Forging Taizu Quan

In our practice of Six Harmonies Boxing (六合拳 – Liùhé Quán) we use iron rings as conditioning tools.  We had a batch made locally and this video is a playful look at part of the forging process used on the rings and on ourselves.

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Soft Preparation, Hard Strike

Róu guò qì, gāng luò diǎn.

Róu guò qì, gāng luò diǎn.

Softly prepare to strike hard!

More literally this phrase can be translated as: “Softly gather qi, solidly strike.”

There are two primary ways this phrase can be interpreted in martial arts.  The first pertains to training, while the second refers to a combat situation.

In training it is advisable to nurture your body.  Abusing your body in the pursuit of greater flexibility, resilience or power can lead to training injuries that will haunt your later years, set your learning back in the short term, and may render you handicapped if faced with a self defense situation on the way back from training.  This seems like common sense, yet there are countless numbers of people who engage in damaging practices while supposedly bettering their bodies and their art.  Training softly to gather your energy will build your capabilities while also nurturing your body.  Don’t worry – there is a lot of work and sweat involved in “softly gathering qi.”

In addition to engaging in non-destructive body cultivation techniques, the softly gathering energy perspective teaches a connected sense of the body’s structure and movement.  Too often in the tensed frenzy of running through techniques, we neglect to listen thoroughly to our bodies.  When we slow down and relax it offers the potential for somatic introspection.   This is also true for all styles that are typically performed quickly and “with power” – the so-called “external” or “hard” styles.  Once we learn the lessons of our bodies as they move through the forms of our systems, we are then able to truly release the power of the movements when we speed up into application speed.

This leads us to the second area of interpretation for the phrase under consideration in this post – combat.  “Softly gather qi, solidly strike” can also serve as a reminder not to telegraph either movements or intention.  Fighters read intention and can sometimes read a few steps of intention into the future, like a chess player predicting his opponents series of moves.  Attacking your opponent when he is preparing for an attack is an excellent strategy which requires the reading of his intention.  Strikes delivered during your opponent’s preparation are safer to launch and have a greater effect than when he is in purely defensive mode.  Softly gathering your qi is a method of masking your intentions.  Internally this means masking your intention and the subtle reorganization of your body for your next movement.  Externally this means that your movements should be initiated without any windup.  When your movements are obscure, and you have softly gathered your qi, you deliver a solid attack.


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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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