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.)
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.
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 when my teachers wore traditional Kung Fu suits, none of the students did.
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
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.
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.
What? 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. Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.