Posts Tagged ‘Training method


Reverence and Fear 敬畏

PBS did a good documentary on the making of Samurai swords. The program weaves together footage of craftsman making the sword in the traditional manner along with lucid scientific explanations of the process in modern language by professors of metallurgy and religious studies from a prestigious engineering school.

One of the comments that caught my teacher’s attention was how by treating the process as a sacred religious ritual, it in fact has the effect of quality control. The Japanese people really believed all things in nature are imbued with spirits. And a finely made sword was the spirit of Samurai. Therefore every step of the forging process must be taken seriously, as if it’s a religious ritual. During a ritual, every tiny detail must be attended to carefully, as you feel you are in the presence of god, and any mistake would bring severe punishment. This mentality is called Jing Wei (敬畏) – reverence and fear.

For my teacher, who teaches western students internal martial art and Qigong, this represents an everyday challenge in which tradition clashes with modernity.

The human mind has a very deeply-seated need for the world to make sense, for things to happen for a good reason. From earliest days of civilization, we have been creating explanations for phenomenons we crave to understand. In the case of Chinese culture, the early theories we came up with for how nature works involves Taiji, Wuxing, and Bagua. For disciplines like internal martial art and Qigong, many of the terminologies and explanations for various practices have these mythological/philosophical origins.

Since that time we have come to know a great deal more about how nature works, theories that makes the ancient ones seems naive and childish by comparison. The challenge then is when teaching modern day students, do we still use the old languages and terminologies? That is actually very hard. Here’s a practical example: one of the foundation building (zhu ji 筑基)exercises in Qigong is called Cai Qi – gathering of Qi. The exercises involves breathing exercises done at dawn and full moon, using arm motions that look like the practitioner is literally reaching out to gather the sun/moon with his arms, then bringing it down into the dantian – like a mythical creature swallowing the sun/moon.

Do I believe this process actually brings in yang/yin energy into my body as it is described, I am deeply skeptical. But what I am not skeptical is the actual results of Qigong exercise, of doing breathing exercises, of getting up early, regularly to exercise. But here lies the problem: if I am skeptical of the process, then I will not get the full benefit of it. Why would that be the case, because as we say in Chinese: 心理影响生理 – psychology affects physiology.

It’s common sense that one’s mental state has a huge effect not just on performance of physical tasks, but the body itself. Anyone who has been under prolonged mental distress can attest to that. So how does this affect Qigong practice? Well, if you don’t believe the power of the sun, that you think it’s just a tool to get you perform a bigger movement, you can then do that exercise in a cramped apartment, just imagine the big sun with your mind. But for a beginner at least, it is much more beneficial if he were actually at a mountain top, at crack of dawn, being able to actually gaze up at the huge sun directly without fear of eye damage, bathed in fresh morning air, and do this exercise. The feeling, and the effect, will be dramatically different. To be in the presence of something big can bring that correct feeling out directly, easily. It’s like meditating in a quiet place versus in the middle of Time Square.  Yes, ultimately we should be able to put our minds in a calm state anywhere, anytime, but to learn that skill, to experience that deep calmness in the first place, it helps if we are in a more remote, isolated setting.  If we only practice in less idea settings, we may never know what our goal (real, deep calmness) is like.

Yin Qi

So here is the dilemma: in the old days not only do people believe in these theories and explanations, but the teacher student relationship was different. When the teacher says do something, the student obeys without questioning. People believed this is the only way the teacher student relationship can work, the same way people still believe unquestioned obedience to all orders is the only way military can work. However, modern students often demand full explanation before they carry out the practice. But once you start explaining the reason you’re asking them to go out at night on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month is because that is when Yin Qi of the moon is at its strongest, they will most likely reject that explanation and not do the exercise the way traditionally prescribed, and risk not mastering the skill. So here’s a very interesting example of being rational and thoughtful actually impeding our training.

In traditional Chinese culture the number one criteria for success in any practice is called Cheng 诚. Cheng means honesty, sincerity, loyalty. In terms of practice, it means believing 100% in what you’re trying to achieve, and the prescribed method for reaching those goals. That you trust your teachers, who obviously reached those goals by those means, that you just need to persevere and work hard until you succeed. Much emphasis has been placed on not having “impure thoughts (杂念)”. Here impure means miscellaneous elements that keeps a thought/belief (“swallow the moon”) from being 100% pure. So these could be doubts, or other random thoughts that arise naturally that could distract from our practice.

So my own thoughts about this is the same as I have for acupuncture and other traditional medicine – it’s obviously a technology/methodology with demonstrable results. To get the result, I will follow the steps faithfully, and ignore for the time-being traditional theories that explains why it works. After I get the feeling, I can maybe make modifications (just imagine the sun and the moon, no matter what time of day and where I am) or improvements.


Time and place for training

Traditionally people say you should train at the same time of the day, in the same place, every day.

I’m sure you had this experience, one day during practice you had some new insight. Then you didn’t practice for a while, and later, after you resumed your practice, several sessions into it you had the same insight again. And you think: I can’t believe I lost that. If you practiced everyday, you would’ve be reminded of that immediately next day, and you build upon that… Replicating the training environment also conditions you get into that really deep, focused state faster. It’s really one of the best things you can do to optimize your training.

In term of training space, it should be an area that is well lit, has good air qualities, flat, free of obstructions, and secluded.  Doing Taiji Quan en mass in the park is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Professional or serious practitioners generally do it out of public eye.  For one thing some things are secret.  But the other major reason is you don’t want any distractions.  The traditionally form of Chinese residence is the si he yuan (四合院), literally “courtyard enclosed on four sides”.

Even up to my teacher’s generation, who trained in the 70’s and 80’s in Beijing, people trained mostly in their private courtyards. But location of practice does make a difference. For example you will have a very different feeling practicing Taiji or Bagua here than in your small private yard:

Lu Mountain 庐山


In defense of simplified forms

In traditional martial art training, in Northern China at least, children are usually taught basic Chang Quan (usually Tan Tui, Shao Lin) and Shuai Jiao first. This is not because they need to have basic mastery of external martial art first. But just to prepare them physically so they can do the very demanding physical movements in those internal martial art forms.

In the old days these forms are used as one of the primary tool for training by professionals. That whole process involved both training and selection. Today these arts are open to the general population, and since we no longer rely on empty hand martial art skills for real world fighting (war, police, home defense), the selection and training are much more lax.

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One problem with this is that a lot of people don’t have the prerequisite physical conditioning (strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, balance, reflex, and coordination) . If you can barely hold your leg up at chest level, how are you supposed to relax when doing the kicks in the Taiji form? If you cannot do single leg squats, how can you supposed to really shift all your weight to one leg?

So this leads to several problems:

  1. if the physical movements are too challenging, if you have to struggle and strain to just completing the gross physical movements, then neither the body nor the mind can relax. If you cannot relax, how can you really focus on the detailed mechanics of the skill? How can you concentrate on all those tiny details that are so crucial?
  2. You’re not doing the movements according to the standard (high, professional level) requirements. Correct movements leads to correct feeling, correct feeling leads to skill.
  3. In the beginning the movement have to be big so to make it easier to experience the correct feelings, many of which are very subtle. If you are weak, inflexible, and can only do all the movements in very limited range of motion, you may never get the correct feeling.
  4. Many of the skills, both basic (ex. basic thrust and circles in spear) and advanced, they require many hundreds, if not thousands of repetitions per workout initially to understand, and hundreds of thousands of repetitions overall to master. If you do not have the required endurance, and can only do a few reps per session, you will never master them.

Usually children are taught many different chang quan routines. They are mostly variations of the same things. This is because just like in today’s high level sports competition, high volume training since early childhood is one of the key factors of success. When you’re asking kids to do that much training, realistically you have to introduce some variety to make things interesting.

For these reasons, it may look like people are doing a lot of hard style training before they start internal martial art. But the truth is they are practicing the same conditioning basics shared by most empty hand styles.

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So what about adults who are introduced to Taiji Quan directly, who lack the high level of gongfu in basic conditioning to practice the form?  If they can’t do the form correctly, they will never get the correct feeling.  In essence they are not doing Taiji as an internal martial art, but as a set of difficult physical calisthenics.  This is one reason so many people can practice Taiji Quan for decades without really understanding it, and therefore benefit from it.

For this reason I think simplied, beginner forms are necessary.  Drop the degree of diffiulty from professional to amatuer level.  This way they can do the movement correctly, and as a result get something.  The level of mastery achieved will be more limited of course.  But at least they are doing Taiji.  And if they choose to do so, as their conditioning improve, they can move on to the more difficult, more varied full professional curriculum.


Overall methodology for martial art training

I’ve been taking classes from Carnegie Mellon’s graduate program in Software Engineering.  They’ve been very instructive.  A lot of approaches and methodologies are transferable to other areas of life.  Here with some minor modifications, I’m adapting the Capability Maturity Model to martial art (here Taiji Quan) training:

if we want to succeed at something, we must first know clearly a) what we’re trying to do, and b) how to do it:

1. first we must be clear on goals of the training – what is the ideal skill we’re trying to achieve? According to traditional teaching, the ideal skill should be like: don’t struggle against the enemy directly where he is strong, first follow him to see what his real intentions are, from following comes knowing (your enemy), then you use internal jins to redirect that force so it misses you (“lure your opponent to emptiness”), causing him to lose balance in the process, and finally finish him off with hard external jin.

2. from that goal, know what type of abilities are necessary for that process to work: to be able to detect (“listen”) what our opponent is trying to do, we need sensitivity skills. That means from one brief touch you can tell what your opponent wants to do, what type of force will he use, what angle, what timing, what duration, etc. To listen you need to follow first, to follow you need to relax…;

3. from knowing the abilities, know what are the various types of trained forces involved: internal, external, what are the characteristics of each, what are their strength and weaknesses, when it is appropriate to use them?

3. from knowing the abilities and jins you’re after, you need to know what methods are used to achieve those: form practice, push hands, sticking staff, single movement fa jin practice…

4. we need to know how to practice/use those methods: why do we emphasize “relax, slow, circular, agile” in forms training? what are the various stages of forms training, push hands, and sparring?

5. we need to know the logic and sequence of training, know the relationship and importance of various skills (what comes after what, what are the main things – the root and trunk, what are the ancillary, assisting skills – leaves and flowers). The answer to this question explains why some groups uses a “fast form”, why some of these “fighting forms” (ie Lao Jia Er Lu) is not really a more advanced than the primary long form.


Changes to Bagua Zhang’s training methods

Yin Fu, Cheng Ting Hua, etc probably all received basically the same content from Dong Haichuan. But from a teaching perspective, the way those materials are organized and presented, seemed to become more systematic and clearer as Dong Haichuan taught more and more people.

Elite athletes are physical geniuses who have innate sense for movement: think Michael Phelp’s feel for water. These people just seem to know automatically how to move in the most effective, efficient manner when you teach them a new skill. I’m sure both Dong Haichuan and Yin Fu are like that. We know Yin Fu was one of very few students Dong Haichuan had when Dong was working for the king. There was a lot of one on one intensive training, especially in the nine years Dong was in Mongolia managing the king’s estate. So talent + hard work + opportunity = greatness for Yin Fu.

In terms of growth, no other group in history of traditional martial art had as rapid a rise as Bagua Zhang group. Before, Dong was fully preoccupied with his work, plus because of his position, ordinary people probably cannot just seek him out. The huge influx of students happened after he retired. Not everyone of them are going to be as talented (or talented in the same way) as Yin Fu. He probably couldn’t spend as much time with each students as he did with Yin Fu. Also, they all had varying degrees of martial art experiences.

Traditional teachers in general do not like to teach students with a lot of prior experience. Because if the materials are very different, either the student’s previous training is so ingrained he cannot change, or it takes too much effort to deprogram and untangle all the confusions. Dong Haichuan then, must have spent a lot of time in those years thinking about the best way, the most efficient way to teach all these different people, to help them get ‘it’.

We know one thing: he clearly decided at some point that teaching everyone the 64 Palm routine he taught Yin was not going to work. When Dong was teaching Yin Fu, Yin Fu probably imitated Dong’s every movement perfectly, very quickly. Dong did not tilt his hips when he walked, so Yin didn’t either. This is just my guess, because I know a few people from real life who are perfect mimics like that. Their teachers actually did not correct their physical movements that much. Most of the people on major Wushu teams today, they have that type of talent.

The problem with a lot of these physical geniuses is that they do so many things correctly, naturally, they never had to think about it. This is especially true for basic things like proper alignment that us mere mortals have to spend years to perfect and solidify. That makes it hard to fully transmit your knowledge to people who are not exactly like you. A lot of times it’s not because they don’t want to tell you, or they couldn’t articulate it, but because they are not even aware there’s something that needs to be articulated.

Just like being a fighter, the more, different types of people you encounter, the better you are as a teacher. As he sees all these people who are very different from him and Yin Fu trying to imitate him, he must have noticed all lot of these previously unspoken things. He must be like, “oh, ok, it’s not working for him because he’s not doing that. I didn’t tell him that. So that thing is actually very important. He needs to master that first…” This is one reason why people say the process of teaching actually deepens your understanding.

September 2019
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