What movements matter?

We just had a good visit from Liu Chang’I sifu here in Boston. It is always good to see him and spend some time hanging out, sharing meals, and hearing about his family and life in general. And of course, training together. There was the annual seminar which, as usual, included folks from near and far. It is always good to train with our friends and kung’fu brothers and sisters from other groups. Thanks to those who drove up and stayed in the area, like Spencer and John, and to all the folks from around here who came out and spent the weekend sweating and learning. We had a great time (though I missed Sunday due to a rather unpleasant stomach bug) and covered a lot of new material, as well as going over earlier information in more detail. Plenty to work with moving forward, and plenty of sweat getting to it!

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

Saturday afternoon at the seminar.

In addition to the seminar we did a fair bit of closed-door training with sifu. That is nothing too “mystical”, it is just training for those folks who are participating in our regular Feeding Crane classes and are therefore taking instruction in the system and trying to understand it more fully. Anyone who is training with the group is welcome but it is closed to visitors and non-members. In some ways it is simply a logistical issue- it is not possible to spend time working more in-depth on specific elements of the system with people who have spent only a few days learning it, regardless of their background in other arts. By closing the door we give those people who are spending the time and effort to develop within the system an opportunity for individual critique, and to see elements of the system harder to present in an open-seminar format.

All together it works out well. The weekend seminars introduce a variety of new material and training methods, stuff we worked on refining during the week, and sifu spent a lot of time in all our training going over the ji bei gong. The fundamentals. The important stuff.

I will admit that I have a limited tolerance for the approach to training that goes: “just do it 1000s of times and you will understand it and be able to make it work”. That is, I believe, nonsense. While repetition of basics is essential there comes a point of diminishing returns. There also comes a point, rather early on in my opinion, that a careful explanation of why the basics are being done, and therefore how they should be used in training, is essential. If that explanation is not forthcoming, or even worse if there is none, then I think it is time to question why, and if, the repetition should be continued.

And that is one thing I like about the Feeding Crane system. The basic movements have a clear rationale, and must be done very precisely. They are done to develop a certain, measurable, result. Once that result is achieved you start spending more time with a different set of basics, one based on the earlier set but more involved. Again, the goal is a measurable result. Once you are getting certain results with all the movements your goal is improvement of these results and maintenance of the existing results. Time spent with them is dictated by what you need to do this. It is not mystical, or mysterious, it is just hard work with a clear plan.

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And this is how you use the back of your thigh to break the leg…

It is also a plan situated within a larger framework. Basic movements (I actually prefer the word fundamental as it describes their role better) are just one part of the plan. Excellent development of skill in them still leaves you hollow in the system if you are not doing your other fundamental practices. It is a system, not just power generation or nice techniques or cool kata, but a set of practices designed to support each other. All need to be developed to learn the system.

That is one thing I find interesting in the approach of some people who do multiple arts. Often they have a primary art and their secondary or tertiary arts are simply there to support that. That is a perfectly fine approach, unless you also want to be proficient in those other arts. My “favorite” is watching karate people do kobudo that in reality is karate with a tool in their hand: to me the lack of understanding of weapon use is immediately obvious in their movement. But the same goes for multiple empty hand arts. While Feeding Crane can add power to your karate, it is really a lot more than that. It is also difficult to really get the power generation that way, as some of the fundamental mechanics, like raising the elbows or lifting the shoulders, break the rules of most karate and if you are trying to keep to those rules you will get stuck. In some ways they are incompatible, and accepting that is essential to developing in both.

And that is part of what we do during our closed-door training. We work solely with a group of people who are studying Feeding Crane for itself, not as an adjunct to another art. In some ways that is really the most fundamental movement, the movement towards committing to the practice. Of course there are a lot of different ways to commit, and I think many have value. Getting a taste of another practice is a valuable experience, and can add a lot to your own practice. One can engage at a variety of levels and regardless of the level or approach, time and effort put into developing a skill deserve respect . I certainly don’t think you have to give up what you know to enter into a new practice; I know I have not. But starting with a beginner’s mind, opening up to the possibility of new fundamentals, is difficult. Making that initial movement towards seeing a new art as its own thing is, I believe, the best way to do that.

I have a beginner's mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

I have a beginner’s mind, but ramen is the fundamental I need right now!

And so open seminar, closed door training, or spending time with a teacher and friend are all fundamentals. They help create a base for continued practice and development. They help develop existing skills, improve existing relationships with material, the system, and most importantly with the people who embody those things. And, just to be clear, they are also a lot of fun! We are looking forward to the next visit already!

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