Wing Chun Articles
Psychological Aspects of Martial Arts
by Ah Loong
All martial arts systems have sets of movements, (Katas, Forms, etc.,) as well as various drills, to develop physical strength, various techniques, ease of movement/agility and to develop the mind.
According to the cultural, historical and philosophical background of the individual martial arts styles different aspects of the art are emphasized. The movements/ techniques in some systems are more circular, others choose a straight line principle and some fall somewhere in the middle. In some systems development of a strong striking force is emphasized and some choose to concentrate in trapping and grappling techniques. Some systems endeavor to keep the opponent at a distance and others prefer a much closer proximity. And so the list goes on! Any approach has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. Thus, unless one can develop extra arms and legs, one cannot claim to have developed "the prefect martial arts system".
Martial arts systems also emphasize, to various degrees, the need to develop the mental aspects of the art. The techniques range from carrying out the forms using an imaginary foe to maintaining an attitude of battle readiness (intent) whilst practicing with your sparing partner, to sparing full contact, to sitting meditation, Qi Gung, etc.
One can write forever about the various aspects of the art. However, I am going to restrict the rest of this article to the mental aspects of martial arts.
Personally, I have benefited greatly from practicing Qi Gung and sitting meditation. I found them extremely useful in developing internal strength, a strong stable stance, and calmness of mind. However, maintaining an attitude of battle readiness, using an imaginary opponent or imagining your sparing session is for real, although they help to develop your mind, they do not go far enough to prepare you for a real combat situation.
Normally, in my experience, what happens is that a martial arts student either never experiences real combat or he/she is eventually considered advanced enough to enter full contact sparing. Most full contact sparing sessions are supervised and have rules. However, more often than not, what happens to someone facing a full contact fight is that they become very concerned with hitting their opponent, everything they have learnt flies out of the window and the whole thing becomes a mess. If you fight full contact long enough you may eventually begin to get used to it and finally learn to stop panicking. On the streets there are no rules, no one stops to see if you are hurt and if you do get hurt the fight still carries on. It is entirely different when someone tries to hit you for real, they do not wait for you to do your counter, do not behave in a prearranged predictable manner and do not follow any rules. In western boxing sparing full contact is the only way used to train fighters. It is also common practice in most other martial art systems. Whereas some people are naturally able to face adverse situations such as this and some others may eventually normalize to real combat through such exercises, there are still students who may be demoralized at the prospects of "loosing it all" in a full contact fight. The feeling of being faced with someone coming at you is not pleasant to say the least. I know of many martial arts practitioners who were either so demoralized that they gave up martial arts or decided to ignore the facts and concern themselves with doing the forms/katas, etc.
However, it need not be like that! The techniques and exercises which already exit can be utilized and further adapted to overcome this difficulty in a much more efficient way. In Chen Tai Ji the forms are performed with the emphasis put upon an awareness of the posture as well as the Qi flow. In Wing Chun when the forms are performed more advanced students are expected to develop an awareness of the whole body. Sometimes, in Wing Chun boxing, the forms are performed slow as if they are Qi Gung forms in order to develop this awareness as well as to develop the Qi flow. Sparing or performing the forms with intent and conviction is important and so are all the other methods described above. One must not lose sight of the reasons and intentions behind all these training methods. They were created in order to develop the mind and prepare it for battle. Without a calm clear mind, no matter how good your techniques, you will have little chance of success in a real combat situation.
You may have a good stance, a powerful punch, the aggression but not the ability to keep a cool head and keep calm. Without that calmness of mind (the spirit) you will be in big trouble. When the mind is not calm the Qi moves up, the mind clutters up, your stance will weaken. It is not easy to floor a moving, thinking target that hits you back even if you have solid punch. Your mind needs to stay sharp and clear in order to outmaneuver your opponent.
What happens in most combat situations is that your mind becomes fixated on your opponent. You watch his moves and try to guess what he is going to do, etc. In short you lose the awareness of your own body and psyche. You also give up the initiative to your opponent by waiting for him to do something so you can react to it. You must learn to respond and not react, to be aware of your own Qi, body, posture, etc. The main point of Chi Sao in Wing Chun is about developing that kind of awareness and sensitivity, not developing hands sensitive to touch as some practitioners seem to think.
Try this out! Find a partner and ask him to spar with you. Ask him to try to actually strike you and you just defend yourself by blocking the attacks. Concentrate on him and his moves; react to his attacks and movements. I can confidently say you will not feel very comfortable. You will find yourself constantly on the defensive, psychologically as well as physically, and eventually you will be hit quite a bit.
Now do the same thing again, but this time, before you start, take some time to relax your mind, then start to raise your awareness of your own movements, body posture, Qi and psyche. Maintain this state of mind whilst your sparing partner attacks you. Provided you can maintain this state of mind I am positive you will find yourself responding to the attacks with confidence. Your Qi will remain low, your stance strong and psychologically you will have the upper hand. You will also find yourself parrying most, if not all, the attacks as well as putting your sparing partner on the defensive.
You can only feel, sense and experience your environment through your own senses. By concentrating on your opponent your mind becomes disconnected and you are no longer "centred". As I mentioned earlier, all that I have said already exists in all martial art systems. All it takes is to look for them through eyes and minds not clouded by the limitations we put upon them.
There is also an exercise you can do to help you develop this awareness. Find a quite place and sit yourself down comfortably. Close your eyes and begin by feeling your left toes. Become aware of them and all the feelings in them. Extend your awareness to your left foot, (toes, ankle) then your left calf muscles up to your thigh and hip till you are aware of the feelings in the whole of your left leg. Then extend your awareness to your back, belly, chest, up the back of your neck and throat, back of your head to the crown of your head and down your face, and ears. Then you extend your awareness to your left shoulder, down your left arm to your wrist, palm and fingers.
Go on to extend your awareness further to your right shoulder, down your right arm, wrist, palm and fingers. Continue to extend your awareness to your right thigh, calf muscles, ankle and toes. You should now be aware of your whole body. This does not mean concentrating on a particular point, all you need to be is to be aware of the feelings and sensations in your body. Now extend your awareness to the sounds reaching you from your surroundings. No matter how faint, just become aware of them, but do not attempt to listen to them. After having done that, slowly open your eyes and, in the same way, become aware of what is in your visual field. You can then look around whilst maintaining this state. Practice this for ten minutes at first and then extend the duration to thirty minutes.
This exercise will help you develop a feeling of awareness that you need to have in combat. Then you can try to access and maintain this state in your sparing sessions and when performing your forms. Although most people do report to feel relaxed after this exercise, this is not a relaxation drill. Neither it is self hypnosis. The process in hypnosis relies entirely on different mechanisms.
As I mentioned again and again, this is nothing new. Sitting meditation and the way forms are performed in Tai Ji follow the same rationale. I can go into long winded details as to how and why this is important and how it works. The theoretical discussions to do with such exercises are perhaps more suitable for a separate article. Besides, "If it works, don't fix it!" Just try this method and note the difference. With practice I am sure everyone would be able to enhance their martial arts performance.
You can visit Ah Loong at the Fatshan Wing Chun Association, Great Britain
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