Once upon a time, I wore pajamas to work.
Standing in front of a roomful of people.
Speaking as an authority.
Okay fine. Not pajamas. Technically, I was wearing a traditional Kung Fu suit made of silk. If you’re not sure what these look like – think pajamas, and you’re 96% there.
Here’s a picture of me wearing pajamas back in 2008:
Why I Started
Before I talk about why I stopped wearing traditional kung fu clothing, let me talk about why I started in the first place.
I started because my Kung Fu master told me to.
It’s that simple.
He wore them, and once I became his chief representative in the U.S., he told me to do the same. I was extremely dutiful back then.
Now I’m done with all that. I’m done being dutiful. I’m done with anachronistic traditions. I’m done doing things simply because someone told me to do it.
And I’m definitely done wearing pajamas.
Karate Pajamas vs. Kung Fu Pajamas
In my Karate days, I wore a traditional white Karate suit (called a gi) and a belt (called an obi).
Different than a Kung Fu suit, but still basically pajamas.
However, there is one major difference in the Karate world: EVERYONE wears pajamas.
Pajamas are the official uniform in Karate.
When I switched to Kung Fu (including Tai Chi), it was different.
There was no dress code. There were no belts.
No one asked me to wear a uniform (until I became a teacher, that is).
And I liked this change!
I had become disillusioned with the belt system in Karate, and also the military-like structure.
Kung Fu appealed to me precisely because of the lack of belts and the lack of uniforms.
In retrospect, I see that it is ironic that I never wore a Kung Fu uniform until I started teaching. (Actually, I originally taught in an athletic shirt, but then switched after my former master scolded me.)
Sifu Clark Kent
You know, I always thought it was ridiculous that no one recognized Clark Kent. A pair of glasses and a different hair style? Really? That’s all it takes?
Turns out it’s true.
You don’t need much to go invisible.
Years ago, I was at the farmer’s market in my “civvies”. Browsing the produce, a student literally bumped into me.
“Sorry,” he said with a tone that sound more like, “move it, buddy”.
And then I waited it for it.
It usually takes about 5 seconds.
The look of recognition, followed by:
“Oh my god! I’m so sorry Sifu! I didn’t recognize you!”
I live in a small college town, and this happened to me on a regular basis for years.
Wearing a polo shirt and jeans, I might as well have been Clark Kent.
Public vs. Private
Why was I wearing pajamas to work, and polo shirts everywhere else?
Something about that never sat right with me.
There’s an old zen saying that you should act in private the way you do in public, and vice versa.
That statement was in the back of my mind, but I ignored it.
When I divorced my master, I began to reexamine all of the traditions I had inherited.
It’s my mission to bring Qigong and Tai Chi into the 21st century, so I need to be absolutely clear about which traditions I keep, and which I ignore.
For example, the tradition of feeling gratitude toward the art itself – that’s a gem. I’ll keep that.
The pajamas, however – they can go.
They are already gone. I’ve been teaching in polo shirts for nearly 2 years.
And guess what?
It turns out I can teach perfectly well in a polo shirt. Who knew!?!
Some students want to learn tai chi from a robe-wearing, parable-dropping old monk from a Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movie.
That’s just not me.
Because sometimes, there’s just no other way to express the majesty of tai chi. This shit is amazing.
The Importance of Being Me
I’ve learned that it’s critical for me to be myself.
It’s better for you. It’s better for me.
Why this is better for you: Students often have unrealistic expectations about Kung Fu and Tai Chi teachers. Wearing pajamas just feeds those fantasies. Wearing a regular shirt forces students to look below the surface, and that’s a good thing.
Why this is better for me: I pride myself on being a man of integrity. Wearing the traditional suits always felt disingenuous to me.
Here’s the funny thing. I’ve got lots of old black and white photos of my teacher’s teacher, Sifu Ho Fatt Nam.
In most of them, he’s wearing a cotton t-shirt.
No pajamas for him!
See, tradition is a funny thing. A lot of my ex-classmates wear silk suits because…tradition!
So if I start wearing sleeveless, white t-shirts like my Sigung (my teacher’s teacher), am I somehow more traditional than them?
Wear What You Like
If you are a teacher, and you still wear traditional suits, I can respect that. If it works for you, then great!
All I know is that it doesn’t work for me.
What I wear while teaching might not seem like a big deal, but it is. To me, it is symbolic.
My mission is to bring these ancient arts into the 21st century. I think I can do that better while wearing 21st century clothing.
Now I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of the traditional pajamas? From the heart, Sifu Anthony