What I Learned About Hung Ga and Life From a Broken Teacup
by Christel Johnson
Hung Ga practitioners study many weapons, but when it comes to long weapon training, the Single Ended Pole form is the key to success. Because of its length, the weapon requires solid stances while twisting the upper-body in conjunction with the arms, and one must have determination, strength, and balance. The Single Ended Pole is particularly effective in open spaces.
My Sifu, Joseph Demundo, does not allow students to train the pole until they have shown proficiency with several hand forms and the broadsword. Even passing these forms tests does not ensure the student's progression to pole training. Sifu requires students to complete a series of strength exercises before pole instruction begins. There is no set deadline for the completion of these exercises; the burden rests on the student to work independently. Students who begin training with the Single Ended Pole are eager to learn how to extend the energy born from years of stance training to the tip of the pole. But this practice (the movement of energy outside the body) takes more years of training, and the pole form is simply the gateway for what can become a lifelong study of the relationship of Hung Ga training to all aspects of one's life.
Sifu's school is part of a long tradition, passed to him from Sigung Yee Chi Wai (Frank Yee). The Chinatown location of Yee's Hung Ga does not have the luxury of grand space. Manhattan is known for tight working and living conditions. To practice pole at our school, one must remain aware of the proximity of walls, mirrors and, most importantly, the ancestral altar. While the space may initially feel confining, with focus one can execute each move in the form.
In order to fully experience the joy of practicing the Single Ended Pole form, a student should strive to embody aspects of three animals.
Tiger: smashing; making the body like a wall; finishing with force; knocking the weapon away with a big move; this enforces strength training and emphasizes the connection of the body and weapon.
Snake: coiling and springing; engaging the entire body in order to create the illusion of the snake's undulating body; lengthening the limbs to obtain full extension; this training improves overall power for use with tiger and dragon moves.
Dragon: dropping out; darting and shooting-in with the pole; requires strength, focus, and fearlessness; this teaches explosive power and confidence.
Practicing ng lung ba gwa gwan (5th Brother 8 Diagram Pole) taught me four lessons: limits, patience, humility, and connection. I came to embrace these principles more fully after an accident during training. I had been practicing the form for some time, and each day the pole felt more like an extension of my body. Striving to embody the spirit of the tiger, snake, and dragon, I would often remind myself: "Keep the stances low, solid, strong; balance hard and soft; let the pole do its job." Sifu would instruct me to "finish each move," and to "fully extend from the stance."
Every part of the pole is important. Each section of the pole must be properly used to generate the most power and to be effective. Thrashing and swinging wildly with the weapon does not yield the same results as calculated movements. I was working on a section of the form that involves whipping the pole around the entire body, culminating with a smash. The execution of this is a particularly tough sequence at my school because of space limitations. The area is sufficient to complete the series properly if you maintain awareness of the tip's reach; still, the space is tight. During this sequence the entire torso twists and concludes by snapping into bow stance while the chest, throat, and upper back open. Fixing the eyes at the pole's tip teaches the student to pull the energy from deep in the stance, coil it up the body, and extend outward along the length of the pole.
Spinning the pole overhead while transitioning to a static position is exhilarating, and I had begun to feel comfortable in the space allotted for this practice at school. At the moment of transition from whipping to the final smash, I shifted my focus. Rather than remain connected to the entire motion, I anticipated the final move. As the pole's tip came to the ready position for the final blow, I felt a small tug at the tip. Although it was too late, I sprang around and tried to catch the teacup that was falling from the Ancestral Shrine. I extended my hand and caught a piece of fruit, an offering to the ancestors. The teacup shattered on the floor. Crouching on my knees, I waited in front of the altar for Sifu to come over. I was humiliated, shaken. Sifu did not shout at me. He simply told me, "Take it easy next to the altar," and to be more careful. I picked up the shards of pottery and took them home. During my next lesson, Sifu told me that he wanted me to slow down for one week. He instructed me to focus on every moment of the form, every movement. I wrote this phrase in my training journal: "Meditate on the spirit this week."
During this time of reflection, I walked through Chinatown to find the place Sifu purchases the teacups for the Ancestral Shrine. He had given general directions and I was so pleased to find that the shop owner knew Sifu and had the cups he prefers. I bought six. After the purchase, I began to dwell on my eagerness to learn the form, to perform the form well, and to fight with the pole. I came to the realization that my ego had pushed me to ignore training and shift my focus. I had not followed Sifu's every guidance. I realized that the process of breaking the cup, mourning the act, and searching for more than a single replacement (you should always strive to give your teacher more than you think you receive because the knowledge is worth more than you comprehend) was a metaphor for the journey of "Hung Ga" training. I realized four things.
Limits: The pole is too big for a small space; however, recognizing this and remaining aware of each movement allows for adjustments when the space is not overly small. It is also important to remain conscious of one's own limitations, both physical and spiritual, when learning a new skill. Mastery of anything requires one to engage limits full on and to work hard to overcome limitations through dedicated practice.
Patience: The pole fighter should remain aware of all sides and wait to strike. Because the weapon is long, one must not rush headlong into the fight. It is often better to wait before executing a large move until the opponent has left him/herself open. Moreover, one should not chase the aggressor's weapon, but wait for the opportunity to strike the deadly blow. Without patience with oneself, you will never achieve excellence. Everyone must begin with zero knowledge of something new and patiently work toward mastery.
Humility: Broken cups remain so; it is better to focus and never act out of simple pride. All great practitioners of Hung Ga have learned to balance ego and humility. Becoming adept at something does not give one a license to abuse others, act rashly, or fail to recognize space for improvement. When striving for excellence, it is important to accept the guidance of others and to remain aware of the place for ego in all parts of life.
Connection: The pole (and all other weapons) is an extension of the body. Without proper alignment of mind, body, and spirit, the practitioner will be unable to advance beyond basic, physical training, and utilization of the pole will stagnate. Just as the pole is an extension of the body, the student is connected to the teacher, and therefore, ancestors. The study of Hung Ga cannot and does not exist in a vacuum absent of relationships to others. Thus, we thrive through connection to others, the earth, spirit.
These realizations have changed my Hung Ga practice as I strive to embody a genuine awareness of them. The study of Hung Ga is not a hobby that one visits a few times monthly. It is not a body-building regiment. It is a sacred practice that provides the tools to confront limits, cultivate patience, embrace humility, and strengthen connection.
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About Christel Johnson:
Christel Johnson, Ph.D., studies at Yee's Hung Ga in Chinatown, New York. Under the guidance of Sifu Joseph Demundo, she currently holds the rank of Sam Cup Senior, 1st Degree. HungGaKungFu.com