Straight Lines & Circles – Part 1

Need some more ideas to think about, to get your head around the philosophy of the Tao, of Yin and Yang and all those other spiritual goodies that can make your life more unified and complete? Would you like some more ways to see how opposing elements actually can and do make up a unified One? Let’s make some more connections, then.

We can’t get any more polar opposites than straight lines and circles, can we? Often, Wing Chun is described as a linear system, because we emphasise protecting the centreline, because we use a straight vertical punch as our main weapon, because we always tell people one of the advantages we have against the opponent is that we want to keep the straight path between the opponent and us for ourselves, thereby forcing the opponent to take a curved, or longer, path to reach us. Straight lines abound in Wing Chun theory, with plenty of drills and exercises for us to understand and explore them through our training in the kwoon.

Yet, for as many places we drill and practice straight lines and linear expressions there are just as many circular concepts that we use for counters, deflections and redirections. It is often heard in Wing Chun circles (no pun intended here), “there is a counter for everything”. We’ll train a drill where A learns how to do something to B, after which B learns how to counter A’s intent, delivering a counter to the attack. A then learns how to counter B’s counter, and so on and on. When two well-trained Wing Chun exponents “play” Chi Sao (sticking hands) it’s a joy to watch as one move flows right into the next, time and time again as attacks are countered, counters are redirected and new attacks begun, that are then again countered and on it goes.

The objective here is not one of winning and losing, rather than of finding the balance between an opponent’s energies and forces and your own, from which openings and opportunities will present themselves to those who tune into the flow. We “play” Chi Sao to learn to keep flowing, to become like water, like the Tao, so that any opportunities that come from the flow can present themselves, but also so that we learn to understand the follies of trying to stop the flow. Stopping the flow here is meant when we have an OSF* (for those new to this discussion, please refer to Parallels, my blog entry on 28 April), and freeze up for even a millisecond, causing our muscles and our mind to lock up, allowing our training partner/opponent to set the trap. The “rewards” of such actions are usually a punch in the nose or a fat lip and sometimes a black eye.

The balance of the flow was interrupted, causing a disruption of harmony and guess what? One got overpowered and defeated by the other. Too many circles and not enough straight lines, or an over-reliance on linear responses and not enough circular energy; ‘good’ Chi Sao where things seem to flow, comes from achieving that balance between the straight lines and the circles. Let’s take an example from our training to see how this works.

A perfect place to start is with our ‘basic’ Daan Chi Sao (single-arm) drill. By its nature, this drill encapsulates the essence of balance, of Yin and Yang working together and many dismiss the great value that this ‘basic’ drill instils in us, emotionally, mentally and physically, underrating this exercise in favour of its more highly touted cousin, Seung Chi Sao (double-arm) and the games that come with it.

All that we need is truly in this wonderful training tool; much like the Wing Chun system itself, the single-arm drill is so subtly simple, yet truly complex in its scope and meaning. Its essence comes from some of the “young ideas” that took root when we learned the Siu Lim Tao/Siu Nim Tao form, Wing Chun’s foundational first set. One of the translations of this set (of which there are many, and could be the topic for another post down the track) is said to be “the way of young ideas, or little thoughts”, by which the young or little referred to in translation might be interpreted more as new – maybe new not only in the sense of unfamiliar to you (you are learning physically to do things very different, and therefore new, to your body), but also in the sense of how you think upon your encounter with an opponent – is it you against him/her; is it about winning and losing. So many of us look at fighting and physical encounters through such perspectives, and maybe our first training set offers us some young and new ideas from which to gain some differing and maybe better ways to handle an encounter, an opponent, or an obstruction.

Let’s begin with the basic set-up of the single-arm Chi Sao drill. For those who have little or no Wing Chun background, the following terminologies may confuse you as I will not really go into detailed explanations in this post, wanting rather for readers to get the general gist of what can be found within the training of this essential drill. If you want to understand better, please come in for a trial lesson or find a good Wing Chun school in your area (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

Moving on, we have one with arm outstretched in the tan sao position, palm facing up and fingers flat and together; the other, on the outside of the first one’s arm in the fook sao position, fingers curled and relaxed. Inside and outside, on top and underneath, left arm to right arm – what better ways to introduce the aspects of Yin and Yang to a novice practitioner; that the one has no value without the other?

Some of the ‘benefits’ of the single-arm drill are: to develop sensitivity in one’s arm, so as to become relaxed and yet aware when pressure and force is applied to the limb so that one can blend with such energy and find weaknesses and openings by interaction; to develop spring force, or forward energy intention, so that one can take advantage of  such openings and weaknesses; to stress test parts of one’s structure so as to understand their value and give one reason to re-train the way one moves the body. There are more we can bring up, but these will suffice for the moment.

Wing Chun is known as a practical, efficient and economical martial art, famed for its close-range fighting skill. One of its core principles that embody those qualities is that of simultaneous attack and defense. On a quick aside, yet another great example of the Yin and Yang concept, and of the oneness of the Tao is demonstrated here. One has to think of attacking to defend, of defending by attacking; can you see that little spot of light in the dark half of the Yin Yang symbol, that little spot of dark in the light half? Other core principles are to protect the centreline and take the shortest path to the target.

We get to practice these core principles while developing our bodies to move more efficiently and reflexively through the single-arm drill. We can first see how the system makes it ‘easy’ for us to understand that very basic concept of using an attack as our first and primary means of defence by the initial set up of the partners’arms. Whether the opponent’s arm is on the inside of your arm, or on the outside of your arm, your first and best option if he/she tries to strike you, is to strike as your defence. Before we get into the interactions the drill can create using more force and energy, if both parties begin by moving their elbows toward the centre of the other’s mass, and with no or very little force and intention, both partners can see the potential that their punch has the capability to defend the other’s attack. To train this way, we must first let go and get a new perspective, a young idea from which we can find other ways to solve a problem.

At this point, theoretically we have two straight lines bisecting each other, with the one outside being on top of the other, which is on the inside. Now to add more meaning and a new stimulus to the energy here, the outside arm starts to ‘squeeze’ the elbow, sinking toward the centreline while striking forward, and if the other does nothing to resist and only travels forward, then the inside arm will get deflected away from the centre, heading toward the opposite shoulder. The outside arm is beginning to train the fook sao and also the jum sao concepts by squeezing and sinking the elbow.

Often at this stage, the inside arm realises that it is getting deflected and will “lose” if it doesn’t do something and the common error here is to attempt a linear ‘correction’ to push back against the sideward deflection to keep focused on the target of the opponent’s centre of mass. To do so is to fight a greater force with force, a definite no-no for a Wing Chun practitioner, and the problem is compounded by changing the direction of the force from forward to the opponent and the target to sideways and across. If the outside arm let the inside arm go at this stage, the inside arm’s energy would fly sideways, not striking the other but more grazing the target with a sweeping motion. The outward energy would also move the arm away from the centre, also exposing the inside arm’s torso unnecessarily.

To continue thinking only of winning and losing here usually means that one can get stuck here for awhile, fighting and wrestling with his/her partner, trying to regain the centreline. How long one works in this inefficient and incorrect response depends on how long he/she tries to freeze this point and try to make it such that his/her fist/palm stayed aimed at the other’s centre. Instead of thinking of one’s elbow aiming at the centre as well as of feeling what the energy of the flow between the two arms is ‘saying’, one can sometimes get frustrated and stuck here for sometime.

By letting go, and going with the flow, one learns where the point of no return will come, that place after which one’s arm does get redirected and the attack neutralised. One can begin to see where a change must occur if one is to continue to apply pressure (or be offensive) while maintaining a forward force toward the opponent (partner) and still be able to defend the deflection of the other’s attack. By letting go, one gets a new perspective (young idea) on the problem at hand.

Here, if one accepts the information of the interaction of arms and the direction of the energy flow, one can see that to push back, or to use a linear response to a linear attack, is certainly a futile gesture and one that requires a force-against-force response. If the person whose arm is on the inside here, understands what the chi sao is ‘telling’ him/her, the answer becomes quite evident. The answer must come from a circle.

If the inside arm imagined it had a cog, a toothed gear on its forearm, it might make it easier for you, the reader, to understand.  Now, when the outside arm starts its forward travel along with the squeezing deflection to take the centreline, the inside arm’s forward travel causes that cog to rotate the forearm section, borrowing the opponent’s energy (another core Wing Chun principle) and returning it to him/her as the shape of the inside arm becomes the bong sao, with the elbow still moving only in a forward direction (not a lifting one), and still aimed at the opponent’s centre of mass. Although the shape of the inside arm changed here, its intention to defend by attacking to the centre of the mass never changed. Note that it also took a circle to harmonise with a straight line – two supposed opposites- smoothing out a change instead of needlessly and inefficiently fighting against a probably greater force.

When done properly, the inside arm’s response here of rotating forward from the palm strike to the bong sao takes so much less effort on the practitioner’s part than of trying to push back against the inward deflection of the outer arm’s travel. Too often the practitioner thinks something must be wrong – no pain, no gain, right? WRONG!

Still at this early part of the single-arm drill, another important concept is trained here; one learns one of the core principles of maintaining proper structure under greater duress. The Wing Chun practitioner learns here that if one’s structure (the palm strike from the tan sao) is under threat of collapse due to forces stronger than the structure, then the structure must change (from palm strike to bong sao) to retain the benefits of the structure.

The outside arm’s deflection/punch is now neutralised, being redirected away from one’s centre and now the inside arm has a barrier from which to apply pressure to the other’s centre of gravity and balance.

We have seen in just this first part of one of the first and basic partner drills in Wing Chun, that one must harmonise with one’s opponent in order to achieve a correct outcome, and we’ve seen that opposites are the reason for this harmony occurring. All parts of the Tao… Yin and Yang?

What parallels in your home life, your work life, your love life, your academic life can you make from this post? I’ll leave that up to you. And while you’re at it, the outside arm is upset now because it didn’t get to “win”. How does he/she counter the counter? The answer may already have been written. Think about it and we’ll see in my next post.


8 thoughts on “Straight Lines & Circles – Part 1

  1. i would love to find a great wc school in my area but there seems to be a vast empty space. a little bird told me there was a greatly revered and powerful sifu just a stones throw across the bay. (damn good throw mind you). perhaps one day this great master will bring light into the dark spaces near to here and expand the might of the Qian Li Dao empire. we live in hope.

    • Please be wary of little birds, they often do more than tell stories! But perhaps one day, expansion might come your way. As you say, hope keeps us all going. Many thanks, Tim, for your comments.

  2. Yes, and one of the ‘nice’ things about boxers is that they don’t get caught up in any mysticism about it all – they just DO! Or, is that DAO… TAO… ohhhhh, let’s just get on with it, eh? 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

    • Thank you, sir; good to hear from you. Hope you and the family are doing well. Thanks for reading, glad you’re enjoying my ramblings!

    • Hi, Tom! Glad you’re enjoying my ramblings. Yes, I too am looking forward to seeing you and all the gang in PA again. Got heaps more to show you guys and to work through; it’s time for more headaches, ha, ha! See you soon!

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