Striving for Natural Movement

Quán dǎ qiān biàn, shēn fǎ zìrán.

Quán dǎ qiān biàn, shēn fǎ zìrán.

Practiced thousands of times, the body method becomes natural.

Gōngfu (功夫)skill acquired through effort – practicing thousands of times.  This is the foundation of martial arts training, as we should all know painfully well!

Zìrán (自然) – natural – this is an extremely simple state of being and movement that becomes extremely complicated the moment we conceptualize it.  Because it’s natural, we shouldn’t have to think about it, we should just do it, be it.  But since humans are social creatures, we have developed physical practices and habits that form our postures and movements in ways that are socially constructed and that fit our built environments.

Humans, as animals, are part of nature.  Yet as members of society, we can develop in ways that remove us from the physical design of our bodies.  This is one of the defining aspects of being human.  It is one of our greatest advantages, allowing the species to survive and spread across the globe to varying physical environments.  But the social construction of our body habits can also can also remove – or make latent – potentials held within our physical forms.

So very much of “basic training” in the martial arts can be seen as trying to reset the body to operate at its full – natural – potential.  Repetitive movements practiced thousands of times can make a movement that seems awkward when first encountered feel completely “natural”.  Other exercises, like stance training, seek to trick our bodies’ alignment back into a more functional and natural state so that we may move according to our potential, unhampered by the constraints inscribed into us by school desks, office chairs, dress shoes, supported sneakers, etc.  [If we think about it, there is a caution here.  Be mindful of how you habituate your body and to what – we can make unhealthy movements feel “natural” through constant repetition, which makes the “reset” process that much more difficult.]

As I watch my son (currently 17 months old) move around and explore the physical world around him, I am amazed and almost envious of his natural movement.  Without being taught, he drops into stances that I have spent years trying to perfect.  He turns with his whole body from his center – have you ever felt how strong an infant’s backhand is?  He picks up a six foot long rattan staff and brings it across the room to hand it to me – it would like me manipulating a 20 foot staff – not easy!  We are born with these movements accessible to us, and yet so many of us lose them as we age and acculturate.  Traditional martial training is one avenue to learning our bodies and accessing their potential.

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Wiggling the Waist

Liàn quán bù huó yāo, zhōngjiù yì bù gāo.

Liàn quán bù huó yāo, zhōngjiù yì bù gāo.

One who practices boxing without being able to wiggle the waist freely will never reach a high level of skill.

More waist motion!  How many times did I hear that when I first started learning kung fu from my teacher, Paul Sun?  Once we start learning our body structure at rest, we start learning to generate force through motion.  To do that we have to balance the forces in our body, up/down, side/side, front/back.  All of these directions (and the variations between and combinations of them) are governed by waist motion.  Another way of saying this is that it’s the waist motion that balances the yin and the yang in our movements.

Without learning to first move the waist in a strong, responsive and flexible way, your strikes will remain isolated.  They will only be generated by the local muscles involved.  So your punches (for example) will be generated by just the arm and shoulder shoulder muscles, instead of being powered by the whole body.  You’ve trained hard to first create a strong frame and then strong and smart leg muscles.  But without the waist coordinating the drive from the legs down into the ground and simultaneously up into the torso and out to the arms, all that leg training will be in vain.  Let the power go to your waist, not to waste (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

One way to train the waist is through individual movement drills and through forms practice.  We’re all conditioned to be aware of the yin and the yang in our movements as we practice forms under the watchful eye of our teachers.  But in addition to forms and movement practice, traditional Chinese martial arts has a slew of specific waist-training exercises to allow you to wiggle your waist with authority and purpose.

Some people choose not to practice the waist-training exercises because they do not seem to have direct application to combat, or because they are not found in the forms.  But these supplemental waist wiggling exercises are one of the keys to good kung fu.  Twisting your waist and having it move your arms, your legs, or the end of a spear (for three examples) makes your waist more supple, stronger, and “smarter”.  By smarter I mean that we often under-utilize this part of our bodies in everyday life.  But when we expand the habitual range and types of movement we do with the waist, it becomes capable of more (we can wiggle freely).  We learn to really govern our movement through the waist.  We balance out our yin and our yang movements.  And we learn to hit with the coordinated power of our whole bodies, rooted to the earth.

Some people ask why certain styles or masters do not show as heavy an emphasis on waist movement as others.  Is waist movement style-specific, then?  Is is merely aesthetic?  Does it have application to only certain types of techniques?

Movement through the waist is a hallmark of traditional Chinese martial arts, and one might even make the argument that it is the fundamental to optimal human movement.  It is not style or movement specific, though the particular manifestation of waist movement can be both.  It can also vary somewhat within styles, depending on the person doing the movement.

As we experiment in powering and coordinating our movements through the waist, we refine our techniques.  At a high level, the actual waist movement can become very small, very subtle. But the essential function of coordinating the movement and lines of force is still present.  At this level the movement is said to become “hidden”.  But without long periods of training the full capacity of the waist with – at times – exaggerated movement, the “hidden” force is unattainable.

So look at the exercises in your training regimen, look at your forms, and individual movement drills, and purposefully wiggle your waist!

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The Importance of Leg Training

Liàn quán bù liàn tuǐ, yīshì màoshīguǐ.

Liàn quán bù liàn tuǐ, yīshì màoshīguǐ.

One who practices boxing without training the legs will spend his life rashly.

My first post in this series discussed the fundamental importance of static stance training in Chinese Martial Arts.  Stances are body organization paradigms, and treat the whole frame of the body.  This post is about the importance and categories of training the legs specifically.

Why isn’t a perfectly balanced and rooted stance enough for training in the martial arts?  It’s already a difficult process to develop a root (just think of all the people you’ve crossed hands with that don’t have a root).  And a good root not only helps you maintain your center (see my earlier post on Knowing Your Center), but it also allows you to hit with real power. So what other leg training does a martial artist need beyond stances?

In Chinese martial arts, as in life, we learn to stand before we can walk.  We learn to walk before we can run, jump or kick.  We learn to bring our bodies back into a coherent alignment through standing.  Standing is truly fundamental to our practice.  But standing is (externally) static.  Static positions do not move us through applications, around attacks, or home to safety.  It is the movement of our legs that can do all this with proper training.

For the purposes of this post, I will just look at two other training areas for the legs that are vital to cultivating body movement and self defense capabilities in Chinese Martial Arts: moving stance training and kicking.

While forging the frame of various kung fu stances through standing is a fundamental and yet life-long pursuit, a martial artist also needs to know how to move in and out of each stance.  This is done first with individual movement drills practiced on both sides.  You create an in-depth study of how to settle in a horse stance (for example), or how you project up and out with your strike in a single leg stance, while your supporting leg grounds energy downwards.  This kind of training makes movement into and out of the stances just as important as the “final” position that is trained in standing practice.

Single movement drills also incorporate hitting targets and applying the moves on  a training partner.  In this way the movements, the body structure, and the application knowledge are all tested and developed continuously.  When the practitioner moves on to forms practice, he learns to switch in and out between different stances and angles and applications.  Without the specific leg training outlined here, all stance work and hand drills will suffer in application and your life-long pursuit of training will not prepare you to utilize your art in case of need.

In addition to moving in, out, through and between attacks, legs can (of course) be used as formidable weapons.  We can kick, knee, trap, trip, grind and press with out legs when faced with an opponent.  All these fluid and fast movements have to be explicitly trained.  But the keystone of leg training in this area is kicking.

Kicking requires us to ground ourselves on one leg while the other leg delivers force in a given direction.  The traditional kicking patterns for training allow the whole body to be employed in generating power and balance in the kicks.  Your root and core are further developed.  Your leg muscles loosen and the fast-twitch fibers are trained. A good kicker is good with his knees.  A good kicker can snap quickly into position around an opponent’s attack and launch a counter attack with the legs.  Without long and careful training of the legs through kicking, you will have only a small fraction of a usable art.

In sum, the most basic formula for legs training in Chinese Martial Arts is:

  1. Static Stance Training
  2. Moving Stance Training
  3. Kick Training

There are many exercises related to each of these areas, and all three require ever increased pressure testing against objects and partners and opponents.

Going back to the Kung Fu Saying for this week, do not spend your life training rashly – carve out training time dedicated to at least the three areas of leg training discussed here.  The percentages of time spent on these will vary somewhat on the technical repertoire of your art, but all traditional Chinese Martial Arts have and require these basic training areas.

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Body Basics Before Boxing

Liàn quán bù liàngōng, dào lǎo yīchǎngkōng.

Liàn quán bù liàngōng, dào lǎo yīchǎngkōng.

Practicing fighting techniques without practicing body methods will leave you with nothing in the end.

While some people might disagree with this saying, it’s the heart of traditional Chinese martial arts practice.

If you only learn fighting techniques, you may collect a number of movements that can be applied to various specific self defense scenarios (if my opponent attacks me with that technique, I’ll answer with this one).  But there are two problems with this approach.

The first problem is that we cannot realistically train a specific answer to every possible occurrence in a physical altercation.  If you take the equational approach to learning self defense, then when a new variable will throw off your calculations.  Let’s say the angle of a strike comes in just a little irregularly, such that your prescribed responses aren’t really suited to blocking, evading, or destroying the attack.  You might run the risk of becoming frozen – and that gets you hit.  But if you train movement principles based on the fundamental DNA of your chosen system, then you have adaptable answers that will still conform to the mechanics and strategy of your training (and what’s the use of training if you can’t or don’t deploy it when needed).  In other words, if you train hard to drill the specific movement principles of your system into your body, and only afterwards engage in first scripted and then unscripted attack scenarios, you will be able to really use and express your system of martial arts.

Mind you, these movement principles don’t always have to be expressed in a fight (so don’t think my mind’s only on violence here).  My little brother was learning Aikido at one point.  During the period of his training he was hiking in the mountains.  On his way down he was picking up speed and the path became gravelly.  He suddenly realized that he had completely lost control of his momentum and was about to eat dirt (or stones).  As he fell, his movement training kicked in and he managed to execute a forward roll, controlling the fall.  He was completely uninjured, and in fact rolled up into a walk.  He never trained with the idea that “When falling down a steep mountain path, tuck your right shoulder and execute a forward roll.”  There was no “if A then B” training.  But the hours spent rolling and learning his center kicked in and saved him from damage.

The second problem with training a collection of techniques without training the underlying body mechanics that feed them has to do with the limits of the human body.  My silat teacher, Jim Ingram, puts it very simply.  He’s currently 82 years old and can still drop down in a full squat and into the low kneeling stances of the style.  He can move quickly and throw much bigger people than himself (like me).  He admits that he’s not as fast, nor as strong, nor has as much endurance as he did when he was young.  But he can still practice his art and use it if need be.  In contrast, some other teachers and practitioners in his generation can no longer do the movements, even though they have knowledge of the techniques.  What’s the great secret to Oom Jim’s continued abilities?  He says that if you don’t practice daily, you get rusty.  If you don’t keep moving, corrosion sets in.  So Oom Jim practices basic body movements (not just fighting techniques) every morning to this day.

Martial arts is a way of life, which is why it’s not just about collecting techniques.  It’s about daily training to realize your physical potential.  Training the fundamental movement principles of your system turns your body into a refined delivery system, lends itself to adaptability, increases your capacity to move, and keeps you capable into old age.



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Knowing Your Center

Zhōng jié bùmíng, quánshēn xuánkōng.

Zhōng jié bùmíng, quánshēn xuánkōng.

Without knowing your center, your entire body will be unsettled.

In some ways, this phrase is very literal and easy to understand.  If you don’t know (can’t feel) your center of mass, you will easily lose your balance – whether from an opponent’s moves or simply when trying to execute your own moves.

I doubt anyone who has practiced martial arts with great vigor can say that they have never lost their balance.  Maybe that person exists, but it’s not me.

The real trick is knowing your center.  You should be able to feel when you’re off balance.  Then you can correct first static postures and then movement through those postures.  When you can feel your center, even difficult transitions between techniques can be accomplished smoothly.  This is the real key to forms practice in traditional systems.  Static postures build the frame.  Individual movement drills allow you to perfect certain techniques, adding power, familiarity and fluidity.  But forms teach you to transition between techniques.  Sometimes these transitions are so easy as to seem natural.  But sometimes we find ourselves in slightly awkward positions as a result of the previous technique (whether or not it landed successfully), and the practice of forms allows us to study how to change direction and swing momentum and refocus power into the next technique.  All this requires that we know our center.

But what I just described (while a whole lot deeper than it would appear at first brush) is still only the surface level of knowing your center.

All traditional martial arts that I have encountered fall somewhere on a continuum of utilization of the dantian (丹田 dāntián) in movement.  Later posts will probably look more closely at the many questions of the dantian and its usage in martial practices.  But for now I would like to suggest that knowing your center ultimately implies knowledge of your dantian – in addition to the knowledge of your center of mass described above!

The traditional martial systems with which I have experience all contain exercises that are not outwardly martial – that is, they are not directly combat movements.  Some of these movements even look a little silly to an outside observer – when you encounter movements like this in your own practice, pay attention!  A lot of them are body training methods designed to give your body the proper attributes and habits of movement to truly express and utilize your art.  Many of these movements that I’ve encountered are specifically designed so that the practitioner learns to first sense and then manipulate the dantian.

I remember reading somewhere (years ago, so I currently forget the source) of a Chen Taijiquan master who could, while lying on his back, shoot seeds from his lower abdomen to the ceiling!  This is knowing your center!

So how is the second part of our phrase (your entire body will be unsettled) understood in the context of knowing your dantian?  This is less directly understood than knowing your center of mass.  The key lies in the type of relaxed movement that is required in movement from the dantian.  Once you can sense the movement in your body through the dantian, you can start to drive that movement from the dantian.  In order to make this work, superfluous localized muscular tension has to be removed from the body.  If you don’t have a sense of your dantian (if you don’t know your center) you will not recognize these areas of tension and your entire body will be unsettled.

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First Practice Standing

Wèi xí dǎ, xiān liàn zhuāng.

Wèi xí dǎ, xiān liàn zhuāng.

 Before studying how to fight, first practice standing.

In this first blog post on, I’m starting a series of posts on Kung Fu Sayings.  This will be a category of posts that you can reference on our site. Other categories will follow, but I thought it would be fun to start with this.

So for the first blog post on a site dedicated to traditional body training methods, I can’t really imagine a more fitting phrase/perspective to introduce:

Before studying how to fight, first practice standing.

What is more iconic of the kung fu practitioner than the image of a monk standing motionless in horse stance?  Maybe there is incense burning in the darkened stone hall, or maybe he’s outside on the crags of Songshan?  Or if you’re more inclined to other imagery, you can imagine a Daoist standing in the forest or in a courtyard looking out from Mt. Wudang in zhanzhuang.

Regardless of the imagery that inspires us, Chinese martial arts begin with standing. Why?

Chinese martial arts begin with the premise that in order to learn how to fight at a high level of competency, one first has to train the body to work at optimum capacity and efficiency in order to deliver the techniques of the system in question.

Yeah, but why start with standing?

Because, if you look at the previous statement, Chinese martial arts are trying to do two important things for a fighter: 1) make him capable of creating a lot of power in his techniques, and 2) make him efficient in doing so, which will allow a fighter to last a lot longer in combat.  Standing teaches the proper alignment of the body’s supportive frame.  This frees up the muscles to be able to relax (since they’re not holding the body up as much).  Once they’re relaxed, they can move faster and with greater range of motion than when they’re tensed and occupied with basic support functions.  You can control your tension and relaxation, rather than having those states be unconscious.  Once you have proper alignment of the body’s frame and the accompanying conscious control over muscular tension, it becomes much easier to generate powerful and focused strikes.  In addition, it takes less energy and taxes the muscles less to produce these strikes when the alignment is correct – thus making the movements more efficient and giving the fighter greater endurance time.

All this comes from standing?  No, there are many other supplemental exercises to get to the end result (like how to extend the various parts of the body into strikes and where and when and at what distance to execute those strikes), but they all depend on the proper alignment and control that come from spending long periods of time standing in correct postural alignments.  So first practice standing!

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