Stages of Southern Shaolin martial arts training

Posted on July 30, 2020Comments Off on Stages of Southern Shaolin martial arts training

We are continuing our discussion of the stages of training in Chinese martial arts. Last week we looked at the stages of training in Buddhist and Taoist martial arts. This week we will look at the Southern Shaolin and other Southern Chinese martial art schools’ approach. Their approach informs the structure of Yiyangmen training.

Many of the biggest schools and styles of the South aimed to recruit & train militia for their quest to restore the Ming dynasty. For this reason, they refined the training to make it more accessible for more practitioners. Although we’re not trying to restore the Ming dynasty today, Yiyangmen shares the desire to help people become their best selves in an accessible & achievable path.

The Southern Chinese martial artists develop themselves through 6 stages.

  1. Li – Developing the geometry of appropriate force
  2. Jin – Developing integrated power (jin) & relaxation (sung)
  3. Yi – Developing control over attention and intention
  4. Qi – Developing the primary prana energy paths
  5. Shen – Developing the subtle prana energy paths
  6. Void – Developing awareness of the non-form state

First stage – Li – The proper geometry

Li means strength. In this stage, we develop the appropriate strength in the postures compatible with jin, integrated power. This strength uses our body’s muscles and fasciae in harmony and along the intended paths. At the same time, we “leak away”, meaning to get rid of, undesirable tension in our body.

Li development takes place in a few steps:

  • Postures that are supported by the desired integrated strength
  • Relaxing and leaking away undesired strength
  • Using muscular strength to draw the bow

Some examples of these postures includes what Taichi calls ward off and what Dai family Xinyi boxing refers to as the squatting monkey. I particularly like the squatting monkey method due to how easy-to-learn and effective it is.

Watch me teaching it, unrehearsed and for the first time, to a martial arts beginner on youtube.

One might think that we all practice maintaining postures that are supported by the optimal strength. What’s not obvious is that the ideal posture is not the same for everyone and not the same across different stages of one’s training. How a toddler stands and how an adult stands differs. It wouldn’t benefit either to stand like the other. We must learn to use the body ideally for the present moment.

We assess and calibrate the proper posture through the hands-on “shili” practice from Yiquan. Shili is a method of testing the stability and connectivity of our postures. You can see it at work in our push hand practices, developing push hand structural strength.

Once the correct geometry is established, the practitioner learns to use muscular force to “draw the bow”. This creates the internal tension that allows for agile and explosive movement. The important point to note is that this internal tension is very light. Some practices exaggerate this isometric tension but observe how light but ready a cat is as it loads up before a pounce. That is the degree of tension we desire. Progressive relaxation exercises can be use to help us leak away tension in our body.

Second stage – Jin – Integrated Power

The second stage builds upon the first stage. You learn to release the tension you created in drawing the bow. This results in a dynamic movement. This integrated force is called jin. It is like how a baseball is powerfully thrown. But in the perspective of martial usage, it tends to be a smaller motion in both windup and execution.

When a bow is released you relax all the tension from drawing the bow. The same is true here. You want to relax all the tension that is no longer needed. This state of integrated relaxation is called “sung”. You are relaxed, but ready for your next action.

At first, the motion will be incredibly slow, small, and soft. It will seem completely useless in a martial context. But given the time and space to grow, it will become the relaxed graceful power that we see in tigers and bears.

One can build upon the second stage by building upon the Dai Xinyi squatting monkey practice to have an absorbing and emitting force element paired with stepping or sounding. This is related to what we describe as push hand emitting force.

Third stage – Yi – Freedom of intent

Yi means intention. At this stage, you learn to direct your attention so that it is not bound to the point of contact. You learn to freely direct your intent and attention within your body and within your opponent’s body.

When our limbs clash with another person’s, it’s common for our attention and tension to go there. Intention guides jin. If you allow the intention to clash at the point of contact, you are giving your opponent the power to dictate your coordination & reaction.

In order to free us from our physical tension and to free us from the psychology of conflict, the practitioner learns to direct their attention and intention freely.

Southern arts practice this through their various practices of chi sau, bridging, and other arm on arm practices with a partner. When training alone, you refine intent to create movement during a state of sung. Wing Chun’s practice of siu nim tao is an excellent way to develop this stage, when performed appropriately. It’s important that you allow the intent to cause the motion through the relaxed sung.

In Yiyangmen, we develop this through push hands and refine it through weapons training.

Watch our video of training a beginner, unrehearsed and learning it for the first time, to experience control of their yi and to apply it in push hands.

Fourth stage – Qi – Activating internal energy

This stage begins the process of learning to innervate your jin force with your internal energy. This combined power is called neijin, or internal power. During jin development, one learns to draw the bow and then release into “sung”, the unified state of relaxation. (as opposed to a disorganized limpness that leaves you lying on the floor). Prana and qi naturally flows through the relaxed paths of sung. The more profound the sung, the better the flow. The energy utilized in the Southern Shaolin martial arts is called Qi. When that Qi is applied in martial motion it is called Neijin. So we will focus on that in this discussion.

There are two key aspects to cultivating this:

  1. Integrate & refine the relaxed sung
  2. Improve the flow of qi.

To integrate & refine sung, most internal martial arts discuss the importance of relaxed practice in various forms. Yiyangmen uses mudra practices as a mean of unifying our coordination in a relaxed manner.

Improving the flow of prenergy improves the fuel system that creates our movement. Different Chinese arts have different qigong, heigong, or neigong to accomplish the development of prana abundance. Yiyangmen develops this stage in a few ways.

Fifth stage – Shen – Energizing the whole body

Just as we discussed regarding the Buddhist & Taoist training stages, this shen refers to the subtle prana networks in and around the body. Once the student has obtained a healthy, unfettered mind and a strong primary prana network, this stage is not difficult.

Stationary standing mudra practice refines and integrates the subtle prana network. Seated meditation and pranayama allows the pathways to be opened up by the abundant prana flowing through the body. The key is to have prepared oneself to let go of the previous stages, and to allow the transformation happen.

In Yiyangmen, we faciliate this process through the Sushaanti meditation, a yogic practice of relaxing and openings the prana energy network.

Sixth stage – Kong – Formlessness – Understanding our non-form nature

Formlessness, kong, refers to awareness of the non-form nature of our existence. This stage is paradoxical. As a martial artist, we have trained our body with dedication. But at the last stage, we let go of attachment to our physical self.

The non-form nature frees us of the chains that limit our thoughts and actions. Familiarity with our non-form nature allows one to perform at their utmost capacity.

If you remain attached to your physical existence you will not be able to access your full potential because your full self is more than physical. But while holding on to the physical, you bind yourself to just the physical. You have to let go one of one rung of the ladder to reach the next rung.

Photo by Xin on Unsplash

Once the practitioner becomes familiar with sung throughout their body, fills the prana network with abundant prana, and frees themselves from their mental attachments, they become able to gain awareness of the non-form nature of their existence.

The most effective training for this I’ve studied are the Yogic practices of meditation. This is not surprising if you consider that Chinese martial arts developed at Shaolin with guidance from monk Damo from India.

An effective method to practice this is to begin with the Isha Kriya meditation taught by Sadhguru of the Isha Foundation. It is a very simple meditation on non-form-ness. It’s benefits are usually immediately felt. I teach it to physical therapy patients who benefit from distancing from their physical and emotional wounds.

In summary

Through these six stages, we take a practitioner and thoroughly develop their body, coordination, energy networks, and spiritual awareness to bring out their full capacity as a human being.

The practice builds upon neigong and qigong practices. The teacher facilitates faster progress through hands on guidance. The practitioner completes their journey with meditations that free them of their physical, mental and emotional obstacles.

How long does it take

I believe that an average person can go through this process in 1.5 years with hands on guidance and coaching. But a person whose health and energy system is already functioning well can achieve each step in about 28 days. Three moon cycles is the minimum time for a transformation. This is a topic we will discuss in the future.

Without hands on training, I think a typical person can accomplish this in a bit over 2 years. That’s not immediate, but that’s not long. And it’s not like a building a house where you can’t live in it until it’s done. The improvements are readily felt at every stage and immediately beneficial.

This has been a long post but it is an important discussion of the full journey. We will discuss many of the concepts presented in greater depths. Please share your questions and comments and I will address them here and in future posts.