Gong Fu

Fernando Bernall, DOM, AP Medicine

The term “Gong Fu” aka “Kung Fu”, can be roughly translated to: “skill acquired through practice”, and its general use in the West, which departs from the etymological meaning of the Chinese characters, is in reference to the martial arts. In the following, I will attempt to share with you some of my current views and understanding of Gong Fu and the role it plays in my overall fitness endeavors.

My current focus in the martial arts is on those of Chinese origin in particular the internal arts of Hsing-I Chuan and Tai Chi Chuan. These are two of the so called “soft arts”. Of these two arts, Tai Chi in particular has become associated with health promotion and with meditative disciplines. While Tai Chi indeed has improved the health of many practitioners and the practice has meditative qualities, it is lamentable that its influence in martial skill has been, by and large, neglected here in the West and in modern China. Hsing-I, on the other hand, continues to be regarded as an effective combat system.

While my approach to Tai Chi Chuan is from a pugilistic angle, it is not the martial techniques hidden within the art’s postures that I seek to explore. Instead, it is the “body” that Tai Chi Chuan practice develops in the practitioner that I long to experience; and it is *this* “Tai chi body” that facilitates martial skill application.

The Tai Chi Body

At a quick glance and to the untrained eye, the body and movement of a Tai Chi practitioner may not necessarily look any different than the body of any other man or woman. However, closer observation reveals fluidity, grace, strength, confidence, coordination and pliability amongst a host of other qualities. The sum of these qualities is what a Tai Chi body projects.

The projected qualities described above are as a consequence of the change in the connective tissue from long time Tai Chi practice. Not only is the sinew, fascia, tendons, ligaments, muscles, bones and joints affected, but the organs and general metabolic chemistry in the body is altered as well; a corporal alchemical transformation.

7 Built-in Components

The development of the Tai Chi body comes about through the interplay of 7 components: Relaxation, Yang’s 10 points, Standing Meditation, Silk Reeling practice, Form work, Push Hands and Cultural settings. These components are not employed in isolation from each other. Instead, like the inner workings of a watch’s gears, a careful and well calibrated engagement between these seven components, propel a physical transformation into a state referred to, by the sages, as “iron wrapped in cotton” and the “whole body is a fist”.

Each of the above mentioned components should be expounded upon. And in time I will write on each. However, for the sake of clarifying the pedagogical approach to my classes, I will briefly address the cultural settings component.

While none of us were in China during the 1700’s and witnessed the formation of Tai Chi Chuan, there are some scenarios we can state with certainty.  I’ll enumerate in the following table:

America Today China 1700’s
Most physical activity is recreational Work was physical and still is in most Asian countries
Domestic life is not very physically demanding Domestic life was and still is demanding
We drive to class They walked or ride bicycles (today)
We train in air conditioned rooms They trained in heat or in cold outdoors
We use fine footwear What do you think they wore? Not New Balance, that’s for sure
We train after work They trained before the cock crowed
We join beginners’ classes They just joined the class
We pay a fee and expect a service They paid a fee and ate bitter without complaining.
We use tai chi for self-cultivation Their survival depended on it

I could go through hundreds of examples of the cultural settings within which Tai Chi Chuan evolved juxtaposed with the modern day stage most tai chi is learned today.  But I think you get the gist of my position which is: if we wish to develop a “Tai Chi Body” then we need to include into our training an environment that has some resemblance to that of Tai Chi’s early days. Also, please note that I’m not making any reference to political, socioeconomic, or religious influences which most certainly had a measure of impact upon the art as we know it today.. I’m simply keeping it within the realm of practicality.

In an effort to create an environment which would, at least in a physical level, place demands on our bodies that provide enough stimulus for growth through adaptation, I like incorporating training props such as the BOSU ball, physioball, kettlebells, sandbags, and a substantial amount of bodyweight exercises. By no means is this additional training model meant to substitute the already time-proven methods of old such as Standing Meditation, two-men patterns and form work. But as explained above, today, these are not enough.

Training Tools

There are a few tools we currently use to help accelerate martial development. A short description of each tool as it relates to martial skill follows:

Kettlebells

Today, in Mixed Martial Arts (MMAs) the Kettlebell has become a staple of the training floor and with good reason. Kettlebell practice helps to develop and deliver power.  A martial artist may have great form, technique, speed, and timing. But without power, he/she is just playacting. Power delivery at the right time can make the difference between survival or defeat. Plenty of good technicians without power are found within dojos across the country. Kettlebell training is the right anitdote to this dilemma.  Along with power, a well designed Kettlebell training program can improve overall flexibility, muscular endurance and strength and solidify the core from which all martial skill emanates.

With proper focus, Kettlebell training develops martial spiral energy; improves techniques in joint locks application and reversals; palm strikes are much more dynamic; throws and take-downs are also enhanced through Kettlebell practice.

Resistance Cords/Rubber Bands

We currently use resistance bands to enhance skill in Tai Chi’s Push-hands and to increase striking power. Unlike wristbands or hand held weights (often used by boxers and kickboxers for power development), which compromise proper form during punching due to the weight’s downward pull exerted on it by gravity, resistance cord and rubber bands place the resistance on the front and back rotational muscles of the legs, hips chest and triceps for strikes. The pulling muscles such as the biceps, lats, rhomboids and to some extend leg extensions, are equally influenced depending on where the resistance cord is placed. Therefore, when proper body alignments are kept, the center of gravity is lowered and the stance is stable, resistance cords/bands are an exceptional training tool to enhance power from the pulling and pushing muscles of the entire body.

Coming up in future articles we’ll discuss our use of the Physioball, BOSU Ball, Medicine Ball and more.