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I'm Not A Doctor, But I Play One In The Dojo

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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Joerg Deiss

Great article, again!
Please be encouraged to go on with providing your fresh and straight views on those bubbles we all know!
I'm reading your posts each week for over a year now and it's still a great joy to do so.

Thank you for your hard work and Best Regards from Berlin/Germany,

Jim Criscimagna

I agree with you, Ken. There are very few Chen Taiji masters in the US. I am noticing that more and more people are claiming to be masters in their advertisements for classes that they are teaching, in their respective cities. Also, hosts sponsoring seminars with teachers (*students of masters or disciples of masters) are calling them masters. Are they, in my opinion, no, they are simply students of the art, or disciples of a master level teacher.

If you are not recognized a master by the leader(s) of your group/style, then you are not a master. If you go to China and are seen as another western student and not a master, then you are not a master in the western world either. Calling yourself a master or allowing others to call you a master just isn't truthful.

I realize much of this sort of thing is done for business purposes ... who will come to a class or seminar if the teacher isn't a master? But it isn't all about the money ... or is it?

It is bad for the reputation of the art and dishonest to mislead prospective students for the sake of the almighty buck, but that is only my opinion, and I seem to be in the minority.


"Calling yourself a master or letting others call you a master just isn't truthful."


A few weeks ago I was at a workshop at John Morrow's school. One of his black belts, around 30 years old, introduced me to his girlfriend while I was standing with John. The student said, "And this is Ken Gullette, another kung-fu master."

I said very loudly, "No no no! I am NOT a master."

He said, "Well, compared to me."

I repeated that I am not and will never have time to be a master. It's amazing that people need to think of themselves or others as masters just because they've been around a while. It just aint true.

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