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How Long Does It Take To Become A Master of Kung-Fu? The Joy of the Journey

The Martial Artist at 60 -- The Good and Bad Things I've Learned -- And A Flying Sidekick

I turned 60 years old yesterday. What a shock! People say "you're still young" and other things to make you feel better, but there is a profound realization that the number of years in front of you are a lot fewer than the years behind you.

Flying-Kick-1997As a little test on my 60th birthday, I tried to recreate a flying sidekick that I did in 1997. I set my Bob punching bag to 6 feet 1 and tested myself to see if I could reach his head while Nancy took the photos. I guess I did it to prove something to myself. Three years ago, I lost a lung and about 25 pounds of muscle mass. I have recovered in some ways but it has been difficult, and I have continued practicing and, I believe, progressing, although at a much slower pace than before.

Neither my father or my grandfather got out of their 60s alive. I'm hoping to do better than that, even though I was dealt a bad hand three years ago and a couple of doctors at Mayo Clinic gave me 3 to 5 years before my heart wears out. 

Another realization hits you when you reach 60 -- if you have any sense of reality. You realize that you don't have time to be as good at kung-fu as you want to be.

This is my 40th year in martial arts. I started when I was 20. Man, it went fast. But I've learned a thing or two along the way and I'd like to share some with you, if you care to read on.

The Bad Things I've Learned

1.  I've learned you should NEVER put a martial arts teacher or "master" on a pedestal. They are not God. They are not superhuman. They do not have supernatural powers. They are not One With The Universe. Most are out to make a buck and build a personal empire of followers. Especially the masters from China. They are usually as petty and jealous of "competition" as any other humans.

2.  I've learned not to trust anyone who refers to themselves as Master.

3.  I've learned that no human being can knock down another being without touching them.

4.  I've learned that a lot of people are drawn to the martial arts and the internal arts because they want to be seen as powerful -- supernatural. It is a psychological illness that too many students accept as normal behavior.

5.  I've learned that you should never believe the story your teacher tells you about his (or her) background. A lot of tall tales are told by people who want to be seen as powerful (see #4).

6.  I've learned that everyone dies. All qigong masters die. All Tai Chi masters die. Sometimes they die young and sometimes they live into their 80s or 90s. My wife's parents lived into their 90s and never did a minute of qigong. In reality, qigong will not give you longevity. Unfortunately, too many internal artists can't face reality.

Ken-Bob-1-24-13The Good Things

1. I've learned that all martial arts have value. The best martial art is the one that appeals to you. I've studied a few, and wish I had time to study them all. But I don't, so I've chosen the arts that appeal to me.

2. I've learned that Chi Kung is hard work, but it can help you ride the ups and downs of life, which can include some really bad times.

3. I've learned that one of the most valuable things in life is a partner who supports your love of martial arts. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without Nancy.

4. I've learned that the most valuable practices are the ones that make you feel like a beginner, and make you realize how much you have to learn.

5.  I've learned that the key to improvement in the internal arts is to take one baby step -- one very small improvement at a time. Slowly, you get better. But it's a very slow process. 

6. I've learned that the best quality you can possess is the realization that you can learn from everyone. I've learned some lessons about the internal arts and applications from people of all styles just by practicing with them and comparing notes.

7. I've learned that there is nothing mystical about the internal arts. They are based on physical skills and developed in a culture where chi was as prominent as Jesus is in our culture. It doesn't mean you have to believe in either one.

8. I've learned that the internal arts take a lifetime to learn. And then you want another lifetime to get better.

9. I've learned that "chi flow" is proper body mechanics and structure.

10. I've learned that if you don't understand the body mechanics and the martial applications, you can't possibly understand the intent of a movement in the internal arts.

11. I've learned that just when you think you know a movement really well, you get a flash of insight or unlock another martial application that gives you deeper knowledge of the movement.

I guess I could go on, but I'll stop here.

There is a lot I want to learn and practice in the coming years -- or however long I have. I want to be more connected in my movements. I want to become more centered. I want to be a better person, maintain my health, and keep practicing.

Flying-Sidekick-Head-2013-aWhen I was lying in Cleveland Clinic near death in October 2009, I didn't worry for one moment about "the other side." I was comfortable in my beliefs (which have nothing to do with invisible beings). But I didn't want to go so soon. I focused on a tournament that was to take place 7 months later. I got out of the hospital weighing 156 pounds and could hardly walk. I was still coughing up blood. But I worked to recover, practiced, and won a first place trophy for a Tai Chi form at the tournament in May, 2010.

The internal arts mean a lot to me. I couldn't give them up if I tried -- only if I couldn't move at all, and even then I would be practicing in my mind.

So I set Bob last night and Nancy took photos as I tested myself to see if I could still do a flying sidekick against someone my height or slightly taller. I still could do it. I feel like I've lost a couple of inches in height over the past 16 years, but this will just give me something to work on for my 61st birthday. Maybe I can build a little muscle doing more of this type of thing.

Turning 60 doesn't bother me that much. What bothers me is the realization of how much I love kung-fu, and realizing that I don't have as much time as I want to get as good as I want to get. But I'll keep trying, and shoot for 70 as my next goal. 

Here's to your good health. And longevity.


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Wally Newman

Happy Birthday Ken, and I hope the years ahead are richer and more rewarding than the ones behind you.

David Gaffney

Great blog - bottom line is that we do it because we love it. Simple as that. Have a great birthday and keep on training!!!

Joseph Brown

Happy Birthday Ken!

You're not getting older, you're getting...wait-a-minute, you ARE getting older!

But we all are and you're doing it with uncommon grace. All the best.


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