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Why Practice Chi Sao in Chinese Martial Arts?

The Chinese martial arts practice of chi sao or "sticky hands" is often misunderstood by onlookers who are not well versed in what is going on during a "sticky hands" practice. Some may even make fun of the practice. Chi Sao training is most definitely not fighting, but rather its purpose is to build certain attributes needed by the martial arts practitioner. These attributes are needed to elevate the practitioner to a higher level of skill and effectivenes. Here are some of the attributes we are working on during chi sao practice:

1. Sensitivity to what the opponent is doing

Fighting is not a one-way conversation. One cannot have an intelligent conversation with someone if they ignore what the other person says and is only interested in what they say themselves. This is a lot like physical combat. A person has to be willing to listen to the "words" that are spoken or risk being completely ineffective in any situation. Ignoring what your opponent is doing makes it really hard to win against a competent opponent and could get you hurt if you ever need to defend yourself.

2. Greater understanding of the "language" of how a body moves

After learning how to listen, a good fighter must begin to learn what the "words" mean when feeling what the opponent is doing. In time someone that is good at chi sao should be able to feel an adversary's physical tension to determine what attack or defense they will employ. It looks almost magical when a fighter is able to "predict" what their opponent is trying to do. This is built over time by remembering what they feel during chi sao practice. The practitioner will begin to feel each punch, kick, hold, or whatever the opponent chooses to do before they even do it.

3. Physical balance between tension in the muscles and the need for body relaxation

To maximize a martial artist's abilities, a balance between muscular tension and relaxation has to be found. Every good boxer in the world doesn't run around tense, but are loose like a cat. However, on the last moment of impact for a strike the whole body comes together for an instant with full tension before becoming loose again. Finding this in your own body will make you faster, hit harder, and even increase stamina as you will become way more efficient in the use of your own body.

4. Mental balance even when you are losing

Our mental and emotional states have a direct affect on how our bodies perform. When learning chi sao it is easy to get agitated with yourself and try to overcompensate with physical force. When we get agitated or discouraged it naturally brings tension to our muscles and worst of all it dulls our tactile sensitivity making our defenses much weaker. Chi sao practice forces us to let go of what has happened such as getting hit, and re-focus back onto what is going on instead. The mind is not good at being in two places at the same time. If you are focused on the last mistake, you will be unable to put your full attention on the now. This is why the more emotional an opponent becomes, the easier it is to make them make mistakes. Mental balance is key when it comes to proper defense.

Chi sao is practiced with a partner in per-arranged patterns designed to be able to practice tactile sensitivity. Most martial arts actually do a version of chi sao in their own training. Think of any grappling arts such as catch wrestling or jiu jitsu. The best fighters from those have a heightened ability to feel what the opponent is doing. Most grappling arts can be considered a version of a full body chi sao of sorts. There are many wrestling drills that are basically discipline specific chi sao drills. Skill at chi sao is not the same as sparring but rather a way to develop the attributes needed for it. The principles of chi sao allows a fighter to be able to adjust and adapt to what an opponent is doing much faster than normal. Even though other arts may practice this differently, most martial arts utilize the principles of chi sao and its practice should be taken seriously.

Chi sao can be a great tool to develop the right attributes for martial arts. Don't get skill in chi sao confused with fighting ability. Chi sao certainly helps one attain certain attributes, but fighting ability has many more variables in it than chi sao practice can offer on its own. One should look at chi sao practice in the same way as people practice shadow boxing, punches, kicks, combos, even grappling positions. Just because someone gets good at a particular aspect of fighting, does not necessarily mean that they are good at it. Becoming a good martial artist or fighter requires a much larger comprehensive overview than one can get from focusing on just one aspect of it!

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