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World Tai Chi Day 2011 - Practicing at Middle Park in Bettendorf

World-Tai-Chi-Day-2011-web Some of our students got together for our Saturday practice at Middle Park in Bettendorf today -- a great day with temperatures near 70.

Today is World Tai Chi Day, a day that was created to promote the art. From right to left in the photo: me, Chris Miller, Kim Kruse, Colin Frye, Angela Lemire, and Jerit Gendreau.

Tai Chi was created around 350 years ago by Chen Wangting in Henan Province, China. His family still teaches the art, and they teach it as it was created -- primarily as a martial art.

Now, it is practiced by many millions around the world. Unfortunately, Tai Chi has been watered down and slowed down by many modern practitioners, so that it has developed an image as a good exercise for older folks with beneficial health results.

When you slow down Tai Chi, it really is a good exercise for older folks, and it does have beneficial health outcomes -- but so would most activities if you slowed them down enough and got older folks to move and stretch instead of just sit around. Take the movements that you need playing softball, including fielding, scooping up a grounder, swinging a bat -- slow it down enough, and older people will get health benefits from performing the movements.

You don't need to be a member of Mensa to figure this out.

Tai Chi is an amazing and powerful martial art. The body mechanics help you deliver relaxed power in a self-defense situation. But it IS a martial art.

That's the Tai Chi that we recognized today at our World Tai Chi Day practice. But no matter which type of Tai Chi you do, it's okay as long as you understand that the super slow version that has no self-defense instruction and focuses only on "chi cultivation" isn't really the whole story.

If you're studying a type of Tai Chi that doesn't include self-defense, I invite you to check out my online school or my DVDs, which you can explore in the column on the right side of this blog or by going to my website at

Pride and Prejudice and Taijiquan -- Is Race a Factor?

One of the negative aspects of the Internet is the ability of anonymous people to say nasty things, hiding behind phony names and avatars. Anonymity enables emotionally stunted people to say rude and profane things that they would never say to your face.

Recently, one of these people made a comment on one of my YouTube videos. This is his comment:

"what is it about caucasians instructing asian martials arts that´╗┐ i just dont believe a thing they say."

I usually delete comments like this because it isn't serious, but I approved this one and I replied in a not so kind way. I told him it's because he's a dumba$#.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that this attitude is a racist view that permeates the world of taijiquan.

Have you ever noticed that there has never been the photo of a Caucasian, an African-American, or a Hispanic or Latino teacher on the cover of T'ai Chi Magazine? Only those who have the Asian look have graced the cover of that publication.

Look inside the covers of the magazine and you see articles and photos of all types of teachers, but not on the cover. No way.

What about teachers such as Jan Silberstorff? He would be a very deserving candidate. But he's the wrong race. You can't tell me in the decades that T'ai Chi Magazine has been in publication there has never been someone of another race who deserves to be on the cover. But T'ai Chi Magazine also allows stories to be published that show "masters" sending students flying without moving, so there are several editorial changes that need to be made in that publication.

A couple of days ago I received an email from a man in Taiwan. He told me that he loved my videos and the way I clearly explained the concepts. He has been searching for a good tai chi teacher in Taiwan and has discovered that the kung-fu there isn't always very good, and the teachers aren't very willing to teach very much. There's also the language barrier. So he ordered over $100 worth of DVDs so he could study the internal arts.

The hidden secret that everyone talks about but nobody really makes public is this -- there is prejudice in the world of martial arts. A lot of Asian masters will give you a little information but not much. Many masters will hold you at the basics for a very long time.

I've been lucky to have some American teachers who question and probe in a way that is counter to the culture of the Chinese. Americans want to know why they're being told to do something, and we have been trained in our culture to ask questions of the top people in the nation. I've been lucky to have teachers that looked beneath the hood and are willing to share what they've learned. I try to do the same and I try to keep learning.

Rather than dressing up the movements and the concepts in abstract terms that imply supernatural abilities -- something you'll never achieve -- a good teacher shows and tells you how to move and perform applications in real-world terms that you can understand.

Unfortunately, the supernatural aspects of the art have distracted so many tai chi teachers in America, the quality of the art has disappeared. The best taiji I've seen in the United States has been Chen style because for the most part, these teachers have been taught the internal body mechanics that have been replaced by "chi cultivation" and slow-motion "moving meditation" in other schools. One of my new students said he recently met another well-known Yang teacher in my town, and the teacher said flatly, "Tai Chi was not intended for combat."

And there you have it. A further weakening of the art.

I've found that regardless of the race of the teacher, I can learn from almost everyone. And I've also found that I can learn more in one hour from a good American taiji teacher than I can in a weekend with a Chinese master. It's simply a fact. 

In my DVDs and in the more than 450 video lessons on my online school, I work hard to deliver the knowledge I possess in a clear way. My actual physical skills will never even get close to the skills of Chen Xiaowang or Chen Xiaoxing or Chen Zhenglei. You'll never mistake my form for theirs. But I'll teach what I know, and I won't hold back. I have knowledge that a lot of people haven't had the chance to get if they're at a lower level than I am in taiji training.

As long as they can get past my color, perhaps they can learn something, too. 

No Pain, No Gain -- and No Quality in Your Taiji

I love seeing the look in the eyes of new students who come in thinking of Tai Chi as a gentle means of "moving meditation" and then they find out what it really takes.

I have a couple of wonderful new students -- great young people -- who started two or three weeks ago. Last night we were working on the double-hand silk-reeling exercise, as I introduce them to the body mechanics required for taijiquan.

"You must have legs of steel," one student said after we had practiced a while and they were ready to stop and rest while I was still demonstrating and practicing with them.

Actually, I lost a lot of leg strength when I had my brush with death about 18 months ago and I'm still trying to regain it, but the comment last night made me laugh, and it also drove home just how difficult taiji really is.

Ken-CXX3 When I've trained with my teachers, and with members of the Chen family, as in the photo at left when I spent a day training privately with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, I've generally come close to collapsing from leg fatigue many times. Tai Chi requires leg strength that few people have -- even those who come in from other martial arts and think their legs are really strong are not prepared for this.

If you're training in Tai Chi, and think you're doing it right, and your legs aren't burning and shaking and ready to give out -- you should rethink the way you've been taught or the way you're practicing.

Go to my online school and try some of the silk-reeling exercises for half an hour and see how you feel -- or check out the silk-reeling DVDs. A couple of weeks ago in Cincinnati, I met up with an old friend and member of my online school (and faithful DVD customer) and we trained in the Chen 19 form. I corrected his stances and coached him through the movements. He's mentioned a few times since that it took a while for his legs to recover from the workout. And we were just doing taiji.

Tai Chi is not just a slow, peaceful exercise. It's a powerful martial art. It generates power through the relaxed strength of proper body mechanics, but the base -- the legs -- are extremely strong. They get that way through proper posture and mechanics, and a lot of sweat and tears.

No pain, no gain -- and no quality in your Tai Chi. 

If You Don't Practice the Type of Qigong I Practice, You'll Die

Ken-ClevelandClinic-1-web I've been through a lot during the past three years. The onset of atrial fibrillation, three procedures to try to fix it, and the horrible side-effect, which was the closing of my left pulmonary veins.

No blood is going to my left lung. No blood is being oxygenated by the left lung because no blood can go from my left lung to the heart.

The same procedure that caused my pulmonary veins to shut down also paralyzed my right diaphragm. So I'm living -- and doing kung-fu -- with 2/3 of one lung.

It can be a challenge.

For over a week at Cleveland Clinic in late 2009, I was on a ventilator. The photo above is from that time. I nearly died twice. My weight dropped from 206 pounds to 157. I lost a lot of muscle. I looked like a concentration camp victim. I was determined to recover and to do kung-fu again -- tai chi, hsing-i and bagua. It has been a struggle. Even though I'll never be able to use my left lung, and the right diaphragm is still paralyzed, I'm determined to continue my progress in the internal arts.

So imagine my reaction when well-intentioned but very misguided people send me emails telling me that the reason I developed heart and lung issues is because I was doing qigong wrong.

Last fall, I went to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion. Doctors were shocked that I was in the latest issue of Kung Fu Magazine. They were stunned that I was still teaching and practicing taiji, xingyi and bagua. One of their top cardiologists stopped when I cracked a joke and said, "I find it amazing that you have a sense of humor after what you've been through."

He also told me that I was alive because of the physical condition I was in when the crap hit the fan. The photo below is from last year -- 2010 -- practicing fighting applications for Hsing-I's Dragon form with Chris Miller.

Dragon-Application-250 So let's get real here, and let's move beyond the fantasy that exists in the minds of so many chi kung practitioners.

Every now and then, we see in the news that a particular person is the oldest person in the world. In fact, here is a Wikipedia article that lists some of the oldest people in the world.

I don't see any qigong masters on this list. Do you? They are typically little old women who probably haven't exercised in 40 years and wouldn't know what qigong is.

Can you name a chi kung master who was born before 1911 and is still alive? I can't. So why are they not still here, thriving and immortal?

Because chi kung is a way of managing stress. It's a way to find mental balance and remain centered in a hectic world. It has some health benefits due to its stress-management aspects, but you can still get cancer, you can still get MS, and yes, you can still get atrial fibrillation, even if you practice qigong. It doesn't lower your cholesterol and it doesn't heal congenital defects.

In the email I received yesterday, this well-intentioned but misguided man told me that the qigong that he practices would have prevented my illness, and obviously, the tai chi that I practice is too "yang," or hard. It was a slap at Chen tai chi, I suppose.

I replied to him that he was a good person, but he was missing the point.

After everything I've been through, I'm still practicing and teaching. Doesn't that mean that my chi is strong, and perhaps I've been doing all the right things?

I didn't get a response.

Qigong is like religion in many ways for a lot of people. If you don't believe what I do, you'll go to Hell. If you don't practice the qigong I practice, you can't be healthy.

Let's get real. All chi masters who were born more than 90 or 100 years ago are dead now. Just like everyone else.

And the oldest person in the world is probably a little old lady in a nursing home in France. You can look it up.

How Long Does It Take to Achieve Tai Chi Skill?

Ken-Jim-4-4-11-web A couple of cool things happened this week. On Monday, I drove to Rockford, Illinois to reconnect with my old instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna. Angela was visiting a friend, so Jim and I talked about taiji and he coached me through some Xinjia movements, giving me new insights into the body mechanics, the principles and the form.

I first met Jim and Angela in 1998. I was using a neijia listserve and seeing internal terms that I hadn't been taught -- terms like peng jin and ground path. I asked the list (Mike Sigman was one of the main contributors at that point) if there was anyone in the Chicago area that I could meet who could show me some of these concepts.

They directed me to Jim and Angela. I drove to their house one Saturday morning and within an hour, I realized that after spending over a decade studying tai chi, I was going to have to start over. I had really learned nothing about real taijiquan.

The best thing about a good teacher is this -- you should leave a class very often feeling psyched -- feeling as if you have gained a small insight. When I studied with Jim and Angela, I frequently made the 2-hour drive home bouncing off the car's interior. I felt the same way on Monday, because I felt that I had gained insight and that there is a LOT of work to do. But without these little insights, you can't take the baby steps forward that you need to make to improve skill.

On Wednesday, a new student came to our practice -- and he asked a question that made so many people ask:

How long does it take to become good at Tai Chi?

I think I smiled and said, "A lifetime." The new student shook his head and laughed.

Learning the movements of the form is the first step. The "choreography" is important. But then you begin to add layers to the onion -- you learn one body mechanic and apply it to the movements, then another, then another, and if you're honest with yourself, you understand that it will take many years to become proficient. I've been at Chen tai chi for 13 years and I feel that I've just begun.

It's fun to see someone who is taking his first steps on the path. It's fun to show them a couple of things about body mechanics and see the amazement. But the power of tai chi is not mystical -- it's a physical skill. Seeing Jim again on Monday, talking about tai chi and various Chen masters and being coached through movements, I felt I took a very small step foward intellectually. Now the hard work continues as I try to translate the intellectual into physical movement.

How long does it take to achieve taiji skill? First, it takes an instructor who can actually tell you what the abstract Chinese concepts mean in terms of movement and mechanics. Then, it takes quite a few years of hard work, thought, and understanding. Will you make it? Maybe. But you have to get to work now.