Ving Tsun: A Dialogue
Gain some perspective, insight, and advice from Sifu Brad Schonhorst and Sifu Liz Schonhorst, head instructors of Montgomery County Kung Fu and Ving Tsun practitioners for 20 years. Whether you're thinking about training Ving Tsun, a current student, or an experienced martial artist, this Q&A is worth the read.
- Tell us a bit about yourself and your school? When, where, how and why did you start practicing?
- What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching?
- Movies like Ip Man often inspire people to learn martial arts. Since reality can differ greatly from these movie scenes, what are some key aspects a beginning martial artist should focus on?
- How can Ving Tsun be used in an educational, non martial arts setting?
- How do you feel about the impact that the Internet has had on Ving Tsun?
- What direction do you see Ving Tsun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
- What is the best Ving Tsun or martial arts advice you have personally ever received and what is the best advice you would give to students?
- What is your opinion on women training Ving Tsun or martial arts?
- Ving Tsun is known for fast and complex techniques. What is your take on this?
- What is good Kung Fu?
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your school? When, where, how and why did you start practicing?
I was lucky enough to discover a Ving Tsun school in Iowa City, IA where I started my training in 1997. For the first few months, I kept coming around the school out of sheer curiosity. I didn’t understand how Ving Tsun training worked or if it was even effective, and the concept-based approach to training seemed so different from other martial arts I had studied.
After about a year of practice, I had an opportunity to spar with some senior students from another martial arts style. I was amazed to see my hands and feet responding almost as if they had a mind of their own! I felt like I was watching a movie – I was jamming my opponents’ kicks with my front kick and blasting chain punches down their exposed centerline. After that experience I was all in, and became a close student of my Sifu, Rob Squatrito, a true master who I have continued to study with over the last 20 years. Through his guidance, I began training students in Brooklyn, NY and now run a school in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
2. What are the most common mistakes, or assumptions, you’ve encountered during your years of teaching?
Many students misunderstand Ving Tsun’s use of structure--rather than muscle--to achieve powerful strikes and a solid horse stance. A saying we have all heard is “a beginner must not use strength,” which reminds students to focus on developing a proper body structure and alignment to achieve greater power in their hand and foot techniques. New students will often mistake a more senior students’ seemingly immovable horse stance as an example of strength, but really this is the outcome of years of training a solid foundation. This approach takes time to develop and in the heat of chi sau, students are often tempted to try to overpower their partner by falling back on raw physical power, but a more senior student who may not have the same physical strength can still dominate using good form.
After students learn to relax and not focus on strength, many go too far in the other extreme and practice empty kung fu, where their techniques have no power. They may no longer put real energy into their training exercises, and chi sau is reduced to a competition of who can move their hands the quickest.
While it’s good to explore all approaches when training Ving Tsun, students should spend most of their time engaged in focused, deliberate practice of core Ving Tsun concepts. The goal should be to train an engaged Ving Tsun structure, minimizing reliance on raw strength, yet not practice empty energy kung fu. In our school, we spend hours on the tsui ma (push horse) exercise, where one partner focuses on holding their ground while the other is applying forward pressure or strikes to move his/her partner across the room. If trained with a correct focus on using structure and position, this exercise is a great way to develop highly effective Ving Tsun body structure and heavy hitting power.
3. Movies like Ip Man often inspire people to learn martial arts. Since reality can differ greatly from these movie scenes, what are some key aspects a beginning martial artist should focus on?
Martial arts and particularly Ving Tsun are a great way to improve yourself. For students willing to put in the hard work that is required, they will find the training is extremely rewarding and has impacts in all areas of their life. Of course they learn to fight quickly, but the ones who stay with Ving Tsun long-term realize it can be tool for self-mastery. Chi Sao, for example, is a very humbling experience that forces the student to set aside his/her ego. Every time your partner hits you, there is a lesson to take away. What could you have done differently to keep the strike out of your centerline? Was your tan sau low? Was your horse not engaged? Where did your structure fail? In Chi Sao and fighting, you can never control what your opponent will do; the only factor you can control is your actions and responses to your opponent. This develops self-reliance and self-mastery that carries over into all of our interpersonal interactions and relationships. The super hero movies like the recent Yip Man series of movies are fun to watch for their amazing action scenes, but take a look at the character Yip Man displays in many of the movies. He continually demonstrates compassion for others and maintains a calm and controlled approach in the face of adversity.
4. How can Ving Tsun be used in an educational, non martial arts setting?
To develop good Ving Tsun, a student must always be willing to maintain the “beginner’s mind.” The best students can come into class and clear their mind of what they think they already know about martial arts and Ving Tsun. Approaching the lesson with a clean slate and open mind allows students to take in new information much faster and without attaching any biases or assumptions to what they are learning. This willingness to be a beginner is essential to all types of learning, and will make you successful in all educational endeavors.
A related lesson I took from Ving Tsun is learning to have a sifu – even outside the martial arts. The most efficient way to learn anything is to seek out the guidance of an established expert, someone who has already gone down the path you are about to begin. An expert willing to help you develop can save you a tremendous amount of trial and error, enabling you to attain the skill or knowledge you are seeking significantly faster. Of course, the best teacher in the world cannot train a student who isn’t ready and willing to learn.
5. How do you feel about the impact that the Internet has had on Ving Tsun?
The internet has had a huge impact on the martial arts world. When I started training, I had never heard of Ving Tsun and really knew nothing about it or its history. As my training progressed and my interest in Ving Tsun grew, there was very little information online, so the only resources available were books or magazines.
Today, the massive amounts of online content have given the general public much more exposure to Ving Tsun than ever before. Over the last few years, most of my new students come to their first class already having done their research. They often know much about the Ving Tsun system and have seen all kinds of videos, giving them some pretty crazy ideas about what Ving Tsun is. Many have even attempted to teach themselves the forms through online instruction.
A trade-off with the accessibility of information on Ving Tsun is that it can be really distracting for students trying to figure out the art. I have observed that the most successful Ving Tsun practitioners pursue a deep study of one sifu’s details of Ving Tsun, rather than a shallow study of all the various interpretations of Ving Tsun. The saying “jack of all trades, master of none” definitely applies here. I tell my students that there is a lot of content on Ving Tsun available online, some of which is good and some of which is really bad. If the video or book you are consuming gives you some ideas about your kung fu and inspires you to train, then that’s great, but don’t let it be a distraction from your focused study of the art.
6. What direction do you see Ving Tsun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
Grandmaster Moy Yat said that at its core, Ving Tsun strives to be as efficient as possible both in the way it is applied and the way it is passed on to students. He said a true Ving Tsun master would be able to cut down or streamline the system rather than add more content to the art.
I have observed that, because Ving Tsun is concept-based, it is very tempting to add new drills and training methods that seem in line with Ving Tsun concepts; however, doing so is just a distraction and waters down the essence of Ving Tsun. With the huge success of the MMA scene, many schools have taken to adding or mixing other martial arts with their Ving Tsun program. I haven’t come across any examples where this mixing has created a stronger version of Ving Tsun; in fact most students who train these mixed versions usually lose focus on core Ving Tsun attributes, like a deep horse stance that builds Ving Tsun’s solid structure or strong control of the centerline.
I hope that those of us working hard to preserve the art of Ving Tsun will be successful in bringing Ving Tsun to the next generation of martial artists without getting caught up in what’s popular in the moment.
7. What is the best Ving Tsun or martial arts advice you have personally ever received and what is the best advice you would give to students?
Don’t give up!
There are an infinite number of reasons (excuses) not to train kung fu right now. Every time you head to class, you will be tempted to skip the workout for the latest movie or video game or maybe to hang out with friends and family. There is plenty of time to train and do all these other things, and you will find that you enjoy your down time more after having put in a good workout.
Many people will discourage you from training for various reasons, but in the end it’s your choice and a worthwhile pursuit. Ving Tsun training ultimately teaches you much about yourself and, through a dedicated study, will enrich your life and your relationships with others. The results don’t come overnight and take lots of hard work: just keep at it and don’t give up.
8. What is your opinion on women training Ving Tsun or martial arts?
Anyone can benefit from training Ving Tsun and women are no exception. There are a lot of great martial arts out there but Ving Tsun is uniquely suited for women as it is designed to rely on technique, physics, and efficiency rather than strength and size. Ving Tsun was created by a woman and takes into account a woman's body very well as it allows smaller people to also be successful in self defense.
I highly recommend that women train with men in order to truly prepare for real situations where self defense may be necessary. Generally speaking, a woman is more likely to be attacked by a larger man and training in a safe environment with other men is the best way to prepare for this. Although it can be intimidating, uncomfortable, or even frustrating at times, the real world doesn't have weight classes to make a fight more fair.
9. Ving Tsun is known for fast and complex techniques. What is your take on this?
Complex techniques aren't necessary and simply put, they over-complicate things. Grandmaster Moy Yat has said that the advanced techniques are just the basic ones mastered. When students start training Ving Tsun at our school, they learn how to punch and how to do a basic block on day 1. This is extremely important because these basics are the most used techniques in a fight as they are very effective and much more practical than hard to pull off joint locks and memorized 'what if' combinations. While it's fun and interesting to play around with complex techniques and combinations, our time is much better spent on training sensitivity and muscle memory so that our body just responds with efficient and effectiveness techniques without having to think.
10. What is good Kung Fu?
Good Kung Fu is doing it, good or bad; actually training Kung Fu and not just talking about it. Don't worry about belts, levels, or paths. Just work on your own Kung Fu and don't worry about anything else.