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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