Self-Study: The New Form

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Forms Practice

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Forms Practice

As you train, new forms are taught to advance the number of techniques you know and develop your physical abilities.  These forms are an essential part of the art and each movement contains many techniques for fighting.  As mentioned in a prior post, it is not enough to know the form.  You must really know the form.   So much so that there must be no chance to get it wrong.  That is when you truly “own” it and are able to utilize the techniques inherent in it.  This may take hundreds – even thousands – of repetitions and many evolutions of the form for it to become ingrained in your body.

Besides attending class every day, a simple way to develop mastery of your form is to practice your newest form(s) at least once or twice every day.  As there is usually a good space of time between learning new forms, you will have the opportunity to practice this form (or perhaps the last few forms) at least dozens of times.  Maybe it’s when you wake up, before you leave for work/school, after dinner or sometime before bed.  Practice it slowly – on count – at first and then do it again at full speed.  Make a habit of it and your forms and your martial skill will improve faster and you will test for your next rank with much more confidence.  Don’t forget – this does not take the place of attending class regularly!  Take as many classes as you can to maximize your progress in the art!

Bravery

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Bravery

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Bravery

It’s not something you can see, but it has many colors and is incredibly important.

Bravery is one of the key requirements of the beginning student and becomes one of the major attributes of the advanced one.  It is also one of the primary reasons our school is ideal for today’s youth.  Many students who begin at our school do not have any martial arts experience, nor any familiarity with the Chinese language and culture.  Being that we are a traditional school, this can be intimidating and difficult for a westerner to adapt to.  Continuing on this course takes bravery.

Hundreds of kicks, holding stances for minutes on end, struggling to learn and remember movements, grueling sparring sessions with students possessing significantly more skill, training through injury, the pressures of preparing and testing for the next rank…. these are just a few of the many elements of kung fu that require bravery at our school.  It’s a personal decision each student must make to press on.

Students will also exhibit bravery out of school.  It might be as simple as stepping in to help someone in trouble to something more major like defending someone in a violent situation.  The bravery gained through the hard training provides a solid basis for the student to determine right from wrong and the strength and skill to act on it properly.

Using the Mirror

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Using the Mirror

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Using the Mirror

The mirror can be helpful for developing your kung fu ability.

Before or after class, you typically have time to practice anything you like:  kicks, stances, forms, chin na, san shou, etc.  By paying attention in class, you see how higher rank perform certain movements.  Perhaps you had a movement that was taught or corrected in class by Sifu.  The mirror let’s you judge for yourself just how well your movement stacks up.  Is your technique well balanced?  Are your stances low and strong?  Are your kicks and punches fast and sharp?  Is your posture correct or are you leaning, tense or just off?  The mirror and your honest judgment will give you the answers.

During class, the mirror is helpful in a different way.  Like the above, you can measure how high, fast and powerful your kicks are getting, how your stances compare to the rest of the class, etc.  However, during class, the mirror can be used when being taught new movements and greater details of old movements.  You can see multiple angles via the reflection and see things you might not have seen otherwise.  The mirror can also provide you with better peripheral vision to ensure you don’t hit or get hit by others.  It can even help you see others if you get confused or stuck – hopefully that doesn’t happen.

The mirrors can do all of that for you and more – the only thing you need to do is use them properly (i.e. not a great idea to look at yourself in the mirror when sparring and definitely not when you are standing at attention).  And one more thing, clean the sweat off of them after class every now and then.

Self Study: Sit-Ups

Sit-ups are somewhat synonymous of abdominal exercise development.  While the muscles surrounding your abdomen get an amazing workout from kung fu training (particularly kicks), there are many exercises that focus on developing strength and endurance in those muscles (rectus abdominis and obliques).  Many of these exercises are performed in class from time to time, but are always great to add to your post-class routine in conjunction with push-ups and some stretching.  They are also a great exercise to perform at home as a self-study.

Quarters

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Quarters

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Quarters

This exercise works the upper abdominal muscles.  Lay down on your back with a straight body (or with slightly bent knees) and cross your arms over your body and have your hands on the opposite shoulder.  The movement is quick and simple – just lift your head and look at your toes.   When you see them, let your head back down to the ground.  A very basic exercise for those just starting to work their abdominal muscles.   For those of you who have no problem doing these, try doing them as quickly as possible up to 100.  If that didn’t test your muscles, then try doing 200.  Then move on to the next exercise.

Bicycles

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Bicycles

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Bicycles

This works the sides of your rectus abdominis, as well as the obliques.  Lay on your back, put your hands behind your head, and lift your legs off the ground.  Twist your body to touch your right elbow to your left knee, then immediately release and touch the left elbow to the right knee.  If you do these quick enough, it looks like your riding a bike, hence the name, bicycles (or bicycle crunches).

Leg Raises

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Leg Raises

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Leg Raises

This works the lower abdomen.  Lay on your back with your arms at your sides pressing down and your head raised off the ground.  Bring your knees up to your chest and shoot your feet straight up above your head.  Reverse the motion to complete one repetition.  This exercise is also good for the spine.

These are only a few of the multitude of exercises that work the mid-section.  As mentioned, the muscles of your abdomen are used a lot during training (think of turn kicks) and it is for this reason that various types of sit-ups are helpful for building strength and endurance.  Try them when you wake up in the morning, during commercials, after class, etc. – you will notice the benefits within a week or two.

Invisible Growth

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu - Invisible Growth

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu – Invisible Growth

If one point can’t be drilled into each student enough is the idea of effort and consistency.  In our world of fast food, remote controls, light switches, movies, etc., most people expect results to come on command.   They expect instant gratification.  People start a diet or exercise routine in the morning and expect to see a different body that night when they look at themselves in the mirror or wonder how much weight they lost when they step on the scale.  Some people are ambitious enough to turn the TV off for a night and read a few pages of a book – only to set the book aside because the beginning was too boring.  We expect to see immediate results and constant feedback or else we believe something isn’t right.  However, that is not the way things work… not with kung fu and not with most things in life worth pursuing.

In fact, what is happening every day you train is “invisible growth”.  The development of kung fu skill is the pursuit of perfecting all the details that make up the art.  This perfection is gradual – it’s a process that requires painstaking effort and consistency mentioned time and again in class.  Because there are so many nuances to the movements, you won’t really know what you’re getting better at day in and day out.  By the time you recognize you’ve gotten better at some aspect of training, you’ve practiced the techniques over and over and over again – even many hundreds and thousands of times.  It’s quite likely that it is someone else telling you how much better you’ve gotten because you can’t even tell the difference.  When they ask what you’ve done to get better, your answer will likely be, “I don’t know – I just trained!” because there was probably no aha moment.  Those people probably weren’t around to watch you in class day in and day out.  They had and have the same opportunity as you to get better.

One last concept to help grasp the idea of “Invisible Growth” is that of compound interest – which was dubbed “the 8th wonder of the world.” by Albert Einstein.  “Compounding” has the same benefit to your kung fu skill as it does to money.  When it comes to the compounding of money – saving $20 a day and compounding it at 8%/year will yield $109,767 in 10 years, $353,412 in 20 years, $894,215 in 30 years, and $2,094,604 in 40 years.  No small sum for half a life of saving.  Although more money was saved from day 1 to year 30, there was much more money earned by the compounding effect during years 30-40.  This is the 8th wonder of the world working in your favor.  When it comes to compounding kung fu skill, the same phenomena will occur.  As you put your time in and learn movements and techniques, much will be new and their will be no compounding going on – yet.  As years go by and your body has internalized many of the basics, the compounding effect will kick in.  New movements will take little effort to learn, understand and utilize.  Your skill will flow as your body has memorized how to effortlessly move, react, and adapt to change.

By training an hour everyday you’d hit 10,000 hours of training in about 30 years and become a “kung fu millionaire”.

A Low Ceiling

Brea Shao Lin Kung Fu - Low Ceiling

Brea Shao Lin Kung Fu – Low Ceiling

One very effective way of lowering your root, creating power, and becoming more effective in sparring/fighting is to imagine that the ceiling of the room you train in has been lowered to about a foot or two shorter than your height.  An actual room like that would be hard to come by, so you’ll just have to visualize it when you train.  You would literally have to lower your head and bend your knees just to get in the room.  Imagine it.

When practicing kicks in this room, your stances will have to start low so your head doesn’t hit the ceiling.  When executing the kick, your stances must then stay low – don’t pop up!  This means you must sink your weight throughout the entire kick.  This will help your kick become even more powerful.  It also makes you difficult to sweep to the ground if your kick is caught as your center of balance – your root – makes you very heavy to the opponent and you have much greater balance.

Practicing single-step movements and forms in a room with a low ceiling also requires a great number of changes so as to not bang your head.  Let’s disregard movements that require standing at full height, jumping kicks, etc.  Focus on the majority of the movements that require stepping, turning, twisting, switching stances, punching, kicking, etc.   Like with the kicks, performing these movements with such low stances will create enormous power and stability.

During sparring, San Shou and even when implementing Chin Na, keeping low will provide a new perspective to your training.  Don’t mistake keeping low with being slow.  Your legs will burn for some time by keeping so low and that might seemingly slow your movements down.  Realize, however, that it’s only temporary due to your legs being gassed.  As you continue with this type of training, you will become incredibly stronger, your body looser, and those two things will help you move far quicker than before.

This new way of training will likely have an almost immediate impact on your skill level.  You will become a much more solid and smooth martial artist.  However, this type of training takes a good deal of focus and willingness to suffer – your legs will undoubtedly go through a great deal of growing pains.  But, if you care about progressing in your kung fu, it’s worth the pains.  In class, take a low stance in kicks, single step, forms, etc. and use the mirrors to try to maintain the height of your head through whatever you’re working on.  If you’re not in a position to look at a mirror, simply envision yourself doing what you’re doing and keeping your head on a level plane.  Do not bend your back to make this happen.  There will be times when movements dictate a higher or lower stance, so allow for them when they occur.  Otherwise, try to keep low, stable and supple.

The Components of Martial Skill – Power, Speed, Endurance, and Technique

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Martial Arts

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Martial Arts

Power is something that most everyone can develop.  Proper breathing (timely exhaling during the execution of a strike), whole body strength (a firm rooting to the ground, strong and loose muscles, and release of energy), and proper body alignment (posture and structure) create more power than what simple muscles can deliver.  There is far more to power than strong musculature.  Of course, if you attempt to employ power without correct speed or technique, then you have a wasted movement as you will not likely impact your target or if you do it may not have much effect.

Speed is a necessity for many techniques to work.  Without proper speed, your movements will likely be blocked, avoided or countered or, defensively, your blocks and evading techniques won’t be effective.  As with all of the components to fighting ability, speed can be developed with consistent training.  Each time you practice a movement – be it a punch, a kick, a sweep, a throw, a joint lock – you must try to do it faster (while maintaining both proper form and power).  Relaxation is a must to maximize speed as tightness delays movement.

Endurance ensures you have the physical capacity to successfully utilize techniques after a good deal of physical exertion.  You never know when you may be called on to defend yourself and loved ones from one or multiple opponents.  Sparring is typically held towards the end of class for this very reason.  Much of the hard work has already been done and it forces you to gather yourself (read:  “your energy”) and give 100% focus and effort when sparring your opponent.  This hard training is often when “chi” is cultivated and can come into play for more advanced students.  Never forget, you may be strong and fast, but if you’re too gassed to react properly in a physical encounter – you’re history.

Technique conquers all.  Technique is a broad concept that covers the proper execution of defensive and offensive fighting movements – including striking, grappling, throwing, sweeping, timing and distance.  It is the essence of any and all martial arts.  You may have power, speed and endurance (which might make you an incredible athlete), but without technique you will very likely not have the ability to successfully defend yourself against someone who does.

Learning a technique is one thing, but truly possessing a technique in such a way that you can call on it immediately in a fight is another.  This kind of mastery takes many years of practice with your kung fu brothers and sisters.  It’s learning the technique, re-learning it, repeating it over and over in hundreds (even thousands) of different positions and scenarios for the purpose of using it in the few serious physical engagements you may encounter.  Luckily, it doesn’t require a large arsenal of these mastered techniques to successfully defend yourself from untrained and even trained adversaries.  However, mastering technique is unquestionably the most difficult and time consuming of the four components.  It is also one of the most rewarding.

You must develop and maintain power, speed and endurance to make techniques work.  In fact, all four components of martial skill must be present.  If a punch or kick is flying to your face or body, your speed and technique will allow you to create space from the oncoming blow and block it.  Speed, power and technique are still required to successfully counter the attack.  Endurance may be required in certain circumstances, but is a necessity in your training when you are developing your speed, power and technique.  The endurance aspect brings ALL the components of martial skill together when you are exhausted while sparring and have to draw on your highest abilities to bring power, speed and technique to bear against an opponent.