We had a great time at Northern Shaolin Kung Fu class on Wednesday night, March 18th, 2015!
For the first time in quite a while we actually had a nice and warm sunny day. Of course, throughout the day there were the intermittent rain clouds covering our lovely city of Atlanta, but by class time, it was pleasant enough.
Although we’re still working on getting everyone to class on time, we were able to go through all of the components of a good Kung Fu class.
After saying our greetings and getting caught up on how everyone’s week had been going, we then began. First I’ll list the rundown and then provide a little more detail.
- Line Up
- Bow in
- Warm ups
- Circuit Drills
- Horse Stance
- Partner Application Drills
- Circular Seed Usage from choke / clinch
- Circular Seed Usage from choke / clinch + Stepping Back
- Circular Seed Usage from choke / clinch + Stepping Back + Vertical Punch
- Individual Pad-work
- Individual Training
- Individual Pad-work
- Bow Out
And now the detailed breakdown of what we did in class.
The students line up in order of seniority, based on length of time training, with the most senior being to the students’ right. When the teacher looks toward the line of students, they will see the senior-most student to their left and the junior students following along down to the right.
I stood in front of the line of students and gave them what we call a "casual bow". This is 作 揖 (Zuō Yī / Jok3 Yap3) – the typical fist covered by a palm salute. As I stepped away, the senior-most student took my place and did our three traditional bows or 武 术 抱 拳 礼 (Wǔ Shù Bào Quán Lǐ / Mou5 Seut6 Bou5 Kyun4 Lai5).
Warm Up Exercises
We tend to do some serious fitness – builders on our Wednesday & Sunday classes. As one progresses through the system, the Warm Up exercises adjust to their level, exposing the student to a variety of differnt methods for strengthening, loosening, stretching, etc.
Oftentimes however, when there are students of a variety of levels present in a class, we’ll go with the Lowest common denominator approach; whatever the level of the junior-most student – that’s the level we’ll use for the Warm Ups.
And so for Wednesday’s class we did the "Beginner" level Warm up Exercises.
Students were reminded to keep the feet flat on the floor, to stretch the spine, to not lean over, to match the breath with the body movement and other similar pointers.
Upon completing the Warm ups for the day, we move on to the Circuit Drills for the appropriate level & day. We usually associate the Circuit Drill for the day with the Warm Ups, so today we did the Beginner set.
Students were encouraged again to not hold the breath, to visualize palm strikes instead of push ups, etc. Everyone helped encourage each other. "You’re almost there!" "Just a couple more…"
We try to always include some 氣 功 (Qì Gōng, aka Chi Kung / Hei3 Gung1) exercises in each class. These simple breathing methods are a welcome break after physical exercise, enabling the student to relax, catch the breath and get centered.
Again, we generally associate the level with the Qigong to be done, but students may choose any Qigong from their level on down to Beginner. Some chose the Nine Breaths, others chose Inhaling Three Directions. Some stood while others sat.
Next came what we like to call "Horsing Around". We all get in a circle and hold a Horse Stance, or 馬 步 (Mǎ Bù / Maa5 Bou6) to build strong legs, powerful structure and a deep root 根 底 (Gēn Dǐ / Gan1 Dai2).
While holding the stance, the students took turns in saying the numbers 1 – 10 out loud, in Mandarin Chinese and followed that up with "No Pain No Gain".
This lasted for about four minutes and thirty seconds. At this mark, the students dropped lower so that the legs were parallel to the ground and held this for the remaining thirty seconds.
Partner Application Drills
We did three different sets of Partner Application Drills, all using the same fundamental movement at its core. We did them in the manner we call "Ten & Ten": ten repetitions and change. Depending on the variables of focus, time, number of drills this class, etc. – this change could mean going to the inside, going to the outside, changing sides and/or changing partners.
Circular Seed Usage from Choke / Clinch
A Seed is something that is fundamental – a foundation-builder; something that is practiced a great many times. A movement that can most likely be found throughout the system or style being practiced. One that is built upon with layers of variables, combinations and complexity. A core movement that can be used in many different scenarios.
Today’s basic movement was a "Circular Seed". A simple arm circle.
The circle of focus was Outside-to-Inside. Normally this is practiced solo from a Horse Stance, 100 repetitions (usually along with circles travelling in the opposite direction and both arms), but today we were looking at one of the many practical martial applications of this movement.
One partner would apply a frontwards choke or grab, or with both partners standing in the Clinch – a position of stand-up grappling. Students were encouraged to pick their own starting position. Most chose the Clinch.
Students asked about distance and ranges. I showed various examples as well as what movement might follow. For example: an arm break, joint manipulation and body control, throwing, escaping, etc.
Various tips were given, including a slight pressing down on the opponents arms in the beginning or slightly before the circle.
Results varied: some students found this drill easy, while others found their arms to get trapped or wrapped up.
Circular Seed Usage from Choke / Clinch + Stepping Back
The core movement was the same, but this time the student takes a step backwards while the circle is initiated.
I pointed out a special weight shift: when the leg steps back, it is not into a normal Bow Stance 弓 步 (Gōng Bù / Gung1 Bou6, aka in the Cantonese dialect as Gung Jin Ma, Ding Ji Ma): one leg forward and most of the weight on it. Instead, the weight is initially placed on the back leg. As the circling arm continues, the weight shifts to the front leg – making the Bow Stance.
This made things much easier for some. The waist and hips turned 90° the weight shifting, harmonizing the upper and lower parts of the body.
Circular Seed Usage from Choke / Clinch + Stepping Back + Vertical Punch
As before, the same basic movement was used. However this time after stepping back and during the weight shift forward, the circle turned into a straight line forward; a vertical punch.
This strike could go above or below the opponents’ arms, towards the abdomen or neck – all in windows of opportunities, as they present themselves.
This is an example of a popular principle we use, called "Circle and a Line through it".
Here we worked with two pads: a thin circular focus mit and a rectangular thick, heavy pad. The students lined up and each took their turn then moved to the back of the line.
The focus mit was held low, at groin height. The heavy pad was held in center, covering the torso, while the pad-holder stood in a Bow Stance with one leg forward.
The drill was simple in scope: From a Bow Stance, use the back leg to execute a front snap kick at the lower focus mit. That kicking leg then steps forward and outside of the other’s foot, while executing a vertical punch on the heavy pad. This is the same vertical punch that we were doing on the last phase of the Circular Seed applications from the Clinch.
This way, students could get some Kicking practice in, along with learning a combination. The principle of Low-to-High is used, intending to change the opponent’s attention and perhaps drop their guard, allowing for more easy entry to attack. The idea of drawing the opponent’s attention to a location of our choosing is an important one. This can be achieved by a variety of different methods. Here we’re looking at just this one simple combination. But that’s not all.
It also introduces the idea of moving forward from a kick, rather than pulling the leg back to where it came from.
Students were taught to not Telegraph, which is to alert the opponent of not only our intention, but of the physical movement we are about to do – what it is, where it’s coming from, etc.
Simply not keeping ones height consistent and not moving the shoulders will do much to help.
Students don’t mean to telegraph. It’s usually an unconscious little movement of the body done while executing the conscious body movement. Learning to feel and be aware of the body, the whole and its parts, to gain more conscious control of our body and mind – is really what Kung Fu is all about!
But this was not the only area of focus in this drill. The bottom part of the body is important too; obviously, since we’re doing a kick and a step forward, right?
Yes, but more important is this concept of 弓 法 (Bù Fǎ / Bou6 Faat3) or Footwork.
Since the step forward seems such a small piece to the puzzle, many students had to be reminded to land the foot, Heel-to-Toe, outside of the opponent’s foot. Paying attention to this is very important. Why? The foot might actually be landing inside the opponents’ stance. Applying contact-force while the weight shifts forward into the Bow Stance (while the punch is being delivered) has an interesting effect.
This would lock out the ankle or the knee of the opponent and place them in a temporarily immobilized situation. Although this direct application was not the focus of the practice – the paying attention to where one places the foot was very important.
Students were advised to not pivot nor rise up on the ball of the foot.
Questions were asked about the timing of planting Root and about using the whole body to generate force. We would see this concept again towards the end of class.
Overall, everyone seemed to enjoy this drill and get a lot from it. I know I did.
Next was solo training. Here the student practices & reviews what they’ve learned at their level and gets input from the more senior students & teacher. Corrections and fixes, tweaks and additions.
This class had students in three different levels: Beginner, White Sash and Gold or Yellow Sash.
Our newest student, in the Beginner level, learned and practiced the finer points of Stances, the basic Stance Drill and Circular Seeds.
Suggestons were given to correct the Bow Stance, as one of the common issues is in leaning forward. Here the practitioner should just see their toes sticking out from their knee when looking down. Otherwise they may be easily pulled forward.
Learning personal footing and positioning, weight distribution and shifting, smooth and steady stance transitions, upright structure and more – these are important points of note when working on Stances.
When practicing the Circular Seeds, it was advised to not let the arm travel too close to the body and to ensure that the imaginary point of contact with the opponent is the forearm; not the hand.
A senior student helped him go through his repetitions and although he had the new student go through a bit too many different drills, he was later advised to only focus on one or two things per class.
Although we may do several different drills in any given class, the students’ practice at home should only be the current material of their Individual Training. The drills merely bring a fun and applicable way to learn other facets of the material.
Although Animal Hands are technically not a part of the traditional Northern Shaolin system, they’re included in our curriculum as an introduction to Kung Fu in general. Not only that, but they provide excellent training grounds for learning applications, transitional stances, different force generation structures of the body, and much more.
Those in the White Sash level worked on Animal Line Drills and their applications. Tweaks and fixes surrounding all of the Animals were found to be in timing, harmonizing the upper & lower parts of the body, distance & spacing and what we call Diamond Stepping.
- Tiger Claws need to have a slight pulling back of the hollow of the hand
- Tiger Claws do not come back empty – the claws retract,with something
- Crane Beaks should not drop too far down
- Crane Wings need to have a strong structure and the hands bend strongly at the waist
- The striking Leopard Paw needs to use intent quickly – the feint and timing is important
- Leopard Feet need to have more forward momentum
- Snake Fist structure needs strength – fingers press together and the wrist should not rise
- Snake Fist should always face the target
- Coiling concepts are extremely important (in Snake)
And then the second Snake Drill was taught, as well as the first Dragon.
Gold / Yellow Sash
Those in the Gold or Yellow Sash level worked on spontaneous applications from the "Springy Leg" 潭 腿 (Tán Tuǐ / Taam4 Teoi2) form.
This is a very famous form found in a variety of Northern styles of Kung Fu.
Many schools spend very little time on this form, however we spend quite a bit. There are various stages of learning, development and training for this form.
Currently the students in this level are on the last, and surely most fun, stage of Tan Tui training: the partner spontaneous applications stage.
Usual suggestions were heard: "Relax!" "Don’t stare at your target" "Use the Force, Luke!". Okay, maybe not that last one, but there are too many to list. 🙂
This is a very beneficial stage in training, as students come away truly understanding how to apply the form movements they’ve practiced thousands of times before. They feel more confident in martial scenarios and move much more intelligently.
That being said, tonight we had a couple of Boo-Boos, none to serious, although one was groin-related and the other a heat-inducing slap. Students are advised to bring their own protective gear.
Students easily lose track of their repetitions while doing this training, so one of the senior students suggested that we adopt the practice of having a third party keep track, while observing.
We did one final pad drill to help burn off the excited and sometimes stressed energy (of learning new things or trying things that didn’t quite work out).
Here we had one student hold the heavy pad while the others went through the line, applying the drill.
This exercise showed the importance of using the full body, in motion, to generate power. Reminescent of the first Snake Drill of the Gold or Yellow Sash level, the movement was a basic parry while stepping forward and making contact using the forearm into the pad.
This, applied, can easily result in a knock-back effect, allowing for powerful follow-ups.
功 (Gōng / Gung1) – Gongs are what we call special skills or abilities that take some pretty hard work and time to achieve. The technical definition could be "Achievement".
Although similar in definition to the actual term "Kung Fu", Gongs refer to specifc things, for example tough forearms or shins.
The students partnered up and assumed Horse Stances. Then the arms began to swing into a Gong called 三 星 (Sān Xīng / Saam1 Sing1) or Three Stars. One of the most popular conditioning drills in Chinese Martial Arts, the forearms of one student are knocked softly against the forearms of another in a somewhat circular pattern and we affectionately refer to it as "Iron Pole", due to its toughening quality.
We’d do a few rounds, switch partners, do a few rounds, switch and so on.
And then we’d apply 跌 打 酒 (Diē Dá Jiǔ / Dit3 Da1 Jau2). This translates literally as "Fall Hit Wine", but is not taken orally. It’s actually a popular Chinese liniment used to heal external damage such as bruises and sore muscles.
I advised the students to be a bit conservative with the "Jow", as not much is needed in this case; don’t spill and don’t hog it.
Of course, one apple in the bunch asked “Does anyone really every hog it?"
Settling down, we all sat cross-legged in a circle.
Those who were able, adopted the Half- or Full-Lotus positions. We then relaxed the entire body, adjusted and straigtened our spines, and followed other small protocols.
Breathing through the nose fully and deeply, we focused our attention on just this one thing, bringing the wild mind back to this single activity over and over.
Typically at the end of each class I will give a short lecture on something for the day; a principle or theory, a strategy or philosophy, an action or mindset – something for the students to think about on their ride home. Any class announcements, reminders or administrative necessities would be addressed towards the end of class as well.
This class I spoke on some finer details of meditation practice, its powerful benefits and how they apply to everyday life.
And then I reminded everyone the importance of being on time to class; to come a bit early if possible. Aside from this being a good practice in general and being courteous and respectful of others, it helps us time the various components of each Kung Fu class – we’re trying to ensure each activity gets a certain amount of time and focus.
Students lined up as in the beginning. I gave them a casual bow and then the senior student who bowed them in lead the closing bows.
Yay – We made it through another traditional training day!
Depending on time constraints, the students and teacher usually hang around for a bit and socialize.
- "Any luck in finding a new car?"
- "How was that concert the other night?"
- "What’s the benefit to using this side of the forearm in blocking?"
- "Hey guys – here’s some cookies so-and-so wanted me to share with you – he’s sorry he couldn’t make it out tonight."
- "See you on Sunday?"
Later, I was to learn that when a student went to use the restroom, they were love-bombed by Emerald, our lucky cat. 😛
Bit by bit, the students headed for home.
Overall, it was a pretty great class. And a good time. I can’t wait for the next one!