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Wed, January 06, 2010


by Marilyn Cooper

Lenny Bruce was asked by an interviewer, "What was your most profound influence?" He replied "I have been influenced by every little thing that ever happened to me in my life."

When I was first learning in San Francisco in the 1960s, I was like a kid in a candy store "Learning is movement from moment to moment." (Krishnamurti)

Qigong, like taiji, is a constant flow of changes. In the 1950s, taiji masters produced the mainland 24. Today, qigong masters are conferring to standardize such classics as yi gun gin, bar duan gin, five animal frolics and six healing sounds.

Most traditional kung fu and taiji systems have retained their inherent distinct flavors due to their combative and regional origins. During their development in China, these divergent systems were the result of many unsung, heroic contributors. Who knows how many monks at Wudang slowed down their forms as they matured and found they could overcome younger opponents with structure and timing, before Zhang San Feng, a snake, and a crane got all the credit?

With full-contact fighters, a blending of techniques is standard. I watched my kung fu nephew (Chris Heintzman) deliver a stunning, spinning back kick on the lei tai some years back. Because I trained in kung fu exclusively, I watched that same kick take out my head years before. I was unprepared for it.

Most martial artists of today are a mixed breed, with a bit of wrestling, boxing, kick-boxing and ju jitsu under their belts. Techniques are self-evident. Practice them more, get stronger and faster, and you win -- nothing mysterious about that. The only common denominator amongst all of these consumers of martial arts is a yearning for greater understanding and improved functioning. Very few people stick to one system alone.

There are so few really good kung fu teachers. Mastery takes a generation, and if the master is willing to pass that on, another generation develops. The good news is that ease of access to information has resulted in faster progress by individuals in the arts.

When I was first learning in San Francisco in the 1960s, I was like a kid in a candy store, training under three masters simultaneously. I remember training with my arm in a sling at one school from fighting in the other one across the street. Rather than banish me for disloyalty, each master asked in turn to see what forms I was learning from the other.

My training was driven by fear and fueled by anger. What compelled me to take kung fu was what plagues one-third of the world's females today ? rape. Self-preservation is what attracts most people to the martial arts. If they are fortunate enough to find a good kung fu master, they will get so much more.

During the 1960s most of my (former) friends were trying various recreational, illegal drugs. I wanted to get high on life and nature. I respected the goal ? to feel good, peaceful and sensitive all the time ? but not the methodology.

I tried karate, aikido, gymnastics, yoga ? each just once. I always returned to kung fu training. There was just something about it that was so interesting. Taiji philosophy, the intricacy of each style, the intensity of the masters, Chinese history.... There it was ? Chinese history.

I read voraciously about the Boxer Rebellion, The Long March, the Gang of Four. I became a Sinophile. I studied brush painting and made so many paintings of bamboo that my roommate papered her bedroom walls with them. I studied Mandarin, ate Chinese food and had a Chinese boyfriend who did taiji.

This cultural identity crisis was twofold. I was genuinely fascinated with Chinese thought, especially Chan Buddhism. I sought whatever would help me to live in the present, because I was suffering from ptss (post traumatic stress syndrome). I came to find out decades later from a counselor at Womens' Resources, when all my grief came to a head, that I had all the symptoms of an abused person.

Kung fu training can provide a sense of well-being, camaraderie with classmates, fitness, self-defense ability, and ? when the student is mature enough to work on taiji ? a peaceful, wise spirit. However, individualized and specific clinical treatment is needed to cleanse the heart and mind from serious trauma. Training can improve one's skill but not destroy one's inner demons.

I had been raised by youthful Socialist parents. I learned about Karl Marx before kindergarten. Master Kuo Lien Ying was living history. His art had been expurgated by zealots of the Cultural Revolution determined to make his kind extinct. Training under this great warrior who had once traveled from village to village fighting all challengers to test his art, we stood at dawn, motionless as posts, watching the sun come up behind the ever-expanding corporate high-rises of San Francisco.

the Gobi Desert

Kuo had ridden across the Gobi Desert on horseback to guard merchants' wares on trains of camels. His Mandarin dialect was so obscure that the shopkeepers of Chinatown couldn't understand him, let alone his American students. When I looked into his eyes, I saw all of this in his distant gaze -- years and miles of time and space, from the era of bound feet and dynasties, to the revolution, and even the expurgation of his forms.

When Kuo first came to America, one of his students was David Chin. David helped build Kuo's school on Brenham Place and gave taiji its first home in America. David gained Kuo's trust and Kuo taught him openly. After David, Kuo clammed up. He taught everyone else how to feel good, pump up the qi, but never anything that would give them much martial ability.

David was around when I first got there. He was busy training with other masters in Chinatown basements, trying to make sense of various styles and find the inner connection. At that time, Bruce Lee was around, so he wrote up a challenge in Chinese. He showed it to a friend, who begged him to let him sign it and the rest is kung fu history.

Still on a quest for truth, David went on a drive across the country, looking up all martial arts schools in the phone book on the way. He stopped at each one and challenged the teacher, thereby fighting his way across America, much like his predecessor had done in China. I have noticed that some pretty big name teachers of today bow to him with a lot of feeling whenever they cross his path at kung fu events.

Back in SF, I practiced the long lines, low stances and high kicks of Northern Shaolin. I suspected there was some sort of martial base in there somewhere, although it had not yet revealed itself to me. Staying centered with my limbs fully extended gave me a monster work-out, but applications evaded my grasp.

After five years of pumping the cement with my quadriceps, having torn out most of the ligaments in my lower extremities, I decided that on the way to seeking enlightenment, I might possibly learn to kick some ass and that I needed to learn elsewhere. My quest led me across the country to the Northeast and a former student of Kuo's in China --Peter Kwok.

Peter had studied with twenty of the most renowned masters of his era. As a child, his first teacher was his father. His way of moving was so natural, he made it look easy. Of course this was the result of decades of continuous practice of the hand-picked systems and forms ? eighteen Northern Shaolin forms, chin na, a whole taiji system, including the long form he had learned from Kuo, xing yi, bagua, yi gun gin, bar duan gin ? the curriculum at Peter Kwok Kung Fu Academy. All of the systems had two-person fighting forms that gave you the applications to the forms. This was it! The search was over ? or so I thought.

Peter tried to teach me internal, soft, meditative forms (just as I now try to teach my young students), but because I was so physical (and basically immature and full of unresolved issues from my past), I just wanted to jump, kick, and punch. I will always remember him saying to me, "Why do you like Shaolin so much? It's just a lot of moving around."

I continued my habit of outdoor training in New York. If I had to wait for someone in a building far from a park, there were always rooftops. I loved feeling so focused above all the clamor of the city.

In the parks, I got lots of spontaneous invitations to spar with practitioners of karate, TKD, capoeira, etc. These matches were (almost) always friendly light-contact affairs with a lot of jumping in and out and blocking kicks ? not too interesting. It was only when I met up with descendants of my master's archrival, Chen Man Ching, and pushed hands with them that I experienced something I couldn't yet understand. Still thoroughly invested in Shaolin training and just starting to learn taiji, I would be lightly touched and off-balanced, unable to recoil my body to deliver any force.

Everyone at Kuo's school told the story of how, a few years before I had joined, Kuo had challenged Chen Man Ching to a fight in San Francisco for the role of top taiji man in the US. According to them, CMC ran out the back door. Now I heard Chen's students' version ? that CMC accepted the challenge but then peacefully bowed out at the request of his lawyer, proving that he was a scholar and a gentleman. Of course, the KLY students think he was cowardly and that our daddy beat up their daddy. Whatever?

"Ting le!" ("Listen!") is what Sifu would tell us while we pushed hands. I would try very hard to listen to my opponent's energy ? while overextending my whole frame due to the expansive Northern Shaolin training. (It's hard to listen while you are talking). The whole effect was like running very fast into a bear trap. Many years later, when I was willing to let go of the form, I was able to actually relax enough to feel and receive ? and, finally, intercept and counter ? my opponent's force.

I learned that I could not give unless I could receive. Unlike the popular saying that "It's better to give than to receive," in the case of taiji push hands, it's necessary to receive in order to give. The force just turns into energy with direction that surges into the bones, through the foot, onto the floor and bounces back out through the hands.

I found that gaining qi and learning fighting could peacefully coexist in this fun exercise. Gentle off-balances develop an understanding of closing, leverage, and "listening."

Of course, this is just part of the infinite whole. Consider the famous story from India about the blind men and the elephant. Four blind men were asked by the king to feel an elephant and describe it to him. The first blind man at the front of the elephant, grabbing his trunk said, "An elephant feels like a long, thick rope." The second touched its side and said, "It feels like a wall." The third reached down and felt its leg and said, "It feels like a tree trunk." The last grabbed its tail and said, "It feels like a thin vine." (No one described the airspace around the elephant, however, a missing component to this tale -- how blind people have heightened sensitivity and higher powers than sighted people).

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne at ninja training campWhatever part you are feeling is what you will describe. Whatever stage you are at in your training is what will come out in fighting or pushing. And whatever forms you drill, that is what will come out when you try push hands, because that is what your body remembers. You are the sum total of all your experiences. And "what you do defines you." (BATMAN BEGINS)

If you are the rare breed of cat that has the awareness level to develop inner and outer simultaneously, you need only do your forms, read the classics and commune with the immortals.

All of us strivers and strugglers must be willing to go skin on skin in order to understand how the forms follow function. I have had the oh-so-memorable experience of pushing with master-players who spend hours a day standing. That is a futile exercise, as they are impenetrable by my everyday garden-variety skill level. Then there are the body-mechanics technicians who quickly tie you up in a knot and throw you across the room sideways, or the fajing experts who give you the free trip without the guided tour.

In my thirties, I would train so hard that at times I had to walk with crutches; but when it was time to train again, I would just lay them down in the dirt and beat out more forms in a mad effort to perfect them.

I learned a lot about what not to do, and how to cross-train. Doing the same movements over and over again can cause stress injuries, and that is what happens when you repeat the same forms day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

Despite Peter Kwok's warnings that running a kung fu school was a lousy profession, I was determined to start one of my own. I opened the New York Kung Fu Loft in 1980. (A shout-out to all my old students ?"HEY! Hope you stuck with it!")

Over the years, rising rents caused my little school to move westward till it found a home in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. While entrenched in the Poconos, doing mostly internal systems for myself as I aged, two events profoundly affected my training -- Columbine and 9/11.

a program I call There was a rash of copycat bomb threats. I was afraid to put my young daughter on the school bus. My blissed-out buzz from doing taiji on a hilltop overlooking distant mountains was getting seriously jammed.

I worked for three years at my daughter's small private school to develop a program I call "Pushing for Peace" that teaches taiji to kids and helps alleviate youth violence (and obesity, apathy, and ignorance). It works for kids of all ages, because it makes learning taiji simple and fun.

What distinguishes this program are the indoor and outdoor games based on TaoismI explain Chinese philosophy so even kindergartners can understand it. Kung fu warm-ups, stretches and stance training make students feel grounded and centered. Then we go over the form in small sections to get the feeling of taiji movement. We conclude with different types of meditation based on taiji.

What distinguishes this program are the indoor and outdoor games based on Shaolin, taiji and bagua (xing yi does not have a peaceful vibe). These games can be done in a gym or on a playground, and some in a classroom. People get the concept of "going with the flow" in their bodies as well as their minds, which fosters cooperation and compassion instead of competition and aggression. They feel how posture and movement work, not stiff strength. Taiji helps you find the fine line between passivity and aggression.

The program never excludes individuals in poor physical condition. Awareness and responsiveness, not strength and agility, are all that is required. Students feel they are in synch with nature, safe from harm and having fun. I like to imagine these games being played in school yards all over the world, like hide and seek and tag.

Kuo Lien Ying and Chen Man Ching have coalesced within me in my journey. I can see them looking down from the realm of the immortals, smiling.

About Marilyn Cooper:
Marilyn Cooper has been teaching and training kung fu for 40 yrs. She owns and operates the Little River Kung Fu School (littleriverkungfu.com) in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. To reach her regarding workshops on the childrens' program or other programs, please email: littleriver@epix.net or call 570-424-5285.

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