|Fragrant Hills Park, Beijing, 2008|
Six Reasons to Practice "Heart and Mind In Six Harmonies Boxing"
Practicing Xinyi can be a great, consistent way to be physically and mentally active
I once had a university classmate ask me a simple question years ago: "You seem to be in good shape. I'm not. What do you think is the best form of exercise?" What I wanted to say was - "Xinyi!!!" However, I answered much more broadly and realistically - based on my readings, my formal education, and my experience - "The best form of 'exercise' is a physical activity that you actually enjoy doing, that you will be motivated to do on a regular basis, and that you will actually diligently carve out time to do."
For me, this has been practicing martial arts for over twenty-five years - and practicing, studying, and teaching Xinyi for the past fifteen. When life is good, I feel energized and practice Xinyi. When my body is achy, I take care of it by practicing Xinyi. When I am stressed, I relax by practicing Xinyi. When some horrible tragedies struck in my life a few years back, I was able to recover my physical, mental, and spiritual balance in part by - surprise (!) - practicing Xinyi!
I sincerely hope that everyone can have practices in their lives that they can regularly turn to for day-to-day wellness - as well as for dealing with the inevitable hard times that will occur (and there are many practices out there (from Yoga to Hockey to Ballroom Dancing...) - so whatever works for someone, I am in favour of!). For me, that has been, and continues to be, Xinyi.
Xinyi is a form of Gong Fu ("Kung Fu"); Knowing Gong Fu serves you well in anything you do
"Gong fu" is literally "skilled work". It is striving for improvement and mastery through repeated, thoughtful, dedicated practice. It is alluded to in the words of ancient scholars like Lao Tzu's, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".
Once while attending a seminar with Xu Guo Ming (aka George Xu), I listened to him describe the process of gong fu as writing out one sheet of paper each day... While it may, at first, look like nothing significant was accomplished - at the end of a month, a year, a decade - each of these sheets has added up to a chapter, a story, a novel...
Gong fu in China does not just refer to martial arts. It refers to any practice which a person has put in the time and effort to improve. There is "gong fu tea" which is serving tea with this approach. There is "gong fu calligraphy" taking years of study and practice. And, there are "gong fu" doctors, teachers, parents, engineers, etc... A person has "gong fu" when they have put in the time and effort to go beyond the basics and the minimal requirements - transforming an ordinary practice into something extraordinary.
Gong fu requires "willpower" - and one develops willpower through practicing something diligently. Dr. Roy Baumeister in his brilliant book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength", reviews and discusses some amazing, modern research regarding how to develop and "rediscover" the benefits of willpower. Of course, practitioners of gong fu don't need to "rediscover" this strength - it's what gong fu has always been about! It's how people can strive to be excellent at whatever they choose to do. Learning gong fu (and willpower) in one realm of life can help to develop this strength to apply it to other areas.
Of course, gong fu also teaches humility and relaxation. I have, gradually, learned that I can do, and enjoy, many things in my life without having to be "gong fu" and "gung ho" at them all! Learning balance and moderation and long-term sustainability is as much "gong fu" as is trying to be able to do some things with full intensity.
There are some violent, scary, hurtful people in the world - and it is helpful to know how to deal with them
Now, before anyone jumps on me for claiming that Xinyi is the "best" martial art, or that I think violence to deal with violence is always a good thing, or that an ancient martial art has a chance against modern tools of violence, etc., etc... please hear me out.
Knowing how to deal with violent people does not necessarily mean using Xinyi (or any traditional martial art) to physically defend oneself. Xinyi is a complete martial arts system. That means that it is not just for dealing with someone attacking you, but it means being healthy and making healthy life choices. It is about surviving and thriving. It means, for example, avoiding places, when possible, where violence is likely. It means understanding when, where, and how violence is likely to ensue. It means knowing when to fight and when to run. It means having a "flexible response" to violence - and to any of the challenges of life.
One reason for having ten animals (and multiple movements for each) in the Xinyi repertoire is not just to create lots of interesting, diverse movements for personal expression and exercise (although that is pretty cool...), but more importantly to create options and infinite combinations for infinite potential situations.
These options are not just physical, but psychological. If you are grabbed/seized, then you can use the physical aspects of "snake" to twist free, to grab/wrap back, to strike, etc. Much more common in day-to-day life, however, are opportunities to respond flexibly when you are "seized" by stress (be it physical or psychological). Through training, you have a variety of tools and models as to how to spiral out of the situation, to "advance by going sideways", to change course but then return to your path, etc... This might mean everything from staying safe in traffic to staying cool when work demands increase. The chance that most people who ever learn Xinyi will ever have to use it for violence are very low.
That said, in terms of dealing with the extreme stress of being violently attacked, I feel that everyone has a basic human right to connect with their "animal nature" enough to know how to defend her/himself (i.e. we all have a right to access our inner "momma bear" under the very rare circumstances when this is necessary). Everyone should have the right to know how to physically and psychologically "resist" those who would do traumatic harm to ourselves and our loved ones. Even for the pacifists out there (whom I certainly respect) I would argue strongly - make pacifism a real option for you and your loved ones. If someone tries to hurt you, and you know how to fight back, then you have real options as to whether to use force, or not, (and how much force) to protect yourself or a loved one. I'm not saying everyone has to do martial arts - and I would NEVER blame survivors of violence for being victims. What I am saying, however, is that, ideally, we should have freedom and options. [For more on this topic, I highly recommend the masterful works of Gavin de Becker such as "Protecting the Gift" and "The Gift of Fear".]
Chances are you will never need to use Xinyi in a physical confrontation in the modern world, but it is a foundation of confidence to know that you can access your own inner strength if you needed to protect yourself. All the better that Xinyi practice protects a person every day by strengthening mind, body, and spirit.
There are few things like an ancient martial art to reintegrate and to reconnect
We supposedly live in an interconnected world... so how come so many of us so often end up feeling so disconnected?
I absolutely (and unapologetically) love that I live at a time in history when I can Skype with friends across the world, check a family member's Facebook updates, Google a great recipe, start an intellectual journey through Wikipedia, and call my mom to catch up with her on my cell phone while I am resting after a jaunt up Mt. Finlayson! Not to mention that I appreciate that I can start a blog to try to recruit students to share the traditional martial art of Xinyi... Incredible to have such technology! :)
That said, I also live in a world where some people I have met spend 14-hours-a-day playing video games, feel crushing loneliness despite hundreds of Facebook friends, don't get enough fresh air, have limited connections with the natural world, and rarely get to really connect and engage with other people face-to-face. We live in a culture where we often "live in our heads" and we type with our fingers, but we don't really work with our hands...
Xinyi has been an amazing way for me to connect with others. It has connected me across cultures and continents. It has connected me with people who also became great training partners and great friends. There are few things that connect people quite like the fellowship of practicing a rare martial art - learning and sweating and striving to get a little better at it each time we face each other for practice and drills. As a student of history (my first university degree), I have never felt such a connection with the past as when I feel myself doing a move that has been handed down from teacher to student for centuries...
Of course, Six Harmony Xinyi is, quite literally, about "connecting", combining, and harmonizing. Connecting the heart and the mind. Connecting courage with intentions. Connecting the body and mind through movement. Connecting the breath with the movement. Connecting our thinking, rational mind with our animal, instinctive inheritance. Harmonizing our behaviour in the world by coping with the world as it is and creating the world as we want it to be. Striving for internal and external harmony... And on and on it goes!
There is still no substitute for a foundation in a traditional martial art
If someone's primary motivation is to learn how to be more violent, then I don't recommend martial arts to them (I'd actually recommend - with no negative judgment towards these things - things like therapy and medication...). That said, I do have an appreciation for people who want, or need, to learn how protect themselves and others (e.g. particularly military and police -- but also everyone else, too -- see Reason #4 above).
Right or wrong, I also have a great appreciation for watching modern martial arts in the form of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (or boxing, or kickboxing, or Olympic wrestling, etc.). "Mixed martal arts" (e.g. UFC), in particular (and this modern, transdisciplinary approach to martial arts and competitive fighting) has been, simply put, revolutionary. I have great respect for the amazing martial artists and athletes these competitors have honed themselves into. I am not saying I don't have "mixed feelings" about watching mixed martial arts (and I would never push anyone to watch them). But there is some level of honesty (albeit a form of brutal honesty) when two people have agreed duke it out with rules and weight classes - to try to make it as competitive and fair as possible.
The idea of martial artists from completely different schools, from different countries, all getting together and competing and sharing best practices is almost unprecedented [although some "proto" arrangements like this could be argued to have happened in some senses throughout history - I won't go into those here...]. This mixed approach may be revolutionary, but I am still left wondering, "Does general 'mixed martial arts' training help forge better people?" Does it even forge the best martial artists?
By and large, the mixed martial art fighters I have most admired are those who acknowledge that their original practice of a traditional martial art changed their lives for the better. It gave them a path, discipline, and tools that could be used inside and outside of the ring/octagon. Then, to be able compete in the UFC (or other organization), which is a mixed martial arts milieu, they broadened their skills and perspectives and cross-trained, so that they were able to bring their "mother art" to bear on the unique and diverse set of problems (which are arguably different than those in self-defence) that "the octagon" presents.
For those of us who have no plans of fighting in a cage in front of a crowd (or those who might not even agree with a such a concept), a traditional martial art provides a foundation for anything difficult we are going to strive to learn. The modern privilege of being able to learn more than one martial art - particularly more than one from completely different backgrounds - is awesome, but it seems inadequate for someone to say, "I study mixed martial arts". What does that mean? What is it that they are deeply rooted in? Do they have "gong fu"? What distinctive martial arts is their "mixed martial arts" a mix of? [that last sentence both a conundrum and a tongue-twister]
In medical rehabilitation school, I watched a professor intellectually eviscerate a student who, when asked what approach she used to treat clients had tried to evade the question by saying simply, "eclectic". The professor then painstakingly drove home the logic that supposedly using a "mixed" or "eclectic" or "multidisciplinary" approach actually requires that someone first be rooted in a few true, deep approaches so that then they can be able to branch out and compare and contrast with others. That is, one can only be multi-disciplinary or transdisciplinary or eclectic or mixed if they have first developed confidence within their own core discipline(s).
[As an aside - I love training with people who are new to martial arts as well as with people who are experienced in other martial arts and/or mixed martial arts. It has been great to start someone on the martial arts path with Xinyi - and it has been great to expand others' repertoires by teaching them Xinyi. All kind, pleasant, open-minded people are always welcome!!]
It is a beautiful art; The appreciation of beauty is limitless
As much as I believe in science, evolution, the lessons of history, and learning from real people who have "been there, done that" - I also just find Xinyi deeply aesthetically pleasing.
Students have learned moves and made comments such as, "Oh my God! This move is amazing! Now I realize/see/feel that some of those beautiful moves from wushu cinema actually came from real, functional movements!"
As Xinyi emulates various animal movements, I regularly enjoy referring back to watching how actual animals move. Although I am far less surrounded by animals and nature than martial artists may have been hundreds of years ago, I do have the luxury of being able to almost instantly access footage of animals-in-movement on the internet and also to be able to read behavioural and scientific analysis of how animals behave and live.
I know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", but throughout most of recorded history, most cultures have admired the beauty, grace, and power of animals. Even the most modern of sports teams, military units, and national symbols often reference an animal imagery for inspiration (e.g. the "Chicago Bears", the "Flying Tigers", the "American Eagle", etc.
Again, I could write extended expositions pondering the beauty of animals, what we can learn from animals, the animal aspects of our nature, what makes us uniquely human, etc... There is no end to these sorts of questions and thought experiments - which is great - because one of the most beautiful things about doing an art like Xinyi is that it is endless.
Genuinely practicing art - any genuine art - is to join a conversation that has been going on for as long as humans have been creating art and which will continue on as long as humans keep trying to figure out their place in the universe.
Although the physical development of raw strength inevitably peaks and then gradually falls away, the ongoing development of deeper internal knowledge, mental calm, and aspirations towards the best and most beautiful expressions of art can continue as long as one is still able to live one's practice. Even as the body gradually diminishes, the mind and "spirit" [I am not going down the rabbit-hole of trying to define "spirit" here...] can continue to be both expanded and refined. The art can be shared with others. The art's beauty lives on. It touches us and we do our best to be true to it, while adding our own touches.
So, for all those out there practicing martial arts - or "gong fu" in any of its potentially infinite manifestations - all good things to you in your practice!