Sifu Interview: Liu He Mantis and Practice

Linda Darrigo is a Sifu. But, more importantly, she is a long time student of Chinese Martial Arts with a highly invested background of time spent perfecting her art. For more than thirty years she has been practicing hard to develop a deep understanding of the art from the point of view of someone who actually gets down and does the work. She has taken on grueling tasks in an effort to push past the cliches and reach the core. The words in this interview may seem simple and straight forward but they emphasize hard won insight that cuts through many obstacles. She has studied Kenpo, Shaolin, Sun style Taichi, Baji, Cha Quan, Bagua and many other arts. In the last five or six years she has focused exclusively on her two favorites: Chen Style Taiji and Liu He Mantis. Her relation to Six Harmony Mantis, a very special branch of the family, is so strong I thought I would just start right there.

Q: First question, what do you like about the Liu He Mantis?

A: It is simple and it’s clear about its requirements. Fighting and form skills are all clearly identified as a whole. You can’t separate those. In Liu He TangLang Pi is Pi, Gua is Gua. The motions and the energies are clearly defined. This is essential for the beginner, that everything is made explicit.

Q: How do YOU make things clear when you have a class of beginners.

A: I might focus a whole class just on the Pi action (Split). That’s the easiest to understand; straight up and straight down until they feel that not only is it solid but that they have it in their bodies. Until they have clarity with a motion there’s no point in them going on. I mean, you can do other things like Gua, the other side of the coin, or GunXuanZhengGuo with all its directions, just to vary the practice; but there are certain requirements in each move which—unless you have them—there is no point in moving forward. For instance, early actions like Pi and Gua are the most important because they also give the basic directions, down and up.

Q: I see, so you are also teaching the directions… and the movements… and the qualities.

A: Right. First get the general directions then you can add other aspects to it.

Q: Are these directions you mention the standard eight directions, the Bagua?

A: They are.

Q: How does the simple and clear mantis approach compare to Chen style Taiji? Would you also call Chen style simple?

A: No. (laughs) Not in any way, shape or form would I call Chen style simple. If I was going to design a Taiji class I would never start a student out with the Chen form. All the directions are there in Chen style, that’s obvious, but it’s not so obvious in what way. So how could a student ever find these different qualities? It’s impossible. So if I were to start a class I would take my Double Bouquet — a basic structure form from Mantis— and I would integrate that with the mantis basics. That’s how I would start my Taiji classes. Some styles are just like that, they shouldn’t be the ones you start with. Bagua is one of these styles. Taiji is another one. It’s not that you can’t study them but it’s confusing to the student.

Q: Let’s go back to the topic of simplicity. How do you think everyone got so far afield?

A: I think we lost sight of a method for getting better. When most of us started out we spent our time learning forms. I remember my little sheet. Oh, learned another form; I can mark that one off the list. That’s just not a good way to learn Kung Fu. Just what are you doing? You are learning forms but you can’t see any quality in the forms. You have to ask, “What is it in this form that they are trying to teach me?” But I was just adding more forms. I didn’t know that this one was trying to teach me this, or that one was showing me that. I didn’t understand that, I was just picking up another form.

Q: Are you saying that you shouldn’t learn forms?

A: No. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t learn so many.

Q: And you should learn them deeper?

A: You need five forms. You don’t need any more. You may study something like the two styles I love, Liu He Mantis and Chen Taiji, but, say you want to do a little more twisting to add it to your skills. Let’s say I’m lacking in that. So I may want to do a little bit of Bagua to twist a bit more than usual so I add some Bagua–not all its forms–to my practice. Don’t you think that’s what Liu Yun Chiao was trying to do? I mean all these people got into this controversy about how much Bagua he learned, 64 moves as opposed to the whole of 128, and so on. But he didn’t need all the rest, he was already an expert. He just said “I need this much” and took that.

Q: So I take it that you teach first the universal movements like Pi or Gua. When I come to you for the mantis I learn the mantis version of Pi and Gua not the wide open version from, for instance, PiGua Boxing. Is that right?

A: Pi is Pi. It doesn’t matter which style it is: Pi is Pi. In all the styles it’s the same thing you are trying to get. I think it’s a mistake that PiGua opens that much but it’s still the same.

Q: Do you think it’s just that it’s all just different instructors using various methods to get the point across?

A: Yes. That’s exactly right. Different styles have different approaches to fighting, but the elements are the same no matter what style.

Q: Agreed, but it looks different in different styles and there must be a reason for that.

A: Well, they are trying to get the same thing. For example, GunXuanZhengGu (Coiling Arm) is a major practice in Bagua but it’s also important and useful in Liu He Mantis where we mainly use it to teach rolling your elbow in accord with your body. All these key moves we’ve been talking about are ways to teach you to use your body. They have different approaches to the same goal. After all there are only so many moves.

Q: How about differences in things like personality, physique and gender? Would you customize to different types?

A: Not at first. They might use them differently in sparring but I wouldn’t teach them differently at first. You are trying to teach the energy at a universal level and everyone is the same: two arms and two legs. How each student modifies its use after learning the general move, that’s at the level of personal style.

Q: How do you use this approach to improve people’s skills?

A: What we do is emphasize awareness. You finally “get” how to use your body. You trying to awaken everything. Let’s use Pi as an example. You play with it and suddenly you think: I’ve kind of got the idea. That feels a little better. But, gee, when I do it this way it doesn’t come off quite as well. It’s still Pi but its different. So I go back to my BIG basic and try to see is how I do that so successfully. Then I take that information back to the smaller movement and attempt a similar feeling.

Q: What are some of the mistakes that either teachers or students make when studying Kung Fu? What are the wrong ideas floating around?

A: That you should advance quickly. That you are looking at the wrong goal instead of taking it from where you are now, this minute, using what you have learned up to this point. Start simple and build on that. If you skip steps it won’t work, you’ll have to go back. There’s no way around it, you can’t skip steps. Another error is not asking why you are doing something. That doesn’t mean the teacher will tell you why, but you should at least ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

Q: I notice that sometimes people don’t seem to listen very well or even try to represent what the teacher actually taught them.

A: I think it’s their expression of what you are teaching, so that’s even scarier. You are wondering, “Whoa, did I do that? Where did they get that?” It’s really all up to the teacher’s ability to pass things on. That’s the teachers job.

Q: What about forms? Do you feel they have a real place in the training?

A: Absolutely. The forms teach you continuous movement. And each form has its own particular theme.

Q: And what about stance training and position training, like standing, as in Qigong?

A: We call that Lian Gong training. It’s good. I don’t think the type of stance training where you sit in a horse for two hours has much value. I think it gives you the wrong idea so you don’t know how to move in your stance. That’s the whole point, mobility. If you are a very young person and you’ve got a lot of energy, okay.

Q: What about Kung Fu’s contribution to your life?

A: That can never be replaced. And what I’ve learned about Kung Fu and me in my body, and my philosophy of life is how to balance your personal and your professional life. Sometimes you are tired. You don’t really want to train, you know. But the balance is the goal. I’ll just go out late at night when everything is still and I’ll do some Taiji when things are really quiet and it feels really good. I go, “Ah” and it puts everything in place. Kung Fu has taught me that.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes, to try your best. That’s important, to really try.

One Response to “Sifu Interview: Liu He Mantis and Practice”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    EXCELLENT article! ‘Nuff said.

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