Kung Fu Training: Sum Chien – The Heart of Shaolin, Part 5: Internal Power

Meditation Thailand

Martial Arts Master Iain Armstrong releasing springy internal power into a lethal throat crushing technique.

There was a period, beginning at the close of the 1990s, when I was writing a column for ‘Combat’ magazine and Master Tan took me around Singapore’s most prominent kung fu groups to interview their Masters.  He would translate since few of them spoke English.  Some resided in dusty medicine shops surrounded by bottles full of odd looking herbs and miscellaneous bits of animals.  Others were successful businessmen who we interviewed in their factories.  A lot were obviously underworld figures although they always had some sort of respectable front.  One thing that bound them together, though, was the fact that they all emphasised the same thing about genuine Shaolin kung fu: it was characterised by springy internal power.

Sum Chien – springy internal power
Storing elastic energy in the torso ready to explode outwards. Female Martial Arts Instructor Kanika Advani, during Kung Fu Training at Nam Yang’s Thai retreat.

In fact one thing that all agreed on (and let’s be clear, there were very few things that all this lot would agree on, many of them had been feuding for years) was that no matter what else you had, if you did not have springy power you did not have Shaolin kung fu – just a hollow, empty set of movements.  No wonder there is so much controversy about Shaolin kung fu these days.  A lot of the people that I see are indeed doing nothing more than a hollow, empty set of movements and I am not surprised that they come in for so much criticism.

Sum Chien – springy internal power
Storing energy in the waist ready to release it.

Sum Chien is, in effect, the internal strength-building exercise of Shaolin kung fu and, indeed, of those other arts which have adopted it.  Fortunately, once your stance posture and body mechanics are right, then with the help of a good teacher and a great deal of hard work, most people are capable of developing springy internal strength.  If this doesn’t immediately grab you as being overly exciting, think of it this way – most people are capable of learning to perform Sum Chien properly with springy internal strength and thus master the defining skill of Shaolin kung fu.  To me that sounds pretty exciting!

There are a number of important components to internal strength.  One is the ability to store energy, usually in the tendon, and subsequently, release it in an explosive burst.  Another is the ability to allow energy to pass through the body unrestricted.  Others are to send energy spiralling up from the feet and through the torso to be released into the arms and to amplify the energy each time that it passes a major skeletal joint – typically in the sequence ankle, knee, hip, spine, shoulder, elbow, wrist.  Mastery involves getting all of these things to work smoothly together.

Internal strength then involves a great deal of skill as well as physical conditioning of the tendon.  The latter is essential so as to make the tendon sufficiently elastic to store energy when ‘stretched’ then release it efficiently.  Skill is developed through practice.  Elasticity is developed through regularly performing the right exercises.  Sum Chien training satisfies both criteria.  It is truly the path to internal power.

Sum Chien – springy internal power
Releasing springy energy to the hand. Breaking practice at Nam Yang’s Shaolin training camp, Thailand.

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