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September 2012

Bursting the New Student Bubble - A Taiji Reality Check

All teachers enjoy seeing new students come to a class or practice to check out the arts. For many of them, it's a new world -- mysterious and fascinating.

The first session with me is often a reality check for new students. They often have many tai chi misconceptions. Recently, a great young guy came to our practice -- tall, with his own tai chi uniform already, and moves suggesting some decent experience in other arts.

One of the first things he said was how excited he was to study with "a great master." 

Bubble Burst #1 -- There are very few masters in the United States. There are some very good teachers but I could probably count on one hand the people I would say are masters, and I might have a couple of fingers remaining after the count. So I corrected the new guy and told him I am farther along than he is and can teach him, but I don't have enough time in this lifetime to become what anyone would describe as a "master."

I've been lucky to study with teachers who are much farther along the path than I was when I studied with them. It was clear when members of the Chen family or their top students came around, my teachers were very good, but when compared with the Chen "masters," they were on the same road I'm on -- maybe just farther down the way. One of my teachers was very honest about it, saying he was just a "hobbyist." I respected that. Another started describing himself as a master at one point, but I knew it wasn't true. I had seen him work with Chen Xiaoxing.

As I practiced recently with the new student, he began to talk about the flow of chi, and how he wanted to learn to focus it in his body and feel it. He may have said that he has felt it at times, warm or tingling in his hands. At that point, I was distracted because I was about to hit him with:

Bubble Burst #2 -- "Chi flow," if it exists at all, is a physical thing. It depends on good body mechanics and structure. 

You can feel anything you want to feel. If you want to feel warmth in your hands, just concentrate long enough and you'll feel it. Want to feel sick or tired? Focus on it and voila -- you'll feel that way.

I demonstrated chi flow by eliminating peng jin and the space between my biceps and chest, closing the armpit. He pushed me over. I expanded the area and filled it with peng. He had a much harder time trying to push me over.

Tai Chi is made up of physical, not metaphysical skills.

We had a good time talking and going through some ground path and silk-reeling exercises. I pointed out the six basic skills that all internal arts students need to develop:

  1. Establishing and maintaining the ground path
  2. Maintaining peng jin
  3. Whole-body movement
  4. Silk-reeling or "spiraling" energy
  5. Opening and closing the kua
  6. Dan T'ien rotation

I coached him through some fighting applications, and he laughed at how relaxed you can be while knocking someone to the ground with movements such as Walking Obliquely." I also showed him that no matter where your hands and feet are, a self-defense application is happening. When the hands are in a movement that some might call a "transition," it can actually be used in a self-defense situation. It's an eye-opening experience.

I'm fortunate to be in a position where I don't need a lot of local students. That allows me to be a little more selective when new people come to check out our arts. I have no problem telling people that it wouldn't be a good fit.

With the latest guy, I saw great potential and he joined my website (it's the only fee required for my practices, and all promotions are free).

Near the end of the practice, we somehow got onto the subject of teachers. I described a teacher who I admired who one evening in class began to describe how he created his style -- by listening and talking to a disembodied voice in a room for two or three days. The Voice spoke to him and allegedly outlined his system for him. I stood in class, after investing a lot of time and money and hard work with this instructor who I admired, and I remember thinking, "Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?"

I kept studying for a while, but separated eventually. I'm looking for reality in my arts, not fantasy. And that's what I present to new students.

The good ones are the ones who realize that their bubbles need to be burst, and they come back to learn real internal arts.



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Is Tai Chi Really Intended to Be Moving Meditation?

CoverPhoto1Is Tai Chi really "moving meditation?" This may be a controversial topic. Fasten your seat belts.

Is the purpose of Tai Chi Chuan to detach your mind, relax and become One with the Universe?

No. It isn't.

It can be used that way, and certainly millions of people do. But it was created as a martial art, and the "intent" of each movement is to develop body mechanics and structure that will help you break an opponent and put them on the ground.

Should you practice Tai Chi with "no mind?"

No way.

Each movement should be done with the body mechanics of the fighting applications in mind. That can be slowly as you work the body mechanics and try to get better at the flow of relaxed power through the body, and it can be done very fast, with strong fa-jing movements.

If you disengage the mind, you lose the intent of the movement.

Is Tai Chi good for exercise and health?

Of course it is. When done the way it was intended, Tai Chi is an amazing workout.

I've told the story before of the time I did a Chen form at a martial arts tournament. The judges were from a variety of mostly external arts. I had warmed up and stretched and it was warm in the room and by the time I was finished, I was perspiring a little.

One of the judges -- a karate black belt -- later told me he marked my score lower because I was sweating. "There's no sweating in Tai Chi," he said.

He has never trained with the Chen family. It's a brutal workout, and it isn't unusual to feel like collapsing from leg fatigue. Quite often, new people who come to one of our practices feel the pain, especially in their legs.

For more than a decade, when I first learned Tai Chi, I was practicing Yang style forms and I was detaching and trying to use them to build chi and meditate. 

Then I found Chen style and a new world opened.

This is not moving meditation. Every movement in Tai Chi is a self-defense movement (yes, even in Yang style). Every one. On my 3-disc Tai Chi Fighting Applications DVDs, I show more than 400 fighting applications from one Tai Chi form.

When I lived in Tampa a few years ago, Nancy and I went to a beginner's Tai Chi class at the local school of a national "chain" of Tai Chi schools. It was mind-numbingly simple and devoid of body mechanics. Nobody broke out in a sweat and certainly no one was physically challenged. They were nice people, but it was extremely weak Yang style.

The reason most Tai Chi people in the U.S. think that Tai Chi is moving meditation is because that's what their poorly taught teachers have told them. And let's face it, those teachers are not teaching much in the way of internal body mechanics, so just about all that's left is slow-motion movement that is very appealing to the elderly. And the story persists and grows that this art is about moving meditation.

Simply not true.

I know people who are getting older and no longer in need of the martial aspects of Tai Chi. It makes perfect sense, now that they know the forms well, that they can disengage the mind and use it as exercise and meditation. No problem.

If you want something to use for meditation, use qigong. It isn't typically used as a martial art and the purpose is to "work" the chi and make yourself healthier. A few minutes of qigong -- detaching the mind and focusing inward, calming your body and your mind -- can feel like you've taken a nap. I can testify to the positive impact it has in stress management and the ability to remain calm in a crisis.

Are you looking for meditation? Try qigong.

Are you looking to do a martial art? Do Tai Chi.

You can do Tai Chi to detach your mind, but it isn't really Tai Chi when performed with "no mind."



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Kellie Wells and the Heart of a Champion - What's Your Excuse?

Kellie-WellsKellie Wells was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was a sophomore in high school. She left home. A month later, her mother and the boyfriend were killed in a car accident.

Kellie Wells had every excuse to give up. She could easily have sat on the couch and done nothing. Who would have blamed her?

But she had the heart of a champion. She channeled her energy into her sport. This week, she won a bronze medal in the Olympics.

I love this woman. I love her spirit. I'm so happy for her.

She has the heart of a champion. I sat there, watching her get a medal, and I got teary-eyed at the fight she displayed. It's not unfamiliar territory for me.

What excuses are you using for not practicing -- for not working out -- for not improving your skills? Most people use pretty lame excuses. It's too hard to have a job and practice -- I'm married -- I have kids -- I'm too tired -- I'm too busy -- I'm too old. Since I started teaching in 1997, I've heard all the excuses, and I have one question:

What the hell is wrong with you?


Near death in October, 2009 at Cleveland Clinic.

Almost three years ago, I was near death at the Cleveland Clinic. Intubated and a tube coming out of my chest -- drowning in blood that built up in my lungs every few minutes and having to make a motion to the nurses to suck it out or I would die. 

As I lay there, after losing one fourth of my body weight, heavily sedated so I wouldn't choke on the breathing tube, I had one thing on my mind -- practicing kung-fu and competing in a tournament that was coming up 7 months later. I lost a tremendous amount of muscle mass. I had dropped from 206 to 156 pounds. I was so weak, I couldn't lift myself out of bed. The nurses used a bedpan on me. It was the most degrading experience of my life.

When we left the hospital, by the time we drove home my ankles and feet were swollen like a monster. I was still coughing up blood three days after getting home. I lost my left lung forever. And my right diaphragm was paralyzed, so I was trying to recover and able to use only three-quarters -- or less -- of one lung.


Seven months after being unable to lift myself up out of bed, performing the Chen 38 and winning first place in forms at a Moline tournament.

Seven months later, I won first place doing forms at the tournament that I visualized when some in the hospital wondered if I would even get out of there alive. During the competition I could hardly breathe. 

What's your excuse for not doing what you know you should be doing? What's your lame excuse for not setting goals and not achieving them?

Almost two years ago, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic told me that my heart would give out within three to five years. Another cardiologist was more optimistic. He predicted ten years. One of them said the more I exercise, the faster my heart would fail.

I went home and practiced, despite the pressure in my chest and despite the paralyzed diaphragm on my good lung. A year ago, I started breathing a little easier. A few weeks ago, I found out my paralyzed diaphragm had partially returned to life. 

I started practicing harder.

Don't let yourself be stopped by the crap that happens to you in life. You push forward. You do what you love to do. You set goals. And you take baby steps to make those goals happen.

Celebrate life. Celebrate the martial arts. And go for it. Anything else is throwing your life away, and as I learned very quickly, life is too precious to waste, and it goes by WAY too quickly.

I love Kellie Wells. You should too. Now get your butt into gear.



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Do You Ever Suspect Something is Missing from Your Tai Chi? I Did...and Then I Discovered The Teacher Test


At age 37, Ken Gullette competed in six events and won six medals including two gold at the 1990 AAU Kung-Fu National Championships.

I began studying Tai Chi in 1987. I loved my instructor and considered him a master. I became pretty good at the Yang 24 Simplified Form and even won a Gold Medal performing it at the 1990 AAU Kung-Fu National Championships.

Every day, I practiced chi kung. I studied acupuncture and worked hard to cultivate my chi. Eight Pieces of Brocade, Microcosmic Orbit, even Iron Palm.

Flash forward to 1997, when I began teaching a small group of students near the Quad Cities, where I relocated in 1993. I had a black sash and was teaching the system I had learned beginning in 1987.

The Internet was beginning to really take off, and I found a listserve about Neijia -- the internal arts. I started reading posts, arguments and discussions led primarily by Mike Sigman and some others. I read terms such as ground path and peng jin in ways I had never heard them discussed. I read about the "Teacher Test" and how a good tai chi teacher can perform it.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and began to suspect something was missing from my training. I asked the listserve members if there was a Master near Chicago that I could meet (the Quad Cities are 2 1/2 hours West of Chicago on I-80). They greeted my question with amusement. I didn't know why at the time. It was only later that I realized there aren't very many real masters in the U.S.

I was referred to Jim and Angela Criscimagna in Rockford, Illinois. They had studied a couple of arts through the years, had been studying Feng Zhiqiang's system, and they were making the move over to the Chen Xiaowang branch of Chen Taiji. I contacted Jim and drove over to meet at his home one brisk morning in early 1998.

Jim showed me body mechanics that blew me away -- material that I had never seen before. There was a relaxed strength that was completely foreign to any other martial artist I had met since I began studying in 1973, 25 years earlier. During the session, Jim showed internal movement and put it into a couple of fighting applications and chin-na so effortlessly I was shocked at the pain it generated. I asked about the Teacher Test. He had me stand by his side, assume a halfway stance, and put my hand on the side of his shoulder.

"Now, without changing your stance, and without using your arm and shoulder muscle, knock me away," he said.

I tried to process this. "No arm and shoulder muscle," I said, looking down at myself. No change of stance, no arm and shoulder muscle. Knock him away.

I froze. No clue. It's as if I was hearing an unfamiliar language.

Jim laughed and he stood next to me and put his hand on my shoulder. The next thing I knew, he had knocked me off-balance and it took a couple of steps to regain it. He hadn't moved his stance and he hadn't cocked his shoulder, but he had knocked me away.

The Teacher Test. Internal body mechanics. Ground, peng, whole-body movement, opening and closing the kua, dan t'ien rotation, relaxed strength, silk-reeling.

After one hour, I drove back to the Quad Cities facing a dilemma. I had invested more than a decade, a lot of money, and a lot of emotion studying the internal arts. I had won trophies and was considered pretty good.

But I found myself now at a crossroads. I could stay on the same path or I could follow the new one and learn something that seemed so much more authentic and real. 

One path represented the acceptance of something familiar. The other path represented starting over and working very hard. On the easier path I was a gold medal winner -- a black sash. The other path was the road of a rank beginner.

Not many people would take the second path. Some of know that there's a big piece missing from their art, but they don't have it within them to start over. And some can't admit they haven't learned it all from their "master." Some are teachers, and can't face having people think they still have something to learn.

I didn't have these problems. I told my students that I was switching styles, and most of them hung with me as I made the switch and taught them as I learned. Within a year, I abandoned the Yang style I had been taught and switched to Chen. There were many weekend days when I would practice six hours. I was young then -- in my mid 40s and still had both lungs.

Starting over never bothered me for one moment. My Tai Chi is much more satisfying than it was. It goes to show what can happen when you try to be honest with yourself about new information, and understand that we're all beginners in the eyes of the people who are really good.

I've still got a long way to go.  



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He Studied and Taught Tai Chi for 20 Years, But When I Asked Him to Do One Simple Move...He Froze

FreeLesson5I have a good friend who found me online and called me up. We talked for a few minutes and decided to meet in a park and compare notes.

"I've studied and taught Tai Chi for 20 years," he said. I was impressed and thought that perhaps I could learn from him, too.

We met and talked for a few minutes, and the subject of silk-reeling energy came up. He said he had been taught silk-reeling and practiced it.

I asked him to show me. He stood up and did a silk-reeling exercise. His hips swung wildly and there wasn't much connection.

I was raised in the South, where we try to be polite. I didn't say much, but began showing one of the silk-reeling exercises I learned from Jim and Angela Criscimagna and some members of the Chen family, including Chen Xiaowang.

My new friend tried again and again, the connection wasn't there through the body. There was too much obvious arm movement and no whole-body power.

I asked him if he ever practiced fighting applications, and showed him the Chen movement "Walking Obliquely." I asked if he knew what a couple of the fighting applications would be. He didn't.

I pretended to throw a punch and asked him to step his front leg behind my front leg. He did. I had him get close and personal. His forward arm was across my torso and his forward leg was snug against mine (behind mine).

"Knock me down," I said.

He froze.

"Turn your waist," I suggested.

He turned his hips but not his leg or his arm.

"Ahh," I said. "You have to connect the whole body. Push from the ground and turn the waist and turn your arm at the same time."

He thought about it for a few seconds and then turned his waist and arm together. I was pushed over the leg but I wasn't knocked down.

"Okay," I said. "Now as you turn the waist and the arm, sink into the kua -- down and in. And relax."

He relaxed and turned, using whole-body movement and closing into the forward kua. He easily knocked me to the ground.

As I picked myself up and laughed, he was saying, "Ohhhh." It's always fun to see the light bulb turn on when someone has studied the internal arts for years, but has never been taught the body mechanics that make Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I so powerful.

We became good friends.

Have you learned what you need to learn? Do you sometimes think that something is missing from what you've studied? I invite you to check out my membership site and sign up for the free 10-part video course that will show you some of the internal body mechanics that you need to know.

Or check out my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling DVDs, where I demonstrate the movements and then coach students through it.



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