After trying some hard styles and suffering inevitable knee injuries from poor teaching, I was left no choice but to learn taijiquan if I wanted to stay in the kung fu domain. Slow, stability-based movements. Easy to work with for the injured. A perfect place to start. I learned a lot for the first few years. Lots of fundamentals. Lots of eye-openers. But over time I felt I my progress began to slow. By the time I hit the 8 year mark, I was in a long rut that had lasted about 5 years with absolutely no progress in my taiji abilities. It seemed as if my qi would never arrive. It seemed as if I had no way to gauge my ability to fang song. I could feel my teacher rebounding, but I couldn’t replicate a single part of it. I was thoroughly confused over all the concepts. It seemed as though I never felt comfortable knowing which direction I was going, so to speak.
In 2006, in the last year of college, I decided to do a study abroad for a year in Nanjing, China. There I met a few more masters, but still, no one seemed to stand out. I did a bit of baguazhang with a teacher, not because she was amazing, but just because I thought something new might spark more interest for me.
After I came back to the U.S. I decided to put a little more effort into my training. I worked as hard as I could with the knowledge I had. I studied countless videos. I spent most of my practice wondering when I would get it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any real progress. Coupled with a few depressing life experiences, and after some small ups and downs in training, I gradually became less and less satisfied with where I was going, and I sort of felt that the taiji world was just a giant confederacy of self-deluded masters who weren’t nearly as good as they thought they were. So, with nothing holding me back, in 2008 I moved back to Nanjing, China to work and live.
I’ve never felt that I was a particularly good fighter, except for that bully I punched in the nose after he hit me in the face with a football when I was 11. All the other fights in my life I was drunk, and the ones I did win were only because I could take more hits than the other guy. I’d read as many books as I could, and all of them stated emphatically that taijiquan was the breakfast of champions in the world of Kung fu fighting. The supreme ultimate fist, the long boxing, the nightmare for bullies where soft overcomes hard like a tidal wave coming down on a house, and the land of one-touch knockouts—they were all there to read about. But the truth is, by 2009, eight years into my taiji life, I had yet to meet a master that could unleash the kind of power that I had read about. Seemed more like myth and less like something I would ever achieve.
Sure, I’d met people that could move me, had amazing root, were soft and could punch the Dickens out of me, but it was always in a very controlled setting. Of course, we need to slow things down for practice; otherwise it just gets way too dangerous if all your practice is real-time. But I still hadn’t met a qualified teacher that completely removed doubt as to the efficacy of their art.
I’m a skeptic. Always have been. What that means to me is that without empirical evidence, I am likely to suspend judgment until I have more evidence. It doesn’t mean that I discount claims necessarily, nor does it mean that I don’t try things that aren’t supported by science. Without getting too deep on this issue, let’s just say that faith should come from experience, and not necessarily the other way around. True, we can’t always derive quantifiable data from every experience, but personal experience is one kind of empiricism, so we do the best we can. This is how I see things.
That being said, I think an important factor for evaluating a Martial Arts Master’s total package is where he or she falls on the Terror-scale. What I mean by that is this: When I envisage a full-on fight with this teacher, on a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), what emotional response related to fear or anxiety would arise in me ?"
Now, there are many non-taiji fighters that would quickly hit a 9 or 10 (Fedor, Dan Severn, my ex-wife). But in the kung fu world, I still hadn’t met anyone who could get past a 6. I still hadn’t met anyone that I didn’t feel like even if I were to lose the fight, I could still take ‘em down and give em a good run for their money. I remember a quote from Royce Gracie back in the 90’s: "Where are all these masters I’ve heard about?"
So in the Spring of 2009, I took my good friend and kung fu brother’s suggestion to go to Thailand where he said he’d met a teacher who was simply amazing and would likely blow my mind. I asked my friend, "What do you think this Sifu would do if you full-on attacked him."
He responded by saying, "I don’t want to die."
That was good enough for me.
My first impression upon arriving was that my friend had made serious progress, and his push hand skills had just about surpassed me in his one year of training compared to my last five.
My first impression with Adam Mizner was that he was extremely polite. And terrifying.
The first five seconds of push hands with him had me walking steadily backwards trying to follow the myriad of changes going on in his arms. There was a special quality of softness in the touch. He backed me right into a small curb where he turned up the force, and I suddenly found myself getting hammered right down through my legs causing me to bounce up onto the step. Just about the time my feet landed, he promptly yanked me back down. We repeated this process. Up-down, up- down, up-down. This went on for about a minute.
The second impression was that of very skilled and articulate teaching. We did another exercise where he lined me up, and told me how to push not with my legs, not with hands, not even with my body, but just to put my mind at the end of a vector behind my partner, and let my hips lead the charge. And suddenly, for the first time in 5 years I had made progress as I bounced my partner out of my space.
However, the biggest impression left on me during that trip was the witness and participation of real, scary power.
One of Adam’s senior students and teachers, let me punch him in the gut as many times as I wanted. I studied bajiquan for a while, so I felt I had a decent enough punch. After the fifth punch, I felt my wrist starting to give, so the senior student just asked if I wanted to chop on his neck. So I did. I hit him in the neck as hard as I could. After 8 chops I couldn’t take anymore. My whole arm was wringing. That was impressive.
Then I watched as Adam repeatedly showcased the punch found in the first part of Yang short form on that same senior student sending him flying backwards out of a bow stance and onto the ground. A clear sign flashed in my head which read: "The guy who just destroyed my arm with his neck just got pummeled by Adam no less than 5 times." Impressive.
The next day after a small discussion with Adam, I asked if I could formally be his student. He said, "OK. Just do what you say you’re going to do."
But I think the real game changer was the class that followed that discussion. For the next two hours I got to feel firsthand some of what it might take to get to the level of awesomeness these guys had. How? Boxing drills. We started off with variations of ward off posture, in which I had the privilege of receiving some mighty force by the same senior student. I had no idea ward off could be used for applying attack. It had always been explained to me as a purely defensive posture. Every hit pounded right through my gut and chopped my root. It was painful and by the end of the exercise it had me on my toes in fear every single time.
After one such blow, I glanced over at my new Sifu as he said smiling, "Pain is good, but injury is not. Relax and take it." We continued on with some neck chops and open hand slaps to the back of the head, followed by arm hits and leg hits. No matter what I did, it was painful to me. Whenever I started to lose my will, give up, and distort the exercise, my senior training partner would stop me and say, "Nope. That’s not the drill. Get it right."
Other times as I would start to drift into delirium, Sifu would call out, "Focus. Pay attention. Be mindful."
Thus the question, "How do I use taiji for fighting?" was answered with another question. "How can you use taiji for fighting if you’re afraid of getting hit?"
On the Terror Scale I’m giving my Senior Brother a 9. And Sifu Adam of course gets a full 10. (Senior Brother only gets a 9 just because Sifu scares me more, and 10 is the highest score).
I was lucky enough to get this kind of experience right off the bat. Maybe Sifu was sensitive to my needs and knew that I was a bonafide skeptic. I don’t know, but I am grateful that it happened the way it did. I remember thinking, "Man, these guys are no joke." I also remember thinking at that time about how almost every question I had that had previously been answered with ambiguity was now answered with clarity. And today, terror was the arbiter of value judgments.
Before and since, I’ve met people who claim their teachers have the "real skill," only to find that we share differences over what "real skill" really means. Sure, a lot of teachers have something—usually one or two good skills—but then how can we call something supreme ultimate if it leaves even a trace of doubt as to its efficacy. There may be other Sifus out there. The point for me, though, is simply, that I have not met them.
Finally, I would like to say that this is only one aspect by which I’ve judged the Heaven Man Earth Taiji school. I’ll talk about more in the future.