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The Chinese Tai Chi Uniform -- Should You Wear One or Not?

Ken DemoHave you ever seen some of the snide comments made online by some internal arts people who slam those who wear a uniform when taking photos or videos? They refer to the uniform in a derogatory way as "silk pajamas."

I always wonder why people feel the need to do that. It seems a bit immature, and sometimes comes off simply as mean-spirited. It is not exactly the nature that Taiji is supposed to develop in people, is it?

I wear a uniform when I do photos and instructional videos. When I watch an instructional video by another teacher, it always looks more professional when they are in a uniform than when they are in a Budweiser t-shirt and sweat pants. But that's just my opinion.

Chen Village Uniform
Students of Chen Ziqiang wearing a uniform for a video in the Chen Village.

In recent years, I have worn a black and white uniform that was inspired by a wonderful documentary called Chen Village, by Jon Braeley. If you haven't seen it, and you are into Taiji, I highly recommend it. 

In the documentary, students of Chen Ziqiang are wearing a black and white uniform that I thought was strikingly beautiful -- a yin/yang design with the front half white and the back half black.

I had one custom made and that's what I wear in my videos and public demonstrations.

Chen Yu
Taiji master Chen Yu wearing a uniform.

It just looks cool, and isn't that why we got into martial arts in the first place? Three reasons -- to learn self-defense; to impress chicks; and because it's cool. Am I right? You're damn right I'm right. 

A lot of Taiji instructors wear uniforms in videos or in public demonstrations. Am I not to wear one because I'm not Chinese? Tell that to the Americans who practice Karate, Taekwondo, or Aikido and wear uniforms to practice.

When I practice with my students, we wear t-shirts and workout pants. A good Bruce Lee t-

Chen Xiaowang
Taiji master Chen Xiaowang wearing a uniform.

shirt always works. Sometimes, someone will wear a uniform and that's fine. My only rule is that my students do NOT wear an "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt.

In the end, to slam people for wearing "silk pajamas" in photos or public demonstrations is much more appropriate coming from a school yard bully than from a serious Taiji person. I expect better from them, don't you?

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone -- A Guided Chaos Workshop

Ken Gullette - Al Ridenhour 1
Working on Contact Flow with a master at his art, Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour.

Have you ever emptied your cup and attended a workshop that is outside your comfort zone -- outside the art that you typically practice?

Some of the most valuable instruction I have ever received has been from people who made me feel like a complete beginner. I feel this way when I study with any of the Chen family, and I felt that way when I worked with my best teachers. I also felt that way when I attended a "Guided Chaos" workshop in Cincinnati last weekend and worked with Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour and Kevin Harrell.

I was introduced to Guided Chaos through my friend, Evan Yeung, a few years ago. How can I best describe this art? There are no forms. It is a no-nonsense method of handling the chaos that can happen when you are face-to-face with real-life violence. It is a fighting art.

When I first heard of it, I was skeptical. The world is full of people who "created" their own martial art. Very often, that means they were not willing to put in the work to master a real martial art. During the past few years, when Evan worked with me on Guided Chaos (at the same time I worked with him on Chen Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua), he showed me an exercise they call Contact Flow. I immediately saw the connection with push hands, but it was more than just a connection. Through Contact Flow, I was recognizing skills that all internal artists -- especially those who practice push hands and close-up fighting skills -- should develop, but many of them don't.

I have seen Al Ridenhour in the Guided Chaos DVDs. The videos do not do him justice. When I read about him

Kevin Harrell - Ken Gullette
Every bit of advice Kevin Harrell gave me at the workshop was gold.

and Kevin on their website, both had the title "Master." Naturally, I rolled my eyes. But after I worked with them for a weekend, I realized the titles are deserved.

Contact Flow is one of the skills they practice that resembles push hands although there is no "pattern." You start very slowly and match the speed of your partner. Each of you tries to strike and defend, but by starting slowly, you learn just how out-of-balance you can become and how inefficient your movement can be. As you get better, you speed up, but as in any quality art, it takes a while to get better as you overcome bad habits.

In person, both Al and Kevin could get through my defenses at will. And as I worked on it with other partners, they would offer coaching that was spot on. I took a lot of notes and have plenty to practice -- and plenty to apply to my push hands.

I used to drive a couple of hours to Rockford, Illinois, to study with my teachers Jim and Angela Criscimagna. In the car on the way home, I would always feel like bouncing around because I was excited at what I had learned. I felt the same way driving the 7 1/2 hours from Cincinnati back to the Quad Cities on Sunday night.

I have attended workshops by a lot of great martial artists -- from Bill Wallace to Kathy Long and the Chen family, plus some workshops I have forgotten. The Guided Chaos workshop was one of the best and most practical that I have attended. I can't say enough about Al and Kevin. They are great teachers.

The founder of Guided Chaos, John Perkins, doesn't really have a lineage in Taiji. To look at him, you certainly wouldn't guess he is a martial artist. And yet, he apparently is one of those people who comes along once in a while and possesses a gift. There are no forms in his art. It is designed for use in real-life self-defense. And yet, he has captured the essence of something that has eluded many internal artists. It should be required training for anyone in the internal arts. Hell, it should be part of any martial artist's training.

Ken Gullette-Al Ridenhour-Kevin Harrell-Evan Yeung
Evan Yeung, Ken Gullette, Kevin Harrell and Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour at the Guided Chaos workshop in Cincinnati on Sept. 20, 2015.

Most people never get to a level in push hands that approaches what I would expect from a good Contact Flow practitioner. And while in push hands we work hard to maintain a centered stance at all times, in Guided Chaos they work to strike from their root even when they find themselves in an off-balance or awkward position. It is a very complementary concept to what good internal arts should be.

And we didn't even get into the Guided Chaos ground-fighting or other aspects of their training. But you can check it out on their website.

I enjoy the "art" part of martial arts. I love the precision of the forms and enjoy working on my body mechanics and movement. I have not been in a "real" fight since I was 18, and I try to avoid situations where I would need to use my martial skills. So at 62 years of age, I would not be satisfied to study an art that does not include what I get from Chen Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua, which are great fighting arts if studied and practiced properly. And when it comes to real self-defense, there is NO one-size fits all. For every attack that is raining chaos on you, I can show you two YouTube videos where one punch ends the fight. So you can put down one glass of Kool-Aid and replace it with another if you aren't careful. I try not to drink the Kool-Aid, remaining open to the truth in different styles.

There is truth to discover in Guided Chaos, and it fits perfectly into whatever internal or external martial art you are studying.

My thanks to R.J. Trusty for hosting the workshop at his Five White Tigers Martial Arts school. I will be at the next one, too.

Extra Note -- For more about Guided Chaos, here is the Internal Fighting Arts podcast I did with Ari Kandel earlier this year.

Chen Village Girls Practicing Chen Taiji Straight Sword Form

One of my former Taiji teachers, Mark Wasson, visited the Chen Village many times to train with members of the Chen family.

On one visit, he took some great video of the village, the Chen family, and their students.

This short video shows young girls practicing the Chen Taiji Straight Sword form as Chen Xiaoxing watches.

Mark passed away a year or so ago. He took several Americans to Chen Village, introducing them to the Chen family. I have not been to the Chen Village, but through Mark, I met and trained with Chen Xiaoxing when he visited the United States. In 2006, I sponsored Chen Xiaoxing's visa so he could come to the US for a series of workshops.


Is Your Martial Art Preparing You for Real-Life Self-Defense?

Ken-Gullette-Toughman-3What is real-life self-defense? What is real-life self-defense with the internal arts?

Do I need to step into a ring and go full-contact these days to prove myself?

Do you?

There are suddenly a lot of keyboard warriors out there who seem to think so. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it. I have always enjoyed fighting, but as an adult, I believe it is much better to learn how to fight without getting hurt and without hurting someone else.

When my 15-year-old student was grabbed by a drunk step-father who was preparing to punch him out, my student broke the step-father's elbow with chin-na we practiced in class. That's real-life self-defense.

When my student who is a police officer took a fugitive rapist down with Pi Chuan, a Xingyi technique, he didn't ask himself during the encounter if he was using internal energy just right. He simply took down the man who was considered dangerous.

Ken-Gullette-Toughman-2When three drunk guys at a concert wanted to fight me, I remained centered and managed to defuse the situation. There was no violence, there were no lawsuits, nobody went to the hospital and nobody lost their job. That is real-life self-defense, too. 

Sometimes, the best fighter is the smartest.

I love to pad up and go at it in class. My students do even when they don't pad up. I have done it less the last few years for health reasons, and instead I have tried to work on my internal movement and the body mechanics related to effective fighting.

Most of the guys who troll online and criticize others for a lack of fighting skill because they are not going "full contact" are guilty of mental masturbation. They can't fight, but they are keyboard warriors. Most of us who are out here trying to get better -- especially those of us in the internal arts, where the principles of good fighting are more complex -- are at different levels of mediocrity, practicing, understanding, taking baby steps.

Recently, I have been feeling stronger after stopping some medication (blood thinners and Lipitor) and plan on ramping up the sparring even with one lung. For years, I have realized that if I was hit in the head by a sparring partner while on blood thinners, it could easily cause a hemmorrhage and even death. To make matters worse, Lipitor has made me feel weak for years and I didn't realize it was the culprit until two months ago.

Ken-Gullette-Toughman-Jab-2Since 2009, I've had to do a lot more coaching than sparring, and it sucks. Hopefully, that will change, but in the end, I'm at the point where I have to wrap my head around being a coach more than the one in the match.

I suddenly know what guys like John Calipari probably go through -- coaches who would love to get in a play during the championship game but have to pace the sidelines and coach the players. It's very strange.

The video below is from the Toughman Contest in Sioux City, in March or April, 1991. I was 38 years old. I'm the one in blue. By the way, I wore number 14 because it was Pete Rose's number. Big Red Machine fans will understand. This is not internal fighting. It is boxing, and it took place two years before I trained with the Iowa State University Boxing team, so I really was not a boxer when I did this fight. It shows.

I loved it. There is nothing like putting it on the line -- one on one -- the ultimate personal competition. It's why I never lost a fight growing up. I tried to avoid fighting, but when a bully pushed too far, I would fight, and I really enjoyed it. Usually, I was not the toughest fighter. But I was always the smartest. One of the reasons I was the smartest was because I tried to avoid fighting!!

Get it?

Even in the full contact match below, you can see near the end that I was trying to have fun. In my opinion, fun is one of the main reasons to do martial arts. The last thing I want to do is hurt someone.

We study the internal arts. We are trying to get better at using the internal arts for self-defense. It is a very deep, worthwhile, and difficult goal. The principles are much more difficult than in many other arts. If we have not mastered it, there are no claims of mastery being made. But we do enjoy the journey.

This blog post was triggered by an arrogant asshole who I don't even know who "questioned" whether I could use the internal arts in a fight. Please forgive the profanity, dear readers, but -- really, Motherfucker? Does it make you feel better about yourself to troll Facebook and make superior comments about the skill of other people? By the way, I searched this guy pretty thoroughly. There is not one photo or video of him doing anything at all. Figures. A keyboard warrior.

If I have to use martial arts to defend myself, it will be a very dangerous situation. Like my police officer student or my 15-year old abused student, I will not waste any mental effort criticizing myself if I don't adhere to my attacker, or use the right amount of peng, if my Dan T'ien isn't rotating quite right, if I don't follow his technique just right or if my fajing is not perfectly connected through the body. I will simply try to break his knee, elbow, or face as quickly as I can. Better yet, it would be really great if I am able to remain centered and again defuse the situation so that no violence occurs. 

There are a few people online claiming near mastery of the internal arts, but most of us are simply learning, showing, discussing, and trying to move forward in our understanding and skill. I enjoy folks like Stuart Shaw who are pushing internal artists forward in their actual fighting skill. Far too many internal artists are into "meditation" or the "woo" aspects of the arts. But when someone I don't know visits my page and starts "questioning" whether I can fight with my arts, that's a type of arrogance that deserves a smackdown. And when you are talking about real-life self-defense, there are many ways to use our training, including defusing a situation.

I don't study the internal arts to fight in the street. I already know how to fight. There is a reason the word "art" is included in "internal martial arts." It's fun, it's deep, it's a form of self-learning and self-expression, and it is fascinating to explore and improve my skill over a long period of time.

In the end, there are many benefits to the internal arts, and many ways to use it for real-life self-defense. Not all of those require you to prove yourself to dumbasses who are trying to pee higher on the Internet tree. I suggest doing what I do -- block these arrogant bastards who have probably never had a real fight, and just keep on studying and practicing. And if some of them want to get in a ring and run the risk of concussions, they can knock themselves out. I will still be the smarter fighter in the end.