Monday, October 30, 2006

day 6: 4th palm change and application

  • chi-kung (qi-gong) level 1
  • shaving
  • 4th palm change

today began with a slightly different warm-up. John was practicing jian shu (Chinese straight sword) when i arrived, and after my morning stretch routine he took over leading the class (all 4 of us). we began simply enough with the stances. but after we did them, he then asked if we wanted to had do Ba Gua chi-kung level 1. this was a bit of a break from tantui, but i figured a good learning experience since i don't know anything about chi-kung but consider it one of the things i want to learn.

chi-kung (level 1)

chi-kung (qi-gong) is the field of Chinese medicine devoted to developing chi. there's quite a bit to it in terms of nurturing it, manipulating it, strengthening it, and applying it. for martial arts, each internal system appears to have its own method of chi-kung. Ba Gua has its own unique method of chi-kung. based on the term "level 1" i got the impression that there are multiple levels. how many i don't know.

ba gua chi-kung level 1 is basically a progression of 9 sets of movements, with each set representing one of the 8 trigrams featured on the 8-sided bagua symbol, plus 1 set of exercises corresponding to the center of the bagua symbol. while the bagua symbol has meanings in Taoist astrology and Chinese medicine, for martial arts (and bagua in particular) it connotes a series of meanings related to combat and chi flow.

for level 1, the 8 sets are performed facing the 8 directions of the compass (John began with us facing northwest, then proceeding clockwise to north, northeast, east, etc. until we finished with west). for each compass point, John named (with Ching-Tzsieh's and Lee's help) the corresponding animal, element, and body part. for each point, John then led us through the respective movement, which apparently is meant to develop chi in the matching body part. we moved in progression through all 8 compass directions, and then finished by standing in a circle.

it appeared that everybody else (John, Ching-Tszieh, and Lee) had trouble themselves remembering the parts of the 9 sets. of course, they all did better than me, since i was having enough difficulty just trying to follow the exercises. after we finished, Ching-Tszieh pulled out a sheet of paper with the ba gua trigrams to check to see if we had gotten everything right. i took the opportunity to write down some notes. based on what she had, this is what i managed to find:

  1. NW, element: yang metal (heaven), animal: lion, organs: head, lungs
  2. N, element: water, animal: snake, organs: liver, kidney, inner ear
  3. NE, element: yang earth (mountain), animal: bear, organs: hands, spine, small bones
  4. E, element: yin wood (thunder), animal: dragon, organs: throat
  5. SE, element: yang wood (wind), animal: phoenix, organs: hips, waist, buttocks
  6. S, element: fire (sun), animal: hawk (rooster), organs: eyes and heart
  7. SW, element: yin earth (earth), animal: unicorn, organs: abdomen and reproductive organs
  8. W, element: yin metal (marsh), animal: monkey, organs: mouth
  9. center

i have to say i don't know if i really felt any chi. i did feel relaxation. i did feel breathing. i did feel physical action. but i don't know if i felt any chi.

i feel a little disappointed.

but maybe it's just because i was focusing on trying to follow along. maybe it's just because i'm a beginner. maybe because i'm still a little uncertain as to the concept of chi itself. maybe i just need some more time, more practice, and more concentration.

it sounds like a broken record, but it's appropriate for so many things for me at this level: this is going to take some time.

4th palm change

Jason and the rest of the class arrived as we finished chi-kung level 1. based on the ribbing they gave John and Art, it sounded like they had overslept and missed their usual attendance at Jason's early morning jian shu class.

Jason started the class off pretty quickly, having everybody review the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd palm changes in methodical order. after watching everyone's technique and correcting their form, he then demonstrated the 4th palm change.

the 4th palm change is not quite as intricate as the 3rd, and doesn't have the same level of rotation and spinning. it does, however, have a number of complex transitions, with change in stances involving 360-degree spins that make it difficult to keep sense of direction. it also has some awkward movement that makes for difficult balance. it begins with a slight arch in the back and reach from the 70-30 stance, followed by a spin into the dragon stance, then a single-leg stand involving upper body action that involves bringing a hand forward along the opposing arm as it is simultaneously being brought back, after which the practitioner steps forward in a series of lunges before finishing.

everybody joked about the awkwardness of the movements. Jason said the initial motion was like Bob's Big Boy. Ching-Tszieh said she felt like a pizza delivery person. the single leg stand proved equally comical. Jason said it helped to imagine that we were trying to shave an arm, with the one hand moving forward to "shave" the hair of the arm that was retreating back.


assessing the state of mass confusion and awkwardness in the class, Jason had everyone stop and gather around. he told us that it would be easier to understand the 4th palm change if we recognized its combat applications. he then proceeded to demonstrate what the movements were meant to do.

it turns out, although awkward, each action in the 4th palm change has a very clear purpose. the initial step with the back arch and "pizza delivery" reach is actually meant to force you out of the line of an opponent's fist strike and simultaneously reach their face. the subsequent 180 degree turn into the dragon stance is supposed to be the reaching arm pressuring the opponent backwards off-balance from their center line and the off arm then moving into a position to further push the opponent off-balance by the hip or thigh, using the downward movement of the turn for force. the shift to a single leg "shaving arm" action is supposed to be forcing the opponent forward and then swiping their leg. the forward lunges are lunges to the throat.

Jason then added some extensions to the techniques contained within the 4th palm change. he demonstrated techniques, most if centered around variations of the "shaving arm" action designed to force the opponent into a throw, a joint-lock, or some combination of both. after giving everyone a chance to experiment with the techniques, he left to work with the Baji students and let everybody practice on their own.

i have to say, things are dramatically different when you have an expert demonstrating something versus doing those same things on your own. once Jason left, everybody was left scratching their heads as to how the techniques he had showed us actually worked.

i was working with Ching-Tszieh, who was as befuddled as i was. it took us awhile to figure things out. but everybody else appeared to have the same problem.

John and Phunsak were working together, and then joined me and Ching-Tszieh, at which point all of us realized that even though we each thought we'd figured out the techniques, all we had really done was figure out different facets of it, and that the full picture became clear only after we started comparing and discussing what we'd individually learned.

case in point: Ching-Tszieh mentioned she was having trouble with one movement that Jason had emphasized as involving arm catching, "shaving" along the arm in a motion he described as "down and up", and then striking towards the face. John said it helps to twist the arm making contact ("twisting": the perpetual theme of bagua). Ching-Tszieh said she didn't understand how that was supposed to help, but then tried it anyway. To her surprise, the movement became significantly easier and much more natural. She looked at Phunsak and John and said "How is this possible?" Phunsak shrugged. John nodded, and then calmly joked: "See? That's why it's called kung fu. It's mysterious!"

by this time Jason had returned. he was promptly mobbed by students trying to figure out the movements. Jason took a rather extended period of time to answer questions, and then paused to emphasize that some elements of the techniques were crucial, but that there was room within the techniques for variation.

case in point: on the same movement that Ching-Tzsieh had covered, Jason pointed out that the strike didn't have to be to the face, but could also be to the colloidal artery of the neck (which also contains a pressure point that forces the person to turn their head), the jaw, the eyes, or the adam's apple. similarly, the strike forward could be ignored and the technique could be abbreviated in the middle and turned into a joint lock on the elbow, wrist, or fingers.

after some time, Jason called class to close.

i think this time, unlike previous times when it was just me alone, most everyone in the class had some bewilderment and head-scratching as they left for the day.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

day 5: a thinking day

  • chi
  • jing
  • shen
  • li
  • jin
  • fa jing
  • yin and yang
  • 5 elements
  • hand drills
  • tantui (line 2)
today was not directly related to 64 palms. which is fine, because i am still getting used to the mechanics of the single, double, and 3rd palm changes from the previous weeks. i suspect Sifu Jason wanted to stop and work on some techniques that are going to be necessary for the subsequent palm changes, and to review and correct the forms of what people have learned so far.

i arrived at my usual time, and found myself warming up with Feng and Lee. we started off with the basic stances, and were starting tantui when Ching-Tszieh showed up with a friend (don't remember her name). i spent some time in the past week practicing line 1 of tantui (there's a total of 12 taught by Jason), and so felt comfortable doing that. i stepped out to try to observe and pick up the other lines, but it's a little hard without a list of stances to refer to.

by this time Sifu Jason showed up, along with the other students who were attending his jian shu (Chinese sword) class in Long Beach.

i was expecting to start moving into lines to begin 64 Palms, but Jason had everybody gather together and said it would be good to discuss some basic concepts, particularly in relation to chi kung (or qi gong) and martial arts.

chi kung

i had posed a question on the Wudang Yahoo! group earlier in the week asking the basic question of "what is chi?" the Yahoo! group is a discussion board used for discussion and announcements--apparently not just by Jason's students, but also his colleagues in Wudan around the world. i'd gotten a series of responses to my question, with varying interpretations, and it had evidently generated a bit of discussion.

i hear the term "chi" used in class quite a bit. people talk about "feeling the energy" and "flowing energy" and "gathering chi" and "expelling chi" and "moving chi." but it's not quite clear to me what it is, or what people are feeling.

Sifu Jason went into an extended presentation and discussion about chi, focusing primarily in terms of its nature relative to martial arts.

i won't go into detail about what he said and what others had to say, since i figure it's an exhausting topic with a wide array of viewpoints deserving of its own forum. but i should cover the terms Sifu Jason covered:

  1. chi--an apparently general term used in Chinese culture and history for "energy", and which appears to encompass the various Western notions of energy (i.e., potential, kinetic, chemical, etc.). Sifu Jason indicated that interpretations of chi as "life-force" or "life-energy" are somewhat misleading, since it gets away from the conception of chi as energy, which can manifest itself in different ways.
  2. jing--this seems to be the stored form of energy (or chi) as it appears in matter.
  3. shen--this was a more esoteric concept. Sifu Jason described this as the projection of a person's essence, but in a way that allows the amplification of chi. he said it is possible to have shen without chi, referring to charismatic people in history who had strange powers to influence others, but yet had no training in chi or chi kung. he noted that thermodynamic principles of radiation, conduction, and convection are useful in understanding the nature of shen in projecting energy (chi).
  4. jing chi shen--Sifu Jason actually used this term in referring to jing and shen, noting that the three words are used together to give a more over-arching all-encompassing conception of energy, from storing it to releasing it and projecting it.
  5. chi kung--the subject of manipulating chi
  6. li--the form of chi as power generated by a human body performing actions (including martial arts)
  7. fa jing--the expulsion of li in a way which releases refined energy in very specific ways
  8. jin--this i was not clear about. Sifu Jason seemed to want to stress that while the words are similar, this was very distinct from jing. evidently, jin is a different Chinese character and refers to a refined form of li (so i guess this means the development of energy by a martial artist in a skilled and purposeful manner)
  9. yin and yang--well, this is a pretty well known concept. but for chi kung, it's useful in understanding the nature of energy. shen evidently is a yin (or soft) form. chi can be yin (soft) or yang (hard) depending on its manifestation. i'm guessing jing, being material, is a yang (hard) form.
  10. 5 element theory--Sifu Jason referred to this in passing, and didn't go too far into detail. from what i could gather, in terms of chi kung it relates to how there can be "good" chi or "bad" chi. this isn't so much normative (i.e., "good" or "evil") but refers more to the idea of how chi of one person can be incompatible or bad for another. the incompatibility seems to arise from people falling into 5 categories (wood, fire, earth, heaven, etc.).
for Jason, it seems important that we understand chi, so that we can generate it and use it for our benefit--which includes the martial arts. he took time to explain that one of the crucial aspects of kung fu is to recognize that we are using chi to generate force from our bodies, and then applying that force against our opponents. he commented that this involves more than simple physics in a fight, and that it extends further to encompass our bodies and minds in course of everyday living.

in particular, he pointed out that in Chinese medicine (and martial arts) specific movements are used to encourage and manipulate chi in the body, with movements being used with mental intent to work with the organs (the intestines, livers, kidneys, heart, lungs, muscles, etc.) and systems of the body (nervous, circulatory, cardiac, immune, etc.) so that they generate and channel chi. it is the combination of these components of the body with chi that allow the release of energy in combat. Jason noted that in bagua, for example, one of the major sources of directing energy is a spring, since it is analogous to a coil, especially in the way bagua constantly involves "twisting" force or "reeling silk" energy.

to a degree, Jason's comments addressed some of the confusion i've been having trying to understand chi. but i'm guessing it's a very complicated topic with a very large number of viewpoints that will take a very long time to sort out.

after taking some time to cover these terms, reviewing some of the questions and ideas raised on the Yahoo! group discussion, and describing them to his satisfaction, Sifu Jason then ordered everyone into lines to review the palm changes in 64 Palms we had covered so far.

hand drills

we began doing a series of hand drills. these were basically different permutations of the hand drills Art had shown me a few weeks ago and the pole drills Phunsak had worked with me on over the past 2 weeks. the difference was that all of the prior drills had involved 1 hand, whereas Sifu Jason this time had everyone do 2-hand drills.

the 2-hand drills are fundamentally nothing more than the performance of the 1-hand drills alternating from one hand to another, so that they become a continuous repetition of movement from right to left to right to left to right again and again and again. with the very basic drills (facing front, side, then back) the 2-hand drills seemed relatively straightforward. however, Sifu Jason then had us perform some 2-hand drills involving the "hawk chases bird" movement we had learned for the 3rd palm change, at which point things started to become awkward.

compounding the difficulty was that the hand drills involved more than just hands--they involved the shoulders, the waist, the hips, the legs, and the feet. meaning that i had to pay attention to everything to perform the drills correctly. in addition, Jason stressed that we needed to remember there was a vertical component to the movements, and that it was important to move up and down in synchronicity with the weight shift and waist turns.

from what i can tell, these hand drills are actually fundamental components of bagua, and are crucial for many (if not all) of the palm changes. i can see that all of the hand drills involved movements that were incorporated into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd palm changes, and also in the combat techniques Jason has been showing in the classes. as a result, it is important to be able to do the drills properly and naturally. i suspect this is why Sifu Jason was taking some time to ingrain the movements into everyone before progressing further into 64 Palms--the palm changes are only going to get more complex, and they're going to be difficult to learn and comprehend unless we learn to do the hand drills instinctively.

for all this, while Jason made an effort to keep everyone on a count performing the drills, i had some difficulty keeping up with his cadence, and so ended up doing the drills on a different count from the rest of the class just to try and figure them out. i did the best i could, but i got a little lost, and had to stop and think things through at several points.

review and tantui (line 2)

after some time performing the hand drills, Sifu Jason had us review the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd palm changes of 64 Palms. i've been spending some time during the week reviewing all 3, so i didn't find this to be much of a problem. i was able to take some time to focus on some of the finer nuances of the palm change movements, and to pay more attention to some of the details Jason noted as he walked around correcting everyone's form.

Jason left to work with the Baji students a little later, and had Phunsak take over reviewing the palm changes. i found this useful, if nothing else then to work on muscle memory, balance, and feeling the movement.

at one point, we took an extended break to let everyone rest and review the movements on their own.

i took this time to ask John (one of the several Johns in the class) to help me with the hand drills. John was gracious enough to go through the hand drills, and went through them with me and Ching-Tszieh's friend (i forget her name). i found going through the drills with him helped, since he went at a slower pace, and working in a smaller group let me get up close to get a better sense of what we were supposed to be doing. i started to get the hang of it after a little while, although the drills are complicated enough that i can see i'm going to have to practice them some more to perform them properly.

by this time, class was coming to an end. Jason called everyone together and formally closed the class.

as people were leaving, i stopped John and asked him to show me tantui line 2--the one i'd been trying to pick up at the start of class. John took a couple of minutes and showed me the stances for line 2. we didn't go into too much detail, which is fine, since i'm pretty sure i can get that as i practice them and perform them with everybody else at the start of class. the main thing i wanted was just to have somebody show me the stances and their sequences.

i figure that i should probably make it a point to learn at least one line of tantui each week until i can get all 12 lines down. like the saying i learned last week: "if your tantui is good, your kung fu is good." tantui is another critical fundamental component of kung fu, and i figure it's important to get it right and ingrained. that, and i want to be able to do it with the rest of the class.

i stuck around a little longer to think through the hand drills, and after getting a little more comfortable, i packed up and followed everybody else out.

it was not a busy day compared to the previous weeks, but probably a very necessary one to get a better sense of some important concepts and basic drills.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Commentary: Closed Door v Open Door Schools

I've noticed that Chinese martial schools are sometimes tagged as being "closed door" or "open door" schools. "Closed door" means that they're secret, with their teachings only being given to students within the privacy of the school, with no entry or observation being allowed to the general public. In addition, it sometimes means that the school is selective about its students, and will act to ensure that only specific individuals learn its lessons. "Open door" means the school is accessible to the general public, that people are allowed to observe or learn the school's teachings, and that anyone is eligible to become a student.

These labels seem to represent extremes on a continuum, since there are apparently shades of variations between them. Some schools are very open in who they accept as students and in how they allow public access, but they still retain a core set of "secrets" that are only taught to an elite cadre of cadets. Other schools discriminate based on types of students, setting certain minimum requirements for entry (in the modern era, this is normally such things as GPA, good behavior, etc.) and advancement (minimum age, minimum grammar school grades, etc.).

As far as I can tell, there is no real qualitative difference between "closed door" versus "open door" schools. The martial arts--or the martial artists--produced by a "closed door" school are not necessarily better than an "open door" school simply because one is "closed door" and the other is not. If there is a difference in students, it's in the amount of knowledge known. "Closed door" schools will always claim that there is "secret" knowledge not known to the public and only held by a select few, and "open door" schools will claim that they endeavor to maximize as much knowledge within each student as is possible.

From a certain perspective, the distinction is an artifact of Chinese history. But from a different perspective, it's a division reflective of issues that permeate modern society. I find it interesting that the thread has continued from the past to now.

"Closed door" Schools

The idea of a "closed door" environment makes sense from an intellectual property perspective.

If a school's teachings are seen as an assembly of techniques, concepts, training methods, and processes, and its concepts and theories the product of the accumulated research and thought of experts and scholars, then that school's teachings are effectively intellectual property. In essence, the school's teachings constitute a distinct and recognizable body of knowledge resulting from the work of identifiable creators and protected and maintained by specific leaders.

In modern legal theory (at least for the U.S. and much of the Western world), intellectual property is something seen as ripe for protection, not only to ensure that credit is appropriately assigned to a given body of knowledge, but also to ensure that the people deserving of such credit then have the ability to make profits from such knowledge. In addition, intellectual property rights extend to allow control over a body of knowledge which can be transferred to people other than the original creators--and so enable intellectual property rights to last beyond a single lifetime.

In which case, there is some justification for a school to protect its knowledge, or otherwise it risks having its knowledge disseminated to the larger world, thereby incurring the surrender of control by its instructors and in turn risking dilution of its distinctiveness or corruption of its teachings. Such scenarios would render moot arguments for intellectual property rights and remove the ability to demand revenues from public use of such knowledge, and would also deny leadership the power to control the future development of the school as a recognizable entity.

While such conceptions may not have existed in ancient China, some form of them must have operated. A martial arts style's creator almost certainly would have wanted to be able to control who would learn his (or her) martial art--for any number of reasons, ranging from political (denying information to political enemies) to personal (denying information to personal enemies) to honor (ensuring that only school was represented by people of highest character) to arbitrary (race, age, gender, religion, etc.) to anything else. Furthermore, a creater would almost certainly have wanted to control who would have the designated power to carry on control of the martial art--a creator would have wanted to designate grandmasters from close trusted friends, confidants, relatives, etc. to ensure a preservation of the school's "styles" and reputation from malicious agents who might seek to discredit the school or from unqualified instructors who might exploit its identity for their own livelihood. Moreover, there was assuredly a monetary incentive, in the sense that a school's master needed to have something to offer to entice students to pay for lessons--and that something could only be worth money if it was knowledge not known to the common public.

Such arguments ring true today. Questions of control and profit are issues that exist as much in the modern era as they did in ancient China. As a result, the existence of "closed door" schools are not entirely arbitrary decisions driven by the personal peculiarities or biases of their masters. Instead, these arguments maintain validity in justifying the continued practice of "closed door" schools.

"Open door" Schools

For all the justification, however, given to the continued existence of the "closed door" school, there is a contrary, perhaps stronger, perspective to the "closed door" perspective and its mindset--particularly in terms of a larger-scale, time-sensitive scholarly perspective: the "open door" school.

Extending beyond boundaries of society, culture, language, race, nation, province, town, or school, a martial arts school's knowledge can be viewed as a contribution to human knowledge, with the entirety of human knowledge itself being a collective work reflecting the accumulated wisdom of the human species. In this sense, a school can be seen as an active participant in the intellectual awareness of all the human experience, with the observations and theories and lessons of its creators and grandmasters being individual volumes in a larger library of knowledge.

Such an interpretation highlights a number of issues:

Knowledge can be lost or destroyed

Knowledge can be lost. Secrets can be forgotten. Books, libraries, repositories can be destroyed. Any time such incidents happen, the loss marks the permanent erasure of wisdom from existence. Throughout human history, there have been notable episodes where indescribably significant knowledge has been lost, either as the result of misuse, disuse, death, or destruction of books, libraries, people, or even entire civilizations and cultures.

A common example is the burning of the great library of Alexandria, which marked one of the greatest disasters to human intellect, since it involved the destruction of the Hellenic world's entire body of knowledge. Scientists estimate it set back the development of human civilization by a 1,000 years, and that even now--after the re-discovery of much of the library's wisdom--there are still secrets that will never be found.

Another example is Archimedes, widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the development of mathematics. Legend has it he was murdered by Roman legionnaires just as he was about to finish a mathematical theorem. His murder has been taken as one of the greatest losses of intellect and knowledge to have ever been suffered. Coincidentally, much of his writings were lost in the burning of the great library of Alexandria, never to be recovered. It was only relatively recently discovered that Archimedes had apparently begun to develop calculus--almost 2,000 years before its "invention" in the 1600 and 1700s.

Beyond tragic events such as murder, there is even simple expiration due to natural causes. Languages and cultures have been lost because the only representatives died before passing on their knowledge to a younger generation. While perhaps an inevitability in human history, such events have incurred a cost in lost wisdom--wisdom that has as much relevance and importance to the modern world as it did to an older one. Amazon tribes hold knowledge of tropical medicines unknown to the West. Surviving Navajo tribesmen were able to use their language as a code for the United States during World War II.

Sometimes the erasure of a culture occurs not from natural causes but also mass human intervention in the form of genocide, from the Roman purging of Carthage to the Holocaust to the Khmer Rouge to the Cultural Revolution, each of which marked the wholesale termination of human intellect and skills. Such losses meant setbacks, not just in terms of the tragic loss of life or the horrific infliction of carnage and suffering, nor just in terms of cultural eradication, but also in terms of the collateral damage to innovation, creativity, technology, understanding, insight.

Regardless of how it happens, knowledge, once lost, may be lost forever. As a result, the continued preservation of "secrets" and "closed door" lessons increase the risk of loss by dramatically curtailing the multiplicity of sources. In effect, it reduces redundancy in the preservation system, and makes it more likely that an individual's death, a library's burning, a culture's destruction will truly achieve the erasure of wisdom--wisdom that could have served to help the world.

Knowledge becomes stale if it is not shared

Knowledge is sometimes taken as representing truth. As truth, this means that it is often accepted as something that must be immutable, unchanging, or permanent.

But this is a questionable proposition to me. Truth may be eternal, but knowledge is not. Because knowledge may represent what we accept as truth at one point in time, but then it may be later found to be incomplete, distorted, or plain wrong. Human knowledge once took the fact that the ground was flat to mean a universal truth of the world being flat. The truth, however, was clearly that the world was round, and that is was our limited knowledge that prevented us from seeing this. It took further knowledge of scale, perspective, and physics to realize that what we saw as flat was actually a very large object so immense that its curvature was beyond our visual comprehension.

Knowledge is something that evolves. It changes. And sometimes what we thought we was right--and therefore truth--turns out to be right only to a certain degree and only from a certain perspective, and so becomes really just parts of a larger truth.

But for this to occur, knowledge must be tested. For knowledge to be tested, it must be exposed. That is, it has to be made available for the collective body of interested researchers and explorers to investigate and apply and test and observe. This can't happen if the knowledge is kept hidden from the rest of human society.

It also can't happen if the keepers of knowledge presume an exclusive right to explore and research their own secrets. The Catholic Church held as truth that God had made the universe with the Earth as its center. They persecuted anyone who said otherwise. They nearly executed Galileo Galilei for proposing that the Earth was a body revolving around the Sun. Often, the keepers of knowledge are vested in their own secrets to an extent that they are more interested in keeping it in stasis than they are in letting it develop; too often, they are more interested in the power of possessing secrets than they are in discovering greater truths.

Knowledge needs knowledge to grow

A corollary to the above is that knowledge must grow, and that in order to grow it requires a pre-existing base of knowledge . Truth adds to truth. Discovery builds upon discovery.

Scholars apply pre-existing knowledge to determine promising new avenues of exploration. Surveying the accumulated state of awareness in a given field sometimes reveals curiousities and issues whose investigation may uncover new phenomenon. Astronomers, for example, learned of the existence of supermassive black holes and their roles in galactic structure only by utilizing prior research built upon the papers on gravity written by Albert Einstein. The confirmation of the scale and power of such entities was only determined by pre-existing theoretical work that had surmised their possibility.

Likewise, pre-existing knowledge sometimes offers insights to new mysteries. Physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his auto-biographies that he developed his ground-breaking theories on sub-atomic interactions using the physics involved with circus performers rotating dinner plates on top of poles. The well-understood physics of the gyroscopic properties of the spinning plates, he claimed, helped him better understand the enigmas of the nuclear forces acting between sub-atomic particles.

In addition, it is important to be familiar with pre-existing knowledge to avoid replication of already understood phenomenon. Researchers always stress that it is important to know what you don't know, but in order to do so you have to know what it is you do know. The anecdote is frequently told of an inventor who set out to find an improved version of the light bulb, but then never reviewed the work of Thomas Edison, and subsequently invested significant resources to find that the best filament for an incandescent light bulb was tungsten--which was the exact same discovery Thomas Edison had made years earlier.

Whether it's to find new directions in study, to gather insight into new phenomenon, or to simply avoid wasteful replication of prior work, researchers need have to have access to the knowledge that exists. Otherwise, there's no point of reference for them to base their work upon, and nothing upon which they can expand the picture of human consciousness. As a result, it greatly impedes the continued development of human awareness, and stifles the growth of humanity in wisdom and capability.

Knowledge deserves to serve the world

Even in modern legal theory, intellectual property protection is not meant to be perpetual. Intellectual property rights are allowed for a finite period of time to ensure an honorable and worthy return to a creator and his or her designated heirs. But such rights are meant to end, with the recognition that once a creator has been given a chance to earn a benefit from ahis or her creation, that creation should ultimately be disseminated and made available to the world, and thereby serve to contribute to the collective consciousness of human wisdom.

This is a relatively simple point, but it's worthwhile to make: one of the purposes of knowledge (apart from things such as learning for its own sake) is trying to improve the human condition. There is plenty of suffering in the world. There is plenty of ignorance. There is plenty of bad things. Knowledge should be trying to make things better.

But it can't make things better if it's not being used or grown, and it can't reach its full potential to make things better if it isn't reaching its full capacity to be used or grown. Keeping knowledge hidden or constrained serves to deny the use and growth of knowledge. As a result, keeping knowledge secret has the consequence of continuing the darkness in the world, and preserving the worst of the human condition.

To me, this seems contrary to the ideals and aspirations of the martial arts, which while ostensibly is about developing the inner and outer components of the individual, is also supposedly about making the world a better place by ensuring that martial artists serve to improve it. Enlightenment shouldn't just enlightenment of a few, it should be enlightenment of all.

Of course, there are some reasons to retain control over instruction. As a matter of preserving its unique identity, a school should have some power of identifying its own techniques. In addition, as a matter of maintaining quality control and reputation, a school should exercise discretion in recognizing qualified instructors and practitioners.

But these objectives are attainable without resorting to the use of "secret" teachings or exclusive enrollments. Knowledge can still be accessible without surrendering control. A school's teachings can still be recorded and made public without loss of ability to label its own property or certify qualifications of its own teachers and students.

If the ultimate purposes of knowledge are to be realized, then effort shouldn't be put into keeping knowledge secret or hidden away, but instead should be put into spreading knowledge as far and as wide as possible to the peoples of the earth. This way, knowledge isn't being hoarded to benefit just a few, but rather shared to benefit all humanity. More than this, it becomes part of the greater effort to improve the human condition. In which case, there is little (other than mundane) purpose for a "closed door" environment and a far greater and far nobler purpose for an "open door" one.

Monday, October 16, 2006

day 4: 3rd palm change (dancing like a whirling dervish)

the theme today is nuances. little things that make a big difference. meaning they're not so little.

stuff covered today:

  • hawk follows sparrow
  • twisting force
  • applied stances
  • tantui
  • third palm change

the forecast was for bad weather, light rain. but the morning turned out to be just a heavy overcast, and no precipitation, so i decided that there was very little chance of class being canceled, even though its outdoor location made it susceptible to inclement weather.

class started out uneventfully. some new people showed up, some people from prior weeks did not (it always seems that way). with Lee leading as he customarily does, we started off doing stances (always the same 10: horse, bow-and-arrow, 60-40, 70-30, rooster, etc.), and then proceeded to performing tantui.


tantui is (from what i can tell--notice how i often use this phrase with learning martial arts?) a martial arts form derived from the muslim populations of western China. based on what people have told me and what I've been able to research on the internet, the muslim Chinese had a reputation of being superb fighters, which combined with their status as outsiders independent of the ethnic struggles in imperial intrigue, made them prize candidates as imperial bodyguards. much of their fighting style is characterized by wide-open stances and movements, with direct action and forceful techniques. because their fighting style was considered in such high esteem, it was used as a source from which many other northern Chinese martial arts borrowed their elements--and so is the reason why so many of the fighting styles from northern China are characterized by wide, long-range techniques.

tantui itself is the core of the muslim Chinese fighting style, and apparently is titled in English "muslim long fist." tantui consists of (depending on the region) 10 or 12 lines of stances, within which a series of stances are performed along a line. each line has its own series. i am only learning the first, and have not yet learned the others--as a result, i did the first line, and then stepped out to take some notes and observe the others.

according to what i've read on-line, there's a saying that "if your tantui is good, your kung fu is good." if that's the case, i've got a ways to go.

Sifu Jason arrived just after Lee had finished. when he asked me i was learning tantui, i said yes. he then asked to see me do it, at which i told him i had absolutely no idea what the proper order of stances were in the series for the first line. at that point he ordered Phunsak to work with me.

this is one of those times when it is clearly apparent just how necessary it is to have close personal attention from the instructor, and that emulation alone is not enough. Phunsak had me follow him as he did the first line in tantui, and then stopped to painstakingly point out to my mistakes. emulation of Lee had gotten me the apparent ability to follow the series, but the truth was that i was missing much of the finer points of technique necessary to give substance to the concepts behind tantui.

according to Phunsak, there are certain nuances in hand and foot positioning, as well as torso rotation and shoulder movement, that are crucial to make tantui effective. without it, the student won't develop the instinctive feel for the actions that give tantui its ability to develop muscles, coordination, and power. Phunsak's comments were confirmed by the on-line research i did on tantui, which essentially stated that tantui was developed to push students to change their mindsets away from familiar patterns of motion and see the additional ways their bodies can produce power.

i can tell that there are certain parts of tantui that are proving very challenging to me in terms of my flexibility.

third palm change

after awhile, Sifu Jason had everyone stop working in their respective groups, and then had everyone line up to learn the third palm change.

he reviewed the single and double palm changes--as much to show them to the new faces returning from their vacations as much to refresh the memories of everyone else. he then showed the third palm change.

the third palm change is an additional order of complexity from the single and double changes. it involves a greater number of changes in foot positioning and stances, and incorporates much more circular and fluid motions of the arms and hands, as well as involving a more conscious adjustment of the body along a vertical axis up and down. for all intensive purposes, it makes the practitioner a whirling dervish of flying hands and arms and rising and descending body parts moving in a synchronous ballet of movement before arriving at rest. it is, to say the least, the physical equivalent of a tongue-twister (simple to watch, but then frustratingly difficult to perform).

Jason broke the third palm change into 2 halves. we took an extended period of time doing the first half, following his careful, slow, and repeated demonstration of the techniques. he had us emulate him at first, and then walked around us observing as we attempted to do them as a group along a cadence count. after awhile, we moved onto the second half, following the same strategy. when he became a little more satisfied, Jason then had us integrate both halves and do the entire palm change as a single movement.

this time (unlike the previous classes), i could see that almost everyone was having trouble getting comfortable with the palm change. they were pretty much having the same problem i was: remembering the sequence of techniques, as well as coordinating the simultaneous performance of multiple actions in a smooth, seamless progression.

at this point, Jason had us break off into groups to work on the third palm change on our own--or to take a break from the concentration and digest its concepts.

Art, who had showed up late, watched me with bemused interest. after a few moments, he began working with me.

Art, having been with Jason for so long, has been through 64 Palms multiple times. he told me this was the 3rd time he'd gone through it. evidently, the first time Jason had taught it doing it the way it's supposed to be done--in a circle, the way bagua is supposed to be done--but that everyone had struggled to learn it. the second time, Art had just come back from postrate surgery (he's a postrate cancer survivor), and had been able to do nothing else than watch. this was the third time. he then laughed and said that he seemed to learn new things each time Jason covered it.

stance applications

after some time on the third palm change, Jason started showing everyone some combat applications of bagua involving hand movements redirecting punches and counter-striking either by hand strikes or throws. from what i saw, it involved a circular flick of the wrist to the side followed by a lunge forward to either strike or throw the opponent. after demonstrating the technique a few times and describing its concepts, Jason had everyone break off into pairs and practice the techniques. i stayed paired with Art.

it dawned on me that what Jason had showed involved the elements of the pole drills from last week. this gave me more insight into the application of the drills in combat. at this point i realized a number of things:

  1. it makes a huge difference practicing with a real person, to see how a technique works in practical application
  2. bagua is a close-in system. as in close. to apply its techniques to hit or throw an opponent, you have to close with your enemy and make contact between your shoulders and torsos. talk about the brutality of violence
  3. minute differences in technique can have dramatic impact on the effectiveness of a technique--with just a slight change in movement, i found that my actions were either completely suppressed or surprisingly effective (Art showed me just how exposed i could be if things were done wrong, and how powerful i could be if things were done right)
  4. i still didn't have things down--my techniques was being countered by Art more often than they were succeeding in doing what Jason had showed us they were supposed to do

one of Jason's other senior students, a man named Eric who appears to be in his 40s, came up to me and said that i was having difficulty with the techniques because my stances were all wrong. he pointed out my footwork and body positioning was taking away from the proper form needed for the techniques. Art agreed, and commented how my stances were preventing me from properly redirecting incoming strikes and counter-attacking, as well as leaving me vulnerable to the opponent's actions.

as Eric and Art discussed what it was that i was doing wrong, it became clear to me that the techniques Jason had showed us were involving more than just the pole drill, but also integrated the stances we perform to start each class--in particular, this set of techniques involved the horse stance, 60-40 stance, and bow-and-arrow stance. the pole drill itself had involved multiple stances, but now the techniques integrated everything for its goals.

it was then that i had another realization: the proper form of each stance, and just why proper form was so important. it's not because it's just because "the way things have always been done." it's because it makes a major difference in determining the effectiveness of each technique.

for example, in order to redirect an incoming strike, the technique Jason showed us involved a seemingly slight nuance in the 60-40 stance in which the butt and waist are slightly turned towards the enemy. this turn is crucial in properly aligning the hand movements to redirect an incoming strike with minimal effort. similarly, the technique also involves a shift from 60-40 to bow-and-arrow, where the shift involves a twist in the rear foot that at first impression is seemingly inconsequential. but the shift plays a major role in instilling the counter-strike with force and ensuring that the practitioner doesn't overextend himself and become vulnerable. this essentially, is another facet in meaning of the term "twisting force."

after thinking about it, and practicing a few more times with Art, i'm thinking that for me, the trick to doing this right is to imagine my butt initiating the technique, essentially serving to "cock" the movement by turning to face the opponent and align my shoulders, arms, and hands for the shift to counter-strike.

Eric commented dryly that this was considered by traditional instructors as an "advanced" technique, and not something commonly taught to beginners. Art concurred, and said that Jason had been reprimanded by his instructor in the past when he taught it, since it was considered one of the school's "secrets." Art noted that Jason had only begun serious teaching of bagua after his instructor died.


the class wound down after this, and Jason said we were finished for the day. we all bowed, said "thank you" in Mandarin, and wrapped everything up.

afterwards, several of the students went with Jason for lunch at a Mongolian-Chinese restaurant in Monterey Park (basically, a spicy version of Japanese shabu shabu). i decided to go. things were a little awkward, since some of the other students were not very talkative, but things got a little better once we started a decent conversation with me, Phunsak, and Jason about Chinese history and the current state of kung fu in China.

it ended up being a decent way to finish the day's lessons, and a nice way to get to know Jason and the other students a little better. he evidently he goes to lunch with everyone after each class, so i may do this again, time permitting (which it probably will be).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Commentary: Teaching Methods

As I've gotten further along in graduate school and learned more about the nature of academia, I've begun to observe the several distinct teaching styles. They all share the same goals (well, actually, really maybe not) of educating students and advancing their analytical skills, but they all differ in terms of how these goals are pursued.

There's the "rote" method, where the instructor tells the student everything that needs to be learned, sets forth a "right" way for doing everything, and then employs a methodology that has students learn by performing the "right" way under constant repetition until it becomes clear they can do things the "right" way on their own. The idea here is that students tend to make mistakes and form bad habits if they're not made to recognize a "right" way, and so need to be given only one correct model to accomplish things, with anything not matching the model frowned upon and eliminated.

The issue with this approach is that it turns students into robots. Automatons. What a teacher of mine long ago referred to as "algorithmic technicians." Which is great so long as the student deals with problems that fit the algorithm--algorithms are efficient, they're elegant, and they're quick.

But not all problems fit the algorithm. In these situations, the "rote" method fails. This is because the "rote" method, by focusing on adherence to a "right" way, instills algorithmic formulas and ignores development of actual skills and understanding of their application. It makes students devoid of critical thinking skills or any ability to figure out problems that do not fit their algorithms. In short, the "rote" method focuses on responses rather than enlightenment. And responses can be wrong, formulas can be fallible, and algorithms can be rendered impotent by a unique and unknown set of circumstances.

As an alternative, there's the "mystery" method, which operates on a belief that the best way for students to learn is to tell them nothing about what they need to learn, other than to state (and demonstrate) what skills they should get. The goal is to avoid the strict inflexibility of the algorithmic "rote" method in favor of developing loose, flexible, adaptive awareness of multiple skills available for creative application in response to problems. The general method is to force students to explore a subject matter by forcing them to figure things out on their own without any guidance from the instructor.

Imperative in this approach is the avoidance of any models or demonstration of "right" or "good" solutions. The rationale is that this will allow students to develop their analytical and learning skills, and help them understand that there are many different kinds of problems, and also many different kinds of solutions for those problems. In particular, it is supposed to make students see that they can construct many different kinds of solutions for any given individual problem, no matter how unique or unknown.

The issue here is that it is really difficult for students to learn if they're not given any kind of reference points as to what is considered good versus what is considered bad--or even what methods and sources are needed to make that kind of determination. Even the idea of forcing students to ask questions is troublesome, since the truth is that in order for a person to ask a good question leading to useful (as in educational) discussion, they first have to a base of knowledge good enough for them to know how to generate a good question appropriate for useful discussion.

All of this becomes even more difficult when the instructor tells the student that everything they've learned before is wrong, and that they need to learn everything anew--in which case, the student is left with no reference whatsoever. This isn't a method of education; it's a method of making people lost.

Another option is the "guidance" method. The attempt here is to offer some compromise between the "mystery" and "rote" methods, with the idea being that students should be given some minutiae of direction in learning and exemplars of "good" solutions to problems, while still emphasizing the education of skills and understanding of how to use those skills in lieu of formalistic algorithms. The hope is that student enlightenment can be stimulated by observation and analysis of why "good" solutions worked for a given problem, and why "bad" solutions failed for those same problems. In this way, students will avoid the inflexibility of the "rote" method, but also avoid the learning challenges induced by the "mystery" method.

The issue here is that this method requires a greater level of vigilance by the instructor to make sure that students don't focus on exemplars as the formulaic responses to be memorized, but instead use them as learning aids to see 1) what skills were used, 2) how those skills were used, and 3) the limitations and potential associated in using each skill. Which is fine, but not efficient in situations with a high student:teacher ratio (i.e., where there are many students but few teachers), and not very expeditious in situations of limited time.

These educational methods are not unique to culture--I've seen them ascribed and described in various ways unique to respective cultures. But the truth of the matter is, culture is irrelevant, and the challenges of teaching are universal.

An example is the prevalent (and persistent) perception that Eastern (particularly East Asian) methods of teaching are composed of either "rote" or "mystery" methods. This is particularly associated with the martial arts, where the stereotypes lend to visualizations of schools as either being rooms of students in organized lines performing drills in lockstep, or as institutions with teachers spouting abstract and obscure riddles to be left as mystical nuggets of enlightenment to meditating students seeking truth. Regardless, the image is always the same: the teacher is the master, and the students are mindless peons, and there is no discussion, no investigation, no questions--in short, no analysis or development of critical thinking whatsoever.

Stereotypes, within liberal arts scholarship, are often taken as exaggerations with some kernel (albeit distorted) of truth.

This interpretation has some validity to martial arts education. To a degree, "rote" instruction is necessary--there is a right and wrong way to do techniques (with the right way maximizing effectiveness and the wrong way rendering them useless). Likewise, "mystery" methods are useful--sometimes students needed to be prodded and shocked into recognizing just how fluid and unpredictable real combat can be. Furthermore, "guidance" methods work in encouraging students to develop their mental creativity and flexibility--which is just as crucial as physical capability in implementing effective (or "good") solutions to the problems posed by an unpredictable world of chaos and disorder.

But the fact that there is some validity to each approach should be interpreted as a clear indication that there is no single "right" method of education. That is, there is sufficient value to each method to warrant their use, but there is also sufficent deficiencies in each method to call for limitations in their deployment. There should be no blind adherence to any individual teaching method, but rather a disciplined application of each method for those lessons for which they are most appropriate.

In short, there needs to be a fundamental faith in the exercise of pragmatism, and a willingness to use each method to address the solutions for which they are best suited. Only by doing this can a teacher insure that they are giving the most effective teaching in the sense of providing the most memorable lessons with the most valuable and largest amount of information to the greatest number of students for the greatest time possible.

And isn't that the entire point of teaching?

Luckily, I'm seeing that Jason--and everyone else, apparently--is as pragmatic regarding teaching as I am. In that respects, Jason is a very different kind of martial arts teacher. He does not fit the stereotypical Asian martial arts instructor at all. He seems much As in willing to try new things--or any thing that seems to work best.

Which is kind of a godsend...A lot of schools that I investigated before choosing Jason had extolled the virtues of their "traditional" approach (with its "rote" education and employment of "mystery" methods) or "modern" approach (with their "guidance" approach featuring instructors more intent on serving as model exemplars than actually teaching something).

Jason, in contrast, seems to be very straightforward, and intent on doing whatever he feels is necessary to make sure people "get" a technique or a concept. I notice that he'll keep switching methods until he feels that students are starting to do things right. And he certainly makes it a point to emphasize context and concepts, so that there's some critical analysis of why things are the way they are. It certainly helps me, since it saves me frustration and energy and makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something in terms of learning technique and application of technique (and getting some value for my time and money).

I shudder at the thought of what things would have been like if I'd chosen one of the other schools, burdened with all their ideologies.

At least now, I have some sense of freedom to understand a bigger picture.

You know. To free the mind.

And isn't that the entire purpose of education?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

day 3: 2nd palm change!

stuff covered today:

  1. pole drill, front
  2. pole drill, side
  1. 1st palm change
  2. 2nd palm change

to start, i was moving very poorly today. i strained my lower back pretty bad last night while doing a series of plyometric drills with the team. i felt my lower back muscles pull right near the tailbone. it was excruciating.

last night and this morning were bad. it hurt (and does hurt) to walk, sit, stand, drive, turn, everything. and the pain is bad enough that i literally can feel my legs buckle.

i contemplated skipping today's class, but decided i'd go anyway after thinking about the tuition check i had just given to Phunsak last week. i decided i'd attend class, and if thing were too bad then i'd just observe and take notes. i went ahead and taped an icy-heat patch to my tailbone, then popped some Advil and went to Monterey Park for class.

the class began as the seeming typical, with the usual cast of regulars: Lee, Ching-Tzieh, and me. Ching-Tzieh this time had brought some of her dance friends. we introduced ourselves, and then loosely began to line up for the initial stances, which apparently seem to be the beginning of every class. Lee, as per the apparently common, led. Lee said i should go ahead and do the stances, since he felt that it might actually help my back pain.

Art showed this time, and greeted me warmly, asking me if i'd shown up last week and how it had gone. i told him we had started the Single Palm Change and Art gave me a puzzled look and said, "oh no, it wasn't the Single Palm Change. it couldn't have been the Single Palm Change."

all i could do was shrug. i mean, who knows, maybe he was right and i was wrong. honestly? i'm so new i'm not entirely confident that i know what's going on half the time anyway.

by this time Sifu Jason had shown up from his Jianshu class (which is the martial art for the Chinese sword-a relatively light one-handed straight double-edged sword) down in Long Beach (which he teaches every Saturday morning before driving up to Monterey Park for his regular martial arts classes). he had everyone come together, and then broke people off into groups to work on technique.

i told Sifu Jason about my back and he took a close look at the icy-heat patch i had put near my tailbone. i told him i was going to go ahead and try to do the rest of the class, since i wanted to get my money's worth. he laughed.

pole drill

Sifu Jason had me break off into a pair with one of Ching-Tzieh's friends, a woman named Tayesha. i'm guessing she's another dancer. Sifu Jason then instructed Phunsak to work with us, working on a drill that he demonstrated involving the hands, but whose name i completely forgot. he told Phunsak to have Tayesha and me practice for left and right arms, front and then side.

Phunsak took some time demonstrating the drill to us, and then took longer to observe and correct our form. i lost track of the other students, who were working on drills of their own.

at one point, Art came over to observe us. Art told me 2 weeks ago that he had had his prostrate removed as a result of prostate cancer, and that he was still in the process of coming back from the surgery. as a result, he told me, his stamina wasn't what it once was, necessitating that he stop every once in awhile and take a breath. i took it he was using one of these breaks to observe how i was doing.

Art stopped me at one point and said that it was probably helpful if i saw the application of the drill for combat. he performed the drill on me and explained its concept of redirecting an opponent's arm thrust and countering with a strike forward to the opponent's head. he then had me perform the drill on him to feel the pressure and how the drill was supposed to work.

Art was right. once i understood the concept, it was much easier to understand the proper technique.

Sifu Jason interrupted Art and said it was better if we practiced on a pole, and then directed Art to take it easy for a few minutes and told Phunsak to do the drill using a pole of a jungle gym at the playground next to where class was being held. Phunsak complied, and then explained how the pole was used to better understand the proper technique for the drill.

he was right. using the pole made a dramatic difference. particularly when we shifted from doing the drill facing the pole to facing it sideways. Phunsak showed us how performing the drill sideways incorporated an additional element of footwork, which he said was crucial for adding extra reach and more power.

Phunsak was relatively patient with us, and he was certainly attentive to detail in making sure we were following proper technique. but I could tell he felt left out of the more advanced drills Sifu Jason was demonstrating to the other students.

i felt for him. Art had told me Phunsak was one of Sifu Jason's best students, and evidently has become the most senior even though he is dramatically younger than some of the longest-tenured students (Phunsak is, for example, in his mid-30s while Art is in his late 50s) and has been with Sifu Jason for far fewer years (only 4, compared to Art's 20+).

Art had also told me Phunsak had the best form of any of Sifu Jason's students, and i can see it whenever Phunsak performs any of the techniques. i suspect this was why Sifu Jason wanted Phunsak to work with us beginners on the basic techniques; he wanted to make sure we learned the fundamental things the right way from the very start.

double palm change

after some time, Sifu Jason stopped the class, then motioned for everyone to gather around him. he told us he wanted us to learn the Double Palm Change.

Art whispered to me with a measure of disbelief, "I guess we really are doing 64 Palms."

Sifu Jason began by reviewing the Single Palm Change from last week, then he continued by showing the Double Palm Change.

from what i can tell, the Double Palm Change builds upon the Single Palm Change, using the same initial circular motions, shifts in weight from leg to leg, and "fire and water" in progressing from one movement to another. it is also similar in that it's a sequence of stances. the one difference is that it is longer, and involves a change into a more complex finishing series of techniques.

Sifu Jason took some additional time to explain the concepts behind the technique in terms of what they were supposed to do in a combat situation, particularly in terms of hand movement and progression in weight shift. he also reminded us of the importance of "fire and water" and the idea of spiralling force, which evidently is supposed to increase the power of the actions.

for some reason, while it is definitely more complex, the Double Palm Change seemed easier to pick up than the Single Palm Change was last week. i think this may have been the product of the practice i put in over the past week working on the Single Palm Change and the attendant "fire and water" drills. i also think this is a result of my muscles and my mind becoming more accustomed to the movements, and my body starting to acquire muscle memory and sense of physical coordination for a new way of moving.

initial thoughts

the class ended with Sifu Jason giving us some basic pointers and then dismissing us with a bow.

a couple of things i suspected were confirmed today:
  1. understanding the concepts and rational behind movements really helps, since it helps the student focus on what it is important in the movement and also helps in developing visualization of the proper technique
  2. Sifu Jason is definitely mindful of the need to learn fundamentals the right way, and is making sure that the beginners are getting focused attention--even if there are only 2 of us
  3. i'm starting to get more comfortable, but over time it's going to take more attention and energy to learn names and connect them with concepts and techniques--enough so that i'm going to need to take notes
still, i felt better today. even with a bad back.

i felt definite progress today.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Commentary: Horse Stance

I've always wondered why the "horse stance" is called the "horse stance."

For some reason, I've always had the assumption that all the fanciful names assigned in Chinese to kung fu techniques were related to some concept or illuminating visualization. I figured that terms like "drunken monkey" or "sparrow brushing water" or "eagle palm" were supposed to act as clues enabling students to better understand the nature of the movements tied to the respectively named technique, and to help them imagine what it is that they were supposed to try and emulate in order to better perform each technique.

Silly me.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Art and Jason both made comments to me that with the "horse stance" you're supposed to imagine you're riding a in riding a horse just like the Mongolian horsemen did when they first domesticated horses and began riding horses several thousand years ago (well, maybe not quite several thousand...but at least more than 1).

So what does this mean? It means riding horses. Bareback. No saddle. No stirrup. Quite likely no reins. You know, old school.

A spoke with a colleague of mine, who is a rather avid horseman and a native of a horse-raising family from Texas. He pointed out to me that the Mongolians manner of horseback riding was not unique--the Native Americans were known for riding in the same manner. And they, just as much as the Mongolians, were (and are) renowned as among the finest horse cultures in the world.

My friend said that the Mongols and Native Americans rode in a way that allowed them to maintain the ever-crucial functions of their upper bodies--so that they could throw spears, shoot arrows, throw ropes, pass food and water, etc. This required that they ride in a manner that created a stable platform for their activities and which also freed their arms and hands. As a result, this meant riding using the knees to squeeze the horse's flanks, both to maintain a firm seat and to turn the horse.

When he said this, it illuminated a lot of what Art and Jason stressed to me. With the horse stance, you need to "sit" into the posture, create a "cup" at the intersection of your lower abdomen and legs, tuck the tailbone in, keep the chin level, and keep the knees pressure inward towards the center--in short, you need to do all the things a horseman would do if he were mounted bareback on a horse and trying to effectively wield a weapon.

Something else that was most illuminating was an episode of Discovery Atlas--a weekly 2-hour show on Discovery Channel showcasing the cultures of individual countries. This particular episode focused on China, and included a segment on Mongolian horsemen. The segment showed a Mongolian fair with people riding horses bareback doing one-handed handstands at a canter (!!!), jumping on-and-off galloping horses (!!!), and children as young as 3 years old racing horses at full gallop with no saddles or reins (!!!)...It appears that the Mongolians have preserved their horse-skills very well...

What was enlightening is that you could see the horse stance in action--functionally--in the people riding. Knees in, tailbone tucked, chin level, cupped abdomen, butt sitting in. You could see how it worked.

And it was at that point that I could see why the horse stance is apparently such a fundamental component to the martial arts. It provides a stable base for upper-body hand techniques and promotes a sensitivity for good posture needed for performing subsequent stances and movements.

I suppose other stances perform the same function of providing stability and physical awareness. But I suspect that the earliest practitioners of the martial arts who created so much of it probably relied on the most obvious and omnipresent examples of stability and functionality that they could see during their time and age--and that was the horse stance. That, and it was probably also the most readily understood stance for much of ancient human history, in that it was likely all (or most) people of the past had seen horse-riders and could therefore visualize and emulate the horse-riders' stance.

In which case, the "horse stance" isn't something poetic or figurative, but rather a very literal appellation derived from history.

Funny that. A Chinese martial arts terms that is not a figurative expression. Imagine that.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

day 2: stepping things up

stuff covered today:

more stances (sort of):
  1. low
  2. dragon
  3. rooster
  1. walking the square
  2. spiralling energy
  3. fire and water

  • single palm change (part of 64 palms)

today was a bit of an adventure.

i started off trying to do the stances with the early arrivals, which included (as it seems to every week) a man named Lee, a long time student of Sifu Jason and a software engineer (he is on first impression a bit prickly but rather congenial once you get to talk to him...i guess it's just the classic programmer's personality coming through), and a woman named Ching-Tzieh (sp?), a dancer from UCLA with rather extensive prior martial arts experience.

i did okay following through the first 10 (even though i'd only worked on 4 last week). but then things got awkward when we started the next series of stances, which are called tantui. from what i can tell, they're stances derived from the Muslim tribes of western China, and a little more open and expressive than the initial set of stances.

to say the least, i was lost. lost balance. lost track. lost attention. lost place. lost everything.

Lee looked at me with a look for mild frustration and told me it might be better if i just watched. admitting defeat with the tantui stances, i moved over resignedly to the side.

as people started filing in, i looked around for Art, who had helped me last week. but he wasn't around. Sifu Jason assigned me to Phunsak, one of the more senior students and a PhD from USC in Electrical Engineering. Phunsak was joined by John, another intermediate student, who was watching my stances.

Phunsak started me on some balance and drills, and reviewed my stance work from last week.

single palm change

just as we were starting, Sifu Jason instructed everyone to gather around him. he proceeded to tell us it was time to start learning something called 64-Palm, starting with the Single-Palm change.

John looked at me with a sly grin and said: "'re getting some advanced stuff."

i looked at Sifu Jason with some uncertainty, basically with the expression of: "are you sure you want me doing this?"

he nodded at me and said briefly, "this everyone will...and if you're a beginner don't worry. you can still do it."

with that, he had everyone line up and demonstrate to us what he wanted.

the Single Palm Change, from what i can tell, is a fairly methodical drill combining several different stances in a progression following a pattern of footwork, all of it designed to simulate a combat situation in which you are engaging and then pushing an opponent. the movements are somewhat circular, but also involve shifting of weight between legs and a coordinated rising and lowering of the body and hands.

spiralling energy

Sifu Jason made it a point to comment on this, using the term "spiralling." he said that in ba gua, spiralling means not only walking in circles, but also moving in circles with other parts of the body. more than this, spiralling means circular movement that actually progresses in a direction--kind of like circular patterns orbiting in a plane perpendicular to an axis of motion. he said this is what is called by bagua practitioners as "spiralling energy."

i'm wondering if "spiralling energy" is what Art referred to last week as "reeling silk," which is a term from tai chi, but seems to be the same concept of twisting and turning to improve energy transmission and decrease energy expenditure. in essence, it's meant to increase efficiency and effectiveness of technique.

fire and water

Sifu Jason also took care to emphasize the importance of rising and falling, and that the Single Palm Change required rising and falling, and that we needed to feel this throughout the motions. he mentioned the term "fire and water" several times, although i wasn't sure what that exactly meant.

from what i could tell, fire and water seems to refer to the idea of performing technique while either lowering or raising various parts of the body, in unison or as separate entities. from the level of attention given to it, it seems to be pretty crucial--just as important as "spiralling energy"--in terms of maximizing efficiency and effectiveness of technique.

drill on a Chinese 4-count cadence

as if to confirm my suspicions, Sifu Jason said the concepts of spiralling energy and rising and falling was important for the Single Palm Change to be maximally effective, since it determined the amount of energy--and hence power--that the actions generated.

Sifu Jason ordered us to line up in pairs, with senior students pairing up with junior students facing each other from opposing lines. i was paired with John. Sifu Jason told us to perform the Single Palm Change as a drill, following a 4-count (using Chinese numbers that i honestly don't know).

i managed to follow along--to a point.

my discombobulation problems from the morning continued, and i found myself having to think through the movements. which is fine, but not when the rest of the class was proceeding along a quicker cadence. i still found myself having to adjust to the movements. at several points, i had to stop and regain my bearings.

i think part of the problem is that my muscles and my mind are adjusting to new movements that they are not accustomed to, and that i am having to focus consciously to perform the movements properly. in other words, i don't have the muscle memory or sensitivity to the new motions yet, and as a result i am missing the physical coordination to perform them naturally and quickly.

class was over before i knew it. i still felt awkward with the Single Palm Change, but not there was not much left to do other than to just practice on my own.

walking the square

i told John, and Phunsak (who came back over from his position in line), that i wasn't comfortable with the changes in stances in the Single Palm Change, particularly in terms of foot positioning and changes in weight from one leg to another. after some discussion and observation of my attempts to perform the palm change, Phunsak told John to show me the concept of "walking the square."

from what i can tell, "walking the square" is a drill designed to introduce a beginner to the idea of changes in foot position and weight change from leg to leg--especially as it applies to the circular progression of ba gua. the student is supposed to imagine four sides of a square, and then step from in sequence from one side to the next adjacent side, with each foot placed parallel to a side of the square. essentially, the student ends up walking in a circle, placing his feet in progression on each side of the square and proceeding endlessly around the square. the drill can be done in different directions, and can also be done with the feet following the square left or right--Phunsak and John used the Chinese term bao (sp?, for left) and hai (sp?, for right).

more (but important) drill, no cadence (Chinese or otherwise)

i told Phunsak that i was also having additional difficulty coordinating my upper body movements with my lower body, especially with the changes in leg stances and shifting in weight from one side to another. Phunsak showed me a drill that basically involved shifting from side to side, using the 60-40 hand position, with the idea that the hands would be positioned one way when the weight was on one leg, and then exchange positions when the weight was shifted to the other leg. in addition, the feet were supposed to pivot in conjunction with the shifting of weight.

after observing my difficulty handling even this drill, Phunsak then noted that i hadn't been introduced to the concept of "fire and water". it was at this point that he defined it clearly for me, commenting that "fire and water" was an important concept, with fire referring to actions that rise and water referring to actions that lower. the body was supposed to rise (or become "fire") as the weight came onto one leg, and then lower (or become "water") as the weight shifted.

i worked on this a little bit, struggling at first, but then once i started to understand how "fire and water" played into the drill, it became dramatically easier. the idea of "fire and water" lent some rhythm to the drill, and made it more natural to match changes in hand positions with changes in leg stances.

trying to further salvage something basic that i could work on, i managed to pause for a short conversation with another junior student named Fang, and asked him about the other stances beyond the 4 that i had worked on with Art.

more stances

Fang went through the stances with me quickly, and i managed to identify 3 others:
low stance
dragon stance
rooster stance

since it was at the end of class as people were leaving, i didn't have the chance to work on the 3 stances with anybody. but i at least managed to identify what they were.

initial thoughts

the thing about today was that there wasn't really a lot covered. but it took a lot of time to learn things, and it was a little more difficult to pick up than the things from last week.

Sifu Jason stopped to offer a few words of encouragement at the end. acknowledging his support, i told him that i just needed some time to sort things out and get used to them.

i'm thinking this is just the way things are for me...i've always tended to learn this way, even when i was a kid in elementary school living with my grandparents. i would always struggle with the basic concepts and take some time to learn things at the beginning, and then accelerate and speed up the learning curve through all the intermediate things, before slowing again and needing time to pause and learn the difficult material.

i'm guessing that's what is happening now. i'm doing my best, but it's a slow start for the beginning. hopefully i'll be able to get up to speed soon.