Training: Arms like Banners

Sometimes the thing that looks the easiest is the most difficult. Sometimes to get across the street you have to take a trip around the whole town. Some skills require you to reach right in there and re-program what you and everyone your know always thought was obvious.

This may sound like I am a candidate for the Wrong Way Corrigan Award but I sort of like that about Kung Fu practice. It reinforces that very true statement that the direct route is always nice, if you can get it. But there is no guarantee.

Tong Bei, and a number of other Northern Kung Fu styles, had just such a category of simple but not easy movements; ones that look as effortless as flapping an empty sleeve on an unoccupied coat and will take you the rest of your breaths to perfect. To learn this trick all you have to do is loosen up your arms until they no more stand up than overcooked spaghetti. If you DO get the idea then the nice thing is that you can apply these principles to all the most mundane martial warm ups you know. Like the right kind of sea salt, you sprinkle a little of this on and VOILA! a new taste.

Start with one of the easiest arm circles in the Kung Fu warm ups. Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. Hang your arms loose. Then lift and cross them in front of your body as you whip them up and out with your right arm going clockwise and your left counter. Keep these two propellers going in nice and even circles. No problem at all. That’s the whole exercise but now we’re going to do it Tong Bei style.

Start again. Hang your arms and imagine them to be long cloth tubes holding ordinary sand. I can guarantee you two things if they WERE sand filled linen, they wouldn’t stiffen like two-bys and they wouldn’t go all raggy like empty socks; the centrifugal force wouldn’t allow that. You are looking for a more in-between, garden hose flexibility, so this time refrain from using your arm muscles to raise your arms. Instead you must lift your torso, especially your ribcage, to raise them. The movement can start in your legs, bend then straight those knees. Let the wave of inertia climb up into you back as you begin to roll your arms. Do not wickedly whip them like snapping belts. A bag of sand is more substantial. Just let the torso lift and throw those arms outward, loose but not jiggly. It should be as though the wind (that is, the torso) were gently flapping a huge flag. Remember, once they reach their apex your work is done, they will return earthward even without your help, gravity and I promise you.

Make any analogy that will help: the boats don’t move, the ocean does; the wind shakes the branches; rain bends the leaves whatever. The point is that you have definitely begun retraining in the direction I mentioned earlier. Loosen up, stay conscious, but other than that, let everything go.

P.S. Don’t get me wrong. This exercise is NOT about loose arms. It’s about letting the torso move the arms. Most people can get into that over-loose Raggedy Ann type of feeling but the moment the arm is moving the muscles slyly jump on the bandwagon. To do this TongBei drill properly the arms have to retain their slight tension, mostly relaxed evenness all through the action.

Resource: Here’s our short video tutorial about arm circles. (This may take a second to load.)

2 Responses to “Training: Arms like Banners”

  1. DAVID RAINS says:

    Three-year lurker and customer. Really enjoy the Plumpub Exclusives. And YouKnowWho is super customer service personified.

    Great video. Two questions – 1] Are you trying to extend ki through the arms ala aikido unbendable arm or is that irrelevant? 2] Is the instruction on the Zhao Ya Jun 3-dvd set as accessible as what you are doing here?

  2. Andrew Shinn says:

    Nice tutorial! I spend a lot of time one my own and with my students working on the opening and closing of the torso with various arm movements. Learning to use the upper chest and shoulder blades as a joint to increase loose power is, as you say, something that has to be worked on throughout your life in Chinese martial arts.

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