Xin Nian (New Year) Kuai le! (be happy, so together is Happy New Year!). Welcome to the year of the Tiger! Probably one of the most iconic (but maybe Dragons are cooler...) of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, the Tiger has inspired countless martial artists in China and all over the world.
In this article I want to take you on a journey to learn about Tigers and how they relate to Chinese martial arts. There is no place better to start than by learning a little bit more about these amazing creatures.
This is an important thing to do too. Not only are Tigers fascinating and endangered globally but as marital artists who study the movements of animals to help ourselves move better, we can learn a lot by understanding other animals. For a short period when I was studying aboard I took up a Tiger/Crane hybrid style (as it was the only Kung Fu school in town) and one of the things the teacher would ask us to do is go to the zoo and watch a tiger, for a good while too, to learn how they move and how they perceive the world.
So what do we know about Tigers. They are big cats, but they are very different from your adorable housecat (certainly my cute but incompetent cat!). Tigers are what we biologists call an Apex Predator, they are the biggest meanest predator in their environments , no other animal is trying to eat them. This is a huge difference from a house cat or even a human, both cats and humans are both predators and prey in the wild, we hunt animals sure, but we have to keep one eye out for predators too. This affects the way we move and the way we think. One of the things you never ever see an adult tiger in the wild do is appear anxious or scared, when they enter an area, everyone is scared of them! So one of the things that we learn is that Tigers dominate their opponents with their attitude and presence and being so big an strong helps Tigers kick back and relax.
So how strong are tigers? Very! On a scale we cant really understand as humans. On top of the fact that an adult male can get up as much as 300kg, they have nearly 3 inch long fangs and a bite force of over 1000 pounds per square inch (twice that of an adult lion...take that king of the jungle), they also have razor sharp claws and extra dense bones in their forearms to let them crush their prey (we will come back to this later!). To round it all off their body composition is something most Mr Olympia competitors would be happy with, 70% of their body mass is lean muscle...
So what does that mean for us, obviously as martial artists we cant grow claws or thicken our bones right... right?
Well, not the same extent that Tigers can do naturally, but with hard training many things are possible! Resistance training (with weights or bodyweight) not only increases lean muscle mass (getting Tiger strong!) but also increases bone density over time. Well trained and conditioned Chinese martial artists are described as having developed Tiger Bones, the arms and shins feel must stronger and denser. We can emulate the way that tigers move and attack their prey as well. Staying clam, quiet and relaxed until the last moment and then springing forward in a devastating attack (Tiger pouncing!). We can make our hands into the shapes of tigers claws and train our fingers to get stronger over time. Entire styles of Kung Fu have developed detailed methods for developing Tiger Claws!
When tigers bring down their prey, they often are able to secure the kill with just the impact force of them leaping forward onto their prey. The force of the impact and bodyweight, combined with the tiger coiling and clamping down has been shown strong enough to break the backbones of their preferred prey animals...wow! This opening and closing movement pattern that you can see your domestic cat do so well when they stretch can also be trained in humans. Combing stretching and moving from opened up to closed up positions in forms slowly makes the body more springy, elastic and flexible.
I think the last thing that we can learn from Tigers is how to really relax. The peace of these animals when they sleep, in all sorts of positions in any old place, all comes from that inner confidence of knowing you are the biggest cat in town (or on earth!). As martial artists we work hard to train ourselves every day to be a bit better, but ultimately we aren't fighting for our lives in modern society anymore so we need to kick back and have Tiger naps every now and then too. Take a lesson from a Tiger, being confident in yourself lets you relax.
I hope you have a good Chinese New Year and I wish you every happiness and prosperity in the coming year. We have lots planned at Rising Phoenix, I recently moved house to Raynes Park and will be starting a small studio location hopefully from March. I have slots available for private classes as well so if you or someone else is keen to start training (New Year, New You!).
Finally I would like to dedicate this year of the Tiger to my wife Xuan. Xuan is a Fire Tiger so I am sure that this will be her year this year!