This idea started with my feet. I have a progressive neuropathy in my feet which makes them numb, painful, and weak, and has led me to pay much more attention to them. (I have been tested and they can’t figure out a cause for it.) Then, when we started teaching on Zoom this spring, I wanted some pieces of the form that would be good review material for students.
It occurred to me that the form takes us through a developmental progression that, with a focus on the feet, is truly impressive. Although we think of ourselves as teaching the form, it’s equally valid to say that the form teaches us. I found myself imagining the form as a stern but caring teacher or coach, challenging the beginner to always go one step further (think Mr. Miyagi, for example).
I have found it useful to think of seven sections of the form. I’ll have more to say about how we might use these at the end.
- From opening to push. The form is a beautiful sequence of flowing movements. So, ironically, the form starts by teaching you how to stand still. From the opening, through WOL, WOR, rollback, press, and push, the form introduces ways to be stable on the earth. Shoulder width, measured relative to your own body. The 70-30 stance, that is stable from side to side and front to back. And it teaches you that you can move, rotate, shift, and return without losing your connection to the ground. The feet don’t move. Think of how much attention it takes to get beginners to keep their feet on the ground through these moves. This skill is so fundamental that it is repeated throughout the form, and is also the starting point (Sculling) in the 8 ways, and the Water Wheel exercise in R&B.
- From single whip to second brush knee. This section of the form challenges you to stand single weighted, in lifting hands, white stork, and playing the guitar. Professor talks about these postures in his famous “bitter work” quote, and advises using lift hands and playing the guitar to build root.
- Repulse monkeys. Now, for the first time, the form asks you to move directly from one single weighted leg to the other. No 70-30 positions in between. It also opens up a new direction (backwards) in space. We tend to focus on the backwards part a lot when teaching, but I have come to think that the more difficult part is the shifting and the awareness of being single-weighted. It is an opportunity for students to become aware of where a foot is and to shift directly onto it, which creates the zig-zag movement of the body going backwards.
- Cloud hands. Again moving from one single weighted leg to the other, sideways. For the first time, the form challenges you to work a stance wider than shoulder width, with its challenge of sinking the weight lower. The form asks you to work the hip joints in both directions (as we now do extensively in Constant Bear). Together, the repulse monkeys and cloud hands open up the awareness and possibilities of movement in different directions in space. If I’m aware, I can feel the sense of space opening up as I proceed through the form.
- From single whip sinks down, through the golden roosters, lift kicks, push kick. Just when you think you’ve got the single-weighted thing down, the form challenges you to be really single weighted, without ambiguity, and to be relaxed and straight enough to lift the empty leg. It introduces the sense that when something (a leg) comes up, something (your energy) must sink down. In doing that, it greatly opens up the earth-heaven connection and, more physically, movement in the up-down direction.
- Four corners. The form has been gradually freeing you to move in all directions: front, sides, diagonal, backwards, sideways. Now it has us moving radially: the movement gathers in and extends out, gathers in again, extends out again. The steps are large and take us in directions that we can’t see. It builds on all the previous challenges (of course).
- From single whip sinks down to bend bow and shoot tiger. Wow. I don’t have much to say about this. The concept that comes to mind is freedom. We have always emphasized the freedom from detailed indications for Bend Bow, Shoot Tiger, but emerging from sinking down, the Seven Stars and then Astride the Tiger challenge to you be free, but accurate. Then the spin, the kick, stepping out. The arms and legs feel like they are all doing something different at the same time. The challenge for me is to let myself feel free to move, but still keeping the principles. (You may find something different in this challenging section).
And then, back to standing on the earth and embracing the Tao.
I offer these thoughts for you to explore, as a potential resource for teaching. I do not teach this material per se, but it informs me when I am looking for inspiration on principles or sections of the form to work with students. It might be more useful for Fundamentals and up. I have found it helpful to remind beginning students when they feel frustrated by some new material, how hard they found the opening moves when those were new, and that the form is building up their skills gradually.
And I have found it worth remembering that the form is teaching us. These seven sections are very much at the physical level, which is where we start. There is, of course, much more.