Legs of the North, Fists of the South is the old saying. Of course both the divisions have legs and hand work that are very effective and more than worth studying for a student. But the interpretation of the Gong Fu Axioms is almost always difficult since we are not only culturally distant but also separated by sometimes hundreds of years from the origin of the saying as well. These sayings carry very powerful and important messages for the practitioners of the arts today as they did before but deciphering them should be taken as a real task for it is rarely a simple message from a Master long gone, rather it has a depth worth taking the time to understand.
Legs of the North is the part of this saying I am going to discuss here, as a mainly Northern practitioner of Chinese Martial Arts this saying has a lot of meaning to me and it seems that the legs of the north are seriously lacking in many of todays students. The instant assumption is that this refers to the kicking techniques of Northern styles, which of course would be a simple and striaght forward way to look at this, not incorrect either. The kicking methods from styles like Shaolin, Zha Quan, Chang Quan and so on are very formidable and when well trained are hard to deal with. But the ability to deliver real kicking methods to an opponent comes not from just kicking a lot but from having real “legs”.
Having legs means well trained stances and footwork, something no one likes to practice because, well simply put, it sucks to train. It is painful and extremely tiring and no one likes to work their legs for the five minutes it takes before you really want to quit and do something you enjoy instead. If we look back at eamples all of us have heard in the martial arts of students standing in stances for hours before their master would teach them we have to look again past the initial reaction in our minds. Masters were testing people with torture to see if they were worth teaching number one, and secondly if a student can stand in a Ma Bu (Horse Stance) for hours, they are not doing it right. So how do we train to have “legs”?
Correct stances held for long enough time that we find the legs shaking is the start of legs. Altough this is not a new concept we have to understand that when the student is holding say a Ma Bu (Horse stance) properly – Back straightened, head suspended from above, thighs parallel to the ground (or as best as one can do) and spiral power running form the torso down the legs to create a powerful relationship with the earth. When this is being held it takes very little time to tire the legs out and have them begin to shake. Shaking in the legs here means that the large muscles groups of the legs are tired and as they tire the body begins to recruit muscular power throughout the smaller muscle groups in the legs and this is the real training. When the work involved for a movement is spread over an entire muscular chain the body can recruit more strength and power then just using large muscle groups alone. This means a well trained practitioner will generate much more force than larger opponents with less training.
But back to achieving “legs” – stamina and recruitment of the entire leg is the first step, creation of spiral power is next. The legs in order to allow for real transfer of force to the earth need to be in a state of spiral movement throughout the stances and movements of the practitioner. To digress for a moment the idea of “stance” is generally misunderstood as a static position that a practitioner leaves and then returns to when their movement is done. This is incorrect. Stance or Bu (步) means “to step” and holding it as a simply static position kills the idea of what a stance is. It is the state of potential of movement, like in the case of a horse ready to run away from a predator but standing perfectly still. So much wild energy and potential in a state of stillness. This means that moving from stance to stance as we do in training or fighting has to be in this state of potential and release at all times, it is lack of this ability that is obvious when sparring and opponents are simply to knock around during their steps and “stances” when they take them. It is why the modern method of combatives we see relies more on ability to be light on the feet and moving at all times rather than having a fully mobile powerful stance – gaining legs is once again simply too much work for most people.
To return to the idea of spiral power in the legs, they need to be rotating in one direction or another as appropriate for the stance to begin with. However this can be easily done incorrectly by creating the rotation in a way that damages the knees. The point of origin of the very small but powerful engagement of the muscular chain in the legs has to take place from the Kua or inguinal crease joint and down through the weight transference joint of the knee through the ankle and to the center of the foot. The movement of the rotation is very small from outside observation but within the practitioner should feel the rotation sprialling down the leg to the earth. This brings the attention of the body to the relationship (qi) between the centre of the body (dantien) and the earth. Done properly when in a static position like Ma Bu one should find the legs very hard to knock out or move at all from an opponents attacks. If the spiralling power is strong enough blows to the legs will be less effective as the power from the strike expands around the surface tension of the spiral rather than driving it all through the bones of the leg. This spiral power takes time in stance training to achieve and even more time to maintain during movement, a reason arts like taijiquan are done slowly in order to allow time to pay attention to every detail. Many good masters train their students in this way no matter what the art, making them hold and move from stance to stance slowly and painfully to allow them the time to cultivate the relationships (qi) in the legs.
“It takes three years to gain legs” is another saying that shows the time that needs to be invested in proper training to gain the skill I am discussing here. Thus far a student has learned to hold a static position properly and is beginning to be able to move properly without losing spiral power in the legs but there is another part to “legs” that is often discussed and needs to be addressed here – Root. Rooting is the connection of the human body to the earth and cultivation of this relationship also takes time, generally training in static postures. Once the spiralling power is being generated well it will feel like a flow rather than a static turn in the leg that moves from the hips and torso down the leg to the ground. Now the interaction with the earth has different potential qualities and different styles tend to focus on one of them more than the others. Here agin we have to understand that verbage matters a great deal and we have to look deeply into the use of the language to gain an understanding of what is trying to be taught to students.
Rooting is thought of as allowing the spiral from the leg to penetrate deeply into the ground for the purpose of becoming immovable to an opponent. “10000 catties stance” from Hung Ga, Taiji’s rooted postures and so on are examples of this. Of course a well trained person can still move maintaining their root but this takes a deep study of years to achieve. Many people begin to move on to other parts of training once they have a static root and as such when in motion have little relationship to the earth, pay attention to the earth and the legs and they will continue to carry you through life. Floating root as seen in bagua is a slightly different relationship to the earth relying not only on the feeling of the spiral penetrating into the earth but its mirroring of stability in the torso (dantien) so the root is “soft” and able to move freely as is needed in an art that involves so much mobility. Allowing the pressing down of the spiral to reflect through the leg, maintaining both upwards and downwards pressure simultaneously. If it sounds difficult, it IS. Again this is why you see bagua players walk circles for years working on the mechanics alignments and their “legs” to achieve high levels of skill. When I first learned bagua my teacher made me walk circles for two years before learning any palm changes, I hated it but have to thank him now.
It takes years of training to attain legs in martial arts, but only years of real attentive training and “eating bitter” will gain the result we are looking for- fast footwork with flowing spiralling power and root at all times. Of course no one is perfect and we all need more training on our legs but without the highest standards to hold ourselves to we tend to begin to believe our own press releases and think we have achieved more than what we have. Think of teaching a student who is having trouble with power during kicking methods, time and time again the issue is lack of legs, lack of connection to the earth, lack of understanding of spiral power. Legs of the North are famous because of the attention to detail paid to them by the Northern styles. Tan Tui is not a kicking form, it is a LEG form, that’s why it is basics. How many hours have we spent with our teachers standing in taiji stances and performing the same movements over and over? How many damn circles were we made to walk? It is no different in any of the arts, without legs, we don’t have a leg to stand on.