Back to the core 2018

Each year we offer weekend retreats and adventures built around white crane kung fu. With busy schedules and finding the perfect work/life/family balance it can be difficult for people to dedicate more than a few hours per week to training. Our weekend retreats therefore present a golden opportunity to escape to the Scottish countryside, switch the phone to bugger-off mode and divert ones attention solely to the practice of white crane.

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2018 saw a return to basics with the intention diverted to the fundamentals of footwork and posture. These two points are often overlooked once a certain level of skill has been acquired with a sort of tick-box-move-on attitude. It is amazing how the position of the feet and legs will venture into interpretive realms if left unchecked, which is often the case as people become fixated with the upper body. This year we began with everyone being filmed performing San Zhan on their own phone, both to serve as a learning tool but as a useful progress marker to compare against in years to come.

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Correct posture is crucial for the human body to work efficiently. Unfortunately as a society we have created environments that are perfect for causing problems for our posture. The human body is expert at adapting to new postures so it very quickly learns to accept poor positioning which often leads to in-balances and the common problems of back, neck and shoulder pain. The knock-on effect also changes the way in which we breathe, shifting the focus from the abdomen to the chest and shoulders.

Once we had established a base setting for our footwork and posture we were able to look more closely at the dynamics that are happening in these positions. It is fascinating that systems of movement that were created hundreds of years ago integrated muscle engagement in a way that has only been understood by science within the last 30 odd years. The process that I am referring to is the engagement of the core muscles.

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Now I am sure that everyone is familiar with the term core muscles. There are endless videos titled forgotten core work or essential core training. And how many times have you heard someone say “engage your core”? However the next time someone asks you to engage your core please ask them which muscles they are referring to exactly. Most people think of the core muscles as a general group of muscles that make up the abdomen that you can work by doing planks and press-ups etc. This is bollocks. The core muscles are not the rectus abdomins (6 pack), internal obliques, external obliques or your love muscle. These are all muscles that are designed for movement rather than stabilisation. The core muscles are just 4 sets that extend beyond the abdomen and are unique because when they are engaged they do not actually move any part of the body, they are simply there to stabilise. This presents it’s own problems and one reason why there is so much misinformation out there. If nothing moves when engaging the core then how do we know when we are engaging it?

This is where white crane enters the equation. By continuous practice of white crane postures and the correct focus of attention, the core will engage. To get the core to switch on is more of a mental game than a physical one. Once the core becomes engaged it is the difference between night and day. However without correct posture it will be impossible to engage the core. This is why when practicing forms it is crucial to be completely present. If your mind is not attentive to the fine details then then there is little point in practicing. Simply running through forms for the sake of repetition is not enough to progress and often merely reinforces bad habits.

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On this year’s retreat everyone was lucky enough to have Sarah give an in-depth explanation of the core muscle groups, how they work and what they do. The information was invaluable. Practical exercises followed to help everyone grasp the concept and the correct sensations. Without someone with experience to guide you through these early stages it can be a bit like fumbling in the dark, not knowing which way you are facing or where you are when you get somewhere. At the end of the retreat progress was evident and the biggest rewards came from seeing the occasional aha moment.

Regardless of if you are a martial artist or a piss artist, engagement of the core is an essential component of efficient movement and good health. You body is like a puppy dog and your will power is its trainer. Like a young dog the body will do as it pleases, seeking the laziest ways to behave and not knowing the difference between good and bad. It will constantly test you to try and get its own way. The only way to get it to behave is through constant and diligent training. Do not let your body establish itself as the pack leader, take control today as learned bad behaviour can very very hard to break. It is your responsibility to do your own research and find a good teacher. Question everything and do not accept mysticism as an answer.

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Yong Chun San Zhan Workshop 2018

Forms practice is the fulcrum of white crane boxing, a central point around which everything else rotates. The forms teach the principles of the style and represent a living and breathing expression of white crane. Of all the forms within white crane there is one that stands as the bedrock for all others and stands paramount for daily practice. This is of course San Zhan which translates as Three Battles. Fellow practitioners of Southern Chinese martial arts may be familiar with their own version of San Zhan as will Okinawan Karate practitioners who may practice a version called San Chin.

Within our school we teach 4 representations of San Zhan, 2 of which are the fundamental versions. One is the San Zhan from the Nam Yang lineage whilst the other is the Yong Chun San Zhan from the Weng Gong Ci lineage. At their core they are almost identical in principle and execution and it can easily be seen how the original Yong Chun San Zhan had migrated to Singapore where it had been blended with some tiger style principles to become the Nam Yang San Zhan.

To practice both iterations of San Zhan is a fascinating and worthwhile pursuit as it can be seen how over the years styles take their own path in the same way as Chinese whispers. We are lucking enough to train at the Weng Gong Ci gym in Yong Chun, which as the first official white crane gym to be established in Yong Chun has preserved the forms in meticulous detail over the last 90 years.

The Yong Chun San Zhan is a treasure to the world of martial arts and so earlier this year we held a workshop to give it the time it deserves. From the outside the form appears remarkably simple and undemanding and the sequence of movements can be learnt in a very short period of time. It is easy however to fool oneself into a false sense of achievement. Knowing the sequence of movements is not knowing the form in the same way that knowing the alphabet does not make you a poet.

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Understanding the order of the movements is the first stage and presents the opportunity for solo practice. From here many people greatly underestimate the amount of hours it takes to begin to actually understand the form, and I mean begin to understand the form not actually understand the form. The figure that is often talked about is 10,000 hours to reach an expert level of achievement. With San Zhan 10,000 repetitions is a good target to begin to incorporate some of the principles into your body and brain.

Absent-minded practice will not suffice however. It requires focus and attention to detail. If you are not fully present in what you are doing then you are wasting your time. San Zhan is a method to lose yourself within white crane as you navigate a world of answers in search of the corresponding questions. The simplicity is beautiful and the complexity mind-boggling. The lifelong investment provides very personal rewards that will not give you Nectar points, air miles or an improved tan. The objective for practice is practice itself and San Zhan is the purest embodiment of this concept. Now switch off your computer and see where San Zhan will take you. 

Iron Shirt Qi Gong & Conditioning Workshop 2018

Iron shirt qi gong takes our regular breathing exercises and turns them to 11. Whereas our regular qi gong emphasises a relaxed breath in and out, iron shirt qi gong combines holding the breath with forced exhalations. Not to be confused with the often gimmickry of braking innocent planks of wood and stone, this practice is designed to strengthen the body internally by working the diaphragm and muscle groups around the trunk and pelvis that are engaged during proper breathing. The entire body follows a cycle of complete tension and relaxation throughout the routines to work the muscles, tendons and ligaments through isometric exercise. The routines rapidly raise energy levels to the point that lightning bolts may surge from the finger tips as the practitioner experiences the full power of the dark side of the force.

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Hard conditioning is an essential element of Southern Chinese white crane and is focused primarily on the forearms, palms, knuckles and fingers. There is no shortcut or secret remedy for improvement as many people wish for. As with most things kung fu it requires a great deal of repetition, persistence and pain. However all of these things are fun when approached in the right way. Other important areas that we condition are the ribs, thighs and shins. There are many studies published on the British Medical Journal highlighting the positive impact of conditioning on ailments such as osteoporosis. It may be daunting to bash your shins against another persons however the long term benefits permeate both the physical and mental domains.

 

Our workshop was split into two halves, the first covering qi gong and the second covering conditioning. It is important to firstly warm up correctly and our qi gong routines gently work the body and prepare it for hard qi gong. Practicing hard qi gong can be a bit like plugging oneself into the national grid... it's a buzz to say the least. An invigorating blast of a workout that heats you up, makes things tingle and gives the 'I'm now on another planet' experience. It's brilliant.

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The two person conditioning routines are always met with both excitement and trepidation. It's excellent fun and one of the best ways to release frustration, however yes it does hurt. But it gets easier with time. Conditioning mainly focused on striking the arms and legs but we also worked the abdomen, floating ribs and chest. The exercises are in fact very relaxing to practice. They also provide a superb opportunity to understand the different sensations of striking various parts of the body. Striking pads is good for technique and power however they do not feel anything like a human body. Everyone came away feeling exuberant from the experience and we are looking forward to more conditioning in class.

2017 White Crane Retreat

What can be better than getting away to the Scottish hills for a relaxing weekend of kung fu, socialising and generally having fun? Our retreat weekends tick all of the above... and some, whilst also learning some some ridiculously cool stuff. With the limited time to train in a normal 1 or 2 hour class, spending an uninterrupted weekend entirely immersed in white crane is one of the best ways to progress in a short time.

In July this year we escaped to the Scottish Borders under the shadow of the Pentland Hills. The additional time on hand presented a huge opportunity to get back to basics and work on the fundamentals of our style. This manifested in simple skills such as standing, rooting and understanding weight distribution. Skills that are all too often overlooked. We eventually arrived at walking before we moved on to another seemingly simple task... breathing. Interspersed with jovial rounds of jianzi and excellent tea breaks we finished the day with a barbecue of epic proportions.

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Sunday was archery day, a skill that is sadly overlooked by many traditional martial arts clubs. We commenced with a venture into the world of archery qi gong and meditation. Elements that are fundamental to a traditional archer's quiver. The archery itself was immense and offered a first opportunity for many people. With the addictive nature of releasing arrows towards a target it was not long before we began to see some superb shots. As with many things, technique is everything... along with repetition. After a number of excellent archery games we tried our hand at blindfolded archery. Sounds completely crazy... it was actually a fantastic exercise in trust.

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The weekend was a time truly well spent, coming together to share and learn amongst the tress and hills of the Borders. Everyone's progress is living proof that all it really takes is a little bit of thinking and a whole lot of repetition. Already we are looking forward to another weekend away next year. A huge thank you to everyone that participated and made it a great weekend and a special thank you to those family members that provided the opportunity for us all to shed responsibility for 2 days.

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Scotland 2016 Chinese New Year Celebrations

At the beginning of 2016 we were invited to collaborate with our friends at the Soen Ren school and Ben Conway to create a martial arts display and perform it for at The Assembly Rooms as part of a three hour show for The Chinese Consulate General and The Chinese Societies of both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

With only a matter of weeks to learn an entirely new form, get it to performance level and learn to synchronise it with the other members of the team, the pressure was on.

Here is an account of the event by David Bailey.

In mid-December I got an email from Kami looking for volunteers to take part in a kung fu demonstration.  The demonstration was to be part of the Chinese Society of Edinburgh's New Year celebrations at the beginning of February.  After scanning the email - and not noticing various key details - like that the demonstration would be 'for several hundred people' - I decided to volunteer.
I had only joined Bai He Alba in May and the demonstration sounded like something that would provide a focus to train for.  I expected there would be a lot of volunteers and that I would perhaps be a reserve or have some kind of role as an 'extra'.  But it turned out that there were only a few people free for the date of the performance and that I was going to be part of two pairs, learning and synchronising a new form for one of the sections of the performance.
We had about a month to get things ready and the approaching performance gave a fantastic target to work towards.  We were training up to 4 nights a week.  It was the first conditioning form that I'd learnt, where we were actually striking and blocking each other.  The actual moves, the punches, kicks and blocks were learnt quite quickly, in spite of a few mishaps, such as falling off my bike in mid January and injuring the part of my leg that was being struck by my partner.  That made for a week or two of painful practice sessions.
What was really difficult was synchronising the pairs during the form, because we were performing back to back.  This was something that we were working on right up until the dress rehearsal on the day of the performance.
On the big night, waiting in the wings to go on stage was really nerve-racking because I could see between the curtains that there were perhaps 700 or 800 people in the audience.  My anxiety was rising until I realised that I was putting all my attention on what could go wrong, rather than all the practice I'd put in and the process that I’d learnt.  Once I changed my focus my anxiety eased and when we went on stage it went smoothly and in sync.  I think our demo team probably got the biggest cheer of the evening.
Looking back on it it was a fantastic experience.  It gave me something to work towards, so I worked harder and with more attention than I would have done otherwise.  I also got to work for a common goal with other people from the club.  I got to know them better, feel more a part of the club and share an experience with them that was like nothing I'd done before.
It gave me a chance to push my comfort zone a little and to expand my horizons.
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The 100 Kata Challenge by Katherine Charleston

I felt really excited when the day of the 100 Kata Challenge arrived, we’d been talking about it at the club for months. I loved the idea that there would be loads of people all over the world facing the same challenge, at exactly the same time, which the 6 of us in Edinburgh were just about to undertake

It was 9pm in Edinburgh and 6 am in Okinawa, Japan. As we were counting down the final few minutes I was imagining how dark it would be there, but only until the sun started to rise – it would be amazing to see that sight!

There was definitely slight nervousness about what we were about to do, before this evening I had only performed a form 20 times in a row so to multiply that up and do 100 San Zhans without any breaks felt like a real step up. I wondered whether my legs would still hold me up by the end, I wondered whether I would lose count (I didn’t want to let anyone else down and break their concentration)…. basically I wondered whether I could do this

We took it in turns to call out 10 San Zhans. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite hard to focus all your attention on your form and then come out of that place for long enough to do the next count. By the first 30 I felt like I was settling in to the group rhythm. I find that when I practice forms on my own; you have your own speed, performing forms as a group and being led by Kami made me realise that there were little parts of the pattern that I still wasn’t giving enough time to – within the final part of the thrust, grip and break for example

The first 60 repetitions seemed to pass quite quickly. I felt focused and happy to be able to dedicate this time to my forms. It was highlighting parts that I felt needed more attention, and I was able to start making those corrections as we were going through. The things that I learnt about how I performed my form and what I wanted to correct were made very clear to me – this was only made possible by repeating the same actions 100 times over. It was invaluable and I’ve taken those realisations away from that evening. I am planning on practising my form 100 times again, the more times in a row the better, so that I can really see where the mistakes are hiding within my forms!

As we were heading into the final 20, there was a definite shift for me – I felt like all 6 of us were totally in the moment together, and the energy in the room we had created over those 2 hours is an amazing memory. Performing patterns as a group has a very different atmosphere than running through the same form alone – both valuable but in different ways

I remember, in previous years, feeling nervous of performing patterns as a group – it felt like everyone else went a lot faster than me, and I lost my place. It taught me that I needed to practice my forms both faster and slower than I was used to, and ultimately that I just needed to keep practising over, and over, and over, and over………

 
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1oo Kata Challenge

We took part in the 100 Kata Event organised by Challenge Okinawa, a two hour challenge that brought together martial artists from around the globe. No prizes for guessing that it involved performing 100 Katas or forms simultaneously without a break. Anyone who is familiar with traditional martial arts should appreciate that this is both a mentally and physically taxing confrontation.

Why did we get involved with a Karate event you may ask? Traditional martial arts are a universal language and we experienced a true comradeship whilst visiting Okinawa ourselves, wanting to promote what we all dedicate our lives to we could not resist getting involved. There are also strong historical links between White Crane Kung Fu and Okinawan Karate, both to this day having a Kata or form called The Three Battles at their core.

A huge congratulations to everyone who joined us for the challenge, it was a fantastic and rewarding evening. It really highlights the importance of repetition and the degree of effort it takes to do White Crane well.

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