During the San Francisco Bay Area 10-Year Anniversary Seminar, I said some things that could be misconstrued as meaning “Chi Sao is useless.” That was certainly not my intention, and nothing could be farther from the truth. The point that I wanted to make was that Chi Sao by itself is not enough to apply Wing Chun.
My opinion is that unless you are fighting with a short-bridge martial system, Chi Sao will not look like it does in practice. It is better to see it as one of many tools in the training process. It is akin to focus mitt drills or heavy bag work in a boxing regimen: by themselves they have limited use; but when integrated with other practice (and sparring!), they develop some attributes and build on others. Chi Sao serves that same purpose within the context of Wing Chun training. Here’s how:
Developing contact reflexes
Following the old adage that “the hand is quicker than the eye,” we understand that it takes less time to react to tactile stimulation than it does to a visual stimulant. In the instant it takes our brain to coordinate our eyes with a hand reaction, it might already be too late to avoid an incoming attack. You can try this with a partner: tell him exactly where you are going to touch him, then see if he can block your motion before you reach him. In the vast majority of cases, despite knowing exactly where he will be touched, you will reach him before his hand even starts to move in reaction. However, if you start with your wrists in contact, he will often be able to stop your motion.
If we accept that contact reflexes are faster than visual reflexes, then we start to train them so they are more efficient. This is because our innate reflexes might not be effective for self-defense. Therefore, constant repetition of motions from our forms, based upon tactile sensation, allow us to develop and refine reflexes that can override or complement natural reactions in an efficient manner.
Integration of Wing Chun theories and techniques
Wing Chun forms teach us how to move: Siu Nin Tao helps us develop economical arm motions while Chum Kiu allows us correct footwork so that we can unite our upper and lower bodies. Chi Sao teaches us what, when, where and why to move. Through Chi Sao practice, we put the basic theories of Wing Chun into motion. Centerline, simultaneous attack and defense, and other core WC principles help us express our techniques correctly as we practice them in within the framework of the sticking hands exercise.
Maintaining correct structure in relation to a partner
Correct Wing Chun structure complements the core set of fighting principles as the essential components of Wing Chun. How we root to the ground and how we link our joints and bones determines how well we can transfer power without allowing an opponent to control us.
Since our own structure only remains effective in relation to our opponent’s, it must retain a dynamic quality. For example, if you are facing an opponent squarely following the Wing Chun adage of “Always Face The Center,” but your opponent moves to your flank, you just adjust either your footwork, your torso, arm position or all three in order to maintain structural integrity. In essence, your structure is similar to the counterbalances now built into skyscrapers in earthquake prone regions, that help absorb the erratic energy from the rapidly shifting foundation.
Although we practice Chi Sao at close range, the dynamic structure we develop through sticking hands practice helps us understand how our body should move, regardless of the range of combat.
Bringing our techniques to life
Sifu Lo Man Kam, the progenitor of the East-West method, says that Kung Fu is dead; but that a living person breathes life into the Kung Fu. While some martial arts will teach the student a specific block against a specific attack, such an approach still requires active choices that you may not be able to be call upon in the split-second that it is needed. Some martial artists follow a pattern within a form, or some other kind of preset combination. However, these fixed techniques do not always take into account that an opponent is alive and moving, and each action will bring about a corresponding reaction, whether it be attack, defense, or retreat. Just because you are going through a choreographed technique does not mean that your opponent is going to follow your script. Chi Sao teaches us to take otherwise “dead” techniques and make them spontaneous and efficient for a given situation.
In the course of our practice, we should always be flowing with our techniques. Through constant Chi Sao practice, we learn to flow from one technique to another without conscious thought. By developing fluidity, we become more adaptive to sudden changes in combat. One of Sifu Lo’s analogies is that a pebble is dropped into a pond, the ripples will continue inexorably toward the edge. If it hits an obstacle, it splits, and continues. Chi Sao should teach us the same one-mindedness, to quickly and efficiently go through or around obstacles to reach our target (the centerline).
Covering instead of blocking
While man martial arts teach a student to block against specific attacks, Wing Chun assumes that we cannot see and react in time to an incoming hit. Therefore, we are taught to cover the areas where we are open though body positioning and hand movements . While this can be done to some extent without much training, Chi Sao teaches us to do it immediately, reflexively and efficiently.
Although you may not know what attack your opponent will launch, you can position yourself in a way to limit his choices, and move your hands to stop whatever comes in. Instead of answering A, B, or C to a multiple choice question which has not yet been asked, the practitioner is choosing D, "all of the above" to preempt an attack and stay one step ahead of his opponent.
Flexibility and unlimited application
In the course of Chi Sao training, we quickly learn that there are multiple solutions for one problem posed by an opponent’s hands; likewise, one movement may be applicable to several different attacks. We learn how to apply a relatively small number of techniques to a wide variety of combat situations, while maintaining an open mind so as to be ready to change if the need arises. As such, our mind is opened to the virtually limitless possibilities afforded to us by the principles of Wing Chun.
Control of an opponent’s structure
Through tactile sensitivity in the arms, we can contain an opponent’s hands; unifying our body parts to work in a structural unison, we can use our arm structure and stance to control his entire body. By effectively neutralizing an opponent’s structure, we can reduce the unpredictability of combat and reduce risk of injury to ourselves while maximizing our potential to end a physical confrontation.
Maintaining calm in a stressful situation
Mental calmness allows us to operate at peak efficiency. However, maintaining calmness in a stressful situation can be difficult. If you can remain calm under an unrelenting barrage of attacks from a skillful practitioner, you are already halfway there.
Understanding universal concepts of combat:
Regardless of the martial system one practices, hand-to-hand combat is ultimately resolved by superior timing, position, and distance. Chi Sao teaches us how to take advantage of all of these aspects.
Timing refers to when you attack or counterattack your opponent. You may chose to intercept as they initiate an attack, break their rhythm and attack as their own attack withdraws, or just begin the offensive yourself (while remembering to “ask hands” and cover their lines of attack). Distance means the space between you and your opponent, and which weapons can reach which targets based on your range. Position relates to where you are in relation to your opponent.
Through continual practice, Chi Sao makes Wing Chun our own personal martial art. The way you do Chi Sao will be different from the way I do it, based upon our mindsets, body types, and physical and mental strengths and limitations. While we are still governed by Wing Chun principles, our application of these principles becomes an expression of ourselves, where the art conforms to the individual, and not the other way around.