If there is a band wagon to be jumped on in wing chun at the moment, it is called internal wing chun. We are being offered the 'rediscovered' 1800 variety said to be patched together from secret documents, the tai chi/hybrid inspired variety, whilst some say internal was always there but only taught to Ip Man's favorite students. Although some of the teachers proclaim their own method is the most legitimate because they can prove it works in the ring, they are generally build like gorillas and their movements suspiciously resemble boxing. For the others, they talk a good talk but you never see them demonstrate on anyone other than their own students. I always say I could teach Mike Tyson enough wing chun in one week that he would beat practically every wing chun man in the world. The thing is he would not need much wing chun to do it, and his internals would be the same as everyone elses.
The principles of internal arts are very simple, but to internalise those principles takes a lot of thought, work and practice. Effortlessness take great effort in the beginning. The more complicated the instructions give by the teacher, the more I smell a fraud. An endless curriculum is a great way to sell videos and books, hold seminars etc, but the skill is in the touch, in the feel; not so profitable.
Chu Shong Tin never sold himself with the internal badge and despite what people try to say he did not infuse tai chi principles into wing chun. However, every movements he made contained the core principle of the internal arts. How did he do it?
1. Ip Man told Chu Shong Tin to practice Sil Lim Tao whenever he could. He told him to think up through his spine and soften his limbs. Chu Shong Tin took him at his word and practiced at any free moment for two years. After that time he felt his power growing and he was able to overcome his class mates without effort.
2. Chu Shong Tin understood that a relaxed straight spine was to the key to all internal arts. The muscles are able to relax away from the centre and you no longer have to rely on localised muscle.
3. Through continued practice Chu Shong Tin was able to use a deeper part of his mind to not only release muscles and increase his power, but also rely on a more natural instinctive way to move.
4. Importantly Chu Shong Tin did not rest on his laurels, instead he practiced and improved over 60 years. He did this by demonstrating, breaking down and understanding his own processes and passing that onto his students. Hands on teaching is one of the best learning aids there is, but only if done humbly and not just a way to show off.
For me wing chun is not complicated, it is very simple, but it is counterintuitive and takes great patience to change the way you think and the way your body first seeks to react. The standing practice introduced in Sil Lim Tao is the key element to understand your body, so when in contact with others you can discern changes in yourself. Without this your wing chun is always going to be based on external alignment.
I do not make claims that the instructors at Sung are the best, but the way we move and feel to other practitioners differs from almost anyone who has come to our class to train. The key to our improvements I believe is trying to hold on as best as we each can to the basic principles passed on by Chu Shong Tin, and importantly the giving of feedback. We do not compete with each; we test each other and push each other. Consistently giving live feedback allows the chance to not only identify when you personally feel powerful, but when your partner feels you are powerful (which can be entirely different). If you use your mass/structure to neutralise force, there is very little muscular feedback to give an awareness that it is working. Because of this there is always a temptation to go back to old habits which feel effective. However if you can feel a better way in someone else, help them cultivate it, then there is a possibility you can map it back on yourself. Eventually you can work on a virtuous feedback loop where you both improve.
The method Mark, Jon and I have used and refined is the method we now teach. If you want to do what we an do, you need to do what we did. By placing the emphasis on both standing practice and the feedback through chi sau, the chances for improved kinesthetic awareness are multiplied.
In my opinion, in order to understand what' internal' is you need to have reached a sufficiently relaxed state that to can recognise and inhibit tension and reactions within your own body when it is acted on by an external force. This is the first step before you can accept or generate force. The next stage is using the awareness you have gained from chi sau to share that force through your body in a manner that neutralises it without restricting the movement of your joints. If you try this without a proper internal awareness (gained from constructive chi sau feedback) my belief if that you will find relaxed alignments, but they will still remain crude alignments in the direction the force is coming. Ultimately this is still external, and therefore contains the flaws of that type of system. For an internal method to work, your opponent/partner is forced to align in a direction not of their choosing (away from your centre), causing excess tension in them and still allowing free movement of your own joints (so you can hit their cente).
I do not know how internal Ip Man's wing chun was but I am very grateful that he taught Chu Shong Tin the keys to find a method for himself. Ultimately that is all a teacher can do. We at Sung give the best instruction we can to our students to improve their body awareness through standing, we answer questions as honestly as we can, and feedback is the cornerstone of our method helping them to not resist force (be it the force of an opponent or of gravity). It does take time, but many of our students are beginning to grasp our method and results are starting to show. Once you have this you become the master of your own development, and then you will have a lifetime to grow and improve.
Let me finish with a few questions which I want you to visualise and think about. What would it feel like to chi sau with yourself? Are you soft or heavy? Don't you draw people in or move then back? Do you have sharp angles or roll a perfect circle? Do you rely on speed? Do you push or pull? Do you have rooted balance or active balance? Do you want to 'win'? Do you really know, do you want to know? How can you find out?...
Jon and Mark giving corrective feedback
When you get down to the core of it, fighting is a relationship between two people; usually of which one party is trying to inflict damage whilst the other is trying to protect themselves. Chi sau is a relationship between two people, but this time there is a co - operative element in that both parties are each exploring attack and defence movements in a safe environment. Teaching is also relationship between two people, with transfer of knowledge being seen as the motivator.
Interaction is the key to any relationship. I am sure you have been in a 'conversation' with individuals who only ever talk and never listen. They generally offer a few questions, but only for the reason they can open up a new topic about themselves. Other times we get stuck with someone who we have nothing in common with. Each new topic we bring up to pass the time is shot down with one word answers. Compare that relationship with a chat with good friend or your partner, instead of coming away drained you feel energised.
Too often chi sau is taught as a series of snap shot techniques, like learning several phrases in a foreign language. Have you ever tried this method of communication in France? After one or two sentences you will be shot down or the response you get will be a blitzkrieg of unintelligible words. To interact you need to know the meaning of the words and not just phrases. The language part of wing chun is relatively easy (it's techniques), it is the relationship part which is difficult. If you do not understand the context of the techniques you may as well be both speaking in different languages at the same time.
So, if the relationship bit is important, how do you learn that? By learning to understand your own body and its responses to stimulus you take a big step in finding out how to use it. Also, the interaction of chi sau allows you time to study the movement of your partner, and how common tensions exist in each of us. What I am getting at is it is not the arms flapping around in chi sau that is important, it is how those movements effect your structure and balance (your ability to give and receive force).
All of this creates a big problem for a wing chun school like Sung. People come to us wanting to learn the equivalent of a crash course in French for their holiday, and what we are offering is akin to an immersive language experience. Even if they have learned martial arts (including wing chun) elsewhere, they may as well be speaking German as the core basics are different. However if they can learn the wing chun principles correctly, they will greatly improve their other arts as a consequence. It takes time but the effects will spread into your life more than if you were just to learn a few kicks and punches.
So, as a teacher it is not my job to tell you how to react to a given stimulus, I can give you the feeling of how I react, adjust you so you can create that and other appropriate responses, but most importantly free your body to find its own natural responses which are free of habit. When you remove the immediate defensive response, the taught response and the habitual responses, you will find the body already has its own internal response which is not only just as powerful but crucially more appropriate than you could have anticipated. This is a joy to witness (it feels egoless) and the feeling of detachment it gives opens up an opportunity to watch and learn. Therefore chi sau become a true laboratory to explore and grow, which is a million miles away from technique and drill work.
I learn so much teaching because the method I use through words and touch is done simply to get the student to inhibit their own habitual reactions and bring about a more natural response. The results can be remarkable but also frustrating for students as when they practice with others at first they try to reproduce a movement which they have previously allowed to happen. The equivalent of parroting a phrase in French in response to a question you did not understand. True in-the-moment interaction allows both parties to learn from chi sau and take their wing chun to a different level.
Beware of wing chun systems which offers an endless curriculum of techniques and belts to acheive mastery. There is a lot to learn at Sung but much of it is a stripping away of what is unnecessary. For a martial art to work as an adaquate self defence, it's movement should be simple, efficient, brutal and direct, in that way we can engage in the moment and not fall into the trap of predicting future scenarios which may not happen.
Sorry to say there is no secret technique or magic bullet available, other than begin by training your mind to be in the moment. Where the mind goes the body follows, and at that point the wing chun journey begins.
If wing chun can be said to have one unique movement, 'technique', it has to be the bong sau. Whilst other martial arts block strikes, wing chun's approach is not to clash or meet force with force. However, if you get into discussion about what the bong sau is, how it works or what it is for, it becomes apparent that there is no agreement in the wing chun community about what it actually is. From my own experience I know that the movement done by the Ip Chun/Ip Ching lineage is entirely different from the done by Wong Shun Leung students and again is different from Chu Shong Tin students. Even more frustrating is the fact that I have practiced with people from my own lineage who do it different depending on what era they trained! How can this be when the teaching all came from the hands of Ip Man a relatively short time ago? And to make matters even worse, there are many teachers out there who state that bong sau is just a technique for chi sau and has no application in a fight. If that is true, why even practice it?
Although I was taught by a student of Chu Shong Tin, the first time I saw the great man in action was about 11 years ago when I was given videos of his seminars. It was a revelation to hear his explanation of the circular nature of bong sau. This was so different from the triangle/wedge idea being sold by everyone else. He demonstrated the movement with the use of a hoop, in a manner which was effortless but frustratingly difficult to imitate well. Although it required less force than what most other people were doing, just copying his technique by no means led to an effortless movement.
It took me a long time, which included many visits to Hong kong, to realise that the shape of the hand and the angle the movement are not the defining characteristic of a proper bong sau. In fact if you follow that method of learning you are on hopeless journey which will in the end justify your suspicion that as a technique the bong sau is unusable. I have been told the same story from several sources in Hong Kong about a famous UK wing chun 'master' who visited Chu Shong Tin before he died and pleaded with him to 'set him up' with a real bong sau. Although he got his wished and left happy, the truth is he left with nothing as his deeper understanding remained changed.
After 14 years in wing chun my 'idea' about what a bong sau is and how it works is pretty settled. It comes from study, practice, teaching and basic trial & error. I can give you some tips, but without touching your hands I cannot transmit what the feeling should be or whether what you are doing it correct. This is not the only method to improve your bong sau, but for me it points in the direction of allowing the it to work with minimal effort:
1. You do not DO the bong sau. You allow it to happen.
2. The fundamental movement in wing chun is the punch. You use it to both strike and destabilise your opponent. The bong sau happens when there is sufficient sideways force put into your arm and on your structure that you cannot strike so you allow the rotation of the shoulder joint which consequently allows you to maintain your structure whilst destabilising your opponent.
3. Bong sau is not effective if you cannot first rest your mass on yourself and then on your opponent. Resting on you opponent means making them lift you at the point of contact.
4. If you align yourself crudely in a direct line, not only will your punch be less effective but your bong sau will never work. To truly rest on your opponent will mean they are forced to align to your relationship with gravity. This requires a fundamentally different idea of how you move your body.
5. Although the bong sau might move in an arc, a circle or rotate like a ball, trying to consciously make this shape with your movement makes no sense. You will loose the directness which makes the movement effective and engage muscles in lifting. You are confusing cause and effect (and also chasing hands).
6. The most difficult part of the bong sau is the transition from the tan sau or punch into the bong. If you follow the feedback from just your forearm you will get it wrong, your arm will try to align to deal with the opponent but your body will not be is a state to deal with their power. It takes a lot of practice with an experienced teacher to get the correct awareness of when the transition is appropriate, otherwise the directness of the movement is lost and it will be a lifting block instead.
7.Relaxation is the key! It allows you to stop using your scapula as a brace; instead you can release your entire shoulder girdle, your back and your pelvis into the movements of your arms. The term 'Internal' literally means your whole body becomes engaged in all movement.
To a beginner in wing chun none of this will mean anything. However I have met many people precisely because they started to question what they were taught by other teachers for the exact reason that the bong sau never worked for them and they could not understand why. Let me be clear, done as a 'technique' the bong sau is useless, chi sau become useless, because too often it is done as a game for the sake of the game. However if you get the condition right, get the release right, the bong sau movement is not only incredibly powerful but also very satisfying to witness (the effort comes from your partner).
Many wing chun practicitioners will tell you that the art only works in straight lines, following the shortest distance to the target. I am currently staying in a house in Spain at the top of a very steep hill. I can tell you that if I tried to drive the shortest route down the hill it might only take two minutes, but I would not survive it. So instead I take the most efficient route,following the road but with a clear intention of where I am going. At each hairpin bend I do not preempt the corner, I stay in the moment and react at the right time. This is how the bong sau works, it happens only when needed or it is not just useless it is a danger to yourself. You still keep your intention on the target, the bong sau allows an efficient method of dealing with an obstacle before readjusting to your destination.
I cannot convey in words, image or video what a good bong sau is. Done effective it is so transitional it can be almost invisible. Done poorly it is a recipe for a torn rotor cuff muscle. If you honestly want to experience a more internal approach to wing chun, my best recommendation would be to visit a teacher from the Chu Shong Tin lineage to feel the difference yourself.
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