In the Concrete Jungle of Chicago, a Flower of Kindness Blooms

Do Good Be Kind Ken Nancy
Nancy and I wearing our "Do Good. Be Kind." shirts.

Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski of the Chicago area deserve a salute. In a city that has a reputation as a dangerous place, they showed two strangers -- Nancy and me -- kindness and generosity. Here is the story.

I rarely find myself in a situation where I have no idea what to do. It is unknown territory. I am always confident I can handle any situation. Like water, I'll find a way around an obstacle.

But when United Airlines left Nancy and me twisting in the wind in Chicago last week, I was at a loss.

We were flying home from Philadelphia, where we spent four days seeing sights and, while Nancy went shopping, I spent four hours each day at a great Taijiquan workshop by Nabil Ranné, who had flown in from Germany.

The first leg of the return flight on Monday evening, May 16 was from Philly to Chicago. Due to severe weather, we sat in the plane on the tarmac for nearly 90 minutes in Philly before taking off. We were supposed to change planes at O'Hare for the trip home to Moline, but severe weather elsewhere disrupted the system and United cancelled our connecting flight.

Around 8:30 p.m. we got off the plane in Chicago and found ourselves stranded. There would be no flight available to Moline for at least 24 hours. Our luggage was on the plane, and to make matters worse, my heart medication was on the carry-on bag that they made me check before boarding the plane. Since we were in the cheap seats (economy) the plane ran out of carry-on room before we boarded. I would need my heart medication the following morning. This presented a problem. It seemed like a slap from United. "You should have paid more for better seats!"

I had seen many news stories about passengers having to camp out in airports because of cancelled flights. It had never happened to us.

It was roughly a three-hour drive to our home from the airport. There had to be a way to get home.

We almost walked out of the airport to see about a cab to take us to any nearby hotel that was available. Two security guards warned me I was about to leave the secure area and I would not be able to get back in, so Nancy and I sat down on the concrete floor against a wall to consider our options. People walked past, staring at us. 

My mind went blank. It was the strangest feeling. My mind is never blank. It had been a very busy five days (including travel) and I had worked hard at the workshop. After a few moments sitting on the floor against the wall, we admitted we had no plan, then trudged back to the United Customer Service desk in a different concourse. The line of people at the counter stretched 50 yards down the hallway. Connecting flights had been cancelled for a lot of people. We found the back of the line and by that time I was mulling some options:

One -- We need a place to stay. How about a hotel? But we have none of our toiletries or medicine. It was all in the luggage. As we stood in line, I checked local hotels on my phone. The cheapest room was $149. There would be taxi or Uber charges, if the hotel had a vacancy. Then there would be food costs. And no medicine. It wasn't the money that bothered me, it was the expense that would still leave us with no flight and no medicine the following day. This would not work.

Two -- I could try to get my medicine off the plane. I found out this would take a minimum of three or four hours, maybe more. That would leave us without a room at 1:30 a.m. at the earliest. 

Three -- We could wait for the medicine to come off the plane and then camp out at the airport. For 24 hours? No way.

Then I thought perhaps we could get an Uber ride to Moline. I checked and a driver was listed for $219, not including tip. That seemed reasonable. We could get home in three hours, sleep in our bed and have medicine. I would tip the driver handsomely.

I scheduled Uber to pick us up. The message from Uber said the driver would meet us at Level A. We scrambled down the hallways looking for Level A, where the driver was going to be. Walking fast down the large hallways, I was breathing like a freight train due to my silly one-lung situation, feeling a lack of oxygen and gasping for air. A few hours ago, I was sweating through the fourth day of a martial arts workshop with cramping quadraceps and dwindling energy. I was ready to stop for the day.

We walked out and saw where the cars were coming around. A couple was standing outside waiting for a car. They were strangers. It was Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski.

"Excuse me, is this Level A?" I asked. "Our flight was cancelled, we're hiring an Uber to take us to Moline. They are supposed to be at Level A."

According to my memory, Rob said yes, it was Level A. I thanked them and turned my attention back to my Uber app.

A moment later, the driver called.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Moline, Illinois," I said.

"Oh. I don't want to drive that far," he replied. "Sorry."

I couldn't blame him. A six-hour round trip that would take most of the night? Oh well. It would have been a really large tip. 

Suddenly, we were back at square one, looking at each other and wondering what to do.

As we stood there, Rob and Kathryn walked up. Rob observed that we appeared stressed and they needed to get their car situation straightened out, but he would be glad to drive us to Moline if we needed a ride.

I was floored. It was my "Do Good. Be Kind." mantra coming to life. 

"What a kind offer," I said. Surely there was something we could do that wouldn't impose such a burden, even to someone generous enough to make the offer. 

Rob asked for my cell number. He texted me his name so I would also have his number.

"If you can't find a way home," he said, "just call and I'll give you a ride."

We thanked him. As we walked away, Nancy's eyes were red and watery. She said, "That was the kindest thing."

These were people I was happy to meet. Two people who didn't know us from Adam (and Eve), extending compassion, ready to help shoulder our problem. It was awe-inspiring.

Then I thought we should check rental cars. Would they even be open this late to rent a car? Would they rent one for a one-way trip?

We made our way through the terminal to the Rental Car area, stood in line at Avis only to be told they were out of one-way cars.

"Try Hertz," the woman at the counter suggested.

We waited at the Hertz line and saw a couple of people rent cars on the spot. When it was our turn, we were told that yes, they could give us a car to drive one-way to Moline for $400.

Wow! 400 bucks? Luckily, I wear a pacemaker, so if my heart stopped for a couple of seconds it would zap me back to life.

I didn't hesitate. "Sold!"

We made the payment, got our papers, then walked into the parking garage and picked out a car, a Chevy Malibu, fired it up and began the three-hour trip West on I-88 across Illinois to Moline.

On my phone, a text message had appeared from Rob, repeating his offer: if we couldn't find a way home, let him know and he would drive us.

Blown away. That's what I was. I didn't respond at that moment. I was a man on a mission. Nancy and I were hungry, tired, and looking forward to sleeping in our own bed. 

Around halfway, my plan was to stop at the Dekalb Oasis, a popular place for travelers that included a gas station, convenience store, restrooms and a McDonald's. We needed dinner, and I thought a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese sounded good.

We pulled off into the Oasis at around 11:30 p.m. and discovered the McDonald's closed at 11:00.

"Okay, that does it," I told Nancy. "After all we've gone through today, the McDonald's is closed? How can I be centered? I'm going to lose my $#!+." 

She laughed. We got drinks and some Chex Mix in the gas station and continued on our way. We arrived home at 1:30 in the morning. It was luxurious to stand in my own shower and crawl into my own bed. I think I was out when my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, I drove the rental car to the Quad Cities airport, which is less than 10 minutes from our house, dropped off the car to Hertz, went to the United desk and was told our baggage was on a flight that was arriving in 40 minutes. We had not been offered this flight because it was fully booked.

I stayed, ate breakfast, and got our luggage when it arrived, then went to the parking lot, found our car in long-term parking, and drove home.

As our headlights cut through the night on I-88 the night before, Nancy and I kept bringing up Rob and Kathryn, and how stunned we were that we ran across two good people like that at the moment we were at a loss; two people who were ready to help strangers.

I contacted Rob this morning by text before writing this blog post. He let me know that today is their 36th wedding anniversary.

There are a lot of good people like Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski in the world. Yes, even in Chicago. They don't always get as much publicity in the media as the people who do bad things, but they deserve to be recognized and saluted. This is my way of doing that and also saying "Happy Anniversary." In just a couple of minutes, Rob and Kathryn made an impression on us that we won't forget.

As you go about your day, I hope you will do what I am going to do, fueled by their inspiration. I will look for opportunities to be kind to people in ways that will brighten their world, too.

-- by Ken Gullette


Hands-On Instruction and a Positive Atmosphere at a Chen Taijiquan Workshop with Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia

Ken-Gullette-Nabil-Ranne-2022
Ken Gullette (left) with Nabil Ranné in Philadelphia, 2022.

I spent four days this past week studying Chen Taiji with Nabil Ranné in Philadelphia. The workshop was hosted by Ryan Craig of Philly Chen Taiji

Nabil came to the U.S. from Berlin for the workshop. I have been studying in his online classes for almost two years, so it was a pleasure to finally meet him in person. He is friendly and humble; one of those people you instantly like.

During the past two years, Covid virtually destroyed the ability to hold workshops. Just getting together with a group of taiji folks was reason enough to celebrate.

I have attended many martial arts workshops during the past 35 years. Depending on who is hosting the event, you can either feel a spirit of camaraderie or it can feel like people gather in cliques.

In Philly, there was a lot of laughter. Nabil brings a sense of humor to his classes and Ryan joined in. That's all I needed -- to be serious about the art but to have fun training. Those are ideal conditions for me.

We trained four hours a day for four days -- Friday through Monday, May 13 through 16, focusing primarily on the first three sections of the "First Road," or "Yilu" form.

Nabil is a disciple of Chen Yu of Beijing, the grandson of Chen Fake and the son of Chen Zhaokui. Chen Fake is also the grandfather of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing (Chen Yu is their cousin), but there are differences in the way Chen Yu moves compared with the Chen Village masters. 

I had Nabil on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast nearly two years ago (listen to the interview here) and I had been curious about Chen Yu's taiji for several years. Most of my training has been with Chen Village masters and their students. I did a couple of private online classes with Nabil and was fascinated by what I learned, especially the details in his instruction. Not long after this, I enrolled in his regular online classes. We have gone through the Yilu and Erlu forms during the past couple of years. The Philly workshop focused on Yilu and the body method of the Chen Zhaokui/Chen Yu version of Chen taiji.

Ken-Gullette-Nabil-Ranne-Hands-On-2022
Ken Gullette in a "hands on" moment with Nabil Ranné to feel the internal movement.

As he led us through the first movements of the form, Nabil focused on proper stances, relaxing the hip joints, and establishing peng jin throughout the body. One of the many helpful tips I received was maintaining a connection with the Baihui point as my body is sinking, as in part of "Buddha's Warrior" when the fist prepares for the raising of the knee before the stomp. I also need to work more on extending peng and maintaining it through the shoulders, too.

During the weekend, I wanted to write about what we practiced, but I had a hard time putting it into words. I was processing the information. Even as I read what I write here about the workshop, I'm not satisfied. It's difficult to describe in words. It has to be shown. 

Online classes are great. You can improve a lot by studying with a teacher online, especially if that teacher gives you personal corrections, as I do with my website members and as Nabil does. But nothing is as good as being in person. Nabil was able to put his hands on me to make corrections, and when I put my hands on him, I felt internal movement in the chest, back, Dantien and Mingmen that was very informative. I will be processing this information and working it into my movement for a while.

We worked on principles of movement, including the shifting of weight, the relaxing in the crease at the hip to maintain mobility, and to keep the knees from swimming -- to "stay in the frame."

We worked on applications, especially some good joint locks. It was interesting to see how "Six Sealings and Four Closings" can be used as wrist locks against an opponent who has grabbed your arms. But almost every application we practiced contained elements that drove home once again how powerful Chen taiji is as a martial art. There are subtleties in the way you can connect to an opponent's wrist, elbow and shoulder during a joint lock, depending on the position of your opponent's arm. Just moving your little finger can help connect a wrist lock to the elbow, making it more effective if your opponent is trying to escape the lock.

Monday, May 16th was the final day of the workshop. As we trained that day, I became very grateful for the opportunity to learn and try to improve in my internal skills. Battling a huge blood clot that has cut off all blood flow to the left lung, it was a gamble making arrangements to fly to Philly for this, but I was in good shape and toughed it out through the four days. The blood clot (or blockage) is still there, but what the hell. I don't think about it much and certainly don't let it slow me down any more than I have to. By the fourth day, however, my quadraceps were painfully locking up at times. If you do a Chen taiji workshop and your legs aren't fried, you haven't worked hard enough.

We didn't spend a lot of time holding stances, but we did hold them at times. During one of those moments on the third day, we were struggling through the pain and fatigue as Nabil went from one student to another making corrections. There were groans and grunts and heavy breathing as the attendees tried to maintain the posture. I'm pretty sure I was the oldest student there, so I cracked, "This was a lot easier back when I was sixty!" I can still hear the laughter, as if a relief valve had been opened. I love laughter in class.

I got a bit emotional as I said goodbye to Nabil on Monday afternoon. I like the man. And I want to see him again in person. My thanks to Ryan for hosting. I think everyone hopes it happens again next year.

As time passes, it is not lost on me that I have a lot less time to enjoy training like this than I used to. Every moment is precious. Now let's go. There's a lot to do. Let's practice.

--by Ken Gullette 


Prepping for My First Workshop in Almost Three Years -- Nabil Ranne in Philadelphia This Weekend

Ken Practicing 2022I'm practicing for a workshop that is happening in Philadelphia starting Friday, May 13. The Chen style Taiji teacher I have been studying with for nearly two years, Nabil Ranne, is coming to the U.S. for a workshop on the First Road (Yilu) form.

Nabil is a disciple of Chen Yu, so his Chen Taiji reflects the version of the Chen family art handed from Chen Fake to his son, Chen Zhaokui, who taught his son Chen Yu. Nabil lives in Berlin.

The workshop will be four hours a day for four days. It's a daunting task, given my health issues, but I plan to pace myself. At this point in my life, I am more a coach than a player, so I want to soak up the knowledge and try to improve my own internal movement.

The Chen Yu First Road form has 83 movements. I have been working on the movements and the body method, but I have a long way to go on this form before I'm satisfied with it. I haven't even totally memorized the choreography. I keep telling myself, "You are not in a race. You are not in a race." 

Maybe I don't learn as easily as I used to, or else it is difficult to learn the Beijing way when you teach the Chen Village way. It has been a very challenging couple of years, but a very satisfying time. It's fun at my age to still be excited and learning new things, pushing forward in the quest for quality.

When you are preparing for a Chen Taiji workshop, getting the legs ready is always top on the list. The body method is tough on the legs and can have your thighs burning pretty quickly. I never feel ready before a workshop, although I don't think we will hold stances in this one like I have done in some workshops in the past, when your legs are shaking and burning within the first hour. As I have been practicing the form, I have tried to pay close attention to closing power in the legs and the connected movement, the opening and closing of the back and chest, and Dantien rotation. This is not Taiji for "health," although it certainly can help your health. This is gongfu, the kind of Taiji that is a martial art -- my favorite kind.

Covid knocked the hell out of martial arts workshops, so this is the first one I have attended since the autumn of 2019. Cases of Covid are rising again due to new variants, but I'm going anyway. I can't miss this opportunity. It's a lot easier than going to Germany. Nabil's workshop is being hosted by Ryan Craig of Philly Chen Taiji.

-- by Ken Gullette


Escaping from Joint Locks Using Tai Chi Energy Concepts

There are valuable concepts in Taijiquan that make it a powerful art for self-defense. One of the interesting ideas is "taking the energy where it wants to go."

Last week, Colin and Justin and I recorded several escapes from Chin-Na joint locks. A longer version with more techniques and explanations is on my website for members, but I put together a shorter version for YouTube.

We are very serious about the internal arts but we have a lot of fun when we practice. I think it shows a bit on the videos we do. Please watch this and you'll learn something about how to escape from a joint lock. Silk-Reeling energy is very helpful against joint locks, and silk-reeling relies on other internal body mechanics, too. This is a narrowly focused video. It doesn't necessarily show how to "soften someone up" before escaping, or what to do as a follow-up, but the information here will be helpful in the real world.


A Tai Chi Mistake to Avoid -- Swimming Knees

Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) is a lifelong journey. It can take years to develop skill. That's why it helps to have a teacher who has skill and will coach you in a constructive way.

One of my goals as a teacher is to save time for my students and help them discover information that took me many years to learn.

Here is a video I made last week about a common mistake we all make until a good teacher tells us to stop doing it. 

It's the problem of swimming knees. I encourage you to watch this video, then watch yourself in a mirror or record your own movement to see if it is something you need to work on.


Four Takedowns from Four Tai Chi Movements

Here is a short video showing and explaining some of the body mechanics to four takedowns in four different movements from Chen style Taijiquan.

I am fascinated at all the self-defense applications in movements that often appear slow and gentle. Taiji (Tai Chi) is practiced slowly to develop proper internal body mechanics. There is a method of developing skill that later involves push hands, then flowing with a partner in unscripted ways, and then incorporating joint locks, sweeps, takedowns, elbow and shoulder strikes and other fighting techniques.

The takedowns come from these four movements:

  1. Lazy About Tying the Coat
  2. Walking Obliquely
  3. Punch the Ground
  4. Single Whip

Enjoy this video. We shot in on Sunday and I edited it today. Let me know if you have questions.


Behind-the-Scenes on the Original "Kung Fu" TV Show - the Internal Fighting Arts Interview with Radames Pera

RadamesRadames Pera is the last surviving star from the original "Kung Fu" TV show. His memory is burned into our brains, the young bald student monk who learned martial arts and Eastern philosophy from Master Kan (played by Phillip Ahn) and the blind Master Po (played by Keye Luke).

Master Po referred to young Caine as "Grasshopper," and that term has been used in martial arts classes ever since. Sometimes, when I'm teaching a student and they suddenly understand a technique and perform it well, I find myself saying, "Ahh, Grasshopper."

A few weeks ago I wondered what happened to the young boy who played the part of young Caine, so I searched and found Radames living in France. He is 61 now. I sent him a message, asked him to be on the podcast, and he graciously said yes.

He is a very engaging, funny and intelligent man. We talked for two hours, and I enjoyed every moment talking about his career (it is much more than just "Kung Fu") and some of the people he worked with, including David Carradine, Phillip Ahn and Keye Luke, and others such as Jack Lord ("Hawaii 5-0"), Michael Landon ("Little House on the Prairie"), and a man I appeared in a movie with, Lee Majors ("The Six Million Dollar Man"). 

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. Listen online or download the file at the Internal Fighting Arts podcast page.

 


Dial Down the Paranoia about Defending Yourself "On the Street"

Aggression800pxHave you been in a physical fight with anyone since you turned 18 years old?

Here's another question: In your adult life, have you ever been in a "street fight?"

Have you ever been in a situation when another grown-up was trying to damage you physically?

The truth about most adults is that they have never been in a real fight at all. But self-defense instructors and MMA enthusiasts are obsessed with the need to protect yourself "on the street." 

When I hear the term "defending yourself on the street" I think of two gangs colliding for a brawl with sticks, chains and brass knuckles. Like "West Side Story" without all the dancing and singing. Let's face it, if your gang runs around singing and dancing, you might deserve to be beaten up.

I saw an interesting graphic online recently and it showed the main martial art practiced by UFC champions who fought matches in the ring.

The top martial art for ring fighting was wrestling. That's right. A college wrestling champ would have a good chance at winning a UFC fight, especially if he cross-trained in other arts. 

The next most successful UFC art was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, followed by boxing. Further down the list were kickboxing, Muay Thai, and barely showing up were Taekwondo and Karate, but they did show up. Tai Chi did not show up. Neither did any other Chinese martial art.

I was intrigued and a little amused by the conversation that followed, with some guys talking about "street fights" and defending yourself "on the street."

Let's take a step back for a second.

If you are over the age of 18, when have you had a physical fight with someone as an adult?

Most of the adults I know have never been in a fight at all, even as children. 

When have you needed to defend yourself "on the street?"

I was talking with a guy last year who attended a Fourth of July fireworks show. Families and couples gathered on a grassy hill with blankets on the ground, food and soft drinks, all gathered to watch the fireworks with friends and family.

The guy I was talking with (a fundamentalist Baptist evangelical and far-right-winger) had forgotten to take his gun, which he carries concealed on his body. He told me that he was uneasy the entire evening during the fireworks show because he didn't have his gun.

There is so much to unpack from that situation. Forget about the "peace and love" that is supposed to be at the heart of his religion. Let's consider a person who is so tied to his gun that he can't fully enjoy a fireworks show with his family. He is so worried about a gunman showing up at a fireworks show, he is anxious because he isn't packing heat. An evangelical Christian who expects that he just might need to kill someone during a family outing.

Then let's look at the guy who is obsessed with martial arts that will win UFC matches. If you can't win in a cage, your martial art sucks, he says.

I would urge both of these guys to dial down the paranoia.

I will be 70 on my next birthday. I have never had to physically fight an adult. My last fight happened when I was 18, and that was when I hit a bully in the nose twice. It wasn't exactly a fight because, after years of bullying me, he gave up as soon as he received two punches in the nose. That's the way it is with bullies.

I love the self-defense applications of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. My greatest enjoyment when I practice these arts is in developing my internal movement and in unlocking all the fighting applications hidden in the movements.

But when I go out in public, whether it is walking down the street, going into a store or enjoying a fireworks show on a grassy hill, I look at everyone through the eyes of acceptance, kindness, and friendship. I smile at people. I am connected to them. I do not see a stranger as a possible attacker. I see them as another human being who deserves respect and a sense of humor.

Nancy laughs when I interact with people in public. She says, "You make friends wherever you go."

I guess it's true.

But that does not mean I'm oblivious. Quite the opposite. I am "aware."

I wrote about an incident several years ago when Nancy and I were in Chicago at a Taiji workshop, and that evening we walked down the Magnificent Mile to explore some stores on North Michigan Avenue and to have dinner, hopefully at the Cheesecake Factory.

As we walked, the crowd got larger. There were a lot of younger people on the sidewalks, and I noticed that as we walked toward the Water Tower Place mall, the conversations and laughter grew a little louder. I enjoyed it. I don't mind crowds because I use my philosophy, I center myself and connect with people.

But on this evening, as we entered the mall, my self-defense alarm went off inside my head. The laughter and conversations got a bit louder, in a way that seemed abnormal. 

"Let's get out of here, honey," I told Nancy. "Something doesn't feel right."

Nancy knows to trust my instincts. "Okay, let's go," she said. We walked away from the mall, back toward our hotel, and stopped at a restaurant that was not on the Magnificent Mile.

As we walked down the sidewalk, I said, "I'm sorry."

Nancy replied, "No, that's okay. If you felt like something was wrong, that's good enough for me."

Back in our room three hours later, we turned on the 10:00 news. The lead story was about how groups of young people began running through the mall and on Michigan Avenue punching people at random. It started right after we decided to leave the area. The mob scene was organized by young people on social media days in advance. They were encouraged to be on the Magnificent Mile that evening and attack people. When the melee began, police responded. It was the lead story on the Chicago newscast.

If my self-defense radar had not gone off, I might have suddenly been defending us against young guys running up to hit me or Nancy, or both.

Instead, I had used the best self-defense technique of all. I was not there.

Watching the newscast I was amazed, and Nancy was, too, and it's always a good idea to impress your woman. I mean, isn't that one reason a lot of us got into martial arts to begin with?

My self-defense alarm is based on awareness, not paranoia. I'm not expecting violence wherever I go. I remain aware of who and what is around me. And I don't put myself in dangerous situations. I avoid places where a "street fight" might happen.

Even after this happened in Chicago, it does not worry me when I am in crowds, stores, or anywhere else. 

I enjoy myself, I enjoy other people, and I remain connected to people and aware of what is happening around me.

Why do I train the internal arts? I train mainly to improve my internal movement and to unlock the self-defense applications in the movements. It is fascinating to me. A great side benefit is fitness and health. I don't practice to enter a ring. That's a completely different game. I was able to fight long before I studied martial arts. The self-defense skill I have gained in the internal arts has helped me refine that ability.

When I do Qigong, I develop a calm, connected feeling and I develop awareness. As Chen Xiaowang says, "Listen behind you." There is a very good reason he says it.

Do not equate getting in the ring for a UFC match with real-life self-defense. It isn't the same. One requires an inhuman level of pain and preparation. The other matches you against people who are not trained for the ring.

One of my teenage students shattered the elbow of a drunk adult who grabbed him and tried to punch him. My student used a joint-lock technique we worked on in class.

Another student of mine, a police officer, used Xingyi to take down a perp who was involved in a standoff with police.

Does that count as "street" violence? It's real-world violence, and real-world violence usually comes in the form of a drunk person, an abusive spouse, or a person with anger managment issues. If you are a cop, real-world violence is not the same as being in a cage match, and as a police officer, with violence a possibility during every work day, it is understandable to carry a gun.

Winning a UFC fight requires a lot of experience in taking and giving punches, kicks, being thrown, grappling and doing choke holds and almost inhuman endurance training. Injuries are common during training.

You are not going to be involved in a "street fight" with a trained, in-shape MMA or UFC fighter, unless you are incredibly unlucky or unless you are dumb enough to pick a fight with the wrong person. That is not real-world violence. You do not need to be able to win a UFC match. 

I will turn 70 on January 24, 2023. If I am going to be in a "street fight," my opponents better hurry the hell up and not wait until I'm not here anymore. 

In the meantime, turn down the paranoia, replace anxiety with awareness, enjoy life, enjoy people and live your philosophy. If your philosophy or religion involves being obsessed with packing heat, or proving your toughness by going into a cage match, I would choose another philosophy or religion.

There is a lot of cool stuff to learn and practice in martial arts, and a lot of effective self-defense, but there is nothing to fear. The fear comes from within us. So does peace.

Practice hard. Expect the unexpected. Remain aware. And remain centered at all times.

--by Ken Gullette


The Differences Between Chen Village Taiji and Chen Yu Taiji

I was the guest on a podcast recently and I was asked a question that was very difficult to answer.

What is the difference between the Taiji that I learned from Chen Village teachers versus the Beijing/Chen Yu Taiji that I have been studying for the past year-and-a-half with Nabil Ranne, a disciple of Chen Yu?

I tried to answer, but I was stumbling and stammering and quite frankly, it's a difficult question, and very often you have to be shown. It isn't easy to describe it in words.

I started studying the Yilu -- "First Road" -- form with Nabil in 2020. The class spent 17 months learning the form. Now, we are working on Erlu -- "Second Road" -- sometimes called "Cannon Fist."

A post like this is bound to be controversial, but it isn't intended to be. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about these two different branches of Chen family Taijiquan. A lot of the talk is negative, especially toward the Chen Village. In fact, someone online last week told me I am part of the "Chen Village cult."

Wait. What? 

Why in the world is anyone so inflamed over this stuff? And he's accusing me of being part of a cult, after I have tried to give all styles of internal arts teachers publicity through my podcast?

Okay, Ken, shake it off. Center yourself. Find your chi.

I will give you my perspective.

I have studied and practiced the Chen Village branch of Chen Taiji since 1998. Before that, I spent more than a decade practicing Yang style. 

My first encounter with Chen style happened when I sought out Jim and Angela Criscimagna, who had good experience learning from some great teachers including George Xu, Zhang Xue Xin (Feng Zhiqiang's disciple), who they were still studying with in 1998, and within a year from the time I started studying with them, they began studying with  Chen Xiaowang. They hosted Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi for workshops after that.

I had no experience with Chen style, and it blew my mind. It was so complex compared with the Yang style I had learned that there was no comparison. I won a gold medal at the 1990 AAU Kung-Fu National Championships doing the Yang 24 form. I thought I knew Taiji, but I was wrong.

In the late 1990s I had been learning about the ground path and peng jin, terms that weren't used in the Yang style I had studied. I heard about them in Mike Sigman's online listserve, the Neijia List. That caused me to look for a Chen Taiji teacher. I started learning from Jim and Angie, and they helped me understand how those terms applied to Taiji movement, but there was much more, including Dan T'ien rotation, opening and closing the kua, silk-reeling, and whole-body movement. 

In Chen style Taiji, the body is alive. It is a martial art and I became fascinated with the body mechanics and how the movements contained so many self-defense applications, and how the body mechanics helped you deliver relaxed power.

I dropped Yang style. Between 1998 and 2020, I studied, practiced and taught Chen Village Taiji. I love it. If it is taught right and if it is practiced right, it is flowing, alive, solid and powerful.

Each time I studied with Jim and Angie, I made the two-hour drive home very excited about the new things I was learning. 

When I met members of the Chen family, including Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing, Chen Ziqiang and Chen Huixian, they seemed like Olympic athletes compared to me and other Westerners.

I still believe the performance Chen Xiaowang did in 1988, when he first visited the U.S. is my favorite Taiji performance of all time. The flowing, the mechanics, the power -- he really had it going on. Here is that performance:

 

In 2020 I did a podcast with Nabil Ranne, who lives in Berlin. He is a disciple of Chen Yu, who is a cousin of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, and they share a grandfather, the great Taiji master Chen Fake. So Chen Yu practices the family art, but in Beijing, it is practiced and performed a little differently than in the Chen Village.

In the Village, they call their two main forms Laojia Yilu and Laojia Erlu. They refer to the Beijing forms as Xinjia Yilu and Xinjia Erlu. Laojia is "Old Frame," while Xinjia is "New Frame." Xinjia is the art as it evolved through Chen Fake after he moved to Beijing in 1928, but his son, Chen Zhaokui and Zhaokui's son, Chen Yu, don't refer to their form as Xinjia. It isn't "New Frame" to them. It's simply the family Taiji. Yilu is known as the "First Road" form and Erlu is known as the "Second Road."

In 2020 and 2021, I spent 17 months working on the "First Road" form with Nabil in weekly group online classes. In January of this year, 2022, we began Erlu, the "Second Road" form. It was really cool because my first Chen teachers, Jim and Angie, were in the class with me and others from the U.S., UK, Europe and even Nairobi.

Here is Chen Yu performing part of Erlu:

 

So what is the difference between the two branches of Chen Taiji? It can probably be summed up with this phrase: Body Method.

The instruction I have received from Nabil is deeper and more complex than I expected. More is discussed regarding various "connections" through the body, the various "jin" that are happening in each movement, the Dan T'ien rotation, folding, openings and closings, including the kua, the crotch, and the chest and back. It isn't that some of these things were never taught to me before, but not in this depth.

One of the interesting differences is more of an emphasis on various connections, including the "elbow-knee" connection. When I watch my old videos, and videos of some of the Chen Village masters, it is clear that this is not something that was stressed. But taking a movement like "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar" as an example, I have learned to keep my right elbow connected (aligned) with my right knee and my left elbow aligned with my left knee a little better throughout the movement. Maintaining the elbow-knee connection helps keep you within the power zone.

My stances are not as wide now. As I understand it, a wide stance might be good for training, but it is not what you do in self-defense, and that is correct. Also, it's easier to maintain the elbow-knee connection with a stance that isn't too wide.

For years, I was focusing the ground on the Bubbling Well point in my feet. Now, I focus it on the heel. Many movements are driven by "heel power." The spiraling, however, involves the entire foot. Even the toes.

When I watch many Chen people doing demos, I watch for two or three things. Are their knees "swimming?" Do the knees move sideways as they shift their weight? The knees should not be moving all over the place.

Another thing to watch is hip movement. If I shift my weight from the right leg to the left, are my hips moving in space too much or am I using the kua? I should be using the kua. The hips shouldn't be moving side to side very much, or at least not as much as many demos show.

Are my knees collapsing? I should maintain peng through the legs.

When I shift weight or step, am I loading too much stress into the knee of the supporting leg, or am I using the kua as I should be doing? 

And one more thing I look for when I watch Taiji performances. Is anything going on in the body? If you can't see obvious connections and a "wave" of internal strength going through the body, including the torso, I'm afraid something is missing. If I don't see Dan T'ien rotation, connected to the ground, moving through the body, it just doesn't do it for me. What I saw in the video clip of Chen Xiaowang above is rarely seen these days among Chen Village students. I wonder why not?

What I am pursuing now is the "dragon body," when your body is relaxed and grounded and opens and closes, Dan T'ien rotating and spiraling, moving like a dragon. Relaxed internal strength flowing through like a wave.

At my age, most guys don't have a dragon body, they have a dragging body. Ba da boom CRASH! 

Taiji movement is never easy to write about. It has to be shown. These are just a few thoughts. It is a delicate and political subject. I am not interested in arguing about it because I see value in all Chen Taiji.

I love what I have learned from Chen Village teachers. It is light years above what most people who study Taiji are learning. I have met many people over the years, mostly Yang stylists, who are not learning much at all about body mechanics.

Learning from Nabil is enhancing my Taiji, helping me to approach Laojia Yilu, Laojia Erlu, the Chen 38 and the Chen 19 with new eyes, and maybe a slightly more sophisticated and connected way of moving. 

In 2013, I attended a workshop with Chen Huixian, who is my favorite of all the Chen Village instructors. She corrected me and let me know that I was collapsing my knees. That simple instruction changed my Taiji. The year before Covid hit, she made a comment about the kua that changed the way I "sit in the chair." It changed my Taiji for the better. This is all part of my journey. I love where I have been.

Each teacher you study with should improve and change your Taiji. After 22 years studying the Chen Village version, I wanted to experience the Beijing/Chen Yu version of Chen Taiji to see what all the fuss was about. I believe very strongly in opening yourself to new information. I don't think anyone should narrow their learning to one style or one branch of a style. If it makes my art better, bring it on.

After a while, I adopted Nabil as my teacher. It was a great decision. I am still teaching what I learned before, but I am looking at internal movement in new ways and it is improving my Taiji. And isn't that the point of practicing and learning?

-- by Ken Gullette


A Vision of the Final Moments of Life and the Two Questions on My Mind

Do Good Be Kind 2I received some tough news from my pulmonologist last week. Dr. Wong showed me the CT scan taken in December, when I spent four nights in the hospital because of a large blood clot in my left lung. The blood thinners I had been taking since June, when the clots developed, had not worked in this one case, and the clot was so big, it was threatening the blood supply to the left lung. Just a trickle of blood was getting in.

After we looked at the scan, he said this is major. If the blood clot is not reduced through the use of the blood thinners during the next six weeks, he will refer me to the Mayo Clinic, where I will be evaluated and it is possible they will put my heart on a bypass machine, go into the lung and clean out the clot. The evaluation will tell Mayo whether my heart is likely to withstand the operation.

"This is major," the doctor said. "But you have been through major things before."

These are the times when the practice of centering is not just theory. This is when it either helps or it doesn't.

Usually, you get knocked off-balance and the centering happens as you rebalance. 

So Nancy and I spent the weekend leading up to my 69th birthday on Monday rocked back on our heels like we had taken a sucker punch, trying to enjoy the time, realizing that every moment together is precious, and realizing that within a few months, I could be facing a situation that might mean I am gone forever.

Nancy didn't want to admit that was a possibility, but I have a need to look objectively at possibilities and be mentally prepared. So I knew what to do.

Calm the mind. Calm the body. Focus on the moment. Feel the breath. Put part of your mind on your Dan T'ien. Focus on what is happening right now and be mindful of what is around you. Be aware.

We had a good weekend. There might have even been more hugs than usual.

On Monday, when Nancy went to work and I was in my home office, I wanted to prepare myself mentally for that moment when I would say goodbye to Nancy and be wheeled down to the operating room, a place from which I might not return.

What would my final thoughts be as they turned on the propofol, in the seconds before lights out?

What would my final thoughts be to Nancy, other than "I love you?"

My mind went down that rabbit hole and I was there in the moment. I looked at Nancy and my eyes started watering.

"Was I kind enough?" I asked. 

"Did I help other people enough?" I asked.

"Yes, Ken, you were kind," she would say. "Yes, you helped other people."

But the tears were running down my cheeks. My eyes were swimming and my head felt as if it were expanding.

I was struck by a realization.

"I could have done better."

It was a desperate feeling. I could have done better. Now there's no time to do better.

I came up out of the rabbit hole, still sitting in my office chair, wiping my eyes. It was surprising, actually, that as I played the moment out in my mind, the last things on my mind would not be about my career, or how much money I made, or what kind of house I lived in. Those are just the things none of us are remembered for. 

How did I treat others? With kindness? With a helpful spirit? Was I selfish? Was it all about me? How would I be remembered? What would be my legacy?

So I sat there on my 69th birthday, shocked that I made it this far, especially considering the past 13 years, and hoping I will be here to celebrate my 70th, and also realizing that I just might have time left to be kind and to help others.

Sometimes, we give ourselves messages more valuable than any talk with a therapist. Since Monday, this has been on my mind. What can I do today to be kind to someone else -- to everyone else?

Self-defense skills are a lot of fun to practice, but I haven't needed them in real life since my last fight at age 18.

The philosophy of these arts, however, is useful every day as I connect with others and remain centered in a hectic, sometimes angry and always unpredictable world.

There is still time to practice gongfu, and I am practicing this week even with a huge frikkin' blood clot in my lung. I mean, why not? I am taking it a little easier, trying not to stress the lungs too much. I taught two classes the day before the CT scan, so the clot and I are peacefully coexisting at the moment.

For now, there is still time to get better at Yilu and Erlu, still time to teach and study. And still time to be kind and helpful.

I have more to do in whatever time I have left. It aint over 'til it's over.

--by Ken Gullette