Shape Shifters & Smoke

This was my article published in the inaugural issue of Deep Water Magazine: Martial Arts Masters in their own words Thought I would share!

Therianthropy: Shape changing

Therianthropy: Therianthropy refers to the metamorphosis of humans into animals. Therianthropes are said to change forms via shape shifting. Therianthropes have long existed in mythology, appearing in ancient cave drawings. (Retrieved from Wikipedia)

Shapeshifting in Martial Arts revolves around a great many things, from changing your mindset from one thing to another or your techniques or even styles from moment to moment. Of course there are some more esoteric and spiritual traditions in the martial arts that utilize shapeshifting as well in a more shamanic sense, but even staying within the more mundane realms of this idea we can learn a lot about our arts and their workings. In this paper I intend to explore some of the major ideas of change or shapeshifting (Therianthropy) in Chinese Martial Arts traditions. 

Beginner Levels
Position to Position, technique to technique

Intermediate levels
System of methods changing from one to another

Advanced Levels 
Mindsets changing within a specific style, spiritual methods, possession by spirits.

In the beginning of our martial arts training we are taught many different static positions starting in most traditional arts with first stances, then self defense situation responses to certain attacks (small patterns of movement). From this point we are usually introduced to some choreographed drills with a partner and then on to longer solo forms. Of course we could go into detail here about how forms teach various positions and patterns of movement training it into our bodies so we can perform them rapidly and so on; but the point of this study is not about the static patterns or positions or sequences of positions we learn but about the transitional movements and body training we receive from doing them and how to change it into a useful and powerful fighting method. 

Forms of any size from drills of only three or four movements to traditional sets of over 100 movements all contain transitions from one ‘thing’ to another. These ‘things’ are generally movements or postures that have names to refer to them – ‘Drunkard dances alone’ ‘lightning legs’ ‘toast the moon’ and so on. What we have to look at here is the movements in between those named methods that bring us from one to another. These are the moments of change and usually the moments and movements that actually contain more training for us as martial artists than the moves with the poetic names. For instance in Drunken Boxing the Shen Fa (Body Method 身法) is seen most strongly in these moments of change. Turning and coiling from one movement to the next is the key to keeping and gaining power and momentum from one movement to the next. Stopping each movement to show precision and structure can be a good training tool at the very beginning but when one starts to flow from move to move and allow these shapes to change into one another we can learn how to increase momentum, change its direction and turn it into a useful tool. Having single movements strung together is the key to understanding this kind of shape changing. We see it in use in every martial art, western boxers practice combinations of punches along with stepping movements in patterns (small forms) to find these transitions and train them, Escrima players run various patterns with partners to see how the momentum of their art can be preserved and used in its most effective ways and these arts tend to be thought of as ‘without forms’. Even Jeet Kune Do fighters can be seen building combinations and drilling them endlessly to understand how to transition from one moment to the next. 

The issue is understanding as a beginner what you are really trying to train. Endless drilling of form is a constant in martial arts but results vary widely from it. Knowing what you are trying to train is key here and seeking it out as you study and practice the form you are working on. Are you able to keep power throughout the transitions? Are their gaps from moment to moment in your stance, structure, power or intent? My first Shifu once asked me to look for ‘hidden moves’ as he called them in my forms by studying the transitions. I spent long hours looking into the changes from one movement to the next and it really was the secret for me to unlocking the most powerful skill in martial arts – How to learn.

Intermediate training in shape changing deals with change from groups of ideas or methods to one another. You see this type of thing all the time in MMA. How to seamlessly transition from long range to short, short to the ground each of these usually a completely different martial art being utilized. Changing from Thai boxing to Wing Chun to Wrestling to Brazilian Jujitsu all within moments. Well this is NOT a new idea and even as we go farther and farther back in the history of martial arts most of the worlds legends practiced, taught and fought with more than one martial art. Take a look at most of the modern arts (put together in the last 100 years) as an example first. Aikido created by Morihei Ueshiba out of the many arts he practiced and used as a young man – Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū Jujutsu, Kito-ryu, Yagyu-ryu, Aioi-ryu, Shinkage-ryu and so on. A person could say that while he created Aikido he was not a product of it, instead he would have used all the arts he had learned seamlessly transitioning from one to another to find victory. 

There are of course myriad examples of this but rather than make this a laundry list of great masters and what they studied instead lets focus on the idea that most of the legends were not purists. I have never met a gongfu master that had real skills who had only studied one style purely. Of course there would be exceptions to this rule but all throughout my life the best skilled masters were ones that might on the surface teach a single art but behind closed doors they would show you the other six arts they know as well. This is not just an advantage in combat (knowing many skills) but allows for you as a student to cross reference ideas, methods and tactics from different points of view. Finding those that are the same and different and the merits of both. For instance is wing chun uses the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and drunken rarely uses straight lines but both fight equally well, which one is right? Of course they both are from a certain point of view. It has to do with the ability to change ideas with the situation, to become what is needed at any time in combat, training, teaching, coaching etc. Sometimes a straight attack is the one that will get you killed, sometimes the long round one is, it all depends on timing and your ability to change. 

To get to the real meat of it all, this level of training it is about gathering information from different sources and assimilating it. Seeing what themes are being used in each art or system and keeping them separate from one another. Mixing martial arts means getting rid of things from styles and taking “what is useful” to quote Lee Jun Fan (Bruce Lee 李振藩). The issue here though is who can decide what is useful or useless unless they have explored the facets of the style deeply? Movements that seem to be useless are generally not actually useless moves but rather moves a person does not understand yet. So to throw them out is to cripple the art you are training. When it comes to changing from one thing to another having options and understanding are key.

In the Northern Gongfu style I teach (Ma Family Gongfu – Ba Ying Quan 八影拳) the entire art and its history is filled with different systems, different fighting methods and different ideas so that the student can learn many methods to switch through when in combat. I must make particular emphasis on the idea of switching form one thing to another and not combining them. Every art or system has its strengths and weaknesses and if we are to understand them we need to study them thoroughly.

At and advanced level shape changing becomes so rapid that it has many different applications and forms or appearances. As the player becomes ore skilled he will shift from system to system, method to method, idea to idea more and more rapidly while still keeping each ‘thing’ he is doing pure and straight. For example in the case of a gongfu player who knows multiple systems it would be incorrect to utilize the body methods (shen fa) of tiger gongfu while using techniques from praying mantis. The mantis relies on its own shen fa to make its methods effective and the tiger body methods are built to add power to the techniques of tiger. Combining or mixing these two arts will not result in a super art but instead two broken ones. Like not being able to fit puzzle pieces together and in frustration gluing them in place, they may stay together but the final product will not be what it should have been. 

So we have established that each system, idea, etc must remain intact and not become mixed, muddying the water of our art. This goes further than just system to system but idea to idea. Take for example the eight immortals of Drunken Boxing. Each of them has a purpose, a feeling and a method of fighting that is unique. The techniques may be similar from immortal to immortal but the flavor of said techniques would be dictated by the mindset of the immortal personality. To expand upon this lets take two of the eight immortals He Xian Gu (Lady Ho) and Li Tie Guai (Cripple Li), these are two very distinct and different personalities to portray in your drunken boxing. He Xian gu is a refined, soft (yin), intelligent and feminine personality while the drunken Li Tie Guai is an angry, fire filled, self loathing drunk. Very different archetypes to embody in your art. A simple technique like an armbar would be performed very differently by these two, from the soft receptive luring in of the arm into an trap of lady He or the explosive bridging and dislocation of the elbow from Cripple Li. Same technique, different mindsets, different results for different situations. Of course these situations are dictated by the opponent. Some opponents need to be enticed into overconfidence and others simply taken out behind the woodshed by cripple Li. The ability to change between these mindsets and embodying them fully is a great power in drunken boxing, or any art with more than one mind. 

In my experience most styles or systems of martial arts try to complete themselves through this idea at the very least through a wide variety of techniques but the change I am talking about here is more than striking to grappling and so on. It is about changing your personality, your mindset, who you are, to be the martial artist you need to be to win at that moment and not hanging on to any one idea. Aggressive, defensive, soft, hard, insane, cruel, afraid, alluring, enticing, fierce and so on. All of these are weapons of the mind and should be studied deeply. 

The highest level of shape changing becomes something more like a writhing pit of snakes to deal with. Never knowing which will bite you or strangle you when you fall in. Did you harm your opponent or is he feigning injury to lure you in? He seems slower than I am or is it a ruse? That looks like he is a striker but does he know how to grapple? Your training should result in you taking the initiative and the opponent desperately trying to keep up. Not knowing if you are laying a trap with your techniques or if you are really injured or angry. Making use of the weapons of change you can directly attack the opponents mind and make him not trust his instincts. After all break his mind and you can break his body.

The other side of all this comes into play in some more esoteric traditions of Martial Arts and involves everything from Qigong and Neigong practices to Shamanistic practices. Qigong is in fact a method for creating change within your own body and structures. Qi is simply the relationships between things and gong means work to acquire something, in this case skill. So in essence when you practice qigong you are looking directly at the relationships in your body, studying them and trying to make them more power and balanced. This results in things like health and longevity as well as structural stability, generation of power and martial prowess. These changes take place on a physiological and neurological level and require time, dedication and good instruction in the qigong(s) you are practicing. Neigong practices can be defined as “making changes to your character” and require a great deal of self examination and honesty. Many spiritual traditions can be defined as neigong practices and looking inward requires unwavering honesty to look directly at who you are and see what you need to change. Meditation and other more esoteric exercises are great vehicles for neigong practice. The Shamanic practices I am not going to go into detail about here due to lack of space but they are old tribal society ways of dealing with the world, reality, the dead and so on. Some martial traditions still have living lineages with these shamanic aspects of calling spirits to take possession of your body in order to change who and what you are when you fight. Change is a subject with no end, I hope this sparks your own research and study.


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