Snow at the Zojoji Temple, 1929. By Kawase Hasui


Winter is Coming

There are many attributes that make Cornell unique among America’s top universities. One could choose to focus on its philosophy of undergraduate education, beautiful setting or its long and pioneering history of Asian studies. All of that is true and good. The library’s collections are stunning. And yet the campus has a dark side.

The first hints suggest themselves shortly after halloween when small signs begin to appear on campus staircases and walkways warning unwary travelers that these paths will not be maintained during the winter. One undertakes the journey at your own risk. At first all of this seems like the ramblings of an over enthusiastic legal team. The staircases and walkways in question are not in some deserted corner of “the plantations.” These signs dot the campus’ main quads. They are referring to the areas that one will likely traverse.

By January the situation comes into an awful clarity. The signage is neither alarmist nor paranoid. The university (like everything else is Ithaca) is built on a hill, one that is now all the steeper for being covered with ice. Walking from the bus to the library can be enough to test anyone’s Kung Fu.

And then there is the snow. Having grown up near Buffalo NY I am used to major snow events. “Lake effect snow” is a part of my life. I cannot count the number of storms I have been in that have dumped three feet of snow in a couple of hours. While we tend not to get quite as much snow here in Central NY, an uncanny combination of typography, high winds and low temperatures combine to make winter driving in the area uniquely problematic. It certainly makes fieldwork seasonally challenging.

To sum the situation up, in Ithaca winter starts as a rumor, and quickly escalates to a nightmare.


A woodblock print of a samurai in the snow (under a morning moon) from Yoshitoshi’s famous 100 Aspects of the Moon.


The Martial Arts


All of this can be a challenge for martial artists. While there are many ways of classifying the traditional Chinese fighting styles (northern vs. southern, modernist vs traditional, internal vs. external, Han vs. minority, hard vs. soft….) I suspect that one of the most salient sociological divisions has largely been overlooked. That would be individuals who train in the park (or some other public outdoor space) vs. those who train primarily in an indoor studio.

Coming from a Wing Chun background, I was strictly a studio guy. When a reporter once asked what sort of environment my martial art had been developed in, I surprised him by answering “warehouses” rather than Red Boats or mythical temples (the answer that he seemed to be fishing for). Nor is Wing Chun alone in this regard. Many southern Kung Fu systems tend to be practiced indoors.

Various explanations are given for this, ranging from the extreme secrecy of their transmission to the traditional lack of open green space in the region’s cities. It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the conflicting explanations. Villages in the countryside tended to have open air “boxing grounds,” but in urban environments the closed studio, or rented temple courtyard, became the norm.

If pushed I would say that this probably reflected the realities of urban architecture rather than any deep seated cultural preference for walls and a roof. Yet what begins as a matter of expediency often becomes “tradition” as we create stories to interpret our own experiences. Modern cities in Southern China (and South East Asia) now have parks and green spaces. But one is much more likely to find Taiji, Bagua, or Jingwu students within them than Wing Chun or Choy Li Fut classes. Even in America my Sifu always conducted his classes indoors, even though the back of our school opened out onto a usually empty park. (Pole training was one of the few times we headed outdoors to make use of this resource). Cultural practices within the martial arts are innovated and stabilized rather than always being a product of the distant past.

Moving back to New York state has forced me to think carefully about some of these issues. Doing more weapons work, and lacking a dedicated studio for daily practice, I have found myself migrating from the ranks of “studio dweller” to “park person.” One of the really nice things about Ithaca is that the region is covered in parks and green spaces. One is never without a place to jog or train.

The downside to that, however, is that today’s high temperature is expected to be 2 degrees (the low is -7) and all of those “green spaces” are white. So should I grab by boots, hat and dragon pole to head outside for some training?


Pine Tree After Snow by Kawase Hasui (1929).


The Benefits of Winter Training

If one were to believe the media’s image of the Chinese martial arts the answer would certainly be yes. Even more than other styles, the Chinese combat arts are popularly imagined as properly residing in exotic outdoor locations (rather than Hong Kong’s distinctly unromantic basements). In this case I think we should let the myth be our guide. Sport scientists have documented a number of reasons why all sorts of exercise have added benefits when practiced outdoors.

For instance, they have noted that when leaving the gym and entering outdoor spaces individuals tend to work harder. In some cases this can be easily explained. Treadmills provide joggers with a safe, relatively low-impact, surface on which to run. Yet the exposure to factors like wind resistance and the natural dips and rises in landscape mean that when running at a given pace one always burns more calories outside. (This same effect is even more true for bikers where wind resistance is a much larger issue).

The situation gets even more interesting when scientists ask individuals to report on their subjective levels of exertion. Even though people are doing more work they consistently report feeling like they have expended less effort.

The explanation for this seems to lie in how we perceive our immediate environment and our place within it. Distance runners have long realized that keeping a set pace feels easier if you look at the horizon, or some distant point, rather than at your own feet. Being able to push our perception out helps to establish the almost subconscious goals that are important for managing feelings of fatigue or exertion.

Many of the benefits of outdoor exercise seem to derive from the links between human psychology and physiology. The medical community has known for some time that any sort of regular exercise program can reduce an individual’s stress levels and is generally good for one’s mental health. Yet all of these benefits are significantly boosted when that exercise is conducted outdoors. Studies have demonstrated additional improvements to short term memory, concentration and creativity, as well as improved levels of perceived “mental energy” and reduced stress. On the surface it would seem that there is no reason not to take your martial arts practice outside. (Except for the wooden dummy. PVC is ok, but aged wood rarely agrees with rain and temperature swings).

Unfortunately most of the existing research focuses on the benefits of training outdoors during the more temperate months. Little of it directly addresses the specific benefits of winter training, though there are exceptions. Given what we have just learned, that is a problem. Most of the benefits of outdoor exercise, everything from an increased ability to work to lower levels of inflammation, stems from the fact that our minds perceive this as a low stress environment and our bodies react accordingly.

Yet there are few things more stressful than contemplating a five mile run when its 20 degrees and snowing. It is not simply that we anticipate being uncomfortable. Exercising in the winter weather is difficult on a physiological level as well. The need to maintain a constant core temperature means that the number of calories burned while exercising in extreme weather may increase 20% to 40%. While I have always found winter landscapes to be psychologically peaceful, they do change the game in ways that require careful consideration.

Obviously there are risks involved in any exercise program, but some are unique to winter training. I have no hesitation about jogging or forms practice in the snow, but ice is another matter. Those doing cardio should be aware that individuals dehydrate more quickly in cold weather and take proper steps. Further, the universal advice to consult with a doctor before starting an exercise program goes double here. One burns more calories precisely because your lungs and heart are being forced to work harder. That can be a good thing for cardio-vascular training, but it might also be dangerous for some individuals. As a life-long asthmatic I always carry my inhaler when running in the winter and never jog when the temperature drops below 20 degrees as that can trigger breathing problems. At 30 degrees I can run all afternoon. Proper clothing (usually multiple layers that encourage wicking) is a must, and you should be well aware of the signs of hypothermia.

So why do it? Why train in a challenging environment? The easiest way to burn 40% more calories would just be to run on the treadmill in the gym 40% longer. Or maybe raise the incline. While not wishing to dismiss the obvious solutions, martial artists in particular may have a few reasons to seek out winter training.

For some purposes (such as practicing with long weapons) it may be the only chance that many of us have to advance during the winter months. But beyond that, there are at least three factors that need to be considered.

While the martial arts as we know them today are mostly a product of the modern world, they do have connections to much older systems of military training. Many martial artists are explicitly interested in reclaiming and experiencing this heritage. Given the fundamental changes within physical culture that have occurred over the last 1000 years (diet, medicine, clothing, life expectancy, posture, the experience of chronic pain, culturally inherited physical habits….) I am not generally enthusiastic about our ability to experience and understand that which our ancestors lived. But training outdoors is one of the few easy things that we can do to create a frame of experience that they would find more recognizable.

In traditional China and Japan (and all most every other area of the world) military training was conducted almost exclusively outdoors. The militias of southern China trained on village boxing grounds and in temple courtyards throughout the year. The same was true in northern China. The early training practices were by necessity weatherproof. Learning how your technique and footwork function on live terrain is an important exercise that is too often neglected. Experiencing it in the rain, sun and snow is also vital.

Nor can we forget about the age old tradition of “eating bitter” within the Chinese martial arts. When asking a friend why his elderly Chinese teacher insisted on training in the snow he laughed and said “Because he thinks that it makes us tough!” Other individuals might put forward a more complex theory based on training the circulation of one’s Qi. But in either case I think that the basic point holds. You can condition yourself to be more comfortable working in the extremes of both hot and cold, and that will improve both the quality of one’s Kung Fu and life. The more we do it, the less stressful it becomes.

The third and final reason, however, embraces the inherent stress and difficulty of the exercise. No matter how you cut it, exerting yourself in the snow and ice puts stress on your body and lungs. Windchills are uncomfortable and distracting. Footwork that is second nature in a controlled environment becomes anything but when tried on live terrain, covered in mud or snow. I find that I need to be much more conscious of my body position and balance when working on snow. It is the inherent difficulty of the the exercise that makes it useful.

In their short volume on coaching (Teaching Krav Maga) Guy Mor & Abi Moriya make a distinction between ‘learning,’ ‘practice’ and ‘training.’ Occasionally martial artists use these terms interchangeably, but I think that there is something to be gained from examining the distinctions that they propose. Learning happens when a student is introduced to new material. Practice occurs when that skill is repeated or improvised upon in under near ideal circumstances. But this is not enough. Training only occurs when students are asked to apply the skill in a stressful situation. Only then can we say that the skill is pressure tested.

The problem, of course, is that there are many types of stress. Someone shouting in your face is stressful, but so is an attack without warning. Multiple opponents increase the complexity of situation (resulting in stress), but so do the introduction of weapons. Confusion, physical discomfort, injury, poor lighting, all of these things add stress and complexity to the equation.
Unfortunately neither stress or complexity are perfectly fungible. Learning to manage one type of challenge does not guarantee success when a different scenario emerges. Such is the problem with reality. There is just too much boom and buzz.

That doesn’t mean that we give up. But perhaps it can change our understanding of our training environment and the opportunities that it affords. When is the right time to ‘practice’? When we need to concentrate on acquiring a complex new skill in a relatively simple environment. When is the right time to ‘train’? To add a little stress to our study; to see how movement acquires more meaning in a different space? In Ithaca the answer may very well be on a cold January evening just as the sun goes down. Axial tilt suggests that winter is going to happen. Martial spirit demands that we make the most of the challenge.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches.”