Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Seven Years For The Foundation

     Last April marked my 57th year in the martial arts. I recall looking through a copy of my first book, The Making Of A Butterfly, and thinking back to my early days of training under Master W. Chen.  I remembered something he'd said that made me wonder if I would be able to continue training in the Chinese martial arts.
     I was in the throes of a religious experience. That is, I thought I was seeing God! I was doing my best to hold the "ma" (commonly known as "ma-bu", but more correctly called "qi ma-bu", or "horse-riding stance"). My legs were on fire and shaking like a jackhammer. I could hardly keep my back straight and breathe correctly. I collapsed, of course, but I resolved to get right back up and continue the exercise. And within a few seconds my legs gave way again.
     Sifu Chen stopped me and told me about the vital importance of learning the "ma", of building a solid foundation. He told me that the first seven years of training were devoted to this end.
     Yep. He said it calmly, as if it was a fact that everybody knew and accepted. I couldn't imagine continuing this kind of training for seven years! But that's what he meant and that's exactly what I ended up doing.
     Oh sure, I was taught many other things during that time. I learned all kinds of techniques and forms and two-person exercises and joint techniques and throws and...lots of stuff. But the emphasis on the ma was always there. I can't count the number of times that I listened to lectures about the importance of it.
     I figured that if it was important enough for my sifu to constantly lecture us about it, it was something I'd better practice. A lot. And I did. Eventually, I came to understand its value. This isn't something that can be completely understood just by reading or thinking about it. It has to be practiced, physically experienced over an extended period of time. That's the only way to "get it", to acquire the knowledge and ability that comes as a result of such painful practice.
     The reason I thought about it was because my editor had sent me a copy of a little blurb they were putting on the back cover of my book. It's a quote from the book about learning the "ma." I thought about how long it had been since I'd first started training and then noticed another line they'd put on the cover...that I'd been training for over 50 years (at the time the manuscript was sent in, it was only 48 1/2 years) and I was stunned. I guess time flies when you're having fun.
     But even after five decades of practice (part of which passed before I met Sifu Chen), I have to say that he was absolutely right. Without a proper foundation, learning real martial arts is impossible.
     Building a strong "ma" doesn't necessarily mean that you only practice standing in a horse-riding stance for a certain length of time each day; it also has to do with learning how to step, how to shift your weight and move, how to stand in other stances (although the "ma" is the mother of all stances), how your breathing affects your movement, how your yi (intention) affects your movement, how to maintain balance when standing still and moving...lots of things. But they all have to do with the foundation. The "ma."
     I remember back when beginning judo students were made to spend most of their practice time learning not only ukemi (breakfalls), but the basic stance (jigotai). It's kind of a second cousin to the "ma." Students practiced shifting and stepping in this position. Times have changed; I don't think most modern judoists have ever in so much as even heard of this posture.
     There's no question that the vast majority of contemporary kung-fu (and karate) practitioners have ever practiced the "ma." They may know what it is but they don't "have" it. They can intellectualize about it but they have no real foundation.
     Sometimes I hear internal stylists argue that they don't use the horse-riding stance very much, if at all. That's fine. "Ma" literally means "horse" (as well as other things), but the term "ma" when it's use in conjunction with fundamental stance(s) simply refers to the style's most basic way of standing. In xingyiquan, baguazhang, the basic stance is "sanzai" (aka. "san tsai"). That's their "ma." In taijiquan - well, it depends on who you talk to...some would say they do have a horse-riding stance (it appears in the posture known as Commencement) while others use the "sanzai" stance. Whatever. The point is that they do have a single, fundamental stance.
     The problem is that most martial arts enthusiasts nowadays don't practice their "ma" anymore. In many cases their teachers don't (and probably never have), either. The teacher is sometimes afraid that if he makes students engage in such uncomfortable training, they'll quit - and that means loss of income. So they don't make students do it anymore. And now we're seeing the results - martial arts practitioners who have no real power, no real skill. No "ma."
     I remember that my sifu used to insist that if we stood in the "ma" every day, our vital energy (qi) would eventually sink down to the dantien and we would be able to express great power. I couldn't imagine how this was possible. How could standing in this painful position accomplish that?
     And he said that unless we built a solid "ma" we'd never be able to emit real power. We'd have no true strength. That confused me, too. But he was absolutely right. And after watching the development of martial arts over the last fifty years, I must say that this old time-tested training method needs to be re-emphasized.
     Practicing the "ma" has a positive impact on both physical and mental health, too. Many years ago, kung-fu teachers in China would often recommend it as a sort of therapy for a variety of ailments, especially for problems with the stomach and intestines. It was prescribed for some respiratory sicknesses, too.
It's also an excellent tool for developing a strong yi (intention) and spirit. Try standing in it for ten or fifteen minutes and you'll understand why.
     Most students loathe this kind of training. They want to jump right into the martial arts and get into the "meat" of it. They fail to see how standing in some static posture or doing boring drills like "walking the square horse" are going to help them become superior fighters.
     But they do. It just takes time. You can't hurry the process. You have to learn patience, you have to willing to endure great discomfort, and you have to develop an iron will.
     For seven years.

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