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Martial Arts - Ancient Wisdom of the East

Updated: Jan 3

Mention martial arts and the image of Oriental warriors locked in hand-to-hand combat almost certainly springs to mind. But the real reason most of these systems were originally invented was not for fighting, nor even for self-defence, but for total spiritual and philosophical self-development and as a means of bringing mind, body and spirit together to operate in perfect harmony. Like many people of my generation, my introduction to martial arts came via the classic movie The Karate Kid (1984), starring Ralph Macchio as a bullied teenager taken under the wing of Japanese karate master Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita). The film was so successful at the box office that it spawned a series of sequels as well as a 2010 remake starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. The whole concept of martial arts fascinated me from an early age, shrouded as they were in an exotic element of Eastern mystery. Another source of inspiration was the cult TV show Monkey, which ran from 1978 to 1980 and retold the classic Chinese myth of a monkey-god tasked with assisting a young Buddhist priest on a pilgrimage to collect the holy scriptures from India. The show became famous for its electrifying action sequences as well as for its catchy theme tune and entertainingly over-the-top English dubbing.

Films and TV shows like these excited me because I was drawn to the idea that there existed secret techniques or methods that could give ordinary people like me the edge against any would-be assailants; the notion that superhuman strength and fighting skill were attainable without having to be bitten by a radioactive spider or subjected to a near-lethal dose of gamma radiation. That enticing possibility that superpowers were not only real but also available to anybody prepared to put in the time and work to attain them would ultimately become one of the driving forces in my own personal quest for self-improvement. Not that I ever did anything about it during my childhood apart, that is, from swinging a garden cane around pretending to be Monkey with his magic wishing staff. I was far too scared of getting beaten up to consider anything as risky as attending a karate class, and so the mysterious secrets of Eastern combat remained an impossible dream - a childish fantasy - until much later in my life.

Fast-forward to the year 2001 and a period in my life when I was finally beginning to, for want of a better term, sort my shit out. In a previous blog, NLP - The Modelling of Excellence, I described how my world fell apart between 1998 and 2001 due to my having over-reached myself at work and attained a promotion I wasn't ready for. This had sent me into a gruesome downward spiral which was only alleviated when I secured a transfer to the editorship of another paper. This move gave me the time and space I so desperately needed to get my life back on track, and one of the very first things I did was stop drinking and embark upon an unprecedented health and fitness campaign. I took up running and weight-training and became completely hooked on the endorphins and hormones released by all the exercise. I felt younger and fitter than I had ever done in my life, bouncing with energy and vitality. As with all addictions, the deeper I went, the more I wanted. Every day I needed to run that bit further and lift heavier weights than I had the day before, otherwise it felt like failure. So I pushed myself harder and harder and was constantly on the lookout for more skills and disciplines I could add to my fitness regime. That's when I stumbled across a series of videos in Edinburgh's now-defunct HMV store, purporting to teach the basics of Kung Fu and Tai Chi. I was sceptical as to whether it was possible to learn any martial art from watching a video, but my curiosity had been well and truly aroused so I bought the tapes and returned home with a spring in my step, eager to examine the contents.

The videos were fronted by legendary Hollywood actor David Carradine, who was well qualified for the job having played the leading role of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970s TV series Kung Fu. Carradine, a hugely exotic and charismatic personality in real life, knew nothing about Kung Fu at the time he was cast as Caine and relied heavily on his experience as a dancer, boxer and street fighter in filming the action sequences for early episodes. However, he was sufficiently driven by his love for the character and by a desire for authenticity, that he went on to train under the show's stunt coordinator Kam Yuen - a genuine Kung Fu master or Sifu - until he ended up becoming a highly competent martial artist in his own right. Carradine turned down the role of Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, believing it should be played by an authentic Japanese actor, but would later go on to play the titular character of Bill in Quentin Tarantino's hugely successful Kill Bill movies. At his master Yuen's request he authored a book about Kung Fu philosophy, entitled Spirit of Shaolin (1991), and in 2005 he travelled to the Shaolin monastery in Henan, China, where the abbot commended him for his contribution to Kung Fu culture. The actor was not without his demons and had a long history of drug and alcohol-related problems as well as an exotic sex life involving the practice of self-bondage. He met with a typically mysterious end in 2009 when, at the age of 72, he was found hanging by a rope in the closet of his hotel room in Bangkok while shooting the film Stretch. Evidence suggested he had died an accidental death while practising autoerotic asphyxiation, however conspiracy theories still abound. A mysterious footprint was found on the bed which did not match any of the star's footwear, and the Thai authorities refused requests to share the hotel's surveillance camera footage with the FBI. Relatives believe Carradine was assassinated for trying to expose a secret underworld Kung Fu sect linked to the Triads, while his ex-wife, Marina Anderson, concluded following her own investigation that he had most likely been robbed and murdered by transgender prostitutes known as Lady Boys. The truth is unlikely ever to be revealed but a character as esoteric as Carradine would doubtless have been amused to know that his death had become the subject of a web of colourful conspiracy theories. Carradine was buried in a bamboo casket at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles with a gravestone hailing him as "The Barefoot Legend".

Controversial a figure though Carradine undoubtedly was, his contribution to the field of martial arts as an evangelist for Kung Fu cannot be denied and his mesmerising screen presence played a huge part in fuelling my own interest in the subject. For me, his instructional videos and DVDs on Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong, served as a valuable introduction to these ancient Chinese arts, and the workouts contained within the videos have seen me through some tough times by helping to instil a deep inner serenity as well as the physical fitness levels required to face life's challenges. One of the first and most powerful lessons I learned from Carradine's tutorials was that, contrary to popular misconceptions, Kung Fu isn't really about fighting or self-defence at all. In fact, the very name "Kung Fu" means simply "skill achieved through hard work and endeavour". It was created 2500 years ago by Chinese monks at a Taoist monastery in the Shangshon mountains primarily as a means of keeping their joints supple and muscles strong to enable their bodies to endure long hours spent crouched in prayer and meditation. This endurance was achieved through the daily practice of naturalistic physical movements called ahrat which, combined with techniques for mental discipline, made the monks the most learned scholars, philosophers and teachers of their time as well as the greatest fighters. I can attest to the efficacy of these exercises, having derived incalculable benefit from the yoga-like stretches and simple Kung Fu stances taught in Carradine's workouts. Not only did they have the effect of making me physically stronger, more balanced, flexible and supple, but they also induced a profound state of internal well-being and increased self-confidence which spilled over into other areas of my life. Just as these exercises made it easier for the Shaolin monks to withstand hours seated in meditation, so too did I find thy helped rectify the damage done to my posture during all the years I'd spent hunched over a computer screen during my career as a journalist. The Kung Fu forms straightened my spine and gave me a much wider range of movement and physical flexibility.

Because many of us sit all day like the early Shaolin monks, our bodies have lost their natural grace, power and suppleness. Worse still, we tighten the body unnaturally with tension and stress. None of us can completely avoid stress, but we can prevent it from harming our physical, mental and spiritual well-being and we can achieve this by bringing ourselves closer to nature. The ancient Chinese monks based Kung Fu on the movements of animals and the elements. They saw in nature the strength of the bear, the grace of the cat, the speed of the snake and observed how effortlessly the animals moved. By imitating those movements they improved their strength, balance and coordination and began to gain new insights into the essence of each animal's nature. This knowledge increased the monks' own mental powers, enabling them to experience a greater clarity of thought and to conquer stress and tension at will. Their minds and bodies began to work in unison, unleashing their full human potential. Combining their new discoveries of body and mind, the monks developed a philosophy of life in accordance with the natural laws of the universe. Aggressiveness was replaced by confidence, manipulation by receptiveness, and resistance by acceptance. Mind, body and spirit became one and together they became one with nature.

Kung Fu was so highly valued in the Orient that for centuries the sifus - the great masters of the art - refused to reveal its secrets. It's only relatively recently that the most progressive sifus have introduced Kung Fu to the west, realising that its true destiny was to spread its wisdom to all humankind. One such enlightened master was Carradine's own Sifu, Kam Yuen, who led the more advanced sections of the star's early training videos, including detailed instruction in punching and kicking techniques. Yuen, a chiropractic doctor and 35th generation Grandmaster of Shaolin Kung Fu, is something of a martial arts legend who became known as the 'Praying Mantis of North America' for his fighting style and ability to detect and use an opponent's energetic weaknesses to his advantage. In recent years, Yuen's focus has shifted dramatically away from the combat side of martial arts towards the energetic treatment of chronic pain utilising a technique which has become termed the "Yuen Method". In the later entries in his series of training DVDs, Carradine was assisted by a number of other masters including American Sifus Mike Marshall and Donald Hamby, experts in both Shaolin kick-boxing and the Hung-Gar style of Southern Kung Fu which builds explosive power through the systematic tensing and relaxation of the muscles. Two further Sifus featured are Rob Moses, creator of the Golden Spiral Wellness System, and Professor Arnold Tayam - a master of Qigong and Tai Chi. Tayam is director of The Longevity Center Clinic and Institute in California where he conducts clinical medical Qigong practice as well as private instruction in Qigong, Tai Chi and other Taoist arts.

In keeping with the yin and yang of Taoist philosophy, Kung Fu and Tai Chi are basically the hard and soft forms of the same art. They consist of the same essential movements, or forms, but performed at different speeds. Performed slowly and gracefully, they constitute Tai Chi and strengthen the mind and spirit. Performed at speed they become Kung Fu and strengthen the body. Tai Chi works on the internal level while Kung Fu works on the external. This description is an over-simplification of a complex subject, as each art-form has its own unique subtleties and nuances, but in essence Kung Fu and Tai Chi can be considered one and the same spiritual science expressed in both its active and passive forms. Although widely perceived in the west as being principally a form of relaxation and stress-relief, Tai Chi also has considerable martial applications. It is said that a Tai Chi master is unbeatable in combat and can never be hurt. Opponents are likely to stumble away in confusion, unaware that a contest even took place. As Carradine explains: "Tai Chi is a kind of Kung Fu. Without Tai Chi I don't think you can be a really balanced martial artist. But there's a lot of techniques in Kung Fu that have the slow measured and soft quality of Tai Chi and, on the other hand, Tai Chi, if you wanted to use it that way, could be very destructive in combat". Ironically though, the practice of martial arts actually makes it less likely that you'll ever need to fight anyone. One of the bi-products of martial arts training is that you begin to radiate a certain confidence and serenity which diffuses aggression in others and also acts as a warning signal to any would-be aggressors to give you a wide-berth. It's a bit like the way dogs will attack anyone who has a phobia of them because they can smell the person's fear. But if you're a dog-lover and completely calm around them, they'll leave you alone. As Carradine himself once said in an interview: "Having this knowledge banishes fear to a great extent and when you walk without fear you tend not to be challenged."

It was during the practice of Carradine's workouts that I had my first direct experience of the tangible perception of chi or qi - the subtle energy or life essence which permeates all creation. This energy, which the Indian yogis call prana and which is most commonly known in the west by the names vril or orgone, is a central concept in all Eastern religions and inspired the notion of "the Force" in the Star Wars franchise. It is the energy harnessed in all forms of Oriental healing, such as acupuncture, reflexology and reiki, as well as being the force deployed by martial artists when they perform eye-catching feats such as splitting bricks with their bare hands. Such feats are not achieved through mere brute force but rather by the harnessing and focusing of subtle energy. Chi flows through the body via a complex network of meridian lines but these meridians can become clogged by factors such as tension, stress and muscular tightness, rather like blocked arteries, leading to a breakdown in the body's natural rejuvenation systems and consequent physical and mental ill-health. Martial arts and other forms of ancient Chinese medicine are designed to unblock these meridians, allowing the chi to flow smoothly throughout the whole system as nature intended. The more you practice, the more strongly you will be able to perceive the energy as the pathways are gradually cleared, enabling the chi to circulate unimpeded. After repeated practice of the Kung Fu forms taught by Carradine and Yuen, I began to become aware of this chi as a curious and blissfully calming magnetic sensation pulsing between the palms of my hands. The energy was palpable - so much so that I could actually move it about with my hands and manipulate it. As someone who'd always been fascinated by the notion of superpowers, the discovery of chi was a hugely important milestone in my own personal journey and one which excited me greatly.

With regular practice of martial arts, you'll eventually begin to feel the universal life energy - or chi - pulsing between your palms. This energy, which flows through the body via a network of meridian lines, can be harnessed to produce profound benefits for health and well-being as well as explosive superhuman strength.

The therapeutic benefits of working with chi would prove to be a major lifeline for me when I was suffering from work-related stress 10 years ago. I've described in previous blogs how I was referred to a well-being class run by meditation and mindfulness specialist Caroline Miller where I learned a vast array of new techniques which enabled me to manage my stress levels better. One of the most powerful things Caroline taught was Qigong (also known under the variant spellings Chi Gong and Chi Kung) - a form of meditation-in-motion, similar to Tai Chi - in which slow, flowing movements are combined with rhythmic breathing to ease the flow of chi through the body's energy meridians, inducing a calm, meditative state of mind in the process. Qigong is practised throughout China and worldwide for recreation, exercise, relaxation, preventative medicine and martial arts training. I'd already experienced the sensation of chi-flow previously thanks to David Carradine's workouts, but it was during Caroline Miller's classes that I first had the experience of actually being able to see chi in the form of a translucent shimmering green light streaming from my fingertips as I practised the Qigong forms. The ability to see chi and auras is usually a sign that the frequency range of a person's sensory perception has expanded beyond the normal boundaries of the visible light spectrum - a not uncommon bi-product of performing energy-type work. As a result of this experience I was inspired to undertake more advanced Qigong training under Edinburgh-based instructor Elena Alvarez and her master Kris Deva North. North, himself a direct disciple of Taoist Grandmaster Mantak Chia with whom he has co-written several books on the subject, taught me the advanced microcosmic orbit exercise - a powerful energy cultivation technique which uses chi to harness the body's natural sexual energy, known as jing to the Chinese and kundalini in Indian yoga, and route it round through the meridians in a circular motion to effectively form an electric circuit. Successful practice of the microcosmic orbit transmutes sexual energy into psychic energy and increases bodily vitality by preventing jing (kundalini) from being dissipated during sexual activity. The benefits of this exercise are incalculable and too profound to explain in any detail here. Suffice to say that its not without good reason that the Chinese consider Qigong to be synonymous with alchemy - the key to immortality and eternal youth - and believe that the ability to successfully control chi and jing constitutes the fabled philosopher's stone.

My instructor Kris Deva North is a fascinating and truly mesmerising teacher who radiates that infectious serenity by which a true master can be recognised. Born in wartime London at the height of the Blitz, he spent his teen years in the turbulence of Mau-Mau Kenya. At age fifteen the Wakamba tribe initiated him as an honorary member and while dancing in their drum-circles he witnessed the fire-bath, where adepts fell into flames and emerged unharmed. He saw military action in South Arabia and Borneo, during which service with the Gurkhas of Nepal steeped him in the culture and traditions of these Kaliworshippers and their rituals of blood-sacrifice. After then spending 25 years in business and management, North decided to change his life, pursuing oriental healing and martial arts. In 1991 he set out to learn from masters throughout Asia, Japan and the USA. Impressed by the teachings of Mantak Chia, Kris embraced the Tao and in 1993 returned home to found the London Tao Center and Zen School of Shiatsu, the latter becoming in 2009 the first to be accredited by the British Accreditation Council, and in 2010 by Middlesex University. In 2006 he founded the Healing NLP Institute after training with Richard Bandler and Paul McKenna, pioneers of modern shamanic practice through their work with altered states. Today North continues to teach widely, combining the principles of ancient Shamanic, Taoist practices with modern techniques such as NLP. I've benefited greatly from the training I underwent with Kris and from soaking up the wisdom of a man whose extraordinary life experiences include travelling with a Thai Buddhist monk, engaging in satsang with Shiva Saddhus in the Himalayas, meeting the Shamans of Africa, North America and Hawaii and Australian Aborigines, and receiving darshan from the Dalai Lama. As with all great masters, North's wisdom is dispensed with the utmost humility and without even the slightest hint of ego, and the benefits of the microcosmic orbit which he taught me are profound.

As with other martial arts, knowledge about Qigong was traditionally passed down from master to student in elite unbroken lineages, typically with secretive and esoteric traditions of training and oral transmission. It is really only within the last hundred years that the more enlightened Chinese masters have allowed this ancient wisdom to spread to the west. The subject of chi is one I'll be returning to in far more detail in the near future as it represents one of the fundamental pillars of the regenerative process which we use for therapeutic purposes at Phoenix. This vital energy, under its Indian name of prana, is the same force controlled and harnessed in kriya yoga - the powerful meditation technique I learned from Paramahansa Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship (see Meditation - The Power Of Now). Sceptics will tell you that chi or prana is a pseudo-science and will argue that its existence can't be proved. They're entitled to their opinion but they're wrong. In the UK, the cash-strapped NHS spends £25 million on acupuncture every year - not something you'd expect unless medical chiefs were completely satisfied as to the clinical benefits. More enlightened scientists such as Nikola Tesla have always supported the concept of this subtle energy and, in more recent years, members of the scientific community have started to equate chi with what they call Zero-point Energy (ZPE). Remember, conventional science once claimed the Earth was flat and mocked Newton's theory of gravity. Technically gravity still hasn't been proved by science either and yet its existence is now pretty much universally accepted. Pseudo-science is often merely another term for those things conventional science doesn't entirely understand yet. But our ancestors understood them perfectly well and the wisdom survives to this day thanks largely to the oral traditions of Eastern lineage-based systems such as martial arts and yoga. George Lucas drew considerable inspiration from these ancient systems in creating the Jedi Knights of Star Wars who, with their Master-Disciple relationships, their fusion of meditation with fighting skills, strict moral code and ability to manipulate "The Force", can be seen to have many parallels with the martial artists and yogis of the Orient.

I highly recommend the exploration of martial arts to anyone serious about self-improvement. Even if the physical side of the practice doesn't appeal to you, you will still gain incalculable benefit from the discipline, ancient wisdom and philosophy underpinning the teachings. The martial arts I've touched on here are just a few of the many systems out there. Even each system frequently has countless variations within it, all stemming from different lineages. The most esoteric is Ninjitsu - the art of the assassin - a mysterious cult incorporating elements of the occult and paranormal aspects - and which itself is divided into two schools, the Red and the Black, according to ideology. Among the better known martial arts systems worldwide are the Japanese Karate, Jui Jitsu and Judo, and the Korean Tai Kwondo and Aikido. Any of these are likely to provide you with enormous physical, mental and spiritual benefits, though its vital that, whichever art you choose to pursue, you make sure to receive proper instruction and take your time to find the right teacher and one whose personal teaching style resonates with you. Also, I implore you not to take-up martial arts for the purpose of inflicting violence or destruction. If you do so then you're completely missing the point and will fail to derive any of the wondrous benefits that come from the more spiritual applications of the art. As David Carradine said in his characteristically laconic way: "When the universe is unfolding in front of you, and you're learning cosmic truths, beating up people is something you should probably forget about."

Now, you might ask, why am I telling you all this? Simply because the philosophy, physical and spiritual benefits of Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong have played a huge part in my own personal journey and are therefore an integral part of the holistic system we deploy at Phoenix to bring about a deep sense of wellness in our clients. This doesn't mean we expect you to perform complex martial arts moves, nor are we qualified to teach you how to do so, but what we can do is pass on nuggets of the underlying wisdom underpinning these ancient Eastern traditions - particularly in terms of the harnessing of chi - which have the potential to bring about profound states of well-being in anyone who makes use of them. The link between martial arts and therapeutic systems of self-improvement, such as hypnosis and NLP, is as old as time itself. It's no coincidence that the three men who trained me in hypnosis and NLP - Thom Shillaw, Andy MacArthur and Stephen Gilligan - all come from a martial arts background, or that my Qigong instructors, Elena Alvarez and Chris Deva North are also NLP practitioners. Many modern therapies like NLP incorporate elements of Eastern wisdom and are, in effect, merely new ways of conveying ancient knowledge. When chi is flowing unimpeded, as is the case when practising martial arts, one enters the same trance-like high-performance state as that experienced during hypnosis. Time slows down, the senses become heightened and thought processes become clearer, enabling us to transcend the normal boundaries of human achievement. If you're curious to learn more about how martial arts has inspired our work at Phoenix, and how you can benefit from it, check out our website at or drop us an email at

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