Four Things Hard to Believe

martial arts principles At the start of your training, if you’d asked: “What do I need to be a good martial artist?” you might have gotten a list which included strength, endurance, patience, humility, Ben-Gay, and a good pair of shoes. What would probably have been missing is the word “faith.” But anyone who’s done any kind of long-term training knows that that pinch of faith can often be all you have to guide you forward. You can’t check out every situation or problem that your chosen endeavor might involve—sometimes you just have to rely on those well-tested “rules of the road.” 

Martial arts training creates dozens of these moments: whether the actual technique is functional and tested, or just a vague hunk of indigestible advice; when the move defies logic, physics, or just plain gravity; where that grain of truth is obscured by wrong usage, tall telling, or the attrition of time.

I’ve had my own concepts that—though now resolved in my mind—were troublesome and doubtful for the longest time. I realized one reason it took so long, was that my teachers didn’t always explain the concepts behind these counter-intuitive ideas. I’m all for tradition, but in my own teaching I vowed to reverse that. So here are four of my favorite puzzlers. In each one, I’ve ended with the solution, no matter how improbable.

1. Perfect verticality. This is a favorite teaching of many Kung Fu styles including Tai Chi. No one thinks an upright stance is a bad idea, it just seems difficult to maintain. Monitoring you posture in the middle of a fight or sparring? When you are leaning forward it’s still a good theory to keep the back in one smooth line; this aids power generation. The Idea: The aim of standing so straight is to know when you are NOT vertical. If you keep erect you will find an increased sensitivity. This is especially useful in styles that employ tactile sensitivity as part of their arsenal.

2. Unlike just about any other physical activity on the face of the earth, Kung Fu often demands pivoting on your heels instead of the balls of your feel. This is so alien that I have seen students quake while trying to catch the concept. The Idea: The ability to move backward without tripping or staggering is a prime Kung Fu skill that encourages you to control your back and unify it with the rest of your body—not that easy a task. Pivoting on the heels makes the back come alive and changes the configuration of chest, thus positioning both so that the opponent must go deeper into your defenses, making things hard for him to grasp.

3. Tucking. In many arts you tuck your pelvis when you move. The Idea: Actually, this one has some immediately discernable advantages. When you lift something heavy you often consolidate your back with this convex posture making a surprisingly effective action. Tucking the back also has the tendency to round the chest, creating a strong and integrated back and waist. For all this, the tucked position need not be held permanently while fighting. Rather, it is a sort of hidden position that you can enter or leave to gain momentary advantage.

4. Back Weighting. Used with the proper discretion this can be surprisingly useful. Many styles, such as Xing Yi, have the student performing countless repetitions advancing a march across the floor then turning around and coming back, all with the majority of the weight supported by the back leg. This back-loading is unusual and takes some acclimating. The whole Idea can be summed up with a quote from Western fencing, “Advance with your weapon before advancing with your targets.” In other words attack him with the sword before bringing your body into his range. At first, back-loading is like wearing a weighted vest; you feel so good when it is removed. The student who has held his weight back 60%—once he is allowed to shift forward—often feels like he’s either being released from prison or shot off like a cannonball.

Anyone out there who has a similar test of faith and principle? We’d like to hear your example, so others can also commiserate.

2 Responses to “Four Things Hard to Believe”

  1. Jeff says:

    These are all so good, I don’t what I could possibly add. That back-weighted leg is torturous but vital training.

    If I have something to offer, it is the staff. I didn’t really understand what I was doing until I began working with the staff. As a weapon of self-defense, it’s not practical. Nobody walks around with a 6-foot-tall stick. But the geometry of the staff expands the mind. Linking the hands is the most obvious effect, but it also links the shoulders to hips to feet. It prepares the wrists and fingers for grappling. It forces the shoulders to relax. It teaches leverage and timing, small movement and large movement, precision and brute force. It is your partner when you have no human partner, the stern elder brother who instructs and corrects.

  2. Plum Staff says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Absolutely correct! Practicing and learning staff work, and traditional weapons work in general, represent some of the most common misunderstandings in martial arts. In modern times, what the four Grandparent weapons have to offer far exceed their actual usage. Each contains its own curriculum for both weapons and empty hands skills. This is one of the main reasons we decided to publish books on the Saber, Staff, Spear and (forthcoming) sword.

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