Protect your weaknesses,
And to be aware of the same in your enemy
By Master Henry Look
With John P. Painter
This article continues the interview from August 2019 with the late master Henry Look taken from an interview published in IAM Magazine in November of 1992. It is a treasure trove and perhaps in some small way, it will help to preserve the teachings and legacy of my great good friend, this wonderful Gong Fu master who has now passed into the shadows.
Dr. Painter: You said that master Han taught a series of Yiquan standing meditations for developing this power. We are not talking about muscular strength alone here are we?
Shifu Look: No, strength can also come from inside not just from body weight and the muscles. Physical strength is not so impressive. You can watch a big man of 250 lbs or more move a little man around with pushing and the like. This is no big feat. Reverse it and watch the small man push the big man with almost no effort when the small guy can easily bounce the big strong one around then you have got something. This is internal power.
Dr. Painter: When you are striving to attain this internal power through standing do you think or project energy mentally out of your body?
Shifu Look: No, no, you don’t do any of that. When you are standing you just stay as quiet as possible. You don’t try to do anything other than just be where you are and be very still. The mind will soon become empty and you will experience deep meditation. All the rest of you is just quiet. Many people don’t understand this. With all my teachers I found that when they were relaxed they said they felt as if they are expanding naturally.
When you do it as an application, later on, there are other exercises where you project mind and body forward. Some of these I learned from professor Yu, Pungshi. When you and I have discussed Yiquan standing that is used in the Li family methods which I believe that you call it Yizhang (intention palm) you say that you use things similar to but not exactly the same as the projection ideas I learned from professor Yu. So I think our two methods are not that different? My favorite posture from professor Yu was number seven posture with the palms facing down almost horizontal to the ground.
Dr. Painter: I have seen this. Is it like you are standing point with all ten fingers and you are shooting rays of qi out of the tips of the fingers to the end of the universe? Is that what you are imagining during this practice?
Shifu Look: Right, that is the one it was one of the original eight taught by Wang Xiangzhai. Both Mr. and Mrs. Yu said that this posture was the best one to help open up the qi channels so they used it more than all the others. To do it you stand with the hands outstretched, palms down and fingers pointing forward.
Dr. Painter: Yes, I see. In Li family Yizhang (now called Yixingong) we do something similar in which we imagine that we are pressing on a heavy object which we can move forward or back up or down in any direction. We use sense memories derived from actually pushing, pulling, lifting or pressing on a real object and then recreate the sense memories while remaining in the posture and staying as relaxed (sung) as possible. There is little or no muscular tension during this practice.
Shifu Look: Yes, yes this is very interesting again it is similar but a bit different. I think this is a more modern approach you have brought to the practice. I suppose it is based on your teachers’ instructions but also perhaps on your study of how the mind works. Wouldn’t you say so?
Dr. Painter: I agree we all work to make our arts better and to improve our understanding of the way things can function. How do you start people off studying the Yiquan standing forms?
Shifu Look: I developed these six essentials to help students find the internal energy in standing forms they are:
1. Quiet place: you need to find a natural place to stand where you will not be interrupted.
2. Quiet mind: you must let the mind become still. This will happen over time not necessarily right away.
3. Quiet breathing: you let the breath become soft and not forced. Just relax and breathe naturally.
4. Quiet movement: stillness the whole body does not move backwards or forwards or to the side.
5. Quiet reaching: should be done in the beginning you should not try to think as if you are attempting to accomplish any special goal. You may feel as if your spirit is going way out to bring the good energy of the universe back into the body.
6. Quiet smile: you feel as if you are happy smiling inside. Your body and energy is sinking down into the ground.
There are more than six essentials. This is what I show beginners to help them get started and to understand the basics.
Dr. Painter: These seem like very sound principles for beginners. So ok, what is the difference in Yiquan and Xingyiquan?
Shifu Look: In the Yiquan you do not think about animals or specific forms you just do the standing in the eight postures or whatever the teacher shows you to attain your root and qi development.
Dr. Painter: There are many people today who are interested in Xingyiquan and the number of people teaching and many books and videos out on the subject is increasing. I have noticed that with a few exceptions there is almost no mention of Yiquan or standing forms in these books, why do you think this is so.
Shifu Look: Well, I don’t know how true this is but let me quote Professor Yu, Pungshi. Once I heard some of my fellow classmates complaining that certain teachers did not teach them about qi or standing and when they asked about it they were told that it was not time for them to learn it or they were given some other excuse. Professor Yu said,” Did it ever occur to you that perhaps these teachers do not know that part of the art?”
Dr. Painter: That is almost exactly what my friend Bruce Kumar Frantzis said to me once when I asked him a why some teachers left things out of their curriculum. He said, “A teacher can only teach what he knows!” It is sort of self evident but we seldom think about it in this way. So in you opinion is it possible to learn real Xingyiquan without doing the zhan zhuang or Yiquan standing forms.
Shifu Look: Without the Yiquan in there the Xingyiquan will be dynamite without the nitro-glycerin. It looks like the real thing on the outside but it isn’t. We have in Chinese cooking a little bun with barbeque pork inside. Xingyiquan without the Yiquan practice is like the pork bun without the pork filling, what’s the point?
Dr. Painter: My Shifu, Mr. Li used to say that Xingyiquan without zhan zhuang, it is like a locomotive without a head of steam, or an expensive race car with no gasoline. It just won’t go anywhere!
Shifu Look: He is right. I am glad you mentioned this because Master Kuo said to me many years ago. “Just stand there don’t worry about anything.” That was all the instruction he gave me. I worked at it harder than I should have. I did not listen to him and I tried to do special breathing exercises with my standing. I got such sore abdominal muscles that they ached for almost nine months. Kuo laughed at me and said to relax. He said that the dantian (center point) was a reservoir which would fill up just like a steam engine and when you built it up you could use this power to explode through your body to do what needed to be done. When you said that about the locomotive I remembered that my teacher has said almost the same thing!
Dr. Painter: I know that other martial arts styles have started to do some standing forms. What do you think of this?
Shifu Look: I believe that all forms can be good and can practice the standing forms. Most styles have some form of internal work even karate has some forms of meditation. If they do not emphasize it they just don’t understand where the real power comes from.
Dr. Painter: We have found at the Wholistic Fitness center (now the Gompa) in teaching standing forms that it is quite difficult to convince a westerner that he should stand still in order to, have more root, strength and to move faster. They are all looking for the secret and here it is staring them in the face and yet they just can’t seem to accept it no matter how much proof you show them.
Shifu Look: Yes, that is right. You can get power from just being still, but it takes patience. When I first went to Kuo to learn taijiquan he wrote on the blackboard. “Slowness in reality will become fast.” In other words we went from standing to practicing things slowly and when you use it, it becomes very fast. You have heard the old saying, “When you don’t move I don’t move and when you do move I arrive before you.” It is the same thing. When you are practicing slow or standing you do not try to exert energy. If you practice in this way when you need it is there.
Dr. Painter: Earlier we talked about expanding in the Yiquan forms. When you use the forms in martial art applications you do project you mind and body forwards don’t you?
Shifu Look: Master Han said something I did not quite understand some years ago. “When you are going backwards it is the same as going forwards.” it took me a while to understand what he meant. He was trying to tell me that when you retreat in Xingyiquan your body may be moving back but you are still going forward with your energy. Han also said that a big violent move was not as powerful as small movements and small movements are not as effective as no movement.
No movement is real movement. It was master Han that taught me all the stuff I know about Xingyiquan he gave me the five forms and the qigong training for it. Later Professor Yu taught me to use the Xingyiquan in Sanshou (free style form). That is where there is no definite sequence. It basically developed from the twelve animal natures. When you are doing it, it is really learning to get the feeling of the animal natures not the precise technique.
Dr. Painter: That is amazing, this is almost exactly the same as Master Li said to me, “Forward is forward, and backward is forward too!” He meant the same think as Master Han, I am sure of it. The difference in Li family Xingyiquan is that we do not use the twelve animals. Master Li preferred to work with the five element form until it became so ingrained that it evolved into a free form of movement. We focused on attaining the qualities of the so called elements of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth.
Shifu Look: Yes, that is it. It seems we share a common understanding of these things. From the stories you have told me over the last year your teacher was very skilled in the concepts of Yiquan and Xingyiquan. This is rare today because the concepts of Yiquan are just beginning to show up in the West.
(Interviewers Note: Since this article appeared Yiquan has become very popular around the world.)
Dr. Painter: Well from what I see today on the tournament scene I feel that the real essence of Xingyiquan is in danger of being lost by people who have a slavish devotion to the exact way to move the hand, leg or arm. They just keep repeating the forms over and over again forgetting the internal and emotional energy which is the core of Xingyiquan. Will you comment on this?