Leaping maneuvers are ever-present in martial arts movies and in some martial arts (e.g. Indian Kalaripayattu and some forms of Kung fu). However, these acrobatic techniques are rarely seen–and are even less often successful–in combative encounters (neither in sport nor in the real world–excepting those sports that highly reward such maneuvers and create rules that make them feasible for entertainment value.)
Why leaping, spinning wildness is popular in movies is easy. We thrill to see extremely demanding action that draws ooohs and ahhhhs. It’s the same reason one wants to watch a parkour runner vault over a car (presuming it’s not one’s car), even when it would be infinitely more practical to walk around it. It’s why we want to see gymnasts tumbling and flipping through the air even though walking across the floor is both easier on the joints and less hazardous.
However, the question of why martial arts that aren’t purely for entertainment practice leaping maneuvers. Even a few of the quintessentially pragmatic Japanese martial arts, which follow the motto “eliminate the extraneous” have some leaping techniques. One of the schools I’ve studied, Kotō-ryū Koppōjutsu has a scroll devoted to leaping techniques, despite the fact that it’s otherwise a grounded system–both literally and figuratively. Muay Thai, which also values tried and true winning basics over snazziness, also has leaping knee strikes in its repertoire, though one doesn’t see them a lot in fights. It’s true that the arts that emphasize practicality but have leaping and spinning techniques tend to have a different approach to them. The Kotō-ryū Hichōjutsu (that school’s leaping techniques) emphasize eliminating big wind-ups, and going straight into the leap from a natural posture. This gives one less air, but is much less obvious. It’s particularly useful if you don’t really want air, but you just want to leap as much as you must. But why leap at all?
There are a number answers to this question. First, while it’s hard to make aerial techniques work, when they work, they can be devastatingly effective. There are few ways to put more power into a strike than to literally put all of one’s body-weight in motion under the force of gravity. There’s understandably something unsatisfying about this explanation. I think it mostly has to do with the dearth of second chances in combative encounters. Few second chances make one want to have the highest likelihood of success on the first go.
Second, while tried-and-true, go-to techniques work because they are hard to defeat and /or they minimize one’s risk of a fight-ending counter, some techniques work because they catch the opponent off-guard. Such techniques work because the opponent can’t believe one is actually trying something so wild on them. However, failing to anticipate the unusual, the opponent hasn’t trained a response into themselves. This answer gets us somewhere in cases where either the situation is dire or one knows something about the opponent.
Third–and I would argue most importantly–these techniques produce explosively powerful legs that are beneficial to a martial artist even when he stays on the ground. In other words, maybe they are more important in the role of capacity building than they are as actual techniques to be emulated.
Finally, there’s one more reason that is important but was last because I didn’t even learn this lesson until I was reviewing the photos for this post, and that’s that these techniques require a whole new level of bodily awareness and control. I would generally be considered to have pretty good bodily awareness. I’ve been doing martial arts a long time, have practiced various kinds of yoga and chi gong, and have done my share of other physical training. Still, when I looked at my photos I found that I often had body parts jutting every which way. While one may argue that one doesn’t need that brand of bodily awareness if one is not using that kind of motion, I think that it probably helps with one’s awareness at high-speed in general and that many arts don’t adequately prepare one for keeping one’s body under control when there are those extra forces (e.g. centripetal & centrifugal, and gravity) acting upon it.
One aspect of bodily awareness that is particularly important for these maneuvers is control of the eyes. In the arts I’ve studied, there has always been emphasis on the placement of the eyes. However, given all the little details one had to keep in mind, it was a reality easy aspect to half-ass. However, when one is leaping, and particularly if there is a spinning component, wandering eyes translates to crash and burn.
I’m not built for leaping. It’s not so much the leaping, but–in the immortal words of Tom Petty–“Coming down is the hardest thing.” I figured that getting to the level of Kalaripayattu training that involves a lot of leaping would be the end of that art for me. As I mentioned, there are some leaping techniques in the martial art I studied, but I was never particularly good at them. When I was young and had the proper body for it, I didn’t have the right mindset, and when I got older I was lacking the physical capacity for them. However, I’ve learned quite a bit about my body through the practice of these techniques, and I’m interested to see what level I can take it to.