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March 2012
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A Martial Arts Master or a Teacher -- You Don't Have to Be One to Be the Other


Working with Colin on an elbow break.

Recently, I received an email from a woman who has studied tai chi for a while and bought a couple of my DVDs. She is Asian but lives in the United States. 

She said my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling videos taught her information that her "master" never taught. In the email, she said "Thank you, Master."

I corrected her and told her I'm not a master and don't have enough time in this lifetime to become one.

Her response was interesting. She said she had studied DVDs by several Chen masters (she named them but I won't do that here) -- and she said that I was the only one teaching body mechanics in any detail. She found it curious that the masters she had seen on video and in person never told her any of the information I share. She said that many of the teachers she knew in martial arts demand to be called Master, and I don't, yet I teach quality material to everyone.

Her email was very kind, and we had some very nice exchanges. It also made me think, which is dangerous but something I do occasionally. 

Teaching a workshop on Chen Taiji in East Lansing, Michigan.

I'm a student of Chen Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and to a lesser extent, Bagua. I've had a couple of good Chen teachers who asked questions of the Chinese and tried to look under the hood, seeking information in a slightly more direct way than a Chinese student would do. And although the masters try to hold back information, we know a lot more about the internal arts now than any Americans did in the 1970s, 1980s, even the early and mid 1990s. It was about that time that top Chinese masters began coming to the U.S. to develop disciples, teach workshops, and make a LOT of American dollars. At the same time, they faced Americans who ask questions of authority figures instead of merely doing as they're told. 

I'm still working on getting better and I have a long way to go. But I know a little bit about which direction I need to go because I've had some good instruction, and I share that with people who haven't learned what I have learned.

My movements will never be as good as some of the Chinese masters, but the golf pro down at the local country club will never play as well as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, either. Does that mean the local golf pro has nothing to teach me about my driving, chipping and putting? Of course not. He could make my golf game a lot better.

Not many college or high school basketball coaches could play in the NBA -- even when they were young.

It's an interesting question. Are you a Master or a teacher? Just because you are one doesn't mean you are the other.

Don't ever call me master. I might demand that my wife Nancy call me master, but she would only laugh. Then she might kick my butt.

I'm a student and a teacher. I don't expect that to ever change. And I really don't need it to change. What do you need? 

What You Need to Do the Next Time You Practice Fighting Applications

Hsing-i-applicationI was sent a YouTube link a few weeks ago showing a Bagua instructor doing fighting applications against a student. The student stepped and punched, and the instructor did all sorts of fancy, twisting movements -- sometimes two or three techniques that included takedowns and joint locks -- all while the student didn't fight back. Usually the student did one punch and basically stood there.

Now, I've done a lot of fighting applications on video. Usually, they're done to instruct, so you slow it down and show how it's done. I'm also a fan of practicing principles of movement.

But most of the fighting applications I practice, and the ones I put on video, are applications that work in a real situation. It's NOT a real situation for an attacker to stand with his arm outstretched in a punch position while you do two or three techniques. I don't care if you're practicing TKD, Shotokan, Aikido, Tai Chi, or Bagua.

My students and I over the years have rejected techniques because -- even though I was taught them (prior to my Chen tai chi training) -- it was clear they were based more on fantasy than reality.

I've been in real fights. Granted, I haven't been in a real fight since I was 18, but I was in enough of them growing up that I know what it's like to be up against someone who doesn't want to cooperate.

It isn't easy.

When the person you are sparring isn't cooperating, it isn't easy to do an armbar, it isn't easy to do a takedown, and it's pretty impossible to do a lot of the applications that are shown the way they are shown in some arts. Bagua is one of those arts, but Aikido is another. I've seen some real B.S. demonstrations where the instructor causes a grown man to fly backwards off his feet using just a couple of fingers. It is not going to happen in real life.

I have a couple of theories about the old-time internal fighters in China -- the ones who lived prior to 1950. You know, the guys who are all dead now.

One theory is that they really weren't that great at fighting -- it's just that they were better trained than most of the fighters they encountered.

Another theory is that they learned many arts and used what worked, then gave it a name that gained fame.

And another theory is that the great fighters used real techniques -- simple techniques -- and all the B.S. elaborate techniques that rely on an opponent standing still came later, after we all softened up.

Perhaps none of these theories is true -- or some of them are -- maybe all of them.

So the next time you're working on applications, tell your partner to stop cooperating and react the way he or she would react in a real self-defense situation.

See how effective the application is then. If it isn't effective, keep trying. Try to misdirect your partner with another technique and then go for the one you want. But don't let them cooperate.

That's when you'll see what your techniques are made of. And if they don't work, you should throw them out.

Final Weapon - A New Martial Arts Film with Ren Guangyi and Lou Reed

This is pretty cool. Ren Guangyi, a top student of Chen Xiaowang, has made a short movie written and produced by two of his students, Stephan Berwick and Jose Fegueroa. Co-starring is rock star Lou Reed, who developed a friendship with Master Ren several years ago and even had Ren perform Chen tai chi at Reed's concerts.

RGY Broadsword Nov 2002I was fortunate enough to learn from Master Ren through Jim and Angela Criscimagna, who hosted him for several workshops in the Rockford, Illinois area. The photo at left shows the group that studied the Chen Broadsword with him (Guangyi is in the center).

This is from an Internet post by Rachel Matheson: Final Weapon is a 15-minute action drama about holding, passing, and protecting an ancient form of martial art that when employed, renders the user invincible for 20 minutes, after which he/she dies. The film takes viewers through the painful odyssey of an aging warrior making a fatal choice about using this weapon for his last battle.

Lou Reed appears in the film as 'The Holder' of the secret 'Final Weapon' and also contributed all of the music. Famed Taijiquan master, Ren Guangyi is also in the film, portraying 'Holder 1' (Lou Reed and writer/director Stephan Berwick are both longtime students of Guangyi.) Reed has also contributed all of the music in the film as well.

Final Weapon will be screened on Tuesday, April 10th at 8:15pm at Anthology Film Archives in New York City as part of the NewFilmmakers Series. 

Lou Reed will be at the screening, along with Berwick, Guangyi and a few other members of the cast. 

Tickets are available at the door only.

If I lived in New York, this would be a fun event to attend. Here is the trailer for the film: