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October 2007
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December 2007

Internal Body Mechanics and Strength

Instead of teaching classes right now, I've decided to take another route that will help me move forward in my own studies and teach at the same time. On Sunday, a very nice young man came to my home and we worked on internal strength drills as my wife Nancy videotaped us. We also shot five free lessons on some of the basic skills of the internal arts. I'll be putting those lessons on the website soon.

Tom is a black belt in Taekwondo and has trained in aikido. He's about 6 feet 1 and that makes for a great training partner. It was fun taking a newcomer to the internal arts and showing/coaching internal strength exercises. It's always fun to see someone's reaction to a totally new way of moving and delivering power.

In the coming weeks, I'm putting together online lessons and DVDs, with Tom as my training partner, on a variety of topics including internal strength, hsing-i forms, tai chi fighting applications and more. These will be a series of "private lesson" videos where you'll see demonstrations of the techniques, forms and fighting applications, and also the coaching of a student one-on-one.

So stay tuned. A lot of good things are coming.

Dong Hai Chuan and Early Bagua

No one knows where Dong Hai Chuan learned baguazhang. He claimed to have run across a Taoist monk while wandering in the mountains. Some people believe he just made it up based on some circle-walking meditation he had practiced.

Although he created the art in the 1800's, he was apparently vague about it's origin. There's nothing vague about the skill of his students, however, although as we all know, stories tend to be exaggerated over time.

I always get a bit tickled over anecdotes that say a master knocked a guy "about twenty feet" with very little effort. That seems to be a consistent measure that pops up in martial anecdotes. That's a pretty long way to knock someone (I don't think I've ever knocked anyone 20 feet).

It's interesting to read that Dong Hai Chuan made one student walk the circle for six months before teaching him anything else. On the other hand, when he was enthusiastic about a student, such as Yin Fu, the student could master the art in just a few months.

Can you imagine an American student walking the circle for six months? Most of us want to blaze through the curriculum, and as a result, our circle walking isn't as good as it should be. In fact, if there's one thing that we can take from the old tales of martial arts masters, it's the concept of focus and constant training. They had focus, they trained constantly, and their skill grew.

For a good book on baguazhang, follow this link.

Some of the Best Advice I've Ever Heard

There was a guy several years ago who was one of the first Americans to begin educating us on internal body mechanics. Most Americans practicing tai chi were doing it very badly. Very often, when he pointed out mistakes and then, rather bluntly I'll admit, told people how to do it better, he made a lot of enemies.

When I began teaching I had a kids' class. I was coaching a 10-year old through a form one day and he began crying. He told me, "You're always criticizing me."

Now, no one is more polite in their coaching than I am, so his tears took me completely by surprise. Not long after this, I stopped teaching kids.

I've had new students come in with martial arts experience, and some of them would look at me as if they were the hired gunslinger when I pointed out the "internal" way of moving, as opposed to the external way they were accustomed to. Sometimes, they didn't want to hear it.

Each time I visit a teacher, a different school, or attend a seminar, I empty my cup. I try to learn from everyone. And if someone points out a mistake, I'm eager to hear it because it will only make me a more skilled martial artist if I know what I'm doing wrong.

I work with an amazing woman from India who is going to become President of the University of Houston in January. She is highly accomplished and brilliant, yet one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. When she was talking about her career to this point, and how she was brought along the path toward success by those in positions of authority, she said something very surprising that echoed the way I feel about coaching. She said, "They cared enough to tell me how I could improve."

"The only way to grow is to leave your comfort zone," she said.

This has always been my philosophy. Whether I was working in news and hiring people out of school or teaching kung fu to people who had never studied (or those who had experience), I've wanted to tell them what they did well and what they needed to work on to get to the next level.

I've always welcomed coaching, too, and I've always been very aware that everything I do can be improved. Receiving good coaching, however, takes you out of your comfort zone. In tai chi, when someone tells you that you're doing a movement wrong, it shatters your little bubble of self-delusionment. :) You're forced to change, and change isn't easy for most people. They would rather retreat to the familiar than face the fact that after a lot of hard work, they have a lot more hard work ahead of them.

Open yourself to constructive coaching. Eagerly seek out your mistakes. Get out of your comfort zone. The people who really care about you, whether it's at work, at school, or in your dojo or kwoon, will give you good feedback to push you to a higher level.

Learning from Other Styles of Martial Arts

I worked out today with my friend Sean, and he brought along Don. Both have studied Hung Gar, and Sean has studied Wing Chun and Tai Chi. Don is also a former Navy Seal and has studied other martial arts.

We traded techniques and principles. Hung Gar has a lot of isometric tension going for it. The arts I do are more relaxed. But in exchanging techniques and showing each other things, I discovered a new martial application for one of the Chen Tai Chi movements. It was a very good feeling when the light bulb went on as Don was taking me through a Hung Gar application.

Sean also showed an excellent application for the "hold the ball" movement prior to "Part the Wild Horse's Mane" in Yang Tai Chi.

Both Sean and Don were interested in silk-reeling exercises and how the movements are used in fighting applications.

It was a fun couple of hours working together in the park.

Sometimes, we can get too hung up on the style that we study. There are many similarities in martial arts. If you open your mind and allow yourself to explore other arts and their techniques, it can sometimes enable you to see deeper into your own art.

Kung Fu Reflections on Life and Death

My last remaining uncle died a few weeks ago. Orbra Gullette was 84 years old, living in Wilmore, Kentucky, a few miles from my home town Lexington.

Orbra was a quiet, unassuming, generous man with a sharper mind than he let on, and a very funny sense of humor. He was my father's brother, and when he passed away, it was the end of a generation.

When I was growing up, I would have rather been at Orbra's house than anywhere on earth. His wonderful wife, my Aunt Jane, would welcome me with an embrace that was physical as well as emotional. You never called to tell them you were coming, you just dropped in, and people still do. My cousin Mike was just a couple of years younger than me, and we ran all over that small town and in the surrounding fields playing. Our parents would buy us machetes and bb guns and pellet guns and then tell us to go out and play. In the 1950's and 60's, boys and dogs ran free, and that's the way it should be. It was a wonderful world.

Orbra's death represents something profound. On my mother's and father's sides, all my grandparents are dead, and all their children are dead. My generation is next in line.

I was watching a Kung Fu TV show recently, when the Master told Caine the secret to living with wisdom. He said:

  • First, learn how to live
  • Second, learn how not to kill
  • Third, learn how to live with death
  • Fourth, learn how to die.

One of the tests of character is how you deal with loss as you get older. You start your life learning how to live. As a martial artist, you learn how to kill and then how not to kill.

As you get older and you begin losing friends, grandparents, then parents, aunts, and uncles, you begin struggling with your mortality and you attempt to fill the void that these important people leave in your life. If you're really unlucky, as I was, you lose a child. At that point, you must learn to live with death or else give it all up.

Finally, we all get to the point when we must learn to die. All the Gullette men that I've known have kept their minds intact until the moment of death. My Uncle Robert Gullette asked the hospice nurse if the strange feelings he was experiencing was something new or just part of the process. She turned to him and said, "Mr. Gullette, your journey is nearing an end." He said something like, "I see." And he died right then.

Learning to die, in my opinion, is to lose your fear of death. I suppose you get to the point if you live long enough that most of the people your age are gone, and death seems to be more acceptable. Losing everyone in your generation, as many people do when they live to 90 or 100, has to be very difficult.

Learning to die, in my opinion, is also a test of your beliefs. I believe that when we die, we return to the state of nothingness we were in before we were born. It was perfect peace, and the thought of returning to that state has a great amount of comfort to it.

I hope that I maintain my beliefs when the time comes, rather than making a last-minute grab at salvation from an unseen spirit. I want death with dignity on my own terms.

My daughters are 26 and 30 years old. I plan on doing tai chi, hsing-i and bagua until I can't move any longer. I'm hoping that will be around age 100. Until then, I'll try to fill the void left by the people I love who pass on. I know that my life will never be the same, and life will never be as good, when I can't go to Uncle Orbra's house and when I can't be embraced by Aunt Jane. She's still there, in her 80's, loving everyone who walks through the door, but her mind and body are failing, and it won't be long until I'll never feel that embrace again.

My mother died in June, as I was moving to Tampa. Since then, when I've appeared in the news, I've wanted to send her a copy, and then I realize I can't. I want her to visit and show me places we went in St. Petersburg when I was a child. But she can't visit. She's gone.

The very presence of death, which you feel more and more as you get older and lose people like this, gives life more value. Losing the people you love teaches you a lesson.

That lesson came to me in a dream a few months ago when suddenly, my father was standing in front of me. My dad was a funny, laid-back guy who died in 1989 at age 61. I don't dream about him very often anymore, but when I do, the dreams are all the same. I rush to him, I hug him and tell him how much I miss him. I always wake up crying.

In the dream I had a few months ago, something different happened. I saw my dad and I rushed up to him and hugged him. Then I whispered in his ear, "Every moment is precious."

And then I woke up. The dream and the words haunted me.

This lesson was on my mind as I drove away from Wilmore and back to Tampa after Uncle Orbra's funeral. The words kept going through my mind -- every moment is precious.

Perhaps I've gone full circle, and in understanding this principle, I've learned how to live.

A Slow Week - But Good Things to Come

I haven't put many posts up this week because of the B.M.

The Big Move, that is.

Nancy and I are moving from an apartment (bad idea) into a house, complete with swimming pool and jacuzzi in a large screened-in area perfect also for practicing forms and techniques.

In the garage, the heavy bag will soon be hanging. It's been down since we shut down our school and moved to Tampa in June. And by the way, our building closed this week exactly two years to the day that we bought it. Nancy and I had mixed feelings

The good news about all this -- I'll soon be cranking up more videos and other material for the blog, and I have some interesting ideas for teaching some of the things I've learned through the website, which has been pretty well neglected for a while.

So stay tuned and hang in there. Some good things are coming.