Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tips on Practice

Practice can be frustrating for beginners especially when it comes to fine details in internal martial arts.  Even long time practitioners can become prone to becoming unmotivated or feel stagnated by practicing the same things over and over.  Here are a few ideas that may help both beginners and experienced martial artists alike when it comes to practicing.  These tips not only apply to martial arts but I’ve found they can apply to any skill.
The most important tip I can give when it comes to practicing martial arts is to just do it.  Just practice as often and consistently as possible.  This is the simplest advice but it tends to be the most difficult for people.  Consistency is the most important aspect of this.  Developing a habit of practice is crucial to making regular progress.  Long gaps will stall your progression and eventually discourage you.   Finding time tends to be the biggest obstacle, but I think even short practice sessions done everyday for as little as 15 minutes can be more effective than a 2 hours once a week.  If you’re on a tight schedule simply set a timer and practice until it goes off.  In this way you can concentrate on what you’re doing and not be concerned with the time.  Practicing everyday helps to reinforce the physical patterns by making them a regular part of your daily life.  You constantly “remind” your body how to move until it becomes automatic.  So practice and practice often!
The next tip essentially is an aid for achieving the first one.  Conditions do not need to be perfect to practice.  You don’t need a large space.  You don’t need lots of time.  You don’t need equipment.  You don’t need special clothes.  You don’t need to feel 100%.  There’s almost no requirements for being able to practice.  All you need is yourself and the will to do it.  Many exercises and drills can be done in place requiring only an arm’s length or a single step around.  This would be things like standing practice, five elements, push hands, etc.  You can still practice stepping and footwork in a small space just take one step forward then one step back. Bagua circle walking is excellent for small spaces.   In addition, limited space is even better to practice in as you probably won’t have much room in self defense situations.  Practicing martial arts doesn’t require any equipment.  Though heavy bags, pads and other tools are very useful you don’t need them all of the time there’s still plenty you can work without them.  I’ve done light sparring many times without any equipment.  Use it as an opportunity to work technique instead of going hard.  You don’t always have to be 100%.  If you’re a little sore practice anyway go a bit lighter or simply just warm up more.  If you’re tired just start practicing and see how it goes.  Many times once you get going you’ll feel fine.  It’ll help you sleep afterwards, anyway.  As you see there is very little reason to not get that practice in.
This last tip is mostly for beginners although experienced practitioners may find this helpful as well.  Remember that skill is built over time and you can’t get everything perfect right away.  This is especially true for internal martial arts.  There are a lot of fine details to work and at the beginning it’s too much to try and get everything.   Being a martial artist involves being a constant work in progress.  Making progress is about getting it right once out of a hundred and eventually improving that to two, three, and so on until it’s right almost every time.  Keep in mind that perfection is an ideal to be worked toward but cannot be truly achieved.  Also remember that progress can be non-linear, it doesn’t always follow a straight line.  Sometimes you have a breakthrough and make a lot of progress other times you’ll stagnate this is normal.  The key is to always try and improve on something.  If you feel like you’re stagnating with one aspect shift your focus to another and then come back to what you felt you stalled on before.  If your push hands feels stalled work on footwork for a while and come back to it.  You may make progress simply by revisiting it fresh again.
I think these are some important tips that both beginners and experience martial artists tend to run into.  Doing martial arts like all other skills just requires the will to put in the work and little else.  Most problems practitioners encounter can be solved with simple solutions.  I hope that this can help people in their practice whatever the style or even in developing non-martial arts skills.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Three Pillars of Internal Martial Arts Practice

Stances, Partner Work, Dantien Development
Our group has always had a pretty straightforward approach to practicing internal martial arts.  Really, everything we do can be broken up into 3 categories:  Stances, Partner Work, and Dantien Development.  I’ll cover these one-by-one, as if they build upon each other, but they should actually be learned and practiced concurrently.
A lot of traditional martial arts have stance training, including external kung fu styles and Karate.  In old kung fu movies, usually the student has to maintain the stance over a burning candle or something, and the master laughs as the student sweats.  Some styles have esoteric exercises or breathing that’s supposed to be practiced while holding the stance.  Regardless, the main reason for holding stances is to develop a solid frame within your body that can meet external forces coming at you (grabs or strikes).  Since you maintain the stances for long periods of time, you start to relax within them as you practice.  After awhile, the framework is there for you already, a part of you that you don’t have to ‘turn on’.  The relaxed framework helps to keep you on your feet if someone’s trying to take you down, and helps you to keep your balance if you’re getting hit.  The framework helps you to move your body all at once like it’s one piece.  Funny enough, a lot of Yoga practitioners get similar results from their stances.
The framework developed by stance training is the basis upon which everything else in internal martial arts is built.
Our style has 3 main stances:  San Ti, Chicken, and Tiger.  You can find a detailed description of them in our handouts for beginning students.  Beginner Syllabus
Partner Work
The title for this category is a little bit broad, but it refers to specific types of partner drills.  For self defense, you’ll want to try striking drills with partners, and maybe run through scenarios.  What I’m talking about for internal kung fu development are really special types of pushing drills where you’ll need a partner.  
The most basic level of pushing drill is to literally push your partner using the stance frame mentioned above, where your partner gives you some weight or resistance and you try to use the minimum amount of muscle needed to push them across the room or something.  For instance, you’d hold the San Ti stance with your hand forward, have your partner lean back on your hand, and then try to maintain the stance as you push them across the room.  This will help to reinforce the framework within your body, and any weak points in your frame will jump out at you.
Eventually, you move up to push hands practice, which is probably the best partner drill for developing internal kung fu.  Push hands practice starts off with set patterns, then as your skill develops you move into free-form practice (basically, wrestling).  The idea is to first maintain the framework from stance training while moving through set motions, using as little muscle as possible.  Eventually, you smooth out the movements and work out any kinks in your framework (sidenote:  in internal martial arts, you’re always trying to smooth things out and eliminate rough spots, it’s a process not an end goal).  A natural question is to ask, ‘If the end goal of these partner drills is basically wrestling, then why not just practice wrestling?  How is an internal martial art any different?’  There’s nothing wrong with not doing internal martial arts and just going straight to wrestling, but read on to see what makes internal martial arts different.
Dantien Development
At the same time as doing all of the above, you want to be developing your dantien.  There are a lot of hocus-pocus explanations of what the dantien is, how it involves chi and energy channels.  I’m not saying any of that is incorrect, but you don’t need to know it to develop dantien for martial art purposes.  The simplest explanation of dantien is just to move your body with respect to your natural center of gravity.  The natural center of gravity is a point a couple inches below your belly button.  To move your body with respect to its center, it needs to be a connected whole.  In other words, your body needs a solid framework that’s relaxed and can move in a fluid way as if it’s one piece (sound familiar?); then it can wrap around, rotate, shrink into, and expand out from its center of gravity.  This is the essence of internal martial arts; it’s what makes them unique and separate from other martial arts.  
‘Unique’ doesn’t mean inherently better or anything.  Moving with respect to the dantien is what makes an internal martial art ‘internal’, instead of just punching and kicking things.  Other arts have their own unique traits that set them apart, and some of them even have crazy-awesome things going on internally (like White Crane or Wing Chun, both great martial arts with their own unique types of internal body connection).  Moving the body with respect to its center of gravity is what makes internal martial arts unique.
Each internal martial art has its own practice to develop dantien:  Tai Chi has its silk reeling exercises; Bagua has its circle walking; Xing Yi (or at least our style, Xinyi Dao) has the squatting monkey exercise.
Stances, Partner Work (especially Push Hands), and Dantien Development are the 3 pillars of internal martial arts.  If you’re already practicing internal martial arts, or are thinking of trying out some classes somewhere, please keep these pillars in mind.  It’s actually difficult to find a place that teaches all three.

Also, be sure to check out our Youtube Channel, now with 8 videos posted!