July 2005 (Part 3)
SELECTION OF QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Could you please tell me the basics of martial arts for beginners, may be exercises for flexibility to enable one to be able to split, and also what to do to increase one's force and some combined basic movement for starters whose kicks can't even make an impact? I also need meditation postures and splitting exercises
— Christopher, Nigeria
The following five exercises are good for flexibility: 1. Three Levels to Ground. 2. Dancing Crane. 3. Touching Toes. 4. Dragonfly Plays with Water. 5. Immortal Takes off Shoes.
You can find these exercises in my Shaolin kungfu books, “Introduction to Shaolin Kungfu”, “The Art of Shaolin Kung Fu” and “The Complete Book of Shaolin”.
In our school these exercises are performed not as physical leg stretching exercises but as chi kung (which includes the benefits for leg stretching). The crucial difference is that as physical leg stretching exercises, you only work on your joints and muscles, but as chi kung, besides working on your joints and muscles, you also work on your energy flow and mind. However, unless you have been initiated, it is not easy to practice them as chi kung, in which case you still gain benefits of flexibility by practicing them only as physical leg stretching exercise.
An excellent method to develop internal force is stance training. If you are ready to wrok hard, you should practice the Horse-Riding Stance. If you wish to take it comfortably you can practice the Three-Circle Stance. Stay at either stance comfortably as long as you can. Gradually increase the time of staying at the stance. If you can stay correctly at the Horse-riding Stance for five minutes, or the Three-Circle Stance for fifteen minutes, you would have developed reasonable internal force.
It is very important that you must be upright and relaxed while practicing the stance. It is easy for the uninitiated to think that they are upright and relaxed when they are actually bend their body or are tensed. Such mistakes, which are not easy to notice without the help of a competent instructor, can lead to harmful side effects. In our school the basic footwork training and the basic patterns for the four categories of attacks and their defences constitute the basic movements for starters. In the basic footwork training students learn to move first at the Bow-Arrow Stance, and later in all other stances, in different directions agilely and solidly.
To the uninitiated, “agilely and solidly” may appear like a contradiction, but it is not. Our students can be very agile in their movements, yet they are powerful and solid. For example, if you try to push them while they move about, you may find them very heavy though they are very fast in their movement. This is one of many aspects that those who learn kungfu on their own without help from a competent instructor, will find it hard to understand.
Attacks can come in countless ways, but to enable us to understand combat philosophy better, past masters classified all forms of attacks into four categories, namely striking, kicking, felling and “qin-na”. “Qin-na” is unique to kungfu. For lack of a suitable term, it may be translated as “gripping”, but “qin-na” ia actually much more than gripping. Our beginning students learn typical patterns to implement these four categories of attack, as well as learn their typical defences.
Our programme for basic training is quite extensive. If you merely want some kungfu forms to “play” about, it is sufficient if you practice our basic hand attacks and defences, and our “hundred kicks”. The four basic hand attack patterns are:
- Poisonous Snake Shoots Venom.
- Black Tiger Steals Heart.
- Precious Duck Swims through Lotus.
- Hang a Golden Star at a Corner.
Their corresponding counters are:
- Golden Dragon Plays with Water.
- Single Tiger Emerges from Cave.
- False Leg Hand Sweep.
- Immortal Emerges from Cave.
In “Hundred Kicks”, we practice 10 times each of the following kicking patterns with each leg:
- White Horse Presents Hoof.
- Happy Bird Hops up Branch.
- Kicking the Sky.
- Yellow Oriole Drinks Water.
- Naughty Monkey Kicks Tree.
Chi flow and meditation are basics in our training programme. After stance training, pattern parctice, sparring and any other exercises, we go into chi flow, which is poetically described as “Flowing Breeze Swaying Willows”. Then we go into Standing Meditation. But uninitated persons may not be able to do this.
Why does Shaolin Kung-fu require force while taijiquan does not?
All martial arts require force. Without force, combat could not be efficient. Most martial art practitioners acquire force by external means, like punching sand bags, striking poles and lifting weights. Those who practice genuine Shaolin Kungfu, genuine Taijiquan and other forms of genuine internal arts acquire force by internal means, mainly through various methods of chi kung training.
Probably what you mean is why the movements of Shaolin practitioners are strong and muscular, whereas those of Taiji practitioners are soft and lacking in strength. Shaolin Kungfu is actually very rich in internal training, but for various reasons most of those who practice Shaolin Kungfu today use external means in their training. Hence their movements are strong and muscular.
Taijiquan is actually an internal martial art, but again for various reasons most Taiji practitioners today have missed its internal aspects. Hence, they merely perform the external forms in a sofe, gentle manner, usually lacking in strength. But those who practice genuine Shaolin Kungfu and genuine Taijiquan the way they were traditionally practiced in the past, can be soft and gentle yet very powerful.
I have been reading a book on the practice of zhan zhuang chi kung. The author suggests that after a chi kung session one should stand straight up with arms hanging loosely by the side for a few minutes, shake the arms and legs, and then walk around for a few minutes. But in another book by the same author, he suggests that after a chi kung session, one should put the right palm over the dan tian area with the left palm on top, and hold this position for a few minutes.
He calls this “sealing the energy” in the dan tien. The author writes that this “sealing the energy” is important because it seals the energy that one has generated during the zhan zhuang chi kung session into the dan tian. My problem is that I am not sure which instruction I should follow, because the advice is by the same author but in two different zhan zhuang chi kung books.
— Wai Man, USA
You should follow the instruction for the particular exercise. If you practice the first exercise above, then you should end your practice by shaking your arms and legts and then walk around for a few minutes. If you practice the second exercise, you should end the session by sealing the energy at the dan tian.
If a master gives different instructions for the same exercise, you should examine the situations for which the instructions are given. For example, instructions for advanced students and for beginners can be very different even when the exercise may be the same. Moreover, instructions for different purposes or effects will also be different even when the same person practices the same exercise.
If these different situations are not mentioned in the books you read, or if you are not sure of the situations, you can practice any of the different sets of instructions given by the master. If the master gives two different sets of instructions for the same exercise, it means that either one set of instruction can be used. But you should not mix up the two sets, or add anything on your own.
For your information, the main purpose to conclude a chi kung exercise by shaking the limbs and walking about is to spread the chi accumulated, whereas to seal the chi at the dan tian is to accumulate the chi. These are the two fundamental tasks of all chi kung, namely circulating energy and accumulating energy.
These two aspects are opposite as well as complimentary, reflecting the principle of yin-yang harmony in chi kung. Generally speaking, if you practice zhan zhuang on your own from books, it is advisable to conclude the exercise by shaking your limbs and walking about. This is safer althought you will take a longer time than sealing the chi in developing internal force.
In this zhan zhuang book, there are many zhan zhuang postures. If I finish all of these postures according to the instructions of the book, what do I do afterwards? Do I specialize/focus on one posture or do I do many of them during my chi kung session?
There is no single answer; it depends on a few variables. Presuming that you are practicing correctly and that you are taking your training seriously, it is best to focus on just one zhan zhuang form, provided you have chosen a correct form for your purpose.
But if you learn from a book, there is high possibility that you may practice wrongly, and as you are not willing to seek a master to learn from him personally, it is unlikely that you take your training seriously. In this case, it is advisable to practice as many different forms as you like. If you are somewhere between these two extremes, you can practice a few forms per session.
Take note that zhan zhuang is a powerful exercise. It looks simple but it is easy for people practicing on their own to make mistakes often without their own knowing. It is very important that you must not be tensed, physically and mentally, when practicing zhan zhuang.
Many Chi Kung books recommend touching the tip of the tongue to the top of the palate, but in this zhan zhuang book, it does not mention anything about that, in fact it says not to do that because it will cause tension. What do you say about this? What is the purpose or effect of touching the tip of the tongue to the top of the palate? Do I need to do it to benefit from my zhan zhuan chi kung session?
I say clearly and loudly, “Follow the instructions of the master.” He has specifically mentioned that it is unnecessary to touch the tip of the tongue to the top of the palate as it may cause tension. Yet you intend to do so because you think it will bring more benefit to your practice — and you are not even a seasoned chi kung student!
Although you never meant to be disrespectful, this is an example of someone trying to be smarter than the master. Tacitly you implied that the master did not know that by touching the tongue to the palate a practitioner would get more benefits, but you knew.
Actually many people who learn from books have this attitude. They commit a common mistake poetically described in a Chinese saying as “knowing the superficial but not knowing the depth”. Because they have read about other methods from elsewhere, and sometimes these methods may not be from chi kung, they reason that they would get more benefits from their training by adding these methods. They make a big mistake thinking that chi kung is some form of gentle physical exercise; they do not realize it is a profound art of energy and mind.
The main purpose of touching the palate with the tip of the tongue is to connect the “ren” and the “du” meridians to effect a Small Universal (or Micro-Cosmic) chi flow. In exercises where the Small Universal chi flow is not directly involved, it is not necessary to do so. However, I suspect that many teachers who ask their students to do so, may not know the reason. Many of them do so out of fashion, or attempt to make their teaching look grandiose.
I have a question concerning how erect ones spine must be? I have view several demonstration videos from different masters. To me it seems that the spines of these masters aren't perpendicular with the ground but rather bending in slightly toward the bottom of the spine near the buttocks.
— Corey, USA
First of all we must remember that words are limited in expressing meaning, and that we usually use words provisionally. For example, when we say our spine must be straight, one person's interpretation of “straight” may not be the same as that of another.
The first person may interpret the word “straight” literally. To him a straight spine means that they must not be any curvature along the spine. The second person may interpret it figuratively. To him the spine is considered straight when the person is upright even though there may be curvatures along his spine.
Moreover the interpretation, regardless of whether it is literal or figurative, is only provisional to the situation. When the situation changes, the interpretation or even the meaning itself may change. For example, a straight spine is advisable for ordinary people praticing Taijiquan, but for people with back problems like in your case, it may be necessary to make appropriate adjustment.
I ask because I have a herniated disk in my lower back. Often my lower back is tight and wants to bend in rather than be erect. I practice Taiji with an erect spine However I have to use muscular force in order to keep it that way and this blocks chi flow. Any thought or comments?
You seem to interpret “straight spine” literally. It is better to interpret it figuratively. Anatomically speaking, your spine is not straight, but curve even when you stand perpendicular to the ground. Indeed it would be harmful to straighten the spine artificially. But figuratively we would say that your spine is straight.
But when you perform certain Taijiquan patterns, such as “Playing the Lute” or “Needle at the Sea Bottom”, you body should not be perpendicular to the ground even when your spine is (figuratively) straight.
Because of the Four-Six Stance or False-Leg Stance you are using for these patterns, you have to bend your body slightly forward while keeping the body straight so that your centre of gravity will be at your abdominal dan tian. If your body is perpendicular to the ground, you would have placed too much body weight on your back leg, causing stress at your back ankle, and you would tend to fall backward.
As you have herniated disk your situation will be different. Without seeing you in person, I am unable to recommend how you hold your body in different Taijiquan patterns with direct reference to your spine.
But some general advice is that you should feel comfortable at whatever patterns you perform, and when you relax you may feel your chi focusing naturally at your abdomianl dan tian. Using muscular tension to keep your body or spine eret is not advisable. As you have said correctly, it will cause energy blockage. It may also cause other problems.
A herniated disk can usually be remedied by practicing good chi kung. If you still have the problem despite having practiced Taijiquan for some time, it is worthwhile to seek other chi kung exercises from competent instructors.
If a person were to attend your Intensive Shaolin Course and practice diligently for several years could he have the ability to learn a new hand set and apply that for combat? For example, if I learned the Praying Mantis form “White Gibbon Steals the Peach” and I already have attained some basic combat skills from your course would I be able to apply the techniques from this form in real combat?
— Mark, USA
Yes, after attaining my Intensive Shaolin Kungfu Course, you can readily learn an unarmed kungfu set, like “White Gibbon Steals the Peach”, and apply the patterns in the newly learnt set for combat. You need not have to wait for a few years, you can do so immediately after the course.
But this does not mean you can be a good fighter immediately after the course. You still have to train what you have learnt. But you will be able to achieve in a year what many others may not achieve in five.
Others may think I am presumptious but it is true that you will learn more efficiently even from books or videos, than other students attaining regular classes. The reasons are straight-forward.
In the course you will learn and practice basics like force training, footwork, chi flow and meditation, as well as the fundamental responses to all types of attacks. You will also understand the phiulosophy behind your training.
You will understand, for example, how to move agilely and why a certain response to a particular attack is superior to other responses. Most other students do not learn these things. They merely learn the set, then free spar trying to use the patterns from the set, but without proper training amd methods.
- Combat Sequences of Wahnam Taijiquan
- Combat Philosophy on Retreat and Yielding in Taijiquan and Shaolinquan
- Video Clip: The Dragon-Tiger Set performed by Sifu Wong
- Video Clip: Feeling of Power, Peace and Freedom from Golden Shower
- Studying with You was a Joy and Great Privilege — Anthony Spinicchia Irvine