The master approaches the diligently practicing student and provides a few small corrections, concluding with the ever-present reminder to “relax.” The student protests, saying, “But I am relaxed.” The teacher shakes his head and points out the bunched shoulders, the wrinkled brow and the stiffness in the movements. The student is exasperated and complains, “But I’m relaxing as hard as I can!”
This is the paradox of Wing Chun Kung Fu. Although we’ve established that Kung Fu means “skills gained through effort” or “hard work,” we are also being constantly told to “relax.” How can we possibly do both at the same time?
Part of the confusion lies in the imperfect translations between Chinese concepts and English words. For much of the Western world, “relax” denotes inactivity, such as sinking into a plush recliner with a cold beverage. In the Chinese concept, “relax” is active, where the conscious mind takes control over seemingly unconscious physical states. Just as we use “Listening Energy” to perceive what our attacker is doing, our goal is to listen to our own bodies, find the tension and stiffness and blocked energy, and release it.
Relax Under Fire
The strikes shown in the third and final section of the Siu Lim Tau form again rely on Fa Jing, or “Relaxed Release of Energy.” As you progress through the drills in Level Three, you’re going to be challenged by the introductory levels of Chi Sau or “Sticking Hands.” The “Rolling Hands” motions of Poon Sau and Luk Sau in particular will require that the shoulders be completely free from tension and tightness. You will find, however, that simply telling yourself to relax will not be effective.
Instead, “Relax” should be a trigger word. Rather than simply trying to “relax” (whatever that means), whenever you hear or think of the trigger, take very specific actions. For muscles, let go of tension by creating tension. To relax the arms and shoulders, for instance, begin by contracting the muscles in a body-builder’s pose: tighten the fists, flex the biceps, and squeeze the trapezius muscles of the back to lift and compress the shoulders. Really try to crush with the fists, and feel the tension radiate down the arms. Hold at maximum tension for a few moments, and then unwind.
Release the fists and pay attention to the feeling in the muscles of the forearm. Let go of the effort in the biceps and let the arms hang freely at your side, noticing all of the sensations as the muscles become slack. Drop the shoulders as if they were heavy weights, and just let them rest on the solid mass of the torso.
Now go deeper. Peter Ralston, in his book Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, describes the next phase like this:
Relax; let all your joints fall open and your tissues be supple and loose. Let everything go – down to the feet. Use the inherent binding force of your tissues, regardless of how relaxed they are, to connect your body. Use gravity as your primary force, and the earth as your prime principle and closest ally.
We have ligaments and fascia and other connective tissue holding our body together, so you have to learn to trust these structures. Completely release any tension in the joints and let gravity either compress them (knees, ankles, hips) or pull them open (wrists, elbows, shoulders). Don’t worry, nothing will fall off. Let any residual tension simply drain into the earth, like sand draining from an hour glass.
To relax the body completely, you must also relax the mind. Deep muscular relaxation cannot co-exist with fear or anxiety. If you are afraid or just stressed, the body is automatically tensed into a braced position. To get the muscles to go slack, the mind must be calm. Conversely, by creating a state of suppleness and freedom in the body, the natural outcome is a calm mind.
Wing Chun Kung Fu – as all martial arts – is a pressure cooker for fear, uncertainty, stress and doubt. What you are learning above all else is how to relax under fire, to keep the body relaxed and the mind calm even in frightful and stressful situations.
This body-state of looseness allows ultimate freedom of movement and the ability to change and transform quickly. It is also the only way to develop true, spontaneous responses to forceful assault. Each reflex action that we ingrain through these drills is then instantly expressed when we need it most.
Beyond mind and body, there is yet a third realm to consider. When you fully release tension from your muscles and connective tissue, when you quiet the nervous system and the breath, when you relax the organs and the muscles around your organs, then the Qi or Life Energy will flow.
Note that you are not required to “believe” in Qi or energy meridians or any of the other traditional Chinese concepts. You can use the word “Qi” to mean intention or focus of awareness and the effects are just the same.
Releasing the muscles, calming the mind and freeing the energy is the only way to truly unify the body into an integrated whole. And since gravity is a constant, all of our relaxed tissues, tranquil awareness and flowing energy will naturally sink downward. This is where grounding or rooting begins.
As you progress into Level Three and beyond, keep these seed ideas in mind. When you hear or read the word “relax,” remember the sensations as tension drains from the muscles, aligns with gravity and sinks towards the earth. Treat “relax” as a trigger to re-create those sensations. Breath. Quiet the mind. Listen to your body; listen to your partner’s movements. You will find that relaxing opens your sensitivity, awareness and skill with Keng Jing or “Listening” tremendously.
NEXT: Siu Lim Tau: Third Section
The third and final section of Siu Lim Tau focuses on transformation.We will be exploring a more complex version of the “draw the bow” concept where each and every Wing Chun motion can be a “load up” for the next technique. This section also provides our formal introduction to Bong Sau and illustrates a different variation from what you’ve seen in Lap Sau. You will also get to see new perspectives on the Pak Sau and Tan Sau techniques that you have seen previously.
NEXT: Siu Lim Tau: Third Section