Good friend SKM recently published his first book, Becoming a Gung Fu Fighter, on Amazon Kindle. If you are looking interestedly at Martial Arts, and want to know more about Gung Fu to assess it for study, or if you want advice on how to find a good Gung Fu school, I heartily recommend the book.
You will not be a Gung Fu fighter after reading it. It doesn’t go into techniques, or how to fight. But it is an excellent manual on finding a good school, what to expect as you embark on the journey, why it is well worthwhile, and where you should be looking to go, if you’ve been at it for a while. All of that is vital to understand when looking at schools, because you will run into a lot of charlatans in the Martial Arts. In full disclosure, I wrote the foreword, though I am not financially involved in it. So although an SKM fan, I am not otherwise biased.
There is a lot in Gung Fu, but what I found interesting (and did not know) was that a good Gung Fu school will include an education in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory and practice.
This struck me particularly hard. When I was a young buck, I found myself hanging out with an older Japanese Sensei. He was about 60 years old. He had trained from an early age in Japan to be a professional martial artist and instructor, and held ranks ranging from 7th through 8th Dan in arts ranging from Kyokoshin Karate, to Judo, to Aikido. I mentioned to him that each morning I had to loosen up a two year old injury in one joint for five minutes before I could move it, and he shook his head ruefully, while pushing his lips together in an expression of unhappiness.
In heavily accented English, he turned to me and said, “Every morning, it take me five minutes to get out of bed. And then – thirty minutes, I walk around like this.” He mimed shuffling his feet with three inch steps, while holding his whole upper body stiff. Even later in the day when I would see him, he had an apparent reduction in joint range of motion all over his body, and a stiffness about his motions, which gave his movements a sort of shuffling appearance. I had marveled at it when I first met him. At his level he was a master of so many physical arts, but his body was clearly bordering on being worn out even though he was still fairly young.
I wasn’t surprised though. In my club, there were no fighters over 60, and the guys up around there you had to go easy on. The warmups were a bunch of guys all trying to loosen up old injuries, and moaning and groaning as they did. Often you’d hear the head instructor say, “If you play the game, you’re gonna pay the game.” (He knew first hand. As a kid, in my first class, I watched his knee pop fully out of joint and quickly get reset on the spot by one of the guys there. It wasn’t the first time that happened to him, nor would it be the last.)
As I went on, my knees began to get very stiff, my squats got shallower and shallower no matter how I dropped the weight and focused on range of motion, and I accepted that was all just a part of the game. If you use your body, joints will stiffen, motions will slow down, and worse injuries will stalk you. You play the game, you pay the game.
Eventually, through sheer luck, I found myself at a very special door, seeking treatment for some other injury. There was no sign, beyond a small paper label by the door buzzer with some Chinese characters on it, and it was tucked away in a place you would never happen on it if you didn’t know someone who knew someone who could point you to it. Behind it, unbeknown to me at the time, was perhaps one of the most brilliant people I would ever cross paths with.
Inside, was an austere waiting room, with just chairs, and thirty or so Chinese people bantering in Mandarin and English, mostly about how the “doctor” here was the best they had ever seen. On the wall was the most detailed poster you could imagine – an old painting highlighting innumerable acupuncture meridians and points all over a drawing of a human body. It was the office of a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I would never have gone to him, but due to the nature of my injury, he was the only medical option I had at that moment which would do anything beyond tell me to rest and let it heal. The friend who pushed me to go to him told of numerous relatives cured of a myriad of complaints, from arthritis, to Bell’s Palsy, to leukemia, to hyperthyroidism – I’m not kidding or exaggerating. I didn’t believe it, but those people swore by him. When I was motioned to his desk in the adjacent room by his wife, he did the TCM thing, taking my pulse, looking at how I moved, sat, held myself, walked, expressed myself, and so on. He asked a couple of seemingly meaningless questions about my sleep, and mood, and asked to see my tongue. To say I was perplexed was an understatement. None of that data should have had any perceptible relation to any aspect of my injury.
After a few minutes of what seemed the most cursory examination, he proclaimed that I could be treated, and he could fix everything. I was dubious, but I smiled politely and nodded, mainly because he seemed like a very good person, in a very fundamental way. I was given seven paper bags and told to come back in a week. Each bag held a mixture of tree barks, nuts, mushrooms, leaves, and other plant matter I couldn’t identify at the time – Chinese herbs. In truth, as I left, I doubted I’d be back.
But I had the herbs, and I was extraordinarily curious. After all, aspirin came from tree bark, so I cooked the teas, and took them as directed. A week later I felt really good, in ways beyond just feeling the injury heal. I felt more energy, slept better, and thought more clearly. When the time came, I went back hopefully. As I told the doctor I felt better, he had the most pleased expression and nodded enthusiastically. He told me to come back in two weeks, after taking more teas. Two months later, on his teas, my body felt like it did at 18. It was unreal.
He had cured my main medical complaint, but he had also turned back the clock in a lot of ways, and fixed a raft of problems I didn’t even classify as problems. My knees were like brand new, I was squatting lower than I should have been again, and that old injury I had to loosen up each morning at 20, was totally gone, as if it never happened. They say you can only gain two or three pounds of muscle a week lifting, but on his teas, I gained much, much more, and it was all muscle. My immunity was higher as well. When everyone else got the flu from hell, I felt weirdly bulletproof, and sure enough, it passed right by me. My mind was clearer than it had been in a long time, my sleep was amazing, and I was driven uncontrollably to accomplish whatever tasks I could find. This wasn’t a drug high, which would wear off, and leave me worse than when I started. This was an optimization of bodily functions which actually improved healing and replenishment, and would leave me stronger when I stopped it.
My experience with TCM amazed me, and I encourage others with medical problems they can’t get treated with modern medicine, to give it a try. If you can find the right practitioner, with sufficient experience, it offers an excellent risk/reward ration, and can really change the course of your life.
I now recognize that the more exclusively hard martial arts are all missing something extraordinarily vital to a fighting art. They concern themselves with the techniques you use in the moment, and they do develop a mindset you need to succeed in the world, as well as on the mat. But in lacking TCM theory, or any other medical knowledge, they fail to complete their purpose, and leave their practitioners woefully unprepared – not just for fighting, but for confronting the world as a healthy being capable of adapting to any circumstance. Just from a perspective of fighting, I can’t describe how much better a fighter you will be just by getting your body’s functions brought into optimal condition. However, carry that over into the rest of life, and everything else will improve as well, from work to play.
I am shocked, looking at the Japanese arts in the light of TCM, that they treat the body as a disposable vessel, to be used up aggressively, rather than the temple to be cherished and nourished, which is how the Chinese/Tibetan arts regard it. I am even more amazed that such brilliant men as the founders and practitioners of the Japanese arts have never happened upon TCM or incorporated it into their arts. I can’t help but wonder how many old Japanese Sensei’s are hobbling along on worn out bodies when they could be actively training and participating in their art with healthy functional bodies.
What my experience with TCM taught me, more than anything, was that there are unacclaimed gems of knowledge out there that can change your life immeasurably. Small corners of the world where brilliant men have assembled bodies of knowledge so staggeringly amazing, that they aren’t widely known precisely because few would believe that such powerful knowledge could even exist.
I learned much from Becoming a Gung Fu Fighter, and am left wondering, if Gung Fu includes the wisdom of TCM, what other gems have the wise old Sifu’s who built it included within it? How does the philosophy affect your psychology? How does the theoretical modeling of the world affect your thinking? I undoubtedly will seek to find that answer myself one day, and becoming a Gung Fu Fighter will be a valuable aid in that quest. For others on the journey of knowledge, I heartily recommend the book as an excellent first step in what appears to be a most fascinating journey.