As an internal art, Chi Ping Tao stresses correct body position over less controllable aspects like relative size, reach, heaviness of build, size, and amount of muscle mass. While these things can be useful, the truth is that, nine times out of ten, it’s the small man you have to worry about, because he will have concentrated on correct technique rather than relying on his size. The small man knows how to fight; the large man knows how to look scary.
The center line is stressed very heavily in internal arts, many of the better Kung Fu styles, and of course Judo and Aikido. There are two aspects to Center Line Theory, and a third, less known, aspect that connects the other two. Grapplers know, of course, that if you can break a person’s center line, for example by getting them to twist or bend at the diaphragm, they can be thrown with one of your fingers. Pugilists know that strikes are taken towards the center line, and defended by moving them away from the center line. Advanced martial artists know that if your center line is properly aligned and your arms and legs are properly positioned, energy can be generated by the entire body and transported to a single point. Conversely, it is possible to take energy from an incoming strike and redirect it wherever you want. This can be into the ground, or even back into an opponent. For several years, I had an ongoing argument with John Hill, who insisted that, with the sword work, one was supposed to lean forward. To no avail, I explained to him over and over different aspects of what was wrong with this approach until one day we were watching the Grand Master of Kishima Shin Ryu giving a demonstration. As soon as I pointed out that the Grand Master was ramrod straight, he changed his tune after mumbling something about not being good enough to do things the way the Grand Master did them.
When I talk online, I frequently talk about the importance of balance and the center line, but in class I also spend a lot of time talking about the importance of proper arm and leg positions. Proper leg position usually refers to footwork, which I consider to be the basics, along with breathing. If your stance isn’t good, and you’re not breathing correctly, then it doesn’t matter whether you know how to throw a punch or not, because it’s unlikely to land, and if it does it will have no power. If you go to deliver a strike, or even a block, and instead fall down, at best you will appear comical, and you may even fall into an opponent’s strike or hit an obstacle on the ground, like a curb or a rock.
What I really want to talk to you about right now, though, is Immovable Arm. There are two immovable arm positions. The easiest one to describe involves having your elbow one fist away from your abdomen in front of you and bent at a 90 degree angle, such that you could put a board across your fingertips and shoulder, leaving it level. If you make a small circle with the palm of your hand, starting facing you, through Willow-Leaf Palm, to a Palm Heel Strike, your arm should be in the other immovable arm position with your elbow pointed at your knee and slightly bent, but the arm almost straight. I had another student (interestingly enough, also named John) who was an SCA-er and a Kali practitioner from Florida. Although twice my size, his strikes with the Kali stick had less power. He also had the problem that his Kali sticks were splintering, the way most students of Kali complain about. He had been practicing on a telephone pole for several weeks and never left a dent on the pole, but every time he struck it he ended up with more cracks on the end of his Kali sticks. If he had continued this way, he would pretty soon have been able to use them as paint brushes.
After working with him for several weeks, one of which was mostly devoted to showing him why what I was doing was better than the Northern Mantis and Kali he was already performing, he had gotten down moving the arms while keeping them in the first of the two immovable arm positions, which is a prerequisite for techniques like the Cannon Punch. After he had gotten over the tendency to move the elbow any time the shoulder or wrist are moved, he decided to try his Kali strikes on the telephone pole again. The sound alone was enough to let you know that there was a lot more power involved. This time, chunks flew off of the telephone pole every time he struck it, but his Kali sticks did not splinter. If the force is going into your target, rather than into the end of your weapon, or fist, then all the damage is received by the target itself. I still have my first Kali stick. It’s barely dented. The ones that I share with my students have numerous dents, but none is splintered. Not even the peeled ones. To save my vanity, I will not tell you how long I’ve had these Kali sticks. Let’s just say that my first one came from the first half of the 1980s.
While it is a useful skill to learn to isolate different parts of the body musculature, the harder and more useful ability is to learn to have the whole body work or move as one thing without interrupting the flow of kinetic energy or, as they say in China, chi. In this process, frequently arm position is overlooked. That, of course, results in injuries to the wrist, shoulder and elbow, as well as broken bones usually in the hand or wrist. Both the hand and foot need to work with grace and power, and the Dan Tien must be perfectly coordinated. If, however, the center line is broken, the train derails and it all falls apart. Wherever the chi stops, it explodes. What this means in a Western sense is that wherever the kinetic energy stops, it injures the surrounding tissues because it suddenly and violently transfers from its source to its target. This is the true danger of Fa Jing. Any explosive release of power is going to cause damage somewhere. If properly applied, then that damage won’t be in you. It is said that the wrist should align with the ankle, the elbow with the knee, and the shoulder with the hip.
I understand that I have people of a variety of different levels of understanding who read my blog and, for some of you, this won’t be particularly useful or may even sound like gibberish. There are others of you who’ve been sitting there saying, “Yes, exactly” over and over again, and thinking of better ways to say some of this. Personally, I am aiming for those people in the middle who will get a lot out of it, most especially the one or two who will find that this puts all the pieces together for them. Certainly, there are lots of other analogies I could make, but ultimately in this format, without even pictures, I have to rely on what you already know. Certainly, that’s easier with things like horse stance because that’s used by basketball players and pro golfers, but it is hard to find good examples for immovable arm and, even if I could, making the transition from unmoving immovable arm to moving immovable arm requires a lot of practice, and for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, even saying that is confusing. There are specific positions of proper bone and tendon alignment for every joint in the body that allow you to be immovable in certain directions. Of course, there are no positions that will prevent you from being moved in every direction. Every position has weak points that can be taken advantage of, but the positions of proper alignment have fewer than any other positions.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog. I hope that you find it very useful.
— Reid Sifu