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A Review of New Documentary DVD - Chen Village

ChenVillageDVD The new documentary by Jon Braeley, Chen Village, is a beautiful and fascinating journey inside the birthplace of Tai Chi. I bought the DVD through and eagerly watched it a few nights ago when it arrived. 

Shot in high definition, the documentary includes interviews with westerners who have traveled to Chen Village to study, and it shows a disciple ceremony in which Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang accepts new disciples.

Chen Village (Chenjiagou) is located in Henan Province. It's a very poor village with 3,000 residents. It's estimated that 2,500 of them practice tai chi, and 85% of them have the Chen surname. You see parts of the village here that you haven't seen before. When you think of the birthplace of Tai Chi, you might think of beautiful Chinese buildings, and there are a few that meet the description, but Chenjiagou is a dirt-poor farming community. It just happens that they are the best in the world at their art.

The documentary features Chen Xiaowang, his brother and principle of the Chenjiagou tai chi school Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Ziqiang (son of Xiaoxing) and Chen Bing (a nephew of Xiaowang and Xiaoxing). It's exciting to watch, considering I have met and trained with three of the four, and Chen Xiaoxing stayed in our home for a week. It's also fascinating to see the school since I received a certificate in 2005 as a recognized instructor connected to the school.

I didn't know until seeing this DVD that Chen Bing now runs his own school, and he has built it with foreign students in mind. Some students have been reluctant in the past to travel to Chen Village because living conditions are not very good compared with our standards. 

I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Chen Bing say that foreign students are usually trained differently than the Chinese -- not as tough because they can't take it, and most of them, he says, are interested in the health aspects more than the martial aspects. Are you listening, people? They don't consider us to be very serious because we focus on the wrong things.

Chen Ziqiang is interviewed, talking about how only one in a hundred students -- even those from the Chen Village -- are able to persist long enough to become really good at tai chi. I've been teaching now for a dozen years and that is something that becomes clear very quickly when you teach -- the fact that for every 100 people that come through the door, only one has the determination and passion to achieve their goals.

The interviews with the western students are very interesting. They find themselves in a very simple environment when they stay at the Chen Village -- a much slower and far less technological lifestyle. A few of the comments go a little over-the-top, as you can imagine from people who are dedicated enough to spend a year or two living there. One student actually breaks down and cries when he speaks about his devotion to Chen Xiaowang. I understand the devotion, but I tend to look at these masters as people who are the best at what they do -- like Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, all worthy of tremendous respect. I don't look at them as gods. Nancy watched the documentary with me and strongly objected to the disciple ceremony where the disciples were kneeling and bowing in worship before Grandmaster Chen. I didn't react as strongly because I understand why they're doing it, but it was fascinating to see a ceremony like this after hearing about it. When you become a disciple it's a very serious relationship, supposedly like being admitted to the family, and yet there is a master/student relationship that is very strict, and let's face it, the culture is not what we are accustomed to. Americans by nature don't like to kneel and prostrate themselves before anyone (we reserve that behavior for our relationship with invisible beings), but in the context of the situation and the culture, it's something that you do.

Chen Bing is shown at his school demonstrating a form, and as usual, he's breathtakingly impressive. There is a little video of Chen Xiaoxing practicing with some students, and Chen Xiaowang does a short demo, too.

As I heal from the lung problem that has plagued me this year, I have one goal -- to travel to Chen Village and give it my best effort to train like the Chinese. I've taken a week off of practicing as I gear up for this medical procedure at the Cleveland Clinic next week, but watching this documentary made me want to bounce off the walls. I just can't wait to get over this thing and start building my strength and practice HARD again. It's nice that Jon Braeley has produced such an inspirational film.

I highly recommend this DVD to anyone with an interest in Tai Chi. 

The Connection Between Stress and Fat - Chi Kung Can Help

Stress is a killer. It can also make you fat. There's an interesting article on a website that outlines the chemical connection between stress and poor health. Read it by clicking this link.

One of the main reasons to do chi kung is for stress relief. Most of us don't train our bodies and minds to relax. From the moment we wake up, we're on the go. 

Through chi kung, you teach yourself to react to stress by calming the mind and body. It takes practice, like any other skill. Eventually, with practice, you will achieve a more relaxed state of mind. At that point, the health benefits will already start to accrue, even if you haven't yet made the connection between your new ability to handle stress and your improved health.

Why Your Tai Chi Skills Are So Weak

There is an article on the Internet by a tai chi instructor based in Los Angeles. It outlines the 10 most important concepts you should remember when practicing Tai Chi. And it's the reason most Tai Chi being practiced in America is so weak.

This isn't a personal attack. I don't intend to insult this teacher or his group. I'm sure they're completely sincere, so I won't bring this guy's name into the discussion, but he's typical of so many Tai Chi folks I've met who focus on the wrong things, thinking they're doing Tai Chi. They do this because their teacher taught them a weak version of this art, and they believed he or she knew what they were talking about. It happens everywhere. The result -- you meet their students and see quickly that they have no concept of body mechanics.

Here--briefly--is his list of top ten important things to focus on:

Concept 1: Tai Chi is done with an emphasis on every movement. The fashion of every pattern must be connected with one another.

Concept 2: Maintain your shoulders dropped so that any tension will be eliminated.

Concept 3: Your wrists should be straight in order to maintain strength and a good flow of energy.

Concept 4: Learning to move ever more slowly is one path is increased cultivation.

Concept 5: Never let any hindrances stop you from being connected. In case you get disconnected, keep up with the motions.

Concept 6: In practicing Tai Chi, your knees must always be bent. Also you need to maintain your balance for your height not to bob up and down.

Concept 7: Power of Tai Chi will start from the feet going up to the legs, controlling the shoulders and will be expressed by the fingers and hands.

Concept 8: Your head must be maintained as if it was suspended on air.

Concept 9: Your chest must be depressed and your back should be raised but this must be done effortlessly.

Concept 10: Keep your breath to your body's center of gravity, the dan tien; again this must be done effortlessly.

My Response to these Concepts

Most of these concepts are things that you need to know and do -- but they are FAR from the top ten concepts you need. These are--in my opinion--add-ons; things to think of after you begin focusing on the top concepts that you need to know.

Concepts 1 and 10 I can buy into. You must be connected through the body. As you progress, you should focus on the breathing with the dan t'ien, but that is NOT done effortlessly at first. It takes practice and focus.

Concepts 2 and three are just silly. Yes, you should relax your shoulders and "drop" them, and usually you try to keep the wrists straight. But to list these specifically as the number two and three concepts is surprising. Rather than focus on the shoulders as this guy does, I encourage students to drop their weight -- "sink their chi" -- and relax everything, including the shoulders while you maintain ground and peng (see below for my list of concepts).

Concept 4 is just wrong. Learning to move ever more slowly is the key? Actually, you move slowly in the beginning to get the body mechanics, calming, sinking, relaxing, and learning to connect the whole-body movement in conjunction with the body mechanics that I will discuss below. After you learn to move properly in slow motion, you move faster and faster, learning fa-jing and how to apply the movements in self-defense. The more advanced you get, the more you enjoy--and are able to do the forms properly at both slow and combat speeds. Yes, I said combat. Tai Chi is a martial art, first and foremost.

Concept 5 is a distraction. Don't get distracted? Well of course. That also applies to reading a book.

Concept 6 tells you to keep your knees bent. This is another way to say relax and sink. It's difficult to move properly if your knees are locked. But one of the top ten concepts? It's part of a concept but not a stand-alone.

He almost nails Concept 7. Power does start in the ground, travels through the legs -- but he ignores the key concept that it is guided by the dan t'ien and then is expressed through the hands (or whatever part of the body is striking). Inserting the shoulders here is goofy. The power has to go through the shoulders but they are conduits for internal strength and should be kept out of play as much as possible except in certain circumstances involving kou energy.

Concepts 8 and 9 are pieces of advice told to all Tai Chi students. Yes, you keep your head up and balanced. The chest is slightly hollowed and the back slightly rounded but this is part of the whole body connection.

The Real Concepts You Must Focus on in Tai Chi

1. Establish and Maintain the Ground Path: All strength and power originates in the ground. You must maintain the ground connection throughout every movement, even the movements that some people call "transitions" (there are no transitions in Tai Chi, there are only fighting applications). You can learn ground path exercises through my online school and Internal Strength DVD.

2. The Most Important Energy is Peng Energy and it Must Be Maintained At All Times: Peng requires the ground connection. It's an expansive force, as if your body is inflated like a balloon. When you try to push a basketball or beach ball into a pool of water, peng is the feeling you get that -- even though the ball is going into the water, pressure is building for it to spring back. Peng and the ground path must be connected through all movement. If it isn't, you aren't doing Tai Chi. Peng is involved in every "energy" in Tai Chi. Yes, you must remain relaxed, but relaxation without peng and the ground is weak, collapsing when it meets opposing strength.

3. All Movement Must Be Connected Through the Body: Whole-body movement is crucial. Power should flow like a ribbon from the ground, connected. All I have to do is ask another Tai Chi person to grab me with both hands and pull me down. It becomes quickly obvious that they have no concept of whole-body movement. Chen Tai Chi players don't usually have this problem.

4. Silk-Reeling is a Key Component of Tai Chi: It's amazing how poorly this skill is taught, when it is one of the founding principles of Tai Chi. Yang LuChan would have learned it in the Chen Village before he created Yang style, but it has been lost. Some teachers actually say that silk-reeling happens when you "imagine" chi spiralling from the ground through the attacking hand. That's wrong, too. Silk-reeling is a way of spiraling and moving power in a connected way through the body. It relies on the first three concepts (ground, peng and whole-body movement) plus the next two. If you're not familiar with this concept, check out my Silk-Reeling DVD set.

5. Dan Tien Rotation: Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang says Tai Chi is "One Principle, Three Techniques." The main principle is "Dan Tien guides all movement and when one part moves, all parts move." The three techniques are "dan tien rotating side to side; dan t'ien rotating over and back; dan t'ien rotating in a combination of these directions. Dan t'ien rotation must be involved in every movement.

6. Opening and Closing the Kua: Some past Tai Chi masters have said that "to understand the kua is to understand Tai Chi." But I see Tai Chi players all the time who couldn't find their kua with both hands because they've never been taught this concept. Every movement in Tai Chi involves opening one kua and closing the other in some way. Dan t'ien rotation is key to this skill.

7. Maintain a Centered Stance: I saw a video recently of a guy teaching Yang tai chi and he began Grasp The Swallow's Tail. His right hip suddenly stuck out to the right and it appeared that the slightest push would send him off-balance. In Chen tai chi, standing stake is used to help you relax, sink, develop peng, build leg strength, tuck the hips slightly and remain centered -- but then almost every movement in the form is performed to maintain a centered stance. This is one reason early Chen students are made to hold stances while they are corrected until their legs give out and they fall on the floor. It takes a lot of strength to hold a centered stance. The better the stance, the harder it is to hold. And this is one reason you see such powerful legs on Chen masters. If you think pain is not involved in Tai Chi practice, you are not studying Tai Chi. 

Those are my top concepts of internal movement. You add to this little things like keeping the head up, hollow the chest, keep the knees slightly bent, and the small things that help refine your Tai Chi. 

Americans are prone to self-delusion. If a guy tells us he's a master, we believe it and everything he says is the truth and it can't be denied. And by golly if my master tells me I'm learning Tai Chi, then I'm learning Tai Chi.

Put these "masters" in front of the real deal and they crumble like a house of cards. In the meantime, they're teaching Americans the wrong things, having them "cultivate chi" instead of learn to move properly. They focus on the trees -- keeping the wrists straight and the shoulders sunk--and they ignore (or don't know) the forest, where the real skills are. Perhaps they think Americans are only capable of so much because we're busy and can't spend the time to get really good at this. Or maybe they're deluded about their own abilities and knowledge.

The best you can do for yourself is to NOT believe everything an authority figure tells you, but to investigate and research and read, watch videos and compare, and don't close your mind to the possibility that you just might be learning pretty poor quality Tai Chi.

Want to learn more about these key concepts? Sign up for a 10-part Free Video Course at my online school --

TV Story Last Night About the Online Tai Chi - Internal Arts School

The number one TV news station in the Quad Cities did a very short story last night about the online internal arts school after another active member of the military (fighting in Afghanistan) joined the site.

It's pretty amazing to think that the online videos, e-books, audios and DVDs are being used by some of our troops to train while they're away.

From a business perspective, the story was pretty useless -- it didn't even mention the web address so other military families could pass it on. But it was fun to see on the air, and it shows my core group of local students practicing at the park (and my lovely wife Nancy videotaping a lesson for the web).

Go to this link and watch the 10:00 news last night (Oct. 7) to see the story about ten minutes into the newscast.

This Is Why I Do the Online Tai Chi - KungFu School

A wonderful message we got in our discussion board from a new member to the online school. This is why I do it. I have edited a bit to protect this guy's identity:

"My name is _____, it is a tremendous honor and privalege to join this group. I have heard of Sifu Ken once before from another discussion group, the moderator mentioned his online school and said that he believed Sifu Ken was the "real deal". Well I am currently in Afghanistan (that was my unit on CNN yesterday...unfortunately) and have no access to training other than what little we have from the internet. I googled online martial arts training and...lo and behold...Sifu Ken pops up and here I am. 

My background includes Kaidoku-ryu, recently Jing Wu taught by a friend of mine while in Iraq (very interesting), that friend also stressed the internal arts greatly and sparked my interest in them.

I hope to learn as much as I can from the school. I have been told that Hsing-I, Baqua and Tai Chi were among the best arts to learn and I am now begining to see why. Thanks."

Actually, I'm the one who is honored. And grateful to be able to help people who have no access to good instruction in the internal arts. I have members all over the world now, and I hope to meet as many as possible in the coming years. 

Benefits of Tai Chi from Time Magazine

It's always nice to see Tai Chi get publicity, although I have a problem with the way it's described. This is a martial art, people.

However, because it does combine slow movement with balance, stretching, and a building of leg strength and other movements that promote flexibility, Tai Chi has been noted as something different.

My claim is that any activity that offers adults and seniors similar type of movement and "calming" would have similar health benefits. There is nothing magic about Tai Chi.

Here's the article:

A Qigong Challenge (Chi Kung Challenge)

Kentaichi1 I received a very nice email this morning from a good man in Rio who suggested that I've been having breathing problems due to performing chi kung improperly.

I certainly appreciated his concern and the fact that he reached out, and I understand he has good intentions (he has worked with chi kung for 30 years) but -- it will come as no surprise to those who know me -- I couldn't let this go by without a challenge. Don't blame me. I'm a stickler for facts and critical thinking.

Here's another way to look at it. Perhaps my condition hasn't gotten a lot worse because I do chi kung properly. 

In my reply to this nice guy in Rio, I asked him if he could supply me with any clinical evidence to back up his theory. I prefer, of course, peer-reviewed trials, preferably double-blind but at least something that can be duplicated by other medical trials.

I would like to issue this challenge to anyone reading this. Can you supply me with valid, objective clinical trial evidence, peer-reviewed, that suggests you can be harmed by chi kung?

Because you see, I don't think there's any way you can become ill or experience the onset of any type of physical problem by practicing chi kung, whether you are doing it properly or not. Okay, you might do a squat or low movement and injure a knee, but that's not what I'm talking about. After all, if you can develop serious medical problems by doing chi kung wrong, millions of people who buy chi kung DVDs and practice at home should be in the hospital.

I'm not interested in anecdotal evidence. That isn't true evidence. It's highly subjective and often, people will tell an acupuncturist or chi healer that their treatments work when, in fact, they don't.

I've heard stories--anecdotes--of people who went to a tai chi class and did chi kung. Suddenly they felt weak, dizzy, tingling, felt pain somewhere, began crying -- you've probably heard these stories, too. And I don't doubt that it happened. I simply believe the people who reacted this way brought some heavy emotional or physical baggage with them into the class--emotional or physical illnesses that can easily be disguised when people don't know you well.

There is nothing dangerous at all in the breathing, calming, centering, even moving exercises of chi kung. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Can't happen, unless you practice in a room where people are exhaling the flu bug into the air, or you're in a cold, damp place and susceptible to a cold. Or if, by calming down, you suddenly experience a flood of memories of childhood abuse or something. But that isn't caused by chi kung, is it?

A lot of us buy into this myth when we first study chi kung. I was told early in my Hsing-I training that if I practiced certain fist postures incorrectly, the corresponding organs in my body would be damaged. Now seriously. What's amazing is that modern, college-educated folks will buy into that crap just because a "teacher" or someone who appears to be in authority tells them its true. Or they read about it in a magazine article that is sloppily written and poorly sourced, relying on anecdotes, personal exaggerations, or evidence from sources with a financial interest in perpetuating the myth. We carry the problem forward by repeating it because,  by God, we're in the internal arts, and to be in the internal arts means you must be mystical, right? You HAVE to believe in this stuff.

Wrong. You have to believe in the truth, in something real, in something that is backed up with real evidence that can be repeated and can stand the test of a double blind inquiry, which greatly reduces the ability to cheat either by the doctor or the patient.

Let's face it, we all get older, little things go wrong, we deal with them or get them fixed. Tai chi masters die young and old. They grow feeble and pass away. They develop diabetes and heart problems and clogged arteries. Their joints go bad (even Chen Xiaowang has had knee surgery). Chi healers develop cancer just like everyone else, and sometimes they pass away at relatively young ages. Anyone remember Jane Hallendar?

Last year, for no known reason, my heart developed additional electrical pathways and began beating strangely. Chi kung didn't fix it, but Dr. Michael Giudici at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport (a genius, by the way) did. Unfortunately, while on the table, I aspirated into my lungs. The stuff from my stomach triggered pneumonia in the lungs, and I was improving through January, teaching classes, making videos, but I was coughing my head off 24 hours a day. I fought to get stronger cough syrup but they don't like to prescribe it, so by February, the coughing had torn something in my left lung. I've been coughing up blood since that time (not every day but sometimes 3 or 4 times a day) and now we realize it isn't going to heal without extra help - cauterization at the Cleveland Clinic. One lesson from this is to be a strong advocate for yourself and if you need something stronger, don't let the doctors keep it from you.

Conditions like these happen to chi kung practitioners, they happen to wonderful people, they happen to bad people. They happen to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and athiests.

"It" happens. And it has nothing to do with chi kung. How you deal with it shows what you're made of. And I see myself competing in tournaments next year.

If you can show me that chi kung can be harmful and create this type of problem, and you have evidence that would stand up to peer review and would be published in a reliable medical journal, please send it my way.

Otherwise, please stop perpetuating the fantasy, in your own mind and in the minds of others. That does more of a disservice than anything you can possibly do. You might as well believe that an invisible being is going to fix you. That makes just as much sense, and works just as well from a placebo effect.

I'm just sayin.'   :)  If you have evidence to prove me wrong, bring it on.

The Road Back -- One Step Closer to Recovery?

KenHospital10-3 So they rammed a scope down the old gullet this morning. It wasn't bad. I stayed at the hospital all night -- didn't sleep much. A pitiful old woman was in the next room crying out all night, unable to breathe. There may be some dementia involved. I felt sorry for her. There are people in this pulmonary unit in pretty bad shape. So I watched TV, worked on my laptop, read a little bit, watched more TV -- an old monster movie on AMC -- and slept an hour at a time for about 4 hours or so.

I had to warn the nurses and remind the doctor about my powerful gag reflex. I've been through two scopes in the past year and a half that went horribly. Even though they tried to numb my throat, I gagged and choked all the way through the procedure. So they thanked me for warning them this morning. Once they hit me with the happy juice, I wasn't too aware during the scope. I remember coughing a lot, and they told me to try to stop, but I was fading in and out, seeing monitors that--without my glasses or contacts--looked like a psychedelic movie.

The photo here shows me after I woke up. The pictures are places in my left lung that are raw and bleeding. The doctor said that when he poked the area it bled. Needless to say, coughing or just about anything can trigger a bleeding spell. He treated the area with epinephrine to shrink the area and try to let it heal again, but the next step is the Cleveland Clinic, where they'll go in and hopefully cauterize the area so it will stop bleeding and heal.

I feel pretty good about this. The bad news is I need to cut back on my tai chi and kung-fu activity for a week or two--maybe more. Fortunately, I have a lot of good stuff to edit for the online school and a newly expanded chi kung DVD. I'm going to keep the lungs quiet so that area isn't stressed by hard activity. Yeah. I swear I'll cut back. :)

I'm looking forward to getting this taken care of in Cleveland and hope they can shoehorn me in within a month or two. 

They're keeping me for another night here at the hospital to see if there's more bleeding in the lungs. Maybe I can get Nancy to smuggle in some cabernet tonight. :)

The Road Back -- Keeping My Eyes on the Prize

KenHospital-1 I'm spending tonight in the hospital. I was here a week before Christmas, and I've spent the months since trying to overcome the near-disastrous impact of a bad case of pneumonia.

I've been coughing up blood since February, and after a break of over two months, it started up again two weeks ago and I've deteriorated since. This morning I thought I would bleed to death. It looked like someone had been blown away by a shotgun in my sink. 

No one has been able to tell me why this is happening. During these months, I've continued teaching, doing the online school, making video lessons and DVDs, and working as hard as I can to get to the bottom of this condition. I've never really been sick in my life and in 2009, I haven't been able to get well.

In 2008, my heart decided to start beating funny and I wanted it fixed so I could get back to full kung-fu activity. I had three laser ablation procedures, where spots were burned in my heart, before they finally disconnected the rogue electrical circuits that were causing the problem. But in the last procedure, a week before Christmas, I aspirated into my lungs while on the table, setting up a vicious bout of pneumonia that caused me to cough so much, something tore in my lungs. By February, I was coughing up blood, sometimes daily, sometimes two, three, or four times a day. Each time this happens, my breathing and overall conditioning takes a nosedive. 

On Wednesday--two nights ago, I coughed up blood before practice and then at the end of practice. Yesterday there was more blood. This morning, I became alarmed it had grown so much worse. I called the pulmonologist's office and the nurse told me, "He doesn't have an appointment for you. You could come in and wait. I don't think he can do anything for you, but he could examine you and reassure you."

She didn't like it when I replied, "I've just coughed up a large amount of blood and I hear no urgency from you." When I told her I didn't see the point of coming in when he couldn't do anything for me, she said in a huff, "Fine, Ken."

Screw it. I went to the ER and that got their attention. Later, my pulmonologist, who is a good doctor, said he wondered why I hadn't come in to the office. The next time I see the nurse, I'm going to tell her to her face that she should be fired.

Tomorrow morning, he'll put a scope down my throat and--like he did in July--try to treat the meaty, raw, bleeding section of lung. After the broncoscopy in July, I began to improve. Two weeks ago it all went south. The photo above is from July, when I was trying to wake up after the scope was rammed down my throat. I wanted Nancy to take the picture to document this difficult journey I'm on. 

This won't fix it, but he says on Monday, he'll set up an appointment with the Cleveland Clinic and they'll go in and cauterize the torn area (they don't do that here in the Quad Cities). That should fix the problem and I can get back into full action. In the meantime, I also have an appointment in 10 days, when the cardiologist is going up the groin with a scope to see if the veins are narrowing between the lungs and the heart, causing the shortness of breath. I hear that this is just a test to make sure the Cleveland Clinic has all the info they need. I don't know that I have narrowing of the pulmonary veins.

Tomorrow, I'm missing a great tournament in Dubuque. I had wanted it to be my comeback in 2009. In two weeks, I'll miss my friend John Morrow's tournament. But if things work out, I'll be able to really turn things on by the first of the year and take it to a new level in 2010.

I've kept this on the down low a little bit the past few months, but I've wanted to write about it because I want to show that you can struggle with difficult things and return to action. Sometimes you just have to take it as it comes, remain determined, and stay centered. I have WAY too much to learn and achieve in the internal arts to let this stop me. A little help and empathy from the medical profession would be appreciated. Enough is enough.