Leading up to last weekend, I began to get a little frustrated at the kung fu school. It was down to a combination of two things. Firstly, feeling the lack of material progress in my kung fu. Secondly, not being taught moves in a new form (set of kung fu moves) I had started learning. I wasn’t throwing my toys out the pram over a one day thing, but after a week of no progress, it definitely impacted my confidence and I didn’t know why.

It felt like my time at the school was running out and there was something I was missing. I was being told “yidian” (little by little) and “mingtian” (tomorrow). I was doing countless laborious movements 100s of times a day, every day and had worked hard on extra training.

It didn’t feel like the reason behind not teaching me anything new was malicious, but I couldn’t understand what why. Even if there was no time in the lessons to learn, there seemed to be time during the breaks. These were breaks I was happy to forgo, when the other students would mess around and choreograph kung fu fight scenes, I was stretching my hamstrings and repeating the forms I had learned. I know the students here have a different attitude to training – they have no issues skipping odd training sessions – bumps on a life long kung fu road aren’t as important for them as they are for me.

As for my progress in the basics – in the first month at the school, I had felt my hips loosening, my legs worked hard and my back get stronger. I was pleased with the way I learned the Pan Gen form. But in the last two weeks, I had none of that, even though I had kept my head down and concentrated on learning as much as I could. I wasn’t sure if my body was fully reconditioned or if I just wasn’t pushing myself enough. If it was the latter, I didn’t know where. Although I had built up strength, I wasn’t able to get myself into the stances in the way they described but I wasn’t able to see how I could progress into it.

 

 

On the Saturday morning, before leaving the school to head into Dengfeng town, I wrote up a heartfelt letter to the senior student who’s been teaching me at the school. I copied and pasted it into Google translate on my laptop and hoped for the best (if you’re not familiar with google translate, it’s pretty sketchy with Chinese translation). The message was this:

“sorry, but my chinese is not good. i don’t want to sound like I complain. you’re a good teacher. you’re a good friend. i want to be a good student. but i’m upset because i can’t learn. you only teach me a little. you say tomorrow, but then no teach. i have little time here and i want to leave here with good memories. english student learning in china is very tough. i am isolated. i leave my job to come here. i leave my family. i leave my life. i can only come here 2 months. other students want to play. i want to train hard. i train when other students rest. i train with injury. please please please teach me. i can train any time. day or night.”

I think he understood the message and my frustrations. I couldn’t fully understand the reply, but the gist I got was had to head into town to get it his phone fixed on one of the mornings. I wasn’t worried about odd classes missed for reasons like that or dwelling on the past (if the past was that he didn’t understand my desire to learn), rather that the final two weeks weren’t going to be a write-off in my own learning. I left the school Saturday, hoping that when I returned, it would be a new start.

Over the weekend, I thought about the other issue I had – the stances I wasn’t able to do properly. I knew my body was getting stronger, but I wasn’t able to sink any further (and not enough to be a credible use in my mind).

“Mabo” (horse stance) is one most people are familiar with.

Ankle hufei front Ankle hufei side

The Wugulun version is with feet fully planted just a little wider than shoulder width apart, both feet perfectly parallel, back completely vertically straight (no leaning forward, no tail bone sticking out), hands relaxed on your stomach and lowering your upper body to sink into the stance as low as you can. Deeper the stance, the better it is. The one in the picture is about half as low as this guy can go. Essentially, it’s the perfect full squat.

In various schools and teachings I’ve had in the past, you could be forgiven for having a back leaning forward slightly, a wide stance or feet off parallel (pointing at 45 degrees sometimes). Here, it’s not an option. I thought ability to do this was all about strength and balance.

I made a big boo boo.

I missed something so fundamental, that once I realised, I wasn’t sure whether to be excited to have found out or annoyed that I only just found out.

 

It started with me asking one of the senior student why I can’t do a this full squat stance in a combination of Chinese mandarin, “engwish”, a mirror and a Glow Draw drawing app on my phone. Here’s what I sketched:

ankle stickmen 1

I tried to explain that I can do the squat as long as i lean forward. After exchanging Chinese words for “strength” and “legs”, I put the point across that my centre of mass was passed my ankles the lower I went. That was causing me to either stay high, or lean forward to stop toppling backwards. I contested that my legs were strong enough to hold me, which was annoying, as I’d been working on this a lot. He said the word “yidian” again (little by little). The context being, work on it bit by bit.

ankle stickmen 2

I sketched out another couple of stick men. one me (“Wo”), one him (‘Ni”). This time, whilst sketching it, I realised that in order to have the weight going straight through (and therefore be balanced), I needed to draw a more acute angle at the ankle.

Then it clicked. It’s the ankle.

I asked about “flexibility” in the ankle, I got a positive response. He demonstrated a couple of exercises we had been doing daily. These exercises, I thought, were just for loosing the hips. Instead, these also worked the ankles. However, if you’re not actively trying to stretch into them (like the hips), it’s easy to miss the benefit, and I think this is something I had been doing.

We compared ankle flexibility in the mirror. Blimey, they were massively different. This guy was probably twice as flexible (could get double the angle of deviation) than me. “Gees, how did I miss that when I’ve been watching the guy for hours every day?” I thought. We’d been working on this stance every day without fail since I had been here.

Thinking about what this meant..

mobility in the ankle = ability to maintain your upper body perfectly over your hips as you lower = ability to balance with proper grounding = ability to build strength and generate power

I had been working from right to left, when I should have been working left to right. Damn it.

There’s me thinking I’ve got good, strong legs so therefore I can balance, where in fact, my balance isn’t great. Lack of flexibility in my ankles mean if I deviate my body passed a certain point, then (compared to them), I’m ready to topple like a bowling pin.

Ok, so lesson learned – ankle flexibility is the key to my progress now.

How possible is it though? Is it something you can even work on or are you just born with it?

I tried to stretch my ankle, unlike hamstrings or other parts of the body, the feeling seemed different – it felt a bit “bone on bone” type restriction. “Are my ankles genetically different that I can’t stretch them” I thought?

I spent Sunday afternoon googling about it. Here’s what I found…

 

How do you do a full squat?

I started with something like – “full squat”. Faint memories of someone commenting that asian people have genetically better ankle mobility led me to google “ankle better flexibility asian” too. Essentially, “is it not my fault”. This comedy video was onto something, but didn’t actually tell me why my ankles aren’t flexible…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=gWTmg4dHiKg

Why aren’t my ankles flexible?

I found that ankle dorsiflex ability (ability to lift your toes up) can be impeded by two things:

  • tight calf muscles (most of the time)
  • scar tissue (rare occasions, due to past injury)

The truth is, I’m not actually sure which one is the major cause for me.

In terms of tight calf muscles – I never thought mine where tight. Reading on, for women they blame tight calves on heels and for both sexes, lack of walking around in bare feet. [ok, that’s plausible].

“You didn’t grow up squatting on a regular basis so your calf muscles shortened. Women who wear high heals every day have an even worse problem with this as they find they can’t wear flat shoes or go barefoot comfortably. Shortened calf muscles caused from wearing shoes with heals higher than the ball of the foot (even an inch or less) is also a main contributing cause to plantar fasciitis.”

They recommend walking in bare feet. However, in the last 6 months, after reading Born To Run, I had already transitioned to barefoot running and gone through the calf ache that comes with it. Only that weekend, I had just done 16km in my barefoot running shoes and didn’t feel any calf ache. Not sure if my calf muscles are that tight, but I’ll work on them.

Onto scar tissue – they say it’s common in footballers (link here and here) from past ankle injury. That’s likely for me then – I’ve clocked up a lot of football minutes in my time.

I rack my brains and think back to childhood for any ankle injuries?

I can faintly remember times when I sprained them. But you’re a kid – you just try and get back to playing footy as quickly as you can. I recall one specific spraining my ankle in football after kicking into someone else’s foot pretty hard.

What are the implications of lack of ankle flexibility?

The scariest one is – “Poor Dorsiflexion will usually cause foot pronation, then knee valgus, which can lead to multiple knee injuries”.

There are several links between ankle mobility with knee pain - http://www.maximumtrainingsolutions.com/Ankle-Dorsiflexion-Glute-Interaction.html

Better still –  ankle mobility with glute/shoulder pain - http://www.maximumtrainingsolutions.com/Shoulder-Injuries.html

My lesson from this?

Ankle flexibility is really important in martial arts and my key to taking my progress to the next level. I can’t be sure why my ankles aren’t flexible. It’s something I can get checked out in London on my return. For now thought, I decided I was going to concentrate on ankle flexibility for the rest of my time here.