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November 2011

Improving in Tai Chi - It Just Takes Time and Hard Work

Ken-ClevelandClinic-2-webTwo years ago this week, I was lying in Intensive Care at the Cleveland Clinic, a ventilator down my throat, drugged up so I wouldn't choke and gag it out. I hadn't been expected to make it. I celebrated Halloween staring in a hazy stupor at horror films on some cable network. Without my glasses on because of the breathing machine.

Doctors had tried to figure out why I had been coughing up blood for nine months. It had destroyed my ability to breathe. They saw that my left pulmonary veins had closed down due to a procedure I had gone through for atrial fibrillation. When the Cleveland Clinic doctors tried to stent the pulmonary veins, they tore a vein and pierced my heart.

So there I was, suddenly facing the prospect of a shorter life -- or none at all -- and all I could think about, besides how good the drugs were, was competing in a tournament doing Laojia Erlu about seven months from that time.

I had weighed 206 before I got seriously ill. When I was released from Cleveland Clinic the first week of November, 2009, I was a skeletal 158, barely able to walk. I had lost most of my muscle mass. By the time I got home from Cleveland, I barely had the strength to walk from the couch to the restroom. I spent a couple of weeks on the couch, slowly trying to get the strength to walk downstairs to work on this blog and the online school.

This situation came as quite a shock. It couldn't be happening to me. I was always in top shape. Why didn't anyone tell me to watch out for closing pulmonary veins after the A-Fib treatment? Why didn't my pulmonologist suspect that it was the reason I was coughing up blood?

I'll never know.

In the two years since, I have gained a little over 20 pounds and now weigh about 180 pounds, sometimes a couple of pounds less, and I can't seem to get heavier as much as I try. My legs, arms and shoulders still need more muscle.

But in tai chi, my body mechanics and some of my movements have improved during this time.

Laojia-Erlu-Ken-GulletteA week ago, I videotaped Laojia Erlu (Cannon Fist) in my yard to put on the online school. A version was on the site that I had taped in Florida in 2008. I knew that my movement is better now, and my fajing is better. So I reshot it and put the front view up for members to see.

I'm also planning to complete the videos for the individual movement instruction for the form and put those up, too. When I shoot a complete form, especially one as athletic as Laojia Erlu, I have to break it up into sections. I complete one section, then stop and let my oxygen levels rise a bit before proceeding to the next section.

The good thing about tai chi is that through time, study, and practice, if you're focusing on the right things you should see improvement. This is especially true when you're dealing with body mechanics such as in Chen taiji, which are so subtle sometimes that it takes years just to key into them so you know what you're trying to improve.

I practiced Laojia Erlu over and over, preparing for a tournament last weekend. At age 58, I was going to compete if there was a 40 and over competition. Turns out, it was such a small turnout, no one over age 40 showed up to compete. That's okay. I didn't mind. A tournament is a great way to focus on a goal and push yourself. When you have less than one lung functioning, doing Laojia Erlu with power is enough of a challenge, so the fact that I didn't have to do it in public was fine.

Another side benefit was an improvement in my performance of Laojia Erlu overall. Focusing on it with the thought that an audience would be watching, including my students, made me bear down on some of the subtleties -- the flow of relaxed strength that suddenly explodes in fajing, for example. Storing and releasing in a relaxed but powerful way. Another challenge is capturing the silk-reeling movement as you make it flow through the body and unfold the strength like a ripple from the foot through the hand.

Sometimes, when I think of how shocked the cardiologists were at the Mayo Clinic last year when they learned that I was still doing kung-fu, I have to laugh. And when I think of people who have one excuse or another why they can't make time to train, I get a little impatient. Most of them are taking their good health for granted. They think, as I did, that it will last forever. It won't.

When I see people working out hard, I feel pulmonary vein envy. I'm still in mourning. And when I see overweight people who never exercise, I want to shake them and wake them up.

So work hard while you can. If you put in the time and the study, you will get better. I'm still trying, I'm still improving, and I'm taking it one breath at a time.  

The Master Disease -- Every Instructor Wants to Be King

I was teaching a taiji class in 1999 and a young man -- in his 20s -- came in for the first time. We were practicing the Chen 19 form. I had only been studying Chen style for a year, after spending over a decade doing Yang style. 

After the class, I was mingling with the students and talked to the young man. At one point he gushed, "I'm just honored to be able to study with a master."

He was referring to me. I laughed. "There aren't any masters here," I replied. "I'm just a little farther down the path than you.

Flash forward a year. I was in Chicago for a couple of days and noticed a Tai Chi school nearby. I thought maybe I could take a class or two while I was in town and learn something. 

The instructor walked up to me -- an Asian American woman in a tai chi uniform who appeared to be perhaps in her early forties. 

"Hello, I'm Master (I forget her last name)," she said and extended her hand. I shook it and exchanged pleasantries. Then I left her school and didn't return.

Anyone who has to introduce themselves as "Master" is NOT a master.

Now, in 2011, you see instructors around the United States adopting the title "Master" in front of their names. Apparently, some believe that becoming a disciple of a Grandmaster makes you, in turn, a Master.

Sorry. It isn't true. It might be good marketing in someone's particular city. There's a guy in my town whose students call him a master. He's a William C.C. Chen student. One of his students told me in 1999 that he was a master. I suppressed a laugh and asked, "Is he really?" The student said yes. A few years later, I saw one of his students and asked if he had been taught how to use the ground path. No, he hadn't. He didn't know what it meant.

Insert deep sigh here.

Everybody wants to be King. Let me explain something. If you grew up in Chen Village and studied five or six hours a day under a tough teacher for 30 years, you just might be a master.

If your body mechanics are amazing and you can break an attacker from another martial art and put him on the ground, you just might be a master. If you can take on other accomplished internal artists in push hands and have them begging for mercy in pain, you just might be a master.

So before you accept the title of Master in front of any American's name, do a little research. Just how good a fighter is this person? Because being a Master is about a lot more than doing a few forms and doing the push hands patterns. It requires much more than having occasional instruction from a Chinese Grandmaster who isn't going to teach them at too high a level anyway. It isn't about traveling to China and having your picture taken "on location." It's about the subtle use of body mechanics, judging an opponent's movement and energy, and it's about applying all that, using chin-na and fa-jing and being one bad mofo who can not only appear graceful but also powerful, and it's about being able to break an attacker in the blink of an eye.

I read about one guy today -- visited his website and couldn't find any video of him performing. He is 47 years old, has black belts in 5 different styles of martial arts, and says he's a Master of Chen Taiji. 

Where does he find the time?

Unfortunately, some Chinese Grandmasters have decided to expand their personal empire by adding a lot of new disciples. When you're a disciple, you aren't supposed to learn from others. That Grandmaster has you locked in. So more disciples means more money and more followers. It's not necessarily a good thing, but as the world of Tai Chi has opened the door (a little) to the West, the Grandmasters have realized there is very good money to be made. Being human beings no different and no less petty than any other human beings, they want to make the money themselves. 

I've sold many thousands of DVDs to internal artists around the world. I receive emails almost every week telling me how amazing the material is -- even some who study with Chinese Grandmasters. Martial artists from Japan to Israel belong to my online school. I make one thing very clear -- I will never be a master. I have things at my level that I can teach to people who are not yet at my level. And if I became someone's disciple tomorrow, I would still never be a master. It's not that easy. In fact, as Chen Xiaowang says when someone is having trouble with a movement, "If it were easy, everyone be master."

Unfortunately, everyone wants the world to think they are masters. And they're not.

Here's a case in point below. Master Wong. Not a master. He's not the only one. When it comes to any martial art -- and that includes the internal arts -- students have to remember it's "buyer beware."


3 Goals for Tai Chi and Bagua Self-Defense

I'm shooting a video lesson this weekend for the online school -- a video that goes over the three main goals of internal self-defense, particularly Tai Chi and Baguazhang.

Hsing-I utilizes many of the principles of internal fighting, but the primary goal of Hsing-I is to take your opponent's ground and drive through him.

Tai Chi is more like a beach ball floating in water. If you jump on the ball, it gives a little, then it bounces back and spirals you into the water. There's really very little you can do about it once you jump on the ball.

Bagua is similar to a wire ball that's spinning. If you punch into the wire ball, you'll get caught up and flung out in any direction.

There are three goals of self-defense that are very similar in Tai Chi and Bagua:

Bagua-Uproot-1 1. Uproot -- your opponent is rooted but your goal is to uproot him. There are several ways of doing this, but two primary methods are pushing upward (starting under his center of gravity) or bumping with the shoulder, hip, and body.

2. Unbalance -- when your opponent goes off-balance, it opens a window of opportunity. We call it a "moment of vulnerability" when you have dissipated his force and can counter-attack. This can be done in a variety of ways. You can simply remove the target and not allow his force to find it's target. You can use closing techniques with your feet to break his root and unbalance him. Movements such as "walking obliquely" in taiji and "sweep the rider from his horse" in bagua unbalance the opponent and take them down.

Bagua-Uproot-2 3.  Control the Center -- Where you opponent's center is going -- you want to keep it going that way. The old Taoist saying "do not contend" applies here. Go with the flow. Step into your opponent's center. Allow your center to become One with your opponent's center. Then control his center. Move with his center and when you take control, you take him down.

The photos show intercepting a punch and applying "supporting" or "upward" energy to uproot the opponent. There are several techniques that show this in a real way. These are all physical skills that require practice thousands of times.