This home page is about the Charismatic Mindfulness class I teach at College of Marin. Beginners can start at any of the five times per year that the seven-week class is offered at College of Marin. For information on living with chronic medical conditions, explore the rest of my website with above buttons.
What is Charismatic Mindfulness? It is a class offering a mindfulness-based, mind-body integration practice as an alternative to sitting meditation. It is also a class in how to use the mind to direct the body in order to optimize health and wellbeing.
The internal martial art of Chu Shong Tin wing chun provides the system and framework for training the mind to direct the body and integrating the mind and body. This is a very atypical martial arts class because we are focused on mindfulness and the healing aspects rather than on what most people associate with martial art. More than anything, this system helps people feel more vibrant in their routine everyday activities.
Another way this class differs from other martial arts classes is that where other martial arts classes focus on techniques, self-defense, or combat, this class focuses on the inner processes of self-exploration and self-acceptance. Physically, this class is very gentle; it is the mind-training aspect that will challenge you. Specifically, the greatest challenge for most students is that they find the very slow Little Idea Form (See videos on this page.) to be boring in the beginning. Appreciation for this form doesn’t change until students begin to experience the subtleties of the form, but that only comes after a fair amount of daily practice. Once students begin to become curious about the bodily experiences they’re having while practicing the Little Idea Form, they are hooked. But most quit before getting to that point. It is important to have trust in the process in the early months. Playing music while practicing the form can help in the beginning. Also, it is important to find something of value in your daily form practice until you begin to have the subtle bodily experiences. For example, during the long period before you begin to develop the ability to improve physiological functioning with your mind, what may best motivate you in maintaining a daily practice is your recognition that your concentration and mindfulness skills are improving.
What is the goal of the class? This class trains students in a mind-body integration practice for healing, self-mastery, and greater feelings of aliveness. It also serves to provide a supportive practice community, which is important because it is almost impossible to maintain any type of mind-body practice in isolation.
What are the benefits to this practice?
- In terms of health, those of us who have adopted this practice have noticed improvement and occasionally even resolution of various conditions that had not responded to medical treatment.
- Health improves as we learn to release stress that otherwise impairs function in skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscle.
- Wellbeing improves as we learn to feel more, think less, and release tension. Feeling is healing.
- As we begin to realize that we have the power to effect positive changes in our health and wellbeing, we develop self-empowerment, self-mastery, and a sense of greater aliveness.
- As in all mindfulness practices, one of the greatest benefits is the practice itself. This is because during those times when we are practicing with all our attention on our moment-to-moment full-body experience, we feel most alive. This dynamic mindfulness practice helps us more fully live in our bodies.
- People in the class value the supportive and collaborative atmosphere, which makes the practice fun.
- Although it is more of a fringe benefit and certainly not one of the foci of the class, self-defense skills are a by-product. It is not something we discuss in the class, but the acquisition of those skills does occur over time.
The goal of any type of mindfulness practice is to live a vibrant life. Being human, our attention continually drifts off from the present-moment activity, thereby distracting us from the vibrant life that can result from being totally present with whatever activity we are engaged in and our experience of it from moment-to-moment. Mindfulness is not a skill to acquire; it is a practice. We are mindful when we are practicing mindfulness and mindless when we are not practicing.
Comparison with other mindfulness practices: Mindfulness practices are primarily sitting meditation types of mind-training. The formal, dynamic, mind-body integration training offered in this class is primarily practiced standing up, but it can and should be practiced when sitting as well.
Health benefits: There is a long history in the internal martial arts of recovery from life-threatening and chronic medical conditions. Like many martial arts masters who preceded Chu Shong Tin, he discovered that by practicing with an internal focus, he was able to prove his doctors’ dire prognoses wrong. Chu Shong Tin had been very sickly until he took up this internal version of wing chun. Through this practice, stress is dramatically reduced, leading to dissolution of blockages in the body.
One of the ways this works is that each time you become aware of feeling stressed, you train yourself to consciously choose to practice. The internal activation aspects of the practice do not require a quiet room. In fact, you will learn to practice even when engaged in conversation. Separate from any specific results, just the act of practicing is very healing. Once you come to know that you have the ability to calm yourself, you will begin to feel self-empowered. It is very satisfying to know you have that power.
About the Title and Origins of the Practice Taught in this Class: Charismatic Mindfulness is the name I chose for this class because I wanted a name that would avoid confusion. This class would more accurately have been called The Mindfulness-Based, Health, Wellbeing, and Internal Self-Healing Aspects of the Chu Shong Tin Lineage of the Martial Art of Internal Wing Chun, because that is exactly what is being taught in this class.
Why I did not call the class The Mindfulness-Based, Health, Wellbeing, and Internal Self-Healing Aspects of the Chu Shong Tin Lineage of the Martial Art of Internal Wing Chun: Aside from the fact that that title would have been a bit of a mouthful, that title would have created confusion on several counts. First, you probably never heard of Chu Shong Tin. Second, you probably never heard of wing chun. Third, if by chance you do know of wing chun, you surely know of it as an external art, which is radically different from Chu Shong Tin’s internal wing chun. Fourth, like most people, you probably think the martial arts are just for self-defense or fighting and have never heard of them being used for healing. For those four reasons, just having the name wing chun in the title of this class would have been too confusing.
The Formal Practice:
The major components, Little Idea Form (siu nim tao), internal activation (taigung and seng), and sticking hands (chisau), serve as a practice in mindfulness, mind-body integration, mindful relaxation, and cultivation of internal self-healing skills. Together, Little Idea Form, internal activation, and sticking hands will help you develop a very focused type of mind-body concentration through non-cognitive, mind-directed, active intention and movement.
Little Idea Form, which you can see me practicing in the videos, is about non-cognitive, mind-directed, choreographed movements. In watching the videos be sure to have your sound on so that you can hear my voiceovers. This form provides the perfect foundation and framework from which to practice and develop internal self-healing. Little Idea, translated from the Cantonese Siu Nim Tao, refers to the planting of a little seed of intention in all physical movement. This practice, when combined with internal activation results in very natural ease of movement and lightness of being.
Once you have been practicing Little Idea Form for awhile, you will begin to experience the power of intention. You will set an intention to move your arms and you will then have the sensation of them moving by themselves without any muscular exertion. Intention can move the body, internally as well as externally. Intention influences physiological functioning throughout the entire human organism. CST internal wing chun is the best mind training practice I’ve experienced after many decades of experimenting and searching.
What is so special about the Little Idea solo form you see me practicing in the videos?
The reason Little Idea Form (siu nim tao) is such a profound and dynamic, body-centered, mindfulness practice is due to its perfect combination of slow movement with stillness.
Little Idea Form has the perfect mix of physical movement with mental effort, making it an extraordinarily exceptional practice for the cultivation of mind-body integration.
Internal Activation: What makes this practice internal rather than external is that, while practicing Little Idea Form and sticking hands partner practices, you are learning to move internally, even when externally, nothing appears to be moving.
Gradually, over time, you will begin to experience internal self-healing. At first, it is necessary to imagine the internal processes in order to begin to cultivate them while practicing the Little Idea Form, internal activation, and sticking hands. Eventually, mental imagery falls away as you begin to feel more. We normally think of intention as a mental thing; in this practice, intention is physical in that as you set intentions, you begin to feel a cause and effect relationship between your intention and physiological changes.
Wherever you put your attention, physiological changes occur. This is often referred to as: Energy flows where attention goes. Or, as one of my mentors (Jeanne Achterberg, PhD) stated: “No thought, no emotion, is without biochemical, electrochemical activity; and the activity leaves no cell untouched.”
Cultivation of internal activation is learned and practiced through standing practices, the Little Idea Form, various 2-person practices, and in the sticking hands (2-person) practices.
The explanation of how to specifically practice internal activation is beyond the scope of this webpage. Once the basics of it are learned in class, the practice of internal activation should be incorporated into all daily activities. In that way, it is similar to any other mindfulness practice. It takes a long time to develop self-healing abilities, which is why informal practice needs to be applied to regular activities throughout the day.
Sticking Hands Partner Practices: Sticking hands (translated from the Canonese Chi Sau or chisau) will allow you to test and enhance what you have been developing in your solo Little Idea Form practice. When you do sticking hands, your reaction to your partner’s movements will inform you about the quality of your internal activation and provide an objective set of measures to help you to know if you have been practicing the Little Idea form correctly. The sticking hands 2-person practices will provide clear information to you on the areas you most need to practice. The two-person, sticking hands practices also happen to be fun and create a sense of community in the class.
One of the most powerful benefits of sticking hands is that it provides you with the skill to stay focused and centered in stressful interpersonal interactions. The way this works is that when doing sticking hands, you train yourself to keep practicing the various internal activation components of Little Idea Form regardless of what your training partner or anyone else says or does that would otherwise distract you. In other words, as you learn to stay focused on your intention while your training partner is physically interacting with you, you are developing the ability to stay focused on your intention while someone in your life is doing something that would otherwise be terribly distracting.
Once you become experienced in the choreographed sticking hands partner practices, if you wish, you will be introduced to gentle chi sau sparring. We practice it gently and collaboratively rather than competitively. The purpose is to use this practice as a physical concentration and mindfulness practice. When you never know from moment to moment what your partner will do, you must be much more sensitive in your sticking hands or you will get gently tapped by your partner’s hands.
Little Idea Form and Sticking Hands practices were created by Ng Mui about 300-years ago. She was an elder Shaolin martial arts master-warrior and founder of the internal martial art of wing chun. The art was named after her exceptional student, a young woman named Yim Wing Chun.
Internal Activation was created in modern times by Chu Shong Tin as a way to help students cultivate the internal aspects of the art that had been lost over the last 300 years. Grandmaster Chu was the one who rediscovered the internal aspects of wing chun that had been lost from what Ng Mui and Yim Wing Chun originally taught. Recently, Nima King coined the term internal activation.
This internal practice trains us to be able to move about in all activities with less effort, greater bodily control, and greater presence.
This practice leads to a state of mind known in Cantonese as Nim Tao. Nim Tao is a very balanced, centered, and calm state of mind wherein you have a very high level of mindful awareness and connectedness. It is a mind-state that allows you to be as alert as you are calm; an almost unheard of combination.
The best way I can describe the Nim Tao state is to recommend you watch some videos of the 1970s Kung Fu TV series. The main character was Kwai Chang Kane. This fictional character exhibited the Nim Tao state.
In this practice we focus on directly releasing muscular as well as emotional tension. Stress serves a purpose, but the vast majority of the time in modern life we have way too much stress. Chronic stress is inversely proportional to health. The practice taught in this class dramatically reduces mental, emotional, and bodily stress. Throughout this practice, it is important to keep letting go of tension as soon as you become aware of it, physically and emotionally. Mindful relaxation is key to this practice.
With practice you will develop a very physically-centered, calm state of mind and body. You will then not only have greater freedom of movement, your mind will feel less cluttered, resulting in greater emotional spontaneity, which moves you closer to the Nim Tao state. The nim tao state is developed very gradually over a long period of time.
You will begin to feel a sense of lightness and spaciousness as your joints begin to decompress and function optimally. Stress reduction occurs as you learn to release bodily tension.
Release of chronic bodily tension also results in release of chronic pain. Personally, my chronic back pain of almost forty years duration abated early in the first year of practice.
The health benefits of this practice are endless. More than anything, this practice results in body-wide release of tension. That in turn improves overall physiological functioning, especially immune function. Just as chronic stress can catalyze chronic illness, daily cultivation of the nim tao state calms the nervous system and creates the right environment for emotional and physical healing.
Wellbeing improves because the release of bodily tension leads to the ability to feel more, which leads to being able to more fully experience life. Fatigue decreases and energy increases as bodily tension diminishes. Energy also increases as you learn to move from your center, which is the most energy-efficient way to move.
Practicing is an act of self-caring and self-valuing.
When you fail to train the mind to come home to the body, it is like abandoning a big part of yourself. Spending your waking moments analyzing external situations is another way to abandon yourself. When you put mind in the body, you are home. Part of the human condition involves performing tasks that are not always fun and are often even unpleasant. Practicing moving from your center can serve to give greater meaning to everything you do.
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 dynamic mindfulness principles are practiced, there is considerably more movement throughout the spine and the rest of the body.
Holistic Awareness: Although release of bodily tension is one of the most important elements of this practice, there are many others. Another one involves learning how to occupy and move from your entire body. This is sometimes referred to as holistic awareness. This involves learning how to move the entire body whenever one part moves. Even though it may look like just your arm is moving, you will learn how the entire rest of the body supports the movement of the arm. This could also be viewed as coordination, but what I’m referring to here is coordination of mind with body or internal coordination.
Reality isn’t what you think. In this class you will experience how your thoughts actually distract you from reality. Thoughts are mental constructs that are continually spewed out by the brain. We need to think and reason to function in the world, but the problem is that we spend far too much time thinking thoughts that are no longer useful and are often harmful. As with other mindfulness practices, you will develop the ability to keep returning to what you are experiencing in your body. This practice is about how to feel moment-to-moment experiences rather than thinking about them.
What appears below is tangentially related to the Charismatic Mindfulness class. It is about my personal history in the martial arts. For the few who may possibly be interested, I hope you enjoy the section below.
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 Siu Nim Tao and taught me a little chisau, 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 that system was most efficacious for law enforcement officers, but not practical in the street when someone is throwing wild punches, may well pull out a gun or knife, and you need to incapacitate your attacker immediately. I had also trained in Small Circle Jujitsu with Wally Jay; I found his method of applying joint locks to be the most effective, but it still seemed like it was most useful for law enforcement, who could face charges of excessive force if they elbowed the attacker in the throat or chin. Tai chi chuan was the art I had trained in the longest, but it too lacked the simplicity, directness, and practicality of wing chun. Tai chi sparring looked to observers just like boxing, but what they couldn’t see was that we were relying on different skill sets that were not obvious due to the gloves. Also, I had often felt frustrated by how challenging it was to apply the internal aspects of tai chi to push hands and impossible to apply to the 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 fighting in the ring. I was like a fish out of water because my interest was in sparring but not in ring fighting, so I left and refocused all my energy on tai chi chuan under William C.C. Chen. But after studying the newly released WSL’s VHS 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, no-nonsense, 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 chuan with Master Chen. 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 chuan to give it up, especially since I was training with William C.C. Chen, who was known for training fighters. In fact, one night in New York, William paired me up with a guy who was working as a sparring partner of Roberto Duran, which left me wondering if I would survive the night. I was spending evenings and weekends on empty-hand forms, weapon forms, push hands, two-person drills, and freestyle sparring. Between work life, family life, and serious tai chi chuan and aikijujutsu training, there was simply no way to start training in wing chun. Then, about six years later, around 1987, my passion for tai chi chuan 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 just the tai chi form. I was just too busy working to train. Then, twenty-six years later, in the fall of 2014, I finally decided to resume tai chi chuan training by attending a William C.C. Chen weekend workshop in Los Angeles. Master Chen remembered me well. He was now 83 and I was 67. Unfortunately, I discovered quickly that in the 26-year interim, given worsening arthritis, severe osteoporosis, and a few other medical conditions, training in tai chi chuan was no longer possible. It was shocking to see William sparring at age 83. I also saw him squat down to the floor and bounce back up, something that was now impossible for me to do with my arthritis.
Then, in the spring of 2018, on my 71st birthday, I asked myself what was unfinished in my life. I wondered what had I not yet done that I was still physically capable of doing before my arthritis gets any worse? I suddenly remembered those incredible Wong Shong Leung videos from the early 1980s and realized with some degree of sadness that wing chun would actually have been a better fit for my personality 45 years earlier, when I trained in Praying Mantis, Tai Chi Chuan, Aikijujutsu and Small Circle Jujutsu with Grandmaster Wally Jay. Oh, I had also trained for some time in Arnis and Escrima. 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 with 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 yielding, tai chi chuan is actually much harder on aging, arthritic backs, hips, knees, and feet than chisau. And chisau sparring at a moderate level is much heathier than tai chi sparring with gloves. In tai chi, we were getting hit in the head a lot! The hits in chisau do not cause brain damage unless the combatants are trying to hurt each other, which is not the norm in wing chun.
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 Ip Man and 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. And now, I am also teaching my gentle wing chun class known as Charismatic Mindfulness.
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 fictional 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 chuan, I decided to train in it. Plus, I had come to the mistaken conclusion that Kwai Chang Kane was using tai chi chuan when he fought with all his weekly attackers on the show. Little did I know at the time that David Carradine, who brilliantly played Kwai Chang Kane, was not a martial artist. Years later, I found out the part had been written for Bruce Lee, but the network would not hire an Asian to play the lead character in an American series. Ironically, Lee had been born in San Francisco.
In the 1970s, tai chi chuan was completely unknown outside of China. I soon learned that it 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 chuan masters who had come to North America at that time, 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 a frail-looking, elderly 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 chuan 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. Aside from the fact that wing chun is the martial art that is best suited to my personality and is the most pragmatic art out there, I can chisau with very little risk of injury, as long as I practice with people who share my interest in a collaborative (rather than competitive) practice session.
Clearing Up a Common Misunderstanding: Charismatic Mindfulness is a gentle martial arts class only because of my emphasis on mind-body integration, health, and wellbeing, rather than on fighting. 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 chuan is mistaken for a gentle art, only 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 chuan. My teacher, William C.C. Chen’s daughter and son 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 health and wellbeing 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 or perpetrator at your workplace 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 or someone else looking (but not staring) his way in a very aware, confident, yet non-threatening posture, he lost interest and left the scene. Over time, you will develop that skill in this class.
The vast majority of the time when people need to use physical self-defense skills to fight for their lives, the attack could have been avoided. Attacks occur due to a lack of awareness of your surroundings, failure to take preventive security measures (locks and alarm systems), inability to read body language, failure to act on your intuition, or the inability to properly manage your feelings of fear or rage. 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. That was because I used to intentionally provoke people, and sometimes it got me in trouble. In the U.S. today, such behavior would be quite dangerous; just staring at someone has gotten many people shot. It is the training of the mind that can best keep you out of harm’s way.
The most challenging type of attack to avoid (other than a mass shooting or terrorist attack) is the one committed by a trusted family member, an authority figure such as a priest or police officer, or by someone who reminds you on a subconscious level of someone of whom you are or were afraid. Mastery of martial arts techniques will not protect you from that type of danger. That’s because the greatest danger is from our own minds. I have known highly skilled martial artists, both male and female, who allowed someone with no training at all to take advantage of them. One time, when I was about 45-years old and my stepfather was about 75, I saw him approach me with mean intent and I allowed him to come right up to me and slap me in the face. Afterwards, I thought of all the ways I could easily have used my skills to slip his slap and put him in any number of joint locks. I failed to act for the same reason a female 2nd degree black belt I knew once allowed an uncle to rape her. She froze, just as I did. Many of us have childhood wounds, usually caused by a parent, trusted family member, or other trusted caregiver, and we later train in the martial arts in order to avoid ever being victimized again. Unfortunately, perfection of countless martial arts techniques won’t help when we freeze.
The Freeze: In the right situation, anyone and everyone will freeze. The only variable is the specific type of threat that causes each one of us to freeze. After the freeze occurs, even those of us who simply experienced a simple face slap often feel ashamed for allowing someone to hurt us. The reality is the freeze is genetic. Our prehistoric ancestors all froze at certain times when confronted by a large predatory animal that had humans on its lunch menu. A lot of those predators targeted smaller animals when they moved. Again, mastery of martial arts techniques will not prevent the freeze from occurring. Mind-body integration training can help, but not the techniques alone, no matter how expert you are with those techniques.
Sparring: Because of the nature of this class, there will be no sparring. However, you should know that without high intensity sparring experience, you will not be prepared to defend against someone bigger, stronger, faster, and younger if that person is intent on doing you serious harm. And as for street self-defense, it is essential to also train in gun and knife disarms. This class does not provide that type of training because it is not my interest, nor the interest of most of my students.
My intention is to provide a martial arts class that improves mind-body unity, health and wellbeing, not a class that trains you to fight. That said, 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, so, for someone in the class who gets to that level, we can do some collaborative (not competitive) low-intensity chisau sparring after class.
Sparring and Your Brain: 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 much 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, and partly because we wanted to continually improve our fighting skills, 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.
Because our weekly Saturday afternoon sessions at a Boston karate dojo extended open invitations to fighters of all styles, including boxers, some of the martial artists who came to our sparring sessions wore hand wraps and 10-oz gloves; I always refused to spar with them because that meant that their punches would do a lot more damage. On a few occasions, I witnessed a couple of guys getting enraged at each other for punching too hard and they would rip off their gloves and start to go at each other, although it was always broken up before anyone got seriously hurt. One of the side-effects of high-intensity sparring is that it creates aggressiveness during the sessions.
Ironically, when the gloves come off and a fight goes bare-knuckle, there is less chance of brain damage! Bare knuckle, there are multiple contusions, severe lacerations, more chance of losing an eye, sustaining a broken nose and broken jaw. But amazingly, although this sounds strange to those who never sparred, the brain does not get concussed as much with bare knuckles because the fighters can’t hit as hard without their large padded gloves. If boxing were to ban all types of hand protection, it would actually be much safer for the fighters’ brain health. And the fans would love it because it would be much bloodier, much more gruesome-looking, and yet healthier for the fighters, although people in the street would all probably run away after one look at their faces.