Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Get Thee Behind the Block

Until recently, I still felt like someone throwing a serious flying punch my way would break through my defenses. It worried me enough that whenever Si-Fu would tap out my partner and take his or her place, I'd panic and lose focus. (Although he is always cognizant of his power and trains carefully with his students, Si-Fu is 6-foot-somethin'-else and his bicep is probably as big around as my thigh. You'd be nervous, too.) That's when I'd fall apart. Mushy lop-sau. Yuck.

Something's different, this week. Maybe it's because there have been so many students who have continued through several 8-week sessions in my Wing Chun class that Si-Fu ordered us long-termers t-shirts and started calling us "seniors". Maybe it's because the class is now large enough that these seniors are being given more advanced sparring combinations to learn, which (if you've read any of my earlier posts) makes me supremely happy. Or maybe it was because I finally had the chance to train with my husband in the class, when normally Si-Fu pairs us by gender, and this afforded me the opportunity to spar with someone I knew would give the kind of energy that would challenge me.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I've reached a new comfort zone. I don't mean "comfort" as in "kick back and relax". I mean that Si-Fu's instruction on getting behind the block sank in a little further. And when it did, it felt like I might just survive a fight long enough to make a run for it.

Last night, Si-Fu showed me how to turn my body such that my body almost directly faced my hand and straightened arm. The energy coming at me was jammed up my arm and stopped at my shoulder--a much stronger joint than my wrist. My arm felt solid. And I was right behind it.

For the first time ever, I felt like I would really be able to stop a round-house punch. When he tapped out my husband and took his place, I felt like I could (maybe) even stop Si-Fu.

If your opponent isn't successful with the first punch, it's unlikely s/he'll stop there. A second roundhouse from the rear hand isn't an impossibility. So what do you do when you've made contact with the first limb to come at you? IMMEDIATELY look at the one you're not touching. Si-Fu had me focus on that second arm the instant I touched his arm with the incoming first punch. As the first arm pulled back, I felt it. And when the second punch started moving in, I was watching it. Turning 90-degrees, I got behind my lop-sau and again stopped the punch. And I remembered to watch the other elbow as soon as I blocked that arm.

Si-Fu gave me a silent thumbs-up and moved on.

Hot damn. I got it right, for once.

The full combination was this:
YOU: Guard up. Left side-neutral stance (feet pointed 45-degrees to the right on the same lateral line, left guard arm forward).
OPPONENT: Fists up. Right front stance (both feet pointed 45-degrees to the left, right foot in front of left foot along a line roughly 45-degrees to the right, feet about shoulder-width apart with just enough room to run a toy truck between them from straight ahead toward the wall behind).

OPPONENT: Throws lead (right) arm round punch
YOU: Turning feet 90-degrees to the left (a quick step-step, right than left foot--never slide the feet) to face the oncoming punch, lop-sau with lead (left) arm while simultaneously throwing a punch to your opponent's face with your right fist; pak-sau at the elbow with right arm as you step forward just enough to push your opponent backward and off balance; step-step (left foot/right foot) to face your opponent's side; punch with the left over the top of the pak-sau; rapid-fire roll punches with both hands, always watching the elbow of the arm furthest away from you

OPTIONAL: Opponent throws the first round punch (you block with lop-sau and punch, as before), then pulls right arm back before your pak-sau and immediately throws a rear (left) arm round punch (you again block with lop-sau/punch combo, following up with pak-sau and punches). Opponent randomly chooses when to throw one round or two. You can also train with your opponent throwing continuous rounds, while you lop-sau/punch repeatedly.


  • Use touch reflexes to tell you when your opponent is moving or pulling back a punch in preparation for throwing another.
  • Use visual reflexes, always watching the elbow of the arm you're not touching; you want no surprises!
  • When changing the direction you're facing so that you get your full body behind the block, be sure to actually pick up your feet and put them down facing the new direction (it's a quick one-two rhythm, like clapping your hands, 1-2, in quick succession). Sliding or dragging your feet, a common technique of some forms of Kung-fu, causes friction to slow you down. On uneven terrain, you could even trip. This is one Traditional Wing-Chun basic that Bruce Lee never learned before he died (not his fault...but that's another story for another day) and one of the reasons why his Wing Chun Master could beat him every time, much to Lee's consternation.

Pity he never had my Si-Fu.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Kid-Fu: Defending Against A Wrist Grab

Swift and Safe

Occasionally, I'm taught a street survival self-defense technique in my Wing Chun class that translates easily into a kid safety skill. It's hard to know where to draw the line between teaching my daughters how to avoid being attacked or abused and letting them just be kids. However, in light of so many abductions (and attempted abductions), especially of small girls, I'm erring on the side of caution. So last week I taught my kids how to answer this question:

What do you do if a stranger grabs you by the wrist?
All of the following motions should be completed in quick succession and with decisive force. Of course you're going to scream and shout for help, too!

1. Flick the back of your free hand into your attacker's eyes. (His stinging, watering eyes may give you just enough of an advantage to get away.) NOTE: Make sure during practice that your opponent covers his or her eyes with a free hand, so you can practice your eye flick at full force without hurting your partner.

2. At the same moment, drop into side neutral stance, with your center facing you attacker's grabbing hand. Your drop and turn into side neutral utilizes the power in your legs and hips to provide torque (the power of a turning motion). As you're turning, quickly twist your hand over, palm up (into a tan-sao). This loosens and may even break the attacker's hold on your wrist. (You can see from this photo that the attacker has an awkward grip. He's holding on tightly, but this twisted grip will be difficult to maintain in a struggle.)

3. If your attacker's hand is still touching you, pak-sao the grabbing hand, hitting his wrist with the heel of your hand, using all of the force you can muster.

4. Run like a cheetah! (Some of my fellow students call this the "run-sao". Not pretty, but effective.) Don't tell a kid to stick around for some Spy Kid-style butt kicking. The longer the confrontation lasts, the more likely a bigger person might find a way to overtake a smaller one. Running and shouting for help should be priority one.

Who is controlling who?

Keep in mind, if someone is holding your wrist, you have just as much control over that person as they have over you. If the attacker's grip is tight, you can easily jerk your attacker off balance as you're breaking their hold.

Practice this with an opponent grabbing one hand repeatedly, then switching to the other, first predictably (the same hand 10 times, for example), then at random. Then try a random grab with your eyes closed.

Work slowly and methodically, increasing your speed over time. Ultimately, you want your reaction to be reflexive. You won't have time to contemplate I do this, then I do this, then I do this, as you're being dragged toward a waiting vehicle or into a building. Speed will also work to your advantage as a weapon of surprise.

Again--train slowly and methodically. If you are ever grabbed, adrenaline will kick in and give you the power you need to move quickly. It may also make you sloppy, so the more accurately you perform the motions in practice, the more likely you are to get them right when it counts most.

There are so many other things kids should know when facing "stranger danger". It's a good idea to have them take a self-defense course, even one that only lasts a day. The more you arm them with survival skills, the less likely you'll have to suffer the horrific pain of a lost or assaulted child. I'll be honest with you, it's the one thing that scares me most about being a parent. Nothing else even comes close to the amount of sleep I've lost over nightmares of this kind.

Protect yourself. Protect your kids.

Wishing you and your children peace and safety always.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Bent-arm Beauty

While practicing punches last week, Si-Fu Shoellhammer mentioned that it was better to hit an opponent with the lower knuckles than with the upper. When I asked why that might be, he grinned his boyish, cockeyed grin and challenged me to figure it out for myself. (Is it just me, or are all Si-Fus required to have this cryptic, all-knowing grin?) I’ll be honest, I still haven’t come to a conclusion. I’m open to suggestions, if any of you know the answer to this one, Si-Hings!

However, there is one thing I’ve learned this week that doesn't require homework: how to be a Bent-arm Beauty.

In Wing Chun, punches are practiced with arms slightly bent. If you've been practicing another martial art for a while, this may look to you like it’s not “full-out” or it’s improper form. In some martial arts—karate, for example—the punch is fully extended when practicing. But, while it looks good and, yes, it could possibly hurt the other guy, the danger in real combat is that you may not hit your target.

The very first thing I ever learned about punching, I learned as a teenager. You don’t try to hit your target, you try to hit THROUGH it. Don’t aim for the other guy’s teeth—aim for the back of his throat. Through his teeth. When you practice a fully-extended punch, you don’t leave yourself any room to push through your target.

Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’re trying to hit something and you just can’t connect? Practicing with straightened arms puts you in danger of hitting air when push comes to shove. What if your opponent pulls his chin back? Perhaps you do hit him, but it won’t be with much force, which means your fight is going to be a lot longer than you may have stamina for, especially if your opponent picks an inopportune moment to land you on cement (you have a bad cold, your kids are close at hand, you're carrying a backpack and an armload of books, etc.). One of my good buddy Si-Hings says, “If the fight lasts a full minute, you’re going to get hurt.” So it has to end as quickly as it starts.

Perhaps because your punch is just out of serious damage range, you lean forward to extend your reach. This, of course, throws you off balance. Remember, you’re going to have an adrenaline rush propelling you further than anything you did on the mat. It’s not going to be perfect--it's probably going to be ugly. Who cares, as long as you're winning? But if your balance is compromised, you could really be screwed.

It seems to me (neophyte that I am) that the whole basis upon which Wing Chun rests IS balance, the foundation upon which all other principles can be built. It’s hard enough to maintain proper balance when dealing with an opponent who is trying to jackhammer that foundation out from under you. You certainly don’t want to sabotage yourself in the first round.

In Wing Chun, then, punches are practiced with a slightly bent arm, allowing for an extension through the target, allowing for the possibility of a backward-moving target, and allowing you to maintain your balance. As an added bonus, you’re also less likely to painfully hyper-extend your arm during practice--like I did back when I was a sashless newb. There are so very many benefits.

Si-Fu tells me when I’ve done 10,000 punches, perhaps I’ll have the answer to my knuckle question. I’ll probably have an adequate amount of practical experience with those bent-arm punches, too. I’ll let you know what I discover when I’m through.

Yut, yee, sarm, say, ng...

I guess I do have homework afterall. Mm. Beauty has it's price, right?

Luk, chut, bart, gou, sub…

Monday, 7 December 2009

Wing Chun Training: What Are You Looking At?

What are you looking at? WHAT are you LOOKING at?

I’m not looking at your ugly face, that’s for sure.

But isn’t that where most people look in a fight? They get in the other guy’s space, they stare him down, they bounce around with fists at the ready, they look at shoulders, body, legs…everywhere but at what really matters. And that’s okay with me. You go ahead and stare at my gorgeous baby-browns, boys. I’m watching the part of you that interests me the most.

Your elbows.

The elbow has to move past the plane of the body in order for the hand to reach out, right? And the closest elbow will indicate the closest possible weapon my opponent can use on me. So that’s the one I’m going to watch. The shorter the distance between the weapon and the target, the faster it can arrive. In simple terms:
Distance = Time
Maybe your opponent decides to throw a punch with the rear arm. If you’re watching the forward elbow and a punch arrives from the rear, you will see it, peripherally. And you’ll have more time to react because the distance is greater between that far weapon and you. But you won’t know what your opponent will do until he or she commits to something, so you must be prepared for the closest weapon, first.

Actually, let me rephrase that:
You should be watching the closest elbow that you’re not touching.

Not only do you want to watch that elbow, it’s the primary body part to get under control. Let’s suppose your opponent throws a lead-arm, straight right at your chin. You block his arm with a left-handed pak-sao and simultaneously punch over that pak-sao with your right. Now what? Assuming your opponent is still standing, you want to immediately follow up. Let’s say your first punch was effective, so you roll punch to his face. But what if he throws up his right elbow to block me? you suggest. Yes, potential problem. Solution? Don’t let him move that elbow.

As long as you’re touching it, you know exactly where that arm is. As you roll punch with one hand and then the other, you lay down “cover fire” with the opposite hand in a continuous pak-sao/lop-sao trade-off while your opponent’s head is being repeatedly rocked. If he steps away, you’re touching him. You know exactly where he’s going. Wherever he goes, he’s going to pull you along with him, punching his head while pounding down his arm, all the way. You should be able to close your eyes and always know where your opponent is, letting his movements drive where your center goes.

Okay, save the closed eyes for practice. Let’s get back to the real thing.

If you’re touching that right arm, maintaining constant contact, do you need to watch for that right arm to be hitting you? Of course not. You’ll know if it’s getting anywhere near you because you can feel it. And your reaction to touch is faster than your reaction to sight. So where should you be looking, if not at that closest weapon?

I repeat:
You should be watching the closest elbow that you’re not touching.

You’re hitting this fool on one side, but you’re always watching that other, free elbow, lest it attempt to rise to the occasion and swing around after you. (And when it does, you’ll be ready to take it on, right Si-Hings?)

What about my opponent’s feet? you ask. Or his head? Both are weapons of destruction in and of their own right. You’ll be watching them peripherally, of course. But from what I’ve learned so far, controlling the elbows is a key component in Wing Chun combat. No, not the be-all-and-end-all, but important, nonetheless.

So go ahead and laugh when I put my guard up and stare at the middle of your arms, oh enemies dear. I may look stupid, but it’ll only be for few seconds. After that, you won’t see me at all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Drunken Kung-Fu

Never underestimate a drunken opponent!

This was too great not to share. Thanks to Si-Hing Jessica from LAWCA for the Fight Science link!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Patience, Grasshopper: On Being Offensive

I know it takes time and practice to learn anything new. As still as the green blades of a rice paddy appear, they are indeed growing and will one day yield a harvest that will sustain you. But unless I've got a book in my hand, I'm not always good with stillness and boring repetition, with identical green leaves repeated endlessly. If there's one thing Wing Chun is trying to force into my dull, adult brain, however, it's Patience.

For the first year of my training, I had to travel 365 miles to find the best Traditional Wing Chun. Needless to say, I wasn't at the Academy all that often. Is it any wonder there have been gaps in my understanding? This may sound ridculous to you, Si-Hings, but it wasn't until this week that I finally understood--and I mean really internalized--the merits of an offensive pak-sao.

This was not the fault of my instructors, per se. Looking back, I can see that all of the elements were there--the right words spoken, the correct forms demonstrated and practiced, the attempts by one particularly kind and patient Si-Hing to pound it into my brain. But the pressure of sash testing time and time again collapsed these barely-processed thoughts into the same wrong maneuvers every time.

After eleven years as a college instructor, I have a decent understanding of the millions of ways students come to connect with classroom material. It isn't simply differences in learning styles (auditory, kinesthetic, mathematic, spatial, etc.). The specific material is also being filtered through a lifetime of experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes it takes throwing an entire toolbox full of strategies at a student to help a particular concept stick. I can explain the adiabatic process five different ways to Sunday (basically: what happens to a big chunk of air as it rises or sinks through the atmosphere) and get nothing back but crickets. Then someone in the back of the room says, "I get it! Rising, rainy. Sinking, sunny." And half the room sighs and nods. Fifty pairs of eyes refocus. The whole room gets brighter.

Sometimes that moment never comes. That's okay, too. But I'll do my darnedest to find the right wrench to unscrew that nut and let in something new.

When I began training with Si-Fu Tom Schoellhammer up here in the Bay Area, I was mildly frustrated to be starting again from scratch. How to hold my guard. How to stand in low-horse stance. How to punch. But my husband had agreed to take the class with me. He knew so little and needed to go slow and get over his fear of inexperience. (Okay, okay. I give. I needed the practice, too. Okay, shut up, already. I REALLY needed some back-to-basics.) By the time we'd finished the first session, I felt like it had been an important lesson in patience and simplicity. When the second session started, the class had grown. And so we started, once more, right back at Square One.

I thought I'd lose my mind.

When do we go over the bil-sau? Or practice a proper tan-sau? How many weeks before we even get to the gosh-darn front stance, again?!? (click here for a glossary of terms*)

I didn't dare ask. You know what happens when you ask one of those pushy questions of your Si-Fu, right? Exactly. Because the other students were new and timid, Si-Fu was being extra kind, but I wasn't ever going to assume he was above making me do endless push-ups or spending the rest of class crouched in low-horse stance. As my senior Si-Fu, Eric Oram, said once as he bowed to a student, "Never take your eyes off of your opponent." As he reflexively bowed in return, the student looked down. "Never," repeated Si-Fu. And he attacked the oblivious student. With a smile. Of course.

Eventually, we DID learn some new techniques. And because we were going excruciatingly slow, I was able to process maneuvers like the gan-sau from beginning to end: my forward guarding hand sweeping the opposite shoulder in its arcing trajectory, the pinky-side blade of my hand facing outward as the hand comes back down, protecting my belly button from an attack with room to spare. No, not perfect, but sinking in.

What grabbed my attention most, however, came on the last night of the eight-week session. Offensive footwork. Yee-haw.

Defensive footwork makes perfect sense, to me. A fist coming at you? Side-step. "Get out of the way of the bus," says Si-Fu Schoellhammer. It seems perfectly intuitive, doesn't it? If someone tries to hit you, isn't the most common human instinct to tuck your chin in and pull backward? Of course it is. (Okay, Si-Hings, maybe you have the reflexes of a superhero and would be around the attacker's back in 1/50 of a second. Work with me, here. I'm still a hero-in-training.)

But offensive footwork requires that you actually step TOWARD your opponent. And you step using a leading foot that starts out facing 90 degrees away from the direction in which you're about to move. What gives?

My biggest problem is remembering to crank my hips around. If I'm starting in a left side neutral stance, my hips, shoulders and toes all point to the right oblique and the left hand of my guard is out in front. I watch my opponent, who is standing in right front stance, until the lead elbow indicates to me that a straight punch has committed to coming my way. I swivel my hips to face 90 degrees to my left, so that they end facing the left oblique, as I'm also stepping forward on my left foot toward that left oblique. My opponent's punch has just passed over my right shoulder. But, for a beginner, it feels counter-intuitive to step in the same direction the punch is coming from.

This was my initial stumbling block. Why would I step INTO my opponent's guard? But I'm not, actually. I'm stepping past it on the outside. (There are times when I might step inside my opponent's guard, but I still don't feel comfortable doing that, yet. Just my own lack of experience, at this point. I'll be writing a post explaining this, called "The Box Of Doom", soon. Stay tuned.)

The trick is the change of direction. One minute I'm in a left side-neutral stance, the next I'm charging forward with my left foot driving past my opponent's leading right foot, my left hand barely moving in the pak-sau to send the offending fist just enough off course that the straight punch passes me by. By the time my right foot steps in to catch up, my opponent's fist is past and I'm in a great spot to control his/her right elbow. I am now completely out of the way of both arms, on my opponent's side or rear quarter.

I think I like it here!

I don't know why, exactly, it took me so long to understand this. I've been executing the offensive pak-sau maneuver since Day One at the L.A. Academy. I guess it was one of those "doing it without understanding it" things. (Heck, that's how 99% of us live 99% of our lives anyway, isn't it?) For some reason, Si-Fu Tom Schoellhammer's inexorably slow training progression did the trick. That wrench applied just enough torque on this nut to loosen her up and make her understand.

Now...how about that offensive lop-sau? Maybe in the next. Slow. Session.

*Sigh.* Patience, Grasshopper. Patience. There is an entire field stretching out before you, waiting. One blade at a time.

When she's not being offensive, Angela can also be found on Twitter and at her other blogs: A World of Words, Sundance...Or Bust!, and the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog (for which she is a contributing writer). This is an original post to the Basic Training to Black Sash blog.

*Please Note: The sounds of the Chinese words used in Wing Chun have variant spellings when translated. The glossary linked to here is not exhaustive in showing the many spellings possible.

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.