Note: the Chinese terms in this article are in expressed in Cantonese.
Seven Star Praying Mantis kung fu has, as a part of its syllabus, health enhancing breathing exercises called (in Cantonese) Law Hon Gong which, when translated, means "The Monk’s Strength". Acquired from the fabled Shaolin Temple, these chi gong-styled breathing exercises have meditative, health enhancing, strength building, and martial training aspects to them.
The Law Hon Gong movements and postures combine to a total of eighteen. They are believed to be the chi gong movements the Shaolin temple monks used to increase the strength of their martial arts.
Although at present there is no written history as to which of the Seven Star Praying Mantis teacher brought the Law Hon Gong into the system it is thought to be fifth generation Fan Yuk Tung. He was known as "Giant Fan" as he weighted about three hundred pounds.
Nicknamed "the giant" and "the broadsword", he gained notoriety for an incident involving a pair of bulls. As Fan was crossing a farmer's field he was confronted by two angry bulls. As the bulls charged, Fan kicked the first one and palm struck the second one. Both bulls died and the farmer, although not happy with the death of his livestock, accepted the explanation. Word of this incident soon spread and generated some notoriety for Fan. He also gained even more of a reputation when he traveled to Russia where he won a challenge match.
Fan made several trips to the Shaolin temple and spent time there researching with the monks. He also took some of his top students including Lo Kwang Yuk, (whom Fan sent to teach at the Shanghai Ching Mo Association in 1919) on these Shaolin temple research trips.
From these trips to the Shaolin temple, as well as his other work with the Seven Star Praying Mantis system, he wrote five volumes titled "The Shaolin Authentic". These handwritten manuals contained concepts on fighting skills, medical information and historical aspects of kung fu. Contained in one of these five volumes is the eighteen exercises of the Law Hon Gong complete with replicas of the original drawings of the Shaolin monks demonstrating the postures of each exercise. Because Fan was visiting the Shaolin temple for research around the time he wrote the five Shaolin Authentic volumes, which included the Law Hon Gong, it is generally accepted that Fan adopted these health and strength building exercises into the Seven Star Praying Mantis kung fu system.
Breathing properly is considered to be a high level of kung fu ability and the Law Hon Gong exercises offer important insights into these skills. To be able to control the breath during kung fu technique is difficult and takes considerable practice. It is the inclusion of the Law Hon Gong in one’s kung fu that helps increase the practitioner’s understanding of breath control.
In the execution of the Law Hon Gong exercises the practitioner maintains the following breathing protocols: the tongue is held against the roof of the mouth, the teeth are kept together but not clenched, and the jaw is relaxed. The breath is drawn in through the nose at a steady pace deep into the lungs. As the air is pulled into the lungs the diaphragm contracts to allow the lungs to expand and fill with air. The inward breath fills the lungs right to the bottom. The abdominal area expands as the intake of air fills up the lungs completely. This is sometimes referred to as Buddhist-style breathing.
In the Law Hon Gong exercises the completion of the breath inward continues until the lungs cannot take any additional air. At that point the practitioner continues to gently force air in even for a couple of seconds though no more can be accommodated. This has the appearance of the practitioner holding his breath. However, it is simply a continued intake of breath.
The exhalation follows a mirror opposite of the intake of breath. The tongue and teeth are kept in the same position. The breath is exhaled out of the nose. Because the Law Hong Gong is taught as a part of a fighting system then training of breath control must reflect that. The breath is not exhaled through the mouth to protect the practitioner from potential injury. If, for example, a person were to be hit on the jaw during a confrontation and they had their mouth open for breathing then there would be a possibility of serious injury. Keeping the mouth closed during combat is a safer method of breath control activity.
As the breath is exhaled and travels out the nose the abdominal area contracts as the diaphragm expands to help expel the breath. When the breath is completely exhaled then the practitioner continues to gently breath out even though no air is left in the lungs.
This method of continuing to breath in when the lungs are full and continuing to breath out when the lungs are empty has a number of benefits. Since the lungs are completely filled and emptied they are being exercised to their capacity. This can help detoxify the body of "bad air" and increase the oxygenation of the brain and muscles. This gives the practitioner more energy and increases stamina.
The Law Hon Gong exercises can be conducted without the continued breathing at the intake in and exhalation. The breathing is carried out the same way. However, at the end of each inhalation and exhalation there is no pause and the breathing pattern is continuous.
There is some of the Law Hon Gong postures which simply require normal deep breathing, as they are static positions. In this way, the focus is more on the posture and not so much on the breath control. The breath should still be of a slow, even, and full nature using all of one’s lung capacity.
Most of the time people without breath control experience just use a portion of their lungs when breathing normally. This means that through the Law Hon Gong breathing exercises practitioners learn to utilize all of their lung capacity.
When the lungs are exercised at their capacity in a controlled pattern then the practitioner gains experience in managing the actual function of breathing. This is important when engaging in the practice of forms or sparring.
The normal breathing condition that happens when there is an oxygen debt, built up by exertion, is a panting action. There is a natural subconscious reaction to speed up the breath to pay back the oxygen debt with this type of breathing. However, this is not the most efficient way to recover one’s breath.
Learning to control the breath through the Law Hon Gong allows the practitioner to regulate the rate of breathing so he can consciously speed it up as the oxygen debt increases and at the same time keep the breath in an even rhythm. All the while the breath continues to be drawn fully in and out of the lungs reducing the need for panting. This makes the breath action act like a pump giving the practitioner efficient oxygen debt repayment.
The experienced practitioner of the Law Hon Gong will, after learning and regularly practicing these breathing exercises, breath in a deep and more rhythmically fashion as a normal state. No longer is the practitioner’s regular breathing just in the top part of the lungs, but each breath is taken deeper into the lungs. For the law Hon Gong practitioner, regular breathing is also somewhat slower than a person without this type of training. Because the breath is slower and more measured it helps to keep the practitioner relaxed and more alert, even during periods of stress.
Another aspect of the Law Hon Gong routines is the gentle massaging of the internal organs by the diaphram and stomach muscles during the execution of the breathing cycle. This is considered quite beneficial for the health of the internal organs.
Another advantage to practicing the Law Hon Gong postures is the health aspect for the body’s muscles. Many of the postures are conducted with a stretching component. For example, these postures begin with an exhalation cycle that moves into a stretch position. The exhalation of breath helps relax the muscles being stretched. As the inward breathing cycle begins, the stretching posture is slowly released.
Because these stretching postures in the Law Hon Gong are conducted with slow controlled movements, the muscles being stretched become used to being extended in a movement environment. This helps give the body’s muscles better conditioning for the more ballistic actions of kung fu techniques.
There is also Law Hon Gong exercise postures that are designed to help strengthen the body’s muscles. Some of the movements are done with a dynamic tension approach through the movements. This will naturally strengthen important muscles groups used in kung fu techniques.
Other postures in the Law Hon Gong are martial stances held as the arms are moved in a fighting-like application. By holding kung fu stances in these breathing postures the correct structure can be developed. As well, the slow action of moving into the stances helps develop good body linking skills critical for the development of waist "body power." The strength needed for these stances is also enhanced in this way.
There is also a posture in the Law Hon Gong exercises designed to massage the lower back and kidneys. The legs are crossed in a twisting horse stance and the arms are held loosely at the sides of the body. The shoulders are then rotated backward alternately. This gentle movement acts to massage the base of the back. In this posture the breathing is done at a natural pace and does not follow the held extra retention method. Each breath, however, is done deeply and slowly.
One posture in the Law Hon Gong serves to develop balance. The feet are slightly apart and the practitioner rocks back on his heels with the toes off the ground. At the same time he holds his open hands away from his body, palm inward, at face level. Not only does balance become a factor but the muscles in the calves are also worked.
Since the Law Hon Gong exercises are designed to build the body’s strength there is an exercise that is done in a "push up" position. As the body is lowered toward the ground in the push up posture the person breathes out. As the body is raised the breath is taken in. There is also an opposite position to the "push up" with a crab like posture. The practitioner raises his torso up from the floor to a level position. The breath is taken in as the body is raised and exhaled out when the body is lowered.
All the exercises in the Law Hon Gong are conducted eight cycles. Either the movement is conducted eight times with matching breath or the static posture has the practitioner breath eight cycles before moving on to the next posture.
Although the Law Hon Gong should be done with a full cycle of eight movements along with the corresponding eight breaths a practitioner’s busy schedule may not always permit doing the full set of eight. There is still some value in doing each posture a couple of times. It is also useful to use a selected few of the eighteen Law Hon Gong exercises. If there is only time to do a few of the Law Hon Gong routines then each practice session should change which ones are used. Over time, then, all of the postures can be practiced.
If a person does not wish to perform the full breathing aspect of the Law Hon Gong exercises can be conducted by simply executing the breathing cycle with a slow deep continuous in and out cycle. This will not have the same beneficial effect as the longer version, yet it takes less time and still offers many of the advantages.
The Seven Star Praying Mantis Law Hon Gong exercises, obtained from the Shaolin temple offer many health, breath control, and kung fu application benefits. When practiced regularly, they can help the practitioner to develop a better understanding of the important concept of kung fu breath control.