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Kung Fu in Thailand: Back to Centre

It’s Saturday, my last rest day at Nam Yang this trip as I depart for Chiang Mai on Wednesday for a few days R & R before returning to Canada. Life is good here. I’ve made gains in strength, flexibility and sleeping patterns, learning so many new martial arts principles and practices of Shaolin Kung Fu while generally centring myself. I’d like to devote this entry mainly to the theme of centring, which relates directly to my back injury and overall goal for coming here.

I had concluded my previous entry with a discussion of how the intensive training, about 8 hours a day, had re-stimulated my back injury. A disc herniation on the right hand side of my lower lumbar spine was exasperated by the large number of flexion activities performed many times a day, often held for periods of a time. I was trying to be positive about it but feeling pretty down. I got up the next day at about 5:30 am and went down for our morning Chi Kung session at 6. I’d not woken up with that much back pain in years. By the time we got into the Chi Kung practice I was in a downward spiral and going through a lot emotions. As we moved into the stepping meditation I began to calm my mind and bring focus to the practice. Master Iain passed by and reminded me to drop my tailbone; this helps root one’s stance and sink the Chi, accompanied by engaging muscles around the lower Dantien. Doing this automatically brings me back to centre, of which a major benefit seemed to be an immediate relieving of pressure on my back.

I practiced this process of dropping the tailbone, grounding the stance and coming back to my centre many times. I did this not just in our Kung Fu practice but continuously throughout the day. Not only was it improving my Kung Fu stance and helping relieve back pain, it brought a general awareness to my posture and state of mind. This process of coming back to my centre has become a mindfulness practice for me and is something I shall carry forward into my life. I used to do a lot of this at one time. In my twenties I became certified as a fitness instructor integrating Yoga and meditation with some Chi Kung into what I called the “Whole Fitness Workout”, which I taught into my thirties. I often used to tuck under my tailbone and pull in my lower Dantien. It developed a keen awareness of my physical movement centre building good muscle tone in my lower abdomen. I pretty much let that go after injuring my back; it was all I could do just to keep standing and walking for a couple years. Going through this back injury re-stimulation and healing process at Nam Yang I’ve become aware of some unhealthy postural habits on which I will have to work. I think I unconsciously started getting more of a curve back in my lumbar spine to protect my back against flexion, which seems to have been accompanied by a loosening of the musculature and loss of tone in my lower abdomen. I had started noticing this recently at the gym (too much mirror gazing?) when checking form and was wondering about it; with my centring mindfulness practice the awareness has come together. It took years to create this situation but hopefully not so long to correct and maintain it. Even sitting here now I must be reminding myself self to lower the tailbone and maintain my centre.

Me doing a slash and block with my favorite Tan Tao (broadsword) flanked by the two great Nagas (Dragons) in front of Nam Yang’s Buddha House.

Maintaining one’s centre, like many of the principle lessons in our Kung Fu practice has numerous applications for life. Indeed, coming into and maintaining my centre was an overarching goal I had shared with Sifu Iain in my initial contact email inquiring about the possibility of training at Nam Yang. “As a goal at Nam Yang I would love to leave with a set of basic fundamentals to carry forward in my personal practice…(and) am especially interested in cultivating a state of mind conducive to maintaining my centre and living graciously amidst the challenges of this beautiful, troubled world.” It’s amazing how things can come together and somewhat blows my mind just reading this. I think the trick for me will be to keep up with this mindfulness practice even when I’m not in pain. I recall Master Iain’s teaching that with this work you can change your life, “You can change who you are.” The word “Kung Fu” is made up of two characters. I understand that the first character for “Kung” means something like “hard work” or “skillful training”; the second character for “Fu” refers to “time spent”. So “Kung Fu” might be translated as “time spent in hard work or skillful training”. Master Iain often quotes his Sifu, Master Tan. One of his most repeated aphorisms is that the secret to learning Kung Fu involves two things: first start, then don’t stop.

Master Iain mentioned at tea that while many other martial arts teach mechanics and techniques, Shaolin Kung Fu teaches principles. The lesson of maintaining my centre fits very well with this philosophy. Like with any other Kung Fu skill, I know mastering the lesson of maintaining my centre will take time and effort to change my life, but it will be time well spent. I’m already feeling the benefits, both in terms of my Kung Fu and my back. Of course along with maintaining my centre I have been modifying activities that involve flexion; yet I have been able to perform most of the others with vigour. It’s been two days since the flare up of my herniated disc and I’m feeling so much better; in the past that much pain would have taken a lot longer to settle down. Another factor to which I attribute this quick turn around is the strength and flexibility I have built up from the waist down since starting the training. These are also principles and practices that I will take with me.

the other is doing the broadsword salute with Moon behind.
Doing the broadsword salute with Moon behind.

I had checked the weather for Canmore back home and was -30; meanwhile I’ve training here in +35. A 65 degree difference, wow! I got a ride into town on one of the scooters which is the standard means of transport and finally got to amble down “Walking Street” on my own in Pai. Walking Street is a Thai phenomenon and a must see for tourists. Starting around 6 p.m. the street is lit up and packed with a cacophony of street vendors and performers, bars and taverns, discos, restaurants, tea shops and a myriad of nightlife in a carnivalesque atmosphere, replete with red light district in some of the larger cities. This happens pretty much every night, but one of the most famous is the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai. I was there but couldn’t get up the juice to go when I first arrived. The one in Pai is no where near as big, but wonderful, even magical. There are so many brilliant artists and artisans selling their wares it can be a little overwhelming: a genius every block. Moreover, the Thai people are so wonderful, beautiful and patient, it really is very touching, and oh boy can they cook! I must have had fresh banana or banana-coconut shake at every vendor. Another special aspect in Pai is its proximity to the local hill tribes. You see a lot of tribal culture and crafts for different peoples like the Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong, each with a distinct language and culture, many of whom are fleeing violence and persecution in the surrounding region. They are agriculturalists and hunters; I was hunting for gifts to bring home and scored big time! I won’t go into the details and spoil a surprise but I did pick up a gorgeous Hmong shoulder bag for 250 Baht, which is about 8 and a half dollars Canadian. It was made from the recycled clothes of a high ranking family, the likes of which are not being made so much anymore.

Anyhow, we train early in the morning and I shall have to try and sleep through the throbbing music echoing off the hills. I have three days of training left and really want to make the most of it! More to say, but for now it’s good night.

Much Love and warmth from Thailand!

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.


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.

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.

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.

Kung Fu in Thailand Days 6-7: Breakdown


Well if my last entry was about breakthrough, this was one would have to be about breakdown, but I’ll come to that later. Yesterday was Saturday, a rest day. I had Thai Massage in the morning, not excruciating for the most part this time, but she did discover an area in my shoulder which was pretty crazy to have worked on. I felt great afterwards and went down to the training area for some solo work, practiced staff form then sword, the Tan Dao, Chinese Sabre or Broadsword. After using the stick I got permission to practice with a real sword. I wound up selecting the real, real sword. Let me explain. They have practice swords which are real swords, but with a blunt steel blade and considerably lighter. The real, real sword has an edge which could cut: it isn’t particularly sharp not having been honed for a while but is a serviceable blade. The main thing is the weight; it’s much heavier than the practice sword I’d previously used. Using the real sword is almost as much difference from the practice sword as is the practice sword from the stick; using it very much ground-truthed the whole experience. This applies not just to the matter of strength conditioning but in being able to perform properly the form.


On our day-off we go into the town of Pai for supper (amazing Thai food!!) and eat ourselves silly. Before going down I had a chat with Eddie about teaching and learning dynamics. He shared that he gets concerned when a master doesn’t correct him. “A master won’t correct you for two reasons”, he commented. One is because he doesn’t think it’s worthwhile and the other is because you’ve got it so perfect you don’t need it, “and I know that’s not the case”. So when the Master corrects it’s because he cares, and even more importantly, he thinks you care. This means that you’ve taken the corrections and applied them, so it’s worth correcting again and again, going deeper into whatever you’re learning. There is also the matter of attitude. Some people don’t take well to corrections, or shall I say, the act of being corrected. The process of being corrected is something I’ve experienced many times with Native elders. When they are correcting you, they are doing it because they care and it is a sign that they see you as trainable. Another thing Eddie mentioned was quite interesting to me. He said that, from his perspective, when one comes to Nam Yang you don’t pay for the teaching and the training; you pay for the accommodations, the food and services. The training is always there, it’s part of a way life and it is up to the student to enter in and make the most of it for themselves. The the more you try and the harder you train the more will be given to you and the more you will gain. The onus is on you.

Today was a great day; it was the best day yet! In fact, things just keep getting better here every day. I’ve still got 8 days left and already I’m feeling somewhat apprehensive about leaving. We worked in the group and I worked alone on sword and staff adding to the sequence of moves in my forms. We worked some very cool activities for strengthening and technique development in partners I can’t wait to bring home for Julian and Sarah. We got into practicing the most intense combat moves yet, so much fun!! I love this stuff and always feel especially honoured when Master Iain picks me to demonstrate the move: block me, lock me, throw me to the floor. I was especially honoured today when he cracked me on the nose. It wasn’t really that hard but it was a good square shot which elicited an audible pop. He felt so badly about. We were demonstrating a move which required me to come in with a grapple; Sifu seemed to want me to come in with some energy so I did. Either I came in too hard or he misjudged the distance or perhaps a bit of both but I think he felt worse than I did. I told him it was easy to misjudge the distance of such a target given my nose is probably a little closer than most others, I mean hey, that’s what makes me handsome in Thailand! Sifu asked several times throughout the session if I was ok. I glowed a little like Rudolph for a while but it doesn’t hurt at all anymore. Whenever we sit down for mid-session tea, Sifu pours the tea and asks, “Now, are there any questions about Kung Fu”. It’s really a special time of day. Today our youngest in the group asked about Nam Yang’s code of conduct, or Ethos. It’s a fantastic document and communicates very effectively the principles of loyalty, respect, equality, responsibility, brother/sisterhood, family, diligence and selflessness which distinguish Nam Yang, its Masters and Instructors. Here’s an excerpt, “Joining Nam Yang Pugilistic Association means becoming part of an ancient tradition dating back to Tat Moh (Bodhidharma), the Shaolin Founder, about 1500 years ago.” This brings me to the breakdown I had mentioned at the outset.

Processed with Rookie

I got up extra early this morning and went to meditate in the Buddha House. It was locked so I set up under the stars between the two Nagas (Dragons) out front (see picture attached). Afterwards I went down to where we begin our day’s activities in the open training area under the stars. We went through all the various Chi Kung exercises and moved into the stepping meditation. Afterwards we entered the Shuan Yang Sun Frost White Crane soft martial art form. I started sinking in to the movements, but of course was making mistakes, and Sifu came to correct me. Each move, of which I believe there are 66 though they all flow together, has a name. To help me understand the move he was correcting Sifu shared its name, “Goddess Pan Gu Opens Heaven: the Beginning of Heaven and Earth”. As I moved into the form it hit me how deep and vast is this tradition; there’s so much here and I’ll never even come close to learning it: 1,500 years of perfecting practice handed down from master to student, layer upon layer upon layer of art and science, technique and form. One must start young to really learn this and practice all your life; here I am almost 53 years old and just beginning with a two week intensive surrounded by these young fellows signed up for weeks and months at a time. What have I been doing with myself all these years? Goddess Pan Gu opened Heaven and I cracked open: I felt like I was falling, being swallowed into an abyss knowledge, wisdom, diligence and subtlety. Under northern Thailand’s pre-dawn light tears streaming down my face, pulling my elbows together, rolling back the shoulders, stretching out my hands until the wrists stabbed with pain, sinking down in the stance, rooting into the earth, drawing up Chi I cracked open, grieved for all the things I’d never know or learn, all the lost opportunity, and opened deeper to the form.

Time for sleep and I wish you all the best,

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.


Kung Fu in Thailand Days 4-5: Breakthrough


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.


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.


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.

Kung Fu in Thailand Day 3: A Day of Rest

Greetings everyone,

Yesterday, Wednesday, was a rest day, as is Saturday. We bundled up in Sifu’s truck and drove north to Mae Hong Son close to Burma. We visited some hill tribe markets and two principal Temples, one in front of a small lake and another on a hill overlooking the town. The hill tribes women’s hand weaving is exceptional and they sell the most delicious wild honey by the side of road. One of the highlights of the day was when we picked up four Buddhist monks walking up the winding mountain road who piled in the truck with us. Not only is Sifu Iain extremely knowledgeable in Kung Fu and martial arts in general, he has also a deep knowledge and experience of the local area and its peoples. Thus, our journey was one through the historical, cultural and philosophical landscapes of the region. Being so close to Burma there is a very strong influence from the Shan people. Indeed, the whole area has been flooded with various ethnic groups, in particular hill tribes fleeing conflict in Burma. I finally had the current political situation in Thailand explained effectively over lunch by Sifu Iain and the day ended at the Temple on the Hill in Mae Hong Son, Wat Phra That Mae Yen. It is hard to describe how extraordinary are these temples. The view from the mountain top on which the temple sits was spectacular as the jungle stretched out below with its forested hills and mountains, limestone spires and the blazing sun setting behind.

Today we followed the same training schedule from 6 am to a little after 9 a.m., and 3:30 p.m. to about 6:15 p.m. Along with my extra 2 hours in the middle I also received a real Thai Massage. It was as much ordeal as it was massage but the lady hired for the massage was very good natured. She is a strong and gifted traditional massage therapist. She laughed at the noises I made with her elbows in my back and foot in my leg and told me to say, “Sooo, sooo!”. She tweaked my nose and invited me to the discotheque tonight in Pai but I told her I couldn’t go. I learned later from Sifu that men with big noses are considered extremely handsome in this part of Thailand; I’ve finally found somewhere that values my natural good looks and charm! We did a lot of Chi Kung, stretching and meditation today. We also continued with the Tigre-Crane Sum Chien and another sequence I have not yet described called Shuan Yang, which in English is called Sun Frost White Crane. Shuan Yang is a kind soft or gentle martial art that looks a lot like Tai Chi, but more martial. Indeed, some believe it to be the origins of Tai Chi. We did some great punching drills with the suspended sand filled cloth sacks and had a marvellously vigorous kicking session. Today on weapons I got to take up the actual bladed sabre, the Tan Dao or Chinese Broadsword. Wow, that was a gas training with sword in the open outdoor training ground my traditional black and gold Kung Fu pants billowing wet chest bared to northern Thailand’s blazing afternoon sun.

IMG_0856At tea Sifu spoke of the history of Nam Yang’s Tigre-Crane lineage. His Master’s Master, Master Ang, was the one I mentioned earlier who brought the art out of China and passed it eventually to Master Tan Soh Tin who then passed it to Iain Armstrong, the man I call Sifu. What an amazing history. Master Ang started Kung Fu as a boy and had three different masters. His first master was known as “the secretive old man” who introduced him to Tigre-Crane at 8 years old. His second master was an herbal medicine peddler who specialized in the Shaolin weapons system and Tiger form. The third was a Shaolin monk. I was amazed to learn that Master Ang eventually fought in Sun Yat-Sen’s army with the Koumintang, which was subsequently taken up by Chian Kai-Shek. As the Communists became victorious and began executing the Shaolin Kung Fu martial artists Master Ang emigrated to Singapore and later started Nam Yang in 1957. He ran the club until his death in the mid 1980s and the leadership passed to Master Tan who trained Sifu Iain. Iain now has schools here in Thailand, in the UK, in Russia and another about to open in Italy. It is very special to be a part of this lineage and I hope to bring home some foundational skills I can practice on my own. I’ve taken to playing flute under the stars while the others arrive to the outdoor training area for the morning session. Thus, I must sign off as 5 a.m. comes early!

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.

Kung Fu in Thailand Day Two: The Training Begins!

Today was an awesome day! I was up about 5:30 a.m. and we started a little before sunrise with Chi Kung and Sam Chien, crescent moon shining with mist hanging off the jungle. We trained with the group this morning from 6-9 am and in the afternoon session from 3:30 until a little after 6 p.m. I did 2 hours of solo instruction focussing on Chi Kung and Sum Chien. Sum Chien is a series of moves that forms a basis for the Southern Shaolin Tigre-Crane form we are learning. I also got to begin weapons training with staff and starting on Chinese Sabre using a stick. I thought staff would come more easily to me than sword but I probably did better with the sword technique. I worked on weapons with the head student who is also an instructor. The hardest part is probably the footwork. All in all I would say we spent about 2.5 hours today in stretching and conditioning, lots of stretching.


In the evening we focused on special breathing techniques that apply to Chi Kung and Sum Chien, which Sifu said were actually quite advanced. I did well with my prior yoga and Chi Kung training. Then we worked on punching drills into heavy cloth sacks filled with sand hung from the rafters. It makes your knuckles pretty red but is very instructive on technique and really fun!! The idea is not to swing the sack but to be able to dent it by sending your chi into the target. One of my favourite times of day is the break in training when Sifu call us up to the veranda where we sit on teak stools and he pours special tea in all our cups on a table shaped like a dragon. He then delivers teachings about technique principles, tells stories and dispenses wisdom. Like I said, you can tell a lot about Sifu by how his chief students treat him: with utmost respect and admiration, hanging off every word with the rest of us. Sifu spoke about Kung Fu as a way of life; the martial aspect is part of a bigger picture and no one part is more or less than the other. Kung Fu prepares us for meditation and the pathway to enlightenment.

At afternoon tea Sifu spoke about the tendons. I had mentioned that I felt where an injury in my shoulder was really being stretched when being corrected in some technique for practicing one of the slow punch forms early in the morning. At first it hurt but I stayed with it and then it started to open. Sifu said that such body awareness is the first step to Kung Fu. He said one’s tendons have a grain like wood. When you get injured it forms a pattern in the tendon, like a knot. As you develop your awareness you can use the Kung Fu forms to go into the tendon and open it up taking out some of the scar tissue and re-patterning the tendon. He said something else that was very profound which reminded me of Sequoyah. Speaking about training and repetition, for example of a simple movement like a step or the most basic punch over and over again, Sifu said that you could never get board of anything that is done with deep intention and full awareness.

Life here has a rather monastic feeling. We train before sunrise and retire a little after sunset. Two meals a day are wholesome yet simple, rice with vegetables and a clear, tangy vegetable soup, prepared by our cook who is mostly blind and comes from one the tribes originally on the Burmese side. Accommodations are comfortable yet spartan, the bed being a heavy, handcut bamboo cot. It is surprisingly quite chilly in the morning and I really missed my fleece pants for the first couple hours but had to put on a good showing as a Canadian while everyone else was quite bundled up.

There are several people training, all male from young to old: two other Canadians, a Dutch fellow, a Belgian and a Brit. The Belgian and Brit are senior students. One is already a teacher and the other well on his way, very dedicated, lovely young men. Tomorrow we have a rest day and are going to see some remote hill tribes with whom Sifu is connected. I’m pretty sore in many places with a nice, large bruise on my arm from yesterday’s push-hands activity, and very happy.

Love and Blessings

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.

Kung Fu in Thailand Day One: Arrival

Steve-Website-Photo1I have arrived in Pai, Mae Hong Son Province for two weeks of traditional Shaolin Kung Fu training in northern Thailand. After a flight delayed by fog we flew a short but spectacular journey over forested mountains and I’m now at Nam Yang Mountain Retreat, International Martial Arts Kung Fu and Meditation Training Centre. Although my work contract allows for 6 weeks of holiday, this is the first real vacation I’ve had since our honeymoon 8 years ago. I really need it.

It is very special here. Nam Yang was created by Sifu Iain Armstrong and his wonderful Thai wife under the guidance of Grandmaster Tan Soh Tin with whom he has studied 30 years. Grandmaster Tan’s master brought southern Shaolin (Tigre-Crane) Kung Fu out of China after Mao’s ascendancy when the Shaolin martial artists were being executed. Nam Yang is near the town of Pai in northern Thailand about 30 km from the Burmese border. They grow most of their own food, including the rice, pineapples and bananas. The architecture is beautiful in the local traditional style giving the whole place a Shaolin Temple like quality. It is an extraordinary achievement! They have a large kitchen and open eating area, an office, Buddha House for meditation with two great Nagas (Dragons) descending the stairs, two training octagons, one which is covered and one open-area, plus the living quarters. Accommodations are simple, almost spartan, but we have what we need to get by and it is lovely!

I had a great sit with Sifu Iain over a special tea to review my training goals surrounded by the beautiful landscape and sprawling grounds of Nam Yang Retreat Centre. Afterwards I joined in the evening’s training. We did about 1.5 hours stretching and prep before doing push-hands and some basic drills. Sifu Iain is so authentic. You can tell a lot about Sifu by how his chief students treat him; that says it all. There are several people training, all male from young to old. Two other Canadians, a Dutch fellow, a Belgian and a Brit. The Belgian and Brit are senior students. One is already a teacher and the other well on his way, lovely dedicated young men. We went to Pai for supper tonight as one is leaving tomorrow after having been here some months. The other pretty much lives here training every day all day and sometimes teaching. Tomorrow we start at 6:00 am with Chi Kung for the sunrise. Wednesday is a rest day and we will go to town of Mae Hong Son on the Burmese border visiting remote hill tribes with whom Sifu is connected.

Kap Kuhn Kap (Thank you in Thai),

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.

The Life of Pai


Stepping of the plane in Chiangmai, I instantly liked the place. The warmth of the air was somewhat different to the dry February cold of Beijing.

Rather unwisely though I failed to print of the directions and contact number for where I would spend the next 3 weeks training. “Mai Pen Rai” with a single step I’d quickly adopted the Thai go with the flow attitude like a natural, after all I was in Thailand and what better why to honor my hosts.

I’d only just touched down in Thailand and the journey was already exceeding my expectations and I felt completely relaxed about the weeks ahead. What I love about traveling is meeting people. My experiences to date have shown me that people vibrate on different frequencies depending on their state of mind. When people are on similar frequencies it’s natural for them to attract and connect. With my mind on exploration, discovery and anticipation for the journey ahead it would be this energetic principle that had drawn me to meet a fellow martial arts traveler.

Energetic principle or fait I met Dr David Lertzman at the boarding gate at Hong Kong international airport heading for Chiangmai. Both of us where surveying the room for a suitable plug socket to charge our respective apple products.

David a professor from Calgary University in Canada was a man who’d spent the last 7 years working with indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest. He was traveling to a place called Pai for 3 weeks of Shaolin training in order to follow a passion for martial arts that remained with him from his youth.

We rearranged our seats on the plane and from Hong Kong to Chiangmai the professor and I swapped stories and enjoyed the back and forth of good conversation.

Walking Street

An instantly likeable and approachable man he had a way of making people around him feel comfortable. I pondered the thought of how this character trait would be one that would serve him well in the rain forests of the Amazon where he would have to communicate with numerous indigenous peoples. I pictured him bounding through the rain forests like Sean Connery from the medicine man.

We parted company in Chiang Mai with the intension of staying in touch to share our separate training experiences. He set off for the Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu Retreat in Pi and I to meet and train with Sifu Mark Rasmus.

Arriving late at Susan Pailomn it was dark but with a warm welcome and smile I was greeted by Sifu Rasmus. I could feel I was in a good place geographically, mentally and spiritually. Mark showed me to my chalet and we headed out to grab some food.

We talked about our respective martial arts journeys, about the training ahead, about life in Chiangmai, places to eat and places to visit. I new I was in the right place studying with the right master. When we finished it was late.

My first night in Chiangmai my plan ahead of arrival had been to make it to base camp familurize myself with the area and get a good nights rest. Mission accomplished.

Nestled among bamboo groves and trees I woke up from my first nights sleep to the morning chants of Buddhist monks and bell chimes, refreshed and ready to begin my training.The days ahead in Chiang Mai would be filled with excellent tuition under the supervision of Sifu Rasmus.

In addition to this there would be amazing temple visits and location based training, delicious local food and one or two healing Thai massages.Each evening as part of my training regime I would journal my progress. Likewise Professor David Lertzman had also been chronicling his training experience in Pai and was emailing the details of what would become a great blog for those thinking about training at Nam Yang Shaolin Kung Fu School. This is a blog I will post at a later date on the SMA bloggers wordpress site.


The School

Before we parted company in Chiangmai I’d told David about the Study Martial Arts project, about our mission statement and company ethos. I also explained how I was always on the lookout for quality schools and masters to work with, so any insight he had about the school would be much appreciated.

With David’s regular up dates and emails filling my inbox with detailed accounts of his experience I knew that if an opportunity presented itself I would head to Pai, visit the school and catch up with my fellow martial arts adventurer.

On the second week of training a Thai national holiday fell on the Friday. Intuitively, Sifu Rasmus a keen motorcyclist proposed the idea of a road trip to Pai. With his help I rented a scotter and followed Sifu Rasmus along the beautiful, and somewhat infamous winding road from Chiangmai to Pai. We arrived in Pai dropped off our bags then headed out to explore Walking Street.

Walking Street Market in Pai is located on Rungsiyanon Road. It is a shopper’s paradise offering a wide range of souvenirs big and small, unique handicrafts, lacquerware and hand-made clothes some of which come direct from highland villages or local artists. Along with these gift stalls and shops I delighted in the sights smells and tastes of the authentic street food. Thai, Chinese, Western in such variety all fresh and delicious. The Thai street food experience was living up to the hype. The following day a Saturday would be a day off from training for the students at Nam Yang, so I explored Pai a little soaking in the Friday night before returning to my hotel. After breakfast I headed out to the school to meet David and also one of the instructors Eddie.

The school a ten minute bike ride away from my hotel is on the outskirts of Pai close to its small airport. David met me and showed me around the school and introduced me to some of his fellow students.

Mork Fa Waterfall
Mork Fa Waterfall

Some of these students were beginners studying martial arts for the first time, others had been students who had studied in China and were somewhat jaded of the experience and some were seasoned and experienced martial artists. After David showed me around he demonstrated one of the forms he’d been working on, then we sat and took tea with Eddie who at the time was one of the schools instructors.”Out door training areas”Normally the journey from Chiangmai to Pai takes 3-5 hours depending on your pace. I’d recommend taking it slow and taking in the scenery. The road itself is super fun but beware, those that get carried away and go to fast might end up as one of the roads numerous casualties. Both experienced and inexperienced drivers have cut short their holiday on this road which snakes it’s way up and over the mountains to Pai.

We stopped midway for lunch on the journey up and on the return I cooled down with a swim at this amazing waterfall at Mork Fa. For more information on martial arts training at this school or training experiences throughout China and Thailand visit the http://www.StudyMartialArts.Org website.

The StudyMartialArts.Org website has discounts on martial arts training and travel experiences as well as exclusive offers only available to those who book through SMA.

Sum Chien (Three Wars) – The Heart of Shaolin

This short, superficially simple routine is the core training exercise of not only Southern Shaolin kung fu but also many styles of Karate.  It must be one of the most widely practised yet least understood martial arts exercises and is still shrouded in mystery.  In this article I describe how, over the last 32 years, the mystery has unfolded to me personally.

Part 1: ‘If you take a bus, you should know when to get off!’.

When, as a teenager, I made the decision to commit myself to kung fu training I was buying into a dream.  A dream of ancient Masters who could tame bandits with a glance, of monasteries nestled in mist shrouded mountains, of Shaolin monks who could crack granite with their bare hands and of handsome, sharply suited, oriental hitmen who could kill with the lightest touch, leaving not a trace.  I didn’t really take up kung fu because I needed to learn to fight.  I knew that I needed to get better at fighting but I already had more experience than most people will gather in a lifetime.  The reality, however, is not quite what you might expect.  Cracking heads into damp grey pavements and ramming faces into dusty shop windows on cold, starlit nights is certainly exciting but it hardly counts as living the dream.  As a famous kung fu Master would say to me many years later ‘if you take a bus, you need to know when to get off’.  I always remember that quote!  To me, kung fu meant magical herbs, golden Buddhas, deep meditations, conversations with spirits and a whole world of untapped opportunity.  It was the stop where I wanted to get off the bus.

Thirty two years later I am still on that same kung fu journey and I have not been disappointed on a single count.  The path is not an easy one.  It started with a great deal of sweaty, painful physical work and progressed through a complete dismantling of my old self to build the new one.  Along the way I have watched spirit possession, lived amongst secret societies and cracked bricks with my fingertips.  I even had a face off with a god who guards the gates of hell in an incense scented Singapore backstreet, right in the middle of the red light district!  In the end, I have simply confirmed what I knew in my heart right from the outset: kung fu is a way to free the spirit from its self imposed chains, to live a better life and to unlock the full human potential.  It sounds great, but nothing comes without a price.  The Chinese words ‘kung fu’ translate more or less as ‘a man hard at work over a long time’.  If you want to unlock the full power of kung fu, it is not going to be easy: you are going to have to work, you are going to have to sacrifice and you are going to have to suffer – over a long time.  There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

My teacher, Master Tan, who is a direct line descendent of the Southern Shaolin tradition, was always careful to point out that there are many routes to the top and that no way is the only way.  The way we took was the one which is practised in the Southern part of Fukien province, know as Min Nam – South of the Min river.  Although the exact location of the Southern Shaolin Temple, (the one which was burned to the ground by the Ching army and thus inspired the greatest martial arts legend), is still a point of controversy it is accepted that it indeed lay within this ‘Min Nam’ area.  So it is fair to assume that the martial arts of this area – which are very unique in character – are the closest that remain to those of the legendary temple and its immortal warrior monks.  Although these arts have diverged into a number of different branches, they are linked together by the fact that they almost all centre their training around a short and superficially simple training routine called ‘Sum Chien’ meaning ‘three wars’ or ‘three battles’.  So for us, the hard work started with ‘Sum Chien’.  It has never finished.

I was told, from the outset, that Sum Chien was the key to our art.  Within it lay the true essence of the art and indeed if I was to master Sum Chien I would have mastered ninety percent of the art.  I didn’t understand.  So I just knuckled down and practised.  In all of the battles that we had back on the London streets, it had been a pretty good rule of thumb that the biggest, strongest most aggressive men had the advantage.  Kung fu Masters were different and that fascinated me.  Master Tan and his colleagues were mostly old, quiet, inoffensive and not at all physically imposing – at least in comparison to what I was used to.  And yet their skills could beat brute force.  I remember a time when I was still a very junior student and Master Tan asked me to punch him so that he could demonstrate how to bounce back the energy of a punch.  Being wary of the old Master I threw a very controlled punch towards him so as to be sure not to hurt him.  He gave me that withering look which I was soon to get used to.  ‘Iain, that was not a punch!  Don’t treat me like a fool, throw me a real punch.’  I had boxed for a few years and so as not to hack him off any more, snapped out a sharp left jab.  He caught it on his shoulder, rolled back with it until it ran out of energy, then flicked the energy that he had absorbed back down my extended arm to tip me off balance.  More than any other single incident, this is what sold it to me.  This was why I knuckled down and practised.  I had seen what was out there and I wanted a piece of it.  If that meant practising Sum Chien all day so be it.  Well, to a large extent it did mean practising sum chien all day!

It took a long time and a lot of trips to Singapore to persuade Master Tan that I was really worth teaching.  In 1993 I won gold medal in a world kung fu championships held in the USA for demonstrating my weapon skills.  Around about this time he seemed to make up his mind that he was going to teach me properly.  So we went right back to the beginning and worked on stance.  We continued for a long time – many years in fact.  Stance, body posture, relaxation.  ‘Work on the basics.  Build a solid foundation.  To build a strong art you need a strong foundation.  Sink into your stance.  Extend your Chi into the Earth and grow roots.’  Gradually Sum Chien came to life.  I learned the body mechanics needed to overcome stronger opponents.  I learned breathing techniques to ‘supercharge’ internal organs with Chi.  I learned to store energy in different parts of the body and release it in an explosive burst.  I learned to sharpen my senses and develop a sixth sense, as Master Tan calls it.  I learned to use my eyes in ways that I had not even contemplated before.  I can describe to some of the secrets that Sum Chien holds but without the hard work you will never master them.

A lot of my most influential lessons took place in bustling Singapore coffee shops and hawker centres, (little markets made up of cooked food stalls).  The food was amazing.  We would sit on small plastic stools around battered formica tables amongst the smell of stir fries and cigarette smoke tucking into Hokkien noodles or maybe chilli stingray and he would say: ‘Iain.  Never forget that, at the most, the teacher can give you fifteen percent of the art.  The rest you have to get for yourself through practise and hard work.   I can show you the path but I can not walk it for you.’  As always, it was sound advice.  I will explain to you here some of what Sum Chien holds but to gain it for yourself you will need to do the hard work.

Part 2 – ‘To Master The Basics is to Master the Art’.


Our art is often described as a very simple one.  I tend to the opinion that it is simple on the surface but complex in its depth.  None the less its approach to defence is simple, based around a number of rock solid principles.  One of these is the importance of stability.  If you lose your balance you will be able to do little more than flail around until either you get your balance back or you fall.  Whilst flailing around you will be vulnerable since you have no defence.  Hence very often all that is needed to win is to be so stable in your stance that when you clash with someone else you remain rooted in your stance and send them flailing around at which point it is very easy to finish them.  Ours is an old art, left over from days when losing often meant dying.  Quick, sure wins were important.

So developing a stable stance is considered the first priority in our art.

Stability must be balanced against manoeuvrability and speed.  Very low, wide stances have great stability but are slow hence we use a fairly high stance.  We retain our stability through being totally relaxed and sinking our chi down through the soles of our feet into the Earth like the roots of a tree.  This stance is said to have been developed by the Sung Emperor who founded the Tai Chor Quan (Grand Ancestor Fist) art, the third of the five stages in development of the Southern Shaolin kung fu.  There are two important variations of this stance and different schools of the same art often choose to use the same one.  Cheng Kun Twee is the thousand katee (thousand pound) stance, so called because it has the strength to support a great weight.  In this stance the leg muscles are strongly tensed and the testicles pulled up hard.  Lok Twee Seng Kun means ‘growing roots into the Earth’.  It can be called the rooted stance.  In this stance the legs are totally relaxed and the weight is held up by the elasticity of the tendon resulting in a springy, suspension like effect.

Dropping your chi down through your feet leaves the upper body empty and relaxed so that strength can easily pass through.  Holding the ground firmly with your feet provides great leverage.  A solid stance is the foundation of a solid art.


A straight spine works like a straight axle around which the torso can pivot.  More to the point, when the spine is straightened the energy centres which are positioned along it are lined up, like magnets stuck to each other, to form a straight path connecting the Yang Chi of the Heavens with the Yin Chi of the Earth thus harnessing a very powerful energy.  Finally, a straight spine under the correct type of tension can be bent in one direction or another so as to hold energy then fire it out, like a Bow which has been stretched releasing its energy into an arrow.

A torso which pivots freely around a straight spine can redirect an opponent’s force with ease.  The straight spine is, in effect, the centre line which is often discussed in kung fu theory.

Lining up your energy centres allows you to draw on powerful chi but the spine must be upright as well as straight, so that the crown point really does point to heaven and the root point really does point to Earth.

Using the spine to hold and release energy is an advanced skill.  Many forms of the Shaolin white crane art use a very pronounced bending and straightening of the spine to release energy.  Our art uses small subtle movements but with correct timing and physical conditioning can produce the same degree of power although the movement remains very fast and hard to see or to feel and so is very hard to counter.

Body Mechanics.

Relaxing and sinking into a stance keeps all of the joints intact.  This is essential for the efficient transmission of strength.

The stance is relatively short with the front foot only one foot’s length further forwards than the back.  It is narrow enough that the shoulders would just fit in the space between the feet.  Sixty percent of the weight is on the back foot.  The two feet are parallel and angled at about 30 degrees to front – the positioning which gives maximum stability.

The positioning of the arms is particularly important in securing mechanical advantage.  Once the shoulders are sunk down, the elbows are twisted in as far as possible and the wrists out as far as possible.  In this position the arm is so firm that it is almost impossible to move and it is an ideal position to deflect attacks past the body.  Holding the arm in this position is highly characteristic of most versions of the Sum Chien routine and a famous tactic in Chinese kung fu.

In fact the shoulders can be held in the middle position, swallowed into the back or let slip forwards.  In our Sum Chien  practise we avoid the forward position because it is too weak but use the middle position when throwing strength out and the back when drawing it in.

With a strong stance and back, adopting strong positioning for the arms completes the chain of strength, eliminating any weakness.  With these body mechanics we can overcome opponents who are much bigger and stronger than our selves.

As I mention this my mind is drawn to another of those principles which Master Tan likes so much to quote (there are a lot of them): ‘train for maximum strength but use the minimum.’  It pretty much speaks for its self.  There will always be someone out there who is bigger and stronger than you – so rely on technique rather than strength if you are going to stand a chance.  Having said that, a little bit of strength never hurts and physical training should never be ignored.

Part 3: Strength From Within  – The Hallmark Of Shaolin.

Internal Power.

There was a period, beginning at the close of the nineteen nineties, when I was writing a column for ‘Combat’ magazine and Master Tan took me around Singapore’s most prominent kung fu groups to interview their Masters.  He would translate since few of them spoke English.  Some resided in dusty medicine shops surrounded by bottles full of odd looking herbs and miscellaneous bits of animals.  Others were successful businessmen who we interviewed in their factories.  A lot were obviously underworld figures although they always had some sort of respectable front.  One thing that bound them together, though, was the fact that they all emphasised the same thing about genuine Shaolin kung fu: it was characterised by springy internal power.  In fact one thing that all agreed on (and let’s be clear, there were very few things that all this lot would agree on, many of them had been feuding for years) was that no matter what else you had, if you did not have springy power you did not have Shaolin kung fu – just a hollow, empty set of movements.  No wonder there is so much controversy about Shaolin kung fu these days.  A lot of the people that I see are indeed doing nothing more than a hollow, empty set of movements and I am not surprised that they come in for so much criticism.

Sum Chien is, in effect, the internal strength building exercise of Shaolin kung fu and, indeed, of those other arts which have adopted it.  Fortunately, once your stance posture and body mechanics are right, then with the help of a good teacher and a great deal of hard work most people are capable of developing springy internal strength.  If this doesn’t immediately grab you as being overly exciting, think of it this way – most people are capable of learning to perform Sum Chien properly with springy internal strength and thus master the defining skill of Shaolin kung fu.  To me that sounds pretty exciting!

There are a number of important components to internal strength.  One is the ability to store energy, usually in the tendon, and subsequently release it in an explosive burst.  Another is the ability to allow energy to pass through the body unrestricted.  Others are to send energy spiralling up from the feet and through the torso to be released into the arms and to amplify the energy each time that it passes a major skeletal joint – typically in the sequence ankle, knee, hip, spine, shoulder, elbow wrist.  Mastery involves getting all of these things to work smoothly together.

Internal strength then involves a great deal of skill as well as physical conditioning of the tendon.  The latter is essential so as to make the tendon sufficiently elastic to store energy when ‘stretched’ then release it efficiently.  Skill is developed through practise.  Elasticity is developed through regularly performing the right exercises.  Sum Chien training satisfies both criteria.  It is truly the path to internal power.

Strengthening Internal Organs.

If Sum Chien is performed with the right breathing methods the internal organs are greatly strengthened both in terms of their ability to perform their function and their ability to resist damage.  In this sense it may well be considered a form of iron shirt chi kung, although this name is more usually used to describe sets of breathing exercises aimed specifically at achieving this result.

Many of the steps of the Sum Chien are performed with a very special type of breathing.  On the in breath the abdominal and pelvic cavities of the body are strongly compressed whilst the chest is strongly expanded.  Both the compression and the stretch store energy.  Whilst the breath is held, springy energy is released through the body and out to the hands then wound back in by moving the arms in a coiling motion.  When this stage is complete the compression on the lower body cavities is released allowing them to expand explosively, thus forcing air out and completing the cycle of breath.

The compression of the abdominal and pelvic cavities causes the fresh chi and oxygen absorbed with the in breath to be pressed, under pressure, into the organs within.  These organs effectively become ‘super charged’ with chi making them more resilient and better able to function.

When energy passes through the organs, it moves primarily through the tendonous sheaths which surround them – the organ sheaths.  In doing so it builds tone and elasticity into them.  This process works even better when the explosive expansion occurs on the out breath.  The organs are stretched.  This pulls on the organ sheaths and makes them progressively tougher and more elastic.

Most of our organs have little intrinsic strength.  Think of cutting up a kidney: once you are though the tough outer sheath, the inside is pretty runny.  The strength lies in the tendonous sheaths around the organs.  By training strength and elasticity into these sheaths we make them less likely to rupture and better able to hold the organs in shape / place and protect them.

Development of the internal organs should not be undervalued, let alone overlooked.  The external body relies on them to function properly.  In western sport we constantly see the same mistake being made – over development of the external body coupled with neglect of the internal body.  The demands placed on the under developed internal organs by the over developed muscles and unreasonable levels of exercise eventually cause the organs to give up under the strain.  We then hear people in their thirties saying that they are ‘past it’ and retiring from sport in favour of activities such as pool, darts or pint glass lifting.  In kung fu we never retire.  Exercises like Sum Chien keep us strong internally, even into old age.  Here lies true value.

Part 4: Unlocking Your Greatest Power: The Power Of Your Mind.

Training the Senses, Expanding Awareness.

This is one of the most powerful yet least understood aspects of Sum Chien training.  I was fortunate that it happened to be something on which Master Tan was particularly focussed.

When we practise we open our eyes, ears and nose as far as possible and place the tip of our tongue on a specific point.  This accentuates most of our senses.  The need to have our bodies, particularly our joints, positioned so precisely leads to hugely expanded body awareness and a greatly heightened ability to feel where each little part of the body is, what it is doing and whether it is transmitting strength correctly.  I am quite sure that this develops and expands the parts of the brain which deal with information gathering.

The first and most obvious benefit of heightening our senses is that we don’t get taken by surprise and have time to react intelligently.  The most dangerous attack is always the one that you did not see coming!  There is, however, a more interesting dimension to this.  In his teaching, Master Tan places great emphasis on the fact that accomplished masters develop a very strong ‘sixth sense’.  The secret to developing this, he says, lies in the way that you train your first five senses and the way to train these senses is through correct performance of Sum Chien.

Training of the eyes through Sum Chien is a complex topic which could no doubt fill a book on its own.  We train to expand our field of vision considerably so that we are seeing in an arc of at least one hundred and eighty degrees.  We also train to defocus our vision so that we pick up the slightest movement very quickly and see colours more vividly at the expense of picking out detail.  In the later stages of the training we are able to project chi through our eyes with surprising intensity.  Actually many people have an innate ability to do this, at least to some extent, hence the feeling of hairs standing up on the back of your neck when someone is looking at you and and expressions like ’looking daggers’ at someone.  To truly develop the ability, though, takes a lot of hard work.

Training the emotions.

Training the face during Sum Chien practise seems to have gone out of fashion a little. It is widely known that the old masters used to contort their face into a strange grimace when they practised but most of their surviving students are too embarrassed to do this so it has largely disappeared.  Even in countries like China, Malaysia and Taiwan it has stirred quite a lot of interest when I have pulled the old Sum Chien face whilst demonstrating my forms.  The most amusing comment came from the daughter of a distinguished Ngo Chor master who said that when I pulled that face I really reminded her of her father – despite the fact that her father was most certainly Chinese!

Why pull the face?  Well, there are a number of reasons, including opening up both the senses and the meridians and developing the tendon in the face and head.  The most interesting, though, is the effect it has on our emotional state.

We all appreciate that as our emotions change, so does our facial expression.  We associate different expressions with different emotions: happy, sad, angry etc.  What most people completely miss, and I don’t know why, is that it works the other way as well.  If you purposely make a happy face and hold it, you start to feel happier, if you purposely put on a sad face you start to feel sad and so on.  This is strong hint as to how you can begin to take control over your emotions.  If you want to see a real master in action, search the internet for pictures of the famous Shaolin monk Sek Koh Sam demonstrating the expressions of the 18 Lohons!

The ‘Sum Chien expression’ is difficult to describe.  I have heard the eyes likened to those of a tiger or of the monk Tat Moh (Boddhidharma) who, according to legend, cut off his own eyelids to prevent him from falling asleep during his nine year meditation.  The only thing to which I have heard the whole face compared is the visage of a demon.  Not a perfect comparison but close.  It carries with it a unique emotion, with all of the sense wide open, chi lifted and expanded, energy levels high and intention focussed to a needle sharp point.  Quite certainly this is not a state which we should maintain for very long at all.  It is, however, pretty useful in an emergency and between the face and the emotion, a lot of attackers are likely to be put off before even starting!

It is really important to understand that when we practise our Sum Chien we do not just go through the motions.  We transform our emotional state, alter our senses and journey into a different world, just for a little while.

Speaking with the Body.

Life is largely about how we interact with others.  Psychologists tell us that only 7% of what we communicate is through our words compared to 55% through our body language.  That is a lot of body language!  An upright posture with the chest slightly raised, in other words the posture which we train in Sum Chien, communicates strength and a high social status.  Relaxation communicates confidence.  Then there is quality of eye contact!  One of the things that this body language says is ‘be very wary of attacking me, I am not someone you should upset’.  One of the functions of martial arts is to arm you with the weapons of self defence.  Your body language should be the first one that people encounter.  If you have studied Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ and similar treatise on strategy, you will appreciate that the best general wins without having to fight.  Unfortunately a coin has two sides: slouched body posture, tension and failure to make eye contact are invitations for someone with a more dominant self image to pick on you.  Genuinely confident people don’t need to but people trying to reinforce their own confidence will often seek to do so by proving to themselves that they can dominate others.

As I mentioned above, emotion has a physical base.  The posture that we adopt will rapidly affect this.  As Sum Chien training reshapes our posture, our feelings and our confidence are reshaped with it.  This is massively important!

The process of reshaping your self is a great deal quicker that you might think.  I remember one student who came to me very tired and run down.  Through training Sum Chien, we achieved such a dramatic change that I found it hard to believe that I was dealing with the same person and had to consciously keep connecting the ‘old one’ with the ‘new one’.  Part of the reason why the change seemed so dramatic was that it happened in about three weeks!

Now for very best piece of news.  Your body posture and body language make a huge difference to how attractive you are.  And you have near total control over them.  Want to be more attractive?  Train your Sun Chien.  If Sum Chien training did nothing else for you, this alone would make it worth while.

Strengthening Intention.

The strength of our actions is proportional to the strength of our intention.  Intention leads chi and chi leads strength.  To put it in very easily understood terms, if you are going to act half heartedly, don’t bother!

Every minute action that we perform as part of our Sum Chien practise is done with total concentration and total commitment.  We practise to make this second nature.  In particular staring to infinity, regardless of any obstacles in our path, helps to strengthen our intention and lead our chi as far forwards as possible since chi follows concentration and our concentration follows our gaze.

Part 5: Raising Consciousness, Gaining Enlightenment.

Circulating the microcosmic orbit.

The most basic circulation of Chi around our bodies is the Microcosmic orbit or Microcosm.  Essentially it flows up the back and down the front.  When we inhale, Chi rises.  When we exhale it falls.  Before we emit power, we breathe in deeply and lift a great quantity of Chi to our heads, energising our minds and our senses.  Once our action is complete, we exhale and drop our chi down again to the lower Tan Tien which is its resting point.  At the moment of expelling power, we have a body full of chi, like a ball which has been inflated fully and is therefore elastic and able to bounce

Holding a straight back makes a strong circulation of the microcosmic orbit far easier

As we draw chi up to our head we activate the energy centres at our crown and third eye points, not to mention our brain, pituitary and pineal glands and eyes, ears, nose.  It is really important to drop this chi down again afterwards so as not to accumulate to much chi in the head – doing so causes insanity and has been the undoing of a number of self taught kung fu ‘masters’

Properly circulating the microcosmic orbit has massive benefits, at first in terms of health and at a more advanced level in terms of enlightenment.  It is not easy though and takes both practice and patience.

Tapping in to the Energy of the Universe.

As I mentioned earlier, when we adopt the straight Sum Chien posture we connect our crown point (Pei Hue) with the Yang Chi of the Heavens and our root point (Hue Yin) with the yin chi of the Earth.  Sum Chien training also typically begins with a sequence of movements which include one which thrusts the hands down towards the Earth, often called ‘Two Pillars Piercing The Earth’ one which points the palms to the Heavens, often called ‘The Fairy Displaying Her Flowers’, (it probably sounds better in Chinese than in English).  These techniques form powerful connections with the Chi of Heaven and Earth at the beginning of the practise.

Sum Chien almost always concludes with a repetition of ‘Two Pillars Piercing The Earth’.  As I mentioned above, it is vital not to let Chi accumulate in your head but to return it to your lower Tan Tien.  Thrusting the hands downwards at the end of the routine helps to achieve this, especially when followed by a powerful exhalation from the Tan Tien.

Expanding Consciousness.This takes us right back to the start, to where it all began with Boddhidharma teaching the monks.  Why?  Why teach fighting arts to monks?  Because monks are seeking enlightenment and to find it requires a massive raising and expanding of consciousness and the most proven way to achieve that is through certain types of martial arts training, notably the type which Boddhidharma introduced to Shaolin!  This training is the essence of realkung fu.

I have already described how we train our bodies to adopt precisely the right posture, alignment and mechanics.  To do this requires us to be aware of exactly how each joint is positioned and to hold it in exactly the correct way.  We have to hold the right tension I our tendon and the right pressure in our internal organs.  We even have to be aware of what all of our senses are telling us, of our emotions and our intention.  For beginners this is completely impossible!  It takes very many years to develop the brain to a level where it can be aware of so many things at once.  In fact to master Sum Chien we have to completely rewire and upgrade our nervous systems and our brains.  Here lies one of the greatest advantages of our training.  By developing our minds like this we pave the way to raising our consciousness.  We are able to see the world more clearly, make realisations about its true nature and easily work out the answers that had always eluded us.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate in our training – discovery of the truth!

When we take up training Chinese Kung Fu we embark on a journey which has no end.  As the Buddha said ‘to travel well is better than to arrive’.  As we continue to train we continue to grow, continue to gain new insights and new experience.  Not all of us will develop in the same way but the only ones who fail are those who give up.

If I had not encountered Master Tan and taken up training Sum Chien and Chinese martial arts who knows where I would be now.  But as I sit looking out at the mountains as the clouds blow slowly across them, smell the rain on the grass and listen to the chanting from the local temples I feel that all the hard work has been worth it.

I believe that Sum Chien still has a lot to teach me and am looking forward to continuing the journey.  The hard work never stops, the learning continues, the wonders never cease.

Part 6: The Origin of Sum Chien Training And How It Has Since Developed.

Some Background Information.

To me, what is most important about Sum Chien training is its huge potential to change our lives for the best.  Hence discussing this first.  To benefit from it we do not need to know about its history but, as humans, a knowledge of our background and culture and just where we fit into it is important to us.  It gives us roots, it gives us a sense of perspective.  So here, in the second part of this article, I will discuss these aspects of Sum Chien training.

Origins Sum Chien.

Unfortunately there are not, as far as I know, any written records of the Sum Chien’s beginnings.  Based on the fact that all of the ‘Min Nam’ arts seem to practise Sum Chien I guess that it dates back to the southern Shaolin temple and represents the culmination of many years practise and refinement by generations of monks.  It almost certainly has its origins in the ‘Muscle – Tendon Changing Classic’ and ‘Brain Marrow Washing Classic’, the legendary treatises of Boddhidharma, the Shaolin founder.

Cultural Identity.

Chinese kung fu has developed in such a way that it is interwoven with Chinese tradition, cultures and beliefs.

As part of the Shaolin branch of kung fu Sum Chien definitely has its origins in Buddhism.  Having said this many of the associations in which it is now practised incorporate Taoism and Confucianism into their practises.  It is very difficult to draw clear boundaries between them and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Numerology is and always will be incredibly important in Chinese thinking.  Three is a powerful number in Chinese numerology and three steps forward and three steps back are a defining characteristic of Sum Chien.  After the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple by the Ching government, when the Kung Fu was kept alive only by the secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the Ching and restoring the previous Ming dynasty, Sum Chien was described as ‘three steps forward to overthrow the Ching, three steps backwards to restore the Ming’.  The triad of Heaven, Earth and Man, which is as important in Chinese cosmology as it is in Chi Kung, was very significant to the secret societies and is the origin of the name by which they are known in the west – triads.

Subsequent routines in the Hokkien arts such as white crane, tai chor and ngo chor often feature sequences of eight movements, eight being connected with the Pa Gua or octagon.  In fact in old style Shaolin kung fu the routines stick to using a maximum of eight directions, representing the octagon.  Routines which involve moving in all 8 directions are reserved at least until the intermediate stages of the training, though.

Different Forms, Styles and Versions of the Sum Chien.

Sum Chien training is practised in more or less all of the martial arts styles from Fukien China and by most traditional styles of Karate, (which is now more or less acknowledged as having originated from Fukienese kung fu, specifically the branch from North of the Min River).  Since these styles of martial art have now spread world wide, so has training in Sum Chien.  As the real power of Sum Chien is gradually understood it is likely to increase dramatically in its popularity and spread even further.

Many people are extremely confused by the huge variation between the Sum Chien exercises performed by different groups.  This confusion is understandable since most people fail to understand Sum Chien training.  They look at the external movements and assume that they are some sort of collection of fighting techniques.  When they look at different styles whose external movements are different they can not see how what they are seeing can be the same routine.  Since you have now read this far through my article, you will already have understood the real truth about Sum Chien: although its movements are indeed useful for defence, much of its value lies in how it trains the mind, the emotions, the breath, the internal organs etc.  If the correct training principles are followed then many different variations in the external movements are still capable of achieving the same results.  Through history kung fu masters have famously taken advantage of this by teaching the real depth of their arts only to students who are trustworthy, of good character and intelligent enough to be able to understand.  Those not so favoured were still taught the same movements and failed to realise that the key teachings were missing.  This is the subtlety of true kung fu.

Why is there such a confusing array of different variations of what is, essentially, a short form?  Having researched into this and, in the process, interviewed many old and distinguished kung fu masters I believe the answer to be as follows.

Before kung fu spread overseas it was not commercialised and most groups were fairly small and local.  Routines were not standardised to anything like what is usually seen today – indeed most masters prided themselves on performing their own ‘personalised’ versions of their art.  Hence there were almost as many variations as there were teachers, even within a school.  Kung fu was very much a living art and was expressed very personally by each practitioner.  The idea of standardisation had not really occurred to most of them.  Depth, quality, strong principles, effectiveness – these were what was important.

Unfortunately, the true depth and meaning of Shaolin Kung Fu is beyond the grasp of the majority of people and probably always has been.  So there have always been plenty of people around who, although they have learned good kung fu from a good teacher have not understood it and are just teaching their students to copy the external movements without any substance or depth.  To these people and all who learn from them the different versions of the Sum Chien routine will seen totally incomprehensible.  Indeed they will not even appear to be the same routine.  Further to this, even the best teachers are likely to place emphasis on different aspects of Sum Chien training, for example, on internal movement of energy as opposed to external expression of strength.  So the fact that different people perform differently does not mean that they are performing wrongly.  Ultimately, the better that you understand true Sum Chien training, the less difference that you will see between various outward expressions and the more similarity you will see between principle and methods.

Part 7: ‘Some Questions Answered’. 

What Special Breathing Methods Are Used In Sum Chien Training?

The special breathing which characterises Sum Chien training is certainly a very powerful form of Chi Kung and is the subject of much interest and discussion.  It is important to note that, at least in the form of the Sum Chien that I have been taught, breath is held in whilst strength is thrown out.  Only after a forceful action has been completed is the breath released.  There are a number of reasons for this.  The simplest one is that Chi, which more or less equates to breath, fuels our actions.  When we take a deep breath we fill up with fresh, vibrant chi.  We retain this Chi in our bodies to fuel our action.  Only when the action is complete and the energy spent should we release the Chi.  Breath is often released in a powerful, explosive burst issuing right from the lower Tan Tien – centre of our body’s energy.  As it leaves our bodies it makes a sound like a lion’s roar or a cockerel’s crow.  The sound, though, is simply a by-product of the breathing technique.

Some modern systems like to issue shouts or Chi Ai (Qi Ai) during their routines, rather like strength athletes as they lift weights or hurl shot puts.  From a traditional Chi Kung perspective, this may be OK for one single burst of strength but it drains the body of energy and robs it of strength after.  We never shout as we execute a technique.  We expel our breath only after we finish.

This is obviously a very superficial look at a very complex breathing method but to explain it properly would take a much longer article than this one.

Teaching Methods.

Questions sometimes arise as to how Sum Chien is taught in different schools and whether it is still taught now the same way as it was in ‘the old days’.

It is a well known fact that no two teachers teach in quite the same way.  It is  much lesser know fact that good teachers never teach any two students the same way.  Every student is different.  Good teachers direct their teaching so as to best get through to each individual.  There is no standard way to teach Sum Chien.  There are, however, a few teaching strategies which are worth commenting on.

Order of Teaching.

In the many kung fu systems which base their training around Sum Chien this form is usually learned first as it is considered to contain the most important basics.  In karate it is often not taught until 4th or 5th dan  level as it is considered such a valuable form.  Both approaches have their merits.

Pace of Teaching.

The best method of teaching is almost universally agreed to be slowly.  As none of the techniques can be performed without a proper stance, training pretty much has to begin with stance work.  One of the older teachers at our club had to train his horse riding stance every evening for two years before he was even taught to take a step forwards, never mind perform any hand techniques!  Needless to say, with a foundation like this his kung fu is awesome.

I do not know of anyone who still teaches this slowly.  The pace of life has changed beyond comprehension.  None the less, to build high you need strong foundations and that means repetitive drilling in the fundamentals such as stance, posture, relaxation, joint alignment, concentration etc.  Rome was not built in a day.  The need for repetition  has not changed.  At some point in their training, a student has to put in the hard work.

Progression in Training.

One of the weirdest things about Sum Chien training is that the better you get at it, the harder it becomes and the less you can do of it!  Western style exercise is exactly the opposite: the more you practise, say, press ups the more you will be able to do.  With Sum Chien training, the better that you get at it, the deeper you work your body – right into the internal organs, right into every tendon, every  piece of connective tissue,  nothing is left out.  For this reason it becomes progressively more exhausting.  Beginners are often told to repeat their Sum Chien 100 times a day.  This works fine at first but at some point the student will come back to the teacher and say something like ‘Master, I am getting completely exhausted by this’.  The usual response is something like ‘OK, that means that you are making progress.  Cut it down to 50 times a day’.  This pattern continues with gradual reductions in the number of repetitions until, at very advanced stages of the training, three a day may suffice.

Who Can Learn Sum Chien?

I suppose that the simple answer to this question is ‘anyone who can find a teacher willing to teach them and who has the physical and mental capacity to learn and perform’.  Having said this, only a tiny fraction of the people who attempt to learn Sum Chien really master it.  This is down to the fact that teachers who can teach to the highest level are extremely rare and also to the fact that only the most intelligent students will really understand and even then only after many years of very diligent practise.

With the advent of the internet, information is now much easier to come by which means that finding a teacher is becoming increasingly easy.  Ironically, finding the time to practice is becoming increasingly hard!

Is Sum Chien an Internal or External Form?

Master Tan often tells the story of the boy who is determined to be the first to climb the highest mountain that can be seen from the village.  He spends many days battling his way up the steep slopes, pushing through the bushes and sometimes having to drop to is hands and knees to negotiate the rocks.  As he finally approaches the summit he is dismayed to see that from many other directions other boys re approaching just as close.  There is more than one way to climb a mountain but whichever route you take you will still arrive at the same destination.  Whether you chose the internal route with your kung fu or the external, you will still end up doing the same thing!

As to whether to describe this form as internal or external, if done properly it should work a person equally hard on the inside as on the outside and hence is a balance of internal and external, like balanced yin and yang.  This is the pinnacle of the Shaolin art.  Of course if not done properly it is likely to be entirely external as well as a complete waste of time.

Where Does Sum Chien Fit Into Shaolin?

As I said earlier, in more or less all of the different styles of Kung Fu from the Min Nam region, which I believe to be the closest in existence to the original Southern Shaolin, Sum Chien is the basic training routine and usually the first one taught.  In my opinion it is the heart and soul of Southern Shaolin.  It does not appear in Northern Shaolin.


Master Tan often says that ‘to master Sum Chien is to master the art’.  As usual, he is somewhat understating the case.  If you can master Sum Chien you are one of a very small elite, a select few who can genuinely claim to be direct line descendants of Tat Moh, the Shaolin founder – I respect you greatly!


Iain Armstrong, Chief Instructor Nam Yang Pugilistic Association UK, two times world kung fu champion.

If you would like further information on Sifu Iain’s Armstrong’s full-time school in Thailand visit http://www.studymartialarts.org/school/nam-yang-shaolin-kung-fu-retreat/65.html








Taiji Fajin, Hermetics & Metaphysics

The following modest wooden house is where I stayed in Chiang Mai, Thailand when I trained with Sifu Rasmus. Sifu Rasmus teaches Taji Fajin, Hermetics and Metaphysics in this idilic setting nestled at the foot of a mountain and within ear shot of a buddhist retreat.
Leaving the cold and smog of Beijing behind I headed to Chiang Mai for 1 month of intensive training.Sifu Rasmus courses run from 1 to 12 weeks or longer depending on the content. His students tend to be instructors or masters who are looking to add greater depth to their knowledge or a more internal flavour to their art.
During the training period Sifu Rasmus would from time to time hold his class in the grounds of some of Chiang Mai’s most spectacular temples. In this visual blog I share three of my favorite. Below you will see a picture of an impressive nagga (Nāga, a group of serpent deities in Hindu and Buddhist mythology).

Wat Umong

A place were I began training the air element, metaphysics and meditation.

Wat Umong was built in 1927 by King Manglai of the LAN dynasty underneath the stupa above there are caves and shrines, and in the grounds you can find a garden of broken sculptures and a fasting bodhisvista. A place of tranquility where resident monks provide willing students a meditation retreat.
“Where talking trees have words of wisdom”
The hidden jungle temple of Wat Palad below has a special energy and was overall my favorite temple in Chiang Mai.
“The monastery at the sloping rock, visited by the God of the Earth”

3 transformations at Wat Chedi Luang.

“Please, come to the monk chat”
The ancient temple of Wat Chedi Luang in the centre of Chiang Mai’s walled city is one of the most important temples in Chiang Mai. It houses the ashes of the 14th century King Saen Muang Ma’s father. The big stupa is guarded on each of its four sides by two mythical serpent naga’s at the base and further up by rows of elephants. Peaceful in the evening the stupa vibrates with energy. Monks and nuns chant sutras and welcome conversation with travelers.

Climbing to the top of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

“Wat Phra That Doi Suthep’s Emerald Buddha overlooking Chiang Mai”
I visited this temple on the festival of Makhachkala Bucha. The festival honours the event when 1,250 of Buddha’s disciples congregated to hear an important sermon.Buddhists carry flowers, lightened candles and joss sticks while walking around the stupa three times on the day and night of the full moon in February.
Although this visual bog focuses on the temples I visited while training in Chiang Mai. It would be a miss of me not to say something of my training time with Sifu Rasmus. So I’ll keep it short and simply say that training with Sifu Rasmus was an excellent decision that helped demystify some of the secrets of Taichi fajin, as well as principles and themes explored in hermetics and metaphysics. Overall the course has been a great help for my own practice and I’d like to say a big personal thank you for Sifu Rasmus, guidance, welcome, coffee and of course friendship. Sifu Rasmus’s YouTube Channel – http://www.youtube.com/user/SifuMarkRasmus