Training at Home

“A day of missed training can never be recovered.”  This thought has been echoed by Kung Fu masters for generations.

There is no question that the more time you spend intently practicing your art the faster you will advance and the more skill you will acquire.  That said, when you can’t attend class for whatever reason try to spend some time training on your own.  Many have found solitary practice indispensable for overcoming weak areas, practicing new movements and conditioning their body.

There are three kinds of home practice.  The first is focused on creating a class-like workout at home, which would typically include kicking, single-step movements, forms, stances, exercises, etc.  Ideally, this workout is based on a self-examination of your kung fu skills and a focused effort on overcoming your imperfections (e.g. stances, kicks, saltongs, upper body strength, etc.) or further development of movements and techniques that you want to perfect.  If you are lucky enough to have a housemate or family member to train with you can even work on chin na, san shou and potentially sparring, although sparring must be done cautiously (just be careful not to get injured.)  This should be your primary training when not at the kung fu school.  At the very least, practice the latest forms you’ve learned or work on perfecting the eight stances and holding them until your legs begin to shake (and then a little more).

The second kind of training, some call it “cross-training”, can also be of value by way of physical conditioning.  This training seeks to develop speed, strength, and endurance.  Swimming is an excellent exercise that both strengthens and stretches your body while giving your joints a break from gravity.  Jogging, lifting weights, yoga, and playing various sports will all benefit your kung fu training as long as you are careful not to overdo it and avoid injury.  Another good idea is to combine some of the above exercises with traditional kung fu training.  For example, jog a lap around the block, do a few forms, followed by push ups and stances, and repeat.  An excellent work out.

The third kind of training involves resting your body and using your mind.  Simply put, there are times when you must rest like when you are sick, injured, or just plain exhausted to the point where you become irritable and achey.  Resting your body and brain allows it to recharge and regenerate, which is necessary for growth.   Many studies have supported the benefits of getting eight hours of sleep and how it significantly improves both physical and mental performance.  Daytime naps have also been shown to be healthy.

While your body is resting, kung fu training can continue in your mind through self-imagery.  Imagine yourself in various sparring scenarios successfully utilizing counters to your opponents attacks.  Go further and think of your opponents response to your counter and what you would do.  Or, you can think about chin na techniques you know and visualize exactly how they are to be performed.  The same can be said for san shou.  You can even think about your forms and what fighting techniques can be derived from various movements in the form.  This self-imagery training is very valuable and many professional athletes swear by it.  One of the all-time great golfers, Jack Nicklaus said, “I never hit a shot even in practice without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.  First, I “see” the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I “see” the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there’s a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality and only at the end of this short private Hollywood spectacular do I select a club and step up to the ball.”

At times life can get hectic and unfortunately take precedence over coming to the school for class.  However, you can and should find a way to practice on your own – if even for a short time – and you may very well find your skills move to the next level because of it.  Sample home workouts will come in future posts.  Keep training…

Failing a Rank Test

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu School

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu School

When you are told you may test for the next rank, it means that you have learned sufficient forms, techniques, and skills to potentially pass that test.  However, there are two things you need to do to pass.  The first is to prepare yourself in the weeks and months prior to the test by attending class regularly and practicing those things you will be tested on.  The second is to perform well at the test.  Without the former, the latter can be quite difficult.

If you don’t prepare and you don’t do well on your test, you will not pass and get the next rank.  It doesn’t mean you are a bad person.  It simply means you weren’t up to snuff on the day of the test.  The purpose of the test is for the student to perform under a stressful situation that requires exactness, concentration, and execution.  Those three attributes are exactly what are required should you need to defend yourself or others outside of the school.  The higher the rank, the more that is expected of you and the better you must perform to pass.

At some point after the test, you will be told what specifically you did or didn’t do that caused the failure.  Take this constructive criticism with you to your next class and the classes that follow and try to work on the areas of weakness.  It is important to come back to class strong and continue your training.  Remember, this is not a reflection on you as a person, just a reflection on the quality of your movement during the test.  Lastly, and most importantly, kung fu is a way of life that can keep you vital, vibrant, and strong the rest of your days.  Rank tests are only a part of your training.  Consistent, hard training will take you as far as you want to go.

Don’t Rush Your Training

Each student learns at their own pace.  Some have the ability to not only learn quickly, but to seemingly ingrain the movement upon learning it.  It’s possible for this to happen, particularly for more advanced students.  It is thought that these students are talented, which they may be for this moment of their training.  On the other hand, some students struggle while learning new things – be it remembering what was taught to them or simply having the body strength and coordination to do the movement.

It matters not whether you are one of the fast learners or slow learners as people catch on and “get it” at different times in their training.  At the end of the day what matters is the student’s ability to not just practice the movement until he gets it right, but to practice it to such an extent that he can’t get it wrong.  This poses a bigger challenge for most beginning and intermediate students as their is a big difference between getting it right and not being able to do it wrong.  Getting it right might take doing the technique/form tens of times.  Not being able to do it wrong probably takes doing it hundreds, even thousands of times.  This is when kung fu comes alive.

Most student’s see the next form, the next set of more advanced and fancy looking techniques and want to learn them – which is understandable.  Perhaps they think that just by learning something more advanced there abilities will automatically become more advanced.  However, it takes a great deal of practice to get to the point where you can’t do a technique or a form wrong.  This is why “advanced” students still practice the basics and beginning students should try not to rush to learn too much too fast.  In fact, stick to what you’ve been taught in class and be diligent in improving the details of what you’ve been taught the best you can.

Low Stances

One phrase you will likely hear over and over again is, “Stances Down!”  There is good reason for this.  Very low stances may not be needed in an encounter, but practicing very low while training will give you the ability to maintain low stances (read:  low center of gravity) while continuing to stay loose, smooth, and agile.  This is because your legs will be extremely strong from training very low stances and holding low stances won’t be a problem.

Pushing yourself to lower stances while holding proper postures is something to focus on in each class.  Practicing stances at home is also a very important self-study exercise.  See how low you can go before you start bending your back, lose balance, tighten up, or break form.  Utilize mirrors both at home and at the school to ensure your back is perpendicular to the ground and all looks correct.  And most of all…. sink.  Practically perfect stances won’t come overnight – as always, progress is fought for with daily practice for months and years.  You should be low enough to feel that the the brunt of the weight shifted from your thigh muscles to a balance between your thighs and the muscles of your rump.  Those muscles should be actively engaged when stances are held low, in fact, they should eventually shake from exhaustion before switching stances.

Visualizing An Imaginary Opponent

As mentioned before there is “no fat” in your kung fu training.  Everything has a purpose and the primary purpose is to develop your martial skills to the highest level possible given the amount of time and effort you devote to training.  Something that can really benefit your training from very early on to higher levels is visualizing an imaginary opponent or “shadowboxing”.  It can and should be something you do in every training session.

A wide variety of kicks are performed in each class – tens, hundreds, even a thousand-plus kicks can be counted out.  At times these kicks can become “lifeless” if you’re not trying hard or having an off day.  To avoid this waste of time, make the mental effort to imagine a potential threat in front of you and use that to motivate yourself to block an imaginary attack or arm out of the way and kick this imaginary opponent with as much speed, power and height as possible.  This mental imagery will not only bring “life” back into your kicks, but will also help you develop better kicking ability for forms, san shou and, most importantly, sparring.

The same mental exercise should be used for single step movements.  As you are stepping to do a forward bow punch, imagine you are blocking an imaginary attack or arm out of the way with the retreating hand and strike the imaginary opponent with as much speed and force as you can muster.  You will realize that you move smoother and can execute the technique with more power against your imaginary opponent with low stances.  Again, your san shou and sparring will greatly benefit from this visualization practice.

Lastly, visualization can really come alive when it comes to forms.  In the beginning, it may be difficult to understand what techniques the forms are teaching and how an opponent would attack.  However, you will be taught the purpose of many of the form’s movements (there are usually a number of uses for each individual movement in a form) and you need to think and ingrain how the technique would work against your imaginary sparring partner.  This is especially helpful when doing the form on count as movements are broken down into pieces (although visualization can and should also be done with forms at full speed eventually).  Practicing forms at home while visualizing an imaginary opponent is an excellent self-study practice.

Single Step Movements

Our forms are the dictionary, encyclopedia, and playbook of our martial arts style.  Forms were created and improved upon over hundreds of years and generations upon generations of martial artists who dedicated their lives to learning the best ways to defend themselves and their loved ones from one or more highly skilled attackers.  For this reason, the forms are not to be taken lightly.

Single step movements are a way for beginner, intermediate, and advanced students alike to work on singular movements from forms that need improvement.  Of course, certain single-step movements such as the horse stance punch, forward bow punch, open-hand movement, etc. are the foundations of our training.  These movements are found in most forms and for this reason are some of the first things new students learn at our school and are continually practiced.  Even the kicks practiced in class can be considered a single step movement as they create a foundation to properly execute the movement in sparring.

However, single step movements need not be reserved for beginning students.  Forms have a number of demanding movements that require strength, explosiveness, flexibility and general athleticism.  A great example of a movement that many students struggle with is the first movement in bashu.  It is a fast down movement evading a high attack and following up with a punch to the mid-section.

For those who struggle with this movement (or any movement), simply break it down into a single step movement and practice doing it up and down the mat before or after class.  Sometimes you will do the movement going forward… sometimes it will be done going backward.  Either way, watch yourself in the mirror.  Practice doing it slowly at first.  Is your posture correct?  Are you low enough?  Is your body too tight to make it work properly?  Are your muscles strong enough to do it very slowly?  It may take time to develop the strength, balance, and/or flexibility to get it right.  Learn what you can from this practice and continue until you are satisfied the movement is up to snuff and their is another movement that needs your attention more.

Internal Training

Internal training occurs solely through the practice of the empty hand and weapons forms and moves through three stages.  In the beginning, diligent and thorough practice of the forms with the correct postures and details of the techniques is required.  The second stage progresses beyond technique, as the forms are performed with swift coordination, precise timing, fluid rhythm, flowing momentum, and maximum focus.  Combining these qualities with an understanding of the techniques allows one to practice the forms as if one were encountering an opponent.  The final stage reaches the state of chuan, no chuan (technique, no technique), yi, no yi, (mind, no mind).  The Chinese maxim reads “from no yi shoots out true yi,” meaning that from thoughtlessness comes true meaning.  The internal practice follows the tradition of Zen rather than Taoist methods of consciously or willfully guiding the chi through special routes.  All one needs is a total commitment to the form without any mistakes or artificial feelings for the true unification of mind, body, and action to occur.