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Why Don't Tai Chi Guys Fight?

KungfufightingYeah, that's me standing over this young hotshot karate guy at a tournament in 2002. He was about 20 years younger than me, maybe more. I knocked him down. At the end of the match, he threw up.

One of the reasons I've continued fighting in tournaments is because most internal artists don't. I've attended several huge Chicago tournaments. At the beginning of the forms competition, the internal artists--Hsing-I, Tai Chi, and Bagua--went down to one end of the gymnasium and did their forms. Then most of them went home.

I never understood why I was the only one who competed in the internal forms competition who stayed and fought along with the "external" guys.

And we wonder why they call us the "soft" arts.

You can argue all you want that tournament sparring, even semi-contact sparring, isn't "real" fighting. And it's true that you can't break your opponent in these tournaments, which is the goal of Tai Chi. But a lot of people come to watch, and when they see you doing something really cool and different, relaxed and flowing, like a Tai Chi or Bagua form, and then you proceed to kick a little booty in the sparring competition, it causes the internal arts to be looked at with a little more respect.

I've made a lot of friends at tournaments. One of my closest friends is Dan Gray, a high-ranking black belt in Shinkyudo karate. When we first met, he had a very dim view of Tai Chi. The longer we've known each other, and as we've competed against each other many times, the more respect he has for the art.

I'll never forget the time that I went to a big external tournament, won the forms competition and the fighting. A week later, I attended another huge external tournament, and one of the top karate black belts, who had never paid me much attention, saw me enter the gym and walked all the way across the floor to shake my hand. "I heard what you did last week," he said. "Congratulations. That's great!"

I was very proud, but I was also proud to represent the internal arts.

The reason arts like Tai Chi are looked upon as wussy arts is because most people in the internal arts really are wusses. They focus on "cultivating chi" and all the mystical B.S. that turns many internal arts classes into groups bordering on cult-like behavior.

The Chen tai chi teachers I've had are as tough as any martial artists out there. A lot of guys I've seen doing internal arts at tournaments, though, are the "one with the universe" guys who do internal arts but couldn't fight their way out of a J.C. Penney store.

The internal arts are never going to gain the respect they deserve by other martial artists, and the general public, in America until more internal artists grow a pair and go toe-to-toe with the external guys. In marketing, perception is reality. Until internal artists market themselves like other martial arts, the perception of Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Bagua will remain "soft."

I don't care how old I get. I want Americans to see Tai Chi and the internal arts for what they are--not a bunch of people pretending to have supernatural powers, able to heal or knock down people without touching them--I want Americans to see the internal arts as what they truly are; powerful fighting arts that are as effective as any martial arts out there.

The Few, The Mighty

Keokukwinners Three of my dedicated students who are still keeping the flame burning in Bettendorf went to the big karate tournament in Keokuk, Iowa last Saturday. It draws competitors from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Georgia, and more.

Kim Miller (on right in picture) just had a baby in July and still competed. She won 3rd place in sparring and 3rd in forms. Amazing.

Her husband Chris (middle, of course) took 3rd in sparring and 1st place in forms with Hsing-I.

Kim Schaber (left) took 3rd in sparring, 3rd in weapons and 1st in forms, again with Hsing-I.

The Keokuk tournament is always one of our favorites, sponsored by Frank Pennington and his United Karate school.

Kim and Chris Miller are leading and instructing practice sessions in Bettendorf. They meet at a park two or three times a week. Congragulations, guys!!! Next year, I want to see the Miller baby competing either in forms, or maybe the judges could use her to throw into the ring when they call "time" at the end of the match!!  :) We have to design a Hsing-I Binky form.

One Bagua Technique - One Hour

During the past week, I've been dusting off a bagua form - the Cheng style "8 Palm Changes" form.

I work in a university, and late this afternoon I was waiting for the president to arrive for a meeting. Everyone else had gone home, so I waited in the secretary's office, practicing one bagua movement from the form. The movement is "Yin Yang Fish."

It involves very tight circle-walking -- so tight that it just looks as if you're spinning. I practiced the movement slowly, then fast, then slowed it down and analyzed it. I looked for blocks, strikes, and joint locks hidden in the movement and the changing positions of the hands.

I worked for one hour on this one movement, and I felt liberated. I felt as if I was truly studying the art.

Too often, we believe that quantity of techniques is the goal. The more techniques we learn, the better.

That isn't necessarily true. Sometimes, you must take one technique--one movement--and unlock its secrets. Study the body mechanics, the shifting of the weight, the turning of the waist, the storing and releasing of power along the ground path, the use of peng and silk-reeling. A hand movement isn't just a block and strike, it's also a joint lock--an arm break.

If you really want to study the internal arts, you have to approach it like a college class. You have to spend time in class, but the real learning comes when you're studying on your own--thinking, analyzing, breaking it down, and comparing it to things you've learned before. Using your creativity to see beneath the surface.

I unlocked some secrets of this movement today that I hadn't realized until now. But it took an hour of quiet time, in a building by myself, to reflect, ponder, and analyze as I practiced.

Are you spending quality time with your art? During the next couple of days, try to find one hour and take one movement from one of your forms and really practice it in depth. You might be surprised at how the secrets of one movement can teach you a lot about every technique in your art.

American Tao Podcast - Using Chi Kung to Center Yourself

I began practicing chi kung in 1987. I've told this story many times, but one afternoon in 1988, I was producing the 6:00 news at KMTV in Omaha, Nebraska, and it was around 5:00 and a wall cloud was passing the station, ready to drop a tornado at any moment. People were screaming and yelling, rolling cameras outside the studio to broadcast the wall cloud live. I was responsible for the show that started in less than an hour.

Suddenly I heard someone laugh. I looked up and a sports anchor was looking at me and laughing. He said, "Doctor Chill."

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "Everyone's going crazy and you're just sitting there getting the job done."

At that moment, I realized I had been centering myself, and I was the calm in the middle of the storm. I was able to do that because of chi kung, and one or two exercises in particular that helped me learn to find my center in a crisis.

This is American Tao Podcast #2. I hope you enjoy it. You can left-click and listen, or right-click and save it to your hard drive and even put it on your iPod by choosing "Save target as..."

Download american_tao_podcast_2.mp3

I Went to a Yang Tai Chi Class Tonight

It's nice to live in a strange town where nobody knows you. For a long time, I've wanted to check out a Yang style class just to see what they do, how they teach, what their body mechanics look like.

So Nancy and I visited a popular local school tonight. They are international and have thousands of students around the world.

We had a good time. The teacher was a middle-aged man, heavy set but very friendly, very nice, and smiled a lot. He was a good teacher, and taught us the first few movements of a 108 form. They're running a summer special on Wednesday nights, offering a free class for beginners. It's a good marketing tool. There were about half a dozen new people there.

I watched the body mechanics carefully. I saw nothing that appeared internal. Movements were done leaning forward with arms locked in some positions (I wanted badly to pull forward on the arm to see what would happen), and they would rise up and straighten the weight-bearing leg sometimes--locking the knee (I wanted to push on their chest and watch them fall off-balance). I watched carefully to see if there was any sense of sinking, or whole body connection. There wasn't. Absolutely no spiraling, and no mention of it. The teacher talked about the "string of pearls," and he attributed the founder of Tai Chi to some guy a thousand years ago (they just don't want to admit Chen Wangting started it all). But there was no explanation of what "string of pearls" meant, and so it seemed that it was a nice phrase that a Tai Chi master used once, and a lot of people now use it but don't really understand it.

At the end of the class we talked a little. I asked how long he had studied and he said "20 years." He said to both of us, "You really picked that up quickly, it seems like you've studied before." I told him I had studied Yang style a long time ago. I also told him he was a nice guy and a good teacher. It was true on both counts. He was patient, repeating movements and explaining them clearly for a mostly middle-aged and older class. He wasn't pretentious, and he didn't mention "cultivating chi" the entire class. That made me like him even more. :)

He explained--without me asking--that they hardly talk about the martial aspects of Tai Chi. They practice for health and exercise. He said their style wasn't Yang style, but it really was. I believe whoever started this international organization took Yang style and maybe tweaked it and began calling it something different.

As we drove away, I understood why people enjoy classes like those. He was friendly, didn't seem to act like some New Age priest (like some guys out there), and didn't act as if he was doing something mystical. It was a nice exercise that got some nice people together.

If I had never studied before, and had never met anyone involved with the Chen family, and if I wasn't interested in Tai Chi as it was intended--as a martial art--I would probably go back for more classes.

But the people who were in the class aren't studying for the same reasons I am. They're not looking for perfection, and most of them don't care to learn how to break an arm and put their opponent on the ground.

It was a pleasant experience. The Tai Chi wasn't very high quality, and I was a bit sad that this is how most Americans view Tai Chi, but it was still a pleasant experience.

Conditioning at a Higher Level

Kenjames1_2 During the past three weeks, I've had the toughest workout sessions since I was on the track team in high school.

I began working out with a personal trainer at Lifestyle Family Fitness center in the Tampa Palms neighborhood.

James Adams has been a personal trainer for about three years. He's friendly and he knows his stuff. During the first few sessions, he's focused on core strength. It's clear that I need it.

Kenjames2 When I was running the school in the Quad Cities, I spent so much time on teaching and marketing that my training fell off a cliff. I was also putting in 55 hours a week on my job, including the commute. Between job, the school, and my cute young wife, I didn't have time to train privately. I didn't feel good. I looked like I was in good shape, but I knew I wasn't from the way the old body felt. These photos were taken tonight, and show James coaching me through a core exercise where you grip the balance wheel and roll your hips on the fitness ball. Using the core muscles, you maintain control and pull the legs back to center. From there, you do a pushup and roll your feet into a pike with your butt up in the air. Personally, I think he's trying to kill me. :)

Tonight, James also had me lie back on a fitness ball and hold a 25-pound medicine ball behind my head, throw it up in the air and catch it, then repeat the movement -- 16 times per set. We did three sets. Exercises like these force you to use a lot of muscles, but when you throw the ball, you have bring a lot of the core muscles into play.

My favorite exercise is when he hooks me up to a bungee cord contraption that pulls me back. I step out into a lunge, catch a 20 or 25-pound medicine ball, hold it over my head and throw it back to him. We did that during one of our first workouts and my abs were sore for days.

I usually end our sessions, drive home, walk into our home and collapse on the living room floor while Nancy laughs at me. It's easy to see why not very many 54-year old guys put themselves through this. Shouldn't I be ready to sit on the couch at my age, or go play a round of golf?

Something's wrong with me. I want to get in top shape and go compete in some big martial arts tournaments. I'm going to depend on James to help me get in the best shape of my life. I already see more of my abs, and when I ran through Hsing-I, Tai Chi and Bagua forms on Sunday, I felt stronger than I have in a couple of years. My balance is also improving as the core muscles grow stronger.

If you have the opportunity to work with a personal trainer, you'll quickly see that you've taken it too easy on yourself in your own workouts. It has been a long time since a workout has hurt so bad, and felt so good.

If you live in Tampa, you should call James Adams at Lifestyle Family Fitness at Tampa Palms.

With Internal Arts, "It Has To Be Shown"

I've studied several arts since 1973 -- Shaolin, wushu, taekwondo, boxing -- and attained ranks in Shaolin (brown belt) and TKD (green belt) before finding the internal arts.

The internal arts that I practice -- Hsing-I, Chen Tai Chi, and Bagua -- are the most difficult arts I've encountered. For a beginner, it's impossible to learn them properly from books, photos, or videos.

It Has To Be Shown (IHTBS).

My first encounter with top-level internal arts instructors (those with training in actual internal body mechanics) was Jim and Angela Criscimagna in Rockford, Illinois. They also introduced me to the Chen way of training and masters such as Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi.

I met Jim and Angela after reading internal arts posts on the Internet that I didn't understand, using terms I'd never been taught. One hour after training with Jim for the first time, I drove away from Rockford realizing that I had to start over.

Not everyone can make that decision. We invest a lot of time, money, and mental energy on what we study. When faced with the fact that we haven't studied properly, haven't been taught properly, and may need to scrap much of what we've spent years developing, most people can't do it. They see the difficulty of real internal arts and they retreat to what's familiar. Sometimes, that includes the "pat-on-the-back" type of "aren't-we-great" and "we know the secrets" mentality that a lot of teachers who don't really have a clue drill into their students.

In Jim and Angela's classes, Jim would actually bring you over, take your hand, and put it on his stomach (a rather impressive one at that) and let you feel as he moved the dan t'ien and moved into the kua. By feeling that, I could try to recreate it.

This is something that can be tricky when a male teacher is working with female students. Fortunately, Angela was there to help with that.

The internal arts have to be shown. Until you have a qualified instructor who will let you feel the art, and the power of proper mechanics, and who will put hands on you to correct your posture and guide you through movements, you won't really understand how it works. And when you do understand, it will take years to develop it. You can't just take a lesson and practice a few weeks and get it.

We're all in a hurry. We all want mastery now. In the internal arts, it just isn't going to happen. I'm still working on getting "Buddha's Warrior Pounds Mortar" right. Heck, I'm still working on getting the opening right. But I know what I'm working for, after years of good hands-on training and instructors who could translate the Chinese teaching into concepts and principles that I could understand.

If it hadn't been shown to me, I never would be where I am. The other night I found a tape, shot several years ago, of me doing the Chen 19 form. It was so pitiful that I laughed. At the time, I knew I had a lot to learn. Looking at the video, I was stunned at how little I had going internally, but also excited at how I had improved over the years. One step at a time.

Keeping the Hips Beneath You in Movement

I'm putting together an e-book on the Five Fist Postures of Hsing-I Chuan. It will be given free to everyone who purchases a copy of the new Hsing-I DVD on the fist postures through the website (even people who have purchased it in the past will be sent a copy of the e-book when it's done).

Pi_turn_4 One of the techniques to practice when doing any of the three internal arts--Hsing-I, Tai Chi, or Bagua--is to keep the hips under you as you move. I meet people all the time who violate this principle.

If you watch carefully, a lot of martial artists leave their butts lagging behind their torso when they step forward. Some of them really drag it.

Pi_turn_5_2 Keeping the hips beneath you is one of the principles that helps you maintain the ground strength and the feeling of peng jing all through the movement.

Sometimes, to demonstrate this to students (because as we all know "it has to be shown" and can't really be taught through videos and books), I'll have them push on my lead hand as I go through the Pi Chuan fist posture.

Pi_turn_6It's hard to imagine maintaining the ground strength and the feeling of peng when stepping forward, but it can be done. It takes a lot of practice, intent, and good body mechanics.

As you practice any of the movements in your internal arts, I hope you have a mirror handy (or a video camera). Watch to see where your hips are as you go through your movements. If they don't stay beneath you, experiment with the movements until they do.

The e-book that goes with the Hsing-I DVD will contain well over 100 photos from the video. It's designed to be used as a reference tool.