Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This Year'sTraining with Masters Zhu Tiancai and Chen Bing

This Year's Training with Masters Zhu Tiancai and Chen Bing

Although their approaches to training differ, they both have the ability to identify my many Taiji flaws and try to correct me in a way that I can understand. I would recommend that anyone who has the chance to train with them in Chen Village should do so. They both have large training facilities and can accommodate any individual or group that would like to train there. The advantage of training there is not only the great instruction, but the environment and feel of being in the birthplace of Taiji. Second to training there would be to catch up to them at workshops in the US.  If you are interested in training in China including Chen Village, Shaolin Temple or any other place, I can help you make the needed arrangements. The last point I will make in this entry is for Taiji Historians. Chen Village is starting to change a lot. If you want to catch a glimpse of the past before it disappears and catches up to the rest of the world, don't delay your visit. Time is running out.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Welcome to the Taiji Center Forum

Visit my full web-site

Dear Readers and Friends,
I will try to share some of my training and living experiences with you. I hope that all of the readers of this blog can share there knowledge with me regarding the arts and their philosophies.
I have been very fortunate to have visited China more than 10 times since 2002 and have been living there for the past two and a half years.  I have trained for the past 40 years in a variety of martial arts. The past 20 have been with Taiji and the past 11 years have been dedicated to the Chen Style. (Under the tutelage of Master Kam Lee and Grand Master Zhu Tiancai along with some other representatives from Chen Village.) I consider myself an open minded martial artist and see strengths in all the arts that I have had a chance to experience. Taiji is certainly one of the most misunderstood arts worldwide (including here in  China) It was developed as a self-defense in a violent era of China. The Chen family used their skills under life and death situations as bodyguards and escorts. We will explore some of their original training methods still being used today by some practitioners.

At this time in my life I find Chen Taiji the most suitable. It is not because of my age (53).
It is because of its practicality, versatility and philosophy.
 I will be adding to this blog regularly. I hope you will contribute with both questions and by sharing your experiences with any martial arts.  I hope to improve our understanding of the arts through this blog and its companion website -

Thanks for reading,
Steve Contes

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Observations From Living in China

Observations From China

Written by Steve Contes

I had the opportunity to live in China for the past three years and had been making regular trips to China since 2002. My original intention regarding my long stay was for Taiji Study. The experience and education I gained went far beyond martial arts, but did exemplify Taiji principles on a most practical level (every day living and survival). I will share with you some interesting observations regarding people living and working old school style. Many of our modern conveniences are absent yet they seem happier.  I also understand that this type of life-style is not exclusive only to those in China. It just happens to be the environment where I was exposed to it along with both a blend of Chinese philosophy and tradition and how it is ultimately adaptable to any type of surroundings or way of life.  Same as Taiji (born of Chinese philosophy and tradition) which also proves to be adaptable when and wherever needed.


Chinese philosopher, Meng Zi (372-289 BC):


“When Heaven is about to place a great burden on a manit always tests his resolution firstexhausts his body, makes him suffer great hardships and frustrates his efforts to recover from mental lassitudeThen Heaven toughens his nature and makes good his deficiencies.”  Greatness is born

I believe life’s lessons present themselves (in the forms of challenges and difficulties) as needed and it is up to the individual whether he accepts what is being offered or chooses to ignore it. The more important the lesson is the greater the challenge will be. This theory explains why so many seemingly ordinary people do extraordinary things.  We are all constantly facing challenges on different levels. When it comes to every day living, most of us here in America have been exposed to a fairly modern life-style where many things are often taken for granted. China is also enjoying rapid progress in becoming a modern country. It still has a large curve to turn before the majority of its people catch up to what most of us here consider a basic standard of living. Unfortunately often when something is gained another is lost. I have already personally observed this phenomenon here in China over the past ten years. From my perspective some of the trade offs possess more of a negative than positive effect on China’s future.   


Bedtime on a cold winter’s night 

Hot water, heat, warm beds to sleep in, mattresses to sleep on, air-conditioning, bathrooms, bathtubs, showers, toilets and well equipped kitchens, washing machines, dryers etc… are not the norm in many areas. I lived in a six story building for teachers at a public high school. (I was the only foreigner there) Most of the apartments had no bathing facilities nor did they have a kitchen. Heat and AC was also not available on the first five floors.

Most of us here in the states depend on motor vehicles instead of bicycles or walking. Not so in China. Time and time again in the U.S., I have witnessed drivers attempting to park in a busy mall or shopping center, circle the lot  five or six times. All just to get a spot closer in order to avoid the slightest amount of what they believe to be unnecessary walking. That mentality wouldn’t fly in China. For those of you that do not fit in to the above category of typical American living, you can easily relate to the larger number of people in China I am referring to. For the rest of you, try to use your imagination


Hot or cold, rain or snow, the bicycle is an indispensable tool used 365 days a year. From students traveling to school or women in dresses and men in suits on their way to the office, biking is the acceptable method of travel. Construction workers hauling materials or people making deliveries, even small restaurant kitchens that set up on the road-side all working off bikes or trikes.


                                              Food Vendors

 So here are some of my observations.

I have had the opportunity to watch many people in different places performing a large variety of tasks. The group I am speaking of usually range from forty or so on up. (Way on up) From street vendors outside in sub-zero temperatures to men doing the work of machines or climbing mountain paths carrying pails of water to pulling unthinkable loads on bicycles etc...


Bikes doing the work of trucks, people doing the jobs of engines.

Electric Bike

One thing holds true with their methods. What at first glance seems to be a slow and inefficient performance of ones responsibilities, slowly and methodically transforms itself into both a practical and successful way of completing a job more than well done. Nothing deters them from their objective, which does not even appear to be finishing as much as just doing, which somehow naturally manifests the end and needed results.  Speed here is not even a consideration and appears to have no value and perhaps more likely to be considered a disadvantage, because it can’t compete with the slower, fluid and steady process. Their persistence and skill operate like a happy marriage from start to finish no matter what the challenging task may be.

 No movement needs to be done twice. No use of any modern tools or devices. Mostly some home made concoction using a combination of other items that may have outlived their original purpose only to be reincarnated and modified to live another productive life. The other ingredient embedded in each task is the element of enjoyment which is hard to comprehend due to the nature of the job itself and the often harsh environment in which it takes place. (Extreme weather both summer heat and frozen winters)  My 5:00am morning bike ride to the park (for Taiji practice) was always filled with the sounds of early street cleaners and vendors laughing, singing and joking. It became an inspirational part of my day that I grew to look forward to. I guess the magic lies in the simplicity of it all, not the motivation to finish one thing so you can start another and the fundamental principle of appreciating life. There is no feeling sorry for yourself here, no matter what the situation. It is also the same enjoyable discipline possessed by my fellow Taiji practitioners in the park. Come rain or shine (or  blizzard) the many dedicated and most of them elderly rarely miss a morning workout.. But in the end objectives are met and all goes well. This is also how they approach other aspects of their lives as well.


As hard as they work, they balance it out with ample time socializing and enjoying family and friends.

 I was fortunate to make some very good friends there and was invited in to there homes for food, (some of the best I ever ate although sometimes strange at first glance like many new encounters I met up with) drink and the many of the family oriented gatherings they enjoy.

Some local delicacies

 Be it a holiday or just an evening to share with family (usually three or four generations worth) or friends the topics of discussion never addressed complaints about one’s living conditions or daily difficulties.  It is not that they are complacent or lack ambition.  Conversations were often filled with passion, emotion and controversy, but no self-pity.  Even arguing and confrontation here seems to lack stress, anxiety and a prolonged negative effect on one’s attitude. No place is perfect and China is certainly no exception. That’s ok with me because I am not looking for perfection, just peace and contentment. I have learned that with the right perspective I can find exactly what I am looking for anywhere and anytime. (I fully became aware of this principle while living in China.)

 I will try to benefit from this philosophy and apply it to my own life. So in the long run, I have learned an important lesson that I will cherish, hold and continue to expand on.

As for me, I now prefer the simpler life style I came to know and love in China. I began to enjoy such basic responsibilities like riding my three kids to school on my bike. (Two separate trips for three children- two kids and an adult on a bike is a common sight and four or five on an electric bike doesn’t even turn heads. ) Early training (5:30am) in the park even when winter served up some of the coldest days I have ever witnessed, was one of my favorite parts of the day. Stopping at a few street vendor/restaurants on my way back home and picking up hot breakfast for my family of five for about the equivalent of $1.75 which never ceased to amaze me, but always put a smile on my face followed by a sensation of fullness in my stomach.  Hard boiled eggs cooked in a flavorful broth, rice with beans and fruit congee and of course steamed Bao zi (steamed bread stuffed with anything you like) which also served as an efficient hand warmer topped off with traditional fresh bakery items. I would have more than enough for everyone and leftovers for an in between meal time snack. With each task that required an enjoyable effort, I was also rewarded with a greater satisfaction in a way that I had never previously experienced.  With the exception of being absent from my parents, eldest daughter, other family members and friends any originally believed to be concessions of my American life became integral lessons in personal growth. Example: I am an avid driver (cars, motorcycles and trucks) and have driven throughout 46 of the contiguous states and loved every mile of it, but  no longer missed driving my own vehicle.  The bicycle was a sweet replacement that not only transported me from place to place, but provided a closer look at the beautiful scenery on the way (certainly missed by any motorized transportation) and a stronger, healthier body with less of a dirty anthropogenic footprint on our struggling environment. Also the travel itself was always as gratifying as the arrival. That is just a small sample of my personal but beautiful experience living in China. 

Regarding Taiji principles: The life-style and philosophy discussed above lead to a balanced life full of contentment, but not blinded by any harsh realities.

 I personally have begun to take a slower approach to my practice and my life. Less driving and more biking. Still training hard 2-3 hours a day, but without the great demands I previously put on my self. (Also noticeably less injuries leading to more consistency in my training)  It’s another example of the aforementioned. It is no longer important for me to study more and more new forms, but instead to understand fewer more deeply and clearly. I don’t focus on quantity.  I just enjoy the training and that has led me to better see and understand Taij and the rest of my life from a new perspective. Taiji without the pressures and the goals is now giving me even more benefits than before. So without goals, goals are also achieved in a very natural way.

That is my interpretation on some fundamental Taiji principles and how they can impact our lives both short and long term in a most positive way. Please send me your thoughts on this article.



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About the author: A practicing martial artist for over 40 years and researcher of philosophy and health from around the world, old and new.

Has My Taiji Training Been Successful / My Martial Art Autobiography

Has my Taiji Training been successful?

My Martial Art Autobiography Written by Steve Contes
An ordinary Martial Artist.

This is a summary of the path that Martial Arts have led me and how I found my way to Taiji. Those of you that have devoted your lives to Martial Arts probably have a similar story.
 I am an avid and dedicated Taiji practitioner although you might not know it from watching my form. My first loves have always been Martial Arts and Philosophy not necessarily in that order.  (At this point in my life they have become unified into one.)
Now let’s address the topic at hand.
Has my Taiji training been successful?
First we must define the term successful. It comes in many colors and flavors. Depending on the individual and his ideals, each one of us must draw our own conclusion. I can only speak for myself and my limited life experience.  As I begin to explain my feelings on the subject, let me make it clear that I am not trying to influence or impose my ideas on anyone. I am merely sharing my thoughts as a fellow spiritual being.  I also do not want to be misunderstood or thought to be conceited, but I consider myself a very successful martial artist which has made me an even more successful man.  
Most people around me would likely think otherwise due to the environment that I have created around me and in which I live.  It is quite modest and simple without all the embellishments often associated with success.
How does this relate to my Taiji training and what I have learned from it. I will give you a brief history of my Martial Arts experience spanning the last forty years of which led me to my in depth study of Chen Style Taijiquan.

As early as age 6, I was always fascinated by China and the Chinese. Even as a child in Brooklyn I thought I lived in a Chinese neighborhood because what I thought was Chinese writing turned out to be Hebrew. I got my first glimpse of martial arts through Television. It was the likes of Captian Kirk of Star Trek and James West from the Wild West displaying their fighting prowess and watching The John Wayne Movie, The Green Berets and it’s display of Judo and Jiujitsu techniques in a scene with soldiers training. Mannix the TV Detective often utilized Martial Arts in his fight scenes. And I can’t forget TV wrestling which had some of the greatest athletes in the world.
 That’s what planted the seed which spawned my love for the science of combat and it’s use of leverage and other principles of science. The next step was the Kungfu Movie genre that hit the US in the seventies. But my greatest inspiration was (no surprise) Bruce Lee and his extraordinary skills complemented by his philosophical approach to the arts. His movies were great and I still watch them till this day, but it was his role on the TV program Long Street that had the greatest early influence on me. (A must see for Bruce Lee fans.)
My first look at Karate up close was through a neighbor/ friend, who was studying with a local Sensei in my home town, Port Jefferson NY. I was a young Brooklyn transplant and   as a young child moved to Port Jefferson. (North Shore, Eastern Long Island)  I bought my first Karate Magazine in 1969
 and I still have it.
All of the above led me to start this journey and take my first lesson (at the age of 12 or 13) in a Tae Kwon Do class at a nearby YMCA.  I was accompanied by a few of my cousins, two of which continued to train their entire life as I did. Unfortunately the experience there was not what I expected, no one flying through the air or taking a barrage of kicks and punches with no apparent damage sustained, no Dim Mak or finger strike death blows were being taught.  My disappointment was probably fueled by my own ignorance and previous Hollywood TV and Hong Kong Movie Martial Art exposure. 
However it was still my first official experience even if I had not been enlightened. None of us stayed at this first school. Two of ny cousins did stay with the next system we tried and pretty much dedicated their Martial Art Career to the same Instructor.  Even after my first lesson I also knew that there was still something about the Chinese Martial Arts and culture that intrigued me.  It did motivate me to continue to seek out an inspiring teacher and a suitable style. (With my main goal at that time, to learn how to defend myself against any size opponent)

 I did not search for long as fate stepped in and delivered me to what became my second   home for about next 10 years or so. It was the Taizen and Shintai system of Self Defense and I studied under the tutelage of Sensei Vincent Miraglia (still one of the greatest Martial Artists I have ever seen) and occasionally his instructor and owner of the original Taizen School Master Howard Tague (also a true Pioneer of the arts in both advanced skills and thinking way ahead of his time with his mind-body concepts.) This was in a town called Selden, Long island.  It was about a five mile bicycle ride to the school from my home, although the distance did appear to shrink when I’d catch a ride with my older cousin or even more so when I got a drivers license and car a few years later (at 16).  This system was a combination of Goju-Ryu and Jiu Jitsu with a very scientific approach to training the body and mind to work in a harmonious partnership. Just to scratch the service of the foundation and understanding of what the body can do (from the Taizen – Shintai perspective) in a natural state. When the mind is pure and without any counterproductive thinking such as fear, anticipation and anxiety, it is an amazing almost super human tool.  How fast can you move your hand or body for that matter when it is exposed to an electrical shock or extremely high temperature?  Faster than you can block, parry or dodge a strike with techniques that you have practiced repetitiously for years with partners of all sizes and speeds. How hard can you accidentally bump someone when just walking freely and making shoulder to shoulder contact with them? Why can you perform so well under these conditions? The mind was pure and void of anticipation or preconceived notions of what might happen and neither anxiety nor fear were factored into the equation.  Can we learn to match that speed and duplicate it when fighting? Yes and these teachers could demonstrate that skill. I was inspired to train hard and did so in this unconventional but very practical system for many years. It was this early exposure to Taizen / Shintai System that also saved me and proved its effectiveness many times over during the 13 years I spent as a (rather small 155lb) bouncer in numerous clubs in NY. I also added my own strength training and nutrition programs into the mix and continued reading and studying about the mind and its true potential along with different philosophies and meditation methods from around the world.

As my skills began to evolve so did my way of thinking and my goals began to change. 
Just to jump back to my childhood for a moment, my first exposure to philosophy came from reading about the American Indians and their love and respect for nature. Even as a child it mirrored my way of thinking and I often wondered why I was not born an Indian.
But I wasn’t and I was equally proud of my Greek heritage and its early links to philosophy, great warriors and Ancient Martial Arts such as Pankration ( a system combining wrestling, striking and any other possible use of the body as a weapon).

 Even after my first 12 years or so of training, I felt strongly that my style needed more balance between hard and soft and less impact on the blocking of incoming attacks such as kicks and punches.  My wrestling and throwing skills also appeared to depend on my strength more than they should.  These factors stood heavy on my mind and needed to be corrected. I continued to study in some additional styles that partially addressed these issues, but not to my satisfaction. My training started to include equally all the different ranges of fighting, but I still felt incomplete as a martial artist.
I certainly don’t blame the styles, because they all had strong foundations and a history of producing effective martial artists. I knew it was me and I needed another approach towards my own training to make it complete. 

During these early years I had short, but enjoyable stint in college studying philosophy which sharpened my interest to further seek out what I thought was true knowledge.  My martial art training supplemented by my own exercise and nutrition programs also continued and has with out a break since that first day. I also began to explore on deeper levels the power of meditation and how it can improve our lives and how it relates to martial arts. My original Taizen / Shintai training still played (and still does play) a very important role of how I believed the Mind can and should work.
I started to understand that of all the enemies we needed protection from and must face in life, there will be one who keeps coming back for more and he will be relentless if we let him. This enemy was within; I was my own worst enemy and could prove to be the most dangerous of all to myself if left to run out of control. No physical skill could over power this enemy, but a strong mind and clear thinking resulting from proper meditation training could be the solution to this problem.  It could also give me the calmness and clarity when dealing with obstacles in life or in battle.

Now I started to feel that I had something to work with if I could only harmonize all of these principles.
I had read a lot about Taij, but this was in the late 70s and early 80s and I was unaware of any qualified instructors in my area.
What I didn’t know about Taiji was that is had about a 400 year head start on some of my still very crude ideas. In those 400 years it had refined both in life and on the battle fields all the above theories.  Not only that, but there was a particular family responsible for creating Taiji and a specific place in China where this Taiji evolution took place. They were the Chens and later on in my life I became fortunate enough to be accepted as a student by this family. We will discuss those details further in this article.

Through out the 80s and early 90s I continued to train hard under numerous skilled Instructors between NY, CA and FL, the three places I lived before I began traveling and then living in China. It was during this Pre-China period that I experienced; Kick boxing, several Kungfu Styles, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Aikido to name a few and finally Taiji.
It was in Fl ( the early 90s) where I met my first two real Yang Style Taiji teachers. They laid the ground work for my basic understanding of Taiji. It was the Yang Style that made me wonder about its forerunner Chen Taiji. I felt if I really wanted to understand the true essence of Taiji then the Chen Style was where I should really start. (It seemed obvious go back to where Taiji began) It was in Febuary 1999 when I attended a seminar with Master Yang Yang in Jacksonville FL, hosted by Master Kam Lee. This is where I met my greatest inspiration and teacher and oddly enough and with all due respect for the highly skilled Master Yang Yang, the teacher I’m speaking of is Master Kam Lee. I am still unaware of the full extent of his awesome skill and knowledge, but what I am aware of is his ability to transmit the specific knowledge I am ready for at any given moment.  My training with him has been the most effective training I have ever had. When my relationship with Chen Taiji began, I knew I was home and not a step of my journey was wasted because it delivered me to exactly where I belong.   
Master Kam Lee also introduced me into The Chen Family which has allowed me to train directly with many family members and also train in Chen Village. Most of this training has been with Master Zhu Tiancai.  The main advantage gained from my living and training In China was not necessarily the instruction I received but the environment in which I trained and lived in. This has allowed me to better understand the culture, philosophy and the necessities that gave birth to this all encompassing Martial Art, Chen Taijiquan. I started to better comprehend the Tao and how it happens to mirror the American Indian philosophy that I so loved as a child.  I have since learned that the origin of the North American Indians have their roots in Asia. (It comes as no surprise)  It is this art that I owe my happiness and contentment to. It has taught me the true meaning of Martial Arts and how I can express myself through Taiji. It is not the external beauty of Taiji, but the internal harmony it creates. So I continue to train daily and look forward to the next workout and cherish the last. I also try to contribute back to this wondrous art form by sharing the limited knowledge I have attained, but more importantly by putting the True Taiji Masters with those students who desire to study and understand Taiji in its purest form.     

So am I successful?   What has Taiji taught me?
Here are just a few of the many important things Taiji has taught me to better understand, but they are not necessarily Martial Art related.. Remember not all aspects of Taiji are directly related to Martial Arts.
I am still a work in progress, but a more relaxed work in progress.

Conclusion: So after 40 yrs what has changed? I may never be a great Martial Artist but, I am now very successful. Why? I understand the flawlessness of simplicity. I have come to realize that every step in my life has meaning. Every obstacle in life is an opportunity. Dealing with our fate creates our destiny.  I can find true beauty everywhere. I am no longer unhappy with what I don’t know or can’t do and I am very happy with what I do know and can do. Even if there are some tasks that I can no longer perform, I enjoy the beautiful memories of when I could. However I am still motivated to keep moving and learning and won’t consider stagnation as an option. My obsessions have now become my desires. Most of my previous wants have become my don’t-need-anymores.  I still make mistakes and loose my patience, but I always quickly return back to a comfortable state of mind.  I have learned to adapt to my surroundings in both short and long term scenarios. My former regrets have turned into gentle reminders not to duplicate bad choices. I measure my life in moments not minutes. I know what to appreciate and that all things in this life are temporary.  If you want to ignore something in someone, ignore the bad. I let those I love and appreciate know that I do. Family and Friends are our most valuable assets. True wisdom does not come from books. Forget something bad everyday. I have learned to take my time, not waste my time. No matter how much kindness we share with others, we will never run out. Really and truly Smile. And as a wise man once said “we are Spiritual Beings having a Human experience” and I am thoroughly enjoying mine. All of the above can be applied to anyone’s life or any Martial Art environment. Taiji leaves no stone unturned and no situation unaddressed whether it be in life or in battle. (Or both combined)

This is why I feel like the most blessed man in the world. Although I don't have much money and I do not own a home, I realize now that I do have more than I could ever need or dream for.