What is Chi Sao?

Video by @upsidedownbomb on IG

What is chi sao and why do we do it? The best person to answer that question is no longer with us, and that’s the legendary Bruce Lee. Lee has several infamous chi sao videos floating around the net i’m sure anyone can dig up. However there is another man I’m sure Lee would vouch for if Lee were alive today, and that man is Grandmaster John Melillo. Melillo was a Wing Chun student of Grandmaster Ip Ching, who was one of Ip Man’s sons. I first walked into Melillo’s class in 1998. It was a hole in the wall and a bunch of sweaty dudes wearing white shirts. Melillo had the biggest smile with a porcelain crown; was proud about the story on how he got his teeth knocked out. He explained to me what Wing Chun was as opposed to other martial arts. Then he pulled out a big old-school phone book; handed it to me and asked me to press it against my stomach as a shield. He then demonstrated the famous six inch punch. And yes it is real; it pushed my body backwards across the room! I’ve never felt anything like it. At such a short distance he delivered a torque in his fist that was magical. I immediately signed a 6 month contract and started my Wing Chun journey. He assigned his senior students at the time, Jon Linder and a big guy named Herb Schmieder (also great energy received from a guy named Sean, i remember he had dreadlocks), to teach me the chain punch. Jon looked like the leader of a biker gang; he was built like a gymnast and tatted from head to toe. He hardly spoke and never smiled; “learn Wing Chun” was his only language. Jon, years later, would eventually became my Sifu and took over the school under Melillo’s eye. It was Jon who showed me how to chi sao, and that was years later after I started my journey. During my time with Melillo, I learned chain punch, lop sao, and studied the four gates of Wing Chun as I watched the elder students engage in chi sao. I wanted to chi sao so bad; I was inpatient I couldn’t wait, but i had no other choice (it was restricted for me to learn at the time). There were so many other techniques that were essential to learn before diving into chi sao training. It’s the same as Jedi training; there are levels to everything and you cant start the level without getting past the ones underneath. Chi sao can be described as dancing with fists; organized exchange of tactical maneuvers manipulated by in-time reflexes as reactions. Meaning, the reflexes are being trained to be offensive and defensive as needed depending what the situation calls for. A reflex is the same, if not better than a reaction, if delivered without the thought. It’s like my hands have their own brain controlling them now, watching over me. I would open the cupboard and as the salt shaker starts to fall, my empty hand was there to catch it without the thought. And that’s what practicing chi sao accomplishes. It allows your body to react without your thoughts. When in training it feels like a chess game against an opponent with your hands and fists. Also known as “sticky hands”, during the duration of the exchange the idea is to have your hands stay “stuck” with your training partners hands. As you move your arms with your hands in a way that has a circular motion but the hand formation manipulates the carrying of an invisible ball. Since the hands are stuck, this means there will be a close distance of exchange, which is what the Wing Chun systems foundation is built on, combat in close quarters, or as some have put it, phone booth fighting. Engaging in chi sao training for at least an hour a day on a regular basis increases the dexterity in your hands. There are very specific techniques, both offensive striking and defensive striking, within each movement which builds the foundation of one’s chi sao game. It also trains the breathing and builds a unique stamina when one learns how to stay relaxed during the exchange. You will always need a partner in order to chi sao effectively and whats the point of doing anything if its not going to be effective? Words do no justice when trying to explain exactly what is chi sao, however a hands on lesson will change the life of any martial artist who seeks it.