The Eight Stances – A Brief Summary

Dragon Stance

The 8 Stances are a highly important part of your training – particularly the training of tung lung (praying mantis).  The purpose of stance training is to develop leg strength, rooting, relaxation, and the development of chi.  Additional benefits include attention to natural breathing thru the nose and mental focus.  Of course, their will be times when stances seem incredibly difficult.  This is to be expected and one of the reasons why Chinese martial arts took the name of ‘kung fu’, which means “hard work”.

A few things to consider when training the 8 stances.  First, your upper body must remain as vertical (perpendicular to the ground) as possible.  Leaning either forward or backward creates a few problems including unwanted tightness, incorrect body alignment, and  less than perfect balance.  Practicing the stances at home in front of a mirror can help ensure proper posture.

Second, focus your mind on relaxing your muscles.  The upper body muscles are the easiest to  relax during stance training – although for some, all relaxation is difficult when holding low stances.  There should be no tension.  Relaxing the muscles of the lower body requires much more practice and mental focus.  Shaking legs from exhaustion is a common and expected reaction when holding low stances for extended amounts of time.  This does not mean it’s time to break your stance!

You must overcome the desire to break your stance and rise up or lower your stance to alleviate the pain.  Find a stead point to fix your gaze and control your breathing.  Relax your mind and just focus on what you’re gazing at and try not to recognize the exhaustion of your leg muscles.  Eventually, the “burn” will subside and you will feel a combination of incredible body warmth and blood flow.  Martial arts masters thru the ages believe this to be “chi” or the “life force” to be flowing through your body.  This sensation develops explosive power and speed and will accelerate your progress.

Third, pay strict attention to the proper weighting of each stance.  Some require the weight to be equally distributed between the feet, while some require the weight of the stance to be on only one foot.  This also asks the practitioner to be cognizant of where the weight is to rest on the sole of the foot.  It should be evenly distributed on the entire foot when the entire foot is on the ground.  Feel your toes gripping into the ground.

Fourth, sink your weight and lower your stance as low as possible while keeping correct posture and relaxed muscles.  Low stance training is similar to kicking training.  Most kicks used in sparring are waist level and lower, but when practicing kicks we kick as high and hard as possible.  Most stances used in sparring aren’t super low, but when practicing stances and doing forms we keep as low a stance as possible.

Lastly, the 8 Stances are a part of your training that can easily be done at home or anywhere you find time to train.  Start off with 5 seconds per side for each stance.  Continue doing that daily for a few weeks and then bump it up to 10 second per side for each stance.  Continue this kind of progression until you can do each stance for a minute each side.

Spinning Movements

As you progress and learn more kicks, hand techniques, chin na, and forms (even weapons), you will find there are a number of movements that require you to “spin”.  The key element (and the reason why these movements are done somewhat sparingly) is that at some point you expose your back.  Exposing your back has potential for disaster as you are unable to see what’s going on and a number of vital areas could be attacked and quickly end the fight to your opponent’s favor.  However, after developing the ability to execute spinning movements with proper timing and distance, these techniques can provide advantages in combat, such as the element of surprise, the combining of a defensive and offensive move at once, and the development of a powerful strike/movement through the torque of the spin.

An example of all three is the spinning side kick.  If an opponent launches a punch or a snap kick, quickly blocking and stepping away from the punch or kick while spinning will likely surprise the opponent as well as provide defense from the attack.  Follow it up with a powerful side kick to the midsection and you have one very effective movement.

Even a number of chin na movements utilize a spin.  Fortunately, for those techniques the back is mostly protected as you are leading your opponent to the eventual lock and he’s likely both wondering and worried about what was happening to him.  However, if you’re opponent understands what you’re doing, then he will likely react by spinning along with you to avoid being locked.  You’ve likely uncovered a skilled fighter if that’s the case.

So, as you learn spinning movements, make an effort to consistently practice them in san shou and sparring to develop proper distance and timing.  In sparring, using spinning movements as you’re learning them is a calculated risk, which may result in your opponent’s advantage more often than not.  That’s ok, however, as if you keep trying and persist in making the technique work, then it will be yours to draw on when needed.  If executed properly (at the right time and distance from your target), spinning movements are just one of the many different fighting skills available to students.

Kung Fu – A New Language

One of my favorite metaphors regarding learning and mastering kung fu is that of learning and becoming fluent in a new language.

Before elaborating on this, I want to be clear that if you can become fluent in a language – which most adults and older children are – then you can become “fluent” in kung fu.  It simply requires consistent, almost daily practice with others for years.  Kung Fu fluency is the ability to spar another practitioner in such a way that your body can naturally and successfully move and respond to various attacks/counter-attacks and your mind has the nimbleness to decide what your body should do in the split second it has to react.  This does not come easily, but it’s definitely proven worthwhile to those who have achieved that level of ability.

When learning a new language, you begin by learning the letters, common words and sentences of that language.   While learning the basics, you are definitely not able to manage a conversation with someone who is fluent.  They would speak quickly and easily and you would have no idea what they were saying.  In fact, they would likely be confused with what you were trying to say to them with what little you know.  An equivalent in kung fu would be a beginner student sparring an advanced practitioner – there would simply be no contest.

In kung fu, the beginning of training includes learning basic kicks, punches, stances, single step movements, escape movements and basic block and counter techniques.  For most, these beginning movements seem awkward and unbalanced.  This is ok and can be expected to last for weeks, months, and even years for some.  However, if you keep pressing yourself to grow and improve, these basic movements won’t feel so strange and you’ll be on your path to martial fluency.

As you progress with a new language, learning and memorizing new words and combining them into grammatically correct sentences becomes a major part of your learning.  While doing this, you continue to utilize and build on the fundamentals taught in the beginning.  You begin putting sentences together both in writing and in speaking.  Memorization and repetition is required to develop speed of thought.

As you progress with kung fu, new striking and blocking techniques, and, most especially, new kung fu forms are learned.  Learning forms is similar to the learning of sentences.  You continue to develop the basic fundamentals that were taught in the very beginning.  You begin to feel more and more comfortable with some of the beginning forms and techniques.  Additionally, sparring skills are developing and some confidence is gained when sparring those close or below your rank and/or ability level.

As years go by, you become more and more comfortable with your not-so-new language, you have acquired a good deal of mastery with hundreds of words and can easily put sentences together both on paper and verbally.  You are working on fine tuning your grammar, but mostly are engrossed with speaking to others who are fluent with the language as this is where you learn you uncover your speaking deficiencies.  You are approaching fluency.

With kung fu, you are an intermediate-to-advanced student.  The basics have been mastered (sort of) and you are consistently working on improving the smaller details of more advanced technique training.  You want your abilities and techniques to be sharper, faster, and more powerful.  Your reflexes and reactive movements are becoming clean and your sparring has become crisp. However, you still have difficulties with various movements and can get stuck from time to time while sparring.

After years of studying your language and practicing speaking to native speakers for some time, you are now fluent.  You are able to hold conversations with most anyone in that language and speaking it is as common and easy to you as walking or eating.  There are still words that you don’t know and a good deal more you can learn about the language, but you are able to speak effortlessly at will.

Among martial arts masters, there is a common theme that once they reached mastery, “form” went away.  Sure, these masters would continue to practice forms and other things they were taught, but their sparring became fluid and their movements to various attacks and counterattacks were able to be performed with controlled intention and precision.  They truly owned their art – this is fluency in kung fu.

When NOT To Train

A question that almost everyone encounters during their training at our school is, “When should I not train?”  There are a number of rules of thumb to be followed regarding this:

  1. Don’t train, if whatever illness you have is contagious.  Obviously, you don’t want to get your kung fu brothers and sisters sick.  If you feel well enough to workout, then spend some time training on your own outside of the school and be cognizant of your energy and don’t push yourself too hard.  Alternatively, you can always come and watch class, which is in itself an enlightening experience.
  2. Don’t train, if your body is overly tired and aching (not necessarily muscle soreness from hard workouts).  Your body requires energy to combat whatever is ailing it and hard training takes energy away from your body’s rehabilitation efforts.
  3. Don’t train, if you are finding yourself short of breath.
  4. Don’t train, if your doctor told you not to exercise.

Otherwise… train.  There is certainly no guarantee that a potential threat to you or your loved ones will happen while you are feeling 100%.  Training when you are a little under the weather helps to prepare you for the worst.  Lastly, if you’re injured or sick and still attending class, be sure to inform your instructor (before class) so that accommodations can be made, if necessary.

The Student’s Search

Those who are looking for a school of Chinese boxing, whether it encompasses weapons or not, will need to set certain specific goals in their own mind before beginning the search.  It is not hard to find a school that teaches the modern concepts, but the old traditions offer a greater challenge for the modern exponent.  The first step is to find the school, the second is to be accepted, the third to endure the training, the fourth to retain the humility as the skill develops and the fifth to bear the responsibility of the knowledge when you are skilled.  This path represents a lifetime’s study in a chosen skill, for there is a Chinese saying by Kang-hsi, “If you reject iron, you will never make steel.”

Two-Man Forms – Choreographed Showmanship or Martial Skill?

To begin with, we should make a distinction between the more modern made-up wushu type two-man forms and the traditional two-man forms.  The made up ones are strictly for show, mostly using gymnastic skills.  The two-man forms for training exercises in the traditional arts place great emphasis on practical fighting skills.

For many styles, two-man forms were developed due to the aggressive techniques employed in their fighting methods.  This would make practicing techniques at speed dangerous, especially for beginner and intermediate level students.  The intention of two-man forms, just as in any of the other open-hand or weapon forms, is to practice the forms at fighting speed and power.

At first, the forms are taught slowly and at minimum speed and power until the practitioner’s skills increase.  This is a part of the arts that might look easier than it is, for the blows and speed are aimed at the correct targets on the opponent.  Should a practitioner fail to do the movement correctly is could easily result in a dangerous injury.

This forces both practitioners to use their skills to a high degree.  The movements must function equally between the two practitioners in speed, power, and application, not just in order to continue the form, but also so that one or both don’t get hurt.  And through constant practice one builds quick and controlled reflexive movements that could easily be used in real life circumstances.

The Path

Boy:  Master?

Master:  Yes?

Boy:  What is Shaolin Kung Fu?

Master:  Shaolin Kung Fu is the unity of Zen and the Martial Arts

Boy:  How does one achieve this unity?

Master:  By dedicating yourself fully to the practice.

Boy:  Master?

Master:  Yes?

Boy:  Will you take me to the Shaolin Temple to watch the training?

Master:  Of course.

(The master takes the boy to the Shaolin Temple)

Boy:  Master?

Master:  Yes?

Boy:  I think I understand now.

Master:  Yes?

Boy:  Shaolin Kung Fu builds moral character, strengthens the body, and celebrates life.

Master:  Yes.  You need only practice with all of your heart and all of your mind.