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September 2017

The Joy of Teaching Tai Chi to an "Older" Group of Students

Ken Gullette Tai ChiSomething happens when you start getting older, when your health begins to go South and the hair turns gray.

Suddenly, you feel differently about the old people you see in the store or on the road. You suddenly develop empathy.

Oh, I get it. That old man still thinks of himself as the strong 25-year old that he was just a few minutes ago. Wasn't it just a few minutes ago?

No, it was 40 years ago, before the losses started piling up; before his parents died, before his friends started dying, before his earning power began dropping, and before his heart began beating like a bad carburetor.

Now, when I see a healthy 25-year old, I think to myself, "It seems like just yesterday." When I was 25, life seemed endless and everything seemed to come easily.

As the years passed, I lost a daughter, I lost jobs, marriages, and eventually, my perfect health declined. There were some gains along the way, too, but the losses pile up.

As we get older, it becomes even more important to maintain our mental and physical balance as we try to ride the ups and downs of life.

Ken Gullette Tai Chi ClassLast week, I started a free Tai Chi class for people aged 40 and over. The first class was packed with more than 70 people. The oldest was 83.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to teach a more "mature" group.

When I first began teaching Tai Chi in 1999, I was still teaching the Yang style. My first official Tai Chi class attracted students from their twenties to their eighties.

At that time, I had already begun studying Chen style and was in the process of switching from Yang to Chen in my practice and in my kung-fu class, made up of mostly teens and young adults.

By 2001, I was teaching Chen style in the Tai Chi class, and the older students began slowly dropping out. Chen style was just too athletic for them.

Nancy and I closed our school in 2007, when I took a job in Tampa, Florida. A year later, that job ended and my health began to go South. I lost the lung and developed cardiomyopathy. For a couple of years around 2012, I was living in heart failure.

Ken Gullette-Nancy Gullette-Tai ChiStarting another Tai Chi class did not appear to be in my future.

But a few weeks ago, I decided to do it, only this time, I would not do it for money, I would do it as a labor of love. The class would be free, and it would be for anyone aged 40 and over -- a free, 6-week class in Qigong and the Chen 19 form.

The turnout was surprising. More than 70 people came in for the first class -- so many that I decided to teach two classes per week.

It is surprising how much I enjoy the class. No one is seeking perfection, and so I make it easy for them, remove the pressure, and make them laugh. My wife, Nancy is in the class, and I use her to demonstrate fighting applications, giving me an opportunity to flirt and tease her. The class really enjoys it.

I encourage heckling in my classes, and always enjoy it when someone cracks a joke. 

On the first night, we do some very light warmups, working down from shoulder circles to side stretches and hip circles. Then, I say, "Touch your fingers to the floor," and I bend over, touching my fingers to the floor. There is usually some giggling, and comments such as, "Yeah, right."

"Okay," I say, "Keep your legs straight and touch your head to the floor." 

That gets a big laugh. Then I say, "If you can touch your head to the floor, you get a black belt."

More laughter.

So here are my tips for teaching Tai Chi to a mature group of students:

** Teach them Qigong exercises and tell them how to use it in their daily lives.

** Lighten up. None of these students wants to be Chen Xiaowang. Don't take it too seriously.

** Go over movements slowly, with a lot of repetition and corrections.

** Encourage laughter. They need it and they want to have fun.

** Have patience. Many older people have little experience with athletics, and as they mirror your movements, their arms and legs will often be in drastically different positions than yours. Give them gentle coaching and expect to go over it several times.

** Ask for questions regularly.

** If you put yourself up on a "teacher pedestal," climb down and be a real human being. Show an interest in them personally.

When I taught the class back from 1999 to 2007, we would occasionally have parties at my house. Sometimes, if a new kung-fu movie was coming out, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, we would pick a showing at the theater and meet there, sitting as a group. It was a lot of fun.

I believe one of the best reasons to teach a class like this is to make new friends. Mature people make great friends. You can add value to their lives, and they can add value to yours.

It is a win-win situation, and nothing is better than that! 

 

 


Internal "Energies" and Takedowns -- The Holy Grail of Tai Chi Self-Defense

Ken Gullette using tai chi to break opponent's structure
Breaking my opponent's structure and controlling his center.

The Holy Grail of Tai Chi self-defense -- in my opinion -- is when you can "feel" an opponent's energy when you are in a clinch and you can break his structure and use Tai Chi "energies" to take him down.

On Saturday, about a dozen martial artists of different styles gathered at Morrow's Academy of Martial Arts in Moline, Illinois and we practiced some of the basic concepts and energies. We recorded the workshop and the video is already going up on my website -- www.internalfightingarts.com -- and I am putting it together for a DVD.

Anyone can use muscular force to pick someone up and throw them to the ground.

But can you use Tai Chi energies to unbalance, uproot, and control your opponent's center so you can take them down?

You have to be able to do a few things:

** Determine how your opponent's center is turning

** Break his structure to unbalance him

** Have your hands and legs in place to help his center turn

** Then turn his center and take it where it wants to go.

The term "energies" has been misinterpreted. Peng, Lu, Ji, An and the other energies are actually "methods" of dealing with an opponent's force. When force comes in, you can roll it back and then press him to unbalance him. That is one example of how energies are used.

You learn to maintain your balance as your opponent loses his, and then you counter.

Colin Frye, in blue, works with a student at the Internal Energies and Takedowns workshop.
Colin Frye, in blue, works with a young student on takedowns.

You can't learn all this in a three-hour workshop, but it is fun to see people from other styles of tai chi and martial arts as their faces light up and they realize they are experiencing something really different.

It is also refreshing to meet people who put aside their "style" for an afternoon, empty their cups and try something else. One of the reasons I do it this way is to educate others on the internal arts, show them that these arts are not as "soft" as the popular image would have them believe, and to add training partners to the videos.

Push hands starts with the basic patterns, working on form and sensitivity. Gradually, you work into applications, then moving, freestyle, and in the end, learning to take your opponent to the ground while using the various energies of Tai Chi to do it. Chen push hands is the bridge between form and fighting. 

I have been working on these principles for a long time. To my knowledge, no other Tai Chi instructor has actually put this information on video in a step-by-step way. It is not really an "ancient Chinese secret," but it is a place that few Tai Chi students get to on their journey. 

This is my mission for the rest of 2017.

 


Celebrating 20 Years of Martial Arts Teaching with Free 6-Week Tai Chi Class

Ken Gullette - Rich Coulter 1998-2
Practicing with Rich Coulter in 1997.

Twenty years ago last night, I taught my first martial arts classes. It was about one month after I earned my black sash.

For some reason, I did not want to compete with my friend John Morrow, who has a kung-fu school in Moline, Illinois, so I chose a fitness center in Muscatine, Iowa, rented a room, and advertised classes would start on October 1, 1997 -- one class for children and one for adults.

Two or three children showed up for the kids' class, and three or four young guys showed up for the adult class.

When the adult class started, and these teenagers and 20-something guys were looking at me as if thinking, "Okay, are you any good?" I began to feel the pressure of the black sash.

They asked questions, and I had to know the answers. They asked, "What if someone does this?" I had to know how to respond.

1997 Kids Class - Copy
The ill-fated Kids' Class.

Teaching was a slap in the face by the cold hand of reality! Being a student is one thing, but being a teacher put me in a new category.

I responded by living, eating, breathing, and sleeping kung-fu. My practice time jumped. It was not unusual, especially on the weekend when I was not working, to practice and workout for six hours a day. Two nights a week I was teaching and the other nights, practicing and studying.

Within a few months, as I studied and researched the Hsing-I, Yang Tai Chi and Bagua I was teaching, I discovered there were holes in my curriculum and my training. I heard internal terms that I had not been taught. This led me to Jim and Angela Criscimagna, who introduced me to Chen Tai Chi, and that changed the course of my training. 

I was lucky. Among my first students were Rich Coulter and Chad Steinke. They walked in with the look of skepticism in their eyes. They had both studied other arts, but they liked what they saw in my class and came back. In the coming two or three years, we tore up the tournament circuit and had a great time together. Rich became my first black sash student and both are still good friends.

The Kids' Class only lasted about 18 months. I love kids, but I felt it was holding me back in my own development. One evening, when one of my 11-year old students began crying when I was coaching him on a movement, I asked what was wrong.

"You're always criticizing me!" he bawled. 

I was stunned, and tried to explain that I was simply trying to help him do the movement better.

At that point, I realized that teaching children was not what I wanted to do. Some people are great at it, and some do it because it's the only way their schools are profitable, but I decided I would rather not make a profit if I had to endure that, so when I moved my "school" to the Quad Cities in January, 1999, I left the kids for good.

Celebrating with a Free 6-Week Tai Chi Class

Tonight, at the Bettendorf Community Center in Bettendorf, Iowa, I am launching a free 6-week tai chi class for anyone aged 40 and over. I have been flooded with calls since the Quad-City Times ran a short article about it yesterday.

Tai Chi Class 2002
Some members of the tai chi class from 2002, in a pose from the Yang 24.

Most of the people who are attending have never studied qigong or tai chi before. It's going to be a lot of fun. A few of my older students from 15 years ago will be there. They are now in their 70s. 

One 78-year old woman called yesterday to tell me she would be there tonight. She thanked me for my gift to the community and she said I am a "gift to the universe." How sweet was that? I can't wait to meet her.

A gift to the universe. At my age, I feel like I have been re-gifted. 

During the past 8 years, since I lost my left lung and have occasionally been forced to spend time in the ICU and the ER, my health has not been dependable enough to hold a regular class like this. But with my 20-year teaching anniversary, I thought it was time to try again.

If it works and people like it, I might try again after the first of the year. But if I don't, the people I bring into the art may seek out other instructors in the area. I am the only one holding classes in Chen Tai Chi, however, but when you are beginning and in your 50s and up, you are not really looking to eat bitter, you are looking for health, fitness, and fun, and that's what this class will be.