Mar 10th 2016  

 Training

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Training challenges

“Why can’t you stay rock-solid in a correct horse stance? It’s like a game, every time I turn around you all pop back up again!”  asks Chief Instructor Dennis. And here we go once more with the “how hard can it be?” question. How hard can it be to have an excellent horse stance and maintain it through an entire training session? Or a week-long Instructor Training Camp? As promised last week, Adam tells his story:

“How many times has your Instructor told you your stance is “not quite good enough” aka “rubbish”?

I’m betting not as often as mine. Chief Instructor Dennis has 18 years’ worth of telling me. Tired of correcting our stances (I’m including walking stance here), he told us Instructors to attach ropes to 2 sticks of bamboo about forearm length, and tie (tightly) the ropes around our ankles and the top of our thighs.  With the sticks tied in place you cannot stand up straight and you cannot squat. You have two choices, stay in horse/walking stance, or lie down. This device is why I am standing in the North Terminal of Gatwick Airport booked on a flight to Hurghada for the one week Instructor Training Camp, and wondering what I’m going to say if security ask what’s in my bag. It turns out that sticks with ropes are not on the banned list for Egypt. So now I can look forward to a week of self-directed learning.

The Saturday before the Egypt Instructor Camp I assembled my new training aids.FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance I tested them out at home with a bit of San Zhan and It didn’t seem to hurt too much.  I did not foresee the road ahead.

Baby steps

We were leaving for camp on Monday so the first real test was a Sunday class. “All those with sticks, attach them”, came the command during class.  As I “stood up” with the ropes tied I realised my first problem.  How do I walk when I can’t straighten my legs?  As I attempt to manoeuvre myself back into line Dennis says, “use your pelvic floor and lower abdominals to lift your knee.” This is an effective if initially slightly inelegant way of walking.

Once past the well-named “toddler” stage of life, walking is something we do automatically, unthinkingly – which is why lots of students struggle when they start training Kung Fu.  It requires a lot of energy and practice to lay down the new neural pathways to automatically crane step as the style of White Crane Kung Fu requires. Walking with my legs tied at a set height I have to actively engage my pelvic floor to lift my knee whilst fighting the impulse to use my calf muscles to propel me forward.

It starts easy…

Like a lot of exercises we do in class this one starts easy. There is a mild burn in my thighs and shins as my legs are forced to work together to support me. With your legs strapped in this position you are not just forced into being at the ‘right height’, you are forced into using both of your legs fully to support your body weight. [“As you are supposed to” I can hear Dennis say in my head]. Having spent years training my leg strength, this in itself is still not the “hard part”.

Facing a painful truth

The hard part is that you can’t cheat – the cheating we are used to doing as we step, shuffle or wait for the Instructor to stop looking at us. You probably don’t even realise you do it. I didn’t. Now I recognise it in myself and my students. It’s the slight raising of the stance to release the muscles. Check yourself, I mean really check yourself and you’ll probably find that as you step you straighten your stationary leg slightly which releases lactic acid and stops your legs from hurting so much. The strapping removes that freedom to cheat. The only respite you receive now is when you lift your leg to step but the muscles are still being constrained so this really doesn’t help. My Kung Fu patterns are one long lactic acid build up. How far can I push this? One pattern without a rest? Two? Three? Three without a break did seem to be my limit during camp.

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

Nothing to see here

The real learning begins

It’s early evening and I’m reclining on a lounger contemplating doing one more pattern whilst I watch the sun set over the Red Sea when Instructor Richard says, “I’m going to walk back to my room like this.” Challenge accepted. Like two ungainly geese we slowly make our way along the path with the cries of “keep up” from the other Instructors ringing in our ears and the gawking looks from the few other tourists going to dinner. And i make a breakthrough – I’m auto-correcting the other parts of my stance. Spread the toes, point the hip in the direction you are going, open and close the front foot. My body wants to do it correctly.  A slow smile breaks over my face as I feel my body learning.

Here comes the agony

The smile didn’t last long when we started up the stairs. I thought my thighs had been in pain during the 500 metre walk but I now have an indescribable level of agony in my calves. I sit on the stairs in a sweaty heap and shake my legs in the air like an upside down woodlouse.  There is a lot of weakness leaving my body today.  I hear the calls of my fellow Instructors for the nightly Bai Jiu to ward off Egypt tummy, gird my loins and slowly ascend two flights of stairs. This now leaves a 300 metre walk way to my room and the anticipated bliss of straightening my legs again. Bliss was slightly postponed as a family started to come the other way, and I nonchalantly leant against the balustrade and looked out over our newly planted olive tree in the gardens below, pretending it was perfectly normal to be sweating like a pig with sticks tied to my legs in Egypt. I heard them mutter, but they (thankfully) didn’t ask me what I was doing.  Bliss postponed is bliss increased.

The learning continues

The week settled into a simple routine of repeating first and second patterns over and over and using the forced correction of my stance to allow me to find the corrections I had to make with the rest of my body. Once your stance is locked and solid your hips are straight, your back then straightens and your shoulders settle. Your ability to thrust with force becomes less reliant on your shoulders and back and instead uses the fixed anchor of your stance and stomach to throw from. There are many other corrections which I came to make over the week – you can find them too by making your own sticks and persevering through the pain, sweat and funny looks (if you choose to be out in public).

Ahhh, the ecstasy!

I trapped my body in a situation where cheating was not an option and so removed decision making from the process of maintaining the height of my stance. My cognitive resources were freed up to correct what I wanted to work on – my balance, power, and technique.  Ecstasy? yes, in the sense of achieving a state of flow where learning takes place.  And when the sticks come off…definitely!”

And what does Dennis have to say?

“Resistance is futile – relax into your stance and stop cheating.”

 

Lovely as it was in Egypt, back in cold, wintry England how hard can it be? Well, after half an hour of walking up and down….

 

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

“How hard can it be?”

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

Really hard.

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

Really, really hard.

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

Yes. even if I turn around it’s still really hard..

 

 

 

FWC Instructor Adam Prout wearing a training aid for horse stance

Can I stop now?