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Practicing Forms is Like Playing an Instrument

Staffpractice I
practiced 10 forms this evening, as the sun was going down and the shade began to deepen in our backyard.

I've been practicing some of these forms for 23 years, but had to occasionally stop and practice a movement a few times until it felt right. Once or twice, I would skip a movement, realize it a few seconds later, and have to go back and start again until I got it right. Then I would repeat the form to make sure the part that I had skipped was firmly in my mind again. The photo at left shows me practicing a staff form with Eric Schlichte back around 2001, in the training hall we rented from Jazzercise.

As a child -- around age 7 -- my mother had me take piano lessons. My teacher told me that concert pianists who have practiced all their lives can feel it if they skip one day without practicing. The best artists practice every single day.

Five decades later, I understand that the same is true for martial artists. We express our art with our bodies, creating beautiful movement that has specific body mechanics at their core, and a potentially deadly meaning hidden inside circular and sometimes flowery movements.

Forms have been debated by martial artists over the years. When I was young, I didn't see the value. Most of my time was spent focusing on self-defense techniques or sparring. 

I was 30 years old before I began to appreciate the technical and physical mastery required to do a form really well. Within the arts that I practice there are some powerful movements of self-defense. To do these techniques well requires strong mechanics and precision and power -- all skills learned through consistent practice of forms.

Yes, practicing a form is like playing a classical piece of music on the piano. Miss several days of practicing it and you can tell a difference. Practice it every day and you'll become its master. You'll become an artist.

Practicing in the Park - the Benefits of Fresh Air and Low Overhead

Rich-Chris-Mayweb In China, many teachers teach in their homes -- in yards and alleys. They don't have the resources or the money to open a school in the way that we do here in the USA.

I like it that way. After having my own school for a while, it was a relief to shut it down when Nancy and I moved to Tampa in 2007. When we moved back, I decided to keep the number of local students small and practice in the park. It works very well from around March or April through October. Then, the Midwest winter sets in.

We gather at a park (off 23rd Street in Bettendorf, Iowa) three times a week and practice on the stage of an outdoor theater. The photo above shows Rich Coulter and Chris Miller practicing different weapons forms a week ago. When we need a softer surface, we go to the grass.

Kung-Fu-Group-Mayweb My students are only required to join the online school.It's only $19.99 a month and they can come to as many practices in person as they want. They also agree to appear in video lessons that I shoot for the online school. It's a win-win situation -- the least expensive martial arts classes in the region, and I'm able to also create content for my website members around the world.

At the same time, I don't have to water down the instruction for a large, diverse group. Students promote when they're ready. There is no financial pressure for me to push them into another expensive promotion so that I can get a fee. The people who train locally and appear in videos get promotions free of charge.

The second photo here is the first one taken with the two black sash students. From left to right -- Chris Miller (black sash), Colin Frye (purple sash), Kim Kruse (brown sash), me, Leander Mohs (white sash), and Rich Coulter (black sash). Not pictured are Jerit and Angie Gendreau. They make a 3-hour round-trip drive at least once a week to study in person.

If you live in the Quad Cities, or if you're ever in these parts and want to stop by for a class, we practice Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 6:00 and Saturdays at 11 a.m.

Stop by for some fresh air and some good kung-fu.

The Road Back - The Power of Goal-Setting and Determination

Cleveland-Bed Caution - this story contains an image that might be disturbing.

On November 2nd, I was lying in a hospital bed with tubes down my throat -- on a respirator -- and watching TV through a haze of sedation that relaxed me so that I wouldn't gag and choke on the tubes. I had entered the hospital on October 19th, thinking I was having a 2-hour procedure that would fix a bleeding airway. I had been coughing up blood since February and the residual blood in the lungs made breathing a real challenge.

My kung-fu practice had been seriously affected throughout 2009, but I had no idea -- and neither did my doctors -- that I was losing the function of my left lung because the pulmonary veins going to the heart were closing down. They discovered this at the Cleveland Clinic, but when they tried to open the veins, they accidentally pierced my heart. They led Nancy to believe a couple of times that there was a good possibility I wouldn't make it out alive.

On November 2, I discovered that I was unable to walk. I had lost so much muscle and strength lying in a hospital bed -- sedated out of my mind -- that the weight loss I had been experiencing all year picked up steam and took most of my muscle with it.

I was so weak, I couldn't get up to go to the toilet, so they had to bring it to me. It was degrading and shocking. I had always been in great condition.

So I was lying there wondering what the future would bring for kung-fu, and I thought about a plan to get back in shape. Every spring, my friend John Morrow holds a tournament, and I decided at that time that -- little by little -- I would use the next few months to regain my strength and compete in the tournament.

I still didn't realize I had lost the function of my left lung -- that no oxygenated blood is going from the left lung to the heart. And my right diaphragm was still paralyzed. So I was trying to breathe with not even one completely functioning lung. But my goal was set. If I could compete at Morrow's tournament, it would represent at least some type of a comeback.

I got home November 6th, weighing 158 pounds -- 50 pounds lighter than 10 months previously -- and so weak, I sat on the couch and in a chair for a week, trying to build up enough strength to walk down to my basement office. I couldn't breathe well and I was still coughing up blood every day. A little blood seemed to stay in the airways after these incidents, and it made breathing very difficult. There were times that I couldn't walk from the couch to the kitchen without stopping to rest.

BloodWebI was alarmed that I was still coughing up blood. The photo at left (showing the bathroom sink) shows the aftermath of one incident -- and 85% had gone down the drain when this photo was taken. I called the pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

"Ken," he said, "you will probably cough up blood the rest of your life. If we went in to fix it again, it might trigger a fatal bleeding event."

At this point, I didn't think I could live more than a few more months. But I was sure going to try, because I wanted to get to that tournament in May.

During the next few weeks:

  1. I tried acupuncture, visiting a popular acupuncturist from China - a former neurologist. Walking from my car into the office was very difficult. After acupuncture treatments, I began coughing up blood twice a day instead of just once. I thought I only had a few months to live at that point. I canceled the acupuncture treatments.
  2. I was able to do 2 crunches without completely running out of oxygen.
  3. I could barely use 10-pound dumbells for bicep curls.
  4. I couldn't do standing stake meditation for more than 15 seconds without my legs wanting to buckle.
  5. The first time I tried to to a push-up, I couldn't.
  6. After Nancy and I started going to the fitness center, it was weeks before I could do one chin-up. I would just hang from the bar, no strength to pull up. It was shocking.

One day in early December, I felt the bubbles in my chest that announced that I was going to cough up blood. I immediately went into the standing stake position, dropped my weight, calmed myself, and put my mind on my dan t'ien. I tried to completely relax. I only coughed up a little blood that day -- not as much as usual. I had done chi kung before during these episodes, but today I felt up against the wall, as if my life was in danger.

The next day, I felt the bubbles in my chest again and immediately went into chi kung mode. Total relaxation, dropping my energy -- and only a streak of blood came up. Later that day it happened again -- bubbles in my chest. I went into chi kung mode and no blood came up at all.

That was early December. I haven't coughed up blood since -- today is May 11th.

On December 15th, I returned to Cleveland Clinic and had a stent put in a cardiac artery that was 85% blocked (it wasn't discovered here in the Quad Cities despite numerous EKGs and echocardiograms). This time, a 2-hour procedure only took 2 hours and I was on the road home the next day.

I told my students that I wanted to resume teaching the first of the year. A few days beforeBaShihApps-f Christmas, I suddenly felt as if it was a little easier to breathe. I was still extremely weak and had no cardio, but the fact that I had stopped coughing up blood made a big difference.

Just after the start of 2010, my students and I began meeting and working out. My ability was limited, but I couldn't get back in shape until I forced myself. We practiced at John Morrow's Academy in Moline, and sometimes I had to stop 3 times to rest just trying to walk up his steps to the training floor.

Workout3-7-10-2 Slowly, I began practicing again, guiding students, working on forms, trying to get through one form without having to stop to catch my breath. I continued to work on weight-training, to try and build back the muscle I had lost (my biceps were about a third the size they were 2 years ago and my legs looked like a super model's). I started putting on weight and so far, I've gained 24 pounds, a lot of that muscle.

In February, I decided to start seeing a chiropractor -- Dr. Michael Hahn at Crow Valley Chiropractic in Bettendorf. Within two weeks of treatment, I began breathing a little easier. I continued the chiro treatments. I figured that if something is hampering the phrenic nerve (which controls the diaphragm) perhaps chiropractic treatment would help. The diaphragm is still paralyzed, I believe, but my breathing has gradually gotten to the point where even with a paralyzed diaphragm, I could work on kung-fu even with 4/5 of one lung.

So I began working for the tournament on May 8th. I wanted to do Laojia Erlu -- Cannonfist -- and the Chen double broadsword form. There were times I couldn't get through Cannonfist without stopping -- oxygen deprived -- but I kept working, hoping to increase the capacity of my right lung. The right lung has three lobes. The left lung has only two. Even if the right lung is the only one working, perhaps I could increase the capacity, whether or not the diaphragm is working.

Within a couple of weeks of the tournament I was doing each form several times a day, always facing a different direction so I wouldn't become accustomed to any particular surroundings. I ditched Cannonfist -- I didn't want to be breathing like a freight train at the end of the form -- and decided to do the Chen 38 because -- even with fa-jing -- I could get through it fine.

MorrowTourneyweb The tournament rolled around and I have to admit -- for the first time in a long time, I was a little nervous. My students Chris Miller and Kim Kruse were there to compete, too -- Chris just got his black sash a week before, and Kim got her brown sash a week before.

We each won 1st place in our respective forms divisions, each of us doing the Chen 38. We each won 3rd place in weapons. Chris won 3rd in black belt sparring and Kim won 1st in brown belt women's sparring. I didn't spar (I wasn't about to test that yet).

The photo at left shows me doing the Chen 38 (the movement is The Cannon Right Overhead). Nancy was there to watch. She gets teary-eyed quite often when we talk about just how close I came to death 6 months ago. And we're both pretty amazed that I was able to pull this off -- the first-place finish is beside the point.

The moral of this story is the power of optimism, determination, and goal-setting. If you set a goalTrophiesWeb-5-8-10 and work toward it -- push toward it even in the face of obstacles -- you can succeed. Some of my friends told me I was crazy to try, and some just laughed and said "You're too old for that."

But as I was lying in the Cleveland Clinic in a sedative haze, I couldn't accept the fact that this important part of my life -- the internal arts -- was over. It isn't possible as long as I'm breathing.

So what will the future bring? My next goal is to be able to get through the complete Cannonfist without feeling like I want to keel over. Then, I set my sights on Xinjia Erlu, one of the most athletic forms I've ever seen. I might have to do it in sections, with a breather in between, but that's okay. If this diaphragm ever kicks in again (and it might) that will just make it a little easier.

One step at a time, but all I have to do is fix my sights on the skills I want to improve, and then keep working. And that's all you have to do, too. Set a goal, decide what you have to do to reach that goal, and then go for it.


What Does a Black Belt Mean?

Test-5-1-10 Like a lot of people, I used to think that if you had a black belt in a martial art, you were capable of killing people with your bare hands, a walking lethal weapon. It was a world shrouded in secrecy and mystery.

When I earned a black sash in 1997 and started teaching, I realized the holes that I still needed to fill in my knowledge and experience -- holes the size of the Grand Canyon. So I continued to study, learn, and through the miracle of videotape, I could watch my tournament performances and cringe at the improvements I needed to make in my own body mechanics and form.

I was only beginning to study.

Now, I've been teaching for 12 1/2 years and only two students have achieved a black sash. Yesterday, Chris Miller went through the test -- drilled through the basics of Hsing-I Chuan, Chen Tai Chi, Baguazhang, plus sparring in all three arts, sparring with straight sword, staff, broadsword and elk horn knives, plus chin-na, push hands, fighting applications -- all the material between white sash and black.

It was an emotional moment for me when I awarded Chris the certificate. He joins me and Rich Coulter in strapping on a black sash in our particular system.

Chris has worked for nearly 4 and a half years, living, eating and sleeping kung-fu. He has shown creativity and skill. His achievement shows persistence and determination that very few people have shown over the past decade or so. It's truly an achievement to be proud of, and no one can take it away.

And now the real study begins.

When I look back at my performances when I first got my black sash, they don't compare to my performance now. My body mechanics have improved, I've learned more about the arts that I practice. I ditched one art (Yang tai chi) and adopted Chen tai chi as my foundational art. After more than 12 years, I know even more clearly what I need to improve, and I just hope I have the time to work on it over the next few decades. I feel as if I've just started.

The beauty of the internal arts, particularly Chen tai chi, is that the deeper you get into it, the deeper it becomes. You can never feel that you've arrived, because every step forward reveals another path ahead that you must travel through hard work, sweat, study and reflection.

Purists in tai chi would scoff at the awarding of sashes, but in the mainstream world of martial arts in America, students want and need the levels that allow them to set and achieve goals. That's fine, as long as students and teachers understand what it means to achieve a black sash.

When you go to college and earn a BA degree, you graduate without a lot of experience and knowledge that you will gain in the "real world." When I graduated with a degree in journalism and broadcasting in 1975, I wasn't very good. I thought I was. All the graduates think they know what they're doing. What I had, however, was not skill but potential. Over the next 10 to 20 years, I built my skill and was very good by the time I left the business. But it was the knowledge and skills I gained "on the street" that made me good, not the degree. It only prepared me to learn.

And that's what a black sash or black belt means. You are now ready to learn. Now, the real study begins. The basics are understood. During the coming years, you'll be able to look back at video and if you work hard, you'll see the improvement as each step reveals more understanding of movement, of energy, and how to use it all.

Some people earn a black sash and then stop. After a while, that doesn't mean very much. They earned it, but in stopping, it's like earning a BA in computer programming and going to work serving fries at McDonald's.

Yesterday was a very important day for me. The people who tested hung in when we closed our school and Nancy and I moved to Tampa for a new job. They hung in after we moved back and I got very sick last year. In November, I wasn't sure I'd be able to return, but they hung in as I clawed my way back, and that made yesterday an achievement for all of us -- Colin Frye earned his purple sash, Kim Kruse earned her brown sash, and Chris Miller earned his black sash. Also pictured is Leander Mohs, who has excelled at other arts and is now working with us (receiving a white sash certificate).

As the certificates say, the student is deserving of the respect that comes from the hard work and determination that it takes to reach this level. The certificate also says its the student's responsibility to continue studying and growing in the philosophy and the martial aspects of these amazing arts.

Congratulations, Chris. Now let's go.