Your Practice Building Blocks

Updated: Feb 2

Practicing Yi Chuan with Master Fung is easy.


Typically he leads the class from the front of the room, performing each exercise so you can follow along. The guided practice sessions I am providing on Intentonfist.com replicate this approach, I perform the exercises along with you while offering guidance and pointing out specifics. They are meant to make it easy for you to follow along.



Unfortunately 'easy' only gets you so far. Once you absorb the materials in the teaching videos and get comfortable with the patterns in the practice videos there comes a point where you have to make it your own. At some point you will outgrow 'follow along, its easy'.


Years ago I was struggling with this transition, constantly pestering my Teacher about this and that, always expecting him to have answers to my never ending questions. Then one day he pulls me aside and says, "Look, I'm your Teacher, not your trainer. I have taught you what you need to answer those questions for yourself. You have to do the work, you need to be your own trainer."


At first I kind of slinked off like a scolded dog, thinking I had once again irritated my Sifu by cross-examining him a bit too vigorously. If I recall I think I even stewed in it a little bit, feeling picked on, singled out. It was not until I had some solo training time a few days later that it dawned on me.....Sifu didn't scold me at all. In fact, he did me a huge favor. He took the training wheels off.


That was the first Yi Chuan practice session I ever did that was by my own design. The first where I chose what to focus on based on what I was trying to accomplish, where I actually had to figure out what to do and why. Until that session my solo work had been repeating what we typically did in class, I didn't really think about it.


Being 'in charge' of my own training was both empowering and intimidating at the same time. I was invigorated but overwhelmed, motivated but not sure what to do. The really weird thing was I suddenly felt .....responsible?


I did not realize it until that moment but I had actually assigned responsibility for my Gung Fu to my Teacher. If I didn't get something it was, well, his fault. Its no wonder he often called me 'silly boy'.


By subconsciously assigning responsibility to my teacher I gave him my power without empowering him to help me. That's why he had to pull me aside. I was never going to be able to do his Gung Fu, I can only hope to be able to do mine.


Maybe that's just a long winded way of saying I'm too lazy to design your personal training program for you. I'm going to make you do it.


Life is the School


As I have written elsewhere I enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of my kids. Cody, the Parkour enthusiast, sees a simple walk down the street as a giant obstacle course rife with possibility. My daughter gets an inspiration and transforms any space into a fairyland, oasis or party zone. With any luck they will keep that ability even when forced fully into consensus reality with the rest of us.


The point is, fuck the old way of looking at it. You don't need to spend time and money preparing to train. You don't need fancy jammies, a special time, a special place. In today's day and age you are not limited by lack of information or even inspiration. You can train formally, freely or casually anytime, anywhere.


In this article I'm going to try and unpack that a little and share with you some of the things that have worked for me.


An Archetypal Microcosm


Let's start by looking at the building blocks of a typical practice session. If you are following along with the Guided Practice videos you probably already figured out I like to keep sessions relatively short and recommend doing them more frequently.


Part of this is motivated by my lifestyle. While its convenient for me to take a short break from work or chores, long ones get me in trouble. More importantly, however, is the nature of the beast. We are developing a new movement habit that will (hopefully) serve us when someone is trying to do us harm (no pressure). The skill must become second nature, it needs to be conditioned as a reflex when the Pavlovian shit hits the fan.


Takeaway - tend toward shorter, more frequent practice sessions that fit conveniently into your lifestyle.


These shorter, more frequent sessions should be made from combinations of exercises in their various permutations. Think of it like Legos, the individual exercises are like different shaped blocks that we connect to create our practice. Sometimes we follow the instructions and seek to replicate what we are shown, other times we can just experiment and have fun while not worrying about the result.


The block we are going to look at below may be a little different then what you are expecting. I'm not talking about types/categories of exercises and routines but what we are trying to accomplish with those things. Specifically we are going to unpack how to Gather ourselves in the nowspace, Activate our tensegrity, Elongate our tissues and potential ranges of motion, Invigorate our routes and Concentrate them Flushing away excess tension, pain, discomfort and/or dis-ease.


Gather


Gathering oneself into nowspace is more difficult than it seems. My mind wanders, thinking about that thing I keep forgetting to do, worrying about the upcoming thingamabob, wondering what that strange noise was or just generally day dreaming. The when I go to practice my mind is full of models, old poems, things my Teacher said.....I'm all in my head.


Pulling our attention into the physical aspect of our state of being is as important for health restoration as it is to self-defense. The term mindfulness is thrown around a bunch these days. But I'm not talking about imposter mindfulness but the actual presence of more and more of our mind in real time. Pretending to be mindful does not count.


There are a bunch of tools to help with this, if used with the proper intent. There may be a special place to go for training, there may be special outfit to put on, a ceremonial acknowledgement when you enter the space or begin a session, a ceremony to open the session, a consistent 'warm-up' religiously applied. There could also be music or incense or special lighting.


On a good day all of these things can serve to coax our mind into the nowspace like luring a hungry and frightened squirrel to the nut. On a bad day they are empty meaningless gestures mindlessly pantomimed by well meaning tourists. It all depends on how they are used. If you can see the Intent behind them and use them for what they are designed to accomplish, they can be quite valuable. Without that intent we are all just a bunch of grownups playing dress up with our fancy jammies.


Takeaway - find the tools that help you intentionally come to the nowspace


Activate


Your next opportunity, check out a toddler. Notice how they stand like they are trying to imitate the stay puff marshmallow man. If you gently test their structure you will be surprised at how strong their connection with the ground is.


Its actually natural for tensegrity to be active in everyday life. Most of us, however, have that state conditioned out of us. In reality we are not actually too far from dystopian future forecast in the movie Wall-E. Think of all the stuff we have just to make us comfortable when we sit, stand or lye down. Perhaps the entire ergonomics industry is there to replace what we forgot we lost?


My point is almost everyone who chooses to do this kind of work needs to start with discovery, start with activating the tensegrity of the frame. In my years of teaching I have run across numerous, dedicated students who have learned from well known teachers and yet they were 'doing' Integrated Strength exercises without the one-ness state activated. As I have explained elsewhere this is a trap. Doing the exercises without Integration is not the Art.


Of course there is a time when you have not choice but to do the exercises without Integration because you have not yet achieved Integration. The formal title for this phase of training is aptly called 'Searching for Strength'. You are doing the exercises to seek something new yet familiar. This change in perspective helps to get you off the hamster wheel where the purpose of practice is to practice. To put it another way to find you must seek.


I recommend you perform a honest self-assessment. Are you able to replicate the skills that have attracted you to this work in the first place? Are you building new movements habits based on tensegrity or just reinforcing the same old same old? Do you feel different, stronger more integrated? If the answer is no perhaps taking a 'Searching' perspective might give your practice the kick in the pants it needs?


Takeaway - make your practice more of an exploration and less of a devotion


Transforming your natural stance into your ready stance, the Wolverine if you will, is the very first thing we do in culmination of Gathering ourselves into the nowspace. Like hearing a strange sound in the dead of night we instantly snap to attention. The mind suddenly quiets and reaches out for information, awaiting the slightest whisper holding perfectly still to sense any vibration, noise or movement. Not even a mosquito can alight without us feeling it touching down.


This is not a contrived thing, not a learned thing, its a discovered thing. Observe what happens to the deer who hears a stick crack in the woods, a cat about to pounce, a bird hunting. There is a change of state. We have that hard wired into us. All our resources concentrate in the nowspace ready for fight or flight. READY.


You are going to get sick of hearing it from me. Link! Engage! Connect! Lock! Activate! Fold! Overlap! Click in! Wolverine! Pung! Six Surfaces! 3 Dimensions! Unify! Integrate! Harmonize!


The rest of the practice flow REQUIRES us to be able to not only activate our one-ness state but to be clear on when we are linked as a single unit and when we are not. Our idealized goal is to make 'clicking in' be subconsciously triggered by anything that disturbs us.


Elongate


Integrated Strength, like anything else, develops when you use it. Elongation is the process of being barely able to maintain unity while standing nearly still in the most natural position to maintaining it while walking, running, jumping, kicking , rolling, etc.


In my thinking Gather & Activate should be the focus of your practice until you are crystal clear on when you are linked and when you are not. There may be a period where you struggle with activation and, even when you get it down, there is no end to refining and developing the state. Clarity in your ability to connect and maintain that connection in movement is what makes Elongate, Invigorate, Concentrate & Flush work.


Takeaway - focus your training on activating the tensegrity of your frame until you can clearly differentiate between 'on' and 'off'.


A useful idealized goal for Elongation is the restoration of ranges of motion that have been restricted from lack of use, injury or stressful/harmful living conditions. Personally I fight this battle every day. I can not say I have been particularly kind to my body. Sports injuries, years of weight training and over indulgences have left me with plenty of restoration work to do (I'm nothing but a WIP). The adhesions in particular are really difficult and painful to work through, and not just physical pain. In some cases working through them has brought on strange psychic/emotional releases where it seems as if mental or emotional trauma that I completely forgot about suddenly consumes me then is gone.


Takeaway - Elongation helps you discover and reactivate old injuries so they can be release from your body.


I don't know about you, but my nervous system panics when I push the limits of my flexibility, locking up to prevent me injuring myself I guess. An interesting thing happens when I click in. Those muscles that are screaming 'NO FURTHER' release a bit giving me greater range of motion while maintaining my linkage. My guess is that this is happening because those muscles that were screaming when are suddenly supported by the engagement of the rest of the frame and can release a bit.


While Elongation requires stretching, stretching is not necessarily Elongation. Why? Elongation requires unity. The range of motion being challenged is only challenged while unity is maintained. Much of the stretching I have learned violates this rule. Typically a stretch will isolate a muscle or muscle group releasing supporting muscle chains so that the target can be maximally stretched. While this approach may build abject flexibility it does not build as much flexibility into the function as we want.


Yoga and some Pilates are examples of methods that work through integrated stretching/exercise when they are done with unity. Presumably, Yi Chuan itself is nothing but a Chinese Martial version of Yoga that can be traced back to India. If I recall correctly Yoga translates to Union in English. Unfortunately I have run into very few people from any discipline that are clear on how to make their frame into a single unit.


Takeaway - stretching within unity = elongation.


Invigorate


Do you get sick of bland, boring, monotonous practice sessions? I do. I need to work out, bring up the intensity, get some cardio going, etc.


Invigoration is a quality easy to miss on today's silk jammy road. Slow gentle forms and exercises, long periods of meditation and contemplation are fantastic, but they do little to the BMI. Strength & stamina do not have to be sacrificed for Integrated Strength, it is more a matter of putting the genie in the bottle, putting the vigor inside the oneness.


Some internal practice are slow and gentle because they are helping to cultivate relaxation within the oneness state. Some internal practice are slow and gentle because the requirements for the exercise cannot be maintained by the practitioner without slowing down. Some internal practice seem slow and gentle because the practitioner is purposely hiding the power, concealing it within whatever shape they are working on.


Takeaway - training with intensity fills your memory bank with feeling to concentrate


Performing the exercises with vigor puts a big feeling in your memory bank, fires all the muscles in the movement chain and challenges your tissues to adapt. The memory bank is the big one here, when you do a movement big, extended and even explosive that feeling becomes more and more familiar. This feeling is your friend when it comes to Concentrating the route into the frame. Put it this way, if you can't get the feeling with big movement, how can you hope to get it with small or no movement?


Concentrate


Have you ever noticed how goofy martial arts can be? Think of all the forms and exercises in low stances, imitating animals, strange and uncomfortable body positions etc., etc.


Then what happens? When actual fighting occurs it all ends up looking like MMA. WTF? Where do all these high-minded exercises go when one gets punched in the face?


The simple answer is inside. What we get from the exercises must be concentrated.....both condensed and miniaturized. We are trying to use the same power but within much less space. For you Sci-Fi fans out there, the aspirational goal is to be like Dr. Who's Tardis. On the outside you want to look like an innocuous, harmless little thing while on the inside your are hiding a very dangerous contraption.


The challenge here is not easy. The entire muscular chain must be engaged and conditioned to work within the feeling of oneness. That is why building up your memory bank of big, extended, vigorous routes is so valuable. With the visceral memory of what it felt like to perform the route at the limits of your ability you can begin to maintain that feeling with smaller and smaller movements until most of the physical motion is reduced to ripples through the frame, movements almost imperceptible to outside observers.


Takeaway - no movement means imperceptible movement


Release


Release is separating wheat from chaff. As we train we build up tension, mental tension, physical tension, the two go hand in hand. Releasing unnecessary tension, discomfort and even pain while maintaining our Integrity is the challenge.


My personal tendency is to focus on release to finish my session. I like to get my body moving, get my core temp up and feel my heart beating before transitioning into a more passive practice. For me the action puts me more in my body, making it it easier to release then if I start the practice cold.


That being said I often have practice sessions where I focus almost exclusively on release. To the outside observer it looks like I'm just standing there. I'm not.


During the release phase I'm scanning my body for pain, discomfort, numbness or anything else that comes up. When I find something I bring my awareness into it, accept it as mine and try and let it go, try and let it dissolve so we can flush it or even part of it away. When I'm not doing that I'm reinforcing my oneness state, building up the connection, checking the six surface, using whatever tricks are in my arsenal to maintain that feeling of unity.


This interpolation of Activating and Releasing, overtime, allows us to build the feeling (and therefore the quality) of our oneness state while reducing the amount of tension it takes us to create and maintain it.


Takeaway - standing is not just standing there


This is a very important point, especially if you are someone who has prior experience with standing practices. You may be like many of my students who have been told over and over and over to relax. So you do, stand and relax and relax and relax. While it certainly is possible to activate tensegrity through passive standing alone, I consider it a long and lonely road that seldom leads to where you want to go.


I prefer the active approach.


Releasing the Releasor


Now that I have done a good job bagging on passive practice, I am now going to advocate for it. By 'passive' I mean that we let the loud guy with the microphone quiet down and sit in the audience for a while. We turn the doer into an observer, listen, watch & feel, be in our ing.


If you think that's easy try taking your hand off the wheel while going 100MPH in rush hour traffic. It feels about the same. The ego does not want to let go, does not want to relinquish control, does not like being told what to do. It yearns to go back to doing, pulls the fire alarm, wriggles and squirms until your mind is back on this model or that, what my Teacher said, yesterdays regrets or tomorrow's apprehensions. The monkey mind.


Maybe you have experi