Don’t you think it’s time we finally get rid of Siu Nim Tao? Let’s face it, modern times have changed. People have changed. Martial arts have changed. Do we really have time to waste practicing something so far removed from the actual act of fighting? Isn’t there a faster and more practical way to learn to apply Wing Chun?
These are the questions people ask, especially beginners trying to learn Wing Chun. And let’s face it, Siu Nim Tao looks and feels downright boring to the beginner! What’s more, it seems too weird looking and impractical to be able to help us learn how to fight. And because of that, quite honestly, a waste of our precious time!
But at the end of the day, Wing Chun doesn’t care whether or not a beginner can wrap their mind around its subtle power. It’s first form, Siu Nim Tao, basically tells you that outright. It says “I am going to make no efforts to try to dumb this down for you, to make it interesting or exciting for you. In fact, I’m going to give you the most boring looking part of what we do first. I’m going to make you do the masters form right from the beginning. And because it’s the master’s form, you really won’t have a clue what’s going on.” Because that’s how the art was designed… fully knowing that this isn’t something you will be able to wrap your mind around. Because you really aren’t supposed to. Not at first.
For the beginner, one important part of practicing Siu Nim Tao is as a test. With Siu Nim Tao, Wing Chun initially presents you with the inescapable question of “how willing are you to pay the price of admission?”. It asks the student to submit to the mysterious master’s path right from the start. And when a student can’t submit to the path, the art doesn’t care. It is honest from the start. It is you, the student, who must change.
Translating Siu Nim Tao
Let’s take a look at the translation of Siu Nim Tao. Although Siu Nim Tao roughly translates as “the little idea” what does that actually mean? When we break down the first word “Siu”, we can translate it a few different ways as “little”, “small”, “young”, “simple” or even “seed”. And when we look into the word “Nim”, we can translate it to mean “idea”, “thought”, “imagination”, “mind” or “intent”.
One translation of Siu Nim Tao can be “seed of the mind”. This means the origins of a deeper ability to use the mind to create physical possibilities previously unimaginable. With the meditative practice of Siu Nim Tao, the mind and body become connected on an entirely new level.
Another way we can look at the translation of Siu Nim Tao can be “simple intent”. This lends to the idea of small, intentional habits practiced daily create big changes in the long haul. In other words, little, everyday decisions create success.
And still another translation of “Nim” is “imagination / visualization”. Einstein said, “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Because it isn’t the accumulation of knowledge that matters. Visualization is the practice of imagining something happening which hasn’t. As you visualize, you attract yourself what you want to become.
With the translation of “young”, Siu Nim Tao teaches you that you can’t run before you crawl. It teaches you to accept that you know nothing and to submit to the path. And those that can’t? Well, they simply aren’t worthy of higher levels.
Why practice Siu Nim Tao?
The beginner and the narrow-minded view Siu Nim Tao as a practice of moves and techniques. But that’s why they can’t connect the dots between Siu Nim Tao and fighting. Instead, the student must focus on the feeling. Position, structure and precise energy create the framework which makes Wing Chun successful.
Physically, Siu Nim Tao teaches you how to calm your nervous system and develop a feeling of rootedness and stability within each of your individual joints. This individual stability of the joints enables both a greater full body unity (connection between them) as well as an independence between them.
Siu Nim Tao provides a specific opportunity to practice the action of knowing and consistently seeking the opponent’s centerline. This means both meditating on this goal while physically training the effort. The student is to practice the slow movements of tan sao and the three fook saos with the intent of developing springy forwardness.
Siu Nim Tao also teaches you the concept of “jiu ying” – to face your target and keep your shoulders and hips aligned. This creates the base of your triangle. The apex of which is your opponent’s center.
As I practice my Siu Nim Tao (over 23 years since I practiced it for the first time), my focus is lightyears away from what it was when I started. Because of the thousands of hours I’ve put into practicing SNT, I’ve created the ability to maintain focus upon a multitude of things simultaneously. As my mental “bandwidth” has increased over time, these things have become one harmonious focus rather than separate focuses as they were in the beginning.
With some things we do, we graduate from and go on to other things. Not Wing Chun! It unravels to deeper and deeper layers as you put the work in. This is both the beauty and the frustration of the art. At first you don’t understand it. Then, just as you begin to feel competent in one layer of training a new layer opens up to you and you realize that you are only a beginner again at a new layer understanding and application. The journey is truly limitless. Just as there’s no end to the layers of Wing Chun, there is no end to the layers of Siu Nim Tao.
The best part about it is that practicing Siu Nim Tao is a deliberate decision to change your life. Whatever stage of training you are at, Siu Nim Tao teaches you to become a better version of you. It’s a decision to grow deliberately and to hack away at the inessentials. It’s a decision to find yourself, your center, your root, your inner power, not by traveling to a different country, but by traveling inward to places you’ve never been. It’s a bold decision to tap into your inner power while deliberately shunning distractions of the external world. You could say that Siu Nim Tao is the conscious choice to live rather than hide. Each time you practice Siu Nim Tao you are making a conscious choice to be more compassionate with yourself. It is simplicity in action. To find the very essence of who you are. Because you can’t ever simply learn Wing Chun, you become Wing Chun.