The lessons never end as we wander the Kung Fu Forest, seeking secrets. In today’s post we have a very special lesson to offer. Brian Kuttel is Program Director of the Doc-Fai Wong Martial Arts Center and a full-time instructor. He earned the title of Sifu and was accepted as a disciple under Tai Sifu Jason J. Wong in 2014. He has generously offered to share some of his teachings on the tiger of Choy Li Fut.The following excerpts were originally published in April 2018 of KUNG FU TAI CHI
Written by Sifu Brian Kuttle
The tiger is the king of the mountain; it is a strong, proud, and fierce beast. There is an old Chinese saying that “One mountain cannot contain two tigers.” Since lions are not native to China, the tiger was called the king of all land beasts; and beyond its ferocious reputation as a man-eater, the tiger is also seen as a symbol of strength and latent power. Shaolin monks observed the movements and traits of the beast and sought to capture and cultivate the qualities of the tiger through dedicated practice of their developed tiger style Kung Fu. As Shaolin-based arts like Choy Li Fut began branching off, so too did the original techniques, evolving through combat experience into fundamental techniques tailored to Choy Li Fut principles and concepts. Many Choy Li Fut sets include basic tiger striking; however, there are entire forms dedicated specifically to the many and various tiger techniques. The tiger form, if practiced routinely, develops strength and power in the arms, back, neck and legs with its complex striking combinations, agile footwork, high jumps and low stances. The tiger and dragon are both very important symbols of Choy Li Fut. The founder, Chan Heung, created a couplet that reads, “Graceful staff moving like the dragon swings the tail; Strong fist releasing out as the tiger raises it head” 英棍飛騰龍擺尾, 雄拳放出虎昂頭, as a reminder to students to attack as fierce and as strong as the tiger. To tap into the famed strength of the tiger, one must know the various claw positions and their applications; one must also be able to condition the body through specific supplementary exercises, as well as dedicated forms practice and conditioning. Only through focused effort can one become as strong as the tiger.
Two types of push-ups are directly associated with the tiger form – one to develop the tiger claw, the other to develop the chest, shoulders, back and neck. The tiger claw push-up is often performed incorrectly with the fingers extended and the pad of the tip touching the ground. Though this might be an excellent exercise it itself, the tiger claw push-up done correctly is more difficult and yields greater results. For proper form, cup the palm and bend the fingers so that only the very tips of the fingers come in contact with the ground. Because of the incredible wrist and forearm strength required, begin by performing push-ups with the hands on a wall, eventually moving to the ground on hands and knees, until there is enough strength to handle the full bodyweight in a standard push-up position. The other push-up is performed by pulling the body forward until the chest nearly touches the floor, then with a reverse motion the body is pressed back to the starting position. The motion is more of a rolling forward and back than the typical up and down of a standard push-up.
Through rigorous practice and training, the body will become stronger and in turn so will the tiger strikes. To support these stronger strikes without injuring oneself, palm conditioning is paramount. This is a straightforward process, the biggest difficulty being self-discipline to maintain a strict routine of conditioning. As the saying goes, “Train a day, gain a day. Miss a day, lose a week.” To maintain an optimal tiger claw, practice must be done daily, with time devoted specifically to palm conditioning. In Choy Li Fut, palm conditioning for the tiger form comes from striking the wall bag. Although the iron palm bag is an excellent way to condition the palms, the wall bag has a vertical surface for performing strikes more like in combat. The wall bag is usually filled with metal or plastic pellets, sand, rice or even beans depending on availability. Each type of fill will have its benefits; for tiger claw training any will suffice. Wall bag training must be done methodically and at a slower rhythm than the actual tiger form, isolating each strike to allow focus on proper form, connection and efficiency. The biggest mistake in wall bag training is to overpower each strike; this could lead to injury and stifle practice by breaking the necessary routine.
Train the tiger form seriously and with an understanding of the applications. A common misconception is to view the form as one long fight against many attackers. Although the techniques can be used against multiple opponents, on a more fundamental level a form should be seen as a list of options to be ready at a moment’s notice depending on distance, angle, and timing. Forms training is prescribed shadow boxing that prepares one for position changes and other variables in actual combat. Choy Li Fut forms are designed to push the body to become stronger, faster and more agile by utilizing large and exaggerated movements. In an actual combat situation, the fighting motions and compact movements will be carried out with better coordination and with greater power. There are two ways the tiger form is trained: 1) to build strength; 2) to develop fighting techniques. When building strength, the form is done slowly like an isometric workout, with all muscles tense and controlled breathing. With over 100 movements, the Choy Li Fut tiger form builds the students stamina and endurance when practiced correctly.
For centuries, the tiger’s power and ferocity has been an inspiration to those seeking strength and courage. Trying to tap into their inner tiger, warriors have put themselves through rigorous training both physically and mentally to equal that of the feared beast. There are stories of how Shaolin monks observed the tiger and its tremendous strength and ferocity and integrated its movements into their Shaolin forms. In some systems the form was taught to those who naturally exhibited the qualities of the animal; other times, the form was taught to develop beastly attributes in those not naturally possessed. Just as important as the physical conditioning is the mental conditioning to maintain a strong resolve throughout the duration of practice. It is easy to lose concentration during forms training and let the body simply go through the motions. The goal is to have a focused intention to strike out with both mind and body, to be totally aware of every component during each movement – not in anger, nor to be reckless or sloppy, but to have an acute sense of one’s own body in action. Just as the movements of the tiger are strong and direct, the practitioner should seek to be straightforward and direct in life, taking challenges head on, and accomplishing tasks through relentless effort, embodying the way of the tiger form.
The direct movements and straight line attacks of the Choy Li Fut tiger form make for valuable techniques in both fighting and self-defense, and the variety of fast-paced hand and leg techniques provide excellent cardio-conditioning and strength training. With proper intent and consistent focus, the practitioner becomes stronger, more confident, and direct in life. Beyond an index of claw positions and theory, the form offers many more techniques that can be applied to many situations. Only after many hours of practice, and a thorough exploration of the techniques within, is the true nature of the form revealed; and only after years of honest, regimented training can anyone claim mastery of the set.
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Brian Kuttel began training in Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Yang Tai Chi in 2000. By 2004 Brian was instructor of children’s and beginner classes. Moving to San Francisco, California, he studies with world renowned martial arts Grandmaster and president of the Plum Blossom International Federation, Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong, and his son, Tai Sifu Jason J. Wong. Brian is also Program Director of the Doc-Fai Wong Martial Arts Center and a full-time instructor. Through the guidance of Tai Sifu Jason Wong and mentorship of Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong, Brian was accepted as a disciple under Tai Sifu Jason J. Wong in 2014.