To be invincible is to utilize your strengths,
Protect your weaknesses and be aware of the same in your enemy.
-Li, Zhang Lai
I saw him move like a wisp of cloud dancing across a winter lake, yet within lay the power of the dragon. Younger students practicing so intensely paid no attention to him. He was older and not necessarily a man that you would give a second glance.
While they pushed and punched their bags causing them to swing wildly, he looked as though he could push over mountains without effort. I watched this scene for awhile: the contrast between the youths and this older man was striking. It was like watching tiger cubs playing around a mature tiger. Every move he made spoke volumes of practice and study. His eyes were pools of deep blue calmness that reflected the chaotic commotion of those around him. As the younger students finished their workout, sitting down, wiping up the sweat, and gulping down water to quench the thirst of the effort they had just put out, the older man quietly changed his shoes and walked out the door of the gym.
But it was the way he used his eyes when moving among multiple swinging bags that really stood out. As he danced through the bags striking and dodging, he never seemed to be staring at any particular one, yet he comprehended everything around him. Then it struck me: he was using peripheral vision. Thus began my journey into the world of (Rou-muli) soft or peripheral vision in Li family Xingyiquan. In Li family internal martial arts, peripheral vision, or as we call it Soft Focus (Rou-muli), is a very important physical aspect of our training.
What is Rou-Muli
Typically, in Western society, we use what is known as foveal vision; we focus on one point in front of us and observe all the details about that one point — watching TV, looking at a computer screen, reading, or talking to someone — and ignore everything else around it. The other kind of vision we use is peripheral vision. This type of vision takes in the whole scene in front of us and around us.
The human visual system has two types of photoreceptors, rods and cones. These two photoreceptors are distinct in their response to light, their position on the retina, and their role in producing visual images for the brain to interpret. Peripheral vision relies on the area of the retina that is dominated by rods. Rods are very sensitive to light but do a poor job in detecting color; there are also far denser ganglion nerve connections between rods than between cones.
Since rods dominate the periphery of the eye, they are more sensitive to motion too. Cones respond to radiation to produce color vision. Long (red) and middle (green) cones predominate in the fovea, with some short (blue) cones also present. The relative density of short cones increases in the foveal region. Foveal vision is directly associated with the stimulation of the sympathetic (involuntary) nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system seems to be linked to adrenaline secretion and stress manifestations which can trigger the “fight or flight” response. Throughout the peripheral region, there is a low density of all three types of cones.
When you use peripheral vision, you may experience certain physiological changes, perhaps a shift in your breathing from high up in your chest to lower in your abdomen, to your abdominal center point called the Dantian.
Peripheral vision is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heartbeat, increases glandular secretions, relaxes the digestive system and is strongly associated with spontaneity, creativity, relaxation, calmness, intuition wisdom, and feelings of elation.
The deliberate use of peripheral vision increases stamina when engaging in physical activity. If you are actually in the peripheral vision state, you can prevent anxiety, as the two states are physiologically incompatible.
Peripheral vision was recognized and applied in numerous ancient cultures as a tool for survival. One example from hunter-gatherer cultures is the use of peripheral vision while hunting. It allows hunters to recognize the movements of birds and animals, and to make positive identifications without actually looking directly at the movement. Using peripheral vision allows one to see and observe motion, to navigate safely, and develop keen night vision. It also can disperse fears and stress thereby allowing you to see things for what they are. In a martial or defensive situation, peripheral vision allows us to be aware of any movements an opponent would make with his hands or feet while keeping the whole of his body within view. That is very useful when dealing with more than one person.
A simple exercise to help develop your peripheral vision is to find a point on the wall straight in front of you and focus on it. Now gradually become aware of what is around it and let your vision spread out so you can see the floor and ceiling along with the corners of the room. As you continue to allow your vision to spread, slowly stretch out your hands to either side of you, until you find the point at the edge of your vision where you can only see your hands when you wiggle your fingers.
Now continue to expand your awareness so it also spreads around and behind you. Now while you cannot literally see behind you, your senses of hearing, touch, smell and spatial awareness spread out as well. Notice what adjustments occur in your physiological state while doing this exercise.
Hard Focus Not Helpful
The fastest way I know to get hit when you are moving into striking range is to hard focus your gaze or attention on the enemy’s weapon or a particular part of his body. For faster reaction time we must learn to soft focus to sense an opponent’s movements more quickly. When approached by an opponent your speed and ability to interpret his actions will be limited if you use Hard Focus. Hard focus means staring directly at the opponent or focusing your eyes on some part of his anatomy. Focusing conscious attention on the opponent by looking at a particular spot or place on his body deactivates your peripheral nervous system.
When we stare directly at our enemy taking in all the details of his expression and stature we are using ‘foveal’ vision. During combat, hard viewing with foveal vision under stress can increase heart rate. As the stress increases, our heart rate rises, and our fear begins to degrade our ability to react with precision and control. Intense stress at this level produces tunnel vision, a condition in which your range of vision is narrowly restricted. Your ability to react naturally and quickly is compromised by this.
Stress will further increase if you are attempting to exert conscious control over your natural reactions. In short, you cannot react fast by using Hard Focus, especially during a real life or death combat situation. Conscious control of breathing can help dispel the onset of combat stress reactions including tunnel vision. Elite special forces operatives and high-level combat instructors learn to keep their heart rate at around 115-145 bpm where the bodies natural reactions function at their highest levels with breath control similar to Daoist yoga exercises.
If you feel an altercation is about to occur and you feel your stress levels going up, begin breathing with the five for five exercises. That is breathing in for a five count, holding for five counts, breathing out for five counts and holding for five counts. This has the effect of lowering the heart rate and reducing stress. Soft Focus also affects the nervous system helping to reduce combat stress reactions as well as improving our reaction time.
Soft Focus Your Vision
Soft focus, allows you to respond instinctively to an attack. Peripheral vision is associated with parasympathetic arousal (the part of the nervous system associated with relaxation and calmness). Peripheral vision takes in the whole panorama of what’s happening in front of us and around us. It uses different light receptors in the retina and different neural pathways in the brain.
Gazing with Soft Focus activates receptors in the brain designed to release tension and dispel fear. This is very handy when your life is being threatened and tensing up only slows you down. You should relax your gaze so that you can see the entire opponent from head to foot with no focus on any one part.
With peripheral or Soft Focus, as we place our attention on the enemy or group of attackers, we find that we begin to notice the rhythm of their whole body movements. Our body instinctively understands how to match these rhythms with our own movements; we see a connective rhythm of their movements and in most cases find ourselves intersecting an attacking motion before that person realizes that we have moved to intercept his attack.
This may seem difficult at first. When you learn how to do it you will be amazed at the increase in your reaction speed. Shifu Painter has us practice with a double end bag or drills with a partner punching at you from a distance. Turn your head slightly and watch just behind him or try to see the whole room as the bag or partner moves. With training and practice, you will gain this skill.
When you soft focus, relax and stand far enough back so that you can see his entire body at one time. You can soft focus when you are standing in the Green Zone (out of range) or Yellow Zone (one full step from him). Remember do not stare intently at any one point on the opponent’s body, especially his eyes. This will engage foveal vision, lock your gaze and you cannot tell what he is intending to do.
Soft Focus Exercises
Stand facing a 6 to 7-foot high post at a distance of about six feet and relax your gaze to a point where you can see the bottom and the top of the post.
From the above position extend both hands forward. Keeping your arms horizontal to the ground spread them apart still with a relaxed gaze. Keep moving until your hands go out of view and then bring them back inward to just the edge of your vision.
Experiment to see how close you can get to the post and still use the soft focus principle. Once you lose sight of any part you will be in range to touch. This is where your physical listening skills (Ting-jin) will come into play. Walk in a circle around the post keeping it and as much of the surrounding area in view as you circle.
TOUCH IN RED ZONE
You cannot use soft focus well in Red Zone (combat range) the point at which you or your opponent can touch each other. At this distance it is imperative that you are touching the opponent in a way that controls his center of balance the moment you enter the Red Zone. Shifu Painter says his master was fond of saying, “If you can not see his whole body, you better be touching him to put him down.”
He meant that when you close from into Red, you maintain contact or “stick” to the opponent so as to read his intentions through his movements (Ting-jin). At such close quarters, sight is worthless. We often practiced practice close-quarter defense in a semi-darkened or totally dark room during combat training.
This allows us to learn to “see” with the contact of body to body and “listen” to what the other person is communicating about their intentions through their actions. Seeing with the body is a skill that is not part of the conscious thought process.