Have you ever heard how
martial arts originated when early masters studied
movements of animals and adapted those movements to
their own responses in fighting situations? Ever wonder
if it was true? And if true, and if the original masters
were really inspired by movements of animals, why is it
today, we no longer look to the animals for insight into
our own technique?
Sure, we still have
concepts like "cat stance," "dragon fist," or "crane
position." We were taught they came from the actual
movement of animals. But, when asked to explain the
connection, or to demonstrate how the stance or the
technique could be rooted in nature, we are at a loss.
It's a pity, because the movement of animals is a
universal language. Thinking of techniques as animal
movements not only makes them more teachable, but also
easier to remember and integrate into our personal
Humor me if you will, and
let's see what happens when we focus on a few animals,
applying the principles of their movement to self
The dragon is traditionally
represented as a huge fire breathing lizard, possessed
of a large body, supported by strong formidable legs,
and an elongated tail. Almost always, the arms are
disproportionately small, or non existent. If we were to
look at the dragon as a potential opponent, our initial
focus would have to be the diminutive hands. The power
of the dragon is not in the hands, but rather, in the
body, legs and tail. Because its hands are virtually
useless for anything but blocking and clenching, the
fight of the dragon is one of position. Using its feet,
and its low center of gravity, the dragon instantly
positions itself where its strength is maximized and its
vulnerability minimized. The dragon means position,
stance, opening your opponent to counter, and closing
yourself to attack. When executed properly, you have all
the openings; your opponent has none.
Sequence #1 (The
Dragon) --- The strength of the dragon lies in physical position. Here,
the defender escapes from a frontal choke by merely
turning and stepping back. If he chooses to counter,
he can trap the asailant's right hand and claw the
The tiger is most
distinguishable by its ability to use its paws, or hands
to attack and control an opponent. The trademark of a
tiger is its ability to move with power, grace and
balance. When the tiger moves, it is always with
characteristic feline poise. When it attacks, it moves
inside or around the opponent's stance, never allowing
an opponent the chance to recover. The tiger
instinctively attacks the vital areas. Combined with the
dragon, its movement is finished only when the opponent
Sequence #2 (The
Tiger) --- Here, the defender uses tiger-style
techniques to ward off an assailant. The defender
first controls the attacker's punching arm, spinning
the opponent counterclockwise so his back is now to
the defender. Seizing the abdominal pressure points,
the defender pulls the attacker backward and down,
where he is at the "tiger's" mercy.
Why grasshopper? What can
this lowly insect teach us about fighting strategy that
we don't already know? What in the movement of a
grasshopper could be important to us as martial artists?
Have you ever tried to
capture one? Do you remember how, just as you are about
to put your cupped hands over its unsuspecting body, the
grasshopper springs suddenly into space, landing off to
your side. When you move on him again, just as
unpredictably, he springs off to another location.
represents constant vigilance, and spontaneous reaction.
He is a master of surprise, and has an impeccable
command of timing. He is poised under stress, and
possesses the innate ability to suddenly move to where
you least expect him to. As the attack unfolds, he
disappears, suddenly to surface off to the side, or
behind...that is the grasshopper.
Sequence #3 (The
Grasshopper) --- The grasshopper...now you see him,
now you don't. Blocking an attacker's punch, the
grasshopper stylist "springs" to the assailant's side,
hooking his right foot with the defender's own left
(see close-up). The defender then pulls the attacker's
foot to the rear, dropping him to the ground.
The bear represents
power, fearless determination, supernatural strength,
and ability to resist pain. The fight of the bear is to
take pain, to give pain. The bear knows only one
direction, and that is forward. It fights to the death.
However, like other animals, the bear, too can deceive
and surprise. For example, despite its power and its
great strength, the bear can transform its appearance to
look harmless. If you've ever been to Yosemite Park,
picture the bears walking around on all fours,
scrounging for food, appearing no more threatening than
pets. The same animal, standing on its hind quarters and
moving forward to attack, would make even the most
sizable human feel like a flyweight.
Photo Sequence #4:
(The Bear) --- The "bear" in waiting (in this case the defender)
appears harmless and defensive. He neutralizes a
punching atack, then moves forward, establishes
position and, reassuming its true nature, strikes the
opponent's head, slamming him to the ground.
Our little exercise
quickly leads to some tangible benefits. In describing
the "animal styles," I am not referring to specific
forms that have been choreographed over centuries. Each
of the preceding animal "concepts" characterizes a
fighting identity, a distinctive fingerprint of physical
movement, attitude, and skill distilled into a
fundamental essence. This fundamental essence is what we
describe when using the name of an animal. It is not
unlike the way an astrologer would think of a "libra
personality" versus a "capricorn personality." Except
that in the realm of physical movement, the practitioner
learns to flow from one animal style to another, at
will, as the situation demands.
Rather than debate the
thesis this is how some martial arts originated, why not
simply weigh the merit of this approach in your own
studies and teaching.
In the world today, we
are surrounded by constellations of styles and fighting
philosophies. We know that somewhere within them all
lies a sturdy trunk from which all branches originate.
We are now so far removed from the trunk, that it has
slmost passed from our ability to recognize it. What
better way to retrace the steps of the ancient masters
than to clear one's mind of the modern distractions and
rediscover the lessons of our surrounding environment?
Like the masters before us, we can use those lessons as
building blocks in creating our own personal
understanding of the martial arts.
Anyone wanna hear about
the praying mantis...?
Author's Comment: If
your are interested in undertaking a personal
exploration into this approach, I present several
additional examples of the types of lessons which
might reveal themselves to you, if you are diligent in
Ever hear the expression
"snake charmer?" Can you still recollect having seen
childrens' cartoons where the semi-naked man with the
turban is blowing his flute in front of a cobra,
mesmerizing it into passivity?
If you came across a
cobra in the wild, the roles might be somewhat reversed.
The cobra reaches out to your mind, numbs your
attention, and holds you motionless and unresponsive
while it prepares its attack.
Complimenting its innate
ability to mesmerize, the cobra comes equipped with
lightning reflexes, and characteristically, can strike
out at any target, at any time.
When I was learning the
martial arts, the most admired full contact fighter was
Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. Reportedly, Wallace had
injured his right leg earlier in his career, and to
compensate, had spent years perfecting the body
mechanics of his left leg. Consequently, when squaring
off against opponents, everyone knew when he kicked, the
attack would almost certainly come from the left leg.
So, picture the opponent standing across from Wallace in
the ring, knowing Wallace is a kicker, knowing he has to
kick with the left leg, and knowing as Wallace begins to
close the gap, he is setting up the kick. Knowing
everything there is to know, how is it still possible
for Wallace to pick up his foot, and drive a side kick
into the opponent's mid section?
The answer to that
question lies in the mind of the cobra!
The cobra also signifies
"reckless abandon." As the cobra rises in front of an
opponent, he is disadvantaged in size and
maneuverability. His attitude is to be still. If he
fails, his soft body is easily broken by even the
slightest adversary. Hence, "reckless abandon." The
cobra attacks with certainty...there is no margin for
In the Chinese Opera, it
is the Monkey King, whose impeccable Kung Fu skills
vanquish all enemies to save the day. In the mind of the
public, the monkey, more than all the other animals,
typifies the spirit of the martial arts. What they see
in the antics of the monkey is innate natural ability,
impeccable timing, flow of movement, and boisterous
To the martial arts
master, these attributes are aspects of inborn talent,
or natural ability, and may or may not exist in
conjunction with acquired skill. To the initiate, the
monkey means skill. The monkey is master of the surface
environment. It is his birthright, and that is all.
Years of study would add little to that mastery.
Because of that, those
who fight in the "monkey style" seldom seek mastery of
the other styles. It must be stressed their ability is
innate. It is very much as though they will see someone
execute a move, and if it is appropriate to their
natural talents, it will instantly become their move. In
the same way, the baby monkey, when first brought to the
trees, is soon completely at home in the new
Be advised, that when
describing the "monkey style," I am not referring to the
specific forms that are choreographed over years of
training in the Chinese Opera, or in certain styles of
Kung Fu, which are named "monkey" styles. I use the word
monkey as I use all of the animal descriptives. That is
to say, each portrays a certain essence, a specific
fingerprint of physical movement, psychology, and skill,
distilled to a fundamental essence. In Gun Fu (Animal
Fighting Styles), the practitioner learns to flow from
one animal style to another, at will, as the situation
As you might have
suspected, the donkey signifies "resistance."
When the donkey refuses
to move, nothing its owner can do will make it move.
That is the "mind of the donkey." When you are in an arm
lock, head lock, wrist lock...if you decide to take
yourself out of the hold...you have the discipline to do
it, even if it means pain.
When you are being
choked, or held tightly in a neck lock, you will have
the discipline to step out of it, even with the pain.
When your opponent is pulling your hair, hitting your
pressure points, or tweaking your nose, you will stand
firm without surrender, even though there may be pain.
When you are goaded into a fight, insulted, spat upon,
or egged into a confrontation, you will be able to
resist. That is the "mind of the donkey." Developing
"donkey mind" does not come easy. We are conditioned to
react to pain. Most modern schools of martial arts train
people by having them "be victims" for their first
several years in the art. This "victim" role becomes
part of their conditioning, and subliminally, they learn
to go down when somebody pulls their hair, or to remain
subdued when somebody puts them into an arm bar. With
"donkey mind" all of those techniques would be instantly
The ant symbolizes
diligence, determination, impeccable spirit, and
readiness to face the unknown.
Picture yourself sitting
by the pool, when a ten ton dump truck pulls up behind
you and drops a load of sand directly on top of your
head. After your panic has run its course, you will
probably have seen your entire life flash before your
eyes, right up to the Pearly Gates. In that situation,
your degree in physics would mean nothing. Your ability
to bench press 500 pounds would mean nothing. And
neither would your four minute mile, or your 9 second
100 yard dash. All of your energy would be focused into
The ant would survive. He
knows exactly what he can do, believes in himself, has
the courage to execute, and the discipline to persevere.
Develop the "mind of the ant" and you too can accomplish