Crane Drinks From Empty Cup

It is definitely a season for seeing teachers and friends! Over the last few months I have been in Japan and Okinawa, had a good visit from Kimo sensei, and most recently have hosted Liu Chang’I sifu. It’s been busy, but great fun! Sifu came for a short visit this time, but it is always good to see him. When he comes he stays with me, we train and talk about his art, eat too much duck, and have a weekend seminar. I met him in 1996 when he was visiting the US for the first time with Kimo Wall sensei. It was a good meeting and he taught a few of us some of the basic power development exercises from the system. We practiced them but it was over 10 years before we saw him again. He asked about the “thunder power” and where we had gotten with the ji bei gong he had shown us and was surprised to hear we had not got much result from them. Then he took a closer look and said simply: “oh, yes. You are doing them wrong. You will never get thunder power that way.” That started was has become a more in-depth practice of the art in the years since. I have hosted him here every year and have visited him in Taiwan to train. His visits are always fun, and the seminar we do here in Boston is a great time- we have interested and dedicated practitioners from a variety of arts that come together to train and touch hands. Hard training and good spirit!

The seminars are great, and a good opportunity to get a “taste” of the system. But when we do have them it also makes me think about how hard it can be to learn much in a couple of days. We train hard, and sifu is very open with his instruction and advice. You can certainly come away with something to practice. But I can’t help but get reminded of 10 years spent sort of doing the exercises and getting little result. Things like the ji bei gong from the Feeding Crane can seem very simple. They are not very complex movements. Most are done in a standing position, in one of three stances, and some use a single turn or a simple triangle step. But do them improperly and you get little out of them. You can even hurt yourself doing them if you do them wrong. Most importantly, you must practice them using the framework they were developed in. One of the biggest mistakes I was making when I first did them was applying Goju “rules”. For example in a number of the Feeding Crane movements the elbow joint is fully extended, 100%. That allows the arm to transmit energy in a way that it cannot if even slightly bent. In Goju we rarely if ever lock out that joint- it is considered bad mechanics and bad tactics. Neither is correct, both are right in the appropriate context. But apply one rule to the other system and you get a poor result.

Sifu checking ma bu

Sifu checking ma bu

Much martial arts training is that way. It can seem simple, but proper instruction is required. Many of the important details are difficult or impossible to see if you are not told what to look for, and observation and correction from someone who understands both how to do and how to teach is essential. This is particularly true if you have experience in a different art- many of your “rules” will have become habit, and you may not even know you are following them. In my case, a few simple corrections and by his next visit some “thunder” was emerging. But to get there I needed both the corrections and the hard work that followed them. I needed to empty my cup and engage with a new system; if I had decided what I already knew was right and that I should not lock out the elbow, for example, I would still be getting poor results. So I had to admit that what I already knew may not have all the answers. In the process I’ve also learned a new appreciation for the “rules” of Goju, how they affect mechanical and tactical choices, and that I need to empty my cup there too. Win-win, really.

Seeing and training with sifu reminds me of that. It has also just been good to see one of my teachers again. Liu sifu is very personable, cares a great deal about both his system and his friends, and has a lovely family. I like spending time with him. That is important to me on a very fundamental level. His art is impressive. I have been around the martial arts a while now, and I have yet to see anyone else who is capable of delivering his power at such close range with such rapid succession. His methods work and I always learn something from him. But honestly if he was not a good person I would not be training with him. I have a full life, and no space in it for jerks. Unfortunately you see a fair number of those in the arts, but Liu sifu is not one of them. He is a great guy.

He is also very open with his knowledge, and wants to share it with anyone who is interested. That is something I have tried to keep part of our crane practice here. Members of our dojo and  Anthony Mirakian sensei’s Meibukan dojo get together every two weeks to train. Our versions of Goju are slightly different, but the spirit is the same. Mirakian sensei’s students have an excellent teacher, and it is great fun to train with them; they have a strong base, work hard, and have a really good attitude. Good people, and I am lucky to have been able to train with them the last few years. It is a rare opportunity to make some martial arts friends, and to touch hands with other people, and I look forward to it every time. In fact, over the years Mirakian sensei has been very generous to us. He has allowed me to teach his students in his dojo, which is very good of him. He has had us use his dojo both for our bi-monthly training sessions and for hosting the seminars and the closed training our two groups do when sifu is here. He has also hosted some very nice dinners for people participating in the annual seminars, and they have been great evenings. It is clear to me that he sees the value in sifu’s art, and in all of us coming together to practice it. I do too- it is such a good feeling to see people working together to share, sweat, and train!

Basic application

Basic application principals

Sifu is now on his way back to Taiwan. We’ll see him again in the fall. In the meantime we’ll keep training together, and I may teach some Feeding Crane to a few groups that have shown interest, among them students at George Mattson sensei’s annual Summerfest. Hopefully we’ll see some of these folks come together for sifu’s next visit. Meanwhile the training is hard and continues to require me emptying my cup. But it is worth it. It is a fascinating system- among other things it has a clear teaching methodology for power and other attribute development and a vicious take on application that I appreciate. (To quote sifu: “we are Feeding Crane, we eat our opponents as our dinner”.) I also appreciate the friends that I have made through the practice and look forward to seeing them, and Liu sifu, again soon.

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