“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Authur C. Clarke
“Feeling stupid doesn’t feel good, and the beginning of learning anything new is feeling stupid.”
In 1977, I walked into a community center on Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and began my martial arts studies. It was a Karate class taught by a Sergeant who had learned in Okinowa. There were about 8 other students, all adults, many of them soldiers. Suffice it to say, I had no idea what I was doing and felt like an idiot, standing there, 15 years old, small for my age, with my pale hairless legs in a t-shirt and cutoffs, standing about 5’6” and weighing about 100 pounds, my growth spurt waiting until the following summer.
I’ve had this experience many times over the years, beginning different arts at new schools. At the beginning, you never know what is going on. You don’t know the rules or the etiquette or how to dress. At least Karate made sense right away, even if it took a while to get my body to do it. The blocks and punches and kicks were very straight-forward. Decades later, I started training Chinese martial arts.
Wing Chun was not so straight-forward. You have to stand funny (YJKYM). The actions are like patting your head and rubbing your belly – your body rebels in confusion and unfamiliarity. It isn’t immediately clear how it works in a real fight (for many, it will never be clear). Are you supposed to hit them with the Bong Sau? What do you do against a jab? How do the actions in the Siu Lum Tao or the Dummy form translate into fighting? My initial confusion with Wing Chun led me to start this blog. When I started to “get it,” I realized it was mainly confusing because it had not been explained to me clearly (or at all).
Back in late 2019, I took a break from Wing Chun due to a persistent shoulder injury (see my How to Treat Shoulder Injuries from Wing Chun Training article from 2015 – written several years into the problem).
I didn’t want to completely stop training.
I’d always been curious about the so-called Internal Arts, such as Tai Chi. Sources I trusted said that if you trained with the right person, it was powerful and dangerous, however innocuous the training looked form the outside. Many Kung Fu styles are said to have internal components, like as Ba Gua, Mantis, etc. There are a lot of mysterious terms thrown around. Chi. Neigung. Tendon changing, marrow washing. Dan Tien.
These terms were even used in Wing Chun but I was taught that in Wing Chun, internal meant something more “practical.” To express internal power meant to have proper skeletal alignment. The joints had to be open. The movements soft and “whippy” like bamboo. I always struggled with being “soft,” so I thought, maybe I can go take some internal arts, it won’t be the sort of stressful training that will hurt my shoulder (might even help), plus help me learn to “stick” and be “soft.”
In 2019, wrestling with my shoulder problems, I found myself in somewhat the same boat as I’d found myself in 2007 – searching. I re-discovered Bernard Langan. Before I started with Greg LeBlanc but after I left my previous school, I had started training in Small Circle Jujitsu in Alameda , but it wasn’t really my thing (I’m not into wrestling on the ground – sorry BJJ!). I was interested in learning Pentjat Silat so I started looking for that. Around this time, I’d heard of a teacher named Bernard Langan. He had a good reputation and taught Silat as well as other “internal” styles at his Stillness In Motion Center. As fate would have it, that’s when I accidentally found out Gregory LeBlanc had moved to Oakland. This quirk of fate (a random meeting in a parking lot with a Kung Fu buddy) determined the course of the next ten years for me.
Ten years later and with Wing Chun off the table (for now), I found Mr. Langan was still teaching in Oakland. It is hard to know what to call him, since he has many titles, and some of them depend on who is he is relative to you (this is true of many martial art titles and honorifics). He is a lineage holder and Instructor in a number of Chinese, Indonesian, and Filipino systems. I started off learning some Pentajk Silat (Bernard Langan is a “Guru …under the late Maha Guru “Pak” Victor de Thouars”) and Eskrima (he is also a “Guro (Instructor) of the Visayan Style of Corto Kadena / Largo Mano Eskrima” which he studied under Maestro Sonny Umpad).
I started off studying Silat and Eskrima (both very briefly) in late 2019 and then five months later, Covid happened.
Fast forward to March of 2021. I’d been sitting on my ass for a year and couldn’t take any more. I decided to risk Covid and started taking classes again. Mr. Langan was offering a reduced curriculum (due to Covid) so I decided maybe it would be best to look into the I Liq Chuan style of Kung Fu, which he was still teaching. Having discussed it with (in this context) Sifu Langan, it sounded like maybe this was what I was looking for, at least at this point. It was internal, whatever that meant. It would help me with my Wing Chun, he thought. Help me to be softer and better at “sticking.”
So now here we are, ten months later, and what have I learned?
As advertised, it takes longer to “get.” This is what I always heard about the internal arts – they took longer to learn than “hard” arts. Not as many people got “good” at them, because they were more subtle. All true, I guess. Take whatever I am about to say with a grain of salt and don’t blame Sifu Langan. If its useful or interesting, credit him – if its wrong and stupid, that would be me.
One big plus is that I am (as many of you know) someone who comes at things, even physical things like fighting and training, always first by reading books. I guess I have an academic bent. Of course, many of the best fighters never wrote books, but some of them did, or had books written about them. I always find it a good place to start and Sifu Langan is well read and likes to make book recommendations. I found many online (see below).
So do I know what is meant by neigung? Wikipedia says its “any of a set of Chinese breathing, meditation and spiritual practice disciplines associated with Daoism and especially the Chinese martial arts.” This appears to be pretty accurate so you’ll find many of the books are on mediation and Taoism. This is because a lot of this stuff has to do with training your mind. Wing Chun has a this as well (this is why my “book” is called Wing Chun Mind – see sidebar to get your free copy of the work-in-progress!). You need to work on your mind to learn how to deal with fear and how to keep training, but there are deeper skills which have to do with awareness. Awareness with a capital “A.”
I Liq Chuan means “martial art of awareness.” So it’s right there in the title! The current head of the style, Grandmaster Sam F. S. Chin, says it is “an art of self-recognition and self-realization of both the mental (I) and the physical (Liq).” I have been studying Taoism and Buddhism since I was a teenager and I understand where this is going, to some small extent. Studying these things is all well and good, but how does it help fighting? Fighting happens in the now. I mean, everything does, but a fast, frenetic, scary thing like fighting really highlights this fact. We spend most if not all of our time in the past or the future.
To “be here now” as Ram Dass said, is very unnatural for us. It’s boring, right? You need to watch a movie or something. Check your cell phone. But fighting happens in the now, so if you want to be the best fighter you can be, you need to train yourself to stay in the now. Train fighting in the now. This means Awareness. Even my thoughts of a tenth of a second ago are already in the past. As soon as you reflect, you are in the past. It’s very difficult to stay in the now!
So one aspect of I Liq Chuan is a type of contact training that is kind of like Chi Sau but there is an emphasis on being sensitive in the now to the opponent’s actions. This is all sort of in Wing Chun too, and in some Wing Chun more than others. What is the other guy doing? Don’t anticipate! Your brain is too slow, you have to use your reflexes. But I Liq Chuan says, your reflexes are also in the past. You have to be aware in the now and then you can flow with the opponent and both feel and influence their equilibrium.
No, I can’t do any of this yet!
How is it trained? Big surprise – there are forms and exercises. And thinking. There is some thinking to do.
You get into a stance and this involves “wrapping.” Don’t quote me on this – I’m still trying to get it, but this involves lengthening your muscles (as opposed to contracting them). This is very important. You lengthen by doing a somewhat (but not really) similar action to the Goat Clamping Stance in Wing Chun. You need to start being aware of the flow of “chi” through your body. Sifu Langan says it isn’t really a thing or substance that “flows” through your body, but more of a wave action through the fascia (or something). It’s a little confusing when you have been mostly Western educated and have this muscle contraction approach to all movement. A lot of I Liq Chuan also has to do with balance. Your stance needs to be just so, so that your weight is aligned. But its made crystal clear to me that in the early parts of training, you can only really grasp a limited, fractional view of what should be going on in a proper “I Liq Chuan” action.
Here is an article by Grandmaster Chin on some of the basic concepts: Introduction to I Liq Chuan.
Anyway – this is my first post on the subject – I’m sure there will be more as I go along and understand more. So far, I don’t know anything other than that I don’t know. As with Wing Chun, I am coming at it with an “empty cup” and trying to take in what my teacher has to show me. I will keep you posted!
Wing Chun Sifu Leo Au Yeung interviewed Grandmaster Chin a few years ago:
GOOD BOOKS IN THE AREA OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND TAO FREELY AVAILABLE
The Quiet Mind by John Coleman – https://holybooks-
Body Know-How: A Practical guide to the use of the Alexander Technique in Everyday life by Jonathan Drake – Available at Archive.org. You need to create a free account.
Insight Meditation: Practical Steps to Ultimate Truth by Achan Sobin S. Namto – https://www.vipassanadhura.com/PDF/practicalsteps.pdf
Moment to Moment Mindfulness: A Pictorial Guide for Mediators by Achan Sobin S. Namto – https://www.vipassanadhura.com/PDF/momtomom.pdf
Tao & Longevity: Mind Body Transformation by Wen Kuan Chu, PHd – https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/Tao-Longevity-by-Huai-Chin-Nan.pdf
Tranquil Sitting: A Taoist Journal on Meditation and Chinese Medical Qigong by Yin Shi Zi – https://terebess.hu/english/tao/Tranquil-Sitting.pdf
I also really liked the books by an English author named John Blofeld, such as The Secret and Sublime: Taoist Mysteries and Magic. He communicates the beauty and mystery of Taoism as it still existed in the early 20th Century, found in remote temples in the mountains of mainland China. I got my copy through InterLibrary Loan, a service I recommend to all US residents, very likely to be available at your local library. If they don’t have it, many libraries can also check Link+. These are both free services to get you access to books not at your local library. I have rarely been disappointed.
Thanks for sharing this Steve. I appreciate how you share your personal experiences and also give us numerous sources so we can research and establish our own personal foundations to build on. Please keep us posted on what you experience as journey down the I Liq Chuan path.