I had a beginning student in Karate a couple of years ago that really wanted to do heavy Kumite (Karate's word for sparring). Coming from a wrestling background, he was used to different types of defensive postures. While they were good for defending against grabs and take downs, they left him exposed to certain kicks, especially round houses to the ribs. Part of this was because of the nature of his open position kept his elbows away from his center line, losing the natural cover they provide around the torso.
He kept getting kicked there, either by the round house, or by a double punch-side kick combo. Almost every time, he got the the wind knocked out of him. No matter how many tips or drills I gave him, or how many times his seniors told him to keep his elbows in (especially during flurries), he would fail to parry his opponent's attacks and lose the match.
He was already participating in our Wing Chun class, so I decided to intensify his curriculum onto the road of free chi sao. Chi sao or, "Sticking Hands" is the hallmark training method of Wing Chun, and several other styles. It is a method specifically designed to make a trainee very sensitive and adaptable. Two students are always in contact with each others' hands and forearms, constantly employing snap punches, slapping parries, blocks, grabs, sweeps, and low kicks to the shins and knees. This teaches how these basic techniques can be used under a wide variety of scenarios, over and over again, developing extremely fast reflexes. He wasn't at that level yet, but I knew that once he had just a few days of doing free chi sao, it would give him the ability to instinctively protect his center line and waist in a way that fixed drills could not.
Within a week of him completing the basic Wing Chun curriculum for free chi sao and actively participating in it, the next Karate class began. From the moment Luke stepped into the ring, there was an apparent difference. He kept his elbows down and in, and most importantly, after an exchange to where he attacked, he was able to cover his center line without any trouble, and could nullify his opponent's counter attacks. No more painful round houses to the ribs, and an ability to instantaneously interpret and respond to multiple rapid attacks in a way he could not even do a short two weeks before. I saw him leave the Dojo that night with a distinct feeling of accomplishment. This made me very happy as a teacher. I remember my early days of always being pitted against superior opponents, and I was constantly having to learn from my mistakes. This kind milestone was definitely one that he will remember.
Moving beyond fixed drills
What chi sao ultimately does is free us from fixed drills that lack an aliveness aspect. While fixed drills are great, and provide much needed foundational work for students, they can pose a problem at times. Too many fixed drills sometimes can lead to the undesired effect of where the practitioner becomes too mechanical and rigid in an offhand situation, leaving them unable to adapt to a different position. Chi sao fills the gaps in between fixed drills, providing the necessary fluidity, and spontaneous adaptability needed to change in real time. The practitioner learns to flow effortlessly from one situation to the next, without a break in movement principles or technique.
Chi sao has had very strong influence on my training methods, and changed the way I teach fighting drills altogether. What I do these days is give rather simplistic fighting application drills to my students that they can remember and apply under pressure. As I give these out drills, it relieves me of the need to create all kinds of elaborate alternate escapes and counter scenarios. Because of the sensitivity gained from their chi sao training, they are able to adapt if they make a mistake, or they can continue to another method if their partner attempts to thwart their technique. It allows the student to grow and fill in the blanks according to their experience, and no longer enslaves them to fixed mechanical responses that have very little recourse beyond their specialty.
Although Wing Chun is probably the style best known for using chi sao extensively, many other styles use it to the same effect as well. Southern Preying Mantis uses it, Bagua Zhang has Rou Shou, Taiji Quan uses Tui Shou, etc. I encourage all martial artists of any style to explore the idea of chi sao, and tailor it as needed to their system. It has the potential to bring new life to your existing drills, and gives a certain ability to interpret seemly mysterious parts of classical martial arts forms into practical and sensible fighting applications. It truly is a jewel as a training method, one that I hope all Martial Artists can benefit from.