Training goals and philosophy

Sorry about the radio silence, folks! I’ve been a little busy with final projects, exams, and job interviews. But enough of that, let’s talk kung fu training.

Ever since becoming “serious” about my martial arts training a few years ago, I have been greatly inspired by the example of my grandmaster, whose training philosophy is “setting and attaining aims and objectives.” The philosophy of most other traditional kung fu schools is “attaining skill through sweat and toil” and take about ten to fifteen years to churn out a martial artist who is fit, powerful, agile, and capable of using his kung fu even against masters of other styles. Why does it take a decade and a half? Ignorance and haphazard training tend to be the major reasons.

In most traditional kung fu schools, lessons are taught either by the master or the senior student on a rolling, almost whimsical basis. New students might be taught fundamental exercises such as the Horse Riding stance and various ways of stretching, but they are generally not told why such exercises are so important. Sure, it’s readily visible that stance training can develop strong and stable legs, and that stretching contributes to agility, but both exercises furthermore train discipline, the ability to fully manifest the body’s capabilities, and most importantly, to develop internal force when practiced in the correct manner. One of the fundamental requirements for internal force training is to be relaxed in mind and body; my grandmaster calls his a “qigong state of mind,” “Entering Zen,” or “Entering Tao.” Of the three other masters I trained under (a Baguazhang master in Skokie, IL, a Huang Long master here in West Lafayette, IN, and a Yang Taijiquan master also in West Lafayette, IN), not a single one stressed this mental state. After my initiation into kung fu by Sifu Antonius Korahais, I realized that without that state of relaxation, no internal force can be developed. It’s quite different from isometric muscular training which is predicated on continuous tension.

Haphazard training was, and still is, the norm in traditional kung fu schools (less so in modern wushu academies where there is a “standardized curriculum” of kung fu sets to learn thanks to the Communist Chinese Government seeking to standardize the demonstration of martial routines). My own grandmaster, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit went through this sort of training in his own youth. The emphasis in training from his own masters was the training of sets which would (hopefully) result in various qualities such as internal force, fast decision making, and combative skills like proper timing, spacing, tactics, and so forth. His first master, Lai Chin Wah (which would be my “great grandmaster,” sitaigung), specialized in Southern Shaolin kung fu and the first set his students learnt was named Taming the Tiger. It is a very long set (probably somewhere in the vicinity of one hundred to one hundred and fifty patterns, including repetitions) and has vary elaborate and tricky movements such as the use of the Double Tiger Claws, No Shadow Kicks, Crane Beaks, and tricky footwork. Just learning to perform the set in its entirety could take a long time; learning the application of its movements would take even further!

The problem of haphazard training in traditional kung fu schools is further exasperated by the fact that the head master often does not teach! The head master often delegated the day-to-day training to his senior students and would teach whenever he felt like it. His own hard-won experience and skills would often be passed on to those who were in the right time, place, and just plain lucky enough to overhear what he was explaining. Such “secrets” of training that the master imparted are the gold of the kung fu community, and sadly, many students are simply unlucky enough to be somewhere else when very important lessons are imparted. Some benefits can still be attained, however, such as the tradition of “stealing” a kung fu set or lesson. For example, my grandmaster “stole” his own master’s Triple Stretch (also known as the Great Majestic Set) when it was being taught to one of his classmates (stealing a set refers to learning a set by watching it being taught to someone else). While lucky students might be able to steal the physical movements of the set (the “form”), it would be even more difficult to steal the “application” of the set’s movements. Even the most simple movements like the basic punch in a Bow-Arrow stance (“Black Tiger Steals Heart”) or a basic forearm block (like “Beauty Looks at Mirror”) requires numerous bits of information like proper waist and arm rotation, the appropriate angle to strike or block, and what cues to look for in the opponent that reveal an opening. Trickier or more elaborate movements, like the Double Tiger Claws (where one claw can trap both of an opponent’s arms while the other rends their face or throat) or Black Tiger Crouches at Cliff (deflecting a chopping attack and simultaneously breaking the attacker’s arm and ribs) have applications virtually impossible to tell from a solo performance of the set. One needs to be initiated into the “secrets” of philosophy, form and application in some manner. Because initiations into secrets often occurred merely at the master’s whims, many students had to try and figure out applications and skills on their own through trial-and-error, which literally took years. Each student would be practicing their sets and force training and trying to figure out their own program of how to train the skills they want, moving from basic exercises like “how to perform a proper punch without falling flat on one’s face” to “using pressing attacks to drive an opponent back to a wall.” Not exactly easy stuff without being shown an efficient training program.

Thankfully, Shaolin Wahnam is rather revolutionary in its training philosophy. For one, it openly shares its training philosophy with the public and tells students at the beginning, “Okay, you’re going to be training this exercise in this fashion because it brings these benefits, which are very useful to kung fu because of these reasons.” Most students never realize why exercises like the Horse Riding stance are meant to be trained, but because Shaolin Wahnam students know the how’s and why’s, they can aim directly for those benefits (such as stability, internal force, and mental clarity) instead of just developing those qualities, if at all, in a haphazard and inefficient manner.

Hand-in-hand with an explanation of training philosophy is the notion of setting measurable goals for their training, a skill that can easily be transferred to daily life. My master has an excellent blog post on setting goals, so I’ll just mention a few salient points. Simply put, without measuring something (like “progress,” however you choose to define it), it can’t be adequately judged. In the past, kung fu students trained whatever their master showed them, or whatever they felt like, because they tended to lack a defined training schedule. As a result, some aspects of training might get neglected while too much time might be spent on other things in comparison. I saw this a lot in my former kung fu classmates; they would spend extraordinary amounts of time on set practice, but rare was the student who practiced application in the form of two-man sets or sparring, or force training like Reversed Breathing or stance training. My master’s blog post has plenty of example goals, several of which I use in my own training. Coming towards the end of three months after being taught Baguazhang by my grandmaster, I’m ready to evaluate my training objectives and see what I’ll be focusing on for the next three months. This evaluation is key, for it allows me to see what I obtained, what I fell short on, and what new things to specialize on in my practice.

An important detail is to note that these goals must be obtainable by humans (I am assuming that we’re all humans here). I find it useful and inspiring to see that yes, something is indeed possible, and it can keep me going when I feel despair.

Time-frame: 2013 January 1 through March 1
Objective: To be able to break a brick with a palm strike.
Method: Training Two Finger Shooting Zen in the mornings and Baguazhang force training in the evenings.
Aim: Self-defense, confidence.

Objective: To have the flexibility needed to touch chin to toe
Method: Training the Art of Flexibility (especially Lohan Touches Earth, Lohan Embraces Feet, and Old Monk Removes Shoe) and Art of One Hundred Kicks daily.
Aim: Health, fitness.

Objective: To be able to correctly perform the entire Swimming Dragon Baguazhang set.
Method: Practicing the set and its component sequences thirty times daily with picture-perfect form, continuous flow, and manifesting force at appropriate points in the set.
Aim: Self-defense, fitness, health.

Objective: To be able to swiftly move to an opponent’s side or back.
Method: Practicing Bagua circle walking and especially Swimming Dragon sequences 1 and 7.
Aim: Self-defense, fitness.

We’ll see where I stand after a few months. Do you use goals and objectives in your own work? Care to share? Curious as to what the heck I’m training? Leave a comment!

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