Everything Old Is New Again

“A guy who can stand for two hours is a guy you don’t want to fight.”
-Sifu Ted Mancuso

cheng man ching post standingTraditional Tai Chi training, back in the day, was markedly different from what is practiced today.  There was considerable emphasis on stance training. Before students were taught a form, they spent countless hours perfecting/holding postures.  It was only after they satisfied the master, that they went on to link the postures.  A story about Yang Cheng Fu is illustrative.  Yang would enter a class with one of his students.  The student assumed the ward off posture. Yang would take off his heavy coat and drape it over over the student’s extended arm.  The student was expected to remain immobile for the duration of the class.

Professor Cheng Man Ching often spoke of his training with Yang. The intense bouts of posture-holding left his legs so fatigued that, at the end of the day, he had to use his hands to lift his legs into bed.  Cheng was initially unsparing with his first student, Benjamin Lo—stance holding with no form training.  It was only when Madame Cheng took pity on Ben, did the Professor relent and start form training.

When Ben came to the U.S. and began to teach, he tried to maintain tradition (no burn, no earn), but realized that he had to adapt.  The stance training became more of a side bar, rather than a core practice. He would have his students pause at various points of the form and hold their positions while he made the rounds adjusting each individual’s posture. Holding time would depend upon the size of the class. 

Prof. Cheng placed little emphasis on posture holding.  Archival film footage shows his students briefly holding postures while his two class seniors, Tam Gibbs and Ed Young, provided the necessary adjustments.

After his death, Cheng was often criticized for holding back “secrets” from his caucasian students.  One might surmise that posture training was one of these secrets.  I tend to give the professor the benefit of the doubt.  Like Ben, the Professor knew his audience.  “Eating bitters” was not in the DNA of his students.

Cheng had to adjust to his new environment.  He considered Tai Chi a precious gift and wanted to share it with the West, and the best way to accomplish this would be to emphasize form training.


In his latest book, Life Is Too Short For Bad Kung Fu,  Sifu Adam Hsu laments the disappearance of true Chinese martial arts.  He states that a good deal of this is due to neglect of training in the basics.  Stance training is definitely part of this.

I recently came across some articles that might serve as a gateway to reviving this valuable practice. The Western mind wants to know why it’s important to hold a horse stance for 30 minutes and beyond.  Character building may not be sufficient a reason.  If it’s a matter of building leg strength, banging out some seated leg presses would make more sense (maybe).

The articles deal with a training method called “extreme isometrics.”  These are bodyweight exercises that involve holding a position, such as a pushup in various ranges, to the point of failure.  The core exercise is the extreme lunge, which is a 70-30 stance on steroids. To add to the agony the subject, while holding the stance, is supposed to isometrically  attempt to bring both legs together in a scissor like fashion.  An accompanying youtube video shows two subjects holding this position to the point of collapse—which is about five minutes.

The articles go on to give anecdotal reports from various athletes that attest to significant performance gains.  One of the conclusions drawn  is that this practice is a superior way to train the nervous system, “because a consistent signal is being sent through the body to hold with maximum intent an extreme position. Furthermore, if the nervous system is enhanced, and it is the body’s control system, doesn’t every other system rise up with it?” 

Perhaps this would be an acceptable rationale for reviving this basic practice.  Enhanced nervous system function might explain the reported superiority of the past masters.  Perhaps the old boys were on to something.

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