How Kung Fu Masters Build Discipline (You May Be Surprised)

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Kung.  Fu.  Master.

Those three words summon up ideas of limitless willpower, intense discipline, and superhuman self-control.

At least if we believe what we see in the movies.

Actually, it’s mostly true.  The Kung Fu masters that I’ve met in my journeys have all been incredibly disciplined men and women.  In some ways, they’re like characters right out of a Kung Fu movie.

(By the way, when I talk about Kung Fu masters, I’m also referring to Tai Chi masters.  Tai Chi is one of the many styles of Kung Fu that I have learned.  It’s also my favorite.)

Wouldn’t you like to know their secret?  I mean, if you had that kind of discipline, you could make amazing changes, build healthy new habits, eliminate bad ones, and create the life you dream of!

I’ll reveal their secret, and it may very well change your life.  But I’m warning you:  You’re probably going to be surprised.

Karate vs. Kung Fu

I didn’t begin my martial arts journey with Kung Fu.  I started in college with a Karate class, and I earned my black belt a few years later.  It wasn’t until much later than I switched to Kung Fu.  (Even then, I went through various styles of Kung Fu before finally settling on Tai Chi.)

Black Belt tournament c. 1996

Yours truly competing in a Karate tournament, circa 1996

When I started learning Kung Fu, I was hit with a bit of culture shock.  The Karate culture, which is influenced by Japanese ideas of strictness and order, is heavily regimented.  You wear clean, white uniforms.  You bow.  You follow etiquette.

Or else.

The Karate culture was (and still is) almost like a military organization with its complex set of rules.

The Kung Fu culture, on the other hand, is quite casual.  In all the different Kung Fu schools I’ve attended, there’s never been a standard uniform. My first Kung Fu teacher taught in jeans.  Even Grandmaster Wong, who now chooses to wear more traditional Kung Fu suits, was wearing a simple polo shirt and Kung Fu pants when I first met him in 1997.

The difference between the Kung Fu and Karate world was confusing to me at first.  For years, I thought that Kung Fu needed more discipline.  More structure.  More order.

I was wrong.

Years later, I realized that the big secret to long-term discipline was to be found in the Kung Fu culture, not the Karate culture!

The Big Secret

Okay, so what’s the big secret that Kung Fu masters know? If I had to pick an English phrase, it would be this:

Slow and steady wins the race.

Let me explain.

In America, we worship  “No Pain, No Gain” as our guiding philosophy.  The Karate culture has a similar philosophy.  For all intents and purposes, these two philosophies are the same.

But the guiding philosophy of the Kung Fu culture is different.  You win not by pushing, not by tensing and gritting your teeth, but by relaxing and persevering over time.

To Americans, this can feel truly foreign.  When I first encountered it, I honestly thought that it was downright lazy.

There’s a casualness to genuine Kung Fu training that can be confusing. For example, my Sifu often said to me:

“It’s better to under-practice than to over-practice.”

The first time I heard him say this, I corrected him, assuming that he had mixed it up.  (English is his 2nd language, after all.)  But no, he had said what he meant, and meant what he said!

Compare that to a quote by one of the most famous Karate masters in history, Mas Oyama, who said,  “Train more than you sleep.”

Now that’s what I’m used to!  No pain no gain!  Someone telling me to practice like crazy until I go crazy!

But that’s not Kung Fu.

Don’t Push Hard

In Kung Fu, you don’t push hard.  If your training seems hard to the average person (and it probably would), then it’s because you have gradually worked up to that level over a long period of time.  To you, it should not feel difficult because you’ve adapted to it.

In other words, your daily training session feels effortless, almost easy to you.

This makes sense, from a martial arts perspective.  Kung Fu was developed in times of actual life-or-death combat.  In that world, there’s no room for injury.

The “no pain, no gain” approach creates injuries.  It happens all the time in the Karate culture, just like it does with professional athletes. It’s the norm to have injuries that put you out of action.

In the old days, that approach would have gotten you killed.  If you trained so hard that you injured yourself, then you won’t be able to defend yourself on the street or the battlefield.  You had to be fresh, healthy, and mentally calm — at all times.

Qi and Chinese Medicine

This is probably why the ancient Kung Fu masters gravitated toward the principles of Qi and Chinese medicine.  If you push too hard in your training, then you drain the internal energy, or Qi.  And that’s just plain bad for your health.

In Kung Fu, we refuse to sacrifice our health with our training.  The opposite, in fact; we want to build health.  That’s why, of all the martial arts in the world, the one that is most widely practiced for health is Tai Chi (even to the point where most no longer even recognize it as a martial art).

Karate, on the other hand, does not necessarily make you healthier.  It may make you stronger, or more fit — but not healthier.  (Remember that you can be fit without being healthy.)

In other words, Kung Fu trains you not just to defend yourself against punches and kicks, but also to defend yourself from colds and flus, chronic illness, and even from accidents.

How can you defend from accidents?  By not draining your Qi. If you’re tired, if you’re weak, if your energy is scattered — then you’re more likely to get in an accident, whether it’s driving a car, or just crossing the street.

The Sprinter vs. the Marathoner


A recent picture of me having fun on the Plum Blossom Kung Fu Poles in Costa Rica.

They say that early humans, before the invention of the spear, the atlatl, or the bow, thrived on something known as “persistence hunting”.  Humans didn’t have sharp fangs or claws, nor did they have camouflage, nor did they have the ability to sprint as fast as most mammals.

What they had was persistence.  Endurance.  And this turned out to be a powerful tool.  

Most mammals are faster than us in the short run, but not in the long run.   Early human hunters were successful because they chased their prey for hours, until the animal literally dropped from exhaustion.

And that’s a lot like Kung Fu.

Humans are not natural sprinters.  We are natural long-distance runners.  This metaphor applies beautifully to the Kung Fu concept of discipline.

Kung Fu masters win not by sprinting, but by pacing themselves for the long run. And they succeed beautifully.  More than any other martial art, masters of Kung Fu can be found practicing in their 90s and even into their 100s.

Very few martial artists are able to maintain such a long-term practice for so long.  Most are sprinters.  They may sprint and earn a black belt in 5 years, but a few years later, they stop practicing.  They may pick it up again a few years later, keep at it for 10 years, and then stop again.

Most of my Karate colleagues from 20 years ago are no longer practicing.  (One of them still practices, but he switched to Kung Fu, so I don’t think he counts!)

Meanwhile, I’m still practicing daily.  Slow and steady.  Year after year.  Decade after decade.

You Are Not Undisciplined

If you think that you’re undisciplined, you’re probably wrong. It’s more likely that you’re just reacting to the “no pain, no gain” approach.  If you’re bad at that, then don’t fret.  So was I.  And that’s why I love the Kung Fu approach.

I’ve watched thousands of students wrestle with the concept of discipline.  What most students do is try to muscle it.  They push hard because their culture tells them to push hard.  And after a few months, or maybe even a few years, they burn out.

It’s the students who are more casual, who don’t push too hard — these are the ones who are successful in the long run.  Slow and steady.

We all have discipline in us.  It just needs to be nurtured in the right way.  The big secret to discipline is that it must be cultivated and nurtured — slowly, steadily, tenderly, not clobbered with a club.

So if you’re tired of trying to force discipline, then try the softer approach.

Kung Fu and You

Even if you’re not interested in Kung Fu or Tai Chi, you can still benefit from the big secret.  And you can start to implement this secret right now.

Here’s how:

Decide (or resolve, or intend, or whatever word works for you) right now that in 2014, you’re going to practice the amazing Qigong exercise called “Lifting The Sky” every day for 30 days for at least 1 minute a day.

lifting-the-sky-costa-rica-4What?  You haven’t learned Lifting The Sky yet?  That’s okay.  It’s easy to learn.  I recently released 2 free instructional videos when I launched my new online academy.   (Click here for the videos.  You have to enter your email, but otherwise, it’s completely free.)

Does that sound too easy?  Not so fast, grasshopper.  Believe me — this requires real discipline.  But it’s a different KIND of discipline.

Do this for 1 minute every day — for just 30 days.  If you miss a day, then you have to start over.

If you can do a full 30 days, then congratulations.  You’ve just cultivated some Kung Fu discipline!  If you keep at it, then the sky’s the limit on what you can do!

Got questions for me?  Post them below.  I’d love to hear from you. 

Want to learn from me? I'm now offering live, online workshops. All you need is a decent internet connection. You can even use your phone or tablet. Click here to learn more.
Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I'm Sifu Anthony Korahais, and I created Flowing Zen because I know what it's like to wrestle with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I'm living proof of the healing power of qigong and tai chi. I've already helped thousands to get results with these amazing arts, and I'd love to share my knowledge with you as well. ​

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18 Responses to How Kung Fu Masters Build Discipline (You May Be Surprised)

  1. Kathleen Rice January 2, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    Thanks, I’m also already on board the benefits of SLOW, and wrote about it in my weekly digest/blog for United Tai Chi in November

  2. Dirk January 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm #


  3. Alex Kreitner January 3, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    Thank you for posting this article!

    In my own Tai Chi practice, I’ve discovered that I rely a lot on strength and an impatient sense of trying to finish as quickly as possible, and I’ve seen how that is ingrained in me as the “right way to succeed.” But I hadn’t fully considered how this affects the rest of my life and the decisions I make outside of physical/energetic movements until reading this. That extra realization is invaluable and I greatly appreciate it!

    If I might share, as a topic that springs from this, I’ve discovered that it is also impossible to go backwards in improvement or to “start back at 0.” What has come along with my American sense of “muscles = success immediately” is a sense that if I don’t get to my goal in a very short time then anything I do that isn’t reaching that goal is equivalent to failure and starting back where I began.

    But, even if I’ve failed at practice one day, or one month, I haven’t failed or returned to the level where I started. Even if the outward benefits have lessened. Instead, I have the experience of having practiced before that can’t be taken away and I can restart and keep up from there. And I now can see the contrast of where I was when practicing and when I didn’t so that I have an experiential sense of why regular practice is better than irregular, which serves me better than someone telling me I have to. Even if that experience has to be repeated a dozen or a hundred times, there is always improvement.

    I think this adds to the same mindset and is another facet of our skewed and self-destructive Western mindset.

  4. steve contes January 3, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    After years of Taiji study, I have reached the same conclusion

    full article:

    Article conclusion below:

    Regarding Taiji principles: The life-style and philosophy discussed above lead to a balanced life full of contentment, but not blinded by any harsh realities.
    I personally have begun to take a slower approach to my practice and my life. Less driving and more biking. Still training hard 2-3 hours a day, but without the great demands I previously put on my self. (Also noticeably less injuries leading to more consistency in my training) It’s another example of the aforementioned. It is no longer important for me to study more and more new forms, but instead to understand fewer more deeply and clearly. I don’t focus on quantity. I just enjoy the training and that has led me to better see and understand Taij and the rest of my life from a new perspective. Taiji without the pressures and the goals is now giving me even more benefits than before. So without goals, goals are also achieved in a very natural way.
    That is my interpretation on some fundamental Taiji principles and how they can impact our lives both short and long term in a most positive way.

  5. Carlo January 4, 2014 at 11:28 pm #

    This is an absolutely amazing and timely article.

    I can absolutely relate to everything that is here and thought of myself having a hard time being disciplined. I am a sprinter by nature and I work hard explosively only to have it die down immediately. I want to know how to be able to have consistent follow-through action and have a hard time doing so. I lack the patience and the discipline.

    But I’m happy this article has put things in perspective and has affirmed that I too can become a disciplined Kung Fu Master towards achieving my goals.

    Slow and steady wins the race!

    This has helped me so much

    Thank you

  6. Bill Putman January 8, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Very well said. It echoes a central theme of the morning session we had in Gainesville on October 27 – “we’re tortoises, not hares.” And a central theme of the afternoon session was “you’re supposed to struggle.” That part I think I’m pretty solid on!

  7. karate-guy February 3, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Actually “karate” is a okinawan kung-fu style.
    The white budo-uniforms etc. were just put in place short before the war and as karate gained popularity in japan. In Okinawa they trained mostly in bermuda-style shorts. Till the End 1930s there was not even a “Belt-System”. this was all derived from judo to make karate more widespread.

    The more traditional styles are far more Chi-Gong oriented then your regular-known shotokan karate. Even the more combat and competition-oriented kyokushin style is actually cause its a goju-ryu spinoff. (Go-Ju = Jin-Jang)

    But you wont find that focus in your common karate-class. But you will also find San Shou-oriented Kung Fu that ist far away from a “internal martial art”.
    And the big Shaolin-oriented martial arts schools in China are full of miliary drill. and “brutal” training-methods. So its not such a big difference after all.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      Hi Karate-guy. Thanks for the comments.

      I actually have a black belt in Goju-Ryu Karate, the style you mentioned. In my experience, even the softest, most internal Goju teachers still had a “no pain, no gain” approach.

      As for the Shaolin schools in China — they don’t teach genuine Kung Fu. What they teach is modern, sport wushu, which is heavily influenced by the West.

  8. Cleat C Roberts April 23, 2014 at 8:19 am #

    This is a great read!

    It strikes a chord in me when you wrote that discipline is something that is to be nurtured slowly over time. That fits into what I understand of the virtues. Self-Discipline has been identified as a virtue by the Family Virtues Project.

    And I’ve been trying to teach my young son that slow and steady wins the race.


  9. shak June 13, 2014 at 11:50 am #


    This is a very interesting article. And I’m not very surprised because I recently joined a kung fu class and I was amazed how casual and relaxed everyone was, even the black belts (sashes) and the Sifu!

    However, I believe you should mention that the journey will not be easy, although it’s about the long run, it still requires hard work and energy.

    I’m also a bit confused, can you explain why shaolin monks used to train everyday for many years day and night, a lot of pain!. In china many people used to practice kung fu hard every single day for hours. And it was hard work and a lot of energy was needed to complete the training!

    Perhaps this article relates mostly to Tai Chi, as this is a softer form of kung fu (I believe?), and maybe other forms of kung fu require the same mindset of ‘no pain no gain’. I’m unsure please explain.


    • Sifu Anthony Korahais June 14, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

      Hi Shak. It’s true of course that kung fu requires hard work. But traditionally, even the harder styles of kung fu didn’t not use a “no pain no gain” approach. The training might appear hard to a beginner, but the students doing the hard training usually worked up to that point very gradually.

      Of course, this was not the case in every kung fu school, but it seems to be a common theme, perhaps because of the widespread influence of Chinese medicine on the culture.

  10. Thomas Phillipsen October 24, 2014 at 5:11 am #

    Thank you for a really inspiring article, Sifu Anthony.

    I am very interested in beginning Kung Fu practice and have a question for you:

    How can I tell if a master teaches in accordance with the principles of Kung Fu you are mentioning in the article (slow and steady)?

    Kind Regards,

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais October 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

      Hi Thomas. I think that you just have to use your best judgment. Does the teacher seem to use these principles, or not? Or can always show them the article and see if they get upset!

  11. Walt Sachwitz January 24, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    I can’t find any material from you regarding “The Secrets” and additional material that is sent. Could I receive the material? Thank You, by the way I’m 81 and into Qigong for health.

    Thank you, Walt

  12. Dora Ng February 5, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    What a wonderful article. I’ve lived with the “no pain, no gain” culture all my life and it’s led to a lot of injuries, which, as I’m getting older, are becoming more difficult to shake off. I recently took up running. I’m in pretty good shape because I’ve practised kung fu and lion dance all my life, so I felt like I was adapting to running very quickly, and increased my mileage fast. My muscles, heart and lungs say “yes” but my ankles said “no.” I had recently watched a marathon movie and the main character said that the biggest complement a long distance runner can receive is that they are mentally strong. I had thought that to push through pain was mentally strong so I kept running on a sore ankle and lo and behold I’m injured. In the old days, as you say, I would have been eaten by a tiger or something by now.

    So thank you again for this wonderful article. Still trying to unlearn “no pain no gain.” It’s hard.

  13. Dana Rose November 20, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    My son is about to test for his purple belt after a year and a half. He just turned 8 years old. He wants to have his black belt tomorrow. I will have him read your article so he knows why it takes so long. Thank you for the information!

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