Idea Force in Wing Chun
By Maksem Manler
In Wing Chun, relaxation is the state of being we are trying to achieve each time we train. Chu Shong Tin practitioners are constantly searching for deeper levels of relaxation, which often makes relaxation seem like an oasis in the desert, a mirage. You can see it, but no matter how much you chase it, it’s always just that far away. This is the motivation of a CST Wing Chun student - the pursuit of profound relaxation...
So, just what does relaxation mean to Wing Chun practitioners? The Cantonese term for relax - 'Fong Song' (let go), is a concept subject to many interpretations. When you say relax to a busy person, they think it means lay down and rest. When you say relax to a weightlifter, they assume it means ‘don’t flex’. When you say relax to a monk, they might assume it means to detach from their worldly desires. Relaxation means different things to different people.
So again, what is relaxation? If you think about it long enough, you will realize that relaxation is really just an idea. At it’s core, to let go is an idea generated somewhere in your mind. If you think of relaxing your bicep muscle for example, your mind generates a nervous impulse that signals the release of the muscular structures undergoing contraction. When a busy person thinks 'relax', he thinks rest, slow down, reduce effort and be calm. Your body responds to the idea you generate in your brain. It’s important to understand that relaxation really is just an evolving idea.
So what have my ideas of relaxation evolved into over time? When I first started Wing Chun, I took relaxation to mean, loose muscles. And of course, in my limited knowledge at the time, there were only biceps, abs, pecs, quads and a few others. I wasn’t aware of just how many muscles exist in the body until I did my remedial massage diploma. During my studies I learned of a substance that wraps the muscles called fascia. Fascia is like a 3 dimensional cling-wrap web that wraps muscles. And so I thought to myself in my quest for further relaxation, let's try and relax the fascia! The only problem was, I couldn’t feel it!
It was at this point in my training that I remembered Sigung’s words, “To control your body, you have to be able to feel it”. Aha! So I thought, I’ll just keep concentrating on the idea ‘relax my fascia’ until I could feel it. I waited for the feeling to be real, to have tangibility. Sure enough, a few months later I started feeling what I thought was the fascia relaxing.
After further study and research, I discovered that fascia not only wraps the muscles, it also wraps the organs too! What the hell!?? I immediately thought, let's relax the fascia around the organs. So out came the anatomy books and charts and I began memorizing everything inside the body. I started looking further and further inside the body to see what else fascia engulfs.
It turns out that fascia wraps the bones, joints, ligaments, veins, arteries, nerve cells and brain. Actually, it permeates the whole body! How exciting! This meant that with enough time, one should be able to access and control these deep layers inside the body.
Now in terms of stages, our relaxation journey is still at the beginning because relaxation was still only a physical concept to me. I was thinking about relaxing the physical body only - muscles, fascia, joints, ligaments, organs, bones and so on. To be honest, I’d never even taken the idea of relaxing my mind seriously. I’d heard of the concept but I really overlooked it because I was still under the impression that Wing Chun’s power must be solely physical.
I need to back up a bit before discussing relaxing the mind. When I started the 11 hour days of teaching and training, it was after about a month or so that I noticed that the main thing happening in my body was the ligaments lengthening. Standing seemed to change the way gravity travelled through my body, which allowed things to stretch open more than normal. But it was hard to notice the changes because they were very subtle and happened outside my ability to detect them.
When I started doing more Chi Sau, the ability to control my partners balance had improved. I was happy enough with the steady progress but my explorative mind still thought, there’s got to be more to this than just relaxing.
2011, October came around and I went to Hong Kong with the crew and met Sigung Chu Shong Tin for the first time. I had watched his training videos for about four years, nearly every day and analyzed his body like a hawk. I had watched him on video for so long, trying to figure out the secrets it felt like I already knew him. I had all these expectations as to what his power would feel like.
Of course, expectations seldom match reality because when I tried to stop him doing a reverse bong sau, how it actually felt was very different to what I had expected. I expected that his force would feel like a truck hitting me, and that it should feel heavy. But when I tried to stop him, I couldn’t feel anything - no heaviness, no force - just lightness and a sense of emptiness. It went through; I couldn't stop him and at the same time I couldn't feel the power. Very strange.
So now I was scratching my head yet again. All of my conclusions disappeared instantly because I realized I had no idea what was going on. I started really taking on what my teacher, Mark, had told me many times: “Never hold onto any idea too strongly”.
Even though that was my only trip to Hong Kong, I saw enough to realize that relaxation was much more than just a physical thing. It also meant letting go of expectations of how relaxation should feel when you do it right. It highlighted that those expectations I had in my mind created tension in my body. They prevented me from achieving deeper levels of relaxation because when you expect the relaxation to feel a certain way, you are essentially using tension to recreate what you are expecting to feel. And so, the essence of relaxation in my opinion has a lot to do with the ability drop your expectations of how it should feel - letting go of the goal of relaxing so to speak and not trying so hard to relax.
After that week a new style of training began for me. Relaxation was less about relaxing individual physical structures and more along the lines of relaxing my mind and thinking lightly (not trying too hard). I started taking on the attitude of also not taking my own ideas too seriously - playing with them instead. Relaxation meant something new now. It became not a goal, but a condition necessary for ideas to work. Letting go was about not holding onto anything, even my ideas. I would send an intention up my spine, and then I would forget about it. There was an ebb and flow to the process of generating an idea, and then forgetting about it. The forgetting about it was important.
This way of thinking really changed my approach to Wing Chun training. I became aware that trying to force an idea to work created tension. It seems obvious now, but being goal oriented made me oblivious to just how counterproductive the attitude was. For example, if I held the idea of sending something up through my spine, ligaments inside my spine would become subtly tense. I remember the first time I actually noticed tension inside my spine. I was sitting on the bus and had a thought in my mind of letting go of all feelings inside my body. In other words, forgetting about feeling anything altogether. Oxymoronic I know!
It occurred to me that physical feelings must be a form of tension. If you pay attention, when something tightens in your body you can feel it, no matter how subtle it is. So whatever I felt was simply disregarded and labelled as 'not important'.
Ironically, after adopting an attitude of disregarding sensations in my body, I began to feel areas inside my body relax that I was previously unaware of - like inside my spine. I could feel inside my joints clearly for the first time. I could feel a warmth in and around my spine. The mental picture of my spine became more 3 dimensional. I no longer valued 'achieving relaxation' because that idea just created unnecessary tension. Instead I learned to enjoy the process of being present and not worrying too much about whether it works or not.
Something else I noticed was that my sense of joy was higher than normal - for no reason other than that I felt less burdened by mundane things. It seemed like disregarding feelings allowed a natural state of joy to come out. I wasn’t trying to be happy, I just was.
It’s at this point, I had been training full time for 11 months. I was feeling good and Wing Chun seemed to have infinite realms of realization attached to it, and it still does.
Having an expectation of how relaxation should feel is actually the opposite of relaxing. Relaxation can only happen in the present moment, and the idea of how it should feel is based in the future. Therefore, you need to drop your expectations of how it should feel, and start generating the idea without expectation of how it will feel when it works. I started thinking “whatever happens in my body, it doesn’t matter, it's probably wrong anyway”. All I could do was think 'let go', and wait, and not worry about whether it works or not. To add, embracing the idea that I was probably doing it wrong actually helped me more than anything I had ever tried. It worked because I thought to myself - "I will think it (seng), it's probably wrong, but I will continue anyway - don't do anything physically, just think it". Assuming I was doing it wrong helped me to not worry. And so disappeared the stress of doing it incorrectly, hence I actually became more relaxed.
This really felt like it was the first time I was starting to practice correctly. I started to make sense of why Sigung continually said, “only think it, don't try”. Relaxation really is only an idea. Getting your ideas correct is actually the key in my opinion. With the right attitude and ideas, training becomes very productive.
Being in a state of let go allows you the sensitivity to feel the effects of thought in your body. It empties the noise of your heart and mind. When you think up the spine, there is a possibility to feel the thought itself. “To control your body you have to be able to feel it”. This goes for thought too. To be able to control your thought, you have to be able to feel your thought. And that means the thought has to have some tangibility in your awareness.
This is where difficulty arises. At first it’s guesswork. You think it and just wait and hope for the best. But it’s not about time, it’s about whether you have the right ideas. This is the essence of idea force in Wing Chun.
By Maksem Manler