Thursday, July 28, 2011

Got Qi?

     Over many years I've spent a great deal of time visiting with numerous martial arts practitioners and listening to their ideas regarding the acquisition and application of intrinsic force.  Recently, I've also spent time on various martial arts forums doing the same thing.  And overall, one thing is very clear...most of these people have no clue as to the nature of qi or how to express it in their chosen martial discipline.

     The nature of qi is elusive.  Over the generations there have been many explanations, debates, and outright arguments regarding this very subject.  Everyone has their own opinions and ideas.

     But one thing is certain; skilled internal stylists are capable of generating uncanny force with seemingly little physical effort.  Some can withstand very heavy blows to most areas of the body without injury or discomfort - and without relying on tensed, hardened muscles. 
     This same kind of skill has been demonstrated by long-time practitioners of various karate styles, who have gone "full-circle" in their training.

     Most martial arts beginners dream of acquiring this kind of power but they have no idea how to go about doing it.  The same thing is true of a good many martial arts veterans.

     So they start out trying to imagine generating or emitting vital force when they practice their basic techniques and forms.  And...nothing happens.  They huff and puff and keep at it but the result is always the same.  Nada.  After a time, many of them simply give up on their quest and that's the end of it.

     Learning to execute fajin (emit power/vital force) isn't something that just naturally happens if you keep repeating the same movement over and over.  To be sure, some qi is emitted whenever you make any kind of movement but emitting a concentrated force requires that you practice correctly and progressively.  That's what this lecture is about.

     Applying fajin isn't magic nor is it the result of lengthy periods of lofty meditation (although that can help - but more about that later).  You can't just fire off your techniques and hope that someday it'll "happen."  It won't.
     Power is emitted through our physical bodies and our physical bodies are governed by certain laws of physics and principles of kinesiology.  So, the first thing we need to acquire is correct position.  That is, how to stand correctly (in accordance with the applicable laws of physics and principles of kinesiology) when we execute techniques.  This is often achieved through repetitious training in various forms of what is known as "zhan-zhuang" (stake standing); static postures that are held for lengthy periods of time to help the student learn how to properly align the (part of the) body.  It ain't easy, believe me.  Nay, it's bloody well painful!
     Most students loathe this training not only because of the discomfort involved, but because it appears to be relatively pointless!  After all, they reason, how can you develop a stronger punch or kick when you spend so much time standing in weird, static postures?  And many will walk away.  They have shallow minds and weak spirits.  They should trust their teacher and do what they're told.
     For this training, a good instructor is a must.  He can quickly spot any "kinks" in your posture and correct them.  Fajin is much like getting water to gush out of a hose.  If the hose has any "kinks" in it, the water cannot come through very powerfully.  "Kinks" in your posture will prevent force from being powerfully emitted through your technique.  Thus, zhan-zhuang.
     At the same time, these static exercises strengthen and toughen the legs and hips - a necessary prerequisite for being able to deliver truly powerful technique.  They also promote the develop of a very strong yi (intention, will) which is another necessary ingredient in the development of fajin.

     The second aspect of correct training involves movement.  This includes not only footwork, but also forms of body shifting and turning.  It has to be done correctly so that no "kinks" are created when you move in a given fashion.  Only then can power be emitted easily.  Again, this involves exercises that can be more than a little tedious but consider that learning to stand in a static posture correctly is one thing; learning to maintain correct posture while you're moving is a whole different game.  It's going to take a lot of practice.

     The third part of correct training is your actual technique.  It has to be executed exactly so, using the appropriate laws of physics and principles of kinesiology to your best advantage.  If your technique is incorrect or sloppy, fajin is not possible.  It's like putting very expensive fuel in an old, piece of junk car.  It won't run any better.  It's still junk!  This is why practitioners of some forms of martial arts cannot perform fajin; their techniques are terribly flawed.
     You may think that your technique is ultra-spiffy but only your instructor can tell for sure.  You have to learn and practice them slowly, making sure that everything is just right...then develop speed from there.  Actually, speed will develop naturally as the technique is made sharper and cleaner.

PRACTICING PROGRESSIVELY     Learning martial arts and developing real power is like making tea.  It takes time.  It can't be hurried.  Any attempt to hurry the process will only ruin it and you have to start over again.

      First, learn to stand and then move correctly.  As you're doing this, you'll be taught new techniques so you must pay close attention and practice them correctly as possible over and over and over.  Don't worry about power or speed - those will come naturally in time.

     You'll also learn various forms of qigong.  These are crucial to developing fajin and they have to be practiced progressively.  The main idea is that you must first clear the (internal) pathways of chi so they are unobstructed.  This is accomplished largely through regular practice of breathing techniques (which can be done as a form of meditation) and also through exercising certain postures.  If the main pathways are obstructed, you won't be able to fajin, even though your posture, movements, and technique are correct.

     Once the channels are clear you must learn to draw energy up through the soles of your feet as you perform your techniques and movements.  Power comes through the soles and is emitted through the striking surface of whatever bodily weapon you're employing (so long as posture, movement, and technique are correct).  And you have to learn to relax as you execute your technique.  That is, you must not use any more (muscular) force than is absolutely necessary.  This may sound fairly easy to do but it'll require a good deal of practice.    

     Don't concern yourself with trying to emit fajin right away.  It's going to take a while before you get the external (posture, movement, technique) right.  Your instructor will let you know when you're ready to begin training to fajin and there are some two-person training methods that you'll practice over and over.  The skill develops gradually; it doesn't happen all at once.  You must be patient and study yourself and your technique.

     And as you go through these processes you'll find one glitch after another - some large, some small - but glitches, nonetheless.  It's a never-ending process; constantly striving to perfect your technique, constantly polishing out smaller and smaller glitches.  A lifetime may not be enough.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dress For Success

     Many years ago there was a book entitled "Dress For Success", which enjoyed considerable popularity. The author (whose name I can't recall) noted, among other things, how one's attitude was affected by the manner in which one was dressed. It sounds a little wierd, but over the years I have found many of his assertions to be true and it's one of the reasons I insist on students wearing a proper training uniform.
     In general, it can be said that the condition of one's practice uniform reflects one's attitude towards training. If it looks like a used kleenex; if it's torn and in need of repair, or if the salt stains (from yesterday's or last week's sweat) haven't been washed out, it is a fairly accurate indication of how one regards oneself, one's school, and one's training.

     A students who pays a lot of attention to detail; a student who is a stickler for sharp technique and who aims at perfection will usually wear a uniform that is clean and pressed. You could almost cut your finger on the creases in their sleeves.

     At the other end of the spectrum is the student whose uniform has been wadded up and shoved into a practice bag for a couple of days. It has more wrinkles in it than an elephant's butt and his attitude towards training will tend to be lackadaisical. His technique and form often leans towards the his uniform.

     And then, of course, there are a lot of in-betweens.

     Training in street clothes is common in many internal Chinese schools and I think this actually has an impact on their (the student's) approach towards training. Casual. That's how they often regard it, but training time should be anything but casual. One must concentrate and give a full 100% of one's attention to it.

      In the old days (and even in modern China) most training was conducted outdoors. People gathered in parks to practice and so they naturally wore their everyday street-clothes. That's why most kung-fu stylists wear shoes.  But I think this kind of thing has had a negative impact on (Chinese) martial arts. For one thing, street-clothes don't hold up very well to the rigors of strenuous practice. So, the teacher has a choice; he can water down the training so that the students don't damage their clothes (and maybe themselves), or he can go ahead and conduct a vigorous class and end up with a bunch of half-naked students.

     Due to the heat and humidity (especially in southern China), many kung-fu stylists prefer to wear training trousers and tee-shirts. Such clothing won't hold up in our training. Tee-shirts don't stand up to grappling practice. There are some who will argue that "in a real fight your opponent won't be wearing a heavy practice jacket", and that's why they prefer tee-shirts. Okay. So let's do the techniques and grab the tee-shirts. Watch what happens. Or we can just grab meat and execute our throws. But then, a lot of students wouldn't be returning to class.

     The reason the heavy jacket is worn is NOT to accomodate the thrower in the execution of his technique; it's to PROTECT the receiver - so the thrower doesn't have to grab a fistful of meat in order to perform the throw.  If the receiver insists on wearing a tee shirt or regular street-clothes, it leaves the thrower in a quandry. Does he rip his partner's clothes to shreds? Does he dig into his partner's flesh to perform the throw? Or does he water down the technique?  This is why I require all students to wear a full uniform in class.

     However, the main thing is that the overall condition of the practice uniform is an indicator of the regard a person has for training and even for him or her self.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gripe, Gripe, Gripe!

     I used to think that several of my instructors really had it in for me. It seemed that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, they always had to make a correction. Some seemed to constantly gripe about whatever I was doing. I remember doing a form in front of one of them and I felt that I'd given the best performance of my life. The teacher said simply, "That was awful." Then he proceeded to complain about almost every movement I'd made. Sometimes his correction amounted to nothing more than moving my hand or foot a couple of inches, but he acted like it was something really important.

     Little did I know that it was.

      Several of my teachers seemed to ignore certain students. I wondered why the teacher wasn't correcting them instead of me. Their movements were much worse than mine; in some cases they were downright pitiful but he rarely said anything about it. I asked one of my teachers about this odd phenomenon and he replied, "(So-and-so) doesn't try. Doesn't listen. Doesn't practice. So I just don't care. If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't correct you." And that said it all.

     It's not easy for an instructor to gripe and whine at a student who he likes; who he feels has a lot of potential, and with whom he feels a close bond. He knows the student will often not understand why he complains about such minor details and the student may feel that the instructor is picking on him, singling him out in front of everyone else. It's because the instructor cares. If he didn't care, he wouldn't say anything at all.

    The teacher's time and experience is very valuable. He's been where you're going. Usually more than once. It's very disheartening to correct a student only to have him make the same error over and over again because he isn't listening or trying. In the end, the teacher simply stops wasting his time and energy. However, for students who do try and who do train hard, the instructor is full of energy and extra time.

     I remember one student I taught years ago who paid little attention to what I was trying to teach him. He never trained at home, either. This made class a very difficult time for me because I was constantly being asked (by him) about material that he should have already learned and practiced thoroughly. I couldn't give much attention to the other students because of this. One day, I ordered the group to begin practicing a technique that they'd learned several weeks earlier. As usual, the student in question approached me and asked how to perform that particular technique. "Weren't you here when I taught it the first time" I asked. He told me that he had been, but he'd forgotten how to do it. That translates as "I haven't been practicing." So I told him, "Well, just watch the other students. You'll figure it out." And that was that. He finally dropped out of class altogether which was something of a relief. I had stopped caring whether he learned anything or not because he had obviously stopped caring, too.

     Teaching is a tough job. An instructor takes time away from his/her family and his own training time to teach others. It is rare to find an individual who is willing to act so unselfishly. He/She spends time poring over class schedules, watching the progress of each student (who tries) and providing encouragement when times get tough - and not just in martial arts training (I have often felt like a psychologist or marriage counselor, vocational counselor, and even a car mechanic), scheduling exams and praying that nobody fails because that's a supreme bummer for any teacher, and on and on. All of this is done in his/her spare time away from class.

     During class, the instructor pours out energy as he/she instructs the students. It may not look like it, but it's true. It can be exhausting work physically, mentally, and emotionally. But he/she does it because he/she is devoted to helping others just as he/she was helped by his/her teacher; to transmitting the knowledge and skill which he/she possesses to others who are willing to work hard to get it. So when a student doesn't try, it's discouraging as well as irritating. Ultimately, the teacher stops trying to teach people who aren't willing to try, to sweat, to push themselves.

     I can well imagine what would have happened if I'd told my teacher that I'd forgotten a particular form because I hadn't worked on it for a long time. God forbid! I think the earth might have opened and swallowed me up! That would have been preferable to facing the unbridled wrath of my teacher! I am certain that he would not have agreed to show me the form again. I would have been told to "watch the other students" and try to pick it up from there. We were expected to train regularly on our own; not just to maintain a given level of expertise, but to actually strive to improve what we had learned. If we did not do this, the teacher would know.

     Any instructor who's been at it for very long can instantly spot a student who hasn't been training at home. It takes only a few seconds. Kind of like the child who thinks he's pulled something over on his parents, only to discover that they already know about it...and he wonders how parents know these things? Do they have eyes in the backs of their heads? Are they telepathic or something?


     So are martial arts teachers.

     I've had some students who felt that the fact that they paid tuition entitled them to unconditional instructional, regardless of how hard they tried. Wrong assumption. Their tuition paid for my time in class. If they couldn't keep up with the class because they weren't training on their own, that was their problem...rather like paying for a college class and then not studying on your own time. The teacher doesn't care. He is paid to teach. That's what the tuition is for. It's YOUR responsibility to learn and do whatever you must to learn it thoroughly. If you refuse to do your homework and put in the extra time required to learn the material, that's your problem...not the teacher's.

    Learning has always been a two-way street. The teacher must teach to the best of his/her ability. The student must do his/her best to learn. If either side fails to meet their obligation, the process breaks down.

    The Yiliquan training program was designed over a period of many years of research and experimentation. It works supremely well...but only if the students adhere to the training regimen as outlined by the instructor. It is a progressive program. Training is never haphazard. Many martial arts schools have classes which go something like....a little stretching followed by a few basics (which vary from one class to the next). Then we do a quick form or two (just for the exercise), and then sparring. Wasn't that fun? Good. That's what we're doing next time, too. Kind of like an aerobics class. And although I think aerobics is a great form of exercise, it isn't martial arts (sorry for any Taebo people out there...).

     Yiliquan classes and training are very structured and progressive. It requires that students train on their own time. Otherwise, progress is extremely slow and when progress gets very slow, people lose interest and give up. They feel like they're not getting anywhere and they're right. But it's usually their own faults. They won't be taught more advanced material because their bodies and minds aren't ready for it - they haven't been training as they should. So they get stuck in a rut and before long, they fall by the wayside. Your instructor undoubtedly remembers scores and scores of classmates who fell by the wayside, many of them because they failed to train correctly and make progress.

     As I've said before, the world is full of failures. Do not seek to add to their numbers.

     Whether or not you succeed in your chosen martial discipline is not up to your instructor. It's up to you.