I remember the first time I was instructed to fight like an animal, and I have to admit, it felt rather goofy. We were sparring in class and as a fun drill Sifu Kevin would call out an animal for us to imitate. No matter what he called out, you tried to fight that way! And some of the animal suggestions got a little ridiculous – I fought like a tiger, I fought like a crane, but I also fought like a mouse, a frog, a hippo, and even a giraffe. I did the best I could – talk about putting yourself out there! It was not in the least bit easy! Although it may seem silly, those drills were a blast and also extremely beneficial. We don’t do it terribly often, but it’s one of my favorites. I love introducing new students to it because it helps your training in so many ways. You not only learn how to quickly switch between fighting styles, but you learn how to capture animals’ spirits, and you become comfortable with it.
Animal Kung Fu is first introduced at yellow belt, where you learn Flying Tiger – the first of the tiger forms – which teaches you to become familiar with the relentlessness of a tiger. Then at blue belt you learn the confidence of the eagle and at third brown, the gracefulness of crane. Throughout my personal journey, I came to love each one. It took a long time before I felt like I successfully captured each animal, but I eventually learned the little differences between each spirit. In no way have I mastered any animal form (I’ve found there’s ALWAYS more to learn) but I figured out how each animal moved within me.
Then, at second brown I was introduced to the Shaolin bird forms. Something about this particular animal style just clicked with me. It was like flicking on a switch. Although they seemed to come naturally to me, I still took the time to study them. In both my own personal practice and in class, I broke the forms down. I came up with drills that I would practice repeatedly; I studied the footwork; I made my own short katas out of them; I put together sparring techniques, and self-defense techniques. I also started working on my cardio game – because birds are fast! And on top of all that I studied the birds I saw as I was driving or walking, as well as watched videos of eagles, hawks, and falcons hunting. I immersed myself in these forms, and I was amazed with what I found and how I felt. I FELT like a bird of prey as I was flying, diving, and attacking with the movements of the forms. I felt light, quick, free, and deadly. I learned how to capture the spirit of the bird!
These bird forms helped me find my own individuality in martial arts. I no longer felt like my movements were cookie cutter; I began adding my own uniqueness into our forms. I gained a whole new perspective!
Pretty soon this newly found spirit crept its way into sparring, which is a big deal for me! Let me explain: for my own personal reasons, sparring has always been a struggle for me. Even now, after years of experience, I sometimes have to get out of my head and force myself out there. I had a very hard time finding any confidence in my fighting ability. I took every loss personally – because to me, losing meant that I was not good enough. That, of course, is a bogus perspective! I eventually outgrew it. And birds helped me to do so.
I found myself flying in sparring. I was constantly moving – attacking, retreating, and attacking again. I found a speed that seemed to annoy my opponents – and I loved it! Have you ever seen a smaller bird attacking a larger one? They dodge in and out, pecking at them the whole way. Fast and fearless. That was what I felt like I became. It was absolutely amazing! This did not mean that I began “winning” all my matches. Quite the opposite actually – I still lost many matches, and I still lose some today. But by incorporating the skills I learned from the bird forms into my fighting, I gained confidence. And that confidence allowed me to see that every loss was actually a gain because I was able to learn something. With this knowledge I was able to grow and evolve my fighting ability.
Maybe birds aren’t your thing. Maybe it’s tiger. Maybe it’s leopard. Maybe it’s not an animal style, but rather, a weapon. Or perhaps you’re in the process of figuring out what clicks with you. Whatever you have fallen in love with – or want to fall in love with! – here’s my advice to you:
- Study the footwork. Finding patterns in how each form moves will give you an indication of both its fighting techniques, and the mindset of that particular form. Is it linear? Evasive? Quick? What does it emphasize? Understanding the foot print of the form is unbelievably valuable!
- Practice, practice, practice. Seriously! Go through the forms, and then go through them again. You will find a comfortable familiarity with them, which is exactly what you want!
- Share with others. If your teacher permits it, share some of the techniques you have found. Teach out some of your drills. When you teach techniques or drills people will often ask questions that you haven’t considered. Through explaining how to do something you force yourself to analyze in a more meticulous way.
- Break it down. Make your own short katas, sparring techniques, self defense techniques, and drills. Once you are able to understand the techniques that make up the form you will take it to a whole new level of understanding.
- Start sparring using the techniques you’ve found. Don’t be afraid to try new things! This is the best way to find what works and what doesn’t. Sure, you may get hit or kicked a few times, but you will learn how to adapt. And, honestly, no one wants to get hit, so what better incentive to figure out what works?!
- When practicing your forms, mix it up! Add in a workout between forms. Sprint down a field, do a form, sprint back, do another one. Go through your forms out of the order in which you learned them. Practice your form as a different animal – if you’re working on a crane form, practice it like a tiger – you’ll quickly see what doesn’t feel right. Doing things like this will get both your brain and your body working hard. Eventually, when you go through a form, or use it in sparring, it will be drilled into your body and you won’t have to think about the moves. Plus you won’t exhaust as easily!
- Observe. Whatever you are working on, try to observe it in your surroundings. If you’re working on bird, watch the birds around you. If you’re working on tiger, watch how a cat moves. Look up videos of how that particular animal hunts. You’ll learn a lot about that animal.
- Have fun with it! As Dan mentions in his blog post Because its Fun!, we can often times get caught up in the serious side of Kung Fu. And it is serious. But it should also be fun. Loosen up. Try new things. Put yourself out there. Create a game made up of drills or techniques you’ve found and share it with your peers. Have a good time with what you are doing. Because honestly, what’s the point if you’re not having fun?
- Oh, and have I mentioned practice?! As one of our school tee-shirts says, “Repetition is the Key to Mastery”. And I have never known anything so true. You will amaze yourself with what you find. The forms, the movements, will become a part of you. So practice!
The connection with your material is something you will eventually find. But you have to put in the work. And trust me, it’s worth it! There are many animal styles in Shaolin Kung Fu and they all have their place. I’ve fallen in love with quite a few, but the birds… they will always be a part of me; they are ingrained in my soul. And I’m always learning from them – always finding something new. So, take your time with your material. Break it down. Have fun. And practice. I guarantee you will find something. And, you too, will capture the spirit!