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PostHeaderIcon 14 Life Lessons Martial Arts Has Taught Me

I started studying martial arts 25 years ago and what I learned strengthened me, not only physically but spiritually as well. Furthermore, martial arts is super cool. To those of us who practice it, its a way of life and a great source of energy and play

Much of my life can be compared to the movie “Kung Fu Panda” or “Karate Kid”, but I think many of the mystical aspects are simply the result of understanding its principles or advanced training. I’ve applied its broad philosophies to all aspects of my life.

I am always reminded that it is an “art” and like all arts, how we approach and practice will grow and change as we age and mature. Here are some lessons I have learned in my incredible journey, seeking the best masters wherever I roamed.

Time and Effort:

My first lessons in martial arts were in Shoa Lin kung fu. The literal definition of “kung” is “effort” and the definition of “fu” is “time spent.” The best translation of this term is “time and effort.”

My First teacher used that term constantly and as I pursued other ambitions over my life, I realized just how important these words are. Time is interwoven with effort like a perfect soul mate. In movies, we often see a hero who goes through a short boot camp and this makes him unbeatable, but I’ve learned that this is not the formula for champions. Time is absolutely necessary.

I’ve tested it. I once thought I could train for a few months and have what it takes to be a winning cage fighter until I realized that I’d be going against people who trained every day since they were little kids.

Can you imagine trying to build five inches of muscle on your bicep in only two weeks? Or going from Kindergarten to Med school in only three years? The body and mind adapt slowly over-time so get into the habit of making long term goals and enjoying the journey.

Meditation is Powerful:

Shoa Lin kung fu emphasized meditation and breath work. The class often started with us facing the wall and doing nothing for a few minutes. This practice helped me hone in with how I was feeling; whether or not I could focus, or if my mind was racing.

We always fought better and had more focused energy after meditating.

It was my first taste of mindfulness, a lesson that has helped me in every aspect of life.

For more information on the benefits of meditation, click here:

Meditation (A Running Into Reality)

Understand Nature:

Shoa Lin emphasized animal styles. We learned how to move like cranes, tigers, eagles. In the beginning I was trained to stand in a horse stance (squat) or low bow stance (similar to a yoga warrior stance) in order to feel rooted to the earth.

Bruce Lee said to be like water because it is powerful and flexible.

Master Jeff Jedds, says to be like wind because it can move water, air and even earth without being seen.

During the Lua (Hawaiian Martial Arts) seminars, I learned to move like sharks, birds or dolphins.

Mohammad Ali used to say, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Tai chi, like yoga, emphasizes physics and how force and power are manipulated.

I have learned to study nature in all its glory, to watch how the wind moves the water and how the water moves the earth, to understand the structure of my body and how it adapts to the structure of the earth.

Power, Energy, Chi and Alignment:

When we were young, my brother and I used to hit each other’s abdomen for fun. One day, he hit me in such a way that I fell in pain. I didn’t feel my body bruise from the outside. It felt as if he sent something shooting straight into my intestines. I asked him what he did. He showed me that he didn’t hit hard at all. He actually hit me softly, but he focused on the alignment he learned in tai chi class.

This started my fascination with how alignment increases power. I realized that force didn’t come from strain but from proper posture. If the whole body is moving correctly in one piece, we have more energy, move more efficiently, and can unleash more strength with less stress.

Eventually, I moved to New York and immersed myself in work and performing arts. I could no longer go to Kung Fu class, but I tried to practice what I could on my own. My days at the conservatory introduced me to The Alexander Technique, The Linklater Method, Pilates and Yoga. Years later, I became a Personal Trainer. I continued my education in alignment by getting accredited in Biomechanics and other modalities that focus on correct posture. I can write a million books on this subject, but it all got started in my martial arts roots.

This month, I’ll be teaching a workshop on chi, alignment and energy work. For more information, click here:

Chi Kung/Yoga Workshop

It is the best way to connect with your culture and ancestors:

My first experience with traditional martial arts taught me history. I had to understand why the ancient techniques were developed and in doing so, I learned about wars, dynasties, culture and tradition.

I learned just how complex the art of war is. I’ve learned that starting a battle has grave consequences and that fighting just to defend one’s ego is one of he dumbest reason to start a battle. Humanity has a long history of destruction, murder and bloodshed and one can’t help but see the foolishness in someone who chooses fighting above all other solutions.

Now that I’m practicing Filipino martial arts,  I learned that the Filipino Guerilla fighters defeated Magellan and that they changed the face of western boxing.

Through my new friends, I’ve met people who have preserved the culture of their people by learning the fighting styles. One of these people is Michelle Manu, who has dedicated her life to learning authentic Lua (Hawaiian Martial Arts). Not only did I learn some bad ass moves, but I learned how her people think, how the Hawaiian families interact, the martial art roots of the Hula dance and how they perceive their natural environment.

Had these lessons not been passed down through a martial arts lineage, this history would be lost to foreign invaders and the intrusion of western culture.

Michelle Manu will be doing a workshop on Lua in May. More information here:

The Ancient Hawaiian Martial Art, Lua

A fight’s a fight

At some point in my life, I wanted to test myself to see if I really was as good as I thought I could be. I made the choice to try competitive cage fighting. My coach, Pat King, is a Brazilian Jujitsu blackbelt who trained directly under champion Royce Gracie. One of the things I find myself repeating are his words, “a fight’s a fight.”

This phrase can mean so many things. But mainly, what he tried to instill in me is; in a real fight, nobody cares what rank you are or how experienced you are. It isn’t choreographed and no one is going to let you get away with being sloppy out on the streets. Once you are in a fight, all they want to do is destroy you. There are no rules in war. There is no cheating. The opponent might poke your eye, pull out a weapon or two or have a friend waiting on the side to jump you. A real fight isn’t romantic or pretty. You’ll almost always get hurt. It’s never as predictable as we make it out to be in practice so be prepared for anything and do whatever it takes to survive.

Trust the technique

Pat you used to say, “trust the technique.” I still hear his voice in my head saying this. Whenever someone beats me, it’s almost always because my technique is wrong. It takes a lot of time and effort to get a technique right. Brazilian Jujitsu is extremely precise which is why it’s so effective. But you have to do the technique exactly as you are taught, or it will not work. You must master it. You can’t fake it.

Every time I couldn’t execute a hold or get out of one it was because I didn’t “trust the technique.” This was a true lesson in discipline and self-mastery.

If you are trying something that isn’t working, go back and ask yourself if you are taking all the proper steps.

Focus is everything

Pat used to say that in the sport of cage fighting, everyone knows all the moves and they know how to counter them. So who will win? The fighter with the most focus.

You have to let go of any distraction, love problems, family problems or any other frustrations must be out of your mind. You must focus only on the fight. The slightest distraction will cost you the battle.

Master the art of falling and get up fast

Pat wouldn’t rest until I knew how to fall properly and get up as fast as I could. We all need to learn to take a fall. In martial arts, it’s imperative that we don’t stay down. In life, I’ve learned not to take my failures too hard and to get up right away.

Never give up

Where I used to train MMA, there was instructor named Thor who was also a professional fighter. However, many times he would have us watch his fight and he would lose (which was quite disappointing).

One day, I met up with someone I hadn’t seen for a while and he said that Thor is now a national champion. I remember Thor keeping up after knee, back and shoulder injuries. Supposedly, people told him to quit all the time, but Thor never gave up on himself. He learned from his mistakes and eventually became champion. That’s more than I can say for myself.

I think those of us who are truly successful are those who kept it up long after everyone else decided to quit. Thor said that even when everyone else stopped believing in him, He still continued. He deserves to be champion.

We often admire or envy those who achieved success but we don’t always know the story of failures, humiliation and pain that they went through to get there.

Art is what makes life worth living

As I reached my forties, I became worn out from MMA. I wanted to go back to traditional martial arts. I reunited with an old friend from my Shoa-Lin school who went on to become a master.

There are so many styles of kung fu Adam Dayen could have taught me but he decided to teach me the style that he felt I would have the most trouble with. He taught me Baqua because my hips and back are tight, and this internal martial art requires a lot of twisting and turning. The goal is to learn to get behind your opponent. Baqua is a standing grappling art, full of throws, but its also very deceptive. You’re constantly stepping to the side and taking the opponent’s back.

One day, Adam said to me that I have been focusing too much on competition. “Fighting destroys us,” he said, “but you know this from your writing and painting- –  art is what makes life worth living.”

I never forgot what he said. I realized why I gave up on becoming a competitive MMA fighter. I never really knew why I did it, except that I stopped enjoying it the way I used to. I stopped looking at the practice as an art, to explore and grow with. I got obsessed with competition, with being the best and wondering if I was doing what it takes to outshine everyone. I forgot that the reason I started training in the first place, was because I loved how it made me feel.

Competition teaches us to excel but art teaches cooperation, taking time out for ourselves and spending it with those we love.  Can you imagine a life without music or stories; without creativity and expression? Can you imagine a life without inspiration and imagination? What would we have to look forward too?

Approaching my sport with the heart of an artist has helped me deal with how I’ve changed over the years. I’ve learned to have fun and really embrace the training. I can step back and see the beauty in it. Bruce Lee once said, “Don’t set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water.” I have learned to embrace the changes of my life as I mature and to allow my martial art to reflect that.

Master your stance. Practice stillness

During this time, I was going through some personal issues. I would sometimes show up for training feeling run down or frazzled. Adam was all about standing in holding ball posture and just sinking in that stance for about ten minutes. It cleared my mind and help me find strength. He told me that I needed to learn to stand still if I wanted to master the internal martial arts. It sounds funny, knowing how much I move around all day but standing still made a huge difference. This is another reason why I’m so grateful for learning yoga. Holding a pose and just breathing alleviates a world of stress and brings me center and clarity.

Adam had an amazing amount of discipline, stemming from our old school Shoa-Lin background. He would sit in a horse stance (squat) for a half hour or spend an hour practicing a punch across the park, as if he were jogging long distance.

He took me back to those days when we used to memorize moves and forms so we could practice them on our own. I used to go to the park and practice these forms or katas before I forgot them. I still remember the tai chi form, however. If I ever need to clear my mind and calm my body, it comes in handy.

The greatest masters become healers

One of my favorite kung fu folk heroes is Wong Fei-hung. He was an acupuncturist and eastern medical practitioner who was also a well-respected martial artist. Mastering martial arts requires impeccable knowledge of alignment and energy flow.

Our eskrima grandmaster has mastered energy so much, he can cut or burn himself and he will be healed by the end of the day. He can just look at someone and they will drop their weapon. Maybe its confidence or mind tricks but I’ve seen it myself.

Grandmaster Sultan Uldin told me about his trip to the Philippines to meet the remaining Eskrima masters. He said that most of them gave up fighting and become faith healers. When we shift our intention from harming someone to healing them, our knowledge can be used in this manner.

I’ve been helping people with health and fitness for fifteen years and I see so many people who have given their power over to our medical system. They stop moving due to some injury and assume it will never get better. I’ve seen my martial arts colleagues get hurt from getting thrown or from sparring and they always bounce back, just as strong as ever. I find myself having to give energy to those who are afraid of getting hurt. Movement and exercise give us power and strength so we are harder to hurt and kill. It’s when we move with improper posture and alignment that we get hurt.

To learn more about this art of self healing, check out my Chi Kung/Yoga Workshop

Be Humble

Adam moved to orange county and we couldn’t match schedules anymore, but I stumbled upon a Philippine martial arts group and picked up eskrima stick and knife fighting. I’ve been doing this regularly for over 3 years. I don’t get to practice as often as I did when I was young but, I realized that a little can go a long way if I stick to it.

What amazes me about this group is how humble everyone is. We all have a history of martial arts practice and are willing to hear what the other person has to offer. My main teacher, Josh, is so thankful and respectful to everyone that I look forward to practicing every week.

Over the years, I’ve watched my favorite fighters win triumphantly, and get taken down by newcomers. There is always someone who you can beat, but there will always be someone who can beat you too.

I’m pretty sure that’s what Bruce Lee meant when he said, “I have the absolute confidence not to be number two, but then I have enough sense also to realize that there could be no number one.”

I didn’t realize until now, how I have had to earn learning these lethal techniques. The more I learn, the more I realize what a gift it is. A lot of martial arts are a secret and are only passed down if the student is deemed worthy. Many martial arts moves are hidden in dance and many masters don’t teach the authentic techniques until they know you are worthy. I see how new comers are treated and realize what a strong vetting process is involved.

Often, you learn techniques that may not make sense at first, but if you have faith, you figure out the reasons for these intricate moves and why it works in a battle. Every time I learn something new, I must empty my cup and pretend I’m a newborn once again. I find that success comes from constant passion, constant innovation and constant education. But if we think we already know everything because we learned one thing, we get stuck in a rut. Being an artist, I have no tolerance for ruts.

Being humble isn’t just about staying quiet. It means you are always willing to listen and learn. If you’re always willing to learn that means you are cultivating curiosity and passion. You will always be open to what others teach and exposed to all the gifts that are available to you. Martial artists are always finding the best way to live long and not get killed, but I think the ones that continue to learn and master the art are also finding ways to make the living worthwhile.

This month, I’ll be hosting a workshop on the energetic aspects of yoga and chi kung. More information here:

Chi Kung/Yoga Workshop

I will be hosting a workshop taught by the amazing Lua Black belt, Michelle Manu on the rare and ancient art of Lua. For more information click here:

The Ancient Hawaiian Martial Art, Lua