Why Do You Study Tai Chi, Xingyi or Bagua -- Peeling the Layers of the Onion

Leading a workshop on body mechanics.

When I teach, I try to give a lot of detail, especially about the body mechanics that make the internal arts so powerful. Sometimes, however, it's not good to overwhelm students who are just learning a form. We all occasionally need to take it one layer at a time when it comes to complexity.

I spent many years studying Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua without being taught some crucial details. The reason I wasn't taught it? Because my teacher didn't know the details. A lot of times, we think our teachers are masters because they say they are. Especially before the internet, there was no real way to know for sure. We just took a teacher at his word. That's not enough anymore.

The truth is, the internal arts can be as simple or as complex as you want them. If you want to do them for health and fitness, you can just learn the choreography and that might be enough for you.

I try to start every student's learning with the six key body mechanics that I identified after studying Yang style for more than a decade and then studying Chen style. In Yang style, there is a famous list of ten requirements for tai chi, but in my opinion, they are not the most important things at all. Let's face it, does it really matter if your head feels as if it is suspended on a string if you have no ground path or peng jin? It might be important in the overall scheme of things, but in my opinion, if you don't have ground and peng working together, it doesn't matter at all. But the ground path and peng jin are not included in the list of top ten things that are taught most often in Tai Chi.

I think at the bare minimum you need to know how these mechanics and principles are used in each movement:

  1. The ground path
  2. Peng jin
  3. Opening and closing the kua
  4. Dan T'ien rotation
  5. Whole-body movement
  6. Silk-reeling.

If you understand these six, you can begin doing quality internal arts. And you can step into any teacher's Taiji class and you might even know more than the teacher. But these six concepts are just part of the big picture. When you keep learning, you keep peeling back more layers of the onion. You learn how to be in a relaxed state of readiness. You learn to sink your "chi." You learn how to close the legs. You can also get deeper into the kua, and learn the subtleties of shifting weight. You learn how to lift the energy to the crown of the head.

Something might seem like a "small detail," but it could have a big difference on quality. For example, when you see someone shift their weight from one leg to the next, are their hips moving a lot in space, or are they using the kua to shift weight? The difference between those two concepts just might be a big difference between "external" and "internal" movement. Look at YouTube taiji videos and you see a lot of hips moving in space. You see hips turning in ways that throw you off-center. You see knees swimming in space, too, and knees collapsing during movements. You see stress being put into the knees when the person is stepping or shifting weight forward.

If you want to get deeper still, you can start thinking of the jin that is in each movement -- the "energy" and the intent that particular movement has. Within one movement, such as "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar," many different "jin" can manifest from one part of the movement to the next.

That's one of the reasons I think it's important to learn the self-defense applications of movements. It's a great way to learn the true intent of a movement, and the energy and body method used.

"Flash the Back" from the Chen 19 is a movement we worked on in class yesterday. Now, if you just learn the choreography, you step the left foot back and chop the right hand down between your legs. But if you go a bit deeper, you feel the movement in the body, including the closing of the torso and ribs, that you would feel if you were doing a hip throw on an opponent.

Go a little deeper and you feel the legs closing and you connect the movement of the hand with the turning of the Dan T'ien with the closing of the torso and the spiraling/closing through to the foot.

So I tend to teach the movements first in a simple way, but soon I fill in details. I do this for two reasons. For one thing, I am interested in the detail, and when I teach, I'm also practicing.

Reason number two is because maybe a few months from now, you'll be working on a movement and suddenly "DING!" -- the lightbulb will turn on in your mind, and you'll think, "Oh, THAT's what he meant." And you will take another step forward in your insight. This has happened to me many times. The steps forward often happen when I am alone, practicing a movement and "feeling" through the body mechanics.

Actually, there is a third reason I teach the details: because it took so long for me to find teachers that knew those details. I want to save my students a little time and a lot of money.

But it doesn't matter what depth you learn if you don't practice. All these mechanics are difficult because they disrupt the way we have learned to move. Of course it's difficult. As Chen Xiaowang says, "If Taiji were easy, everyone be master!"

It doesn't really matter why you study these arts. Fitness, self-defense, self-discipline, goal-setting, health -- there are plenty of reasons. And sometimes your reasons might change. I didn't realize Taiji was such a great fighting art when I first began studying. The more I learned, the more fascinated I was at the self-defense applications of these gentle movements.

But step one was simply learning the movements -- one by one, in order, and knowing where my hands go and where my feet go without messing up. Just practicing the movements can be good for your health, flexibility, leg strength and concentration.

And if you want to go forward after learning the basic movements, this is a pool that gets deeper the farther you dive down. I have been practicing Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua for 37 years and I'm still working, trying to learn more, and trying to improve as I practice and teach. And sometimes, when I learn something of higher quality, I change the way I have been doing things. It's what you have to do if you are going to develop your skills. It's all part of the process of peeling back the layers of this internal onion.

Contact me if you have any questions about practicing or about what you should study next.

--by Ken Gullette

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Are You a Failure at Martial Arts?

Ken-Nancy-St-Pete-2024-smallI received an email from one of my online members who said he hasn't been practicing much lately because of a busy work schedule. He felt like a failure as a martial artist.

The truth is, you should never feel like a failure at martial arts. Sometimes, life, work, family, and other important activities can get in the way of a regular practice schedule. It happens to all of us occasionally. It's okay.

I don't know why you got into martial arts, but I got into it for three reasons:

Reason 1 -- I wanted to learn how to fight more effectively, like Bruce Lee and Kwai Chang Caine.

Reason 2 -- I kung-fu is cool.

Reason 3 -- To impress women. Of course, this is why some of us guys do anything.

I might be in my 70s now, but I still like to impress Nancy. That's why every now and then, I whip out my broadsword. 

As Joe Biden would say, here's the deal. Don't get suckered by the tough keyboard warriors online who pretend you're not worthy if you aren't ready to enter an MMA ring. That isn't real life self-defense. I'm not ready to do an MMA match, but I'm also not ready to play an NBA game or play for the Chicago Cubs. I'm not a professional athlete. That is not real life for most of us.

Here's something else to think about: we all get busy. We all have responsibilities. And sometimes, we get tired.

Give yourself a break. Be good to yourself. 

Last week, I took a week off. Nancy and I flew to St. Petersburg, Florida on Sunday and flew back the next Sunday. For a week, I didn't practice, I didn't scribble ideas or plans, I didn't teach and I didn't study. I tried not to think of martial arts. It was wonderful to spend a week slacking off with the woman I love. The photo above was taken at John's Pass in St. Pete.

And guess what? I took a week off and nobody died.

To me, martial arts is fun. I love making progress, even taking a baby step forward. After 50 years, I still make progress in my understanding and my movement. That's exciting.

So here's my advice if you feel like a failure for not taking the time to practice as much as you want.

To be honest, you are a failure if you DON'T spend time with your family, your partner, your kids, instead of working out. On your death bed, you will not be saying, "Damn, I wish I could run through Laojia Yilu one more time." No, you'll be thinking, "I wish I had another day with my family."

Now, how do we strike a balance and work our way back to a more regular practice schedule?

If you have just five minutes a day to focus, practice a silk-reeling exercise, or one of the Xingyi fist postures, or the Bagua Basic Palms form; just five minutes a day and you can make progress.

If you have ten minutes, that may be all you have today, but you can make progress.

If you're a member of my website, log onto the site and practice to one of the videos that breaks down a movement in one of the forms. Whichever form you are working on, it doesn't matter. Take 10 minutes and try to gain a new insight into one movement.

If you do this each day, it might spark the excitement again and before long, you'll start finding the time.

Remember, you are not in a competition. Take the pressure off yourself. Very few of us are going to be Bruce Lee, or Chen Xiaowang, or even Jean-Claude Wham Bam Van Damme.

So train when you can, but don't think of yourself as a failure if you don't.

Life is busy. Go with the flow. Thinking of yourself as a failure isn't fun. Don't forget to have fun.

--by Ken Gullette 

Internal Arts Teacher and DAOI Podcast Host William Bentley is Guest on the 74th Internal Fighting Arts Podcast

Bill-BentleyI met Bill Bentley when he hosted me on the DAOI Talks podcast. He is involved with the Daoist Arts Organization International (hence the name DAOI Talks). Bill is a good man who teaches Xingyi through daoistgatecenter.org, and privately he teaches Xingyi, Bagua, Wudang style sword, and self-defense. He began his martial arts training at the age of 10 in a Shaolin-based family style of kung-fu (the same school I started in way back in 1973), and since then, Bill has studied Wing Chun, Jeet Kune Do concepts (including Filipino martial arts), and the Kendo and Aikido. Later, after a serious injury, Bill practiced qigong and developed an interest in the Wudang arts. He now studies with Master Zhou Xuan Yun, training with him in the arts of Xingyi Quan and Taiyi Xuan Men Jian sword practice, as well as Taiji and Bagua. He has also studied the Wudang Taiji 108 with Rosie Segil and Qigong with Anita Eredics. He also lives in my hometown, Lexington, Kentucky. The podcast runs an hour and four minutes. You can listen through the player below or you can download the podcast. Enjoy!


A Lack of Motivation to Practice Martial Arts and a Change of Perspective

One of my online members asked a question in an email last night. He asked how I would respond to a student (himself) who found it difficult to motivate himself to practice.

I smiled when I read it, because I can't count the number of people who swore they would be my best student but dropped out quickly when they realized how difficult it is to learn martial arts. 

I replied, "I would tell him that even 10 or 15 minutes a day can help you move forward. But what teachers THINK is that it's a lot easier to think about being a martial artist than it is to actually do the work to develop skill."

He thanked me for my fast reply, but I realized he had bought his first DVDs from me in 2016. So I replied back and asked him how I could help him.

What he told me next caused a real shift in perspective.

He told me he was so far along in kidney failure that he found it difficult to practice. He also let me know that he has diabetic neuropathy in his feet, making him unable to feel the floor.

Isn't it interesting how we don't know what people are going through unless they tell us? Here he is, fighting kidney failure and other problems, and he still has a desire to practice martial arts. That is truly inspiring.

I know the feeling. Losing a lung, coughing up blood off and on for years, developing exercise-related asthma -- I know first-hand how much motivation it takes to practice despite the punches we take from life -- to practice even when we're gasping for air -- to practice even when we don't feel like it.

So this guy is my kind of person. And I gave him a message that I would give anyone. That message is:

Take care of yourself.

In the final moments of your life, if you are fortunate enough to realize it is your final moment, you will not be wishing you could practice Laojia Yilu again, or hit the punching bag, or do some sparring.

You will be wishing you had one more moment to spend with your loved ones.

I love many things in my life. I love to write. I love good rock 'n roll. I love martial arts.

But there are things more important than any of that: my wife, my children, my grandchildren.

Practice hard if you can. Find 10 minutes a day if that's what will get you moving and practicing. Then maybe add another five minutes here and there until you are practicing 30 minutes a day. Then add more time if you can. If you have issues that can cause you to lose your mental balance, spend five minutes a day -- or more if you can -- practicing qigong. Calm your mind and body.

But don't beat yourself up about it. Martial arts should be fun. There's a serious intent behind learning to defend yourself, but I believe you should have a good time doing it, and not make it so painful an experience that you avoid it.

Practice hard if you can. Remain centered at all times. Enjoy every moment you can. And be good to yourself.

--by Ken Gullette

Song Style Xingyiquan and the Chen Taijiquan Practical Method -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Raphael Smith

In the 73rd edition of my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, I interview Raphael Smith. He is a disciple of Song Style Xingyquan Master Li Yujie and he teaches Xingyiquan and Chen Taijiquan Practical Method, among other combat-related arts, in Sacramento, California.

Check out the interview or download it here.

A Zen Parable on the Existence of Evil Demons

From the Zen book, A Handful of Nothing (available on Amazon)

In GardenA new year was approaching. In the village, the Spring Festival was underway. Monks visiting the village encountered people who were excited about goals they were setting to achieve in the new year that involved good luck, health, and prosperity.

A shopkeeper asked the young monk, "Are you looking forward to the new year? Stay in the village for the afternoon. There will be fireworks at dusk to ward off evil spirits."

"Evil spirits," the monk repeated, considering the words.

When he returned to the monastery, he found the old master in the garden, where the air was filled with the scent of blooming flowers, heralding the arrival of spring.

"Master," the young monk said, "in the village, fireworks are being set off this evening to ward off evil spirits."

Wisely, the master replied, "And you are wondering if evil spirits are a reality?"

The monk smiled. "It seems you can see into my mind."

The master laughed, then turned and looked down. "See these flowers," he said, his hand gesturing. "To some, they are symbols of beauty and life. To others, who may have suffered from thorns or allergies, they might symbolize pain and discomfort."

The monk looked at the flowers, admiring the colors of yellow, red and purple. He breathed deeply to enjoy the calming aroma of roses, and the lavendar scent of hyacinth.

"When people believe in demons," the master continued in a calm, measured voice, "their belief is like their reaction to these flowers; shaped by their experiences, their fears, and their hopes. The mind is a powerful creator of realities. It can turn fear into a demon and misunderstanding into a malevolent spirit. But remember, these are creations of the mind, nurtured by ignorance and fear. Sometimes, beliefs are encouraged by those who have a personal interest in your belief in demons."

His eyes scanned the garden for a moment, then he said, "In a garden, if you plant flowers, flowers grow. In people, if you plant ignorance and fear, ignorance and fear grow."

A butterfly was flitting from flower to flower as the young monk followed with his eyes, watching as the butterfly seemed unconcerned with thorns it occasionally encountered. 

The old master turned to the young monk and said, "The true battle is not with spirits and demons outside of us but with the delusions within. Overcome these, and no spirit or demon can harm you."

The young monk bowed to his master and walked slowly through the garden, enjoying the glorious colors and fresh smells of spring. He reflected on the practice of seeing the world as it is, with a view unobstructed by the delusions and fears others want to plant within us.  

--by Ken Gullette


Leaking Energy in Your Tai Chi Movement and Breaking Structure

In my live online Taiji classes this week, I focused on the first two or three movements of the Laojia Yilu form and focused on what it takes to avoid "leaking energy."

You can leak energy throughout the form. When you step, or when you shift your weight, it's very common to see even people who call themselves "master" leaking energy and going "outside the frame."

When you leak energy during your movement, you have a break in your structure, and you put yourself in a vulnerable position, making it easier for an opponent to control your center.

Let's look at the very first movement in a form -- the Opening movement when you start with feet together, then you relax, sink, and step your left foot to the right. Then you shift your weight to the center before your hands rise.

Here is a Taiji instructor who will remain unidentified (this is about principle, not shaming). There are many instructors I could have chosen. In Image 1, he is preparing to step out. Notice the angle of his right leg.

Hip 3











Now, look at Image 2. When he steps his left foot to the side, his hip shifts to the right, breaking his structure immediately. It doesn't even have to be very much of a shift.

Hip 4











I see a lot of people doing this. When their left foot steps to the left, their hip moves to the right. When this happens, they are automatically losing their center from the very beginning of the form.

And it doesn't have to be much of a movement. When your left foot steps to the side, if your right hip moves to the right, you are breaking your structure in the very first movement.

Take a look at the next two images. When I step out with the left foot in Image 4, I try to stay "in the frame" and not let my structure break.

Hip 1














Hip 2














Watch yourself doing this part of the movement in a mirror. You are probably doing the hip shift unless your teacher has already corrected you on it. If you are doing the shift, here's how to fix this problem: 

First, have a partner push into your left side as you step the left foot out in the Opening movement. The first time your partner pushes in as you step out, allow your hip to move slightly to the right. It will not take much of a push to take you off-balance because your center is moving, you are breaking structure, and you allow your partner to control the center.

Now, the next time your partner pushes, using the same amount of force, ground from the right foot to the left side of your hip. Use peng jin in the hips, connected to the ground through the right foot. Drop your weight straight into the ground through the right foot and don't let your hip move to the right as you step the left foot out. As your partner pushes, you will feel the difference -- and so will your partner -- if you have knowledge of the ground path and peng jin.

It also helps if you "close" your right leg internally when you step the left foot out.

Throughout the form, it's easy to leak energy. You can break structure and leak energy several times in just one movement. We focused in my Wednesday early class on leaking energy in the movement "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar." One of my students renamed it, "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Takes a Leak." I thought that was pretty funny.

One of the "secrets" in movement is in the proper use of the kua. But it's not really a secret. Plenty of people know it. The problem is that movements are a lot more physically challenging when they are done properly. Maintaining your center while even stepping out in the Opening movement is more demanding on the right leg than simply stepping out without giving body mechanics any thought. 

Leaking energy also happens in movements such as Yang style's "Part the Wild Horse's Mane." When you are doing the main action of the movement, when your left arm is moving out over the left leg, you'll see the left leg moving a bit to the left as the arm comes out. The left leg shouldn't move outward. It should be closing in, providing an "immoveable object" to knock your opponent over. If you are trying to knock someone over your leg, and your leg is moving outward, you are leaking energy and will not be as strong or as rooted.

The same is true in Chen style with a movement like "Lazy About Tying the Coat." As the right hand moves across in the final part of the move, your right leg should not have its energy moving to the right. It should be closing, providing a base to split your opponent's energy and take him down.

These principles also apply to Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Quan.

If you have not been told to avoid shifting your hip or if you have not been taught how to close the leg, or how to avoid leaking energy, the next time you see your teacher, give him/her a roundhouse kick to the head. Then watch them do the movement and correct your teacher's form. It will impress the teacher. :)

--by Ken Gullette



The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Martial Arts Instructor Gerald A. Sharp

I first heard of Gerald A. Sharp when I bought his Xingyi instructional VHS tape, "Five Fists of Power," back in the 1990s. For years, I have wondered what happened to him, and recently decided to track him down. I found him online. He is living and still teaching in Granada Hills, California.

In my latest podcast -- the 72nd episode -- I talk with Gerald about his long history in martial arts. Among the teachers he has trained with are Wu style Taiji Master Ma Yueh Liang, and he studied Chen and Yang style Taiji with Zhou Yuan Long. He studied Chi Kung (Qigong) with Ju Beng Yi (a top disciple of Guo-Ling), and Gerald studied Bagua, Xingyi, and Nei Jia Kung Fu with Zou Shuxian, the top disciple and adopted daughter of Jian Rong Qiao.

Enjoy the interview!



Do Not Empty Your Mind When Doing Tai Chi

The Monkey Mind

Some people believe you should "empty your mind" when practicing or performing Taijiquan. Some also believe that Qigong and Zen meditation is about "emptying" your mind.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These practices are mindful, not mindless. You don't empty your mind, you focus your attention.

If I am practicing a form and empty my mind, I'm thinking of nothing, including the movements I'm performing. That is an empty practice and your movement will reflect it.

However, if I calm my mind -- if I replace thoughts of my schedule, my bills, and other daily activities with thoughts of the movement I am performing and the body mechanics and jin that give my movements their internal strength -- that is when my practice benefits the most.

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what you are doing in the present moment. If you are in a business meeting, that means paying attention to whoever is speaking and focusing on the item at hand. If you are talking with anyone, including your significant other, being mindful means paying attention to what they are saying, not letting your mind roam to other things. When doing Qigong, mindfulness means paying attention to your breath or to mental visualizations of energy. In Zen meditation, it means focusing on the present moment, being aware of everything around you without judgment.

Chen Xiaowang, at the beginning of a form or standing practice would say, "Calm down." Then he said, "Listen behind you." That meant that you should be aware in all directions.

This mindfulness should stay with you all day, being aware of everything around you, and the task in front of you. Someone who practices mindfulness will not be seen walking across a street absorbed in their phone. 

Most of us have a Monkey Mind. It jumps from one thing to another, in frantic motion. To become mindful in any activity, the first priority is to calm the Monkey Mind so you can focus on the task at hand.

My new book, "A Handful of Nothing," contains 88 short Zen stories. Some people mistakenly believe it is about emptying the mind. It is not. Zen is about being aware of this moment and remaining mindful.

Some people even watch TV with their phone in their hands. "I can multitask," some people will brag, but they are mistaken. Multitasking is a myth. It causes students to get lower grades. Adults who multitask perform less efficiently.

Have you ever done something, working on a project or writing something, and you get in the zone, focus on what you are doing, and suddenly you realize a lot of time passed and you didn't notice because you were focused? That's being mindful. And that is the focus you should strive for in everything you do, including any martial art.

--by Ken Gullette


A Review of My Book of Zen Stories - "A Handful of Nothing"


Dan Djurdjevic, a martial artist and author in Australia, wrote this review of my new book, "A Handful of Nothing." Here is Dan's review:

I have just read an electronic preview copy of Ken Gullette's absolutely brilliant book “A Handful of Nothing”.

This collection of 88 vignettes/stories explores the fundamental tenets of Zen (Chan) Buddhist philosophy, with particular emphasis on the concept of “nothingness” or “emptiness”. Karate practitioners will be familiar with this from the expression “mushin” (“empty mind”) or just the character for “kara” - “空” (“empty [as the sky]”).

This collection is easily the most accessible and insightful treatment of its subject matter I have ever encountered - by far.

The engaging, simple-yet-profound, soothing-yet-powerful stories flick past with the pages - just like ephemeral moments of life. However, each of these “moments” floods you with insight and inspiration.

This is a book you might pick up off a coffee table or bookshelf out of idle curiosity. It’s also a book you’ll end up reading for the next hour or more. It’s that accessible, relatable, absorbing and enlightening. All in equal measure.

I rarely buy books of wisdom/philosophy. Indeed, I have only bought half a dozen in my life. My soon-to-be-acquired physical copy (hopefully, one signed by the author) will take its rightful place on my shelf next to my copies of “The Prophet”, “Hagakure” and “The Dao of Pooh”.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough - for martial artists seeking more than just a physical “way”, and anyone else who seeks to walk the difficult path to wisdom. If anyone can help you, it would be Mr Gullette - a true master of The Way (who also happens to have a way with words!).


Check out more about "A Handful of Nothing" on Amazon through this link or by searching Amazon in your country.

You can order "A Handful of Nothing" through bookstores worldwide with this ISBN number: 979-8-218-36685-8