What Happens When a Martial Artist Turns 70?
January 30, 2023
They say age is just a number, but in my case, it's a BIG number.
I didn't even know how to spell septuagenarian and now I is one.
It's bad enough I've been dealing with the loss of one lung and a heart problem for the past 13 years, but now I have to be an old man, too? That's like adding insult to injury!
It's enough to make you throw sidekicks.
Okay, Ken. Stop and take a breath.
Calm your mind and relax your rapidly withering, creaking body.
Worse things can happen to you than turning 70. For example, you could have died before you turned 70.
I had one grandfather who died at age 27, another who died at 69, and my dad died at age 61. I should be happy that I'm still studying, practicing, and teaching the internal arts. And I actually am very happy about that.
But it plays with your head. On the day after my birthday last week, I realized that I felt no different than I did the week before. I felt young. You know, like I was 65 again. But it still plays with your head.
I try to look ahead. In ten years I'll be 80. Just ten years. That passes pretty quickly. After all, it has been 23 years since Y2K. That went by pretty quickly, didn't it?
For most martial artists I know, after their sixties they were changing fast. Chen Fake died at age 70. Hu Yaozhen, the Taoist qigong master, passed away at age 76. One of Hu's students, Feng Zhiqiang, died at age 84, which is pretty good. He still had game in his 70s. Chen Xiaowang is 77 now. His younger brother Xiaoxing is my age.
My wife Nancy retired from her job a month ago, just a few days after she turned 65. We have really enjoyed the past month. I have enjoyed seeing her free from the pressure of getting up at 5:40 a.m. and going to work for the Man. Suddenly, every day is Saturday and every night is Friday night. It's a wonderful thing.
But during the past month, as I thought about hitting 70, I wondered if I should begin to step back a little. I am either studying these arts or teaching these arts or practicing these arts seven days a week. Sometimes, I take a day off from practicing, but that's only to give my old body a rest, and even then I'm writing or reading or thinking of Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, Qigong or philosophy. And I'm working with my students, maybe doing a live one-on-one session on Zoom.
It really helps to be doing what I love. Yes, my legs get very tired by the end of the day. I sit down at night on the couch with Nancy and we watch one of our favorite shows and enjoy a glass of wine, and after a while I'll stand up and my legs shout, "No! Don't make us do more work!"
The other night, I got up from the couch and Nancy said, "Ken, you're walking like an old man."
I said, "Well........"
But when I think about stepping back a little, there is a voice in my head that says, "Who are you kidding? You love this. You study with Nabil on Mondays and Tuesdays and then you're bouncing around like a toddler, excited about what you're practicing. You're teaching on Wednesdays and sometimes Friday and Saturday and you meet during the winter with your in-person students on Sundays. You feel like something is missing if you skip a practice. Who are you kidding?"
Yeah, the voice in my head is right. I couldn't step away if I tried. I want to make more memories with Nancy while we have time, so I have pledged to myself, and I have succeeded in the past month, to take more time during weekdays to do something with her instead of being devoted to gongfu all day long. After all, isn't "balance" one of the goals we're after in Taijiquan?
So age is just a number. A terrifying number, maybe, but let's just remain centered and push forward. There are skills, movements and mechanics I want to develop, a dragon body to pursue, and goals yet to achieve. I don't have the stamina I used to have. If I'm a student in a class or workshop, I take more breaks than the younger guys. But I'm still moving pretty well. I can still kick a 6-foot tall guy in the head. I want to do what seemed impossible when the lung went South when I was 57. I want to improve in my 70s and still be practicing and teaching at 80.
I have a goal that can be summed up in a true story. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals practiced his instrument for hours each day, and when he was 90 years old, someone asked, "Why are you continuing to practice at age 90?"
Casals said, "Because I think I'm making progress."
So the title of this blog post, What Happens When a Martial Artist Turns 70, can be answered this way:
--by Ken Gullette