Permutations of Kungfu

DSC_0050It is a pretty common occurrence here at the kungfu school, and at martial arts schools everywhere as far as I can tell. A teacher corrects a movement or explains a certain technique, and the student objects that the teacher is directly contradicting what the student was taught by another previous teacher. Or a student looks at two teachers demonstrating the same technique or form, and sees that they are very different. “So which on is right?” the student wants to know.

The answer is usually both. Or neither – that is, both versions may be equally valid, though they look nothing alike. There are infinite variables in martial arts, any one of which could produce seemingly contradictory instruction but which the student must strive to unravel to best grow and develop.

One variable is purpose. A given movement can be executed to a great number of different ends. Take a kick, for example. Within the realm of martial application, it could need to be a fast kick, to outrace an opponent’s reactions; a powerful kick, to do damage weather it is blocked or not and force an opponent hesitate; an unpredictable kick, so that the opponent’s reaction is doesn’t stop it; or most likely one of the infinite combinations of these criteria. But a kick could also be intended as an exercise, to improve the body’s strength and flexibility. It might not be something to use in a fight, but nonetheless valuable to practice. And each tiny variation of the kick and its mechanics could change what muscles or skills are being stretched and strengthened, so each variation could have its purpose.

Teachers might contradict themselves and each other when the purpose changes. It might change simply to try and encompass as broad a variety of movement as possible, thus making the student more versatile and flexible. Or the student’s growth could precipitate that change: first they needed to work on one part of the movement, then they need to work on a different part that is best practiced with different mechanics. Or, the technique’s purpose could and should change depending on the teacher’s growing and changing understanding of the movement. The teacher may notice that a movement he or she has practiced with sparring in mind can be altered slightly to become an excellent exercise in balance or coordination. The instructions they give, or even the look of the movement itself, could change very much depending upon the purpose to which the teacher applies it.

While there is no doubt that there is better and worse technique in martial arts, it is not as simple and clear as right or wrong. Martial arts are still an art, a living, growing thing that exists and is sustained by living, growing people. As students, we must strive to live up to the example that our teachers set for us. But that example is not just a set of physical movements. Students of martial arts must try to imitate the sincerity and engagement with the practice that our teachers model for us. And it fall to us to try to understand the “why” of our training, because ultimately we must become our own teachers.

Atmosphere of Change

SL371526Today one of my favorite of my Chinese older kungfu brothers left to try to make his own way outside the kungfu school. Yuan Huailiang is a great young man, the kind of guy I look up to a lot, even though he is years younger than me and has seen less of the world. For one thing, he is an incredibly gifted athlete: his every movement exudes grace and strength that I envy. But more so than that, he is someone I have watched change into a really calm, confident, open person.

When I first came to Wudang and met Huailiang, when he was maybe 17 or 18, he seemed like kind of an angry kid. I remember sitting down at a meal across the table from him. I was already a little in awe of him, having seen his kungfu and how he moved, but as I sat there across from him he fixed me with this stare. He later told me that he had actually practiced that look in  a mirror a bit. It was the look of a predator at a watering hole, incredibly dangerous but for the moment tolerating your presence. I don’t think he wanted me to sit with him 🙂 I thought, “Wow, this is a powerful kid.” But it was also an angry, unhappy kid.

Being in awe of his kungfu and raw attitude was cool, but what is better is how he soon after grew out of that angry phase and seemed to find himself. His emotions calmed down, he became much more focused in his teaching and training, and though he to this day maintains a little of the crazy that I first glimpsed at that lunch table, it is channeled through easy laughter and playfulness. Last summer we were playing hackysack. When we kicked it to him he immediately started volleying it high in the air, letting it drop through the loop of his arms, and kicking it back up time and time again with a completely spontaneous aptitude for the game. He just laughed, a pure expression of joy, as we chased him around trying to get the hackysack back. That light heart does not keep him from his responsibilities, however, and he is one of the best, most capable and thoughtful coaches our school has had.

What I want to illustrate, through my little anecdotes about Huailiang, is the value of having a culture where people are expected to change. Shifu is always encouraging us to develop and grow at a very fundamental emotional level, and of course teaching us techniques to effect that change. That is what I had the pleasure of seeing Huailiang do – completely change his outlook, practically overnight. And I have seen many, many foreign students do the same thing. I really give a lot of credit to that atmosphere of expectation that grants the freedom for us to re-define ourselves. In other places and times of my life, I have felt as though I had to continue to be who I had been because that was what others expected of me. I do not feel that here — the expectation is that I will change, that I will become better and better.