On Acceptance

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Tai Chi Ch’uan doesn’t let you hide. You can use it to cheat others, but if you want to improve in the art, it will not allow you to cheat yourself. In Tai Chi there are no shortcuts, there is no tools or any special prerequisites that can make the progress going faster or allow you to skip stages of progress. In the beginning stages, your T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice will make you painfully aware about all of your flaws. It will ae sure you know all about how unbalanced you are, how bad your coordination is,  how tense you are and how little you can control your balance, all of your tensions, involuntary thoughts and impulses. In Tai Chi there is only one way to get passed these stages and to truly begin to develop. The first you must do can be summed up with one word: Acceptance.

Acceptance is to see things clearly, to understand who you are. Only if you accept that you are what you are you can see your own advantages, things that are good, as well as your flaws, mistakes and things you mostly would want to hide.

Acceptance is the beginning of improvement. Before being successful in creating something new or better, you need to accept who you are, your own prerequisites, your own flaws and mistakes.

Acceptance is the first stage of taking responsibility for the progress in your art and in Life in general. You need to get rid of all excuses, stop blaming other people on who you are and stop blaming your own weaknesses and mistakes on others.

First when you can see yourself clearly and accept who you are, with all of your mistakes and flaws, you will be able to see understand your own potential and see how you can use your prerequisites to your own advantages. First then you can start to really live with yourself. You will be able to more deeply rest in yourself and rest your mind. Now, your body can become your house, and you can start to really live with yourself.

This is why T’ai Chi Ch’uan is an Art of Life, an Art of self-discovery and self-improvement. My own strong opinion that comes from own personal experience from over 30 years of Tai Chi practice is that how well you understand yourself is equivalent and paramount to how far you can develop in Tai Chi. If you want to continually improve your Tai Chi, make sure that you always strive to improve yourself. Again: before you can truly understand how to improve yourself or your art, you first need to learn how to take responsibility for yourself and for your own progress. And this starts with Acceptance.

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Q&A with Michael Babin

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I would like to start off the fourth episode of my Q&A series by proudly presenting my guest Michael Babin. It’s understandable if you haven’t heard about him as he might have been more well known to the Tai Chi community for one or a couple of decades ago. With his long experience, full of interesting meetings and collaborations, you can learn a lot by listening to his stories and advices.

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Long-time practitioner, teacher and author Michael Babin started his Tai Chi Journey in 1975 and studied intensively with local teachers, most notably Allan Weiss, for more than a decade before meeting and studying with experts such as William C. C. Chen, Sam Masich and Erle Montaigue through workshops. All of these certified him to teach aspects of their curriculums in the early 1990s. Since 2002, he teaches his own approach to the Yang style though he still respects all of those who contributed to his evolution as a practitioner and teacher.

Michael has published more than 200 articles in print and online since 1987, written books and has also collaborated with Erle Montaigue both as an assistent teacher and co-author. Michael is not very active teaching nowadays, but still writes on and continue to study Yang style taijiquan. He always addresses this subject with sharp thoughts and a clear-sighted mind which means that I always enjoy reading his blog and articles. For anyone who is sincere in the study of Tai Chi, I highly recommend reading his work. Please visit Michael Babin’s homepage and blog here.

David RL: Your favorite Martial Artists?
Michael Babin: Like most Westerners who got into the martial arts in the 1970s, my initial hero was Bruce Lee. After 40+ years of training and teaching, my criteria has changed more than a little. There are too many in the Yang-style tai chi world to list here but I continue to be impressed with the teaching longevity as well as skill and charm at workshops of William C.C. Chen. How could you dislike a teacher who has been doing so since 1952 which was also the year I was born. That’s an impressive duration of career by any one’s standards much less what often happens in the modern world. Sam Masich, Yang Jun and Liang Shouyu are also teachers who have shaped a more modern approach to Yang style taiji both as an exercise system and as a martial art.

In the non-taiji world I really like what I have seen on Youtube of Rob Poynton’s Systema, Maul Mornie who teaches Silat and Mick Coup who teaches self-defense combatives. All three seem to combine those attributes that impress me the most: a sense of humour, patience with those they teach and a tremendous amount of personal skill.

Your three favorite Martial Arts Movies?
One of the casualties of gaining some real skill at working with weapons and studying martial arts as long as I have is that, somewhere along the way, I lost the ability to enjoy the nonsense that gets passed off as combat in the various martial arts movies that I loved when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I hate to sound like a grumpy old man [though that description often fits] but empty hand and archaic weapons hand-to-hand combat in most movies is just ludicrous. I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant because I am well-aware of my own limitations in those respects; but, wire-work and clever choreography just don’t do anything for me in the last 20 odd years.

If you could study for any living or dead martial artist for two weeks, who would you choose?
Living martial artist — the gentlemen I have mentioned so far as well as Dan Inosanto because I’ve done workshops with him in the far past and he’s still practising, teaching and has always continued to learn not been content to rest on his laurels.

Dead martial artists — it would be great to have met/studied with the founders of Yang style tai chi as well as baguazhang but realistically they probably would not have been interested in teaching an aging Westerner considering the frequent European excesses of economic and political exploitation in China in the late 19thC.

Why did you choose to study T’ai Chi Ch’uan?
Originally I took up T’ai Chi Ch’uan [mid-1975] because I had tried a variety of hard styles for about five years [karate, jujitsu, Choy Li Fut, Preying Mantis] and was tired of the hard work and hard blows. I had read books by Robert Smith and T’ai Chi seemed a more exotic route that promised good health, meditation and martial magick that took little or no effort.

Forty-three years later I am still at it though I have lost a great deal of my early innocence about what t’ai chi is and isn’t. Oh, and I realized along the way that hard work and hard blows are always essential if you want to understand it — on any level —as a martial art though there are still other excellent reasons to study that discipline… especially for the older practitioner.

Do you have any favourite MA memory or story to share?
Anyone who has taught for any length of time has too many stories to share without boring an audience but these three memories have always stuck in my mind:

#1: At the end of a class during a ten-week introductory course I was giving at a community center in the early 1990s; one earnest lady who had really done her best blurted out, after I asked if there were questions, “Is it a good idea to try and practice these moves between the weekly classes?”

#2: At the end of the first session of a noon-hour qigong class for interested staff at a local psychiatric hospital in the mid-90s; one middle-aged nurse turned at the door as she was leaving and said “I won’t be back though I liked the class. I’m always tired and your voice kept putting me to sleep.”

#3: A former senior student had had a particularly frustrating private push-hands session with me despite being fit and taller than me as well. As we came out of the room together he muttered. “I don’t know how anyone who looks like a broken-down Santa Claus can toss me around so easily.” Then he realized what he’d said and looked sheepish as he added “I mean that as a compliment.”

Do you have any favourite Martial Arts concept?
I’ll start with good advice from the Bible “Tis Better to Give than to Receive” but I will admit that the original concept probably didn’t refer to striking an attacker. Seriously though, It’s depressingly easy to be a competent martial artist in the Chinese internal arts: just be competent at striking with your hands, kicking with your feet, elbowing and kneeing people as necessary as well as knowing how to grapple, knocking people down and throwing while having a great ground game and being in great shape through continuous training. See, it’s easy!

However, if you’re a normal practitioner or teacher, train whichever of these you’re best at and accumulate some practical experience at using that skill to counter all the others when someone trie them out and you. Or learn to walk away from fights, as most adults should be capable of doing.

Do you have a short term goal in your art?
At the moment, I am doing a three month project to get my version of the 48 Posture Taiji Form back to my satisfaction. It’s been a few years since I trained in that one regularly and I wasn’t happy with what had happened to it since I stopped practising it regularly. Not that I am planning on competing in any Tai Chi events; but I liked that particular modern choreography more than others that I learned and practised a decade ago. As an aging, long-term practitioner, I find it good for the mind and body— in terms of solo practise — to periodically learn or re-learn solo forms as it is a good way of challenging the mind and body that can get stuck in ruts if you do the same form day-in and day-out, year after year. Our bodies and minds need some variety to stay fresh though there is also no doubt that you have to focus your efforts in a limited number of directions.

Do you have any long term goal or something particular that you want to achieve?
I am 66 and have stopped teaching beginners but I still train two to three times a week with my former senior students and enjoy the martial activities that I can still do safely; particularly swordplay. I hope to keep doing so as long as my partners last and with any luck I can drop dead suddenly while doing the solo forms that I love best or while “playing” with swords or being flung against a wall.

Please can you share a good advice to Tai Chi and Internal Arts practitioners?
In terms of the martial training in tai chi, one of the biggest challenges is finding a balanced approach to the issue of “being soft”. Many teachers, famous and not-so-famous, still tend to advocate that you can’t be too soft and I don’t think that’s correct. On the other hand, being too hard and turning your discipline into a series of techniques that you trot out stiffly is also not correct. As with many issues, you can’t verbalize the correct approach, you have to experience it with your teacher and with a variety of training partners to be able to eventually do it yourself.

For example, the tai chi classics hint at the correct path by suggesting that “you seek the straight in the curved.” but that phrase won’t be of much use unless your teacher can demonstrate him or herself why it can be useful and also verbalize to you in a meaningful way how to approach doing it yourself.

Speaking of verbalizing, It’s also important to remember that much of what has been translated in the last 50 years or so was originally written only for a teacher as his own notes or for family members he might be training as well as his senior students. They were NEVER intended [until the modern age in China] for mass consumption by beginners. Also, as with modern ‘technical’ manuals, you had to already know the jargon to some extent to be able to get the most out of what was written.

It’s also important to realize that what was written publically or discussed in secret — no matter how profound — was, and is, only a small part of absorbing the essence of any style of taijiquan. You can’t learn such a discipline by talking about it or discussing it; though you might find that hard to believe if you watched a typical class in which there is more discussion about moot points than there is repetition of forms; much less the two-person work that should be a part of any taiji course that claims to teach martial skills.

I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotations about teaching from an article I read almost two decades ago:

“I see myself as a guide. I am a just a tool for my students to know how to teach and share the knowledge according to the student’ specifications and abilities. … This days (sic) many people think only about fighting. Fighting is something natural for the human being and learning how to use your skills in combat is part of the traditional kung-fu but it’s important that teacher also teaches how to avoid fighting, In a way by learning how to fight we also learn the value of not fighting. self-control is very important. I would strongly advise not to intellectualize the art. Kung fu can be intellectualized but the real practice is what is important. It takes more patience and hard work and less words. Finally, as master Wang Xiang Zhai said, ‘he who learns from me in an original way will benefit, but he who always copies me mechanically will suffer’.”

[Li Jian-yu, Secrets of Internal Kung-fu, May, 2001]

Thank you Michael Babin! Thank you so much for taking time sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it a lot and it has been very interesting to hear what you have to say and what you wanted to share here to the Tai Chi community.

Q&A with Robert Agar-Hutton

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In the third edition of The Q&A we’ll get to know UK based teacher and author Robert Agar-Hutton.

Robert-agar-huttonRobert Agar-Hutton teaches T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Karate and has studied these arts since the 1970s. He has a B.Sc. (Hons) degree in Martial Arts and Sports Psychology from the University of Derby which makes him one of only a handful of people, and probably the only Tai Chi instructor, with both practical experience and formal academic knowledge of martial arts in the UK. In the end of last year he published a book about Tai Chi, The Metamorphosis of Tai Chi and recently he launched a E-platform for online learning. Please visit Robert Agar-Hutton’s homepage here.
… Oh, and by the way… if you search “tai chi self-defense” on YouTube, guess who’s coming up first?

David RL: Your favorite Martial Artist(s)?

Robert Agar-Hutton: Wow – lots – Most of the film mega stars, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Cynthia Rothrock, and lots more. Chuck Norris for what he achieved both in the movies and in the real world. A gentleman called George Mayo who founded a style of Karate that my instructor Dennis Graves trained in and that became the Kyu Shin Ryu Karate which I have studied for over 26 years.

Then there are people who just seem to have that ‘something special’ – Glenn Lobo (a good friend), Christian Tissier, who I’ve only seen on TV and YouTube but whose strength and grace look awesome. Master Wang Yanji, who I have trained with, a great Tai Chi instructor, friendly, technically excellent, and always willing to share his knowledge.

But my all time favorite, is EVERYONE who, today, puts on the ‘funny pyjamas’ and actually takes the time and makes the effort to go and train, be they an old time instructor or a beginner going to their first lesson. It is the knowledge and experience that they exist, that gives me the courage and confidence to carry on with my own teaching and training.

Your three favorite Martial Arts Movies?

‘Enter The Dragon’, ‘Snake in the Eagles Shadow’, and ‘Seven Samurai’. (Three is too small a number there are probably 20+ martial arts movies that I think are great – and that includes ‘Kung Fu Panda’).

If you could study fromany living or dead martial artist for two weeks, who would you choose? (and maybe why?)

Two weeks makes it tricky – so not someone whose martial art I want to learn, as two weeks is not long enough for physical skills, but someone who I would be able to glean some knowledge and understanding from… I think Jigoro Kano (The creator of Judo) it would be interesting to gain an insight into how and why he created Judo from the man himself. Judo was the very first martial art I ever studied and, although I was completely rubbish at it, I remember it fondly.

What do you practice and why did you choose your own art(s)?

I mainly practice Tai Chi and Karate. Both the Tai Chi and the Karate I teach are my interpretations of what I have been taught along with lots of outside influences and modifications that I consider worthwhile. I am not liked by purists or by those people who believe they are teaching exactly what their teacher’s teacher’s teacher taught. But I teach to help my students and I study and practice for my own benefit.

How is it like to practice both Karate and Tai Chi? And do you think it’s possible to reach your full potential in both of these arts?

I enjoy both of them, and I think that’s the answer. If you enjoy what you do, that’s more than enough. If I had only studied Tai Chi or if I had only studied Karate, might I be better at one or the other than I am now? Maybe but so what, I’m having fun. Will I ever be able to reach my full potential? Well I suspect maybe not, but again so what, I’m having fun.

I think I need to say that I’m a civilian. If I were a policeman or a soldier, or someone who might use martial skills on a day-to-day basis then it would probably make sense to try and become a ‘master’ in one art. But as a civilian with, hopefully, only civilian self protection needs, the blend of skills that I get from Tai Chi and Karate, seems to me, to be very good indeed.

Can you make a brief summary of your book?

My book ‘The Metamorphosis of Tai Chi – Created to kill; evolved to heal; teaching peace’ is available from Amazon as either an eBook or a paperback.

Some years ago, I decided that I wanted to teach Tai Chi via a book. During the writing of the book, I decided that it was impractical to try and teach techniques via the written word. So the book developed into a series of chapters on different aspects of the art which I hope are of interest to everyone from people just considering Tai Chi through to instructors of Tai Chi and other martial arts.

The chapters are: Learning Tai Chi; The Four Types of Tai Chi; Selecting a Tai Chi instructor; The history of Tai Chi – sort of; Internal vs. External; Is Tai Chi a killing art or just a bit of fun?; Principles of Tai Chi; Tai Chi Terminology and meanings; Training; How often and for how long?; Breathing; Walking; It’s all in the mind; Wisdom; Learning peace through studying war;  and Changing fear to love.

The book also includes some personal anecdotes as I though a few stories from my past might be of interest (and amusing) to readers.

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Do you have any favourite Martial Arts concept?

Yes. But it’s a secret, and I don’t want to have to kill you all. . My favourite concept is that in a conflict situation you should be relaxed and awaiting the gift from your attacker. Your attacker will, in whatever way they attack you, also include a gift, which is the way to defeat that attack. Your job as a martial artist is to train to be able to instinctively recognise, accept and utilise that gift.

Do you have any favourite MA memory or any story you could share?

Oh gosh, training since (about) 1971 – so lots of memories. The three years (2007-2010) that I did a University Degree in Martial Arts and Sports Psychology was awesome. However, the best memory would be the four plus week long road trip that I made around the Mid West of America in 2001. I drove in excess of 3000 miles and stayed with several great and friendly martial artists most of whom I only knew via the Internet. I taught and was taught a wide range of arts and enjoyed the time hugely. The lesson to share from that trip is (I hope) that the majority of martial artists are friendly and sharing and if you are open and friendly with them you can have a great time and learn a lot.

Do you have a short-term goal in your own art?

My current project is to try and record (mainly on video) my own ‘style’ of Tai Chi – I am not implying that my style is ‘best’, it’s just that I obviously believe that it has merit and I would like it to be available to those who wish to study it even if they cannot train with me personally.

Do you have any long-term goal or something particular that you want to achieve?

I’ve said, for years, that I’d like to be Emperor of the World, not too much to ask really, is it?

However, from a martial arts perspective, I hope to have many more years of studying the arts, not just Tai Chi and Karate but other arts as well. This last year (2018) I managed to study a little bit of Aikido; a different form of Tai Chi; and I attended various seminars in different arts. All were good.

Something else you would like to add?

I’d like to conclude by thanking David for inviting me to answer the above questions and thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan and the Sushi Chef Approach to Martial Arts

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Lately, I read a few comments on a newly published Youtube Video, and as often when I read this kind of comments, it strucked me that the way of practicing traditional Chinese Martial arts must be something very hard to understand for Western people. One very representative comment on a video was that what was shown was: “very far from ‘real’ fighting.” Yes, this is a very common attitude. It shows that the person who wrote this has very little understanding for traditional ways of teaching Chinese martial arts. It was a comment on a vid explaining details of alignment and releasing the joints, a video explaining a few principles in a very detailed manner.

I would say that the lack of understanding of the Chinese Martial Arts have very much to do with a lack of respect for foundations practice, and the lack of respect for basic skills and for fundamental knowledge. People don’t understand how a skill can be shown isolated from a fighting situation. Fighting should be taught in a way that it looks like fighting, how else could it work as fighting? Right? And how  can fighting skills be taught isolated from actual fighting?

Well, traditionally speaking Chinese Martial Arts are taught differently than just like sparring or simulated fighting. The path is long, hard and the teacher’s attention to detail is often meticulous. But many people here in the West believe that they can achieve something valuable in a fast and easy manner. When they pay a monthly or annual fee, it’s sometimes just like they were buying a product, like they expected results according to what they pay, and not according to how much time they put into practice. Most western people wouldn’t understand, and even less, have patience with Chinese traditional Martial Arts teaching. Building skill in these arts is not something fastly done and not easy to achieve. Instead, we put the building blocks down, separately, one by one.

Many Chinese arts, or rather the very most of them, start with the legs. The traditional way is to spend hours and hours of stance work, practicing standing and simple transitions. Sometimes this goes on maybe for a whole year or two before learning anything else. This is how you build “Gongfu” and basic skills in the traditional arts. One building block must be perfected before you can start with another one.

One of my Tai Chi teachers only learned five simple movements, or drills, from his head teacher for the two first years. Everything else he learned came from these movements. And most of the time was about drilling and drilling, repeating and repeating. Xingyiquan is often taught in a similar way, even today. First you build your roots with countless hours of standing in the traditional Xingyi stance Santishi. Then the five basic fists are drilled over and over again. One fist is learned at a time, and the next fist is taught first when the Jin or “energy” of the present fist has been thoroughly understood.

This way of teaching is a very Chinese or East-Asian thing. When learning calligraphy for instance, you start by practicing the first of the eight strokes and practice it to a certain level of skill before learning the next one. Thousands and thousands of single strokes are drawn before you learn to put strokes together and create simple characters.

In many countries in East-Asia, this attitude is present in every kind of teaching and learning and gaining skill, to build “Gongfu” in something. Traditionally in Japan, a Sushi chef spends ten years of learning to make Sushi before being awarded the title of chef. The first four years consists solely of making rice. Why? Doesn’t it sound ridiculous? Is it only about learning discipline through boredom?

No, of course not. You must think in terms of a bigger picture to really understand. What is the most important thing for a high quality restaurant? In one word: Consistency.  Regardless of circumstances, the food must always keep the same high quality and it must always taste the same. So, a Sushi Chef not only knows how to make perfect rice, but must he or shes must also learn how to preserve the same taste and quality regardless of being forced to use different kinds of rice brands, different kinds of pots, different quality of water and regardless the different levels of humidity throughout the years. Many different factors and conditions must be taken into consideration at the same time. This takes more skill than just to put on a rice cooker. Becoming good at making good sushi rice is not very hard, but to always be able to keep the same high standard regardless what, takes a different kind of skill.

Something similar could be said about Tai Chi skills. Learning to follow and lead away force is not that hard. But remember that to be able to use these skills you need to be able to lead away and re-direct force regardless of situation. Regardless angle of attack, regardless your opponent’s speed, body type and level of commitment, you need to be able to root yourself, relax both mind and body, be able to position yourself and attach yourself according to his posture and movements, in a way so that you can use your opponent’s movement’s and momentum to your own advantage. To keep the same level of skill and to be able to express skill regardless what, is something very different from succeeding again and again practicing with a classmate or demonstrating a skill set for show. It takes time and a whole lot of experience to achieve this level of skill. It might sound very hard to reach that level, but still, it’s not unachievable.  First when you are under pressure facing completely new circumstances, first then you will know if you have developed your basic skill sets enough to keep the same consistency of quality of performance. Then you will know if you have what it takes and if you really have achieved “Gongfu” enough to use your art in an unrehearsed and spontaneous manner.

Q&A With Master Wong

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In the second edition of my Q&A series Master Wong answers on the questions. A new interview is published every Friday.

master-wong-imageMaster Wong teaches Wing Chun, Chen style T’ai Chi Ch’uan and no-nonsense Self-Defense. He is mostly known for his Youtube videos.

His Youtube Channel has an impressive sum of almost 2.2 million subscribers and more than 250 million viewers. Today there are over 2000 published videos on his channel to enjoy.

Master Wong himself is the reason for his Channel’s popularity. With a strong personality and a big voice, he delivers what he believes in with honesty and a lot of humor.

”I want to show people how they can heal themselves from the inside out and help them build the confidence they need to focus on their goals and dreams or to find their purpose in life.”

Wong’s own personal life is all about hard work and about fighting for what he believes in. Being bullied as a child got him into many conflicts which affected the quality of his education, leading him to leave school early at a young age and continue down a difficult road of struggle with many obstacles. He managed to open his own food business already at the age of 19. But he found his heart in the martial arts and struggled hard to make it his career. As a self-employed entrepreneur, I have a huge respect for Mr Wong, for his approach to life and his attitude to always keep on fighting and never give up.

Watch his Youtube channel here and visit his homepage here.

David RL: Your favourite Martial Artists?

Master Wong: Movie wise, Bruce lee is the Don, Jet li, Jackie Chan are legends. But there are others that are not as globally known who I’m also a great fan off such as wu Jing.

Your three favourite Martial Arts Movies?

I don’t have a specific favourite as there is so many good movies made nowadays. But i do like the old school ones made by Jackie chan and Bruce lee, when you know the martial art skill was there and could not be hidden by using camera angles or tricks and stunt doubles. Not saying that theres is anything wrong with it. But you can’t beat the classic movies.

If you could study for any living or dead martial artist for two weeks, who would you choose?

No doubt its Bruce lee. His like the king of martial arts. If it wasn’t for him, martial art may have not gone the way it has today. His managed to break out of the traditional way, where some parts of the tradition could be skipped. He thinks outside the box, and saw what most traditional martial arts couldn’t. And then JKD was born.

Do you have any favourite Martial Arts concept?

JKD says it all really.

Do you have a favourite video from your Youtube Channel?

Not really.

Do you have any long-term goal or something particular that you want to achieve?

I have many goals, my goals are a bit like my training system, where you learn by layers. My goals can’t be achieved until i have reached a certain point. So like layer by layer my goals can gradually be achieved. First i want to spread my teaching and let it reach out to people who needs them most, or those who can pass it on and do good with it. So having instructors on a global scale they can help build towards my next goal. Then hopefully i can build academies so these instructors has a choice to run normal classes or teach kids who don’t have a home or have trouble life and want to turn their life around. Then it will become a ripple effect. I can go on with other personal goals. But this would be the ultimate achievement as i know it’s not going to be easy.

Please can you share a good advice to Chinese Martial Arts practitioners?

Have an open mind, have some common sense, question what you are learning if have doubt. Ask the right questions, instead of taking for the sake of asking.

Thank you Master Wong! I know how busy you have been lately, so I really appreciate that you took time to answer the questions. I wish you good luck with all of your plans.

Make sure you don’t miss next week’s Q&A with Tai Chi teacher and author Robert Agar-Hutton.

Also read last week’s interview with Ken Gullette.