Traditional kung fu schools are not known for being pretty. Most martial artists can report a long history of working out night after night in basements, garages, parking lots, and warehouses. I taught my first Tai Chi class 30 years ago in a high school cafeteria. My current Tai Chi sword class meets on the basketball court at the park, which we often share with local kids shooting hoops. None of these places would make it into the coffee table books that highlight model feng shui homes—you know the ones, with their cascading water features, peaceful gardens, meandering paths, and elegant front doors.
So what, might you ask, does feng shui have to do with traditional martial arts? A lot, as it turns out. The first thing though is to dispel some myths about feng shui. Classical feng shui is not about making things “pretty,” hanging lucky charms in your house, or painting your front door red. It is based on a Chinese cosmology that assumes an interconnected universe, a world that is entirely permeated with and animated by what the Chinese call “vital breath,” sometimes translated as qi. This vital breath has a rhythm and flow to it that can be discerned in every manifestation of life, from mountains, rivers, rocks and trees, to humans. This principle is called “gan ying.” It means everything in our universe lives in relationship and interconnection. Literally, nothing can happen in nature that does not affect every other aspect of nature. This is the core principle at work in feng shui, and it is why a small adjustment at your front gate can affect your finances or your health.
In feng shui, we have methods for analyzing the rhythm and flow of qi so we can keep ourselves in right relationship to our surroundings, thus optimizing our own well being. These methods are primarily concerned with assessment of space (terrain and direction) and timing (the calendar and astrology.)
Now, think about your martial arts practice. The martial artist, through both solo and partner practice, develops a keen sense of space and time. You not only have to know where to move, but when to move. Direction and timing—the essence of feng shui. The feng shui master works with a large canvas that includes the land forms around a house, the compass directions of that house, and the astrology of the people who live there; the martial artist works with the same factors, just within the smaller canvas of the body and immediate surroundings.
For instance, one of the first things we learn in Tai Chi is how to orient ourselves in space—we start facing this way, then turn to this wall, then to that corner. At the same time, we maintain an internal compass that tells us our nose points north while the back foot points northeast. This is a lot of compass work. And all of it updated in a continuous stream while you execute the shapes and movements to express qi in a harmonious flow.
All of this moves to a higher level when you start to do martial partner work. Now your sense of space and timing is tested through complex interactions that give you immediate feedback. At first you learn formalized patterns that train your central nervous system to assess incoming data (the equivalent to the feng shui master’s compass and ruler.) But as you progress, your sensitivity and responsiveness develop. At some point you find yourself responding immediately and correctly to a slight shift in your partner’s hip, or an almost imperceptible tightening of their shoulder. Then one day you feel the hairs on your arm lift slightly when the back door opens. Your awareness of space and time, and your ability to stay balanced within this particular microcosm, has developed to the point of mastery.
Martial artist and the feng shui practitioner—though one may be working in a basement and the other in a Chinese garden, they are both doing kung fu and traveling parallel paths to mastery.