The most important lessons

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:

  1. One at a time and all together
  2. Allow the neck to be free
  3. To allow the head to release forward and up
  4. To allow the torso to release back and up
  5. To allow the knees to release forward
  6. To allow the heels to release back and down
  7. 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.


6 thoughts on “The most important lessons

  1. Sorry, can’t agree with you about the value of the Bow and Arrow stance or the Horse Riding stance when sparring against the Muai Thai stylist. While your stance may have been strong due to your training, you certainly were not mobile nor agile. The Thai stylist should have been to dance, kick, and punch freely around you. Too much traditional stance training results in a “dead horse,”…..namely a lack of mobility and agility. Save it for your Bagua Zhang and Tan Tui practices.

    • Hi, Fastfist3! I’m glad that you’re sharing your opinion on stance training. I have to disagree with you there, however, based on my actual experiences with both linguistics and actual sparring. You may have a slanted notion of what “traditional stance training” means: the Chinese phrase that gets translated into “stance training” is “ma-bo,” which literally means “horse-step.” “Horse,” in this case, refers to the Horse-Riding stance, which is the “mother stance” in kung fu from which all other stances derive. “Bo” literally means “step” and refers to footwork and agility training, namely moving in stances. I would certainly agree with you that *only* training stances (without proper footwork) would result in what you call a “dead horse.” The important point, which you touched upon, is my *training*. Because I have trained correctly, I am both agile and solid whilst moving in stances.

      Given that *I* was the one who was able to “dance, kick, and punch freely” around my Muai Thai pal (and he has well over five more years of Muai Thai experience than I do with kung fu experience), certainly something was different between our training philosophies.

      May I ask what arts you practice and your experiences? I am curious to know!

      • My mobility, speed, and sparring ability comes from my younger amateur boxing days. My kicking and traditional training comes from my Hapkido and North China martial art training (so I am familiar with your Tam Tui training). I am on the west coast and have been instructing central-city youth for 40 years. Pleasure to meet you.

  2. A pleasure to meet you! You are doing excellent work in teaching central-city youth. It is certainly a worthy endeavor to give discipline, fitness, and confidence to them. I am sure it requires much patience and a keen eye on your part!

    I’ve never trained Hapkido, though interestingly enough, my laboratory manager is himself a black belt in Hapkido. Could you say a few words about that art? You mentioned receiving “kicking and traditional training”; how do you feel it compares to your Tantui, boxing, and other arts? What was your Hapkido training like?

    • I feel very fortunate to have had the martial art experiences that I have had. I only regret that my age prevents me from experiencing the Muai Thai and floor grapplying excitement that is taking place now (at age 70, I have to be sensitive to my bone density now and how much longer wounds and breakages take to heal).
      My Hapkido experience was great. I trained for 3 years under first generation Sabunim, Lee Jung Bai, now in Virginia. The “hands-on” emphasis on “take-down”, wrist-lock, holds, break-falls, pad kicking, jump kicking,
      dynamic breathing, and “Ki-hap” training….all gave me a more realistic and dynamic training than the forms emphasis from my North China martial art training. I would have continued with Master Lee except that he moved away from the west coast. However, I do feel that the Hapkido kicks and breakholds were complementary to my Chinese martial art training except that the former was more dynamic and defense oriented.
      And my boxing would just round it all out in terms of actual quick reaction, street oriented self defense. All filed away in my world in kind of a Yin and Yang…soft and hard, quick or fluid, dynamic or harmonious.

      Besides your Tan Tui, were there other similar routines that you practiced? Pls extend my Hapkido greetings to your work colleague.

      • I have to admit, the way that kung fu is taught by most traditional teachers, even if they are themselves competent fighters, is very, very conservative. In the “good ol’ days,” a student had to prove they really wanted the training by doing all manner of tasks (often by being a servant to the master) before starting any “martial” training, and then doing various repetitive/”boring” tasks to further prove discipline and patience; these tasks were more often than not basic force training exercises (“Here, hold the Horse Riding stance until I come back…in a few hours”) to make sure that the student’s mind and body could “handle” and fully express the techniques they’d learn later. Some masters refuse to even teach application, leaving the students to puzzle out the applications from their sets themselves; the only times the masters intervene is to confirm whether or not something is a valid application. This sort of philosophy often extends the time it takes for someone to become competent in using kung fu in sparring or real fighting to well past a decade, and that’s even if you’re lucky to become a favored “in-door” disciple of a master.

        Thankfully, that is not the philosophy in the school I’m a part of. In the kung fu school I’m a part of, Shaolin Wahnam (, kung fu students begin with basic force training (stances, stretching, and footwork so that the body can “handle” the techniques and to develop internal force and to make the body healthy). Next, basic hand patterns, then kicking, then felling, and then gripping techniques are gradually learnt. After learning individual techniques, they are strung together in combat sequences so that we learn to use the techniques, using proper stances and footwork, in a flowing situation. Many kung fu schools never systematically train this level of sparring or fighting; they focus on just individual techniques. Naturally, someone who can use their techniques in free-flow is at an advantage over someone who can only use their techniques in a one-moment-at-a-time manner. When kung fu is taught in this manner, it can be very dynamic, offensive, defensive, or whatever your needs happen to be at the time. Students are able to use kung fu movements, rather than random and haphzard sparring, boxing, or kickboxing, in a matter of months rather than years (though it still takes time to get skillful enough to spar or fight, say, a very competent boxer or kickboxer or wrestler, of course).

        Funnily enough, students aren’t typically taught “classical” kung fu sets in Shaolin Wahnam like Cross-Road at Four Gates, Tantui, Tiger-Crane, Taming the Tiger, or what-have-you until after “graduating” from this level. At this beginner’s level, there are some sets composed by our grandmaster which help us get skillful at this “sequence” sparring using classical kung fu techniques. Many schools will begin with what we in Shaolin Wahnam consider sets that are too advanced for fresh beginners (e.g. Tantui, Tiger-Crane) who might not even know how to throw a punch or sit in a stance correctly.

        This philosophy spills over to all of the kung fu sets taught in Shaolin Wahnam. The “foundation” of the kung fu taught in Shaolin Wahnam is mostly Southern Shaolin kung fu, since that was the main training of our grandmaster. The foundation’s Southern Shaolin kung fu roots can be seen in both the techniques we use as well as the main internal force training exercises: Horse-Riding Stance, Golden Bridge, and One Finger Shooting Zen.

        I have three sets that I consider my “best,” though sadly I’ve only learnt one from my grandmaster:

        1) The Twelve Sequences of Tantui was my “first love” in kung fu; I absolutely adore the tricky kicks and long reaching movements therein. I learnt the first three sequences of Tantui from videos and my Sifu was surprised that I learnt so well from them; it was because I had spent quite some time on the “basics.” =D

        2) My favorite set to demonstrate is Flowing Water, Floating Clouds, a set derived from Chen style Taijiquan (my favorite type of Taijiquan), though to be honest, I don’t practice it very much for application; I enjoy practicing it because I find it fun, beautiful and easy, despite its length. I particularly enjoy the constantly flowing nature of this set, which is one of the trademarks of Taijiquan and Long Fist styles (including Tantui).

        3) My personal favorite and best set is the Swimming Dragon Baguazhang set, which I learnt from my grandmaster in late June 2012 (the only kung fu set I’ve directly learnt from him).

        You can see a bunch of videos of my grandmaster teaching or demonstrating these sets here:
        Flowing Water Flowing Clouds: ,
        Baguazhang: ,

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