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Thoughts on Kung Fu

By Mark Lamendola, 4th Degree Black Belt

You may have noticed my byline shows a belt, while traditional Kung Fu has no belt system. In the USA, martial arts schools have had to adopt belt systems for a number of reasons.

There's a network of schools in one particular Karate style, and it has gone very commercial. You'll find its schools in strip malls in just about any city. These schools do not, in my opinion, teach a practical fighting art (I have that opinion because I have fought black belts from these schools and beaten them easily). They do get people to shell out their money, and they do pump them up about their belts, awards, and other incentives that are exterior motivations.

Kung Fu is not about exterior motivation. Nor is it about mindlessly performing endless drills of kicks and punches. The Kung Fu practitioner develops from the inside out, using a combination of physical practice, meditation, thoughtful exercise, slow movements, fast movements, and still reflection to build the person.

When a student joins a traditional Kung Fu school, it is not apparent for some time that this student is learning how to fight. The typical sifu waits a very long time before teaching fighting skills and tactics. This does not work well in the USA, and it causes people to make false comparisons between styles. That is why when I taught in my own school, I began with a few techniques and turned my students into effective fighting machines. One student studied with me for six months, then competed in the Dallas citywide open style tournament. He took second place.

So my recommended course of study for new student class is as follows:

Session 1

  • Discuss with students how to begin a program of physical exercise. I mean free weights, which are the best way to get the adaptive response that produces muscle. You do not have speed without the muscles to generate it.
  • Discuss with students how to begin a program of good diet, focusing in nutrient-rich foods.
  • Show students one technique. Assign it as homework.

Session 2

  • Review student progress on exercise and diet. Listen to student issues.
  • Drill on the technique learned last time.
  • Introduce another technique. Assign it as homework.

Session 3

  • Review student progress on exercise and diet. Listen to student issues.
  • Discuss meditation techniques. Assign homework.
  • Drill on last two techniques.
  • Show stretches.

These first three sessions give students the groundwork. New students will get the same teaching if they join an existing class, but since one learns by teaching, I have the other students explain and demonstrate. As training progresses, I constantly stress the basics. I do not introduce a third technique to anyone still unable to execute the first two flawlessly under various circumstances.

Advanced students will end up practicing dozens of techniques, defend against multiple attackers, practice knife defense, practice gun defense, and fight with an arm or leg disabled.

Most Kung Fu schools do not do katas or forms. Some do. I have never used these in my classes.

If you're interested in trying Kung Fu, the school you try probably won't approach training in the way I have outlined above. However, any good school will approach it with the same philosophy of building the student from the inside out. If you try a school and the instructor overwhelms you with trying to learn many techniques in the first few sessions, stop wasting your time with that school.

A good instructor wants to help you learn. A bad instructor wants to impress you.

My experience with Kung Fu instructors in general (both as a student and as a visiting instructor to another school) is they have a high level of confidence and really don't have a need to win anyone's approval. They just want to pass along their knowledge and help the good student find his or her own way in the art.

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