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Two Effective Ways of Critiquing Your Own Forms and Technique in Any Martial Art

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Push the Mountain from the Bagua 8 Main Palms form.

I am putting together my 8th Kindle ebook this week on the Cheng style Bagua 8 Main Palms Form. In working with more than 300 photos for the ebook, a couple of effective techniques have become very obvious for giving myself feedback on my own movement and posture.

Videotaping yourself is one of the best ways of seeing yourself as you are actually performing the movements. We all think we look like Chen Xiaowang or Jet Li when we are doing our forms and techniques. More often than not, we more closely resemble Jim Carrey.

I recommend shooting video as you are performing a form at fast speed, then perform it at a slower pace. Both times, be as specific as you can on precision, power, and body mechanics. Then watch the video. Run it normally and then in slo-mo if you can. Ask yourself if your structure is sound, if your stances and stepping is right, if the timing of your hand movements is right -- there are a dozen things you could look for. Are you looking in the right place? Are you maintaining peng or does your structure look empty? Does your power and timing look the same when doing the movements at fast and slow speeds?

In the first photo above of "Push the Mountain," I want to see that my arm is extended out with good peng jin but the arm should not be "locked." And the hand extending downward should have good peng. Both arms should have intent. I should be in the right kua and hips should be level. My upper body should be relaxed but straight, not bent over or leaning. The hips should be tucked underneath, not jutting out.

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Ken Gullette performs "Face the Door with Kicking Foot" from the Bagua 8 Main Palms form.

The second valuable technique, as demonstrated here, is to freeze-frame photos of each movement. In doing my e-books, I like to go into extreme depth on frame-by-frame instruction. You know how some martial arts instructional books go from one movement to the next without showing the "transitions" clearly? I like to show a stop-action series of photos that would serve as a movie if you can flip through them fast enough.

In fact, I do that with my Kindle ebooks when I have written one. I forward quickly from page to page and see if the photos flow like a video or movie.

In the photo at left with the kick, I look to see if the line of the leg is right and if the arms are extending the hands in line with the leg.

I learn a lot about what I have to improve by watching my own videos, but I learn even more by freeze-framing the photos.

In freeze-framing your form, you can look very clearly at posture, structure, timing, stances, and more. Depending on your art, there may be different things to critique.

You should not rely on your teacher to make corrections. You should do your own corrections. But there is one more thing you need -- the ability to be honest with yourself, set your ego aside and look with critical eyes. If you can't see when you are doing a movement wrong, there is little hope of developing as well as you can. So get out those camcorders or fire up your smartphone and have someone shoot the video while you perform, then look for things you can do better.

The next step is to practice those weak spots.

In doing this ebook, which should be in the Kindle Store on by Tuesday, January 7, 2014, I have spotted a couple of things in my own Bagua that I need to improve. That's right. We all have things to work on.  


Tom Laughlin Was Trailblazer for Martial Arts Explosion 2 Years Before Bruce Lee

When I was 18, in 1971, all my buddies were excited over the movie, "Billy Jack."

Tom Laughlin gave us our first exposure to "karate" and we LOVED it.

Until this time, Asian martial arts were joked about. Characters like James Bond used the "Judo chop," which looked pretty ridiculous. At the same time, the arts were presented as "deadly" and mysterious.

Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin wrote the script and starred in the movie) gave us the first glimpse of what was to be an explosion of martial arts within two years.

This is the video clip that started the craze. Billy Jack takes his right foot and wops Posner on the right side of his face. My buddies and I nearly jumped out of our seats when this happened.

Within a year or so, the Kung Fu TV show debuted. Then, in 1973, Bruce Lee movies hit our theaters and the rest is history. 

Tom Laughlin died this past weekend at age 81. We all owe him a big "thank you" for the work he did to prime the martial arts pump in the United States and get us all ready for what was to come.

This scene started it all. 

How To Win at Martial Arts Tournament Point Sparring - Instructional DVD

Sparring250The first DVD I made was instruction on Martial Arts Tournament Point Sparring. For some reason, it was not on this blog until today (you can find it on the right side of the page in the DVD and Ebook section).

I've always believed in being a complete fighter, and that helped me win dozens of martial arts tournament competitions between 1974 and 2006. I also trained students who won dozens of competitions. By using this DVD as a training tool, you can improve your strategies and techniques.

Tournament point sparring might not be the same as real fighting, but the skills required to win are some of the same skills you need on the street:

1. The ability to remain cool under pressure

2. The ability to read an opponent quickly

3. The ability to take misdirect and take advantage of your opponent's weaknesses.

Whether you are into kung-fu sparring, karate sparring, or taekwondo sparring, you'll get something out of this instruction. As I got older, I enjoyed the competition and it forced me to stay in top condition. Any type of sparring is extremely demanding physically. It's also a lot of fun.

As an internal artist, a lot of fellow tai chi folks scoff at tournament sparring, but that never bothered me. There are a lot of good reasons to put it on the line before a jury of your peers. Tournaments are not always run fairly. Sometimes it can get political, when judges score people from their styles higher, but after a time or two you just stop supporting that particular tournament. Most of the time, people do the best they can to be friendly and fair.

You can learn a lot about yourself at tournaments. How do you respond when people are watching (in forms or sparring)? How do you respond when a trained martial artist is trying to punch and kick you. It's not just a game of tag. People get injured in every tournament I attend. You can learn about your own weaknesses, your mental strength, and your ability to deal with defeat.

I made a lot of friends at tournaments, too.

This DVD runs an hour, and I demonstrate techniques with my friend Hector Lareau, then I show actual tournament video that we taped over the years showing the techniques being used in real action. Most of the video was shot between 1998 and 2003.

The clip below shows a couple of strategies to use against kickers. If, after watching the clip you are interested in learning more, click this link to go to the DVD page and order. 

The Epic Failure of Empty Force - the No-Touch Knockdown Con

It has been nearly 12 years since I offered $5,000 if a no-touch knockdown "master" of qigong could knock me down without touching me. Inside Kung-Fu magazine put the headline on the cover.

No one contacted me, even though several at the time were seeking publicity and taking people's money holding classes and seminars on the subject.

Some people call this "Kong Jin" but that is a gross misinterpretation of the concept of "Empty Force" in Tai Chi. Here's a description of true Empty Force -- an opponent pushes on your arm. You let your arm "empty" of muscular tension and removing the force-against-force reaction so that your opponent goes slightly off-balance. Empty Force is a physical skill and a self-defense technique. It is not metaphysical or mystical.

This video shows that there are still con artists out there, preying on people who so desperately need approval from a teacher or a group that they will play along with the Empty Force/No Touch Knockdown fraud. 

This video also shows that skeptics are AWESOME!


Self-Defense Against an Attacker with a Gun

I just finished a 16-minute instructional video on gun defenses and put it on the website at There are more than 600 video lessons on the site covering a wide range of training in Chen Taiji, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang.

The video posted here is a burst of short clips from that instruction, with music but minus the instruction. It's made up of highlights of different techniques that can be used if someone with a gun comes close enough to reach.

Defending against someone with a gun is one of the most frightening aspects of the real world. If the gunman is too far away to reach, you could be toast. If he gets close enough to reach, you must act quickly, with confidence, and without telegraphing.

I teach a series of techniques called Ko Shang Hai. These are "moments of vulnerability," during which an attacker has a slightly slower reaction time. Did you know that when you are speaking, your reaction time is slower because your mind is preoccupied with what you are saying?

It's true with an attacker, too. If you can get your attacker to speak, that's the instant to strike.

In our training, I will walk students through a technique, but as we practice, it's important to do it occasionally with a partner who is NOT cooperating. You need a cooperative partner to learn a technique, but once you learn it, you must learn how to do it against a partner who is not playing along. Some of the clips here show the technique happening as Colin Frye, my training partner, is asked to not cooperate.

I hope you enjoy these short clips that are strung together from the instruction. And I hope you -- or I -- never have to face this situation in real life.


Mark Wasson - An Important, Troubled Chen Taiji Trailblazer Passes Away

I tell my stories and explain my experiences so that other people might gain insight that helps them in their martial art journey. This is the kind of story you don't read very often. It is about one of my teachers, and it is not pleasant. But I think you know by now that I try to keep it real. So here goes. 

Mark Wasson (left) in 2005 when he certified me with Chen Xiaoxing's Chen Village Taijiquan School.

I first heard of Mark Wasson when he wrote an article for Tai Chi Magazine on his experiences training in the Chen Village. He was about my age (I am now 60 and he may have been 61). In one ten-year span, he made 15 trips to the birthplace of Taijiquan to get down and dirty, sweat, work, train, have bones broken, and to get deep insights into the real art of Taiji. I met him after I had been training for a few years with my first Chen Taiji teachers, Jim and Angela Criscimagna. 

Mark Wasson was a deeply troubled man, but a pioneer and trailblazer who introduced a lot of people to Chen Taiji. He passed away over a month ago from complications of Crohn's Disease, which he battled for decades. His death has hardly been mentioned. There was no obituary in the paper. No service was announced. He simply disappeared. It does not surprise me.

As I learned after becoming his student, his physical illness was not as damaging as his internal demons.

Around 2003, I made a business trip to San Francisco to meet with national education reporters on behalf of ACT (I was the Director of Media Relations for the college test company). I had been intriqued by his article in Tai Chi Magazine describing his training in the Chen Village, so I contacted Mark to see if he would give me a private lesson if I drove to his home in Livermore, California. He quickly agreed, so I drove an hour or more to his apartment, parked next to his motorcycle, and we went down the street to a driveway behind a store. He asked me to perform Laojia Yilu, and within two or three moves he stopped me and stepped in to demonstrate. 

Training with Mark during one of his visits to our home in Moline, IL.

His instruction was very helpful, and he was nice enough, but he was as serious as a heart attack and rarely smiled. It didn't matter what subject came up, he was obviously an expert, and he never stopped talking. 

"How did it go?" Nancy asked me when I returned back to our hotel in San Francisco. I told her it was great, and I learned a lot, but I also told her, "Mark is very good, and he's a good teacher, but something isn't right."

"Your gut feelings about people are always right," she reminded me.

Mark told me he was a disciple of Chen Xiaowang's. He claimed that the Chen family practically adopted him and gave him a nickname -- "Dama." I didn't think to question it, but a few years later, when Chen Xiaowang listed his disciples, Mark's name was not on the list. By that time, he had become very close with Chen Xiaoxing. He was also close to Chen Bing, and when I finally met Chen Bing in Chicago at a Push Hands workshop, I told him I was a student of Dama.

"Dama?" Chen Bing said happily. From that moment, he spent a lot of time working with me during the workshop.

So despite a reservation or two, it wasn't long before I became Mark Wasson's student. I wanted to improve and learn Chen Taiji, and I saw that he had the skill and knowledge to help. In the next 3 years, I learned a lot and took plenty of notes every time I was able to meet with Mark. I flew to California to train, and while he and I practiced on one occasion, Nancy and Mark's wife, Julia (a very nice Chinese girl who was not his first wife) visited together, and we all had dinner before Nancy and I returned to our hotel in San Francisco.

Nancy and I hosted Mark at our school in Bettendorf, Iowa, where we would fly him in and he would do a workshop, then train with me at home. Each visit, my ears would be nearly bleeding as I took him to catch his plane to return home. He usually began speaking and lecturing the moment he arrived and did not stop until he was gone. Nancy and I both recognized it as a possible sign of being bi-polar. We had both known people who had suffered from this condition. They could go from pleasant one moment to violent anger the next. They were very unpredictable. This made me remain cautious.

As a student, I tried to become Mark's friend. He had shot video teaching a "Chen 34 Form" that he designed (and he said had been approved by Chen Xiaowang) and I volunteered to edit the DVD at no charge. I did, and I produced it and burned the copies. He sent them to Tai Chi Magazine to sell in their pages. 

I shot and edited another DVD for him on fighting applications, spending many days on the shooting and editing. I helped him set up a PayPal account so he could sell DVDs through his website. It worked, too. He sold DVDs. I charged him nothing. I was happy to help my teacher.

In 2005, Chen Xiaoxing came to America on one of his first visits (he was not an enthusiastic traveler, preferring to stay in Chen Village, but Chen Xiaowang urged him to spread Chen throughout the world). His first stop was Mark's apartment in Livermore. Mark invited me out to spend a day training with Chen Xiaoxing. I jumped at the chance, despite the costs. Nancy supported it all the way. It was a great day of training and corrections. Life was good.

I volunteered to take over Mark's website because I could make changes that he wanted a lot quicker than the person who was doing it at the time. I also had a better ability to look at the site with a marketing perspective. So he would call me with an idea for a change or a photo he wanted to add, or a video, and I would put it up. No problem. I was happy to do it.

Chen CertificateWebMark was working with Chen Xiaoxing to certify teachers in the United States who would be directly connected to the Chen Village Taijiquan School run by Chen Xiaoxing. I paid the fee -- $350 (there is always a fee in Taiji) -- and was awarded a certificate to put on the wall of my school. I was very proud. I believe I was the first person to receive a certificate in the U.S. certifying me by the Chen Village School.

In early 2006, Mark made his third visit to our home, and he brought Chen Xiaoxing with him. Mark had asked me to sponsor Chen Xiaoxing's visa to do his tour in America because it was an exhausting ordeal and the government required every piece of financial and personal data you had. They did a pretty good check. So I sent Mark all of my personal and financial data -- social security numbers, tax statements -- you name it. I deeply regretted this later, but at the time, it seemed to be the right thing to do.

It helped Chen Xiaoxing get his visa, and in return, he agreed to spend a week at our home. Chen Xiaoxing did a workshop on Laojia Yilu at our school and he trained me in my basement at home. Mark helped interpret at home -- he had a rudimentary understanding of Chinese terms. I had studied Pimsleur CDs on Mandarin for weeks in anticipation, but every time I said something to Chen Xiaoxing he would look at Mark as if asking, "What the HELL is he saying?" It was pretty funny.

Chen Xiaoxing was a no-nonsense kind of guy -- a peasant farmer who had become highly skilled in Taiji but was much more comfortable chain-smoking on the back patio instead of trying to engage in conversation. He did not know a word of English and didn't seem to care. But we did have some great practices, and he giggled like a little boy when Mark, CXX and I played magnetic darts in the basement. I gave him my dart set as a gift when he left.

After they left town, I saw the young Chinese woman who served as the interpreter at the Chen Xiaoxing workshop. She was one of my Taiji students. Mark always talked about how close he and Chen Xiaoxing were, and he did a lot to help CXX. But during the workshop, she heard something else.

Students who attended Mark Wasson's workshop at our school.

"Chen Xiaoxing hates Mark Wasson," she told me at the next class. "Every time Mark explained something to the class, he would ask me what Mark said. When I told him, he said something like, "He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about." She was stunned, but we both learned a lesson -- it doesn't matter what you do to help some Taiji people, they will never appreciate it or give you any credit. It wasn't the first time I had seen Chen Xiaoxing behave in a way that I would not have expected in a master who is placed on a pedestal by so many around the world.

A week after Chen Xiaoxing left town, Mark called and asked if I wanted to be his disciple. Not Chen Xiaowang's disciple, not Chen Xiaoxing's disciple -- Mark Wasson's disciple. He also started referring to himself as a "master," even though up until then, he had been critical of Americans who called themselves by that title.

This was not what I wanted. Despite the questions I had about his mental fitness, I was not looking for a daddy. I didn't need a father figure. I just wanted to learn Taiji. 

"Mark, I appreciate the offer, but that really isn't what I'm looking for," I told him. "I just want to learn from you and help you become more successful."

Within two weeks, he went ballistic. He called and was very angry, saying crazy things about me and even about Nancy. Now, I can take a lot of stuff about me, but Nancy bent over backwards -- and it cost her a lot of money, too -- for me to support Mark Wasson.

This went on a couple of phone calls. I was shocked, but I was not about to take that kind of crap, even from my teacher. I told him I was no longer his student and I told him very clearly where he could shove his certificate. And I told him he could make his own DVDs and do his own website. I packed up all his materials, put all the files on CDs and DVDs, and mailed him everything.

Within a month, he sent an email to the Human Resources Director of ACT. Yes, my employer. He told ACT in an email that I had used company computers to hack into his website, and he said Nancy had hit on him when he was visiting our home.

The HR Director called me in to his office. I knew Jim Friel pretty well. He understood I couldn't have used company computers for that purpose, and he knew me well enough to know that this was a mentally disturbed person making the allegations. Mark followed up with a second email, full of more crazy rants.

ACT threatened Mark with legal action if he did not cut it out. Fortunately, he did. At least in that form.

Mark Wasson Taiji TeacherUntil sometime in the last year or so, I received long, critical emails from time to time. They were written under phony names and always used email addresses through an anonymous company. I'm pretty good at tracking people down, and none of the people existed. The detail and the language used in the emails was a dead giveaway. It was Mark.

He went onto national martial arts discussion boards under phony names, badmouthing me. I saw them (Google Alerts for your own name are very helpful) and he was even kicked off of a couple of discussion boards when the administrators realized what he was doing as recently as 2011. I sent him occasional emails, telling him that I knew what he was doing, and as I grew more successful and well-known, doesn't he understand it reflects badly on him, as one of my teachers, to badmouth me? Wouldn't it make more sense to have a good relationship? I urged him to settle down and get over it. He never responded.

The harassment stopped a year or so ago, I assume as he became more ill.

And so that is my recollection of Mark Wasson, a talented, devoted Tai Chi student and teacher who could not live up to his potential -- not because of the Crohn's Disease that eventually killed him, but because of the bi-polar, manic condition that alienated people who tried to be his friend or student. I was not his only target. Others have told me that he would talk with John Doe about Jeff Doe, then go tell Jeff all the bad things that John was saying about him. Mark worked to drive wedges between people in Taiji.

There is one more memory. Early this year, Chen Xiaoxing came to Chicago to teach Xinjia Yilu. The big room was full of people from around the country. Suddenly, standing next to me, Mark Wasson observed as I followed Chen Xiaoxing along with the rest of the class. After a couple of minutes, Mark approached me.

"Do the move this way," he said, demonstrating. "Your right arm should be here."

I stopped him cold and stared him straight in the eyes. "Mark, you need to give your advice to someone else," I said in my best Dirty Harry voice. "And you should stay away from me at this workshop."

He backed off, alarmed. "I can do that," he said.

For years, I expected that the next time I saw him, I would challenge him to either apologize or fight. When I saw that he looked near death, pale and thin, those thoughts dissipated. But I was very close.

For the rest of the day, if he was standing on one side of the room, I managed to practice on the other side. That was the last I saw of him.

This is a cautionary tale that you should think about when you meet any new martial arts instructor. The job attracts people who are controlling, egotistical, emotional unstable, and people who want others to see them as powerful and mystical, even supernatural. Don't check your brains at the door, and never, ever put a teacher up on a pedestal.

Mark Wasson was a devoted father of a severely handicapped daughter, with a combination of Cerebral Palsy and autism. His last wife, Julia, was a very nice person who must have withstood a lot. Mark took quite a few people to Chen Village where they could see the real thing in action. He helped the Chen family come to the U.S. and helped our understanding of Taijiquan skyrocket. He helped the Chen family show that mysticism isn't behind Taiji -- it is a tough martial art. He was willing to work hard, suffer injuries, and he developed a lot of skill.

On my road as a martial artist, Mark Wasson was an important milestone, leaving me with more skill than I had before, but with much more understanding of just how controlling and disturbed some people can be who set themselves up as teachers.

And now you know why I have remained "independent" since 2006. I claim no discipleship. I have no interest in a master-slave relationship. Mark Wasson is the reason why. I have not even mentioned him as one of my teachers very often, for fear of triggering a string of negative emails or chat room outbursts.

I am glad his troubled soul has found eternal rest. But it is a shame when your departure from this world lifts a shadow from the lives of others. I am sad because of the lost potential, and sad that a man with such potential died alone.