Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Yoga of Kungfu and the Kungfu of Yoga

fivefoottwo sent me a very interesting article in the NYT Opinion Pages titled "Kungfu for Philosophers", by Peimin Ni. Thanks, fft! This gives me another opportunity to generate a blog post by piggy-backing off something. Yay! (Maybe I should rename this blog "The Yogic Piggy-backer"! How does that sound?)

The article is a very insightful and well-written mini-treatise: Starting with the subject of kungfu, Professor Ni goes on to discuss how the kungfu practitioner's attitude represents an entire worldview, one that is quite diametrically opposed to the rationalistic worldview that characterizes much of western philosophy. But I'm not going to write a review of the article here: You're probably better off reading the article on your own, and forming your own impressions of it.

Rather, I'm going to use the article as a launching-point for my own musings about yoga and kungfu.In a nutshell, I think there is a very real and meaningful sense in which yoga is a form of kungfu and kungfu is a form of yoga. To begin with, the Chinese characters for kungfu (功夫) do not refer exclusively to the system of Chinese martial arts that most of us are familiar with. 功夫 can be literally translated as "skill that is attained as a result of consistent hard work." In fact, in everyday Chinese speech, it is used in this second sense at least as much as it is used to refer to the martial arts. So, for instance, we might say of a great chef that his cooking displays kungfu, or we might say of a skillful driver that his driving displays kungfu. Moreover,it is also interesting to note that in Chinese communities, both great chefs and great kungfu masters are addressed by the same honorific title, "Shifu." (literally, "teacher-father.")

As a side note, there are also instances when "kungfu" can be used in a derogatory manner. For instance, if I think that somebody is wasting too much time and effort trying to reason with a person who is being unreasonable, I might say that he is "expending too much kungfu" with that person.

Am I boring you with all these details about the Chinese language? Please excuse me: I get a bit carried away. But bear with me: I promise I'll get to the yoga part soon. 

But to become a master of kungfu (whether as a master of martial arts or as a great chef) is to become more than just a skillful practitioner of a certain set of fighting or cooking techniques. After all, there is a reason why we speak of martial arts rather than martial technique, and why we speak of martial artists rather than martial technicians. One cannot properly practice kungfu without exposing oneself to a particular way of seeing the world, and being changed as a person. To attain mastery of kungfu is as much about attaining an entirely new worldview and allowing this worldview to change one as a person, as it is about mastering particular martial arts techniques. The art of kungfu, as Professor Ni observes, is characterized by

...its clear emphasis on the cultivation and transformation of the person... A kung fu master does not simply make good choices and use effective instruments to satisfy whatever preferences a person happens to have. In fact the subject is never simply accepted as a given. While an efficacious action may be the result of a sound rational decision, a good action that demonstrates kung fu has to be rooted in the entire person, including one’s bodily dispositions and sentiments, and its goodness is displayed not only through its consequences but also in the artistic style one does it.

Kungfu, then, is not just about doing certain things with certain techniques. The actions and techniques have to issue from a certain artful personality and disposition. What the technique is and what it accomplishes are, in a sense, of secondary importance compared to the nature of the person who performs it, and the way the performance of the technique shapes the performer, who, in turn, influences the subsequent artistic development of the technique. There is actually a scene near the beginning of Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee's character describes martial combat as involving a dance between the martial artist and his opponent. Seen in the light of these words, there is reason to think that Lee did not intend for this scene to be purely for entertainment: He might well have been trying to use the medium of entertainment to convey something of the spirit of kungfu. 

This is all very nice, you might be thinking, but where's the yoga? Let me begin by making a little observation: I think that if we were to replace "kung fu" in Professor Ni's words above with "yoga", we get a very nice description of the yoga practice. There is a very important sense in which like kungfu, yoga is not just about performing techniques (in this case, asanas) in a technically proficient manner. If this were so, then cirque du soleil performers would be yoga masters. Just as (if not more) important is the way in which the performance of the asana shapes the performer, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. To practice yoga is to surrender one's own self to and allow it to be shaped by a certain worldview. To paraphrase B.K.S. Iyengar (I don't have the quote handy), it's not just that yoga allows one to see things differently; rather, yoga transforms the seer, so that one cannot help but see things differently. Well, I think I just butchered Mr. Iyengar's prose; his original words are way more elegant than the way I just put them. But you get the picture.

By way of a little digression, here's an interesting little piece of legend: According to the official founding legend of the Shaolin Temple, which is well-known as the birthplace of most of the Chinese martial arts, the martial arts practiced at the temple actually owe their origin to the arrival sometime in the early 5th century of the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. According to this legend, upon arriving at the temple, Bodhidharma noticed that the Chinese monks had become physically weak and out of shape from sitting in meditation for hours on end. He thereby proceeded to teach them some yoga exercises (I'm picturing Chinese monks doing kapotasana :-)), and the monks' health improved as a result. Over the centuries, the monks then proceeded to build on and modify the original yoga exercises that Bodhidharma taught them, adding combat applications to them (the Shaolin temple is located in the mountains of Northern China, and defending themselves from bandits and other unsavory characters was a very urgent necessity), resulting in what we know today as Shaolin kungfu. So if this legend is true, then Shaolin kungfu effectively originated from yoga! Since most styles of kungfu practiced today are either derived from or are heavily influenced by Shaolin kungfu, one can basically say that kungfu originated from yoga!

But we need a little reality check here. This legend has recently been discredited by scholars, who have found evidence that martial arts were already being practiced at the Shaolin temple before Bodhidharma arrived (Darn, scholars always spoil everything, don't they? Can't believe a nice story even if I want to...).

But many people continue to believe this legend, even if it's not true. And I think this is at least partly because when one observes and compares the practices of yoga and kungfu, one cannot deny that there is something yogic about the kungfu practitioner's approach to using the martial art techniques as a means to self-cultivation and self-realization, just as the yogi or yogini uses the asana practice as a way of attaining greater Self-knowledge and realization. The two paths have amazing parallels, even if they cannot be shown to have a common starting point.       


  1. I actually like the fact that the monks were practicing kung fu before they were introduced to yoga. I love love love Kung Fu, and am practicing yoga as if I'm aiming to get a black belt in the discipline, hehehe :)

  2. I knew a great post would come out of this! I love, love the Chinese language lesson. What a great term to use in describing both skillful use of energy AND wasteful use of energy!

  3. Yyogini, "practicing yoga as if I'm aiming to get a black belt in the discipline", hahaha, I like that! I love kung fu too. I only studied it for 3 months, but I can totally see and appreciate how people like Jet Li make the very difficult look so easy!

    fft, thanks! I glad you enjoy the Chinese language part of the post. Yes, the Chinese language is beautiful in this way. One can use so few characters to express so much.