The Essence of Xing Yi’s 5 Elements

In martial arts there are many styles that have become household names such as: Karate, Hung Gar, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but often when I mention internal martial arts, I usually see furrowed brows and confused looks. It is not until I mention Tai Chi that I finally see that “ah-ha” moment of understanding. Tai Chi is definitely the most famous internal martial art, as it is easily identified by the layman once they see the familiar slow graceful movements, but there are other internal arts as well. Among the most famous internal martial arts are various styles of Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Xing Yi.

Internal martial arts are not all practiced slowly like Tai Chi. However, they all share qualities of relaxed motion and incorporating the practitioner’s whole body with the motion. Xing Yi is a dynamic martial art that encompasses standing Qigong and explosive moving forms. Standing in the San Ti form for long periods of time is part of Xing Yi practice. It is the cornerstone of the art. The purpose of standing in this form is for the practitioner to condition their body and mind, and to cultivate the practitioners’ internal energy.

As with all martial arts there are a variety of styles of Xing Yi, but to my knowledge, they all include the five elements. The elements are: Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth. Each element has a form. The forms are a specific motion performed in succession on both sides of the body (right and left) in a linear fashion. While standing is done with the body remaining still, the forms, in contrast, are executed quickly with explosive energy. The five elements are essentially five motions and they are somewhat similar to Western boxing.

While I was learning Xing Yi, I once commented to my teacher that the forms reminded me of boxing and he agreed that there were definitely similarities in the five elements and the beast forms: The Horse being similar to a cross and the Sparrow Hawk to a jab. I think the best way to approach Xing Yi is as internal boxing. In the later instructions and pictures, the reader will see some of the similarities in the five elements.

While the forms of Xing Yi are usually practiced by making long lines while practicing the forms, I have found it beneficial for the practitioner to develop explosive energy by practicing one motion, as quickly as possible, in one spot. Essentially, when you execute the motion you will, step, exhale and punch all at the same time: Everything together. The exhale is especially important.

Breathing is a major part of martial arts training that is often neglected, however, there is nothing more important. In internal martial arts, especially, the breath is part of the overall coordination that needs to be complete and correct to be effective. The quick and powerful exhale while executing the elements will provide much more power for the strike.

For building explosive energy and practicing the essence of the five elements, I suggest doing each element below without moving in a line, but rather the practitioner should execute the motion and step back to the original position. The following exercises are different than the traditional forms; they are a

way to practice the essence of each energy by executing just one motion. The reader should follow the instructions for each element provided below. For ease of understanding, all of the elements are shown on the right side: Right leg back, left leg forward. They all start from the San Ti position.

  1. Metal is the first element. One hand executes an arc as the whole body moves forward together. It is a parabolic motion that is also called “split” because it looks like a splitting motion as if cutting something in two. From the San Ti position, the left hand performs a back knuckle with a slight step forward, left. The right hand and foot move forward together. The whole motion moves like a wheel forward. Strike with the edge of the right hand.
  2. Water is next. The left hand rolls palm down and the right hand strikes over the left palm up. Both hands should be in fists. The motion is as if drilling up. The feet step and adjust. The left foot moves forward, and the right foot adjusts to keep the feet close together. The punch is similar to an uppercut in boxing.
  3. Wood has the same footwork as Water. Wood is a straight punch from a circle. The left hand circles down to the abdomen and the right hand punches straight out from the body. The punch is the same level as the practitioner’s abdomen.
  4. Fire also has the step correct form of stepping. The hands separate: The left hand blocking over the practitioner’s head and the right hand punching straight at the level of the face.
  5. Earth has a twisting motion. Wiping down with the left hand and punching while twisting right. The right hand crosses over the left hand when punching. The right elbow is close to the right hip. The whole element feels like a punching/twisting motion to the right side. Great for evasion while striking.

For all of the elements, I recommend standing still in the final posture for a few minutes so that your body will build the muscle memory for each element. Once you have done the standing practice for each, execute the elements in a slow deliberate way similar to Tai Chi. The final step is to execute the elements quickly and explosively. I recommend that the practitioner try 3 to 5 repetitions of each element. In addition to practicing in the air, the reader should practice on pads, and a heavy bag to feel the power of the strikes for each element being delivered, and also to feel the proper reinforcement for each element.

The simplicity of Xing Yi is its most attractive feature. There are many more complex martial art forms, but I have found that as I get older, I seem to look for and admire, the power of less rather than the complexity of more. While studying another style, I had a teacher tell me that you should have five things (techniques) that work in any situation. I found it ironic when I learned the five elements of Xing Yi as that is exactly what they are. Practicing the essence of the five elements will not just make your five elements better, but will also improve all of your other martial skill.

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