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After 49 Years of Martial Arts Why Am I Practicing So Much?

Ken Kung-Fu 1974A little over a week ago, I marked the 49th anniversary of my first martial arts class. You might know the story by now -- 1973, a garage that had been turned into a dojo in the rear part of a strip mall in Lexington, Kentucky -- a room full of young people inspired by Bruce Lee -- in fact, there were so many new students in the intro class, the garage door was opened and the class spilled out into the shopping center's parking lot.

The following week, a large chunk of people didn't return. The week after that, we all fit inside the dojo with the door closed. Every month that passed, the class got smaller but still had nearly 20 students.

I practiced an hour a day, punching and kicking up and down the 7th floor hallway in Commonwealth Hall at Eastern Kentucky University. I was determined to become good.

Now, after 49 years, I find that I am still just as determined to improve my skills as I was in 1973. 

Shouldn't I feel like a "master" by now? Instead, I feel more like a beginner. In Zen Buddhism, you are urged to approach everything with a "beginner's mind." That's how I approach these arts.

Here's how a typical week goes for me, especially in the spring, summer, and early fall:

I study Taiji with Nabil Ranne on Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Thursday.

I practice with my local students on Monday evenings, Thursday evenings, and do a video shoot or practice with them Sundays.

I teach two live online classes for members of my website on Wednesday and often throw in another live class or two on Xingyi and Bagua on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.

At various times during the week, I will do private, live one-on-one Zoom classes with members of my website, giving them personal coaching and corrections.

Between all this, I practice Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua, I think, read and write about the internal martial arts, edit new video lessons for the website, and I help any website members who need assistance.

I'm going to be 70 in three months, fer cryin' out loud. Isn't it time to slow down?

But I love it. I can't stop and it's very difficult for me to cut back. I have cut back a little during the past couple of weeks because Nancy and I were at the end of our disruption and home renovation after our ceiling collapse. But that was very temporary. I don't feel right when I'm not practicing and studying and teaching as much as I normally do. When I take a break, even for just a couple of days, a hunger to practice begins gnawing at me.

It is satisfying for me to see slight improvements in my movement and a bit more understanding of the body mechanics that make these arts powerful self-defense. That's why I keep studying and practicing. I have learned some high-quality Taiji during the past two years. If I had slowed down and if I had been satisfied with what I had already learned, I would have missed out on this additional knowledge. And I know that more knowledge and insight is coming. This is no time to stop!

Physically, I no longer can bang with my students like I used to. It disappoints me because I want to pad up and go at it. There comes a point when that ship sails, and at that point you get to find out what really drives you to study these arts.

For me, it is the satisfaction of seeking, finding, and learning quality, and being able to look at what I do with a constant critical evaluation of whether it is high quality. After 49 years, and after some serious health issues, I find that gaining knowledge in my arts is as important as the actual physical practice. I still work each day to improve my body mechanics and movement, and execute applications with those mechanics while upholding the principles of the art, but my physical capacity isn't what it was 20 years ago.  

I believe a martial arts teacher strikes gold when a student appears who loves the art as much as the teacher does. Students who come when it suits them or when they can fit it in are just not the same as the students who HAVE to be there because something inside compels study.

If you are not compelled to study, if you don't NEED to be in class to practice and learn, then perhaps you picked the wrong hobby, because you see, it isn't that I WANT to study these arts. I have to study them. It's part of who I am. I recognized it 49 years ago and it is still true today.

Yesterday, I practiced with my students Colin Frye and Justin Snow. We practiced gun and knife defenses for more than 90 minutes. We didn't have the attitude that "this is the way we do it." We were riffing like martial jazz artists, brainstorming on more efficient and effective ways of defending yourself, flowing with the actions of the attacker while maintaining internal principles in your own movement. It was approaching each situation not with a scripted set of reactions but with a beginner's mind. As I enter my 50th year of martial arts practice, it was as satisfying as any practice I have had since that first night at the dojo so long ago. 

-- by Ken Gullette




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