Awareness and intent

I didn’t write up everything that happened last week when I went to the Yiquan Academy, because there were a few things that happened that called for a little more reflection before I talked about them.

You can’t knock around the world of internal martial arts for as long as I have without learning, even by osmosis, that the masters consider the root and power of their arts to lie in zhan zhuang, or standing practice, rather than in the form. However… I haven’t particularly practiced zhan zhuang, and few of my teachers have put much emphasis on it. My taijiquan practice is what’s given me a feel for it, I guess, and particularly the taijigong taught by Nam Wah Pai in Singapore.

Yiquan, of course, is all about the zhan zhuang, with no set form at all. When I went to the Academy last week, H. told me we would just practice what I know as the basic “holding the tree” posture, with some mind work to accompany it. I’ve tried this posture a few times over the years, and have a few books that talk about it, but in all my solo work I’ve very rarely practised it – time always seemed so short, and I needed to work on the forms I was learning before I forgot them again!

So I stood in this position for about half an hour. After a few minutes, of course, muscles started to ache. My shoulders are chronically stiff, so they hurt. The long muscle or whatever that runs down the right side of the spine was also really tight as well; that’s the result of all the desk-work lately. What to do? H had shown me a “relaxation posture”, where the hands are moved to the back, next to the kidneys, to use if I got too tired, but it seemed better to me to try to get through the pain while keeping the same posture.

I decided to do what I learned on Vipassana meditation retreats; when experiencing physical pain, don’t seek relief by moving the body – instead, send the mind to the pain, and try to find the exact spot where the pain is located. The result is that the pain just goes away. It worked. That let me carry on doing the other extra practices that H. had mentioned. Glenn had also reminded me to form my back into a bow shape in order to tuck the coccyx underneath, so I remembered to work on that and on sinking my weight. After twenty minutes or so, I as tired, and a funny thing happened – it really felt that my arms were being held up not by strength and muscle, but by intent and will.

It as at this point that we tried out the sparring. I’m usually very bad at this; I think too slowly, and easily get my balance messed up. My partner/opponent was quite a bit bigger than me, stronger than me, and about fifteen years younger than me. However, the effect of the standing practice seemed to be that when he issued force, it just seemed to pass through me; I didn’t need to have to consciously react to it, and it didn’t affect me. My awareness was still intense in my arms, and I could sense changes in his strength and respond naturally, without thought. At one point, he got through my guard and pushed me forcefully on the right pectoral, which would normally have sent me flying backwards. On this occasion, I could just sense exactly where the power was, and was able to pivot around it and step behind him; he went flying forwards instead, as his strength didn’t find anywhere to land.

This is very uncommon for me! In fact, it was just total beginner’s luck.

Still. This is the first time I’ve ever managed experienced what taiji, for example, is meant to be all about – to use softness to defeat an opponent who was actively seeking to throw me hard into a wall. To experience why the internal martial arts are powerful beyond qinna and other physical techniques. Heh. I know that some of the people who read this blog are very good internal martial artists and will be saying “At last! It took you long enough!”. I know. I’m a slow learner, but I’m just trying to learn at my own pace – bear with me!

A related event occurred the following Saturday, when I went for my bagua pan guan bi class with Sun Zhi Jun and Mi Lao Shi. I’ve revised the form, and can go through it without many mistakes now. They were telling me, though, that it looked ugly. How could I change that, without being able to see myself? I just did it again with more focus; putting more intent into the movements as if I was surrounded by opponents. Much better, was the response. Hmmm. So “intent” was what improved it…

As usual, none of this leads up to any particular point. However, it is an important breakthrough for me to discover that combining standing practice with a meditation technique did clearly, and immediately, show results against an aggressive training partner. Heh, apologies again to those of you who’ve been patiently waiting for me to “get it”!


  1. Em, I’m not one of those “very good internal martial artists” you’ve written of, being also a rank beginner myself, so all I’ll say is, “Congrats on starting to get an idea of what neijiaquan are all about!” I’m very glad you’ve found teachers who know what they’re doing and whom you can connect with.

    By the way, don’t forget that, as much as the neijia arts are about softness, they are /not/ about weakness. The softest movements still contain a huge force; actually, the “softer” a movement is, the “stronger” it is as well, provided that intent is present and correct.

    Also, what little I currently understand about the internal arts informs me that what we seek to do is not merely to counter a large force with a small one (which is really too nebulous an idea to work with), but to specifically ‘help’ the opponent fall into a zone of vulnerability (all 3 major neijia styles do this differently, I think), and flow into an overpowering counter-attack along the foe’s lines of weakness. Sounds bullshitty, I know, but it’s really very doable.

    Lastly, I am only a student and what I have said here may be partially or totally wrong, so take it all with liberal sprinklings of salt! 🙂


  2. Like most of my initial comments here, this is belated. Great account of your breakthrough experience. I’ve had a handful of roughly similar occurrences in my own years of practice. The challenge for me is building on the insight gained, to make the response reproducible. Sadly . . . I’m a long ways from that.

    Thanks for writing about it. I’m really glad to have discovered your blog and your accounts of life, meditation and martial arts practice in S’pore and Beijing. I was in Beijing (and China, for the first time) just a few months (September 2007) before you moved there–enjoyed a couple of hours with Sun Zhijun and a small group of his students (there was a Canadian fellow by the name of Oliver there–don’t know if he’s still training with Sun or not).

    The MA scene is great–the food is even better. ;- ) I miss the Street of Ghosts . . .




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