Who Am I?
Let me start by saying that “I am not the teacher!” That honor goes to Craig Kiessling.
My name is Justin Ford. At the time of writing this article, I am 17 years old. I have been a Kung Fu student of Craig Kiessling since mid 2014 (and no plans of stopping!) and in that time I have earned my Yellow Sash.
I am still a beginner, working my way through the Open Door curriculum (foundation practice, three training forms, etc.).
After asking to help Sifu Craig in whatever ways possible, he gave me the opportunity to write this post.
Northern Shaolin isn’t my only experience with martial arts but it is one of my favorite experiences. All the more reason I’m happy to be sharing this class review with you.
The experience and learning of the particular class I’m going to share with you, happened to be a Sunday class – September 11th, 2016.
Overview of the Kung Fu Class
早安! Zǎo An! Good morning!
Today’s noon Kung Fu class was a casual yet powerful class; definitely something special not to be missed.
Below is the basic outline of what happened on this special day.
- Warm Ups
- “The Gauntlet” (Multiple Attacker Drill)
- Solo Training
- “The Gauntlet” (Round 2)
- Iron Pole
- The After-Chat
Today we casually bowed into class with a single Salute rather than the usual Three Stage Bow-in routine.
We next discussed the Incense ritual, usually performed at the beginning of class by Sifu Craig. Although he’s taught a few of the senior students how to do it, today, he said, we would all be learning how to perform the ceremony.
We gathered into a circle and tried to see how many details we could recall; how to properly perform the ceremony.
- Which direction do you face and when?
- How do you hold the incense?
- How high do you hold it?
- Which foot is forward?
- Which, of the 三丹田 Sān Dān Tián, do we visit – when and how?
There were a lot of questions.
But with teamwork, time, and a little help from our teacher, we managed to piece together the basics of it and performed it as one big group.
Rather than diving right into warming up and stretching out like we normally do, we entered into an interesting discussion.
Sifu asked us how many times certain actions within the Incense ceremony were repeated. The answer was Three.
The oh-so-deserving famous number Three.
What’s so special about three? Think about it.
Three is almost universally accepted to be special.
- Math has that delicious sounding magic number called Pi (3.14159…) which, when rounded to the closest whole number, equates to 3
- Geometry says the strongest shape is a Triangle (a love triangle might argue, but, y’know…)
- Even Pop Culture sees value in the number; think about the Three Stooges and the Rule of Three you see in comedy and books
Did you notice I gave three examples? 😛
Theoretically, I could go on about this…
And at the beginning of this class, we did. All of the students pitched in, conversation-style, with their ideas of various “Three” Metaphors, like:
- The Holy Trinity of Christianity
- Three basic stages of Time: Past, Present, Future
- Three main parts of an Atom: Proton, Neutron, Electron
- Three Common States of Matter: Solid, Liquid and Gas (Plasma and many others exist as well)
- Three Treasures / Three Jewels of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine): 精氣神 – Jīng, Qì, Shén
And more were mentioned as well…
After our round-robin discussion, Sifu then lead us through a discussion on a very specific set of Three Points dealing with us directly. Interestingly, the three went from broad to specific, like a broad-based triangle; working our way from the ground up.
As mentioned, today was September 11th.
A date with significance in American history, cemented in the books as the day that thousands of lives were lost and millions of lives were changed.
When terror struck and the Twin Towers fell (not to mention the Pentagon and other disaster areas).
You didn’t have to be there personally to feel… The Change. Your friends, family members, and other close ones didn’t have to be there for you to feel the change.
It was a major event that affected nearly everyone.
Maybe the change was in your overall mood and thoughts every September 11th. Maybe you’ve flown in an airplane recently and seen how TSA (Transportation Security Administration) safety precautions have furthered since then. There have been a great number of changes since the 2001 event.
Think of what’s been touted in Politics as an Economic principle; the “Trickle-Down Effect.” Most folks agree that this Triangle or Pyramid approach doesn’t really work that way.
However, when applied to something so big as 9/11, we can see that some things do, indeed, trickle down and have an effect on us common folk – either directly or indirectly.
Were we to use the shape of a pyramid or Triangle – either right-side-up, or upside-down, and the principle of Change – how might we be able to affect Positive Change? In ourselves? Our Kung Fu practice? To our family? Community? More?
Change happens naturally. Cause + Condition = Effect. Reverse-engineering.
Oh and Three. See the Threes in there? 😉
Due to circumstances, a member of our Kung Fu family will be moving out of town soon, 🙁 and thus leaving the group before the end of the month.
Though definitely not the best of news, it was good to see that they have a positive outlook and viewed this as simply… Change. Just something that had to happen and likely for a reason; both the obvious external ones and perhaps the subtle ones as well.
This student has been an extreme Plus for our class. Not only has she progressed with flying colors, obviously practicing at home and learning the material of the written documents, but she has also been a joy to have around. She has a Positive Vibe that emanates, warms and heals.
We are sorry to see her go and will miss her. Very much a Key to the gates.
Although she’s flown through the Beginner Level and completed its material, she won’t have time to take her test before the move.
Since she’s been such a gift to us, we chose to give her a parting gift: a crash-course in material above her current level. Quite the Change in curriculum flow, but most deserved!
As a group, we discussed Three different options available within the outside-the-gate material:
- The “Animal” level
- 譚腿 Tán Tuǐ
- 練步拳 Liàn Bù Quán
功力拳Gōng Lì Quán was not suggested.
We all came to agree that the basic drills of the Animal level (a set of animal-inspired movements not native to Northern Shaolin but excellent foundation material for TCMA in general) would be more useful and flexible in application (and easier to actually learn in the remaining time she had left), I gave the final say so that it would be our gift.
As mentioned earlier, Threes are everywhere, regardless of country, culture, language, age, medium, etc. In this case, the third was Personal Change.
Whatever is happening or has happened in your life that has shaken things up, whether as minuscule as a grain of sand… Or as massive as a sandstorm.
Sifu Craig mentioned it was apparent that all of the students seemed to be going though some sort of personal change, aside from our sister leaving us. He asked that we not share what the issue was, but to instead think of how we might use the Triangle or Pyramid metaphor used earlier, to influence positive personal change or at least affect the Cause or Condition to bring about the desired effect.
Instead of being scared of Change or denying / ignoring it because we are stubborn, we decided to confront it. “The Only Way Out is Through.”
So, we each thought about what we needed to do to deal with our personal change.
For most of us, that meant adjusting, doing something just a little differently to keep up with what’s changing.
Answers ranged from exercising more self discipline and getting things done (Nike’s “Just Do It” and our own “Do Life. Do Kung Fu.” were mentioned), even if that means you have to wake up earlier and hop out of bed faster (throw yourself out of bed), to being more true to yourself, no matter what others around you say or do.
Summing Up the Three
Connecting all Three of these important things was that one word: “Change.”
Change is nothing new. Ironically, the fact that change comes in life is the most consistent thing. Everything Changes, except Change.
A person cannot go through life and not expect anything to change. Well, they can, but they will be sorely disappointed.
Change happens. And when it happens, you have to be ready to adapt, one way or another.
That’s not to say change has to be something bad that happens to you.
It could also be a small good thing that you choose to do.
The small things we choose do – like waking up earlier, working out more, studying harder, spending more time with loved ones, etc. – can have wide spreading and sometimes long lasting consequences.
Earlier we talked about how 9/11 (something big happening) changed so many individual lives (something comparably small), but the reverse of that can also be true.
You may have heard of the butterfly effect: a butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane somewhere else.
Powerful and true? Yes (just like a lot of clichés).
And of course…Being able to sense or notice change happening and then being able to adapt…
Might just be beneficial in the martial arts. And Life.
Having gotten an in-depth and personal look at Change, we moved on to making a near immediate change in our Kung Fu; specifically how well we understood and performed some of the warm up exercises.
We began the Warm Ups as we always do: Rotating the Joints.
But then we took a different path than usual. We each chose one or two exercises (from any level they’d encountered) that we needed the most help on; something we were weak in – either physically or that we just didn’t quite understand how to do it properly.
From there, we all worked on that exercise, discussing different technical points of notice as well as sharing helpful tips & tricks. What was one person’s weakness or misunderstanding, was another one’s strength.
Just taking the time to work something in isolation and really focus on getting better at it made a big difference. A…You guessed it — Change!
Warmed up and stretched out, we brought out the focus mitts (small padded targets) and practiced Snap Kicks.
With a partner holding the glove-like target, the kicker would adopt a 弓步 Gōng Bù or Bow Stance (front leg bent and back leg somewhat straight). Using our back leg, we snapped our instep out into the pad being held groin height; unless the kicker requests a height-change, that is.
We practiced our kicks for only a brief moment, moving on after everybody executed Ten Kicks on both legs.
After kicks came a fun drill.
The premise was simple: One versus Many.
We formed a line and then staggered out, one person stepping to the left, the person behind stepping to the right; the next person would step to the left and so on.
The end result resembled a hallway of people; Kung Fu gung-ho people that is.
The person standing at the front of the line is dubbed the Defender and turns around to face his Attackers.
The first Attacker strikes at the Defender. His response is to angle towards the attacker – stepping in and encountering the punch with their forearm, using the appropriately-named “Inside-to-Outside Circular Seed” – circling their arm in towards their own Centerline, then rolling it up and out.
Diagonally turning to face the next Attacker, the Defender repeats the movement. And so on down the line, continually zig-zagging through the opponents and their attacks, attempting to Always be in Motion.
This continued until the Defender has met everybody in the line, taken his spot in the back of the Attacker line, and gotten ready to strike the next Defender.
We ran through this drill multiple times.
Everybody seemed to really enjoy the drill.
Even doing it for just a little while, it helped bring to light and improve a bunch of different aspects, like:
- Reflexes and Fluidity
By the time you’ve finished dealing with one person, the next would already be ready to Attack. You had to move and react quick. Don’t freeze!
- Technique and Structure
Because we’re practicing against a punch, you will be able to see if you have proper technique. Otherwise, the punch will still land or you will end up in a disadvantageous position or something similarly bad!
As we’re defending ourselves, we’re moving from one attacker to the next using angles and what we call “Diamond Stepping“. Get in quickly, then get out and work on the next person!
Don’t encounter the punch too soon or too late! Of course, we are still being controlled and safe with what we are doing, but there is still a pretty obvious result if you time the punch incorrectly (like getting lightly hit in the face)!
Afterward, training got more personalized. Sifu Craig assigned each of us something from our Sash level to practice.
Some worked on 基本功 Jī Běn Gōng or Fundamentals & Basics, others worked on – and taught – the Animal Hand drills, and others (AKA myself) trained forms.
While I can’t make any comments on the practice the other groups were doing, I can speak about my own
The form I was working on is called 譚腿 Tán Tuǐ, or Springing Leg / Thigh.
It’s quite the famous form, found in many Northern styles of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA), commonly called “Kung Fu” in the West, and is a very fundamental form that trains you in footwork, stance, muscular strength, self defense tactics, and lots more.
The way we train Tan Tui in our branch, is a bit different from the way many others perform it, however.
For example, today’s practice consisted of performing the form with ankle and wrist weights on and introducing different variables to it, like doing the form without executing a certain movement or with different footwork or different strikes.
The variables turn performing the form into something akin to solving a puzzle, reinforcing memorization of the form all the more.
With the weights adding the muscular strengthening element, and the variables adding the mental practice element, it was a good balance. There were many benefits to be found.
Plus, there is just something about hard training that makes you appreciate the occasional breeze.
After getting another student to help me, I moved on from drilling the form to drilling some applications from it, working off of a straight punch.
After a few minutes of solo practice, we returned to the previous multiple attacker drill, known as “The Gauntlet.”
Going into the drill a second time, it was noticeable that some things had changed. Not in the drill itself but rather in how everybody performed during the drill.
Namely, some of us were starting to Flow better. We were thinking and freezing less and trusting ourselves to react correctly more. We were starting to get into “The Zone”.
A good feeling to be sure!
To finish up class, we adopted a 馬步 Mǎ Bù or Horse Stance, facing a partner, and began our good ole forearm conditioning exercise. In many styles this drill is commonly called 大三星 Dà Sān Xīng or Big Three Star(s). In our line, we tend to call it “Iron Pole.”
My partner and I would both take our right arm and swing it low, the inside of our forearms clashing together.
That arm would then continue past the collision point and swing upward, encountering again, this time higher.
That arm would finish by reversing the direction of its swing and drop down, encountering low one last time.
That pattern would then be repeated with our left arm, then again with our right.
- 1, 2, 3.
- Right, left, right.
- Low, high, low.
- Smack, smack, smack!
Three hits, Three Times.
And then we’d switch partners.
After bashing arms, we did some special stuff to prevent bruises.
To keep the blood moving and prevent it from stagnating, we settled into a 弓步 Gōng Bù or Bow Stance, and started whipping a single arm in a giant circle, literally throwing the blood through its channels.
Next after successfully opening the special jar (the lid often locks up and it becomes a challenge to merely open) we dipped our fingers into that special brown liquid and rubbed a bit into our arms.
跌打酒 (Diē Dá Jiǔ / Dit3 Da1 Jau2), most commonly known as “Dit Da Jow,” is a Chinese herbal liniment used to disperse blood stagnation. Its properties make it indispensable for this conditioning drill.
A wonderful way to wrap up class!
After Sifu Craig casually bowed class out (same way we bowed in), many of us stayed for a few minutes afterward to chit-chat.
Of course, the hot topic after class was our Kung Fu family member leaving so soon.
We talked about how she had improved since they joined.
We talked about the wonderful energy she brought to the class, as well as to us individually.
And naturally, we talked about how we would miss them…
Thankfully, they will be able to come to class a few more times before the big move. And perhaps they’ll come back from time to time for a visit! 🙂
That wraps up my review for today’s class.
Like I said at the beginning, it was truly not something you wanted to miss.
Hope you guys that took class enjoyed it as much as I did and I also hope that you readers enjoyed the review.
See you in class!
P.S.: If you’d like to read a another review of one of our classes, check out this post.