Chinese martial arts are war arts, arts of combat. That is how they originally developed and how they were primarily used for most of China’s history. In fact, the fusion of what were originally military methods with Buddhist and Daoist concepts and practices arrived only in the Ming dynasty, comparatively late. However, I think for many, the existence within Chinese martial arts of yogic like practices is a major reason for the frequent confusion that these traditions were rather health, meditative or spiritual in nature.
There is no question that Chinese martial arts promote health. Nor is there anything wrong with those who practice them strictly for health or recreation. But the original purpose of these yoga like practices was directly related to their combat utility. The body must be prepared for war. IN an earlier blog I already touched upon this. In “making pain a friend” I focused more upon the hardening of the body and the acceptance of pain. This time around, I am going to discuss flexibility, particularly in the waist, back and shoulders.
Circular, long arm striking is a feature of many systems, both “northern” and “southern” and both “external” and “internal” (despite the fact I hate these terms, they are in fact artificial and of very limited use). The Lama Pai I learned from the late Chan Tai-San is particularly noted for its long arm strikes. They can be extremely powerful, but all to frequently I see people throw these techniques with limited power. Ironically, in trying to develop power, they are usually stiff and the end result is limited power. The true power of long arm strikes comes from relaxed power and flexibility in the waist, back, and sholders.
Shoulder exercises, the “arm wheels” that contemporary wushu has become noted for, are so common to Chinese martial arts they can be found in every manual. As with most things, begin with the basic and advance to the complex. Stretch up, feel the shoulders release, and alternate in dropping each arm in a arcing manner. As you become more comfortable, only then begin to include the martial intention of a chopping (劈) strike / palm.
Circle the arms forward, both in unison. People almost immediately appreciate the calisthenic nature of these exercises, but often fail to understand their martial aspect.
Alternate the arm, but keep the motion continuous (連還). Begin with relaxation, then introduce the martial intent.
Martial artists usually recognize the value of strength, and so push ups, cat push ups, bridges, etc are all common drills. As in “yin and yang” all practice must be balanced, so we must realize that strength often compromises flexibility. Since we realize we need BOTH, we must engage in a careful balancing act.
From the waist and back flexibility, we return to shoulder flexibility done in stance to teach the INTEGRATION of the whole body. Now it is essential to maintain martial intent. This is not just calisthenics, this is preparation for striking.
I suspect people have seen variations of the double arm wheel in contemporary wushu and thought it was there only for aesthetic value. The movement does originate in traditional Chinese martial arts and is used not only for striking but also for wrestling, throwing and joint locks. However, that is another blog.