Kung Fu in Thailand Days 8, 9, 10: Bits of Gold

It’s Wednesday, our rest day, and lots has happened: Sum Chien, Shuan Yang and sword. Every day I feel like I making gains, training harder with greater awareness. I’m starting to self-correct on a lot of little but important details. I love the lifestyle here and find myself thriving, waking up early and training all day constantly trying to better oneself. Yesterday I trained for 9 hours! I’m learning so much and it’s just grand! The more I learn the more I realize how little I know and it feels good.
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We had a great sword workshop with Sifu. Watching Master Iain move with the sword is an honour and beautiful to behold. Listening to him speak is enlightening: picking up the bits of gold dropping from his mouth. I’ll share a couple examples related to sword, one which is more about technique and the other more about life. For example, teaching a slash with the Tan Dao broadsword using a stick, Sifu demonstrated the technique for getting power using the whole body. People launched into it using their sticks to practice the technique. After a couple of minutes he stopped us. “Right, ok people love the Nunchakus, why?”. Everybody agreed but did not provide the answer he was looking for. “It’s because you can get lots of power”, he explained, “but it’s hard to control.” He then told the story from years ago of a friend who had practiced with the Nunchakus. Nunchaku is a weapon with two pieces of wood attached by a chain popularized by Bruce Lee in his famous movie, “Fists of Fury”. So his friend had brought his Nunchakus to a party to show off. After having a few he went at the demonstration which involves spinning the Nunchakus rapidly through the air then wrapping them around the body and catching the end of the stick under one’s arm. When people who have not achieved mastery do this they invariably wind up hitting themselves in the back of the head, which is exactly what is friend did almost nocking himself out. “Very hard to control”. Master Iain explained that you can do the same thing using your body; even with a stick one can generate great power but it’s much easier to control. He then demonstrated drawing the stick across his torso using his whole body to slash with the stick in a mighty whiplike fashion. “So imagine that the stick is like the end of the Nunchaku and your joint is the chain, but you can still control it.” Furthermore, you have more than one joint to swing off: wrist, elbow, shoulder. Each joint that you can bring into play generates more power. Sifu then demonstrated further how one can bring into play the lower body for the slash as well, drawing up Chi from the ground through one’s whole body and out the stick, or sword.

We had further sword instruction the next morning. It’s amazing to watch Master Iain move; it’s beautiful and terrifying when he holds the sword and always inspiring. He gave us a combination to practice rolling the sword around the back and drawing it over the shoulder in a whole body slashing motion followed by a step with the right foot coming up on the cat stance with most of the weight on our back foot drawing the sword and front leg close in tight to the body then springing outwards in an explosive lunge. I was doing it over and over losing myself in this awesome series of moves and the full body feeling elicited when he stopped us again. “Right”, he said, “everyone come round.” The he spoke about putting one’s character in the moves. Perhaps he had not quite seen what he wanted to in observing us practice, perhaps he was just taking it to the next level; however, this theme had come up in other sessions and not just from Master Iain. Eddie has often commented that people really needing to their whole being into the move, the punch, the hand position, the step, whatever Kung Fu move one is doing, really put your full force, your Chi into it, DO IT! There is an obvious life lesson here that can be applied to anything in life. Of course, there is a place when learning something like a position for the foot in a certain step or stance, a sequence of moves or transition, a certain placement or position of the hands. When it comes to doing actually doing the move, you really have to put your spirit into it. Master Iain continued with the teaching saying that when you do it this way you can change your life, change who you are. He then demonstrated a half hearted, somewhat awkward version of the short sword sequence we had been given to practice. “This is the movement of a clumsy person”, he stated. You may think of yourself as a clumsy person and behave as a clumsy person. When you really apply yourself to the moves, to learning and practicing them properly putting your character into it with the full force of your spirit, you will no longer be a clumsy person. You can change who you are.

In reflecting on the above teaching it comes to me that one must do this authentically. If you one doesn’t really know the move, then how can you fully infuse the movements with your character? Clearly one has to have something into which to put one’s spirit. Yet, it also seems to me that my ego could come into play. I may want to see myself as a great swordsman, a Kung Fu master. Well, at my age and with all my commitments this is unlikely to happen. So somewhere between authentically aspiring to become something I’m not and my self-deluded ego, there must be some kind of truth. To me, this is where having a master comes into play, having a proper role model. So my next question would be, what do I do? I will have been here for two weeks and have only begun to scratch the surface, yet even still what I know is precious to me. So now I must practice what I have learned, and I must develop and listen to the Inner Master. I raised this new found wisdom with Master Iain who provided supportive affirmation and added, “Right, well of course there the internet.” He has a website and many YouTube videos which run through various sequences. Plus, there is a memory stick made available for free copy to students training at Nam Yang which contains numerous instructional videos and various articles by Masters Iain and Tan along with other supplemental materials. I intend to use these to continue my training back home in Canada.

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Another powerful experience with some deep teachings occurred when Eddie was helping another student who had sustained serious abdominal injuries. Without going into any detail on the circumstances, I will try to convey what I learned. We were discussing bringing awareness to one’s centre. The term often used in Kung Fu is Dantien. There are three major Dantiens: the lower Dantien, about three finger widths below the navel; next is the middle Dantien associated with the thymus gland at the level of the heart; and the upper Dantien located at the brow, the “third eye” associated with the pineal gland. Dantien is “a like sea of energy” and often called an “energy centre”. When people refer to, “the Dantien”, “your Dantien”, or “your centre”, they’re usually referring to the lower Dantien. This is one’s physical centre from where one finds balance and movements occur. We are constantly reminded to be aware of this place, holding our centre, moving from it and bringing down our Chi grounding into it. Eddie shared that one’s “true centre” is actually inside at the very centre of your being. “Your centre is where your first cell originated inside your mother; that point from which you come, this is your centre. It doesn’t matter whether you can feel it or not, or where you move your mind; your centre is your centre.” He added that for a woman who has had a baby it’s easier to go back to that place. This was a profound idea for me and ties into what may be the biggest lesson I will take away from this retreat. This will be the subject for an upcoming post but starts with what I share below.

For the first time in a couple years I have been experiencing sciatic pain down my right leg. I know this well having struggled with disc injuries for years. The first episode was a ruptured disc in my early forties. The radiology report was dramatic, “disc material extruded and mobile” accompanied by some minor stenosis and a bulging disc. With physio, active release chiropractic and lots of core strength it cleared up in about a year. After some years I let go of the core strength, got macho and wound up with a major disc herniation. This episode lasted 3-4 years and never fully went away. The first year and a half was brutal; constant pain, I couldn’t stand up longer than a minute past noon. It started to settle down but I was physically and emotionally vulnerable. Far less active I became depressed and gained about 25 pounds. It seemed never ending. I got back into Chi Kung having practiced it throughout my late 20s and 30’s and combined with meditative walking began a slow crawl of the hole. I showed up to the Kung Fu Retreat with my back in the best shape it’s been in years. Sometimes I get a little bit of sciatic pain if I’ve been up for a long time, like when travelling long distances or teaching my Wilderness Retreat for long hours but it usually goes away when I wake up.

I experienced the sciatic back pain as a major set-back. I told Eddie that I had been doing so well. I was feeling so much stronger and more flexible, I was really getting into the training and starting to make real gains. He stopped me. “No”, he said, “you are stronger and more flexible, and you are making gains. Now you have to figure out how to adapt to this changing situation”. That’s the kind of thing I tell my students. It was masterfully done and had a big impact. Eddie suggested I inform Master Iain who directed me to adjust any of the moves I was doing or simply not do anything I felt would aggravate the symptoms. I thanked him and explained that when I introduce new exercises or physical activities I try to do so one at a time and systematically gage the impact. Here I have introduced so many new activities from stretching to strength training to kicking that it’s hard to say whether it would be due to a specific move or just all of it together. I told him I intended to keep training but that I would monitor it closely and make any major or minor adjustment I felt necessary. I believe the cumulative effect of everything together is impacting my back; however, more specifically I felt it must be related to flexion, of which we do quite a bit, particularly in the stretching and some of the Chi Kung activities. Thus I need to modify all such movements and generally take everything down a notch. One thing I did notice was that applying some of the Kung Fu training directions I had been given from Master Iain, particularly sinking my tailbone and holding my centre, seemed to ease some of the pulling from back down my leg. I practiced this and it seemed to help.

That night we had a special activity. The full moon is considered the height of the moon’s yin phase so at midnight on the full moon the practitioners at Nam Yang go out to the training ground to do the Chi Kung sequence usually done every morning at 6 am followed by the Shuang Yang. It’s not yet ful moon but Master Iain is leaving on Friday for some months so we did the activity together. I only did a mild version of the Chi Kung without flexion. The high point was after most people went to bed. I was privileged to see for the first time Master Iain perform all 66 movements of the Shuang Yang. Recall the Shuang Yang is the Shaolin soft martial art which some believe to be the origin of Tai Chi. It took him abut 15-20 minutes. It was so beautiful; in the sleepy late evening light beneath the stays with the half moon glowing above the Shuang Yang sequence had a remarkably dreamy quality to it. I went to bed with a sore back and bruised ego trying very hard to stay positive and see what I would be able to accomplish the next day. I have more to share on this and how the healing process unfolds, but this will have to be in my next entry.

For now I bid everyone a very wonderful goodnight, or good morning for those on the other side of Mother Earth.

Love and Blessings,

by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.

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Kung Fu in Thailand Days 4-5: Breakthrough

Greetings,

Sore all over, did I mention sore all over? Between the fall I took in Chiang Mai, the Kung Fu exercises, incessant stretching and traditonal Thai massage, I’m sore all over…sore in places I can’t even reach, and others I shall not mention. That was how I felt last night, yet in the few short days I’ve been here at Nam Yang I’m already feeling myself so much more flexible and strong, especially from the waist down.

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Today was a day of break throughs: meditation stepping, punching, weapons and stretching. On a student’s first morning, each is given a very simple pattern of three steps, first on one side then the other, as a meditative walking sequence which forms a basis for part of the Shuan Yang Sun Frost White Crane. I should put “simple” in quotes! It’s just three steps to one side and back, then three to the other and back. Sounds pretty easy right? It took me three mornings just to be able to do the stepping sequence, but it felt so good when I got it as then one can start sinking into the meditation focusing on all the little details: turning and placement of the foot, gripping the ground and rooting down, angle of the knee, direction of the hips, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Moving through and starting to naturalize these details takes one into the meditation. The meditative walking and Shuan Yang are part of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu’s gentler or soft martial arts, yet the awareness built in these practices really helped me with the punching. I finally started to understand, meaning to get in my body, the pattern of step, grip the ground with your foot, sink down and punch. The result was immediate and obvious: way more focussed power yet far less effort and force required to throw the punch. Recall we are throwing these punches repeatedly into a hanging sand-filled cloth bag. Sifu had said it’s not about swinging the bag but in making a dent. For me there’s also a certain sound which accompanies a proper punch, it’s a kind of pop thud as you hit squarely the sack sending your Chi into its centre. When you grip the ground with your foot you draw Chi from the earth up through your body and send it out your arm into the target: step, grip, sink, punch; step, grip, sink, punch; step, grip, sink, punch, repeat…in getting this I worked exclusively on my left, my weaker side.

In weapon’s today I had a breakthrough with the staff. The break through was that I started being able to do it! By doing it, I mean that I started being able to move comfortably with the staff in the provided sequence and pick up the new combinations of steps and strikes which build cumulatively in the form. The form is the sequence of all the moves put together. The staff form has a very cool salutation at the beginning where you bow and then salute the staff, raising your Chi and sending it into the stick. The actual sequence then begins with kicking the bottom of the staff up and into your other hand moving into a series of strikes, steps, blocks, lunges and thrusts. The staff is a 6 foot, hard wood stick, rather heavy and quite longer then I’m used to. It is the original weapon for which the Shaolin are famous having defeated armies of both infantry and cavalry with just the staff as their weapon. Staff translates directly into spear and other really cool long bladed weapons like the Horse Cutting Knife, which is like a staff with a long, wide, curved sword on the end. The fluid, swirling sequence with Horse Cutting Knife is quite beautiful. I was also back on the stick for my sword practice having to learn new steps and patterns which would translate back in the next session, if I get them correct, to the real sword. I drilled with series of swirling figure 8 slashes upwards then downwards walking forward and back in very small steps. We doubled the number of moves I have, which can now translate to when I have a real sword back in my hand.

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Along with the weapons the big highlight today was working with Eddie. Eddie is the young man who is Sifu Iain’s top student and instructor at Nam Yang in the Thailand retreat centre. Eddie has a powerful life story. As with too many young people today, he had wound up on the streets using heavy drugs and really down and out. Through a series of events Eddie wound up at the Shaolin Temple in London where the head Master took him in letting him sleep on the floor. It’s now been ten years of intensive Kung Fu training for Eddie, travelling to different countries training with some of the top Sifus in the world. At Nam Yang Eddie has found his place and will be taking over for Sifu Iain when he leaves, a huge nod of confidence and respect. Eddie is a specialist in Chin Na at which he is quite expert having spent 2-3 years of study with a world renowned Chin Na master in California. Chin Na is the art of joint locking. It literally means Chin – to seize or catch, and Na – to hold or control. The old Shaolin Masters spent many, many years developing the art of Chin Na which contains hundreds of moves all based on achieving the perfect angle, pressure and leverage to seize an opponent and control them with joint locks. The session was amazing and a great deal of fun getting seized and put to the ground ground with exquisite and graceful agony! Eddie’s workout was also quite a bit more aggressive on the strength training than that to which we had become accustomed with Master Iain. I’m the oldest student here and I was proud to be able to keep up in good form with all the exercises and repetitions except one where I had to drop out a couple reps before the end. I think my back and wanting to prevent the old disc injury slowed me on that one but it was probably wise counsel. Oh, the other break through: flexibility. Before I injured my back I had done a good bit of Yoga and one of the postures on which I had worked quite a bit was the forward bend. Years ago I used to be able to stand and bend over putting my hands flat on the ground; however, since blowing out my discs I have done very little forward flexion, of which there is a lot going on here. As I learned in Yoga, you can’t just bend over but must keep your legs straight and, most importantly, your back flat to avoid any undue pressure on the lower spine. Yesterday in Eddie’s class I managed to achieve this, and it was glorious. It took me a long time to get there but I believe my Yogini teacher and dear friend Sheri would have approved the form.

IMG_0871Before closing I’d like to share one more breakthrough which I had not counted, yet is likely the most important: a personal development breakthrough somewhat humbling, yet empowering. When I first inquired about training at Nam Yang I was looking to leave closer to the end of January and train for a week to ten days. I was so thrilled when Master Iain replied that he would be here at that time but would have to depart Thailand at the end of the first week of February leaving the school with his capable head student and instructor, Eddie. When the better priced ticket came up I changed my timing to leave earlier and maximize my time with the Sifu. That gave me a few extra days on the other side which I decided to put into Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing for which the country is famous. I located what seemed to be the perfect place just north of Chiang May, another residential martial arts academy called Muay Sangha that blends ancient and modern Muay Thai with some other forms. I got really excited about training there for four days before my respite of several days doing nothing in Chiang Mai – a required component under Sarah’s direct orders – before coming back home to Canada. I was really disappointed when Kru Pedro, the Master of Muay Sangha, told me this was not enough time but graciously invited me for tea and exhibition to his studio. I re-worked and re-worked my schedule to create the minimum one-week required for acceptance at Muay Sangha. Now, after having spent time here at Nam Yang and getting to work with Eddie, who is also my weapons instructor, I have made the decision to stay here the few extra days to deepen and anchor my learning in this mindful, monastic environment. I will be honoured to train with Eddie when Sifu leaves and take up Kru Pedro’s kind offer for tea following up on his suggestion to come for training the next time I am in Thailand…yes, there will be a next time, hopefully with my family, Sarah and Glen.

Peace and Chok Dee (Good Luck in Thai).
by David Lertzman

David Lertzman Ph.D. is the Assistant Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainable Development PI: Energy Indigenous Environment Interface Research Program, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs David Lertzman wrote for StudyMartialArts.Org detailing his experiences training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat. If you’re interested in visiting this school book your place here and get an exclusive discount  Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat.