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.

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…

Sparring – High-Low/Low-High Principle

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Sparring

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu Sparring

Whether you find yourself sparring someone with greater or lesser skill, one basic principle to employ is that of high-low and low-high.  It will be difficult for beginners to grasp this as they are learning the basics of attacking and counter-attacking.  However, intermediate and advanced students should be able to utilize the concept as they have basic ownership of punches, kicks and other types of strikes.

One option is to attack, counter-attack or feint high to your opponent’s head or chest, but then to immediately follow it with a low attack to the legs or lower torso.   Most modestly skilled opponents can defend themselves from the first high attack, especially one that is fairly conventional and expected like a straight punch.  However, attacking high with the knowledge that it’s an intentional ruse allows you to focus on your next attack to the opponent’s lower half (or to an expected counter-attack from your opponent).  Although your opponent might be able to step away from or block your initial high attack, defending your low attack will likely be a bit more difficult.  Should they quickly counter your initial high attack, defend against it and counter to their lower body.  This combination will require your opponent to think and react quickly and skillfully to avoid being hit and only a trained fighter can handle powerful attacks to his/her low, medium and high points in rather quick succession.

A simple example of a high-low attack is to use your front hand to jab at your opponent’s head or upper torso or to use your front hand to grab your opponent’s front hand.  This is mostly a distraction for your primary attack (the legs in this instance) and whether the high attack was successful or not, quickly attack the foot, knee or thigh of your adversary.  If they are able to avoid or block the second attack, quickly move to a mid-line attack.  Should all three of your movements be blocked, either you need to work on your technique (speed, choice of movement, telegraphing, etc.) or you are facing a formidable opponent who is feeling you out.  Of course, for sparring purposes with your kung fu classmates, DO NOT attack joints or muscles with enough force to hurt them.  We are training to prevent being damaged in a conflict, not be damaged in the process of learning.

A second option, is to attack or feint low to the feet and legs, but then to immediately attack high to the head or torso.  A simple attack to your opponent’s lower body is to hook or step on their front foot so they can not step away or counter you with a kick.  In doing so, you must also be aware of their hands and how they might try to strike their way out of your low attack.  This is ok – just be prepared for it.  Like the high-low attack, your first attack is typically not more more than a feint to get them thinking about something other than your prime target.  You are mostly concentrating on their upper body and what their hands and arms are doing.  Again, whether or not the second attack lands, quickly attack your opponent’s mid-line.

The concept of high-low or low-high attacks is the same.  Most fighters simply aren’t prepared to defend quick and smooth attacks to parts of the body that aren’t close to each other and require more advanced defenses.  Try putting this to work the next time you spar.  It will likely take some trial and error with various techniques before you find some consistent success with techniques you feel good with.  Keep trying.  Sparring is an excellent teacher because you won’t get seriously hurt trying new techniques within the school, but you will quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work because if it doesn’t work, you’ll be on the ground or will know for sure that you have lost the contest.  If it worked, then try it again until it doesn’t and then find another combination to use.

San Shou – Punch to Hit!

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu San Shou

Brea Shaolin Kung Fu San Shou

San Shou is the practice of taking martial techniques embedded in the forms and applying them against attacks from a somewhat cooperative opponent.  Its purpose is to learn how various techniques are employed, practice those techniques over and over again in a relatively controlled environment with various partners, and eventually introduce those techniques into free sparring.  San shou integrates forms and sparring.

In the beginning of san shou, your attacker throws a right forward bow punch to your chest.  Your job is to move your body to block the punch and counter the attack.  Now, when you’re just starting san shou or learning a new technique some leeway is given to the defender and they shouldn’t be afraid of getting hit.  As your experience increases, the attacker’s job is to lightly tap the defender in the chest if they miss the block!  In fact, the attacker is doing the defender a disservice by not attacking at full speed with the intent of softly hitting his/her chest.  The defender needs to know their defense was not good enough and they need to focus on their blocking technique next time.  If the attacker does get through the defenders defenses, then both should stop, and bow in recognition that the defender got hit.  The defender switches to become the attacker and they continue.

As students move up in rank, san shou gets more advanced and attacks can come in any form to any part of the body:  punches, elbows, pushes, kicks, grabs, double-movements, etc.  Again, the attacker must do their best to connect with the defender to ensure he/she is prepared with proper defense and counter.  With the exception of learning or practicing new techniques, the attackers intention’s are to “get in” on their opponent to help them learn their technique, but certainly not to injure your kung fu brothers and sisters.  There is no need to block an attack that doesn’t even come close to connecting.  Clearly, an attacker outside of the school isn’t going to stop his punch a foot away from your body – he’s going to try his best to hit!

One of the benefits to attacking your opponent at full speed, but with only a light, non-penetrating power is the development of distance and sensitivity.  Both require much practice to develop and both are vital to advancing in sparring.  Distancing is crucial for being able to successfully employ techniques with proper contact and power.  Sensitivity is important in that it provides the ability to increase or decrease power as needed while the counter is being employed.   Distance and sensitivity are also benefits to proper counters to san shou attacks.  These features of san shou begin with the attackers intention to lightly hit the defender.

Correct Blocking

One of the primary traits of shaolin’s fighting philosophy is to not get hit.  It is often taught in sparring that there is a no “exchange program” in fighting basically saying you do not accept any type of damage in order to get in on your opponent.  To avoid being hit, there are a number of things that need to happen including maintaining a proper distance from your opponent, moving your body away from an oncoming blow, and, of course, blocking.

In the beginning, blocking is simplistic.  Students are introduced to basic blocking skills:  proper distancing, blocking mechanics, and timing/reflexes.  At this stage, successful blocking means not getting hit… the intricacies of blocking come later.  Given all the different forms of attack from punches, elbows, kicks, etc. and all the various types of blocks against such attacks, it can take some time to learn and develop basic blocking skills.  At this stage, getting hit can often be the best training as it alerts the student to the inadequacies of their defense, but it’s a start to being able to defending yourself.

As blocking skill develops, less strength and movement is needed to make blocks effective.  Blocks are now more often glancing deflections than they are “bone on bone”, substantial blocks.  In fact, you learn to block just enough to avoid getting hit.   The circles in blocking are there, but are  becoming smaller and smaller – almost to the point of being imperceivable.  At this point, you might realize that certain attacks can be blocked in a way that can be to your advantage.  You deflect in order to lead the attacker into a vulnerable position for counter attack.  Blocking can also go the other way in that you can employ the “breaking weapons” theory and literally attack the opponent’s extremity that is attacking you.

After years of consistent training, as skills progress, blocking and avoiding attacks becomes second nature and doesn’t require a great deal of thought as you have done it time and again in san shou and sparring.  What becomes more important now is the ability to sense your opponents energy, balance, ability, and intentions through touching their attacks.  There is a great deal to this that won’t be explained here, but one example of a more advanced blocking technique is nullifying your opponent’s attack and sticking with it during its retreat or secondary movement.  By doing this, you are able to “keep tabs” on him and learn what his next movement would be before you would have if you weren’t touching him.  This “sticking” ability is one of tai chi chuan’s major fighting skills.

Again, it is crucial to avoid getting damaged.  Timing, reflexes, distancing, technique are all necessary to preventing getting hit and preparing you for whatever counter fits the situation.  Make efforts to stay loose and soft when blocking attacks (all the while being sure the attack doesn’t get thru) so counter attacks can be sharp and crisp.  If you are diligent to avoid being hit in the training hall, you have a great chance of not getting hit outside of it when it can mean a black eye, a broken tooth, or even the difference between life and death.

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.