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Entering the 40th Year in Martial Arts - A Kung-Fu Journey

Ken75Thirty-nine years ago today, I attended my first martial arts class. My teacher was Grandmaster Sin The of Lexington, Kentucky. I was 20 years old and had been inspired by the Kung-Fu TV show and Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon."

Sin The taught Shaolin-Do Karate. It was kung-fu, but he called it karate because, I believe, he thought Americans knew the term. We wore karate gis and had a colored belt system. It was only years later that I realized how strange that was.

For the first three weeks, we learned all basics -- no kata. Our basics included:

--How to make a fist.

--How to keep the wrist locked with first two knuckles out.

--How to shuto (karate chop) behind the ear and by the neck. This is one of the instances where karate terms were used instead of kung-fu terms.

--How to punch using a twisting action.

We also learned side kicks, back thrust kicks, how to step using a straight punch, how to use a reverse punch, the roundhouse kick and various blocking techniques.

I would go back to my dorm at Eastern Kentucky University and practice stepping, punching, and kicking -- over and over again, at least an hour each day.

I was hooked.

Thirty-nine years ago today, the Bruce Lee craze was in full swing. Suddenly, you could open a martial arts school and you would have students waiting to join. Kung-Fu movies played at theaters all the time.

Sin The's school was a converted garage in the rear of a shopping center in Eastland, a neighborhood in Lexington. On the evening of my first class, the room was so full of students, they spilled out onto the driveway. I was one of the students outside, listening, trying a punch, trying a kick, learning a little bit about this mysterious art.

Not as many students returned the next time, but it was still crowded. Sin The became very successful and at his most successful, he opened a large fitness center with an indoor running track and rooms where he held his classes.

I earned a brown belt over a period of a couple of years, then attended a couple of tournaments in Ohio. That was a serious no-no. We were NOT allowed to attend "outside" tournaments. Sin The held his own tournaments for his students only. He had so many, the crowd would fill up a high school gymnasium.

But when I went to Ohio in 1975, I saw martial artists that blew me away, especially the kung-fu performers. I saw quality that I hadn't seen before. At that point, I left Sin The and began sampling other arts. Even in my early 20s, I possessed a willingness not to invest too much emotion into my teachers. I learned that as soon as you put your teacher on a pedestal, you are treading on thin ice.

And it was strange that in two years of hard studying, I can't remember one single conversation Sin The had with me -- no words of encouragement and no personal coaching of my movements. I would see other students who barely tried achieve the same ranking that I received. It made me realize that you didn't have to be good to earn a higher belt.

I worked hard anyway, and by the time I got the brown belt, I was one of his best brown belts. But by that time, the skeptic in me had emerged and I left the school.

I studied Taekwondo and then Wushu before I discovered the internal arts in 1987. One of my teachers closed shop and left town with pre-paid student money (from contracts), and I believe that same teacher stole my wedding ring when I set it down one night so I wouldn't injure other students. One of my teachers enjoyed hurting his students. Another teacher said he created his style after speaking to a disembodied Voice in an empty room for two or three days. The Voice outlined his style and he began teaching it.

Never put your teacher on a pedestal, no matter how high a "master" you perceive them to be. That's one lesson I can teach you after 39 years.

But I'm still hooked on martial arts as I start my 40th year. I still have a lot to learn. Time has taken it's toll on my body but it hasn't quenched my thirst for knowledge, and I still work to get better every day. What can be better than that?



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Chen 38 Form - 173 Self-Defense Applications in 38 Moves

Ken-Gullette-Chen-38-TaijiI love the Chen 38 taiji form. Oh yeah, you can say that it's not as satisfying as Xinjia Yilu, but it's still a beautiful and fairly short form.

Today, I threw my Chen 38 DVDs into the player. I was curious about how many fighting applications are taught on the discs.

It's a 2-disc set with almost 4 hours of instruction. Each movement is demonstrated from different angles and then I go into detailed instruction with an emphasis on internal body mechanics.

After each movement is taught, there is a section on the self-defense applications of the movement. Many of the applications were taught at a workshop I held in Moline in late summer, 2009 -- three years ago as of this writing. Martial artists attended representing several styles -- Shaolin, Taekwondo, karate, even a local tai chi instructor who focuses on Yang style.

Today, for the first time, I noted each self-defense application. I had never counted them before and was surprised at the result.

There were 173 applications demonstrated for 38 movements.

It's also interesting to hear the video -- the audio was edited heavily because I had lost a lung that summer and didn't even realize it when I held the workshop. Looking back, I can't believe I even made it through. Within 2 months, I would be near death at Cleveland Clinic.

I've included a clip of the DVD below, showing some of the applications for movement 5 -- Walking Obliquely.

The Chen 38 contains elements of Xinjia -- more obvious spiraling than the Chen 19. It's the second form that I teach taiji students and we've won a lot of tournament forms competitions with it. I learned it from Jim and Angela Criscimagna, and they hosted Master Ren Guangyi for a couple of workshops on the form that I attended. It was great instruction. The form is wonderful, full of fluid moves with bursts of fajing.

But diving into the fighting applications is what I love most.




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

Don't take medical advice from someone who is not a doctor.

A martial artist in Europe contacted me recently and said that about two and a half years after he began practicing tai chi, hsing-i, bagua and qigong, he began feeling exhausted each time he practiced.

When he does other activities, the student feels good. But when he tries to do the internal arts, he is drained of energy and feels horrible.

His teacher told him that these arts "touch the soul and feelings." In short, the student must be doing something wrong.

There are a lot of quacks in the world of internal arts. "If you do this technique wrong, it will hurt your gall bladder, and if you don't do this movement correctly, it will harm your large intestine."

And people believe it. But, as we can see during this political season, or in churches throughout the world, people will believe just about anything. It doesn't have to make sense.

I advised this student to see a doctor. Have some tests run. Find out what's going on. There have never been documented medical cases -- in a double blind clinical setting -- that indicate exercise such as the internal arts or qigong can make you feel bad unless there is another reason.

Now, if you attend a workshop or take a private lesson from a member of the Chen family, you may be forced to stand in postures for so long that your legs will give out. But that's due to strenuous exercise. 

There is NOTHING involved in Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, or Qigong that can possibly make a healthy person feel bad. 

I've heard stories by people who say students have come into class and have started standing stake and suddenly feel panic attacks or stomach pain. They take that as proof that the student had "bad chi" or that the flow of chi triggered something negative in their psyche.

Does the word "poppycock" mean anything to you? It should, and you should blurt it out in full-blown internal arts Tourettes if someone tells you these stories.

If you have a panic attack when doing qigong, see a counselor or a psychiatrist. Or start with your doctor.

It doesn't matter how knowledgeable your teacher wants you to believe he or she is -- and it doesn't matter if they have studied acupuncture, accupressure, or any other of the Traditional Chinese Medicines. It doesn't matter how many of Mantak Chia's books they've read. If you take medical advice from someone without a legitimate "M.D." after their name, you only have your own self to blame.

Feel bad? Go to a doctor, not to a "master."



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