If Sum Chien is performed with the right breathing methods the internal organs are greatly strengthened both in terms of their ability to perform their function and their ability to resist damage. In this sense it may well be considered a form of iron shirt chi kung, although this name is more usually used to describe sets of breathing exercises aimed specifically at achieving this result.
Many of the steps of the Sum Chien are performed with a very special type of breathing. On the in-breath, the abdominal and pelvic cavities of the body are strongly compressed whilst the chest is strongly expanded. Both the compression and the stretch store energy. Whilst the breath is held, springy energy is released through the body and out to the hands then wound back in by moving the arms in a coiling motion. When this stage is complete, the compression on the lower body cavities is released, allowing them to expand explosively, thus forcing air out and completing the cycle of breath.
The compression of the abdominal and pelvic cavities causes the fresh chi and oxygen absorbed with the in breath to be pressed, under pressure, into the organs within. These organs effectively become ‘super charged’ with chi making them more resilient and better able to function.
When energy passes through the organs, it moves primarily through the tendinous sheaths which surround them – the organ sheaths. In doing so it builds tone and elasticity into them. This process works even better when the explosive expansion occurs on the out-breath. The organs are stretched. This pulls on the organ sheaths and makes them progressively tougher and more elastic.
Most of our organs have little intrinsic strength. Think of cutting up a kidney: once you are through the tough outer sheath, the inside is pretty runny. The strength lies in the tendinous sheaths around the organs. By training strength and elasticity into these sheaths, we make them less likely to rupture and better able to place, protect and hold the organs in shape.
Development of the internal organs should not be undervalued, let alone overlooked, in any training – not just kung fu training. The external body relies on them to function properly. In western sport we constantly see the same mistake being made – over-development of the external body coupled with neglect of the internal body. The demands placed on the under-developed internal organs by the over-developed muscles, together with unreasonable levels of exercise, eventually causes the organs to give up under the strain. We then hear people in their thirties saying that they are ‘past it’ and retiring from sport in favour of activities such as pool, darts or pint glass lifting. In kung fu we never retire. Exercises like Sum Chien keep us strong internally, even into old age. Here lies true value.
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