Siu Nim Tao: The KEY to Making Wing Chun Practical and Effective, Part I

Drilling the “fook sau/tan sau” section of the Siu Nim Tau form. The secrets held in this form can only be unlocked by action; by regular and focused performing of the form.

Many of my posts thus far have dealt more with concepts and realities of self defense and personal protection; they have been quite broad and intentionally so.  It was necessary for me to approach things in this way to set the tone for my approach to and interpretation of training in Wing Chun.  That is all well and good, but now I want to shift gears a bit and begin to focus on the more specific technical aspects of the system as it relates to the reality of combat and fighting.

When someone begins their study of Wing Chun, after the initial explanations of concept and theory, stance and structure, they jump right into the practice of the first form, Siu Nim Tao.  Literally translated it means “small idea” and is the gateway for anyone who wishes to gain proficiency in Wing Chun.

 SNT: Chinatown’s “Newbie” Test

Training in Chinatown, when I walked in the door and looked in at class I could tell right away who was new.  Each and every class we all performed the  Siu Nim Tao form together, as a class, before branching out and working on our respective tasks while the newbies still stayed pigeon-toed, hands straight, eyes looking at the clock or stealing glances at the more aggressive exercises the more seasoned folks were engaging in.

If I came in late and saw someone in the back of the room or right in front near the mirror, hand outstretched in a tan sau or slowly drawing the wu sau back, after we had already broken off into our respective skill levels I knew they were just getting started.

What Most People Think

All too often, many new folks who came in would be instructed in this form, one section at a time, and instructed to run through each section until further told.  Many grew a bit discouraged and left within a matter of a few weeks or so.  What I wish these people would have realized is the benefit received from training this form repeatedly. I myself have grown to appreciate the brevity and potency of training this form more and more as my years in Wing Chun pile up.

So many times, the first form is treated as something to “get through” in order to progress to the next phase of training or part of the class where you start doing the cool shit like rolling, stepping or entry drills.  Coming up the ranks I was just as guilty as anyone of this-I wanted to get through the for so I could start learning the second form, the stepping, chi sao drills and all that jazz.  Much attention is placed on the more “advanced” sets of Wing Chun while the first form is treated as something to be endured while waiting for the real training to start.

Ironic, isn’t it?  You bet.

What the Reality Is

The reality is that all advanced techniques, concepts and principles germinate and are found in the Siu Nim Tao set.  Indeed, all techniques, concepts and principles found in Wing Chun originate from the Siu Nim Tao set.   I can’t state it any plainer or beat this horse dead enough: you cannot expect to become proficient in Wing Chun if you neglect this form, period.

One of the best references I have ever seen on the application of the SNT form is the SIU NIM TAU SEMINAR DVD from Sifu David Peterson.  I have watched this DVD more times than I can recall and periodically do so to refresh all of the core concepts in my mind.  If you are looking to unlock the keys to what make this form the core foundation of Wing Chun, check out my detailed review & breakdown of what makes this DVD so valuable HERE and make use of it.  Often.


The term “structure” in Wing Chun is used so often it at times runs the risk of losing its’ meaning when people pay lip service to it but it does not reflect in their own execution of basic principles.  One of the first things taught in SNT practice is proper Wing Chun body structure through the use of the yee jee kim yeung ma or “goat gripping stance.” This is Wing Chun’s bread and butter, its’ Alpha and Omega. Without this key principle, you have nothing to build on and your Wing Chun will suck.  The structure derived from regular, focused practice of the SNT form is the introduction to this bedrock of training.

There are always levels of detail to anything inWing Chun, but for the sake of a good once-over for now the key points of this “foundational fortress,” as Sifu Gary Lam puts it, are listed below:

  • Inward tension on the thighs (specifically the inner thigh or adductor muscles)-this allows the body to truly operate as one unit especially as training progresses and movement is introduced.  If you have neglected or half-assed your SNT training and then begin stepping or the second form, you will wobble like the one Flying Wallenda guy that didn’t make it across the tightrope.  Rotation on the center axis without proper inward tension on the thighs is just not gonna happen.  Want to muddle through the first form to get to the stepping drill?  Forget it. It has been said that all footwork necessary for Wing Chun is contained in the first form.  So true-it is the inward tension of the thighs that propels the body forward in both forward and retreating stepping.  Stepping in and of itself is a stretching and snapping back of a proverbial bungee cord between your knees-an inchworm effect that slingshots you forward as one unit.  Without inward tension, stepping looks like walking through the mud with boots on, clop-clop!  No structure and as a result, you have the power of one of the surviving 90 year old midgets from the Wizard of Oz in your techniques.  I think I’ve whipped this dog enough, so let me just say it again: you cannot shift, step, advance, retreat, punch, strike or piss drunk in an alley if your body is not locked in as one unit, not only from the inward tension on the inner thighs but also with my next point…
  • The pelvis must be tucked forward with the anterior or front of the pelvis slightly higher than the rear.  Put your hands in front of you like you are holding a bowl, and then tilt it like you are drinking out of it.  Get the tilt?  Good. Now put your hands on your hips in the same fashion, with the thumbs facing backward and the webbing of your hand digging into the side of your body like a 5 year old who is about to throw a tantrum. Tilt your hips up from the front and down in the back as you gently squeeze your ass in and pop the hips forward. Now you’re locked in proper alignment of the hips; not leaning forward like you’re trying to win a limbo contest or sticking the ass out like you just got off the mechanical bull.  Ever watch a drunk guy piss in the alley or even stand up when he is a breath away from falling? You are witnessing the power of the Wing Chun stance at work.  The body knows how to right itself to maintain balance, which is why this dumbass’ pelvis is tucked forward his shoulders slouch-which, just like before leads me to my next point…
  • The chest is slightly concaved and the shoulders slightly slouch.  The 2 biggest mistakes made on the upper body are just like the ass-hip alignment of the lower body: either the shoulders are back and the chest is out, or the body curls over like a candy cane and takes on the posture of a 15 year old with skinny jeans and moppy hair who has the posture of an 80 year old with osteoporosis because he’s hunched over his cell phone or playing Call of Duty for 9 hours a day.  If the shoulders are out and back, you’re gonna get knocked over pretty easily since your hip tuck is already leaning you back without proper shoulder and upper torso curvature to balance it out. If you’re too hunched forward, you can’t generate enough power to do much of anything and will end up over-committing with your upper body to try to generate any forward pressure, which your opponent will, of course, pick up on right away spin you around like you’re square dancing and punch you right in the face. As the saying goes, moderation is the key, and in this case it rests right in the middle: Inhale, and think of the way Charlie Brown exhales and his body just sinks.  There is no forced curvature of the back; it just sets into a quasi-slouchy posture where the chest slightly caves, the shoulders slightly round and the body gently sets into the ground.  When viewed from the side, there is a slight “S” curve from the head, down the shoulders, to the hips, down the legs and into the heels. At the same time there should be a straight line from the ears through the shoulders down to the heels.  That is the line of force which generates from the “S” curve.  Combine this power of the “S” with the inward tension of the thighs and you have a coiled spring ready to shoot out.

Everything that makes the SNT form an essential component of your Wing Chun training has its’ roots in this stance.  Short-change this principle and you’re building a McMansion on a patch of sand instead of a poured concrete foundation.  Check out my detailed breakdown of Sifu Peterson’s DVD HERE and make the decision to apply those insights to your training.

The Shortcut to Ass-Kicking Skill

I always tell my students when they say they are too busy to practice at home or they have to travel or whatever else: If nothing else, practice the first form every single day with full attention and intention because when it comes right down to it, I’d rather fight someone who practices all the fancier, flashy stuff but neglects SNT any day of the week and twice on Sunday.


Train Smart, Stay Safe

Sifu Bobby

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