Below, I detail my Mindful Wing Chun class. For other ways to improve wellbeing, explore the above buttons.
This body-centered, mindfulness-based class promotes self-exploration, self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-empowerment, engendered by an attitude toward ourselves of tend and befriend.
You will acquire the skill of living from your center (center of mass and balance) rather than from your thoughts, leading to a sense of ease and freedom, physically and emotionally.
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.
A mind-body integration practice resolves residual tension throughout the body that would otherwise block energy flow and prevent optimal efficiency of movement. This practice is about non-cognitive, mind-directed relaxation, which results in faster reflexes and greater spontaneity in all physical activity, as well as in mental processing.
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.
Wing Chun is a martial art, but this is not a typical martial arts class. In this class, the internal wing chun of Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin is utilized as an extraordinary vehicle through which to practice mindfulness-based mind-body integration in order to optimize health and wellbeing. Over time, you will acquire self-defense skills, but they are a fringe-benefit rather than the primary focus of the class.
Nim Tao State: This is a particular state of mind found in the internal art of Chu Shong Tin’s wing chun. It is cultivated through committed practice of the first form known as siu nim tao and the sticking hands practice known as chi sau. Once you are able to go into that state, you will be able to remain centered and focused in the midst of chaos swirling around you. You are on your way to achieving that state when you begin to experience every shape of the siu nim tao form as a full-body experience. However, this is a life-long practice and not something you learn to master quickly. In this class, the rewards are experienced as you practice in real-time.
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. This is because more than anything, the practice of this system results in body-wide release of tension. That in turn improves overall physiological functioning, especially immune function. Wellbeing improves because the release of bodily tension leads to the ability to feel more and to more fully experience life. Fatigue decreases and energy increases as bodily tension melts away. Energy also increases as you learn to move from your center, which is the most energy-efficient way to move. The ability to improve your physiological and psychological functioning also catalyzes self-empowerment and self-efficacy.
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 named after her exceptional student, a young woman named Yim Wing Chun. Over the centuries the internal aspects of the art were lost and were not revived until mid-twentieth century by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin. The wing chun of Chu Shong Tin (1933-2014) is the most internal wing chun in modern times. In this internal art, muscular strength is a detriment to achieving any skill and women have an advantage over men; this is because the use of muscular strength prevents the development of internal power. Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin had almost no muscle on his body.
Internal versus external: Internal martial arts involve the non-cognitive mind directing internal movement of energy whereas external martial arts involve external, muscle-driven movements. It is the internal focus of this wing chun of Chu Shong Tin that makes it exceptional for health and wellbeing. Self-defense ability in this internal system is not reliant upon muscular strength; in fact muscular strength is a detriment to internal skills.
What is it Like Being in this Class?
Unlike most martial arts classes, which focus on self-defense techniques, this class is about cultivation of mind-body integration and training.
In this class I will be your tour guide on your inner journey and adventure. We’ll go on the expedition as a group. You will all be having your own unique experiences, while Lisa (my assistant) and I will be available to help you along the way. Each time a new class starts, we’ll be meeting new people and going to new (inner) places.
The siu nim tao form is the primary vehicle through which all the internal aspects of this art are learned. In Grandmaster Chu’s lineage of wing chun, it is more than a choreographed form. Contained in the siu nim tao form is the essence of the entire system of Chu Shong Tin wing chun. The two-person practices known as sticking hands or chi sau are essential practices that will allow you to test your siu nim tao skills and begin to acquire the sensitivity to read other people’s nonverbal intentions. Because these various two-person chi sau practices are performed with an attitude of caring and collaboration rather than competitiveness, students feel a sense of trust, safety, and camaraderie.
The single most challenging aspect of the class for everyone is mindful relaxation. To give you an idea of how difficult this is, just the act of trying to relax creates additional bodily tension. The ability to achieve a deep level of mindful relaxation results from practicing the siu nim tao form correctly and practicing chi sau with a partner without a sense of competitiveness. Trying to concentrate and trying to practice correctly also creates additional bodily tension. Cultivation of the nim tao mind state over time leads not only to mindful relaxation, but also to the health and wellbeing benefits. An attitude of acceptance rather than striving, along with frequent practice, is key to success.
Students commonly want to know if they are practicing correctly. This is an important question since practicing incorrectly will not lead to the desired results. Fortunately, there are many collaborative, two-person practices and tests that we do in class, which allow us to clearly and accurately know if we are practicing correctly. In these two-person tests and in chi sau, it becomes clear whether we are using muscle or internal energy. The siu nim tao form informs the chi sau and the chi sau informs the siu nim tao.
Beginners can start in any of the five times per year the class is offered.
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. Siu nim tao and chi sau practices teach you how to become aware of and release unhealthy bodily tension.
Definitions: CST Wing Chun and Mindful Wing Chun:
- CST Wing Chun: The very unique approach to the art of wing chun created by Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin (CST) is most known for its internal mind-body training and the ability to develop an unusually calm and centered way of life.
- Mindful Wing Chun (MWC) is the name of the wing chun school in Hong Kong (HK), founded by Nima King, primary disciple of CST. He is my teacher. 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. Once you know the siu nim tao form and want to do the two-person practices, you will be encouraged to join the online program, which will greatly enhance what you are learning in our weekly class. You will then be in an ideal situation by combining Nima King’s incredibly informative weekly online lessons with the weekly hands-on training with training partners in the College of Marin class.
- Mindful Wing Chun for Living from your Center is the title of the class I created for the Community Education Department at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. It can be taken by itself or along with Mindful Wing Chun’s online course.
- SNT: This is the abbreviation for the siu nim tao form. This Cantonese term is called Little Idea Form in English.
- NT: This is the abbreviation for the nim tao mind state, which is a particularly calm, centered state.
- Chi Sau: This Cantonese term is called sticking hands in English; it is the primary two-person practice. It is a way to safely practice the techniques of siu nim tao with a collaborative partner and to know if you are practicing siu nim tao correctly.
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. The wing chun of Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin is the most sophisticated system of internal mind-body integration I’ve experienced since beginning martial arts training fifty years ago and is the first system that has provided me with the mind training that my hero Kwai Chang Kane exhibited on that TV drama. My particular interest is in helping people use this powerful martial art for greater health and wellbeing, rather than for fighting.
My Limitations as a CST Wing Chun Instructor: Despite a long history in other internal as well as external martial arts (detailed below), 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 December 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.
My expertise is in the use of wing chun as a vehicle for achieving a high level of mind-body integration, health and wellbeing, rather than in the combative aspects of this martial art. If you want to learn the combative aspects of the internal martial art of CST wing chun, that path involves either going to Hong Kong to train, or subscribing to Nima’s MWC online course, which provides weekly video lessons with an interactive component, and combine that with the weekly hands-on training in my class. 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.
The Importance of Siu Nim Tao and chi sau: In the CST lineage, SNT is so important that even the senior teachers spend up to 60% 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 chi sau, two additional empty-hand forms (chum kiu and biu gee), the wooden dummy form, and two weapon forms. The reason for the emphasis on SNT and chi sau is because the internal aspects of CST wing chun are developed in SNT and tested in chi sau.
One of the things that’s so unique about Siu Nim Tao is that it has the perfect mix of physical movement with mental effort, making it the perfect practice for the cultivation of mind-body integration. Among other benefits, SNT will teach you about the power of mindful relaxation.
Mindful 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 Importance of Chi Sau. Chi sau is important on many levels. In fact, there is a common expression: “Without chi sau there is no wing chun.” You can choose to just do SNT, but you should know the importance of chi sau.
- Chi sau is a two-person sensitivity drill that will help you learn to intuit all physical movement of your partner by feeling subtle bodily changes.
- Because of the nature of this class, chi sau sparring in not something most of my students aspire to. For that, you would need to join a local wing chun school of another lineage.
- In this class chi sau is practiced only in non-sparring versions called single sticking hands, rolling hands, and chi sau without attacks, which offer an opportunity to put the various internal skills learned in SNT (listed below) to the test to see if they work under gentle pressure with a training partner.
- The chi sau 2-person practices allow us to keep perfecting our SNT shapes while interacting with a training partner, which is far more challenging than trying to perfect them when practicing SNT.
- This ability to maintain the SNT state in chi sau can help develop the ability to maintain that calm and centered state when you are confronted by the stresses of daily life.
- 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.
Practicing is an act of self-caring and self-valuing. 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 start experiencing the benefits to your health and wellbeing, along with the joy of the sensations associated with mind-body integration, you will always be looking for spare moments when you can get in more SNT practice.
Whenever I arrive somewhere a few minutes early or I am between two tasks or activities, I remind 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.”
Some of the skills learned in SNT and practiced in chi sau 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.
- Effortlessness in movement (a result of release of bodily tension)
- 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)
- Cultivation of lightness (a result of moving from center of mass)
- Retaining the nim tao state (a result of focused practice)
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.
How CST Wing Chun Fits into my Daily Life: The following will give you a rough idea of where wing chun fits into my own life. I certainly won’t expect you 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. The approximate amount of time I spend each week looks like this:
- 90-min daily of SNT, spread out during the day, performed at approximately 12 to 14-min per round. One time each day I do a few minutes of stance practice on one leg. When my arthritis allows it, I do part of SNT while standing on one leg.
- 4 hours weekly of chi sau and various two-person drills with my training partner.
- 3-hours weekly of studying MWC’s online lessons. (includes continually reviewing past lessons)
- Teach my 50-min Mindful Wing Chun for Living from Your Center class each week.
- Also, I apply the MWC skills listed previously to all daily activities. No physical movement is too small or unimportant to use for practice. I approach this physical mindfulness practice as a way of life, so I infuse the principles into activities throughout the day.
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. During periods of low motivation to practice, 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.
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. This is mind-body integration.
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.
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.
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.
Clearing Up a Common Misunderstanding: This 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 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 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. 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 harms 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, partly because it is no longer my interest, and partly because most of my students don’t have that interest.
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 who is ready for it, I can refer you to a local wing chun class where they do a lot of chi sau sparring.
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.