Firing Up the Inner Gyroscope Once Again - Finding My Center in the Hospital

Ken Gullette in hospital
In my gown with my IV stand at the hospital.

I am writing a book on how the philosophies that I learned during the time I have studied martial arts have guided me through some of the storms of life. 

Last week, I found that I was living a new chapter.

After a break of a few years, I suddenly began coughing up blood on Friday, June 4. We're not talking about the type of coughing up blood that you see in the movies -- a fleck or two in a handkerchief.

When I cough up blood, it looks like someone was shotgunned in my sink. I put a picture up on a blog post around 2015. It was gross.

This began in 2009, after three laser ablation procedures on my heart, attempting to stop atrial fibrillation. Instead, the final procedure shut down my  left pulmonary veins, so no oxygenated blood goes from my left lung to the heart.

How my body has survived the past 12 years, I have no idea, but it hasn't been easy, and it has made martial arts quite a challenge -- only one lung, coughing up blood occasionally, and, to add insult to injury, I developed exercise-induced asthma.

So after three days of coughing up blood, last Monday my pulmonologist told me to get a CT scan. I walked into the hospital, got the scan, and they told me I was to be admitted because of pulmonary embolism -- multiple blood clots in the left lung.

I'm not a doctor, but I know that a blood clot in the lung is not a good thing, and multiple blood clots would be a worse thing.

I was worried that a clot could break off, go to my brain, and cause me to lose my ability to think. If that happened, I would probably start wearing a MAGA hat, or I might start believing in the no-touch knockdown, or I might try to heal you with my qi -- crazy $#!+ like that.

Nancy rushed from work and met me at the ER. I was taken to a room on the sixth floor of Genesis East in Davenport, Iowa. An IV was put into my right arm and they started a Heparin drip. Heparin is a blood thinner.

I thought blood thinners dissolved blood clots but they don't. They keep the clots from getting bigger, and the clots are absorbed into the body over a period of weeks or months. 

Hospital-2021-6
Looking out my hospital window after checking in.

When Nancy left to go home that evening, a rainbow formed outside. Now, I don't read anything supernatural into that, but it was pretty cool. I don't consider it a message from God. Bruce Lee, maybe, but not God.

For the next five days, I was in the hospital. From the start, my goal was to make the nurses laugh. I am always their easiest and most low-maintenance patient. 

But I am also a questioning patient. I don't leave my critical thinking skills at the door of the hospital. When a doctor or nurse says I need something, I ask questions.

One think I have learned over the years is this: you must be your own advocate, because doctors will make mistakes.

I don't want to give you the impression that I rolled through this without getting emotionally smacked around. It was a difficult week. I had been on a plateau for years without coughing up blood. I had a pacemaker installed a year ago and I have had other procedures, but I felt reasonably stable because I had not coughed up blood.

It was very difficult to find myself suddenly back in the hospital with a damned IV in my arm without Nancy.

But I held up pretty well, trying to remain centered and determined to get through it. Two days later, however, when I looked out my window and saw her walking across the parking lot to visit, the tears came, and when she entered the room, I hugged her and sobbed for a minute.

I am 68 years old, with one lung, an irregular heartbeat and a pacemaker, asthma, and I don't really think it gets better from here, does it? Seriously. I have survived and continued to pursue the internal martial arts for 12 years. My doctors have been amazed. And now this? 

Ken's arm after blood draws
My left arm after having blood drawn for five days.

It also didn't help that they were coming in every six or 12 hours to draw blood. You want to talk about centering yourself? If you stick me with a needle, I don't like it. One of the worst things about the hospital is that they are constantly sticking me with needles.

That evening, I tried to keep it together when Nancy said goodnight to go home, and after she left I had a talk with myself. I stood up and did Zhan Zhuang with the IV hose dangling from my arm.

Just breathe. Focus on your Dantien. Sink your energy. Establish peng. Become aware of everything around you.

Remain centered, I reminded myself. Just calm down, find your center, find your determination. Let's get through this. You have been through it before, you can do it again.

Some people misunderstand the concept of being centered. They believe if you are centered, nothing bothers you. No matter what happens, you remain emotionally calm.

They are wrong. Being a human being means you will experience a range of emotions, and if you lean toward Eastern philosophies as I do, you will continue to experience a range of emotions. You can be knocked down emotionally. You can be insulted, you can be hurt, you can be angry.

It is okay to be knocked off-balance, but when you suffer a tragedy or crisis, and you look inside yourself for the tools to survive and cope, what do you find?

When you find yourself off-balance, do you look outside of yourself for help (gods, other people, drugs, alcohol) or do you cultivate the ability within yourself to get back up and regain your balance?

That is what the philosophies of the martial arts, which I first encountered while watching the "Kung Fu" TV show as a teenager, have taught me.

Standing in my room, focusing on my breathing, my Dantien, and realizing I am part of all things made me feel balanced again.  

When you lie in a hospital bed without getting up, your strength leaves the body quickly, so I was taking walks a few times a day around the sixth floor, walking the circuit back to my room, and I noticed a lot of the doors had "Fall Risk" and other signs on them notifying nurses of various predicaments the patients were in.

I created my own sign and placed it on my door. "Tai Chi Risk: Patient prone to sudden calmness."

Within a few minutes of putting it on my door, there was a shift change and my night nurse, Adam, opened the door, laughed, gave the sign a thumbs up and walked away. Two or three other employees over the next few days laughed and commented on the sign.

I took a walk around the floor and told nurses I was the floor supervisor. They laughed. I cracked one-liners to lighten the mood. Dressed in my gown and rolling my IV stand, I told them, "I'm busting out of this joint." More laughter.

Hospital-2021-2One evening on my walk, a frail, elderly woman was in her bed, looking to the hallway. I waved to her and said hello. She waved back and said, "Hi." Sometimes, the elderly are treated like pieces of meat in situations like this, but I know that, like me, they are wondering how the hell they got here. They are thinking, "I was just 18 a moment ago, it seems, and now look at this!" They deserve kindness and respect.

"I hope you get out of here soon," I told her. 

"I hope you do, too," she said.

Doctors were waiting for my Coumadin level to increase before they released me. Coumadin is a risk for me because of my history of coughing up blood since my pulmonary veins closed in 2009. With thinner blood, the risk of bleeding is a real possibility.

I practiced tai chi one day in my room, in my gown with the IV hose dangling off my arm. Do you know how hard it is to do "Lazy About Tying the Coat" without getting tangled in the hose or without pulling the needle out of your arm? I did it very, very carefully.

I kept myself in shape all my life, never took drugs and did martial arts, and all this has happened. We all have to play the hand we are dealt, and if we are lucky enough to grow old, something is going to get us in the end. How we handle it is a test of our character and a test of our belief system.

By Saturday, the doctor decided to release me because the Coumadin level was high enough and it was on the way up. It would be where we wanted it by Sunday, and he told me to go in and get checked on Monday. 

Ken-Nancy-Home-from-Hospital-2021
Home with Nancy after five days!

I got home Saturday afternoon. The entire time I was in that hospital room, I realized how we sometimes take little moments for granted. What I most wanted was to be with Nancy in our basement with the dogs, sipping wine and watching the big screen. Well, I should word that differently. The dogs won't be sipping wine and watching the big screen, Nancy and I will.

I try not to take any moments for granted. But they slip by us anyway. They are here and they are gone. The moments pass and the weeks, months and years pass. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a place where all we want is to get one of those moments back.

I do not believe we encounter anything negative after death. If you subscribe to philosophical Taoism, death is the unknown, so there is no point worrying about it. But what makes sense to me is that we return to the same place we were in before we were born; a state of complete peace. 

If you remember, on the day we were born, none of us had any complaints about where we had been.

So I don't worry about dying. However, I am not in a hurry to get there. I have too much to enjoy -- Nancy, my daughters and grandchildren, my friends, the internal martial arts and my students, Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy movies, and every single moment of this life. As long as you don't stick me with a needle. I don't care for that, but I have found that I can bear it if I focus on my breathing and my Dantien.

How can you truly appreciate the good moments of life without the bad moments? It's all part of the journey. Enjoy the journey.

Remain centered, my friends.

-- by Ken Gullette


Get Out of the Bubble and Pressure-Test Your Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua

Byron Jacobs, an outstanding martial artist and teacher of Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, does the Drunken Boxing Podcast. He recently interviewed Mario Napoli, another great martial artist who went to the Chen Village and won a push hands tournament there. Here is the link to the YouTube version of Byron's interview with Mario. The Drunken Boxer Podcast is also available through Spotify and other podcast distributors.

One of the interesting topics they discussed was the problem of Taiji people not wanting to test their push hands against other martial artists.

Chris Lorenzen and Ken Gullette
Ken Gullette (left) and Chris Lorenzen

One of my former students, Chris Lorenzen, has gotten into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the past year or two. So I invited him to stop by one of our practices a couple of weeks ago to pressure-test our arts and to exchange information. I have a lot of respect for other martial arts and I like to see them up close.

It was a lot of fun. Besides banging around a little, we asked about BJJ and he gave us a few demonstrations of techniques on the floor. 

I believe that if your arts are not effective, you are living in a bubble of fantasy. So I like for other martial artists to stop by our practices. 

Most of us are instinctively too tense when another person comes in to take us down. We expect to use muscular tension to defend and counter. But often, that tension is what your opponent uses to control you because they can connect more easily to your center.

We practice relaxing when an opponent uses force, and combining that relaxation with other body mechanics including the ground path, peng jin, using the kua and more to "empty" and then redirect the force our opponent is using.

A couple of months ago, I spent five days in the hospital with blood clots in my left lung, and I'm on blood thinners right now. It's frustrating to be more fragile than I used to be and not able to go as hard as I used to, so I think Chris took it a little easy on me. It was still a valuable experience to feel his technique and learn what I could. Justin and Colin were able to go a little harder with him.

My favorite thing is to square off with other martial artists and ask them to take me down. It isn't about punching and kicking for me anymore. My goal is to get close to them and maintain my center while I take control of theirs. Anyone can punch and kick, but can you make him go off-balance and take advantage of him at the right moment? If someone grabs you to take you down, and uses force on you, can you handle it with relaxed internal strength?

Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow
Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow on the ground.

I love to work on it. If they try to take me down and have a hard time because I can keep them from finding my center, that's a good thing. And if I can take them down instead, that's even better. I try to be strict with myself, avoiding the use of localized muscular tension and trying instead to use good Taijiquan principals and methods. I did a DVD on some of these methods of close-up self-defense and you can find the DVD through this link. 

One of the interesting things Mario and Byron talk about in the podcast is how some Taijiquan teachers are calling themselves "master" and yet they have never pressure-tested their skills in competition. If you don't pressure-test your martial ability, Mario Napoli says you are just "moving air" when you do a form. 

"Forms lie to you," he says, and he is right. You can do movements all day and think you can apply it in self-defense, but it's a completely different ballgame when someone is putting the pressure on you.

So get out of your bubble. Invite different people to your workouts. It should be friendly, of course. You don't have to go full-contact because getting hurt is not a good option for adults who have other responsibilities and careers, but there should be a risk of being "shown up" and taken down. Your ego might be deflated a bit, but it's a small price to pay for the truth. We can always get better, but not if we become legends in our own minds.

Let's face it, if you aren't pressure-testing your arts, you are probably not as good as you think you are.

 


Form is Emptiness: The Depth of Tai Chi is Easy to Ridicule for Those Who Do Not Understand

Form is EmptinessMy daughter, Harmony had a yin/yang sticker on her notebook in 7th grade. She loved it. From the day she was brought home from the hospital and put into a crib in August, 1977, Bruce Lee posters had been on her bedroom wall and she was very familiar with martial arts.

But some of the girls in her 7th grade class accused her of worshipping Satan because of the yin/yang sticker.

They didn't understand and had been influenced by their parents, most of whom were Christians living in the Midwest.

Yesterday, I came across the "Heart Sutra," an important "rule" or aphorism in Mahāyāna Buddhism. 

One of the key phrases that immediately made me think of Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Bruce Lee was this:

Form is nothing more than emptiness,

emptiness is nothing more than form.

You can say it a bit more directly: "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form."

It is a widely quoted concept that is visualized in different ways. 

Bruce Lee liked to say that we should "be water." He said, "If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup."

Others, and I believe Bruce also talked about how a cup is only a cup because of the emptiness inside the form.

It is the emptiness that makes the cup useful. Without the emptiness, a cup would merely be a block of ceramic.

The same is true of a glass, a bowl, and you can take this concept on and on.

But to me, it symbolized the practice of Tai Chi (Taiji), and even though that type of quote can be ridiculed by other martial artists who don't understand Taiji, it is actually a good description of the martial side of the art.

When I step out onto a training floor, or out in the yard or in a park, and I begin practicing a form, it is an interpretation of the concepts that provides the frame of the movements, the structure of the body, the spiraling of the limbs and the relaxed internal strength flowing like a wave.

It is all intentional, it has form. But what I am doing as I work to achieve the body mechanics that I am after is not so easy to understand.

I am practicing form to achieve emptiness.

I can hear the MMA guys laughing, but just like the 7th grade girls hurling Satanic accusations at my daughter, they don't understand.

The practice of Taiji involves mastering a structure that allows you to lead an opponent into emptiness.

Using the ground path, developing the buoyancy of peng jin, making micro-adjustments with the kua like a buoy in the ocean, using whole-body movement and Dantien rotation and spiraling to add power to the movement -- these are some of the skills that the form develops (if you have an instructor who will teach you these things). 

Any martial artist can punch and kick. Taiji includes punches and kicks, too, although the real skill in Taiji happens when someone touches you to apply force.

At that moment, all the form practice and the push hands practice and the freestyle work and takedowns with partners -- the practical application of ward-off, rollback, press, push, pluck, shoulder, elbow and other energies and methods -- should pay off in one specific way.

When an opponent puts his hands on you to use force or to put you down, he finds emptiness. You disappear beneath his force and, because the target is no longer there, he goes off-balance and your "form" (structure) and body mechanics take it from there to put him down instead.

I practice and teach Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan and Bagua Zhang. I don't look at Taiji as a self-defense system that I would use if someone were standing three feet away and preparing to punch me. Taiji would not come into the question at this point. Xingyi would.

Once the punch is on its way toward my face and enters my power zone, Bagua would be a logical choice.

When they grab me, that's when Taiji shines, in my opinion, leading an opponent into emptiness and then lowering the boom. I maintain my mental and physical balance while my attacker loses his. I maintain my structural integrity even as I cause him, with his help, to lose his structure.

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

It's a shame so few Taiji students don't stay with it long enough, or have the right instruction, to realize this important concept. It has nothing to do with "cultivating chi." These are mental and physical skills that require as much practice as any fighting art requires for excellence. It's what I try to focus on in my study and my teaching. It doesn't come easily, but it does come when you eventually realize that the goal of all this form work is actually emptiness.

--by Ken Gullette

Try two weeks free in Ken's online internal arts school - live online classes, live personal coaching, and 1,000 video lessons in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and more. Go to www.internalfightingarts.com 


A Wise Tai Chi Master Once Said We Should Practice the Method Not the Form

Henry-Gullette
Henry Gullette, 1896-1965
Written by Ken Gullette on Sunday, January 24, 2021
 
My grandfather, Henry Gullette died when he was 69 years old. He was an old man when by the time he was 60. He was a very nice old man, but the thing I remember him doing most was sitting on his couch watching TV. In the photo above, he is younger than I am now.
 
My father, Kenneth Sr. died when he was 61. He was a nice guy, too, maybe the best man I have ever known (his picture is below). My dad had his first heart attack at age 50 and gave up after that. I remember in his fifties he would say, "I'm not going to be around much longer."
 
It turned out to be true.
 
Today is my 68th birthday and I am still trying to get better at gongfu. Despite having much more serious health issues than either my father or my grandfather, I still have goals I'm trying to achieve. I'm not as good at the internal arts as I want to be.
 
There is no way I'm giving up yet. I'm having way too much fun.
 
What is the internal difference between me, my dad and my grandfather? Why did they get old and give up too early?
 
Why have so many people over the years told me how good they want to be in martial arts but then they quit after a few lessons? What is the difference between them and the student who stays with it year after year? I'm in my 48th year of studying and practicing and I'm still peeling back layers of the onion, excited by what I find next.
 
It seems that a lot of people go through the motions of life without fully diving in and persisting, even when there are stretches when it isn't much fun.
 
I have a martial artist friend named John Morrow who turned 69 years old on January 6. Every year, I say to him, "I hope I'm as good as you when I'm your age."
 
Every year he replies, "You better get busy." Hahaha. Real funny, John.
 
What You Are Practicing
 
I have forgotten who said this, but it might have been one of Chen Fake's students, Feng Zhiqiang. He said we should practice "method, not form."
 
In the beginning, when we learn a form, we are trying to memorize the movements. Then, we are trying to memorize the movements in order so we can do the form from beginning to end. It takes a lot of work to remember a complete form.
 
But after we get the movements down and we can do a form from beginning to end, we must immediately force ourselves to go to the next level.
 
What you should be practicing is not the form but the method.
 
Every style of martial arts has its own "shen fa," or "body method." The form is only a way to practice the body method.
 
In the style of Xingyi that I teach, body methods include taking ground, alternating relaxation and power, maintaining intent, ground path, peng jin, dantien rotation and whole-body movement, among others. The mindset of Xingyi is to drive through the opponent. As they might say in Cobra Kai, "No mercy."
 
When practicing a Chen Taiji form, you should work in each movement to develop an "alive" style of moving that is relaxed but with internal strength that makes it "iron wrapped in cotton." You should make good use of the kua, dantien rotation, ground path, peng jin, whole-body movement and the spiraling power of silk-reeling, among others. The mindset of Taiji is to yield and overcome, bend but not break, maintain your structure and hide your own center from your opponent while you find his center and put him down.
 
In Bagua, your body method includes mud-stepping, circle-walking and a lot of the mechanics of Taiji, including an alive, spiraling quality in your movement that is relaxed but with strength underneath. But even your circle-walking has its own unique qualities as your foot skims across the ground and you keep your weight on the rear leg. The mindset of Bagua is to become like a spinning wire ball. If your opponent gets too close, he will be caught up in the spinning wire ball and thrown out in all directions.
 
When I studied Yang style Tai Chi, I moved in a very different way than I do in Chen style. It was slow and relaxed but the body was not "alive." There was no ground. There was no peng. There was no kua. I was taught a ridiculous way of silk-reeling that did not include spiraling movement in the body at all. My teacher told us to "think about Qi spiraling from our foot to our hands."
 
When I first encountered Chen style, a lightbulb went on in my head. The body method was so different, I knew instantly that it was a higher quality. But even within Chen style there are different body methods, depending on the teacher.
 
Kenneth Gullette
Ken Gullette, Sr., 1928-1989
Sometimes, you can almost be paralyzed by thinking of all the body mechanics that make up the body method in one art. But once you learn the movements of a form, you should spend the next number of years learning how to apply all the mechanics to each movement. You develop skill in the body method.
 
I will practice a form and sometimes focus on just one thing, such as dantien rotation. The next time, I'll try to maintain the same dantien rotation but I'll focus on how the Mingmen (lower back) bows and unbows as the dantien rotates.
 
Or I'll do a form and focus mostly on opening and closing the kua. Next, I might focus on the Bai Hui point at the top of the head and try to keep my head lifted instead of letting it drop forward. Another time, I might focus on maintaining peng jin, or not collapsing my knees.
 
As we peel back the layers of the onion, practicing the body method helps us get deeper and deeper into it. The quality of your art is in the body method.
 
As I tell my students, "Don't allow yourself to just go through the motions when you practice. You won't perform with the proper body method if you don't practice that way."
 
My dad said he wasn't going to be around much longer. It turns out that his prediction came true and he died at 61. Now, at 68, I want to get better at the internal arts. Can I make it come true?
 
Can you?
 
We can both do it if we work at it.

I Want to Throw Roundhouse Kicks on Muhammad Ali's Birthday

I want to throw roundhouse kicks.

I have been very angry during the past week-and-a-half. I am working very hard to center myself. Let me tell you why.
 
Ali vs ForemanMuhammad Ali would have celebrated his 79th birthday today if he had lived, but unfortunately, he died of complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2016.
 
The night he defeated George Foreman (picture at left) to regain the heavyweight title was the night I realized I needed to stop being a racist. It was October 30, 1974. Muhammad Ali was fighting George Foreman in a fight that was held in Zaire and called the "Rumble in the Jungle."
 
Foreman was so strong it was scary. He was knocking other heavyweights out cold. Most people expected Ali to be killed that night.
 
I grew up in the American South in the 1950s and Sixties. I saw "White Only" signs on drinking fountains and bathrooms. I remember when blacks were not allowed to sit with us in the movie theaters. They had to sit in the balcony.
 
I remember when black kids could not swim with us in the public swimming pools.
 
When I was 15, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to join the Ku Klux Klan. That's how the culture of the South affected me as a young white boy.
 
But in 1973, while I was in college at Eastern Kentucky University, I enrolled in my first martial arts class. I began reading about Bruce Lee, his philosophy, and I started reading books with the Taoist and Zen philosophy that I heard while watching the "Kung-Fu" TV show.
 
But I still had the South in me, and Muhammad Ali was a frequent target of our hatred. We hated him. We called him a "loud-mouthed" N-word. And he switched religions. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. What a trouble-maker!
 
The night he fought George Foreman, college might have already started changing me a bit, but when the fight began, and I was listening to it being broadcast on radio, I was pacing in my dorm room, hoping Ali would get beaten. I was cheering for Foreman to hurt him.
 
The fight only lasted eight rounds. In the early rounds, Ali was on the ropes, being pounded by Foreman. Can you imagine the punishment? George Foreman could punch a large heavybag into submission. Imagine what he would do to someone's arms and ribs and kidneys!!
 
Round after round, Ali took tremendous punishment, and round by round, he survived.
 
Something clicked inside of me. It took a few rounds, but somewhere around the seventh, my perspective began shifting. Instead of a loud-mouthed braggart, I began to see Ali's courage, and the realization struck me like a right cross to the jaw. This man was letting the strongest boxer in the world pound on him. He had a plan, and he had placed himself in the line of fire.
 
I began cheering for Ali. When he suddenly knocked Foreman out in the eighth round, I jumped around my room, then ran up and down the halls shouting the news.
 
That was the bravest thing I had ever heard or seen.
 
I no longer saw Ali as a black man. I saw him as a brave man, and I began looking at other black people in a new light. I realized they suffered pain just as I did. They had the same needs I did. And they deserved the same respect I did.
 
I realized that so much of what I was taught in my culture was bullshit. For almost a year, I had been reading about the Taoist and Zen philosophies that presented such a different view of the world than the hatred of racism. How could I become "one" with the universe and the world around me if I considered myself better than another person?
 
It made no sense to be racist.
 
The answer was simple. If I continued to be prejudiced against people who were different, the philosophy that I was adopting would be a joke.
But like everything in life, including Qigong, and the ability to center myself, it took hard work and an ability to look inward, reflect and analyze why I thought certain ways and why I took certain positions on issues.
 
The philosophy woke me up to empathy.
 
Five years after the Rumble in the Jungle I met Muhammad Ali. It was 1978 and he had just defeated Leon Spinks to win back the heavyweight title. Ali was giving a speech at a rally in Louisville and I covered it as a reporter for WLAP radio in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was working. I got a front-row seat to the speech.
 
After the speech, Ali was going to hold a news conference at a hotel. I had a long walk to get to the hotel, so I was walking fast across a huge parking lot at the fairgrounds, where the rally was held, to the hotel where the news conference would be held.
 
Just as I arrived in front of the hotel, a limo pulled up with Ali in it. He got out and was followed by three or four bodyguards who were larger than he was.
 
I had a hardbound copy of his autobiography, "The Greatest," that I brought with me in case I was able to get his autograph.
 
For a few seconds after he got out of the car, there was a little space in front of him. I walked up and handed him the book.
 
"Would you sign this for me, Champ?" I asked, handing him the book and a pen.
 
Ali-AutographHe took the book and the pen, scribbling his autograph as he walked, then held it out. By that time, he was being surrounded by people, and a bodyguard grabbed the book and pen and stuck them out behind his back as he walked with Ali. I pushed through the gathering crowd and managed to get the book out of his hand.
 
Then I went to the news conference, where Ali stood just a few feet away and I was standing with all the sports reporters, network sportscasters and other local media, watching and listening and enjoying my brush with greatness.
 
As years passed, I learned a lot more about Ali. In 1960, when I was only 7 years old, Ali won a gold medal at the Olympics and returned home to Louisville. He went to a restaurant that refused to serve him because he was black.
 
He was an Olympic gold medalist and still couldn't get respect from some white people.
 
Imagine how you would feel?
 
And yet, he was not an angry man. He tried to preach respect and human rights.
 
One day, he was visiting his mother in Louisville, and he was in a large motor home behind her house. A young white sports reporter knocked on her door to interview her. He didn't realize Ali was there.
 
"Oh, he's in the trailer," she said. "Just knock on the door."
 
This young white reporter knocked on the motor home door. Ali answered, let him in and they talked for hours. They became good friends.
 
That's the kind of man Ali was. How could anyone hate him?
 
Now why would I be angry today? I guess it's because of the riot held a week-and-a-half ago by the white supremacists in Washington, D.C. A lot of the people who stormed the capitol building were white nationalists.
 
I guess I have been angry because unarmed black men continue to be gunned down in the street by police in the United States. It was happening when Ali was young and it's happening now.
 
Perhaps, on Ali's birthday, it struck me that being a white nationalist, or tolerating them in any way, would be a violation of my goal of being a centered person. And perhaps this is my way of letting you know, since I am a teacher, that part of your training in the internal arts involves connecting -- not just with an opponent who you might never face, but also with the world, with the environment, with other animals, and with other human beings.
 
Being centered and connected does NOT mean being passive. Sometimes, it means standing up for what is right.
 
As you work on your martial arts, and as you try to become more centered and balanced, please understand that a good martial artist defends people who are weaker and are being attacked.
 
Self-defense is much more than throwing punches and kicks. Being a martial artist means you are working to master yourself, too.
 
The world is made a safer place when we all do our part and connect with others, perceiving them as being one with us, and when we realize that silence is the fuel that gives more power to evil.

How to Lose Gracefully and Why Losing Can Be a Positive Thing

Kenny-High-Jump-1970
Ken high-jumping at Lafayette High School in Lexington, KY 1970.

I was on the track team in high school. My specialty was the high jump.

I was not a gifted jumper but I enjoyed pushing myself to see if I could improve, even a quarter-inch at a time. I was just shy of six feet tall, not a tall, lanky kind of athlete like the famous high-jumper Dick Fosbury.

Paul Carter was a buddy of mine in school. His father attended the track meets and always came over to watch the high jump competition. He always spoke to me and watched me compete.

I did not always win, but I enjoyed the competition. Months after our senior track season, I was talking to Paul and he mentioned his father.

"My dad really loves to watch you compete," he said. "Do you know why?"

I told him I did not know.

"Because he says even when you don't win, you are still smiling," Paul said.

Really? I did not know that I had that kind of impact on anyone.

It was an enlightening moment.

I did not enjoy losing, but I did not consider myself a loser. If you compete at anything, you run the risk of losing. If you enjoy it, does it matter?

This was 25 years before I started teaching martial arts.

By the time I began teaching in 1997, I was also competing regularly in martial arts tournaments, often in open tournaments, with competitors from all styles and judges from all styles. Very often, the judges did not really understand the internal arts.

My students were good, but I noticed the impact that losing had on some of them.

Trophies2Some students could not handle losing in a tournament. Some of them quickly dropped out of martial arts if they walked away from a tournament or two without carrying a trophy.

I felt the same about martial arts tournaments as I did about the high-jump. I was not a gifted athlete, but I enjoyed the arts and I enjoyed the competition. But there is one more important thing I got out of competing.

I learned about myself. I learned how I reacted to pressure, how I responded when another black belt was trying to kick my ass. 

And I learned to analyze each victory and each defeat and look for lessons. I learned to walk away with information to improve my skills.

One day, I was competing at a huge regional tournament in Dubuque, Iowa. The team of judges included mostly black belts from Karate, Taekwondo and other "external" arts. One of the judges was a woman who tended to score me lower than others.

On this day, I did a strong Xingyiquan form and I did not place. She scored me low again.

I approached her after the event and asked, "I notice you scored me low. What advice would you give me?"

She seemed surprised, but she said, "You run through your kata like a house on fire. There is no pacing."

For a moment, I reacted as most people would react. I thought, "Oh, she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about."

But I thanked her, and as I walked away, I mentally ran through my form. As I did, I realize that I had a tendency to barrel through it hard and fast, with power and speed.

She was right. There were little moments in the form when I should ease up, slow down, pause for effect -- add some "pacing."

I worked on it and I began winning more forms events after that day.

Dibuque Winners 2002This kind of attitude can help you in every aspect of life. In 2006, I began working on an idea for a Media Relations Coach website. I was the director of media relations for ACT, the company that makes the college admissions exam. My goal was to teach media relations to other people starting out in similar jobs around the country.

I worked like crazy on this website, but when I launched it, there were crickets. Nobody seemed to be interested. It was a resounding defeat.

In 2008, after taking a job in Tampa, Florida, the job did not work out and I suddenly found myself unemployed.

I decided to use what I had learned in my failed Media Relations Coach website attempt, and I would create a website teaching the internal arts. 

Within three months, I launched www.InternalFightingArts.com, and people began signing up immediately. I am proud to say that it is still in business more than 12 years later as I write this post, and it is doing better than ever.

Losing gracefully is very easy if you use each competitive situation as a learning moment. If you win, what do you learn? 

If you lose, can you use the information from that loss to propel you forward?

You can't win them all. And maybe you don't want to win them all. You don't learn a lot in victory.

It is in defeat where you can mine gold, not just about your technique, but also about yourself. And from there, you can work to get better. 

Go get 'em. And keep smiling.

--by Ken Gullette


What Sean Connery and James Bond Taught Me About Fighting

Sean ConnerySean Connery passed away at age 90. The news swept across the world today, and if you are a man in my generation, it's a sad day.

My mother would not let me see a James Bond movie until the fourth Bond film "Thunderball" came out in late 1965. We were very conservative Christians, and she thought the movies were sinful because they showed drinking and (gasp!) sex between men and women who were NOT MARRIED!

She thought I would burn in Hell if I ever saw a James Bond movie.

But by the time "Thunderball" came out and I was nearly 13, she relented. My buddy Ed McCaw and I went to see it at a theater in downtown Lexington. We walked in during the long scene when the atomic bomb was stolen from the downed plane. We stayed all the way through the movie the second time through. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I thought Connery was the coolest man who ever lived. The way he walked, the way he talked, and the slightly sarcastic, confident sense of humor had a big impact on me.

But the way James Bond fought in those early films also had an impact.

When Sean Connery played 007, he often found himself against much stronger, tougher opponents, but his resourcefulness often helped him win the fight. Whether he was fighting Oddjob in the vault at Fort Knox, "Red" Grant on the train in "From Russia, with Love," or the Japanese martial artist in "You Only Live Twice," he found a way to win.

You Only Live TwiceOne of the radio commercials used in the summer of 1967 to advertise "You Only Live Twice" went something like this: "They rush him from all sides. FIFTY karate experts whose hands can slice through rock. The odds...FIFTY to one. THEY haven't got a CHANCE." Listen to the original radio ad here.

Oh, man. I still get cold chills listening to that radio ad.

As a kid, and as a young teenager, I was often the target of bullies. For some reason, they were attracted to me like fat to a mother-in-law, but they made a big mistake when they pushed me to the point when I could not walk away.

They did not realize they were picking on a guy who enjoyed fighting. I always tried to avoid it, but if I could not avoid it, once the fight started I considered it the ultimate one-on-one competition. It was the ultimate sport. I never lost a fight in my life.

And from watching James Bond movies in those days, I realized that the better, stronger fighter does not always win. Usually, the smarter fighter wins.

The second-to-last real fight I had was when I was 17 years old in high school. A guy named Charlie wanted to fight. The disagreement started in Mr. Fife's geography class and we took it to the boy's restroom there in the Stone Building at Lafayette High School. 

It was a very small restroom and we faced off.

Charlie hauled off and punched me in the jaw. My head exploded in pain, and sparks seemed to burst in front of my eyes like fireworks.

It was clear that he was a much better puncher than I was.

So I moved in, clenched with him, and slammed him into the side of a stall.

How would Sean Connery handle this, I thought. Well, since he appeared to be a better boxer, I would stop him from being able to punch me.

I threw him to the ground.

He tried to get up, but before he could reach his feet, I slammed him to the ground again.

Each time he tried to get up, I slammed him into the wall or back to the ground.

Finally, exhausted, he gave up. We went back to our classes. I won the fight.

The moment I walked out of the restroom, I thought, "Sean Connery would be proud of that one."

Self-defense is a lot more than physical strength or even technical skill. Often, it is about awareness, not being there, and if you can't escape the fight, it's also about how you can use your surroundings or items you can pick up.

And it is about keeping your cool at all times. Or, as I learned in the internal arts, remaining centered at all times.

Tonight, I will raise a glass to this fine actor. I have watched his Bond movies countless times. I have them all on Blu-Ray and catch them when they pop up on cable channels. He will always be an inspiration to me in many ways.

I salute you, Sean Connery. The bullies who picked on me might have other feelings, however.

--by Ken Gullette


A System of Teaching Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua with a Focus on Internal Body Mechanics

Internal StrengthEverything about martial arts changed for me the day I met my first Chen Taiji instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna.

On a Saturday morning in early 1998 I drove to their home in Rockford, Illinois, about two hours from my home, to find out what some of these "body mechanics" were that I had recently read about in an internet chat room -- terms like "ground path" and "peng jin."

Jim worked with me for an hour, explaining the difference between the Yang style Taiji I had studied up to that point and the Chen style that he was studying and teaching.

In one hour, I knew I had to start over. What I had been studying was empty. It was based on "chi cultivation" and not on body mechanics.

After 25 years in martial arts and more than a decade in the internal arts, I couldn't find my kua with both hands. This was a problem, considering I had a "black sash" and was already teaching. My students and I were already making a splash at area martial arts tournaments. Now, my style of Taiji had to change.

For the next few years, I drove regularly to Rockford to study with Jim and Angela. They introduced me to Ren Guangyi and Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, who they hosted for workshops.

Kua PosterMy career up to that point had been in the news industry as a reporter, news director, anchor and producer. Every day, I tried to explain news stories and events in an understandable way. A complex story had to be broken down so the general public could make sense of it. As the reporter or story writer, I had to understand it, too.

That is how I approached my teaching of the internal arts. As I began learning the internal concepts, often in a roundabout way, I asked myself how I could explain it to my students and to myself in a way that made sense.

Over time, I broke the body mechanics down into six main concepts that beginning students needed to at least know about:

One -- The Ground Path -- If someone pushes against any part of your body, they must feel as if they are pushing into a steel rod that is connected to the ground. That needed to be maintained through all movements.

Two -- Peng Jin -- An expansive quality in your body and limbs that works with the Ground Path to give your relaxed movements an internal strength that is not evident on the outside.

Three -- Whole-Body Movement -- When one part moves, all parts move, and your internal strength unfolds like a ribbon from the ground through the body. All styles talk about this, but it is clear when watching even Taiji people that many do not achieve it.

Four -- Opening and Closing the Kua -- The crease at the top of the legs, along the inguinal ligament, acts as a buoy in the ocean. Used properly, it helps you adjust to incoming force and rebalance yourself.

Five -- Dantien rotation -- They say the "Dantien (sometimes spelled Dan T'ien) leads all movements," but I believe all movements start with the ground and the Dantien is part of what leads the internal strength along the ground path.

Six -- Silk-Reeling Energy -- The word "energy" can be misleading. It means "method" in this context. Silk-Reeling energy is a method of spiraling the body, from the ground through the limbs, that helps provide additional power to your movements. I teach the Silk-Reeling exercises to guide my students on the proper way to combine all six of these concepts into their movements.

When students begin learning from me, the first thing they learn are these six body mechanics, and from there, they study the art they want -- Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan or Ba Gua Zhang. On my website, there is a section devoted to many videos breaking down these skills, and I also teach them in my Internal Strength DVD and Silk-Reeling Energy DVD.

As you continue learning, there are many other concepts and skills to be learned, but in my experience, a lot of students are just kind of thrown into classes and simply follow the teacher for a long time, as they slowly develop a sense of what they are trying to achieve.

I believe it is much more difficult to reach your destination without a road map. Understanding these six principles and how they factor into your movement and self-defense applications will be a revelation, like firing up a brand new updated GPS device.

Punch Ground 2If you read this list and do not understand how to translate these into your internal movement, save some time and check out either the DVDs above or my membership website at www.InternalFightingArts.com

Here is a true fact about many internal arts teachers: It is a lot easier to pretend to be teaching something mystical than it is to put in the hard work required by the internal body mechanics that produce real quality.

My goal in teaching is to cut years off the time it takes someone to go from novice to skilled by providing information that I did not have for decades as I tried to feel my way through the thick jungle of misinformation, hacking through the tall weeds of mysticism and magical chi powers in search of something true. I am still learning.

Internal energy, and the relaxed power of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua comes from good body mechanics, not mysticism. If you don't fully understand the principles you should be working on, the road ahead is much longer and much more expensive.

-- by Ken Gullette

 


We Lost an Important Critical Thinker: James Randi Dies at Age 92

James RandiJames Randi has passed away. He was a magician and a critical thinker who inspired many of us as he debunked supernatural BS, including chi powers. He had one million dollars in escrow that he offered to anyone who could prove, in a double-blind setting, that they could perform any supernatural acts that they claimed to do.
 
Richard Mooney was one of the martial artists who claimed to knock people down without touching them. He was featured in a martial arts magazine many years ago now, with photos showing his students falling to the ground without being touched.
 
Mooney tried to claim Randi's million dollars, but it was a double-blind test. Around 18 people were chosen, and none of them knew what Richard was going to do. One by one, they stood behind a screen as Mooney tried to knock them down without touching them. None of them even flinched.
 
In a double-blind trial, video of the event was given to judges who also did not know what Mooney was attempting to do. The judges decided that nothing really happened. Mooney did not get the money.
 
Randi inspired me to offer $5,000 to any "chi master" who could knock me down without touching me. I have challenged several of these people, and even though they willingly take the money of students, and they charge money to give workshops, they refuse to accept my challenge.
 
Ironic, isn't it?
 
I challenged Mooney before I knew he had failed at the Randi Challenge. I told him I did not believe he could knock people down without touching them, and I would drive down to his school to see if he could do it to me. He replied with some rude emails. That isn't what you would expect from someone who had tapped into the secret of the Universe, is it?
 
Mooney's failure at the Randi Challenge was supposed to be kept quiet, according to an arrangement with the Randi Foundation, but word leaked out a long time ago.
 
Mooney isn't the only one who failed James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, and he is not the only one of these martial arts "masters" who has turned me down. 🙂 He was just one of the first. Many of the people I challenged sent rude or insulting replies. The business manager of one "master" said he was coming to "test" my skills. He said he wanted to do push hands. I told him it would be no-holds-barred fighting. He didn't show up. Imagine that.
 
Nancy and I wanted to meet Randi, but ran out of time. He inspired many people to think more critically, and to not believe everything someone in authority tells you, ESPECIALLY if he is a martial arts "master."
 
Don't check your brains at the door of a martial arts school, my friends.
 

How to Embarrass or Insult a Teacher When You Do Not Observe Martial Etiquette

Etiquette 2When I was growing up and got a little rowdy at the dinner table, my mother would bark, "Kenny! Mind your manners!"

I grew up in the South back in the 1950s and Sixties. We were raised to be polite and have good manners.

I have found that manners in martial arts can be a bit tricky. And depending on who you study with, you need to think from a different cultural perspective.

In a recent podcast interview, Chen Taiji instructor Nabil Ranne of Germany explained how he violated martial arts etiquette during an early conversation he had with his teacher, Chen Yu.

He asked Chen Yu how many times each day should he practice the form that some of us call Laojia Yilu but is also known as "Old Frame First Form," or "First Road."

Chen Yu replied, "Five times a day."

Nabil says he responded to Chen Yu by saying something like, "But your grandfather said you should do thirty routines per day."

Later, when Nabil understood more about martial etiquette, he realized and regretted his mistake.

By responding to Chen Yu as he did, in Chinese culture he was telling Chen Yu that either Chen Yu was wrong, or that his grandfather was wrong.

Listen to the interview with Nabil by following this link.

Nabil realized, as he became more aware of Chinese customs, that this was very impolite. Chen Yu took it well, but not all Chinese masters would. Sometimes, they give Westerners some slack because they realize Westerners do not know their culture.

Americans Are Often Unaware

We have a tradition in the United States; we think we can ask anything of anyone.

If the President of the United States stood before us, our culture says you can ask him just about anything you want to ask.

I have personally interviewed Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and more than one governor and congressman. I have interviewed celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, Barry Manilow, Pete Rose and Rick Nelson, among others.

We ask about their personal lives and their public lives. That expectation, of having free speech and asking pointed questions, and also asking about discrepancies in things they have said in the past, is part of our culture.

We have to suppress this urge when we deal with Chinese masters.

Your Teacher at the Moment is Your Only Teacher

I study with two or three different teachers currently. I recently joined a Zoom class, said good morning to the teacher on gallery view, and one of the other students said, "Ken Gullette! I'm going to buy a couple of your DVDs this week!"

My first reaction was surprise and pleasure. My second reaction was embarrassment.

When I show up to someone else's class, I am a student. I am there only to learn and improve my skills. I am there to support the teacher, not to promote myself.

The teacher was very gracious and said, "Ken does good work!" But I was mortified.

I am not there to talk about my teaching or to compare what I do to what the teacher does. I am not there to discuss the differences in what this teacher shows compared to what I have learned from someone else. I am there to absorb knowledge and improve my skills.

After the class, I sent the teacher an email and apologized, and the teacher reacted very graciously.

My Teacher Says......

If you are a teacher, you inevitably will have a new student who has studied other arts.

Often, the student will begin by explaining the different arts he has studied and the teachers he has studied with.

Some people call me about my membership website and they spend 15 minutes right off the bat telling me about their other arts and other teachers.

Perhaps they do this because they don't feel worthy. Perhaps they are trying to convince me that they will be a good student.

The best thing they can do, however, is just to begin studying and learn.

It is usually true that when someone begins listing all the arts they have studied, the longer the list, the more likely it is that they have no skills at all. I have seen it over and over during the past 23 years of teaching.

They don't realize how, in their first lesson with me, their minds are going to be blown.

Empty Your Cup

I have had students who enroll in face-to-face classes, and in their first lesson, they go on and on about how "their" school did it.

Empty CupOr you will show a principle or technique, and they will talk about how "their" teacher showed it.

Sometimes, I will stop them and say, "Okay now, it's time to empty your cup."

You know that old Zen parable, don't you?

A student wanted to learn Zen and approached a Zen master. The student talked on and on about what he knew about Zen.

The master calmly listened, then, as the student kept talking, the master gave him a teacup and began pouring some tea. As the student continued talking, the master kept filling the cup until the hot tea flowed out and spilled onto the floor. The master continued to pour until the student realized it.

"What are you doing?" the student asked. "Can't you see that my cup is full?"

The master replied, 'Exactly. You must first empty your cup in order to taste MY cup of tea."

Most teachers will cut you some slack, but if you are a student, it is something you should remember.

If you tell any teacher, "But my teacher taught me to do it another way," that teacher would be forgiven if they responded with, "Well, then go study with your other teacher, because you obviously don't need what I am teaching."

Martial arts etiquette would suggest you approach your question another way. 

I have studied with teachers who do movements differently than I see their teachers performing it. I don't generally ask them why they do the move differently than their teacher does, but I do try to understand what the intent of the movement is. As long as the explanation is good, and the application makes sense, differences are fine.

The beauty of the Chinese internal arts is that students very often look different than their teachers. Most people add their own artistic flair to movements as they progress and get older.

I recommend that you definitely remember two things:

  1. Do not compare your teacher at that moment with another teacher;
  2. Do not say, "My teacher told me....."

Rather than talking about how your other teacher taught, just talk about the movement. Ask your question. Leave other teachers out of it.

And if you see me on another teacher's Zoom class, and you want to talk about my DVDs or website, just send me a private message or email. It will "save face" for everyone.

We all have more to learn. I have made mistakes with Chinese culture, too. I have a lot to learn about it.

But we learn and grow. As I tell my wife Nancy, who happens to be my third wife, "I only make the same mistake twice."  

Mind your manners.

---by Ken Gullette

 


Treating Early-Stage Covid-19 Patients with Traditional Chinese Medicine - the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Dr. Stephen Jackowicz

Covid-19Can Traditional Chinese Medicine help patients who test positive for Covid-19?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz, the chair of the doctoral program at the University of Bridgeport's Acupuncture Institute has treated more than 90 patients in the early stages of Covid-19, all of them testing positive and some of them very ill.

None of the patients progressed to the point of hospitalization. 

It is important to note that Dr. Jackowicz does NOT claim a cure. Using over-the-counter products that anyone fighting virus symptoms needs (Tylenol, Kaopectate, Ensure or Glucerna, etc.) and courses of herbal medicine using TCM practices, he says patients recover faster than without this treatment.

He is the interview in my latest Internal Fighting Arts podcast. It will be of interest to other TCM providers, regular medical doctors and nurses, and anyone concerned about the virus that has changed all of our lives in 2020.

I am a skeptic when it comes to TCM. I think a lot of claims are made that cannot be supported with solid medical evidence. Dr. Jackowicz does not make those claims. I would not have done this interview if he did.

This is episode 52 of the podcast. Listen or download through the player below, or find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other podcast distributors.

I think you will find this interesting and informative.