Mindful Wing Chun for Living from Your Center

mindful wing chun at College of MarinBelow, I detail my Mindful Wing Chun class. For other ways to improve wellbeing, explore the above buttons.

This weekly class will be offered for the first time in the Fall Quarter, 2019 and registration starts in late-July.

This gentle, mindfulness-based, martial arts class focuses on improving self-exploration, self-awareness, self-compassion, self-empowerment, self-efficacy, and fun. And along the way, you will also learn how to protect yourself from potential perpetrators or attackers.

It cultivates the body-based mindfulness skill of living in your center rather than in your head. As you get out of your head and into your center, you will experience a sense of ease and freedom, no longer fused or entangled with the endless mind-chatter that is inherent in the human condition.

Without a serious mindfulness practice of some type, we all mistake our mind-chatter for reality. In this class, you will learn body-centered mindfulness through the vehicle of a gentle martial arts class. As you become more body-centered, you will experience less self-criticism, self-doubt, and stress. As you begin to experience less stress, you will experience greater aliveness in your life.

Why a Martial Arts Class? The practice of this special martial art, known as CST wing chun (Read on for details and explanation.) has elements of various other practices within it. For example:

  • The mindfulness component is the same as in vipassana or other mindfulness sitting practices, except that in CST wing chun you are always moving (externally and internally).
  • The concentration component is similar to the concentration in most forms of sitting meditation and yoga, but different in that in this practice you are continually moving, either through a martial art form or sequence of shapes or through two-person practices.
  • What is most unique to CST wing chun is the cultivation of a special mind state, known as nim tao (NT) wherein you feel very centered, balanced, self-empowered, and calm. It is developed and maintained through the practice of the siu nim tao form. Once you learn how to maintain that mind-state in the siu nim tao form (SNT), it is then further developed in the two-person practices, which are what I call the fun stuff.
  • In my unique approach to teaching this art, what you learn about yourself in the solo and two-person practices will help you in interpersonal interactions and relationships. The way this occurs is that you will begin to have greater choices in your actions when you are able to experience fear, rage, anxiety, and other emotions without having them catalyze unhealthy mind-chatter.
  • I began martial arts training in the 1970s to acquire the fighting abilities and inner calmness of Kwai Chang Kane, the hero in the Kung Fu TV series. I now practice and teach mind-body training through the practice of CST wing chun. CST wing chun is the most sophisticated system of internal mind-body training I’ve experienced. My particular interest is in helping people apply the mind-body training to applications in normal daily life rather than for fighting. Traditionally, the martial arts have all been warrior arts.
  • To me, the most courageous warriors are those who are willing to go into the scary places in their minds. Many of the people I used to work with as a psychologist in mind-body medicine, and some of my current students, suffered abuse by their parents or other caregivers—the very people they should have been able go to in order to feel safe. I am one of those people.
  • Stress reduction occurs as members of the class engage in solo and two-person practices that open up the body and mind in a way that leads to the release the bodily tension. Bodily tension that previously was used in attempting to suppress unwanted feelings, such as shame, fear, rage, and other rejected feelings will gradually be released as you continue to practice.

What is Wing Chun? Wing chun was created a few hundred years ago as an internal martial art by Ng Mui, a female Shaolin warrior and martial arts master. The martial art she created was the product of a lifetime of training in the Shaolin fighting arts. Wing chun was the result of her efforts to create a fighting system that could be effective for unarmed female warriors that would put them on equal footing with larger, stronger male warriors. The art was eventually named after her exceptional student, a young woman named Yim Wing Chun.

What is it Like Being in this Class? The atmosphere in this class is one of collaboration and caring among the students and is a very non-threatening martial arts class. Each weekly class is densely packed with various practices with every minute of class time scheduled since the class is only 50-min long. Because SNT is the foundation for the complete martial art of CST wing chun, and because it is so transformative, the largest segment of class time is devoted to it. Two-person practices allow students to safely pressure-test their SNT skills and have fun in the process. Because these various two-person practices are performed with an attitude of caring and collaboration, rather than competitiveness, students feel a sense of trust, safety, and comradery. There are two types of students in the class. A select few practice a lot between classes. The majority don’t practice very much. Both are equally welcome in the class, but obviously, the results are dose-dependent.

Definitions: CST Wing Chun and Mindful Wing Chun: 

  • CST Wing Chun is the very unique approach to the art of wing chun, created by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin. CST wing chun is most known for its internal mind-body training.
  • Mindful Wing Chun (MWC) is the wing chun school in Hong Kong (HK), founded by Nima King, primary disciple of Chu Shong Tin (CST). Nima King created the MWC school in order to pass on the teachings of CST. In December 2018, MWC opened an online division of their HK-based school, where the entire CST system will be taught online over a period of several years.
  • Mindful Wing Chun for Living from your Center is the class I created for the Community Education Department at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. As one of my students, if you like the class enough to practice at home each day, you will want to subscribe to MWC’s online program. You will then be in an ideal situation by combining Nima King’s weekly online lessons with the weekly hands-on training with training partners in my class. As a CST wing chun class, we focus on the development of internal mind-body connections, rather than on techniques. These internal aspects are what improve quality of life.

Developing the Nim Tao State: As soon as the SNT sequence is learned, students begin focusing on learning how to go into the siu nim tao state, aka nim tao state. This mind-state is one of calmness, confidence, feeling centered, and self-empowered.  It can only be developed by performing SNT correctly, with total concentration on the correct practices, and as often as possible. However, there are plenty of benefits to participation in this class even if you choose not to work toward cultivation of the nim tao mind-state.

The 50-min class time each week is divided up as follows:

  1. Utilization of the SNT stance and MWC mobilizations to help you begin to develop the internal aspects of this art: 5-min. 
  2. Mindfully perform SNT together as a class, in order to experience flow, and to develop deep concentration and body-centeredness: 12-min.
  3. SNT coaching where we spend time on each shape of the form. This section introduces collaborative partner practices: 15-min.
  4. Dan chi sau, Look sau, Jao sau, Chi sau, and other variations of chi sau training, plus gentle pressure-testing of internal aspects: 18-min 
  5. Some weeks, when the interest is there, the fourth segment of the class will be replaced by class discussion on how to apply what you are learning to daily life challenges.

Clearing Up a Common Misunderstanding: This is a gentle martial arts class only because of my emphasis on personal growth rather than on fighting or self-defense. However, all martial arts are combative arts. Many people mistakenly think certain arts, especially aikido and tai chi, are gentle. They are not. Aikido is seen as gentle because that system is designed to inflict pain rather than serious injury to the attacker. Tai chi is mistaken for a gentle art because so few people have ever practiced the martial art or even witnessed the combat side of tai chi chuan. I have practiced both of those arts and there is nothing gentle about either one, especially tai chi. My teacher, William C.C. Chen’s son and daughter became mixed martial arts fighting champions fighting with tai chi. Wing chun is no different. It is not the art itself that is gentle; it is only my teaching method with its emphasis on personal growth skills rather than fighting skills that make it gentle.

That said, the training in this class will make you a very unlikely target of a bully at your work place or any family or other gathering, or of a potential attacker in the street; this will be due to your increasing self-empowerment, awareness, and confidence. The highest martial arts skill is the one that allows you to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous individuals and situations. For example, on several occasions, I have been in the presence of someone posturing in a way meant to intimidate. At other times, I have seen a potential threat in a man who was looking at someone the way the big bad wolf was looking at Little Red Riding Hood. In each case, when he saw me looking (not staring) his way in a very aware, confident, yet non-threatening posture, he lost interest and left the scene.

The vast majority of the time when people need to use self-defense skills to fight for their lives, it is either due to a lack of awarenness of their surroundings, failure to take preventive security measures, inability to read body language, or their inability to properly manage their own feelings of rage or fear. That last one was what got me in trouble in my youth.

When I was young, I used to hear people refer to me either as Evil Eye or as a hothead. Those labels were attributed to me because I used to provoke people, and sometimes it got me in trouble. In the U.S. today, just staring at someone with mean intent has gotten many people shot. It is the training of the mind that can best keep you out of harms way. The best self-defense is to train the mind. It just so happens that training in the martial arts can be a very effective form of mind training.

My Limitations as a CST Wing Chun Instructor: Despite a long history in other internal as well as external martial arts, I am not a wing chun expert. I just began serious training in wing chun in May of 2018 and in the CST lineage in July of that year. In November of 2018, my teacher, Nima King encouraged me to start teaching this course. Without his encouragement, I would never have considered teaching wing chun at this early stage in my own wing chun training.

If personal growth is what you want, I am very experienced in helping people with that. If, on the other hand, you want to learn the complete martial art of CST wing chun, I feel confident that if you subscribe to Nima’s MWC online course, which provides weekly video lessons with an interactive component, and combine it with the weekly hands-on training in my class, you will actually be receiving an exceptionally high level of training in the CST lineage of wing chun. I began teaching CST wing chun in January 2019 to a non-wing chun class I’d been teaching for many years, and to a CST wing chun class beginning in August of 2019.

Although you are welcome to take this class without subscribing to my teacher’s online course, you should know that I am not qualified to teach the complete martial art of CST wing chun. For that, I strongly recommend the online course, because, when combined with the weekly hands-on experience of my class, you will then be able to learn the complete art of CST wing chun.

The Importance of Siu Nim Tao: In the CST lineage, SNT is so important that even the senior teachers spend up to 80% of their weekly practice time on the SNT form. To put that in perspective, in addition to SNT, there are many other things to practice, such as two additional empty-hand forms (chum kiu and biu gee), the wooden dummy form, two weapon forms, and chi sau. The reason for the emphasis on SNT is because the internal aspects of CST wing chun are developed in SNT. One of the things that is so unique about Siu Nim Tao is that it has the perfect mix of physical movement with mental effort. Among other benefits, SNT will teach you about the power of mindful relaxation. Relaxation is equal to power; the more relaxed you are, the more powerful you are; this applies physically, mentally, and emotionally.

We are all limited by our self-imposed limitations. This practice offers opportunities to explore parts of life where you’ve never been before, places in your mind where you heard a voice telling you about your inability to do certain things. I get great satisfaction in providing a safe environment where my students can go where they were previously afraid to go—places in their minds where they had been limited only by self-critical beliefs.

The Foundation of the Practice of CST Wing Chun: SNT is like the foundation of a building. The most well-constructed building will not be durable or even usable unless it has a well-constructed foundation. Mastery of SNT provides a well-constructed foundation upon which the complete martial art of wing chun can be built. SNT practice is not something to squeeze into your day. Personally, I build each day around SNT, practicing every chance I get throughout the day and evening. This may seem austere, but once you begin to start experiencing the benefits, you too will be wanting to practice every chance you get. Whenever I arrive somewhere a few minutes early or I am between two tasks or activites, I tell myself: “This is my time, my life, and I deserve to be able to take these few minutes for myself to be able to do SNT.” Doing SNT is an act of self-caring and self-valuing.

The Importance of Chi Sau. Chi sau is a two-person sensitivity drill. Through chi sau you will learn to intuit all movement of your partner by feeling subtle bodily changes. Chi sau is also an opportunity to put the various internal skills learned in SNT (listed below) to the test to see if they work under pressure with a training partner. However, in the CST lineage, more than anything, chi sau is an opportunity to practice maintaining the SNT mind state while working (actually playing) with a training partner. This ability to maintain the SNT state in chi sau leads to the ability to maintain that calm and centered state when you are confronted by the stresses of daily life. For that reason, even though most of my students are not interested in chi sau sparring, they do like the basic two-person drills, known as dan chi sau, look sau, and several other two-person drills because they are a lot of fun and very safe.

I’ve always been amazed by the large number of people who say they do tai chi, but only do the form; they’re missing out on all the fun stuff. It’s the same with wing chun. As important as the solo forms are, most people enjoy partner practices. The two person drills are like play time with your friends. And unlike tai chi’s push hands, wing chun’s chi sau can be practiced by old arthritics like me.

In the CST lineage, chi sau is a dance. When your partner moves, you move. However, you are also in a dance with yourself. Every time you notice that you are off balance and no longer have your mind in your center, you bring the mind back to the center.

The skills learned in SNT, which you get to test out in two-person practices each week are:

  • Symmetry, Uprightness, and Balance
  • Taigung & Seng (Cantonese terms for internal activation or internal connection, as well as rising up in the spine and feeling a channel opening up from coccyx to crown of head)
  • Mindful Relaxation (a form of relaxation that creates greater aliveness and that increases energy and power) Mindful relaxation is relaxation with direction.
  • Optimal Angle (has to do with directness, economy of movement, and ties in with joint rotation)
  • Centerline and Forward Focus (triangulation) (Wing chun has no flowery movements and is extremely direct.)
  • Elbow Force (refers to power coming from a specific way of using the joints and does not include muscle)
  • Holistic Awareness (awareness of the entire body, not just the hand that is moving)
  • Precision of Movement (has to do with placement and is related to the other skills as well)
  • Joint Rotation (relates to vectors of force, none of which has anything to do with muscle)

Over time, you will be able to apply those practices to managing stressful daily life situations and to getting more joy out of life.

Symmetry, uprightness, and balance examples: when we practice symmetry, uprightness, and balance, brain function improves and stress diminishes. To test this, try taking any type of cognitive test sprawled out on a soft couch. Then take a similar test while standing tall and practicing being physically balanced and symmetrical. Your mind will be much sharper when you are in good posture. Another way to test this is to get into a stressful conversation with someone. Test to see how your posture affects the way you handle the conversation.

Mindful relaxation example: Usually, we tense up when in a stressful conversation or when we are confronted by a any type of stressful situation. Daily training in mindful relaxation frees up energy in your body and mind. It also allows you to see more objectively and to have a more neutral view of things.

Holistic awareness example: The opposite of this would be tunnel-vision or narrow-minded, black and white thinking.

One of the Many Reasons I Am Committed to CST Wing Chun: After just two months of practicing SNT for roughly two hours a day, all the chronic back pain I’d had for many decades disappeared. In addition, I began feeling lighter and less burdened. Also, I am gradually developing the ability to perform physical tasks with less effort.

How CST Wing Chun Fits into my Daily Life: The following will give you a rough idea of where wing chun fits into my life. Very few wing chun students train as seriously as I do, but I have found the benefits to correlate with the seriousness of the practice—not necessarily with the amount of time spent practicing, but with the degree of concentration, intention, and mindfulness. My weekly personal wing chun routine looks like this:

  • 2-hours daily of siu nim tao (SNT) form practice, spread out during the day, performed at approximately 12 to 15-min per round. One time each day I do a few minutes of stance practice on one leg, followed by SNT while standing on one leg.
  • 3 to 4 hours weekly of chi sau and various two-person drills with my training partner.
  • 3 to 4 hours weekly studying the online lessons.
  • Teaching my 50-min Mindful Wing Chun for Living from Your Center class each week.
  • A few minutes each day practicing various striking drills on my wall pad while focusing on my center of mass.
  • Also, I apply the MWC skills listed below to all daily activities. No physical movement is too small or unimportant to use for practice.

The Act of Practicing is an Act of Self-Caring and Self-Valuing

  • Practicing for the sake of practicing is an act of self-care.
  • Consciously choosing to practice is self-empowering.
  • Especially when you don’t feel like it, consciously choosing to practice is an act of self-caring and self-valuing.
  • Consciously choosing to practice is a message to yourself that you matter. Ask yourself if you value yourself enough to set aside practice time as a very special time that is just for you.
  • Not practicing is an act of self-abandonment.
  • Don’t ever practice because you think you should. We all must find a way to make daily practice satisfying. Some days it is extremely challenging to find the time, but as long as there is something in it that is satisfying, we make the time. If we dread practicing, we won’t, and probably shouldn’t. However, at those times when the motivation to practice is lacking, it is important that we explore what we really want from the practice, because that can then provide motivation.
  • If you maintain a daily practice, then, during those times when you are confronted with a particularly stressful period in your life, the practice can carry you through it, providing support and continuity.

Here are some additional examples of how I practice throughout the day: 

  • I practice pivoting as I walk. The way I do this is to initiate all turns internally. Intention to rotate the spine and pivot activates physical rotating and turning. I find this to be a very satisfying practice.
  • As I sit, stand up, and walk, I practice symmetry, unifying my upper and lower body and balancing my L and R, all the while moving from my center.
  • When I’m holding a heavy pan in one hand, I maintain symmetry.
  • When I am bent over, I remain centered.
  • I have found that washing pots and pans, cooking, opening and closing the refrigerator doors, and moving the heavy roaster with a chicken in it are all opportunities to practice principles such as symmetry, uprightness, internal activation, optimal angle, precision of movement, and elbow force. I also ask myself if I am recruiting more muscle than would be needed if I was more relaxed. I go inward and explore how relaxed and centered I am in my body.
  • Whenever I notice stressful thinking, I immediately put my mind in my center.
  • The question I ask most throughout the day, whether opening a door or getting up from a seated position is: Am I using the minimal amount of muscular exertion possible to get the job done? Being able to generate power with minimal muscular exertion is the result of a combination of maintaining mindful relaxation with optimal body mechanics.

Sparring: Because of the nature of this class, we will not be doing any high-intensity sparring. However, you should know that no martial art is effective against someone much bigger and stronger who is intent on harming you unless you acquire high-intensity sparring experience and training in gun and knife disarms. This class does not provide that type of training, because my intention is to provide a class that improves your quality of life, not a class that trains you to fight. That said, there is much to be learned of a personal growth nature in doing some gentle, low-level chi sau sparring, so, it will be offered to those students who want it and are ready for it. One of the many things I appreciate about wing chun is that wing chun’s chi sau sparring is very safe when practiced at low intensity.

As for Non-Wing Chun Types of Sparring: Any sparring that involves getting hit in the head increases your odds of developing dementia at some point in your life. When I was doing tai chi sparring under William C.C. Chen (with 14-oz gloves) a few times a week in my younger days, it was believed that only knockouts caused brain damage. The doctor would typically ask: “Did you lose consciousness?” The belief at that time (1970s & 80s) was that no brain damage occurs unless you lose consciousness. Newer brain scan evidence from the 1990s and continuing today, shows that regularly getting hit in the head can cause brain damage even when the punches are fairly light. At the time, I thought my worst injuries were black eyes, a broken nose, bruised spleen, hyperextended elbow, sprained joints, abrasions and contusions. Little did I know about the invisible damage that may have been occurring by getting hit in the head a few times a week. Fortunately for me, even many ring and cage fighters never develop dementia; however, their odds of developing it are considerably greater than it is for those of us who only sparred at a moderate level and never fought in competition. Like most of my training partners, we sparred partly because it was part of the training, partly because we wanted to learn to fight, but mostly, I think we all found it very satisfying to set goals and to challenge ourselves, always pushing ourselves just a little bit further each time.

Training in CST wing chun provides ample opportunities for challenging yourself and pushing beyond where you’ve been before. But, because of my background in mind-body medicine, your challenges will relate to mind training rather than to fighting.

Some of the History of CST Wing Chun: Ng Mui, the founder of wing chun, would certainly have been internal, since that remains the only way female martial artists would have been able to defeat much bigger, stronger men of equal skill (which she and her student Yim Wing Chun did). Unfortunately, at some point in the transmission of the art from generation to generation, the internal aspects of wing chun were lost to a large extent and were supplanted by an external interpretation, which focused on techniques and muscular strength. Although Ip Man had internal skills, he openly said that his student, Chu Shong Tin had surpassed him in internal abilities. Also, CST’s fellow senior students at IP Man’s school were all in awe of how powerful CST was, given that he was skinny, sickly, and weak. In interviews, CST’s kung fu brothers and sisters all said that they could not even figure out what he was doing that allowed him to be so much more powerful than any of Ip Man’s other senior students.

CST had escaped from the mainland around the same time as did his teacher Ip Man, in 1949. CST began training with Ip Man in 1950 and they shared very small living quarters for five years. CST originally had no interest in the martial arts, but because he was living with Ip Man and working where Ip Man began teaching wing chun, he was exposed to it many hours a day. Ip Man’s first two students, Lok Yu and Leung Shong convinced CST to try it. He then became Ip Man’s third student. Unlike Lok Yu, Leung Shong, and all of Ip Man’s later students, like Wong Shong Leung and Bruce Lee, CST’s motivation was not to improve his fighting skills. Rather, his motivation was driven by his curiosity related to how the biomechanics and physics of wing chun allowed wing chun experts to be so effective with extremely minimal muscular effort.

Over the years, Ip Man regularly told his students that if they master the siu nim tao form, they would develop very extraordinary powers. With the sole exception of CST, all Ip Man’s other students were focused on fighting and were not interested in spending many hours a day practicing siu nim tao. Although some of Ip Man’s students became well known for their extraordinary fighting ability, most notably Wong Shong Leung (who was referred to as The King of Talking Hands), none were internal to the same degree as Chu Shong Tin. When interviewed decades later, all the early Ip Man students said that CST was so internal that when they would do chi sau sparring with him, they couldn’t even figure out what he was doing. Ip Man’s other students were all more powerfully built than CST, who remained emaciated. It is believed that CST’s lack of muscle worked to his advantage in developing his internal powers. When women in the CST lineage train as hard as the men, they become superior martial artists. This is because the more muscular someone is, the harder it is for them to rely on their internal strengths rather than their musculature.

During the 1950s, CST steadily improved his internal mind-body skills in wing chun. From the 1950s until his death in 2014, CST remained the most internal wing chun master in the world. Even though CST was never focused on fighting, he was challenged many times by wing chun experts from other lineages and from other martial arts. He remained undefeated without anyone getting hurt. Typically, CST would deliver numerous palm-heel strikes at will, all over the challenger’s torso; this was so shocking for the challengers that they would back away and bow to CST, acknowledging his extraordinary level of mastery. In fact, CST said he never kicked anyone because it would have caused too serious an injury. Also, he said he never hit anyone with full power, for the same reason.

My Long Personal Interest in Wing Chun: My first introduction to wing chun was through one of my tai chi chuan sparring partners around 1980, when he began wing chun training. He showed me SNT and taught me a little chi sau, which seemed somewhat related to push hands. I was intrigued by the principles of wing chun, especially center-line theory and the linearity of the style.

Amazingly, when I was boxing at camp in my childhood in the mid to late 1950s, I noticed that all the other kids my age were exclusively throwing wild haymakers. As I watched the other kids fight, I realized that if I go up the middle, my punches would consistently land first. This in fact proved to be correct, which led to my becoming a hero in my age group for beating the bully I was matched up with in a fight. What I had figured out on my own was wing chun’s centerline theory. Even though my opponent’s roundhouse punches were more powerful, because my weaker centerline punches consistently landed first, his wild punches were neutralized.

When Wong Shong Leung (WSL) released his wing chun videos in the early 1980s, I was amazed by the total absence of any unnecessary and flowery movements! I had previously trained in the very flowery northern Praying Mantis style of kung fu with Grand Master Chan Poi and Sifu Yao Li in Boston, where I lived. Immediately upon studying WSL’s videos, I recognized that wing chun was a vastly more pragmatic martial art. I had also trained in aikijujutsu, but I found that system to be most efficacious for law enforcement officers, but not practical in the street when someone is throwing wild punches. Tai chi chuan was the art I had trained in the longest, but it too lacked the simplicity, directness, and practicality of wing chun. Also, I had often felt frustrated by how challenging it was to apply the internal aspects of tai chi to push hands and sparring. I was continually falling back on muscular strength and probably would have been better off going to a local boxing gym, which I actually did (Natick Boxing Club), until I realized that those guys were totally focused on sport fighting in the ring. I was like a fish out of water because my interest was in sparring but not in fighting, so I left and refocused all my energy on tai chi chuan under William C.C. Chen. But after studying WSL’s videos around 1982, wing chun seemed to be the perfect martial art, especially for my temperament, and had everything I was looking for in a brilliantly simple, yet complete system.

Unfortunately, to find the time in my busy week to begin training in wing chun, I would have had to give up tai chi. I simply had no time to train in wing chun at that time in my life and I had already put in way too much training time in tai chi to give it up, especially since I was training with William C.C. Chen. I was spending evenings and weekends on empty-hand forms, weapon forms, push hands, and sparring. Between work life, family life, and serious tai chi chuan training, there was simply no way to start training in wing chun, but by 1987 my passion for tai chi was fading.

From 1988, when we moved from Boston to San Diego (and later to San Francisco), until 2014 I didn’t do any martial art training at all. All I did in all those years was my tai chi form. I was just too busy. Then, in the fall of 2014, I finally decided to resume tai chi training by attending a William C.C. Chen weekend workshop in Los Angeles, but I discovered that the martial aspects of tai chi were now not a good idea for me, given worsening arthritis, osteoporosis, and a few other medical conditions.

Then, in the spring of 2018, on my 71st birthday, I asked myself what was unfinished in my life. What had I not yet done that I was still physically capable of doing? I remembered those incredible Wong Shong Leung videos from the early 1980s and realized with some sadness that wing chun would actually have been a better fit for my personality 45 years earlier, when I started tai chi chuan. With that realization, that week, I began training with a local wing chun instructor. He wasn’t from the WSL lineage, but he turned out to be a really exceptional teacher and I enjoyed training under him and his senior student for about three months.

Amazingly, I discovered that wing chun is actually a lot safer for aging bodies than tai chi chuan. Because of all the movement in push hands, it is actually much harder on aging, arthritic backs, hips, knees, and feet than chi sau. And wing chun’s chi sau sparring at a moderate level is much heathier than tai chi sparring with gloves.

Now retired from two careers, I finally had the time to devote to serious training in wing chun and have been very dedicated to my wing chun training ever since. As soon as I started training under the local instructor, I began watching wing chun experts from all the various lineages on YouTube. One day, I came upon videos of Chu Shong Tin and his disciple, Nima King, and I immediately recognized that they were doing something radically different from Wong Shong Leung and all the other wing chun lineages. Most impressive was that they were generating power from center of mass rather than from the ground and I became obsessed with wanting to experience that. I wanted to train in the Chu Shong Tin lineage of wing chun, but CST had died in 2014 and Nima King was in Hong Kong. Flying back and forth to Hong Kong from San Francisco for chunks of time crossed my mind, but due to health issues, I wasn’t up to it. Furthermore, I was committed to continuing to teach the popular course I had been teaching at College of Marin.

I immediately established a Skype friendship with Nima King as a result of my work as a psychologist in mind-body medicine and my new interest in doing scientific research with the internal wing chun experts from the CST lineage. I originally intended to bring Nima to San Francisco so that, along with colleagues at University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF) we could study him using fMRI, neurofeedback, other biofeedback, and various other modalities. At some point, we may do that, but for the next six months we met weekly on Skype to discuss the science of CST wing chun and he would coach me in my Siu Nim Tao form each week. In December of 2018, his Mindful Wing Chun online school opened and I was one of the first to join.

How I Got Interested in the Martial Arts: Originally, I became interested in the martial arts as a result of a TV character who was able to remain calm, assertive, and centered in a wild and violent environment. When you are able to reside in your center, you can avoid getting entangled in all the craziness swirling around you. This was exemplified by the Kwai Chang Kane character in the 1970s Kung Fu TV series.

When I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties, I used to hear people refer to me as a hothead, because it took very little to provoke me. Kwai Chang Kane was the opposite of a hothead and I knew I wanted to be more like him. I looked forward to each weekly episode and for at least an hour after each episode, I was pretty good at being like my fictional hero. But then, the next day, someone would inadvertently say something and I would lose my cool. After reading a philosophy book on Taoism, where I kept coming across the term tai chi, I decided to train in it. Plus, I had come to the conclusion that Kwai Chang Kane was using tai chi when he fought with all his weekly attackers on the show. In the 1970s, tai chi was unknown outside of China. I soon learned that tai chi was the most sophisticated of all the martial arts, that it took a lifetime to learn it, and that there were just a handful of tai chi masters who had come to North America, mostly by way of Taiwan. I found one in Boston, Master T.T. Liang, and then a couple of years later I found another one in New York City (just a 3.5-hour drive), William C.C. Chen.

The first time I saw a tai chi demonstration, I was hooked. What I witnessed was an old man (T.T. Liang) knocking much younger, larger and stronger men to the floor with absolutely no effort. The strangest thing was that I never saw him hit any of them. It’s easy to see where those ridiculous stories come from that describe tai chi masters issuing an invisible force (chi). I never believed such nonsense, but I had no clue how he could keep knocking people to the ground when I couldn’t see him hitting them.  But one thing I knew then was that I had to train with him. I knew that the so-called hard styles, like karate, could be learned in just a few years, but tai chi seemed way more mysterious. Karate was easy to comprehend; it was essentially about block and punch or block and kick. But with tai chi, it was impossible to even see where the tai chi master’s power was coming from. Now, 45-years later, CST wing chun seems just as mysterious and just as difficult to master, and just as appealing to me as did tai chi chuan in my younger days.

Where is your Center? If you are fit, your center of mass and center of balance could be thought of as a vertical axis that is just anterior to the spine and it is where to put your attention. However, at a very high level, the center is thought of as a point rather than as a line. Living and moving from your center is a life practice and an antidote to living in your head. Living in your center means living in the moment—being fully present and fully awake to your moment-to-moment experience. Different martial arts describe the center differently and place it in a very slightly different place, but it is always the place to put your mind.

When your mind is in your center, you will remain calm in situations that otherwise cause you to get flustered or to lose your cool.  When living in your center, unpleasant emotions such as anger, rage, frustration, sadness, and despair are more likely to be experienced as pure emotions, which means, since your mind is in your center, those emotions will not be problematic. You will still feel them; in fact, you may feel them even more deeply, but you won’t get caught in stories about them. It is the stories we create that add to our suffering.

In living from your center, you practice mindfully recognizing when you get triggered by an individual or a situation. Focusing outwardly on the behavior of the other person prevents you from living from your center. This does not mean closing your eyes and ears to all the craziness going on in your environment. It means being aware of your surroundings and being part of the dance.

As humans, we live primarily in our heads—in our thoughts. CST wing chun is a practice that trains the mind to come home to the body. This is achieved as we learn to direct the body with the mind. What I am describing has nothing to do with thinking about the body or about the connection between mind and body. Rather, it is about using mind to direct body movements without any analysis and without any muscular exertion.

When we fail to train the mind to come home to the body, it is like abandoning a big part of ourselves. Spending our waking moments analyzing external situations is another way to abandon ourselves. When we put mind in the body, we are home. Part of the human condition involves performing tasks that are not always fun and are often even unpleasant. Practicing moving from our center can serve to give greater meaning to everything we do, including those unpleasant tasks.

Muscular tension blocks energy flow. We commonly hold onto bodily tension in the same way we hold on to thoughts and beliefs. Both block the free flow of internal energy. Cultivation of the sensitivity that allows you to become aware of your tension is the first step. Gradually, you will notice freer movement of your appendicular and axial skeletons.

According to Nima King, my teacher, “internal energy generation is about subtraction. It is not something to put into the body; it is the product of subtracting and eliminating all the thoughts and muscle tension that block the natural flow of internal energy.”

This process is like a reversible reaction in chemistry. Physiologically, an example of a reversible reaction is the process by which carbon dioxide and water form carbonic acid and then the carbonic acid can break down into carbon dioxide and water. Relaxing the mind serves to relax the body, just as relaxing the body serves to relax the mind. There are biochemical reactions throughout the body that strongly associate with stress; those reactions reverse when we go into a calm state. Biochemical reactions can be influenced by our state of mind.

The spine can expand. Striving, straining, muscle tension, poor posture, and non-diaphragmatic breathing contract the muscles around the spine and block energy. When the energy is stable to flow freely, you are likely to experience sensations of increased space between the vertebrae and have a sense of gaining height. Energy is generated when the whole body moves in a relaxed, coordinated way. When mindful relaxation, symmetry, balance, uprightness, and the other MWC principles are practiced, there is considerably more movement throughout the spine and the rest of the body.

Practice cultivation of a gentle, natural smile. This serves to catalyze state-bound memories of when you experienced optimal wellbeing, which then recreates that same psychophysiological state in the present.

Practice maintaining a soft gaze. Relaxing the muscles around your eyes actually improves your vision, especially your peripheral vision and allows you to take in more of your surroundings. The opposite would be tunnel vision, where the muscles around your eyes are tense and your eyes are focused on one thing. Maintaining a soft gaze allows you to take in all your surroundings with a relaxed alertness. It will allow you to be more in tune with the environment around you.

Practice conscious choice. Whenever you find yourself using “have to” language, adopt the attitude that you are taking care of yourself, such as in “taking myself for a walk”. Loving self-care of your body will optimize its abilities to perform for you.

Training the Wandering Mind: Each time you notice your mind has wandered to ruminative thoughts of the past or future-centered planning, gently and lovingly return your attention to mindful relaxation and centering. Because we are human, our attention will always wander, thereby negatively impacting our performance and joy in every activity. Every time our attention wanders, we are less fully alive and engaged in life. The solution is simply to adopt the practice of lovingly returning our attention to these body-centered practices as soon as we become aware of the loss of attention.

It is none of your business what others think of you: Never allow yourself to be distracted and worried about what others are doing or thinking (the result of being in your head). Regarding what others may think about you, it is none of your business. That type of outward concern is the result of losing your center. Fill your day with mindful doing or mindfully taking action. This means acting without thinking about how you are doing or what anyone else thinks. If you fear being judged, maybe it is because you are judging yourself, which is another result of living in your head rather than in your center.

Through mindful wing chun, you learn to hold yourself in a more relaxed and open posture—both physically and mentally. This results in others (and animals) feeling safe around you. In addition, holding yourself in this mindful, relaxed stance helps you to feel more open to and accepting of others.  Much of the stress we live with is the result of lifelong habits of holding various muscle groups tight for self-protection, which is not only dysfunctional, but actually reduces our sense of aliveness and wellbeing. Daily practice of the siu nim tao form is a method of learning how to become aware of unhealthy bodily tension and to be able to release it.