Recently there has been an increase in wing chun gatherings being organised in order to give people from different lineages an opportunity to practice chi sau. I have organised similar groups myself in Sheffield. The problem is that these friendly meetings can end with trouble as there is no accepted position as to the purpose of chi sau.
Most people (not necessarily me) will happily agree that is is a training method to develop sensitivity, that it develops muscle memory of the wing chun shapes and improves reflexes. Thereafter it becomes less clear; some people see it as a platform for practicing specific techniques, others as a platform for full sparing and others just seem to be waving their arms around and waiting for enlightenment.
If we strip it back to basics, wing chun was developed as a fighting art to defend against a larger opponent. The movements therefore are designed to stop the opponent hitting you and for you to hit back with enough power to hurt them. You can be as sensitive with your forearms as you like, if your opponent is strong and his hit is in full flight then a deflection of a bong sau or jut sau is only going to delay their onslaught beyond one or two strikes.
So what is the point then if it is not about forearm sensitivity...? The arms are not separate from the body and they do not form part of a separate structure. The sensitivity we are attempting to develop is not just at the contact point, it should embrace the shape of the arms, shoulders, spine, pelvis and the legs. When conjoined these all help form a cohesive mass which we use to displace and deliver power (hopefully similtaniously).
In chi sau my aim is to point my mass at you without pushing, straining or overbalancing. The different arm shapes I use assist me by using targetting your weakest position. To stop me hitting straight through your arms you need to balance my force through your body. If you push back at me with your arms and shoulders (unless you are better than me or a lot bigger) you will struggle and have to rely on deflections or stepping away which will eventually lead to you losing your balance . If there is differentiation in ability then if I am the more relaxed person I should back off the pressure and practice further neutralisation of your force by spreading it through my stucture and into the ground.
Chi sau is an exercise in developing and applying our relaxed structure. It can legitimately lead on to practicing techniques and sparing but it is best not to trick ourselves that it is fighting. The 'rules' of fighting (when there is mutual consent) are different and need to be agreed otherwise someone will get hurt. Real fighting has no rules so you need to be sure you can apply your wing chun to produce enough power to hurt someone else.
The acme of perfection is I can hit you and you cannot hit me, you are too busy trying to regain your balance and position because in order to deal with my force you have pushed yourself backwards.
The hand techniques of wing chun (trapping, pak sau, lap sau etc) can be effective and have a place within the system, but I tend to agree with Tony Psaila in that if they make up the majority of your wing chun, you are probably not that good. Internal and external alignment of the entire body is required if we are going to have enough power to defend ourselves. This is my goal for chi sau.
Last week I attended a management course on coaching skills, arranged by my employer. As ever my first thought was the same as when I come across anything new - 'how can I apply this to my wing chun, if I can't why should I be interested?'
The course separated out the various aspects of teaching into their constituent parts:
1. Training/teaching - imparting new knowledge and skills to complete a task.
2. Mentoring - Demonstrating and acting as a role model and guide.
3. Coaching - Helping an individual who already has most of the requisite knowledge and skills how to understand how to apply them.
This idea did interest me as these are real issues in teaching our wing chun method. I have seen instructors before who endlessly tell and show a student the same things ad infinitum as if they were stupid. They are locked in the teaching mode without the ability to understand that that method of instruction is very limited;the key is helping a student figure out for themselves what the movements mean.
The majority of our students have wing chun experience. Therefore the 'teaching' of the wing chun movements for us should be relatively easy. However, understanding how the body internalises those movements and where the power comes from, has to come from an individual's own introspection and that is where coaching plays a key role. This comes back to one of my earlier blogs about wing chun not being amenable to large mcdojo enterprises as it is best passed on one to one, helping the student understand and clarify what they already really know.
A coach does not actually have to know much about the actual area being studied. During the course I was reminded of a book both Jon and I used to talk about, The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey. Although I am not so interested in tennis, the book opened my eyes to learning. Here is a quote from the intro:
Every game is composed of an outer and inner game. The outer game is played against an external opponent to overcome external obstacles, and to reach an external goal. Mastering this game is the subject of many books offering instructions on how to swing a racket, club or bat, and how to position arms, legs or torso to achieve the best results. But for some reason most of us find these instructions easier to remember than to execute.
It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.
We often wonder why we play so well one day and so poorly the best, or why we clutch during competition, or blow easy shots. And why does it take so long to break a bad habit and learn a new one? Victories in the inner game may provide no additions to the trophy case, but they bring valuable rewards which are more permanent and which can contribute significantly to one’s success, off the court as well as on.
The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills...
What is in a title? To address an instructor in Chinese martial arts we use the term Sifu meaning martial father (martial as in martial arts). To be honest I already have two daughters and am not looking for anymore parental responsibilities. If I am doing my job well I want to be a teacher, coach, mentor and friend and to understand when each role is appropriate for a student's development. Best just call me Dan, keep it simple.
When my friend Kris Collins moved to Hong Kong in 2006 to train with Chu Shong Tin, we waited with baited breath for him to relay stories back of epic chi sau battles, fights on roof tops and a rapid progression through the wing chun system. However, the stories that came back were a bit different. He told us was about a guy from Australia (Seb) who had been there for one year had been able to demonstrate the power of Nim Lik. He had done this by working on his stance training 5 nights a week, 5 hours a night. We did not know what Nim Lik was, but Kris told us that Chu ShongTin ascribed his abilty to produce unstopable force from this power, and that up until that point none of his students had achieved it.
When we finally got to Hong Kong in 2007-08, everyone was still standing with very little chi sau going on. Once we tested Chu shong Tin and his students we soon understood why. The power was unstoppable, not in a brute force way, but you could not figure out where it came from. The more you tried to stop it, the more uncomfortable it was. To be honest however, deep down I was not totally convinced, I wanted to feel crushing power everytime I touched Sigung, but his demonstration were sometimes about the quality of the movement, something I did not understand at the time. Also , his level of skill we so high it seemed to me students were expecting to achieve this from a method of practice apparently unrelated. To his credit, Mark Ho was hooked, he got what was about and I have never seen anyone so unwavering in their desire to acheive.
It is not an easy path to practice this method, many of Sigung's students left whilst eager foreign students came and went. Even those that could acheive it with Sigung' help where not necessarily able to use it under pressure.
Mark and I returned to Hong Kong several times after this, at first sight it appeared people had progressed but not at the pace first imagined. The last time we went was March 2014, only a few months before Sigung died. We could see he was ill but every night he trained, taught and wowed us with his ability and power. Finally the penny dropped for me, I had an idea what it was about, also his students had progressed exponentially and the relaxed structure they have been developing was fused to the skills previously obtained to devastating effect. Practicing chi sau was impossible with them, I rolled with Nima King and he went straight through me. It was a pleasure to be crushed by someone who had progressed so far.
Sigung attributed finding his ability to following the simple advice given to him by Ip Man - practice sil lim tao, think upwards and soften your arms and legs. After two years of following this he was able to produce sufficient power to beat all of his peers. This simple idea (little idea) is not easy to swallow.
I have been lucky to have a little window on what happened during this period of Sigung's teaching. 60+ years of practice refined to level never likely to be achieved again.
We would not ask our students to follow only the training process demanded by Sigung in the last years of life (although it is a significant part of our curriculum). Most of his students had already completed the wing chun system and were there to invest in seeking the missing pieces. It takes a lot of faith to focus solely on that method and we would likely be lonely figures if we did. What Sigung showed us was that we could all do better if we were just able to let go more. Crucially , but frustratingly, letting go but not 'trying' is not simple . In fact it is the hardest thing of all.
I have touched hands with a lot of wing chun people over the last 12 years, newbees to those with decades of experience. If they are new to the Chu Shong Tin method there is usually a slight look of bewilderment and panic as they realise they are not sure what to do when I lay my hands on them. Some people try lifting, others shifting , which ultimately leads to a collapse of structure.
The enjoyment comes for me when someone is locked up in their bong sau and I touch the front of their shoulder, calm down the urge to meet force and encourage a release of the arm. It does not usually take a lot before lifting turns to rotation and ease of movement. This is when the 'oh' moment comes. Months or years of struggle and then suddenly the realisation that there is a easier way, that wing chun is not just a chain of techniques to be thrown out. I recognise the look in the face as I have had it many times myself. It seems so simple you think how did I miss it.
If you have had this feeling (I think all of our students have) it is elating, inspiring and also leads to frustration. 'Why could I no do this before', or 'how come I cannot repeat it when you are not there' are the questions that follow. Ultimately we have to follow a process within our bodies so the release happens itself. The teacher can help signpost the way, but as individuals we have to learn the terrain of our bodies and inhibit our learned reactions which cause tension.
I know the reactions of students well as I have gone through it many times. I have a video of myself in Hong Kong with my wing chun uncle being shown this, despite 5 years of training at the time. In fact every time I go to Hong Kong I feel like a beginner again. And to be honest, that is then way it should be.
Most wing chun schools in the UK will spend a large proportion of time drilling movements as part of their syllabus. Endless drilling of laap sau or pak sau... This does train muscle memory, but the skill is only usable in real life when an opponent uses similar techniques which you have trained. An unpredicted movement might be fatal. Our wing chun is not concerned with muscle memory, we focus on awareness of our minds, bodies, muscles, bones etc so we can maintain a state of relaxation whatever the situation requires.
Wing chun was traditionally a rich man's art. It was passed on by a teacher to a lone student or a small group, who would have enough money to fund the Sifu's lifestyle. When wing chun emerged from China in about 1950, Yip Man had become poor and was forced to teach and adapt his style to teaching a large group. His method evolved as the art moved West and led to the drilled movements we see today. Put simply the only way to teach a large group is the show them a few techniques and let them get on with it as is done with most Karate schools etc.
We want to take the training method back closer to its origins, hence why we have 3 instructors to give more hands on tactile teaching. This allows us to explain, demonstrate and set up students in a one to one situation so they can experience something that cannot really be put into words.
The methods we have developed to gain awareness and practice in class are there to:
1. Help you understands the movements from the forms.
2. Give you a feeling as to how little effort is needed to produce significant power.
3. Increase awareness of the tension in your body and how it impedes power.
4. Help you understand that it is not necessarily the shape of your hand it is the state of your body structure that dictates the success of a technique.
5. Experience how tension/relaxation affects your partner.
6. Remove the competition element which comes in during chi sau.
With these tools we hope you can use them to refine your Sil Lim Tao practice at home and to introduce them into your chi sau in class. There is a place for drilled movements in all martial arts, but the goal must be to be able to defend and strike from any position, and we believe our method sets out a systematic approach to developing that ability.
Keeping you up to date with what is happening in class