43 Years Ago - My First Martial Arts Lesson During the Bruce Lee Craze

A year or two after I began studying.

I am always surprised when the anniversary of my first martial arts lesson rolls around. Forty-three years tonight, during the height of the Bruce Lee craze, one month after "Enter the Dragon" opened in theaters, I attended my first lesson, at Sin The's school in Lexington, Kentucky. His school was in a converted garage in the Eastland Shopping Center, and there were so many students responding to the introductory class, we spilled out into the driveway. I was in the driveway.

I have forgotten exactly what we learned that night, but what Sin The ("Grandmaster" The) taught, "Shaolin-Do Karate," seemed mysterious and deadly. As years passed, long after I left his school, the name "Shaolin-Do Karate" made me laugh. But it was a start, and as I learned the punches, kicks, blocks, one-steps, forms and self-defense techniques, I took to it like the proverbial fish to water.

When I see students now who "didn't have time to practice" lately, I remember how I spent an hour a day in my dorm, doing kicks, punches, and stepping techniques up and down the hall for an hour a day -- over and over. I did that while in college and working three part-time jobs to survive.

When promotion time came, I noticed that some of the students around me looked terrible -- no passion, no energy, no snap in their techniques -- but they received their promotion just as I did. I didn't really care if they got promotions with less effort. I wanted to be his best student at each level that I reached.

At 20 years of age, I had no idea how important martial arts would be in my life. Several years ago, when I lost the function of my left lung, I wondered how long I would be able to continue in the arts. My wife said, "I can't imagine you not doing kung-fu. It is part of you."

She was right.

Ken-Gullette-Flying-Kick-2014-blogDespite the physical struggles of the past several years, I have persisted, and recently, for the first time in a few years, I've padded up and have begun working on fighting techniques with a harder edge, and sparring with my students. For several years, I was either in heart failure or I was coughing up blood, or in serious pulmonary distress. I'll never be what I was prior to 2009, but I can still learn, and I can still get better.

Besides, there are fighting techniques I simply need to work on. That's what fascinates me with these arts.

This past weekend, I attended a Guided Chaos workshop in Cincinnati. More about that tomorrow in another blog post. I was working with Joe, one of the talented, tough-as-nails teachers, and as he was working with me on a principle, at one point I said, "Yes, I see. I need to empty my cup and forget what I normally do."

He replied, "You have already emptied your cup, or you wouldn't be here."

And I think that is part of the key to the past 43 years of this love affair with martial arts. I realize as much today as I did on September 20, 1973 that I have so much to learn. The big difference is that now, I realize that I don't have enough time now to learn what I want to learn, or to become as good as I want to become.

But it's still a lot of fun trying.

I won't be here in another 43 years. I don't think. But then, in 2009, the odds were that I wouldn't be here now. So I'm not making any predictions. Now let's practice.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and the Story of Students and Spaghetti

Chen Xiaowang 2At one of the workshops I attended with Chen Xiaowang, he told the story of a taiji instructor who invited his young, eager students to have dinner with him.

They all sat around the table as spaghetti with meatballs was served.

The master took his fork and tried to spear a juicy meatball that was on his plate. He missed.

The master kept trying to spear the meatball and it kept slipping away from the fork, so he chased it around the plate, stabbing and missing.

After a moment, he looked up at his young students seated around the table. Each student was chasing a meatball around the plate just like the master was doing.

That is how the master does it, so that is how it must be done. The master is showing us the way! 

I am paraphrasing this story. In Chen Xiaowang's version, the master may have been using chopsticks - it has been a while, but the gist of the story is the same, and he laughs when he tells it, but as you look around at the students who are listening, you see them smile and shake their heads because they see the truth in the story.

Yes, we are all guilty. We see a master do a movement one way and we think, "That is the way it is done. There is no variation!"

Later, we see the master doing a movement differently, and we wonder why he changed it. And if the master makes a mistake, students who follow blindly continue to make the mistake.

Then we get confused when we see a different master doing the same movement differently. But THAT is not the way it is done! Some masters of Xingyi don't bend, or "seat" the wrist when the lead hand is forward in San Ti. Some hold it another way. Some bagua masters used the ox tongue palm, others used the willow leaf. Once a master does it one way THAT IS THE WAY YOU MUST DO IT, or at least that is what students often think.

Some of my students will ask questions about small, subtle placements of hands, or one particular way of doing one tiny part of a movement. Sometimes, I tell them to follow the way that I learned it, but I sometimes tell them that it doesn't matter. You can do it this way, or you can do it that way. As long as you are maintaining the proper structure and mechanics, some of the little things don't matter. Also, as long as it still works in application, that is a good guide to follow.

Gongfu masters are human beings. Honor them, learn from them, get corrected by them, and follow them as well as you can. But don't check your brains at the door. Think, study, and apply your knowledge and carry the art forward. But don't be frozen in time like a snapshot just because "that's the way the master did it." And don't forget -- other masters might have a better way. Don't become too attached to one way of doing something.

Don't be a meatball.

Is Tai Chi a Healing Art? Interview with Author of Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi - Peter Wayne

HarvardTai Chi is a martial art. Every movement is a powerful fighting application for self-defense.

But is it also a healing art? Does it have benefits that are more powerful than normal exercise, and if it does, do those benefits come from the slow, controlled nature of Tai Chi and the mindful, meditative components and from the flow of chi?

I would guess that more people consider it to be a healing art than a martial art. But is it really? Or when it is done in slow motion, is it one of the most low-impact exercises that elderly people can do to get them moving and to get their minds off their problems?

Do we think of it as a healing art based on outdated stories and science that doesn't hold up?

And do clinical trials show benefits that can be attributed simply to exercise and calming meditation, or is it something more? Are the health benefits of Tai Chi anything special?

Almost a year ago, I bought the Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, by Peter Wayne, Ph.D. I began asking Peter to appear on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast last August. After the podcast last month with Dr. Harriet Hall, the "SkepDoc," and the heat I encountered from some in the Tai Chi community following that interview, I thought it was time to balance the scales and talk to someone who is obviously more inclined toward the "traditional" view of the art.

Last week, I was finally able to talk with Dr. Wayne for an hour. The result is this podcast, the 24th in the series.

Don't miss the final five minutes, as I clarify part of the interview and have some final thoughts that wrap up some of the issues raised in the past two podcasts.

Follow this link to listen online or download the mp3 file to your computer -- the Internal Fighting Arts podcast 24 - Peter Wayne.



Changing Yin to Yang -- Turning a Negative Life Situation into a Positive

Ken Defense 97
Oh, really, Life? You want a piece of this? 1997

What do you do when life gives you a roundhouse kick to the head? A punch to the groin? A heel kick to the solar plexus?

Nineteen years ago this morning, I walked into WHBF-TV, where I was news director, and management was waiting for me. I was pulled into a meeting where the GM and the Program Director told me they were letting me go. In the news business, it happens.

"Ken, we're parting company," the GM said.

"I have two words for you," I replied, and saw them brace as they sat across the table.

"Thank you," I said.

I left the station, and by the next day, realized that while I was looking for another job, I would train hard and finally test for my black sash in kung-fu.

I worked hard for a month, went to Omaha to test, and succeeded. I began teaching by October. By that time, I was working at Mike Bawden's ad agency in Davenport. From there, I went to ACT (the college test) as director of media relations.

Being fired from a job changed my life in a very positive way. Besides pushing me toward a new career in media relations, PR and communications, it helped me take steps that have resulted in a third career, teaching martial arts to people around the world through this blog, my DVDs and my membership website

After more than eight years at ACT, I decided to try something new, so I took a job as director of media relations at the University of South Florida. It was a great job, but I found myself being asked to hold news conferences and do media interviews on sensitive topics ranging from students arrested on terrorism charges to football players accused of cheating. It was more intensely political than I expected, and each time I did an interview on behalf of President Genshaft, I walked away with arrows in my back, often fired from within the University.

Within a year, I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and a week later, I found myself without a job. My nephew, Brian Ragsdale called to talk, and he sparked the idea for my website, www.internalfightingarts.com. I would work for myself, putting all the instruction onto video lessons that I had been teaching my students for over a decade. I would offer it to people around the world who wanted to study but didn't have a teacher nearby. I began making DVDs more prolifically, and on July 4, 2008, the website was born and it is going stronger than ever eight years later.

None of it would have happened if management hadn't asked me, 19 years ago this morning, "Ken, you got a minute?"

Yes, I do. I "got" all the minutes you want. 

How can you turn a life-changing negative event into something positive? You can do it. I am living proof. But after all, one of the things our philosophy in kung-fu is supposed to do is help you ride the ups and downs of life, isn't it? Trust me, I've seen as many downs as anyone. If you hang in long enough and work at it, yin will always turn into yang again. The wheel turns.

Sometimes, an event that seems to be really bad at the moment can be just the push you need. The next step is yours.

Remaining Centered in the Heat of Battle and the Three Internal Harmonies

My opponent in this match provided an example of NOT using the Three Internal Harmonies.

He was in his twenties -- young and cocky. I was in my late forties. I could tell by the way he carried himself and the way he looked at me that he thought it was going to be easy. He thought he was going to kick my butt.

It really made him mad a moment after the match started when I swept him to the ground. He hit the wooden gymnasium floor hard, and when he got back up, he was STEAMED

I always loved to spar in tournaments. It was great competition, and it refined some of the skills you need for self-defense on the street. Even in "no contact" tournaments, a lot of contact was made. Ribs were cracked, jaws were jacked, gashes were opened up sometimes. Damn, it was fun.

In a tournament match, I never lost my cool. If my opponent scored on me, I would congratulate him. 

"Good shot," I would say. The referees loved the sportsmanship. I never got angry. If my opponent was good enough to score a good shot on me, he deserved a pat on the back. And then a roundhouse kick to the head, heh heh.

This young karate guy I sparred in 2001 was one of those guys who proves the validity of the "Three Internal Harmonies" concept in the internal arts.

When you are successfully using the Three Internal Harmonies, your "heart" or "spirit" is in harmony with your "intent," or your logical mind.

If you are afraid or nervous, your spirit (Shen) is weak. If you are courageous and calm, your spirit is strong. You have the "fighting spirit."

When your logical mind (Yi) is strong, you clearly see your opponent's techniques, his strengths and weaknesses, and if your energy (Chi) is strong, you take advantage of them by applying strength (Li). In the internal arts, it is expressed this way: the Shen harmonizes with the Yi, the Yi harmonizes with the Chi, and the Chi harmonizes with the Li. 

When your "heart" and your "intent" is strong and in harmony and your "energy" is strong, you can then use your "strength" and skillfully defeat your opponent.

A Cincinnati tournament in 1983 - the Eye of the Tiger.

This is the best example of what the Three Internal Harmonies really means. There is nothing mystical about it.

At this tournament in 2001, this strong, cocky young man came at me hard. But when I swept him, he lost his cool. He became angry and his "intent," or logical mind became scattered with anger. His "heart," or emotional mind took over. He was no longer in harmony. He couldn't focus his strength or technique and became out of control.

I never could understand why guys would get angry in tournament matches. I met a lot of really great competitors with good attitudes, but I have to admit -- I enjoyed it when my opponents got angry. It was a good sign that I was going to win.

As the years passed, I grew to enjoy sparring so much, I stopped keeping score during the match. It didn't matter to me who won any particular point. The judges would stop us, they would rule on the point, then tell us to resume fighting.

I remained calm and centered, and took each point as it came. Sometimes, at the end of the match, I was surprised to find that I had won.

The lesson of the Three Internal Harmonies can be applied in self-defense, but also at work and even in your personal relationships. When faced with an impossible deadline at work, when faced with an angry spouse or child at home, simply understand that you have the ability and the skill to solve the problem, focus your calm attention on the problem at hand, and get to work.

The Three Internal Harmonies can really help you out when someone is trying to kick your butt. But this concept is intended to be used not just as a method of fighting, but also as a way of life.

Bruce Lee Did Us A Disservice When He Said "Boards Don't Hit Back"

Bruce Lee did all of us a disservice but I don't think it was intentional. He said, "Boards don't hit back," but he said it in the context of a movie, when O'Hara arrogantly broke a board just before he was to fight Bruce.

When Bruce said, "Boards don't hit back," it wasn't a put-down of board-breaking as a training tool. It was a threat that he was going to kick O'Hara's ass in a movie.

Now, 43 years after "Enter the Dragon," when you put a video up showing breaks, a few guys who troll the internet as keyboard warriors love to say, "Boards don't hit back."

Here is my answer. Neither do heavybags. Neither do speedbags. Neither do focus mitts. Air doesn't hit back when you shadowbox.

And Bruce Lee understood what board-breaking was -- a demo of focused power. If you hit a board wrong, it lets you know. It doesn't break, and with some boards, like the black one that I use, which is the strongest, it can cause a little pain.

Let all the intelligent martial artists put this old cliche to rest, because it is just a line from a movie that has no context in training. After all, as this video shows, Bruce was not opposed to using boards as a tool.

1969 Video of Bruce Lee Breaking A Board With... by videobash

Also remember that when Bruce Lee demonstrated his One-Inch Punch, his partner was not hitting back.

A board is a training tool. It is just one tool that provides a little feedback. Lighten up and use every tool you can. When keyboard warriors try to make themselves feel like tough guys by making these comments, I ban them from my page. They aren't smart enough to deserve the information I try to provide.

Xingyiquan Self-Defense and the Pursuit of Improvement

Xingyi Training 3I enjoy practicing with students and helping them learn. Actually, I learn as they learn.

Recently, we began videotaping instruction for the website on moving from form to fighting with Xingyi. Doing the videos drove home the need to take your own ego out of practicing with your students. We've all known teachers who must constantly show that they are more advanced than their students.

In these videos, my partner and I feed each other punches and kicks and we "internalize" Xingyi techniques and body mechanics in anticipating and responding to varying attacks.

I don't try to fake out my partner and I don't try to make him look bad. I go lightly and help him learn to intercept, block, and counter. If he messes up, we keep going in a non-judgmental way, with the goal being to improve our skills.

Then my student will feed me punches and kicks and I work on my skills, too. I'm not afraid to make mistakes in front of my students. When I first began teaching, I felt the need to be perfect in front of my students. Now, I don't give a damn. Life is too short and perfection is an ego trip. I continue to learn and, hopefully, to improve. And the website members who study the videos also learn. That's the goal.

The Secret of Making Progress in Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua This Year

Baby Steps 3To make progress in 2016, all you need to do is put in a little time each day. Study, don't just go through the motions. Really think about how you are moving and why. Think about the energies and methods you are trying to achieve.

Every class you participate in should help you take one more baby step down the path toward understanding.

You should be excited about every small insight, and those insights will come with a good teacher and by thoughtful study and mindful practicing. If you are not leaving your classes excited about a new insight you have gained or an improvement you have made -- a baby step you have taken -- then you need a new teacher or a new attitude.

You must set a goal for this year. Where do you want to be with your skill by December 31st? Do you want to learn a new form? Do you want to understand certain concepts more clearly? Do you want to master certain techniques?

Get a calendar and write your goals on December 31st. Specific goals such as, "I have learned Laojia Yilu," or, "I understand and can use the 13 Energies in both movement and application."

Now, put together a plan of the steps you need to take to get there -- specific steps and dates when you need to accomplish it. Then start on those actions. If your goal is to learn Laojia Yilu, get a DVD and begin practicing movement one. Tomorrow, practice movement one and movement two. Get input and instruction from your teacher to make sure you are on the right path.

You can achieve anything you want, but first you have to know what you want to achieve, write it down, plan out the steps to take, and then take action.

One baby step at a time.

What is the Right Way to Leave a Martial Arts Teacher?

Most teachers develop a bond with students when they achieve great things together, as we did at a tournament in 2000.

Fellow taiji instructor Kim Ivy of Seattle put an interesting post on Facebook last week and it triggered some thoughts that probably all instructors entertain from time to time.

It's a bit puzzling to us, and it actually sometimes hurts a little bit when we spend time with a student, coach them, laugh with them, give time and energy and care, only to have them suddenly vanish and we never hear from them again.

It has happened to me several times. I have had students who achieved rank, attended tournaments with me and we had a great time, developed a camaraderie, and suddenly they are gone and never communicate, as if I was just some passing acquaintance.

As a student, I left one or two teachers without saying anything, including my very first teacher, Sin The. But in all the time I was a student of Sin The's, rising to 3rd degree brown belt, I can't recall one conversation that he ever had with me. I'm not even sure he ever gave me any personal coaching at all. It was a very impersonal environment, and between my youth and the lack of a relationship with the teacher, I simply left the school. It probably was not the right thing to do.

So what is the best way to leave a martial arts teacher? When is it appropriate to leave without a trace?

Students leave for a variety of reasons -- they may simply not have the money for the monthly fee; they might be bogged down with school, with jobs, with personal relationships or family. All that is understandable, and all teachers understand that life often gets in the way of martial arts.

Personal integrity is important here. If your teacher has displayed integrity in his or her dealings with you -- if the instructor has been honest and friendly and put forth an effort to teach you skills -- you will show integrity by communicating in person when it is time to leave the school. 

However, if the teacher has allowed or created a negative or hostile environment in the school, or has been personally and unreasonably critical, it might be best to simply walk away.

If you find that your teacher has lied about his or her background, if they have made up their history or if they have lied about their lineage or teachers, will it do any good to confront them on it? Probably not. Would it be honest to let them know you are disappointed that they lied? Yes. But I could understand it if a student simply left, because again, the issue of personal integrity has come into play. If the teacher shows a lack of personal integrity by lying, the student does not owe him anything but contempt, in my opinion. Taking money under false pretenses is stealing.

If you have even the slightest feeling that your teacher could become angry or abusive if you tell him that you are leaving, it is best not to say anything. Just leave.

In the end, you should do what you think is the right thing to do, not the easy thing to do. It's always easiest to just walk away from any relationship. Some people break up with girlfriends or boyfriends with a text message. That's pretty cold. Someone who has meant something to you deserves a face-to-face conversation unless abuse or physical violence is a possibility.

Personal integrity is not always the easy route, but it is always the most satisfying in the end. And if you are studying martial arts, isn't integrity one of the core strengths that the art is supposed to help you develop? You can demonstrate your internal strength by doing the right thing.


The Chinese Tai Chi Uniform -- Should You Wear One or Not?

Ken DemoHave you ever seen some of the snide comments made online by some internal arts people who slam those who wear a uniform when taking photos or videos? They refer to the uniform in a derogatory way as "silk pajamas."

I always wonder why people feel the need to do that. It seems a bit immature, and sometimes comes off simply as mean-spirited. It is not exactly the nature that Taiji is supposed to develop in people, is it?

I wear a uniform when I do photos and instructional videos. When I watch an instructional video by another teacher, it always looks more professional when they are in a uniform than when they are in a Budweiser t-shirt and sweat pants. But that's just my opinion.

Chen Village Uniform
Students of Chen Ziqiang wearing a uniform for a video in the Chen Village.

In recent years, I have worn a black and white uniform that was inspired by a wonderful documentary called Chen Village, by Jon Braeley. If you haven't seen it, and you are into Taiji, I highly recommend it. 

In the documentary, students of Chen Ziqiang are wearing a black and white uniform that I thought was strikingly beautiful -- a yin/yang design with the front half white and the back half black.

I had one custom made and that's what I wear in my videos and public demonstrations.

Chen Yu
Taiji master Chen Yu wearing a uniform.

It just looks cool, and isn't that why we got into martial arts in the first place? Three reasons -- to learn self-defense; to impress chicks; and because it's cool. Am I right? You're damn right I'm right. 

A lot of Taiji instructors wear uniforms in videos or in public demonstrations. Am I not to wear one because I'm not Chinese? Tell that to the Americans who practice Karate, Taekwondo, or Aikido and wear uniforms to practice.

When I practice with my students, we wear t-shirts and workout pants. A good Bruce Lee t-

Chen Xiaowang
Taiji master Chen Xiaowang wearing a uniform.

shirt always works. Sometimes, someone will wear a uniform and that's fine. My only rule is that my students do NOT wear an "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt.

In the end, to slam people for wearing "silk pajamas" in photos or public demonstrations is much more appropriate coming from a school yard bully than from a serious Taiji person. I expect better from them, don't you?