Sifu Kisu explains Earthbending
To the right you can hear Sifu Kisu explain the basic principles of Hung Gar. As explained in the featurette, each of the bending styles found in Avatar: The Last Airbender, are based on actual Kung Fu styles, and, in the case of earthbending, Hung Gar. Hung Gar is known for it's strong stances and being rooted to the ground. It generates power by strong stepping, low stances and strong transitions from left to right. This is basically the gist of what Sifu Kisu explains in the video. They show a lot of examples of the character King Bumi and his fight with Aang, the avatar. You can see the sharp angles of his body in his movements and the force behind his blows. Sifu Kisu explains that he worked intimately with the artists of Avatar: The Last Airbender in order to assure that the characters in the show properly reflected the true movements of these Chinese martial arts. Because of this, looking at the movements of the characters is one way of actually studying these martial arts.
As a Pagan I enjoy the idea of linking my exercise to the elements. Learning martial arts, which are also often linked to animals, as Sifu Kisu explains, that are linked to the elements is a good way for me to make exercise a spiritual experience as well as a physical one. I'm starting with earthbending for a very simple reason. It's grounding. What better way to start off a physical and spiritual adventure than with the concept of being grounded? By making sure I'm grounded in body and mind, I have an excellent foundation to move forward into airbending (ba gua) to focus my intellect. With grounding and intellect I have prepared myself for waterbending (tai chi) and focusing on controlling my emotions. With a good foundation in grounding, an understanding of my intellect and control of my emotions I will have prepared myself for firebending (northern shaolin), through which I will access my passion. By looking at the elements from a Pagan perspective and pairing this with bending/martial arts from Avatar: The Last Airbender, I'm pretty pumped for, what I feel will be, an amazing experience.
In Hung Gar I have started with some basics. I am starting by practicing the horse stance (video to the right). As I understand through my research and through explanation by those more experienced than myself, horse stance is a popular stance in many forms of martial arts. By having the feet flat on the ground, bending the knees and sinking into a squat like position, one is deeply rooted to the ground and firm in their position. This represents the ideas behind earthbending perfectly, as well as the Pagan idea (not that the idea is solely Pagan by any means) of being grounded.
First Stance is Horse Stance
In addition to working on horse stance I am working on a movement I have come to understand as "iron fist". At about 22 seconds into Sifu Kisu's featurette (as well as in the extended scene to the right) you will see a fist as well as another hand form with curled fingers and a pointed finger pushing in opposition of each other, one going forward and one coming back. The idea of this move is to push as slowly and with as much force as possible. With this slow, forceful movement I can actually feel some muscles and even bones in my upper back shifting with as I move. I have some muscle pain that is hard to explain. It always feels as if my body is moving in ways it shouldn't and this causes pain. In doing this exercise I felt as if my muscles were strengthening in such a way to keep my body moving in the correct way so as to prevent pain. I have also added jumping rope to my workout routine to strengthen the calves and ankles to help with horse stance and other future Hung Gar/earthbending techniques.
Below is a link to a short, silent video that shows bending scrolls from different bending forms from the show. At about a minute in are some earthbending forms. Currently I am practicing the first one. It may be difficult to see but I understand it as follows: You start with the left leg stretched out, pointed straight and the right leg pointed at a ninety degree angle, leaning back into the bent right leg. In this position your arms are straight out, forwards and backwards, in tight fists. You move from this position into the second one by stepping forward forcefully (this is earthbending after all) by swinging your right leg forward. While doing this you simultaneously swing your left arm out to the side and back, and your right arm under like a low, broad uppercut. After this you step forward again, swinging your swinging your arms like a helicoptor, the back one forward and the front one back in the diagonal position you see listed. After this step you step once more, swinging your front arm back and taking your back arm froward in a pushing motion.
Now while these may not be Hung Gar forms, they can act like them in a way. Since earthbending is made to be Hung Gar and since these are earthbending forms they can act as Hung Gar forms. By doing these forms I hope to improve other areas of my Hung Gar while envisioning earthbending, partly for fun but also to help connect myself to the earth which is a major part of this whole challenge for me.
In addition to Hung Gar there is another form of earthbending seen in the series, a special form specifically for one character: Toph. Even just from the picture above you can get an idea that her basic stance and movements are different from King Bumi's. Toph's form of earthbending is known as Southern Praying Mantis. Southern Praying Mantis is a strict, difficult and secretive tradition that was not always shared as it is now and it is still difficult to find information on it. Watching Toph throughout the series, I found it difficult not to demand the internet to give me more information on this unique and fascinating form of martial art. Luckily for me, and the internet, I found what I was looking for. Southern Praying Mantis is about the ability to shift your feet easily, protecting the body with the elbows and having incredibly strong hands and fingers. Several times in the series you can see close ups of Toph shifting her feet seemlessly in order to be where she needs to. You can also see in the image above the way that she keeps her elbows close to her body for protection. The link to the below goes into more detail about the strict discipline that is required for Southern Praying Mantis training. The need for strong fingers and hands is specifically touched on. It gives the example that the practitioners work towards being able to do push-ups on only one knuckle! While that is far beyond the level I am at right now, I am adding push-ups to my routine in order to slowly work towards increasing the strength in my hands and fingers.
Just as in Hung Gar, and in many other forms of martial arts, the horse stance is important. Many times in the series you can see Toph with feet apart and bent knees, deeply sunk into the horse stance. As is seen above, however, there are other stances to be learned in Southern Praying Mantis. My research led me to the video below. Though it will take a lot of time I intend to master it. Below is what is considered to be the basic, beginner's Southern Praying Mantis form. It's not short and it's not simple. There are many steps and it is apparent that a great deal of focus and precision are involved. Though I haven't started yet, I intend to break it down into manageable steps. For anyone attempting the same, I suggest doing so as well. I imagine that this is just a prelude to the complexities and discipline that I will see throughout my Southern Praying Mantis research and practice. I also imagine that the complexity and the fact that the form covers so many different movements is of benefit to me. By understanding so many different stances, arm movements and steps, I will have a good overall understanding of Southern Praying Mantis which is exactly what I want and exactly what I will need in order to move forward in the tradition.
Southern Praying Mantis Form
If all of that wasn't enough, I feel the need to add yoga as well. Although yoga is only mentioned once in the series, I have my own reasons for feeling it's a necessity. Yoga focuses the mind as well as the body, much like martial arts does. In addition to this, it has a focus on flexibility which I find to be an integral part to pushing one's self in the martial arts. Through my research I have chosen Iyengar as my pair for earthbending, Hung Gar and Southern Praying Mantis. Iyengar promotes flexibility as well as strength, endurance and balance and focuses on precise body alignment. Sound familiar? What is more "earth" than strength, endurance and balance? And what is more Hung Gar and Southern Praying Mantis, heck martial arts in general, than precise body alignment? By doing Iyengar I have been teaching myself how to stay in position for an extended period of time, which I also teach myself in horse stance. I also stretch out my body, strengthen my muscles and focus on the way my body moves. I identify what I'm capable of and how to stretch my limits. In Iyengar the first focus are the standing asanas, or standing forms. It is believed that you should master all standing asanas before any others are attempted. There are twelve.
It is my deep hope and intense excitement that by attempting the beginning stages of both Hung Gar and Southern Praying Mantis I will be able to begin a path down a road that will lead me into the realms of the greats like King Bumi, Toph and those in the real world that have mastered these techniques. I do not mean to diminish those who have learned these techniques outside of earthbending and anime, nor do I mean to put these anime characters on a pedestal. I hope that I have not come across that way at all. Inspiration is all around us. I have always wanted to learn martial arts but wanted to do so in a way that connected me to the world in, what I saw, as a Pagan way. Avatar: The Last Airbender has done this for me, whether it meant to or not, and I am grateful. As I've already said, I am intensely excited to begin this path and that is exactly why I'm sharing it with all of you. I hope that I can inspire others to connect to the elements, get in shape and maybe even try martial arts. If nothing else I hope that you will give Avatar: The Last Airbender a chance. It is an amazing series that speaks to the powers of friendship and nonviolence and the knowledge that can be gleamed from watching the fight scenes is nothing short of awe inspiring.