The Plateau Effect (or the Value of Aimless Practice)

I realize I have not updated my blog in a while – as usual, it has been a case of life getting in the way, and also not having many new insights to share!

As I will be leaving China in a few months’ time, I have been trying to make the most of the time I have left by learning as much as I can, as in future my opportunities for returning to the mainland for any extended period of time will be very limited. One of the unintended positive consequences of my imminent departure is that my xingyiquan shifu (Dai Xueqi) seems to feel the urgency as much or even more so than I do, and has decided to teach me certain forms / content which I guess he had previously thought I was not ready for, for which I am very very grateful.

During this process, I have had two realizations recently which I wanted to share, to see whether other fellow readers have had similar experiences.

The first one is what I call “the Plateau effect”. Oftentimes when we are practicing martial arts, it is very easy to slip into a rut – practicing the same forms or exercises in the same way. This can go on for days, weeks or even months, with the feeling that actually you are not making any improvement at all, or sometimes even going backwards. In my case, I had a period of maybe 3-4 months of practicing different variations of basic fajin / footwork exercises, Xingyi’s 5 fists plus the linking fist (wuxing jintui lianhuan) set, without feeling that I was improving. However, from comments from both my shifu and some of his shixiong (i.e. my kungfu uncles), they feel that I have been improving, in my ability to relax the upper body, leading to improvement in the quality of fajin, starting to get what is called Dou Jue Jin (‘shaking power’) in Song style. Also in testing moves/applications against my shixiong (kungfu brothers), they have said that I am starting to get the penetrating power (chuan tou li) that is another characteristic of xingyi as a whole. This just goes to show that your own assessment of where you are in your practice can sometimes be out of whack, and the best is to get feedback from your teacher / kungfu brothers, who have probably gone through the same stages before.

The second point is the value of aimless practice. This may seem counter-intuitive – how can you improve at something if you are not deliberately focusing on practicing that one area? However, in reality the situation is more complicated than that – in Chinese martial arts, often times what we are trying to improve is the ‘quality’ of our movement, which is a whole mix of things, including awareness, relaxation under pressure, ‘aliveness’ of the body, etc etc. What I have found through my own practice is that sometimes “aimless” practice – i.e. trying to link together moves spontaneously as a reaction to imagined attacks, seeing what comes out – is actually a very useful method for changing what we practice from ‘dead’ forms (si taolu) into an “alive” practice (ba quan lian huo), which is one of the keys to being able to actually use your art. This ties in nicely with something which my xingyi shifu said to me in the early days of studying with him: “In xingyiquan, the forms are not fixed in stone, they are just a particular collection of techniques – once you have mastered the individual movements [dan cao], I expect you all to be able to put together your own forms!”.

Would very much like to hear from any blog readers who have had similar experiences, and how you got through the plateau!

About yosaku

Xingyiquan enthusiast
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4 Responses to The Plateau Effect (or the Value of Aimless Practice)

  1. Eric says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have experienced this plateau effect many times. On one occasion it was severe enough that I left my teacher in disillusion, finally abandoned practice altogether and then ended up in despair. One day I bumped into him in the street on a class day and was embarrassed because I had never told him why I disappeared, and he was gentleman enough not to mention it. So as a courtesy I attended class that night. I asked him if there were reasons the practice might stop working. Many, he said. Your teacher might be lying to you, you might be overpracticing, “but in your case it’s because you don’t bend your knees enough in Zhan Zhuang”. I didn’t Believe such a tiny adjustment could cause such a massive effect, but being desperate I humoured him…He was spectacularly right.

  2. Bai Yiming says:

    Both points happen to me, again and again, during my 24 yrs. over here in Taiwan, absolutely. But I do think that such phenomena do only accure to those of us, who stay long time in China. Mondern practitioners seem to not give themselfs such opportunities and they don’t want to waist time in zalian, aimless practice.

    • Eric says:

      It’s true that this only happens to people who are fanatics practitioners – so it is rare. The same is true of 走火入魔

    • mikesigman says:

      In my experience, I would tend to disagree about the idea that those who stay a long time in China, speak the language, learn the lore, learn the myriad applications, etc., have an advantage. In my experience I’ve seen a number of long-years-in-China people come back without even basic jin skills, much less all the other skills that append onto jin skills, qi development, and so forth. I’m sure that *some* people benefit from long years of study in China, but in my experience, most don’t. In fact, I always approach westerners who “studied in China for many years” with trepidation. I’ve even had a few long-time-in-China people admit quizzically that they “never were shown that stuff”. “That stuff being basin jin”.

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