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

A young student was excited to meet a Kung-Fu master. Before his first class, he asked, "How long must I study before I become a master?"

The master replied, "You must study for ten years."

"But I will practice very hard!" said the young student.

The master replied, "Then it will take twenty years."

The young man said, "But I want to be your best student!"

"Ahh," said the master. "Then that will take a lifetime."

I love that old story.

If you've been teaching for any length of time, you'll be asked, "How long does it take to get a black belt?"

As if a black belt is something great. Once you earn a black belt, if you have any sense of reality, you understand that you have just begun. It's the same as getting a Bachelors degree in college. Advanced study is next.

It's always amazed me how many people talk about loving martial arts but how few have the drive or the commitment to reach even a black belt level.

I'm not sure when I realized that I would never become a master of tai chi, hsing-i or bagua. Perhaps it was around 1998 or 1999, when I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna. They were very good -- they became my teachers. And yet, Jim described himself as a "hobbyist." He and Angela held full-time jobs as teachers.

A Chen Broadsword workshop by Ren Guangyi in 2002. Next to Master Ren are my teachers Jim and Angela Criscimagna. I am at far left.
Through Jim and Angela, I began meeting members of the Chen family and their students, such as Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi. Later, I met Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing and Chen Ziqiang.


It was a humbling experience and gave me a realistic perspective as powerfully as a roundhouse kick to the head. It woke me up. I saw what a real master is when I met members of the Chen family. I've met many Americans of different styles who call themselves master or wear a red belt. There is a huge difference between them and a real master.

Occasionally, because I've been at this a while, someone will call me a master. Their intentions are respectful and that's okay. But it makes me laugh, and I quickly correct them. They simply don't understand the real world of martial arts.

Let me tell you a simple truth. Length of time in the martial arts does not make you a master. And when you hold a sixth or seventh degree in any style, that does not make you a master. And if a teacher refers to himself as a master, that still doesn't make it true. Some people believe they feel mystical when they do the forms, and that makes them masters. Oy vey! That's generally a good sign that they have no idea what they are doing.

At some point in the 90's or in the early 2000's, I decided that I would teach what I know, and pass along what I've learned and what I continue to learn, and not worry about ever being a master. I also decided I would keep studying and practicing and getting better. At some point, the idea of being a master didn't matter anymore. Why let an idea like that spoil your fun?

One of the best feelings I've ever had -- and one of the worst -- is being in a class with teachers like Jim and Angela, or Chen Xiaowang, or Chen Xiaoxing, or Chen Bing, or Ren Guangyi, or Chen Ziqiang -- and being made to feel like you've been studying for about three days. They are so good that they make a guy like me feel like a total beginner.

And yet, when I learn something in a class like that, and take one baby step forward, it's the best feeling in the world. The real joy of this journey is the constant flash of insight that you should experience as you continue to look deeper. 

I see students who want to learn more and more forms -- more and more techniques -- and I try to slow them down. Practice the basics. Practice silk-reeling exercises or one form. Don't stop practicing early material just because you have moved on to another form.

Look deeper. What do you see? 

That's the beauty of the journey. Performing a movement or a form -- doing an application over and over for years -- and seeing something you didn't see before, such as how to better do the body mechanics, how to connect the flow of power through the body, and sometimes you simply realize a better way of grounding, using peng, opening and closing the kua, rotating the dan t'ien, and doing it all with proper structure and relaxed internal strength.

These little moments of insight are worth another belt, in my opinion. And sometimes, you are the only person who knows. 

You will never master these arts. But it doesn't matter. What matters is taking one baby step at a time and getting better. It's a very, very slow process. If you are an American and work for a living, you'll never be a master. But you don't have to be a master to teach, and you can be good and not be a master.

So how long does it take to become a master? Ha! You don't have enough time. :)

Don't worry about it. Embrace it and enjoy yourself -- and the arts.

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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Self-Defense and the OODA Loop

I don't expect violence to happen to me in the workplace. But if there is one thing you learn when you study martial arts it's this: Expect the Unexpected.

If you work in an office, in a school, in a store (particularly a convenience store), a nonprofit -- actually just about anywhere these days -- you must prepare yourself for a possible attack similar to the recent one in Newtown, Connecticut.

And you should know about the OODA Loop. It's a simple concept.

I was in a group yesterday listening to a police officer discuss the OODA Loop. He has been trained in workplace safety, and he says that when someone is intent on violence, and enters your place of business or your room intent on shooting people, they are in their own OODA Loop, which consists of:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Action

They have -- in their own minds -- decided to do violence. They are in an OODA Loop in which they will observe who is in front of them, orient themselves, make the decision for violence and then take action, such as pulling the trigger if they have a gun.

When someone enters your office or room with a gun, all negotiations are over. There is no time to negotiate. If you can't escape, you should try to disrupt the attacker's OODA Loop. You can do that by picking up the nearest object and throwing it. 

Your first instinct when someone throws something at you is to flinch. If it's a heavy object, such as a stapler, it can do damage, so you are likely to turn or duck. This goes against what the attacker is expecting. His "loop" is disrupted, and sometimes that disrupts his ability to react quickly. 

It's possible to jump through a window, run out a door, or even rush the attacker if his OODA Loop is thrown off-track long enough for you to take action. If there is a group, the more objects thrown gives everyone more time to escape or fight back.

And by the way, fighting back is an option in a scenario when an attacker bursts in with a gun. Sometimes, it's your only option if you want to live.

I had never heard of the OODA Loop before. It makes perfect sense, and it's something we should all discuss in our martial arts and self-defense classes.

The internal concept for this involves something we practice all the time -- controlling our opponent's center. By disrupting his OODA Loop, we get inside his decision-making process and put him off-balance psychologically.

In my classes, we also talk about Ko Shang Hai -- a "moment of vulnerability" that you create by putting your opponent off-balance, using psychological or physical misdirection, or the simple act of having your opponent speak. During these moments, he is vulnerable.

Disrupting the OODA Loop of an attacker can be accomplished by creating a moment of vulnerability. If you throw a stapler at someone who enters your office with a gun, you create a moment of vulnerability -- you disrupt their physical and mental center and you may buy a couple of seconds that enable you to act -- either by throwing something else or getting close enough to get physical.

I plan to practice it with my students. One way to do this is to give a nerf dart gun to a person, tell them they will enter the room and shoot everyone, then instruct the others when they see him enter with the weapon, they will throw the nearest object (which we will make soft so we don't injure our attacker).

I encourage you to do the same type of thing with your friends or students. Sometimes, self-defense is a lot more than punching and kicking and chinna. It's quick thinking and creative action. 


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Taking Self-Defense and Martial Arts to A Higher Level

A higher level of internal arts is achieved when you think beyond self-defense.
I receive messages occasionally from anonymous Internet trolls who see my YouTube videos and make comments such as, "How will that work against an MMA fighter," or most recently, "What good is a sword going to do you in a street fight?" 

Insert deep sigh here.

When I was young, I thought you studied martial arts to learn how to kick major bootay. I wanted to feel safe everywhere.

It was shallow thinking. There is a lot more to martial arts than fighting. But you can't expect young people to think at a higher level. That takes time, experience, and study.

I am not a religious man and I do not believe in invisible beings. I don't believe invisible beings are watching us, guiding us, controlling what happens (saving us from accidents, etc.) or planning to judge us when we die.

But I am a spiritual person. I believe in being kind to people, helping those less fortunate, and treating everyone I meet with friendship, humor, and cooperation. I believe in treating my wife with love and respect and making children laugh. I have worked a lot of my life to be a better person and a centered person. Like every human being, I occasionally fall short, but we continue trying, don't we?

This takes time, experience, study, and reflection. A higher level requires some sort of inward gazing -- in my case, chi kung (qigong) and a great deal of time studying and pondering philosophical questions.

My favorite part of the internal arts continues to be decoding the self-defense applications within a movement. But we also practice being "connected" to our opponent. My opponent moves and I move with him. When he arrives, I am already there. We have drills that are used to help students understand the concept of connecting, and the goal is to carry the physical sense of connecting to a higher level, where you then connect with the people you meet and work with each day, you connect with the environment, and you connect with the universe. It's a higher level of martial arts.

I never expect to be in a fight again. I don't intend to use my arts for fighting. Don't get me wrong -- I would be ready to defend myself or a loved one if needed. If I saw someone being attacked while at the mall or on the street, I would likely intervene. But that's not why I study anymore. I haven't been in a real fight, other than tournaments, since I was 18. Now that I'm turning 60 later this month, it would be pretty silly to think that I'm going to be fighting anyone.

An important part of martial arts training is the spiritual. It has been lost by a lot of martial artists and a lot of schools. There is a tradition that you are helping to carry forward, and there is a deep satisfaction when the mind and body come together to do a perfect technique. Perfection doesn't happen often, but when it does, something wonderful happens in your mind. When I connect with a partner so that I already know when they are going to attack -- it's an amazing feeling. 

The martial arts -- the internal arts -- are a means to achieving physical and mental perfection.

But there is another key point that you must realize to get to that higher level.

The best fighter wins without a fight. You do that by remaining centered -- avoiding going to places where you might be attacked -- talking down someone who is ready to attack you -- or leading their comments into emptiness.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that the best generals win battles without fighting.

So why do we study a martial art? It's about self-discipline, self-control, and self-confidence. By making yourself stronger and able to defend yourself well, you have less of a need to prove your point. You have less desire to fight. You have little interest in inflicting pain. You find the connection between you and other people -- in fact, with all things in nature. 

Someone who is truly connected carries themselves with dignity, with calmness, with caring and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, as I learned in Sunday School when I was a kid.

That has nothing to do with fighting.

Another point that the trolls bring up -- why do I incorporate straight swords, broadswords and elk horn knives into my practice? On a practical level, you aren't going to pick up a sword on the street if a group of guys attacks you. But once again, the personal growth that I feel from developing skills has nothing to do really with fighting. After all, the phrase "martial art" includes the word "art." I am expressing myself through my art, learning a physical skill and techniques with a traditional weapon, and engaging in an exercise that feeds the mind and the body.

On the other hand, if you can pick up a stick in a self-defense situation, sword techniques will be very handy. But this possibility is also why I train with single and double sticks.

Another point on the practical side -- when we see the damage that can be done to a human being by violence -- the fact that you can kill someone with one good punch should make you want to avoid the possibility of the legal problems (not to mention possibly losing your job) that an adult would likely suffer if a fight broke out.

Fighting is a young man's game. One of the reasons I'm about to turn 60 is because I never went looking for fights and actually tried to avoid them as an adult. I've had my chances, but managed to diffuse the situations that could have resulted in violence. That's harder to do when you're young and not thinking in a centered way.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu wrote, "Powerful men are well advised not to use violence, for violence has a habit of returning."

Words to live by. And so we study, practice, look deeper, and seek to achieve a higher level, which some call The Way.






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Stop Doing Weak Tai Chi - Make a Resolution for 2013 - 7 Concepts for High Quality Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua

There is an article on the Internet by a tai chi instructor based in Los Angeles. It outlines the 10 most important concepts you should remember when practicing Tai Chi. And it's the reason most Tai Chi being practiced in America is so weak.

The advice is typical of so many Tai Chi students and teachers that I've met who focus on the wrong things, thinking they're doing Tai Chi. They do this because their teacher taught them a weak version of this art. The result -- you meet their students and see quickly that they have no concept of body mechanics.

Here--briefly--is his list of top ten important things to focus on:

Concept 1: Tai Chi is done with an emphasis on every movement. Every pattern must be connected with one another.

Concept 2: Maintain your shoulders dropped so that any tension will be eliminated.

Concept 3: Your wrists should be straight in order to maintain strength and a good flow of energy.

Concept 4: Learning to move ever more slowly is one path to increased cultivation.

Concept 5: Never let any hindrances stop you from being connected. In case you get disconnected, keep up with the motions.

Concept 6: In practicing Tai Chi, your knees must always be bent. Also you need to maintain your balance for your height not to bob up and down.

Concept 7: Power of Tai Chi will start from the feet going up to the legs, controlling the shoulders and will be expressed by the fingers and hands.

Concept 8: Your head must be maintained as if it was suspended on air.

Concept 9: Your chest must be depressed and your back should be raised but this must be done effortlessly.

Concept 10: Keep your breath to your body's center of gravity, the dan tien; again this must be done effortlessly.

My Response to these Concepts

Most of these concepts are things that you need to know and do -- but they are FAR from the top ten concepts you need. These are--in my opinion--things to think of after you begin focusing on the top concepts that you need to know.

Concepts 1 and 10 I can buy into. You must be connected through the body. As you progress, you should focus on the breathing with the dan t'ien, but that is NOT done effortlessly at first. It takes practice and focus.

Concepts 2 and three are just silly. Yes, you should relax your shoulders and "drop" them, and usually you try to keep the wrists straight. Rather than focus on the shoulders as this teacher does, I encourage students to drop their weight -- "sink their chi" -- and relax everything, including the shoulders while you maintain ground and peng (see below for my list of concepts).

Concept 4 is just wrong. Learning to move ever more slowly is the key? Actually, you learn to move properly in slow motion, you move faster and faster, learning fa-jing and how to apply the movements in self-defense. The more advanced you get, the more you are able to do the forms properly at both slow and combat speeds. Tai Chi is a martial art, first and foremost.

Concept 5 is a distraction. Don't get distracted? Well of course. That also applies to reading a book.

Concept 6 tells you to keep your knees bent. This is another way to say relax and sink your weight.

He almost nails Concept 7. Power does start in the ground, travels through the legs -- but he ignores the key concept that it is guided by the dan t'ien and then is expressed through the hands (or whatever part of the body is striking). Inserting the shoulders here is goofy. The power has to go through the shoulders but they are conduits for internal strength and should be kept out of play as much as possible except in certain circumstances involving kou energy.

Concepts 8 and 9 are pieces of advice told to all Tai Chi students. Yes, you keep your head up and balanced. The chest is slightly hollowed and the back slightly rounded but this is part of the whole body connection.

7 Concepts You Must Focus on in Tai Chi

1. Establish and Maintain the Ground Path: All strength and power originates in the ground. You must maintain the ground connection throughout every movement, even the movements that some people call "transitions" (there are no transitions in Tai Chi, there are only fighting applications).

2. The Most Important Energy is Peng Energy and it Must Be Maintained At All Times: Peng requires the ground connection. It's an expansive force, as if your body is inflated like a balloon. When you try to push a basketball or beach ball into a pool of water, peng is the feeling you get that -- even though the ball is going into the water, pressure is building for it to spring back. Peng and the ground path must be connected through all movement. If it isn't, you aren't doing Tai Chi. Peng is involved in every "energy" in Tai Chi.

3. All Movement Must Be Connected Through the Body: Whole-body movement is crucial. Power should flow like a ribbon from the ground, connected. All I have to do is ask another Tai Chi person to grab me with both hands and pull me down. It becomes quickly obvious that they have no concept of whole-body movement.

4. Silk-Reeling is a Key Component of Tai Chi: It's amazing how poorly this skill is taught, when it is one of the founding principles of Tai Chi. Yang LuChan would have learned it in the Chen Village before he created Yang style, but it has been lost. Some teachers actually say that silk-reeling happens when you "imagine" chi spiraling from the ground through the attacking hand. That's wrong, too. Silk-reeling is a way of spiraling and moving power in a connected way through the body. It relies on the first three concepts (ground, peng and whole-body movement) plus the next two.

5. Dan Tien Rotation: Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang says Tai Chi is "One Principle, Three Techniques." The main principle is "Dan Tien guides all movement and when one part moves, all parts move." The three techniques are "dan tien rotating side to side; dan t'ien rotating over and back; dan t'ien rotating in a combination of these directions. Dan t'ien rotation must be involved in every movement.

6. Opening and Closing the Kua: Some past Tai Chi masters have said that "to understand the kua is to understand Tai Chi." But I see Tai Chi players all the time who couldn't find their kua with both hands because they've never been taught this concept. Every movement in Tai Chi involves opening one kua and closing the other in some way.

7. Maintain a Centered Stance: I saw a video recently of a guy teaching tai chi and he began Grasp The Swallow's Tail. His right hip suddenly stuck out to the right and it appeared that the slightest push would send him off-balance. In Chen tai chi, standing stake is used to help you relax, sink, develop peng, build leg strength, tuck the hips slightly and remain centered -- but then almost every movement in the form is performed to maintain a centered stance. This is one reason early Chen students are made to hold stances while they are corrected until their legs give out and they fall on the floor. It takes a lot of strength to hold a centered stance. The better the stance, the harder it is to hold. And this is one reason you see such powerful legs on Chen masters. If you think pain is not involved in Tai Chi practice, you are not studying Tai Chi.

Those are my top concepts of internal movement. You add to this little things like keeping the head up, hollow the chest, keep the knees slightly bent, and the small things that help refine your Tai Chi.

Americans are prone to self-delusion. If a guy tells us he's a master, we believe it and everything he says is the truth and it can't be denied. And by golly if my master tells me I'm learning Tai Chi, then I'm learning Tai Chi.

Put these "masters" in front of the real deal and they crumble like a house of cards. In the meantime, they're teaching Americans the wrong things, having them "cultivate chi" instead of learn to move properly. Often, these teachers don't know any better. But sometimes they are presented with the right concepts and they reject them because the new information violates what they have been taught.

The best you can do for yourself is to NOT believe everything an authority figure tells you, but to investigate, research and compare, and don't close your mind to the possibility that you just might be learning poor quality Tai Chi. Make a resolution in 2013 that you will investigate real body mechanics. If you do, it will be a good year.