This will be the dedicated Iron Hand page and will have stories of learning this sometimes brutal art and the tempering of mind and body that you undergo in it’s learning. Here is a link to an early Iron Hand article that Lao Tzu did using us as practice dummies. My brother and I are pictured there, that’s me with yet another in a long line of stupid hair cuts. It was actually a long ass Mohawk that was plastered down to the best of my ability. Thanks Lao Tzu for putting up with me.
I teach and practice to this day both the basic and advanced Iron Hand methods and have moved up to the more advanced, (this means more painful!) Tapioca pearls from soy beans. This change actually came about due to a sudden onset of severe allergy when using the soy. Soy beans have always bothered me, making me sneeze and become congested but not to the point where I couldn’t get through it. Then it began to gradually get worse with a rash breaking out on my forearms and severe wheezing that was nearly an emergent situation one time, making it impossible to train. So I decided to try tapioca pearls because I recall Sifu saying you could use them and I had used the small pearls in my Iron Hand bag before. Amazingly I could not find any here in Arizona so I took a trip to California and went to the Korean market by Sifu’s house in Irvine.
They did not have the small pearl so I got what I thought would be enough of the large pearl and took them back to Sifu’s house to fill my barrel. I dumped them in and it only filled the barrel about two-thirds of the way and I was concerned about it being deep enough. Sifu got that glint in his eye and said, “Try it”. I gave it a little half-assed strike with my finger tips and it hurt like shit. I had only gone in maybe to my wrist if I am generous with myself, I couldn’t believe the difference. Sifu chuckled and said, “Tapioca is much harder, the main reason I teach with soy beans is that most people can barely do it with them let alone tapioca beans”.
Using the large pearls with the rough texture coupled with the larger size makes for more friction between each pearl requiring more force to spread them apart and providing more trauma to the hand. These same properties make them more difficult for the iron Hand bag as well. Not as advanced as iron pellets although I did do the iron pellets for almost 3 years and tapioca is a close second and a great transition material before moving to iron pellets. The Tapioca pearls are difficult and it is very easy to tear your skin due to the increased friction compared to soybeans. I found myself looking up again from the bottom of the ladder. Being constantly challenged no matter how far you progress is why I love Kung Fu.
After a few months I actually did have to add more pearls and make a taller bucket, getting consistently past my elbow with the finger strikes. It was a difficult road back; not quite as painful as the first time learning Iron Hand but it was close and was hard on the skin so I started cooking my hands for 10 minutes before where with the soy beans I had cut out cooking altogether at Lao Tzu’s suggestion and just applied the Dit Da Jow as in the usual procedure for basic Iron Hand. He said I had been doing it long enough that I didn’t need to worry about cooking but sometimes I wonder and I started to adopt the ten minutes before and after approach. I have enough problems with my eyes as it is.
My progression into the art of Iron Hand was interesting to say the least. I have one thing to say to those that think Iron Hand is a joke and breaking tile and bricks is a trick; beware the man that breaks with no spacers for you have found the real deal as they say. I was fortunate to be there the day those photos above were taken and the stack of tile was very interesting. Lao Tzu, being a human, was a little hesitant whether he could break them all because the number was a personal record for him and with no spacers of course; using spacers is not legitimate breaking. Lao Tzu decided to kind of “size it up” and he set up over the huge-looking pile and worked his fist up and down a few times; it looked like a rock floating up and down. Suddenly he just dropped it on the stack the entire bottom half of the stack broke! He said, “Oh, shit!”, as surprised, it seemed, as any of us and we quickly set up the shot and he finished breaking the stack with another full shot from that meaty ham. It was pretty awesome.
As with everything I became consumed and if I had the financial capability to buy the material I would have gotten more into breaking like Sifu had done and unfortunately I took no photos of the breaking that I did do. We definitely dabbled in it for awhile and were spending a lot of money at one point but I gradually lost interest in that aspect of Iron Hand. Sifu said it was mainly an enjoyable stunt and was not necessary to do to have strong hands. I quit breaking but still kept practicing the advanced thrusting style and then learned the back of the hand training. I thought that the first couple weeks of the thrusting training was pretty painful; there were times when it was a major effort of will, nearly in tears of pain and frustration, to continue and finish the session. But that cursed stick was another level of pain entirely.
I really had some issues doing that training. Most people up until that time only did one hand and even in Taiwan and China most would pick one hand to be the “deadly” one but my brother and I of course had to do both. I started my left hand with the stick but finished with the Iron Roller Bar so it is not as strong as the back of my right hand which I completed with the stick. I did the right hand first and was doing well, probably about two weeks into it where Sifu was still doing the beatings for me but the pain had greatly decreased. Despite warnings to abstain I could barely resist my beautiful girlfriend at the time and we were into it anytime anywhere. She came into the school once while a class was going on and she stopped the show and had mouths hanging open. She looked so hot that evening that when we left together after class we did it right in the parking lot in her car. You can ask Lao Tzu about her; he of course loved her.
I didn’t think one time would matter and in truth I don’t recall exactly if it wasn’t accumulative after a couple of times but I don’t think so. I do know that the next day after waking in the morning my hand had swollen up to the size of a grapefruit. I could not close my fist and trying to force it closed with all my might made it look like my hand was going to explode. It took two weeks of no Iron Hand and a special poultice made from Iron Hand herbs before I could start again and my right hand has always looked a little different, thicker, ever since. No long term damage obviously but it was pretty alarming; that training is no joke. I did successfully complete it and I loved to test it out in various unorthodox ways since I could not afford to extensively practice breaking past a certain point of. I do kind of regret not pursuing it more fully but I have been assure by Lao Tzu that it is not necessary for strong hands.
One stunt that I loved was using the back of my hand to knock the cap off of beer bottles, breaking the top off more than once, always at the very base of the cap so I never got cut. My friends loved that one. I would also take a small cloth, same as I would use if I were doing a break just to protect the skin from abrasion, cover the head of a nail and proceed to hammer it into a two by four, usually bending it after about an inch. It may not sound like a big deal but try it and get back to me.
I met some pretty extreme people over the years and not the least of which was a Vietnam era veteran Navy SEAL that I met through Lao Tzu McNeil’s school in Orange. The partial story of this guy is on the instructor page of this website. He was a bit of a shady character to say the least and I have a laundry list of stories of incidents that occurred running the streets of southern California with this guy. He took me one time to meet a friend of his that worked for his dad and was his dad’s west coast liaison in the “commodities” business. He had occasional use of a bodyguard and I wanted nothing more than the opportunity to pad my resume with realistic experiences to solidify my abilities. This was my “tryout” to work for the guy who was a pretty seedy looking individual and looked like he loved his own product, sweating profusely on a mild day.
We were in his backyard and the three of us were talking, with my SEAL buddy selling my skills to Mr. Sweaty. He was pretty gnarly looking with a prison feel about him, not a guy to try to bullshit. So I thought to myself “fuck it” and started looking around the guy’s backyard for something to break. I was having no luck until my eyes settled on an unconventional piece of lumber. It was a piece of wood about a foot square that was cut out of a grape stake yard fencing which you construction types will be familiar with; it is the most common fencing material for tract homes in California and it is a nearly unbreakable combination of strength and flexibility. A sledgehammer would just bounce off and probably injure the wielder. It was several individual vertical pieces nailed together by one cross piece offset toward one side. I knew it wouldn’t break but I was also confident that it would not hurt my hands either and I was a little out there mentally during this time period.
I set it up split between two makeshift uprights trying to replicate as closely as possible the way you would support a proper breaking attempt but with nothing to really work with. With much fiddling I got it balanced between a log stump and the brick planter that ran around the yard. The guy I was “auditioning” for was dubious at best, fidgeting and bored and snorting more marching powder; that is until I started punching the scrap of fencing with my fist…CRACK!! The first one snapped his head up and got his attention. Just as I had figured, it didn’t break but made a splintering noise that the imagination could easily turn to bone giving way and I drove my fist into it over and over again, getting into a rhythm; whoosh, CRACK! Whoosh, CRACK! The scrap bounced off the supports and I grabbed it and slapped it back down and started blasting it again. The whole time it was like I was in my own world and I would have kept punching until the thing broke, however improbable.
Finally after about thirty bone splitting shots he yelled, “Okay, okay!! Jesus Christ , man you got the job! I looked at my buddy and he just cracked that rictus smirk he called a smile and said, “I knew you wouldn’t let me down”.
The Iron Hand students out there will be familiar with the piercing a watermelon stunt. It actually is less of a trick than most martial art stunts in that there is really no trick to help make it happen. Your fingers are either strong enough or they are not. Most Kung Fu and Karate Iron Body and breaking stunts have little “tricks” for lack of beating around the bush. That is not to say that said stunt still doesn’t require skill and strength, it does, except for the most heinous of cheats like drying boards in an oven so they will break with a pinkie strike for example. The watermelon is different because you can’t cheat and it will hurt you if you aren’t ready even though it seems easy at first thought.
My first time trying it may be a similar experience to that of some of you who were sand bagged by Lao Tzu when he told you how to go about practicing it. It wasn’t exactly ethical but my soul is being bared. Stand by for more.