Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Practical Theory and Practice of Xingyiquan
Many martial artists have misconceptions about Xingyiquan, thinking that since it is an internal art, it must be soft and weak during practice, and not too strenuous. This couldn't be farther from the truth! While Xingyi evolved a very deep and expansive internal aspect, with its own Qi Gong and meditations, we can't forget that it was originally a martial art taught to the Chinese army by Yue Fei. It taught simple skills and can be quickly applied, and allowed for quick skill progression by its limited number of techniques and simplistic practice style. There are so many different versions of Xingyi in the world, many of them only focusing on the soft aspect, and this limits the skill level of the practitioner, since meditation and Qi Gong are only suited for health improvement, not combat. A well rounded practice of Xingyi should focus on building a strong body at first, with the internal aspects left until the student has mastered self defense and has built a solid foundation.
There are 3 main levels of Xingyi practice, the first is Obvious Power, the second is Concealed Power, and Mysterious Power is the last and highest level of training. The first and second levels are what will be addressed here, since they are the easiest to explain and give directions on how to practice. Obvious Power is very simple to understand, the strength coming from muscles and the body mass landing with each strike. The footwork is emphasised and the attacks are large and expansive. This level is where the students learn about the 6 harmonies theory, focusing on the external 3 harmonies. This stage is followed by Concealed Power, where the student refines the external power they have developed, and learn how to generate waves and spirals in the body to amplify striking power. These movements also start off large, but grow smaller and subtle as the body learns to move and strike more effeciently.
First, practice begins with warm-ups and stretching. Normally, most schools do static stretching, like bending over and touching the toes. In our school, we mainly train with moving stretches, similar in look to some forms of Qi Gong, but very different in practice. We begin with major joint rotations, to release any stress or tightness in the body, then begin to strech while moving. These moving stretches focus on opening the body up, and get it moving fluidly. We feel this is more important because if only static stretching is done, it can neglect the ends of the muscle groups, and lead to stiffness in the joints and a smaller range of motion. Also our stretching set strives to stretch from the foot to the tips of the fingers at once, each posture uses the largest number of muscle groups and joints possible. This is not a judgement in any way on other methods of practice, just what works best for my teachers and myself.
There are 5 ways to practice each of the Element and Animal forms, which are the basis of all Xingyi Practice. I have found that focusing on one aspect at a time of the Elements tends to help the student learn and gain skill quickly, as long as they practice hard and consistently.
1. Correct Motion- This is the most important way, since the training begins and ends with this practice. The Element is taught and drilled with perfect attention to detail, since the other methods of training can lead to improper movements and a lower level of skill if they are not taught and understood correctly. This can also be called the Water style of Xingyi, the movements flow and move together in harmony.
2. Isotention- This stage focuses on building raw power, and developing muscles that will help to power each strike. The is physically the most diffucult of the stages, and helps to develop greater stamina and strength, which is abosolutely essential for combat. Each movement, from drawing back to striking, is done with every muscle contracted in the body. The motions fight against each other at the same time, which increases the difficulty level drastically.
3. Flowing- Each technique is practiced with non-stop flowing movements. There is no explosion of power at the end of the movement, they are just practiced one moving into the other. This helps address the major drawback of Xingyi combat. Each style of martial arts has a weakness, and Xingyi's is that it delivers so much power with each strike that the practitioner can become frozen in place for a split second while the body regains its balanace and ability to move with stability.
4. Rolling- Now the student learns the specific body and spinal motion for each Element, and practices large exaggerated movements until the rolling becomes smooth, and the movements become smoother and begin to shrink in size. This is the stage that is most dependant on proper body structure and alignment, as the Elements will feel strange and wrong if done incorrectly here. But if the are done right the Element will never have felt stronger and more explosive.
5. Twisting- Here every single movement is twisted and extended as far as possible, thus stretching and making the tendons stronger. This is the capstone of segmented training since tendon power never dimishes with age like muscle power naturally will. Twisting is extremely uncomfortable at first, and the student will feel exhausted and sore everywhere in this stage since this idea has never been emphasized before, and is the counterpart to the Isotention stage of training.
Next comes the Five Shaking Fists which are individual exercises that train the specific directions to emit power in each of the elements, one exercise per Element. Each one of the Five Fists has a unique spinal wave or snap, as so each should be trained alone, to really get an understanding of how each should be emitted. These Shaking exercises are also practiced in stages, but different than the Elements themselves. The exercise is first done in a high horse stance, and the hands gently shaking at the end, but the main focus is on breathing and the body starting and stopping as one unit. Then the student moves to powerful shaking, where the energy is clearly expressed and the strikes are obvious. Next comes stepping while shaking, the focus is on how to shake when the hips aren't perfectly aligned and how to land your strike and step at the same time, for maximum effect. Then the spinal waves are taken and put into the elements, in the Rolling stage, so the practitioner can more easily comprehend and develop this stage correctly.
After all these separate practices have been studied and mastered, they all come together in the first stage again. This might not make sense at first, but each step of training will impart skill and abilities that the others can't, and each will flavor the Correct Motion stage and lead to a very deep level of understanding and power. For example, the Isotention and Twisting stages work together, one building muscle power, while the other develops tendon and a stronger body structure so vast amounts of power can be applied. The Flowing and Rolling stages work together to help train smooth power and teaches how to generate waves through the body which creates whip-like strikes and penetrate deeply into an opponent. All of these stages should only be practiced with the guidance of a Xingyi specialist, as a teacher that only knows a small amount of Xingyi can't properly guide a student through them and won't know how to prevent injuries while training. I hope this sheds some light on Xingyi training, and helps practitioners everywhere see and appreciate the depth of Xingyi, and leads them to a greater understanding of this fantastic martial art. And as always, if I am incorrect in any way, I humbly accept your corrections and look forward to great, deep conversations about Xingyi!