Opening Siu Nim Tao
The Siu Nim Tao form begins with the opening sequence. The ancient Taoist philosophy says, Heaven above, Earth below, Mankind finds his way in between. The three parts of the opening are a symbolic reference to this idea and a reminder to the student to be humble. He raises his hands to Heaven, sinks into the Earth, then opens his stance to take his place in between.
Begin Siu Nim Tao standing upright with the feet together and both hands at your sides. This is very similar to a military "attention" stance. Raise both hands straight out in front of you, palm up, with the hands close together but not touching.
Close the hands into fists and pull with the elbow to draw the hands into a chambered position with the fists beside the ribs. The palms are up, the forearms are parallel to the floor, and the fists are close to the body but not touching. The elbows are drawn straight back so that they would not be seen if viewed from the front. At the same time the fists are withdrawn, bend the knees and sink your bodyweight into the Earth through the heels.
Simultaneously turn the toes of both feet apart to create a ninety-degree angle. The feet are pivoting on the heels, so the heels of both feet remain together. The knees are still bent and the body is still sunk.
Almost imperceptibly shift the weight forward onto the balls of the feet and push the heels outward until the heels are farther apart than the toes. This leaves you in a "pigeon-toed" stance with the toes pointing inward at about a forty-degree angle. Now you coil your body into the relaxed structure of the Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma stance.
The Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma Stance
In Cantonese, Yee Jee simply means "Character Two," and refers to the way the numeral two is written in Chinese. The character for "Two" is two horizontal lines, a shorter line on top and a longer line underneath. When you look down at your feet, you should be able to draw a short line from toe to toe and a longer line from heel to heel, as if you were standing on the Chinese character for "Two."
The words Kim Keung are more problematic for Western students, as they literally translate into "Goat Restraining." Obviously this phrase held a lot more meaning to students in China some 400 years ago where raising and tending goats was a common experience. Most modern students have no farm experience at all, and so the phrase is meaningless.
Quite often, goat farmers have to hold these powerful animals in place. Depending on the sensitivity of the Western student, I will sometimes explain this as a position to hold the goat while the farmer gives it medicine. The unvarnished truth is that this was a slaughtering position. The mechanics are the same either way.
The farmer would straddle the goat, pinch his knees together behind the goat's ears at the base of the skull, and sink his weight straight down leaning neither forward nor back. He could then grasp the goat under the jaw and pull the head upwards, pinning the animal in the vice of his knees while stretching out the throat (to make it easier to swallow a pill, of course). This stance would have to be perfectly balanced and rooted into the ground like a tree to withstand the trashing and bucking of the animal before it calmed down. This was the idea that made sense to Wing Chun students from several centuries ago.
Today we can describe the same body mechanics in a physiological way: Leg Adduction, Hip Recruitment and Core Activation.
Leg Adduction is the inward rotation and pressure of the stance. You are NOT going to the extreme "pinch" of the knees as if you were pinning a goat, but rather simply activating a specific set of muscles and myofascial lines. Adduction simply means moving any body part towards the centerline or midline of the body. The opposite motion is abduction, which is moving a body part away from the centerline.
This is NOT a "fighting stance," but a conditioning stance. You are creating the "Leg Drive" found in the back leg of the Wing Chun Bai Jong or fighting stance posture, but creating it in both legs simultaneously. This creates an isometric pressure that activates the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf. In other words, you are training the power element of the Wing Chun fighting stance in both legs at the same time.
Hip Recruitment is most often described as "pelvic tilt," but is often misunderstood, leading to some unintentionally comical Wing Chun stances. The idea is to simply activate the strong muscles of the hips and pelvic girdle to stabilize the lower body.
To isolate and understand the pelvic tilt, lay down on the floor, flat on your back with your arms extended above your head. Move one hand to your lower back and be aware of the arch that forms a tunnel between your lumbar spine and the floor. Now slowly tilt your pelvis until the arch flattens and the "tunnel" disappears, being completely mindful of the muscles involved and their relative movements and positions. Now stand back up in Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma and recreate that same pelvic tilt.
There is another visualization tool that we use to help people establish the correct pelvic tilt. Imagine that your pelvis is a bucket filled to the rim with water. If your pelvis is tilted inward so that you have the customary arch in the lumbar spine, you are pouring water out the front side of the bucket. If the pelvis is over-tilted backwards, resulting in an outward curve of the lumbar spine, you are pouring water out the back of the bucket. Balance the bucket to flatten the spine and you are not spilling anything.
The final component is Core Activation. This is described as a "relaxed tension," simply taking out slack and pulling the anatomical structure of the body into efficient alignment. When done right, the head should be balanced perfectly over the shoulders, the shoulders are balanced perfectly over the torso, and the torso should be balanced perfectly over the pelvis. The body should be "effortlessly" stacked like cups in a cabinet.
I used quotes around the word effortlessly to emphasize the paradox, just as with the term "relaxed tension." You will be activating a full range of core muscles, but without strain or muscular effort. You will simply pull them into position and take out the slack.
Specifically, you will be pulling the transverse abdominus (the "corset") inwards, while crunching the rectus abdominus (the "six pack") downwards. You will also be engaging the internal and external obliques as well as quadratus lumbarum (the "suspenders"). This tension connects the upper body to the lower body in order to resist rotation, twisting, tilting left or right or bending forward or back. Essentially, this allows your body to maintain structural integrity while absorbing and redirecting potential forces of a push or collision. Scott Sonnon describes this process beautifully in his book, Primal Stress.
The Cantonese word Ma simply means "horse," and is a reference to the Kung Fu idea of the "horse stance" or "sitting into structure."
Here's something you may find interesting. While holding the Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma stance, simply turn one foot so that it is now parallel to the other. Now turn your body so that your hips are facing in the same direction as your feet. Congratulations, you are now in a perfect Wing Chun Bai Jong fighting stance. Interestingly, this is almost exactly the same body conditions that the military calls "Battery Position," and that Law Enforcement calls, "High, Active Ready Position." Raise the back heel just a bit and you've moved into the fighting stance used by Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai and Kali fighters.
Unlike other martial arts, Wing Chun does not raise the back heel for spring-loaded mobility, preferring to keep the heel down and concentrate on rooting the body to the ground.
As we saw in Wing Chun History, some of the early masters of Wing Chun Kung Fu were actors in the Chinese Opera who traveled by river from town to town. Some believe that the Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma training stance was developed during this period to compensate for the rolling and rocking motion of the boat on the water. Training in general, and the Siu Nim Tao form in particular, was practiced barefoot on the deck of the ship. This lead to some additional ideas about adjusting the stance.
To get a feel for rooting, allow the feet to spread and then grip the floor with the toes. Imagine that your bodyweight is like a big, round drop of water. Now sink that waterdrop down through the stance, allowing it to elongate into a teardrop shape. Let the underside of the waterdrop pierce the floor directly along the centerline, sinking into the Earth. Picture in your mind the weight of this waterdrop connecting to your center, pulling you into the ground. Feel the structure of your body, the adduction of the legs, the muscles of the hips, the alignment of the pelvis and the network of muscles through the core support this compression without strength or effort.
Now try to maintain that feeling throughout the entire practice of the Sil Nim Tao form.
Marking Your Space and Centerline
Once you have adjusted and settled into the Yee Jee Kim Yeung Ma stance, open both fists and bring both arms in front of your body in double Lon Sau structure. Both palms are down, left arm is on top and right arm is underneath, close but not touching. The elbows are raised to shoulder height, elbows bent at ninety-degrees, with forearms parallel to the floor. The fingertips of each hand go right to the outside edge of the opposite elbow.
Observe the wedge of space framed by your arms and your chest. This is your "sacred space" that you must not let anyone enter. Outside this range, beyond elbow distance from your body, an attacker can grab your limbs but cannot strike your vital organs. If he can penetrate this space, he is too close.
Straighten the arms and extend them downward, crossing the arms at the wrists with the left arm on top. The hands should be a comfortable distance away from the body, and the fingers should be straight but not tense. The point where the hands cross should be at the Dan Tien point on the centerline.
Raise the hands to shoulder height, keeping them crossed in the same position. Turn the palms up as they move, so that the right hand is on the outside. Where the hands cross defines the second point on the centerline at the top of the torso.
Withdraw the hands back to chambered position, pulling with the elbow and tightening the hands into fists as they retract. Both hands move simultaneously. The back of the fists are down, the forearms are parallel to the floor, and the fists are close to the body but not touching. As before, the elbows are drawn straight back so that they would not be seen if viewed from the front.
You are now ready to begin the Sil Nim Tao form. If this seems overwhelming, don't dispair. There are a lot of details to keep track of in the beginning, but soon they will become second nature.