Practice SPACE!

I really am a believer that a martial art is best practiced outside, in a natural setting. The reasons for this are many. One is the fact that if you are working with advanced forms many of them are huge and actually employ a lot of moves that are better performed on the ground than over a mat.

I think when you practice in a studio, even a large one, you are restricted in space. Everything is reduced to a person and a proscribed. There is no sense of the presence of Nature. Many people are not aware of it but Kung Fu is intimately related to Feng Shui (real Feng Shui, not that ‘just hang up a mirror and the evil spirits will bounce away’). Every one of those old texts say “this is the direction to face” when you begin the form. This is not just for a reference point. Part of doing a form is to consider the direction of the wind, the placement of the trees, the environment and the slope of the ground, etc. And why would this be? Because it’s called MARTIAL arts, not mat arts. As the great military writer, Sun Tzu, points out: terrain is primary; this is also part of performing martial arts.

There is something vitalizing about practicing outside. It is wonderful to practice not only near but with trees, to practice looking at distant mountains (which, oddly enough, is an old Tai Chi term for the gaze when doing post standing). Practicing this way brings your body more erect, it makes you  “extend” further, it makes your consciousness expand and reach. The same can be said for partner work. Partner work is much freer when people go outside, when no one is worried about tripping over the weapons rack, when they aren’t worried about punching holes in the walls. Also they have to adapt to the environment more, working with safe but unusual surfaces and conditions.

When people practice habitually in a studio they indubitably orient toward the walls. I used to actually take students out in the middle of a field and ask them to show me their form. Thought it is pretty easy to overcome the problem, their first response was generally astonishment at how disoriented they felt. This is really funny when you think about it since all this information is supposed to be internalized, kept in the body regardless of direction and angle. But it takes some transition to be able to do a form when there is that familiar corner a couple yards in front of you. I kid you not, I had students who would take photographs of the studio so when they did forms so they could stick the pictures up with scotch tape and with this method freeze the image of the studio in their minds and know which direction to perform. They literally had to visualize the studio in some way just to practice.

This relates to another exercise where I have students close their eyes, particularly Tai Chi students, and just visualize themselves doing the form. I find that about half the people visualize themselves doing the form from inside their bodies and about half from outside their bodies.  Of course neither group does it 100% one way or the other. I encourage people to see themselves doing the form with an outside-the-body perspective, where they are not alone but part of the environment itself.

When practicing outside you will find yourself adapting on two levels. One is that you adapt knowingly such as: “Oh, boy this ground is really sloping, I have to watch out for this.” In the other sense you adapt and your entire performance changes. For instance, there is a tendency to stretch more. There is a tendency to just be more physical. There is a tendency to change your timing when you are outside.

You know, Kung Fu is made up of a bunch of natural analogies. For instance, “When you move, move like the wind. When you stand, stand like a mountain.” Many of these analogies are indeed about the outside world. As you work outside you start to feel these qualities. Maybe you see a squirrel climbing a tree and you add some of that characteristic into the form. You see, you are going back to the source of all this. You are not looking at films of people doing things, you are not looking at instructors or other performers. Everyone says Kung Fu came from the animals, then they never look at any animals.  To get out and see the organic way the world actually moves is a continuing inspiration and I highly encourage people to try it.