Tag Archives: wing chun

Mastering a single form is a lifetime achievement?

Well, that’s certainly a traditional saying, but I think if it takes you an entire lifetime to master a form, there is something seriously wrong. Actually, I can think of three things that would have to all be wrong.

1. Your instructor would have to be crappy.
2. You’re not practicing enough, and not spending enough time thinking about the form.
3. You ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

Of course, I know number three because you’re putting up with number one, and continuing to engage in the two aspects of number two, and you can’t just figure it out.

I have generally found that instructors of the “just do what I do” category fall into two categories: Really good at doing and really bad at teaching, or Really bad at doing and really good at conning people.

When I was taking Kali, Wing Chun and Muay Thai, we were allowed to go to all of the instructors various classes in different locations. I don’t know of anyone other than me who did so. At one of the locations, the instructor was teaching a Kali class and a separate Wing Chun class. The only people in the Kali class were a 60-something and a 70-something pair of little old Southern ladies. There were more than ten students in the Wing Chun, and the instructor wanted to concentrate on the Wing Chun class.

Now, we were halfway through the quarter, and the two little old ladies had not yet managed to get down the first move. The young Chinese instructor from Hong Kong really didn’t understand them at all, and had more ego than teaching skill.

I readily agreed to teach them for him, and started going over the course material. It was readily apparent to me that they just weren’t getting it. Now, an important thing to remember is that Kali is actually a double sword technique, and you practice with the rattan stick so you don’t kill people in practice class. I looked at the women and asked them if they cooked from scratch. The younger one had only been doing it for fifty years. At that point, I knew I could teach them. I explained every technique in terms of kitchen uses of a butcher knife that they had been practicing around twice as long as I’d been alive.

Before the regular instructor came back, they had mastered considerably more than that quarter’s course material in Kali, including all the basic attack and defense moves. Then one of them asked me, “How would I use this for self defense?” I answered, “Cut up a chicken.” They then answered, “Oh,” followed by a horrified, “Oh…” and then a delighted “Oh!” of realization.

Now, I realize that I had certain advantages in having cooking the same way as these ladies since I was 8, growing up studying German long sword, and having had at least three quarters of Kali prior to this, but what really allowed me to do this was that I have an open mind, think about what I’m doing, and understand it.

When the instructor came back and asked how the class had gone, he was obviously gloating. He had been spending the last quarter competing with me, not very successfully. I was just there to learn. Of course, when they showed him the techniques that they had mastered for over fifty years, he was more frightened than astonished. He never did ask me how I managed to teach them that. As soon as they thought of it as a butcher knife, and were told what cooking techniques applied, they were masters of at least everything I had shown them that day. There are very few people who want to fight someone with a blade who can filet meat in less than a second.

This is what I call using the same experience points twice.

I know that there are people who will say that you can continue to get things out of a form indefinitely, but that is really dependent on two factors.  One is the person who is doing the practicing, and the amount they’ve managed to get out of it so far, and the other is the type of form in question, and how they were taught it in the first place.

There are three types of set, or kata: sets that teach the basic moves, sets that teach a particular strategy, and sets intending to recreate a particular fight or battle.  Siu Nim Tao from Wing Chun, and Skip Knees from Muay Thai are examples of sets intended to teach the basic moves of a style.  That is like learning how the pieces move in chess.  Thunder and Earth from Shaolin Kempo Ku Shu is a particular tactical attack.  That would be roughly the equivalent of  learning the Indian defense in chess.  No chess master is going to spend the rest of his life just practicing the Indian defense.  Certainly, there are perspectives that you can add to your practice as time goes on, from going back and practicing the sets and techniques you started with as your perspective changes, but saying that you have not mastered that technique would still be a stretch.

Every form or set, every technique or kata, has to be understood from both sides.  If you do not know the technique that you are defending against, if you cannot visualize it as a two-man form, then you really haven’t been taught the form.  When I go through sets with my students, I will go through the motions on the other side so that they understand what they’re defending against and where they’re attacking.  Since they understand what they’re doing, it’s much easier for them to learn the form in the first place and grasp its meaning and intent.   Yes, continual practice is needed to hard-wire the form and techniques into the body, and so that you will remember the form, and honestly to help you stay fit, but, hopefully, you understand what you’re doing and aren’t only waving your harms in the air like you just don’t care.

While mastery itself is a life-long process, the mastery of a single form should not take very long at all.  While continued practice will increase your proficiency, and thinking about it should continue to bring greater insights over the course of a lifetime, those insights really come from you and your understanding of martial arts in general, not from the form itself so much, unless of course you were missing stuff.

For some further reading to help you understand the process of learning, well, anything and put you on the road towards mastery, try The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, by Timothy Ferris.

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Strong Arm Tactics

               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

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