For something to be real, it means that it is genuine. What you just saw really happened, and it was not faked or contrived. That said, not everything that is real is practical. For something to be practical, in a martial sense, it must be viable for self defense or survival in a live, violent encounter against another human being with malicious intent. Therefore, it is entirely possible for something to be real but not practical. That said, practicality is determined by the context something is being practiced for. You would not judge the practicality of archery by whether or not you can fire an arrow inside the Octagon. No one denies the efficiency of a side kick to the xiphoid process, except when there's a gun pointed to your head. Context is everything.
In order to demonstrate the difference between real and practical, let's look at everyone's favorite subject: "No Touch" techniques. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you've probably been living under a rock but to summarize, there are countless videos of martial artists using "chi" to move or throw another person without actually touching them. Now, there have been videos done where independent third parties have come in with medical equipment and detected measurable effects on the recipients of these techniques that otherwise have no explanation. That said, it was not able to be replicated on someone from the outside. Does this mean it was fake? No. Something happened. There was a physical, biological response to the stimuli offered by the person executing the technique. Because of its inability to be replicated with those who have not been initiated into the school, we can conclude that the response was triggered psychologically. The power of the human mind is something we still struggle to fully grasp, and if one believes they will be affected by something, they usually are.
Essentially, mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in others. The interesting part is that mirror neurons fire in the same way when we actually recreate that action ourselves. Apart from imitation, they are responsible for myriad of other sophisticated human behavior and thought processes. If you've ever heard the phrase "monkey see, monkey do," mirror neurons are the reason for it. When you get someone to focus on you and your intent, they subconsciously will imitate your movements. Outside of a martial arts context, it's the same reason you can observe a group of people standing together in relatively similar postures. It's the same reason when you're engaged with someone and they move a certain way, you tend to imitate them.
So was I getting a real response from my partner? Yes. Is it something I can rely on when someone is trying to punch me in the face? Absolutely not! It's not practical, nor should it be considered a martial skill. At best, it is an exercise in the power of intent. It's a demonstration of one's ability to dominate the space they occupy through willpower, energy and body language. Nothing more.
Another example of something real but not necessarily practical is the use of pressure points. Pressure points are well-documented for healing in acupuncture and acupressure, but from a martial perspective their use is controversial and entirely dependent on your purpose/goal. Are you going to have the precision to strike Lung 5 when someone is moving and trying to hit you? Probably not. That doesn't mean when you do hit it that there isn't an anatomical response to it. Having been on the receiving end of some pressure point knockouts, I can confirm something happens when you hit the right spot. But again, these are demonstrations and not applications.
But if that's the case, what is the draw for traditional martial arts? In my personal opinion, the end result is of higher quality given the instructor's ability to translate classical training methods for practical application. Ignoring the cultural trappings and rituals, traditional training involves a significant focus on details and attributes. You could spend months working on the finer points before you begin live sparring and pressure testing, but at some point you must get there. You must make that connection, and that I think is the entire problem of why traditional martial arts have lost their prominence and reputation as legitimate fighting arts for self defense and combat. It's like only going to the gun range and shooting at paper targets in an air conditioned facility, and expecting to be a Navy SEAL under fire. It just isn't going to happen. At some point, you need to practice the skills you're developing against a resisting partner at full speed.
In traditional martial arts, a lot of training time is spent on drills. Whether it's kata, push hands, choreographed techniques or connection/sensitivity drills, that's a lot of time spent on training outside of live sparring and pressure testing. If you understand the history of many traditional arts, however, they would not exist today if someone did not entrust their life to it and successfully survive life-and-death encounters. Therefore, at one point the training was viable for self defense. Since humans haven't significantly evolved and are physically similar, one can only conclude it's the training itself that has changed. Something is missing, and what we have today is just a small piece of puzzle. Kata is often taught without accompanying bunkai and oyo. Sensitivity and connection drills are practiced without an understanding of how they translate to real fighting. Everyone is so caught up with the demonstrations of principle that they neglect the applications. The underlying "why" of traditional training is all but completely discarded, leading to the assumption that the arts themselves are not practical. While their training is real, in that no one is faking or acting, it needs to go one step further. For training to be practical, you must learn to apply it under duress against someone who is actively resisting you.
If you've followed my articles at all, you know I am a huge proponent of keeping martial arts training combative. I believe if you're not training practically, you shouldn't even call what you do martial arts. That being said, traditional training does include a significant number of exercises and drills that may not be directly practical for self defense and survival. Boards don't hit back, right? But just because you can't see the direct correlation does not mean the training doesn't have value. It doesn't mean what's being done isn't real. The board really did break. The person really was off-balanced and thrown. They really were knocked unconscious. Instead of rushing to expose the "frauds," we should be asking each other "why." Why are you practicing this? What is the purpose of this exercise, and can you demonstrate it clearly enough to make me understand the correlation between this and practical application? Understanding context is essential to the study of martial arts and if we could start having more of these conversations, the quality of training would surely rise.