Saturday, November 29, 2008

day 190: with my hands...

  • habits
  • footwork
  • center
  • stringing
  • gloves
  • elbows
  • chang quan
  • bagua
  • kyudo
so this post is a little late. things have been extraordinarily busy with the end of the semester at USC and the end of the quarter at UCLA. since i have 6 classes, there's been quite an acceleration into the last frenetic days of the fall, and i've been swamped with grading. i'll try to give all the lessons from last week the space they deserve, although i'm writing this in between classes and grading and bills and everything else.

chang quan

the word for my Friday chang quan class was habits. in particular, it was bad habits. Sifu had me do several iterations of chao quan that i've learned to date, and then asked me if i practice on my own outside of class. i said yes, and then he nodded, saying that it was good but that i've been picking up some bad habits and that we needed to work these out.

apparently, some of my movements have gotten a little sloppy, particularly anything involving a brushing of the hands or anything involving timing of the hands with leg kick or leg step. Sifu noted that there shouldn't be "dead hands" (i.e., hands that remain stationary while the rest of the body is moving) at any time in the movements, and that this is something true of any form of martial art. he also pointed out that the synchronization of moves of different parts of the body are crucial to making any technique work, and so something to really focus on.

fortunately, Sifu didn't think my problems were intractable, and that they would be fixed via 1) a better understanding as to the purpose behind the movements (i.e., the intent, or "yi"), and 2) practice. currently, he can see that my yi is not constant, but tends to flicker in and out during my form, particularly in terms of the direction and expression in my eyes. with more understanding and more practice, he says this will be fixed, and my movements will naturally follow.

we spent the class working on these things, and then finished by going a few more moves into the form.


this Saturday was a progression from last week, except that Sifu took us all the way through to the end of the form. i hadn't realized we were so close. Sifu cautioned, however, that today was meant to just finish the form, but the next few classes before the winter break were going to be dedicated to refining it, and also practicing it in the classic 9-pole format (note: in bagua, the 9-pole format involves 8 poles situated at the vertices of an octagon and 1 pole in the center). we don't actually have 9 poles, but Sifu said we'd substitute using human stand-ins--which was what the poles were originally meant to represent anyway, so it was just as well to go directly to the original idea.

for today, Sifu emphasized that we concentrate on our dantian (i.e., our "centers"), and visualize it pushing the dantian to the ground as we did the movements in forest palm. he said that this would help us perform the form properly by guiding our stances and actions lower, thereby serving to stabilize our bodies and utilize the ground to generate action/reaction forces. repeating what he told me yesterday, he said he could see this in our movements, and could see the difference between the times we were focusing on sending the dantian lower to the times we were not.

we spent the bulk of class repeating the form, reviewing the actions to polish the movements. with Phunsak going to the doctor, Sifu and i were left to go to lunch together. which was fine, since he and i took the opportunity to go to a Yunannese restaurant and get in the spiciest food we could find--it turns out he and i have the same proclivity and preference for spicy food, but that no one else in the class seems to be close, meaning that both of us have to moderate our spicy food cravings for times like these.


kyudo this Saturday evening was eventful. we had a number of firsts, from stringing a bow, to shooting an arrow, to dealing with the nuances of gloves.

the bow stringing was a bit of a surprise. Sensei simply asked us (the beginners) to string some of the dojo's bows, with the simple admonition that we'd seen 16 other people string their bows and so we'd had plenty of examples. Leslie, one of the senior students, was a bit concerned about this, particularly since a mistake in stringing could lead to a shattered bow. she ended up showing us the proper way to string them--it seems pretty straightforward, but it's clear that if you did it the wrong way the results would be catastrophic, both to the bow and you.

the bigger surprise was that Sensei allowed us to shoot. i was able to do a few practice runs of the shooting form while i watched the other people ahead of me in line shoot. still, i have to say that the actual act of holding a bow and arrow physically in your hand changes your perceptions, simply because the physical reality imposes factors that you can't always visualize: the weight of the equipment, the resistance of the materials, the difficulty in working with the bow, the mental concentration to focus on the arrow and target while simultaneously remembering all the other factors.

one of the other students told me that Sensei sometimes allows beginners to do practice shoots with the dojo bows, often about once per month. this time, Sensei had decided that all the beginners had enough prior martial arts experience that we already possessed a lot of the basics involved in terms of physical movements, and that we could make a try at actually shooting. still, this night was still an exception, since none of the beginners even had their own equipment or uniforms, and all of us had only just learned the shooting form in the previous few weeks.

my experience shooting was, to say the least, an adventure. i had difficulty nocking the arrow, i didn't align it properly with the target, and i struggled more than i should have to draw the bow. after all the beginners, Sensei took us aside and held a private tutorial with us. in regards to my issues, he didn't directly address them, but i was able to glean from his comments the following advice:
  • nocking the arrow--the mistake is to focus on moving the arrow or the string. nocking the arrow is actually about moving the bow. this is actually easier than moving the other pieces.
  • aligning the arrow with the target--this is actually about visualizing the arrow connecting with the target, but involves first visualizing your mind connecting with the target. this is why the form involves the practitioner sighting the target before actually lifting the bow and arrow to draw the bow.
  • drawing the bow--here, i had simply forgotten a number of very basic things that i already knew. drawing the bow isn't about pulling with the back. it's actually about expanding the body from the center (or dantian), in a way that the practitioner actually extends the entire body (arms, legs, spine, tailbone, head, etc.) outwards from the center. this engages action/reaction forces from the ground through the feet that then go to the arms, and also lengthens the spine so that it pulls in the scapula. this makes drawing the bow a total body exercise, distributing the draw weight so that it's easier. the end result is that the bow is drawn as the practitioner lowers the bow and arrow. one thing Sensei noted is that it helps to visualize that the elbows are lowering down as the spine goes long, with the elbows lowering in symmetric arcs. the hands and forearms just simply serve to hold the bow, arrow, and string, and release at the point the elbows can extend no longer from each other.
we finished the night with tea. this had started out as a shorter night, since we hadn't walked around the dojo following the meditation and chanting of the heart sutra, nor had we cleaned the dojo following the end of the formal shoot. but everyone ended up staying late to talk about kyudo, the dojo, and winter plans, and had also stayed to introduce themselves to all the beginners. as a result, we ended up not leaving until around 10:30pm. but i didn't mind, since it seemed like a really good day and i'd learned so much.

Friday, November 21, 2008

day 189: kuen wu and mantis

  • kuen wu erlu
  • mantis
today was a little bit different from the normal Sunday. Sifu wanted to get some pictures of jian shu sparring to make some flyers, and so i used the camera and took pictures of Sifu, Kieun, and Phunsak. we got a number of good photos, with Sifu solo and Kieun and Phunsak in sparring poses. if i get the chance, i'll post them here.

because of the photo shoot, we focused primarily on kuen wu and skipped the chen tai chi lessons. instead, we ended up joining the mantis lesson Sifu was giving Jonathan Shen.

kuen wu erlu

we went a little bit further into kuen wu erlu, although we spent the majority of time fine-tuning the movements we've done to date. the form is starting to differ from yilu, with the application of power into the movements calling for a different nature and appearance of actions at a number of points. so far i've been able to keep the 2 forms separate, but it's starting to become a little more difficult and i think it may soon be time to see about recording someone doing the entire form.


i'm not particularly interested in mantis, but apparently Kieun and Phunsak have some interest in it. since Sifu was working with Jonathan when we finished taking pictures, we ended up just joining in. i don't remember too much of the lesson today, since mantis is a very different style from the ones i've been learning, and mentally has a different perspective that requires an adjustment in perspective that i'm not quite comfortable making at this point. still, it was interesting to sample it, and i can see its general approach to fighting.

i don't know if we're switching to this for the Sunday lesson (Phunsak seemed to be under the impression we were), but i figure this will be something that we'll discuss next time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

day 188: more more more!

  • applications
  • history
  • chao quan
  • forest palm
  • kyudo
it was a rough weekend, with the air filled with ash and smoke coming from the Southern California wildfires. because of the poor air quality, it made things a little difficult strenuous activity, and i noticed that everyone maintained a pretty low-key level of physical exercise.

chao quan

the chang quan lesson was pretty straightforward, with Sifu taking me further into the form. however, there were some sticking points this Friday, particularly in terms of rhythm and fluidity. i'm at a point in the form where there's an increasing level of changes in direction and changes in foot positioning, accompanied by a string of hops and jumps. the effect is a disruption in the flow of the form that's creating hurdles in terms of holding to a smooth transition between techniques.

as a result, i took the bulk of class time on Friday working through these sticking points. it didn't help that i had to work in the jumps. i commented to Sifu that chao quan now seems to become more physically demanding. Sifu replied this is only the start, and that there are more jumps coming up in the form.

we finished the evening with a discussion on general theory about fighting--not in relation to any specific TCMA style, but just in hand-to-hand fighting in general. i won't go into detail here, since all of it was stuff we've covered before in class, but i just wanted to see how the various pieces fit together into a comprehensive view of hand-to-hand combat. Sifu went into an extended commentary, and i mentioned to him he could probably write a book on universal fighting principles alone (i.e., independent of any single specific martial arts style), and he said he could, but that it's one of many books he'd like to spend time writing.

forest palm

the air this Saturday was particularly bad, and got worse as the day went on. near the end, i could actually see ash falling from the sky, and it began to form a layer on our bags and clothes.

Sifu guided us further into the form, and then took some time to demonstrate for us the combat applications for a couple of moves. because of the nuances involved, we ended up spending a good bulk of time working on the applications.

this actually was an interesting class. it turned out the movements and applications we were working on were similar--if not outright identical--to those in baji and piqua. we ended up joining the baji and piqua students to practice the techniques. this was interesting, because it demonstrated to me some of the points Sifu had made to me in my chang quan lessons--that all the northern TCMA are related to each other, and they utilize the same principles with often only minor differences in expression. you can see the threads of history in the various movements of each style, and how the threads trace a lineage of thought and perspectives stretching from the past to the modern era. it's quite fascinating from a historical and cultural perspective.

we took our usual lunch, which ended up devolving in a discussion about Jackie Chan and his relation to TCMA--that's the reason i put his photo at the top of this post.


Phunsak attended the kyudo class with me this time. although, i should note, kyudo class Saturday night almost didn't happen. Sensei said he was a little hesitant, because by this time you could see the glow of the wildfires in the night sky, and could feel and smell the ash and smoke in the air. but we decided to go ahead anyway.

since there were 4 beginners this evening (me, Phunsak, and 2 others), Sensei took us aside to guide us through the basics and to provide a question-and-answer session. this was perfect, since it gave me an opportunity to really observe some of the nuances in the kyudo form, as well as regarding the formalities of the art. we also discussed the background of kyudo and its relation to buddhism, shinto, and Japan. i'm starting to get a much better sense of the form, and things don't seem quite so overwhelming as they did when i first started.

since Phunsak was crashing at my place, the two of us ended up staying until the close of class to observe the others practice their shooting. this kept us to around 10pm, at which point everyone went home.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

commentary: friends

this has little to do with kung fu, and even less to do with martial arts.

but it does have everything to do with being a human being, and becoming a better one...and that's what studying martial arts, and TCMA, is in part about.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

day 187: chao quan, forest palm, and kyudo

  • bridges and transitions
  • center
  • release
  • chang quan
  • bagua forest palm
  • kyudo
this Saturday was a beautiful day, with temperatures in the very comfortable 80s and bright sunshine. i arrived a little early, partly to get some review work in (i've been struggling to remember the forest palm, and also wanted to review chang quan).

chang quan

my chang quan lesson Friday was a lesson in fitting things before the sunset. this was the first lesson following the time change from Daylight Savings Time, and we found the park getting dark in the middle of my lesson. this served as motivation, with Sifu helping me get further into chao quan. Tommy was finishing his lesson when i arrived, but elected to stay and observe what i was learning.

we took a few moments at the beginning to address some questions i had regarding applications. i notice that it's a little easier for me now to see some of the applications in chao quan, especially after having gone through the applications in pao quan. however, there are some things that are quite mystifying, and i needed Sifu to demonstrate for me the intent behind the movements.

after this, we went deeper into the chao quan form. a good bit of the section we covered seems very close to tai chi, particularly chen tai chi. in fact, if i didn't know any better, i would say that it was almost identical--but the truth is that chen tai chi came from chang quan, and so everything i'm learning is just proof that chang quan was the foundation for tai chi.

we spent the last part of the lesson just reviewing what Sifu had shown me. this was just as well, because by this time it was dark and very difficult to see (the park apparently doesn't turn on lights in the evening).

bagua forest palm

this Saturday was largely a straightforward progression into forest palm. Sifu started us with a review of the form to date, and then led us further into the form before giving us the rest of class to practice.

one thing Sifu stressed today was the importance of the bridges between the individual techniques in forest palm. he noted that forest palm utilizes the techniques in 64 palms, but does more than just re-arrange them in new combinations and new directions. echoing the comments he made during my chang quan lessons over the past few weeks, he commented that forest palm requires that the techniques be performed with smooth transitions from one to the other, and that the bridges between techniques are thus actually more important than the techniques themselves. this is because the smoothness of transitions serve to maintain, and in some ways increase, the power generation of the movements, enabling the bagua practitioner to defend and attack in any position from any angle at any time--one of the most important things in bagua.

we finished class around 1 and went to lunch.


this was my return to kyudo after my 1 weekend hiatus. this class was notably more subdued, with a lower turnout of students. this actually helped me, since it made things easier to concentrate and ask questions. i did a little better today than before, with me being able to remember more things and not being quite so clueless--things weren't entirely smooth, but at least i felt more comfortable.

there were a couple of things i learned today from Sensei, either from his answers to my questions or from his conversations with other students:
  • center: kyudo focuses on the center (i.e., the dantian) to a much greater degree than other Japanese martial arts. almost everything in kyudo revolves around the center, including not only breathing (using the center), but the holding of proper posture standing, sitting, or walking (aligning the spine and body relative to the center), the generation of power in shooting (expanding and contracting the body about the center), and the process of aiming and concentrating (focusing the mind on the center). this stunned me--although i guess it shouldn't--since it is entirely consistent with the focus on the dantian that Sifu has always stressed in kung fu.
  • release: the notion of release is both physical (releasing the arrow and the bow, as well as releasing bodily tension), mental (releasing the mind from constraints), and spiritual (releasing the spirit from samsara, or worldly concerns). the dojo recites the Heart Sutra, which is a standard Buddhist sutra. i asked Sensei why this particular sutra, and he said that it's not something required by kyudo (in fact, it's something that only he requires for his own dojo), but which he considers a good allegory for the art of kyudo, since it focuses the mind on release in all its forms so as to enable the practitioner to be free to focus and perform the act of shooting. this seems a corollary to the TCMA principles that Sifu has been stressing to me, particularly the idea that a practitioner cannot release their full potential (power and art in body, mind, and soul) without releasing all the tensions within the self (in body, mind, and soul).
i'm struck by these principles, since both emphasize the same principles i've been learning in TCMA. this suggests that kyudo might actually complement my education in TCMA.

Sensei noted that kyudo helped him with his own martial arts training, and also even helped him in his study of other arts (he mentioned calligraphy and tea ceremony). he commented that his own masters had asserted that kyudo could do this, going so far as to say that he could drop study of other arts and focus on kyudo alone for 10 years, but then come back and find that their skill in the other arts had improved. they had told him that kyudo is the only Japanese martial art that seems to have this property, and this adds to the allure that kyudo has in the Japanese martial arts community. Sensei said that had confirmed all this from his own experience.

i don't know if the same thing will happen for me, but observing the consistency in principles being taught, i can at least say that i hope to see some improvement and benefit to my TCMA.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

day 186: chen push hands and kuen wu erlu

  • no force
  • hwa jing
  • na jing
  • chen push hands
  • kuen wu erlu
i almost forgot to write this post for last Sunday's class. things have been a little busy. i'll try to be as comprehensive as i can, but i also need to keep this post a little short, since i've got a number of things to catch up on.

chen push hands

we started Sunday with chen push hands. for today, Sifu said he wanted us to move on to the next stage in push hands training. so far, we began with stationary push hands focusing on developing ting jing (sensing), then did moving push hands using ting jing. now, he wanted us to start working on stationary push hands using hwa jing and na jing (redirection and control, respectively).

Sifu made a number of points by way of introduction:
  • this is following a progression in the chen tai chi curriculum towards helping us learn how to use tai chi in combat. this 3rd stage would be followed by the logical step of moving push hands using hwa jing and na jing, but that for now it was going to be enough of a challenge to do things in a stationary position.
  • the idea now is to do more than just sense our opponent's movements, but to then sense holes in their defenses and penetrate them in a way that sets us up to attack them.
  • in using hwa jing and na jing, we have to use no force. if we attempt to use force, the opponent can sense this and respond before we attack. this means that we have to be able to penetrate their defenses without utilizing force or signaling our intentions.
  • in order to accomplish the above, we need to stay relaxed and loose.
  • for now, it helps to stay within the circular motions of the push hands training, and using the positioning of our bodies and limbs within the circular motions to naturally locate and penetrate openings.
  • for now we should not use fa jing, because that would tempt us to use force in this stage and prevent us from achieving the goals of these exercises.
this turned out to be quite a wrinkle. i started with Jo-San as a partner, then Phunsak and then Sifu. with all of them, i found myself constantly using force, making it easy for each of them to defend themselves against me. Jo-San commented that he could sense every time i attempted to attack him, since he could feel my muscles tense. Phunsak advised me to just let things flow naturally and work on relaxing. with Sifu, i couldn't even start the drill.

this is way harder than it looks. this is going to take a bit more work on my part, since i clearly have an instinctive behavior pattern of tensing my muscles to engage in movement. i'm going to have to take some time to unlearn this.

kuen wu erlu

we finished the day by going further into kuen wu erlu. i'd forgotten some things from the last class session, and i had to take a little time to review what we'd done. what's complicating things is that erlu is a little different from yilu, but similar enough that it's very to get confused as to which form you're doing. i'm having to take care in this form to make sure i'm doing the right movements.

we ended the day with that, and i went to lunch with Phunsak, since Sifu had to stay and provide some private lessons for some other students.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

commentary: changes

this is a cross-post from my other blog.

we dream in myth. we live in reality. both need each other.

enough said.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

day 185: all about movement

  • movement
  • multiple degrees of motion
  • tension and looseness
  • smoothness
  • level
  • chang quan (chao quan)
  • bagua forest palm
i returned to the usual schedule this week, since i was feeling back to normal. i ended up not attending kyudo on Saturday, since there was a cultural event sponsored by the Thai Consul General in Los Angeles that i felt compelled to attend (a friend of mine was associated with the show, and it was the kind of show that does not appear that often--if ever--in Los Angeles).

chang quan (chao quan)

the Friday chang quan lesson marked a progression to chao quan, which is the 3rd form and follows pao quan. Sifu had me do a few iterations of pao quan to start class, working with me on some points to refresh my memory and refine my movements. he said that i could work on refining pao quan on my own, since he felt i was at a stage with the form that it is now largely about repetition and practice to emphasize the major elements. he reminded me that i needed to focus on developing the "flavor" of chang quan, and that to do this i needed to follow the points of the acronym he had given last week:
  • smooth (as opposed to the tai chi "slow")
  • long
  • even
  • deep
after working on pao quan for the first part of class, Sifu said it was time to move onto to chao quan. he introduced chao quan by reiterating the curriculum's progression of forms: 1) tantui, 2) pao quan, and 3) chao quan. to review, he noted that tantui focuses on the basics of stretching the body (muscle and connective tissue), improving balance, and increasing coordination. pao quan works on developing dynamic movement to apply the chang quan techniques introduced in tantui, and also accentuates overall extension, smooth flow between techniques, conditioning, and coordination. chao quan, in contrast, challenges the practitioner to develop better transitions (i.e., staying smooth through even more challenging sequences) between techniques, and to constantly adjust direction, pacing, and states of hard and soft.

Sifu noted that chao quan is what most people identify as chang quan, or long fist, since it is the form utilized by wushu competitors in tournaments. he cautioned, however, that the chao quan utilized for wushu is NOT the traditional chao quan, and that while many of the techniques and their sequence may be the same, the appearance is very different. unlike wushu, traditional chao quan if performed in a way that reminds the practitioner of the techniques--and more importantly, the physics involved in them. as a result, the intent of the traditional practitioner can clearly be seen as distinct from the wu shu competitor.

Sifu continued by observing the context of chao quan in the traditional curriculum. he noted that for jia men chang quan (islamic long fist), it composes the 3rd form. however, some styles of long fist have as many as 5 forms, with each form intended to teach differing sets of principles and techniques. Sifu asserted that you don't need so many forms, and that with islamic long fist, the principles still managed to encompassed in just 3 forms, making it unnecessary to have any more.

Sifu then led me through the initial movements of chao quan. as we went through them, he emphasized the following points:
  • movement--with chao quan, you have to think in different directions, not only on a horizontal plane, but also vertically and rotationally
  • multiple degrees of motion--chao quan utilizes all degrees of motion (horizontal, vertical, rotational, angular, in all ranges, directions, and magnitudes). as a result, in chao quan you can see the seeds that were picked up and utilized to form the basis of other later styles (baji, piqua, tai chi, bagua, etc.). as a result many of the chao quan movements should be very familiar to anyone who's learned these other styles.
  • tension and looseness--even more than pao quan, chao quan requires a looseness in the body, and constantly asks the practitioner to shift back and forth from states of tension and looseness.
  • smoothness--just like pao quan, the practitioner has to be smooth in transitioning from one technique to another. however, in chao quan, this is made harder by the greater level of complexity in the movements and transitions.
  • level--i have to be sure to remain level, since i have a tendency to move up and down (vertically). Sifu has pointed this out to me before (i.e., in bagua), and it's something i'm working on. it's a bad habit, since any up-and-down action usually means a lowering or raising of the center of mass, which makes it easier for the opponent to get under your center of mass and break your structure.
we'd started a little early (before 4 pm), since we'd both arrived at the park in light traffic. as a result, we finished early, sometime a little before 6pm.

bagua forest palm

Saturday morning was a continuation of forest palm. we began with a review of what we'd done, taking some time to help some people who'd missed last Saturday to catch up. after this, Sifu took us a little further into the form. he allowed us to practice this while he worked with the baji students, and then returned and asked to see us do the form individually.

i'm feeling somewhat comfortable with what we've done so far, since so many of the movements are coming from 64 palms. the only difference is that the directions are different, with forest palms constantly changing into different directions, which is different from 64 palms, which largely limits itself to directions along the perimeter of a circle. having said this, i should point out that today we came to a juncture where i'm definitely having to work harder to remember everything we're learning, and having to spend more time strengthening my memory of what we've done.

we ended class when Phunsak and Ching-Chieh left to visit her acupuncture therapist (he decided to try it today, and so was carpooling with her). the rest of us went to lunch.