Wednesday, June 27, 2007

day 42: lei tai training (part 6 - 6/24/07)


  • randomness
  • footwork
  • guard


  • sparring
we had a more normal turnout this morning, with a total of 4 baji students and 3 bagua students. Kieun made an impromptu appearance, and joined the bagua group.

Sifu divided us, and told the bagua students to begin light sparring similar to last week, but with 1-minute rounds. he then worked with the baji students while Phunsak led the bagua students.

Phunsak, Richard, and Kieun had all brought their fighting equipment this morning, which included mouthguards, helmet, gloves, rib protectors, and punching shield. Richard and Phunsak each had multiple gloves and helmets, so we were able to share.

between the 4 of us, we did a round-robin session of light sparring. in the beginning, we went rounds of 1 minute, but after awhile we decided to go to 2 minutes to make things more strenuous. we kept going, so that each person had the chance to have multiple rounds against each of the other people.

following from last week, i made a concentrated effort this time to increase the randomness of my movements, with constant changes in stride length, direction, and speed, as well as changes in hand position, targeting, and speed. i also made sure that my footwork was more decisive, and also more reflective of bagua principles of setting me up at angles to the opponent (or behind them altogether). in addition, i made it a point to keep a guard hand up to protect my head so that it wasn't so exposed, as well as being mindful of attacks to my midsection.

things went a little better than last week, although i noticed that much of my time was spent on defensive moves, and that i wasn't able to sustain offensive attacks (or even launch them) as easily as i would have liked. i think that the experience of light sparring from last week was a help, since things didn't seem so fast or confused this time, and i was actually able to get a greater sense of dispassion from the context of the fight itself and spend more time observing my opponent--i found it possible this week to actually get a feel for their habits and patterns of attack and defense.

light sparring is not as intensive or as difficult as full-contact full-speed sparring, but i'm finding it a useful stage in training, since it's letting me get a feel for the rhythm of fighting and escalate my speed, reflexes, and sense of spacing in a way that is much more intuitive and relevant for facing opponents. in addition, it's helping get a better sense of just how the techniques we've been learning can be applied. i don't think i would be able to make the learning curve as easily if we had gone directly to full-contact work. with light sparring, at least i can adjust a little more quickly and get some orientation to the context of fighting without risking too much pain and suffering.

near the end of the session, Sifu called the groups together and had us spar each other, so that the students of each style could get a feel for facing students of a different style. only 2 of the baji students could spar, since 2 were injured. i ended up taking videos of the other 2 sparring, since i figured it would help them learn from the sparring sessions by letting them see themselves fighting. we ended up having some additional injuries (Richard got a black eye, and Charles--one of the baji students--got scratched on his eyeball).

apart from that, things went well, and i think it was pretty constructive. we finished the day after the final 2 light sparring sessions, with the baji students (Simon and Charles) each facing Phunsak, who treated them easily to help their training.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

day 41: drills & palm change 5, side A & B

  • balance
  • palm change 5 (side A & side B)
  • 2-person drill, palm change 5
i arrived somewhat later than i usually do today, but was somewhat relieved to find that no one else at the park apart from Jay (a new student). we spent some time discussing the curriculum, since he isn't able to attend class on a regular basis and has to take private lessons with Sifu. Kieun came in a few minutes later, and all of us went through the bagua stances.

Phunsak and a number of the jian shu students had driven in by this point, and Kieun suggested we do tantui, since we hadn't done it in some time. Phunsak led this portion. i ended up stepping having to slow down and observe after the 3rd line, since i'm only really comfortable with the 1st 3.

palm change 5 (side A & B)

Sifu arrived and called class into session. he instructed Phunsak to lead us through a review of palm change 5, side A, and then through an introduction through palm change 5, side B. he then went to start the baji students with their lesson plan.

the review of palm change 5 was largely straightforward, although this time there were a number of corrections i found necessary to make in light of some of the hand-drill review we've been doing over the past week. in particular, i was much more aware of the nature of the hand and arm movements this time, as well as more aware of the synchronization of ko-bu and bai-bu footwork progressing between techniques.

in addition, there was also some additional commentary from Phunsak, resulting largely from discussions between him, Kieun, and John Eagles regarding the proper form. apparently, there have been different versions of palm change 5 taught in the past, and the 3 of them took several moments sorting out the distinctions between then and today, and whether those distinctions were the result of faulty memory or simply a different way of doing the palm change.

Phunsak also gave some more in-depth points regarding the stances. he noted that each technique finishes with a correlating lower body stance:
  • move the mountain and reverse the sea : 60/40
  • unicorn turns its body : cat stance
  • fairy liu-hai teases the toad : bow-and-arrow
  • divert and grab by the collar : 60/40
following this, we took a break, during which time Phunsak helped some of us clean up particular points in the palm change. for me, this was in the initial transition, particularly in the timing of the hands, arms, and legs going from the opening of lion opens its mouth through to white snake spits out its tongue. it turned out that i had been doing move the mountain and reverse the sea wrong, and had to break down the sequence of techniques to get this incorporated back into the form.

after this we proceeded to palm change 5, side B. palm change 5 is a very long palm change, and much longer than some of the others (relative to palm change 1, for example). i recall that side A had taken quite some time to figure out, and it turned out that side B was no different.

Phunsak demonstrated side B a number of times, and then at Kieun's suggestion separated it into 4 different sections of 3 counts each. this helped somewhat, although side B is something particularly tricky due in no small part to its use of a series of 360-degree turns in which the practitioner is supposed to end up facing in the opposite direction. we practiced side B starting purely from the left side, and i thought i was making sense of it until we started doing it starting from the right side, at which point i lost track of the sequence and orientation of the techniques again.

you can check out the Youtube videos of palm change 5 sides A & B:

palm change 5, side A:

the direct link is:

palm change 5, side B:

the direct link is:

we worked on this for a while. we eventually took a break, although a good number of people kept practicing side B, since it is something that is going to need some time to figure out and remember.

2-person drill, palm change 5

i kind of dreaded this.

palm change 5 is long. and it takes a lot to remember it. and to have 2 sides (A and B) to remember really makes things complicated...especially since 2-person forms for each palm change are hard enough on their own without the addition of more techniques.

we began by organizing ourselves into 2 lines again of opposing sides (A v. B). Phunsak said we'd just focus on doing the first 4 moves of the 2-person form for today, so that everyone could concentrate on just learning the palm change.

as simple as this sounds, it ended up consuming the rest of class. i think a lot of it was people were still acquainting themselves to palm change 5 side B, and so were not quite comfortable in applying it with a partner in the 2-person form.

Phunsak and Sifu (who had returned by this time) said that despite the discomfort, it was still good to proceed with learning the 2-person form for the palm change, since it helps to show the application of the technique and makes it more clear as to their purpose. this assists memorization of the techniques and demonstrates the proper form for each one.

we ended the day with this, leaving the remainder of the 2-person form for next week. i think we all finished class with quite a bit to figure out and remember. we finished class and went to the customary post-class lunch.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

day 40: lei tei training (part 5 - 6/17/07)

  • footwork
  • guard
  • spacing
  • speed
  • sparring
the lei tai session was as little bit shorter today (Sunday), since Phunsak was absent and Sifu had his wife's birthday. in addition, class was quite a bit smaller, with only 4 students (most of the baji students were missing, making only 3 bagua students and 1 baji student).

Sifu said this didn't matter, since today was scheduled light sparring sessions. he said that the tournament was now only a month away, and that it was time to start commencing light sparring. light sparring is less than full contact, with opponents not seeking to launch full-scale assaults, but rather engaging each other enough to make contact with blows. it is, however, still painful and capable of resulting in injuries.

the normal lei tai rounds are 90 seconds. Sifu said that light sparring is less intense than full-contact, and so light sparring rounds need to be longer to simulate the conditions of fatigue and exertion produced from full-contact fighting. for today, we limited the rounds to 2 minutes, although Sifu said that in the past he's had light sparring rounds going as long as 5 minutes. he recommended that we do this to build up the fitness levels required for full-contact matches.

we set up the light-sparring in a round-robin series, so that between the 4 of us each person had the opportunity to have 1 round against each of the other 3 people (i.e., each of us got to participate in 3 rounds).

Sifu instructed us on how to bow at the beginning, what size ring (actually, a square) constituted the fighting area, and then told us that if we weren't sparring that we should be observing and gathering constructive comments on the fighting form of those who were sparring.

this was, to say the least, an eye-opening experience. Sifu and Phunsak had commented on how different it is to apply techniques within a combat situation as opposed to class instruction or practice, but there was no real way to understand what they meant until now. while not full-contact, light sparring still provides enough speed and uncertainty to give a taste of the chaos of a free-form fight.

for me, the surprise was not the physical speed--that, if anything, seemed the least of worries. what was more eye-opening was the mental speed, as well as the complexity of thoughts; within the match, you have to track your opponent's positioning, read their intent, plan a defensive method, formulate your own offensive maneuver, disguise your actions, and position yourself without making yourself vulnerable. this is in addition to managing fatigue, working with the pace of the match, estimating your opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and then exercising the reflexes to respond to their movements.

another aspect was the fact that actions are not always made alone or sequentially. in fact, they often aren't. punches, kicks, blocks, grappling are frequently launched in combinations and made simultaneous with each other. some are meant to mislead or distract your attention, others are meant as the main strike, and still others are meant as follow-up attacks or counters to your potential counter-moves. this means that there is not only speed of the actions you see, but also deception.

managing all these factors involved a lot of mental effort in terms of performing calculations quickly for a complex, dynamic scenario.

my rounds went in sequential order against Richard, Jonathan, and Jay, marking matches against progressively larger opponents. each one presented different approaches and tendencies. Richard, who has additional martial arts skills in judo and brazilian jiu-jitsu, used his shorter height to try and enter underneath me and grapple or throw me. Jonathan, with his baji and long-fist background, used his slightly greater reach to hit me from long range and then close for follow-up throws. Jay, who is taller than Jonathan and has experience in Northern Shaolin, used his range to keep me at a distance while maneuvering me into range of his kicks and subsequent punching combinations.

having never done anything of this sort before (at least not at this level...i just don't see junior high parking lot fights as being very comparable), i found myself devoting a lot of my concentration to adjusting to the environment of fighting conditions. i found myself a little unsure as to what to do on offense, and getting hit a few more times than i would have liked on defense.

following my matches, everyone--including Sifu--made their comments, which i can compile as follows:
  • footwork--Sifu said this was a big problem of mine. Phunsak had pointed it out in a previous lei tai session, but this time Sifu demonstrated what i needed to do to fix it. Sifu said the reason i kept getting hit was that my footwork was very even (with footsteps of equal distance), very rhythmic (with a constant stepping rate), and very consistent (with a constant motion along a circle). Sifu said this made me very predictable. Jay noted that this was why he was able to land so many kicks to my quads and mid-section. Sifu said to correct this i needed to change the distance of each step, adjust the rhythm from slow to fast, and think of random angles relative to the opponent. he said that this was an aspect of bagua that was not entirely consistent with the forms (i.e., that in forms there may be even, rhythmic, and circular stepping, but that in fighting everything needed to be random)
  • guard--Jay pointed this out, and Sifu concurred: my guard was too low, leaving my head exposed for strikes. i recognized this, as there was 1 moment in the match against Jonathan when he would have been able to connect with a full roundhouse hay-maker to my head if he'd followed through...and which he didn't because it was a light sparring session. i need to keep my hands up.
  • spacing--Sifu, Richard, and Jay all pointed this out to me. my spacing is still inconsistent. Jay noted i kept following my instincts to step away from a kick, which was dangerous since it sometimes actually placed me in the optimum sweet spot of the kick. Richard noted that i needed to understand spacing relative to smaller versus larger opponents--against smaller ones, you can exercise greater spacing to keep them at a distance and use your reach to your advantage, while against larger ones you need to get past their reach and try to close the distance. Sifu said that i needed to vary my spacing, and randomly switch between closing versus retreating, attacking versus defending, sliding sideways versus shifting vertically.
  • speed--Sifu noted this as well, that i needed greater speed in my footwork. he actually said we all needed this...and not just speed, but speed over a duration of time (as in an entire round). he said sometimes you'll encounter an opponent who can maintain high intensity of an extended period of time, and we need to be ready.
Sifu also made some additional points in general about the nature of martial arts:
  • form versus fighting--Sifu said that when he was younger, he had thought forms were near-useless, because they frequently were nothing close to the types of movements performed in combat. he said, however, that as he became older he adjusted his opinion, and saw that forms are not meant to teach fighting, but more to serve as a training tool to help remember techniques and recognize their principles. as a result, forms were expected to be fixed in terms of their movements, but they should always be accompanied by the further expectation that they could (and should) be modified to match the conditions in a fight
  • quantity versus quality--Sifu said that the speed and uncertainty of a fight placed a premium on being able to perform techniques quickly and effectively. this means quality of technique. he said that this is why--if given the choice between knowing many techniques poorly versus a few techniques well--it is better to know a few techniques well.
  • experience--Sifu said that seeing this was a first time in sparring for some of us, that we were having to adjust to a new experience along a steep learning curve. he said this is natural. he warned that the only way to really train for fighting is to get experience in fighting. solo practice is not enough, and forms are not enough. he said that to really use a martial art as a fighting art, we have to learn to use it in a fight.
  • sixth sense--Sifu said that one of the most important elements in a fight is being able to adjust your attention from a point to general awareness. he said concentrating on a point is dangerous, because it allows the opponent to surprise you with an attack from another angle. on the other hand, you don't want to have too general a focus, since it allows you to pick up distractions leading you away from the fight. Sifu said that we need to acquire the skill frequently displayed by swordfighters: the 6th sense, or 3rd eye, that allows you to see and read your opponent's moves to an extent that it appears you can sense their actions before they actually happen. Sifu said we can develop this, simply by switching back and forth from focusing on a point to focusing on our peripheral vision, and then being to reconstruct the details between the 2 from memory with our eyes closed--he noted this was a technique taught to the presidential bodyguards in Taiwan.
after finishing the rounds and reviewing comments, Sifu called the day to a close and we packed up and left. he noted that we'd continue to do more sparring, since the lei tai tournament is now only a month away and we needed to develop our speed and skills. he told us the next lei tai class would be next weekend.

Monday, June 18, 2007

day 39: drills & palm change 4, side A & B

  • movement
  • 2-hand drills, moving
  • 2-person drills, palm change 4
class began somewhat spontaneously today, with a group of us arriving early and going through stances and hand drills. John Eagles served as the primary lead, taking us through stances, 1-hand drills, and then the 2-hand drills. we finished just as Sifu arrived.

2-hand drills, moving

Sifu started us with the hand drills again, with the difference being that he observed us as a group and made individual corrections as we went through the list of 2-hand drills:
  • front (left & right)
  • side (left & right)
  • hawk chasing sparrow, along front of leg (left & right)
  • hawk chasing sparrow, along back of leg (left & right)
  • rear (left & right)
once we finished these, Sifu announced that we needed to begin adding another layer of complexity to the drills: movement, as in stepping with the lower body. he proceeded to guide us through each of the 2-hand drills in concert with movement. each drill had its own respective footwork:

front (left & right)--this was connected with sideways movement along an imaginary line, such that each shift of hand (from left to right, or right to left) coincided with a step. Sifu said that the drill could be run with 1 step left for each change of hand or with 1 step right for each change of hand.
  • side (left & right)--this was synchronized with a step forward of the rear leg to the front with each change of hand, so that the drill becomes a gradual progression following an imaginary line, alternating right leg/right arm leading with left leg/left arm leading. the step forward is supposed to result with the legs in 70/30 stance, from which the lead hand can then extend with the legs going into bow-and-arrow, after which the hands change and the rear leg steps forward to 70/30 stance to begin again.
  • hawk chasing sparrow, along front of leg (left & right)--this pattern is the same with the side drills in terms of footwork, with alternating right leg/right arm leading and left leg/left arm leading progressing along a line.
  • hawk chasing sparrow, along rear of leg (left & right)--this is the same in terms of footwork as hawk chasing sparrow along the front of the leg.
  • rear (left & right)--this was matched with a circular stepping footwork following the hand by stepping backwards with the corresponding foot (e.g., if the right hand was going back, then the right foot would go heel-first and backwards in the same direction as the hand). this was actually the same movement as big serpent coils its body from the 3rd palm change, except that the hand moved in the direction of an imaginary line running left & right from the starting position (Sifu stressed that in the drill the hand uncoils in the direction of the line, while in the palm change the hand uncoils perpendicular to the line). this footwork did not lead to alternating progression along a line, but rather a back-and-forth rhythm of turning clockwise and counter-clockwise along a line.
once we finished performing the drills, Sifu instructed Phunsak to guide us through the 2-person drills for palm change 4, and then left to work with the baji students.

2-person drills, palm change 4

we proceeded to learn the 2-person drill for palm change 4 using the same method from the previous weeks, with 2 lines facing each other, so that opposing sides formed pairs with 1 partner acting as side A and the other acting as side B. we went through several iterations to allow each person to have a turn acting as side A for left & right sides, and then side B for left & right sides.

after awhile, Phunsak called a break. but a few of us kept working (i worked with Richard), since the 2-person drill proved to be much more awkward than the others.

there are a number of complicating factors for the 2-person drill for palm change 4: for side A, there is the 360-degree turn from the initial reach going into the dragon stance, followed by the forward steps of grab the yellow bird by the throat; for side B, there is scissors-kick movement of lang tsu kicks the ball which then goes into the backward steps of shiny snake coils its body. the end result is a multiplication of the various points in which spacing between the partners can be affected and changed: by differences in arm and leg length, differences in arm and leg extension, differences in stepping length, and differences in height. this made coordination between partners dramatically more difficult compared to the previous 3 palm changes.

Phunsak had warned us about this just after we had done the 3rd palm change and we had discussed the 4th, and he was right.

the 2-person drill for palm change 4 in shown the following YouTube video (from the YouTube channel for this blog: "jonathanonapath"):

if the video doesn't work, the direct link is:

Sifu came back and asked us to perform the drill in pairs in front of the class so he could critique us sequentially. Sifu pointed out a number of things:
  • i needed to extend more, and take more aggressive steps, since i tended to huddle into my stances
  • the actions of side A in the palm change is not about trying to hook side B's kicks, but simply to deflect them, and that i needed to keep my palms open
  • for side B's backwards steps of shiny snake coils its body, the hands and arms should not be seen as simply striking an opponent's grabs to the side. instead, they should be applying the principles from the hand drills of sliding along opponent's arms, trapping them, and then redirecting them.
after awhile, Sifu left us again, and asked us to continue practicing. i worked with Kieun, and he ended up making the same points as Sifu, except that he added that it was important for the 2-person set, since i actually needed to extend my actions enough that so a partner could have something to respond to for their techniques--with my curtailing for movements, i was limiting my reach and denying my partner something to work with.

Sifu eventually returned and called class to a close, and then dismissed us for the day.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 4) - technique work

it appears that i have a distinct lack of strength and flexibility in my lower back and upper legs.

this is something i've suspected in the course of the sport of triathlon, but which only became confirmed during a recent kung fu class. i've suspected it because of the bouts of lower back and quad pains i've had while swimming and cycling, particularly in terms of sustained twisting (in swimming, while in freestyle) and contraction/expansion (in cycling, especially while pedaling under stress in the aero position) inherent in both sports. it's not something i've experienced in running, which i suspect is less stressful on those body parts.

it was confirmed in the kung fu class during a series of exercises called tantui. i've done this before in class, but have not done them in awhile, and the last time i did them it was outside of formal class session and so i did not have the benefit of formal instruction. this time it was in class session and it was under closer instruction...meaning much stricter observation of form and technique. i had difficulties with this, and i could see that my difficulties were in my lower back (particularly the base of the spine, in turning, arching, or bending forward...more technically labeled torsion, concentric, and eccentric phases of motion) and the hip flexors/upper quads (again, in torsion, concentric, and eccentric phases of motion).

i mentioned this in a previous post (reference: day 38: drills & review). as i said there, i consider my back and leg problems a bit odd, since my intuition is that these are heavily used body parts in triathlon, and that the most heavily used body parts would be the most well-developed.

i know, however, that there are counter-intuitive explanations substantiated by sports medicine arguing that sometimes the most heavily used body parts are the most under-developed. this is because underdevelopment can be caused by bad habits, and bad habits can be produced by long, continued usage under conditions of fatigue--such as those experienced by heavily used body parts.

in dealing with these problems, it's become clear that the triathlon technique work i've been using to mitigate them is not working...or at least not as well as i would like or need. alone, it's just not enough. but i have found some benefits in the cross-training using the technique work of both triathlon and kung fu. in doing so, i've also perceived some ways in terms of how the 2 complement each other in producing those benefits. i'll organize this in terms of what i see myself applying from each side.

endurance sports

sports science has observed that an athlete can develop bad habits subconsciously over time, and completely unintentionally. this is because there may be weaknesses that the body will automatically compensate for without the athlete being consciously aware of them--in essence, the mind-body connection has an entire neural system that operates independent of a person's conscious state (this has to exist...there are just too many systemic activities for you to think about without a mind-body system that automatically processes them for you).

bad habits in terms of bad form are "bad" because:
  1. they contribute to repetitive use injuries. they tend to cause the body to move in ways it's not supposed to move. while the body can tolerate and recover from such actions over a limited amount of time, it can be overloaded if continued for an extended period of time. such an overload overwhelms the body's systems, and opens to door for the improper movements to produce tissue damage. as a result, repeating the same bad habits over and over again induces damage to the body.
  2. they rob the body of power by reducing efficiency. in effect, they serve as bottlenecks in the energy output process, wherein the energy a person is producing is diverted or wasted in movements that don't contribute to the intended motion. as a result, a person ends up expending more energy than otherwise necessary to accomplish a required goal, thereby reducing their performance.
  3. they reduce or prevent flexibility and strength. they allow deficiencies in strength and flexibility of certain body parts to be masked by "compensators" (i.e., other body parts). as a result, the under-developed body parts are never worked and never incited to grow, but instead allowed to remain or further become under-developed. this works for short periods of time, but require movements which the body was not meant to do, compounding the rise in repetitive use injuries and reduction of power efficiency.
this is partly why there is so much time spend on technique work--even for advanced athletes (especially for advanced athletes), because the only way to ensure good habits and prevent bad ones is to exercise the neural pathways so that muscle memory is strengthened to follow proper motion. technique work is exercise that focuses less on conditioning and more on acclimating the body and mind to maintaining proper form in physical movements. in other words, they are training the body and mind so that the body moves in ways it was meant to move without conscious effort of the mind. this is, in essence, "good" habits in terms of "good" form.

some coaches i have had actually required a certain amount of technique work in every workout--and at various stages of the session (for warm-up, when you're fatigued, etc.), so that the mind-body connections were constantly stimulated and forced to adapt to changing conditions. for sports (including triathlon), technique work is crucial, and not something to be ignored. cheating on technique is perilous, particularly over long-distance races where even minute errors invariably sum up over extended periods of time to significant impacts on power production, energy consumption, and injury causation--all of which affect the only prime criteria that every athlete cares about: performance.

just to show you how much importance is given to technique in triathlon, you can reference the following selection of introductory sites:

kung fu

kung fu is similar to endurance sports in the concerns over power generation and energy efficiency. i think that most kung fu practitioners are familiar with these subjects, as they are some of the fundamental components of kung fu. the difference, obviously, is in purpose, with endurance sports directing power and energy towards propulsion and kung fu directing it towards inflicting damage on an opponent (arguments can be made for health, but i put this more in the realm of medicine).

as a result, kung fu has as great an emphasis on proper form and technique work as sports, with the same belief that it is as important for advanced practitioners in kung fu as it is for advanced athletes in sports. i perceive the same amount of attention being given in kung fu for proper form and regular technique work, with the same goal of acclimating students to developing good habits, wherein the body moves in ways it was meant to move without conscious effort of the mind. apart from the need to prevent self-injury, promote power generation, and preserve flexibility and strength, there's also the understanding that there is no time to consciously think about actions within the chaos of a fight.

part of the technique work in kung fu is performing exercises which promote good form. while this can be done in the process of learning a particular kung fu style, some schools hold to a philosophy of foundational exercises that teach fundamental movements considered to be good habits crucial for development in any style. my school is one of these. it follows a curriculum held by the Wutan Hall, which uses for its foundational exercises something called tantui.

i wrote a previous post covering tantui (reference: cosi fan tantui), which has an explanation and video examples of tantui. tantui is part of an old (to some, some of the oldest) Chinese styles of kung fu commonly referred to as long fist (or chang quan). in Wutan, long fist is considered very important in terms of technique work. from what i've seen, in terms of technique work it is considered as important to kung fu as technique work is considered important to sports.

you can compare the level of importance by referencing the following introductory websites:
cross-training between endurance sports and kung fu

as different as the 2 sides are in terms of the exercises done for technique work, i've been finding them complementary, particularly for my lower back and hip flexors/upper quads. the combination of the 2 seems to be producing a higher level of both flexibility and strength--both of which are desireable and necessary in athletics--than was occurring with just triathlon-specific technique exercises alone.

as similar as they are in terms of emphasizing technique work, endurance sports and kung fu are different in terms of the content of the technique work. this is may appear self-evident simply from the differing natures of the 2 subjects, but the substance of the difference is what makes the each area's manner of technique work complementary.

the approaches as different

while similar in purpose of eliminating bad habits and bad form and then encouraging good habits and good form, endurance sports and kung fu are different in their approaches in a way that is indicative of the differences in each side's underlying perspectives.

endurance sports utilizes technique work that is narrow in focus. as is hinted at by the general introductory links above, endurance sports--like so much of Western sports--follows sports science methodologies borrowed from Western science. this entails analysis within which a complex phenomenon is broken down into discrete, identifiable, and recognizably basic steps. to borrow a term from quantum physics, this means "quantizing" subjects, so that they are seen as a combination of many fundamental components.

from a sports perspective, the belief is that this makes it easier to identify problems and easier to fix them by correcting each one individually, since doing so allows full concentration and dedication of resources to a specific point of weakness. applied sequentially to a larger problem, the theory is that fixing fundamental quanta individually will equal fixing them collectively, with the collective being the equivalent (or at least, a near approximation) of the larger problem.

this is why sports technique work features a wide range of prescriptive exercises, each one dedicated to developing one particular aspect of an identified problem. in particular, there are exercises for each permutation of possible combinations of factors involving strengthening the concentric or eccentric phases of contraction, for the muscles or connective tissue during such phases of contraction, for different speeds and different ranges, and for specific sports purposes.

in contrast to endurance sports, kung fu adopts a more holistic approach. while still matching sports methodologies of targeting specific problems, kung fu responds to those problems not by quantizing them into elementary components and then applying prescriptive exercises matching each of those components, but rather by applying larger-scale integrative activities that deal with a problem as a whole.

the underlying perspective is that a particular problem often has more than 1 cause, and that these various causes may not be readily identifiable or intuitively obvious on an individual basis. as a result, true resolution of a particular problem does not necessarily lie in quantizing it into discrete components, but rather by providing solutions with a systemic approach that deals with the entire body. the theory is that by applying a larger-scale, systemic solution, treatment will reach both identified and unidentified--as well as intuitive and counter-intuitive--sources of problems, generating better chances of resolving problems.

this is expressed in exercises like tantui, which while considered basic and fundamental in terms of teaching movements that form the groundwork of many kung fu styles, is still composed of a wide range of complex, inter-related movements. the nature of such exercises is to mitigate a problem by applying a holistic solution which treats its known and unknown causes.

and this, to me, is probably the major distinction between the 2 approaches to technique work. sports, following Western science methodologies, assumes that all problems can be accurately modeled, and that all causes of a particular problem can be identified. which is why it asserts a prescriptive model calling for quantized solutions targeting individually quantized causes, since this allows the efficiencies of "asymmetric" confrontation (which asserts that it resolution is faster when overwhelming effort is focused on each quanta in sequential order).

in contrast, kung fu, following traditional Eastern methodologies, assumes that problems are not always readily modeled, and that there is always a possibility of unaccounted causes for particular problems. from a traditional Eastern perspective, Western science's "asymmetric" treatments of quantized causes can become inefficient in dealing with unaccounted causes, since it then involves in a time-intensive resource-consuming sequential chase of one newly discovered cause after another. this is why traditional Eastern methodologies utilize more holistic approaches encompassing problems as an integrated whole, since it increases the chances of catching unknown causes and improves efficiency by treating them all at the same time.

approaches as complementary

i see these different approaches as being complementary.

to begin, in terms of dealing with the problems posed by bad habits of bad form, i'm finding that kung fu technique work--like tantui--works the body and mind in ways that typical endurance sports technique exercises do not. in particular, the kung fu exercises provide a very complex array of physical movements which do the following:
  • it forces the body to move in unfamiliar ways, enticing development of new neural-motor connections to improve coordination
  • it forces the body to utilize a wide range of body parts in synchronicity and in different combinations, providing systemic stimulation inducing more widespread growth or regeneration
i'm finding the result of this is development and growth (of body and mind, both individually and together) that was not occurring with the assortment of sports technique exercises i was used to applying.

this is not to discredit sports science--it is effective, and i have always had results with its methods. but i am asserting that kung fu provides an additional option for technique work that can help those already known and used by sports science.

in addition, adopting a different approach, i think it helps to understand just what the more holistic, broad-range kung fu exercises like tantui are doing in terms of the perspectives of sports science methodologies. that is, as much as kung fu exercises can be accepted as addressing problems in ways sports exercises can't, it would still help to learn and apply kung fu exercises like tantui if there was some understanding of just how and why they work on a quantized, constituent component level.

the temptation in kung fu is to think that because an exercise seems to solve some issue of repetitive motion injury, power generation, or energy efficiency, then that is enough and there is no further need to question why or how the exercise works to solve such issues. but understanding is important, because it identifies the connections between the exercises and the issues, and so indicates just what parts of the exercises is dealing with with what aspects of a given problem. this enables recognition of just what facets of the exercises are important for what kinds of problems, and so just what about them should be stressed and emphasized --as well as when they should be stressed and emphasized--in responding to specific problems. this would mean mean better development and improved applications of the exercises.

in essence, this asserts that the sports science method of quantization can provide kung fu with another way of learning and applying kung fu exercises (like tantui) that can supplement its traditional Eastern approaches.

i can summarize the above by describing the complementary nature this way: there seems to be a greater effect on addressing the problems of bad habits and bad form when Western-based sports science methodologies are combined with Easter-based kung fu ones. kung fu technique work (with its broad, complex physical movements) provides an additional alternative to accentuate endurance sports technique work (with its specific, fundamental training movements). however, endurance sports technique work, because of the manner in which it quantizes both problems and solutions into individual constituent components, can facilitate a better understanding of how and why kung fu exercises works to solve problems, and hence allow better learning of kung fu as a science as much as it is an art.

i don't think the technique work of each area is mutually exclusive. much like my experience with the rest of endurance sports and kung fu, i think there's a lot of potential in combining the 2--potential that can benefit participants of both sides.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

videos: chun qiu dao - the differences between the U.S. & China

check out this video:

this is a very LONG form. but i'm not presenting this video for its kung fu points. rather, i want to use it as a point for cultural observation.

i'm guessing this is in China...or maybe Taiwan. but it's certainly not the U.S. or any other Western country. regardless, it's in an apparently Asian society outside of any Western ones (even if the person doing the form is Western, the entire setting--and the YouTube user who uploaded the video--is in Asia).

apart from it being very impressive, i want you to observe 1) this, to the public eye, is quite obviously a dangerous weapon, 2) that it is in a completely public space, and 3) what's going on in the background is reflective of the location where this video occurs. to me, this is interesting, because i want to note what i suspect would be some major differences in reactions between the U.S. (and maybe Europe) and China to what's taking place:
  • China (or Taiwan?)--if you notice, people are either simply walking by, completely oblivious to this, or they are stopping and watching. either way, the reaction indicates mindsets of either passe' recognition (i.e., "oh, he's just another kung fu guy, how nice...") or appreciation (i.e., "ah, he's practicing a cultural heritage, how nice..."). the common element is one of recognition (as in: they've seen it before) and acceptance (as in: it's okay, no big deal). meaning that this is the kind of thing that goes on all the time and people are used to it.
  • U.S.--in the U.S., this would be interpreted as a deadly weapon, the man would be suspected as a lunatic, and the police would be called instantly and likely show with handguns drawn. the end result would be a likely conviction for brandishing an unlicensed deadly weapon in public. the reactions would be ones of surprise (i.e., "just what the hell is that?") and fear (i.e., "that looks dangerous!"). the common element would be one of marginalization (as in: a strange person doing strange things with a strange weapon) and suspicion (as in: it's all so strange, there must be something wrong). meaning that this is something people are not familiar with seeing, and something that they'd respond to with human instincts of self-preservation and antagonism.
  • Europe--in Europe, i'm thinking the reaction would be similar to the U.S., except that the police would respond much more quickly but would not come out with their guns drawn...they would just stand quietly until the form was finished, then motion the man over for a "quiet" conversation involving batons, nets, and fists. for all that, i suspect that they would let the person go without a conviction, recognizing that there's a cultural misunderstanding and just issuing a warning about public displays of kung fu. the elements, mindset, and underlying meanings of culture would be the same, but the reaction would be expressed differently.
i wonder if this is part of the reason why U.S. (or even Western) students of kung fu are sometimes perceived as inferior to Chinese ones--because there's an understanding that the endemic society is just not as welcoming or supportive of it in the U.S. relative to China, and that in the U.S. students just don't have the ability to find the necessary practice resources that exist for Chinese students.

this is especially true for college students (the most likely age group in the U.S. to have the combination of curiousity and physical ability to learn kung fu), who have to walk around on U.S. college campuses dealing with drunken frat boys and sorority girls from whitebread mainstream Orange County (or wherever they're from) whose only contact with the outside world was what they saw channel-surfing through the Travel Channel while waiting to go to their proms.

*sigh*. just goes to show you...culture plays a role.

day 38: drills & review (if only Allen Iverson could be here now)

  • movement
  • 2-person hand drills
  • palm changes 1-4
a few students showed up early today. we did bagua qi-gong level 1 and level 2 while we waited for class to start, with John Eagles leading. Sifu arrived just as we were finishing. he told us Phunsak was busy for the weekend, so he was going to manage both the bagua and baji sections personally today.

2-person hand drills

Sifu started us with the 2-hand drills (front, reverse, side front, side reverse). we began by doing them solo, and then paired off to do them against partners.

the solo 2-hand drills went relatively smoothly, but the 2-person 2-hand drills took somewhat longer. while we have done these before, Sifu went through each student to correct their form and their technique. he also had us increase the difficulty level by incorporating combination punches, with the "attacking" partner using a 3-step combination (e.g., if left fist is first, then right, then left again). he also made a number of points about the nature of the hand drills that had not been entirely apparent to me before:
  • vertical v. horizontal--Sifu noted that the hand drills incorporate vertical and horizontal components in addition to the twisting one. the solo hand drills, however, especially those done against a pole, tend to help students develop the vertical and twisting components, but not the horizontal one. Sifu said the 2-person drills were better at helping develop a feel for the horizontal component.
  • spacing & footwork--i was finding it particularly hard working against a partner of a different size (Feng), since it threw off my spacing and rhythm. Sifu commented that this is something that requires footwork, and not just to set a single position, but rather to constantly adjust and locate the body so that a particular technique can be maximized in terms of effect. this meant that my feet had to shift not just for each technique, but actually within the course of each technique as well.
  • total body movement--Sifu pointed out that the tendency for students doing the hand drills is to concentrate on their hands and arms. he said this is wrong, and is a bad habit. to do the hand drills right, there should be total body movement. he said that the power is not so much in the hands and arms, but rather in the entire body, which should be moving vertically, horizontally, and turning and twisting through the feet, legs, hips, waist, back, shoulders, arms, and hands.
after awhile, Sifu asked us to do the drills solo while moving. he first had us do the solo 2-hand drills moving from side to side, taking a step sideways with each change of hand. we did this in lines, taking a step left for each change of hands, and then taking a step right for each change of hands.

next, he had us do the solo 2-hand drills moving forward, taking a step forward with each change of hand, so that we moved forward along an imaginary line alternating steps left and right.

to some degree, i had practiced this a little before. Kieun had demonstrated these drills to me once while discussing everything i'd missed in the total curriculum. he also had mentioned that the drills also involved stepping backwards, which we didn't do today.

palm changes 1-4

after the hand drills, Sifu left to work with the baji students. he asked Eric to lead us through a review of the palm changes 1-4, for both side A and side B.

we went through these pretty expeditiously, but slowed down for palm change 4 side B. there was still quite a bit of polishing work to be done with this, particularly with the kicking set in the middle, which requires a bit of balance to be done properly. we ended up spending an extended amount of time with this, trying to fine-tune the movements.

Sifu eventually came back and observed us with palm change 4 side B. after awhile, he commented that it was good enough for now, but that we'd need to do more work on it next week.

something that became apparent to me with this palm change is that i'm not quite as flexible as i thought i was in the lower back and upper leg regions. this is odd, since these are areas that quite a bit of heavy usage in my sport (triathlon). i'm not quite sure as to why this is, since it is counter-intuitive--you would think that the muscles and body parts that get the most use would be the most flexible. however, i suspect that my body has been over-compensating for some deficiencies, and among those deficiencies are the lack of flexibility in the lower back (particularly turning) and upper leg (particularly in the concentric phase of the hip flexors and upper quads).

this became most apparent went we did a brief review of long fist. i found my body tightening in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. i had done some of this last fall when i had first started, but hadn't done it since then. it appears i'm probably going to need to do some work on this again, since it' supposed to help in developing flexibility, balance, and strength in the joints and connective tissue of the body.

after class ended, we ended up waiting while Sifu finished off some lessons with the more advanced baji students (James and Andrew). once he finished with them, we concluded things for the day and went for the customary post-class lunch.

Friday, June 08, 2007

videos: top 10 kung fu weapons

this is a video from National Geographic called "Top 10 Kung Fu Weapons."

swords, sabres, ropes, chopsticks, oh my!

check it out:

it always amazes me that there is such a variety of weapons in traditional Chinese martial arts. i suppose it's just a reflection of the cultural history, and the various creative minds who sought to find new weapons for very distinct purposes.

from a certain point of view, the apparent variety is probably also a function of the fact that they are so distinct from those in Western societies, and hence tend to stick out more to Western eyes accustomed to seeing ancient European weaponry. to someone raised in Asian societies, the panoply of ancient European weapons (such as broadswords, longbows, spears, mace, chain-mail, plate armor, daggers, etc.) probably appear to be full of unusual and distinct weapons, while the ancient Asian weapons (such as the grain-leaf saber, miao dao, deer-horn knives, rope dart, 3-sectional staff, etc.) are simply droll.

having said that, to this Westerner, some of the weapons featured in these videos are very strange. a number have Western analogies, but some have no comparable equivalent. it's fascinating to see the permutations of weaponry created in comparison to Western history, particularly for cases where different weapons were created to fulfill similar purposes. just goes to show you how much culture can play a role in the expression of creativity--the spark of invention is the same, but the manner of manifesting it can be unique.

Monday, June 04, 2007

day 37: palm changes 1-4 (A v B)'s about practice!

  • practice
  • palm changes 1-3
  • 2-person drills (palm changes 1-3)
  • palm change 4, side B
i got to class a little later than usual today because of some urgent errands (broken electric razor meant a dash to Target--nothing more annoying than facial scrubble). i still had time to go through qi-gong level 1 and stances, as well as a good morning stretch and warm-up.

i'm starting to find that qi-gong exercises are a good way to help settle my mind and relax the body. i had an unusually (and mysteriously) stressful week, and this morning's qi-gong ended up being a very good antidote. of course, i'm still not sensing any "heat" or "energy fields" from qi-gong that other people tell me about, but then maybe i'm just scientifically skeptically that i'm automatically or subsconsciously discounting any unusual sensations i'm feeling.

the class arrived gradually. after waiting a few minutes, Sifu asked Phunsak to lead us through a review of the palm changes 1-3 for both sides A & B, and then to do the same for the 2-person drills for each.

palm changes 1-3, sides A & B

Phunsak did the line version of the palm changes, with 8 repetitions of each palm change for each side. we began with palm change 1 side A, then proceeded to palm change 1 side B, followed by the same for palm change 2, and then palm change 3. this took a little while, since this basically meant 48 repetitions (6 palm changes, 8 repetitions each, making a total of 48). this actually got to be a bit of a challenge near the end, especially in terms of holding form. but i figure it was good, and so made it a point to stay with it all the way through.

as a matter of review, you can view the videos for each of the palm changes on the YouTube channel for this blog:

2-person drills (palm changes 1-3)

after taking a short break, Phunsak had everyone form up for the same 2-person drill as from previous weeks, with 2 lines of people facing each other, with 1 line being side A and the other line being side B. we had 8 people, making 4 pairs of partners of side A versus side B. Phunsak led us through 3 repetitions for each palm change, so that we pair got to go through 3 repetitions of the 2-person drill starting from the their left hand and 3 repetitions starting from their right hand. after completing 3 repetitions in either direction (left or right), Phunsak had us change partners.

the 2-person drills for palm changes 1-3 can be seen in the following series of videos:

2-person drill, palm change 1
the direct link is:

2-person drill, palm change 2
the direct link is:

2-person drill, palm change 3
the direct link is:

this didn't go as smoothly as it probably should have. quite a bit of time was taken up with review for some of the students who missed some of the recent classes. we ended up slowing down--slow enough that Sifu returned when we were only halfway through the drill. he ended up spending time correcting form, and then had to leave again to work with the baji students. before he left, he asked Phunsak to show us palm change 4, side B once we finished the 2-person drill.

i think the message here is pretty clear: things don't happen without practice. lessons learned in class aren't really learned unless they are accompanied with practice outside of class. it's a waste of class time to not practice outside of class the things that are taught in class. class is about teaching and polishing, practice is about learning and memory, and skill involves both. going to class alone is not enough. there must also be practice outside of class so the lessons taught in class actually become ingrained and understood. class must be followed by practice outside of class. and everyone--and that means all of us--need practice.

it's odd that this comes up now, since i wrote a post last week about this exact issue on my Ironman blog. i suggest you check it out:

palm change 4, side B

after we finished the 2-person drill, Phunsak called for a break. but Kieun said we'd wasted too much time, and noted that we were in danger of having class run out before we could go through palm change 4, side B. after some additional urging from me, Phunsak relented and demonstrated the palm change.

palm change 4, side B is a bit different from all the other palm changes we've learned so far. this is largely because it involves kicks. i'm not entirely sure on the combat applications, but hopefully we'll get those soon. it begins with a turn from lean against the horse and ask for directions into what appears to be the lion stance but has the name effortlessly support the silver water jar. from there, the palm change leads into 2 successive kicks labeled Lang Tsu kicks the ball, followed by a series of backwards steps involving upward-brushing hand motions which collectively is termed shiny snake coils its body. this is succeeded by a forward thrust of the hand and subsequent pulling back of an imaginary string, with the appropriately given technique name of draw the bow on the horse's back, after which the palm change finishes with lean against the horse and ask for directions opposite from the way it started.

palm change 4, side B can be seen in the following video
the direct link is:

this was pretty difficult to learn. i had to stop and observe Phunsak as he went through it several times. he laughed and warned us that the 2-person drill for palm change 4 is even harder than that for palm change 3. i managed to get a feel for it after awhile, but i'm going to need some more time to get it down and pick up the nuances. i think i can do it with some personal practice time, but i think it's also going to need some careful polishing work in class.

by this time the baji class had already ended. we concluded the bagua class immediately after Phunsak finished taking us through palm change 4, side B a few times. we ended up going to lunch with just 4 people, since everyone had already left.

this turned out to be no big deal, since we still ended up having a very long and pretty deep discussion about Buddhism--a subject which i've had some introduction to as part of my triathlon training (believe it or not) and my own personal curiousity, but which still has quite a number of uncertainties and mysteries for me. i found Phunsak and Sifu to be quite a spring of information about Buddhism, and not just in relation to kung fu but also on its own. i figure i'm going to learn more on my own in time, but i enjoy getting as much perspective and information as i can, and i consider these discussions over lunch to be a good education.