Like the black and white spirals of the yin-yang symbol, the healing arts and the martial arts are intimately related. In this case we’re talking about the traditional Chinese healing arts and their message because the propose a simple model of which healing anyone can understand. In contrast, Western medicine is complex, multi-faceted and an admixture of data on genetics, molecular interactions and chemical reactions beyond the reach of the layman.
In discussing the martial arts we’re talking about the Chinese martial arts, recognizing that they and the healing arts both stem from the same root, Taoism, China’s traditional philosophical canon. Naturally they share basic principles, despite the apparent contradiction in their goals. But observing both wings of this body of knowledge will show that they have the same singular aim: survival.
Traditional Chinese healing is easily understood because it describes the source of illness as a blockage qi, the vital energy of the human body. The martial arts are also concerned with the flow of qi, both for optimal health and as a source of power.
My gong fu teacher was and is an extraordinary man. He is a skilled martial artist and a gifted healer. After decades of teaching Choi Li Fut, a southern Shaolin system, and practicing acupuncture, he began healing full time and does so to this day. The observations made here are based on my personal experiences in training during the 17 years I spent with him.
Western medicine has recognized that tension, meaning stress, is a precursor to illness in one form or another. The default remedy is one of myriad pharmaceuticals –– with the attendant side effects. Further, drugs mask the the problem but don’t address the root cause. Practically speaking, most people don’t have the time or inclination to confront the issues involved. The question remains; how do you deal with tension?
In gong fu, when you begin training you tend to “muscle” the forms, tightening arms and shoulder because that’s the way you think it must be done. But this stiffness, or tension, blocks the flow of qi and visibly slows down your execution of the form. It took me a long time to learn to relax and trust that there was another way to proceed. Doing the forms changes the body over time, stretching muscles, ligaments and tendons through relaxed coordinated movement. Eventually, you learn to avoid physical and psychological tension. Most of the time.
The principle of conserving energy was a theme throughout my teacher’s discussions. On a basic level, conserving energy meant maintaining the ability to do the forms without fatigue or the loss of oxygen. In a larger context this meant not depleting energy and compromising the health of the body’s systems as well.
Among gong fu’s fundamental principles is balance while standing and in motion. My teacher stressed that balance was crucial because lack of it wasted energy and compromised the ability to generate power. Traditional healing aims at restoring the natural flow of qi, so that there isn’t excess at one place in the body and deficiency at another. In a word, balance. In preparing traditional herbal remedies, there are many herbs used together effect a cure and mitigate the side effects as well. Again, balance. Further, all of these herbs demonstrate the balance of nature simply by the fact that they are organic living plants.
To train on a regular basis takes energy and discipline, which prompts you to realize that lifestyle plays an important role in maximizing your health and training time. Proper nutrition, adequate rest and avoiding a dissolute lifestyle become part of the process. You don’t need the teacher to explain this, it’s obvious. If longevity is one of your goals then a sane lifestyle must be an ongoing commitment.
The gong fu techniques themselves are designed to maximize power without the undue expenditure of energy and they accomplish this by the structure.of the form. This means not meeting force with force. Instead, the techniques redirect incoming force with the minimum effort necessary and allow you to gain leverage or an advantage in time and positioning.
My teacher noted that if self defense were just a matter of physical strength then the martial arts would only be of use to bigger, stronger individuals. In China, and here, women are as capable of proficiency as men despite lesser strength or size. Bruce Lee’s original style, Wing Chun, was developed by a Buddhist nun.
An abundance of energy not only means you’re prepared for whatever happens around you, but it also affects your attitude and confidence in facing challenges. We’re all challenged by the twists and turns in life, so the physical and psychological resources that we bring to bear on our problems will determine our success in dealing with them. Emotional ups and downs drain energy more than physical work. Fear can lock up the body like a vise and anger can generate rash action.
In dealing with conflict, the goal is to have a quiet mind, like the reflection of the moon in still water. Emotion distorts perception, literally, and the moon’s reflection becomes a confusing patchwork of lights and darkness. The first time I tried sparring it seemed like there were fists everywhere, coming from different directions. It wasn’t that my sparring partner was a genius, just that tension and an
unusual situation distorted my perception to the point where an appropriate response was impossible.
During the years spent in training you realize that to make progress you have to tune into your body and mind and observe what’s going on. You learn about yourself by doing the forms and looking within. In one sense, training is a dialogue between your conscious intent and your inner self. You can’t dictate progress, you have to accept the time required by the body to adapt and respond. Gong fu means “the skill acquired by work over time.” Training acquaints you with a realistic approach to change and progress.
There’s a saying that originally came from a newspaper cartoon strip which says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Most of the time we engineer our own failures rather than having someone or something else defeat us. This certainly applies in the realm of healing and health.
One of the lessons I value most is that the body is not an assemblage of parts like a car. You can’t damage and replace parts without consequences. The body-mind is a miraculous set of systems that is always changing; a fluid, dynamic process. It heals itself. It regenerates itself. And the less you you interfere with its natural wisdom and order the better your chances for a long and healthy life.
About the author: Robert Mendel has been a writer and editor on a variety of publications and provided freelance articles to newsstand magazines focused on travel, motorcycling prefab building, architecture and the martial arts. He has trained in gong fu for over 40 years. He wrote and produced an ebook on sustainable prefab building for online sale and co-wrote a book on self defense.