May 2002 (Part 2)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
My wife is in a depressing state for the last two weeks and doctor prescribed her antidepressant tablets, Aropax. She was depressed a couple of times before, the last time in 1998. Sifu, could you recommend some chi kung exercises which could bring relief to my wife and eventually to help her recover completely.
— Jerzy, Australia
Practising chi kung is excellent for overcoming depression. Unless the depression is deep rooted or serious, which is not likely your wife's case, one needs not even learn from me personally. She should overcome her depression within a few months, or even a few weeks, by practising the following exercise regularly.
The first thing she should do is to throw away the antidepressant tablets. This act is crucial. It is crossing the Rubicorn, i.e. forcing her to commit herself to practising chi kung for recovery and good health, as there is no turning back. I am confident that if she follows my instructions she will recover, otherwise I would never have asked her to throw away the tablets. She needs to practice just the following exercises.
Stand upright and be relaxed. Take a few minutes to listen to her breathing, the most beautiful sound in the world for her, as her breathing is her music of life. Involve herself totally in this beautiful music of life, and smile from the heart. Really smile from the heart. Just the realization that she is alive — a wonder of all wonders. She has a husband who loves her enough to seek help on her behalf — one of the best things that can happen to any woman. This is enough to make her smile.
Then perform “Separating Water” as follows. Place both palms in front at shoulder's height with her arms straight, palms at right angles to her arms and facing forward and fingers pointing towards each others. Keeping the arms straight and at shoulder's level and palms at right angles to her arms at all time, separate both hands to her sides until her fingers point forward. Breathe in gently through the nose at the same time. Then bring the two palms from the sides to the front again, with the palms at right angles to her arms and facing forward, and fingers pointing toward each others, simultaneously breathing out through the mouth. Repeat the procedure about 15 to 20 times. She must be relaxed at all times.
After performing “Separating Water” about 15 to 20 times, stand relaxed and close her eyes, if she has not closed them yet. Think of nothing and do nothing for about 5 to 10 minutes. If she has performed “Separating Water” correctly for a sufficient length of time, say, two weeks, she would have generated her internal energy flow which would sway her body. Follow the sway of her body, which is a manifestation of her flow of life. Don't interrupt this flow of life, just follow its flow. If she tenses any muscles, especially those at her legs and back, she would have interrupted the flow. Hence, she must relax totally.
After enjoying her flow of life, stand still and be relaxed for a minute or two, and think of how lucky she is to be born a human, and not an insect or a rat. Complete the exercise by rubbing her face with her palms. Perform the whole sequence twice a day, once in the morning and the other in the evening or at night. In addition, whenever she feels depressed, perform this exercise, and it will cleanse away her depression.
As you know, many people suffer from depression. I wonder if you can elaborate more on that subject in your Q&A section.
Western societies have good governments, job security, individual freedom and high quality of living, yet depression is prevalent. On the other hand, many people in the East worry about when and where their next meals will come, and whether they may be locked up by secret police that very night, yet depression is less prevalent than in the West.
Such a situation is illogical when viewed from conventional Western wisdom. It just could not make sense that people become depressed when they are comfortable and safe. But if we understand chi kung philosophy the situation becomes clear.
From the chi kung perspective, every person is made up of three components, namely jin, qi (chi) and shen, or physical form, energy and spirit. A person becomes depressed when his spirit is weak. For the past few hundred years, Western culture has ignored the spirit. Both Western science and Western medicine do not recognize that the spirit exists.
Hence when a depressed person, i.e. a person whose spirit has been pressed down through neglect, under-nourishment and other factors, consults Western doctors (including psychiatrists), they only look at the physical body of the patient. They may find physical symptoms, which are the physical manifestation of a depressed spirit, and prescribe drugs to correct the body chemistry of the patient, but such treatment only relieve the symptoms temporarily and may have other long-reaching side effects.
Originally psychology was the study of the psyche or spirit, but Western psychology, in its attempt to be an objective science, has deviated from the psyche to physical brain functions and physical behaviour. Hence, like conventional doctors, lacking the conceptual framework to understand the spirit, Western psychologists only address the symptoms of depression.
Chi kung addresses the root cause of the patient's disorder, not only uplifting his spirit but also correcting his energetic and physical defects which eventually result due to his spirit being pressed down. The energy level of a depressed person is low, and negative emotions are locked in his lung system.
Chi kung overcomes these problems in a most simple, direct and effective manner. For example in the simple chi kung exercise I prescribe for your wife, by rejoicing herself in the beauty of life her spirit is uplifted, by exercising her breathing she enhances both her energy flow and energy level, and by opening her chest she releases her locked emotions.
Those unfamiliar with chi kung philosophy and practice may think that chi kung is primitive, without measuring the patient's temperature, blood pressure, body chemistry and brain functions, and without finding out the patient's history. In the chi kung paradigm all these are irrelevant.
Irregularities in his temperature, blood pressure and other physical factors are symptoms of his illness, not the illness itself. His past experiences might be intermediate causes, but not the root cause. Once he has overcome his root cause and restored his normal function — spiritually, energetically besides physically — his illness and its accompanying symptoms will disappear.
Take a simple analogy. Suppose your stomach is not functioning normally. Your temperature and blood pressure may be irregular, you may have pain and you may be unable to think clearly. But once you regain the natural functioning of your stomach, all these symptoms will have disappeared, and you do not need to know what types of gastric juices digest what type of food, what degree of pain you were at, or whether the intermediate cause of your stomach mal-function was a steak you ate two days ago or the traffic jam you face everyday.
I always hear about you saying that Tai Chi is effective against external martial arts such as Karate, Judo and Aikido. But how would Tai Chi fair against martial arts like Eagle Claw or White Crane Kungfu. The reason why I ask is because I want to try and master Tai Chi. I'm only 17 years old and I like what I have heard about this wonderful art.
— Will, UK
When I use the term “Tai Chi” I often refer to Tai Chi dance, and I use the term Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan in Romanized Chinese, for the genuine martial art version. Tai Chi dance is useless against any martial arts, but that does not necessarily mean practising Tai Chi dance is not useful for other purposes. If one is not concerned about combat efficiency but wishes to have some gentle exercise without much exertion, Tai Chi dance could be an answer.
But for you at 17, Tai Chi Chuan is a better choice. It is however very difficult to find a genuine Tai Chi Chuan master nowadays.
Tai Chi Chuan is effective against any martial arts, including Eagle Claw and White Crane Kungfu. You must ensure that your training include internal force development and combat application, otherwise it would degrade into Tai Chi dance.
The one question we have is whether the teacher who conducts Tai Chi classes at our local gym is teaching us an incorrect bow-arrow stance, or whether the difference is simply a matter of style. He performs the bow stance with the front foot straight and the back foot angled at about 45 degrees. A prior sifu taught me that the toe and heel should be in alignment as a Tai Chi fundamental, with the front foot of the bow stance “hooked-in” so that the feet were parallel at 45 degrees. I was also told this was best for my knees and for applications. I also read your book as describing the bow stance in the same fashion. My friends and I are particularly concerned because we are aware that an incorrect stance may lead to knee injury.
— David, USA
Most Tai Chi practitioners, including masters, perform the bow-arrow stance the way the gym teacher does, i.e. with the front foot straight and the back foot angled at 45 degrees. Many even have the back foot angled at 90 degrees instead of 45 degrees. Whether this is an incorrect bow-arrow stance or due to different styles, is a matter of opinion. Logically those who perform the stance in this way think that it is correct, or they may say it is their style. When pressed for the reason of their choice, they usually say their stance provide better stability.
But in my opinion this way of performing the how-arrow stance is incorrect, and the correct way is like what your prior sifu told you, and what I describe in my Tai Chi Chuan book, i.e. with the two feet parallel at 45 degrees. The reasons for my choice are that it protects the genitals, which would be exposed in the incorrect stance, and that it allows the practitioner better control of the stance, including better stability.
It is obvious that those who choose the first mode with the front foot pointing straight ahead, have never used this stance in sparring practice. If they had, the disadvantages of the stance performed in this way, would stand out readily. This mode commits the serious weakness of exposing the genitals, a mistake trained combatants would not do. Moreover, having the front foot pointing forward exhibits a weakness which would enable a skilful opponent to dislocate the practitioner's knee or break his lower leg.
Saying that this first mode provides better stability — the reason usually given by performers of this mode — further shows they have no sparring experience. Their mistaken reason is derived from intellectual thinking, and not from actual practice. Such a mode actually provides less stability. You can readily test this out as follows.
Throw a right thrust punch in a bow-arrow stance with your right foot pointing forward. Have a partner use his left arm to ward off your right punch. He may unbalance you.
Now throw a similar right punch but with your right foot angled at 45 degrees. Have a partner ward off your punch in the same manner. You will be more stable.
Or, perform the bow-arrow stance with the front right foot pointing straight forward. Have someone gently push you from your left side. He can unbalance you easily.
Now perform the bow-arrow stance with the front right foot angled at 45 degrees. Repeat the same action. You will be more stable.
Your prior sifu was correct in saying that the bow-arrow stance with feet parallel at 45 degrees was best for your knees and for combat applications. Ironically some American anatomists, who probably had never practiced Tai Chi Chuan and therefore did not understand the principle of rotating knees, suggested that moving the knees in a straight direction as the incorrect bow-arrow stance would provide, would reduce injury to the knees. (Please see my Tai Chi Chuan book for details.) This is another example showing that intellectual thinking may produce the opposite effect of actual practice.
Performing the stance incorrectly not only injures your knees but also your ankles. Nevertheless, the adverse effect of moving the stance wrongly is worse. You should “differentiate yin-yang”, and rotate your waist and your knees when you move.
I was wondering what Sifu think about the effectiveness of Bagua vis-a-vis other arts, and whether you would recommend studying it, assuming a qualified teacher can be found near by. If Sifu would care to emphasize any strong points (or weak points) of Bagua, that would be great.
— Toby, USA
Baguaquan, or Bagua Kungfu, is a very effective martial art, vis-a-vis any other martial arts. It is more commonly known as Baguazhang, or Bagua Palm, because interestingly only the open palms, and never the fists or any other hand forms, are used in this internal style of kungfu.
If you can learn from a qualified teacher, Baguazhang is certainly worthwhile practising. It is difficult to find good teachers in any martial arts, but finding them in Baguanzhang is even more difficult because it is a comparatively rare kungfu style.
The best known strong point of Baguazhang is its footwork. A Baguazhang master can get behind an opponent easily, and dodge multiple attacks effectively. Its movements are elegant and agile, and are as beautiful to watch as they are deadly for combat.
Baguazhang emphasizes internal training, which contributes to health and vitality besides fighting efficiency. Its force and effectiveness are not limited by age or sex.
Its sole use of the palms, without using other hand forms, is both its strength and weakness. Using the palms — instead of the fists — enhances the elegance, agility and internal dimension of this kungfu style. On the other hand, it lacks the variety as well as special functions of other hand forms, thus limiting its range of techniques. A Baguazhang exponent, for example, would not grip an opponent's vital points with his fingers, or deflect a powerful kick with a gentle hook.
While I would encourage those who like Baguazhang to practice it, personally I prefer Shaolin or Taijiquan. There is more variety as well as depth in Shaolin and Taijiquan than in Baguazhang in their philosophy, form and application. Most importantly, while Baguazhang does develop one's spirit, it is fundamentally a fighting art, whereas Shaolin and Taijiquan, while effective for fighting, are ultimately arts for spiritual development.
One should note that my views above are only valid in ideal conditions. In de facto situations where much of Shaolin is kungfu gymnastics or karate in kungfu form, and much of Taiji is dancelike movements, it would be better to practice Baguazhang if a qualified teacher can teach it as an internal martial art.
I have a sequence of the exercises Sifu taught, and which I have been practising. If Sifu could take a quick look and tell me whether this is optimal or that there is a better sequence that I can follow, I would be very appreciative.
Wuji Stance — relax and stay in this stance for approximately 5 minutes
Zhan zhuang — stance training for approximately 15 minutes
Grasping Sparrow's Tail for 5 -10 minutes
Lifting Water for 5 - 10 minutes
24 pattern set
Times vary according to the time of day I'm doing the exercises and how much time I have. Sometimes I omit steps 5 and 6. Anyway, this is based on the notes I took from the class. If Sifu would like to recommend improvements, that would be great.
Your training programme is good; it is much better than many people who only practice forms. As you pay much attention to force training, you will surely enhance your health and vitality, increase your zest in your daily work and play, and have inner peace.
But your training programme is incomplete. You must remember that Taijiquan is a martial art, and the twin pillars of martial art training are force training and combat application. You have done well in force training, but you have neglected combat application.
Therefore, your programme should include Pushing Hands and combat sequences, two essential approaches in Taijiquan to combat efficiency. Eventually you should engage in some free sparring.
Even if you are not interested in fighting at all, if you practice Taijiquan you must not neglect its combat dimension. Qualities like mental clarity, quick decision making, balance and elegance, courage and confidence — qualities which we value for our daily non-combative purposes — are acquired only if we train Taijiquan as a martial art.
Moreover, you should be familiar with fundamental Taijiquan principles, like being relaxed and flowing, rotating from the waist, employing mind and energy instead of physical strength, and yin-yang harmony. These principles should guide your practice, and enrich your daily life.
I am currently undertaking a six month practice of the basic exercises in your book, “Introduction to Shaolin Kung Fu”. You say that practising the horse stance lowers the centre of gravity. I am wondering if taking part in activities such as swimming where balance is more or less forgotten affects the centre of gravity.
— Chris, United Kingdom
Three factors influence one's centre of gravity: his state of mind, his energy balance, and his physical position. Theoretically, even when a person is physically well balanced, but if his mind is so powerful that he can focus a lot of energy to a finger tip, then his centre of gravity is at the finger tip. But in practice and for most people, it is his physical position that determines where his centre of gravity is located.
If a person stands upright and is perfectly relaxed, even if he is untrained in any art, his centre of gravity is naturally focused at a point about two or three inches below his navel, at a vital point called qi-hai, or “sea of energy”. It is so called because his qi (chi) or vital energy is focused there naturally. This qi-hai vital point is often also called dan-tian, which means “elixir field”. His shen, which is spirit or consciousness, may also be focused there. That is why some spiritual disciplines regard this vital point as the spiritual centre too.
But most people do not stand upright, and are not perfectly relaxed. Many people stand with their toes pointing outward, and leaning back slightly. If they were perfectly relaxed, they would fall over because their centre of gravity has shifted from their dan-tian to their back. But they would not fall, because they tense their back muscles and leg muscles to support themselves. They are so used to this tension that they normally are not aware they are tensed.
Even if they stand upright and are physically relaxed, they are not relaxed emotionally and mentally (or in chi kung terms, energetically and spiritually). They are often excited or nervous, or experience other negative emotions, thus causing their vital energy to float upward. They also think of myriad thoughts constantly. This causes their spirit to be dissipated. But most people are unaware of such subtle activities going on inside them.
Practising the horse-riding stance is an excellent way to over these problems. The form of the stance itself lowers your spiritual focus as well as your energetic focus to your dan tian. At first you would be physically tensed, as you are not used to sustaining the form. But with practice and as your energy flows, you can be physically relaxed. Hence you attain a one-pointedness of mind, energy and form. When you understand this, you will understand why the horse-riding stance is so important; it is not just a physical exercise to strengthen your leg muscles, but involves all your three components of form, energy and mind.
Once you have acquired the skill of focusing your mind, energy and form at a point through horse-riding stance training, i.e. once you have achieved a unity of “jin”, “qi” and “shen”, you can apply the same skill to any forms or movements, such as to swimming, combat application or your daily work. It is a mistake to say that you forget about your balance in swimming or in any other activities like playing games or writing your examination answers.
When you swim, your physical centre of gravity may or may not be at your dan tian. In fact it is good to keep your physical centre of gravity at your dan tian when you swim or are engaged in other physical activities, as this will give you good balance and gracefulness. But even if your physical centre of gravity is elsewhere, such as when you perform an acrobatic kungfu movement, you must always maintain your focus and balance. This is even more important when you perform mental work. Many people have expressed amazement at how I could produce so much work. An important reason is that I always have focus and balance as a result of my kungfu training.
I was wondering if you were familiar with Pai She Quan (White Snake Kungfu). I notice you had a few white snake strikes on your site and was curious if you had any additional information on it as a style unto itself. With the two-finger strikes it seems different from other Shaolin snake styles. Do you have any history or training tips for someone interested in learning White Snake Kungfu? Can it be used by itself or are there any complimentary techniques such as Tai Chi, Ba Qua, etc.?
— Ndugu, Japan
I am sorry I do not know of Pai She Quan, or White Snake Kungfu. Of the five Shaolin animal forms — dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane — Dragon Style Kungfu, Black Tiger Kungfu, and White Crane Kungfu are established kungfu styles, but as far as I know there are no established traditional kungfu styles named after the snake and the leopard.
This is probably because the snake is closely related to the dragon, and the leopard closely related to the tiger, whereas the dragon, the tiger and the crane and quite different. Besides the three styles named after the dragon, the tiger and the crane, there are, of course, other styles named after other animal forms, like the praying mantis, the eagle and the monkey.
There is, however, a modernized wushu form named after the snake, called Snake Kungfu. I think this is only a kungfu set, and is not extensive enough to be called a kungfu style. In other words, there is only one kungfu set called Snake Kungfu Set; but there is no kungfu system with many kungfu sets, including weapon sets, which draw its inspiration from the form and significance of the snake. This Snake Kungfu Set, called She Quan (pronounced like “sher chuan”), came from a Shaolin monk named Jin Gang Chan Shih who practiced Shaolin Ziranmen Kungfu (Shaolin Natural Style Kungfu).
In Dragon Style Kungfu, for example, there are many kungfu sets like “Four Gates”, “Bagua” and “Nine-Step Chase”, and all these sets draw inspiration from the dragon form. On the other hand, there are also individual kungfu sets which draw inspiration from the dragon form, found in other kungfu styles or systems. For example, in Shaolin Kungfu, Baguazhang and Xingyi Kungfu, there are kungfu sets called Dragon Sets.
In the modernized Shake Kungfu Set, strikes using two fingers are used. Such strikes are also used in Shaolin Kungfu, but here they are referred to as dragon form and not snake form. The snake form in Shaolin Kungfu as well as many other styles is usually performed as an open palm with the thumb hooked in.
As I do not know of any White Snake Kungfu as a kungfu style unto itself, I could not offer any advice on its history or training tips. But if you wish to have some training tips on the snake form, I would offer the following. The hallmarks of the snake form are its gracefulness and flexibility, and its expression is chi. Hence, your movements should be smooth and circular, controlled by your waist. Your force should be “soft” (which can be very powerful), generated by energy flow. If you performed the snake form as if you were to perform karate or taekwondo, you would miss its essence. Taijiquan is a good example of the snake form.
If there is a Snake Style Kungfu, it would be complete by itself, without the need to incorporate any complimentary techniques or skills from other kungfu styles like Taijiquan and Baguazhang. This Snake Style Kungfu would not just have the snake form, but may include other forms for other purposes like gripping or felling an opponent. Nevertheless, the main form would be the snake.
In the same way, other animal styles of kungfu also have other forms besides their main forms. For example, in Dragon Style Kungfu and Praying Mantis Kungfu there are also other forms like the crane and the monkey.