Bear & Eagle – Yin and Yang
The Bear & Eagle Fight for Survival. 熊和鷹的戰鬥中生存. As far as the name of a martial arts form, that is pretty damn cool. Honestly when I started learning the names of movements and forms in Chinese martial arts all it did was make me think it was even cooler and more mystical than I first thought. It is after all the “exotic otherness” (to quote my gongfu brother Kevin Walbridge) that attracts us from the west to the Asian martial arts in the first place. The ability to look awesome, dress in old style clothes, burn incense and pretend we are in a Shaw Brothers movie.
(If you don’t know your Shaw Brothers movies you need to check out Five Deadly Venoms)
The thing is that as you start to realize the trappings of the art may have brought you to it and helped you stay interested during hard times, those trappings actually have real meanings and learning them start to change the way you think and train. They not only begin to increase your understanding but really can affect how well you can actually perform techniques and forms you learn when training. Most of the poetry and metaphors in martial arts seem so foreign to us they are hard to understand. Phrases like “Bear and Eagle Fight for Survival” or “Wind Sweeps the Cobblestones” seem only flowery at first but taking the time to decipher them can change everything.
Most of the old names and poetry used in the martial arts have to do with everyday tasks or views one would see. That way a student would hear about “swallow skims the water” and see it in their mind and make the connection to the method they are learning. But speaking a different language in a different time makes all this more difficult to understand. For instance one of my favorite translations in Taijiquan of a movement is “Part the Wild Horse’s Mane” 野馬分鬃. I often hear students answer that the name implies standing next to a horse and brushing its mane gently, since the movement they associate it with seems gentle and slow. I think a much better translation is “Wild Horse Parts its’ Mane” which implies something very very different. After all how does a horse part its own mane? By shaking it’s back, fiercely from side to side. This makes a lot more sense when applied to the movement in Taijiquan, bringing the focus to the players back and its movement and the origin of the power in the movement. See how this changes things?
So back to the original name in this rant, “Bear & Eagle Fight for Survival” a form taught in the Xinyiliuhe 心意六合拳 (Heart/Mind Six Harmonies) Style. So from a first look we see that there are ten animals in the style and the very first two moves in one of the forms are “Bear exits the Cave” and “Eagle flies through the Forest”. But what does it imply to our practice of this set and if you are not a xinyi player why should you even keep reading?
Well one of the many deep connecting principles in the martial arts is the concept of yin/yang reversal. The understanding that all things transform, are constantly in motion and are always progressing towards their seeming opposite. What shocked me recently was at a workshop I was teaching none of the participants, all with more than 15 years of training and many of them teaching and running their own schools, had any real understanding of yin/yang. I was honestly, like, “Really?!” martial arts teachers and “masters” that could not explain yin/yang to me at any more than a grade school level or how it applied to the techniques we were practicing or their own arts. Honestly made me kind of angry, sad and disappointed. I always try to write to help and this is no different, but I would be remiss to not say to those people running schools, wearing black belts and selling them to others – GROW UP! Go train with someone who knows something, read a book like all the ones martial artists pay lip service to (Art of War, Tao Te Ching, Book of Five Rings) and some no one ever hears of (Demons Sermon on the Martial Arts, 36 Stratagems, Chuang Tzu, Layman Pang) and actually try to understand them and apply them to your art!
whew. ok. Yin / Yang.
This is meant to be a short article and not a book on the application of Yin/Yang to martial arts or a listing of the names of techniques and their references to enhance understanding of martial arts (although both of those should be written). So I will try to be brief as possible here and just review what I taught at that workshop.
Yin/Yang is a relationship, defined by opposing forces, a continuum. Nothing is really yin or yang in and of itself. The two opposites define one another like the ideas of day and night. Without day there would be no night nor any name to call it or reason for a name. But they are not two seperate things, they are two sides of the same coin. In microcosm or macrocosm the entire universe can be defined by yin/yang. Males and Females are simply all humans but different parts of the continuum. It is not black and white but a range of understanding of interrelated opposites. To know the light you must know the dark and vice versa. For instance in reference to Taijiquan you cannot only study the health and really get the full understanding of the art. Without deep understanding of the art you cannot gain the full health benefits of its practice, since you only know a small part of it. Same goes for the other side, taiji is for defense, and the better you train the body to defend itself in this way the more health benefits come from it. Lastly in reference to Taijiquan the JI極 refers to the moment of transformation from yin to yang or vice versa. The moment where a motion of say upwards reaches its extreme and stops to become downwards. The very name of the art is about the study of yin/yang and its constant state of transformation. NOT that it is a Great Ultimate Super Magic Martial Art of the Ancient Chinese Gods/Immortals.
Bear and Eagle represent yin or closing the body and yang or opening the body. Contracting and expanding takes place move after move throughout the set in xinyi. Bear exits the cave closes the body while eagle flies through the forest opens the body from there. It is a constant study of the transformation of yin/yang and this is why they fight for survival. They are constantly transforming into one another, born and dying over and over throughout your practice. Understanding this allows you to practice the set in a way that was not apparent before, studying the areas and times of opening and closing. Knowing the posture or shape of the movement is not enough. If the movement is supposed to open then what does that mean? How does the body open and expand and stretch? Are you doing those things or just making shapes? Inside each and every opening is also a closing and vice versa as well. Where are these taking place? For example in Bear exits the cave the shoulders round and close, the chest softens, the legs crouch and so on all the while the fingers open and expand showing the yang within yin. Every movement does this – and I would go so far to say that not just in xinyiliuhequan either!
A deeper understanding of the culture, language, philosophy and thinking of the people who originated and taught the art you study will drastically change the quality of your martial arts, I have seen it take place in myself and in others. I have also seen many many times the result of simply going to class a couple times a week for so many years you get promoted to a teaching rank and still understand nothing. The state of the martial arts can be changed and improved but it is not going to be done by black belt factories or cardio kickboxing classes. The arts are only alive because of the people right now, today who are preserving them. Are you going to pass on a corpse? Or a living breathing thing to the next generation?