Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is your Kung fu Authentic?

Authentic: true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features <an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse>, made to be or look just like an original 

So is your Kung Fu authentic?  I know many people will say "Absolutely" then proceed straight to telling me or other people that our version isn't, but that really proves one of the points of this post.  No one can claim to have the only authentic martial arts of their lineage or style.  Authentic by definition is not the same across the board.  Every person can have authentic Kung Fu as long as they understand that they will never copy their masters exactly, but do their best anyways, using their own unique personality and understanding to create the copy.  There are so many people who talk about traditional and orthodox Kung Fu, but they don't understand that there can be no such thing by simple definition of those words.  The arts change a little bit every generation, no matter what people want to believe.  We can look at a myriad of martial arts, but lets use the ones that I know best, Xingyi and Bagua.  Neither of these arts are exactly the same as they were when created, most notably Bagua, which has undergone MASSIVE changes since its creation.  It doesn't matter which lineage you follow, we all know that the arts are different from when they first appeared.  So can anyone claim to have "orthodox" Bagua?  Nope, no one can.  By simple definition it is impossible.  We can share in the traditions of our teachers and practice their movements, but can we ever express them the same as they do?  When we look at people as the sum of their experiences and factor in different body types, abilities, health, etc........It only proves that it is impossible.  I have a great teacher, but I will never match his movements completely and as much as you hate to hear it, you can't match your teacher exactly either.  It's impossible.  So how can you have 'traditional' or 'orthodox' Kung Fu when you can't copy one generation prior to you?

Now I don't mean this to cut anyone down, it is just a simple fact.  But what each of us CAN do is authentically try to re-create what our teachers are doing.  But this requires each of us to understand that since we are vastly different from our teachers in many ways, that it cannot ever be done perfectly.  I think the old masters knew this, that is why they stress the core ideas and functions of their arts more than making sure the "signature" they left in the art stays there forever.  Dong Hai Chuan didn't demand that his students never change the styles of Bagua he helped create (not getting into alternate origins again, just going to use the commonly accepted founder), in fact he watched as his art changed before his eyes and never once said "Stop".  I believe that is because his intent was not to create little clones of himself, but to show the diversity of his art, that it can be practiced correctly in many different ways.  But it is important to note that each of his students practiced and taught their arts in an authentic way, in that they were authentic to themselves AND their teacher.  Each of them took his art and combined it with another art they had mastered and they were very successful doing it.  

Now before anyone gets the idea that I am suggesting tossing our teachers material, don't get ahead of yourself.  What I am saying with that example is that great martial artists have always been authentic to themselves as much as they are authentically re-creating their teacher's art.  They aren't polar opposites at all.  We can do our best to honestly pass down the arts we have received without changing a thing but also do that in a way that is authentic to ourselves.  We can used different explanations to show why practices are important or use other knowledge that we gain to tie practices together or better understand them.  For example I was explaining how our style of Bagua practices stepping, and I jokingly used a reference to the old cartoons where you see a wolf in a Zoot suit strolling down the street (Mostly because I just watched that cartoon with my children that morning).  After everyone had a good laugh, I pointed out that even though it is a cartoon, his weight is back, his hips are opening and allowing a long stride that is also relaxed.  Of course that isn't a perfect example, but every one of my students will remember it, simply because it was different but explained a traditional idea.  What started out as a joke wound up being a 'somewhat' good example of my teacher's methods, but it is something he probably never would have said.    I'm sure most of you can think of a time that you have explained something totally different than your teacher might have, but still taught the core idea correctly.

Part of this blog is to make the point that we all have to stop using the terms 'authentic', 'traditional', and 'orthodox' as clubs to beat other martial artists over the head with.  It is easy to see that none of use are truly traditional since our arts could almost be unrecognizable to the original founders (there is absolutely NO way to know if you move the same as the first generation).  Not one person can honestly say or truly prove that their method is the same as the original if their art is more than 50 or 60 years old.  Just can't be done.  But what we can do is show that we are trying to create an authentic copy of what they were doing.  But in admitting that you are doing that, you lose the ability to insult other practitioners, since you have to admit that your art is different than the original.   That will be hard for a lot of people I think.  But the other point of this is to point out that the success stories of the past can help us move into the future and let our arts spread.  It is very easy to see that as a general rule, schools who claim to be 'the most orthodox' are also the schools who are dying out the fastest.  This isn't an insult to the teacher's abilities at all, but more a commentary on the fact that students are attracted to authenticity in people more than claims of being 'better than others'.  Let's take a look at a well known teacher that I have used in examples before.

 Novell Bell is a martial artist based out of New York City who learned Bagua, Xingyi and Tai Chi from great teachers and shares what he learned, but with his own unique flavor.  A lot of people try to cut him down for different reasons, but the pure fact is that he has become MUCH more successful and reached MANY more students than most of us ever will.  I personally would chalk that up to the fact that he is 100% authentic to himself as he shares his teacher's knowledge.  He teaches the same palm changes and forms as his teacher, but in a different manner, one that reflects who he is as a person and allows him to really teach from the heart.  This is very important to spreading martial arts, one of the most important factors in my opinion.  The greatest compliment that I have ever gotten was that several of my students decided to stick with the arts I teach because I was so passionate when I teach that they WANTED to stick around.  But I will freely admit I am not the best practitioner or teacher in the world.  I know of several friends, past and present, who are better teachers than I am but since they refuse to be authentic to themselves have never really been able to gain traction when starting their school.  

Motivational speakers, business advisers and life coaches across the globe have always said one of the most important factors to success and personal happiness is being authentic to yourself in every aspect of your life.    Kung Fu seems to be one of the rare places where people are told to 'change how you think and be like someone else'. Maybe this is why so many schools are failing, because all of the martial arts we have today came from people being authentic, and were improved by people being authentic.  So why now should we NOT be authentic?  My teacher once told us to "be good copy machines of the art".  But he has never once told us to "be good copies of me, my teacher or my grand-teachers".  Can you imagine if there were 10,000 copies of Wu Mengxia running around?  The skill would be great, but there would be non-stop brawling!  Wu Mengxia was a great martial artist, but he had somewhat of a short fuse for silly people. The end point is that if you open your eyes and look, the greatest success we can have as martial artists is to take what our teachers share of their skill and pass it on while we are being true to who we are.  Give it a shot, I think you will love how your school grows because of it.  

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

 An Open Letter to the Older Generation

Many people know that I am a regular contributor to several online forums and I have made it a goal of mine to reach out and make contact with as many great teachers as possible.  I have been doing this for my own personal progress as a teacher, so I can better learn how to teach and pass on the arts that I have learned.  So I spend a lot of time watching people and their words (when I'm not arguing with random people).  All this watching has started to come together lately and I have been noticing several problems, one of which I would like to explain and see if I can offer a solution.

I will be the first to point out that most of the trolls and mouth-breathers who make life hard on forums are young people, my generation.  But we are also the group that as a whole gets along the easiest despite our style or geographical differences.  I have made many good friends on those forums and I can say that it is very common to meet a young teacher who thinks his style is the best hands down, but is completely willing to accept that others feel the same about their style.  We can share points and training methods, provide honest opinions on where progress should be made in each others arts, and walk away completely happy and not the least bit insulted.  With the older generation, that would be unthinkable!  There are many great teachers and good people from the older generation that I have met, but more often than not, they are the most set in their ways and VERY quick to dismiss new ideas or thoughts that don't meet their standards.  They are also very fast to say that a younger person won't ever understand unless they obey the word of the older martial artist.  There is a mindset of  'I have been there and if you don't do what I say, regardless of your style, you are an idiot and it's not worth talking to you'.  Often times this leads to a blind refusal to acknowledge that there are MANY different ways to skin the same cat (to use an odd reference).  This mindset also very quickly leads to the older practitioner REFUSING to hear that their art isn't perfect or that something might be missing.  Now please, don't take this as me being rude to older martial artists, NOT AT ALL!  But as I will show, this is leading to a serious issue that will only end badly for all of us if we can't bridge the gap between generations.  

So yes, I made the point that old people are stubborn.  That isn't really news to anyone is it?  But the new generation of teachers seems to be working on a different wavelength and the two aren't compatible at all.  Let me explain.  I know lots of great older teachers like I mentioned.  They all have one thing in common, they were lucky enough to train under a great teacher in person, a true master of Kung Fu that could teach as well as apply their art.  The arts were passed in a very traditional method.  But that is the main problem facing my group.  There aren't as many teachers available to pass on their arts with the same quality and skill as when YOU were first learning.  We all know that the number of good teachers is dropping, so how can the younger group learn?  Most of us have families that we can't uproot and drag across the country for martial arts training on the off chance that the Master they have heard about is the real deal.  For many, it seems like a dead end as far as learning real martial arts, regardless of style.  But that is where our young, bull-headed thinking comes into play.  We aren't deterred by that.  We have gone out of our way to use new technology and social networking to find teachers across the world to try and learn from.  Many older teachers think that online training is worthless, and I will be the first to say that it is very limited.  But it is truly better than nothing.  It lets many people who have no local teachers start to explore and learn, and the greater number of people we can expose to the traditional arts, the greater chance we have of finding more people who will carry the banner in the future, right?  It also lets the current generation of masters really influence the next generation with ideas that we haven't been exposed to and most likely won't be.  Now I am not saying at all that someone can learn everything from a computer screen.  That simply can't be done.  But in the absence of a qualified teacher, what is the alternative?  My generation is also much more open to different ideas or concepts from different styles being introduced and tried as an experiment.  If many of my friends have issues in training, they are very open and honest about it and many have cleared their training hurdles with help and advice from people of the same generation, not the older one.  

So we see that there are two distinct groups operating here, the older teachers who have been training in the same art for a long time with one teacher, and the younger teachers trying to make their way without that benefit so easily accessible.  The older group CLEARLY has the knowledge and skill that the younger group desires, so why are there so few connections between them?  I think I can answer that.  Since the new group is trying to learn and share in ways that have never been done before out of necessity, they have little in common with the standard bearers for the old arts.  When a younger person shares a video of their practice or asks for help, it is rare that the older teachers jump right in and try to help.  More often they say that "You can't learn online, so stop trying".  People of the same age range are usually the ones to provide the most support and offer the most help.  This is the problem.  As the newer teachers are progressing, they are seeing and feeling little support from older players and this leads to a lack of bonding and often respect for them.  Why would I listen to a teacher who dismissed me when I was younger and needed help, but after years is more open to me and my practice?  In a way, the older group is ensuring that their knowledge won't spread like it could simply because they aren't open to new ideas on training or at least introducing the arts.  I am not saying that established teachers have to change everything for the younger group.  But we have to understand that times are changing and we don't live in the same world you grew up and practiced in.  There has to be a continuation of development.  This will require a lot of hard work from younger people and a lot of patience and flexibility from older people.  But please remember this the next time you dismiss a younger teacher who is struggling to learn...............If you don't reach out a hand and try to help him, can you honestly blame him for not knowing or developing?  The arts are firmly in YOUR hands right now.  The future of Kung Fu is yours.  But if you don't find ways to influence younger people, you will take all your knowledge with you and your arts will suffer because it wasn't passed on.  Remember that one day, the young whipper-snappers will be in your position and will hold the future in their hands.  If you don't do your best to influence and help them, it won't be their fault if the arts are lacking.  It will be yours.  

Please don't take this as a condemnation of anyone.  I only want to make a simple point about interactions between teachers of different generations and how to improve the existing situation.  I mean no disrespect to anyone.  But a strong point has to be made, so I hope I tread the line well.  I would appreciate any feedback you are willing to share.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Here is a video my teacher made when all of his students came together in Denver for our yearly training session.  We all make time once a year to get together as a group and train as a family!  Here my teacher, Yang Laoshi, is explaining the basics of Internal Power and how we train it, I hope you all enjoy!

Introduction to Internal Strength

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.