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Reflections: How to Practice Shaolin Kung Fu

Venerable Shi Guolin

Shaolin Kung Fu is an important part of traditional Chinese martial arts. It is a crystal gem that integrates the traditional Chinese culture and Chan Buddhism (Chan thoughts). Its wonder lies in the incredible power to purify the mind and transcend the spirit. As a matter of fact, Shaolin Kung Fu can be considered a unique Dharma path of Chan Buddhism, which stresses cultivation on internal and external levels, integrating Chan Buddhism and physical training. In other words, it is a Chinese martial art infused with essence of Chan. No matter what it is called, Shaolin Kung Fu is a practical method that trains its practitioners both internally and externally: it first trains the mind to control the body and then trains the body to follow the mind, so that it brings about the wholesome transformation through both spiritual (Chan) and physical development.

Shaolin Kung Fu has its long history. For thousands of years, generations of monks from Shaolin Temple have been constantly absorbing the knowledge from hundreds of schools of martial arts. They have also gained their profound insights and experience from their own kung fu practice. Thus, they have preserved and contributed rich and invaluable knowledge of martial arts to the unique cultural heritage of Shaolin Temple. This treasure-trove of secrets has revealed the innate relationship between the human body and its movements as well as the fundamental principle of body movements, serving for ages as a guideline for refining and developing Shaolin kung fu.

Based on the wisdom of the past kung fu masters and my own experience, I will discuss a few points on the Shaolin kung fu practice for martial art lovers to study and criticize.

1. Flexibility Training

Generally speaking, for any type of martial arts, physical flexibility is the foremost basic ability to be developed. That is because every martial art movement has its range of motion and requires various degrees of extension. For example, people with inflexible Kua joints (inner and outer thighs), ankle joints, and legs fail to squat in basic stepping, resulting in incorrect postures. Especially during the horse stance (Ma Bu) with half-squat, or crouched stance (Pu Bu) and cross stance (Xie Bu) with full-squat, their heels tend to be off the ground and bottoms up-rooted, and torsos lean forward or backward. Another example: when you have poor flexibility in shoulders and the waist and try to do basic hand patterns and movements, the martial power will not be smooth and far-reaching, and the movements are hard to execute properly. Consequently, you are unable to twist the waist and forward the shoulder as required.

Therefore, flexibility training is paramount important. It can make every joint suppler and agile and expand its range of motion. It also enhances the muscle’s controlling ability and necessary elasticity. In addition, the flexibility training plays active roles to improve the qualities of postures and guard against and minimize injuries.

In martial arts, the standards for flexibility do not just mean splits and bridge pose, which only indicate local pliability. Flexibility training should involve the whole body; it trains and tunes each joint and body part from different angles. Only by doing so can each joint and muscle expand its range of motion, improving the abilities to control, stretch and contract.

2. Standards for Postures and Movements

With optimal flexibility as a solid foundation, you can begin the training for the fundamental movements, which include hand patterns, hand movements, step patterns, stepping, and leg maneuverings. During practice, each movement has its key points and posture requirement. For example, when doing Front Flex Kick (Zhengtitui), try to gradually kick a little higher each time, but you must strictly follow the instruction of “straight leg, erect waist, and open chest.” Take another example: when doing Bow Stance (Gong Bu ) with right fist punch, make sure that you twist the waist, close the inner and outer thighs (Kua), and forward the right shoulder, while pulling back the left shoulder naturally with the waist twisting. Only by doing so can the martial power be smooth and far-reaching and the punch powerful. If you bend the leg and curl the waist when kicking, or apply the power with clumsiness and rigidity when punching, it will not only adversely affect the outcomes of the training, but also lead to poor postures, thus hampering the technique improvement.

When practicing basic techniques and postures, you must first understand the key points and master the correct postures. Otherwise, over the time incorrect movements will be established that are hard to correct. As the ancient kung fu masters said: Easy to learn the moves, but hard to correct the (wrong) moves.

3. Practice with Unification of Inside and Outside and Harmonization of Form and Spirit

When your basic skills and moves meet the standards, you can start to learn moving routines. During the routines, concentrate on the relationships between inside and outside (body) as well as spirit and form. The meaning of inside and outside or spirit and form encompasses many levels. In the human body, ‘inside’ refers to internal organs and the flowing of internal energy Qi (i.e. up and down, in and out). ‘Outside’ refers to the movements of tendons, bones, the skin, the torso and limbs. ‘Form’ (Xing) refers to external matters with shapes and forms, such as the five sense organs, the torso, four limbs, as well as tendons, bones and the skin etc., while ‘spirit’(Sheng) refers to the spirit of vitality, mind, and thoughts that are invisible and formless.

Through practicing the techniques of moving routines, you can see clearly the close relationship between inside and outside or spirit and form. For instance, the traditional Eight Methods of Kung Fu Training reflects the contradiction and unification between inside and outside or form and spirit. In the Eight Methods of Kung Fu Training, hands, eyes, postures and stepping constitute the external body movements, while spirit of vitality, Qi, martial power and rhythm belong to the internal and invisible activities. Their modes of movements require the fist (punching) like shooting stars, eyes (gazing) like lightening, the waist (twisting) like snakes, feet (stepping) like being glued to the ground, while spirit being high, Qi sunken, power smooth, and rhythm clear. These are the specific requirements for upper limbs, the head, the torso, lower limbs, spirit, breathing, strength, and skills.

The inside and outside or form and spirit are united as one, inter-connecting, influencing, controlling, and pervading each other. The coordination of external movements depends on the internal harmony that, in turn, results from the correct external body postures and movements. On the other hand, spirit is the root of form, while form is the application of spirit. Martial arts are far more than just simple muscle stretches and contractions; it is a discipline in which through the manifestation of the invisible inner movements, the mind leads Qi and consequently Qi generates power. The invisible Qi mediates the external forms and movements, while the visible external forms express the invisible power. What flows inside is the Qi, and what manifests outside is force and power. These are the essence of the ancient culture of Chinese martial arts, a unique training system.

4. Rhythm and Speed Training

Rhythm is one of the most important features of martial arts. The past kung fu masters described figuratively the rhythm of movements as twelve forms: move like waves, (be) calm like a mountain, rise like a monkey, fall like a sparrow, turn like cart wheels, bend like a bow, poise like a rooster, stand like a pine, (be) light like leaves, (be) heavy like irons, (be) slow like a eagle, (be) swift like the wind.

When practicing a movement routine, every move, its combination, and the transition between each session must be executed appropriately, demonstrating clearly the dynamic changes of the flow: fast or slow, up or down, hard or soft, insubstantial or substantial. A movement routine should be performed not only with fast pace, but also with varying speeds in order to balance the rhythmic changes of the techniques, such as moving and still, hard and soft, insubstantial and substantial, fast and slow.

During the moving routines, how to balance correctly these contradictory and inter-connected relationships will directly affect the right rhythm and quality of moves. A moving routine with wrong rhythm appears dull and tasteless. For example, in a set of movements, if there is no steadiness of calmness, there will be no swiftness of motion; if there is no soft move as a contrast, hard move can not be displayed; if there is no slow start, the following acceleration will not become obvious. Thus, it is essential to apply the principle of contradictions— moving and still, hard and soft, fast and slow— in the practice of movement routines: the more prominently the contrasts are demonstrated through good techniques, the stronger the rhythm of the movements will be.

5. Martial Power Training

The striking force in martial arts refers to the martial power and its extent of use. It encompasses two stages of accumulation and emission of power, both of which interact closely with each other as an indivisible one.

During the movements of martial arts, if you want to emit the power from the whole body in each move, you must first learn to accumulate the power. The accumulated power is the power ready for delivery. It requires that, during motion or stillness, the whole body—inside, outside, top, bottom, front, back, left, right—be kept in a ready state that appears relaxed but not really relaxed, tense but not really tense. If too tense, the body becomes stiff and power will not be delivered smoothly. If too relaxed, the body becomes slack and power cannot accumulate. Therefore, the martial power originates from the mutual interplay between being relaxed and tense; at the moment of emitting power, the body must be extremely tight, mobilizing every part of the body, internal or external, for the power while maintaining balance. After the emission of power, the body should quickly relax ready for the next move.

Let us illustrate the point with fist punch as an example: You must adjust the body before the move, and relax before tense up, sinking shoulders and dropping elbows, so that the power from the entire body can be manifested by the punching fist. Here is another example: Front Snap Kick. The correct mechanics demands first lift the thigh in front of you at a level position, with the knee bent as a moving support point. This should be done with an initial speed (stage of relaxation). Then snap kick the same leg with accelerated speed, sending the martial power to the toes (stage of tightness). The entire movement should be done with continuity and coordination, with right timing of relaxation and tightness. If you kick the leg prematurely before lifting the thigh to the level position, the power will be insufficient. On the contrary, if you raise the thigh above the level position and then snap kick the leg, the initial speed cannot be combined with the acceleration to produce the combined power. In other words, if the timing of the change from relaxation to tightness is not right, the martial power will likewise become weak.

In addition, when emitting power, the body movement must coordinate seamlessly with breathing. The Shaolin kung fu classic says, “Strike with full power, and that power originates from Qi. Cultivate Qi slowly but apply Qi swiftly. The secret of slow and fast Qi lies in one breath.” In other words, no matter it is the training of the movements that focuses on moving and still, fast and slow, or it is the practical application (i.e. sparring), all the movements must coordinate closely with breathing.

From the experience of the predecessors and my own, I find out that for emitting power, the principle is inhalation before exhalation, and adjustment before execution. That is, before emitting power, inhale to allow the body to accumulate power for later use, feeling the strength and energy throughout the entire body (inside, outside, top, bottom, left, and right). Then exhale to instantly use Qi to generate the explosive power, concentrating all the power from the whole body (inside, outside, top, bottom) on one single point. Thus, in martial art movements, manifestation of martial power must coordinate with breathing.

Finally, I hope that by drawing on the accumulated wisdom and experience from the past martial art masters, all martial art lovers are able to improve on the several aspects of the practice discussed above, forming sound training habits, and ultimately pursuing and developing their own styles of martial arts.

Amituofo!