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My Very First Martial Arts Promotion -- Yellow Belt Test in 1973

Kenny-Yellow-Belt-250-pxI was 20 years old on October 30, 1973, when I took my first promotion test in martial arts. I was tested by my teacher, Grandmaster Sin The in Lexington, Kentucky. I'm resisting the urge to put quotes around "Grandmaster." At the time, I really thought he was a Grandmaster.

I had enrolled in classes a little over a month earlier, on September 20th and I had trained my hiney off, punching and kicking up and down the hallways in Commonwealth Hall at Eastern Kentucky University. I practiced at least an hour a day. I was never very good at baseball or football. I high-jumped in high school but wasn't the fastest runner.

Martial arts clicked with me like nothing had before.

When the day of testing came, I was very nervous. But I got up with the other students and performed the following:

** 5 Short Kata

** 5 Sparring Techniques

** 10 Self-Defense Techniques

** 1 Long Kata: "Si Mu Tai Lai"

** One on One Sparring with another student

The short kata were pretty simple. Looking back, it was a lot like karate. In fact, we wore karate gis in class and learned terms and techniques such as "How to Shuto (Karate Chop)." We also did one-step sparring that was called "Ippon Kumite." As I got older and experienced other arts, I shook my head when I recalled how a Shaolin Grandmaster used so many karate terms. Grandmaster The called his art "Shaolin Do Karate" and so I didn't really know the difference at the time.

The first short kata was to block, punch, and block down. Pretty basic stuff.

Self-defense techniques included being pulled on the wrist, choked from the front, and more, but we only had to know the first ten on this test.

In class, Grandmaster The would demonstrate a technique such as a front kick or a block, then he would say, "Practice with yo paht-nah." Then he would leave the room and I would see him at his desk in a tiny office, chowing down on a Big Mac, leaving me practicing and talking it over with other students who knew as little as I did.

The test itself is a bit of a blur as I tried to get things right. One thing I do remember is the guy testing next to me. When we did our short kata, his kicks barely came up off the ground. It was clear he hadn't practiced much at all. But he got his yellow belt just as I did. Welcome to the world of mass-produced martial arts, Mr. Gullette.

Those were exciting times. Classes were full because Bruce Lee had just died in July, and some of his movies hadn't even yet been seen by Americans. Enter the Dragon was still in theaters. If you opened a martial arts school, people would come knocking on your door.

Before I began studying, I was a good fighter (I beat up my share of bullies over the years) but I wasn't a very good athlete. It's no coincidence that a year after beginning in Sin The's Shaolin Do Karate school, I began getting better at all sports, and continued to improve as an athlete even into my Fifties. Kung-fu became part of my life -- the philosophy became the bedrock of my spiritual beliefs. I can't imagine life without it and can't imagine fully enjoying life without it.

So tonight I'll practice, 39 years after my first promotion. The techniques and principles are a little more complicated than in 1973, and even better -- the passion and enthusiasm I feel are as great as they were when I was punching, blocking and kicking back in the dorm at EKU.

I guess I'll keep going as long as I can keep moving. By now, I don't think I have much of a choice.


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New DVD - Basic Building Blocks of Bagua Self-Defense - How to Fight with Bagua

Bagua-Self-Defense-Front-250I believe in a step-by-step approach to the internal arts. You learn principles, body mechanics, forms and techniques, practice them over and over, then you add another and keep practicing.

The same is true for self-defense. The type of self-defense you see in a lot of bagua videos isn't very realistic. It looks great. The instructor is doing a lot of winding, flowery movements -- but usually the opponent isn't exactly trying to fight back. So viewers can get an unrealistic expectation.

My newest DVD is an hour and forty minutes of instruction in what I call the Basic Building Blocks of Bagua Self-Defense. You can buy it through Here is what it includes:

  • More than 130 techniques and internal body mechanics that will help you develop a foundation for Bagua self-defense.
  • How to control your opponent's center.
  • How to uproot and unbalance your opponent.
  • 23 Bagua "Key Words" (principles and techniques) that provide you with simple techniques that you should practice against partners in a one-step and then sparring situation.
  • A group exercise that we call the "Circle of Death" when you go into the center of the circle and are surrounded by sparring partners.

The video on this DVD was shot over a four year period. The lessons were put on my membership website, and recently, we shot more video and I compiled it all on this DVD. The first 25 minutes showing the Three Goals of Bagua -- Uprooting, Unbalancing, and Controlling Your Opponent's Center -- are worth the cost of the entire DVD.

Controlling your opponent's center after a kick.
But in the end, you have to take all these techniques and practice them over and over against partners who aren't playing along like people do on videos. Only then do you figure out what works for you, what works against an unwilling partner, and then you narrow your focus on what to practice.

Fighting with any of the internal arts requires more work than most people are willing to put in. Bagua self-defense does NOT mean walking the circle. Walking the circle is done for training primarily, for leg conditioning and teaching you how to change directions quickly and adapt to multiple attackers. The same internal principles that apply to Chen Tai Chi also apply to Bagua.

This DVD -- as a companion to the first Basic Bagua Skills DVD that I produced -- set you up for other forms and more complex techniques later.


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Interview with Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang on Chinese TV


Ken and Chen Xiaowang around 2000.
Here is a good interview with Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang on Chinese TV. There are English subtitles. 

You have to wait through a very short commercial but the interview show begins right after the commercial.

Chen Xiaowang is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting, who is credited for the creation of Tai Chi. He is the standard bearer for the 19th generation of the Chen family.




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How to Save Years of Skill-Building Time in Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua

A photo from a workshop I did in East Lansing, Michigan, demonstrating and teaching body mechanics.

I received an email from a guy in Kansas a couple of weeks ago. He had seen one of my videos and began asking questions about the internal arts. He had practiced several arts over the years and was now studying Wing Chun from a guy who also teaches Tai Chi but only for health purposes.

He wondered if he was getting the real deal.

I asked a few questions and told him some experiences I've had with instructors who taught Yang tai chi for meditation and health, versus the Chen style instructors I've had who teach body mechanics for internal power. This is not mystical -- it's physical.

Finally, I directed him to the school of Chen Huixian, a niece of Chen Zhenglei who teaches in Overland Park.

At the same time, he signed up for the 10 part free video course that I offer on my website. Here's what he wrote after seeing the second or third video, when I explain peng jin and clearly demonstrate the physical nature of this skill:

"Ken, you have no idea how much that has helped because I really did believe those various energies were, indeed, flowing in me and it took something special to discover or sense them -- and until that happened, they couldn't be utilized properly.  Knowing them for what they are has been liberating!  I believe those facts alone have saved me a couple of years of searching."

It's absolutely true. The internal body mechanics are not the result of some invisible energy flowing through your body -- which, ironically, has never been discovered by science.

The internal body mechanics are the result of proper structure and concepts such as peng jin, ground path, whole-body movement, spiraling movement (silk-reeling), dan t'ien rotation and opening/closing the kua. 

That's the foundation, and without these skills you can waste decades chasing something that doesn't exist. My new friend is right. Most teachers will tell you that internal strength is like a Holy Grail. But a good teacher will clearly demonstrate the mechanics in a physical way, correct you with a hands-on approach, and show you how the movements are used in self-defense. Only then can you understand the "intent" of the movement. A good teacher teaching a legitimate art will not waste your time doing taiji for the purpose of "cultivating chi" but not body mechanics and demonstrations of self-defense applications that put the power into the internal arts.

We'll get the truth out one student at a time.


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You Can't Be Serious -- Chinese Uniforms in the Internal Arts


If you judge whether someone can fight by the fact that they don't wear a uniform, does that mean I can kick Chen Bing's butt?
A teacher I've never met started dissing me on an online martial arts forum a few days ago. One of the things he criticized was wearing a Tai Chi or Kung-Fu uniform in my videos -- Chinese pajamas I think he put it. That showed him I'm not serious about using Taiji, Hsing-I or Bagua for real self-defense. 

That was news to me.

By the way -- I don't always wear a uniform for practice. Sometimes I wear a Bruce Lee t-shirt. Sometimes a "Chillin' With My Peeps" t-shirt. Sometimes I wear a sweatshirt if the weather is cold.

But if I'm doing a video I'll wear a uniform. 

For one thing, it looks more "professional." I don't want to appear like all the backyard masters who you see on YouTube. 

CXX Push 3
If people who wear uniforms are not serious martial artists, I shouldn't have let Chen Xiaoxing take me to the ground.
For another thing, I've always thought a uniform is cool, and isn't that why a lot of us got into the martial arts -- to learn self-defense and because it's cool? :) And, of course, to attract chicks. 

It's interesting how people run across your website or blog and -- if they have a website -- they see you as competition so they have to run you down. He asked if I had ever used my arts to save my own life?

Well, no, I've managed to avoid those situations since I got out of college, or I've managed to talk angry people down. But I've had students who have used these arts for real, including a cop who took down some violent criminals with Hsing-I, a 15-year old boy whose stepfather got drunk and tried to beat him up, and a student who was attacked at a bar.

They weren't wearing uniforms at the time. :) 

Uniforms are not required in my practices.

In fact, my students are not required to wear uniforms. They aren't even required to own a uniform. They really only need one to perform in a tournament. I usually ask those who have uniforms to wear them for videos, but you'll see some of my DVDs and many online videos that have students in them (and me) without uniforms. It really isn't that big a deal, is it? 

This same teacher said that a uniform promotes division and is a symbol of ego. To wear one, he implies, is a sign you're out for status.

See the first pictures at the top of this post? The next time I see Chen Bing or Chen Xiaoxing, I'm going to complain to them that they obviously can't use their arts for self-defense, and they are egotists promoting a division among students.

And then I'm going to tell them my name is Gary Romel. :) Heh heh.

When I buy a DVD from an instructor that I admire -- one of the Chen practitioners, Mike Patterson, or other good internal teachers -- I like it when they wear uniforms, but even if they didn't, their instruction would still be good.

What do you think? If I ever meet the teacher who wrote that stuff, should I wear my "I'm With Stupid" t-shirt instead of my uniform?

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