My Teacher, Master Cheuk Fung (pictured to the left), almost always started off his public classes with a 'pushing the sky' exercise done either in parallel step or with a weighted splitting component. Since there are no warm ups in Yi Chuan (you are either on or off) it eventually struck me a curious as to his choice of entrée.
In retrospect I can now see it. Vertical linkage (unifying oneself from head to toe) is a prerequisite to achieving the state of whole body unity. You could say that up & down are the mother and father of Integrated Strength, the two principal vectors among the six.
This makes perfect sense if you think about it. Gravity establishes our vertical axis, stretched between heaven and earth you could say rests our meat wagon. Without it we would be floating around like astronauts nearly helpless in a sleeve that's designed to work in a gravitational field, one that harvests the ceaseless pull of our planet for locomotion, a gravity sail if you will.
That first 'push the sky' exercise, perhaps partially due to a Chinese sense of irony, is a microcosm of the whole method. Every critical element required for the development of Integrated Strength is present in 'push the sky' exercise that I was taught. Of course I did not know that at the time:)
A quick description is in order. From the ready stance we would float our hands to about a 45 degree angle up, fingers outstretched, looking through the 'tiger's mouth'. We would then link or act 'as if' we were touching the sky, then use the whole body to push the sky up a few inches. After reaching extension we would 'float' our hands down to roughly position number one then repeat.
One of the many, many, many things I struggled with during my early days of training was what I was supposed to be getting from this exercise. At first I thought it was 'just a warm up', you know, something we did before getting to the good stuff.
Well, the 'no warm ups' lesson shot that idea down.
There was also no opponent up there, so I was not sure at all why we kept pushing on the sky.
Further, the 'important part', as far as I could see, was just a few inches of movement and when I looked around the class at the rest of my fellow students each one had there own little way of doing it that was similar to what our Teacher was doing, but not quite right....not quite right in a way you just can't put your finger on.
Eventually though, I realized what was going on.
By the time I first met Master Fung, he was an extremely refined internal martial artist. In addition to Yi Chuan he achieved Master status in Hop Gar and Mok Gar, had extensive knowledge of several branches of Tai Chi, deep knowledge of Tong Bei, Wing Chun and exposure to countless other styles and practitioners. When Sifu performed these exercises in front of us, so much of his movement was already internalized you could copy the external movement almost precisely yet not even be close to what he was actually doing inside his frame.
I've written elsewhere on my experience taking ownership of my training and its results, but for the sake of this article I will reiterate that taking ownership of ones training forces one to ask oneself, 'Why the bleep am I doing this?'
That sentiment took a giant leap forward the day Sifu authorized me to teach his Gung Fu. Of course I was aware that he was a teacher to many martial arts teachers (some well known), I was the first he fully authorized to teach his formulation of The Method. Intimidated by the prospect I was, even though I had been opening and sometime substitute teaching Sifu's public classes for years. That was different, Sifu was always there the back me up and nudge me in the right direction. I was just weeks from moving to Australia where I would be completely on my own.
Hats off to Steve, Mooliew, Wayne & John for those early attempts at making sense of this stuff, I owe you guys for you patience, diligence and honest feedback. In many ways my formulation of Earth & Sky is dedicated to you guys who suffered through me trying to explain what you were supposed to be doing inside the frame that you couldn't see from the outside. You helped me see that key points needed to be obviated in gross movement, so counterintuitive they are.
So, for many years now, I have been playing with Earth & Sky, making changes in how I present it, experimenting with new feelizations, permutations and combinations of stepping, using the circle, going to extremes, etc.
I am happy to report that, at the end of the day, the goal is to do the exercise exactly as I first learned it, but this time with the appropriate biomechanics in place. The purpose of this series of articles is to guide you through a condensed version of that journey, so that, you can begin to recognize what must be present in every moment of practice.
Earth & Sky is, and probably always will be a WIP. Essentially, I am using it as a tool to help each of my students ferret out what 'misses' they have in their practice. The articles & videos in this series are going to introduce you to a new pattern of movement that will become the foundation, perhaps even an archetype of, everything else we do. Furthermore, the exercise itself will transform from a vehicle to help you achieve Integration into a freestyle expression of the art, if you have the discipline to achieve such freedom.