Monday, April 30, 2007

day 29: world tai chi & qi-gong day

there was actually no class this saturday. instead, we attended World Tai Chi & Qi-Gong Day.

the event was held at the Rose Bowl Brookside Park, and featured news media and demonstrations from various tai chi schools in Southern California. it's an annual event that Sifu has attended for a number of years. the website is:

for this year, Sifu was serving as a translator for a European media news crew, and a contingent from the school (Phunsak, Keiun, John Eagles--doing double duty with his other kung fu school, Siwann-da, James, and Jonathan) was supposed to provide a demonstration. i chose to just observe this year, since i didn't feel advanced enough to do a demonstration--particularly since they had the "Jason Tsou Kung Fu Academy" listed last, suggesting we were the headliners.

everything was scheduled to go from 8am to 1pm. however, as the day went on people began leaving as soon as their demonstrations were complete. by 11am, approximately half the crowd had departed. by this time, Sifu had finished a piece with the news crew using Phunsak and Kieun to perform combat applications of tai chi techniques. he decided we should leave early, and so we ended up leaving before time for the demonstration.

i have to be honest, i have very mixed feelings about this day. enough that i plan to write a commentary on this. everyone was very nice, and very friendly, and very open. but it just seemed...disturbing.

on one hand, i was somewhat alarmed by the demonstrations given this day. i don't know anything about tai chi, and i'm not much of a kung fu practitioner. but as an outside observer, i do expect the words "martial art" to be as much about "martial" as they are about "art." most of the demonstrations (actually, all of them) were more focused on display and showmanship (i.e., art), and not at all on self-defense or combat (i.e., martial).

this was apparent in the prevalence of choreographed routines with loud synchronized music. practitioners were performers, complete with bright-colored costumes and coiffed hair and make-up. the weapons were all props (Phunsak pointed out a wushu display with swords that flopped around mid-blade, and a spear that swung like a rope).

it didn't help that there was an element of flakiness--what i've commonly heard labeled as "hippiness." Siwann-da and i detected the distinct odor of marijuana. we overheard abstract conversations about "energy of the universe" and being "in touch."

this all just seemed to feed the Western stereotypes of tai chi: either as a slow, plodding exercise populated by old people and pot-smoking California hippies living in communes, or as a showpiece performance art for celebrities on a stage.

Kieun, Phunsak, and i ended up having a very long, very sober conversation about this. too long and too sober to put in this post, and something i'll reserve for my commentary.

on the other hand, for all this, i can see that there is a certain benefit--and even necessity--to attending these types of events. Phunsak, and later Sifu, commented that we can see that we do things a little differently than most: the Wutan curriculum in general, and Sifu in particular, approach tai chi as a combat Sifu's words, we do "tai chi chuan" (tai chi as fighting style). as a result, we don't emphasize the aspects of tai chi other people do, and focus instead on the components relating to self-defense.

i asked Sifu about what we were seeing. he pointed out that tai chi, as with all martial arts, has many facets, including combat, health, mental development, etc. as we could see, most people preferred to only accentuate the non-combat aspects of tai chi. he said that this is fine, and they are getting what they want from it. he said martial arts can--and should--do this.

but he pointed out that in that such case people aren't really practicing tai chi chuan, but just tai chi dance. in doing so, they're getting away from the origins of tai chi as a fighting style. which means the world is getting a distorted view of tai chi.

Sifu explained that this is the main reason he attends demonstrations like these, since he feels it is crucial to remind people of the original purpose of tai chi, and to try to balance out the prevailing stereotypes with something closer to its original purpose. otherwise, people will never know.

Phunsak and Sifu are right: we really do things a little bit differently than other schools. events like today make this clear. i can understand that all schools serve a role in promoting (and preserving) the full image of tai chi, and that tai chi has many different aspects that can benefit many different people. but having said that, i have to say i prefer what we do--because to me there's not much point in calling something a "martial art" if you can't use it for martial purposes.

Phunsak said we should just treat events like today as just fun, and time to hang out and see what other people are doing. he asked me if i was going to attend World Tai Chi & Qi-Gong Day again. i didn't answer. i have to think about this.

it might help to see pictures i took to get a better feel for what i'm describing. i've included some photos of the day below, and divided them up into sections: signs, demonstrations, and what we were doing. check them out for yourself:



what we were doing

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 3) - training cycles

something that i'm finding intriguing, but not entirely delineated, is the notion of training cycles between endurance sports and kung fu. conceptually, both have it. practically, they express the concept in slightly different ways. what i find interesting is that in some ways the motivation, manner, and logic for scheduling training cycles is the same, while in other ways they are radically different. i suspect, but cannot say for any certainty, that some cross-pollination of ideas would benefit both sides.

in using the term "training cycles," i am referring to the scheduling of training sessions according to patterns on the calendar and clock. in a training cycle, workouts are not always the same, but rather follow an evolution of exercises and variation in duration, intensity, and focus marking a progression taking place over the course of time. i've seen this in both endurance sports and kung fu training.

endurance sports

the purpose for training cycles in endurance sports is simple: improving performance. performance is the ultimate criteria in determining the value of training; if performance improves then the training is valuable, if it doesn't then it is not. as a result, training cycles are aimed at nothing more than maximizing race day performance. anything else (health, self-discipline, etc.) are secondary.

in endurance sports, training cycles take the form of iterative escalations familiar to most athletes: base, build, peak, recovery. these iterations follow smaller-scale "micro" cycles that occur over the course of days or weeks, as well as larger-scale "macro" cycles that are conducted over periods of months or competition seasons. macro-cycles are composed of multiple micro-cycles that are repeated over and over again in escalation, just as workouts within each micro-cycle follow an escalation. sometimes there are mutiple levels to a macro or micro-cycle.

for example, in training for a particular race in June, an athlete may follow a 6-month training schedule commencing in January. following the principle of base, build, peak, recovery, the athlete will set an overall macro-cycle with 8 weeks of base, 8 weeks of build, 6 weeks of peak development, and 2 weeks of recovery. this macro-cycle will be further set into smaller "sub" macro cycles, with the base phase organized into 2 4-week cycles (with 1 week base, 1 week build, 1 week peak, 1 weak recovery), the build phase similarly divided into 2 4-week cycles, the peak phase set into 2 3-week cycles (with 1 week build, 1 week peak, 1 weak recovery), and the recovery phase treated as a taper into race day. each week is then set as a micro-cycle, with 4-5 days dedicated to base, build, or peak-specific workouts and 2-3 days for recovery.

the base phase is meant to develop aerobic capacity (increasing the body's ability to process oxygen) and aerobic efficiency (improving the body's ability to generate output for a given oxygen intake rate). the build phase is meant to improve output by developing muscular endurance (the ability of muscles to sustain a required level of physical output without fatigue). the peak phase is meant to generate power and strength as well as increase anaerobic threshold (the point at which lactic acid accumulates in the muscles, causing failure and cramping). the recovery phase is meant to allow the body to rest, with time and fuel that enables cellular repair and production to lock in the gains from the other phases.

in general, for endurance sports, the base and build phases are marked by workouts of long duration, and there is an increasing level of intensity (but decreasing duration) in workouts going from base to build to peak phase. recovery phase workouts tend to be short, with low intensity. the general rule is given in a commonly expressed analogy: a person's performance capability is like a house; the higher or larger you want the house (performance in terms of power or endurance) to go, the bigger the foundation (the aerobic and anaerobic capacities) needs to be.

"sub" macro-cycles or micro-cycles within a macro-level base period, while following their own base-build-peak-recovery pattern, will adjust all the workouts in the pattern to match the macro-cycle. this would mean that within the base phase in the above example, the base week in the 1st 4-week sub-macro-cycle would be shorter in duration and lower intensity than the base week of the 2nd 4-week set in the phase, and would be much shorter in duration and lower in intensity compared to any base week in the build or peak phases. similarly the workouts during the 2-week recovery (taper) phase would tend to be shorter and lighter than the recovery workouts in the other phases.

the reasoning behind this kind of pattern is that the body's development functions like a furnace operating under a bellows pump. a furnace, to some degree, can get hotter simply by adding more fuel to the fire. however, the process is long and tends to asymptotically reach a finite temperature limit. in comparison, a furnace that is operating with a bellows pump can become dramatically hotter and more quickly for the same amount of fuel, with each blast of the bellows charging the flames of the furnace to a progressively higher temperature.

similarly, sports medicine has found that training under a constantly increasing workload initially provides a corresponding increase in a body's capacities, but that the relationship eventually leads to diminishing returns and potential breakdown. like the furnace with a bellows pump, the body's capacities can be dramatically expanded to greater scales by giving it periodic surges in workloads of varying degrees interspersed with recovery periods, with each surge charging the body with performance gains.

kung fu

kung fu shares the same purpose as endurance sports in using training cycles to improve performance. however, because of what i perceive to be its connections to traditional Asian medicine, kung fu also seeks to improve overall health. this means not just competitive performance, but physiological, mental, and spiritual health, along with attendant virtues such as patience, diligence, self-discipline, decisiveness, etc.

from what i can tell, in kung fu training cycles take the form of seasonal or annual (perhaps even multi-annual) iterations. i don't know if this is kung fu in general or if this is specific to my class, but i suspect it is a reflection of traditional Asian medicine and historical Asian culture, both of which seem to have a sensitivity to human activity on time scales much greater than Western societies.

from what i've seen, practitioners of kung fu will repeat a curriculum in a specific style multiple times during their training, with each repetition incorporating another layer of nuances and detail into the education. the curriculum in a particular style may last months (at the minimum) or years (at the typical). to advance in the style, the practitioner invariably has to complete the curriculum several times, each time focusing on a different aspect of understanding.

for example, the first time learning a style like tai chi, the student would spend 1-3 years going through the curriculum focusing on learning techniques and their applications. on a successive iteration of the curriculum, the student would be taught the same techniques and applications, but incorporating use of breathing and mental focus. on a later iteration through the curriculum, the student might be taught more subtle details of the techniques and further variations in their application. the nature of the material being introduced is in part a function of the student's maturity level (physical, mental, spiritual), skill development, and learning ability. ultimately, to achieve mastery, a student may be expected to study a curriculum a minimum of 2 or 3 times.

in addition to this, training during a cycle of a curriculum may be altered to reflect the seasons, which suffer varying degrees of access to practice and instruction. winter months, because of weather and reduced sunlight, tend to make it more difficult to conduct study requiring large spaces (e.g., encounters with multiple opponents). summer months, because of better weather and longer sunlight, are conducive to teaching and learning a higher volume of material.

the reasoning behind these training cycles is largely derived from traditional Asian medicine and culture, which--possibly because of their ties to Buddhist and Taoist origins--accentuate the matching of human activity in accordance with the natural world. whether spiritual or philosophical, they seem to hold beliefs that health and activity are constrained with patterns in the seasons, the conditions of the environment, and the state of the person. as a result, true mastery of kung fu is interpreted as involving the acculturation of skills to a level that is instinctive, automatic, natural, and which involves conscious and subconscious growth that requires whatever time is typically needed for any biological organism to adapt and grow. for organisms as complex as the human body and mind, this means not weeks or months, but seasons and years of adjusting to the seasons, responding to the environment, and nurturing the self.

there is some veracity to this in terms of Western science. a common example is research that shows a connection between human mood and energy, melatonin, and sunlight, wherein cases of depression and sluggishness are believed to be the result of depressed melatonin levels whose production has been suppressed by the lack of sunlight in winters. as a result, particularly for people in Arctic regions unaccustomed to the long darkness of winters in high latitudes, doctors frequently advise an adjustment period of 1-3 years, along with treatment in the form of melatonin supplements or artificial light.

mutual lessons

i don't these differences mean that one side is right and the other wrong, and that any one side should be automatically discounted thereof. the fact that there's substance and support for each side indicates that both have validity, and so suggests that both should be retained as truth. if anything, because there is validity for both sides, i think each side would benefit from sharing their perspectives with the other regarding training cycles.

to begin, i think kung fu (and perhaps martial arts in general) could stand to integrate the lessons of modern sports medicine. i can think of a number of reasons:

  • with its ties to traditional Asian medicine and culture, kung fu benefits from eons (as literally centuries or millenia) of empirically proven methods and solutions. however, this heritage is not replete without some flaws. in particular, much of its knowledge is drawn from fragmentary documentation (many texts and treatises have been lost or destroyed) or oral histories, either of which is fraught with the dangers of fabrication, exaggeration, distortion, or mis-interpretation. in contrast, modern sports medicine is derived from replicable, peer-reviewed research tested by the open debate and review of scientific discourse. as a result, i think kung fu's reliance on traditional training practices are more susceptible to question relative to more modern, more clearly proven sports training methods. i think kung fu (and martial arts) would be greatly aided by a greater level of insistence on directly observable and, more importantly, replicable results from traditional training.
  • kung fu, while it has benefited from its training cycles covering seasons and years, does not focus as much on the shorter-term training cycles characteristic to sports. as a result, i think kung fu misses out on key notions of development, such as base, build, peak, and recovery phases. from what i have seen, kung fu training does not really acknowledge the advantages of a "bellows"-style training schedule to elevate capabilities, nor the idea of cyclical progressions of macro and micro-cycles. moreover, it doesn't even seem to recognize the connection between various components of the body's fitness and the different components of training: base, build, peak, and recovery. i think training in kung fu would yield greater performance if it were to note just how crucial each of these components are in producing growth, and figure out how to integrate them with its existing understanding of long-term training cycles.

reciprocally, i think endurance sports can benefit from incorporating kung fu practices. the reasons i see are:

  • modern medicine doesn't know everything. because of its use of a scientific method that insists on replicable, verifiable research, endurance sports (and sports medicine in general) uses a process that takes time to discover and evaluate new training methods. this has constrained it from aggressively pursuing new concepts or ideas in training. kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine), however, offers a history of training methods that, while new to Western science, already have some pre-existing level of empirical substantiation that could provide directions for promising concepts and solutions. modern sports might very likely save time and resources by looking to kung fu for ideas; in effect, kung fu would act as a sieve highlighting potentially valid methods out of myriad possibilities, enabling scientific analysis to focus research on a select few methods rather than having to spend resources pursuing many.
  • modern sports science (including endurance sports) is fixated on shorter-term macro and micro-cycles. it doesn't recognize the role that seasons, environment, or changes in biology have on training. endurance sports locks onto specific races, and then structures training for those races, irrespective of the time of the year, the nature of the athlete's surroundings, or the state of the athlete. i think modern sports might discover that training results (and hence potential performance) would improve by adopting kung fu's recognition and adjustment to time and place, as well as kung fu's understanding of how time and place act on an athlete--not just for a single training cycle of weeks or months, but over many successive training cycles extending to years or tens of years. in effect, kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine) is operating beyond macro-cycles in what might be labeled "meso" cycles. while perhaps not of use in a short-term goal of preparing for a particular event, it is something of potentially great value for long-terms of extending a career and ensuring lasting performance capabilities.

essentially, my thinking is this: endurance sports training (and modern sports medicine) has knowledge that views people as biological machines which can be manipulated for enhanced performance via training for specific races, whereas kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine) has knowledge that views people as biological organisms which, like any other biological organism, can be endowed with superior health that lasts over an entire biological lifespan. one, being performance-specific, is very target-fixated; the other, being health-specific, is more holistic and situationally aware.

but these differences are not incompatible. they can be combined to benefit both sides. because of its performance focus, endurance sports training deals with shorter time frames compared to kung fu training, which is more concerned with overall health. i think that endurance sports can learn to extend performance longevity (i.e., extending racing careers) and quality of life by borrowing from the longer-term methods of kung fu, while kung fu can learn to maximize its training workouts and performance growth by looking to the shorter-term methods of sports science.

i don't claim that improvements will be automatically proven in results. i caution that all of this is speculation. however, i think that there's enough plausibility to warrant consideration and research via empirical experimentation and analysis.

i suspect that a good number of people, whether endurance athletes with exposure to martial arts or martial artists with exposure to endurance sports, have already explored collaborative use of training cycles of both sides. but i would like to see more formal review of this matter, with a more scientific research apparatus (with test subjects, experimental group, control group, replicated results and findings, etc.).

for me personally, it'll be something that i'll have to continue observing. i haven't had that much time--at least, not as much as would be required to study the integration of micro, macro, and meso-cycles (i.e., years). and the only subject i know of is myself. but i'll see what i find.

Monday, April 23, 2007

day 28: side B palm change 1 & tai chi

  • timing
  • spacing
  • side B, palm change 1
  • drill: 1st palm change, side A v. side B
there was a traffic jam on the 5 freeway today that held up a good portion of the jian shu class. as a result, we started late, with Sifu choosing to wait until everyone could get to the park.

this was perfectly fine with me, as i'm still recovering from Ironman (it was last week), and my body feels curiously empty (as in empty of energy, empty of motivation, and empty of consciousness). Ching-Tzsieh and Laura, both of whom had arrived early, ended up chatting for awhile. they were joined by the baji students (Tommy, Charles, Simon).

when Phunsak when he finally arrived (he was one of the people caught in the traffic jam), i asked him what i'd missed from last week. he said last week's Saturday class had been mostly side B, palm change 1, with its combat applications. Sunday's lei tai class had apparently been more intensive, with Sifu teaching 4 types of punches, 4 types of kicks, and 4 types of parries--although, to be clear, i don't know if Phunsak was alluding to baji techniques (since he's helping Sifu with lei tai training by handling both bagua and baji students).

this gave me somewhat mixed feelings. i was a little relieved with the thought of not having missed too much from last Saturday (although, i always feel like i'm missing something not attending class in person...there are just nuances that Sifu points out that other students seem to gloss over). i was more alarmed by missing the material from Sunday. while not necessarily part of the main bagua class, it still is material i consider valuable. Phunsak said he would help me catch up, which i intend to do.

side B, palm change 1

Sifu started with a review of side A, palm change 1. he then immediately did a review of side B, palm change 1. this was helpful, since i hadn't really gotten a good grasp of side B when he had introduced it before. this time i was able to follow along much more easily, and could coordinate the techniques together once i could see the class repeat it a few times.

in terms of quantity of techniques, the 1st palm change for side B is relatively short, with just (following the bagua curriculum handouts) 4 techniques. this compares to the 1st palm change for side A, which also has 4 techniques. for both side A and B, the initial technique is lean against the horse and ask for directions, and the ending technique is single goose leaves the flock. however, while side A goes into a push against an imaginary opponent, side B goes into forward motion that is apparently supposed to be a hand strike over an assailant's projecting arm. from there, side B calls for a turning, twisting descent with the legs moving into dragon stance, so that the practitioner finishes in a position reminiscent of the 4th palm change (side A) pushing down into the assailant's hip and tripping them onto their back. i think while similar, the side B version of this is different, since it has a different title (for side B this is called golden serpent wraps the willow tree, while the 4th palm change side A cousin is called serpent coils the body).

drill: 1st palm change, side A versus side B

Sifu explained that side B is supposed to counteract side A, so that 2 opponents can engage and effectively counter each other by having one use the 1st palm change of side A and the other use the 1st palm change of side B. this allows for the creation of a 2-person drill, either in line or circle, with partners adopting the role of using side A or side B.

this is exactly what we did. Sifu ordered us to pair up and practice this, preferably with a senior student working with a junior one. since there were more junior students then beginners, i ended up with Laura, who i figured had at least gotten all this last week.

this drill ended up being more difficult to perform than it looked. the techniques themselves weren't hard. the main problem was timing and spacing. working with another person requires a certain amount of fluidity for the drill to be conducted with skill. fluidity, however, means that both partners are interacting seamlessly between attack and defense. this requires corresponding timing of movement between one partner's attack and the other's defense, as well as the subsequent shift in roles. it also requires proper spacing so that the techniques actually engage and make contact the way they were meant to.

here's what i think was making things difficult:
  • part of the problem, i am sure, was my lack of familiarity with the side B 1st palm change. i was still having to think through the movements, and so had to divert attention to them away from time and space issues. this, of course, meant slowing the drill down dramatically.
  • another problem that i suspect is that the footwork is not entirely clear to me in the drill. i could see how the feet are supposed to move when Sifu demonstrated it with Phunsak. but it's difficult to translate foot placement and direction to different bodies and body types. this further serves to disrupt the coordination between upper body and lower body movements. it didn't help that Laura and i were both substantially leaner and longer than the models we were trying to follow.
  • one other issue--and this pretty much goes without saying--is the lack of practice. timing and spacing are physical factors driven by mental intent, and so are variables that can be adjusted if the mind is given time to adapt and acclimate. obviously, just 1 class session isn't enough. the drill, no doubt, will become easier to perform if given time.

which leads me back to a point in the post for the last class i made: it takes 2 people to tango; it takes 2 people to do a 2-person drill. in order for us to practice 2-person drills, we're going to have to find time to practice in pairs. luckily, John Eagles is recovering from his surgery (he was back in class today), so i'll see about giving him and Kieun a call, since they both live near me.

tai chi

Sifu came back after some time with the baji students. he stopped class and gathered us together to talk about next week.

next Saturday is World Tai Chi Day. i guess it's a pretty big event in the Southern California area, and is being conducted in conjunction with other locations around the world. for the Los Angeles area, it will be held at the Rose Bowl. Sifu will be acting as an official translator for the news reporters. we, like all the other attendees, will be participating and performing tai chi forms with the other attendees.

Sifu taught us the initial steps of a tai chi form, with Phunsak providing assistance. he only showed us the first half; he said we would learn the other half next Saturday before the official ceremonies began. from what i could tell, we were learning a Chen tai chi form.

while this was just a smattering introduction, i was pretty intrigued by this. tai chi is definitely one of the styles i'd like to learn, preferably Chen and Sun, if possible. i can't really explain why--i just like the way it looks, and am curious as to just how it is applied in combat. obviously, what we got and what we're going to do on Saturday isn't really going to be representative of the real nature of the style, but i figure it's meant more for demonstration purposes, and so something Sifu consideres sufficient for 1 day.

with that, class wound down and Sifu dismissed us.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

ironman thanks

this is a cross-post from my Ironman blog.

i want to thank everyone from Sifu Tsou's class (including Sifu Tsou himself) for including me in your thoughts and support while i was at Ironman Arizona.

it was a tough race, with tough conditions, and much harder than anyone would have liked (even the pros were saying it was among the worst conditions they'd ever seen). this one took a lot more out of me than last year. it's taking me a little longer to recover this time, and so you'll have to forgive me if i seem a little distant for the next week or so.

you can read my race report at:

just so you know, i write a race report for each race. they are always long--much longer than other entries. this is because there is a lot to think about before, during, and after an Ironman. there always is. and each Ironman has its own lessons.

Sifu is included in the report. as so too are threads of Buddhist and Taoist thought, which tend to be used a lot by many competitors at Ironman, since they seem to help deal with suffering.

all the world is suffering. but the issue is how we deal with it. and to deal with it we begin with ourselves.

Friday, April 20, 2007

videos: BBC's way of the warrior

this is something of a curiousity.

i came across a 5-part series of videos on YouTube that apparently is a digitized version of a BBC documentary on internal Chinese martial arts called Way of the Warrior. it covers tai chi, xing yi, and bagua in taiwan. it focuses on one sifu named Hung I Hsiang. from the looks of it, it's from the 1970s.

now that i've been learning kung fu for a little while, it's interesting to compare what i've been learning with what has been detailed by Western media. some of it is consistent, some not. i'm guessing that the Western media portrayal has some fallacies and fabrications being foisted upon its audiences--intentionally or unintentionally, from sources of various veracity translated by media purveyors of varying knowledge for audiences of various gullibility, all with varying degrees of judgment, motivation, and skill. it's interesting.

of course, i could be completely wrong.

check it out for yourself:
  1. part 1 of 5:
  2. part 2 of 5:
  3. part 3 of 5:
  4. part 4 of 5:
  5. part 5 of 5:
i welcome any comments.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

videos: more Shaw Brothers

in a quest for even more cheesy kung fu flicks, i decided to dig around for any websites dealing with Shaw Brothers (nothing but the cheesiest of the cheesiest).

lo and behold, but if i didn't find something. i culled some of the better ones. check them out for yourself:

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

day 27: drills, qi-gong, & side B palm change 1 (it takes 2 to tango)

  • hips
  • circles
  • hand weapons

  • drills (2-person hand, stationary and moving in line)
  • qi-gong
  • 1st palm change, side B
i knew today was going to be trouble when i woke up. i'd been feeling sluggish, tired, and (worse) sore the entire week. from what, i don't know. i just know things didn't feel right. and they didn't feel any better when i woke up.

qi-gong level 1 helped...although, it may have been the 2 cans of itoen green tea i sucked down. or maybe the half loaf of japanese english bread (yeah, the japanese make english bread...go figure). or just the fact that i laid out on the grass and spent a very, very, very, very long time stretching before class started.

i think some other people in class felt the same way i did, since everyone straggled in slowly. things didn't really pick up until Sifu showed up with the jian shu students and called us to order.


the major subject today was drills. drills, drills, and more drills...but good ones: 2-person stationary and moving drills. we need more of these.

Sifu announced that today we were going to do 2-person hand drills, saying that it was important we do them before progressing any further. this was different from other 2-person drills in that these were 2-person drills employing the 1 and 2-hand drills we'd been doing in prior classes for warm-up. he did a brief demonstration using Phunsak as a partner, which unfortunately in my state went completely beyond my comprehension--i just saw a jumble of arms and hands. he instructed Phunsak to guide us through the drills, and then left to start the baji students.

stationary 2-person hand drills (front and back)

everyone broke off into pairs, with me working with Kieun. Kieun has apparently done this more than once, since he went about with a certain nonchalance despite the fact that he informed me he was suffering from a hangover. he asked me if i knew what we were doing, and i said "not a clue." he then asked if i remembered the single and double-hand drills, to which i said "of course." he said "it's the same thing, but just do it with your partner's arm in front of you."

we first did the front stationary 2-man hand drills. here, each of the pairs began by lining up with partners facing each other at arm's length. one partner acted as the "defender" and the other as the "attacker," and by turn switched positions. for purposes of the drill, both partners assume the stances with their legs (for us, it was either bow-and-arrow or 60-40) and maintain stationary foot positions, with the only motion being the interaction of arms or the rotation and shifting of weight through the shoulders, waist, hips, and knees. the "attacker" alternates holding left and right fists out in mock punches, but slow enough that the "defender" has the opportunity to respond to the punches using the motions of the 1 and 2-hand drills. in effect, this is simply increasing the application of the 1 and 2-hand drills to actual use, so that the practitioner can start to get a more natural and intuitive feel of using the motions of the 1 and 2-hand drills to redirect opponent's strikes and open them up for counter-strikes either from outside (dragon gate) or inside (tiger gate).

the drill can be varied:

  • both partners standing, with both having left leg leading or right leg leading
  • both partners standing, with opposite legs leading (i.e., if 1 partner has the left leg leading, the other has the right leg leading)
  • the "defender" standing with their leading leg inside the partner's leading leg (with foot in ko position) or outside the partner's leading leg (with foot in bai position)
  • the "attacker" can change the location of their strikes, so that it can be up, down, side, center, etc.
  • the partners can increase or decrease the speed of the drill, with the "attacker" setting the tempo

i found myself having an inordinate amount of difficulty doing this drill. Kieun told me bluntly that "this isn't working." for whatever reason, i could not assemble any level of focus or coordination, and found myself moving my arms in awkward, jerky motions. both Kieun and Phunsak commented that my hips were not involved enough in the drill--which is no surprise, since i've had more than 1 coach tell me my hips are too rigid and stiff (what can i say, i'm just not a hips kind of guy).

Kieun kept reminding me that the 2-person hand drill is just the same as the single person 1 and 2-hand drills, in the sense that the hand motions are identical (or at least, they should be, if they are done right). he and Phunsak tried a number of tricks to help me: imagining that i held weapons in my hands (to open up my movements and encourage more lower body action), actually holding sticks (fake weapons) so that i was actually forced to open up and integrate my legs and hips, and doing the drills with my eyes closed (to go back to the single person drills). this helped a little, but not a lot.

after awhile, Phunsak suggested everyone try doing the back 2-person hand drills. here, the "defender" stands with their back to the "attacker." both partners are standing with feet aligned with their own shoulders (i.e., horse stance). the "attacker" repeats posing arm strikes, alternating left and right hands slowly enough for the "defender" to get a feel of extending their arms and engaging and deflecting the attacker's strikes. similar to the front drills, the variations here are:

  • the "attacker" can change the location of their strikes, so that it can be up, down, side, center, etc.
  • the partners can increase or decrease the speed of the drill, with the "attacker" setting the tempo

i found some difficulty with these drills as well, with my arms struggling to make contact with the opponent. Phunsak and Kieun both commented that i was "reaching" and "looking" for the opponent, when instead i needed to focus more on just turning and following the motions of the drill itself.

Kieun asked me to do this drill with my eyes closed. i gave it a try, and suddenly found it dramatically easier to perform. for whatever reason, my waist turn became much wider and my arm extension took on much larger motions--which apparently was what was necessary to effectively deflect the "attacker." i suspect that, because of my unfamiliarity with the drills, i had subconsciously pulled away from the muscle memory built from the single person hand drills and had made a greater effort to consciously rely on my eyes and arms. this, however, had only served to impede the proper form and performance of the drills.

at Kieun's suggestion, i turned back to try the front 2-person hand drills again. here again, i suddenly found these easier to do. Kieun commented that for whatever reason, i was now doing them much better. my hips and knees were much more active, and i was generating more power and getting better control in redirecting the strikes. Kieun theorized that the back 2-person drill had probably pulled my mind into the proper form, and removed the dependence on the visual cues (which had apparently done nothing more than frustrate my movements).

reviewing my experience with these drills, my observations are as follows:

  • big circles, small circles--for arms, legs, hands, feet, shoulders, hips, waist. vertical, horizontal, angular. the hand motions of the single person 1 and 2-hand drills are meant to redirect opponents' strikes while avoiding direct force-on-force confrontation (i.e., the idea is to have force vectors act indirectly; force vectors should never act directly). this means circular movements.
  • fluidity--the stationary 2-person hand drills are meant to be fluid, without the counting done in the single person hand drills. they are much more effective, and much easier to perform, if done without counting.
  • practice as if someone is there, fight as if no one is there--Sifu had said this on several different occasions. the clarity of this became very apparent today. whenever i tried to do the drills with a conscious awareness of the opponent's body, my technique broke down horribly. however, whenever i focused on just doing the technique, the results against the opponent were significant. moreover, the best results (i.e., the most effective) came when i did the techniques without effort, whereas the worst (i.e., the most ineffective) results came when i attempted to do the techniques with extra effort. things just worked better acting as if there was no body in front of me.
  • imagine there are weapons in the hands--i said that this helped a little, but not a lot. still, i recommend it. once i managed to coordinate my lower body with my upper body, i have to admit it did help significantly to imagine there are weapons in the hands as you do the techniques in the drills. for some reason, it helps reinforce proper form, and it just makes things work better. bagua seems to be a style very adapted to hand weapons usage, since the techniques seem to become much more natural and instinctive with weapons, even if imaginary, in the hands.
  • hips--hips, hips, hips. lots of hips. moving hips. rotating hips. up and down and back and forth hips. it's almost obscene. the hips seem to control so much of the lower body, and so determine much of the effectiveness of techniques. without the lower body, there is very little power generation in the techniques and much waste of body movement (i.e., the practitioner becomes very inefficient in terms of gathering, utilizing, and applying energy and force), and the hips control (or at least initiate movement within) the lower body. and to coordinate the lower body with the upper body, the hips must be coordinated with the waist, chest, back, and shoulders to create a unified torso that is a twisting, rotating, bending, rising, falling, launching, retracting whole consistent with the principles of bagua.
  • techniques must be performed correctly (it goes without saying, i know, but i figure it's important enough to repeat)

from what i can see, the purpose of these drills are:

  1. help students progress from the single-person hand drills by requiring them to move in a smooth, fluid, continuous manner crucial to practical application of techniques. this is done by performing the drills without counting or stopping.
  2. familiarizing students with the scale and size of body movements, but asking them to adjust their motions with respect to their opponents.
  3. acclimating students to interacting with another body, by helping them understand spacing, distance, and timing in performance of the drills.
  4. removing student aversion to physical contact with the opponent, by letting become accustomed to sustained physical interaction that reduces the "fight or flight" reflexes

moving 2-person hand drills (along a line)

Sifu returned and watched us briefly. he made a number of corrections with students, and then announced we were going to take the drills 1 step further by doing them along a line. he asked Phunsak to lead everyone, and then instructed us to choose lines in the yard with our partners (which was convenient, seeing that the asphalt lot of the school we're using is full of parallel lines).

the general idea of the moving 2-person hand drill is to practice engaging, opening, and entering an opponent's gate--either from the dragon or tiger gates, and regardless of the positioning of the opponent's arms and hands. similar to the stationary drills, 1 person is the "defender" and the other is the "attacker." for the line, the partners progress back and forth along the line, with the defender (at least for today) stepping forward into the attacker's gate and the attacker stepping back after the defender has entered the gate. essentially, the defender goes into the attacker's gate (by whatever technique of the defender's choice), and each time defender takes their step (ko or bai) to do this the partners progress further along the line.

it should be noted that the moving drills contrast to the stationary ones in that the stationary 2-person drills seem to focus on just redirecting an opponent's strike, while the moving drills seem to ask for more, with the idea being not just re-direction of an opponent's strike, but also counter-attack in terms of opening and entering the attacker's gates.

in addition, the moving drills are also distinct from the stationary ones in that the moving drills are a much more free-flowing, flexible exercise in terms of allowing the attacker and defender to choose and apply their choice of techniques and targets. Kieun and i worked on applying any techniques we could recall from the combat application sessions of prior classes. in short, it's a controlled, limited form of sparring.

in addition to the observations i have regarding the stationary 2-person hand drills, there are several additional key points in performing the moving 2-person hand drills effectively:

  • defenders must know what techniques they are going to use before they engage the attacker
  • defenders, in executing a series of intended techniques, must be decisive. being tentative means eroding the proper form for each technique and becoming slow in movements; either one means evisceration of power and increase in weakness
  • defenders must understand that engaging the attacker is not the same as opening or entering the attacker's gate (engaging can simply be making physical contact with the opponent's strike, but opening a gate involves redirecting the attacker to expose a vulnerability, and entering the gate means launching a counter-attack into an attacker's vulnerable area)
  • defenders must be comfortable performing techniques from a variety of angles and foot positions--ko and bai, dragon gate or tiger gate, forward leg matching opponent's forward leg (i.e., right leg forward versus opponent's right leg forward), forward leg opposite opponent's forward leg (i.e., right leg forward versus opponent's left leg forward)
as poorly as i did this drill, i can see some very clear advantages to it:
  1. your game is exposed. if you're doing techniques poorly, it become very obvious very quickly. there's no hiding poor technique when working against an opponent (even a nice one). which is good, because it helps you see what you need to fix.
  2. integrating upper and lower bodies. while stationary drills do use the lower body, they don't call upon the mind to coordinate the movements of the legs, feet, hips, and waist the same way a moving drill does. as a result, there is a much greater exercise of overall physical coordination and mind-body interaction in moving drills as opposed to stationary ones.
  3. it helps you get a better sense of working against another body. this helps see just what techniques are supposed to be doing.
  4. improving familiarity and comfort with application. doing the drills in stationary stances are good for working out form, but in order to actually learn how to use techniques in self-defense, you have to learn how to use them in the context of spontaneous, unpredictable, fluid, and moving environments--the kind of environment that exists working against an opponent who doesn't want to cooperate with you.
  5. it's a friendly transition to sparring. moving 2-person drills seem to be a mid-way point between stationary 2-person drills and free-form sparring, helping familiarize practitioners with utilizing lessons in a relatively controlled, limited encounter that allows them to work on proper form, timing, and speed before taking the next step to the chaotic, extended circumstances of open sparring.
i mentioned to Kieun that at some point we should probably try to figure out who lives near us in Pasadena and find a time during the week to practice together. my point is that it's possible to practice forms and 1-person drills alone, and so less necessary to set practice times with others, but that in order to practice sparring or 2-person drills you actually need more than 2 (or more) people, and so it is imperative to be able to have practice times with a group. in particular, to ingrain and gain the benefits of the 2-person drills, we're going to need to continue doing them during the week outside of takes 2 to tango. otherwise it's not a tango; it's just 1 person looking really funny.
we took a brief stock of who lives in the vicinity. to our knowledge, it's me, Kieun, and John Eagles. we'll have to see if there's anybody else.


we finished drills after awhile in varying degrees. i stopped because i was feeling mental overload and needed to take a break (sometimes, my brain just. does. not. want. to. take. in. more. information...).

Sifu returned. he paused for a moment to ask Phunsak to go work with Scott (who was off by himself) on his piqua forms. he then announced that we should start doing 64 Palms, Side B.

i asked him about qi-gong, and he assented to take us a little further into level 2. we did level 1 first, and then the first 5 directions from level 2.

Sifu stopped by showing us the 6th direction (south). he told us to try a different variation this time (apparently, he's taught it differently before). ordinarily, you're supposed to raise your hands from the starting standing position upwards above the head, and then bring the hands down into a prayer position in front of the chest. this time, Sifu instructed us to raise the hands from the starting position to about shoulder height, then lower them down into a scooping motion at the abdomen. from there, the hands should be raised together in prayer position to chest level, where they separate and rise above the head with palms open to the sky, and continue by falling back into prayer position in front of the chest. this is for the level 1 (qi gathering) component.

for level 2 (qi emitting), the practitioner turns with the hands in the prayer position, holding the breath. when they turn to a 90 degree position from the legs, they are supposed to shift into the 70-30 stance with eyes gazing north, breathing out as they do so. they then return to the standing prayer position (that's what i'm calling it) and do the same turning in the other direction.

1st palm change, side B

Sifu stopped with this, and then asked us to line up for the 1st palm change of 64 Palms, Side B. he told us just to become familiar with it, and that we'd go more in-depth next week.

to be quite honest, i was so discombobulated by this time that i couldn't remember the palm change after class. but i figure it'll be easier to pick up once i'm feeling better, and am able to concentrate more. in all truth, this was not my best day.

we didn't spend too much time with the 1st palm change for side B--just a few minutes to see it what it looked like and to try out a few iterations. after doing this, Sifu called us together and dismissed us.

i'm going to miss next class since i'll be at Ironman Arizona, and so i may not be in much shape to be doing much of anything for awhile afterwards. but we'll see. i'm going to have to ask someone to work with me on picking up the 1st palm change, as well as review the materials for the day i'll miss. i'm also going to have to get some help for the Sunday lei tai training that i'm going to miss. we'll see how it goes.

Friday, April 06, 2007

quarterly summary - Q1, 2007

following the 1st quarterly summary written in december (reference: quarterly summary - Q4, 2006), it's time to post the quarterly summary for the past 3 months.

original goals

following the "objectives for the future" given in the previous quarterly summary, the objectives for this quarter were:
  • continue attending class (making it an integral component of my athletic training schedule)
  • continue practicing during the week outside of class
  • increase 2-person and multi-person drills and sparring (to improve combat application of techniques and concepts)
  • learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum i missed by beginning in the middle of it (e.g., the 8 palm changes of mother palm, xiao ka men, qigong, etc.)
  • learn more about martial arts in general (to get better perspective on bagua in the topography of martial arts)
  • acquire reference materials (e.g., books, DVDs, etc.) to use as study aides
  • figure out a long-term plan in terms of learning bagua and proceeding to other styles
  • figure out just how i should go about progressing in bagua in relation to everything else in life
summary of events

with respect to the curriculum, this is what has been covered--or at least, what i've picked up:
  • tantui (lines 5-7)
  • two-person footwork drills (stepping on feet)
  • two-person circle walking drill (touch/separate)
  • multi-person circle walking drill (engage/disengage)
  • bagua principles in combat
  • mother palm
  • xiao kai men (line)
  • 64 palms: palm changes 7-8 (line, side A)
  • walking the circle: palm changes 1-8 (side A)
  • bagua zhang qi-gong: level 2, qi projecting
other things that have been covered that were not necessarily within the curriculum:
  • numbers 1-8 in Chinese--no big deal, i know, but i figure small victories are still victories
  • names of bagua techniques in Chinese and English--now i can actually use the names instead of just describing them figuratively
  • bagua curriculum handouts--covering the names of techniques for xiao kai men, 64 palms (side A and side B), and qi-gong (levels 1-3)
  • taoist and buddhist philosophy--particularly taoist and buddhist thought relating to martial arts practice
  • Chinese martial arts history--ancient, traditional, modern
  • Chinese martial arts styles--i'm starting to learn the names and characteristics of other traditional Chinese martial arts, such as tang lang (praying mantis), chang quan (long fist), tai chi quan, hsing-i, baji, piqua, wing chun, white crane, hung gar, etc.
  • traditional Asian medicine--mostly in terms of the medical reasoning behind qi-gong, but also in terms of herbal medicines, nutrition, external/internal harmony, and yin-yang concepts

i think i've achieved most of the goals carrying over from last quarter. in terms of the ones that were stated, i can say the following:
  1. continue attending class and integrating it into my athletic training schedule: i've done this without too much problem. admittedly, there has been some reshuffling of my normal training routine, some of it major (i.e., changing weekends so that Saturday was kung fu and Sunday was a rest day, whereas before i had Saturday as a rest day and Sunday as a long workout day). although, i should note, that the possibility of symbiosis between kung fu and triathlon is as yet unproven to me, and something for which i need some more time to fully assess.
  2. continue practicing during the week outside of class: yes. this was relatively straightforward. i had to curtail practice in exchange for more recovery time as my athletic training schedule intensified, but i still managed to find time each week for kung fu practice.
  3. increase drills and sparring to improve combat applications: this is probably one of the goals with mixed results. we did do more drills and sparring, but probably not as much as necessary to really improve combat application. recently, i have been attending the lei tai training, which features more of this, so this may be rectified. but otherwise, there probably has not been as much as i think is needed.
  4. learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum: this is another one with mixed results. i did learn xiao kai men in a line. but definitely don't know it that well to understand it--at least, not to the same extent as 64 palms. i also learned the more basic mother palms. beyond that, we have gotten more qi-gong. all of which is good. but i am increasingly of the belief that i'm going to have to join some of the other beginners and schedule a xiao kai men plus basics session(s) with Sifu at some point.
  5. learn more about martial arts in general: yes. i have done this. a lot of it was random searching on the internet, and comparison with comments made by Sifu and other students in class.
  6. acquire reference materials: yes. i acquired the bagua curriculum handouts which seem to comprise the basic primer for bagua students within Sifu's school, and this has helped in understanding class content immensely. i have also acquired DVDs from Sifu's school, which while not related to bagua still provide background material regarding qi-gong and the other styles he teaches, and so provide some basis of reference in terms of what i'm learning regarding bagua relative to other Chinese martial arts and traditional medicine.
  7. figure out a long-term plan in terms of learning bagua and proceeding to other styles: definite no. this is a work in progress. and it also depends on what happens to me after graduation--for which i currently have no answer.
  8. figure out just how i should go about progressing in bagua in relation to everything else in life: who knows. i sure don't. i just keep doing the best i can, and riding out the contours of life according to whatever seems to make the most sense.

obviously, some things were accomplished more completely than others. but overall, i think progress has been good, and so encouraging. i hope to keep things going in the same direction.


my comments can probably be summarized as follows:

  • philosophy: well, i've always curious about philosophy. and i've always felt some lack of familiarity with Eastern philosophy, having had most of my exposure to Western thought. i have delved into taoism and buddhism at various times in my education, but knowing a philosophy on an academic level is very different from seeing how it manifests itself on a cultural level. learning kung fu with Sifu has given me an opportunity to see the application of taoist and buddhist thought into what is in many ways a unique expression of Chinese culture. admittedly, Jason tries to gear his class more towards practical application, and so has only infrequently discussed philosophy, but what he has offered has been very insightful--not just about kung fu, but life in general.
  • cross-over: i am starting to see more cross-over between endurance sports and kung fu. enough that i'm starting to make it a regularly recurring series cross-posted between my triathlon blog and my kung fu blog. in some ways they are very different, but in other ways they are very similar. it's been interesting to see the comparison of wisdom between the two regarding training, well-being, and personal development.
  • combat applications: we have gotten a good dose of this. but i still hold the belief from the last quarter that i am nowhere near ready to apply the lessons from class in self-defense--at least, not effectively. this is mostly because in the pressure and urgency of a fight, there's a primacy on speed and decisiveness, meaning movement that is instinctive and natural, which are things i am not confident i have right now. it's just simply going to need more practice and diligence, particularly in terms of sparring work. the lei tai training that recently begun may help with this, but i think that at some point i'm going to have to make a committed effort to start practicing with others (as opposed to solo). Sifu suggested this in class, with the comment that eventually you have to do more than learn forms to really learn and apply a martial art.
  • qi (or chi): i am getting some conception of qi, although not quite clear. i can see it as a metaphor used by Asian culture to describe certain kinds of phenomenon, much as Western societies use metaphors like kinetic and potential energy to describe physics. but i still don't sense it the way other people apparently do, especially in terms of feeling power or heat or intensification of energy in localized parts of the body (or outside of the body). i don't know if i should be, since i haven't been at this too long. i'm trying to keep an open mind about this, but i still hold a reserve of scientific skepticism. who knows. i'll just give it time.
  • qi-gong (or chi-kung): i'm pretty happy learning qi-gong. it's interesting on a number of levels: philosophically, culturally, medically. however, because of my uncertainty over qi, i'm not getting the same kind of feelings over qi-gong that others are getting--i'm not feeling any surge in energy, or feeling of energy moving in the body, or of manipulating energy outside the body. i am, however, feeling its calming effects and meditative aspects, and so i find it more of a mental process. whether this is a part of the training process remains to be seen.
  • learning: based on what others have said to me, my pace of learning is fairly rapid relative to the normal schedule for the bagua curriculum. however, i don't know if this necessarily means i'm learning things any better. my progress really depends on who i'm getting instruction and feedback from; i notice that i learn better from some people than others. in particular, i seem to learn the easiest from Sifu, Phunsak, and to some extent Kieun. i have some difficulty learning from senior students like Art and Mike in terms of physical movements, but find them excellent for qi-gong or philosophy and history. everyone else is a bit of an adventure.

objectives for the future

obviously, the main objective is to keep making progress. this means that i'm keep a number of the same goals i had from last quarter. but looking to the future--and not just the next quarter, but also longer term--i'm also forming some new ones. as a result, the list of objectives is a little different than before.

the objectives carrying from last quarter are:

  • continue attending class
  • continue practicing during the week outside of class
  • increase 2-person and multi-person drills and sparring (to improve combat application of techniques and concepts)
  • learn the more fundamental components of the curriculum
  • learn more about martial arts in general
  • acquire reference materials
the new objectives to be added to this list are:
  • find commonalities and/or mutually beneficial connections between kung fu and endurance sports
  • learn more traditional Asian medicine (e.g., qi-gong)
  • learn more cultural context of traditional Chinese martial arts (e.g., Taoist & Buddhist philosophy)

my final note is that i'm finding the class worthwhile and enjoyable. i'm happy with my choice of Sifu, the quality and manner of instruction, and the things i've been learning. enough that i'd like to maintain going and learn whatever there is to learn.

Monday, April 02, 2007

day 26: lei tai training (part 1 - 04/01/07)

  • tournament fighting
  • footwork (combat)
  • point versus general visual focus
  • closing versus separation
  • engaging versus disengaging
  • introduction
  • lei tai drills: footstepping, visual focus, 2-person circle, multi-person circle
Sifu began lei tai training this past weekend, and even though i am not going to the tournament, i decided that it would be valuable to attend the lei tai training since i thought it might supply more of the combat application of what we've learned in bagua relative to what we've had so far. that, and i figure it is extra teaching that i can benefit from and should take advantage of.

in contrast to the normal bagua class, which meets for 3 (or more) hours on Saturday, lei training is being held every other week, and from 8-10am on Sundays. still, it is a pretty intensive seminar directed specifically at preparing students for full-contact tournament fighting. as a result, i figured each session deserves listing under its own day in this blog.

there were a total of 8 students today (Sunday)--4 bagua (me, Jonathan, Richard, and Jay) and 4 baji (Simon, Charles, Tommy, and Jonathan). Phunsak was also present, but i think he's partly acting as a teaching assistant for both bagua and baji. out of the group, only 4 said they were actually going to the lei tai tournament in July (the Jonathan studying baji, Charles, Richard, and Phunsak).


Sifu began the session with a brief overview of lei tai. the tournament consists of matches of 3 rounds lasting 2 minutes each. matches are within a square ring comprised of a padded mat. points are awarded by a panel of judges for strikes and throws. some strikes are illegal: strikes to the knee and inside of the legs, as well as to the back of the head and back of the neck. participants wear helmets (with facemasks) and gloves that leave the fingers exposed (meaning grasping is still difficult).

Sifu emphasized that we should treat tournament fighting as a learning experience, and a way to get better insight as to 1) our actual level of skill, and 2) what is actually important in applying martial arts techniques in combat. he repeated his points from Saturday class that it should not be seen as a test of actual combat skills, since tournament fighting is a controlled environment whereas real fighting has no rules.

Phunsak shared his experience with the tournament, saying that he learned that the most crucial things in fighting are 1) speed and 2) stamina. in addition, he pointed out that the lei tai fighting poses challenges in that the helmet restricts peripheral vision and the gloves prevent grasping. having said that, he said it clarified for him a lot about exactly what is really relevant in learning techniques for self-defense, since it allowed him to personally see what he needed to do to use techniques in a full-contact fight.

with this said, Sifu broke us up into 2 separate groups: bagua and baji. eventually, we'll be sparring against each other. but for now, Sifu wants the groups to work separately.

for the bagua group, Sifu identified a number of things he wanted us to focus on:


Sifu said that in bagua it was crucial to have good footwork. in bagua, footwork enables a practitioner to evade an opponent's strike and find positions to attack them. Phunsak agreed, saying that the footwork was critical in being able to get behind an opponent, or being able to open their gates.

Sifu went on to point out that while much of what we have been doing is in a line or circle, that we need to understand that this isn't necessarily the same in combat. in fact, it's anything but. bagua footwork, in combat, is about changing directions--any direction, meaning anything including or excluding lines or circles. circle walking is just a training device, just like line work or triangle or square walking, to help students learn 1) how to perform techniques in different directions and 2) move around an opponent in a way that places students in the most advantageous positions.

to apply bagua with any proficiency, we need to be able to apply our footwork instinctively and naturally, without conscious thought. enough that we don't have to look at the ground or think about where we are placing our feet, but instead keeping our attention on our opponent.

this was a bit of a revelation to me. i had read on various bagua sources on the internet that real combat using bagua did not involve a circle. but this is the first time that i found out that bagua techniques in combat are supposed to be random, and not limited by concepts of circles (or lines or triangles or squares...). this is not something that i had understood from normal Saturday class.


Sifu said we need to understand and become skilled at switching between point and general focus. he referred to this as being able to distinguish between focus on specific parts of our opponent (e.g., their hands) versus being able to observe our opponent's entire body while simultaneously seeing our surroundings.

from what i was able to gather, point focus is dangerous, because it can essentially lead to target fixation, wherein we lock our attention on just 1 element of our opponent and thereby become oblivious to other dangers from different directions (e.g., a hook, an uppercut, a roundhouse, or even other opponents). general focus, in contrast, allows us to see actions by any part of the opponent's body, and also allows us to notice actions and components of our surroundings.

separation and engaging

Sifu noted that we have to be able to instantaneously shift between closing to engage an opponent versus separating to disengage. this prevents the opponent from easily grappling or striking. but it requires that we develop a sense of distance between us and an opponent--particularly a sense of distance in terms of the opponent's reach. a sense of separation allows us to determine how to move within and outside an opponent's reach. it also allows us to know just how close we need to be to engage them and how far we need to be to disengage them.

lei tai drills

today's agenda was centered on preparation drills. some of them we had done before in class, others were new.


this is the same drill we have done before in class, with people lining up and taking turns to face off against the lead person. the lead person is supposed to avoid getting their feet stepped on, while each person taking a turn is suppose to try and step on the lead's feet. after some defined time, the next person in line takes a turn. when all the people in line have had a turn, the lead person then assumes a position at the end of the line and the next place in line becomes the lead.
this time, Sifu emphasized that we should try to do the folllowing:

  • look at the opponent, not at our feet
  • try to maintain general focus, not point focus on our opponent
  • use bagua footwork (ko and bai, and maneuvering in random directions in a random pace)
visual focus

this was a solo drill. Sifu ordered us to walk individually in circles, with our eyes focused towards the inside of the circle. however, he made it clear that we needed to avoid point focus and hold general focus, so that we could become aware of people and things in our peripheral vision.

2-person circle

this was a drill done with a partner, walking the circle facing each other. Sifu had us do a number of things in the circle:
  • close distance every time we heard the command "touch," so that our guard hands made contact, and then separate every time we heard the command "separate," so that our guard hands were about a foot apart.
  • change direction every time we heard the command "change"
  • avoid point focus and target fixation on our partner (especially their hand), but instead try to gain awareness of their entire body, the surroundings, and our relative positions

multi-person circle

this was a drill done with all of us walking the circle. here, Sifu instructed us to do the following:

  • on the command "engage," 1 of us was to cross the circle and engage another person, so that we walked a 2-person circle as everyone else maintained the larger circle. the engaged partners would then separate and return to the circle. Sifu said the key was to engage, separate, and re-enter the circle smoothly. Sifu at first had us engage 1 person, and then 2 people.
  • on the command "change," change the direction of the circle.

the drills took the bulk of the time, and turned out to be quite intensive. i think people were getting tired near the end--which either is a reflection of the difficulty level of the workouts, or a reflection of our conditioning.

we finished with Sifu reminding us that the next lei tai training session would be in 2 weeks. i'm going to miss this, since i'll be at Ironman. i'll have to ask Phunsak to fill me in, and then catch the next session after.

day 25: bagua qi-gong & circle-walking - 8th palm change

  • history (ancient, traditional, wushu/modern)
  • forms, basic principles, applications
  • qi-gong and jing, chi, shen
  • transitions
  • bagua qi-gong (level 1 and level 2: lion, snake, bear, dragon, big bird)
  • 8th palm change
today began very, very, very...very slow. i woke up feeling slow. i had breakfast feeling slow. i read my e-mail and newspaper slow. i went to the grocery store and mailbox slow. and then i drove to class slow. needless to say, i warmed up slow. in short, i was slow...the kind of slow you get waking up on a misty morning in the middle of a forest with no one around--the kind of place i sometimes think i need to be.

given how i was feeling, i decided to show up early and give myself time to get up to speed. i ended up using almost a full 30 minutes just to stretch, walk around, drink tea, and get my mind back to reality. i did level 1 qi-gong, which seemed to help. but i was interrupted by the arrival of an ambulance and police cruiser--apparently, there'd been a serious accident at the basketball court involving an injury, with the unfortunate victim being strapped into a gurney and put into an ambulance.

the ambulance and cruiser drove away just in time for the arrival of Charles (a baji student), Laura, and Phunsak. Phunsak showed us a copy of the book Chinese Martial Arts Manuals (i have this, and it's a pretty decent survey of the classic manuals in Chinese martial arts history). Sifu arrived as we were going through the photos in the book, and took a few minutes to peruse the images with us and comment on his personal assessment of some of the manuals.

we waited for other students to arrive. Charles was eventually joined by a panoply of baji students: his fellow beginners (Simon, Tommy, and Siwann-da) and a range of more advanced disciples (Jonathan, Andrew?, James). the bagua group was pretty small this morning, with just me, Laura, and Phunsak to start.

Sifu instructed Phunsak to lead everyone through the 1-hand and 2-hand drills while he went to start the baji students. as we did these, we were joined by Ronald, Lee, Art, and Jay (the new student).

xiao kai men and transitions

the hand drills concluded pretty quickly. while everyone took a break, i had a conversation with Phunsak about the lei tai training Sifu was holding starting Sunday. i was basically interested in finding out how useful it would be for someone not actually going to the tournament (July, in Baltimore) and just what Sifu was going to cover.

he said that it was more intensive and focused on tournament fighting, and so good in the sense that it helped people learn more about using bagua. in particular, regarding what Sifu was going to teach in the Sunday morning sessions, he said Jason was going to work on footwork, as well as conditioning (speed and stamina), along with techniques relevant for the tournament. Phunsak then demonstrated some of the footwork drills, showing how he mixed and matched bagua techniques in line, triangle, square, and circle.

i told Phunsak that i still wasn't clear on just how bagua techniques could be mixed in a triangle or square (i've only seen--and done--things in a line or circle). he did an example of the square, using xiao kai men.

this was something i hadn't seen before. i thought i'd gotten a feel for how it was done in the circle, albeit only in a rudimentary fashion. but from what Phunsak showed, my attention had been on the wrong thing--the important point in mixing techniques isn't the techniques themselves, but the transitions between them, since this is what determines the practitioner's control, fluidity of motion, speed, and sets up their next technique. it also allows the techniques to be applied in any direction, regardless of whether a person is acting on a line, circle, triangle, or square. i remember Art had mentioned the critical nature of the transitions at some point in the past, but i didn't really understand the meaning of what he was saying until now.

of course, having understood this, the issue is now figuring it out how to do it. i'm guessing this may be something that will be covered in the lei tai training.


Sifu soon came back. he ordered everybody to come in close, since he wanted to talk for a little bit about the history of Chinese martial arts and its organization by historians into 3 major periods: ancient, traditional, and modern. he said that in conceptualizing these periods, it was useful to compare them based on their view of forms, basics, and applications.

the ancient period of Chinese martial arts is generally conceived as the time before the advent of cannons and firearms, and when martial arts was conceived almost exclusively as a military necessity, with armies placing a primacy on producing skilled soldiers. as a result, there was little interest in aspects of martial arts that did not accentuate a soldier's skill on the battlefield. Sifu states that this meant a firm grounding in basics, in terms of learning a core of fundamental techniques. it also meant a strong emphasis on applications, with practitioners aiming to use the techniques they learned in real combat situations. however, it meant little development of forms, which were seen as having little relevance in helping soldiers engage enemies.

the traditional period is taken as the era following the introduction of cannons and firearms and prior to the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century. according to Sifu, during this time the value of martial arts on the battlefield had fallen to the power of bullets and artillery. consequently, armies no longer had as much central interest in their training to soldiers, leaving martial arts to be preserved by citizen populations who took it as a form of physical conditioning and street-level self-defense. this gave rise to an encouragement of forms practice. while there was still a strong grounding in learning basics, there was nonetheless a lowering of focus on combat applications. coincidentally, however, historians perceive this as the time when Chinese martial arts had its great surge in the number of fighting styles and systems.

the modern period--what Sifu also labeled as the wu shu period--is essentially the time since the fall of the Qing dynasty, and definitely the time since the Communist Revolution in China. Sifu said that during this time, Chinese martial arts has largely become a sport, with wu shu tournaments featuring individual performances and judges, and full-contact tournaments subject to rules and referees. because of the nature of sporting events, there is a strong interest in teaching forms but much less desire to preserve martial basics or teaching combat applications, since the focus is no longer on fighting but rather on gaining points for a prize.

Sifu said that tracing the history of martial arts is admittedly difficult, since so much knowledge has been lost and there is very little documentation recording the past. because of this, historians who argue that there is no real proof that martial arts of ancient or traditional times were more effective than modern ones have some validity to their points. in addition, those historians who claim that there is very little, if any, connection between modern martial arts and historical ones also make strong points. all of this is in part why so much of current martial arts teaching is questionable in terms of self-defense and combat application.

having said this, however, Sifu insisted that self-defense and combat applications to Chinese martial arts still exist and can still be found. he argued that this is because of forms. forms, while not actually a good tool for teaching fighting skill, were still derived from actual martial techniques and were intended as a mechanism through which those techniques could be taught and learned. many Chinese martial arts use forms that have been preserved since ancient and traditional times. in essence, forms are a type of oral history that have preserved aspects of the original combat components of Chinese martial arts. hence, students trying to follow the trail of self-defense and fighting skill can still find it by learning the combat applications of the forms--they just have to learn from instructors who actually understand the combat applications of the techniques in the forms.

Jason concluded this with several points:
  1. tournament fighting is useful in gaining experience applying martial arts techniques, and is about as close a setting to real fighting that you can get without actually being in real fighting
  2. tournament fighting is not real fighting. real fighting is what soldiers do. tournament fighting is about rules and limiting "dirty" techniques. real fighting has no rules and no "dirty" techniques--all techniques are good techniques. tournament fighting finishes with all parties living for another day. real fighting is about the winner living and the loser dying.
  3. wu shu martial arts is of questionable use in real fighting. to become better at fighting, a person needs experience against opponents in as realistic settings as possible. wu shu is more about performance in solo environments.

following the commentary about history, Sifu had us all line up for qi-gong. he promised that we'd get through level 2 qi-gong before i left for Ironman Arizona (which is April 15). we went through level 1, reviewed the first 2 level 2 exercises from last week (bear and snake), and then worked on the next 3 level 2 exercises (bear, dragon, and big bird). the bear stance is for northeast, dragon for east, and big bird is for southeast.

Sifu made the following comments about bear, dragon, and big bird:
  • northeast, bear--here, the projection of force is down. we need to visualize that we gather chi from the earth as we raise our hands to shoulder-level (following the level 1 exercise). we then turn until our shoulders face southwest and release the chi downwards as we lower our hands into the bear stance.
  • east, dragon--dragon follows from the level 1 position of elbows drawn into the rib cage. Sifu said that we should draw in qi to the liver in level 1, breathing in as the elbows are drawn in. from there, we hold our breath and then turn at the waist. when our shoulders are 90 degrees from east, we should simultaneously raise our hands into the dragon stance and breath out, continuing the turn until our shoulders face west.
  • southeast, big bird--this is listed in the bagua curriculum materials as "phoenix." following level 1, our place our hands in front of us as if they are circling a tree. again, we hold our breath and turn at the waist, and when our shoulders are 90 degrees from southeast, we simultaneously reach our hands out into big bird and breath out, following the turn until our shoulders face northwest.
i should note that i need to correct my comments about qi-gong and jing chi shen from last week (reference day 24). i asked Sifu about this over lunch, and he said that bagua qi-gong is meant to help practitioners develop sensitivity and control over chi. as a result, it is not so much connected to jing or shen but rather on simply qi (i use the spellings qi and chi interchangeably).

in addition, he offered an engineering analogy (Jason is by profession an engineer) to help me better understand jing chi shen. basically, jing chi shen is analogous to an electrical wire. jing is the embodiment (i.e., physical manifestation) of qi, and so can be seen as being like the physical wire. chi is energy, and thus is the electricity flowing through the wire. shen is the projection of chi, and hence is akin to the electro-magnetic field generated by electricity flowing through a conductive wire. this clarified jing chi shen greatly, and helped me see how qi-gong really is focused primarily on chi itself, although it does thereby help improve skills over jing chi shen overall.

8th palm change

after qi-gong, Sifu instructed us to work on circle walking with the 8th palm change. he had us perform the 8th palm change in a line, and then ordered Phunsak to guide us through it while he went back to work with the baji students.

continuing my practice from previous weeks, i had taken the liberty of trying to perform the 8th palm change in the circle during my practice sessions since the last class. however, i found that there were some things that i had not been aware of.

in particular, Phunsak showed that the 8th palm change involves a turn transitioning out of the initial big bird spreads its wings so that the practitioner performs the subsequent phoenix spreads its wings pointing out of the circle. from there, the next techniques (lion pounces on the ball, lion rolls the ball, and lion embraces the ball) are performed pointing out of the circle, until the practitioner moves into wipe out an army of 10,000 men, whereupon the footwork is supposed to be placed so that the technique finishes along the circle once again.

Phunsak noted that Sifu has taught the 8th palm change 3 different ways, with 1 variation having phoenix spreads its wings pointing along the circle and another variation having phoenix spreads its wings pointing to the inside of the circle. in addition, Phunsak commented that Sifu has shown different ways to finish the 8th palm change. for this iteration of the curriculum, however, Phunsak said that we are performing the palm change with phoenix pointing out of the circle and the final techniques being hide the flowers beneath the leaves (also apparently known as leaf covers summer flower), single goose leaves the flock, and lean against the horse and ask for directions.

beyond this, Phunsak advised me to correct the following:
  • removing the steps--i was performing the transition from big bird to phoenix following the numbered steps we'd learned from previous classes. Phunsak said that the palm change is actually supposed to be smooth and flowing, and so i needed to remove the count of steps.
  • throwing weight--again, with big bird and phoenix, i've apparently been trying to control the swinging of the arms. Phunsak said this removes power from the techniques, and that i should just let the arms move freely in their circular patterns, so that the weight of the arms are free to create power from the generation of centripetal forces.
we ended up practicing circle walking with the 8th palm change for awhile. being the most recent palm change, it was the one that i had practiced the least, and so was the one that i continued (and continue) to find awkward. today, i managed to do it enough that i started to feel things becoming much more fluid and natural--at least, enough that i could start to feel more speed and strength in the techniques. we'll have to see if that's really the case.

Sifu returned after dismissing the baji students. he reminded us again of the lei tai training, which he said commenced tomorrow (Sunday) and would run every other Sunday until the lei tai tournament in July. he said that anybody was welcome to try the training, and that we would all benefit from it. i recall him saying the fee for the lei tai training would be $50 per month, although Phunsak said he hadn't heard that. i was still undecided about it (since Ironman is now only 2 weeks away, and the race and follow-up recovery time means i'd likely miss enough of the lei tai training to fall too far behind to catch up to everyone else). Sifu told me to think about it. i ultimately chose to hold the decision off until morning.

with that, class ended and Sifu dismissed us for the day.