TOAD IN THE HOLE

Some things are absolute. You either won the lotto or you lost. You either got punched in the face or you didn’t. There, there is no question. But, don’t think that there’s only one way to win or only one way to punch someone in the face. Thinking in absolutes creates polarization and divides within one’s self. It creates stagnation and does not allow the individual to grow and expand. Therefore, absolute likes and dislikes, absolute thoughts about how particular movements, techniques and applications should or should not be done is not necessarily the best way to look at things. Techniques, forms and applications are presented in a way that gives you a concept of how to look at it. This does not mean you should be imprisoned by that concept and/or perception. Having an absolute mindset stops the possibilities of something else being able to come out of that situation.
That being said, you find a lot of people thinking that this is absolutely right and this is absolutely wrong, especially when it comes to martial art training. This is especially true in the realm of the beginner. That’s the stage where people speak in absolutes. It’s just like a child. In a child’s mind, things are absolutely great or absolutely horrible. In Chinese Kung Fu, we consider the first ten years to be a first step, a beginner stage. I had the benefit of having this conversation with one of my Kung Fu uncles, Master George Husek, recently, and he made this analogy. The beginner is like someone who stays in the city and is looking up at the sky. How many stars do you see? Not many. As you get better, and move away into the country, you start to see more. Then, later, you go to the mountain and see the Milky Way and your mind is blown by what was always there but could not be seen. When you’re a beginner, you understand everything but see nothing. As you progress, you see everything, but know how little you understand.

When you’re a beginner, you tend to gravitate towards absolute thinking because you see on a very narrow path and you’re looking for one clear, defined way. A beginner thinks in absolutes because he feels there is one surefire way that any given technique is done. He is completely convinced of the fact that this is the one and only way, and any other way is the wrong way. That’s the absolute thinking of a beginner, and so it is for all of us. The problem with thinking absolutely is that you become that toad in a hole. There’s a toad in a hole, and he’s sitting in his hole looking up at the sky through his hole in the ground, and he says to himself, “Wow, I see the entire sky, I see everything there is to see,” but as soon as he puts his head out of the hole, he gets run over by a truck.

There are proscribed manners and ways of training, but there is no one right way. The same reverse punch can be thrown so many different ways from different angles for different situations. You’re given one example when you learn, but you should also learn not to be held back by that one set method. You’re supposed to expand upon that, not be held back by it. I think that a lot of people studying martial arts have a tendency to become fanatical in the sense that they feel the way the move or form was laid down for them is the way it’s supposed to be all the time. But this is a beginner mentality. We have to use a more critical method of interpretation. The toad has to make a wider hole to see a bigger picture. To not be able to see in a wider parameter does a huge disservice not only to the practitioner himself, but to the martial arts in general. Because one day those practitioners may become teachers and may pass along that narrow point of view.

This goes back to the conversation I had with my Kung Fu uncle, Sifu George. He had said to me, did you ever notice that the higher the level the master, the fewer students he has? And that another individual who’s less skilled has that many more students? And I said, yeah, and I never really understood why. He began to explain to me that the issue is, when the teacher is 6 months, a year, several years ahead of the student, they can have a dialogue. There is some common ground that they can find to speak to each other because they’re closer in proximity of knowledge and skill. Even though the teacher is slightly ahead, he’s not that far ahead, so they kind of understand each other. When you start out teaching, you have one archetypal way in your mind, and it’s the only way that exists for you at this point in time. This is what you teach, and therefor it’s easily transmittable. I had an easier time teaching when I knew less. I could teach more people faster and get them to do what I wanted because there was one clear-cut way. The only problem was that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. You were so convinced that this was the right way. This is true for all of us until you gain a lot more experience, many more decades experience. Then if you ask a higher level master like Sifu George, he said to me, “If my student came to me and asked me how to explain a particular technique, I would be hard pressed to explain to him one set way, because there’s so many variations, i.e., stars in the sky, that I wouldn’t know where to begin. And because I couldn’t explain to him one particular way to use the technique, he would think I wouldn’t know what I was talking about and would gravitate to the teacher with less knowledge who could give him one absolute method.”

If the teacher is much further evolved than the student, it’s much harder for him to explain or have a dialogue with the student. Beginner students that are just seeking that one absolute way, that one cure-all that will solve their woes, won’t go to a master of that level because there’s no platform for them to have a conversation. So you see how you end up with a higher level master having only a few students while the guy who doesn’t know much has hundreds. Look at how the real Sifu, the one that truly understands and has this great depth of knowledge, doesn’t get acknowledged the way the lesser one does simply because of the fact that the mass majority of individuals studying cannot see beyond the one absolute way. When you understand that there are many ways, you become a little bit more Daoist in your thinking. Each and every thing that needs to get done has a way, but that way may change depending on the circumstances. A master carpenter may do the same thing every day. He may make the same cabinet or table every day from the same type of wood using the same tools, but depending on the situation and the parameters that he’s given, he augments that so-called absolute way and is able to derive many different ways to solve the same problem.

Another good example of this would be the common American cheeseburger. You’ll find everybody going to McDonalds because they can afford it. Not only can they afford it financially, but mentally, it works for them because it’s quick, easy and fast. It solves the problem for the moment but in the end creates bigger issues. Whereas you could go and grind your own meat, bake your own bun, make all your own fixin’s and learn how to properly cook a good ol’ American cheeseburger and end up with a completely different result. That’s the difference between those two levels of mastery, those levels of understanding your art. One way is quick, easy and fast. The other is more difficult. The products may appear similar, but the end result will be very different.

If you think in absolutes, then a particular thing must be done a particular way each and every time. This is ok in the beginning to give you a baseline, but as you grow and start to understand more, you have to broaden your perspective. We must begin to accept that all things are required to make all things possible. The hard, the soft, the up, the down, the left, the right and so on. The correct understanding should be one of striving to comprehend balance and then maintain it. The balance is not always 50-50 but will adjust and change with the requirements of the day, situation, technique and so on. It’s ok to have a broader spectrum of understanding and say, hey, you know something? This same thing can be done slightly or even greatly differently than that baseline and yield more results, thereby making your understanding and knowledge and skill that much deeper. So now, at the end of our conversation, I’m absolutely sure there are no absolute ways to think absolutely about absolutely anything. Absolutely.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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WHERE DID MY MARTIAL ART COME FROM ANYWAY?

World Politics and its Influence on Martial Arts

Okay, so let’s talk about history and the martial arts. I think it’s a very misunderstood subject. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of martial artists become interested in looking into the history of their art. I found myself surprised that many did not know the roots, beginning and ancestry of the Asian martial arts. This struck me as really odd, because I’m a bit of a history buff, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because no one reads anymore. If it’s not on Instagram or Facebook, you never heard it before. Today you have modern media (because they’re making money from it) beating your brains out that MMA is the one and only thing, when in fact combative arts have been in practice for thousands and thousands of years.

So, let’s understand the truth. Not your subjective truth, not the one that you were sold, hook line and sinker, or the one that you want to believe in because it’s convenient and makes you happy, but the real truth. Sometimes, the truth offends. The real truth is that history is written by the winners. When looking at the history of how the Asian martial arts proliferated throughout the world, the basic catalyst, in my opinion, was World War II. Prior to World War II, there was little or no reason for Asian martial artists to share their art with westerners. When American servicemen bombed Japan and took over, they came across the various arts of Karate, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, etc.. They said to the Japanese, well, that’s pretty cool, teach me, and, begrudgingly, because they were defeated and had no choice, they taught them, and slowly those arts were brought over to the west. The question of them fully being taught, shown all the “secrets” and so on can be another lengthy discussion altogether, but let’s just say they were taught and they brought them over to the US and then slowly to other European countries, and they became a rage. That’s not to say that these arts were not exposed prior to that, but this was a huge jumping off point. If we take several steps back even further, the same thing was done to the Okinawans. Hey, history repeats itself. The Okinawans have a long-standing history of trade and cultural association with China, but because they were conquered and subjugated by the Japanese, they, in turn, also were forced to “teach” their so-called “native” martial art, Karate, which wasn’t so native.

Let’s talk about Karate and what that actually means. Many people are under the misconception that the term Karate means “empty hand,” when the original calligraphy writing meant “Chinese hand,” so Karate-do means, “way of the Chinese hand.” The original names of many martial arts in Asia used this term, “the Chinese hand.” Just as Greece was pivotal and central in the development of western civilization, music, art, poetry, and the arts of war, so it was with China and eastern civilization. Were there other cultures? Of course. But just as Greece was in the west, China was the predominant if not the sole cultural influence for all of Asia. If you go back far enough, most of the smaller countries in Asia at one point in time were either part of the Chinese Empire or vassal states that paid homage to China. Did you ever ask yourself why China is called “the Middle Kingdom?” Because at that time, since they had no real connection to the west, it was considered the center of the known world. The Tang Dynasty was the height of Chinese power, and if you go back and look at any of the ethnic costumes that all the other nations wear, they’re all heavily influenced by Tang Dynasty culture. That’s the giant thumbprint that China left on east Asia. The Chinese innovativeness, ingenuity, overall capability and manpower is what established the basis for other Asian civilizations and cultures. It is the Middle Kingdom. But I’m going to come back to China later, because I have a beef with China, too.

Going back to the meaning of Karate and the change of its name… This was done with modern day Karate for political reasons, in my opinion. At the time the Japanese started to bring Karate over to Japan, which was not that long ago, around the turn of the century, the Chinese were going through political turmoil. We like to call China “the dragon” because it’s up and down, up and down. At this time, the Eight-Nation Alliance of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the U.S., Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary came in and carved up all of China. This was a pivotal time in Chinese history when many of the great legends of Kung Fu were alive and fighting against the crumbling Ching Dynasty. The 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s were a long period of turmoil for the Chinese. China was down, and Japan was on the rise as a military power. The Japanese wanted nothing to do with claiming that any of their arts had anything to do with any nation other than their own. Because of their nationalistic pride, they would not dream of giving homage to the Chinese or pay respect to the original source. So, they changed the calligraphy for the character Kara from meaning Chinese to meaning empty hand. This was done under the guise of trying to make it seem more Buddhist and Zen-like, but in my opinion it was more of a strategic maneuver to disassociate the art from any Chinese roots. They didn’t want to have a connection to China because China was, in their eyes, “the sick man of Asia.” But they wanted the spoils; they wanted the best stuff, but to claim that it was theirs. This was also done later by the Koreans, who were a vassal state of China for many centuries. They had a close connection to the northern Chinese and learned northern systems of Kung Fu, just as Karate came primarily from southern systems of Kung Fu. Prior to and up to the 1950’s, the original name for their arts, as an umbrella, was Tang Soo Do, which also translates to, “way of the Chinese hand.” But, following the Japanese example, the Koreans updated and changed the name to Taekwondo to separate themselves from any connection to the Chinese. People have selective memories. The grandfather knows the grandchildren, but the grandchildren don’t always recognize the grandfather.

Martial history is so misunderstood and mixed up predominantly because of these two factors. One reason that this history is largely unknown is that during feudal times, martial art systems in China were kept secret and/or clandestine. Organized martial art systems came about in China for the clans, families or larger associated groups to protect themselves. We must understand that feudal law and medieval society were not looking out for the betterment of the individual, but rather for the gain of the Empire and those who were in the ruling class. So, in order for these smaller groups to effectively protect themselves from roving bandits, Imperial guards, and the like, they developed ingenious martial art systems that were practiced within the clan. They had to keep it secret because either you were a revolutionary looking to overthrow the established empire, which many southern systems have roots in, or you just wanted to keep your best-kept secret your secret and didn’t write anything down.

The second reason is this. Don’t forget that China, if not all of Asia, at that time was agricultural, as was Europe. That was their industry. They were illiterate and couldn’t read or write. Everything was passed down verbally, if at all. And of course, as all good marketing goes, you need a good gimmick and a good story to keep people interested. So, you have systems developed by saintly figures descending upon the founder in a dream, or wayward nameless monks teaching on mountaintops. An example would be the myth, and I do stress it’s a myth, of Bodhidharma or Dat Mo, the wandering Indian monk prince that slept in a cave in Shaolin Temple for nine years, found the monks there wanting and therefor taught them his brand of Chi Gung and Kung Fu. Baloney. Sorry to burst your bubble. The truth is that organized martial art training existed in China, and most likely in Shaolin and other temples, long before the advent of Dat Mo coming over to spread Buddhism, if that’s even the truth. The martial traditions of China stem from its original conception as a state. The injection of Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian philosophies came at a much later point in time, much more recently than many care to admit. Fighting is fighting, and China has been a fighting state since its inception.

The Karate that you see today is heavily influenced by the southern Chinese martial art systems, predominantly from Fuk Yin province, many claiming to originate from the southern Shaolin Temple – Five Ancestor Fist, Southern White Crane and the like. They are so close in technique and in performance to Karate, it is unmistakable that this is the original source. There was an extended period of time, from the 1300’s until at least the 1850’s, where southern China had ongoing trade with the Okinawan Islands. When Okinawa became part of Japan and that trade was cut off, Kung Fu in China continued to change and grow. So, you see the difference between Karate and the southern systems that are practiced today which are much more heavily embroiled in the revolutionary cause of overthrowing the Ching Dynasty and bringing back the Ming. All the five family systems, Hung, Lau, Choy, Li, Mok, etc. were an outgrowth of the burning of the southern Shaolin Temple. Some of the movements that we do in the southern systems have symbolic revolutionary overtones that the Karate systems don’t have. The true genesis of Kung Fu was about fighting for survival. No philosophy, no Chi Gung, no longevity exercises, just protect yourself and kill the enemy. The other things came much later as embellishment to the systems to make them more well-rounded.

Modern day Kung Fu, commonly called Wu Shu, also has a history behind it. Wu Shu literally means “martial arts” in Chinese, as opposed to Kung Fu, which means an acquired skill. The term Kung Fu is predominantly used by the Cantonese, and this is the major group that immigrated outside of China from the turn of the century up until modern times. Rightfully so, the term for marital arts that we became familiar with was Kung Fu, and not the term Wu Shu. Wu Shu, or Mo Sut, is the more technical term for Chinese martial arts. Today, Wu Shu is known for its flowery, dance-like, acrobatic movements with overtones of Chinese opera and theatrical performance, rather than having anything to do with fighting. This also is a huge history lesson because Wu Shu came into being with the advent of Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution. It was about doing away with the old and traditional ways that in their view, “held back” China, traditional Kung Fu being one of them. They went about reorganizing the martial arts into a sport/dance/martial-esque art form. In the meantime, they persecuted, beheaded and/or excommunicated all the old masters. That’s not to say that traditional Kung Fu did not survive in China, but most likely anyone who stayed went deep underground for fear of persecution and death. Today, you are more likely to find traditional Kung Fu systems outside of China. The Wu Shu practitioner is an amazing athlete, but in terms of traditional Kung Fu, the combative technique and mindset is no longer there. The old southern masters had one intention in mind, take the country back at any cost. It truly was kill or be killed. You forged your body and mind into a living weapon because you had no access to weaponry. You had to become the weapon. Wow, this sounds strangely similar to some Karate concepts of forging the body into a weapon. I wonder why…

With the advent of Wu Shu, many years later, the Chinese government got smart and said, let’s reopen the Shaolin Temples and flood them with shaved-head pseudo-monks performing “modern day Wu Shu Shaolin Kung Fu.” They transformed it into a Disneyland for martial artists and tourists alike, which was an awesome marketing ploy and has paid off greatly. Now, because China as we said before, as the dragon, is on the upswing, many martial artists who in the past never wanted to associate themselves with their Chinese roots are now hurriedly rushing back to find recognition. I find this very funny. That’s why I said before that history is written by the winners. Before, the Japanese were the winners, so they rewrote Okinawan history and cut out the Chinese. Then, the Americans were the winners, and they took the Karate that the Japanese conveniently borrowed from the Okinawans and made it their own. The Brazilians are the winners because they took Japanese jiu jitsu and reformatted it into BJJ. What goes around comes around.

Now, the Chinese are coming back because they have money and political power. They are rewriting history and have all but obliterated traditional Kung Fu and only want their Wu Shu to be representative of the Chinese martial arts. Just like now the Chinese only want Mandarin to be spoken, not only in China, but throughout the entire world, and are going to great pains to obliterate all other dialects. I’m not a political guy. I’m just stating what I see. Every time I travel back to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, there’s fewer and fewer people speaking Cantonese. People are immigrating from different provinces and slowly pushing the Cantonese language out of existence. The funniest thing was, on my recent trip back to Hoy Hong Temple in Canton where Tiger Claw Kung Fu is from, as I was walking around, I was talking to the people that I was with and said, before we do anything, let’s light incense and give offerings. I said it in Cantonese, and only a group of older ladies that were in the temple praying understood me, and they all rushed over to talk to the foreigner that spoke their dialect. Meanwhile, the younger people there, including the monks that were in attendance at the temple, are not from that region and don’t speak that dialect. So, you might say, what’s your point? My point is, whoever has power is the one that dictates how things go down in history.

You can say I’m taking this way too seriously, but I look at it differently. I was taught and carry on a tradition that doesn’t adhere to the modern sport aspect of the martial arts. You can tell me I’m a dinosaur. Well, I may be a dinosaur, but if dinosaurs were alive today, you’d be lunch. I said in the beginning that this would be a blog about the truth, and that sometimes the truth offends. I hope I haven’t offended anyone, but the truth is, even martial arts cannot escape politics, big business, money and greed. There is a vast misunderstanding of martial art history because of masters being illiterate or afraid to speak because of fear of death. The martial arts have then been misrepresented by political history that casts overtones and shadows on the truth. No one wants to be number two or number three. Everyone wants to be number one, so no one’s going to readily claim that their art came from somebody else; they want to claim that it’s theirs. This is all understood, but if you want to truly benefit from the martial arts in general, you must acknowledge the truth and see it for what it is even if it goes contrary to your beliefs. It’s just like doing a DNA test. All your life, you think you’re one ethnicity, and then you find out you’re something else. You can’t deny the DNA. The same is true as far as the origin of martial arts. When you look at it, or at least when I look at it, I know where it comes from. The Chinese organized and codified the Asian martial arts and were able to proliferate them throughout Asia.

Today, everybody puts Kung Fu down and thinks it doesn’t work and it’s just a dance and so on, but in actuality, the Chinese martial arts is the grandfather, or maybe even the great-grandfather of all the martial arts being practiced today. It has a viable, usable function but has been
mistreated and maligned by the “winners.” Kung Fu is not portrayed the way it really should be for us, the traditionalists. Many of my brothers are out there, and we still hold true. Every time I go back to China and people see me practicing, they’re like, wow, what are you doing? Because it doesn’t fall into the parameters of what they were raised with, which is predominantly modern Wu Shu. So, if we’re not careful in all areas, there is the potential of us losing the traditional arts, culture and language that has brought these wonderful martial arts to us. We need to take great care and understand the history and respect it for what it is. Only knowing where you come from will allow you to know who you are and then, who you will become.

--Master Paul Koh 高寶羅

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PRACTICE STOP ANALYZE REVISE

Learning is a process. We’ve spoken about this before, and I’m sure we’ll speak about it again, but it’s definitely something worth going over. Many individuals are not aware that they are not utilizing the process of learning when they’re training. Because of this, they miss out on knowledge that is sometimes right in front of your face. The truth of the fact is most of us, myself included, take a long time to discover a methodology and/or way of learning and practicing in order to gain true depth and understanding of the art that we are involved with. We all practice, but not everyone practices at the same level. We need to learn how to practice and learn. If you practice properly, you’re learning. If you know how to learn, then your practice has meaning. Ultimately what we are looking for in the process of learning is to make the practice meaningful.

On the first level of practice, you come to class. You change into your uniform. You bow in, line up and follow along. That’s good for the first couple of years. It gets you by; it gives you what you need. It gives you physical fitness, flexibility, strength and stamina. You may even gain a good punch, kick, stance, or even a technique or two. But true depth of understanding of the martial art system that you’ve chosen to study requires a much greater mental involvement and a certain level of intelligence.

It’s true that the crux of any martial art system is that it has to be effective and efficient enough to incapacitate if not kill the opponent. As I’ve said before, you have to get the job done. But this is inclusive with the learning process. In order for you to get the job done, you must understand the learning process. And what about what’s left after the job is done? The Chinese martial arts are much more heavily embroidered with other aspects of self-realization that go far beyond the initial concept of being able to overcome the opponent and win the encounter.

Learning the self is the ultimate goal in martial arts. I believe this is true in any true martial art, not a martial sport, not something that’s used for entertainment or to make money. In a true sense, the martial arts are there to better the individual, therefore bettering that individual’s immediate group, family and friends, and then impacting society overall. You come to class and the Sifu and/or master drops a pebble of wisdom or knowledge into your pond. This creates a ripple effect that then radiates outward if taken appropriately by the student. These small acts of wisdom or pearls of knowledge are what you’re searching for when you’re training. This can only be achieved if you have some methodology. I remember going through high school and college and not being able to study appropriately to gain depth of knowledge as opposed to short term memory to pass the exam or write the paper. The honest aspect of it was that we were never taught how to learn. We were taught to memorize and regurgitate. This is pretty much what you do for the first few years in your martial art training. You follow along, you memorize, you regurgitate, and you hope and pray that something stays on the wall. If you continue and stay longer and you’re astute enough, you’ll see that that method doesn’t really glean you any deeper insight, and you have to find another way.

So, we were explaining to the class the other night about how to find this other way. There are many ways that can help you to better understand, but the best way sometimes is to separate yourself from yourself in order to see yourself. This is why I was saying to my team the other day, we have to
• Practice
• STOP
• Analyze
• Revise
• Repeat (Per my Sifu, “No good. Do It Again.”)

Synchronization of mind, body and spirit is the hidden secret within the practice. As they say, it’s as plain as the nose on your face. Can you see your nose? I can’t. Training in any aspect of your system is purely a vehicle towards enlightenment. It’s not the end-all be-all. I had a wonderful conversation with my Si Gung, Grandmaster Wai Hong of the Fu Jow Pai, and he related to me in no uncertain terms that, “You don’t have to do the whole form. You need to use your mind.” He asked me how come so many actors are incapable of winning an Academy Award, and then proceeded to tell me it’s basically because they don’t put their mind into that role. Everything is stemming from the mind. The mind is the seat of knowledge and learning. You have to raise your understanding. What you’re working on in your practice is feeling your connection to the movement. The form, be it empty hand or weapon, is an access point. As we practice over time, we internalize the movement so it’s no longer the form. It becomes your instinctual behavior, action without thinking. You’ve downloaded the program and it’s so deep within it will never come out. Our practice must transcend the physical and become metaphysical. You have to practice so much that the form and the person disappear and there’s only the action, the idea, which is one with the nature of it, which is one with everything. It’s one with you. That’s the practice.

So, what do we mean by “STOP”? You have to be able to back out, so to speak, to see the bigger picture. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you look hard at your face, and then don’t you back out and look at everything in total? Left side, right side, try to see what it looks like in the back… oh, there’s a hair sticking out. Don’t you do that? That’s what we mean by STOP. Step back and take a long hard unbiased view. Strive to match yourself up to the archetype that’s being put in front of you. Otherwise your name is Forest Gump and you’re running for no reason.

You should analyze yourself. Pay attention mentally, physically and spiritually. It’s all about the personal approach of the individual that has to be modified and grow. It’s a constant process of processing the information that’s been given to you. Analyzation is a form of digestion. You need to be able to digest everything that you’ve taken in. If you don’t fully digest the food you’ve taken in, the nourishment cannot filter through your system. Therefor it goes to waste. The same will happen with the knowledge you’ve been given, so you need to take the time to analyze. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand this because they’ve gone through the modern school system where you go from one grade to the next grade to the next. They let you pass through the grades just to get you through the system. A lot of modern martial art training, because it’s become a big business, has also adopted a similar attitude. This is all fine and well if you’re just treating it as a hobby or pastime, but if you really want to step in the true realm of becoming a lifetime martial artist, that type of learning and method has to be put aside. Because at some point there are no longer any belts, stripes or any kind of accolades to be had. The only thing you’re going to end up with is you looking into the mirror of your soul and knowing if you’ve really done the work or not.

This is the self-study you have to make. You must turn inward in order to have the external. Most don’t want to do that because that’s the tough thing, going in and literally taking yourself down to the bone, looking at yourself, ripping yourself apart with no compassion whatsoever and then starting from scratch again. And this process must be repeated not once, but many times if you wish to improve. If you don’t want to go through this process, you will not improve. You will lie to yourself; you will fool yourself, and you will be stuck in space and time with everyone else. Everybody gets stuck at some point in time, and when you get stuck, you’re incapable of going beyond yourself. You’re just banging your head against the wall. When you come to these moments, this is when you have to STOP, analyze, and then revise.

You create your own reality. You create what happens. If you say crap, it’s crap. If you say it’s amazing, it’s amazing. We are all a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you create in your mind’s eye is what you will see. You must create a different reality. You must recreate yourself through the internal by reinterpreting yourself and everything else. That is the only way. Recreate yourself again. Again? Again. It’s only for the betterment of you. I want to give you a brand new pair of shoes, but you insist on wearing the shoes with holes in them. Why don’t you want to move up a level? “Because I’m comfortable.” That’s not comfortable; that’s complacent. Revise your understanding and go beyond yourself. Tell yourself, dude, get out of the way because I need to move forward. Extend yourself beyond the confines of today’s version of you. That’s what ultimately Kung Fu is, a mind-body expansion tool. You’re only going to become better, but you do have to pay for it through that cycle of: Practice, STOP, Analyze, Revise, and then go back and do it again. If you really know how to practice and how to become self-analyzing and self-critical, it’s an amazing journey. It’s not sunshine every day. Sometimes it’s rain and thunderstorms, but you need to go through all those peaks and valleys. This is the cycle of learning and growth.

The true study of the martial arts is the study of the self. It’s a self-help tool that has to be worked. It’s not in a book or a formula. You can’t juice it or buy it in a health food store. The guru on the mountain can’t do it for you. You have to do it for yourself. It’s a b**** and you gotta get on your knees and take it, and that’s equal for you, me and everyone else. If they tell you something else, they’re selling you on snake oil; it ain’t real. The real thing is the truth hurts. It’s bitter; it’s cold, but that’s what you need. So be happy and keep practicing.

-Paul Koh

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KUNG FU MEDICINE: GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YA

Happy end to the summer! Hooray. Finally. We can get back down to business. I’m sorry to burst everybody’s bubble. I love the summer just like anyone else does, but it’s the worst thing when it comes to training in the martial arts because everybody takes the big vacation, not just physically but mentally. You know how hard it is on the day after Labor Day to get organized and get your act back together. But I have a secret. That secret is Kung Fu. That is the medicine that we all need to get ourselves back on track. I’m not a party pooper. I want the warm weather and the sunny days to continue, but everybody’s got to get their head into focus. There’s no better way to do this than to get back into your training. Kung Fu is one of the best cure-alls that you’ll ever find. It’s better than eating your Wheaties, having Cheerios or going to the spa. It’s the best thing since sliced bread, or maybe even better.

Kung Fu has a powerful medicinal effect. I feel it on a daily basis. The way I see Kung Fu, it’s “good for what ails ya,” as the saying goes. Why is Kung Fu such good medicine?
It’s akin to you going to see the Chinese herbalist in your local Chinatown and him diagnosing you with your said malady and giving you a prescription. Now, if any of you have ever gone to a Chinese herbalist, he won’t give you the medicine in the form of a pill. This is very much a western concept of wanting it fast and getting it easy in a vaccination or a pill. In the old Chinese way of doing medicine, as many of you may know, the herbalist will prescribe many different herbs and roots that need to be boiled down in a very specific manner over a certain period of time with a particular level of heat and water content until you come to the right consistency. Then, you have this medicine that can help you to get over your ailment. This serves as a perfect analogy for what you can derive from your training. In the case of Kung Fu, it is your Sifu who gives you the prescription that you need.

I’m speaking right now from my own personal experience training on a regular basis, not always concerned about “being good” per se, but rather, about being good in total, as an individual with a holistic approach. This is something that many students may not be aware of, but within Kung Fu training is built a holistic approach to help realign all the different systems within the body. Now, I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t have any case studies. But, I’ve witnessed in my own training that regardless of what I’m afflicted with at that moment in time, I’m able to overcome it and surpass it from the training that I receive in the “prescription,” i.e. the specific form graciously taught to me by my teacher, Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng.

I take notice that when I train regularly and focus my movements, right away, my eyesight is better. You may say, well, I still see you using reading glasses. Yes, that’s true, but the clarity with which I see and view things feels sharper and more concise. Regular practice makes your perception more clear. Your muscular system is much more toned. We’ve all seen individuals that are “gushy.” You touch their flesh and you feel like you’re touching a mushy bowl of rice pudding. Even though you may not do the Stairmaster or jog or lift weights, the Kung Fu practice by itself is already impacting your muscles, your ligaments, your tendons and all your joints. It’s creating greater blood flow and easier conductivity of the electrical charge that runs through your body (chi). Regular practice equalizes the body’s systems. Twisting, turning, stretching like a tiger, expansion and contraction of the movement makes the body in all its facets move to the extreme so you gain that huge range of motion and physical expression of energy.

Every twist and turn of the body is realigning the skeletal system, allowing you greater mobility and range of motion. Twisting and turning contorts blood vessels, allowing them to flow more blood through the body at an easier pace. With every breath and every grunt and groan and specific sound that is uttered when you execute the movement, the tonal quality of the sound impacts the different organs in the body because your body is very sensitive to vibration. In modern medicine they use sonograms, sound waves of different frequencies to help heal. This was already known to the ancient masters and is part of why we have those types of different sounds inside the body. We don’t yell just to yell, but it’s helping you expel the bad air, i.e. chi, and tonify the different internal organs based on the frequency of the sounds that are made. You have to do it right with the proper mindset and in the proper way in order to gain the benefit. That’s why you need that one-on-one touch; you need to consult Dr. Sifu. The ancient masters understood that you require something extra above your daily routine in order to keep the body a well-oiled machine, and that’s basically what we’re doing when we practice the form. We’re working all the different systems, lymph nodes, heart, liver, lungs, spleen, kidney. We bring the physical, spiritual, internal and mental all into line.

The effectiveness of Kung Fu as medicine for the entire individual requires the entire individual to be involved and goes far beyond popping a pill and hoping for the best. Just as we spend hours boiling down the medicinal tea that was prescribed to you by the herbalist, you will spend countless hours boiling down the various techniques and movements that you learn in your practice. Traditional Chinese medicine, if you’ve ever had the chance to have it, is not the cherry cough syrup that mama bought for you from the local drugstore, but is in actuality really bitter and smells pretty awful. It kind of reminds me of a scene in a Little Rascals episode where all the orphans are lined up and each one has to take a spoonful of castor oil. They viewed it as nasty and horrible, and sometimes we view the training like that. But that bitterness is a cleansing effect that the practice has on the total sum of the individual. After you get used to it, it’s not that bad; it’s kind of like brussel sprouts. You come to understand that the secret lies in a daily dosage of practice. It helps to preserve you in all aspects of your humanity.

The best gift that you can give yourself is to go and see your Sifu, your Kung Fu doctor, and get that dose, get that charge, get that medicine to bring yourself back into focus. This is especially true now at the end of the summer when everybody’s a little loopy from overindulging themselves. It’s good to have this cathartic regimen that you can return to and reenergize your body and your mind and bring everything back into proper alignment. Kung Fu is Chinese medicine. You have to know how to cook it. But if you know how to cook it and work it, this is medicine that makes you come alive.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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NO NEED TO BE GREEDY

Today in the martial arts, you see many individuals chasing after the so-called rainbow. Many people try to acquire as much knowledge and techniques as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we all have to be weary of becoming greedy. What I mean is, how many shoes can you wear at one time or cars can you drive? If you find yourself wanting to chase that so-called rainbow, ask yourself: Have you truly exhausted the full scope of understanding within your originally chosen discipline?

The breadth and depth of Kung Fu knowledge is as wide as the Grand Canyon and as deep as a crater. It is totally unnecessary for someone to be greedy in terms of technique. Most if not all systems of Chinese martial arts and Kung Fu are already so broad in spectrum and nature that everything is already incorporated within. If you strip back the fine veneer that covers everything and wraps it up in beauty and grace, most systems are just made up of several techniques. These several basic techniques — and I use the term basic to mean essential or elemental — are what incorporates the system and makes it what it is. It’s four legs to the table, four legs to a chair. Without these four legs, the table or the chair could not stand. The four “legs” of any martial arts system are:

• Stance (stability and mobility)
• Hand Strikes (fist, palm, fingers, claw, edge, etc.)
• Kicking (all manner of kicks, knee strikes, sweeps, etc.)
• Grappling (throws, locks, standing or on ground)

If one takes the time to examine a single technique or two or three, they can see that all these four essential items have already been interwoven into the fabric of the movement. The ability to see these essential items within any one technique is dependent on the perception of the individual, not determined by the system itself. Demonstrated within any one given technique and/or position or posture, elements of these four essential qualities exist. Just like options in a stock purchase, these options can be exercised at any one given point in time when the situation arises, therefore giving the individual fighter a wide range of techniques. He is thereby not limited by the movements of his system, but only limited by his own personal ability to access these options and exercise them appropriately. It is up to the individual to be able to recognize what is available in one given position and/or selected number of techniques and to be able to recognize these options. It’s the ingenuity and the innovativeness of the practitioner that allows the movement to flower into its entirety. And when we fall short, this is when the techniques just become what we see on the obvious surface. Therefore, no one system is more or less than another; rather it is we, the individual practitioners, who are able to take what is present, derive its essence and make it more than what it is.

The issue is that you have practitioners of particular systems always looking at the other side, at their neighbor, and saying, wow, look at what they got. It’s not wrong necessarily to look, but look with the intent of trying to find that which already exists within your own system. It’s not that it doesn’t. Maybe the information wasn’t passed down to you or you didn’t make a keen enough observation. All these systems have these movements already built in. We can’t misconstrue the specialization of a particular system or style to be the only thing that they do. This is just like when you go into a restaurant and they have a chef’s tasting menu. That’s their specialty, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a cheeseburger on the menu. Every system has a specialization. That doesn’t mean that the broader aspects of Kung Fu fighting are not contained within. It’s not necessary for the practitioner to acquire something different, but rather be inspired to find that which exists within what they’re already learning.

I have a good friend, Sifu Vangelis Tampouratzis, that teaches southern style Chinese Kung Fu and has incorporated his Kung Fu techniques into the world of kickboxing. He has taken his traditional Choy Lee Fut training and has successfully converted it into kickboxing. He is able to make an easy translation from the strikes, kicks, takedowns, locks and throws from his traditional format into the kickboxing arena. This should not be a problem for those that have a well-rounded understanding and are able to view the martial aspect of the techniques that they have learned. What is essential is that we understand that we need to have the key — that is the mindset — to be able to open and utilize the movements that are contained within the form. We must study hard to try to grasp these keys. Without these keys to open the doors of knowledge, the knowledge is encased within the form or technique, and we will never have access to it.

A great example of this outside the martial arts could be that of a race car driver. All the cars that are on the track are high-powered, awesome machines of speed, but in the end, it truly boils down to the driver. Is the driver capable? Does he have the skill and the knowledge to take that high-powered machine to the heights of its performance and make it work? Regardless of whether you have a Porsche or a Ferrari, if you don’t have the skill and the knowledge of how to drive properly, you will end up being roadkill. The true point of the matter is to understand what you have learned, not necessarily to go looking beyond your own doorstep. Rather, seek the treasures that are hidden within the knowledge that has already been given to you and bring them forward.

In truth, when it comes to the art of fighting, less is more. When you are actually in a situation where you need to fight, not in a sporting event or organized match, quickness and surprise are the elements best suited to the situation. Speed, power and simple, direct technique is most appropriate. Directness in your attack, ferocity and power are essential to get the job done. Everything that is inessential should be stripped away, and the technique should be as effective as possible. Therefor, in the art of fighting, one should concentrate on a few techniques that truly work. You want to be able to have something in your hands that is instinctive and can be repeated again and again. That is to say, you have several techniques in your pocket and you can make them work every single time. Every good system is built upon several well-founded techniques and practical movements that can then be applied over and over again without fail in multiple configurations. When one student or practitioner has too much to work on or too much to worry about, then the true essence of the martial technique is lost. The true essence of understanding is that the few make the many. The one technique can flow out or branch out to become multiple techniques. This is why I say it’s unnecessary to be greedy if you’re capable of understanding what is possible with one said movement.

I just want to make a qualifying statement about what Kung Fu is. The true art of Kung Fu is a skill that can be taught, a skill that can be passed on, a skill that can be brought forward from teacher to student and utilized. This doesn’t mean that it can be mass produced by any stretch of the imagination. If you claim to have Kung Fu but it cannot be taught or shown to someone or be duplicated again to a certain level of proficiency, then it is not Kung Fu, it is rather a god-given gift, a talent of that individual. Simply said, if an individual can fly, that’s a god-given talent. If he can teach you how to fly, then there might be some Kung Fu there. If a skill cannot be passed on or shown to somebody and duplicated, then there is no Kung Fu. Kung Fu is an acquired skill that you get through diligent practice and being taught by someone who has already acquired the skill. Therefor it should be able to be duplicated again and again. Experience over time with practical training will give you the best results and make you understand the essential ingredients that are part of your training. That will make you understand you don’t always have to have more. Sometimes more makes less. Sometimes less makes more. What is essential is the practical experience that you gain from training consistently in your chosen system. This training should lead you to an epiphany, an awakening, an enlightenment and lead you to the proper concept of Kung Fu.

Many individuals feel that more is more, but this is not always the case. When you eat at a buffet and try to consume as much as possible within a short period of time, you usually end up feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up, thereby defeating the purpose of it all. This is no different than training in Kung Fu. In general, Kung Fu systems are broad in their scope of knowledge and have been embellished over the centuries. There still remains a core within each system to allow the practitioner full access to the knowledge within the system without looking for too much external augmentation. As taught to me by my teacher, in Fu Jow Pai, we have ten essential movements of the tiger. Choy Lee Fut has ten essential seeds. Hung Gar has twelve bridge hand techniques. Each system is built on classical conceptual movements that branch out to all the other movements. It’s no different than painting. If you have the primary colors, you can make a multitude of colors, but if you’re not a master of those primary colors, there’s no art. In Chinese cooking there are only a few ingredients that create the taste. Once you’re missing those essential ingredients, you’re chasing that rainbow that leads to nowhere. Because that’s where rainbows lead– nowhere. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow… you’re sitting on the gold, fool!

We all go through this. This is a process of maturation within your system. One must begin to look at the structure of one’s system and slowly digest its “optional” techniques that are almost hidden in plain sight. By looking around at everything else, you get distracted and may even lose your original motivation and understanding of your chosen system. In the end, let’s step back and take a good look at what we have in our system with a discerning eye to detect the possible options available. Master the few, and they will become many, if not even unlimited… If you keep looking at what everyone else has, you will eventually lose what you have. Work your Kung Fu to flesh out everything that is already there. No need to be greedy.

- Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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EVEN KUNG FU IS SUBJECT TO THE LAWS OF INERTIA

in·er·tia | \ i-ˈnər-shə , -shē-ə\
a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force

I always get this same question, and this past weekend was no different. My daughter had her engagement party, and through the course of the cocktails and chit chat, inevitably somebody asks me, what you do, which is always a difficult question for martial art people because no one really gets it. They always say, “Ooh, you have a black belt,” or “Your hands are registered as lethal weapons,” and you have to educate them somehow in regards to what you really do as an educator within the martial arts. They inevitably ask you how long you’ve been doing this, and you say the several decades or more, and they look at you with this glazed disbelief and say to you, if you’re a master then why do you keep training? I spend time training on my own, teaching my students as well as spending several days with my own teacher each week, 30 plus years into it, and this baffles them. They don’t seem to understand why. I was thinking about it the other day as I was explaining something to some students and yes, Kung Fu is completely and utterly subject to the laws of inertia. Inertia – that’s a really weird word. When I was kid, I never understood what the hell that word meant, but now I know that everything that’s alive and moving is subject to the laws of inertia. Basically, the laws of inertia state that an object (aka you) in motion will stay in motion and continue in the same direction it’s going, and an object that is still will remain still, barring interference from some external force.

Training for us “old timers” that have been involved in Kung Fu for almost 40 years or more is not an option. There is no opting out. A Kung Fu brother of mine that everyone knows (Sorry, brother, I’m going to put you on the spot), Sifu Tai Lik Johnson, trains and teaches every day. He’s an animal; he doesn’t stop. I take inspiration from this. There is no haphazard training; there is no on and off schedule. I don’t want to be doing the hokey pokey. You all know the hokey pokey, right? You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out? I don’t want to be in and out; I want to be all in. I’ve seen too much of this, and I understand that inconsistency only breeds inconsistency. You have to be consistent in your consistency to make any kind of stride or gain. You’re not allowed to get rusty. You’re not allowed to sit back. A body at rest stays at rest. You know who stays at rest? The dead. Unless you plan on being a Kung Fu zombie, at some point you have to get up off your ass and start moving. Another Kung Fu brother of mine, Sifu Rik Kellerman (sorry I’m calling out to all you guys but I want to use you as an example) hurt his knee recently, but he didn’t opt out. He just kept training and trained around the injury. He is healing himself and he’s going to come back even stronger. I also take inspiration from this. I also want to make a shout out to my Kung Fu brother Sifu Bill Fong who has always worked harder than everyone and just came back from having open heart surgery and I know he’s not going to let that stop him. None of us are going to rest. We’re going to keep moving forward.

As you start growing and moving forward, there is no way to cool down. Once you stop actively practicing, regardless of what stature you’ve achieved in your prior achievements, it’s just that. It’s prior achievements. You’re not going to surpass yourself. A great analogy is that Kung Fu is heated water in a pot, but if the flame is too low, the water cools. If the flame is too high, the water burns up and dissipates. I’ll tell you what else Kung Fu is like when you slow down and you stop. Kung Fu is like cold pizza and warm beer, and if you tell me that you like that, I’m going to say you’re weird. No one likes cold pizza and warm beer. You have to work it every day. We have to learn how to utilize our energies to keep moving us forward. You have to practice every day, and I almost want to say that it’s a relentless type of practice. I love the quote from Henry V, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” I feel that this is the call to arms on a daily basis for myself and many other martial art practitioners that we need to have in order to constantly see progression and improvement in our work. We’ve seen many high ranking individuals, students and/or teachers reach a certain level and stop because they say to themselves, since no one’s at this level at this point in time, it’s good enough. What’s good enough? The question rises in your mind. How much money is enough money? How much vacation time is enough vacation time? Kung Fu falls into the same category. How much Kung Fu is enough Kung Fu? How much knowledge is enough knowledge? Knowledge goes hand in hand with power. How much knowledge, power and understanding is enough? This is something we have to ask ourselves all the time.

As I’m writing this blog, I’m actually working out at the same time, playing a few movements on the bench, trying not to stop the flow of energy, spirit and attitude which is required in order to do Kung Fu properly. The practice is all consuming, at least where I’m concerned, and I think many artists can speak to the same thing. I was trying to explain my angst about this to a very good friend of mine, another Kung Fu brother, and he basically came to the conclusion, “You have an illness.” I said, “What is my illness?” He said, “You’re a perfectionist.” I said, I think you’re absolutely right. This is an incurable disease that is inflicted upon most Kung Fu practitioners and artists in general. The practice is something that, for lack of a better term, possesses you, and in this possession, you are driven to a constant seeking of perfection. Therefor you must always be aware of the laws of inertia being applied to you. We cannot stop. In one end of the spectrum, it’s a constant daily grind and it is difficult to maintain, but once it’s done you’re so happy that you’ve done it and you know you’ve accomplished something. On the other hand, it’s something that I look forward to and is the highlight of my day to be able to keep it moving, keep it going, keep all the plates spinning simultaneously. It’s a personal challenge that the individual must undertake. It’s your own personal gauntlet that you have to take up and make the strides not only to maintain but to be better at everything you’re putting out there. The inertia factor coupled with the perfectionist mentality of a martial artist is something that we all work with, struggle with and need in order to move forward and better ourselves.

If you stop training altogether, things are not going to be the same. It’s so hard to warm things up again after you’ve let them cool down. You may say to me, am I not allowed to take a day off? Can’t I go on vacation? I’m not saying you have to do this 24-7, but you always have an opportunity to train. In the confines of your mind, you will find limitless space and time. Many times when an individual doesn’t have the physical space and time to train, you can sit there on the train or the bus or in your favorite chair and mentally visualize and train yourself even if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes. Obviously, this is a form of meditation, and this will also help to keep you active. If you cannot visualize doing something in your mind, it is going to be rather hard if not impossible to do it in the reality of the physical state. So it’s extremely important to understand that the battle against inertia is fought upon the physical as well as the mental plane. Sometimes, it’s both simultaneously; sometimes it’s one or the other, but nevertheless it’s an unending battle to continue.

Either you keep moving, or you die. You may say, oh my god, am I going to die tomorrow if I stop doing Kung Fu? You won’t, but let me tell you, it’s a slow, self-imposed stagnation. Stagnation means you’re going to get stiff… you know what a stiff is, right? I don’t have to tell you. You slowly sentence yourself to this inevitable end, which we will all come to, but I want to go down in a blaze of glory. I want to be kicking and screaming all the way. I guess it’s something akin to what the Spartans say, a glorious death. For me, there is no slowing down. The tiger is on the move, and I’m going to keep moving to the best of my ability as much as I can, as often as I can. I’m going to do my best to keep myself going physically, mentally and spiritually.

To do this, we have to train hard every day. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the good old days. Let me tell you about the good old days. First of all, there’s no such thing. There’s only the here and now. I feel sorry for the individual that peaked when they were 17 years old. They were the big man on campus, a football or baseball star in high school, and now they find themselves ready to have a midlife crisis or worse, just dreaming about the good old days. The good old days are right here and now in this moment in time. I’m not sixteen or seventeen years old anymore. We have to train more frequently, more in depth and harder (in the proper sense) than we did when we were teenagers because when you’re young, you’re stupid. This goes for everyone. No one is excluded from the laws of inertia or the laws of stupidity, which are prevalent when you are young. As you get older and have more sense and awareness of yourself, you have to use that to bring in a tighter focus and understanding. You have that constant motivation to keep on going, to keep on striving for the better, to make today and every day coming in the future a better day than the past. You don’t have to sit there and dream about your glory days when you were young. Even though I’m older, I’m younger now than I was before. Because you have the right attitude. Inertia doesn’t like the right attitude; the right attitude is the antidote to the laws of inertia. We’ve all seen examples of much older individuals, people in their 80s and 90s, that seem to stay young, and it’s because they keep themselves occupied and active, challenging themselves to do the most that they can every day. That’s what keeps older people young, healthy and vibrant in all aspects of their life.

When you have the proper mental attitude, you create a positive cycle of energy that allows you to do more. The more you train, the more you will understand that you don’t understand. Because you’ve come to this conclusion, you want to train more. This is the law of inertia. Even if you do poorly, because you have a positive mental attitude, you can take inspiration from that and continue to forge forward. I don’t care if you did well or didn’t do well; you still have to train. Many times when you “win,” you lose, but just because you “lose” doesn’t necessarily mean you lost. People are under the misconception that because they “got it right” on the first try that you actually accomplished something. Let me tell you, it was a fluke. It was what we call a happy accident. It’s not something that you can reproduce. Real Kung Fu, because it’s a skill, can be reproduced again and again. That’s something that you have to work for. It’s something you have to mess up countless times before you grasp the real understanding and actually can produce what you’re looking for continually. Here, we come back to the concept of consistency. You must be consistent in your action, in your speech, in your thought, in order to have any kind of forward mobility. The problem comes when people meet pressure or stress, but true learning will present those issues to you. Only with external pressure can we become better. Only through adversity and challenges can we overcome our circumstances and truly make ourselves what we’re supposed to be. So now, as I’m writing this blog to you, the Queen song “We Will Rock You” is playing, and I’m thinking about the lyrics about overcoming adversity to get out there and rock you. This whole blog is about overcoming the adversities that have been placed upon you or that you place upon yourself. So in essence, the inertia that you feel is the inertia that you’ve created… You must constantly fight against yourself not to get comfortable being comfortable. This is the test that you must go through in order to get to the next level.

You learn from your errors and your mistakes. You must inspire yourself to work harder and try again. Kung Fu is a daily pursuit, a daily devotion. Good days and bad days all add up to make you what you are, and you have to accept both wholeheartedly. Most people just want to have the good times, but you can’t have the good times without the bad times. That’s the contrast. That’s the yin and yang, the sweet and sour. You have to have those bitter, hard, not so pleasant moments in order to understand what truly is and what should be appreciated and striven for. We don’t care if it’s a good day or bad day, we still do the work. Day in, day out, we keep moving. Don’t stop your own progress. Once you stop, you’re f***ed. This is the law of inertia.

In conclusion, I think we’re in good company. From Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein, let’s get in gear with these fine gentlemen and don’t slow down.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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WEAPON VS. EMPTY HAND… IT’S A CHICKEN AND EGG SCENARIO

The last few weeks I’ve started to concentrate on training my class on some weaponry, and several instances have come up where students were able to draw analogies between their empty hand form and weaponry. Kung Fu weaponry and empty hand training go hand in hand, one helping the other, beginning and ending, one full circle. The question is, which came first, empty hand fighting or fighting with a weapon? This has always been an ongoing debate. Different individuals claim one or the other. Some claim that empty hand was first and then transitioned into weaponry; another argument says that weapons were first and then slowly modified into empty hand training. These are very unique viewpoints, and both have valid arguments.

Obviously, due to human physiology, it’s very natural for human beings to pick up an implement and use it, be it a tool or a weapon, but it could be just as easily argued that the hand by itself is a tool that can be converted into a weapon. The example would be two kids fighting in the sandbox. One steals the other’s toy, and then they start swatting each other. But they ultimately might even pick up a stick, a rock or their toy and whack their little friend… The beginnings of Kung Fu weaponry and empty hand training. But all joking aside, it is equally natural for the human being to utilize their body or a tool to enhance the functionality of the human body, and this is just my point.

A great example would be this past Saturday, I started a double dagger intensive class, and right off the bat, I got comments from students in the class saying, wow, Sifu, I never realized how much the weapon actually did derive from and support the empty hand movement until we started doing this double dagger set. My retort to the student basically was, yes, you’re absolutely right. With these two small knives, it’s easy to see the direct relationship that it has to your empty hand movement. Sometimes, the longer, more exotic weapons detract from the ability of the student to perceive them as extensions of the body. This double dagger sequence is so closely tied into empty hand fighting that it better exemplifies the yin and yang relationship between empty hand and weaponry techniques. These short, double handed weapons take a direct cue from empty hand fighting. The weapons are held in two hands and act as more obvious extensions of what the empty-handed practitioner would do. Another great example of this would be Filipino stick and knife fighting. Southern Kung Fu systems and that art share many techniques, movements and concepts. This is because both arts were under military law and suppression by those feudal governments that did not allow the layman to have military weapons. Because they were denied military grade weaponry, methods had to be devised to allow for smooth transitions between empty hand and bladed or stick fighting techniques. This can also be seen in Okinawan Karate that draws its roots from Chinese Kung Fu.

The old adage is that if you truly know Kung Fu, then whatever item you pick up can ultimately become a weapon. Articles such as benches, oars, fishing nets, hooks, prongs and all sorts of farm implements were assimilated into martial art systems and became weapons because they utilized the archetypal structure of the empty hand fighting and tweaked it a little bit to help match that tool. Another great example other than the double daggers of empty hand mirroring the weapon and weapon mirroring the empty hand would be the wooden bench which spans the scope of southern Kung Fu systems. Almost everyone has a bench in their system, in their house, in the tea shop. It was the most handy, readymade weapon that you could just pick up and throw down, so that, too, was assimilated and melded to work with empty hand movement. I was just doing a bench class last night and made a point of giving over my bench to one of my students and performing with the class empty handed as though I was still holding the bench but with two clenched fists. Slowly, everybody stopped and stepped back and just watched me perform it as an empty handed form. It worked just as well because I was able to extrapolate the empty hand movement from the weapon form.

So, why so many varying weapons, especially in Chinese martial arts? I think this is a really good point to look at. There is a huge range of different weapons within the Chinese marital arts, long and short, flexible and hard, whip-like, small and large. Weapons are tools, and you need different tools to do different jobs. You can’t use a hammer to do the job of a screwdriver, and you can’t use a screwdriver to do the job of a pliers. Even though they’re held by the same hand, the functionality of that tool is specific to a task; therefor many different weapons developed. That can also be drawn in an analogy to the various hand positions found within many Kung Fu systems. This deserves another blog which we’ll get into at a different time, but the varying hand positions that are found within the Chinese martial arts also mirror those of the weapons. As another saying goes, every finger is a dagger, every hand is a knife, every arm is a sword. The empty hand section of our training serves to forge our hands into different weapons: hammers, sickles, hooks, knives, daggers, spears, and so on. So, again, the actual relationship between empty hand movement and weaponry is extremely prevalent. They are one and the same, or at the very least, an outgrowth of each other simultaneously rather than two different things. In my opinion, the weapon movement should mirror the movement of the system that the individual is studying. The stabbing, slashing and cutting with the weapon relates directly to slashing techniques of the hand, cuts, strikes, blocks and so on. Even the terminology that we use for empty hand as well as the weapon is almost literally the same, so right there that at least blurs the line of separation.

There really should be no argument in the mind of the student; your Kung Fu technique is your Kung Fu technique. Empty hand and weapon are each an outgrowth of the other and feed back into each other. I really don’t see a separation. Having this point of view as taught to me by my teacher has helped me immensely because you are able to assimilate the weapon into your movement. Rather than it being a foreign object, a dead article in your hand, it becomes alive, and you can translate your physical body language into the weapon. Over time as you practice, you begin to assimilate the attributes and techniques of that weapon into your own physical practice as well. One saying that comes to mind is that the weapon is an extension of the body; therefore the actions of the body lend themselves to the use of the weapon or the tool. The weapon follows the physical dynamics of the human body and can enhance and extend the reach, power, speed and dexterity as well as mobility of the human body, therefor creating a diverse way of accentuating the skill of the practitioner.

Both the empty hand and the weapon accentuate, foster and support one another. It’s very evident that the stances and techniques of Kung Fu as played today are an outgrowth of warfare on the battlefield and on horseback, but we can also see it goes the other way around, where personal hand-to-hand combat techniques taught by individual masters can be augmented to work into weaponry. I have done this numerous times with my teacher’s guidance where we readjust empty hand movements to become weapon forms as well as weapons to become empty hand. They should be one in the same; they should be seamless, one closed circuit. The bottom line between the two arguments of whether weaponry or empty hand came first is neither here nor there in my opinion. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. You can sit here all day and night and argue about which is more important, the chicken or the egg, the egg or the chicken. The truth of the matter is, I’ll eat both, so it doesn’t matter which one came first. Both equally benefit the other. This should not be an argument of which came first, the chicken or the egg, the weapon or the hand, the hand or the weapon, but rather a complete, unique circle. I think this different way of viewing things will help the practitioner to understand both his empty hand and weaponry training that much more, to see them as a unit rather than as two different things.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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TEACH YOURSELF TO LEARN

So over 4th of July weekend, we had a bunch of days off. We didn’t have classes for several days because everybody wants to take a break and go away. It’s not my norm, but I said, okay, well, this year I’ll just cave in and do as the natives do. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday classes were packed. Everybody was packing it in before they left for the long weekend to get in their last licks. Thursday was 4th of July, and I wake up and say to myself, you know what, you deserve to take it easy so let’s sleep in. I sleep in a little bit, get up, make some coffee, start doing stuff around the house, and I notice, wow I’m achy all over. What’s the matter with me? Am I getting old? As the day progresses, so does the pain, hips, knees, shoulders, everything. I say to myself, WTF? This is not my norm. I spend the entire day bitching and moaning about how much everything hurts. I celebrate Fourth of July, fireworks, barbecue, movies, the whole nine yards, but nothing seems to help. I say to myself, well this has got to stop; this is not my normal routine. On Fridays, I always spend time with my teacher, so I decide I’m not going to interrupt this; ONE DAY OFF IS ENOUGH. Friday morning, I get up bright and early and make my way to Chinatown NYC. As soon as I start training, literally just a few seconds into practicing, everything starts to melt away. I’m jumping, kicking, punching, rolling on the ground like I was 15 years old, and nothing hurts. What the hell?!

I remember what one of the old Grandmasters said to me years ago. He mentioned that he practiced at least several hours a day, and at that time he was 86. He said if he didn’t do that, he would die. I didn’t get it then, but I sure as heck get it now. I believe that once you start training at a certain level, this becomes your way of life and what you need to do to survive. Now let me preface that. Everybody thinks that because they practice, it’s their way of life, but come in close. Let me whisper in your ear. Between you and me, it’s not, because you don’t do it the way “we” do it. Let’s be serious. People train several times a week for an hour or two. They count it off in days. I count it off in floor time. If you’re really considered a “good student,” you’re on the floor maybe six hours per week. Some a little more, some a little less. You may argue the point with me, but that’s not a way of life; that’s a hobby. What I’m talking about is training daily. Forty hours a week is a full time job. THAT’S a way of life. You see what I mean? It’s simple math. You’re training and performing at a different level than most people. I know, I know… you have a job, you have a significant other, you have laundry to do, you have your favorite show to watch. I know, I know… but my leg knows, too. So, when I came back to my real normal routine, everything was set right. It felt like I was on a different planet. You need to push yourself on a regular basis; that means every day, both mentally and physically.

You need to do it every day until you go so deep into the movement that you’ve fleshed out the real heart of it. You can only do this through countless repetitions over decades of time. True depth of understanding only comes through practice. You may say, “You know what? I could hang a bag and learn how to throw a punch and a kick and beat somebody up.” Yes, you can. You can learn that in six weeks, but you’re not learning Kung Fu. You’re not channeling your mind; you’re not improving your spirit. Kung Fu does have its roots in learning the art of fighting, but it also has mental imagery that you have to create. It’s more difficult to project the mind into the movement; it’s easier just to mimic the movement. This is why we have to work so hard to go to another level of understanding. In sports terminology, they call it “the zone.” It’s a fervor; it captures you; it grabs you; it pulls you in. You either understand this or you don’t understand this. You’ve either touched it or you haven’t touched it, and that’s a difficult thing to explain to someone who practices casually as a pastime or as an exercise. As my friend Sifu Paulo Neiva said, “Kung Fu is for everyone, but not everyone is for Kung Fu.”

Sifu can show you and give you key instruction in the finer points, but ultimately, you must teach yourself. This you can only do through countless repetitions, trial and error, going back and doing it again and again. I play on the wooden dummy and do the same movement over and over, the same old bleep bleep every day again and again for decades. Why? We train like this to gain a sixth sense, to understand without striving to understand. Just like I speak to you and you understand what I’m saying, and I understand that you understand what I’m saying. That’s how you become fluid in the art. You go beyond a certain level and you practice differently. It captures you; it permeates you, and you go to a place, that if you haven’t gotten that hot before, you won’t really know what I’m talking about. That’s what you see when musicians seem to have spasms because they’re so deep into what they’re doing. You have transcended yourself and you’ve transcended the movement. You know exactly where you are, but you don’t know where you are because you’re so far down the rabbit hole. This happened to me on Saturday as we were shooting a movie. We were doing a technique again and again, and as the punches and kicks were flying, I couldn’t stop my hand. I didn’t intend to do it, my hand just said, open him up and hit him. At that moment, I wasn’t playing the form. I wasn’t even me. I don’t know what I did; it just came out.

You go from not knowing a form, to knowing a form, back to not knowing the form, becoming nothing again. It’s everything and it’s nothing. It’s zero and a google at the same time. Then you reach a point where you say, well, now I got it right, but right is relative to the point in time where you are. Right is not right forever, or another way of putting it, you have many levels of “right”. You can be “right” for your level but still not right in another way. It could be much better. This will only be attained by constantly doing it on an everyday basis. There is no other way because it is a living art form, not a mechanical action. This is up to the person. Have you put in the time or not? If you have put in the time, talking to someone who hasn’t put in the time is completely useless. It means nothing. How do you explain a raging boil to someone who doesn’t know how to light a fire and doesn’t have a pot? You can’t do it. He doesn’t have the faculties to understand you. So now, as you’re walking that journey that I said was so much fun you never want it to end, you keep walking. When you reach that spot where you think there’s an end, double check. It’s probably a mirage, and you better keep on going because otherwise you get stuck.

You need to do more. You know the form, but the form doesn’t know you. Think about it in those terms. Kung Fu is just like money; you can never have never enough. How much money is enough money? I saw a report on CNN or 60 Minutes or something, and they said the average individual really only needs about $75k/year to be happy. This pays for food, clothing, housing, a two-week vacation, etc. But you know what? If I gave you $75,000, it still wouldn’t be enough. You’d want to have more because you could get more; you could derive more. If you learn a little Kung Fu, you want to learn a little bit more and then a little bit more. You know the only way to get more money is to work for it because if you steal it you’re going to go to jail or end up dead in a ditch somewhere off the side of the road. Same thing with Kung Fu; the only way is to work for it on a daily basis. If you try to steal Kung Fu, i.e. fake it, you’re going to get caught eventually. Even if you think you may be a diligent student, if we really take a hard look at any one of us, I bet we could work a lot harder, myself included. No one is above the truth. The truth is you need to practice. Even if we are “good,” we can always be better.

So getting back to my conversation with the old master, the one who told me he practiced every day at 86 years old. We asked him, “Sifu, how did you get to be this level?” He said, “Seventy years.” At that time, he was almost 90, so he had 70 years of continual practice. When you tell me you’ve been actively practicing for a decade or more, I say, keep on truckin’. Because 70 years every day is 70 years every day. One day 15 years ago, or 6 months 10 years ago is a dream. That’s why I say even though sometimes I feel like I work real hard, in my heart of hearts, I know I could work harder, I could practice more, I could get better. I need to grow a little more beyond myself. I must put in time to the practice. So, over time, you do turn away from certain things, other endeavors and pleasures that you may have taken up at another point in time in your life become less important. This is not because they’re no good, but they’re fleeting, and Kung Fu is much more infinite in scope. It has much more impact, but you need to be there to feel that impact. You don’t feel the earthquake worlds away; you have to be on the fault line. So you have to be on this fault line that we call the practice of Kung Fu.

We’re talking about actually understanding an art form. If you want to attain that level, that degree of understanding, then there’s a certain amount of sacrifice that has to be made. It’s physical, mental and spiritual sacrifice. Without putting anyone down or maligning anyone else’s practice, the average individual won’t sacrifice that much to get to that level. Neither side is right or wrong, but you must make a choice at some point and then be happy with your choice. If you choose to go that route of devotion and want to attain a higher level of understanding, then be happy with that decision and take all the good and the bad that comes with it, because the good and the bad is what’s going to lead you to that level of understanding. If you choose the other side, then don’t have regrets that you didn’t choose the other road because then you’ll have neither. You cannot have your cake and eat it to. In the past, many individuals from different practices have sequestered themselves in order to clear their mind and concentrate solely on that endeavor or that devotion. That reminds me of monastic caves where monks would pull themselves up by pulleys in baskets and live in a cave. Once in a while their brethren would send them food, but they would never come out until they reached a certain level of understanding, zen, peace of mind, oneness with the universe. In order for you to do your work, you must do your work alone. Your Sensei, Sifu, guru, witch doctor, whatever poison you pick, can only take you so far. If you don’t put in your time, you will never attain the understanding, and even though your Sifu may talk to you, you will only hear words.

The only way to truly get better is if you get out of your comfort zone. You’re comfortable practicing the form ten times, so you have to practice twenty times. You’re comfortable with thirty times, so practice fifty or sixty times. Practice under duress; practice with a handicap; practice until you go beyond the handicap, until you’re no longer comfortable being comfortable. You don’t want to be comfortable. Comfortable means you’re not growing. I agitate you; you grow. I don’t agitate you; you start to dwindle. When you lift weights, you agitate the muscle, and it grows. When you study, you agitate your brain. If you don’t do this, you don’t grow. If you get comfortable being comfortable, you start to languish and you lose. This is all on the mental plane, but this mental attitude transfers over to the physical. Do it in your mind and then transfer it to the action of your body. Don’t just running the physical course, but run the mental program.

The point of practice is digestion. You have to digest it; you have to break it down. It has to filter through every part of you so you absorb the nutrition of it. Everybody’s so eager to eat, but not to digest. Instead of eating more, you need to digest. You have to digest in your mind, your heart, your body until it doesn’t even look like what you thought it looked like when you first learned it. If it does, you didn’t do it right ,and if you tell me you know it’s not right then I’m going to tell you shut up. So just go back and do the same old thing. I’m learning the same thing I was learning when I was 15 years old, and now I’m 53. Do the same old thing until it’s no longer the same old thing. You will see something that others cannot see. This is what the practice is about. It’s an awakening; it’s an enlightenment. It’s opening up the third eye, gaining that sixth sense that you can’t pass along and you can’t teach somebody else. No matter how much you are taught, you must end up teaching yourself. This is the point of practice.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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PRESS PLAY FOR KUNG FU

I was reading something the other day that said if you can hold a smile for 30 seconds or more, just the sheer act of holding the smile, even though you may not feel happy, is purported have a therapeutic effect and make your day happier. I just spent the last half hour or so on the phone with a very good friend of mine who I consider a brother, and that action itself already put me in a good mood. This got me thinking about how we need to play our Kung Fu. Don’t train Kung Fu; play Kung Fu. That’s the term that we use. We don’t say “work” your Kung Fu or “do” your Kung Fu. We say “play” your Kung Fu. 玩功夫Wan Kung Fu.

Hau To was a famous doctor in Chinese antiquity, and he created what he called the “five animal frolics”. The word “frolic,” even though it may be erroneously translated from the Chinese, already tells you the overall attitude that you have to take when you perform or practice Kung Fu. It’s just like any other art or sport. You play baseball; you don’t “do” baseball. You play football; you play the piano; you play the violin. We always say play your form, play your weapon, play your matching set. Let’s play a game of chess or play this song. The word “play” is much deeper than people give it credit for. It’s a bridge that allows you to cross over to a place of different understanding. Kung Fu teaches you how to be through the premise of play.

This is the attitude that should be taken by the individual when they practice. The word “practice” sounds very much like an arduous, painstaking task (and sometimes it is), but let’s substitute the word “play.” The word “play” denotes happiness in doing that endeavor. The concept of play is something that every child knows, but as we grow up, we forget and lose touch with that aspect of ourselves. We must find the passion and joy of a child playing. I had a young student come up to me on Saturday, and she was so excited because she had just discovered the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She came up to me and said, “Sifu, they’re Kung Fu turtles, and they do this and they do that!” I could see the joy in her face and how it inspired her and made her want to play more. That’s what we have to learn. Even the littlest child can teach us how to be. The innocence, genuineness and openness that that child had when she was telling me her story is what each and every one of us want to have when we approach our practice. Because we’re taught to be “serious adults,” sometimes we forget. We need to remember how to return back to that special place, that mental state that allows us to practice properly.

Play stems from imagination. As we grow up, we often put our imagination on pause. Children, on the other hand, are wide-eyed and always thinking in an imaginative state. As I was watching some students the other day, I made note that most of them don’t utilize their capacity for imagination. You might say, “Sifu, playing games, imagination, how does this relate to fighting?” You might say this sounds like nonsense, but then I’d have to disagree with you. Imagination is the stem from which all art forms begin. It is the root. Someone at some point imagined how they would execute the technique that they wanted to execute and came up with a routine, a play, that they would utilize to practice it. They went and tested it, came back, revised it, and redefined it into a method, a play that they could utilize again and again, fostering the mind and the body to meld together through this play and imagination.

Even when we do sparring, it’s a game. When I was a young teen starting to do free sparring, this is what one of my masters told me. Sparring is a game of tag. I’m not trivializing it, and I’m not saying don’t be serious. But you must look at it as a game in the sense that you have to play it. It’s the mental state that you have to be in when you’re in that fight or sparring situation. You can’t be angry. You can’t be upset. You can’t be so caught up that you lose focus because you become too emotional. Step back and look at it as a game. “Tag, you’re it!” One analogy for a fighter in a sparring match is a racecar driver. You have to remain cool, calm and collected. You cannot run to extremes of emotion; you need to have balance. It is a game; it’s fun. Even though you’re in the heat of combat, or you’re in the midst of a race, you still remain the calm in the eye of the storm while everything else is swirling around you. When you learn how to play your Kung Fu, after a while it takes you to a certain mental zone, and you need to know how to go back to that mental zone in order to tap into that right energy, that joyful and positive energy that allows you not only to practice almost effortlessly, but allows you to grow into the art and into yourself.

The power of the mind, the power of imagination, the power of play is not wholly understood. We fashion ourselves and our reality based upon how we think. As adults, we have to deal with reality, so our imagination and play are tempered by that. A little kid imagines they can fly, but you can’t fly. That’s not to say you can’t imagine or mentally identify and define how you’re going to utilize any one technique when you practice your martial arts. That mental identification and re-definement is critical for your growth. The student has to realize that the form and/or the practice put in front of him is a puzzle that needs to be unraveled, figured out. It’s a game that you have to play with yourself in order to figure yourself out. The exercise is a teaser that allows you to investigate how deep you can actually go, how much you can actually see. I see many students approach their practice in a very stoic manner, dry and devoid of feeling, and I think this is a mistake.

This is why you always have drop off. You have people signing up to go to the gym or joining a martial arts school and then quitting one month later. This is in part because of the mental state they put themselves in. They view it as a task as opposed to something to look forward to. I can remember my teacher always saying to me, when you practice, you have to practice as though it’s your most favorite thing to do. It’s your favorite drink or your favorite thing to eat. It’s the most enjoyable thing that you’ve encountered, and you relish it. Playing something, be it a sport, a musical instrument, or the art of Kung Fu, is what each and every individual should be looking forward to rather than striving to do. When you watch two tiger cubs play, they “play fight,” but they’re playing and learning survival skills. This is exactly how you’re meant to train; take revelry and joy in the art of your practice by playing your practice rather than looking at it with feelings of dread and drudgery. When you have this frame of mind, you can access different aspects, feelings and understanding, and put yourself in the right mood to gain from the practice which has now become play. You make it much more enjoyable, palatable and digestible, simply by looking at it in a different way. In that way, you change your mental perception of the practice and make it that much more easy to assimilate into your system of thought and movement.

Doing it and hitting it hard is all fine and well, but if you don’t approach it from the point of view of playing, enjoying the process, enjoying the ups and downs, and relishing every time you get to train, the training will not have the same effect. Kung Fu is good medicine, but we need to be open to it, and having that state of mind of play allows our mind and heart to open up to it and accept it more easily. The concept of the mental state of play is not only on the individual but can also apply to the group. I’m sure everyone has experienced when the class is up and happy, and everybody’s working hard. The energy in the room makes everybody that much more receptive to the learning, as opposed to having a class where everybody is not in a good mood. The concept of playing Kung Fu is about creating the right energy, mental and spiritual, that allows you to not only practice, but practice well, and digest and adhere to all the things that you’re learning.

So, as I was watching some students practice, I had to make the comment to them, you are a little stiff, your energy is a little dead. It wasn’t because they were doing the movement improperly, but the energy was off. They weren’t doing it with live feeling, that happiness that comes in the play. If you’re struggling to do it, you can’t force the energy to come out right. In many instances, you just have to let it happen. I’ve used the analogy in the past where you say to your friend, we’re going to go out and party and have a great time tonight, and inevitably you don’t because you’re so desperate to have that good time. You’re so desperate to show how much you know and how good you are that you negate the positive energy that should be there just from the sheer joy that you can stand in the room and do the movement.

It’s all on your approach. Do an experiment with yourself. Take a piece of your form that you really like to play, but approach it differently. Change your mental state. Do you want to do it hard and fast to show what you know, or happily play it? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try hard, but don’t be desperate. Try that a little bit on your own and see what the outcome is. I think if you properly do it and observe it in the right way, you’ll see that the attitude of play allows you to derive so much more than the attitude of, “I’m going to make this happen.” This is not to say that you’re not driven or focused. But when I practice, I just do it. I’m happy to do the movement; I’m not trying to show you how much I can do or how much I know. I know this works because I practice all day long, but at the end of the day, I’m not tired. The only thing that tires me is people with a bad attitude or bad mental state. When you approach your Kung Fu from a joyful mentality, it’s not tiring but actually inspiring. It creates more energy that becomes physical energy. This is how interrelated the mind and body are. You view yourself and think about things in a certain way, and that’s what they become. So, it’s about changing the mind’s perception of how the practice should be. That’s really what we’re taking about, and that manifests itself into physical action. Your form may not be perfect, but that changes over time. Your attitude is something that you can start to work on immediately, and that will have a profound effect on how you practice and change the end result. So I say to you Wan Kung Fu 玩功夫 -- play your Kung Fu; enjoy your Kung Fu; revel in your Kung Fu; make it something that you look forward to every day.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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DON’T GET TIED UP IN YOUR RANK

Rank is a double-edged sword. It can cut for the good and cut for the bad. There is a point in time when you need rank. Rank gives structure and goals for the individual to shoot for. It is totally required in today’s day and age because people have even less attention span and focus than they did 30 years ago, let alone hundreds of years ago when no rank existed whatsoever. In the “old days,” you apprenticed yourself to the master for your entire life until he retired or passed away, and then you became the master, hopefully. There was no other incentive other than learning the art for the sake of the art. In today’s society, people need other motivations because they’re so caught up with having status, having a name, having something to show for it, rather than putting in the work and having the work speak for the quality of the individual. Rank is basically a motivational tool, an incentive, a carrot in front of the jackass to keep him moving.

First, second and third degrees are all about you honing your skill, your understanding, becoming fluent in your art form and your technique. From third, fourth and fifth it’s about teaching, becoming a teacher and helping to spread the art, supporting your teacher and supporting your school. Not too many people really get into that. It’s a much higher level. Anything above fifth degree black belt is all about your payback to the art, the system and your teacher. Back in the day, if you had a third degree blackbelt, that meant you had at least a good 25 years or more of experience. It meant you fought for it and bled for it and maybe lost a tooth or two. Those ranks were hard won and had a high level of value. I can remember breaking my hand, breaking my nose and quite a few black eyes to get a third degree or more. Not too many people want to go through that today. Rank is an important tool. But, when perceived solely on the basis of ego, it becomes detrimental to the overall growth of the individual practitioner as well as the martial art training hall.

Rank becomes detrimental when people think that their rank personifies who they are. But doesn’t it? Rank should epitomize the individual practitioner and serve a tool to remind them to what level they can aspire to, rather than what they truly are. It is a signpost to the potential that lies within the individual student rather than an overall accomplishment. In truth, learning and becoming better is a never-ending journey, and receiving a rank is only a signpost on the road that should remind you to continue moving forward in a positive direction.

There is a point in time where the individual passes themselves on that road and begins to understand the true function of rank, and is no longer hung up on it. If you really want to continue to grow, you need to take the roof off the house. The perception that you have of your rank is keeping you down. That item that used to be motivational becomes demotivational because you start lording over everything and everyone because you have a fifth degree blackbelt. In truth, as all steps forward, this becomes the true doorway into the learning of the martial arts. All of us that have spent an inordinate amount of time (30 years plus) training in our given art form, I think will all attest to the fact that once you reach this equivalent level, there is a major transformation, and you begin to understand that you’ve only begun to understand. In this one moment of epiphany, you can dispense with all ego, bravado, and anything else that was tied to having these ranks. You can truly begin an unfettered start to learning again.

When people find out that you hold a black belt or some rank equivalent in a martial art, they say, “Oh, so you must be a master,” in a Homer Simpson kind of voice, but you understand, hopefully, that that’s not the case. It’s just a stepping stone to a higher level of understanding. Ranked individuals return to become beginners again. Many times, I don’t wear my belt, I don’t wear my sash. It’s tied up and it’s on the Sun Toy (ancestral altar). There was a time when I was more into wearing it to show “what I am,” “what I have” and “what I accomplished.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but as I said before, when you pass yourself a few times, you realize that those trappings are not necessary and even hold you back. They keep you from growing because they put a cap on how you perceive the learning and the growth, and ultimately how you perceive yourself.

It’s good sometimes to mix it up and train with non-black belts to keep it real. Underbelts can sometimes do just as well if not better than black belts because we forget what it took to get there. What it took to get there is what it’s going to take to keep it there and move even further along. The danger of having a high rank is that it undermines your openness and the unspoiled nature of the beginner student mentality. Sometimes, you get your black belt, and it’s like cancer. Cancer ultimately kills and it’s very difficult to put in remission, and even if you do, it may come back. This is the crux of the matter. Some individuals, when they get their black belt, lose the proper understanding and get something else, which I like to term black-belt-itis, and it’s caustic to their growth. Because as we established, learning is a journey and it goes on forever. If you believe that, then you not only have to get rank out of the way, you have to get yourself out of the way. Sitting on your laurels about the glory days when you first started training and worked so hard will only get you so far. The car’s run out of gas; it’s time to get out and walk. You have to stoke the fire all the time; otherwise the fire goes out.

Keep it real. Honor it, respect it, cherish and honor the knowledge. Devote yourself to the learning, but don’t be held prisoner by the rank. Don’t care about the rank any more “in that way.” Because if it no longer holds sway over you, you can learn more. This is where a lot of senior practitioners in whatever art you want to talk about cannot continue to grow because they stagnate themselves with the wrong mentality. Rank means nothing unless you put in the work. You have to work it every day. If the 5-Star Chef doesn’t stay on top of his ability, then his five stars are gone. I try to remain vigilant to keep myself on the straight and narrow. As I was training yesterday with my teacher (as I have continued to do for the last thirty plus years), Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, he said to me, in a blanket statement, “Don’t lie to yourself. Do it right.” I try to live by that on a daily basis. Most people dream the dream; they don’t live the dream. If you live the dream, you have to take stock of yourself. Sometimes it may come up much harsher than you’d like to hear, but in my opinion, that’s the only way a true martial artist or artist of any kind can and should be.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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NATURE VS. NURTURE… OR MAYBE NOT

I’m sitting here… Wait… I always say I’m sitting here. I’m actually not sitting. I’m walking back and forth between working with different students and on this blog, and I see a message coming over on Kung Fu In A Minute from a gentleman in South America claiming that he can’t learn Kung Fu because he’s very strong (his words, not mine), but not agile. This reminded me about a conversation that I was having with a group of students last week in regards to the debate between nature vs. nurture, which comes up in a lot of different areas in life. Looking at it from the standpoint of training in Kung Fu, to try to answer this individual’s question, all of us are impacted highly by various forces in our lives, things that we can control and things that we absolutely cannot control. The debate between what creates a good martial artist, be it his innate nature, whatever he received in his DNA strand from his ancestral background, height, weight, strength, maladies, and so on, versus what we are exposed to and then become accustomed to, what we’re weaned on, what we’re nurtured with or raised up with. I think both of these factors have major implications on the martial art and the martial artist.

These two extreme factors have a lot to do with stylistic attitudes as well as types of techniques that are employed, utilized, specialized in, and who can apply them and how they can be applied. Certain martial art systems are modified and specialized so that they’re much more inclined for a particular body type, mentality, or even topographical region, as opposed to others that are much more general and broad in spectrum. This also is the case with individuals. All of us as human beings have special attributes. None of us are created equal. Even though we all have basically the same hardware, our software is different and unique and therefor special. Ten people go to the same movie; ten people walk out with ten different viewpoints, all being correct, except for the eleventh guy that always keeps nudging you and asking, “What’s going on? What did he say?”

What many fail to understand is that the differences that we have in both nature and nurture will contribute greatly to how a particular marital arts system is employed by the individual. Many students have said to me, so-and-so is strong, so-and-so is fast, how can I be like them? The truth is, certain people can do certain things based upon their size, their innate flexibility, and their innate strengths and weaknesses. Some individuals are predisposed to being fast and strong. Others are predisposed to being flexible and agile. This by no stretch of the imagination means that any one individual is better or worse than the other, just different based upon their nature. Your nature is what you’re born with, what you’re endowed with. You get a lot of good and you get a lot of bad in the package. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t improve on what you’ve been given.

When you enter into the nurture aspect, i.e., the training that you receive, that which you are exposed to originally has a huge impact. It is a fingerprint on the martial artist that is almost impossible to eradicate. This is just like the initial nurture that you receive as a child, which has a profound impact on your life regardless of your innate nature. It sets a default in the physical and mental nature of the person and sets a course that they will follow even though they may not be aware of it. Your first exposure to martial art training is critical; it leaves an indelible mark on the individual practitioner that will either help or hinder them in their training. The way you perceive things, understand things, decipher techniques and how they’ll be utilized and played with in your training, has a lot to do with that first step that you’re given. I’ve had students in the past who have had other backgrounds in other martial arts. For example, a student that was initially exposed to Karate or Taekwondo has a harder time acclimating himself to the way Kung Fu thinks and moves even though they have a similar background. This is solely based upon that being the individual’s first exposure. It colors everything that you do, so it’s very important that the initial exposure is proper in the sense that it gives the correct infrastructure for the system that you’re studying. (Just as a side note, it’s highly critical as teachers and instructors, that we give the student the best possible basic training in order to set the tone for future training to follow.) If you see a lot of modern day Kung Fu practitioners unable to tap into the inherent strengths, techniques and fighting ability of the systems that they’re involved with, it’s because of the lack of that hardcore basic training coupled with the individual’s nature.

It is very important that the individual understands what his nature is and what he’s capable of doing. I’m not saying that you’re incapable of doing certain things that other people do, but other people will be predisposed to doing things that you can’t and vice versa. I’d like to talk about a student of mine, and for this blog I’ll just call him “Iron Bones.” Everybody in the school knows who he is. When you match up with him to do conditioning or any type of two-man training or sparring, god forbid you come into contact with his shins. He the next to skinniest guy in the school. He’s wiry, muscular but not overtly, and his bones in general are created from iron. This is something that stems from his DNA that is part of his personal nature. No matter how hard you train, you’re not going to be able to emulate this because it’s just not part of your makeup. He can use this to his benefit and can do certain techniques that other people that don’t have this attribute cannot, strictly based upon the nature of the individual. There’s no way I can train someone to be like that. You can’t change your blood type. It is what it is, and you have to work with that. Another example would be where stretching is concerned, you will see some individuals that are innately flexible and are able to do a split, be it right, left or straight in the middle, with little training or effort, and then there are other individuals that actively stretch on a regular basis and still may not be able to attain a full split. This doesn’t mean that one is better than the other; it’s just what they are. The individual Kung Fu practitioner needs to develop a good understanding of his physical and mental nature, the parameters that he has to work within.

Some people can play a form and articulate the innate feeling and play it so well and hit all the marks and make it look exactly what you perceive any one given system should look like, but they may not be able to utilize or fight with it. You may say, “Sifu, what do you mean?” In all honestly, not everyone is a fighter. Nor is everyone a performer or an artist. Some individuals are blessed with the nature and have been nurtured by a high level master and can do both, but most can’t. This is just the cold hard truth. Many really good fighters are not good at performing hand forms or weaponry, and vice versa. In the realm of fighting there are individuals who have the physicality and the mentality to be good fighters, and if provided the proper nurture, they can excel in that realm. A kid with no martial art experience whatsoever who grew up in the streets and had no choice but to learn how to fight to survive already has a leg up on someone that may have the attributes but not that type of experience. There may be an archetype that you want to aspire to, but just because you like golf doesn’t make you Tiger Woods. He’s a product of his nature and his nurture. He’s not just one. There are forces at work on both sides that push you to become what you become.

There is a lot to be said about what you’re exposed to on the nurture side and what you assimilate in your training that accentuates the innate abilities of the individual. All factors, be it flexibility, speed, strength, or mentality, can be attributed to your nature and augmented through the nurture of the training. Coming back to specialized and broad systems of Kung Fu and martial arts in general, some practitioners may be more predisposed to particular systems and styles based upon their physicality, mentality, and also what they’re willing to put themselves through. This is a unique part of the nurture aspect as far as martial arts is concerned. When you’re a child you don’t have a choice other than to accept the nurture that you receive from your parents and/or family unit. But as a martial artist, you can take the opportunity to pick and choose what in your system benefits and/or matches up with your particular character and/or nature, physical and mental. You can also choose how much pressure, or stress, you want to expose yourself to. We were saying the other day that stress is a dirty word – everybody says stress is no good, and I agree with you to some extent, but there are different types of stress. When you’re being “nurtured” in the martial art setting, you will be put through stressful situations, stretching, physical conditioning, stance training, mental training and so on. These are all different forms of stress, but in a positive format that is a nurturing part of the training that forces the individual to reshape and mold his nature to conform to an idea. This allows him to be able to actualize the techniques and physicality of the system that he’s learning. In the case of Kung Fu training, “nurture” is almost too soft of a word. Kung Fu nurturing is tough love.

How does wrought iron become steel? You must understand the properties that iron has. Then you take the raw iron ore and process it to the point that it becomes high grade carbon steel. That’s what you’re looking at when you say nature and nurture; you’re talking about properties and process. That’s what you’re talking about when you’re doing martial art training. It’s not what people like to say, nature VS. nurture. On a personal level, you may have been born with a certain nature and raised a certain way, but with martial art training, at least for an adult, you can take a steadier hand and make choices. The choices are tough sometimes because it’s physically and mentally demanding, but in order to get raw iron ore to become steel, it has to go through a very arduous process. Similarly, the individual, regardless of his innate nature, has to go through the process of the nurture, or training.

The two aspects of nature and nurture in my personal viewpoint don’t go head to head but rather should complement one another. I don’t think these two forces are diametrically opposed, but rather, that they should be seen as almost a yin and yang combination. As I’m writing this blog, and I’m looking at the rattan shield inside the school, it’s also speaking to me about the concept of nature and nurture. Rattan by itself is strong, fibrous and flexible, and because of these inherent attributes, it can be molded into a shape and interwoven into a rattan shield that a knife or spear cannot pierce. Hey, kind of sounds like yin and yang. This is an excellent example of utilizing the nature of the item then nurturing, or molding it to make it into even more. When you’re looking at an individual athlete, be they a martial artist or not, you must take into account the nature of the individual, the properties that are within this one person that make them what they are, as well as the external forces that were placed upon said individual to mold them into what we see.

Understanding your internal nature and what you’ve been given, you make the decision on how to work with those attributes. You have the choice. So, as I look out across the training floor and see all the students working on their drills, I see various individuals. Some are tall with long limbs; some are much shorter. Some are heavy, stocky and well-muscled; others are much thinner and wiry in frame. Yet all of them can come away with something from the training if they are aware of their innate nature and utilize the training to nurture those attributes to bring out the best in themselves. At higher levels in your training, you yourself should become aware of what you can specialize in, things that you’re good at, techniques that become your touchstone, that you can always come back to and know you have in your pocket. That’s a personal thing that each and every one of us has to take time to develop. As we said before, 10 practitioners of the same system will all have a particular look and feel, but each one of them will be unique unto themselves and come away with what they understand and what they can do.

So, now coming back to this individual and his statement about how he’s strong but not agile, and therefor can’t learn Kung Fu. He may not have the agility that he thinks he needs, but through proper training, i.e., nurture, he can acquire agility to the best of his ability. So you can’t say to me that you can’t train. I firmly believe that everyone can and should train in Kung Fu (haha… of course). I’m saying that it’s not nature vs. nurture, but instead a mixture of both. It’s internal attributes and external forces that you align together to make yourself into the best martial artist that you can be. Everyone needs to develop a better understanding of themselves and strive for the best that they can do, utilizing these two forces together.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

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KUNG FU: LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE

There’s no easy way around the issue of practicing. Learning an item is only that. You can learn an item without truly understanding or knowing it. You have to be able to chew on it and digest it and hold onto it. This can only be done through daily practice. Daily practice is something that a lot of students that are not “into” the art of Kung Fu can’t really fathom. I had a student last night give me the excuse that he had to leave early in order to pick up his laundry before 9pm. As he made this statement, the entire class laughed at him. Now, I’m not telling you not to have clean laundry; I’m all for that. But, the reward, the transformation, is within the practice. I’ve said this before, but you can’t cook with cold water, and you have to break some eggs to make omelets. Getting hot takes quite a bit of time, but only getting hot will allow you to reveal layers of understanding that can’t happen if you just dabble in it.

Treating your martial art practice as a hobby or a pastime is all fine and well, but in reality, is completely the wrong approach. I understand that life gets in the way, but Kung Fu is a way of life; therefor it should get in your way. It should get in the way of all the other things that distract you. It should get in the way of the things that keep you from investing the amount of time that’s needed to get you hot enough to be able to cook something up. Only then can you pass through those self-set stumbling blocks that every one of us encounters. Only then can you reach another level of understanding. You might say to me, I’ve heard this before, you’ve said this before, my teacher has said this before, I’ve read it in a book. You’re probably 100% correct, but it requires repeating on a regular basis. You can’t get something for nothing. If you give a little, you get a little, and if you give a lot, you’re going to get a lot. This is not an understatement. This is just the plain, cold truth. The time and energy being given by any one individual to their daily practice will be seen by those than can. And in this daily practice, the individual practitioner will start to understand their art and themselves.

This understanding is first rooted in basic training. You must continually train your basics, unceasingly, for decades. Train your stances, drill all your basic hand techniques and kicks until they become so well ingrained in you that they are almost a preoccupation. You’re consumed. When you’re standing there in the middle of the office at work and you start busting out movements, then you know you’ve been bitten by the Kung Fu bug. You’re practicing all the time; it’s become an obsession. You’re a chain smoker of Kung Fu. That’s the way you’re supposed to practice. You’re supposed to practice 24/7; you’re not supposed to practice between 7-9pm on Thursday night. You’re supposed to be so all consumed with the practice that it never leaves the forefront of your mind. You end up having Kung Fu dreams where you’re sitting there in bed making motions in the air with your hands, going through the form at night. That’s the way it’s supposed to be (at least for me). That’s the true practice; it colors every part of your existence. It has to be that obsessive-compulsive desire to constantly perfect your movement and in that way perfect your understanding. Using all your senses to practice – sight, smell, taste, feel, and then you develop the internal understanding. You start to develop a sixth sense, a knowing, an understanding of how things should be. You start to verbalize the language (Refer to my syntax blog) that is Kung Fu in a physical and mental way.

I was saying the other day in class, you practice for the click. You have to click with it, and you have to work hard for the click. Otherwise, it’s a mechanical gesture devoid of spirit, chi and understanding. When you get that click, you cannot explain it to anyone else unless they go through the same process that you went through. How many times have you gone through the process? How many times have you reset yourself back to zero and started again? Another even more intense question is, how many times have you quit, relented and come back? How many times have you thrown it on the ground, cursed it, picked it up, kissed it, said I’m sorry, and started again? This goes for all art forms, vocations and callings. If you haven’t done that at least half a dozen times, you’ve never done it.

You’re going to go through this multiple times. That’s the journey, and there are a lot of bumps and potholes in the road. You have to learn to navigate the training, take in the good, the bad the high and the low. A lot of people think there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or that the grass is greener on the other side, but as I’m fond of saying, it’s only Astroturf. Reality sucks and you have to deal with it. That’s why making excuses is the easy way out. The hard way, which many people today don’t really want to deal with, is to go through the process. The process is gut-wrenching and soul searching. It turns you inward and forces you to look at yourself and weigh everything. In a lot of the old Shaw brothers movies, you see a layman who goes to the temple and wants to learn Kung Fu for the sake of revenge. He learns a little but then doesn’t have the fortitude to complete the training and runs away. Sound familiar?

You may ask, Sifu, when does the training end? It doesn’t end. It continues forever. Your practice should last your entire lifetime and carry you through all the different changes, progression and evolution of your life. If it doesn’t, you either picked the wrong thing or you’re doing it the wrong way. From my personal experience, which is all I can speak of, my Kung Fu practice has followed me through different stages of my life and has helped me to progress through them and slowly, hopefully, fulfill the life that is a gift that you’ve been given. Your Kung Fu practice becomes an awesome maintenance tool for body, mind and spirit.

You may wonder why some people are better than others and some are getting it and some just can’t. It has to do with the time and effort the individual has put in and the way you’ve devoted yourself. If you only do a little bit, you may learn something, but you’re never going to permeate the true meaning of the practice, which is the development of the individual. The training becomes a magnification of the individual’s character. The training transforms you from a piece of coal into a glittering diamond. Now, we’re putting the magnification on you. We’re looking for character flaws, for the cracks; we have to cut that out and purify ourselves. Not many people can withstand that because the pressure increases. The heat increases, and it forces you to find those cracks and cut them out. It becomes extremely personal; it’s about perfecting the individual. That’s what you’re doing in your practice. As you practice and try to capture the idea of the movement, in actuality, you’re perfecting yourself. You learn to see your impurities, your character flaws, you take stock of them, you acknowledge them, and then you work to polish them away through the practice. You span the physical to the mental to the spiritual, and flow right back into the physical again. This is no different than any other art, a stroke of the brush, a flick of the wrist to strum the guitar, extending of the hand, extending the mind, the spirit and the body as one. That process is the process that transforms. It is only by spending time with the movement and spending time with your teacher that through the crucible of the practice you come to understand. You have to go within and spend time with yourself on yourself.

When you practice, you are using the vehicle of the form to tap into your energy, which is like lightning in a bottle, the bottle being your physical body. You want to capture that lightning in a bottle and make it work. You are just energy. You’re the lightning in a bottle. How you’re going to use that lightning is your choice. You can squander it, waste it and be foolish, or you can really hone in and make yourself into something. That’s what you’re doing with the practice. The only way to touch it is to practice incessantly. The inside makes the out; the outside never makes the in. You have to work from the inside out. This is what most people are missing. It goes beyond that punch and kick, that deadly technique. Rather, you’re working the energy. Don’t work the move; work the energy. The energy is also a byproduct of your attitude, so while you’re working the movement, you’re working your energy; you’re working the attitude; you’re shining yourself up. That’s what the practice is about.

We’re talking about your attitude, your approach. If you approach it from the right frame of mind, from a happy perspective, being happy to go through the process, happy to be worked over by the art itself, you’re going to glean more than someone who’s being dragged through the mud kicking and screaming. It’s up to you maintain that positive, happy outlook regardless of whether you’re learning a new form and weapon or working on something you’ve been working on for years. It’s that happy, content approach, that overall jovial attitude towards being in it that is going to allow you to harness that lightning in a bottle.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

ALL WARRIORS WALK THE SAME PATH

There’s no easy way around the issue of practicing. Learning an item is only that. You can learn an item without truly understanding or knowing it. You have to be able to chew on it and digest it and hold onto it. This can only be done through daily practice. Daily practice is something that a lot of students that are not “into” the art of Kung Fu can’t reallyfathom. I had a student last night give me the excuse that he had to leave early in order to pick up his laundry before 9pm. As he made this statement, the entire class laughed at him. Now, I’m not telling you not to have clean laundry; I’m all for that. But, the reward, the transformation, is within the practice. I’ve said this before, but you can’t cook with cold water, and you have to break some eggs to make omelets. Getting hot takes quite a bit of time, but only getting hot will allow you to reveal layers of understanding that can’t happen if you just dabble in it. 

Treating your martial art practice as a hobby or a pastime is all fine and well, but in reality, is completely the wrong approach. I understand that life gets in the way, but Kung Fu is a way of life; therefor it should get in your way. It should get in the way of all the other things that distract you. It should get in the way of the things that keep you from investing the amount of time that’s needed to get you hot enough to be able to cook something up. Only then can you pass through those self-set stumbling blocks that every one of us encounters. Only then can you reach another level of understanding. You might say to me, I’ve heard this before, you’ve said this before, my teacher has said this before, I’ve read it in a book. You’re probably 100% correct, but it requires repeating on a regular basis. You can’t get something for nothing. If you give a little, you get a little, and if you give a lot, you’re going to get a lot. This is not an understatement. This is just the plain, cold truth. The time and energy being given by any one individual to their daily practice will be seen by those than can. And in this daily practice, the individual practitioner will start to understand their art and themselves. 

This understanding is first rooted in basic training. You must continually train your basics, unceasingly, for decades. Train your stances, drill all your basic hand techniques and kicks until they become so well ingrained in you that they are almost a preoccupation. You’re consumed. When you’re standing there in the middle of the office at work and you start busting out movements, then you know you’ve been bitten by the Kung Fu bug. You’re practicing all the time; it’s become an obsession. You’re a chain smoker of Kung Fu. That’s the way you’re supposed to practice. You’re supposed to practice 24/7; you’re not supposed to practice between 7-9pm on Thursday night. You’re supposed to be so all consumed with the practice that it never leaves the forefront of your mind. You end up having Kung Fu dreams where you’re sitting there in bed making motions in the air with your hands, going through the form at night. That’s the way it’s supposed to be (at least for me). That’s the true practice; it colors every part of your existence. It has to be that obsessive-compulsive desire to constantly perfect your movement and in that way perfect your understanding. Using all your senses to practice – sight, smell, taste, feel, and then you develop the internal understanding. You start to develop a sixth sense, a knowing, an understanding of how things should be. You start to verbalize the language (Refer to my syntax blog) that is Kung Fu in a physical and mental way. 

I was saying the other day in class, you practice for the click. You have to click with it, and you have to work hard for the click. Otherwise, it’s a mechanical gesture devoid of spirit, chi and understanding. When you get that click, you cannot explain it to anyone else unless they go through the same process that you went through. How many times have you gone through the process? How many times have you reset yourself back to zero and started again? Another even more intense question is, how many times have you quit, relented and come back? How many times have you thrown it on the ground, cursed it, picked it up, kissed it, said I’m sorry, and started again? This goes for all art forms, vocations and callings. If you haven’t done that at least half a dozen times, you’ve never done it. 

You’re going to go through this multiple times. That’s the journey, and there are a lot of bumps and potholes in the road. You have to learn to navigate the training, take in the good, the bad the high and the low. A lot of people think there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or that the grass is greener on the other side, but as I’m fond of saying, it’s only Astroturf. Reality sucks and you have to deal with it. That’s why making excuses is the easy way out. The hard way, which many people today don’t really want to deal with, is to go through the process. The process is gut-wrenching and soul searching. It turns you inward and forces you to look at yourself and weigh everything. In a lot of the old Shaw brothers movies, you see a layman who goes to the temple and wants to learn Kung Fu for the sake of revenge. He learns a little but then doesn’t have the fortitude to complete the training and runs away. Sound familiar? 

You may ask, Sifu, when does the training end? It doesn’t end. It continues forever. Your practice should last your entire lifetime and carry you through all the different changes, progression and evolution of your life. If it doesn’t, you either picked the wrong thing or you’re doing it the wrong way. From my personal experience, which is all I can speak of, my Kung Fu practice has followed me through different stages of my life and has helped me to progress through them and slowly, hopefully, fulfill the life that is a gift that you’ve been given. Your Kung Fu practice becomes an awesome maintenance tool for body, mind and spirit.

You may wonder why some people are better than others and some are getting it and some just can’t. It has to do with the time and effort the individual has put in and the way you’ve devoted yourself. If you only do a little bit, you may learn something, but you’re never going to permeate the true meaning of the practice, which is the development of the individual. The training becomes a magnification of the individual’s character. The training transforms you from a piece of coal into a glittering diamond. Now, we’re putting the magnification on you. We’re looking for character flaws, for the cracks; we have to cut that out and purify ourselves. Not many people can withstand that because the pressure increases. The heat increases, and it forces you to find those cracks and cut them out. It becomes extremely personal; it’s about perfecting the individual. That’s what you’re doing in your practice. As you practice and try to capture the idea of the movement, in actuality, you’re perfecting yourself. You learn to see your impurities, your character flaws, you take stock of them, you acknowledge them, and then you work to polish them away through the practice. You span the physical to the mental to the spiritual, and flow right back into the physical again. This is no different than any other art, a stroke of the brush, a flick of the wrist to strum the guitar, extending of the hand, extending the mind, the spirit and the body as one. That process is the process that transforms. It is only by spending time with the movement and spending time with your teacher that through the crucible of the practice you come to understand. You have to go within and spend time with yourself on yourself.

When you practice, you are using the vehicle of the form to tap into your energy, which is like lightning in a bottle, the bottle being your physical body. You want to capture that lightning in a bottle and make it work. You are just energy. You’re the lightning in a bottle. How you’re going to use that lightning is your choice. You can squander it, waste it and be foolish, or you can really hone in and make yourself into something. That’s what you’re doing with the practice. The only way to touch it is to practice incessantly. The inside makes the out; the outside never makes the in. You have to work from the inside out. This is what most people are missing. It goes beyond that punch and kick, that deadly technique. Rather, you’re working the energy. Don’t work the move; work the energy. The energy is also a byproduct of your attitude, so while you’re working the movement, you’re working your energy; you’re working the attitude; you’re shining yourself up. That’s what the practice is about. 

We’re talking about your attitude, your approach. If you approach it from the right frame of mind, from a happy perspective, being happy to go through the process, happy to be worked over by the art itself, you’re going to glean more than someone who’s being dragged through the mud kicking and screaming. It’s up to you maintain that positive, happy outlook regardless of whether you’re learning a new form and weapon or working on something you’ve been working on for years. It’s that happy, content approach, that overall jovial attitude towards being in it that is going to allow you to harness that lightning in a bottle.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

Self AWARENESS… A Work In Progress

As I’m sitting here in my empty training hall, I, by chance, came across a story that a friend of mine posted in one of the Facebook groups about a horrific home invasion that happened over the weekend. As I read the story, I realized to myself how deeply unaware we are as individuals passing through our daily lives, oblivious to all the evil that surrounds us. We don’t have to look to bygone days for lawlessness, evil and people that commit such heinous crimes as murder, rape and theft. These criminals and evil people surround us daily; we’re just not aware of it. Unfortunately, this evil abounds and surrounds us continually. It’s running rampant in our modern day society.

The awareness that we carry with us on a daily basis is something that we all need to focus on. We get lulled into a false sense of security going through our daily lives in our daily routine. We are oblivious to the fact that these individuals and crimes exist all around us and are happening all the time. We desensitize ourselves and make ourselves unaware, basically falling asleep. We need to concentrate on our own awareness of our surroundings, the people around us and how we perceive and see things. I’m not saying that you need to become paranoid, but at the same time you have to wake up and understand the world is not a beautiful place that is populated by rainbows and unicorns. Rather, it’s a stark landscape mostly populated by individuals that don’t have your best intention at heart. In truth, human beings are just animals, and without some form of civilized social code cannot coexist with one another. Unfortunately, in the convenience of our modern society, our edge has become dulled by everything that is around us. I’m not saying that we should do away with the convenient modern society that we have, only to be aware that there are people out there who have been pushed to a societal level where committing heinous crimes seems plausible and reasonable, turning human beings into less than animals, but really monsters. We see bad things happening every day but yet turn a blind eye and think, well it’s happening somewhere else to someone else, out of sight out of mind. We all need to heighten our sensitivity to protect ourselves and our families and make sure, to the best of our ability, that something like this doesn’t happen to us.

This, first and foremost, can start with training in the martial arts to make ourselves aware primarily of ourselves and our surroundings. The understanding and awareness of the self is paramount to one’s own self-preservation and protection. 
Martial art training is a mirror of how you live your life. If you train in the martial arts and follow the codes and ethics that we adhere to, this should have a profoundly positive impact on your life and the people within your life. The martial art training that we receive should help to heighten our personal awareness as well as the awareness of our surroundings, the people around us and the energy in the area that we’re in. This should all serve to help us understand and feel what’s up. I’m not saying that it’s going to stop everything horrible from happening, but it should raise the level of your understanding of what’s going on around you, rather than just going with the flow as most people do. I see many people just taking things in stride; another sunny, beautiful day in the neighborhood. It may be, but you can’t fall asleep on the A train, watching your Netflix, playing your Candy Crush, and browsing through Instagram. I’m not preaching gloom-and-doom; I’m just saying all of us need to wake up and make sure that we know how to spot something that may be going on.

Awareness is an intangible understanding that one must develop on their own in order for them to understand themselves better. Awareness can be looked upon as both internal and external awareness. These two dual aspects of awareness are what we should strive to derive from our daily training. Many people pick up training in Kung Fu or the martial arts and just simply go through the actions without thinking and feeling from within and without. That is to say, they just go through the martial calisthenics without trying to tap into a deeper understanding of what’s going on around them as well as within them at the same time, what energies are being used and moved and required. One must understand the intention, the attitude and the spatial awareness in order to apply and utilize these movements. All these aspects must be taken into account, and form a special type of awareness that everyday people don’t have. The race car driver understands the confines of his surroundings. As he goes around the track at high speeds, he feels and is aware of the machine that he is within and becomes one with it. He’s aware of the road, the tires, and the pressure within the engine. All these things are the same for Kung Fu.

As one goes through their training regimen in Kung Fu and slowly begins to reawaken themselves through the stretching, breathing, stances, punches, kicks, matching up with their partners, going through their weapon and empty hand sets, one cannot help but build a better respect for oneself, their own mind and body and personal awareness of space and time. Slowly, you also begin to read other individuals. Become a student of human nature and watch people’s reactions, body language, gestures and start picking up on the energy so to speak. As we had stated in the previous blog, learn to discern what is evil or bad energy as opposed to good energy, and put yourself in the proper position to be able to eradicate and deal with such.

I spent some time the other day striking on the sandbag as we normally do, and was striving to become more aware of every fiber of my body being used to make that one strike with one action, one breath, one thought, honing a higher level of awareness. In order to attain this awareness, everything has to slow down. Most people, when they come in, they just want to jump right into it and begin training and ascend to a god-like status in the martial arts. Everyone does this, but it’s a misconception. Hopefully, as you start training, you will see that it requires you to actually slow everything down that you do, including your thought process, in order to become more aware of every little facet of every little motion and action that you’re doing. Coming back to the sandbag, I straightened the sandbag, watching my own stance, the way I initiated the power of the energy, the breath, trying to focus and make everything synchronized and work together, and I took a step back to realize that this is also the training for awareness that can be seen in a larger grander scheme or in a small minute detail.

The awareness developed through training is a heightened sense. In one way, it can be summarized as a sixth sense, giving you understanding of what is around you at that moment in time. Awareness not only gives us understanding of the physical aspects of space, time and speed, but also that of different types of energies. It allows you to know where to put yourself and how to situate yourself. This is an active pursuit that you have to be actively striving towards, to attain that next level of awareness. You’re not going to get it just because you participate in class; you have to be actively seeking the awareness. That comes back down to the individual’s approach. As I was watching my class last night, I could see who was actively thinking, feeling and striving to understand, as opposed to those that were purely doing the exercise aspect and not clicking with themselves.

As I’m looking for images for this blog, I’m searching the Internet and I come upon an image that is eerily what I was telling my class last night. You have to be the captain of your own mind. Many of us don’t understand this, or, at worst case, our captain is asleep at the wheel. Everything must be guided from your own mind. Therefore, your mind must be clear, clean and pristine to the point of almost being empty. The self-awareness that everyone should strive for will first come when we do, as we said, a spring cleaning, a spring cleaning of the mind in order to be able to understand better ourselves and the surroundings that we are in. You have to be ready, willing and able to partake of all aspects of your training in order to gain that awareness. This is where most students fail themselves because they are incapable of understanding that aspect of it. There is no magic that is going to happen unless you fully engage. If you don’t do that you’re missing the point. Training every day raises our level of awareness of ourselves which ultimately raises our awareness of everything that goes on around us, keeping us safer and more secure and allowing us to understand ourselves better.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

GOOD CHI, BAD CHI, NO CHI, YOUR CHI...

邪不能勝正

It’s supposedly springtime. They always say April showers bring May flowers. Well, I’ll tell you, I’m sick and tired of showers, and I’m not seeing any flowers even though May is right around the corner. Sitting hunched over the keyboard the other day trying to work on a project, I guess I inadvertently twisted around and tweaked something in my shoulder. I don’t want to say old age is creeping up on me, so we’ll blame it on the dampness of the weather. Then I thought to myself, how could this be? I practice my Kung Fu on a daily basis, sometimes hours upon hours on any one given day. Oh well. So, it came time to go visit my Sifu and do a little extra training. I mentioned it to him but then started running through our regimen of daily practice. I spent a lot of time and energy on one section over and over again. My Sifu was commenting from the other side of the room that he could see the chi that I was producing heating up the room and starting to escalate, and as he mentioned that I realized that I didn’t feel that stabbing pain in my back as much.

Everybody has chi; it’s your internal energy and power, but not many people know how to tap into it and actually make it work. That’s one of the amazing benefits of learning traditional Kung Fu. When you practice, you run the chi in your body. You can become your own doctor to a certain degree. You can diagnose yourself and understand what the issue is, and in certain respects be able to heal yourself and turn it around. It’s happened to me many times where you injure yourself or inadvertently get a cold or something, but through the practice of the chi gung that’s inside your traditional form, you are able to raise up that energy and have it course through your body and help push out whatever the stagnation or ailment is. And that’s my story, because now I feel fine. If you get a pinched nerve or a frozen shoulder or whatever people get when the seasons change, you’re going to be going to the chiropractor or the acupuncturist, and buying stock in Bengay. I’m not saying that Kung Fu can alleviate all that, but I’ve seen it happen many times through the dedication, faith, practice and belief in what you’re learning and utilizing it regularly. I’m not saying that the casual student is going to be able to do something like this. This comes only after years of dedicated practice and being able to link up the different systems in your body with your mind.

The practice of Kung Fu is a lot about taking those so-called involuntary systems that you take for granted and bringing them back under your control: the blood flow in your body, the flow of the chi, your breathing. These must all tie in with your thinking, unifying the mind and the body to maintain health, balance and well-being in the mental and physical realms. It’s nothing magical; there’s nothing mystical about it. Everybody’s heard the extraordinary examples of people being able to control their body temperature, being able to withstand the freezing cold or being able to control their breath and staying under water for a long time. These are extreme accounts, and I’m not claiming that this can be done through Kung Fu. But, through Kung Fu training, it is possible for you to gain an extraordinary sensitivity towards your body’s functions and their internal systems. You can gain control over yourself above and beyond the average individual that does not partake in this highly specialized type of training.

The average person may say, what kind of training is this, and how can I take part in it? Well, it’s nothing secret. I always tell my students that the secret is, there is no secret. The Kung Fu exercise or the form is there for everyone to learn. Everything is being presented from day one; this is my personal opinion. Being healthy before you start training is always desirable, but not absolutely necessary. The knowledge that one can gain from learning a particular form can produce amazing results if the individual practices guided by the hand of a senior master, but this depends on the amount of time, effort, energy and openness of mind and spirit that the individual can bring to his practice. The form doesn’t cheat you. It’s we who cheat ourselves or don’t allow ourselves to see what is being presented and the possibilities that can be gleaned from this type of training.

Most of the southern systems, especially the one that I train, are combinations of external and internal training, breathing, stretching, focusing the mind, as well as the fighting techniques of the tiger. The prevailing energy and power that is derived from this type of movement with this mentality, using the power and spirit of the tiger, has a special way of overriding all that might ail you. At least this is true for me. I’m not trying to sell you some kind of snake oil, but I’ve had personal experience over time with this practice. As I always say in class, despite how you may feel when you come in, you always leave energized and revitalized after practice. That’s not only because you’ve done a physical exercise, but you’ve gone through the cathartic process of clearing the internal energy that’s built up in you over the course of the day or days that you haven’t practiced. You need that flush and that special training that we do that combines all the different stances, bridge hands, breathing exercises and so on, and gives us that flush and then that rush of fresh brand new hot-out-of-the-oven chi. I’ve gotten comments from many people after they find out my real chronological age, do a double take and go “huh?” The median age people think I am is around 35, but what we should do is actually invert those numbers. It’s the training that sustains you and keeps you moving and growing and keeps you healthy and young.

In the study of Kung Fu/Chi Gung, I don’t like to separate the internal practice from the external practice. That’s breaking up the system, breaking up the yin and yang. I know other people who like to do that, but I feel that internal and external make one combination. It starts from day one where you first learn to stretch and take your first stance (horse stance). Traditionally, in our class, we train our breathing exercise in our horse stance as we train our bridge hand and tiger claw. Right away, if you’re taught properly, you start to create that mental imagery where you breathe in from your fingertips to your toes. Like a tree, you draw in all the power, in through the nose and out through the mouth. It sounds really simple and easy, but few people actually do it. Mentally take over the processes of breathing and draw in the power from the sky, from the ground and from yourself, and actually bring it in and out like a wave. You see the wave rolling up onto the shore and rolling back into the ocean, back and forth, and couple that special breathing sequence with the movements that you do. Do this enough and you can mentally guide the chi through the room.

Another great analogy would be the atmosphere that you’re in. The fish is in his atmosphere, which is the water, and they effortlessly use the water to move themselves about. Hence, they say, “That guy can swim like a fish.” The birds in the sky use the wind and the currents to help them soar, take off and land, so, us too. Our atmosphere is the air around us, which is another way of defining the chi: the air within and without the body. Through the training, we learn to to bring it in and bring it out and actually gain control and move it. And you say, well, how am I going to do this? In one way it’s difficult, but the process itself is rather simple. You can take any one particular movement that you like and slow it down, break it down into its components and slowly start taking all the edges off the move. For example, if you’re going to do a punch, instead of doing that punch with speed and power as you think it should be done, we’re going to slow it down. Start from the beginning of the movement and see it through its entire completion. I want to see the entire spectrum of the motion being done smoothly, cleanly and slowly with the breath. In every action, breathing in with every fiber, every cell of my body, drawing in the power, rooting myself through my stance, breathing in through the foot, through the hand. Taking the breath in through my dan tien, the lower diaphragm, and pushing it out smooth and clean until I’ve done this hundreds of thousands of times to understand what that action is and how to bring in that air and oxygen. I oxygenate my body, oxygenate my brain, rejuvenate every blood cell in my body and then slowly, in my mind, capture the essence of the chi. This is a very simple, brief explanation, but as one practices, over time they will gain an innate understanding of themselves and how to produce this energy. Through this practice, we tap into what we call 精神 jing sun. That’s what Kung Fu is ultimately about. It’s about unifying the mind and the body to derive the spirit. When the spirit is strong, then all the other systems can be strong.

So when I was practicing yesterday, my Sifu was saying as he was watching me, you were able to get that 邪氣 negative energy off of you. This is an amazing benefit that training a traditional Kung Fu system can bring to anyone that is willing to put in the time and effort. I don’t want to get too metaphysical, but every person has an aura around them. When your aura is strong, that 邪氣 negative energy can’t get through. The old Chinese believe that when you get sick or ill, mentally or physically, it’s because you’re not strong enough to withstand those things being sent to you. A good way to get rid of the “evil eye” is to have 正氣 good strong chi from learning good strong Kung Fu. Through the practice, derive better control of your mind, body and spirit. 邪不能勝正 When you have good chi, evil cannot win.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

RANTINGS ON A SUNNY TUESDAY AFTERNOON

There are three things that are taboo to talk about, religion, politics and comic books. And I'm not talking about any of them. That's my disclaimer.

Over the last three decades or more, I’ve seen many a martial art master preach the philosophy, the code of conduct, the ethics, the creed, the way that we are all supposed to live by. Unfortunately, a lot of it is the art of “bullshido.” We are supposed to be scholar-warriors, but many, hiding behind the guise of ethical and moral ideals, never live up to them, or, worse, completely disregard them when it comes to their own personal dealings. When you’re young and enamored with the martial arts and the code or the way, you have dreams of becoming a Samurai or a Kung Fu warrior walking in the dessert to go and avenge his father’s death. Righteousness, benevolence, loyalty and other philosophical standards are earmarks of the true martial artist. However, it seems to me that every established organized religion or organization that espouses a code of ethics or morality is a construct made up by those in power. They want to keep you in check while they go off and do whatever they feel like doing. They make you toe the line and control you with ethical values and the guilt that comes when you don’t adhere to them.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have rules, ethics, ways of life, codes and such. As Winston says to John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2, “Rules… without them we live with the animals.” And I must agree, there need to be rules, norms, standards and codes that we follow not just to elevate ourselves but to elevate humanity because this is what separates us from any other wild beast, be it something that lives in the jungle or something that lives in the jungle of New York City. And isn’t this what the study of martial arts is supposed to be all about? I’m talking about the actual true study of real traditional martial arts. In my opinion, this study is for the purpose of elevating the status of man and his world, no?

Unfortunately, although it’s preached all the time in martial arts, it’s often not lived up to in my humble opinion. Many masters, big and small, have touted how you should be and what you should do and how you should treat others, but few of them actually live by that standard themselves. They don’t do as they say or practice what they preach. This double standard is incredibly hurtful. It is not the rules of any religion, philosophy or martial art system that are inherently wrong or bad. It is the way people twist and use these rules, or ignore them altogether, that creates the issue.

I think what inspired me is the other day I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. When I was much younger, I had read the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s an awesome read as well as a very well-made movie. Kazantzakis looks at Jesus not necessarily as a deity personified in human form, but rather as an ordinary man being asked, by God, to live up to a certain standard and ultimately sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. Kazantzakis portrays Jesus as a man with wants and desires of his own who isn’t always happy that he’s been chosen to be the Messiah. He has moments where he tries to please God and wants to do what’s right, but he is always being undermined by his humanity. On the cross, he is tempted by an angel with the prospect of an ordinary life. Not knowing that the angel is in fact Satan, Jesus gives in and steps down off the cross, believing that everyone will think that he was crucified even though he can live out the rest of his days as a normal man with a wife and children. On his deathbed, Jesus realizes that he made a mistake and asks for another chance. He goes back to the cross and goes through with the crucifixion. I’m not looking at this movie from a religious point of view or making any kind of comment or judgment about Jesus or Christianity. I’m looking at the movie from a humanistic point of view. I think it’s a great study in human nature and how we all fall victim to our wants and desires. All of us have difficulty living up to this golden standard. We are all tested and tried, but we all have the chance and opportunity to go back and right ourselves, right those things that we did that were wrong and try to live up to that standard.

The problem that I have is when the powers that be set up these standards and expect you to live up to them when they don’t. I think the individual man, the average Joe, probably does a better job than many of these established leaders. I don’t have a problem with somebody that does their best to do good but knows they are human and acknowledges their human frailties and faults. My problem is with people that portray themselves as being pristine but yet are the dirtiest ones of all. These leaders have sway over others and use rules and philosophical tenets as a modicum of control while not living them as they lay them out. For example, I’m sure that Mao Tze Tung did not live a Communistic life. I’m sure that he had opulence that the populace did not have. I’d rather have someone just come out and say, I’m the king and everyone will do as I say, as opposed to someone that hides behind the guise of “the golden rule” and being “right” when they’re so wrong. I think probably the majority of these leaders didn’t start out bad. I think they were corrupted slowly, subversively, through the power. Another example is in the revolution against the Ching by the Ming rebels. The rebels established all these secret societies and organizations that were put together for the unification of their country to get rid of this foreign power that overtook them and murdered their countrymen. Over time, these organizations were slowly subverted and became something else. It’s that slow degradation, that slow decay. How do you stop that? I think that has to be done on an individual basis, but it takes a stronger character to stand up for what is right. It’s one thing to give it lip service ;it’s another thing to live it on a daily basis.

It’s a moral and existential issue in today’s society and I’m sure it existed in days gone by, that you profess and try to uphold one type of thinking but inevitably it can’t hold its shine for too long. People in general have a way of bringing things down to a baser level, and not being able to live up to whatever standard was originally intended. You set up these ideals, but after a while you find yourself waning. If you’re the leader of a group or the leader of a team, be it in a corporate environment, in government or on the battlefield, you’re the person that everyone looks towards. The Greeks have an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” I always liked that saying. If the top individuals are wrong in your church, government or even in a martial arts school, you have the top man doing whatever he wants to do but telling everybody else how to be. Then you’re not being exemplary in your actions. I think that the philosophies that have been taught to us and placed in front of us for us to follow should be followed by all, especially from the top down.

I’m not talking about politics. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about people being phony. I’m not putting down these systems and these norms. I actually am a firm believer in them. Don’t we all find it disappointing when we see individuals and leaders within society professing one ideal but living another? They don’t live up to that standard by any stretch of the imagination but expect you to do so. I think this has been true for thousands of years and it’s just the way it is. This is my observation, but it’s not going to change me.

I’m not going to change what I believe in. I still believe in being good and standing up for what is right, having respect and honor for those that are deserved of it. I guess you can say that I’m naïve and idealistic, but I still want to believe that good guys wear black and in the end they win. I want to believe that the right way truly is the right way, and you should be able to adhere to your standards and not have to compromise your integrity just to get by. I still believe in those moral and ethical ideals. As human beings, we have points of weakness, and that’s okay as long as everybody understands that and you try to right yourself, catch yourself before you go too far. I think that’s the good fight that we try to do every day.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

THE DYING ART OF DISCIPLINE

Discipline (v): to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way

Discipline, discipline, discipline. What can I say? Is it me, the full moon, or is everyone out there? Case in point, I got into the city today, Lower East Side, and went to a very Bohemian style coffee shop that I don’t normally frequent because everybody’s not on the ball. And it was proved to me again, it seems like most people are just trying to get by. I ordered my black coffee and a small biscuit. Not even thirty seconds after I ordered it, the guy had to ask me again what I ordered. Meanwhile, there was no one in line and the place was virtually empty. You might say to me, well, what does this have to do with discipline? Discipline is rooted solely in the mind. It doesn’t come from your left pinky or your elbow. I like to use the phrase, “Discipline your mind and the body will follow,” which a lot of martial arts students, exercise fanatics and general laypeople don’t quite adhere to. There is no magic bullet. The magic bullet is the discipline that you can conjure up and apply, stemming from your willpower and mindset.

I don’t think most people will have a problem with the definition of discipline above. But what I want to investigate is actually the seat of discipline itself. Where does it come from? How do you get it? You can’t buy it at Walmart. You can’t order it from Amazon. I think everyone has had moments when they were highly disciplined and moments when they couldn’t discipline themselves to get out of bed. And if you say that’s not you, I’m going to call you a liar. So how does one first and foremost acquire that understanding, feeling and/or mindset to even prepare oneself to discipline oneself? I have had people tell me I’m a very disciplined individual, especially when it comes to the Kung Fu training, but when I view myself personally, I find myself not as disciplined as I’d like to be. 

The art of Kung Fu requires immense amounts of focus and discipline from the individual. Discipline can be gotten by instruction from someone i.e., your master, Sifu, or teacher, but they cannot discipline you to the point that you acquire the skill. You can be guided, directed, taught, prompted, or even prodded, but you cannot be made to acquire the discipline to learn the art of Kung Fu. That is solely from the individual, from his mind, heart, body and soul. I’ve also seen highly disciplined individuals run off the track and end up out of sorts. I’ve witnessed those that are disciplined to the point that they stifle and stagnate their spirit and character by the sheer rigidity of the habitual practice of whatever they’re doing. Not only do we have to try to understand where the germ of discipline comes from, try to acclimate ourselves to the actual practice of disciplining the character and mind of oneself, but we must not exceed the extreme and become so rigid and unwavering that discipline takes all the joy out of doing something. Where is the point of balance? I know, I’m asking a lot of questions… and I’m not expecting any answers. These questions have to be answered by and for each individual, because what may work for one person may not work for another. 

I think giving oneself structure goes hand in hand with acquiring discipline to accomplish any given task, be it big or small, and the consistency of that structure on a daily basis will slowly lead oneself to be disciplined. Hence I was bent out of shape with my Bohemian black coffee that took the guy several times to get it right. In the study of Kung Fu and life and in raising yourself up to be a competent, mature adult that’s contributing positively to society, you need to give yourself structure. But what is the ultimate root of establishing that structure and giving oneself the discipline? I think it has everything to do with the desire that any one individual has within them. You need to want to structure yourself. You need to want to discipline yourself. You need to want to toe the line. How do you nurture that desire, how do you not let it run over the side of your coffee cup and become something else? It is controlling the heart of the individual (which in Chinese is also comprised of the mind), the seat of the intelligence and the soul of the person, that keeps you on the straight and narrow. 

Discipline, i.e. structure, gives you complete freedom. This is not the kind of “freedom” that means you can do whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it. That just leads to chaos. Individuals who lack the structure to discipline themselves are always a complete mess. We all know individuals that never learned to discipline and structure themselves to gain freedom. What is that freedom? That freedom is in knowing who you are, what you are capable of, what your limitations are, and then creating a structure that will help you to go above and beyond those limitations. You become free because you put that structure there. The building is only as tall as its structure allows; that is the discipline of the architect. If there was no structure, the building would fall down or never be built at all. An architect wishing for a building to be built but lacking the discipline to do the work will result in nothing. Wishing for something never makes it true; rubbing that rabbit’s foot ain’t going to help. You have to get down and dirty and do the work, and, as my mom always used to say, take your hands out of your pockets. My parents came from a highly motivated background that had less; therefor they disciplined themselves, and in the end had more. I think this comes back to my Bohemain coffee cup this morning. A lot of people have just enough to sate their palate, and because they are satisfied with what they have, they are that much more susceptible to falling short of creating self-discipline. In the lack of self-discipline and self-structure, we open ourselves to be controlled by others that can impose their own structure upon you. 

The ancient Asian civilizations and martial arts, specifically the Chinese martial arts, are highly systemized and therefor highly disciplined in terms of doing one said action ten thousand times, as we spoke of in the previous blog. The prevailing attitude of today’s culture is that it’s cool to bounce around and do what you please. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be happy with what you do, but there is something to said about disciplining the mind and the body, giving oneself structure by doing the same action again and again. In this way, you come to understand it in its entire depth and bring it to another level of perfection. In this way, the individual practitioner acquires the freedom that is in the knowledge. The process is not going to be easy or happy. The process is going to be filled with pitfalls and disappointments, and that’s okay. That’s the price that one has to pay in order to derive the discipline that brings the freedom of execution and skill that are required to practice the art of Kung Fu and to live the art of life. The art of discipline is how to live a fruitful, happy, and productive life. Yes? I think so. 

I guess the true answer of where discipline comes from is the individual’s willpower to honestly reflect upon themselves and be painfully true about who and what you are. This is why people don’t like to discipline themselves, because you need to look into the mirror of your own soul, and you probably won’t like what is reflected within. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most messed up one of all? That’s what you’re going to see, and you’re going to have to deal with it. But only when you deal with it can you make steps forward. Yesterday, I was cautioning my class about being too comfortable. There is a certain modicum of discomfort that pushes you to grow. Your muscles only grow when you utilize them to the point that they go above the limit they’ve become accustomed to. You only become more flexible when you stretch your ligaments, tendons and muscles to the point that they exceed the level of comfort that they know. Only death is comfortable because you’re in a prone position. You know you’re still alive when you get out of bed in the morning. So this conversation about the art of discipline, which I feel is actually not dying... it’s an art that the individual must find and nurture within themselves. But it’s not a one-shot deal. That’s why I said there’s no magic bullet. It’s a continual revision and refinement of the self. That’s the practice and the art of Kung Fu, which is truly the art of discipline. You have to confess, not to whatever spirits or god you may believe in, but to yourself. When you confess to yourself, that’s when you talk to God and he slaps you in the face and calls you a b****, and then you have to go back to work.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

IT’S A NUMBERS GAME… BUT NOT ALWAYS WITH KUNG FU

Good afternoon everyone. I think a lot of old school martial artists will understand where I’m coming from when I tell this story. I come into the school way before classes start most mornings just to have my coffee and some quiet time to reflect, and I do what I need to do to take care of the school. One of the routines that I try to do on a regular basis is clean the toilet. And some people would say, Wow, the Sifu, the master of the school gets down on his hands and knees to clean the toilet? Yup. And I’m happy to do that. I came in, lit incense and said hello my late great-grandmaster and had a little conversation with him, and then cleaned the toilet. I hadn’t even had a sip of coffee yet. That was my devotion to my training.

So while I was doing that early this morning, I reflected upon a conversation that I had with a longtime student of mine the other day. He was musing to himself about how I do the things that I do in terms of Kung Fu and martial art training. I know many martial arts students will witness their teachers just as I did and still do, and wonder to themselves, how does Sifu do that? How is he able to do this type of technique, movement, with this particular type of energy and power and speed and so on? So, as myself and my student were training and talking at the same time, he began to tell me that he thinking about something I had said many times about time and effort being the essentials for capturing Kung Fu. So, because he is a highly educated individual and is very analytical in his mindset, he tried to sit down and do the math and kind of figure it out.

At first, I didn’t understand what he meant by “the math.” Then he said, “I ran the numbers, I ran the numbers,” and that made me feel like I was a computer program. But I let him proceed to tell me the numbers that he ran. He started telling me well, I’m imagining that in one day you do anywhere from two to three thousand moves. I don’t know exactly what he means by a “move,” but I’m going to take it in the context of a technique or a movement which may contain several techniques. At this point in my life, and I’m sure a lot of my contemporaries would agree, I don’t really sit down and say, I’m going to do XYZ ten times and so on and so on, but rather just live the art that we practice. It’s different when you’re younger. When you’re younger, you make lists and say, I’m going to play the spear five times, then the saber, and so on and so on. But now, it’s just, you do as you please. It’s a calling, it’s a devotion, it’s a dedication, and things speak to you on a day-to-day basis and call out to you, and you practice and then move on.

But back to his accounting (since April 15 is coming very fast and hard upon us)… He made a rough calculation that if I do two to three thousand moves a day times 365 days per year, that equals roughly one million moves per year. So then he proceeded to give me the calculation for my lifetime, and I told him to stop because I don’t plan on going anywhere any time soon so let’s not be presumptuous and put a date on that. Ha ha. If I base the numbers on what he said, and I’m doing two to three thousand movements per day, and each movement contains several techniques (let’s use the base of three,)3,000 x 3 is 9,000, so that’s about 9,000 techniques per day. We can round it up if we want nice round numbers and say it’s 10,000 individual techniques in a day. That’s pretty hefty.

I concluded my conversation with him, and I sat there quietly thinking to myself as I watched him practice. All the numbers make sense. Everything is pretty much cut and dry. Yet despite all this, everyone doesn’t quite understand that Kung Fu, as all other artistic pursuits, is in its heart an “art.” An art, in my humble opinion, cannot be quantified by any number of revolutions of spinning the wheel. If Kung Fu is looked at as an art form that encompasses a myriad amount of talents, sheer repetition of an action is still in and of itself finite, if not almost futile without the understanding, acceptance and openness to the intangible. You may say, intangible? What do you mean? Clean the toilet. Intangible is things you can’t see, things you can’t touch, things you can’t measure and weigh, but yet weigh heavily upon the issue at hand. My Sifu would always say to us and still does to this day, Learn the heart, learn the art of Kung Fu. To learn the art of Kung Fu, you must learn the way of the heart. Basically, the meaning is, if you learn the art of Kung Fu, you have to study the heart. If you want to study the “heart” (your true self), you must study the art of Kung Fu. The art in and of itself is a highly polished mirror, and this analogy has been used time and time again. During ancient times they didn’t have mercury based mirrors, so it was a highly polished piece of bronze or copper that would reflect the individual’s image. So is the case with your Kung Fu. It reflects the image, personality, mentality, disposition, character and overall makeup. These are the intangible aspects of a person, but they are the person, because the shape of your nose and your earlobe and the curve of your chin are not really what you are. We can go and get plastic surgery done and change our appearance but still remain the same. This is the struggle.

I feel that in the culture that we have today, the true understanding of the art of Kung Fu is lost upon the masses because the majority (love to all of them) is usually made of up of individuals that just don’t get it. Just like everyone doesn’t “get” classic Rock and Roll, but they’re more than happy to listen to the modern music and the pop stars we have today, which, to me, all sound the same. I find this disheartening and feel that everything has become homogenized and, to some extent, sterile. We in the Kung Fu community and the traditional martial arts community have become the last bastion of individualism. Distinctive stylistic endeavors are rare, be it in music or martial arts. The intangible aspect of any art is what makes that art unique and the artist that creates the art unique.

Essentially, every classical martial arts system has the same movements. A reverse punch is a reverse punch; a front kick is a front kick; a butterfly palm is a butterfly palm. If you think about it, what’s the difference between Jackson Pollock and Picasso? Paint is paint and canvass is canvass, right? Let’s talk about Bach and Beethoven, two German composers, yet so different in their approach to music. This is also the essence of Kung Fu. It’s up to the individual to perceive it for what it is and to bring out its essence, at the same time elevating it to another level. It’s the organization, the composition, the expression, the feeling and the heart of the individual that brings out the essence of what it is, and it is unique every time. We have to learn how to revel in this uniqueness. Understanding that true Kung Fu and its expression are an extension of the creativity, personality, character and heart of the individual, numbers at a certain point no longer hold the validity that you might originally think they do.

I am by no means saying that you shouldn’t do the same movement ten thousand times. I am an ardent believer that continual practice will bring about better understanding, but understanding is not only found in the physicality, but in the mind of the individual. Mind and body, spirit and action must grow together simultaneously in order for the individual to glean any kind of understanding of the martial art that they practice. The heart of the issue is the heart. Coming back to my student that did the accounting, in the end of this conversation he said, “Sifu, but you said it’s inside you.” And he gestured, pointing to himself as though he was me with his index finger and said, “You said it’s inside you because of all those repetitions.” I agree with this statement but for the absence of the understanding that it’s done from within rather than from without. In the beginning of all of our training, none of us understand this because we can only relate to the tangible, to the physical, to the measurable item that we see with our own eyes. But as I grow more and more into the practice of Kung Fu, I see that it has a lot to do with the faith that the individual places upon what he’s learned. I’m not saying you should have blind faith by any stretch of the imagination. Everything that you do should be tried and tested. But there does come a point where you must have faith in your teacher, what you’ve been taught, and ultimately, yourself. This, coupled with the thousands upon thousands of repetitions with the proper mindset will hopefully in time bring you to a place of understanding.

My student is doing all the accounting and number crunching. Everything is a hundred percent right, but the true understanding is all about acquiring the balance between the mind, body and spirit. In Chinese we would say 身心合一。精神意氣。天地人和. Unify body, mind and spirit. Heaven, earth and man in harmony and balance. When you know yourself, everything is in balance. Understanding how to capture the spirit of Kung Fu is knowing that every day, every hour, every minute, every second is different. You have to become like a bamboo grove. Sometimes the wind will blow from the left, sometimes from the right. The bamboo doesn’t break because by its nature it sways and bends to the winds that blow but then comes back and retains its shape. It’s teaching you how to be. That’s what Kung Fu is trying to do, is teaching you how to be. In that itself, you learn the intangible aspect of you. You have to be able to sway and move with it back and forth, but always return back to your center. This is the hardest aspect because this is intangible – the individual’s capacity to be able to shift and change but yet always come back to center, to come back into balance.

That’s what’s missing from the mathematical equation. The mind and the spirit moves the posture. That’s the balance that you create because you bring heaven, earth and man together. You become part of that link; there is no separation between you and the heavens and earth. You are one. That’s the whole purpose and point of learning Kung Fu, the unification of mind, body and spirit. This is something you cannot see, and it is the most difficult, if not impossible, thing to teach. The individual has to be ready to see the invisible, to touch the intangible, to comprehend what truly is without having to quantify it. This comes back to faith. In the end it’s about all the unseen things that make you up that make the difference. The act of cleaning the toilet may sound like a ridiculous analogy, but that’s the act of devotion. That act itself changes you and contributes to your Kung Fu. You have to do it in order to be able to grow beyond yourself. You have to learn how to be. So now that I’m done, I see that I’ve missed a spot… I need to go back and finish my job.

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

KUNG FU: THE ART OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

It’s been quite a while since I had a chance to blog. So here we go… The last year has been pretty tumultuous as well as invigorating. I think a lot of you are aware that my team and myself have launched my Instagram and Patreon channel Kung Fu In A Minute. We’ve reached our one-year anniversary, and I just want to extend a giant thank you to all my colleagues, students, friends, family and to my teacher, Grandmaster Tak Wah Eng, for being so supportive of this endeavor. 

I was thinking about it the other day, what it’s all about and what I’m trying to do, and I remembered back many years ago, one of my close disciples had graduated from a prestigious art design school and we were talking about the concept of artwork and how it related to the art of Kung Fu. The idea that we centered around was something that he always called a “happy accident” which was not accidental at all, but rather practiced and planned for over countless repetitions, be it you scribbling on literally hundreds of pieces of loose-leaf paper and ending up chucking them behind you until you got that perfect rendition of what you wanted to display in your artwork, or countless hours of practice of Kung Fu. For that one minute of display of skill and expertise, be it in art or in the art of fighting, one requires endless amounts of hours and dedication just to one technique, let alone the art itself. This was the inspirational genesis for the term I coined, “Kung Fu in a Minute.” We’re displaying one minute of Kung Fu, but you have to understand that beneath that one minute of Kung Fu is decades of work. Even in this one minute of movie that we produce on a weekly basis, you don’t see how much teaching time is put into it. 台上一分钟,台下十年功 !“One minute on stage, ten years of work!”

Unfortunately, a lot of people have the misconception that Kung Fu is unusable in a fighting situation. I don’t know where this misconception came up. I understand that people are bombarded by media with notions of what works and doesn’t work, but I can remember before all the trends, many of the Kung Fu practitioners utilized their movements in competition as well as being tested in the streets. We grew up in an era where Chinatown was basically a war zone and there were encounters and turf wars and gang fights going on continually. I’m not advocating this, but it’s just the plain honest truth. So to say that Kung Fu doesn’t work is an overgeneralization if not a complete myth propagated by those people that want to push their own agenda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a punch is a punch, a kick is a kick, an elbow is an elbow, and a throw is a throw. I don’t care what martial art discipline you advocate or train in; the bottom line is the human body is the human body. There’s only so many ways to use it, and it’s up to the individual to make it happen. The essence of the actual physical technique of Kung Fu boils down to being able to utilize your movement. Many people have a hard time conceptualizing, understanding and putting their movement into practical application. 

Through Kung Fu in a Minute, I’m trying my best to display this and show the adaptability of Kung Fu form into function. The best term I could come up with was spontaneous combustion. Almost all the time, I come in on the day we’re going to film Kung Fu in a Minute, and my team will say to me, “What technique are going to do today Sifu?” I shrug my shoulders, throw my hands up and say, “I don’t know.” They always look at me, perplexed, and say “You don’t know?” No, I really don’t know; it’s just going to come out. This is what many people don’t seem to understand; it is spontaneous, combustible and flammable. That is the true application of Kung Fu. You practice the said technique countless times, but it is the live interpretation based upon the individual that makes it come alive. 

It’s up to the individual not only to learn and practice the exercises taught in classical form, but to be able to understand the true intention of the movement and then to go several steps further and understand that the technique being portrayed has multiple interpretations, not just the one that’s most obvious. I always caution the students not to be a master of the obvious as most of us are. We can all blatantly see the outer casing or the shell of the movement just by glancing at it. This is not wrong, it’s the most obvious application that everyone can jump to. But there’s still a lot more meat left on the bone. With that understanding, I can remember a rule set down by my teacher that you need to be able to give a minimum of three possible applications for every technique in the forms that you’ve been taught. That’s a minimum. If you look at an average form that has anywhere from fifty or more moves times the minimum requirement that he had, my math isn’t that good but that’s a whole lot of applications. That’s a whole lot of spontaneous combustion. 

That’s a whole lot of variations that you can apply in any one given point in time based upon the situation. Not only does the student have to be astute enough to have a correct interpretation of the intention, he also has to be able to understand all the possible variations on that interpretation and what’s going to trigger them. It boils down to you being able to effectively internalize the understanding of your Kung Fu and having it come out naturally. There’s an action and then a reaction; that’s what Kung Fu is. That’s what many people don’t understand because they get caught up playing a routine for the sake of the routine, rather than for the sake of what the routine is pointing you towards. I was having the same situation just last evening; I was going through a form with my team and they were just going through the motions. A lot of the techniques that we were doing, I had done with my team before and I had actually put a lot of them on film. When we make Kung Fu in a Minute, we don’t do it for the sake of making the one-minute movie, but for the sake of practicing the technique and learning from the experience. Despite what many people think, every week is completely unrehearsed. It’s spontaneous. It is up to the practitioner to connect the dots; to see all the possible variations that you have in any one given technique. 

You have to take time looking over what you’ve learned, deciphering on your own the possibilities that are there within that one given theme and then figure out how to apply it on various opponents of different shapes and sizes and different levels of ability. As carpenters say measure twice cut once – so the measure twice is the practice, the interpretation, the understanding that one has to build through practicing the form, through physical conditioning, through sparring with your partners, through countless errors, misgivings, misstarts, fumbles, pick yourself up and try again, and then you can go and cut once and that becomes the spontaneity. All that work has to be done in order for you to just do it. The art of Kung Fu is the art of instinct. It’s the art of closing the gap without having to think. It’s the art of that combustibility that is sparked by the attack of your opponent. 

The real art of Kung Fu is an art of self-defense. It’s lighting a fuse. Once you’re in engagement it’s like tripping the wire. You’re not looking to defend; you’re actually looking to destroy the other individual; in our art it’s the aggressive nature of the tiger that is the defense. I don’t need to defend because I’m going to destroy. It’s hitting the dominoes and ten thousand dominoes fall succinctly one after the other. It’s a chain link of bombardment, but all the time has been put in by the practitioner of that art. Therefor it comes out fluently. It becomes your language. And if you haven’t spent enough time speaking that language, then it’s not truly yours. That is how Kung Fu has to be applied. That being said, how do you derive that level of skill and sensitivity? Trial and error on a daily basis with copious amounts of hands on experience with your classmates under the guidance of a teacher that has that experience themselves and knows how to guide you. In the end it really boils down to the individual. 

Kung Fu is like turning on a light switch. As soon as you turn on the light switch, the light comes on. The question is, did you pay Coned? Did you put in the time to derive that kind of skill, knowing full well that the other individual is going to retaliate? You must be instinctive, spontaneous and be able to change without having to think, and augment your technique beyond the confines of the display within the form. I don’t know how to express this to you other than you touching the hand of the other guy and feeling the electricity. That’s what I feel every time I let my teacher show me a technique. Many times, it has been my experience where I’ve been shown something by him and then try to counter it and ten different things come out. That onslaught is the spontaneous combustion that we’re talking about. You have to touch hands with your teacher and your classmates to feel that electricity. Once you understand this, then you bring this back into your form. That brings your form to another level so form and function are moving up together at the same time. They feed into each other and each one helps the other to grow in depth and understanding, culminating together, becoming one, then ultimately becoming nothing and then BOOM, spontaneous combustion. A student of mine just came in while I was writing this blog and we decided to experiment, and BOOM, he said to me, “I never saw it coming.”

That’s how Kung Fu is and I tell you, that’s how everything in life is. You don’t see it coming and the reason you didn’t see it coming is because you didn’t do the preparation. Everything comes back down to preparation. Every art that requires Kung Fu is just like our Kung Fu. It only has a handful of techniques. It takes the seemingly limited amount of resources and becomes limitless; it becomes infinite from this finite number of moves. According to what they say, Wong Fei Hong was so good that he could dispatch you with only two or three techniques. If you’re at that level, you shouldn’t have to think about what technique is coming out. If you have to sit there and think about it, then it’s already too late. There isn’t going to be a, ready set go. There’s no one to say, time, go to your corners, illegal technique. You’re not going to know when it’s going to happen; you’re going to walk around the corner and it’s right there. Your instinctive reaction is going to define what happens. That’s what you have to train for. It just comes out, whatever you need. How do you do it? Any way you need it. What do you do? You get the job done. It’s so much in you that you go beyond you and just BOOM spontaneously combust. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅

INTENTION, INTERNAL POWER & STRENGTH

心意, 氣, 力

Good evening everyone. I’m a little late today, but I was thinking about this subject a lot and took some inspiration from my teachers. Mental discipline and concentration are paramount in the study of Chinese martial arts. In order to progress in the art of Kung Fu and truly become one with what we practice, the mind needs to be empty of contamination. This being said, it is one of the most difficult things to do, especially in our day and age where we are being constantly bombarded with messages from billboard signs and flashing neon. Not only are we distracted by the external, the worst distraction of all is the chatter in our mind which drowns out the clarity of our mental process which allows us to decipher what is true or false. Keeping the mind clean and empty is an extremely difficult thing to do and maintain. Yet it is what needs to be done to excel. 

A very good example would be training with a student and trying to do a movement with a long-tassle spear where you throw the spear up into the air and catch it, but the student constantly misses. You could say the spear is too heavy or too light, or my hand is sweaty or whatever other feeble excuse you want to conjure up, but in truth, the ability or inability to perform a particular action, technique or maneuver, be it empty handed or weapon, has to do with the mind of the individual and its clarity. Achieving clarity of the mind is a skill that one must develop. One means of developing this calmness, clarity or emptiness of the mind is through meditation. Meditation can take many forms and is not always the one that you envision sitting cross legged in a lotus position. 

In our Kung Fu training, meditation begins from the first day. Unbeknownst to the student, it is from the first stance that they learn, i.e., the horse stance. The horse stance by its nature and structure is testing the will, determination and mindset of the student and gives them a platform wherein they can challenge not only their physical body but their mind to transcend the physical pain that they feel from this rigorous position and be able to redirect their mental focus onto something else. I’m sure many of you have gone through this, but how many have actually tried to utilize this position as a state of meditation? It’s challenging and difficult to keep your mind clear when you’re under such physical duress, but that’s the whole point. That’s meditation in stillness. 

You also have the other side of the coin which is meditation within movement – form training. It’s two sides of the same coin, and you’re introduced to both as a Kung Fu practitioner. In the beginning when people start to learn form, they’re caught up with learning the sequence of the particular piece that they’re working with, making sure the body alignment is correct, all the techniques are properly executed with speed, power and so on. Those attributes are in the physical realm of training, but we have to talk about the other side of training, which is the meditation. 

If we look at the word meditate – what does that mean? It’s not what most people think, that it means to think nothing. The real definition is “to think deeply or carefully about something.” Look at the example of a “premeditated” murder in a court case. That means the individual had the intention to kill; he thought about it beforehand. In our case, we wish to establish the proper intention for the individual technique because every movement has its own structure, meaning and theme. The mind of the individual is extremely powerful. Coming back to the example of the student dropping the spear every time they tried to catch it, it wasn’t a function of the spear or external circumstances, but rather where that individual’s mind was at that point in time. One of the goals and purposes of training is to be able to capture your thought, mold it into something and direct it. Focus is something that many people today have issues with. Martial art training seeks to give that structure to the individual wherein which they can gain control over themselves. When we say themselves, we mean the mind because that’s really what creates you. To the ancient Chinese, the heart and the mind were one. There was no division between the two. Intellect and understanding go hand in hand. The term that they use and I prefer is sum yee 心意. 

So, we’re talking about 心意(mind), and the hei (氣). Grandmaster Paul Eng said, “In Kung Fu, understanding the relationship between intention and internal energy and physical strength is critical to developing the effectiveness in fighting technique.” I really appreciate this wisdom and statement from him. Your mind is able to first acknowledge your internal energy, give a form to it through mental imagery, direct it, guide it, couple it with your physical strength and produce a technique that is effective for fighting. This is an ancient Chinese concept and theory that Kung Fu adheres to. As with any technique, there’s a beginning, middle and end on a physical level. As many of us have seen, it is the mental fortitude and willpower of the individual that sometimes makes a decisive win. The physical movement has limitations, but there are no limitations put onto the mindset of the individual. Therefor, for fighting, which is one aspect of Kung Fu, you need to have the proper mental attitude. If you don’t have that attitude, even though you have the physical capabilities you may not have what you need to see it through.

Not only do you have to have the will to win, you also have to have the proper intention of how you are applying the technique. If you don’t have that clear understanding in your mind, if the GPS of your mind is giving you wrong directions and it’s not giving you the most effective route, you’ve lost the purpose of having that guidance and intention. Haven’t you experienced that, when GPS gives you a convoluted way to get somewhere? Even though you end up at the same destination, you get there late, and you wasted time and energy. The effectiveness of any movement or technique is not necessarily based on the physical attributes of that technique. You have yee, hei and lek (力) – the mind, the internal energy and the physical strength. 
The old saying is, “The intention of the mind manifests the internal energy which in turn becomes physical action. This happens in an instant. It is electric.” That is Kung Fu. 

I don’t care what martial art you’re training, if you don’t have a clear cut intention, none of the techniques are going to work. If you practice properly, thought and movement become instantaneous. So when you’re practicing, we want to question, what is your thought, what is your frame of mind. Hey man, where are you? Are you thinking on all the levels that you’re supposed to? One, you’re thinking about the opponent and what their intention is. Secondly you have to formulate your intention and what you want to do. Thirdly, you have to have contingency set up for whatever else may happen. Therefor the mind is working on several levels at the same time while it seamlessly flows from move to move. 

Most students, including my own, are limited in understanding of what they’re doing. It’s not the fault of the art itself but rather of the individual being incapable of understanding. You can punch; you can kick; you can jump; you can flip; you can turn. That’s all physical. At some point you will max out. You’re going to get old; this is inevitable. You’re going to injure yourself if you continue to push on that realm only. What about the other side? What about the meditation, the mental, the thought? The mind is like a candle. Sifu lights the candle for you, and it’s your job to hold it. That’s what they say in Chinese, 師父開 光 (the Master opens the light). The light is the mind. Outwardly, many movements may appear to be the same, but as you upgrade your intention with insight provided by your teacher, you can make gains. Otherwise, it may appear finite, but it is infinite. When the mind is enlightened, it has intention. 

Every hair on your body should be fueled by the intention of your mind. The mind and internal energy create the movement. From your mental intention, you express your understanding. You direct and harness the chi, and then the chi makes the movement. Most students practice from the outside in rather than from the inside out. Initially, you copy the movements of the form, but at some point, there has to be a shift where the movement is no longer just an external expression but rather the internal movement that is expressed by the physical. Expressing something on a mental level that manifests on a physical level is no different than the expression of an artist. He has his mental intention, so he grabs the brush, and paints the canvass. His mental intentional takes hold of his internal energy and manifests itself into a physical expression. 

Kung Fu is a form of self-mind-control. The mind is a very powerful tool that many people don’t use efficiently and effectively. We’ve been taught not to. Don’t get me started on cell phones… which we all rely on, and I hug mine like it was my baby, but that’s like the direct antithesis of Kung Fu. Your cell phone’s not going to win a fight for you. But going beyond winning a fight, being able to link up your intention and your internal energy, culminating into a physical expression, not only helps you “win the fight” but helps you win yourself. From physical movement to the metaphysical understanding of the mind goes back to your daily life. You need to genuinely practice and put aside misgivings. You’re going to fail many, many times until you’ve done it in earnest enough to try to come to some understanding. That’s the meditation and that’s the learning. Harnessing internal as well as external energy and expressing it -- that’s Kung Fu. 

Everything we’re talking about is dependent on the maturity of the individual, but maturity is something unique to whatever task you’re doing. The maturity level that you have in your normal everyday life doesn’t necessarily spill over to your other pursuits, in this case martial arts training. It does take time and concerted effort to apply the mind to the task. In the beginning, we all start mindlessly following the physical movement until we pass enough levels and reflect. When we reflect, we start to utilize the mind. Then the mind starts to tap into different energies, and then we start to have a different level of improvement.

Our martial art training is the pursuit of the perfection of the self. Perfection cannot be found in the physical only, because the physical has limitations. So how are you going to change? You’re going to change because mentally you understand what you’re doing on a deeper level. So therefor, it becomes more. Stop copying the outside and start learning the inside. If you don’t know the mind within the movement you don’t know the movement. When you move, either you’re in line with what you’re doing or you’re not in line with what you’re doing. Through your practice, you must align your physical energy with your mental state and your internal energy. The greatest achievement of our Kung Fu is to galvanize the self and try to attain a sense of understanding and balance. In the end, Kung Fu goes far beyond the mere confines of winning the encounter but is actually about winning the self. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅