He Studied and Taught Tai Chi for 20 Years, But When I Asked Him to Do One Simple Move...He Froze
Kellie Wells and the Heart of a Champion - What's Your Excuse?

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.  



"Like" Ken's Facebook page -- facebook.com/internalfightingarts


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Jack Kanby

Hi Ken,

For some reason your emails are bouncing back. Also, your online form doesn't seem to be working as I tried to send the following message to you from there as well. Anyway, this might tangentially related to your post on teachers...

I don't know if you recall, but I originally contacted you mentioning some books, one of which was authored by a man named Tim Cartmell. As it turns out, I found a video of him demonstrating Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on an online show called "Rolled Up". The show focuses on BJJ in general, so there isn't much discussion on Tim's past in Chinese Martial Arts. That said, towards the end, the host of the show made some interesting remarks about how Tim was able to express a lot of relaxed strength and how he was able to impose his weight on the host despite only being about 150 lbs. He's also surprisingly agile and fit for a man of 50.

The video is half an hour long, so you probably don't want to watch it early in the morning ;)

Since neither of us knew a huge amount about Mr. Cartmell, I thought you might find the video interesting. He seems like someone who values practical experience as far as martial arts in general goes.

Let me know what you think!



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