Yi Chuan is a paradox. On one hand you have distinct theories, methodologies, practice methods and testing procedures. On the other hand you have formlessness, spontaneity and cultivation of innate human qualities. In an art that boasts no fixed forms and no fixed rules we endlessly practice the same shapes and routes while attempting to maintain a long list of distinctly defined requirements and qualities.
The core practice of Standing, for example, is about cultivating a sense of unity through body awareness. Sounds simple until you are confronted with a myriad of requirements like gripping the toes, tucking the tailbone, stretching the tendons, ‘shrinking the bones’, lifting the crown, curving the fingers, straightening the spine, wrapping, twisting, extending, tensing, loosening, etc., etc., etc. Honestly it can be overwhelming.
After years of struggling with all the requirements I asked my teacher how I was ever going to be able to use Yi Chuan for self defense when I could barely keep it together in basic Standing practice. What he said surprised me. “Forget about all that stuff, practice in a more primitive way and the flavor will come out”.
Practice in a more primitive way? I had thought Yi Chuan was an art that had been refined over many, many generations before being systematized by Grandmanster Wang Sheng Chai. I had spent years learning all those requirements and incorporating them into my practice. Now I was supposed to forget about them!? I was more confused than ever, so I pressed him further to explain.
“I know it’s frustrating. You have to remember that Yi Chuan is not based on technique. Yi Chuan uses techniques and exercises to awaken the natural potential that each of us has to express Hunyuan strength. Over time you will hardwire that strength to your natural self defense reactions. All of the various forms, techniques and exercises that we use are tools to develop the Hunyuan strength. Flexible, sensitive, Hunyuan strength is an achievement gained through the practice of the art.”, was his response.
In that moment I realized the mistake I was making. In a very basic way I had misidentified the practice method for the result, the tree for the forest, the finger for the moon. I was trying to do Yi Chuan through mimicry instead of letting the practice naturally change my expression of strength. I was on the wrong path, but I had climbed it far enough to see the right one. Things I had been confused about started to make sense.
My teacher always said what he was doing was just physics. It didn’t get it. Even a senior student of his that is a physics teacher would shake his head and say, ‘that’s not physics’. Now I could see that it was ‘just physics’, but not the kind of physics you learn from a book. It was a direct understanding of physics my teacher had developed through years of practice and testing of how his mind and body created, stored and delivered Hunyuan strength. I realized that ancient wisdom is not tucked away on some distant mountaintop, it is hidden in plain sight and available to anyone willing to look past the endless hearsay and take a direct look.
That realization changed my practice dramatically. Instead of looking outside for answers I began to look in. Standing practice, which had long been about defeating pain and boredom through will power suddenly became a pleasurable retreat from the daily grind. Instead of anxiously trying to practice all the things I had been taught during my solo practice I would lose track of time focusing on just one. When learning something new from my teacher I would realize it was not really new, just another way of looking at the same thing. Testing strength and pushing hands with my fellow students became relaxing and fun instead of tense and frustrating, anger replaced with laughter. Everything changed and continues to change.
What used to feel like endless repetition now feels like exploration. Each gesture, each route offers something unique to learn that benefits all of the others while also bearing the potential to express the totality of my achievement with the art. Insight and skill garnered through practice are not limited to expression through self defense but find their way into other activities I enjoy like surfing, SUP, snowboarding, hunting and even cooking. Believe it or not, learning to be present and use that presence to listen to my training partner during push hands practice has helped me prepare more flavorful meals for my friends and family. Rather than blindly following the recipe the skill of listening to the ingredients and process I am working with leads to unexpectedly better results.
Yi Chuan is a paradox. It seeks formlessness through form, movement through stillness and strength through awareness. Modern and refined through generations of practitioners its methodology is about becoming aware of a primitive part of ourselves. Studying Yi Chuan is like looking through a microscope into a mirror and practicing it can transform a seemingly endless plateau into a vast vista of learning and possibility, if you let it.