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Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Features Interview with Chen Taiji Instructor Stephan Berwick

StephanThis week's Internal Fighting Arts podcast features the martial arts journery of Stephan Berwick, a disciple of Ren Guangyi who has also appeared in several Hong Kong kung-fu films.

Stephan's journey is fun to hear, from being exposed to the Kung Fu TV show and Bruce Lee movies as a child to his work in kung-fu movies and hard years of training. He lives and teaches in the Washington, DC area.

There is inspiration to be found in the dedication of martial artists like Stephan Berwick and other guests on this podcast. I get a lot of enjoyment out of talking with good instructors and hearing their stories. The podcast is being heard all over the world, and is even being downloaded in China.

Here are some links to listen or download this interview, which is Part 1 of two parts. I encourage you to subscribe on iTunes or other podcast feeds so you can receive new programs when they go online (usually every 10 days).


Internal Fighting Arts on iTunes

Internal Fighting Arts on Stitcher

Internal Fighting Arts on Audello



A Christmas Tree on a Baby's Grave and a Beautiful Day

Baby TreeWhat a beautiful, sunny day it is today! It seems as if the sun has been hibernating behind the clouds for the past two or three weeks, but today, a few days after Christmas, it must have decided to get a little more shining done before the year is over.

It was such a nice day, despite being 28 degrees, Nancy and I took our little dog Minnie for a walk, and we headed down the street to a large, peaceful cemetery with a network of paved roads that serve as a walking path for the neighborhood.

At one point, Nancy noticed a small Christmas tree, about two or three feet tall, that someone had planted in the ground about 15 feet from the path. It was an unusual sight, so I walked across the grass to have a closer look.

The little Christmas tree had been put up next to the grave of a baby who had died just a few years ago.

I read the name on the stone and walked away, but a flood of emotion made me turn and go back, realizing the pain and the love the parents were trying to express during a season when a child should be alive and filled with joy and wonder. How difficult it must have been to place that tree next to their baby boy who would have been eight years old this Christmas.

It is a pain that is all too familiar. 

Thirty four years ago, I was surviving my first Christmas after losing a daughter. Shara died of crib death at six weeks old -- suddenly, in the night with no warning. The night before she died, as I was talking to her and trying to get her to smile, she grinned a huge, toothless grin that caused me, her mom and her sister to burst out laughing. It was the first and last time I would see her smile.

The devastation was total. We were stunned and heartbroken through the funeral, as our family and friends tried to offer hopeful words of support.

The day after the funeral, after a series of cloudy, wet days, which I considered appropriate when my little girl had died, I was driving down Georgetown Road near Lexington, deep in despair, when the sun poked out from behind the clouds and the sky became a glorious blue.

What a beautiful day, I thought. And in that moment of enlightenment, the day after burying my baby girl, I knew that I could handle anything that life threw at me. Life is an amazing, horrible, wonderful, exciting, devastating, hilarious and painful journey. The only reasonable thing to do is to live it, experience it, and try to ride the ups and downs while enjoying all that you can. I decided to walk on.

This is perhaps the greatest gift I have received from the study of the internal martial arts and the philosophy upon which they are based. Mindfulness, and the ability to remain centered in times of crisis are two benefits that have changed my life in many ways. Like anyone living in the modern world, I sometimes fall short of my ideals, and I step off the path from time to time, but sometimes I feel as if, through thinking about the lessons of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism and working on skill in these arts have helped build an internal gyroscope that keeps me from staying down very long after the inevitable cloudy days and storms of life do their damage.

And that is the key. We all get knocked down at some point. The question is, how long do we stay down?

A year ago, I visited my cardiologist, and he gave me the results of an echocardiogram. I had been living in heart failure. My "ejection fraction" was around 30 percent. I could drop dead, he said, at any time.

Many of you know, if you have been reading this blog for years, that I nearly died in 2009 after experiencing freak side effects from a procedure for a-fib and I lost the function of my left lung. A couple of doctors, including one at Mayo Clinic, gave me three to five years before my heart gave out. One gave me 10 years.

This was not pleasant news, considering that Nancy and I just met in 2002. I am not in a hurry to leave her just yet, and I would love to see my grandchildren grow up. There is also a lot left to learn in Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua.

When my cardiologist told me last year that my heart had, in fact weakened during the last few years, I was surprised, but it made sense because I had felt a lot of strange thumpings in my chest during the past couple of years, including thumps that turned into dizzy spells.

After he told me this, I went home and for a few days I constantly wondered if this was my last moment. Walking down the hall in our house, looking at photos of Nancy and our family, I would think, "Is this the last thing I'm going to see?"

Then I realized that if I suddenly keeled over, I would be the last to know. So I stopped worrying about it and continued to practice kung-fu and enjoy life. I decided to walk on.

A few months later, my heart climbed out of heart failure, boosted by a higher dose of medicine. How long it will stay at the "low end of normal" is anyone's guess. It could begin to weaken again soon, or I could be trying to get better at kung-fu for years to come. I try not to worry about it. There is too much to enjoy.

Today, as I saw that tiny Christmas tree next to the baby's grave, my heart filled with pain for the parents who are no doubt in the same place I was all those years ago, trying desperately to survive and pull myself out of an unexpected tragedy. It took years to recover, and it is a pain that never quite vanishes completely. I hope they are doing okay.

I took a photo of the tree and the grave, returned to the path where Nancy and Minnie were waiting for me, and couldn't help but look up and express a little joy at the beautiful blue sky and the bright, sunny day. And then we walked on.

The Value of a Martial Art Like Taijiquan in a World of Guns - Part 2 of Interview with Marin Spivack

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Marin Spivack photo courtesy of

This week's Internal Fighting Arts podcast tackles some thought-provoking issues such as the value of Taijiquan in the modern era, when guns, gangs and the police are easy options for self-defense.

It is part 2 of my interview with Marin Spivack, senior western disciple of Chen Yu. He also discusses an important way to use Taiji for meditation -- and it is similar to what some people call "mindfulness."

This is a fascinating conversation. Follow this link to hear or download the complete podcast.

It will also be on iTunes within the next 24 hours.

How Commercial Should Taiji or an Internal Arts Instructor Be?

Commercial-1I took my 11-year old granddaughter to her Taekwondo class last night. She has been studying at a "family" TKD school affiliated with the ATA. After a little more than a year, she earned her brown belt last weekend. The classes are a little different than when I studied Taekwondo back in the Seventies.

When I took my granddaughter to class a year ago, the classes were filled with children who were just beginning to learn. They were clumsy and uncertain, as most kids are when learning a new physical skill. It was interesting to me, after being involved in martial arts for 41 years, and having owned my own school, to watch the way the TKD teachers build in a lot of non-martial activities to keep children active and motivated. They really have it down.

A typical class might involve the following:

** Foot races up and down the floor near the beginning of class.

** 10 or 15 minutes of instruction into TKD technique.

** Instruction that is not very picky regarding perfection.

** The last 10 minutes of the class is sometimes dodgeball.

** Children say the pledge to TKD and show the teachers and fellow students respect.

** At the end of class, students get "gold" coins and praise for the good things they did in class that night.

When I observed the large numbers of students in the classes last year, I was impressed. The school was obviously booming. Kids were flocking to the classes.

But otherwise, there were troubling signs. The black belt instructors are almost universally overweight -- sometimes morbidly obese. And the technique I have seen by the black belts has often made my jaw drop, and not in a good way.

Last night, there were three or four young black belts in my granddaughter's class, and I estimated their ages between 8 and 11. When these young black belts were out on the floor, I would have guessed they were beginners if they had been out of uniform.

After the class was over (and the dodgeballs were put away), I noticed only two adults were there to attend the adult class. 

Commercial-2On the way home, my granddaughter told me that she expects to earn a black belt in another year, and she said a 6-year old girl was awarded a black belt last weekend.

Insert deep sigh here.

In my Internal Fighting Arts podcast last week, my guest, Marin Spivack and I talked briefly about the commercialization of Chen Taiji. He teaches old-school Taiji, where you feel the burn and "eat bitter." It is hard. It makes you sweat. Your legs burn and shake until you collapse. But you learn proper structure and technique. You develop gongfu.

It's okay to talk about these things without getting angry or defensive. We're all grownups here. We can talk about these issues.

I saw no gongfu last night, so it begs the question: is it a good thing to lure large numbers of children into the martial arts and turn it into a fairly lax playtime, or is it better for the arts to take only the children who really want to learn and make them good the old-fashioned way -- with hard work and picky detail?

It is a good question, but it begs another question: Are we doing the same thing with Taiji by offering slow-motion classes for adults and seniors, or would it be better for Taiji if we only accepted the people who want to "eat bitter" and learn the gongfu?

How much do you have to simplify a martial art to make it palatable? And is it right to do so?

The story is that Yang Lu-chan had to water down his Taiji when he taught the royal family in Beijing, and that watered-down version is allegedly the art you see today practiced by the elderly in parks in China, and in Y's and fitness centers around the world.

When I began teaching Taiji, I taught Yang style and had a large class full of wonderful adults and seniors as old as 80. We became good friends and I loved them. As I changed over to Chen style, the elderly people began dropping out. As I tried to get better at Chen style, the elderly vanished. My school lost money every month, but I didn't care. I had a full-time job that more than paid the bills and an amazing wife -- Nancy -- who supported it and attended the Taiji class. But even then, my Taiji classes were not nearly as tough as the "old-school" instructors.

Should I have made it more simple to lure people in? Can you maintain high quality, rigor, and make a profit?

When I started teaching in 1997, I had a kids' class. I am pretty good with kids. I have a goofy sense of humor. I had a couple of young students and they even won trophies at a tournament. But one evening, I was coaching a 10-year old boy through a form and he began crying.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"You're always criticizing me," he blubbered.

I was shocked, and tried to explain that I was only showing him the correct way to do the movement. I was not being critical.

"Well that's what it seems like," he cried.

I stopped teaching children. I have never taught children again. I realized very quickly that this is not why I wanted to be in martial arts.

And that's why my granddaughter goes to a TKD class. That is also why I was glad to close my bricks-and-mortar school in 2007, and why I never want to own another school. Now, my "school" is simply making what I know available to anyone who wants to see it and who can learn something from it. I continue to practice and try to improve, and I have a handful of local students who practice with me. If anyone asks if they can use my online "school" for certification, I am honest and tell them that it's virtually impossible. I could simplify it, or relax my standards and sell certifications. But that's not what I want to do.

Commercial-3When I have visited my granddaughter's TKD class, I have heard parents grumbling about being "nickle-and-dimed" for testing fees and tournament fees. The school offers special TKD birthday parties with fun activities and even a cake (for a group fee). On Black Friday, the school opens early so you can drop your kids off and they can play while you go shopping (for a nice fee). On New Year's Eve last year they opened the school and parents could let their children stay for several hours (for a nice fee).

They are so successful, they are planning a second location.

So that is where some martial arts schools are going. Where is Taiji going in America? Where is it going in China, where even in the Chen Village, fewer than 1 in 100 students will ever develop skill? But more people in the world practice Taiji than TKD. 

I love seing my granddaughter so eager to go to her TKD class. And I hope I live long enough to teach her when she turns 16 or 18, if her interest has not turned to other things by then.

Last night, as the young black belts stood and squirmed and tried to figure out how to do a spinning hook kick, I knew that most of them would become distracted in their upcoming teenage years, drop out, and never practice again, but they would always be able to boast that they have a black belt.

Whatever that means. 

Most of the Chen Taiji instructors that I know have worked hard to learn the art and are dedicated. They are all still learning. They seem to be doing their best to teach a rigorous art and uphold the quality to the best of their ability. Different teachers are also at different levels of skill, with some teachers being at a higher level than others. In my opinion, as long as you are honest about your level of skill, and you are teaching someone who does not know what you know, no one should have a problem. If someone has a problem with me teaching, I tell them they can put their chi where the sun doesn't shine. 

I don't hear golf pros or tennis instructors agonizing over this or debating this type of thing. Taiji instructors should realize that they deserve to be paid for their knowledge and skill, and no one should be ashamed of promoting their efforts and attracting students. Any instructor who thinks that marketing is not appropriate or dignified has a right to their opinion, no matter how dumb it is. I don't believe anyone should hide their light under a bushel. But once you attract students, what price does the art have to pay to keep the students? How much do you change the art to keep people motivated?

It's a question we all need to ask if we are teaching. 

Internal Strength Workshop January 10 in Moline, IL -- Learn About Internal Movement and Be in a DVD

Internal-Strength-Cover1On Saturday, January 10, 2015, I will hold an Internal Strength Workshop at Morrow's Academy of Martial Arts in downtown Moline, Illinois. The 4-hour workshop (we might go a little long) will be held from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. at 1319 5th Avenue.

The cost is only $35 and the workshop will be videotaped for a new DVD. Your participation is your agreement to appear in a DVD and video that will be shown and sold worldwide. All participants will receive a free copy of the DVD when it is edited (later in January).

This is a workshop for martial artists of all styles. It will give you a rare look at the body mechanics that make "internal" arts different from "external." 

For martial artists in "external" arts, this will be a good opportunity to explore a different way of moving and to finally understand why internal artists are said to deliver relaxed power even in self-defense applications. 

For people who have studied Tai Chi, especially if your teacher is focused primarily on health and meditation, this workshop will help you understand the body mechanics that make Tai Chi a powerful martial art, mechanics that have been lost in much of the Tai Chi instruction in the United States.

Here is what you will learn. If you do not understand any of these terms, you need this workshop:

1. How to establish and maintain the Ground Path.

2. How to maintain Peng Jin -- what is it and how it is combined with the Ground Path to make your structure one of "iron wrapped in cotton."

3. Whole-Body Movement --  How to connect your "energy" through the body during movement.

4. Silk-Reeling "Energy" -- The spiraling movement that is adds power to your technique.

5. Dan T'ien Rotation -- The "guide" for all movement, plus how to separate the movement of the hips and the waist.

6. Opening and Closing the Kua -- The "Kua" is the crease at the top of the leg at the groin. 

You will also learn how to develop a "centered" stance and why you are currently off-balance (the photo below is a hint). There will be new information and concepts beyond what was taught in my original Internal Strength DVD.

Standing-2You will learn how to put all these mechanics together for both movement and self-defense. The internal arts are complicated, but you must understand these elements to proceed. They appear simple when they are explained, but the skills take years to develop. We are not accustomed to moving this way.

Our workshop will cover these skills and we will use them in action as we practice self-defense techniques. You will learn the true meaning of "intent" in the internal arts. Here is a hint: it is not about an invisible energy running through your body.

If you have ever had an interest in the internal arts, or if you have ever been curious about them (I think people who are curious about both internal and external arts are called "bi-curious" but I'm not sure), this workshop is for you.

So come join us, learn about the internal arts, have some fun and be in a kung-fu DVD! Call John Morrow or me for more information. Morrow's Academy phone is (309) 764-1929. 

The Taiji Journey -- An Interview with Marin Spivack -- Senior Western Disciple of Chen Wu

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Chen Taiji instructor Marin Spivack, senior western disciple of Chen Yu. Photo courtesy of

Marin Spivack is my guest in the second episode of the new Internal Fighting Arts podcast. His story reflects the persistence and dedication required for high-level achievement in the internal martial arts.

Follow this link to download the podcast or to subscribe on iTunes or other podcast services. Here is a different link where you can play the podcast.

Marin is the senior western disciple of Chen Yu and studies the Chen Family Taijiquan handed down through the Chen Fake lineage. He lives and teaches in the Boston area. Check out Marin's website at If you live near Boston, you should be studying with him.

This week, in Part 1 of a 2-part interview, Marin talks about his teachers, including Gene Chen, Feng Zhiqiang, and he explains how he became a disciple of Chen Yu. Part 2 will be online next Friday, December 19, 2014.

Along the way, you will gain new insights into the study of the internal arts and you will hear about the cultural aspects of training with top old-school masters.

Listen to the podcast and subscribe to keep up-to-date on what I hope will be a real-world discussion each week of Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Qigong, and the philosophy of these arts. Also, if you have a good English-speaking instructor of one of these arts, send me their contact information. But please understand one important requirement for appearing on this show. This is a Woo-Woo Free Zone, where we save the mystical mumbo-jumbo to others and focus on what's real.

So tune in, turn on, and be inspired!


Tai Chi Self-Defense -- Connecting with and Controlling Your Opponent's Center

Tai Chi is a martial art that involves "internal" principles that are quite different than arts that use a lot of muscular blocks and strikes.

Among the highest skills in Tai Chi (also spelled Taiji) is the ability to recognize the force an opponent is directing at you, adapt to it, neutralize it, and counter by putting your opponent off-balance, or helping him take himself off-balance.

One of the important ways to unbalance your opponent is by connecting to his center and then controlling it. By doing this, you often can "take his energy where it wants to go." Sometimes, you can do this by an action that connects to his center and begins taking his "energy" in a specific direction.

This video is a short clip from a much longer lesson that is on my website.


Try two weeks from on my website and have complete access to more than 700 video lessons like this and ebooks teaching Chen Tai Chi, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Qigong and more. Plus, members can put performances on video and get personal feedback from me. Follow this link to try two weeks free -- cancel anytime.


Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Now Available on iTunes - Meet Great Teachers of Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and More

Podcast Logo 250My new podcast about the internal arts of Chinese gongfu is now available on iTunes.

Please follow this link, subscribe to the podcast, and share the link with your friends.

My first guest is Michael Chritton, a Taiji instructor in the Kansas City area who is married to a member of the Chen family, Chen Huixian, niece of Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. He talks about how they met and issues related to teaching and training in Taijiquan.

Left to right: Michael Chritton, Chen Huixian (holding their son), and Ken Gullette in Madison, Wisconsin, 2013.

I want to promote good instructors, promote the internal arts, inspire listeners to keep practicing and advancing, and I want listeners to walk away from each episode with insight they didn't have before listening.

I also have a little fun each week with my assistant and "sidekick," kung fu movie actor Hung Lo, who has an attitude problem and a form of Kung Fu Tourettes Syndrome (I think he was kicked in the head on a kung fu movie set). 

So tune in, turn on, learn, and enjoy!


New Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Debuts - Interview with Chen Taiji Instructor Michael Chritton

Podcast Logo 250I have launched a podcast on the Internal Fighting Arts. It has just gone live on Stitcher and is coming soon to iTunes. Each week, I will interview a talented instructor of the internal arts -- Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Qigong, and we will also deal with the philosophy that guides these arts.

The first episode is an interview with Michael Chritton, a great Chen Taiji instructor, dedicated martial artist, and he also married a member of the Chen family -- Chen Huixian, the niece of Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei. 

My goal with this podcast is to have fun, promote good instructors that I respect, and learn something about the internal arts. I was fascinated by Michael's story and I think you will enjoy it.

The podcast is perfect for listening while you drive or anytime you want some insight into the internal arts and maybe an occasional laugh. You can download the Stitcher app for free and listen on your smartphone, tablet, or computer.

Please give this new podcast a listen and please share the link with your friends in the internal arts. Check out my guest's website at Also, subscribe to the podcast and you'll be notified of future episodes.

Here is the podcast link: