Monday, March 26, 2007

day 24: bagua qi-gong & circle walking - 7th palm change

  • gathering chi
  • projecting chi
  • jing, chi, shen
  • footwork (ko, bai, ko)
  • bagua qi-gong (level 1 and level 2: lion and snake)
  • 7th palm change

i arrived really early today. i was tired, groggy, and grumpy, and coffee just wasn't really working. so i got to the park about an hour in advance to stretch, warm-up, and stare at the clouds, only to find a girl scout troop in full assembly where we usually practice (with. no. girl. scout. cookies. boooooooooo!!!).

after the girl scouts left, i managed to go through an initial circuit through bagua qi-gong level 1. during this time, Tommy (one of the new baji students) arrived for his warm-up. we chatted a bit about Sifu's lei tai tournament announcement from last week, with Tommy telling me that a few of the baji students had committed to the tournament, although he was a little hesitant because of the travel costs involved.

by this time Art arrived. he suggested we get started, but that we begin with bagua warm-ups. i've never done these before. Laura said the class hadn't done this in awhile. the bagua warm-up routine is a series of mild joint rotations done in sets, and from what i can tell is probably meant to help loosen the joints (both lower and upper body). these didn't take too long, and we finished just as the jian shu students arrived with Sifu.

at this point, Art told me that true to his promise from last week, he had brought a good number of DVDs this time. i took a set of 6--2 for tai-chi push hands, featuring Sifu; another 2 for tang lang (praying mantis), with Master Su; and 2 for qi-gong, again with Master Su. the price for all 6 turned out to be $195. while we're currently not studying anything covered in the DVDs, i figured that they would still be constructive, and i could hold them as a reference assuming i stay in LA after graduation.

a new student appeared today: an Australian fellow named Jay, who apparently has studied Shaolin White Crane (sic?) and is starting his own acupuncture practice in Westwood. he said he's been away from kung fu for a few years, but is starting it again. he stated that he preferred to get personal instruction with Sifu on Sundays, since his Saturdays are usually occupied with work.

bagua qi-gong

as we were finishing our discussion of the DVD contents, Sifu returned from starting the baji students with their drills and announced that we were going to do bagua qi-gong.

i was a little excited. i'd been curious about qi-gong for awhile, and it was one of the reasons i'd decided to try kung fu. i'd wondered when it was covered in the curriculum, since i hadn't heard of it mentioned in class during the time i've been studying. Phunsak and Art had told me on several different occassions that i'd started after the initial qi-gong, and that there's a number of different points in the training where it's brought up. i'd picked up bagua qi-gong level 1 from the few times John, Mike, and Art had done it before class sessions, and i'd gotten the qi-gong handouts from Mike and Ronald, but i still felt that i'd missed out.

Sifu started us with bagua qi-gong level 1. from what i've seen in the Wutan bagua handouts, there's 3 levels of qi-gong for bagua. the 1st level is intended for gathering chi, the 2nd level is for emitting chi, and the 3rd level...

while qi-gong is a subject of traditional asian (particularly chinese) medicine, it has been incorporated into martial arts. with kung fu, i've found that various styles each have their own forms of qi-gong. based on what i've seen in class, there is baji qi-gong, bagua qi-gong, as well as tai chi qi-gong, and i'm guessing also for the other styles taught by Sifu.

bagua qi-gong seems to follow the 8 sets of bagua trigrams, which are typically oriented in an octagon. each side of the octagon has its own trigram, compass direction, animal, element (fire, wood, metal, earth, heaven), yin/yang designation, and dedicated body part. the term bagua refers to this 8-sided octagon of trigrams, which is a derivation of Taoist philosophies expressed in the I Ching. bagua zhang is the actual name of the martial art connected with bagua, although bagua zhang is frequently shortened to just bagua in discussion (as well as in this blog). the incorporation of "bagua" in "bagua zhang" explains the prevalence of the number 8 (as well as its multiples) in the style, particularly with forms like "8 mother palm" or "64 palms." along this line of reasoning, each level of bagua qi-gong is a set of 9 exercises, with each exercise matching each side of the 8-sided octagon and performed facing the direction assigned to each side, along with an additional exercise facing the center. Sifu described this as "8 directions, 9 palaces."

level 1 qi-gong

level 1 qi-gong, meant for "gathering chi," was relatively straightforward. the exercises are largely stationary, with feet remaining in place and legs only doing slight bending in time with breathing. each exercise starts from a standing posture, hands together at the abdomen. for each exercise, there are different hand motions. for level 1, each of the exercises is "gathering chi" into a unique body part: head, kidneys, spine, limbs, heart, abdomen, lungs.

the purpose of level 1 is to accumulate chi. Sifu, in describing the exercises, talked about "drawing" chi, or energy, from the earth and air through our hands. he also discussed being able to "hold" or "push" chi with our hands, almost as if it were something physical.

i discovered that some of the motions were different than what i'd thought, and i had to adjust my movements. Phunsak later explained to me that the class has done different variations of level 1--the exercises were largely the same, but the lead-in and finish from the standing posture to each exercise were slightly different.

level 2 qi-gong

level 2 qi-gong, meant for "projecting chi," was apparently a new subject for the class. Sifu stopped, and took a number of minutes to cover the 1st 2 exercises (for northwest and north) for this class. level 2 is more active than level 1. in level 2, each exercise actually corresponds to each of the stances from mother palms (i.e., lion, snake, bear, unicorn, phoenix, dragon, monkey, big bird). for the northwest direction, the animal (and stance) is lion; for north it is snake. while each exercise starts from the same standing posture and initial hand movement as for level 1, in level 2 the practitioner is supposed to turn and lower themselves into the assigned stance facing in the opposite direction (e.g., if the practitioner starts facing northwest, they begin from the standing posture with hands at the abdomen, then raise their hands above the head as in level1, but from there turn downwards into the lion stance facing southeast, feet still aligned with side of the imaginary octagon). each exercise is done turning left and then again turning right.

Sifu made a number of points about lion and snake:

  • northwest, lion--Sifu said to imagine that we are projecting force forward to the southeast from the lion's mouth formed by our upraised hand, head, and lowered hand. we need to imagine the trigram, and that 3 lines of the trigram corresponds to the upraised hand (top line of the trigram), head (middle line of the trigram), and lowered hand (bottom line of the trigram).
  • north, snake--here, to incorporate level 1, Sifu said to imagine that we are taking chi from our kidneys with our hands behind us, bringing it together in a ball at the abdomen in front of us, and then turning into snake. we need to have our hands moving out of the ball into snake, with one hand moving forward and the other hand simultaneously moving back--he emphasized both hands and both arms move, neither is never stationary. in addition, our gaze should be at a 45 degree angle down.

initially, my impression of qi-gong was that it was meant for health, and that it was performed in a slow, deliberate, relaxed, meditative manner that helped to calm the mind, ease and deepen breathing, and improve sensory awareness. while possibly true for level 1, i'm starting to think this is not so for level 2. level 2 is more dynamic, with more power. while it could be meditative, i found level 2--or, at least, the first 2 exercises--to be less about inner reflection than about external expression. i suppose this is consistent with the idea of level 1 being "chi gathering" and level 2 being "chi projection."

jing, chi, shen

i should note here that the term "chi" is still proving somewhat elusive for me. while i am increasingly of the belief that "chi" is a term and concept utilized by Asian cultures to describe phenomenon that are described by alternative terms and concepts such as "potential energy," "kinetic energy," or "force" in Western culture, i still find the transposition from Asian to Western perspectives a bit confusing.

for level 2 qigong, i think can see the transposition. i suspect that the "projection" of chi is essentially the generation of power or force involved in shifting into stances, and so is a metaphor of applying and feeling the application of muscle effort. since the exercises for level 2 expect the practitioner to harness muscle effort towards specific points of the compass, they are effectively serving to train students how to direct power in different directions. in essence, i believe level 2 is really teaching students to generate power for bagua combat applications of the basic stances from mother palm.

such a transposition between East and West, however, doesn't apply so readily for level 1 qigong. the purpose of level 1 is to accumulate chi. Sifu, in describing the exercises, talked about "drawing" chi, or energy, from the earth and air through our hands. he also discussed being able to "hold" or "push" chi with our hands, almost as if it were something physical. in addition, he commented that the orientation of the body along each of the compass points was crucial, since it was a result of thousands of years of empirical study by Chinese medicine, which seemed to notice greater positive results with certain exercises being associated with certain compass points. in which case, in level 1, chi is not really being used to describe what Westerners consider muscular effort, force, or even energy.

the only thing i can think of as being an equivalent cultural metaphor for level 1's use of "chi" is "sensory awareness." this would mean level 1 qi-gong is really about teaching students to improve their mind-body connection and physical coordination by consciously thinking about the location and function of their body parts relative to the world around them via a deliberative visualization exercise. this would explain the slower, more relaxed, more meditative nature relative to level 2.

in terms of the "chi gathering" within this kind of metaphorical framework, the only thing i can offer is that level 1 qi-gong, by training the mind-body connection and physical coordination, is leading students to a greater realization of the contributions of each body part to a greater collective whole, and hence to an understanding of how the health of respective individual body parts can be unified to increase the overall health of a total person--in other words, "gather" the "chi," with chi being a metaphor for health and vitality (which itself could be construed as an expression of energy).

i speculate that all of this relates to the notions of jing, chi, and shen that Sifu talked about when i first started class (reference: day 5: a thinking day). then, we talked about chi being "life-energy," jing being chi expressed in physical form, and shen being the utilization of chi or refined jing. now, however, i am starting to believe that these definitions may be somewhat different in a bagua perspective.

i suspect that bagua qi-gong, with its 3 levels to gather chi (level 1), project chi (level 2), and circulate chi (level 3) is connected to jing chi shen. level 1, which focuses on accumulating chi, would correspond to chi; level 2, which targets projection of chi, could be taken as physically manifesting chi, or jing; level 3, which circulates chi, would then be the refinement of skill to manipulate chi, or shen. if this is true, then bagua qi-gong is in some aspects a method of helping practitioners develop skill with chi jing shen. i'll have to ask Sifu about this.

7th palm change

Sifu left us to practice qi-gong level 2 while he went to help the baji students to the next lesson, and left Art in the lead. we spent a number of minutes with qi-gong level 2, and then stopped for a break.

i took some time discussing the connections of bagua qi-gong to bagua applications with Phunsak, who ended up confirming a lot of my suspicions about the relationships between 8 mother palm and bagua qi-gong. essentially, they build upon each other, and Phunsak agreed that bagua qi-gong level 2 is supposed to help improve student understanding of the stances in 8 mother palm, and that the integration of qi-gong techniques into mother palm is why it (mother palm) has the alternative name of "8 internal palms."

Sifu returned, and instructed us to begin circle walking with the 7th palm change. similar to last week, he let us practice for a few minutes to work out any kinks and pose questions, and then asked each of us to perform the 7th palm change in front of the class.

despite my practice over the past weeks, the 7th and 8th palm changes have continued to be somewhat difficult for me. a lot of it is less practice time relative to the previous palm changes, but part of it is also that we haven't had as much in-class review with the 7th and 8th palm changes to refine them. the result, i know, is that i've been doing a number of parts of the 7th palm change wrong, and these errors became evident when it became my turn to try it in the circle. in particular, Sifu pointed out the following:

  • hands--starting from white ape presents the fruit, the hand towards the interior of the circle should drop into a redirection of any assailant's strike (using the hand motion from the hand drills) going into green dragon soars in the sky before moving towards the rear into transplant the flower into the other tree. i had never noticed this step.
  • footwork--my footwork was all wrong in the sequence of techniques from white ape presents the fruit to green dragon soars in the sky to transplant the flower into the other tree to rhinoceros looks up at the moon. i had the foot angles right as ko-bai-ko, but my mistake was that after planting the initial ko, i stepped forward with the other foot into bai. there should be no step forward--once the initial ko is planted, it should stay as the front foot, and the rear foot should stay the rear foot while it moves into bai. from there, i should rotate in the direction of ko until i am facing out of the circle to plant the forward foot as ko once again.
  • direction--rhinoceros looks up at the moon should be facing out of the circle. i had been doing it facing along the perimeter of the circle.
  • finishing--going from combined spin and kick motion of green dragon bends its body into golden rooster fights for grains of rice, the wrists are together and aimed forward in a push into an opponent's waist. this push is supposed to occur in conjunction with the kicking foot coming down into a forward step. from there, the practitioner is supposed to take another step forward into white ape presents the fruit and allow the hands to move up together into the opponent's jaw. this entire sequence is supposed to be done smoothly and continuously. i, however, keep doing this with a jerky, decidedly awkward motion.
i think a lot of my problems were propagations from the footwork errors. i had assumed the ko-bai-ko sequence is identical to the ko-bai-ko steps in the outside turn for circle walking (reference: day 10: drills and beginning the circle), but it appears that it is actually different, in that in the outside turn the bai foot steps over the ko foot, while in the 7th palm change it does not. i noticed not doing so made the 7th palm change much smoother to perform up to the one-legged spin from rhinoceros looks up at the moon to green dragon bends its body.

for the one-legged spin itself, it is similarly much easier if it starts from rhinoceros looks up at the moon facing out of the circle, since this 1) reduces the spin from 360 degrees to 270 degrees, and 2) allows the ko foot to already be partially turned in the direction of the spin. both act to decrease the instability of the following spin and kick going from green dragon bends its body to golden rooster fights for grains of rice.

all of this was valuable, since it greatly cleared up some issues for me. however, it also means i'm going to have to spend some more practice time getting rid of the bad habits and integrating the good ones.


we finished the day with a surprise guest: John Eagles. John showed up with his fiance', his body wrapped in a brace that for all the world looked like a modernized corset. he's been a few weeks out of back surgery that is supposed to keep him out of commission for several more weeks. he had brought his x-rays with him to show us the state of his back, which now features an experimental cushioning device in his lower vertebrae.

we ended up stopping class in various turns to talk with John and catch up on his progress. as class wound down, a large number of us decided to go to lunch with him and his fiance. once Sifu called class to a formal close, we went to the usual place (Dumpling Master) to continue the conversation and share stories with John's fiance' about his exploits at the dining table--as well as allow her to catch some insight into our post-class lunch conversations over kung fu esoterica (no doubt, after this experience, she probably considers us all kung fu nerds). it appears John has been missed at Dumpling Master as well, since the waitresses were happy to see him back. i think we were as well.

Monday, March 19, 2007

day 23: circle walking - 5th & 6th palm change

  • sinking
  • turning
  • 5th palm change
  • 6th palm change
  • combat applications (golden rooster spreads its wings, unicorn spits out book of knowledge, black bear probes with its paw, white ape steals the peach)
  • tournaments

things started a little slowly today. i showed up early to warm up, and ended up talking with Tommy (one of the new baji students) and Scott about the history of Sifu's kung fu school and the other kung fu styles taught in the Wutan curriculum. additional information came as other students arrived, particularly with Phunsak and Siwann-da (sp?).

one of the specific questions i posed to Scott was if any of Sifu's students had gone on to become sifus themselves. Scott said he knew of 1. i then asked if there had ever been any students who had managed to learn everything Jason knew. Scott said there were maybe 2 he knew of who had come close, but that they were no longer in the LA area. i asked if this was a case where the master tells the student "i taught you everything you know, but i didn't teach you everything i know." Scott laughed.

we ended up abbreviating the conversation when Art stated that the DVDs were finished. this is something that i've been waiting for, since there have been countless times each week where i would have liked to have had a reference to review forms outside of class. the sentiment seems shared with a number of other students: Ron, Scott, and Siwann-da all expressed some curiousity, and Ron actually offered cash to buy them immediately. unfortunately, Art only had 1 copy of the DVDs, and so Ron got them. Art promised to bring extra copies next week, and said there are 5 DVDs, with the total price for all 5 being $120.

5th palm change

while we had been talking about the DVDs, Sifu had arrived. he spoke to Phunsak for a few moments, then ordered us to review the 5th palm change under Phunsak's lead while he went to start the lesson plan with the baji students.

Laura noted that we now have more baji students than bagua, with 5 new baji students and the return of 3 older ones, which became 4 with Scott taking the day to work with them. Kieun and Art joked that the situation was starting to resemble a schoolyard, with kids breaking off into 2 groups to make fun of each other. this is somewhat ironic, seeing that we are holding class on an asphalt lot on a playground situated next to an elementary school, meaning that we really are in a schoolyard and probably really are just [big] kids breaking off into groups. our saving grace is that we're doing something [hopefully] more mature than what the [small] kids who are actually going to school at Casuda Canyon Elementary School are doing.

we started circle walking with the 5th palm change, but there quickly became so many questions that Phunsak stopped and gathered everyone he felt needed review. he ended up taking most of the time working to get everyone caught up so that we all had the same level of understanding in terms of doing the palm change.

6th palm change

Phunsak was still reviewing the 5th palm change with everyone by the time Sifu returned. Sifu stopped the review and ordered everyone to set up for the 6th palm change.

much like the other palm changes, i had snuck in some practice with this last week. i'd done it just to get a sense of orientation and spacing in the circle, but i knew that i would need some refinement of my technique, particularly since i'm still at a stage where i'm still forming a basis of reference.

we spent a few minutes performing the 6th palm change, with Sifu walking from student to student making corrections. eventually, he halted us again, and told us to do the form solo in front of the class like we had done last week.

Phunsak threw in a momentary bit of confusion by asking which version of the 6th palm change we were doing (hmmmm...there's more than 1?). there was a brief flurry of discussion between him, Art, Kieun (to a lesser degree), and Sifu. i guess in response to my quizzical look, Phunsak said that Jason had taught it a number of different ways, and not just in terms of a line, circle, diagonal, or square (diagonal and square?!?!), but in terms of the techniques as well. Art asked if we were sure we weren't doing the B side (uh, a B side?!?!?!?!). Sifu said he was sure, and that the B side is "the answer" to the A side (which i take is what we are learning).

given the sudden expansion in the quantity of material, i queried Phunsak just how long it takes to go through the entire bagua curriculum. he answered that they've never gone through the entire curriculum (case in point: evidently no one has ever picked up the fist or elbow form, and only several students have studied the leg form). noting my surprise, he tried to comfort me with the comment "but we have never gone this much into detail in 64 Palms, which is good." Kieun concurred with "oh yeah, when we did it before we never got this much correction."

while i pondered this, Sifu had me be the first to walk the circle doing the 6th palm change. watching me go through it for both and left sides, he pointed the following issues in my technique:

  • black bear probes with its paws--the last time we had done the 6th palm change, we had focused on pointing the upraised foot in conjunction with a forward reach of one hand. this time, Sifu said that i needed to observe the other hand was supposed to pull back at the same time the other limbs are moving forward. the point was the off-hand is actually pulling backwards, and so i needed to imagine this as i did the technique.
  • big serpent coils its body--this is the one that reminds me of vortices trailing a body in fluid dynamics. Sifu said i needed to exaggerate the movements and increase the turning of my waist, to the point that my entire spine and head were turning to face completely behind my body and my hands were sliding to points well behind my front. he said that i should turn to the point that i can visualize my shoulders aligning 180 degrees from the line of my knees (i.e., that i turn until my right shoulder is in the direction of my left knee and my left shoulder is in the direction of my right knee). he also pointed out that this is nothing more than an extension of one of the behind-the-back hand drill, wherein in hands slide along the back and reach out behind the body as the waist turns. when he said this it made things obvious as to how wide the technique is supposed to go, and very clear as to how constrained i'd been.
  • white ape steals the peach--here, again, i was not exaggerating the movement enough going out of this technique into green dragon soars in the sky. Sifu noted that the hands should cross gracefully in front of the body as they spread out into green dragon, and that i needed to imagine the hands holding up fruits as they spread out. evidently, i have not been crossing the hands and had become a little careless in returning to green dragon.

combat applications

after everyone had taken the opportunity to perform in front of the class, Sifu took us through more combat applications with the 6th palm change.

we had done some combat application work with this previously (reference: day 13: 6th palm change). apparently, this had only covered some of the combat applications, and only for some of the techniques. before, we had really only covered combat applications for black bear probes with its paws (the forward pointed thrust of the leg and foot), black bear turns its body (the sinking movement into bear stance), and big serpent coils its body (the vortices motion with the hands). this time, we covered a number of additional combat applications:

  • golden rooster spreads its wings--this was something i had discussed with Phunsak and Kieun 2 weeks ago (reference: day 21: review, 4th palm change, & the state of the world). now we actually got to practice this. Sifu had us initiate the move out of the unicorn stance, with the upraised hand making and maintaining contact with the forearm of the opponent's strike, then turning so that the palm faced the enemy's eyes to distract them. in addition, he reminded us that similar to black bear turns its body, golden rooster should be initiated by having the hand moving down towards the opponent first brush the rear shoulder. he also pointed out that golden rooster, unlike black bear, has a forward vector component as the practitioner sinks, so that the opponent falls down and away from the practitioner.
  • unicorn spits out book of knowledge to black bear probes with its paw--the last time we had done this (reference: day 13: 6th palm change), we had done this with just black bear probes its paw, and as a kick-to-pointed toe to dispel an opponent who has stopped your kick by grabbing your foot. Sifu now showed us that the 2 techniques together could also be a strike or counter-strike. the upraised hand, similar to the unicorn from which we initiated golden rooster, serves to block an assailant's hand strike. the practitioner, by pointing the hand forward to the assailant's face extending into black bear probes with its paw, is then distracting them. the off-hand, which pulls back in the extension to black bear probes with its paw, is actually a grab of the opponent's striking arm. the upraised leg, which turns into a pointed toe, can be a kick. Sifu pointed out variations of unicorn spits out book of knowledge: 1) the kick can either go to the back of the opponent's leading leg or the back of the opponent's trailing leg, thereby either forcing them to fall backwards or (and i suspect the real intent in a combat setting) tearing their knee ligaments (i can already see it's the dreaded ACL, as well as the lesser known by equally dangerous MCL); or 2) the knee can be used to strike the opponent's forward hip or leg, which if it misses can then continue to a kick.
  • white ape steals the peach--this had been covered in the class for the 7th palm change (reference: day 14: 7th palm change (shock the monkey!)), but then we had used the downward-moving arm to drive into the shoulder joint of the opponent to make them fall backwards. this time, Sifu showed us that the downward strike can be over the opponent's biceps. starting by facing the opponent's tiger gate, the technique can be initiated by using the leading hand to redirect an opponent's strike (using the twirling motion from the forward-facing hand drills...the one that i keep remembering as identical to the swim drills exploiting Bernoulli's principle to create forward thrust), except that the leading hand doesn't then go into a forward strike but instead slides along the outside elbow of the arm. it grabs and props the opponent's arm at or just above the underside of the elbow. the practitioner then turns into white ape steals the peach, bringing the other arm moving downwards over the opponent's bicep and into the ground. this drives the opponent's shoulder back and down, resulting in the opponent being forced in the same direction and falling backwards.
we did each of these combat applications in a line. the class split off into 2 separate lines, with Art, Lee, Eric, and Laura (the shorter one) in one line and me, Kieun, Phunsak, Ronald, and Laura (the taller one) in the other. this seemed to go much faster than a single line, although i recalled that Art had said the disadvantage of this is that it reduces the variety of body types each of us gets to practice against.

something i noticed during the combat applications is that 2 areas i'm really going to have to work on to perform the 6th palm change correctly is sinking and turning. for golden rooster (as well as bear), it seems imperative to sink into the stance, since this helps generate a downward force into the opponent. not sinking just results in this stance being a downward reach, which only serves to open up your reaching arm and your head to capture. for big serpent coils its body, i can see that the turning motions have to be wide and deep, since this makes a big contribution to the power of the technique in capturing and throwing the opponent (reference: day 13: 6th palm change). for some reason, with this palm change i'm finding the sinking and turning sensations a little difficult to realize, and rather elusive in terms of being natural. the solution, of course, is practice...but practice doing them right, which is going to take some care and attention.


Sifu finished the day by talking about tournaments. he announced the date of an annual tournament held by a colleague in Maryland (reference: the tournament is a lei tai event, meaning it's full contact (with helmet and gloves) in a ring (actually, a square) with no ropes, with 3 rounds of 2 minutes each, and judges grading the victor. from Sifu's description, it seems a pretty big event, with competitors from all over the country. he also referenced its connections with traditional Taiwanese tournaments run through their kuo shu organizations. he added it was a good means of meeting other martial artists, as well as a mechanism to gauge our own skill levels.

Sifu stressed that it is good for all of us to get the experience of fighting against unknown opponents in order to truly develop our self-defense abilities, since it is only through real fighting situations that we can get a true understanding of the combat applications we study. he repeated his observations from previous classes that forms alone are not enough to truly learn a martial art, and that we have to know how to apply them for the purposes for which they were intended--and this knowledge can only be acquired by trying to use them in real fights, albeit in a controlled environment of a tournament.

Phunsak mentioned to me that the sifu certification requires participation in several full-contact tournaments. this makes sense, since i don't think anybody who wants to learn self-defense can ever accept the legitimacy of an instructor who has never actually used the methods they are teaching in a real self-defense situation. it's like being taught how to be a doctor from someone who isn't a doctor; you're just not going to be able to take anything they say seriously. if you're going to rely on martial arts to protect your life, then you want to learn from someone who actually has used martial arts to protect their life.

this brings up a story my first coach told me. he's an officer in the Marine Corps. he told me once that men in a combat unit will always welcome someone with combat experience--because while you can certainly go to war with nothing but green newbies (and most of the time you do), you're going to have just that much of an extra edge having someone with combat experience...and sometimes, that extra edge is the only thing that makes the difference between life and death.

later, over lunch, Phunsak asked me if i was interested in going to the tournament this year.

i had to say no. the timing this year is very bad. it's a matter of 1) i'm still technically on a collegiate athletic team, and my coach would have a conniption fit if he knew i was exposing myself to injury in something outside of my sport (don't even get me started), 2) i'm under the gun to finish my degree and graduate, both from the school and my parents, and this is absolutely, positively my last year (even schools have deadlines on PhDs), and 3) i have no money, with my credit card already straining to meet the travel expenses for several Ironman races in other countries next year.although, Sifu is right. it's not a martial art unless you can actually apply it effectively (key word: effectively) in a fight. otherwise it's just exercise and another way to dance.

if i'm really going to learn martial arts as martial arts, i'm going to have to get tested in a fight sooner or later, and it's better that it be done first in a controlled tournament setting surrounded by friends, rather than on a street in the darkness all alone facing 2 (or more) criminals. because 1 way you survive and learn for another day, while the other way you get to deal with life and death and no 2nd chances. although, having said this, i think i'd like to get in a good deal of sparring before i ever consider stepping into a ring...while i think i can make somebody suffer for hurting me, i think the point of learning self-defense is to not get hurt to begin with.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

day 22: circle walking - polishing the 4th & 5th palm change

  • positioning
  • 3rd palm change
  • 4th palm change
  • 5th palm change
i'd started the day moving a little slowly, and had shown up a little early to get some extra time stretching and warming up to get the stiffness out of my body. i took the early start trying to loosen up, and went through level 1 qigong on my own.

we soon had a number of new faces arrive: Scott, who's a returning baji student who apparently has been gone for a number of months (i haven't seen him before, so he must have been gone since before i started), and Viet, who's a student at UCLA and hitched a ride with Laura. we ended up swapping stories about the class, including the colorful ones from Siwann-da and Ching-Tszieh, who just came back after a freak accident involving a gate that had required 11 stitches on her ankle (she's limping, but apparently game enough to make it to class).

Art eventually arrived with the other Laura, and said we should go ahead and start with stances, since it was getting close to 11am and it was time for class to begin. Art took it upon himself to lead us this time, and began just as the rest of the jian shu class arrived with Sifu.

Sifu whispered to Lee to take Viet and start him with basic hand drills (just like Phunsak had worked with me when i had started). he then asked Laura to lead everyone through drills. Art suggested she do it counting in Chinese, and then laughed when everyone stopped to think about it. everybody was puzzled over this, so we ended up actually took a few moments to figure out the Chinese numbers from 1-to-8...i found a few useful references on this:
3rd palm change

after getting the baji students started with drills, Sifu came back and had us start with circle walking with the 3rd palm change as a review. he took a few moments to observe everyone, and then walked around correcting our technique. after several minutes, he told us to keep practicing, and then went back to the baji class to set them up with their lesson plan for the day.

i notice that there are now enough new baji students that they are having to do the same thing the bagua students are doing, with senior students taking time to introduce the new students to the fundamentals and help them review new material. for us, i know that the senior students doing most of the fundamentals and review are Phunsak, Kieun, and to a lesser degree Art and Mike. for baji, it appears that these are (for now, since their attendance is sometimes more sporadic) James, Andrew, and to some degree Jonathan (who is a younger student, but began with Sifu when he was 6 or 7, making him automatically one of the longest-tenured students Sifu has had...and i'm guessing probably more senior in terms of knowledge learned).

i should note that there are 2 Lauras and 3 Jonathans (4, if you count John Eagles, but i think he shortened his name for class just to help eliminate confusion), and so references to any of them in these blogs should be distinguished by context.

4th palm change

Sifu eventually returned and then ordered us to start circle walking with the 4th palm change (which i will forever remember by Sifu's term: "Bob's Big Boy"). but i think he was a little disturbed by what he was seeing, because he stopped us after about a minute and said that it would probably be better just to have each of us perform the 4th palm change individually in front of the class.

i think he chose today to be a "polishing" class to correct everyone's form and get people more conscious of the correct mechanics of the palm changes. and even though we'd done the 4th palm change last week, it had only been as an introductory exercise and so was still in need of extensive refinement.

we took turns circle walking and performing the 4th palm change. Sifu corrected my technique, with a couple of points that had apparently eluded me and John Eagles when we had tried to sort it out ourselves during a practice session a few weeks ago. in particular:
  1. the initial change from lean against the horse and ask for directions into effortlessly support the silver water jar does not involve the lower off hand going down to the dantian (as John and i had thought), but instead going down to protect the rib cage facing the opponent
  2. the 2nd change from effortlessly support the silver water jar into cloud crosses mountain road is supposed to occur with the upper hand remaining upright and turning into a upper block and the lower hand following a path close to the torso pushing out as the practitioner steps with the lower body into a dragon stance. Sifu noted that my lower hand was starting too far out away from my torso and following too circular a pattern.
  3. the shift into grab the yellow bird by the throat is not supposed to incorporate an exaggerated vertical motion, but rather a stable, solid step with the legs into the 70-30 stance--Sifu commented that i had too much "up and down" motion on this and needed to think more linearly
these were somewhat subtle adjustments, and i found myself having to think consciously about them once again. as a result, it took a little thought to try and integrate them with what i knew, and i think it's going to take some more practice to get these refinements ingrained into muscle memory.

for grab the yellow bird by the throat, Sifu gathered us around to get a better feel for the technique. he told us to observe that it's supposed to be done in a sequence of 2 repetitions, with the grabbing hand sliding closely over the other hand to the point that the arms are literally sliding in physical contact over each other.

he demonstrated the combat application, and showed that the reason for such close motions of the arms is to allow a practitioner to continue reaching over an opponent's strike for their throat while simultaneously throttling a counter-strike from their off-arm. sliding the arms over each other denies the opponent an opening to attack and also disguises the practitioner's intended target. in addition, the grabbing motion can be for more than just the throat, but can also be for pressure points on the arm or the shoulder or clavicle areas.

Sifu made a final point about the 4th palm change in relation to its final turn into leaf covers summer flower. for this technique, he said it was helpful to imagine that we are turning into the opponent, with the turn rotating about the shoulder facing the enemy. Jason said that we need to imagine this shoulder as being stationary, so that it is the axis about which we turn our entire body weight, bringing it into the opponent. this is meant to generate extra force to help throw the opponent backwards.

5th palm change

Sifu asked everyone to try doing the 5th palm change on our own while he went back to the baji students to check on their progress.

i had tried doing this over the course of last week, but had found some peculiar problems. much of it had involved transposing the palm change from the line to a circle, especially in that while i could do it on a line in a way that finishes the palm change in a position opposite to the one i started (i.e., left-hand as opposed to right-hand), i had not been able produce the same result in a circle, but instead had found myself facing the same way i had started (e.g., if i had started facing into the circle, i still finished facing into the circle).

i ended up having Kieun help me, since he seemed to be much more familiar with this than i was. it turns out that in doing the 5th palm change on a circle, there is an additional turn in unicorn turns its body (hence the name "turns its body"...looking back on it now, my thought is duh) and also in purple swallow glides with scissor-like tails. going from white snake spits out its tongue into unicorn turns its body, the practitioner is supposed to change direction so that the unicorn faces outside of the circle, and then turn around into the circle while shifting into purple swallow glides with scissor-like tails. from there, the practitioner is supposed to turn once more so that the change into purple swallow skims the water is done along the circle once again. the positioning, in essence, has the practitioner turning in a circle to re-align themselves to resume walking the circle in the opposite direction from which they started the palm change.

by the time i had sorted this out, Sifu had returned. he pointed out to me that my transition from the starting position of lion opens its mouth to move the mountain and reverse the sea was also wrong. he said it is easier to imagine that the hands are holding onto a ball, which the practitioner can envision turning in their hands and bringing into their body as they move from lion opens its mouth to move the mountain and reverse the sea.

Jason decided that we needed to do the same thing with the 5th palm change that we had done with the 4th, and have each one of us perform the palm change in front of the class. it turned out this was very true, since i think everyone struggled with this--apparently, i was not the only one who hadn't understood the need to turn with unicorn turns its body.

here too, Sifu noted that i needed to turn more, to the point that purple swallow glides with scissor-like tails doesn't just faces into the center of the circle, but actually faces farther along closer to the perimeter near the direction of the palm change.

i had to do this in the circle a little slower than i would have liked--or slower than it should be done in practical application. but i figured it was more important to get the technique down right. of course, this means more practice later on to get this back up to an appropriate speed and instinctive level. but then, that's pretty much the rule for everything.

Sifu wrapped things up with a comment about the proper technique for kissing the toad (alternatively labeled in the bagua documents as fairy liu-hai teases the toad). he noted that apart from being a rise up into a simultaneous block and strike into the opponent's face, neck, or body, that it can also lead into a grab and pull of an opponent's outstretched arm. done in a sequential repetitive manner like grab the yellow bird by the throat, it can serve as a mechanism to continue grabbing or striking an opponent over or around an opponent's attempted strike or counter-strikes with their leading or off arms.

with that, we gathered and finished class for the day. we then went to lunch with Sifu to get to know Viet and Scott a little better.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 2) - center of gravity

one of the first things i picked up on when i started kung fu lessons was the attention given to the placement of body weight. it caught my eye, since triathlon (and most sports in general) also dedicate a proportion of time to the location and positioning of body weight.

note that i'm not talking about body weight specifically, as in terms of raw numbers and quantity of muscle or fat. i'm talking about the use of the body weight via manipulation to achieve a certain physical result. this doesn't mean gaining or losing the muffin-top problem that is the love handles draping out over your pants, but rather the placement of the body and its mass in relation to the space around you.

superficially, kung fu and triathlon appear to have radically different notions of how to manipulate body weight--or to be more scientifically accurate, body mass. but underlying these differences are commonalities in concepts and interpretations of body mass, and how its location and position affects the physics of motion.


in some ways, relative to endurance sports, kung fu (and maybe martial arts in general) requires a very different positioning of a person's body mass.

in kung fu, i've noticed a near-obsession with lowering body mass. not just in terms of physically lowering a person's body towards the ground, such as in low stances with spread-out legs that the public may have already seen, but also in terms of mental visualization. kung fu calls for the practitioner to imagine their body mass going down, to an extent that a person can feel their body connecting with the earth. you'll often hear terms used to describe this like "sinking," "becoming heavy," "rooting," or "becoming rooted." this is often used in conjunction with the idea of "chi" (or energy), in phrases like "sink your chi" or "lower your chi."

the purpose behind this is to provide the practitioner with internal cues that signal the body to adopt the proper postures and stances necessary to perform techniques properly. i've been told (and have personally discovered) that kung fu is an art of nuances, with seemingly minute and inconsequential adjustments in joints and limbs producing radically different results in force and speed. while i am not entirely clear on the physics, i can say that apparently subtle changes in body positioning can greatly influence the effectiveness of kung fu techniques. among the prerequisite finer--but very crucial--points of the art is the setting of postures and stances in a way that gives the practitioner 1) a stable platform resistant to the destabilizing efforts of the opponent(s) and 2) helps direct power into the practitioner's techniques.

the visualization of "sinking" the body mass, for whatever reason, seems to help signal the body into minute actions that enable these necessary postures and stances. and the usage of phrases like "sink your chi" helps the practitioner imagine their physical effort (or energy) driving their body mass, in effect giving additional mental cues about energy that make facilitate the mental cues about body mass, thereby serving to further increase the signals to the body to adopt the proper postures and stances.

such detail is in part why instructors (or "sifus") insist that it takes years to learn kung fu, and a great deal of patience and diligence, since it takes a great deal of time for people to gain the physical coordination and the subtleties and nuances necessary for true and effective performance of the art.

in contrast to kung fu, endurance sports seem to have an entirely contrary view of visualization on body mass placement. in endurance sports, the goal is not to imagine the body "sinking" or "becoming heavy," but rather on being higher. if anything, endurance sports--at least for triathlon--calls for athletes to imagine themselves as being weightless, and uses terms to help construct the image of weightlessness, like "light," "feathery," or "floating."

the entire goal is to get athletes to move quicker, and to generate the body alignment necessary to generate a higher rate of turnover in swim stroke, pedal stroke, and running stride. this means that the athlete needs to perceive themselves in swimming as a body skating along the surface of the water, free of drag or encumbrances; in cycling as a whirring machine knifing through the air and flying over the road; and in running as hovering over ground and skimming the earth with the feet.

these kinds of requirements call for mental cues that signal the body to be more mobile and active, and as a result necessitate the visualization of being "light" or "feathery." any idea of "sinking" or "becoming rooted" means giving the body signals to become fixed and planted into the ground, which means less movement--which for endurance sports means death.


for all these differences, i still see that endurance sports and kung fu overlap, in that by conceptualizing their perspectives on body mass location and placement, they fundamentally deal with manipulation of the same thing: a person's center of gravity.

kung fu, by asking practitioners to become "rooted" or to "sink" to facilitate the creation of a stable platform, are essentially nudging them to lower their center of gravity. a higher center of gravity produces greater instability, in that it allows a striking force to generate a greater amount of torque against a defender to knock them over; taking the body as a lever arm, the force comes from the strike to the upper body and the pivot point is the defender's nexus with the ground. a lower center of gravity produces greater stability, calling upon an attacker to produce greater force to generate the same amount of torque against a defender.

kung fu's reference to chi and the "sinking" of chi is part of this. chi is usually described to practitioners as energy, but in the sense that it is all forms of energy, including the energy generated by a body moving or a body holding a static posture. as a result, in kung fu, the assumption of a stance creates a feeling of energy in the legs from the tensing of leg muscles required to maintain the stance. the lower the stance, the greater muscular effort is involved, and hence in kung fu terms the greater the amount of chi (or energy) felt in the legs. so calling for a practitioner to "sink the chi" is essentially asking the practitioner to feel more muscular effort in their legs by lowering their stance, which produces the end result of lowering the center of gravity.

likewise, endurance sports, by having athletes visualize being so weightless as to skate along the surface of water, or knife through air, or float upon the ground, is calling for an adjustment in the center of gravity.

in swimming, optimum body alignment is found by stretching the body horizontally parallel to the surface of the water, since it minimizes the cross-sectional area the swimmer presents to the water in the vector of forward progress, and also reduces the amount of drag produced by the body going through the water. however, for many swimmers, the tendency is for the legs to submerge beneath the water and fall below the level of the torso and shoulders, creating substantial drag. to prevent this, swimmers are advised to imagine "pushing" their chest and head down into the water. this results in the unique result of lifting the legs and restoring a horizontal body alignment. in effect, this is asking swimmers to take their center of gravity in their torso and force it downwards.

in cycling, the best aerodynamic position is to ride head down with the torso leaning forward, so that its weight is supported by the elbows, which are resting on the handlebars with the hands in front. this reduces the cross-sectional area confronted by the wind, reducing the level of energy required from the cyclist to maintain forward motion. in addition, it adjusts the stresses placed on the body, so that it enables less flexion in the back (reducing stress to the spine) and creates more room for extension in the legs (reducing stress on the quads by allowing greater contribution from the hamstrings and gluteus maximus). ordinarily the absence of hands from the handlebars reduces control over the bike, but the lean forward of the torso acts to lower the rider's center of gravity, decreasing instability on the bike and helping the rider maintain control.

in running, the correct running form is to run with shoulders and chest upright, and legs making footstrike with the ground at or slightly in front of a vertical line extending down from the center of gravity. some schools of runners are advised to imagine a string extending outwards from their abdomen forwards to a point at infinite, with the string pulling them along. the result is to cause the runner to lift their center of gravity, so that their weight does not produce a vertical vector driving added force through their feet into the ground, but rather is redirected so as to be directed more towards a forward-pointing horizontal vector. the result is reduced damage to the lower body joints and less energy being wasted into a vertical direction, with freeing more energy to instead be used to assist in motion in the desired horizontal direction.

mutual benefits

regardless of whether they direct the center of gravity up or down, kung fu and endurance sports are the same in their awareness and use of a person's center of gravity to aid in improving physical performance. i have come to believe that doing both as allowed me to get a better feel and greater sensitivity to the placement and manipulation of the center of gravity, as well as a better sense of the differences it makes in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of body movement and output. an apt analogy is playing notes on a piano keyboard: playing only in the higher registers still allows a musician artistic expression and technical skill, but if they also play the lower registers, they are then able to see the different tone and feel between the higher notes and deeper notes, observe the different modes of expression each provides, and thereby learn the value of each in the context of the full register. doing so, a musician gains a deeper understanding of the purpose and capabilities of each note relative to the others and as a whole.

i don't think that this level of awareness is something that i would have been able to understand to the same degree by just doing each activity exclusive of the other. kung fu alone would have helped me familiarize myself with the concept and value of lowering my center of gravity, but not raising it; endurance sports alone would have allowed me to learn the notion and benefits of raising my center of gravity, but not lowering it. together, i can see both.

this is something i am going to continue to observe--and test for its effectiveness--along with the many other common elements characteristic to both endurance sports and kung fu. i think it has value in improving understanding of the nature of the entire relationship between the body's center of gravity and the physics of human motion.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

day 21: circle walking - review, 4th palm change, & the state of the world

  • Buddhism (samsara, Zen)
  • Taoism (wu-wei)
  • force (turning, centripetal and centrifugal, silk reeling)
  • rooster versus bear
  • leg drive
  • coiling snakes
  • 1st palm change
  • 2nd palm change
  • 3rd palm change
  • 4th palm change
today began much like last week, but ended up being a very cerebral day.

i arrived to find Simon and Tommy, 2 of the new baji students, having breakfast in their car watching the matches on the tennis courts. i ended up chatting with them while we stretched and warmed up. eventually, while we waited for the rest of the class to show up, they decided to go on an expedition to find a bathroom (the one in the park has been closed for the last 2 months), leaving me to practice in the sun.

everyone else began showing up gradually. Sifu arrived to find just me and Laura discussing Adam Hsu's book The Sword Polisher's Record, which she had brought for me to borrow. seeing me holding the book, he asked if we had read Sifu Adam's new book Lone Sword Against the Cold Night Sky (which is apparently just out). he said that the title was actually a line from a well-known Chinese poem on Buddhism, and refers to the idea that a person wishing to reach enlightenment should live in each moment bereft of the weight of the past or the future, just like a sword being held up to a night sky is alone without any obstructions to impede it.

Tao and Zen (now versus then)

we ended up having a philosophical discussion on the nature of living, martial arts training, Taoism, and Buddhism. nothing super deep, but enough to reflect on the idea of living in the moment, and understanding the distinction between what a person can manage (the right now) versus what they cannot (the past and the future). Sifu said that the moment (or this moment) is the only thing each of us really experiences, and so whatever came before and whatever will come is entirely beyond our grasp.

this led us into the notion of Zen (or, as it is known in Chinese, Ch'an), which is the popular (but in my mind, very distorted and very superficially understood in the West) branch of Buddhism known for its ascetic lifestyle and laconic modes of teaching. essentially, part of Zen involves the idea of the "Zen moment," in which a person is completely embedded a specific moment in time. for Zen, or Ch'an, living in the moment is a crucial component of realizing existence, and hence a key element on the path to enlightenment. it sounds simple, but often proves difficult to live.

we went from there to talk about samsara, which is a Buddhist term to describe the world (both literally, as in the physical planet and its inhabitants, as well as figuratively, in terms of the actions, events, and things taking place around us). the word was originally derived from Hindu notions of existence being a recurring, endless, miserable cycle of life and death. Buddhism, in declaring its belief that the state of the world is suffering, ascribes to its setting the domain of samsara; all suffering, all human living that we can see, is part of samsara. in a way, it's comparable to Christian notions of the "mortal" or the "mundane" world (as opposed to the "ethereal" or "spiritual" realm). Samsara is what Buddhists seek relief from, and from it we escape through enlightenment.

but to deal with samsara, much less escape from it, Buddhism calls for a certain level of detachment. we need to de-link ourselves from the world and concerns for the world, and instead focus on achieving enlightenment. which is where Ch'an places its belief of the Zen moment as a mechanism for detachment from samsara.

i raised the question of Taoism and its approach to suffering in relation to Buddhism. Sifu described Taoism as a way of life, out of the various ways developed in Chinese history. in particular, Taoism asserts the concept of wu-wei, or living in accordance with existence. in some aspects, it is very similar to the idea of the Zen moment, since wu-wei in part calls for the acceptance of each moment as it comes, and living with what there is as opposed to struggling to control it. Sifu commented that so much of the modern world is about trying to dominate the world around us, whereas Taoism recognizes the fight for domination invariably causes suffering, and that a better way is wu-wei.

Sifu ended the discussion by tying this back into martial arts training. he said that one of the points of martial arts was focusing on the now, or on the moment. this is necessary to learn martial arts, but it is also a product of martial arts. concentration on each moment helps practitioners connect with the physical movements of techniques, in terms of their nuances and the intent behind each one. conversely, proper execution of techniques helps practitioners focus on the sense of motion independent of the world around us, and so detaches us from things extraneous from the moment of physical movement. more than this, it helps to fully empower martial arts, because correct performance of techniques call for the unity of mental understanding and intent, physical action, and spiritual calm that allows the techniques to be at their most effective. it is in these ways that martial arts become what has been described as a "moving meditation" capable of enriching a person's entire existence.

which is why so many martial arts instructors tell students that it is necessary to "let go." that is, students have to let go of their mental baggage--negative experiences, harmful emotions, poor lessons, anything that can impact their learning of new (and better) things. Sifu mentioned that his instructors told him that students have to "let things go" in order to "pick things up." according to Jason, this is what often impedes students from truly learning a martial art; students can go for years but never advance. some students just have too many things within them stopping them (in kung fu, in school, in life...). which is why instructors cannot guarantee that every student will become a master. all an instructor can do is teach; the student has to learn, which is an entirely different set of variables.

i found this probably the best part of today. it tied in well with other parts of my life. i've been doing quite a bit of research and exploration of these kinds of things on my own as part of my journey into Ironman. some of you may know that i do ultra-endurance events. in fact, this was (and is) my past-time outside of kung fu. but what many of you do not know is that i've been using triathlon (and mostly Ironman) as a vehicle for a journey into spirituality (not just my own, but for the subject in general). it's somewhat comparable to the ascetic traditions of most of the world's religions, which in their own respective ways have asserted that it is in moments (there's that word again, get it?) of supreme physical effort that one can find the most profound spiritual experiences and insights. i'm working on a book about it, involving entries from my other blog for triathlon, as well as deeply personal essays from experiences in my own life. the book will be finished when it is finished--it's a long journey, and Ironman is just as long, and i know i'll need several trips down that path to really express what i want to express.

for some references, you can check out:
palm changes

by this time, Phunsak, Kieun, Art, and the remainder of the jian shu class had arrived. Sifu promptly ordered Phunsak to lead us through a brief session of the 1 and 2-hand drills while he went to work with the baji students.

Phunsak this time shortened the repetitions to 6. this sped things up somewhat, although not by much. by the time we had finished with the drills, Sifu had already returned to start us on circle walking.

he told everyone to begin circle walking, and to perform the palm changes repeatedly on our own while walking. he asked that we all find our own rhythm, and to find our own respective paces. this was so that we could get a better feel of the forces involved in the palm changes out of the circle. in particular, he wanted us to feel:
  1. the turning force generated as we stepped into ko-bu and turned to start the palm changes,
  2. the centripetal and centrifugal forces that appeared as we alternated rotational direction both within the palm changes and while walking on the circle, and
  3. the chan si jin ("silk reeling") force that came as we twisted our limbs and bodies in the palm changes.
i suspect that he was trying to get us to sense the combination of these 3 sources of power in our actions. he stressed that we really feel these forces in our movements, and that we allow ourselves to find our own natural speed (with the assumption that each person has their own individual natural speed in their actions).

Sifu said that this class he was taking time to observe each of us individually to correct our form.

i think he had set today in the curriculum as a review session to "polish" technique and get everyone settled on the 1st 3 palm changes in the circle. which is good--i am sure that there's plenty of room for all of us to improve our technique, and i am positive that there are things each of us are missing (and should not be).

1st palm change

we began with the 1st palm change. last week Sifu had pointed out to me that my hand position was wrong (and it turns out not just a little wrong, but WAY wrong) for pushing moon out the door. my upper hand was being held out in line with the elbow horizontal to an imaginary door. this is wrong. it should actually be with a dropped elbow and the hand vertical against an imaginary door. which makes sense, since this puts a practitioner in the same position as one of the 2-person drills related to the 1st palm change (reference: day 11...looking back on it, my thoughts are duh, no wonder that drill was on the same day we reviewed 1st palm change!). this time, i kept it a point to keep my hands in the correct position.

2nd palm change

after some time, Jason had everyone proceed to the 2nd palm change. here, i knew i needed to make some corrections, as during the course of the week i had reviewed the handouts Sifu and Mike had given to me on 64 Palms and found out that i had been employing black bear turns its body when i should have been employing golden rooster spreads its wings. what had puzzled me, however, was the difference between the 2, since both appear very similar to me (they both involve getting into a low stance with spread legs, with both arms moving across the torso away from each other).

during a break, i asked Phunsak and Kieun to clarify the distinction. apparently, golden rooster spreads its wings distributes weight unevenly between the legs in 60/40, with the front leg holding 40% of the body weight, while black bear puts the weight evenly. in addition, golden rooster is not symmetrical in hand and arm movements, with the leading arm actually serving to push the opponent away, whereas black bear is symmetrical with a leading arm that acts to push the opponent to their backside. while both techniques involve sinking, the end result is that golden rooster causes the opponent to fall down away from the practitioner, while black bear causes the opponent to fall on their back next to the practitioner.

Sifu also emphasized that everyone remember that golden rooster spreads its wings is supposed to be immediately followed by purple swallow skims the water. too many people--including too many of us--were getting lazy and skipping purple swallow to go directly to embrace the moon. the problem, he said, was that embrace the moon is supposed to be a pushing motion, and that the pushing motion would be ineffective without purple swallow, since purple swallow 1) guides the opponent into your push, and 2) actually generates force from a combination of leg forces and torso rotation.

i had noticed the added power of the torso rotation during my individual practice time during the course of the week. i could feel the additional strength generated by what appears to be a throwing of the body weight (or mass) of the torso out of purple swallow into embrace the moon. so i felt some comfort with this.

what i hadn't realized, however, was the leg force. in fact, this had completely escaped me. Sifu did purple swallow skims the water several times in slow motion, and directed everyone's attention to the rear leg. he said that it was important to exaggerate the motions of the technique in practice, so we scooped very low with the lead hand and then followed it up, with the legs acting as the means to lower and raise the body. in addition, he said it was crucial that we drive with the rear leg as we rose, so that it generated a propulsive force up and forward into the opponent. it is the rear leg that generates power in the technique. Jason commented that in combat, we would not exaggerate the movement, but that for training it was good to exaggerate the movements to better learn the correct technique and improve our understanding of its mechanics.

3rd palm change

next, we moved on to the 3rd palm change. here, Sifu pointed out 3 major problems that i was having.

first, my leading hand was not lifted high enough. apparently, it's supposed to be far enough above the head to engage an opponent's high strike using the first 2 techniques in the palm change: flying horse soars in the sky and yellow bird swoops down for food.

second, i was not using my legs to lower my body in hawk pierces through the sky. this technique is supposed to be an expression of fire and water, with one hand rising (fire) and the other hand matching the torso as it goes down (water). but the torso is supposed to be upright; if the legs are not serving to lower the torso, the result is that i tend to lean forward (or slouch) to see the fire-and-water effect. hawk pierces through the sky is supposed to produce the same result as black bear turns its body, with the sinking legs and arm acting to push the opponent onto their backside while the rising hand acts to engage an opponent's attempted strike.

third (and this by far was my most egregious error of the day), my hands were too far away from my body in both hawk pierces through the sky and big serpent coils its body. Sifu said that this is dangerous, as it creates openings for the opponent to attack the body, and also exposes the arms to being grabbed. according to Jason, i need to keep my hands and arms close to the torso. he said i need to imagine that my hands and arms are snakes coiling around my body.

i found that the adjustments for this palm change not so easy. i'm still working my mind around the mechanics of the form, and having to rethink my leg movements and hand and arm positioning left me having to sort through things. i ended up having to take some time to myself to work through the revised mechanics s-l-o-w-l-y, so that i could get a better feel (and i mean that literally in terms of mind-body sensations) for the form when it is done properly.

4th palm change

Sifu wrapped up class with the 4th palm change. he told us just to experiment with it in the circle for today, and that we would be refining it more closely next week.

i had already attempted this during the week (what can i say, it's hard to resist the temptation of something that appears to be a very close logical next step in the progression of palm changes in the circle). as a result, i felt some level of comfort with this. of course, i found that doing it at high(er) speed was a bit of a challenge, and that my balance suffered at high speed in transitioning between techniques. but i figure this is something i can work on, and so it's not something to panic about...yet.

after awhile, the baji students came over to say goodbye, whereupon Sifu lined us up and dismissed us for the day.

Monday, March 05, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 1) - bridges

this is a cross-post from my triathlon blog:

endurance sports and kung fu (part 1) - bridges

my life seems to be about building bridges between different things.

you know, getting pieces of a puzzle, seeing connections, and then putting pieces together to see a bigger picture. which is weird, because our world seems to emphasize the need for detail. but i just don't really enjoy losing the forest for the trees.

and i think there's a picture to be made here, but it's going to take some time to connect things together.

like building a bridge, get it?

Friday, March 02, 2007

commentary: the spirit of martial arts (part 1) - the reason for virtue

historically, the purpose of "martial arts" was 2-fold: apart from the very real need to train individuals in warfare, it was also ostensibly intended to fulfill a more abstract objective of inculcating desired values into people.

this was what was connoted by the combination of the word "martial" with the term "art." combat was not just a base struggle of brutality and primitive instinct, but rather a systematized mechanism designed to promote a warrior's abilities to fight, and fight in a way which reflected certain principles that were determinative in deciding the course and nature of life and death. as a result, the art of warfare came to be taken as metaphorical for the act of human survival, and the principles that were applied in warfare came to be seen as applicable in the preservation and continuation of human life.

in a way, such principles were expressions of particular virtues. often, these virtues included such things as: courage, loyalty, discipline, intelligence, creativity, selflessness.

the virtues of martial arts, or at least the idea of virtues associated with martial arts, have been as universal as the martial arts themselves, in all the ways they have been formulated throughout human history and across human society. for example, the ancient Mesopatamians hinted at the best (and worst) of warrior ethos in their epics of Gilgamesh, Hellenistic records detailed the qualities desired in their hoplite armies, the Roman Empire emphasized clearly defined characteristics expected of every legionnaire, feudal Europe espoused the ideals of chivalry and knighthood, the maritime Polynesian tribes of the Pacific region enunciated specific rules of conduct for their warriors, and Japanese samurai held to a spirit and code of bushido. each culture, in asserting their martial arts, invariably asserted the values they held most dear to human life.

in the modern world, however, there's been increasing questions as to the need for martial arts and the virtues they supposedly have extolled. in particular, it is unclear as to what "art" there is in warfare--or if there ever really was any, given that combat has always been a state of chaos, utter savagery, and gruesome death. even if, over time, war has become more "civilized" and bound by rules, it's still debatable as to what "art" there is in an age where combat has become conducted by bullets, missiles, bombs, lasers, microwaves, remote sensors, robots, and computers that engage and eliminate opponents without ever having made visual or auditory contact.

the implication is that without "art" to martial arts, there is no martial arts. there is just violence and carnage. in which case, the purpose of martial arts is pointless, because it cannot achieve what it was intended to do: train individuals to deal with the realities of warfare, and pass on virtues as relevant to warfare as they are to life.

these questions receive extra impetus in the modern world, which appears to not even have the need for the virtues historically associated with martial arts. instead, we live in a world that demands, rewards, and prioritizes things like profits, asset value, net worth, productivity, efficiency, billable hours, leverage, capitalization, and property. what space is there here for virtue?

after some reflection on my time studying traditional Chinese martial arts, i have come to believe that i disagree with these types of conclusions. to me, based on what i have seen, i think there is a value to martial arts, even traditional ones--in fact, particularly traditional ones. there is a value to virtue. there is a need for virtue. there is meaning in it.

to see what i mean, read my post on my triathlon blog:

human life is fraught with difficulties. physical, mental, spiritual. personal, familial, fraternal, societal. there are always challenges we encounter. some of them entail much greater consequences than others. some of them pose much greater dangers than others. all of them call upon us to make decisions that will affect our lives and the lives of people around us.

for someone who doesn't care, making those decisions are easy. if you are one of those someones, you act according to whatever makes you feel better, or according to whatever whim you have at a particular moment.

however, for someone who does care, making those decisions can become difficult. because then you have to think about how you are going to respond. you have to think about who your response is going to affect. and you have to think about how your response is going to affect them.

what you decide defines who you are.

and that's why there is a need for virtue. even in a world that no longer calls for it. especially in a world that no longer calls for it.

because when it comes to our identity, we presumably prefer one a good one; one that makes the world a better place and makes us better people, individually and collectively. otherwise, all we have is darkness...and a life lived in darkness is a life lived in a state of death.

but choosing an identity requires choosing principles about the way we want to live and the way we want the world to be--principles that articulate ideals we aspire to. in short, choosing our identity requires a choosing of virtue.

so in a modern world that no longer calls for it, where then does one look for virtue?

that's where traditional martial arts comes in.

for all the brutality and savagery inherent in war, soldiers of all armies in all societies from all times have always fought for things they believed in: their lives, their families, their friends, their countries, their civilizations. they did not fight for violence; they fought for things they thought could make the world a better place. in defending those things, they strove to uphold the ideals they represented, and so through their actions came to embody the values their societies perceived as the most crucial to human life. as a result, soldiers learned and practiced the virtues they wished to see in the world around them in a way that became reflected in their martial arts--a way perhaps more directly observable, more profound, and more personal in the hand-to-hand combat of traditional fighting than the remote-controlled automated nature of modern warfare. learning those traditional martial arts allows us to learn the same virtues held by ancient warriors...virtues that are as determinative of the course and nature of life and death today as they were to warriors of the ancient world.

and that's why there is a need for traditional martial arts.

because they believe in and hold to virtue, and because there is still a reason for virtue in this world.