever you’ve broken, and finally, how breakers deal with injuries once they happen, either through wrapping cuts and abrasions with bandages, rubbing ointments into bruises, or, in worst cases, visiting a doctor. Several types of ointments are mentioned, such as that venerable martial arts ointment dit da jow, but no formulas for them are given except for brine in which to soak the hands to toughen the skin and help heal cuts and abrasions.
Keys to successful breaking come next. They include focus and moving from the hara (tantien). Physical conditioning is the subject of the following chapter, and again there is emphasis on gradual progress. No one, the author points out, can run a marathon without first learning to jog a mile. The more one engages in an activity and the more attention and concentration one invests, the more thorough and deeper the results. First, he says, is that power comes from the hips. (Tai ch folks would say that the power comes from the legs and is transmitted through the hips and waist.) He presents a number of exercises designed to strengthen this area and make it more flexible. Increasing one’s strength also is important, and exercises for this purpose are demonstrated. These include striking and kicking a solid surface such as a wall and push ups supported by the knuckles, fingertips, and backs of the wrists. Remember, this is a karate-based book.
Training and warming up occupy the following chapter. Most of the pages concern striking various objects, mostly a heavy bag and a makiwara board. Various types of makiwara and their construction are noted. The warmups the author describes are pretty standard, such as jumping rope, running, stretching, shadowboxing, and calisthenics. The point is to make sure you activate all the major muscle groups in addition to paying special attention to the muscles you will use during the breaking. Part and parcel of breaking, Barden concludes, is proper deep breathing, which he describes.
Breaking materials and speed breaking are discussed next. Barden goes through each type of material normally used in breaking: boards, bricks, roof tiles, ice, and glass. The characteristics of each material are laid out, including the potential dangers of trying to break hardwoods or glass, the latter of which produces, he says, the lion’s share of breaking injuries. Speed breaking is the art of breaking an unsupported or only lightly supported object, normally a board but sometimes more substantial materials such as ice. This type of breaking requires a level of speed and focus not normally found in the act of breaking materials that are supported.
The final chapter is a gallery of four well-known breakers at the time of this book’s publication: Tak Kubota, Joko Ninomiya, Ed Brown, and iron-palm expert Richard Vera. Notably, Vera states that he only trains one hand, and if he were to hold an infant with that hand, the infant would suffer discomfort and sicken. The book winds up with an index.
Throughout the pages are thumbnail profiles of famous martial artists—mostly karateka, though a few kung fu practitioners are included—their contributions, and their words of wisdom on fighting and breaking. Further, many anecdotes and other elements enliven the text and put real-world faces and practices behind those breaking blows.
While merely an introduction to tamashiwara and not a training manual, as such, it would profitably be read by anyone considering taking up this art. It doesn’t tell you how to do breaking, but it gives sound advice on how to go about approaching it. The book is well written, and the author ably leads the reader through the chapters, strewing rosebuds of information along the path. It’s an interesting read, even for those not specifically considering taking up tamashiwara but who want to expand their knowledge of various aspects of the martial arts.