Previous month:
February 2009
Next month:
April 2009

Re-Discovering a former Teacher - Karen Vaughn of Tien Shan Pai Kung Fu

I'm revising my original website at It is mostly used now to showcase my DVDs (they're also available through this blog--see the column on the right side of this page).

In writing the bio page, I did a Google search for one of my former teachers, Karen Vaughn. She was a highly ranked tournament competitor in the 70's and 80's and taught Tien Shan Pai Kung-Fu in Cincinnati, where I studied with her for several months and won my first 1st place trophy at a big tournament. I had already studied Shaolin kung-fu and Taekwondo by the time I moved to Cincinnati. This was my first experience with what they called "wushu."

Karen Vaughn was the first American woman to study with the founder of Tien Shan Pai. She moved from Cincinnati at some point, after my TV career took me to Omaha, where I became a student of Sifu Phillip Starr.

I found this video on YouTube of Karen Vaughn and a performance from 1982. She was a nice person and very talented. Good teacher, too.

Achieving Enlightenment Practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua

Takedown Closeup A new friend who bought a DVD over the weekend asked a very interesting question in an email.

Can you achieve enlightenment by practicing Hsing-I?

I love the question. On one hand, I believe that if you expect to achieve enlightenment by practicing any art, you're placing too high of an expectation on that art.

On the other hand, I believe enlightenment can come at any time -- usually not when you're looking for it.

I've achieve what I thought was enlightenment by doing chi kung, particularly standing stake or the little cycle breathing exercises, sitting in a chair. A couple of times, when I did standing stake outdoors, I started by working on my posture and then I put part of my mind on my dan t'ien, while another part focused on breathing. I imagined energy coming in with the breath and collecting in the dan t'ien. From there, I imagined the energy circulating through the body.

After several minutes of this, I let my mind go and I let the sounds of the wind and the birds surround me. I tried not to think, just feel, and become part of it all. Suddenly, I experienced a flash of insight that I can only call enlightenment, and I truly felt a deep truth--that I was part of everything around me, and everything in the universe.

This has happened to me more than once, and I cherish those moments. But once it happens, the mind becomes involved, and when you begin thinking about it, the feeling begins to slip away.

I believe it's really true that when you look for enlightenment, it becomes more elusive. It strikes when you aren't expecting it. Enlightenment also happens when you're doing things other than meditating. I've experienced unexpected flashes of insight at certain times in my life that completely shifted a paradigm and caused me to think differently.

Can you achieve enlightenment practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua?

Remember, these arts were not designed to serve as meditation. That's right, all you tai chi folks out there who believe that tai chi is "moving meditation." These arts are fighting arts, designed as martial arts. If you're looking for enlightenment, you may find it while practicing these arts, but the more you seek it, the less you're focusing on the intent of the movements, which involve body mechanics for generating power in self-defense situations.

Can you slow down the movements, let your mind go, and try to use it as meditation? Sure you  can. You can also do that with bowling or jogging or cycling or anything that requires movement.

There was a time that I practiced tai chi to become one with the Universe. I was good at the style of Tai Chi that I did and even won a national title at the AAU Championships in 1990. Seven or eight years later, I was introduced to Chen style, and I was stunned at the power, and the ability to break an opponent quickly and put them on the ground.

In one hour, I knew I had to start over because in thinking too much about the metaphysical, I had completely missed the reason tai chi exists -- as a self-defense art. My body mechanics were horrible -- in fact they didn't exist at that point. I had to start from scratch.

This doesn't mean that at some point, I'll be doing Laojia Yilu and won't have a flash of enlightenment. That could happen. But for now, when I practice, I focus on the long list of body mechanics that I'm trying to get right. The same is true when practicing any Hsing-I or Bagua form. Enlightenment is the last thing on my mind.

My recommendation for anyone is to search for enlightenment in meditation and in the little moments of life when enlightenment sneaks up on you and taps you on the shoulder. Just don't look too hard. And when you're practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua, search for the enlightenment that comes when you do the body mechanics properly in a movement and get that special feeling in your body--and the flash of a light bulb in your mind--that it feels just right.

The Road Back - Yin and Yang - Good News and Bad

I've been working very hard to get back to good health after three heart surgeries that culminated in pneumonia three months ago. The heart surgeries were a cakewalk compared with pneumonia. It has kicked my butt for 90 days and still has me in its grip.

On Friday, I completely lost my voice. Couldn't squeak out a word. The doctor told me to rest it as much as possible, so I've tried to be quiet all weekend. I hate to punish Nancy that way. She can't hear my insightful comments on the world. :)

Yesterday, I coughed up blood four different times. Not just a fleck or two, either. We're talking two or three tablespoons per episode. The last time, at about 10:30 last night, wasn't as bad as the others earlier in the day. But by that time, I was seriously concerned and ready to head for the hospital. I decided to see what happened today. So far, so good.

The theory that the doctors and I have been working on is that severe coughing for two months after the last heart surgery and resulting pneumonia (I aspirated something into the lungs when I was unconscious during the surgery) possibly tore open a blood vessel in the lungs. I've been coughing up blood now for a month. Even though I've been chugging some heavy-duty cough syrup for the past few weeks, I still feel the need to cough stuff up, and when I do, it rips open the blood vessel again and the bleeding starts -- usually lasting 5 or 6 minutes at a time.

Yesterday, I talked with the on-call doctor (God forbid you try to reach your own doctor on the friggin' weekend) and I was given a prescription for an inhaler that stops the production of mucus. My hope is that I won't feel the need to cough anything up, and between this and the cough syrup, I can keep healing.

I practiced a Chen form yesterday for a while, between bouts of coughing blood, and pushed myself a little bit, trying to develop a little more stamina. My endurance has been shot for the past three months. Today, I feel even better from a cardio perspective, but I'm trying to keep the cough away so I'm trying not to be very active today.

Last week, preparing some students for promotions, I wanted to feel the energy and body mechanics they were using so I allowed myself to be taken down a couple of times. It isn't easy when you want to gasp for air after each takedown, so I've been pleased that even with the coughing up blood episodes, I've felt a little better each day.

The good news is my heart. I visited my genius cardiologist, Dr. Michael Giudici, this week and we're both very pleased with the results of the last surgery (other than the pneumonia). My heart is doing great -- beating normally -- and I can't wait to push the old body harder and harder to get back in shape. He told me there were no restrictions -- music to my ears.

Now, if I can stop coughing up blood and get my lungs to behave, I'll be back in business. I had to give up a couple of tournaments in March, but I have my mind set on one being held April 25th. If I can solve the mystery of the blood and heal, I can begin my comeback.

So we'll see how it goes today. I'm working hard to avoid coughing. I won't hesitate to ask my doctor tomorrow to admit me into the hospital and look for the busted blood vessel, but hopefully, I can solve this without another hospital stay.

Preparing for a Martial Arts Promotion - What it Takes to Move Forward

In 1989, I prepared for an advanced sash promotion -- Level 8 -- two levels below black sash, in Sifu Phillip Starr's Yi Li Chuan system in Omaha. Sifu Starr is a great teacher. His classes are very strict but a lot of fun.

On one early test, we had to stand for 20 minutes in a horse stance at the beginning of the test. A higher-ranking student walked behind us and if we tried to cheat by rising up a little bit -- WHACK -- we would be hit with a stick.

You can bet that most of us practiced holding our horse stance before that test.

In the advanced levels---brown belt in most schools---we studied Baguazhang, Shuai Jiao, advanced chi kung and other techniques that we needed to know prior to black sash.

I attended 3 or 4 classes each week and trained at least an hour a day at home. I was working in the news industry at the time -- a very stressful job -- but I always found an hour to work on kung-fu.

I took the test with other students that day, and when Sifu Starr gave us the results, he handed me a certificate. I looked at it and had to do a double-take. He had promoted me TWO levels. Instead of reaching Level 8, he had pushed me up to Level 9 -- one level below black sash. He wrote "Surprise!" under his signature on the certificate.

Naturally, I was honored, because I had never heard of this happening. But what it really showed was the value of training outside of class.

Now that I've been teaching for nearly 12 years, I know how it feels to have students who work outside of class. It's obvious to a teacher when a student comes in knowing the material better than he or she did the last time. Your respect for that student rises.

Likewise, when you see that students haven't spent the time working on important techniques outside of class, you often wonder if you're wasting your time on that student. You want to spend more time with the ones who are working hard.

Successful martial artists know one simple fact -- classroom training is only a small part of learning. In the classroom, you learn the techniques and how to perform them properly. Actually learning it, however, requires real thought and study and a lot of practice on your own time. It's very obvious who has done it and who hasn't.

Straight sword fighting techniques, for example, are not easy to learn. You practice them with your teacher to get proper technique, hand positioning, stance correction, etc. That's just the beginning. From there, you go home and practice each parry, each deflection, each thrust, over and over and over and over -- getting the posture right, the slight break in the wrist -- internalizing the movement so if someone thrusts at you with a sword, you can parry it perfectly without thinking.

When you practice a form in your mind, you reinforce your body's knowledge of the form. When you don't have a partner, use a heavybag or a post and imagine arms and legs. Imagine a right punch coming at you. Practice your techniques. Imagine a kick coming at you. Practice your techniques. An "imaginary friend" as a partner is the next best thing to a human being. You can find a way to practice and truly learn the material if you put your mind into it.

Here's another important thing to know -- it isn't your teacher's responsibility if you haven't mastered the technique. It's your fault if you don't know the material. Your teacher shows you how to do it, corrects any mistakes in your technique, and points the way. The rest is up to you.

In an age when -- at many schools -- students test every 3 months whether they're ready or not (and they usually pass if they pay the test fee), unrealistic expectations arise. Students expect to be promoted because they've shown up and gone through the motions. In a society where all kids get a trophy whether they win or lose, why work hard to be excellent?

There's a lot at stake when students aren't worthy of their sash or belt color. The student's safety is at stake. The teacher's reputation is at stake. And even more important--the quality of the martial art is at stake.

If you aren't able to put the time in at home -- time to think deeply about each technique, the body mechanics for that particular technique, and work hour after hour to perfect the technique -- do everyone a favor and stop taking martial arts. Or, go to class and enjoy it, but don't expect the teacher to spend extra time with you, and don't be surprised when you take the next promotion and the teacher says, "Not this time. You must work harder."

Good teachers will do that for you.  

March Issue of Internal Fighting Arts E-Zine

You can download and read the new issue (March 2009) of Internal Fighting Arts, my monthly electronic magazine.

Some interesting articles in this one, including news of the 2009 U.S. tour schedules of Grandmasters Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, photos of techniques and an interview with a kung-fu master that sheds interesting light on the reality of martial arts.

Download InternalFightingArts-Issue2

Please feel free to send this e-zine to anyone you know who is interested in the internal arts.

Bagua Basic Skills DVD Finally Finished!!!

BaguaDVD-1-250Putting this bagua DVD together has been like giving birth, except the stretch marks aren't as bad with a DVD. I completed the thing a few days ago but it took me 3 full days to figure out how to get 2 1/2 hours of instruction onto one DVD.

I didn't want to have to divide it into two DVDs because I would have to charge more, and it's a bigger pain to copy extra DVDs. I like giving a lot of value for the money, so all of this will cost the regular DVD price of $25 with free shipping in the U.S. and Canada -- a $5.00 shipping charge for International orders.

Baguazhang Basic Skills offers instruction--with an emphasis on body mechanics--in the following:

***Circle-walking, circle-walking patterns, and other stepping techniques.

***Switching exercises, the 8 mother palms and their fighting applications.

***Tea-Serving exercises and their fighting applications.

***Stationary pole exercises.

***Moving pole exercises and their fighting applications.

***The Cheng-style 8 Basic Palms form -- a demonstration and specific instruction in each movement, with an emphasis on body mechanics.

***Fighting applications for the movements in the 8 Basic Palms form.

I've studied bagua since 1988, and I've seen a lot of bagua videos. Very few go into the body mechanics you need to accomplish the internal mechanics, especially the silk-reeling that's so important to bagua. The techniques and the form taught here are required for first-level bagua students that I teach. My aim in putting this together was to provide information that can help students of any bagua style.

U.S. - Canada Orders Click the Button Below:

International Orders Click the Button Below:

"FREE" Martial Arts Classes in the Quad Cities (almost free)

HsingiStaffApps1 Big I have a core group of students who meet three times a week to study Chen tai chi, Hsing-I and Bagua -- the three internal martial arts of China.

I teach them virtually for free. All they pay for is the small monthly fee to belong to the online school-- only $19.99 per month. In exchange for their membership to the online school, they get instruction free of charge, promotions free of charge -- they simply agree to be members of the site and appear in instructional videos for the site and for DVDs.

It's a win-win situation.

I'm extending this offer to others in the Quad Cities. We will accept new students, but there is a catch or two. I'm looking for experienced martial artists who are 16 years old and over. If you have studied other arts in the past -- even if you didn't get very far in those arts -- you can study with us and save a lot of money.

If you're interested, you can email me, join the online school, and start coming to our practices. I'll teach you the arts and you can help our small core group grow.

You must be in good physical shape and able to do the rigorous training required -- including sweeps and other takedowns, joint locks, sparring, and physical exercises. You must also be willing to appear in instructional videos.

And there's one more catch -- you must be serious about it. If you are just looking for "cheap" and don't want to put in the time to practice on your own and work hard, you will not be able to stay in the classes. Slackers do not apply.

It's a pretty sweet offer for people who are interested and serious about learning quality martial arts.