Firing Up the Inner Gyroscope Once Again - Finding My Center in the Hospital

Ken Gullette in hospital
In my gown with my IV stand at the hospital.

I am writing a book on how the philosophies that I learned during the time I have studied martial arts have guided me through some of the storms of life. 

Last week, I found that I was living a new chapter.

After a break of a few years, I suddenly began coughing up blood on Friday, June 4. We're not talking about the type of coughing up blood that you see in the movies -- a fleck or two in a handkerchief.

When I cough up blood, it looks like someone was shotgunned in my sink. I put a picture up on a blog post around 2015. It was gross.

This began in 2009, after three laser ablation procedures on my heart, attempting to stop atrial fibrillation. Instead, the final procedure shut down my  left pulmonary veins, so no oxygenated blood goes from my left lung to the heart.

How my body has survived the past 12 years, I have no idea, but it hasn't been easy, and it has made martial arts quite a challenge -- only one lung, coughing up blood occasionally, and, to add insult to injury, I developed exercise-induced asthma.

So after three days of coughing up blood, last Monday my pulmonologist told me to get a CT scan. I walked into the hospital, got the scan, and they told me I was to be admitted because of pulmonary embolism -- multiple blood clots in the left lung.

I'm not a doctor, but I know that a blood clot in the lung is not a good thing, and multiple blood clots would be a worse thing.

I was worried that a clot could break off, go to my brain, and cause me to lose my ability to think. If that happened, I would probably start wearing a MAGA hat, or I might start believing in the no-touch knockdown, or I might try to heal you with my qi -- crazy $#!+ like that.

Nancy rushed from work and met me at the ER. I was taken to a room on the sixth floor of Genesis East in Davenport, Iowa. An IV was put into my right arm and they started a Heparin drip. Heparin is a blood thinner.

I thought blood thinners dissolved blood clots but they don't. They keep the clots from getting bigger, and the clots are absorbed into the body over a period of weeks or months. 

Hospital-2021-6
Looking out my hospital window after checking in.

When Nancy left to go home that evening, a rainbow formed outside. Now, I don't read anything supernatural into that, but it was pretty cool. I don't consider it a message from God. Bruce Lee, maybe, but not God.

For the next five days, I was in the hospital. From the start, my goal was to make the nurses laugh. I am always their easiest and most low-maintenance patient. 

But I am also a questioning patient. I don't leave my critical thinking skills at the door of the hospital. When a doctor or nurse says I need something, I ask questions.

One think I have learned over the years is this: you must be your own advocate, because doctors will make mistakes.

I don't want to give you the impression that I rolled through this without getting emotionally smacked around. It was a difficult week. I had been on a plateau for years without coughing up blood. I had a pacemaker installed a year ago and I have had other procedures, but I felt reasonably stable because I had not coughed up blood.

It was very difficult to find myself suddenly back in the hospital with a damned IV in my arm without Nancy.

But I held up pretty well, trying to remain centered and determined to get through it. Two days later, however, when I looked out my window and saw her walking across the parking lot to visit, the tears came, and when she entered the room, I hugged her and sobbed for a minute.

I am 68 years old, with one lung, an irregular heartbeat and a pacemaker, asthma, and I don't really think it gets better from here, does it? Seriously. I have survived and continued to pursue the internal martial arts for 12 years. My doctors have been amazed. And now this? 

Ken's arm after blood draws
My left arm after having blood drawn for five days.

It also didn't help that they were coming in every six or 12 hours to draw blood. You want to talk about centering yourself? If you stick me with a needle, I don't like it. One of the worst things about the hospital is that they are constantly sticking me with needles.

That evening, I tried to keep it together when Nancy said goodnight to go home, and after she left I had a talk with myself. I stood up and did Zhan Zhuang with the IV hose dangling from my arm.

Just breathe. Focus on your Dantien. Sink your energy. Establish peng. Become aware of everything around you.

Remain centered, I reminded myself. Just calm down, find your center, find your determination. Let's get through this. You have been through it before, you can do it again.

Some people misunderstand the concept of being centered. They believe if you are centered, nothing bothers you. No matter what happens, you remain emotionally calm.

They are wrong. Being a human being means you will experience a range of emotions, and if you lean toward Eastern philosophies as I do, you will continue to experience a range of emotions. You can be knocked down emotionally. You can be insulted, you can be hurt, you can be angry.

It is okay to be knocked off-balance, but when you suffer a tragedy or crisis, and you look inside yourself for the tools to survive and cope, what do you find?

When you find yourself off-balance, do you look outside of yourself for help (gods, other people, drugs, alcohol) or do you cultivate the ability within yourself to get back up and regain your balance?

That is what the philosophies of the martial arts, which I first encountered while watching the "Kung Fu" TV show as a teenager, have taught me.

Standing in my room, focusing on my breathing, my Dantien, and realizing I am part of all things made me feel balanced again.  

When you lie in a hospital bed without getting up, your strength leaves the body quickly, so I was taking walks a few times a day around the sixth floor, walking the circuit back to my room, and I noticed a lot of the doors had "Fall Risk" and other signs on them notifying nurses of various predicaments the patients were in.

I created my own sign and placed it on my door. "Tai Chi Risk: Patient prone to sudden calmness."

Within a few minutes of putting it on my door, there was a shift change and my night nurse, Adam, opened the door, laughed, gave the sign a thumbs up and walked away. Two or three other employees over the next few days laughed and commented on the sign.

I took a walk around the floor and told nurses I was the floor supervisor. They laughed. I cracked one-liners to lighten the mood. Dressed in my gown and rolling my IV stand, I told them, "I'm busting out of this joint." More laughter.

Hospital-2021-2One evening on my walk, a frail, elderly woman was in her bed, looking to the hallway. I waved to her and said hello. She waved back and said, "Hi." Sometimes, the elderly are treated like pieces of meat in situations like this, but I know that, like me, they are wondering how the hell they got here. They are thinking, "I was just 18 a moment ago, it seems, and now look at this!" They deserve kindness and respect.

"I hope you get out of here soon," I told her. 

"I hope you do, too," she said.

Doctors were waiting for my Coumadin level to increase before they released me. Coumadin is a risk for me because of my history of coughing up blood since my pulmonary veins closed in 2009. With thinner blood, the risk of bleeding is a real possibility.

I practiced tai chi one day in my room, in my gown with the IV hose dangling off my arm. Do you know how hard it is to do "Lazy About Tying the Coat" without getting tangled in the hose or without pulling the needle out of your arm? I did it very, very carefully.

I kept myself in shape all my life, never took drugs and did martial arts, and all this has happened. We all have to play the hand we are dealt, and if we are lucky enough to grow old, something is going to get us in the end. How we handle it is a test of our character and a test of our belief system.

By Saturday, the doctor decided to release me because the Coumadin level was high enough and it was on the way up. It would be where we wanted it by Sunday, and he told me to go in and get checked on Monday. 

Ken-Nancy-Home-from-Hospital-2021
Home with Nancy after five days!

I got home Saturday afternoon. The entire time I was in that hospital room, I realized how we sometimes take little moments for granted. What I most wanted was to be with Nancy in our basement with the dogs, sipping wine and watching the big screen. Well, I should word that differently. The dogs won't be sipping wine and watching the big screen, Nancy and I will.

I try not to take any moments for granted. But they slip by us anyway. They are here and they are gone. The moments pass and the weeks, months and years pass. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a place where all we want is to get one of those moments back.

I do not believe we encounter anything negative after death. If you subscribe to philosophical Taoism, death is the unknown, so there is no point worrying about it. But what makes sense to me is that we return to the same place we were in before we were born; a state of complete peace. 

If you remember, on the day we were born, none of us had any complaints about where we had been.

So I don't worry about dying. However, I am not in a hurry to get there. I have too much to enjoy -- Nancy, my daughters and grandchildren, my friends, the internal martial arts and my students, Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy movies, and every single moment of this life. As long as you don't stick me with a needle. I don't care for that, but I have found that I can bear it if I focus on my breathing and my Dantien.

How can you truly appreciate the good moments of life without the bad moments? It's all part of the journey. Enjoy the journey.

Remain centered, my friends.

-- by Ken Gullette


Form is Emptiness: The Depth of Tai Chi is Easy to Ridicule for Those Who Do Not Understand

Form is EmptinessMy daughter, Harmony had a yin/yang sticker on her notebook in 7th grade. She loved it. From the day she was brought home from the hospital and put into a crib in August, 1977, Bruce Lee posters had been on her bedroom wall and she was very familiar with martial arts.

But some of the girls in her 7th grade class accused her of worshipping Satan because of the yin/yang sticker.

They didn't understand and had been influenced by their parents, most of whom were Christians living in the Midwest.

Yesterday, I came across the "Heart Sutra," an important "rule" or aphorism in Mahāyāna Buddhism. 

One of the key phrases that immediately made me think of Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Bruce Lee was this:

Form is nothing more than emptiness,

emptiness is nothing more than form.

You can say it a bit more directly: "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form."

It is a widely quoted concept that is visualized in different ways. 

Bruce Lee liked to say that we should "be water." He said, "If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup."

Others, and I believe Bruce also talked about how a cup is only a cup because of the emptiness inside the form.

It is the emptiness that makes the cup useful. Without the emptiness, a cup would merely be a block of ceramic.

The same is true of a glass, a bowl, and you can take this concept on and on.

But to me, it symbolized the practice of Tai Chi (Taiji), and even though that type of quote can be ridiculed by other martial artists who don't understand Taiji, it is actually a good description of the martial side of the art.

When I step out onto a training floor, or out in the yard or in a park, and I begin practicing a form, it is an interpretation of the concepts that provides the frame of the movements, the structure of the body, the spiraling of the limbs and the relaxed internal strength flowing like a wave.

It is all intentional, it has form. But what I am doing as I work to achieve the body mechanics that I am after is not so easy to understand.

I am practicing form to achieve emptiness.

I can hear the MMA guys laughing, but just like the 7th grade girls hurling Satanic accusations at my daughter, they don't understand.

The practice of Taiji involves mastering a structure that allows you to lead an opponent into emptiness.

Using the ground path, developing the buoyancy of peng jin, making micro-adjustments with the kua like a buoy in the ocean, using whole-body movement and Dantien rotation and spiraling to add power to the movement -- these are some of the skills that the form develops (if you have an instructor who will teach you these things). 

Any martial artist can punch and kick. Taiji includes punches and kicks, too, although the real skill in Taiji happens when someone touches you to apply force.

At that moment, all the form practice and the push hands practice and the freestyle work and takedowns with partners -- the practical application of ward-off, rollback, press, push, pluck, shoulder, elbow and other energies and methods -- should pay off in one specific way.

When an opponent puts his hands on you to use force or to put you down, he finds emptiness. You disappear beneath his force and, because the target is no longer there, he goes off-balance and your "form" (structure) and body mechanics take it from there to put him down instead.

I practice and teach Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan and Bagua Zhang. I don't look at Taiji as a self-defense system that I would use if someone were standing three feet away and preparing to punch me. Taiji would not come into the question at this point. Xingyi would.

Once the punch is on its way toward my face and enters my power zone, Bagua would be a logical choice.

When they grab me, that's when Taiji shines, in my opinion, leading an opponent into emptiness and then lowering the boom. I maintain my mental and physical balance while my attacker loses his. I maintain my structural integrity even as I cause him, with his help, to lose his structure.

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

It's a shame so few Taiji students don't stay with it long enough, or have the right instruction, to realize this important concept. It has nothing to do with "cultivating chi." These are mental and physical skills that require as much practice as any fighting art requires for excellence. It's what I try to focus on in my study and my teaching. It doesn't come easily, but it does come when you eventually realize that the goal of all this form work is actually emptiness.

--by Ken Gullette

Try two weeks free in Ken's online internal arts school - live online classes, live personal coaching, and 1,000 video lessons in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and more. Go to www.internalfightingarts.com 


New "Kung Fu" TV Series Rips the Heart Out of the Original

Kung FuThe new "Kung Fu" TV show strips the heart and morality out of the original, deciding instead of making us think, and giving us a roadmap of how to live a balanced life, it would be much better for modern audiences to appeal to 16-year-old girls and not make them think very much.
 
In the original series, the fight scenes captivated us, but the heart of the series was the morality of the monks. Their Taoist/Zen philosophy gave many of us a wake-up call that there were different ways of looking at the world than through the stained-glass windows of a church. For some of us, it pointed the way toward inner peace and the acceptance and tolerance of others.
 
The producers of the new series have hired an attractive young cast, threw in a sword with magical powers (Holy Green Destiny, Batman) which must be held by its rightful owner (shades of Thor's hammer). The plot is the same as many bad kung-fu films. "You bastard! You killed my teacher!" And they hint at a lot more magic to come.
 
Just what we need. Insert eye roll here.
 
Another thing we don't need: making it appear that you can achieve miraculous kung-fu fighting skills in three short years. Some of us who have studied martial arts for nearly 50 years see just how damaging that idea can be.
 
Kudos to the producers for using an Asian cast. A roundhouse kick to the head, however, for making it so shallow.
 
There is so much they could do. Why not bring the girl back to San Francisco and let her help people overcome their problems and see a better way to live, along with a little butt-kicking along the way?
 
There could also be some insight into the workings of a dysfunctional Chinese-American family, but it would help if, after spending three years learning the secrets of the universe, the lead character returned with a hint that she gained some wisdom along with kung-fu skills, but unfortunately, there is no hint of that wisdom in the dialogue.
 
Instead, I almost expect the second episode to show the lead character shopping at Abercrombie & Fitch.
 
And could someone tell the writers that when an attacker's arm is hideously broken the fight is over? And you know, like if you get kicked in the face five times, a sixth kick is not likely to be needed?
 
People right now are hungry for balance, kindness, and justice, not more magic and another "Tong war." And I hope the series brings more young people to martial arts schools, like the original series and Bruce Lee did. In the meantime, I can only hope the show "finds its legs" after a few episodes and becomes a little deeper. If the first episode of the new series is an indication, the producers appear to have ripped the heart out of the original "Kung Fu" series and are showing it to us beating in their hands before the audience, and the series, dies.

A Trap Door That Collapses Beneath You: An Effective Self-Defense Principle

Fifty years ago this summer, in 1971, I was working for my dad as a laborer in his ornamental iron business. I was 18 years old, had just graduated from high school and was soon to start college. My dad was very mechanical and was an artist with ornamental iron, doing everything from columns and railings to stairways in apartment complexes. I did not inherit his mechanical gene, so I was relegated to painting and helping carry materials.
 
One day, we were working on the third story of a new apartment building in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The third floor balcony had some kind of temporary sheet metal flooring, but on this day, I didn't realize the flooring did not have support under it.
 
I was daydreaming and not being mindful about what I was doing when I went up to the third floor and stepped out on the balcony.
 
As soon as I stepped on it, the flooring gave way beneath my feet -- three stories up. It was as if I had stepped onto a trap door that suddenly, without warning, opened up.
 
To this day, I'm not sure how I did it. With no warning, as I was not paying attention, there was no floor under me and I was falling. In the fraction of a second that I felt myself falling, I reacted. Somehow, I jumped to the beam on the outer edge of the balcony and grabbed hold of some iron work we had installed the week before.
 
The flooring crashed to the ground. I looked down and began shaking inside. I could have been seriously injured or killed if I hadn't reacted without thinking, as soon as the flooring collapsed. But how did I jump when the floor was giving way beneath me? There was nothing to jump from, just sheet metal falling under my feet.
 
It's still a mystery, but maybe it explains why the concept of "empty" is one of my favorite "energies" in Taiji, but this concept is not limited to just Taiji.
 
"Empty force" is called "Kong Jin" in Taiji. It does not mean knocking someone down without touching them, as some less-than-honest people will tell you.
 
Empty 1Empty force means that when an opponent tries to push you or seize you and apply force to you, whatever he is pushing on gives way like the flooring I stepped on, leaving him off-balance and vulnerable to a counter.
 
Sometimes, you can offer your opponent stiffness when they grab you. When you resist, he thinks you are going to continue using muscle-on-muscle, so he continues to use muscular force. Suddenly, you "empty," and he goes off-balance.
 
In the old "Kung-Fu" TV show, they said, "A Shaolin monk, when reached for, cannot be felt." 
 
When an opponent reaches for you, when he exerts force, the target dissolves.
 
There is a popular saying in Taiji; "Leading Into Emptiness."
 
Empty 2What does it mean? It can be self-defense for a physical, verbal or emotional attack.
 
For example, someone hurls an insult at you, wanting to "push your buttons" and make you react. You don't react negatively. You lead their verbal attack into emptiness. It is very good verbal self-defense. It is also a very good social media technique when you encounter someone spewing negativity on Facebook or Twitter to trigger reactions. Don't react with negativity. Lead them into emptiness.
 
Here is a physical example. A boxer like Muhammad Ali would lead his opponents into emptiness by sticking his face out toward the opponent, anticipate the opponent's punch, and when the glove came toward his face, Ali would lean back or slip to the side or go under, leading the punch into emptiness. Ali would use that split-second when the opponent was slightly off-balance to counter-punch.
 
But a third way to lead someone into emptiness is when they grab you to take you down. They always use muscular force, and very often, just emptying and not using force against force will put them off-balance just long enough to take advantage and put them down instead.
 
Empty 3In Photo 1, I'm demonstrating this concept on a larger partner. He is pressing in on me, giving me force.
 
In Photo 2, I take all the tension out of my arm muscles and I step back, causing the support he had in my arms to collapse like the flooring I stepped on 50 years ago.
 
In Photo 3, he has fallen into the emptiness, losing his balance, and I am in position to come down on his neck or head with an elbow.
 
There is more about this on my website for members to watch in the Close-Up Self-Defense video (in the Push Hands section). It is also on the "Close-Up Self-Defense" DVD. 
 
It takes practice to "empty" completely and suddenly so your partner falls into the emptiness. Even though I am "emptying" in the photos here, you can see that I am maintaining my structure and balance. The key is to let the "floor" (the part of the body he is pushing on) collapse under him, putting him off-balance just long enough for you to counter.
 
Practice by having a partner grab you and apply force, as if they want to take you down. Give them resistance for a moment and then completely relax and see what happens. When you collapse that part of your body, maintain your ground, peng, and structure. You can even do it with just one side of your body. Someone pushes on one side, you give that side to them. Empty it and let it go. It often sets them up for a good counter.
 
I still think of that day in 1971 when I do push hands. My goal is to have -- at all times -- the sensitivity that I showed on that morning, when I reacted without thinking, in the blink of an eye, as I took a step and suddenly there was nothing beneath my feet. If I had taken even enough time to think, "Oh crap!" it would have been too late to react.
 
In the meantime, I'm also working to provide my push hands partners with that "Oh, crap!" experience. They usually don't react as quickly as I did, but that's the idea, isn't it?
--by Ken Gullette

From Count Dante to the Chen Pan Ling System: The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with John Scott

John Scott and His SifuThe new Internal Fighting Arts podcast features an interview with John Scott, a teacher of the Chen Pan Ling system in Maryland and a tournament champion.

He has been in martial arts for a half-century, ever since he bought some of Count Dante's training materials as a kid. 

We have a good time talking about the martial arts journey that led him to his teacher, Grandmaster Chen Yun Ching, the son of Chen Pan Ling. The photo at left is John Scott standing next to Chen Yun Ching.

Follow this link to either listen online or download the file. It's also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podbean and other podcast distributors.

https://internalfightingarts.libsyn.com/internal-fighting-arts-54-john-scott


A Wise Tai Chi Master Once Said We Should Practice the Method Not the Form

Henry-Gullette
Henry Gullette, 1896-1965
Written by Ken Gullette on Sunday, January 24, 2021
 
My grandfather, Henry Gullette died when he was 69 years old. He was an old man when by the time he was 60. He was a very nice old man, but the thing I remember him doing most was sitting on his couch watching TV. In the photo above, he is younger than I am now.
 
My father, Kenneth Sr. died when he was 61. He was a nice guy, too, maybe the best man I have ever known (his picture is below). My dad had his first heart attack at age 50 and gave up after that. I remember in his fifties he would say, "I'm not going to be around much longer."
 
It turned out to be true.
 
Today is my 68th birthday and I am still trying to get better at gongfu. Despite having much more serious health issues than either my father or my grandfather, I still have goals I'm trying to achieve. I'm not as good at the internal arts as I want to be.
 
There is no way I'm giving up yet. I'm having way too much fun.
 
What is the internal difference between me, my dad and my grandfather? Why did they get old and give up too early?
 
Why have so many people over the years told me how good they want to be in martial arts but then they quit after a few lessons? What is the difference between them and the student who stays with it year after year? I'm in my 48th year of studying and practicing and I'm still peeling back layers of the onion, excited by what I find next.
 
It seems that a lot of people go through the motions of life without fully diving in and persisting, even when there are stretches when it isn't much fun.
 
I have a martial artist friend named John Morrow who turned 69 years old on January 6. Every year, I say to him, "I hope I'm as good as you when I'm your age."
 
Every year he replies, "You better get busy." Hahaha. Real funny, John.
 
What You Are Practicing
 
I have forgotten who said this, but it might have been one of Chen Fake's students, Feng Zhiqiang. He said we should practice "method, not form."
 
In the beginning, when we learn a form, we are trying to memorize the movements. Then, we are trying to memorize the movements in order so we can do the form from beginning to end. It takes a lot of work to remember a complete form.
 
But after we get the movements down and we can do a form from beginning to end, we must immediately force ourselves to go to the next level.
 
What you should be practicing is not the form but the method.
 
Every style of martial arts has its own "shen fa," or "body method." The form is only a way to practice the body method.
 
In the style of Xingyi that I teach, body methods include taking ground, alternating relaxation and power, maintaining intent, ground path, peng jin, dantien rotation and whole-body movement, among others. The mindset of Xingyi is to drive through the opponent. As they might say in Cobra Kai, "No mercy."
 
When practicing a Chen Taiji form, you should work in each movement to develop an "alive" style of moving that is relaxed but with internal strength that makes it "iron wrapped in cotton." You should make good use of the kua, dantien rotation, ground path, peng jin, whole-body movement and the spiraling power of silk-reeling, among others. The mindset of Taiji is to yield and overcome, bend but not break, maintain your structure and hide your own center from your opponent while you find his center and put him down.
 
In Bagua, your body method includes mud-stepping, circle-walking and a lot of the mechanics of Taiji, including an alive, spiraling quality in your movement that is relaxed but with strength underneath. But even your circle-walking has its own unique qualities as your foot skims across the ground and you keep your weight on the rear leg. The mindset of Bagua is to become like a spinning wire ball. If your opponent gets too close, he will be caught up in the spinning wire ball and thrown out in all directions.
 
When I studied Yang style Tai Chi, I moved in a very different way than I do in Chen style. It was slow and relaxed but the body was not "alive." There was no ground. There was no peng. There was no kua. I was taught a ridiculous way of silk-reeling that did not include spiraling movement in the body at all. My teacher told us to "think about Qi spiraling from our foot to our hands."
 
When I first encountered Chen style, a lightbulb went on in my head. The body method was so different, I knew instantly that it was a higher quality. But even within Chen style there are different body methods, depending on the teacher.
 
Kenneth Gullette
Ken Gullette, Sr., 1928-1989
Sometimes, you can almost be paralyzed by thinking of all the body mechanics that make up the body method in one art. But once you learn the movements of a form, you should spend the next number of years learning how to apply all the mechanics to each movement. You develop skill in the body method.
 
I will practice a form and sometimes focus on just one thing, such as dantien rotation. The next time, I'll try to maintain the same dantien rotation but I'll focus on how the Mingmen (lower back) bows and unbows as the dantien rotates.
 
Or I'll do a form and focus mostly on opening and closing the kua. Next, I might focus on the Bai Hui point at the top of the head and try to keep my head lifted instead of letting it drop forward. Another time, I might focus on maintaining peng jin, or not collapsing my knees.
 
As we peel back the layers of the onion, practicing the body method helps us get deeper and deeper into it. The quality of your art is in the body method.
 
As I tell my students, "Don't allow yourself to just go through the motions when you practice. You won't perform with the proper body method if you don't practice that way."
 
My dad said he wasn't going to be around much longer. It turns out that his prediction came true and he died at 61. Now, at 68, I want to get better at the internal arts. Can I make it come true?
 
Can you?
 
We can both do it if we work at it.

I Want to Throw Roundhouse Kicks on Muhammad Ali's Birthday

I want to throw roundhouse kicks.

I have been very angry during the past week-and-a-half. I am working very hard to center myself. Let me tell you why.
 
Ali vs ForemanMuhammad Ali would have celebrated his 79th birthday today if he had lived, but unfortunately, he died of complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2016.
 
The night he defeated George Foreman (picture at left) to regain the heavyweight title was the night I realized I needed to stop being a racist. It was October 30, 1974. Muhammad Ali was fighting George Foreman in a fight that was held in Zaire and called the "Rumble in the Jungle."
 
Foreman was so strong it was scary. He was knocking other heavyweights out cold. Most people expected Ali to be killed that night.
 
I grew up in the American South in the 1950s and Sixties. I saw "White Only" signs on drinking fountains and bathrooms. I remember when blacks were not allowed to sit with us in the movie theaters. They had to sit in the balcony.
 
I remember when black kids could not swim with us in the public swimming pools.
 
When I was 15, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to join the Ku Klux Klan. That's how the culture of the South affected me as a young white boy.
 
But in 1973, while I was in college at Eastern Kentucky University, I enrolled in my first martial arts class. I began reading about Bruce Lee, his philosophy, and I started reading books with the Taoist and Zen philosophy that I heard while watching the "Kung-Fu" TV show.
 
But I still had the South in me, and Muhammad Ali was a frequent target of our hatred. We hated him. We called him a "loud-mouthed" N-word. And he switched religions. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. What a trouble-maker!
 
The night he fought George Foreman, college might have already started changing me a bit, but when the fight began, and I was listening to it being broadcast on radio, I was pacing in my dorm room, hoping Ali would get beaten. I was cheering for Foreman to hurt him.
 
The fight only lasted eight rounds. In the early rounds, Ali was on the ropes, being pounded by Foreman. Can you imagine the punishment? George Foreman could punch a large heavybag into submission. Imagine what he would do to someone's arms and ribs and kidneys!!
 
Round after round, Ali took tremendous punishment, and round by round, he survived.
 
Something clicked inside of me. It took a few rounds, but somewhere around the seventh, my perspective began shifting. Instead of a loud-mouthed braggart, I began to see Ali's courage, and the realization struck me like a right cross to the jaw. This man was letting the strongest boxer in the world pound on him. He had a plan, and he had placed himself in the line of fire.
 
I began cheering for Ali. When he suddenly knocked Foreman out in the eighth round, I jumped around my room, then ran up and down the halls shouting the news.
 
That was the bravest thing I had ever heard or seen.
 
I no longer saw Ali as a black man. I saw him as a brave man, and I began looking at other black people in a new light. I realized they suffered pain just as I did. They had the same needs I did. And they deserved the same respect I did.
 
I realized that so much of what I was taught in my culture was bullshit. For almost a year, I had been reading about the Taoist and Zen philosophies that presented such a different view of the world than the hatred of racism. How could I become "one" with the universe and the world around me if I considered myself better than another person?
 
It made no sense to be racist.
 
The answer was simple. If I continued to be prejudiced against people who were different, the philosophy that I was adopting would be a joke.
But like everything in life, including Qigong, and the ability to center myself, it took hard work and an ability to look inward, reflect and analyze why I thought certain ways and why I took certain positions on issues.
 
The philosophy woke me up to empathy.
 
Five years after the Rumble in the Jungle I met Muhammad Ali. It was 1978 and he had just defeated Leon Spinks to win back the heavyweight title. Ali was giving a speech at a rally in Louisville and I covered it as a reporter for WLAP radio in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was working. I got a front-row seat to the speech.
 
After the speech, Ali was going to hold a news conference at a hotel. I had a long walk to get to the hotel, so I was walking fast across a huge parking lot at the fairgrounds, where the rally was held, to the hotel where the news conference would be held.
 
Just as I arrived in front of the hotel, a limo pulled up with Ali in it. He got out and was followed by three or four bodyguards who were larger than he was.
 
I had a hardbound copy of his autobiography, "The Greatest," that I brought with me in case I was able to get his autograph.
 
For a few seconds after he got out of the car, there was a little space in front of him. I walked up and handed him the book.
 
"Would you sign this for me, Champ?" I asked, handing him the book and a pen.
 
Ali-AutographHe took the book and the pen, scribbling his autograph as he walked, then held it out. By that time, he was being surrounded by people, and a bodyguard grabbed the book and pen and stuck them out behind his back as he walked with Ali. I pushed through the gathering crowd and managed to get the book out of his hand.
 
Then I went to the news conference, where Ali stood just a few feet away and I was standing with all the sports reporters, network sportscasters and other local media, watching and listening and enjoying my brush with greatness.
 
As years passed, I learned a lot more about Ali. In 1960, when I was only 7 years old, Ali won a gold medal at the Olympics and returned home to Louisville. He went to a restaurant that refused to serve him because he was black.
 
He was an Olympic gold medalist and still couldn't get respect from some white people.
 
Imagine how you would feel?
 
And yet, he was not an angry man. He tried to preach respect and human rights.
 
One day, he was visiting his mother in Louisville, and he was in a large motor home behind her house. A young white sports reporter knocked on her door to interview her. He didn't realize Ali was there.
 
"Oh, he's in the trailer," she said. "Just knock on the door."
 
This young white reporter knocked on the motor home door. Ali answered, let him in and they talked for hours. They became good friends.
 
That's the kind of man Ali was. How could anyone hate him?
 
Now why would I be angry today? I guess it's because of the riot held a week-and-a-half ago by the white supremacists in Washington, D.C. A lot of the people who stormed the capitol building were white nationalists.
 
I guess I have been angry because unarmed black men continue to be gunned down in the street by police in the United States. It was happening when Ali was young and it's happening now.
 
Perhaps, on Ali's birthday, it struck me that being a white nationalist, or tolerating them in any way, would be a violation of my goal of being a centered person. And perhaps this is my way of letting you know, since I am a teacher, that part of your training in the internal arts involves connecting -- not just with an opponent who you might never face, but also with the world, with the environment, with other animals, and with other human beings.
 
Being centered and connected does NOT mean being passive. Sometimes, it means standing up for what is right.
 
As you work on your martial arts, and as you try to become more centered and balanced, please understand that a good martial artist defends people who are weaker and are being attacked.
 
Self-defense is much more than throwing punches and kicks. Being a martial artist means you are working to master yourself, too.
 
The world is made a safer place when we all do our part and connect with others, perceiving them as being one with us, and when we realize that silence is the fuel that gives more power to evil.

From Break Dancing to Wudang Mountain to Bagua Zhang -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Jakob Pang Isaksson

Jakob Pang IsakssonJakob Pang Isaksson, a Bagua Zhang teacher in Stockholm, has lived an interesting life. In 1998, he won an MTV Break Dance Competition and appeared in a Run DMC video, "Sucker M.C.'s." Watch the video here.

A few years later, he traveled to Wudang Mountain to search out gongfu instruction. He returned to China later and spent three years there. He won medals at a large wushu competition and was selected to perform and compete with the Guang Zhou University professional Wushu Team. Eventually, he found his Bagua Zhang teacher, Li Jian Min, a teacher of Jiang Style Bagua Zhang.

I talked with Jakob Pang Isaksson about his experiences and it made for as very interesting podcast.

Go to the podcast page where you can listen to it or download the episode.

 


Book Review: Wandering Along the Way of Okinawan Karate: Thinking About Goju-Ryu by Giles Hopkins

WanderingI don't often read karate books. One of the first martial arts books I ever bought, in 1974, was a karate book, but it has mainly collected dust on the bookshelf for decades now. 

I have not found karate books very helpful for me, since I study and teach the internal Chinese martial arts. Most of them have been about technique, with dry information about stances, punches, blocks, and sequences of kata movements.

My opinion changed when I read a new book by Giles Hopkins that is a great addition to my martial arts library: "Wandering Along the Way of Okinawan Karate: Thinking About Goju-Ryu," published by Blue Snake Books.

Hopkins is a dedicated martial artist and an outdoors enthusiast. He approaches nature and his martial art with a philosophical attitude that immediately appealed to me. He sees the connection between the art he practices and the natural wonders he encounters while hiking along a trail or walking in the woods. His intellectual approach to the movements of kata goes "under the hood" in a way that is more meaningful than simply describing technique.

Why do we notice the leaves mainly when they burst into different colors shortly before they die? It is an observation Hopkins makes that easily translates into our approach to martial arts and to the people in our lives. We take many aspects of the arts for granted -- the rituals surrounding our practice; some of the movements that we have performed thousands of times.

As I read this book, preparing to turn 68 years old in a couple of months, and having endured physical hardships the past decade, this passage also hit home with me as I thought about how we take our own youth, strength and health for granted, and the glorious ability to perform at our peak. When we get to the point where we understand that we can't practice these arts forever, or when our physical abilities begin to slip away, it is ironic that this stage of life causes us to understand the real beauty of the arts we have been practicing for so long, and the reasons they are so important to us, like a loved one who suddenly has a terminal illness and you become all too aware of the relentless ticking of the clock.

When we are young, many of us take up martial arts so we can learn to fight better; to defend ourselves. As we get older, those of us who remain in the arts look deeper, and some of us carry the arts into our daily life in ways that make life and the arts more fulfilling.

Like me, Hopkins is no spring chicken. One of his chapters is titled, "Ah, He's Just Old, What Does He Know Anyway?"

Perhaps you need to have some years under your black belt before you can write a book like this. 

He begins most chapters with something he has observed during one of his walks in nature, and he connects it with his karate. The book is divided into sections corresponding to the seasons. As he discusses something from nature, the transitions into karate are sometimes a bit clunky and repetitive. I grew a bit tired of passages that I slightly exaggerate when I describe this way: "I saw this rock along the trail and it reminded me of (insert name of kata or movement here)." There are more subtle ways of blending these concepts and messages, but if that is the worst criticism I have about the book, it is a very minor one. The only reason I mentioned this is because I was a journalist who hired and trained reporters and coached their writing. This is more a coaching comment than a criticism. It is an excellent book.

Hopkins sees deeply into the movements of kata, uncovering fighting applications, or "bunkai," that can turn on some lightbulbs for any martial artist of any style. One of the applications he discusses made me realize that a certain movement in a Tai Chi form that I have practiced thousands of times can not only be used as a joint lock against an elbow, as I always thought of it, but it can also be used to break an opponent's neck by twisting the head.

Hopkins explores interesting topics along with his photos and descriptions of movement, technique and kata. He wonders how these arts can be useful in an era when most of us do not have to worry about fighting. He thinks about the usefulness of pushing the creative boundaries when looking for the fighting applications inside kata movements, and he is honest enough to suggest better ways of teaching than to hold your students to silence with counterproductive responses to a question such as, "If you have to ask, you are not ready to learn."

The very first class I taught when I earned my black sash and recruited my own students included young guys who wanted to see just how good I really was, so they asked questions that made me realize I needed to raise my game. I had to study harder, practice harder, and be as good as my sash indicated. When you have a black belt, you are considered an expert. I think some teachers discourage questions because the wrong one can expose the true lack of depth in the teacher's knowledge. 

A lot has been lost in the modern practice of martial arts. It is certainly true in much of the practice of Tai Chi, which has been watered down from a brutal martial art to an exercise for older people or "moving meditation" practiced by millions around the world. And when my granddaughter earned a black belt at a local taekwondo school and did not know how to throw a good punch, and I watched obese black belts strutting around her school who couldn't throw a good kick, I assumed that modern karate had gone the same way -- tense, muscular and simple.

It is wonderful to read a book on karate that is intellectually stimulating and offers insights about Hopkins' art, Goju-Ryu, that also informs my own practice. You don't have to study karate to appreciate it.

I highly recommend "Wandering Along the Way of Okinawan Karate." It is the first book by Giles Hopkins that I have read, but it will not be the last. I am ordering his earlier book today, and will keep an eye out for future books.

It is obvious to me that Hopkins is an outstanding teacher and the type of martial artist I would enjoy talking with and comparing notes. May he enjoy many more hikes in the woods, many more books on the market and many more seasons of training.

--by Ken Gullette


How to Lose Gracefully and Why Losing Can Be a Positive Thing

Kenny-High-Jump-1970
Ken high-jumping at Lafayette High School in Lexington, KY 1970.

I was on the track team in high school. My specialty was the high jump.

I was not a gifted jumper but I enjoyed pushing myself to see if I could improve, even a quarter-inch at a time. I was just shy of six feet tall, not a tall, lanky kind of athlete like the famous high-jumper Dick Fosbury.

Paul Carter was a buddy of mine in school. His father attended the track meets and always came over to watch the high jump competition. He always spoke to me and watched me compete.

I did not always win, but I enjoyed the competition. Months after our senior track season, I was talking to Paul and he mentioned his father.

"My dad really loves to watch you compete," he said. "Do you know why?"

I told him I did not know.

"Because he says even when you don't win, you are still smiling," Paul said.

Really? I did not know that I had that kind of impact on anyone.

It was an enlightening moment.

I did not enjoy losing, but I did not consider myself a loser. If you compete at anything, you run the risk of losing. If you enjoy it, does it matter?

This was 25 years before I started teaching martial arts.

By the time I began teaching in 1997, I was also competing regularly in martial arts tournaments, often in open tournaments, with competitors from all styles and judges from all styles. Very often, the judges did not really understand the internal arts.

My students were good, but I noticed the impact that losing had on some of them.

Trophies2Some students could not handle losing in a tournament. Some of them quickly dropped out of martial arts if they walked away from a tournament or two without carrying a trophy.

I felt the same about martial arts tournaments as I did about the high-jump. I was not a gifted athlete, but I enjoyed the arts and I enjoyed the competition. But there is one more important thing I got out of competing.

I learned about myself. I learned how I reacted to pressure, how I responded when another black belt was trying to kick my ass. 

And I learned to analyze each victory and each defeat and look for lessons. I learned to walk away with information to improve my skills.

One day, I was competing at a huge regional tournament in Dubuque, Iowa. The team of judges included mostly black belts from Karate, Taekwondo and other "external" arts. One of the judges was a woman who tended to score me lower than others.

On this day, I did a strong Xingyiquan form and I did not place. She scored me low again.

I approached her after the event and asked, "I notice you scored me low. What advice would you give me?"

She seemed surprised, but she said, "You run through your kata like a house on fire. There is no pacing."

For a moment, I reacted as most people would react. I thought, "Oh, she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about."

But I thanked her, and as I walked away, I mentally ran through my form. As I did, I realize that I had a tendency to barrel through it hard and fast, with power and speed.

She was right. There were little moments in the form when I should ease up, slow down, pause for effect -- add some "pacing."

I worked on it and I began winning more forms events after that day.

Dibuque Winners 2002This kind of attitude can help you in every aspect of life. In 2006, I began working on an idea for a Media Relations Coach website. I was the director of media relations for ACT, the company that makes the college admissions exam. My goal was to teach media relations to other people starting out in similar jobs around the country.

I worked like crazy on this website, but when I launched it, there were crickets. Nobody seemed to be interested. It was a resounding defeat.

In 2008, after taking a job in Tampa, Florida, the job did not work out and I suddenly found myself unemployed.

I decided to use what I had learned in my failed Media Relations Coach website attempt, and I would create a website teaching the internal arts. 

Within three months, I launched www.InternalFightingArts.com, and people began signing up immediately. I am proud to say that it is still in business more than 12 years later as I write this post, and it is doing better than ever.

Losing gracefully is very easy if you use each competitive situation as a learning moment. If you win, what do you learn? 

If you lose, can you use the information from that loss to propel you forward?

You can't win them all. And maybe you don't want to win them all. You don't learn a lot in victory.

It is in defeat where you can mine gold, not just about your technique, but also about yourself. And from there, you can work to get better. 

Go get 'em. And keep smiling.

--by Ken Gullette