Principles are fundamental to everything we do, they allow us to live our lives and perform our daily tasks in a predictable manner. Most principles are taken for granted as they have become so ingrained within our patterns of movement that we do not need to give them second thought. Such as the principles that allow us to walk, brush our teeth or eat food. Learning White Crane Kung Fu or any other martial art for that matter is a journey of learning a new set of principles, and whilst many become entangled in the techniques of a style, it is an understanding of the principles that is the primary important lesson.
Understanding what a principle is and how it differs from a technique is a huge step which can sometimes only be achieved after several years of confusion. I shall do my best to explain how it makes sense in my mind but as with most things, understanding the words is very different to understanding their meaning. Repeating the words of others does not make you wise, it only makes you a parrot. An understanding of their meaning must come from within through repetition, repetition and repetition. Reading all the books in the world about cycling will not make you a great cyclist if you have never thrown a leg over a bike.
One great example that many people can relate to is walking. Those of us lucky enough to have the capability to walk learn to do so at an early age and rarely give it a second thought until something interrupts our movement, such as an injury for example. Walking is a technique that allows us to transport ourselves around, either forwards, backwards or sideways. Look around you and you will notice that everyone employs a different technique for walking as no two people are the same. Some will take long strides whilst others short steps, some use exaggerated body movement whilst others have a very controlled walk, and others employ the pelvic swing or mincing as it's commonly known. You can tell a lot about a person simply by the way they walk.
The point is there are lots of different techniques for walking and everyone adopts their own individual technique. In varying degrees of efficiency they all achieve the same goal of self-transportation, thus making the technique itself irrelevant. What are relevant and most important are the rules which allow these techniques to work, the basic understanding of principles that we learn as infants which once learned seem so obvious that we rarely consider them again.
Lets break these rules down to explain what I mean. To move forwards we need to place each foot in front of the other in a successive sequence, else we will only be walking on the spot and not moving anywhere. Moving forwards also requires a transfer of weight from the rear foot onto the front foot to allow the rest of the body to move forwards as well. If the rear foot leaves the ground before the front foot has landed it is called running, which is a different concept for moving. We also need to be sure that the front foot is firmly planted on the ground before transferring our weight onto it. These are all examples of just a few principles of walking which we employ to make our own individual technique work. I'm sure that most of us at some time have slipped on a wet manhole cover. In such instances one of the basic principles of walking has not been employed and the entire technique falls apart as we find ourselves taking emergency measures to not end up on our arse.
Have a think about the other principles that we employ to make walking work. How we interact and understand gravity, friction and the use of our body's design. These principles are underlying rules that help us to perform the technique of walking. There are however millions of different techniques for walking as we have discussed, but to make them work they all need to adhere to the same set of principles. By learning the principles we can apply them in any way we wish to move ourselves around with complete freedom and in the manner of our choosing. If we look at an infant as it learns how to walk it begins with very limited movement, stumbling forwards as if in a controlled fall. As the infant begins to understand more and more principles so its way of moving becomes more and more complex until it one day develops the complex set of skills that become an integral part of our lives. Expanding on these principles and learning new ones we can progress onto running, skipping and jumping.
I hope this demonstrates the importance of principles. By understanding such principles we can apply them to any technique we wish. It's the principles that make techniques work which is why a technique is just a technique, understanding the principles behind it are the most important and valuable lessons. A technique is very limiting whereas a principle will open up a world of possibilities and is the formula that will determine the success of many different techniques. Some people focus solely on techniques, collecting them like they are model train sets. Techniques that use different sets of principles do not always fit together in a cohesive way however, in much the same way that model train sets use different gauge tracks. You cannot run a train on a track if the wheels are set too wide for the rails. Taking a Karate kick and adding it to a Muay Thai elbow strike and a boxing punch can offer merely a collection of techniques lacking in efficiency and flow. Taking the time and effort to truly study a traditional martial art can teach the body a set of principles that combine with ease and flow by not contradicting each other. Buying one hundred different jigsaw puzzles will not allow you to create one huge picture, only a confusing and unfinished assortment. To build a huge picture it requires investing in a huge jigsaw puzzle, and that takes the time and dedication that few are prepared to invest. Many martial arts have become so specialised due to sport competition that they have lost many parts of the picture and been reduced to just very small jigsaw puzzles. Nothing wrong with that if sport is your thing and I take my hat off to anyone who pursues excellence in any way, but personally I like a bigger picture to look at.
Having many small jigsaw puzzles will achieve a lot of technical knowledge but it can become confusing for the body as principles begin to conflict with one another. This is why it can be difficult for someone who has spent time learning one style of martial art to then learn a completely different style. Those principles that have been ingrained within the body are now having to be retrained, such as keeping heels flat on the ground, hips facing forwards or not bouncing up and down for each strike. It can be frustrating and difficult to unlearn movement once it has become habit, but it can be done with enough patience and hard work.
The principles of White Crane Kung Fu are designed to achieve martial efficiency and realistic self-defence skills but also help us to generate a healthy life by promoting an upright posture, strong legs and respectful use of the joints as just a few examples. By not being a sport it removes the urgency to achieve any skill and allows us to gradually improve and practice the art over our full lifetime. The principles slowly become assimilated by the body until one day they become second nature and every movement we do is White Crane. Well that's the goal anyway, but be under no illusion that it is an easy process, it takes a lot of time and repetition.
The forms that we learn and practice are the method for developing an understanding of the principles. Whilst there are a limited amount of forms, the principles that they teach are bewildering in their quantity and complexity. Around each corner there is a new principle waiting to be unearthed in White Crane, some practical whilst others profound, but each one a treasure in its own right. It seems as if it is a bottomless well of learning that will continue to surprise until the final breath, and this has to be one of the most exciting prospects about studying a traditional martial art. Rather than collecting more and more knowledge we merely learn how there is an ever increasing amount still to be discovered.
As every journey begins with a single step, the principles of White Crane begin with basic concepts. The three most important principles that distinguish the art can be summarised as having a strong stance, a flexible waist and relaxed arms. The power for any of the strikes must come from the ground up. Without strong legs and a firm structure there can be no power. Imagine trying to punch an object whilst standing on ice, without the root in the foot much of the energy goes into making the feet slide around instead of being transferred into the target. The legs need to be strong to provide a stable structure and provide efficient energy transfer. It amazes me when I look at those huge cranes on construction sites and wonder how they remain strong on such a narrow, single upright beam. The fact is that someone has calculated how to do this by using their understanding of the principles of physics. This is the same for White Crane, by understanding the principles of physics and anatomy, postures have been developed that maximise the human body.
The flexible waist is designed for power generation. The muscles around the midsection and pelvis are far stronger than most peoples arms so it makes sense to employ these muscle groups when striking rather than relying on the arms alone. This way a person can develop significant power for striking without the need to built like a gorilla. The waist must be flexible to allow it to turn freely and quickly. A lot of people rely on a twist of the pelvis and hips to attain a turn of the body, in the false belief that they are flexible. By twisting the pelvis it compromises the structure of the legs, weakening the stance and therefore undermining the first principle discussed here. If we can learn to isolate the pelvis and hips and turn the waist instead, we remain in a strong and rooted position whilst also staying balanced and controlled.
The final of the three is relaxed arms which is counter intuitive for power in many peoples minds. Relaxed arms facilitate fast arms which are obviously crucial for blocking or diverting an incoming strike but also for delivering a strike. Any unnecessary tension in the arm will have the effect of a handbrake on a traveling car. Relaxed and fast hands can also change direction and tactics much more easily. The power is being generated by the waist remember, so big arms are not necessary and in fact greater muscle mass in the arm whilst providing greater momentum will be slower to move and require more energy to do so. The arms and hands do need strength though, especially in the bones. Glass hammers never really caught on did they?
These are three very basic yet fundamental concepts of White Crane and hopefully it has helped you to understand the importance of principles. Whichever art you choose to pursue, be that martial or non-martial, consider the principles that it is teaching you. Look beyond the technique and strive to understand the how and why, it will enrich your journey and lead you to some interesting conclusions. People criticise traditional martial arts for having a rigid structure that enslaves movement, failing to see beyond the forms. They are simply a tool for teaching the principles, in the same way that to learn to dance you must first learn the steps, to drive a car you must first learn to operate the engine and gears and to write a book you must first learn the alphabet and the principles of language. Once the principles have been understood you can dance in anyway you wish, drive a car wherever you like and write a novel of your choice.