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If You Are In A Fight, Would You Use Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Bagua?

Ken Gullette and Xingyi Monkey
In a real fight, do the 3 internal arts cause you to freeze from too many options?
I have been asked this question many times over the years, in different ways. This morning I received an email and it was worded this way (the email is italicized):


Firstly, I enjoy your site. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience. 

Each of  3 internal arts approaches the problem of self-defence in a different way. By learning all 3 arts does this promote a confusion in response to an attack- a mental freeze caused by having too many options.

I would imagine that the response would be determined by which response has been imprinted on "muscle memory" the most. If this is the case then does learning all 3 arts inhibit a quick response or at least not help.

 On the other hand do all 3 arts feed off each other in some way which helps each one to improve? How do all 3 internal arts work together? Are they independent responses or interdependent? 

 Or do all 3 arts combine in a unique way in each individual so that in a self defence situation the response is tailor made by the individual for the individual as determined by the situation?

Here is my reply to this excellent question:

There are similar principles at work in each of the arts, even though the "image" of each art is a bit different. Hsing-I is direct, and blasts through an opponent. Chen Taiji is like a rubber ball that gives a little with incoming force and then counters. Bagua catches an attack like a wire ball and spins it out in unexpected directions.

In each art, there are unique ways of movement but there are also many similarities. Silk-reeling and spiraling in both Chen and Bagua (also in Hsing-I but not stressed as much). Most of the fighting applications in one art can be found in the other. The concept of "splitting palm" for example. 

I am often asked, "If you were in a fight, would you respond to an attack with Tai Chi, Bagua, or Hsing-I?" 

It's sort of funny, because I am 60 and haven't been in a real fight since I was 18 and punched out a bully who had been after me with a group of guys for 5 years. I never had a brain freeze, and I was actually in a lot of fights growing up. Bullies tended to target me.

I started martial arts at age 20, and in the 40 years since, I have avoided several fights by centering myself and diffusing some potentially violent situations, which is the "real" skill. I have confined my "fighting" to tournaments and in class instead of real life, where, as an adult, it can be physically, legally, and economically disastrous. 

But fighting is a possibility if you run into the wrong person at the wrong time. I have trained people who have had to use it in real life, including a 15-year old whose drunk step-father grabbed him and was going to punch him, but the kid used the chinna I teach to break his step-father's elbow and sent him to the hospital. I don't believe the step-father ever attacked him again. Another student, a cop, used Hsing-I twice to take down different criminals. Neither of them were "frozen" in those situations. They did what came naturally after a lot of practice. They met the situation with what worked at the time.

And that's when practicing fighting principles and applications and developing the ability to see openings and opportunities really can help. You learn to adapt and flow from one situation to another. The person doing the attacking won't necessarily be my target. I would want him to punch at me, push or kick at me, or come in to grapple, because I want his elbow and knee, and I want to get him off-balance and control his center.
We practice close-up "fighting" and look for chinna opportunities, or deflecting and striking opportunities. We want to break our opponent and put them on the ground. It isn't scripted like a one-step exercise, and the unscripted nature of some of our practice helps you respond to the moment with the right principle. It isn't about memorizing techniques as much as it is the principle of movement, and the goal of uprooting, unbalancing, and controlling the center.

A real-life attack calls for overwhelming force. If you are threatened by an adult, it's a serious situation that could result in physical damage or worse. If there was no way out, my tendency would be to drive through him. But that would change depending on the situation. None of us are superhuman, and if someone suddenly launches an overwhelming attack, we depend on our ability to be cool under pressure to regroup mentally and respond because of our training. Duck and cover, then respond.

More than likely, an attack would come after a request for something (robbery) or "the Monkey Dance," with the attacker threatening and doing the rituals that human beings and other primates do before they attack. A lot of us have experienced someone who goes into The Monkey Dance. This, of course, gives the trained martial artist an advantage (and you can see many examples of this on YouTube where the martial artist decks the attacker when the Monkey Dance escalates to actual violence).

What we do in taking the forms and techniques into a sparring or fight scenario (or push hands) is to get accustomed to different attacks and the principles you use to respond -- not "if he does this you do that" type of thing. So you are responding more to the situation and your opponent's force ("energy") than you are whether he is punching or kicking.

Take a look at the videos on the website (in the Internal Strength section, the Bagua Fighting Skills section and throughout the Tai Chi section) about "controlling the center." That's a very important concept. Unbalancing the opponent, uprooting, and controlling the center are concepts that can come in handy in a lot of different ways.

Now, with all this being said, I have to tell you that I never "expect" to get into a fight again. So my training focus has changed. I love to explore the fighting applications of movements, and how "energy" is perceived and overcome. I know how to fight and don't worry so much about whether I can defend myself or not (part of the confidence that builds over time). But one thing I continue to carry on from the influence Bruce Lee had on me -- I throw out techniques that are more fantasy than reality. I toss them in the trash if there is no chance they will work against a motivated attacker. And that always has to be in your mind as you practice.

When I was growing up and being picked on by bullies, my mind never froze during a fight because I was trying to figure out the best way to respond. I simply responded. Perhaps I was a bit different than some guys. I always tried to avoid a fight, but once it started, even when the bully was larger and older, I loved it. To me, it was an adrenalin rush, walking the wire without a net, the ultimate sports competition, and sometimes the smarter guy won (me) instead of the tougher guy.

I don't think learning martial arts -- even three arts -- should cause you to freeze. The ability to defend yourself instead of freezing during an attack is sometimes a natural ability, but for others, such as my 15-year old student who used a chinna technique against his drunk attacker, it might require a deep understanding ("internalizing") of principles and body mechanics that evolves by practicing -- over and over again -- good techniques and concepts that adapt from one situation to another. 


40 Years of Martial Arts -- The Anniversary of the First Step on a Lifelong Journey

Ken75My lifelong journey in the martial arts began 40 years ago this evening with one small step for a 20-year old college student.

My cousin, Bobby, was already studying with Grandmaster Sin The (Grandmaster turned out to be a self-created title) and I was fascinated because of the Kung Fu TV show, which I watched every week for the fight scenes and the philosophy. 

Bobby and I roomed together at Eastern Kentucky University. He had a pair of nunchakus, which I had never seen before in person, but had seen them in a recent Bruce Lee movie (Bruce died, and Enter the Dragon was released, that summer). I picked up one end of the nunchaku, and the other end promptly swung up and cracked me right in the forehead. It hurt like hell, and I was so angry, I sat the nunchakus down in disgust.

Ken83But I was still fascinated with the martial arts, so on September 20, 1973, I went to Sin The's school -- in a converted garage in the Eastland Shopping Center. The Bruce Lee fad was in full swing, so there were so many people showing up for the introductory class, they spilled out into the driveway. I stood in the driveway with some of the others, going through the class and learning a punch and a stance or two.

Maybe half the students returned for the second class. I think it's a safe bet that of all the students who showed up that night, I am the only one still practicing.

I had no idea that it would become such an integral part of who I am. Now, at age 60, I am working at it full-time, and teaching people all over the world with videos, DVDs, ebooks, this blog -- I am not a master and never will be, but I have some things to teach and do it to the best of my ability, and I continue to learn and try to incorporate deeper understanding and insights into my arts. In the next two months, I plan on studying with two members of the Chen family. If I pick up one or two things that will improve my practice, it will be wonderful.

What has 40 years in the martial arts taught me? For one thing, it has given me a personal philosophy to ride the ups and downs of life. I have suffered pretty bad events -- the death of a daughter, job losses, two divorces, the loss of a lung -- but after being rocked each time, I eventually find my center and walk on. I have learned that life is truly a yin/yang circle. When bad things happen, if you just persist, the circle turns and positive things come around. When great things happen, you can be certain that the circle will turn, and something negative will happen. It is the way of life.

Bill&KenI found something in martial arts that provided me with a system of goal achievement. Learning a form, for example, is a great lesson in achieving any goal in life. You begin with the first move. You practice it, then add the next move. Practice both of them until you are ready to move to the third move, and so on. Before you know it, you are at the end. You have learned the movements. Any human endeavor can be accomplished in this step-by-step approach. You set a goal, you determine how to get there, and you take it one step at a time.

40 years in the martial arts has helped me to realize that learning something on the surface is not the same as truly learning it. Learning a movement, or a series of movements in a form, is the first part of a very long, multi-year, sometimes lifelong process of understanding the movement, developing the body mechanics, finding the art within the martial, and sometimes finding the martial in the art.

Tourney40 years in the martial arts has helped me understand how much I have to learn. It's a little funny and a testament to ego to see people who have been in the arts for a few years claim to be experts. It's mind-boggling to see people create their own organization and install themselves as Grandmaster. It's sad to see people with good intentions following these con artists. And it's sad to see people earn a black belt and then either think of themselves as masters or drop out of the arts. A black belt or sash is just the beginning.

40 years has taught me that no human being can perform miracles with their chi. In fact, nothing in martial arts is done outside what we understand to be scientifically verifiable principles. Everything else is fantasy -- it looks cool in the movies but it is not real life. You can't knock someone down with your chi. You can't heal people with your aura.There is nothing supernatural involved. It is all physical skill. Nothing more.

Promotion0940 years has taught me that when you abuse your body, you pay a price. Martial artists can tolerate breaking blocks of ice with their heads when young. They can break a stack of boards. They can kick through concrete (the right type of concrete). They can withstand painful blows to the stomach, chest, sometimes the neck. But eventually, all of this comes back to haunt the martial artist, in the form of arthritis, knee pain, hip replacements, and hard blows to the head that result in concussions can really change your life for the worst, and cut it short. Even Shaolin monks who break ice blocks with their heads suffer brain damage, talk in stutters, and have huge welts on their skulls. The human body is not made to suffer the abuse that testosterone-driven young guys think it can. You want to do Iron Shirt Chi Kung? Go for it, young man. I'll watch and see how you feel when you are 50 years old.

40 years in the martial arts have moved me beyond wanting to learn self-defense (I accomplished that a few decades ago) to the point where the body mechanics and the purpose of the movements -- unlocking hidden techniques and fighting applications -- are the things that bring me joy.

Ken & RGY 3-17-0140 years in the martial arts have taught me about the different worlds of martial arts. There is the storefront world, where every black belt can start a school and teach mediocre or poor arts. There is the world of tournaments, where good and bad martial artists gather. We compete, get trophies, and sometimes we are the best of a mediocre group, sometimes we are good, but it is easy to think of ourselves as better than we are simply because we get a trophy. Tournaments are useful for marketing and for putting yourself in a situation where you have to perform with other people watching. Tournament sparring does test important skills, but it is also useful as a marketing tool. Big trophies in the school window equals good marketing.

Then there is the world of the Chen family, the world of Liu Jingru, the world of Sun Lutang. This is beyond the comprehension of many of us. In fact, when some Westerners travel to study for a week or two in the Chen Village, they come back and drop out. They realize they will never be able to work that hard or attain that skill, and it defeats them mentally. I have not been able to go to the Chen Village but I have studied with members of the Chen family and their students. It is a humbling experience, but just taking one baby step in understanding after one of those learning sessions is exciting to me.

Ken-RichSwords40 years in martial arts has taught me that it really is a lifelong journey. Skill is not a destination.

I have learned many things, but this is a blog post, not a book. 

After being near death four years ago next month and losing a lung and a lot of muscle mass, I have struggled with lower physical capacity. I'm on blood thinners, so I have been forced to stop sparring. One mistake by a partner who might get a hard blow through to my head could trigger bleeding in the brain or elsewhere. I can't take that chance anymore. A couple of cardiologists at Mayo told me I had 3 to 5 years before my heart gives out. That was 3 years ago. I asked one of them if I had to give up kung-fu. He said, "The more you exercise, the faster your heart will wear out."

I decided that I could not accept that advice. And even though it's harder to breathe with one lung, and my heart is working a little hard to keep up and keep the blood pumping through the body, I keep learning, I keep taking one step at a time on this journey. 

I wish I had another 40 years to become really good. So I walk on, and take this journey as far as I can.

Zhan Zhuang in Tai Chi - Finding Balance and Standing in a Centered Way

Ken Gullette and Tom Revie
Photo 1 - Tom thinks he is straight but he is leaning backwards.
Here is an experiment you can do with martial artists and internal artists of all styles. 

Ask them to stand up straight in a centered stance with their feet shoulder width apart. Then step to the side and take a look. You will probably see what I usually see -- someone who thinks they are standing straight, but they are actually leaning backwards.

There is a video on my website that was shot in 2007 with a college student in Tampa who was a black belt in Taekwondo. Tom was a very nice guy who helped me make my Internal Strength DVD.

I wanted to videotape some instruction for Zhan Zhuang ("Standing Stake"), so I asked him to stand up straight with his feet shoulder width apart.

You can see in the top photo that he makes the same mistake that we all do in the beginning. I did, too. He thinks he's standing straight, but he's actually leaning backwards.

Ken Gullette and Tom Revie 2
A very light push makes him go off-balance.
In the middle photo, I applied just a very slight push on his chest and because he was already leaning backwards, he lost his balance and had to take a stumbling step or two backwards to regain his balance. 

In the video, I ask him to relax his knees, relax the hips, and just from the waist to the shoulders -- tilt forward a little.

When you first are corrected and you are placed into a "centered" stance, it actually feels as if you are leaning forward. That's because we are not accustomed to being centered.

You can do a lot of things in a Zhan Zhuang -- "Standing Stake" -- posture. You can meditate -- calm your mind, relax your body, and ease your stress.

You can practice developing peng jin -- the expansive feeling that is part of every "energy" that makes up the internal arts. Whether you are doing Roll Back or Press or Split, you can't do it successfully without Peng. This is often not taught by Tai Chi teachers.

Ken Gullette and Tom Revie 3
A centered stance takes a lot of practice and muscle memory.
Standing in Zhan Zhuang, you can also establish and maintain the ground path. In the video, I press slightly in on Tom's hand and he grounds it. You can't do the ground very well without peng, so they go together always. If you are properly balanced, a very light push on the chest will not make you stumble backwards off-balance. 

Zhan Zhuang is also a great tool for developing leg strength. The first time you do it, if you relax the knees and sink your weight properly, your legs will begin to shake from fatigue within a few minutes. The goal is to stand for longer periods and grow stronger.

You can even practice Dan T'ien rotations while standing.

Zhan Zhuang is the most important exercise in Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I. The San Ti stance in Hsing-I can substitute for Zhan Zhuang, and the Dragon Stance in Bagua can substitute. All are good for developing internal strength. If you are interested in learning more about internal strength, check out my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling DVDs and the Kindle ebooks on both Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling. All the video and information is also part of my membership site at

Chen 19 Form - New Ebook Teaches Chen Tai Chi Short Form Step-by-Step

Chen 19 Cover Graphic250How many times have you looked at a martial arts book that teaches a form (kata) and find that you are confused about how to get from one movement to the next -- little "transions" are left out of the photos?

And how many times have you been disappointed that the instructions for the movements lack depth? Step out with your left foot is not always helpful when more is supposed to be happening inside your body.

This is why I am putting the forms I teach into ebooks. The new ebook is called Chen Taijiquan 19 Form - Detailed Step-by-Step Reference for the Short Beginner's Form of Chen Tai Chi. It includes more than 200 photos -- almost a frame-by-frame breakdown of the form. In fact, I was flipping through the pages fast on my iPad and it almost looked like a movie.

I also discuss the body mechanics and direction the Dan T'ien is rotating, where the ground path should be felt, and other details that are almost impossible to find.

The Chen 19 Form was created by Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang around 1995, after he received numerous requests for a short form -- the Chen answer to the Yang 24 Form, which is the most popular short form in the world. He took movements primarily from Laojia Yilu to create the short form.

This ebook presents the Chen 19 Form the way I learned it -- directly from Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and his students -- and from insights I have gained through 15 years of practicing the form. This is the first Chen form I learned. It opened my eyes to the original style of Taijiquan and I never looked back.

If you don't know Chen style, and are curious about the forms, this is a very inexpensive way to see one in detail (the ebook only costs $4.99). I price my ebooks at around the cost of a venti white chocolate mocha at Starbucks. As usual, I try to provide good information at a low cost to the student.

One of the best uses is as a reference, and to check the body mechanics of movements. Has your teacher given you some of the information? If so, this is a good reminder. If he/she hasn't given you some of the information on body mechanics, you should ask about it. Your teacher either doesn't know it, or perhaps he has a different take on it. Perhaps your teacher will say your hand should be in a slightly different position in some movements, or your feet should be in a slightly different position. That's okay and it is to be expected. Have you ever seen two different masters doing the same form? They always do it differently. Also, Chen Zhenglei's 18 Form is performed differently from Chen Xiaowang's 19 Form. That's just one of those things. Each is carving out his own Tai Chi empire. Personally, I'm teaching at my own level. You won't mistake my skill for a master such as Chen Xiaowang. I am not a master and never will be one. But some masters won't give you some of the information that I will share. My book is written for those who can use the information to practice or to check their own form, and then eventually seek out personal instruction by a qualified instructor.

The ebook is available through Amazon's Kindle store. The Kindle App is free and can be run on your smartphone, iPhone, iPad, and other tablets, laptops and desktop computers. You can take it with you anywhere you go and practice the form with reminders available at the touch of the screen.

Follow this link for more information and sample pages of Chen Taijiquan 19 Form -- the new Kindle ebook.

In a couple of weeks, I will publish part two -- the self-defense applications of the movements in the Chen 19 Form. Stay tuned.

Chi Powers -- The Mystery Revealed! The Chi Challenge Continues - Part 1

There is a documentary in which an Asian monk shows a gullible reporter how he can make a crumpled ball of paper catch on fire by using his chi. The reporter is astounded.

Here is a video that shows just how it is done.

And here is the original documentary. Go in about 3 and a half minutes to see the trick. Reporters are notoriously gullible on this stuff. Even Bill Moyers didn't apply critical thinking skills when he did some of his reporting.

This is causing quite a controversy on my Facebook page. I have reminded people who make outrageous claims of chi powers that I have $5,000 for them if they can prove -- using me as their target -- that they can do these things. More about that in the next post.

The Implied Kicks in Xingyi, Taiji, and Bagua - A Double Kick from Xingyi's Monkey

Ken-Gullette-Monkey-Kicks-1-2The internal arts are known for being a bit more "grounded" that some martial arts. I think first of Taekwondo, where folks leave themselves vulnerable when they do high kicks.

The kicks in Xingyi, Taiji and Bagua are not as high generally as some other arts, but they are there in every movement that involves a raised heel, a false stance ("cat stance"), and a lifted knee. Sometimes the kick is obviously a kick, sometimes it is not.

I just finished a DVD on one of my favorite forms -- Shi Er Xing ("12 Shapes") -- the advanced 12-animal form that I practice and have used in competition (and plan to do so again). Ken-Gullette-Monkey-Kicks-2-2In this form, several kicks are used, but in the final section of the form, involving Monkey, there is a jump -- inside that jump, two fast kicks are hiding.

In Photo 1, my opponent has come forward and I launch the first kick, leaping from the left leg and kicking with the right.

In Photos 2, 3 and 4, I am switching feet in mid-air, and in Photo 5 the 2nd kick hits as the right foot is about to land.

127 fighting applications from the form are demonstrated and discussed on the Shi Er Xing DVD, all with an emphasis on body mechanics.

Ken-Gullette-Monkey-Kicks-3-2In a real fighting situation, if I kick, there is one particular kick that I enjoy - it is about solar plexus level and involves scooting but it is very powerful, a real fight-ender. And I also would prefer to remain grounded.

But I remember back to 1973 -- forty years ago -- when I learned my first 10 sparring techniques from my first teacher, Sin The, in Lexington, Kentucky. Sparring technique number 10 involved a surprise move as the opponent attacked, and even though I stopped doing it later, I never saw it fail to work. 

Ken-Gullette-Monkey-Kicks-4-2When the opponent attacks, you leap into the air and scream. One hand is held at rib-level for protection and the other hand is straight up in the air. As your opponent cringes, you drop and bring the uplifted hand down on his big ol' head. It is an effective technique.

The double kick described and shown in this post is common in several martial arts. In one style I studied, it was called a Butterfly kick. It involves straight kicks, not crescent kicks or side kicks.

Whenever you do Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Bagua, look at the position of your legs. Very often, even Ken-Gullette-Monkey-Kicks-5-2during stepping, there are kicks and sweeps hidden in the movements. I try to uncover these in my various videos on my membership site and in my DVDs, but they are also fun to discover on your own.

Monkey Kung-Fu is its own style. It never appealed to me, but I enjoy the way Xingyi takes the 12 animals and incorporates their essence into fighting moves. This is one example.

Xingyi Advanced 12 Animal Form "Shi Er Xing" Now On DVD

Xingyi 12 animals DVDThere are 12 individual animal forms in our style of Hsing-I Chuan (Xingyiquan). We practice the individual forms and then combine the animals into an advanced form called "Shi Er Xing." Translated, that means "12 Shapes."

Shi Er Xing is a great form for practice, for developing your art, and for tournament competition. I've used it to win some big tournaments in black belt competition. It also contains outstanding self-defense applications.

The advanced form is now on DVD -- two hours of step-by-step instruction in the movements of the form and a clear demonstration and coaching for 127 self-defense applications from the form. The self-defense techniques include hand strikes, punches, knee strikes and kicks, elbow strikes, joint locks, sweeps and takedowns.

The 12 Animals include:

  1. Dragon
  2. Tiger
  3. Monkey
  4. Horse
  5. Chicken
  6. Water Lizard
  7. Harrier (Hawk or Sparrowhawk)
  8. Swallow
  9. Snake
  10. Chinese Ostrich
  11. Eagle
  12. Bear

With this video, my entire Xingyi curriculum is now on DVD. All the DVDs are available on this blog (see the column for DVDs on the right side of the page), on my two other sites, and on Amazon. I offer free shipping anywhere in the world on this blog and my other websites. Below is a short clip from the Shi Er Xing DVD.