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. 

 


Workshop on Internal "Energy" and Takedowns on Saturday, Oct. 7 in Moline, IL

Chen-Xiaoxing-Ken-Gullette-2006-webI was doing push hands with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing in my basement in 2006. We were doing a push hands pattern that includes a step, forward and back.

I stepped forward, maintaining contact with his arms.

Suddenly, I was slammed down on the basement floor. On my back!

I was surprised, to say the least. I got up and touched hands with him again. I stepped forward as we did the pattern. I stepped back. Then, as the pattern continued, I stepped forward.

BAM! I was on my back again!

What in the world was he doing? I didn't really feel him do much of anything.

I got up and we started again. Within a few seconds, WHAM! On my back again.

I laughed. Chen Xiaoxing laughed. I got back up, we started again, and within a few seconds, WHAM! On my back.

I laughed harder. He laughed harder. I got back up, fascinated.

He must have done it ten times before I realized what he was doing. He was controlling my center, breaking my structure, making me turn a certain way, and reaching around to grab my shoulder and keep me turning that way.

It was one of the most important moments of my martial arts career.

A lot of tai chi (taiji) students never get to the point where they can use internal body mechanics and internal "energy" in takedowns.

Often, their teachers only teach them tai chi for health and meditation.

Teachers often focus on "chi cultivation" instead of the main purpose of tai chi -- a martial art.

All of the energies that they talk about in the internal arts are not really energies coursing through your body. This is a misinterpretation.

The different energies -- peng, lu, ji, an, etc. -- are methods of dealing with an opponent's force.

Tai Chi is also a close-up fighting art. The closer your opponent gets, the better you can use the sensitivity developed in push hands and lead him into a position of vulnerability.

Your goal is to "listen" to his force (sense where it is going and its intensity), adapt to it, neutralize it, and counter with a self-defense application.

Most people think of tuishou, or "push hands," as a sensitivity drill with a partner. It is much more than that. And the closer you get to your opponent, the more you learn to "listen" to his energy and then, break him and put him on the ground.

On Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, I will hold a 3-hour workshop where we will look at how these concepts are used to take your opponent down.

It does not matter what style of tai chi you study -- in fact, this will be useful for any style of martial artist.

Here are some of the things you will learn:

--How to break an opponent's structure.

--How to control an opponent's center.

--How internal "energies" are used in takedowns.

--How to unbalance your opponent with less force.

--7 ways your legs are used in takedowns.

The workshop will be held at Morrow's Academy of Martial Arts at 1321 5th Avenue in downtown Moline, IL.

The cost of this workshop is only $40. All proceeds go to Morrow's Academy for the use of the building. 

The workshop will be videotaped for a DVD. All participants will receive a copy of the DVD when it is produced within two months. I don't charge much for my workshops. I want people to come. I make my money on the back end. The video shot will be used on my website and in a DVD. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved.

There is a lot more to it than the techniques that Chen Xiaoxing used 11 years ago to give me a new perspective on my basement floor. But the insight I gained that night started me on the road to exploring, thinking, studying, and practicing different ways to use my opponent's energy against him, using the methods (energies) of internal movement.

I love this stuff, and you will have a new appreciation for it if you come to the workshop, then get the DVD, and keep practicing.

If you have any questions, email me at ken@internalfightingarts.com.

If you come to the workshop, I will show you exactly how Chen Xiaoxing put me on my back over and over in my basement. You will learn to do it, too. 


Fun and Flirting on the Kung-Fu Training Floor -- Teaching My Wife an Ancient Chinese Secret

My wife, Nancy is my videographer. She is usually behind the camera as we record lessons for DVDs and the website.

Yesterday, as we were recording some tuishou instruction about using tai chi "energies" and methods to do takedowns, we pulled her out in front of the camera to learn how to do a takedown using "shoulder" energy.

I enjoy teasing Nancy. She has a great sense of humor. One of the reasons I started in martial arts was because I thought it was fun. I still do, so I often include outtakes and jokes in my DVDs and video for the website.

This is a short video showing Nancy learning a good technique. The Chinese term for the technique is at the end.

 


Chen Huixian -- A Great Chen Tai Chi Instructor Living in the United States

Chen Huixian Workshop 7-16-17What would you have if you attended a workshop with a highly-skilled member of the Chen family who deepened your understanding of body mechanics, structure and movement, showed fighting applications that amazed you, spoke English to communicate the information, and made the atmosphere joyful and full of laughter as your legs burned and you sweated and grew stronger?

You would have Chen Huixian, the niece and indoor disciple of Chen Zhenglei who lives in the Kansas City area with her husband Michael Chritton, another talented Chen teacher.

I have learned from Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing, Chen Ziqiang, and I admire each of them. I have learned excellent things from them (and especially from their American students/disciples, who studied with them and other teachers) and would study when them again in a heartbeat. I have had some excellent moments with each one. But the two workshops I have done with Chen Huixian are the most satisfying of any of my experiences in martial arts.

This is not a political statement, it is just honesty, and it is something that I wanted to share because I don't think it is widely known. Yet.

In 2013, after working with her and Michael for a weekend, I came away with two major corrections and concepts that boosted the quality of my tai chi, involving the kua and peng jin.

This weekend, after 15 hours of training, I came away with deeper understanding of empty and solid, grounding, using the kua, and "sitting in the chair," the type of posture that makes your legs immediately scream for mercy if you are not accustomed to it. Patrick Rogne, a student of Chen Huixian's, hosted the workshop in Madison, Wisconsin.

I have paid a lot of money and traveled a long way to study with teachers, and I did not always walk away with the same types of advances in my own understanding as I feel like I have each time I have trained with Chen Huixian. But it goes beyond the information she gives and the corrections she makes. It's the sense of humor and joy she brings to her classes, and the interest she shows. There is a lot of traditional pain in her classes, as there is with any good tai chi master, but there is also laughter.

Once or twice, if I were really honest with myself, I would admit that I walked away from a couple of workshops by a "famous master" feeling as if I got very little except "one, two, three, four," and a photo opportunity. Not with Chen Huixian.

If I were 20 years younger, I would be seeking to become her disciple. At this point, the best I can do is tell everyone that we have a real taiji jewel here in the U.S., and anyone who brushes her off because they have a teacher or because she is female is losing out on an outstanding teacher, a tough martial artist, a great human being and a wonderful learning opportunity.

Visit the website of Chen Huixian's school in the Kansas City area by following this link.

Learn more about Chen Huixian - Listen to Ken's interview with Michael Chritton on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast.


Tai Chi Videos for Beginners: the Chen 19 Form DVD is an Introduction to the Original Style of Tai Chi

Chen-19-2017-250If you are looking for a great introduction to the art of Tai Chi Chuan for beginners, the Chen 19 form is a short, easy-to-learn series of movements that can be practiced both for health and for martial art.

The Chen 19 was created in the 1990s by Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. 

The most popular tai chi form in the world is the Yang 24 simplified form that was created in Beijing to provide a standardized form. It took off because it is short and can easily be learned and practiced by Westerners who do not have the time or patience to do a longer form on a daily basis.

It seems logical that the Chen family saw this and decided to create their own form to compete with the short Yang form.

The Chen 19 is perfect. The basic movements can be learned in a weekend and it takes about five minutes to perform, easily fitting into a hectic modern workday.

I have practiced both forms. I taught the Yang 24 when I first began teaching Tai Chi, but after I switched to Chen style in 1998, the only "short" form I do is the Chen 19. I prefer the body mechanics of Chen style, and the "lively" body method.

My first Chen 19 instructional DVD came out in 2008. Last year, I revised it. I take you step-by-step through the entire form. The DVD runs just over 2-and-a-half hours. Besides solo instruction, you will also see me coach a student through the movements. You learn by watching him make mistakes and get corrected on camera. It's the next best thing to being in a live classroom setting. Each movement is taught with detail that you won't find on any other tai chi instructional dvds.

Check out a clip from the DVD here. It is available in standard and Blu-Ray versions. If you or someone you know is curious about trying Tai Chi, this is an inexpensive and convenient way to try it out.

 


Disciple of Chen Qingzhou: the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Chen Taijiquan Instructor Mark Chen

Mark ChenI get to meet a lot of dedicated martial artists when I do interviews for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast.

I've had Mark Chen's book, "Old Frame Chen Family Taijiquan" on my bookshelf for years, but the only thing I knew about him was that he is a disciple of Chen Qingzhou. When he was recommended recently for the podcast, I pulled his book out again and realized he had a refreshingly clear perspective on Taiji -- down-to-earth and free of mystical woo woo.

He agreed to talk with me a few days ago, and gave a very good interview about training with traditional martial arts instructors. It was a very enjoyable interview, especially his stories of training with "old school" teachers.

Mark has also studied with other gongfu masters, including Guo Lianyin, Bill Gee, Chen Youze, and Zhang XueXin.

Follow this link to listen to the interview with Mark Chen on Audello. You can listen online or download the file.

It will be on iTunes within a few hours.

This is the 29th Internal Fighting Arts podcast I have done, and I am enjoying it more than ever. I get a great feeling in promoting these instructors, who have worked so hard and gone through such pains to learn Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, and more. I'm very happy to give them a spotlight and provide information that listeners don't get in the national martial arts magazines. It is also fun to provide "real-world" interviews. I try to peel back the curtain so listeners can get some behind-the-scenes information about the real world of high-quality internal gongfu. 

Enjoy!


A Chen Pan Ling Lineage: the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Dan Djurdjevic

Dan Djurdjevic and Chen Yun Ching
Dan Djurdjevic (standing) with his teacher Chen Yun Ching.

One of the things I admire about the guests on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast is the determination they have, and the pains they go through, to learn and to develop their martial arts skill.

The latest interview -- with Dan Djurdjevic -- is no exception. Dan is considered by his teacher, Chen Yun Ching, to be a master instructor in the style of Chen's father, Chen Pan Ling.

Dan lives and teaches in Perth, Australia. He and his brother have a school in Perth called Traditional Fighting Arts and he has an excellent blog called "The Way of Least Resistance."

This wide-ranging interview touches on subjects including the teaching style of Chen Yun Ching and modern-day self-defense.

As an attorney with experience as a prosecutor, Dan has an interesting angle on self-defense. The section on "flipping the script" is outstanding; a tactic that every martial artist needs to hear.

Click this link to listen to the podcast on Audello, or to download it to your hard drive.

You can also listen to the Internal Fighting Arts podcast and subscribe to it on iTunes.

 

 


Chen Village Taiji, Beijing Taiji, and a Reunion with Jim and Angela Criscimagna

Ken-Jim-Angela-2017
Jim and Angela Criscimagna with Ken at their home last week.

I had a great visit last week with my first (and best) Chen taiji instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna, at their home in Escondido, California. Nancy and I went to San Diego to attend the Social Media Marketing World conference, which I used as an excuse to see Jim and Angela and get some input on taiji.

I began studying with them in 1998 when they lived in Rockford, Illinois, and continued until around 2004, when I met and became a student of Mark Wasson. This is the second time I have seen Jim since 2004, and the first time I've seen Angela since then.  

Jim and Angela became disciples of Chen Xiaowang, but Jim was drawn more and more to the Beijing style of Chen taiji, which was taught by Chen Fake and handed down by students such as Feng Zhiqiang (teacher of Zhang Xue Xin), Chen Zhaokui (father of Chen Yu), Chen Zhaoxu (father of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing), among others.

Jim and Angela have had several martial arts teachers over the years, including Zhang Xue Xin, who they studied with before training with Chen Xiaowang. I met Chen Xiaowang because they sponsored his workshops in Rockford.

Around 2005, Jim and Angela met Chen Yu while in China. The quality of his art and his body method caught their attention, and Jim began exploring the differences between the Beijing way and the Chen Village way.

When I studied with Jim and Angela, we were primarily doing taiji the way Chen Xiaowang was teaching it. Last week at his home, Jim coached me on some of the differences between the Chen Village way and the Beijing way.

I returned home on Sunday. Last night at practice, a student asked me what I had learned. I had to tell him that I really wasn't in the position of showing much because I am still processing the information. It will take some time and some dedicated practice, and some followup questions, before I will be able to translate it into movement. In general terms, it involves slight changes in stances, in the shifting and placement of weight to establish root, in the way the inside leads the outside, and other coaching that involved openings and closings and sinking. It is very difficult to explain.

Ken-Jim-PushHands-2001
Jim and Ken practicing push hands in the early 2000s.

In recent years, the debate has risen about the differences between the Beijing way and the Chen Village way. Did Chen Fake take the highest quality of the art to Beijing when he relocated there from Chen Village, leaving the art in the Chen Village to decline in his absence? Did Chen Xiaowang's generation learn as much as they really needed to learn from Chen Zhaoxu, Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui? Since most of my training has been in the Chen Village way, this is an important question for me. And I have never been afraid to change my viewpoint when new information comes in; that is true in religion, politics and martial arts. I have changed beliefs, parties and styles based on new information. I have changed my beliefs about psychic phenomena and "alternative" medicine. When new information arises, you have to change and evolve if you are going to be intellectually honest.

From the explanations and coaching I received last week, I believe there are differences between the Chen Village and Beijing styles of Chen taiji that are worth exploring. Is one better than the other? That's an individual decision.

CXW-Jim-Angela-Ken-2000
From left to right: Jim, Angela, Chen Xiaowang and Ken at a 2000 workshop in Rockford, Illinois.

These are complicated and political issues. Let's face it, those of us who did not grow up in the Chen Village or Beijing can learn from both camps. We can't touch any of them in the quality and power of their taiji. My philosophy is simple -- I can learn from anyone. About three years ago, I was at a workshop with Chen Huixian and her husband Michael, and they gave me some input that had a profound change in my movement. Huixian is the niece of Chen Zhenglei, of the Chen Village. So there is quality throughout.  

Some people make this debate out to be a much more negative thing than it should be (more about that on my next podcast, which features an interview with Dan Djurdjevic), but the goal here for all of us should be knowledge. We should learn what we can from everyone who can teach us. From there, we develop our own taiji.

In the meantime, I deeply enjoyed our visit with Jim and Angela. The time went by way too fast, and I was bummed when Nancy and I left their home last Tuesday to drive back to San Diego. Good instructors are hard to find. I always appreciated Jim and Angela because they asked questions and looked under the hood. They were not content to just follow along with their instructors. And what they learned, they passed along to their students. That attitude of sharing and teaching continues, even though Jim has officially retired from teaching, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn.