1.As a quick intro, can you 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 wing chun 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 wing chun 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 wing chun’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 wing chun, students should spend most of their time engaged in focused, deliberate practice of core Wing chun concepts.
The goal should be to train an engaged wing chun 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 wing chun body structure and heavy hitting power.
3.Movies such as “Yip Man”, “The Grandmaster” and such and probably one of the reasons many people start to practice at some point. Since reality is mostly not matching most of these movie scenes, what are some key aspects a beginning martial artist should focus on?
Martial arts and particularly wing chun 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 wing chun 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 Wing Chun be used in an educational, non martial arts setting?
To develop good Wing Chun, 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 Wing Chun.
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 wing chun 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.The internet has completely changed our lives over the past 10-15 years. We now have access to lots of information (both good & bad) and connections like never before. How do you feel about this evolution and it’s impact on Wing Chun?
The internet has had a huge impact on the martial arts world. When I started training, I had never heard of wing chun and really knew nothing about it or its history. As my training progressed and my interest in wing chun 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 wing chun 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 wing chun system and have seen all kinds of videos, giving them some pretty crazy ideas about what wing chun is. Many have even attempted to teach themselves the forms through online instruction.
A trade-off with the accessibility of information on Wing Chun is that it can be really distracting for students trying to figure out the art. I have observed that the most successful wing chun practitioners pursue a deep study of one sifu’s details of wing chun, rather than a shallow study of all the various interpretations of wing chun.
The saying “jack of all trades, master of none” definitely applies here. I tell my students that there is a lot of content on wing chun 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 Wing Chun or martial arts, as a whole, heading in?
Grandmaster Moy Yat said that at its core, wing chun 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 wing chun master would be able to cut down or streamline the system rather than add more content to the art.
I have observed that, because wing chun is concept-based, it is very tempting to add new drills and training methods that seem in line with wing chun concepts; however, doing so is just a distraction and waters down the essence of wing chun.
With the huge success of the MMA scene, many schools have taken to adding or mixing other martial arts with their wing chun program.
I haven’t come across any examples where this mixing has created a stronger version of wing chun; in fact most students who train these mixed versions usually lose focus on core wing chun attributes, like a deep horse stance that builds wing chun’s solid structure or strong control of the centerline.
I hope that those of us working hard to preserve the art of wing chun will be successful in bringing wing chun to the next generation of martial artists without getting caught up in what’s popular in the moment.
7.To end this interview in style, what is the best wing chun or martial arts advice you have personally ever received and what is the best advice you would give to our readers?
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. Wing chun 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.
Sifu Brad Schonforst