Many hard styles teach to exhale while striking, and it is often taught in the internal arts in the context of reverse breathing; but others teach the opposite: you fill the form with inhalation as it opens and expands. Of course, with time and training, you don't think consciously about breathing, and the end result seems to be that the torso learns to breath like an accordion, or old style furnace bellows as it opens and closes, folds and unfolds, and that it can do what is needed automatically when struck.
As with many relevant advanced skills, it tends to be difficult to do one thing without having some skill at those other things that provide a foundation for each other. In this way, unless you have mastered natural and reverse breathing, it is difficult to do hen/ha and fa-jing. If you haven't started to understand the latter method of breathing, then training in getting hit is either a painful failure, or you learn to take a strike simply by tensing the abdominal muscles.
Like so many other aspects of training, learning to be hit is a complex process which is difficult to master unless your instructor is capable of doing and transmitting the feel of it. Beware of teachers who have you train on each other and refuse to take a blow themselves. They may understand the theory but are using you as the laboratory rats without being honest about it!
To my mind, it is almost criminal to teach modern beginners with no martial experience that they can put all of their trust in "making a golden bell cover for the torso" out of Weiqi, or not having to learn how to defend themselves because they can learn to project Qi at an attacker. In some cases, the instructor actually begins to believe that they have some mystical ability because the techniques seem to work so well on their students or co-operative peers.
On a traditional martial level, those sifu who told the young Chinese patriot boxers at the turn of the last century during the Boxer Rebellion that their paper charms and esoteric qigong practices would stop the bullets of the foreign soldiers were probably not trying to mislead their followers. Most of them could have sincerely believed in what they were saying or had experienced the ability of the mind to minimise injury and stop the pain and bleeding from minor wounds. Faith in this case was the cause of death and injury.
However, with a little effort you can learn to stop a strike to the front of the torso—even if you cannot stop bullets! As I wrote earlier, taking a punch is not simply a question of tensing up to make a wall out of your muscles in the torso. This can stop some of the pain and impact of a good punch, but it will disturb your balance and leave you open to a follow-up technique.
Relaxing the torso completely also doesn't work. In fact, that is the least productive route martially. Even when wearing a chest protector, a good punch (whether internal or external) hurts like hell and destroys your balance if you try to be totally soft when it hits. The answer lies in not too much, not too little muscle, learning to breath and relax properly, and more than a little faith.
For beginners in this kind of training, receiving punches must become a conditioned response, in which the tissue being hit tenses momentarily on impact and then relaxes once the power is removed. Learning to do this is difficult, but not impossible, and not just a question of hypnotising yourself so that you ignore the pain. By the way, traditionalists might say "you can learn Iron Shirt that can protect the face and head"; but having seen so many martial artists learn to break blocks of cement and slabs of wood with their forehead I wonder if that is true. In simple terms, getting used to being hit in the face is a matter of practice and correct alignment of the neck and chin, as well as keeping your mouth closed properly.
Competent Western boxers learn to do this the hard way as a by-product of their training. A fortunate few learn to do it internally by accident or because of some natural aptitude. These are the boxers whom you see in the ring who seem totally unaffected by the strongest blows to the body. Even a mediocre Western boxer who bruises and staggers as a result of body blows can absorb an amazing amount of physical punishment to the torso, and does so for a number of years.
There are lots of ex-boxers around, and you rarely hear of them dying or becoming invalids because of internal injuries to the torso. It is the blows to the head that are problematic and usually cause long-term disabilities and early deaths. The magnificent ex-boxer Mohammed Ali is a sad example of such brain damage in his later years.
Despite this, the easiest way to learn effective Iron Shirt in modern terms is to take up Western boxing on an amateur level, as the headgear will minimise the chances of long-term brain damage. Any good boxer learns to take pain and impact without getting internal injuries. It is also true that Western boxing, whether at an amateur or a professional level, is only suitable for those who are relatively young and fit.
A traditionalist would argue that it is also important to circulate and pack the Qi into the area being struck. Learning to do the latter involves learning and practising Iron Shirt Qigong, many styles of which have existed over the centuries. A few are still practised in some hard and soft styles. It is also only fair to say that many modern teachers have said that learning to take a punch will come naturally with proper form and qigong training. This may be true for those with much aptitude, but I doubt that the average student has much hope of learning to take a punch of any kind to the torso without training specifically to learn such skills.
On the other hand, I no longer think that it is essential to do specific Iron Shirt Qigong methods to safely do the following methods; but I don't regret the time I spent practising the traditional qigong sets that I did learn years ago.
However you approach being a "human heavy bag," as I said before, understanding how to do reverse abdominal breathing is essential. Similarly, doing regular standing qigong is essential both for good health and having a normal amount of Weiqi, which is the protective aspect of internal energy. Pragmatically, it is impossible to know if the Weiqi really does flow to the surface of the skin when you are struck, but if you can visualise this happening—it helps!
I have also had some success in teaching the concept by using a more modern analogy: imagine the push of the bare hand or the blow from a gloved fist activates a force shield a la Star Trek that only lasts for the moment the attacking hand is in contact with you, and that this energy shield absorbs the attacker's force and uses it to charge your own shield generators. What is in excess of its requirements is automatically "blown back" or "rebounded" to the attacker. I suppose that you can think of such imagery as being a modern interpretation of the old saying "Yi leads the Qi which leads the Li. "
As in all aspects of internal training, you need competent instruction, faith in the method you learn, the willingness and need to learn it, a good training partner you can trust, and perseverance. As to the technique—best learned from someone who can do it—every competent method, traditional or otherwise, that I have experienced involves getting used to the idea of being hit while maintaining your balance and relative relaxation. Oh, and you have to put up with some pain and bruising in the beginning.
Last, but not least, knowing how to take a punch is relatively useless for self-defence if you cannot carry the fight effectively to the opponent. While I teach a variety of exercises, including some that involve receiving and returning a medicine ball, as well as real punches to the torso with both a boxing gloved hand and a bare hand punch, this is well beyond learning from a written description.
The Old Masters were correct in repeating endlessly that there is no substitute for personal instruction. I will describe only one method that is relatively safe to experiment with, if you are doing so without personal instruction. This method is the result of my own research and experimentation although it is based on methods used by a variety of internal experts that I have met or studied with over the years. This basic method uses the open hand and relatively slow and gentle pushing only.
A pair of students stand with their feet shoulder width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other while facing each other. They should be close enough to each other so that their elbows remain comfortably bent even when the arms are extended. Their respective right or left shoulders should be facing each other.
One person (the "Sender") puts his open palm on the other person's lower torso and pushes slowly and firmly into the other person (the "Receiver"), who also has his or her hand on the Sender's lower torso. The Sender should have a balanced approach to how much force he or she uses: too much strength—and you will push the person over if you are bigger. If you are smaller, your shoulders and arms will soon get tired, especially if your partner resists skilfully.
The main rule is for the Sender to keep his or her balance, not use too much muscle, and not move their feet while pushing the Receiver into moving his or her feet. Use a timer to monitor short rounds and switch partner sides and partners frequently.
Remember to push smoothly and not to strike in any way (i.e., no sudden movements), and to practise on both sides. If your right hand is on your partner, then your right foot should be slightly forward, i.e., in a natural stance. Don't use a reverse stance, as it is easier to push by using the legs in either a crude or subtle manner.
Take turns being the "aggressor." The idea is for both people to move their arms and legs as little as possible while receiving the push and try to help the other person fall over if their push is stiffer than your returning. Oh, and there are many ways to cheat (e.g., leaning into your partner, overbending the knees, and springing up with those joints instead of using the waist and spine when returning the push, resisting the push, and then using your arm to return the push with it) while doing this exercise, so it is important to be perceptive when practising.
Dealing with a downward push is the easiest for anyone with rooting and relaxing skills; dealing with a straight ahead energy is harder, and deflecting or returning an upward push is the hardest of all. If both partners have roughly the same level of skill and are roughly the same size, the exercise can easily turn into a stalemate when neither would seem to be doing much to a casual observer. When this happens, you need a different partner, or you need to move onto the advanced versions of this exercise.
You have to listen with your palm both when receiving a push and while trying to return it with the gentle inflation of the abdomen, the twisting of the spine and a minimum of physical movement or effort. At first, practise only with a partner who is roughly your height and weight, or who has a great deal of control. Eventually, height, weight, and arm reach become less of a deciding factor.
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Devoted as I am to popularizing amateur boxing and to improving the caliber of this particularly desirable competitive sport, I am highly enthusiastic over John Walsh's boxing instruction book. No one in the United States today can equal John's record as an amateur boxer and a coach. He is highly regarded as a sportsman. Before turning to coaching and the practice of law John was one of the most successful college and Golden Gloves boxers the sport has ever known.