Twenty years ago, in the winter of 1992, I signed up for my first martial arts class. I was nineteen years old, and a sophomore in college. Looking back on that decision, I can see that it completely changed the course of my life. Here’s how.
I Know Kung Fu
I grew up watching endless hours of Kung Fu Theater on Saturday morning TV, and I had always wanted to learn a martial art. I remember an incident from when I was about 10 years old. Instead of cowering when the local bully threatened to beat me up, I took a stance and said, “I know Kung Fu!” I didn’t, of course. I was totally bluffing. Like many kids, I often tried to copy the Kung Fu movies as best as I could. Apparently, I copied them well enough to convince the bully!
Bluffing wouldn’t work forever though. Memory of that incident was a constant reminder of my desire to learn Kung Fu. But I would have to wait. As the son of two musicians, I wasn’t encouraged to learn martial arts. I had been practicing the violin since I was 5 years old, and my parents were afraid of me hurting my hands. (Amazingly, I’ve never hurt my hands in all these years of martial arts.)
When I went away to college, I suddenly had the freedom to make my own life decisions. Signing up for a Karate class (there was no Kung Fu class, sadly) was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. After my first class, I was hooked. There was something about practicing martial arts that resonated inside me. I loved the violin, but with the martial arts, there was a feeling I hadn’t known before. (Twenty years later, I still get that same feeling.)
From Karate to Kung Fu
Before graduating from college, I would earn a black belt in Goju-Ryu Karate. After college, I tried all kinds of other martial arts — Japanese Aikido, Philipino Arnis, Western Kickboxing, Korean Tae Kwon Do, and also several styles of Okinawan Karate. But over time, I gradually drifted towards Chinese Kung Fu.
Until writing this article, I had forgotten about all the different styles of Kung Fu that I’ve learned over the years. Here’s the short list: Luohan Kung Fu, Bagua Zhang, Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, Wing Chun, Tan Tui, as well as several different types of Southern Shaolin Kung Fu. Of course, Tai Chi Chuan is a form of Kung Fu, and I’ve learned it from several different teachers.
I found a home in Kung Fu (including Tai Chi Chuan). The reason I originally drifted away from Karate was because I felt that it lacked harmony. As I ventured into the world of Kung Fu, I found more and more of that harmony.
What is a Martial Artist?
As I look back on twenty years of learning and practicing martial arts, I find myself pondering an important question: What does it mean to be a martial artist?
These days, I don’t think that it means much, at least not to the average person. It certainly doesn’t command the respect that a doctor or lawyer does. If anything, it probably commands a small amount of fear. “Oh, so you can kick my butt?” is a joke that I often hear when people find out that I’m a martial artist. “Yes, and then I can heal it afterward,” I usually joke back.
Once upon a time, martial artists were respected, not just feared. People back then understood that practicing the martial arts required years of intense discipline — discipline that couldn’t help but build character. In Asia, martial artists also acted as local peacekeepers by settling disputes and breaking up fights. One of my grand-teachers, Sifu Lai Chin Wah, was well known for being a peacekeeper in Malaysia.
More importantly, martial artists were once known as healers. Four hundred years ago, if you broke a bone, you would go visit the nearest Kung Fu master. Back then, many Kung Fu masters were also Traumatologists. They could set bones, heal sprains and contusions, and prescribe therapeutic exercises. Another of my grand-teachers, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam, was more famous as a Traumatologist than as a Kung Fu master.
Yin and Yang
What has happened to the martial arts over the past 100 years? Like many things, I think that they have lost harmony. This is especially true of Kung Fu (including Tai Chi), which is supposed to follow the principles of Yin and Yang. It could be argued that, in the 20th Century, Kung Fu lost its harmony of Yin and Yang.
If a martial art is all about fighting, like modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), then it has no harmony. I was like this in my early years of training. I was all about fighting, even at the expense of my health. I learned to fight, but I also took a ton of punishment and had a long list of injuries. I couldn’t heal myself, let alone another person.
Reflecting back, it was madness. Back then, my goal was to be able to defend myself from being punched or kicked. Meanwhile, I was routinely getting punched and kicked every night in class! Sure, it wasn’t as bad as on the street, but in class I still got my nose broken, my cornea scratched, and my ribs cracked. So much for defending myself! Here’s a relevant quote:
“First get your body healthy; then worry about defending it.”
– Chinese proverb.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you practice a martial art, but you cannot even block a basic punch, then you also lack balance. You might think that it sounds crazy to be a martial artist and not know how to block a punch, and you’d be right. Unfortunately, it’s quite common. For example, many Tai Chi practitioners say, “I only practice for health.” Translation: “I can’t defend myself.” Here’s a relevant quote from my teacher:
“Of those practitioners who know that Tai Chi Chuan is basically a martial art, many insist that they practice it for health and not for fighting, without reflecting that practicing a martial art without understanding its martial function is to miss its essence. Such an [imbalance of yin and yang] is contradictory to the spirit of Tai Chi Chuan.”
– Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit
Balance is everything. When you find balance, then everything falls together. That’s what happened to me. Because I found balance in my training, I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. Of course, I can also block a punch.
It’s funny. New students are actually surprised when they find out that I’m a martial artist. Locally, I’m best known as a healer, and that’s what most students come to me for. When I demonstrate a little Kung Fu for them, I can see the surprise in their eyes. In their minds, healers and martial artists are separate. In my mind, I’m a good healer precisely because I’m a good martial artist.
While most martial artists my age are slowing down, I’m speeding up. I’m 39 years old, and I’m in better shape than I was at age 29. I’m healthier, stronger faster, more flexible, and I have more endurance. Of course, that’s on top of already curing myself of clinical depression, a congenital heart murmur, low-back pain, and a weak immune system.
A Lifelong Pursuit
In the grand scheme of things, 20 years is nothing. This is a lifelong study. In the Kung Fu world, it’s not uncommon to hear of masters who have been practicing for 80 years. That’s what I want. I plan to live to 120, so I’ve got about 80 more years of practice!
Even after 20 years, I still love practicing. Here’s a recent video of me doing some Kung Fu while on vacation with my wife:
And here’s a recent video of me doing a Tai Chi Chuan form:
I practice every day. Very few modern martial artists are able to maintain a consistent daily practice for decades. They may teach, they may write, but they stop practicing. Personally, I think this is because they lack balance.
When you lack balance, things start to fall apart. For example, many martial artists just can’t do the same moves they could 20 years ago. After years of taking punishment and being injured, their bodies are broken. It’s very common for martial arts teachers to be unable to do half the stuff that their students can do.
Another reason martial artists stop practicing is because they get bored. Who can blame them? When you lack balance in your martial art, growth stagnates. And when you stop growing, you get bored. For example, many Tai Chi practitioners, despite practicing for health, develop knee pain as a direct result of their training. Talk about discouraging!
The Spiritual Dimension
For me, all of this talk of balance ultimately leads toward one thing: spiritual cultivation. It is no coincidence that my two favorite martial arts, Shaolin Kung Fu and Tai Chi Chuan, were both perfected by spiritualists. They are great for your health, and also great for defense, but more importantly, they unlock the spiritual dimension.
In my Karate days, we talked about cultivating the spirit, but it was mostly talk. There was no substance. The type of training that we did wasn’t conducive for cultivating the spirit.
What does it mean to cultivate the spirit? That’s the great thing about Kung Fu and Tai Chi: If you practice them in a balanced way, then you will be able to answer that question for yourself based on your own experience. Cultivating your spirit becomes as real and tangible as cultivating flexibility or speed.
As I reflect back on 20 years in the martial arts, I look forward to the next 80 years of practice. I am truly excited to think about the benefits that the future will bring not only for me, but for my students. At the same time, I hope to help other martial artists to bring more balance into their arts. Perhaps as we all become living examples of health, happiness, power, and peace, then the term “martial artist” will regain some of its lost glory.From the heart, Sifu Anthony