When students come to me to learn martial arts, they usually have one prime goal: they want to learn how to defend themselves. They’re concerned with what the other guy is trying to do to them and how they can stop that. Unfortunately, this thought pattern actually puts them at a disadvantage when trying to use “defensive” techniques. By focusing on stopping their opponent’s actions, they allow him to set the pace and choose timing that’s comfortable for him.
In the past, I’ve talked about four phases of internal development: structure, relaxation/softness, coordination, and intention. While there is a sequential aspect to developing each of these skills, they are more like threads in a cord, each one woven in with the others, strengthening each other, and developing along side each other. While the more physical skills of structure, softness, and coordination are essential, one aspect is more crucial (you could call it the key ingredient): the role of the Mind.
One of the key features of Taoist martial arts is chan si jin: a method of coordinating legs, torso, and arms using spiraling movements. Through the use of spirals, the Taoist martial artist can simultaneously deflect blows, generate power for striking and joint-locking, or throw his opponent to the ground. What’s even more impressive is that spirals allow one to do all these things with a minimum of muscular effort.
Spirals play another key role in Taoist martial arts. They allow the practitioner to adjust to forces used against him while maintaining his centeredness: a quality I call “changeability.” Maintaining centeredness, a state of total mental and physical harmonious integration, can be said to be a Taoist’s primary goal. Sophisticated spiral movement allows the Taoist martial artist to do this by simultaneously projecting (yang) and absorbing (yin) force around the “central-lines” of the body.
You begin practice by setting your feet apart, directly under your shoulders, and parallel. You take a deep but gentle breath in, setting your posture as straight as you can from the top of your head to the center of your feet. Then you exhale and settle in, relaxing your arms by your sides. Now the internal work begins.
You start by focusing your attention on your breath – seeing that your inhale and exhale are even and smooth. You let go of any external concerns and allow yourself to be fully present, consuming your awareness in the task of feeling the subtle sensations of your inner body. Then you begin to breathe with your lower torso, relaxing your low abdomen, waist, and lower back, and allow the whole area to gently expand on your inhale and relax on your exhale.
Breath is an aspect of posture. Posture is an aspect of breath. In a single word: relax.
When we breathe, particularly if we breathe properly, our entire structure shifts. Our spine bends, our sacrum tucks, our ribs expand, our belly and waist expand, the muscles in our throat and pelvic floor contract, and even our hips and shoulders may make minor shifts.
On the other side of the coin, misalignments and chronic patterns of tension and weakness in our body structure may inhibit breath participation in certain areas of the body and permit too much expansion in other areas. Therefore, proper postural alignment plays a key role in efficient breathing.
The goal and purpose of tai chi (also taiji) practice is to develop a body and mind that functions by the tai chi principle. That principle is the harmonization of opposites so that perfect balance is maintained. There are three key concepts to understand before you can begin to apply this principle effectively: Wuji, Yin-Yang, and Taiji.
The title of this blog isn’t necessarily suggesting that you should set a goal to study Chinese martial arts (although it is a fun and practical way to improve your health and fitness); it’s suggesting that you put in the time and effort necessary to achieve the positive transformations you desire in the New Year.
The term kung fu (or Gong fu) is a compound of two words: kung/gong (which means “work” or “achievement”) and fu (which means “effort over time”). Taken together, kung fu refers to any skill achieved through hard work over a long period of time.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of karma – the idea that our actions begin a cycle of cause and effect that eventually gets back to us. So, if you do good deeds, the positive waves of change you create will eventually come back to you as positive experiences. If you do bad deeds, eventually negative experiences will be your reward. Based on this simple explanation of the Law of Karma, it seems easy enough to have a stress-free, joyous life: just be a decent human being. But it rains on the good and bad alike, so maybe the whole idea of karma is wrong…or maybe it’s just not that simple.
We hear these terms so often, to describe so many different kinds of martial arts, that they begin to lose all meaning.
After many years of studying martial arts, I’ve formed specific definitions of my own. In the spirit of making terms precise enough for everyday use, I offer them to you.
I’ll start with hard style and soft style:
The terms hard and soft, when relating to the martial arts, imply a way of dealing with your opponent’s force. In essence, hard styles meet their opponent’s force with force, using solid blocks, strong postures, and powerful attacks fueled by strength, mass, and speed. Soft styles on the other hand attempt to blend with their opponent’s force, using fluid movements and timing to avoid, deflect, and redirect their opponent’s attacks.
If we put aside style or system, if we forget about ancient or modern, east or west, and instead simply focus on the nature of human movement, the nature of fighting, and the nature of mental, physical, and spiritual development – what is the result? The result is a process of training through which an individual can realize their greatest potential. That is what martial arts means to me.
This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from a specific style, or that one should discard traditional martial arts for modern methods. My point is to seek the universal, underlying truths which bind all martial arts together.