Even though I haven’t lived my “real life” for very long yet (I graduated last week, woo), I’ve come to realize something: the most important lessons I have ever had transmitted to me by my amazing teachers have been the first and the last one. This has held true in virtually every facet of my life: school, research, martial arts, cooking, and my various jobs.
The first lesson lays the foundation of all future skill and knowledge. Let’s talk kung fu, because let’s face it, I love kung fu. The first and perhaps most important exercise in kung fu is zhan zhuang, or stance training. The most important stance for developing force in Shaolin kung fu is the Horse Riding stance. As generations of kung fu masters note, the Horse Riding stance serves as the foundation for all kung fu. First off, it develops the “obvious” qualities like leg strength, internal force, and a solid root from which you can apply your kung fu techniques. The less obvious qualities that develop from training the Horse Riding stance are manifold: patience, perseverance, mental calm and clarity, and more patience. Pretty useful stuff!
These skills can be applied to other kung fu exercises, such as holding other stances (stances are important in kung fu, is what I’m trying to get at here) and fighting techniques. There are many important aspects of stances that not only provide a solid base to use your techniques, they’re just plain safer for you to use. A few days ago, I sparred with a pal of mine who teaches Muai Thai. I kept to the Bow-Arrow and Bagua stance while he used the characteristic Muai Thai stance. Not only could I have kicked him in the groin pretty much whenever I wanted to (a fact, which I demonstrated repeatedly), I could use the force I derived from stance training to control his arms with Tiger Claw, the agility from my footwork training (a complement to stance training) to avoid his sweeping kicks, and the distance created by my guard hands to give me adequate time and space to ward off his feints and tricks. I still had my weaknesses, but I think I performed rather well for a guy who only learnt Baguazhang about three months ago, compared to an assistant coach of Muai Thai.
Speaking of stances and force, many force training sets use the Horse Riding stance to enhance their benefits. For example, Golden Bridge, One Finger Shooting Zen, the ta chong of the Triple Stretch set, and the Iron Wire all have the Horse Riding stance as their base. All of these things can be traced back to “just” sitting in the Horse Riding stance at the beginning of your basic training. Stances are important in kung fu is what I’m trying to get at, and stances are the first thing a traditional kung fu master will teach you.
The final lesson that a teacher imparts upon you as you’re walking out the door can be just as important as the first. These final lessons open and reveal the path of effortless mastery and application of your hard-earned skills. My own recent “last lesson” came on my last day of dancing class; in fact, we weren’t dancing that day, but I’d come early to class so I could use the space to practice. My dancing master, Prof. Sally Wallace, saw me practice the Swimming Dragon Baguazhang set and made a few corrections to my posture. Her lessons to me in Alexander technique and Theraband Alignment Therapy manifested themselves in seven short phrases that have the flavor of a kung fu “song of secrets” that hold the essence of her teaching:
- One at a time and all together
- Allow the neck to be free
- To allow the head to release forward and up
- To allow the torso to release back and up
- To allow the knees to release forward
- To allow the heels to release back and down
- Eyes seeing, not fixing.
Two semesters expressed in about thirty seconds. Though those phrases may not sound so esoteric, it was the two semesters I had under her guidance that enabled me to manifest the essence of those lessons in all of my movement. I will treasure that final lesson always.
So all in all, give thanks to your teachers. Sure, there are some crappy educators out there, but even dung has its uses. Excellent teachers are worth their weight in gold.