“You’re too stiff. If your base was better you wouldn’t be so stiff.” That was Sijo’s response when I asked in frustration, “Why can’t I stop them from hitting me?” Confused, I thought to myself, “What does my base have to do with the fact that I am so stiff?” Now I know what a silly question that was.
It was years ago (around 1987). And I was in Seattle working with my IIT brothers (Instructors In Training). I was getting really frustrated. Every time I engaged my opponent/partner, especially in chi sao, I was getting rocked and knocked off balance. It seemed that everyone around me was bigger and stronger than I was and that it seemed that I just couldn’t compete. Part of the problem was a misconception about ‘natural closed positions’. I thought that a firm enough bridge combined with superior position should be sufficient to shut out any and all strikes. You see, we all (IITs) were still in the process of divesting ourselves of the legacy of Jim Clark, our original instructor. Sifu Clark was a real tool, a hammer to be exact. And you know what they say, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” He was the kind of guy that could just pound an opponent into the ground by sheer will, power and aggression. His answer to every problem was, “Hit him harder! You’re too weak! You eat too much red meat!” and of course, “Didn’t your mother have any kid’s that lived?” All I gleaned from this was that if a technique wasn’t working, you must not be doing it hard enough. But now I must try to understand Sijo’s approach to the problem. Maybe there was hope for me yet.
The problem was that my stance, while being a great closed bi jong, it was just that – a stance – and standing still is never a good idea. I was attempting to stand toe-to-toe with people more powerful than myself and compete, using force against force. As my base was getting rocked I would panic, becoming kinetic, trying not to get hit. But my rigidity only gave my opponent more access to my base. The worse the base – the more kinetic, the more kinetic – the worse the base, it’s the very definition of a vicious cycle. The end result – I was getting clobbered.
Then in desperation I began to use my brain. After a good deal of reflection and analysis, I had an epiphany. If I wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time I couldn’t be hit. I reasoned that if I could sufficiently develop my intuitive response, I could anticipate the opponent’s attack and just move out of the way. This was the moment I began to develop my concept of “listening” spring load. I determined to make my arms sensitive to the point that I could sense the opponent’s intention to strike, not as the strike began, but rather, at the moment that he made the conscious determination that he was ready to attack. What a concept – if you’re not there, you can’t be hit! With this new sense of mobility added to my tool pouch, the old vicious cycle was broken. As I perceived my opponent’s “readiness”, I simply took a negative close and, voi la, I didn’t get hit. I wasn’t capable of countering but at least I didn’t get hit. “Whew!” I guess counter-attack would have to wait for another day.