If you’ve ever watched a kung fu movie…
…now hang on a minute!
Are there people reading this who haven’t watched a kung fu movie?
If so, then stop reading right now, go rent Drunken Master with Jackie Chan, and then report back to me when you’re finished.
Okay, now where was I?
If you’ve ever watched a kung fu movie, then you’re probably familiar with this line:
“Right then! What’s your style?”
You’ll often hear this just as one of the bad guys strikes a fancy schmancy kung fu pose. It’s time for kung fu fighting!
What’s all this talk about “style,” and what does it mean for the modern practitioner of qigong or tai chi?
I’m going to clear that up for you.
By the end of this article, you’ll understand what a qigong style is (and isn’t), and whether or not any of this stuff even matters to you.
What IS My Style?
Here’s my dilemma.
Imagine the scene above, with the bad guy striking a kung fu pose in front of me and saying, “Right then, what’s your qigong style, Mr. Anthony!”
Now imagine me responding not with a kung fu pose, but by stroking my beard pensively and saying: “That’s a really good question, Mr. Bad Guy!”
For years, whenever someone asked what style of qigong I teach, I always answered as follows:
Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong (少林混元一氣功, Shaolin Cosmos Qigong).
But there’s a problem with that answer: It’s no longer accurate.
If you want to understand more about the nature of qigong “styles”, then keep reading. My own journey will help you to see things clearer.
Style vs. Lineage
The truth is that I’ve learned and practiced many styles of qigong (more on that below).
Yes, Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong is the style that I studied deepest. It’s also the only style that I claim lineage too.
But is it really the style that I teach?
(The subject of lineage is closely connected to the subject of styles, so bear with me.)
If you’re new to Flowing Zen, then you need to know some quick history.
In 2014, I “divorced” my Sifu after 17 years of discipleship.
For the record, I didn’t just divorce him. I was the main whistleblower for a sexual abuse scandal in his organization, perpetrated by one of his certified instructors.
I left — and not quietly — because I believe that his organization condones sexual and emotional abuse. Hundreds of students and many instructors also left for the same reason.
The Politics of Lineage
So what happened to my lineage after my divorce?
Some people will tell you that I no longer have lineage because of my divorce.
They will actually try to convince you that my 17 years of discipleship and my 11 years as a chief instructor just magically disappeared the moment I left.
If you believe that, then you are in the wrong place, my friend.
The ugly truth about lineage is that it’s actually quite political.
And speaking of politics, if I were still in the organization, if I were still an inner-chamber disciple, if I were still the chief instructor in the U.S. — then I would have no choice but to say that I teach Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong.
In other words, I would be required to downplay all the other styles that I learned, and push my lineage’s style to the forefront.
And I would be allowed to write this article.
But now that I’m free, I’m no longer beholden to a master or a lineage.
In other words, I’m no longer obligated to say that I practice and teach Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong.
For the first time since I began this amazing qi journey in 1992, I’m totally free.
My freedom is a beautiful thing, and not just for me.
I believe that my freedom makes me a better teacher, and a better artist. In other words, I think that my freedom is a beautiful thing for YOU.
But I want you to know that I’m not just some crazy, rebellious American thumbing his nose at tradition.
Okay I am a bit crazy. And I’m also rebellious. And yes, I’m American.
That’s all true. But it’s also true that there is a long tradition of leaving one’s master, studying other styles, innovating, and then creating a new, modern style of qigong or kung fu!
So I’m in good company.
The Structure of a Style
What does it mean to create a new style?
First we need to figure out what a style actually is!
To understand this, let’s look at the basic building blocks for all styles of qigong and kung fu (including tai chi).
The structure is as follows:
pattern —> set —> style
Let’s start with the most basic unit in qigong (and tai chi): the pattern.
Structure 1: Patterns
A pattern is a single, distinct qigong or tai chi move. Usually, a pattern will have a poetic name.
For example, Lifting The Sky is a famous qigong pattern, and Single Whip is a famous tai chi pattern.
With tai chi, this can be confusing. Beginners often have difficulty seeing where one pattern finishes and another begins.
That’s because tai chi is characteristically fluid, unlike karate, which is much more linear and choppy.
To help you understand this, think of tai chi like cursive writing, and karate like block writing.
Cursive letters are designed to flow together. Once you learn to read cursive, it’s easy to see where one letter stops and another begins.
The same is true in tai chi.
Now that you understand the basic units (patterns), let’s move on to sets.
Structure 2: Sets
A set is an intelligent combination of patterns.
Some people refer to a “set” as a “form.” For example, the Tai Chi Short Form should really be called a set.
I think the word “form” muddles the distinction between a set and a pattern.
In fact, some people refer to a pattern like Lifting the Sky as a form.
The word “set” is better.
Here are some examples of sets:
- Yi jin Jing (Sinew Metamorphosis) is a famous qigong set,
- The Tiger-Crane Set is a famous Shaolin Kung Fu set,
- The 24-Pattern Short Form is a famous Tai Chi set.
Sets are intelligently arranged for various purposes, like easy memorization, energy flow, or in the case of Tai Chi and Shaolin Kung Fu, self defense.
Now let’s move up the structure to a style.
Structure 3: Styles
A style is a comprehensive methodology that includes several different sets, as well as specific training theories.
Think of a style as a curriculum.
- Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong includes the sets: The 18 Luohan Hands, Yi Jin Jing (Sinew Metamorphosis), One Finger Zen, Golden Bridge, Cosmos Palm, Small Universe, and Big Universe.
- Yang Style Tai Chi typically includes the sets: The 24-Pattern Short Form (or the 108-Pattern Long Form), Pushing Hands, one or more weapons forms (like the sword), and auxiliary qigong techniques (like the 8 Brocades Qigong set).
If you can understand this basic structure of pattern, set, and style, then you should find it much easier to navigate the confusing world of qigong (and tai chi).
How Many Styles Are There?
The short answer is: It depends on how you count them.
Part of the problem is that many people don’t understand the hierarchy of pattern, style, and set that I described above.
For example, some people think that Ba Duan Jin (The 8 Brocades) is a style of qigong. It is a qigong set, not a style.
Another problem is that the Chinese tradition of secrecy makes historical study more difficult.
It’s hard to count the number of qigong styles out there, but it’s easy to count the ones that I myself have learned!
Over the last 24 years, I’ve studied and practiced the following styles of qigong:
- Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong
- Chu Style Nei Kung
- Yan Xin Qigong
- Yi Quan
- Cosmic Freedom Qigong
- Wild Goose Qigong
- Primordial Qigong
- Dragon and Tiger Qigong
- Zhineng Qigong
- Spring Forest Qigong
- Holden Qigong
Note that I did not study all of these styles as deeply as #1. I did, however, practice far more than the average student.
Although this post is mainly about qigong, it’s worth talking briefly about kung fu as well.
What About Kung Fu?
Historically, some styles of qigong were embedded within (and kept secret by) styles of kung fu or karate.
For example, until the 20th century, you couldn’t learn Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong without also learning Shaolin Kung Fu (at least not in my lineage).
So for the sake of clarity and transparency, let me quickly list the major styles of kung fu that I’ve practiced (including my first karate style, which had some Japanese Qigong embedded inside)
- Goju-Ryu Karate
- Northern Shaolin Kung Fu
- Southern Shaolin Kung Fu
- Tai Chi Chuan
- Wing Chun Kung Fu
If you didn’t get the memo, all styles of tai chi are actually just sub-styles of kung fu. You can read more about that here.
If I were forced to give an answer to the question of how many qigong styles still exist in the 21st century, I would estimate that there are about a dozen well-known styles, plus another 2 dozen lesser-known styles, plus an unknown number of highly-secretive styles that will gradually emerge over time.
And don’t forget that there are over 100 different kung fu styles!
Why So Many Styles?
I know what you’re thinking. Why are there so many frigging styles?!?
To me, the answer is simple: Artistry.
Name one art that has remained unchanged over a period of a hundred years, let alone 1000! Artistry — real artistry — involves creation. And creation involves innovation.
Take Mozart. Sure, he’s a “classical” composer, but in his time, he was a major innovator.
So was Picasso. So was Jane Austin.
Qigong is an art. And like all arts, it is alive. It is not the same art today as it was 1000 years ago.
In the final analysis, this is the most satisfying answer to the question about why there are so many different styles of qigong.
In other words, there are many styles because, in the history of qigong, there have been many, many artists.
The Ironic Truth
In truth, the style of qigong that I inherited wasn’t really Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong.
My ex-Sifu heavily modified the qigong that he learned from his teacher.
And guess what? His Sifu did the same thing.
It’s also worth mentioning that, in the 21st century, there is widespread resistance to innovation in traditional Eastern arts when that innovation is done a Westerner.
People don’t even blink when a Chinese master makes changes to a qigong or kung fu style — but when a Westerner like me does the exact same thing, they get all huffy.
For example, I recently received this message in my inbox:
“I find it outrageous and disrespectful that you invented your own style of qigong and call it Flowing Zen Qigong. Only an arrogant American would do such a thing. No thank you! I’ll stick to traditional styles like Chilel and Shibashi.”
If you don’t get the joke, here’s why this is so funny:
- Chilel Qigong was invented in 1995.
- Shibashi Qigong was invented in 1979.
Both of them are modern styles based on traditional lineages — just like mine!
Oh well. People will always find something to be outraged about.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to master my art, and also the art of teaching.
Taking the Good, Discarding the Bad
Back in 1992, I learned a life-changing lesson from my first karate teacher, Sensei Bonnie Baker.
“Take the good, discard the bad,” she said, over and over.
That advice has turned out to be a godsend. Today, it’s helping me more than ever.
It means I’m free to take the good and discard the bad — and that’s precisely because I am no longer beholden to any lineage or master.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing — especially when you live in the information age!
The Information Age
The information age can be problematic for beginners. How do you sift through so much information? How do you tell the good from the bad? Who do you trust?
(My advice is find someone you trust, and then follow them for at least 6 months.)
For someone like me, the information age is a bonanza.
By “someone like me,” I mean someone who has already completed a 17-year apprenticeship, learned face-to-face from a dozen masters, and put in well over 10,000 hours of deep practice.
I’m in a fantastic position to take take the good and discard the bad.
With so much information at my disposal, plus the ability to sift the good from the bad — ask yourself this question:
Why on earth would someone like me NOT incorporate new ideas into my traditional style of qigong?
Or as T.S. Eliot put it:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better….
No Really, What’s Your Style?
Okay, so after all this — what style of qigong do I teach?
At this point, it feels disingenuous to continue saying that I teach Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong.
What about all the stuff that I’ve learned from other teachers that I now incorporate into my teaching?
What about the stuff from Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong that I’ve discarded?
The truth is that you could go learn Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong from 4 different teachers, and none of them would teach what I teach.
I’m finally ready to admit what I’ve known for years:
I no longer teach Shaolin Hunyuan Yi Qigong!
Boy, that felt good to get off my chest!
Oh wait, I still didn’t answer the question, did I!
Introducing My New Style!
I’ve thought long and hard about what to call my style of qigong, and I’ve come up with the follow name:
Big Tony Qigong!
Okay, I’m just joking.
But actually, that’s exactly what some masters have done. They just have cool Chinese names. I’m a bit jealous.
Since my website is Flowing Zen, I think it’s logical to call start calling my style Flowing Zen Qigong.
It fits. My teaching emphasizes the importance of a Zen state of mind, and also the importance of energy flow.
Also, the name “Flowing Zen” is fluid enough to allow for evolution over time. Because, as you can probably guess, I’m not done evolving.
I’m an artist, and I will continue to deepen my mastery of qigong until the day I die.
And thanks to qigong, I expect that day to be at least 70 years in the future!
- We’ve seen that there are countless styles of qigong, and kung fu.
- We’ve seen that styles are composed of qigong sets, which are composed of qigong patterns.
- We’ve seen that masters in many lineages innovated, gradually creating new styles of qigong.
- We’ve seen that I’ve learned many styles of qigong, and that I’ve also learned to take the good, and discard the bad.
- And we’ve seen that I’m ready to start calling my style Flowing Zen Qigong.
So what does all this mean for you? What’s your takeaway?
It depends on how you reacted to this post.
Were you nodding while reading it? Did you resonate with my ideas of innovation, artistry, and mastery?
Or were you shaking your head the whole time? Were you offended, like the guy who sent me the angry email? Do you prefer strict traditions that (supposedly) remain unchanged over time? Do you want to learn the “original” or “orthodox” style of qigong?
If it’s the latter, then I’m probably not the teacher for you. I wish you the best of luck in your search. (And if you come full circle ten years from now, I promise to welcome you back with open arms!)
Either way, I hope that you learned something useful in this article, and that you have more clarity now!
I’d love to hear from you. What do you think about all this talk of style? Do you think I made the right choice? Or should I have stuck with “Big Tony Qigong”? From the heart, Sifu Anthony