What is Kung Fu?

Kung Fu is a Chinese term that literally means work + time = accomplishment, but has come to mean the traditional martial arts systems and forms of China.

The four primary systems of kung fu are divided up into two main categories, called internal and external. External forms tend to move around much more than internal, while internal forms take up less space, giving rise to the statement: “External is the energy of movement and internal is the movement of energy.”

Northern Shaolin

Shaolin kung fu refers to the martial arts systems that were created in China over 1500 years ago. Different systems evolved in five main Buddhist temples, and in villages all over China. Northern Shaolin, also called long fist or chang ch’uan,  evolved in the vast Northern plains, and is the forerunner to all the many derivative styles and systems (Karate, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, etc …) that developed throughout the Far East.  Northern Shaolin forms heat the body up quickly to withstand the harsh weather conditions and traverse big, open spaces.

The movements are fully extended and dramatic, best learned from a  young age while the bones are still soft.

The stances are low and wide, with high kicks and jumps, and the steps are big strides. The spirit in the forms is expansive and courageous. Like ballet is to dance, it is foundation training for all of the other styles. The extreme range of motion makes it possible to perform any other martial art.

The Classics say, “You cannot enter the gates of T’ai Chi till you pass through the halls of Shaolin.”

T’ai Chi Ch’uan

T’ai Chi Ch’uan means grand ultimate fist, or boxing. The empty circle (wu ji) represents the undifferentiated field which, once divided, is called the Yin/Yang. The Yin/Yang Symbol,  or T’ai Chi   Symbol represents the intersection of opposing forces resulting in constant change and motion in the universe.

The main qualities that characterize T’ai Chi are: relaxation, light stepping, and slow, synchronized movements that radiate from the waist. T’ai Chi can be practiced at any age, young or old, and is very therapeutic. Practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan improves circulation, balance, bone density, immunity, self-defense ability, longevity and awareness. T’ai Chi Ch’uan has been called martial qigong because it heals and teaches fighting at the same time.


Qigong means energy work. When you practice qigong, you are cultivating qi, but with no martial intent. Qigong supports T’ai Chi training (or any type of exercise), because it opens the channels, or energy pathways through which energy moves. Some qigong forms are gentle and relaxing and others, intense and invigorating. Bar Duan Gin, Yi Gun Gin, Yi Ch’uan, Brain and Bone-Marrow Washing are the names of a few.  Some use breathing techniques, the Buddhist breath, or diaphragmatic breathing, and some use the Taoist breath, or longevity breathing.  The Buddhist qigong form is also called the Muscle Change Classic or Yi Gun Gin. Bodhidarma, the originator of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, created this tendon strengthening form while confined in a cave for nine years. Wind endurance improves from extending and coordinating the breath  with the strenuous movements.

Xing Yi

Xing Yi means “mind intent.” It is based on the five Chinese elements: metal, water, wood, fire and earth, and the 12 animals: dragon, bear, tiger, horse, monkey,  turtle, snake, eagle, hawk, dove, rooster, and sparrow. Xing Yi forms evoke the feeling of natural forces and animals, rather than imitate their appearance. Metal chops down, Water springs up, Wood bursts forward, Fire explodes outward, Earth turns over and crosses. The animals are poised and then pounce on their prey, fighting with claws, hooves and wings. There are solo and two person fighting forms in this simple and direct system. With straight-line attacks that are aggressive and abrupt. The elements are contained within the animal movements, such as tiger pouncing with two downward metal claws. Xing Yi connects the body and spirit and trains the student to respond without thinking. It is best taught after Shaolin and T’ai Chi, when the student has gained more self-control.


Bagua means eight trigrams, the solid and broken lines that surround the T’ai Chi symbol.  They represent the divisions of yin and yang, some more yin than and some more yang than yin. The Dragon Heart Bagua system of Bagua is comprised of eight basic palm positions, eight static postures based on eight animals, dragon, hawk, tiger, monkey, eagle, lion, unicorn, chicken, the eight basic palm changes and a continuous form. Bagua is full of twists, turns and arm movements that stimulate the glands. Intricate footwork causes sudden changes in direction that disrupt the opponent’s postural alignment and footing, causing them to be thrown. When practicing, a pole (or tree) in the center helps keeps the eyes focused, the spine twisted, the torso hollow, and the stepping circular. Bagua is best learned after all the other systems because it is more difficult, and has movements from Shaolin, T’ai Chi and Xing Yi.

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