Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Muscle Memory: The Importance of Sil Lim Tao

It's June 12.
My plane is late coming into Burbank, California. Traffic is heavier than usual for this part of town. Thankfully, I've got a ride, so I'm able to change in the car on the way (when you grow up with a little brother, learning how to change without being seen becomes second nature). The regular Basic Training instructor is vacationing, so I worry aloud about the temperament of the substitute and any waiting punishment for being tardy. Maybe, with traffic this heavy, everyone else will be late too. I cross my fingers.

I bow just inside the door and looking up see that the room is packed with students. I rush to get my mat shoes laced up, execute the push-up pennance required, and bow onto the mat. Si-Hing Joseph is a small and wiry man--entirely steel wire, by the look of him. The few times I'd seen him enter the Academy to the enthusiastic greeting of the other students, his watchful intensity made me look twice, sizing him up. Tatted up to the neck, he's the kind of person I'd probably saunter to the other side of the street to avoid. Lucky for me, he barely gives me a second glance, tonight.

I've come in during the partner drills, feeling scattered and nervous. But I manage to focus on the moment, thanks to G., the biggest guy in the place and my favorite sparring partner. I figure if I can handle someone that muscle-bound in a fight, my miniscule 5'2" frame might bring enough hurt to buy me time and make a run for it. He accidently hits me in the ear, though it doesn't hurt as much as he thinks it must, and now he's afraid to throw a real punch. I try to remind him that I can't learn to effectively block if there's no power behind his fist, but he's still feeling tentative. So I start giving him a ration and we laugh our way through the rest of the drills.

Si-Hing Joseph closes out the class with a long, thorough Sil-lim Tao so that the newest students in the Basic Training course can catch on. And so that those of us who already know the Sil-lim Tao can work on permanently etching the forms into our minds. So why is this silly-looking set of moves that look like some weird dance so darned important?

Try this on. Have you ever had to do one of those dreaded "team-building" exercises where you have to fall backward into the waiting arms of your trusted colleagues? It's darn-near impossible to force yourself to stay stiff when everything inside you is screaming, "Open your eyes! Put out your hands! Sit on your butt!" We learn that first reaction to falling backward as babies, when our fat little rumps and soft bones can take that kind of rear-end beating while we first learn to walk.

Small children LOVE repetition. You know, the kind that drives parents bonkers, as they beg us to read the same bedtime story for the fifth time tonight. From the same book we've been reading. Every. Single. Night. For the last three weeks. But as bored as we adults get, children use that repetition to soak up information like little sponges--from our voice inflections, to the look of the printed words, to learning the colors and shapes on the page--they absorb it all. Through this experience, slowly but surely they learn to read.

It doesn't stop with childhood. Every action we perform, even as adults, creates a neural connection. And the more times we perform that same action, the more those neural connections become hard wired. I drive the same way to work every day. I get in the car, strap in my daughter, and turn on the mental auto-pilot. I don't think about each turn, I know them all by heart. So when I go grocery shopping, I have to force myself to think about what I'm doing, to make that right turn instead of the left. Many's the time I've been distracted by something going on in the back seat and belatedly realized I'm headed for the freeway instead of into town. Ugh.

But apply that same neural principle to learning the basics of Sil-Lim Tao, and it becomes a reflexive reaction to whatever might come at you. Each move is a defense, a response, an attack. Each move has a purpose, whether you've been shown it's exact nature yet, or not. Once you know the Si-lim Tao, you don't have to think so hard about what to do next--it's downloaded into your mind, like a program from The Matrix. And your muscles remember.

Neural connections and muscle memory are the keys to any sports activity. In fact, you can even program your muscles to remember an activity through thinking about it, if you can imagine it doing over and over and over again. Have you ever noticed Olympic athletes sitting quietly before a gymnastics routine or a slalom run? It's called creative visualization. They're going over every maneuver, imagining themselves executing a perfect performance. And their muscles remember what their minds imagine.

Motivational coaches use this strategy to encourage you to "think yourself rich" or "imagine your way to success". Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But there is a grain of truth to that spiel--and we know it, deep down. When we think self-sabotaging thoughts, worrying about failure and seeing worst-possible outcomes in our lives, we're reinforcing neural connections and essentially programming our minds for self-destruction. This is why I believe praying, wishing, even meditating with a clear need, want, or goal in mind can, in one way or another, bring those things to us. We're programming our minds to see the steps that will get us there. Programming our bodies to remember.

That's not to say that imagining yourself winning the lottery will beat those bzillion-to-one odds. (I wish.) But practicing and, later, imagining your way through the Sil-lim Tao over and over may help cement it into your mind. And make the work of programming your muscles that much easier.

Afterall, no one's going to give you time to think about it in a fight.

If you liked this post, you can also find me blogging at Silicon Valley Moms as contributing writer, A World Of Words, and Sundance...Or Bust! Or you can follow me (AngelOrr) on Twitter.


  1. I learned so much from one short demo Sifu did during the last grading... He demonstrated how to apply the proper intention throughout the performance of the form. That tiny little hint he gave us, changed my whole outlook.

  2. Same here. I still watch the space in front of my arm as if there's something there in front of me, pushing back. That was a really memorable session. (Actually, what I remember most clearly were the silent, blue "pay attention!" sandbags flying across the room.) Thanks for the comment, Si-Hing.

  3. I still remember the Shil lim tao form, even when i'm just sitting down and close my eyes i can imagine and still feel how the form should be done, so much behind this simple form.