The lessons attained from delving deep into the mind and body through the internal (and external) practices of Wing Chun have entirely transformed my life and continue to do so. To illustrate this, I’d like to give a brief intro of my history prior to Wing Chun.
I spent the first decade of my life in Shiraz, Iran in the midst of an 8-year war between Iran and Iraq, in which 1.5 million people lost their lives. Apart from the fear of the occasional bombing sirens and the Iranian military police, the majority of the memories of those days are fond ones because my mother’s extended side of the family was very close and loving.
From the age of 3, I remember bike riding and playing football on the streets with the older neighbourhood kids after school.
Naturally, getting into arguments and fights was not uncommon. I was one of the smallest and youngest kids in the neighbourhood and therefore bullied around when push came to shove.
My family migrated to Sydney Australia when I was 9. It was a rather diffcult transition, as there was a huge culture shock and I couldn’t speak a word of English.
Naturally it took a long time for my brother and I to be fully accepted by the other kids. Even at such a young age, we had to let it be known that we were not to be picked on by being involved in many schoolyard fights, which for me was starting to become a natural part of life.
Since my family was living in the poorer area of Sydney, the schools that I attended were filled with troubled kids who were involved in local gangs. One on one and group fights were a weekly occurrence.
When I was 15, I decided to improve my self- defense skills and found a local Wing Chun school in the yellow pages (a small local branch of Jim Fung’s Wing Chun Academy). There were 3 main instructors at the branch, and to my advantage, I was usually the only student. Therefore, I generally received a private lesson in every class.
I started to become very interested in Wing Chun because I could see how simple and practical it was for self-defense. I trained diligently at this branch for a little over a year and didn’t miss a lesson! However, my life outside Wing Chun was quickly spiraling down a dark path. At the age of 16, due to very harsh times at home, and as soon as the opportunity came, I left home and started to lead a ‘street life’ in Sydney’s CBD and China Town.
The people I was living with and hanging around were all at least 10 years older and had been living a negative life for a long time. I immediately became extremely engrossed in the violence and glamor of it all.
Looking back at those days, I’m surprised that I was only hospitalized once. During a fight in which over 20 people with weapons ambushed 4 of us, I lost one of my closest friends who at the time was only 15 years old. Things got so dangerous, that I felt in order to stay alive, I had to move back home. The only way to leave that life was to run away and go in hiding.
Having had time to refect on my anger and the internal damage I had caused to my body and mind, I decided to start working on myself. So I started going to a local Gym and within a few months was back at Wing Chun.
I needed to earn money so I started working as a bouncer at the local bars and clubs. Within a few months, I was asked to join a security team that was managing a couple of clubs in Kings Cross (the red light district of Sydney). So again, fighting and violence started to come knocking at my door, but at least now I had experience, a little external Wing Chun skill and had bulked up at the gym. As time went on, I stopped lifting weights, because I noticed it was hindering the fluidity of my movements, and got more into Wing Chun. I also started practicing meditation to help control the built up negative emotions and anger. I went from training a couple of hours a day to at least 8 hours a day, only working security on Friday and Saturday nights.
I stopped attending classes at the Jim Fung Academy and trained with a tight group of guys led by Mark Spence, a senior student of our Sifu Jim Fung, who was also an ex-bouncer from Napier New Zealand.
Mark and I became very good friends, possibly due to both having experienced a violent background and therefore having the common interest of searching for some peace and calm in our lives. Mark had actually trained with our Grandmaster in Hong Kong for 6 weeks in 1993 and had 10s of hours of video recording of his training there, which we used as our Wing Chun scripture!
At this point in my Wing Chun training, I felt I had an OK understanding and ability of the mechanics and applications of Wing Chun, but I was very intrigued and hungry for the internal side that I saw in the HK videos of Chu Shong Tin’s classes. In 2004, I was indeed excited when I heard that he was coming down to Sydney to conduct seminars!
When I first met Chu Shong Tin, who was then in his early 70s, I was very drawn by his happy and passive demeanour. I attended all his seminars and was lucky enough to touch hands with him a few times when he asked for volunteers. Even though Mark had told me about Chu’s unbelievable power, I was in complete shock from the sheer force coming out of his every movement, which he performed in a slow, soft and graceful fashion! I was astonished as to how this skinny old man was throwing me around like a rag doll and doing so with a smile on his face. I realized that what he was doing was not at all based on external techniques and went far beyond my idea of structure or mechanics.
The essence of every seminar he did during that trip was ‘to use the power of the Mind with a completely relaxed body’! To my pleasant surprise, he talked about Wing Chun like it was a form of meditation.
After meeting Grandmaster Chu, I knew I had found my mentor. Within a year, I moved to Hong Kong to start training directly under him. I started training at his house up to 6hrs a day. I was instructed to first learn how to stand ‘properly’ and practice Siu Nim Tao as effortless as possible, in an optimal posture, until the muscles started to soften and the joints started to decompress (in particular the spine). This sounds a lot easier than it is and you’d be surprised how difficult it is to even feel the joints let alone tap into them with the mind in order to relax them.
So I spent the first few years of my training under him by mainly standing and practicing Siu Nim Tao for 6hrs a day. It was physical agony at times, as the muscles in the back and legs would seize up. Needless to say it was also a mental roller coaster. Prior to coming to HK, I had spent some time meditating every day, but nothing came close to 6hrs of silent focus! It’s amazing how you get to know yourself and the workings of the mind when you keep the body still and try to focus the mind.
The first 4 years were very difficult. I remember witnessing extreme amounts of random emotions such as anger, depression, jealousy and selfishness arise from my mind while standing in Master Chu’s living room!
As the years went by I started to be able to connect the mind and body to a point where various areas of the body started to relax and respond to my command. I started to gain some clarity in the mind. I noticed I was beginning to control my emotions and in particular my temper. Literally, during every visit back to Sydney, someone would highlight how much I had changed as a person. Of course, it was a blessing to spend so many hours training under someone with such knowledge and ability of the internal side of Wing Chun. Being a Chinese bone-setter in his younger years, Chu Shong Tin’s method of teaching was very hands-on, in that he was able to guide our bodies in such a way as to help release tension and give us a feeling of ‘Mindful Relaxation’ in the joints.
He was very big on maintaining a correct and natural postural alignment within the pelvis and spine. He would always say that the secret to his remarkable body control and power was in the energy released through uprightness and decompression of the spine.
One day, I remember him telling us he had noticed even young kids forming a compressed posture due to the hunched over posture of playing with smart-phones. Correct Wing Chun training, he explained, could really help open up their spines and form better postural habits.
In 2008, I started to learn how to relax my spine. As a result, my body started to feel completely different. Now 8 years later, I know first hand that the spine is the root of the health of the body. During my body building years, I used to catch the flu and be bed bound at least 3 times a year These days, I can honestly say I don’t remember the last time I was sick.
Moreover, I find that with an open posture, the body is much more open and balanced, and it’s a lot easier to observe and gain some control of the mind. The body and Mind are a lot more connected than we think. By bringing relaxation and balance to the body, we can calm the mind, and a clear mind promotes a healthy body!
So the true essence of Wing Chun is in the correlation of the mind and body, which requires control of the mind. But how does Wing Chun help tame the mind? It’s actually simple, and the creator of Wing Chun left us a hint in the system through calling its first form Siu Nim Tao!
Chu Shong Tin, who was coined as “The King of Siu NimTao” by Ip Man, explained that Nim Tao is the power of a “highly focused mind”. It is what we can call one-pointedness in the mind, which I believe is actually the goal of every major form of Taoist, Buddhist, and Yogic meditation I have practiced so far.
In Wing Chun, we aim to achieve this one- pointedness in the mind through focusing on the entire body as a whole. We can start by holding the body in perfect balance in a naturally upright posture, while we try to perform the movements of Siu Nim Tao with as little effort as possible. It’s important to note that effortlessness does not mean sloppiness (mindless relaxation). Unusually, when people relax, their joints give-in to gravity resulting in compression in the spine and legs; and lose the correct shapes and structures in the arm movements.
On the contrary, with a mindful method of relaxation we are able to maintain an upright and open posture along with structural integrity of movements. So the muscles relax while the joints decompress! Not only does this give us a complete different internal view and control of the body, it helps to develop a highly focused yet clear state of mind as well.
We start to feel deep relaxation physically and mentally, but at the same time, feel awake and energised in both body and mind. We become completely submerged in the present moment which is the pinnacle of Siu Nim Tao.
Then we can start to take this gentle ‘Siu Nim Tao State’ into not only the rest of our Wing Chun practice, but into our daily lives as well. Within this state, we can utilize the body in the most efficient way, resulting in great amounts of power and productivity levels with minimum use of brute strength.
Correcting postural misalignments helps get rid of aches and pains in the body. This control in the body can be then used in any physical activity, be it walking, climbing stairs, carrying objects, sports etc.
Through personal experience, I have found that the self-observation aspect of Siu Nim Tao helps us detach from emotions such as anger.
Six years ago, I received a call from my brother from Australia stating that our little sister had been murdered. This dropped a bomb on my heart. I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Wing Chun, I don’t know how I would have managed without going into extreme anger and depression.
But through this internal and meditative practice, I was able to dig deep into the mind and observe and therefore detach from the unproductive thoughts and emotions. For me, it’s still astounding that a form of ‘Martial Arts’ has actually become my tool for maintaining balance in the body and mind.
Wing Chun has helped me realize that under all the surface ripples of the mind, rests a peaceful state of love. Having had a taste of this myself, I can’t help but to dedicate my whole life in trying to pass on this tool to as many people as possible.
Having gone through a violent upbringing, it’s ironic that Kung Fu has taught me that the best way to deal with violence and negativity is actually through love. I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend innocent people and ourselves, but all our actions should come from a place of love and for the benefit of humanity.
From a teenage boy who started learning Wing Chun for defence to now having taught Wing Chun for 17 years and running the biggest full-time Wing Chun School in Hong Kong, I can say that the defence aspect of Wing Chun is but a small leaf on the tree of this art.
This beautiful art, when practiced correctly and persistently, can decrease stress levels, relieve aches and fix postural misalignments. It can also promote better energy flow and overall health to the body, and ultimately, it can be used as a tool that can lead to inner peace.
In the chaotic world that we live in, a little bit of peace could go a long way. Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
The Dalai Lama said “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”
Personally, I see Wing Chun as one of a few perfect systems that can help us take a step in the direction of Gandhi and Dalai Lama’s words. It has done so in my life, and I can only repay it by sharing it with as many people as I can. It is truly an art of health, self-development and inner peace! Ω
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