Here is the first Questions & Answers interview in my new series, starting off with Chen Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi expert Ken Gullette. Make sure you visit this blog every Friday for a new interview.
Ken Gullette has studied martial arts since 1973 and internal arts since 1987. Ken is known for going beneath the surface, teaching internal body mechanics in an easy-to-understand way. He has published several books about Taijiquan, Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. He also has a podcast, The Internal Arts Fighting Podcast. There are many interesting in-depth interviews here so make sure you look it up if you already haven’t. It is on Spotify, iTunes, and other podcast distributors:
Ken recently published a new book – Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi, which has got great reviews. You’ll find it here:
He also has an online learning program where you can participate. You’ll find it here as well as more information about the program and info about Ken himself:
David R-L: Your favourite Martial Arts?
Ken Gullette: I love all martial arts, but when I discovered the internal arts in 1987, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go. Before that, I studied a form of Shaolin kung-fu, Taekwondo, and Tien Shan Pai kung-fu, and I enjoyed each one and learned from each one.
Your three favourite Martial Arts Movies?
“Enter the Dragon” is the king of all. Bruce Lee was so amazing and his movements so beautiful that it caused me to enroll in my first martial arts school. I also really love “Forbidden Kingdom,” with Jacky Chan and Jet Li, and “Above the Law,” with Steven Seagal. But “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was also amazing, and there are several others. That is a very tough question. 🙂
If you could study for any living or dead martial artist for two weeks, who would you choose?
Well, Bruce Lee first comes to mind, but I think the person I would most love to study with for two weeks would be Chen Fake. He was the grandfather of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, and supposedly one of the great Taiji masters in the family’s history. He moved to Beijing around 1928, and some say he took the best quality of Chen Taiji with him. He developed what became known as Xinjia, which is the same form as Laojia, but practiced with differences in the body mechanics and movements. Chen Fake was not a scholar, he was a martial artist, and he didn’t write anything down. His famous students included Feng Zhiqiang. I would enjoy studying with Chen Fake for two weeks to see the differences in the way he approached Taiji.
Why did you choose internal arts?
Like a lot of people, I wondered if there really were mystical or supernatural-type “powers” that came from studying the internal arts. I thought I would explore this “chi” business (also spelled “qi”) and see if it was real. But as I got into the internal arts, I became fascinated with how these sometimes gentle, slow movements hide so many fighting applications. I did Yang style Taiji for more than a decade, along with Xingyi and Bagua, before being introduced to Chen style. After learning Chen style, an entirely new realm opened up. The body mechanics are so much deeper than I imagined, and so much more difficult to do correctly. It takes a long time to develop real skill, because we have to learn completely new ways of moving that allow you to develop relaxed power. It’s as fascinating to me today as it was in 1987. Maybe even more so.
Also, the internal arts allowed me to embed my philosophy into the art. From the moment I started watching the “Kung-Fu” TV show back around 1972, I was fascinated with the fight scenes, but also with the morality of the monks who drove home the philosophical point of each episode in flashbacks. When young Caine was afraid that running away from a fight shows he is a coward, one of the monks said, “A deer runs from a tiger. It is not cowardice, it is the love of life.”
I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist-type environment, so the morality was very different, and it struck a chord. I began to study Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Bruce Lee’s “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” included a lot of philosophy that rang true with me. When I began practicing the internal arts and qigong and tried to embed the philosophy with the art, it was a natural fit, and it allowed me to really apply the internal arts to daily life.
I had been practicing this for a long time, especially the “centering” aspects of the philosophy, but I didn’t have a focal point until I began studying the internal arts and qigong.
Do you have any favourite Martial Arts memory or story to share?
There are so many. I remember when a black sash student named Bob would come into the internal arts classes in Omaha, around 1988 or 1989, and he would show applications that blew my mind. A movement in a Bagua form that seemed like just a swirl of the hands or a “transition” movement would be a powerful technique to break someone’s arm. I wondered, “How can he see these applications? How do you become that good?” But that’s the way martial arts are. The more work you put in and the more you awaken the creativity in your mind and stop looking at a technique or a movement as just one thing, the more you see. Within a few years, unlocking the self-defense applications of movements was my favorite thing.
Another memory was when my Chen style teachers, Jim and Angela Criscimagna, came to my school to put on a workshop. Previously, my teachers had a lot of background in other arts, including karate, so I had been trained over the years, and I taught my students, to bow before walking out onto the training floor.
When Jim saw one of my students, Rich Coulter, bow before walking out on the floor, Jim asked Rich, “You bow before walking onto the training floor?”
“Yes, we do,” Rich replied.
“How Japanese,” Jim said.
Later that day, Rich told me what Jim said and I cracked up. He was absolutely right. The Chinese don’t bow to a floor. They don’t worship the training floor. It is a tool. They practice on dirt, in yards, in alleys, and they don’t consider those places worthy of a bow.
From that moment, we stopped bowing to the floor. I stopped considering my black sash as something sacred. I began re-examining the ritual things I was taught and whether it actually had a point, or if it meshed with Taoist philosophy. Respect for an art and respect for other people is one thing, but worshiping things that are not worthy of worship was a valuable lesson that spills over into daily life, too. If I am in someone else’s school, however, and they have a rule to bow before walking out on the training floor, I still do it, but I am inwardly thinking, “How Japanese.” 🙂
And another favorite memory was the moment I realized that I had achieved an important state of mind in competition. I used to compete in open martial arts tournaments. I wanted to show the internal arts in front of karate, TKD and other competitors. My students and I raised awareness and respect in our region, including Chicago, where we won a lot of trophies in great tournament matches and forms competitions. I was competing until I lost a lung at age 56, due to a medical mishap. I love competing because it provided a great reason to stay in shape, helped me set goals and targets, etc.
When we are young, we compete to win. And when we do sparring competition, we worry about each point. At some point in my forties, I suddenly stopped thinking about all that. I tried to use the philosophy and I detached my ego from the competitions. Even against a tough, angry opponent, I relaxed and had fun. I no longer kept track of the score. If an opponent scored a good kick or punch, I would congratulate them. Sometimes, if someone kicked me really hard, or punched me hard, I would joke around a bit, wobbling back to the center of the ring to make people laugh, as if he really nailed me. The judges loved the sportsmanship and the other competitors did, too. I stopped seeing myself as wanting to be better, and as a result of relaxing and having fun, and trying to meld with my opponent, I began winning more. When I was in my fifties I was beating strong young guys in their twenties. I really miss that, but now I’m 65 and with one lung and a minor heart issue. It just isn’t possible now, so I have become more of a coach than a warrior at this point.
Do you have any favourite Martial Arts concept?
Yes. People look at Taiji push hands and a lot of macho guys say, “That is useless on the street.” But they are wrong. The problem with push hands is that most students don’t progress beyond patterns and “sensitivity.” One of the most important concepts is “listening.” That is the ability, developed through slow push hands practice, to “feel” your opponent’s energy and read his force at the very instant he decides to attack. From there, you “understand” his force and you adapt to it, neutralize it and counter.
Taiji is a close-up fighting art. So is Bagua. It is best when you are up close and personal with your opponent. I mean REALLY close — leg to leg, arm to arm, torso to torso. So push hands should develop from the basic patterns into a non-scripted, freestyle, flowing practice where you and your partner are trying to “listen” to each other through touch, and then regardless of what your opponent tries to do, whether it is a takedown, a throw, a punch, a joint lock, you are able to flow with it and counter. This should be done slowly at first and then speeded up.
When you get to the point when you can “listen” to an opponent who is grabbing you to take you to the ground, and you can neutralize what he is doing and throw HIM to the ground, and do it without muscular tension and brute strength, instead using peng, lu, ji, an, cai, kao, zhou, kong, and other “energies,” you have reached a higher level of gongfu. This is what I have been working on a lot during the past couple of years, and the subject of my next book.
You know that the “energies” of Taiji are not really literal “energies.” That is a misinterpretation. When we talk about the Eight Energies, or the 13 Energies, we are talking about “methods” of dealing with force. When someone grabs you and pushes, he is using force. You must recognize that force and decide very quickly which “method” is best to neutralize it. Then, often you use another method to counter-attack. Each of the energies is actually a different method, but all of them involve “peng” jin.
What is your favourite podcast Episode(s) from Internal Fighting Arts Podcast?
There have been so many. I think my first one, with Michael Chritton, was great because he told the story of how he went to the Chen Village to train in China with Chen Zhenglei, and he saw a talented girl practicing. She was very powerful. She was Chen Huixian, Zhenglei’s niece, and Michael tells of how their relationship developed, how they got married and moved to the U.S. They are great people, living and teaching in the Kansas City area (Overland Park, Kansas).
I also enjoyed the podcast with Dr. Harriet Hall, the SkepDoc. She blew the lid off alternative medicine. I think that is an important topic for internal artists and anyone who still believes that chi is going to heal you with some type of mystical power. But all my guests have been great in their own way. I really enjoy discussing the politics of studying with Chinese masters. These guys are put on pedestals, but very often they are petty, greedy people who want to build empires and make money. Not all of them are that way, but a surprising number are. I like to shed some real-world light on the real people. I also enjoy hearing of the pain and sacrifices people go through to seek out and study these arts. I have great respect for just about every guest I have had on the program.
Do you have a short term goal in your art?
To continue to develop my ability to listen and neutralize opponents using Taiji energies and methods. And I also keep working on my basic body mechanics, trying to get better in the whole-body connected flow of internal strength through my movements so that it appears relaxed and seamless, but the strength inside never “breaks.”
Do you have any long term goal or something particular that you want to achieve?
Considering my doctors didn’t expect me to survive in 2009, when they tore a pulmonary vein and pierced my heart with the wire, and none of them expected me to continue studying and teaching martial arts, I am simply focused on staying healthy and continuing to train. At my age, and after what I’ve been through, survival is a good goal.
Otherwise, I still want to do DVDs and write books that explain the internal arts, and internal movement and applications, in plain language that people understand. I was in radio and TV news for 22 years and won a few awards as a journalist. One of the things that has frustrated me as a student is the inability of teachers, in person or on DVD or in books, to teach. They get wrapped up in the mystical, or they simply don’t explain concepts in a clear way. It really is not rocket science. So that is what I do. I try to help people cut years off their development and understanding so they will save a lot of time and money. That way, we can all get better, because as I do my DVDs and write books, I continue to learn and to grow. That is the best achievement of all — taking one baby step forward at a time.
Please can you share a good advice to Tai Chi and Internal Arts practitioners?
Get your ego out of it and enjoy criticism. When I would go to my teachers and they would correct me, or when I study with a master and they show me what I am doing wrong, I get excited. When I was in a tournament and I lost, I tried to use it to learn. Why did I lose? What am I doing wrong?
When I get feedback, even after working on something for months only to be told it is wrong, or I could do it better, I love it, because I know that I will be able to improve with that knowledge.
I was at a tournament around 1999, and a judge kept scoring me low. She had scored me low in other tournaments, too, but this time I walked up after the competition and asked for feedback.
“You rush through your forms like a house on fire,” she replied.
“You need more pacing.” I walked away and my initial reaction was, “What does she know. It’s a Xingyi form and she doesn’t do Xingyi.”
But then I realized she was right. I watched the video, and she was right. I realized that a form is a choreographed fight, and you can’t just burn through it, even with an aggressive art like Xingyi. So I began emphasizing body mechanics, and I would slow some parts down and then really slam home the fajin. I began winning more, and I knew that my forms became better. It also helped me teach better. And it was a great lesson in how to shove the ego aside and learn, even from someone outside my art.
I offer members of my website free personal coaching, but very few take advantage of it. I think people are insecure and don’t want to embarrass themselves. But that’s a plan to achieve failure. You need to embrace the philosophy, detach your ego, and understand how valuable corrections can be. I have seen my teachers corrected by masters. We ALL need correction. You just have to embrace it because it helps you. But when people get to a certain point — a black belt, for example — some of them think they no longer need correction. A black belt or black sash is simply the start of your journey. It does not represent high-level skill. If it does, then you are in a shallow art.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I hope everyone really thinks about how to apply their arts to daily life. The “centering” and “connecting” aspects of the internal arts are important at work, at home, even driving on the highway when someone cuts you off. If you can truly adopt these concepts and realize that it is not you against the world, but you are connected to everyone and everything, it will improve your life. If you do qigong and you learn to react with relaxation and calm when you suddenly face a tense or stressful situation, you will handle things better, regardless of whether it is a sudden deadline at work, an angry spouse at home, or a driver with road rage on the highway. That is supposed to be a key part of studying martial arts, but I’m afraid very few people work on that aspect of the art, and very few teachers embed it into their teaching.
“Listening” and “neutralizing” skills are not just physical skills. “Connecting” skills are more than physical techniques. When someone is verbally abusive to me at work, these skills can be just as useful as they can against a physical attack. I encourage everyone to think about it. It’s something we all fall short on, but I have tried to develop this in myself since the 1970s. It has helped me in many ways.
Thank you Mr Gullette for generously answering the questions, for all of your thoughts and great advices. It has been a privilege to have a visit from you. I wish you all of the best and hope that you keep on with your podcast, videos and books for a very long time to come.
A new Q&A interview will be published every Friday. Make sure you don’t miss next week’s Q&A with Master Wong.
Please leave your suggestions on interesting people to interview in the comments or contact me directly. (Go to “about” page for contact information)