Mass Marketing the Martial Arts
by Christopher Dow
As with almost every aspect in the world today, mass marketing has touched even the martial arts. This situation developed through history in a steady progression—like life itself—from single-celled organisms to creatures as complex as humans, though perhaps not quite human. But before we look at the sorry state of affairs that now is beginning to manifest in the martial arts, let’s take a look at the history and follow the development of martial arts marketing from the olden days until the present. I’ll focus mainly on Tai Chi because that’s what I practice and the martial art I know the most about. But many other martial arts have followed a similar progression.
The history of the formalized martial arts in general—as with the specific origins of many martial arts styles—is steeped in the fogs of time that obscure and confound all but the most prominent details. But we can organize the martial artists of then, as now, into several categories: 1) those trained by the military, law enforcement, or bodyguard services, 2) those trained in Buddhist and Taoist temples, 3) those trained in schools or in traditional family arts, 4) those who are criminals, and 5) those who are lone, singular, or itinerate martial artists. The idea here is not to distinguish particular types of training, though such things must be mentioned. Nor is it to assign a ranking of the relative qualities of the different martial arts categories and styles—an impossibility, anyway. A great martial artist might be a criminal, but he’s still a great martial artist. Instead, we’ll look at the methods that these types of martial artists have used over the centuries to promote their art and, sometimes, earn a living at teaching it.
To do that, we can group the above five categories into two subgroups: a) those who promulgate successive training over a long historical period and who usually produce successors or “offspring” styles and b) those whose martial arts do not necessarily produce successors or offspring. The former subgroup encompasses categories 1, 2, and 3, while the latter subgroup is made up of categories 4 and 5. Individuals in the second subgroup—criminals—were not usually specifically involved in training successors or starting schools. Nor were itinerate martial artist, though it is possible for a traveling martial artist to pass on his or her art in such a way that it becomes the foundation for a formal school or family-based style. This apparently happened with Wang Tsung-yueh, an itinerate martial artist of the sixteenth century or so, who passed his internal martial art to the Chen Village of Henan Province, China. The Chen family then further refined it into Tai Chi, forming a family style that was later very widely disseminated via several other family-based forms.
While this kind of adoption of an itinerate martial artist’s style has probably been the exception rather than the norm, it is interesting that the case just mentioned provides an example of the earliest form of mass-marketing of a martial arts style. Through a wide-ranging personal tour, Wang essentially engaged in an advertising blitz that included evidence of his product’s superiority demonstrated through public matches of martial skill.
Proponents of particular schools and family-based styles engaged in similar efforts. Think of Yang Lu-chan traveling around, taking on all challengers until he earned the name “Invincible Yang,” in the process cementing Yang Style Tai Chi’s excellence in the mind of the public. In a very real sense, a martial art’s family name was a trademark that was synonymous with a given martial product. Through this sort of advertising-via-name-recognition, a martial arts master was able to promote his style, school, or family style, garnering not just fame but dues-paying students.
Something similar had already occurred with the Shaolin Temple, though in this case, the point was to draw new adherents, and less concern was given to financial gain. As a result, Shaolin accrued nationwide—and now international—martial renown, and the styles created there subsequently proliferated through the public at large, generating a great number of secular schools, family styles, and lone itinerate martial artists. Shaolin styles also improved the fighting abilities of those in the underworld—an irony considering the superior moral inclinations of the Shaolin monks who contributed so much to the development of the fighting arts.
The lone itinerate martial artist, too, was subject to the same parameters, even if his or her goal was not to found a martial arts dynasty but simply to earn a living. The legendary and afore-mentioned Wang Tsung-yueh is a good example. He reputedly traveled through a swath of China, moving from village to village, disparaging the local martial arts, handily defeating all challengers, then earning a living by teaching them some or all of his internal style. Chen Village is supposedly one location where he stopped to teach. Another of Wang’s stops supposedly was the nearby Zhaobao Village, whose Tai Chi style is reminiscent of but different from Chen style and which seems to have an equally antique background.
The history of the martial arts, it would seem, is as convoluted as a bowl of lo mein noodles. Not only is each strand so interwoven with those around it that determining where each begins and ends is an insurmountable challenge, most of the interweaving are hidden beneath the surface. But one thing is clear: Right from the beginning, martial artists often attempted to build up followings to support themselves through the only form of advertising available to them at the time: word-of-mouth spread over a relatively broad section of the country.
Sometimes such a situation was taken advantage of by a person not only of great skill, but of questionable morals or of an authoritarian bent. Criminal organizations and martial arts cults could rise as easily as a village or family school, particularly in times of the kind of great social and political upheavals experienced by China for centuries. But for the most part, loyalty to a family, school, or temple—or event a loner willing to teach you—did not involve manipulative or criminal behavior.
These early forms of mass marketing of the martial arts continued for centuries until the invention of mechanized printing processes enabled the creation of martial arts literature on a large scale. There probably always had been martial arts manuals, carefully hand-scribed or perhaps etched into wooden printing blocks. But most such efforts were one-offs and were unable to reach a large and simultaneous market in the same way that printed books could.
On occasion, the earlier, hand-scribed manuals crossed over into the burgeoning mainstream martial arts literature, though sometimes not immediately. A good example is the collection of old writings on Tai Chi called the Tai Chi Classics, most of which date to the nineteenth century. Some of these Classics were supposedly composed by Chang San-feng, the legendary founder of Tai Chi, some by the aforementioned Wang Tsung-yueh, and yet others by significant past Tai Chi luminaries. A few of the Classics were discovered in a salt-shop, a few in a bookstall, and the rest were largely held by the Yang family. Until the 1920s, they could be found only in hand-scribed form, but today, versions and translations of the Classics have appeared in scores of Tai Chi books and on even more Tai Chi websites. This almost spontaneous mass-marketing of the Classics was sparked by Chen Kung’s somewhat underhanded publication of closely held and heretofore secret documents belonging to the Yang family. But the subsequent proliferation happened without deliberate effort, spreading virally, though obviously it was a slower-working viral meme than you’d see on today’s Internet. (For more about Chen Kung, see HERE.)
With the development of mass printing, would-be mass-marketing martial artists had a new tool at their disposal to more widely disseminate their expertise and art. Their books might help draw students, but even if they didn’t, they were marketable items in their own right, earning money for their authors. And now, mass-marketing martial artists also could resort not only to books, but to newspaper advertisements and flyers that could be posted around town to let prospective students know about the teacher and his art.
And there matters rested until the twentieth century and the development of moving pictures. A number of early twentieth-century martial arts films are available online or elsewhere. Most are grainy, jerky, and sporadic in terms of completeness of the form depicted. But it doesn’t seem that the martial artists of the time gleaned the marketing value of film as an advertising medium and way to disseminate martial information. This might seem odd to us today, particularly because moving pictures can convey the movements and pacing of a style far better than can arrays of still photos in the pages of a book. But it often takes people a while to see the value in new methods or media.
So, until just after the middle of the twentieth century, books still held sway in the martial arts marketing realm. But then things began to heat up, and in many ways, that was due to the efforts of one now largely-forgotten—and frequently disparaged—proponent of the martial arts.
No survey of martial arts mass marketing in America—or anywhere else—would be complete without a look at Bruce Tegnér. In fact, the ads for Tegnér’s books that appeared in the back pages of comic books and men’s magazines throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s were probably the first introduction many Americans had to the Asian martial arts. When a martial arts compatriot of mine was a teenager during that time and was being bullied at school, his dad gave him a Bruce Tegnér book, though he neglected to impart to my friend any personal training. Apparently he thought the book was sufficient instruction.
Tegnér wasn’t just a pioneer martial arts author at a time when there probably weren’t more than a handful of writers in English on the martial arts, each—with rare exceptions like Robert W. Smith and Donn Draeger—producing only one, or maybe two or three, books. Tegnér personally wrote an entire martial arts library between 1959 and 1985, though the exact number of original titles is a little hard to calculate. A list of Tegnér books I compiled from Amazon numbers almost exactly 100 and can be found at the end of this article. That includes the contents of two boxed sets: The Martial Arts: Boxed Set containing five volumes (1974) and the Corgi Library of Oriental Martial Arts, co-authored by martial arts writer Michael Minick, containing four volumes (1975). All the volumes in these two sets are reissues of previous books.
Tegnér’s full catalog includes earlier books either retitled—perhaps with some added material—or two books later combined into a single volume. You’d have to buy copies of each and every one and then compare and contrast them all to be sure of exactly how many unique books he produced. What, beyond the titles, are the differences between:
Self-defense for Boys & Men: A Physical Education Course,
Self-defense for Boys & Men: A Secondary School and College Manual
Self-defense You Can Teach Your Boy: A Confidence-building Course, and
Teach Your Boy Self-defense and Self-Confidence?
And is the material essentially the same—except for photos—as that in:
Self-defense for Girls and Women: A Physical Education Course
Self-defense for Girls: A Secondary School and College Manual
Self-defense and Assault Prevention for Girls and Women. and
Self-defense for Your Child?
I certainly don’t have the time to discover all that, nor the funds. Some of the better, rarer, or first-edition Bruce Tegnér volumes now go for as much as $350, and many of the rest are in the $20–$50 range.
Obviously, Tegnér had a penchant for repackaging the same material in different forms under different covers and slightly different titles. Examine the accompanying list of Tegnér books, and you’ll see what I mean. But if he often repackaged and repurposed his material, he also wrote books on topics not covered by other writers for years. Perhaps the most succinct enumeration of Tegnér’s books can be found on the OpenLibrary page about his principal publisher: Thor Publishing Company. (1) OpenLibrary numbers forty-two book titles and 11 e-books published by Thor between 1959 and 1999. Tegnér’s personal output began in 1959 and continued to 1985, which was the year of his death. Most of the Thor books listed are by Tegnér or Tegnér and a co-author (usually his wife, Alice McGrath), though a few are by McGrath alone or by other authors. The OpenLibrary page even has an informative chart showing the number of titles that Thor published each year.
Over the years, Tegnér has suffered criticism in several regards. First, he often produced books on martial arts styles he did not know well, such as Tai Chi and other kung fu forms. And some karate exponents question the depth of his knowledge in that art. In discussing a video clip on YouTube of Tegnér teaching Ricky Nelson karate in an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1961, Dan Djurdjevic had this to say about Tegnér’s movement: “It’s really quite stunning in its oddness, matching and exceeding the awkward, book-learned movements hinted in the photos. Yet there is something irresistibly admirable about it at the same time. I can’t help but feel sincere respect for Tegnér. He might not have known a lot about karate, but there is a sort of ‘alpha male,’ pugnacious authenticity, toughness and diligence to his movement that makes you want to meet him, shake his hand and say: ‘Well done, mate.’” (2)
Tegnér might not have been a classical stylist, but he did possess legitimate expertise in his core arts: Judo, Jujutsu, and Aikido, which he melded into Jukado. Many other writers point out that what Tegnér did forty years ago would be considered cutting-edge today in that he was one of the first to openly mix various styles of martial arts then hone the result into a direct and efficient system of self-defense that emphasized over-all physical fitness and skill rather than strength.
Bruce Tegnér was born October 28 or 29, 1929, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents—Jon and June—were both professional-grade practitioners of Judo and Jujutsu, and his mother also studied Kodakan. In fact, she was the first Caucasian woman to earn the rank of 3rd dan in Judo. Bruce’s parents started him off on the same path when he was 2 years old. According to his one-page bio in his first book, Karate: The Open Hand and Foot Fighting, his nursery was furnished like a dojo, with mats lining the walls, and his judo instruction took place daily. He also studied with several experts in various martial arts, including fighting champion T. Shozo Kuwashima. At age 17, Tegnér won California’s state Judo title, and by the time he was 21, he was the youngest 2nd dan judoka in the U.S. (3, 4) He continued to practice the martial arts throughout his lifetime, studying Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido, karate, Japanese sword and stick fighting, Savate, Tai Chi, and other Chinese kung fu forms.
His traditionalist background eventually gave way, as happened with Bruce Lee, and he began to coalesce his knowledge into a unified system that was direct and simple to learn. The result was Jukado, which, as previously mentioned, combined Judo, Jujutsu, karate, and Aikido. As with Lee, Tegnér took a lot of flak for loosening the bonds of traditionalism in favor of direct and modernized applications. (5)
Tegnér’s books detail three different training routes: training for sport martial arts, training for classical martial arts, and training for self-defense. (3) During his career, he taught military self-defense instructors, created self-defense courses for law enforcement officers, devised fight scenes for film studios, instructed a number of Hollywood actors and operated several dojos over the years. (5) Some of Tegnér’s students can be found commenting favorably about him on web articles devoted to him and his life.
Tegnér wasn’t the only martial arts writer to successively study various martial arts, become relatively proficient in them, and then produce a string of books. Leo Fong quickly comes to mind. (Reviews HERE) But Tegnér came before all of them. He produced, as I said earlier, an entire martial arts library, and he did so at a time when martial arts books in English were scarce and awareness of the martial arts was practically nonexistent.
Tegnér died of a heart attack at age 55 on August 28, 1985, in Ventura, California. He was survived by his spouse and frequent co-author, Alice McGrath, who died in 2009. McGrath is fascinating in her own right. You can check out the Wikipedia page about her HERE. (6) Since Tegnér’s death, the mixed martial arts, which he helped pioneer, have risen to the forefront, often eclipsing the classical styles in the minds of many people. Tegnér, though, has only rarely received recognition for his contributions to this aspect of the martial arts, and following his death, he was largely forgotten by the martial arts community.
But not totally. According to Bradley J. Steiner, 10th degree black belt and instructor at American Combato in Seattle, Washington, “Tegnér…was a much-maligned and far underappreciated teacher of practical self-defense…. There is great value in what Bruce Tegnér wrote and taught.” Steiner lists six of Tegnér’s books that he feels are particularly strong: The Bruce Tegnér Method of Self-defense, Stick Fighting for Self-defense, Instant Self-defense, Bruce Tegnér’s Complete Book of Self-defense, Jukado, and Judo and Karate for Law Enforcement Officers. (7)
Bob Rosenbaum, who was a student under Tegnér, had this to say: “For many years, there have been those who take great joy in putting Bruce down. Unfortunately, they have no knowledge of Bruce outside of his books. The books he wrote were for people with no knowledge or very little knowledge of martial arts. None of his books were meant to make experts out of the readers, but to allow those with limited athletic ability to learn to defend themselves from the average attacker.” (5)
But our purpose here isn’t to review or critique Tegnér’s books. You can find that article HERE. Instead, we’re looking at his output in the context of mass marketing, and in this endeavor, as a whole, Tegnér again proved that his trailblazing capacities went far beyond simply writing a slew of martial arts manuals. The majority of his books were published by Thor Publishing Company, which was founded in 1959 and incorporated in California in 1982. (8) The Thor articles of incorporation list Tegnér as a principle owner along with Alice McGrath. The company was later dissolved, apparently at or just before McGrath’s death having remained in business for more than 34 years.
So, not only did Tegnér write as many as three dozen original martial arts books at a time when few were writing more than a single volume, he also published them through his own publishing company. Further, in a brilliant move, instead of trying to sell his offerings through bookstores, he advertised them in comic books and men’s magazines, targeting the very audiences most likely to be interested in the product he had to sell and maximizing his profits in the process by cutting out the bookselling middleman. This maneuver also dramatically bolstered his martial arts marketing empire, firmly implanting the Tegnér’s name in the minds of millions of American males of all ages. Even those who never saw a Tegnér book knew he was a kick-ass guy teaching Asian martial arts to American wannabes. And in fact, before Tegnér, a lot of Americans didn’t even know the Asian martial arts existed.
“But wait!” the pitchman promises. “There’s more!” Tegnér’s first book was Karate: The Open Hand and Foot Fighting (1959), and in the back of the book can be found the next element of Tegnér’s martial arts marketing assault: advertisements for martial arts clothing and equipment available from House of Yama. (Check out the prices! Some Gis for under $10!) Subsequent books added more gear to the catalog, which eventually included ads for previous Tegnér books. If Tegnér taught something, such as yawara stick strikes, you could be sure you’d find an ad for yawara sticks in the back of the book.
Internet searching has yet to reveal to me any hard information on House of Yama, but since Tegnér is the model in the photos for the equipment, it’s safe to assume that House of Yama also was Tegnér’s company. A great many other well-known martial artists have since followed Tegnér’s lead in creating a company to sell martial arts gear, particularly those with substantial schools or followings. Brendan Lai is an excellent but not isolated example. But Tegnér was active in this aspect at least by 1959.
It doesn’t seem that Tegnér took advantage of the only home moving pictures format available to consumers at the time, which was 8mm film. Maybe that just wasn’t cost-effective for him. After all, home video is ubiquitous now, but in the 1960s, you might be able to find one family in the neighborhood who had an 8mm projector, and they probably weren’t going to let you hang out at their house and watch Bruce Tegnér films. But he did take advantage of the mass-audience visual formats familiar to everybody at the time: movies and TV. You can see his few isolated appearances on YouTube video clips, but he also furthered his reputation at the time by choreographing screen fights for movies and TV and teaching a fair number of Hollywood actors, including James Coburn, Ricky Nelson, and Frank Sinatra, among others.
Considering the timeframe, his film and TV work will have to substitute for personally authored films or videos of what he was teaching. So, if you add all his film work to his other mass-marketing achievements, it’s clear that, right from the beginning, Tegnér was incorporating just about every medium available to him to sell the martial arts to American consumers. And I do not mean this in a negative way. By all accounts, Tegnér had integrity and enthusiasm as well as skill, athleticism, and determination, and it’s clear that, while he intended to make money off his knowledge, he also intended to impart to his students and readers real knowledge that produced real results.
In the final analysis, Bruce Tegnér can be considered the first person to mass-market the Asian martial arts in America—and maybe the West at large—taking advantage of every avenue available to achieve his goal, from print and visual media to the selling of equipment and supplies. As with the other famous martial arts Bruce of his day, he died prematurely, leaving us only speculation about where he might have taken both his martial arts and his marketing efforts. Whatever might have happened, we can be sure that, had the two Bruces lived, the martial arts would not have developed in America in quite the same way that they have.
Bruce Tegnér might have been the first Western martial artist to take advantage of all the multiple avenues available to mass market his product, but he was quickly followed by others. There’s no way I can be comprehensive here since there are far too many martial artists, schools, associations, and companies out there to make a complete survey, so I’ll be selective, using several prime examples. Right at the outset, let me make it clear that I've chosen these examples because they illustrate my point, not because I think that the people I'll talk about are somehow inferior martials artists. They are not—each is a high-level practitioner.
The first is Lee Ying-arng (1933–1988). Like Tegnér, Lee had a relatively short life, but despite that, his background was quite impressive. He studied from childhood under a succession of famous masters of the Chinese martial arts, most notably for Tai Chi Chuanists, becoming a senior student under Yang Chen-fu. (8) Over time, Lee developed his own Yang-based style: Lee’s Modified Tai Chi, with which he sought to create a balanced form. A few of the better-known practitioners of the internal martial arts who derived some of their training through Lee’s lineage are Ro-Z Mendelson and Darryl Mendelson, both of whom studied directly with Lee’s senior student, Dr. Fred Wu, and Richard Clear, who studied under Wu’s senior student Tyrone Jackson. (9,10)
Also like Tegnér, Lee published a significant number of books—eleven—on the Chinese martial arts, though only a handful have appeared in English. (See the accompanying illustration.) (HERE for a review of Lee's Chinese Leg Maneuvers.) Thankfully, they are probably his more important books. These books were published mostly from the early 1960s through the 1970s. He did not self-publish or self-distribute as Tegnér did, but he did feature ads in the back pages of his books selling his other books and products like Lee’s Liniment—da dit jow, most likely—touted as a cure for muscle aches and bruises. He also was president of the Hong Kong Acupuncture Reseach Center, which taught several acupuncture courses, also advertised in his books. (See accompanying illustrations.)
More to the point of advancing the mass marketing of the martial arts, Lee produced several short 8mm black-and-white films demonstrating various aspects of his art, especially Tai Chi and kicking techniques. (See the accompanying illustration.) I don’t know that he was the first to do this, but we should be glad he did, because these films are quite remarkable. And no, you don’t have to have the film reels and a projector to view them—they have been linked together in a pair of YouTube videos. Lee’s performance of his modified Yang Style is ultra-smooth and focused. Following the form demonstration, he demonstrates applications, proving the significant quality of his martial art. The kicking techniques come next on the YouTube videos, and here, too, you can see Lee’s expertise.
These days, you can find a zillion martial arts application videos online, but none are really any better than those on Lee’s films, which must have been produced around 1960. Another remarkable aspect is that the ad for the film states that after the viewers learn as best as they can from the video, they can then film themselves performing the form and send the film to Lee for critique. I don’t know how many folks actually did that, but the offer, itself, was unusual and generous.
So, Lee Ying-arng was, if not the absolute first to offer home-viewing media as a substitute for personal instruction, then among the earliest. And remarkably, he was involved in a crude but prescient effort at distance learning. Other martial arts instructors soon followed suit. One example is Tai Chi master William C.C. Chen, who advertised a super-8mm film of his Tai Chi in his booklet, William C.C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan (1973). (See illustration.) But as I noted earlier in this series, film was not common, and it could be very difficult to find someone with a projector and the willingness to let a person come into their home to watch martial arts instruction films.
That all changed in the 1980s with the advent of the first ubiquitous home-movie format: video tape. Almost immediately, martial artists began taping themselves performing their forms, imparting instruction, and demonstrating applications. In those early years, martial arts instruction video tapes could easily run $150 or more. That has changed somewhat over time and with the greater proliferation of such videos, and especially with the advent of digital video. DVDs are less time-consuming and a lot easier and cheaper to produce than video tapes. The average price range today of DVDs is from about $20 to about $60, though some run higher. And now, online video services like YouTube have enabled every martial artist on the block to make and present martial arts videos and post video libraries that sometimes require a paid subscription.
Some martial artists have, indeed, produced extensive catalogs of videos. One excellent example is Jiang Jian-ye, who’s online catalog of videos numbers an astounding 286 products! His website also contains information about his school, but otherwise Jiang doesn’t take full advantage of the various media available to day—such as print—nor does he take full advantage of the mass marketing possibilities inherent in todays digital and non-digital media.
One of the more extreme examples of extensive video catalogs is the one produced by Richard Clear. Clear’s pedigree is impeccable. As mentioned above, he is in Lee Ying-arng’s lineage, and he also studied with other martial experts, notably Ma Yueh-liang and Wu Ying-hua, then the reigning masters of Wu Family Tai Chi. And watching Clear in action, it’s obvious that he’s rightfully earned his own place among high-level American masters.
The extremeness of Clear’s video catalog is evident not in the number that he’s produced—well over 100 if you include his on-line videos as well as DVDs—but in their cost. Clear not only knows the real stuff, he has a sincerely open approach to his teaching—if you can actually learn from a DVD—so I don’t knock him for charging appropriately for his knowledge. And professional quality videos aren’t all that cheap to produce, so that has to be taken into account, as well. But most of Clear’s videos go for $180 or more. If you individually bought all the videos comprising “Clear’s Tai Chi Complete Collection,” they would cost you $11,875, though he does sell the collection at a reduced price of $7,499. He also sells “Clear’s Silat Complete Collection,” which if bought separately would run $3,564, but which he sells as a group for $2,299. That’s pretty pricy for DVDs and no personal instruction. He does seminars for about $250 a person for one day or $395 for two days.
Okay, I get that he’s in business to make money from his long-developed expertise. And perhaps charging high prices ensures that he’s not wasting his time with flighty flighty beginners trying out Tai Chi to see if they like it. He runs a Ph.D. program, not a kindergarten. But sincere and talented students aren’t always in a tax bracket that allows them the luxury of spending $10,000 to $15,000 on a bunch of DVDs, no matter what the contents. But maybe that’s the opinion of a poor man. Were I richer, I might buy at least some of his DVDs since Clear is very knowledgable and generous with the information he imparts once you’ve paid the price.
KUNG FU COLLEGE
Like Jiang Jian-ye, Richard Clear has focuced on video as his primary media outlet and YouTube videos and a web presence as his primary marketing tools. But neither of them take full advantage of all the media available. For that, we’ll turn to Yang Jwing-ming, who was named by Inside Kung Fu Magazine as one of the most important martial artists of the past century for his significant expertise, contributions to the field, and inherent generosity in divulging important information on many aspects of the martial arts.
Yang also has engaged in one of the most successful and important mass marketing efforts ever seen in the martial arts. With his huge catalog of books (85+ by my count) and videos (about 75 of his own), he’s taken his personal publications efforts to new heights. And his website for YMAA Publication Center goes even farther, offering not just his own books and videos, but a great number by other martial experts of diverse styles. Most of the DVDs sell in the $30–$50 range. The site also advertises martial arts gear and products and features news and articles about the martial arts as well as information on seminars and Yang’s schools.
Over the past forty years, Yang has created a martial arts empire of the kind that Bruce Tegnér might have developed had he only lived long enough and that encompasses far more than Tegnér probably dreamed of. Tegnér reached his target audience through advertisments in comic books and men’s magazines, which basically limited him to men and boys who lived in the United States. While that wasn’t an insubstantial market at the time, Yang’s website reaches the entire world, and the many YouTube video extracts featuring him have helped increase his visibility. In addition, these days, women are nearly as interested as men in learning some sort of martial art, doubling the demographics of the potential audience. So Yang takes advantage of far more avenues to reach his potential audience than was available to Tegnér, who died just as home video and the Internet were in their nascent stages.
Yang Jwing-ming isn’t the only practitioner to take advantage of the Internet, but he has proved to be one of the more prolific users of all media to get out his message and market his products. But while Yang, like Tegnér, generously imparts information, one of the more important aspects of his efforts is that he operates or endorses approximately sixty schools worldwide. I can’t speak to the quality of all those schools, but apparently, a significant sense of legitimacy permeates all of Yang’s Martial Arts Association, which was established in 1982. To this point is the following from one page of the YMMA website: “This is the official list of active YMAA schools existing in the world today. Any school that is not on this list is not qualified or endorsed by YMAA to teach the YMAA international training system and curriculum. Only schools on this list are official YMAA branch and provisional schools, and there are no exceptions. If you are a YMAA school director and believe that there is an error, please contact us ASAP. Please note that not every qualified YMAA Instructor or YMAA Assistant Instructor necessarily owns a school or is a school director. Click on the Instructors links on the right for full listings.” (11) Clicking on the several links reveals lists of more than two hundred instructors trained in Yang's system. In essence, he is creating a huge, multi-campus, international kung fu college.
I have had personal experience with one of these schools: Yang’s Shaolin Kung Fu in Houston, Texas, which is no longer active. When it was in operation, it was run by Jeff Bolt, one of Yang’s early students and co-author of one of Yang’s early books. Bolt’s personal expertise drew a fairly large number of students to his school, and he then rose to prominence in the mid 1980s when he founded and hosted the United States National Chinese Martial Arts Competitions. This annual competition drew competitors from around the world for more than five years before the organization was disbanded. (More about the USNCMAC HERE.)
That Yang has successfully trained the great number of high-level instructors he has is an incredible feat worthy of note and indicating both Yang’s generosity as well as his expertise. But even with his martial arts commercial empire and his huge number of instructors and students, Yang, in essence, remains a sort of old-fashioned instructor. He personally visited Bolt’s school many times while it was in operation, and I think he probably makes the rounds of many of his current schools. But his organization is now so massive that it probably couldn’t get much larger without a significant structural change that would take it to another level.
The question is, as martial artists, do we really want to go to that next—corporate—level?
The Internet has enabled whole new classes of mass marketing of the martial arts. Before delving into more recent developments, it is necessary to touch on YouTube and other online video sites, not only as a venue for disseminating videos but as a means to mass market an individual’s public offerings, be they classes, books, videos, or clothing and equipment. Certainly, though, the vast majority of online martial arts videos are amateur to semi-professional in nature. By this, I don’t mean the production values, per se, but the levels of expertise of those presenting the material. While many YouTube martial artists clearly know something about the arts they demonstrate, few are in the category of Yang Jwing-ming, Richard Clear, Jiang Jian-ye, or the many other acknowledged masters of the martial arts.
But many of these genuine masters who operate large, often international, organizations and who use various other media to sell their products, also rely on online videos to help promote their offerings. For the most part, such videos are free, though a few require a subscription, but they usually don’t contain a great deal of hard information. Instead, they serve more as teasers to draw prospective students/buyers to websites where products and services can be sold to them.
Another popular visual media to heavily incorporate the martial arts is video games. Video games, however, largely escape specific mass marketing of the martial arts they frequently depict, but only because a video game is intent on mass marketing the game aspect, which has no direct connection to a particular teacher, lineage, or even martial art. But the proliferation of kung fu/karate fighting video games has led to an idea that, were it not so ill-considered, might seem amusingly absurd to those of us who have devoted years or decades to practicing something that is real. This idea is exemplified by an incident that happened to a Tai Chi colleague who was encouraging a teenager to study the martial arts. The teen told my buddy that he already knew kung fu really well since he was expert at martial arts video games. Apparently this isn’t a belief solely of this one benighted young man but is possibly endemic within the gaming community. As an indicator, consider Enter the Warrior’s Gate, a 2016 film in which, according to the storyline on IMBD, “a teenager is magically transported to China and learns to convert his video game skills into those of a Kung Fu warrior.” (12) Fantasy is fine in its place, but not when a real attack occurs. A real attack requires a real response, and real response requires real training.
But this is off the main track of the discussion, and I want to move back to the means that martial artists of today widely utilize to disseminate their art as a business. I’m going to start by noting that mass marketing of the martial arts is now taking on new and disturbing trends that promise to largely eradicate the old way of teaching: passing information down personally from teacher to student. In this classic scenario, the teacher monitors the student’s progress and understanding, in part to ensure that the student gains an accurate and deeper understanding of the art involved, and in part to ensure that students are both accurate and ethical in the use of their art. Such instruction is sensate rather than visual, and is impossible to communicate in words or without direct, physical feedback.
But this old way of teaching is rapidly falling by the wayside. In today’s Internet world, we demand instant gratification, and for those who want such an impossible thing from Tai Chi, there’s what I’m going to call Infomercial Martial Arts. This was pioneered in the 1990s by Billy Blanks, who used the medium of infomercials to promoting his Tae Bo. Today’s prime example of Infomercial Martial Arts is Tai Cheng. Tai Cheng’s promotional materials promise mastery in ninety days. “In just ninety days,” states one of the promo videos, “master moves designed to awaken your muscles, dormant power, and increase your body’s natural energy.” Sounds good if it really works. And if you actually practice. And practice correctly. But in only ninety days?
Tai Cheng is the mastermind of Dr. Mark Cheng, who bills himself as a Tai Chi master and a doctor of sports medicine. His basic course, which costs about $60, though it was originally priced at about twice as much, is marketed through Beachbody, Inc., which bills itself as the largest health and fitness company in America. In other words, it’s a corporation whose sole purpose is to sell you products, whether they’re useful to you or not. Tai Cheng is just one of it’s several fitness programs, and it sells other health and fitness products as well.
My purpose here isn’t to disparage Cheng. He looks fit and energetic, and the online reviews of his Tai Cheng course are mostly in the good-to-exellent range. Many of the negative reviews cite the Beachbody advertisement for other products, such as vitamin supplements, that are peppered throughout the videos. Others note that the course can be slow and boring. Personally, I find watching Tai Chi to be boring, but doing it is not at all so. Maybe the boring aspect of the Tai Cheng videos is the pacing. I can’t say from personal experience since I have not acquired the course materials. I’m not going to spend $60 or more on something I know is too shallow for me after more than four decades of practice. And after watching a number of his promotional videos on YouTube, I have a few criticisms of my own.
First is the fact that you can’t really learn Tai Chi remotely, especially if you’re a rank beginner. You need a teacher to tell you what’s right and wrong, to adjust your postures, and to impart the precepts, such as how alignments work properly and how energy flows. Often, each student needs different and unique input. This entails the kind of feedback that you just can’t get from a teacher who is only a moving image on a TV screen, endlessly repeating the identical information the same way every time. While it is true that the advertisements proclaim that you can get in touch with Cheng or a “qualified instructor” to answer questions, often a student needs the answers to questions he or she doesn’t even know to ask. All this seems symptomatic of a more pervasive problem of contemporary culture. Today, people utilize the Internet, distance learning, and social media instead of engaging in personal interaction. To this point are two of the more important aspects of learning in person with a qualified instructor. The first is close observation of the body dynamics displayed by the teacher. Close observation leads not just to mimicry but to learning on a deeper level. And on that deeper level is the second important aspect: the sensation of chi flow. The more powerful chi flow of the instructor can, to some extent, become apparent to the student, giving the student important clues to its generation in his- or herself. And perhaps it can, in some instances, actually influence the lesser fields of the students, imparting information that is physical but invisible and unteachable via words, photos, videos, or even external physical movement.
While Cheng is obviously fit and flexible and his movements smooth and flowing, it doesn’t look to me as if his energy is sunken into his waist and legs. In other words, he looks buff but not sung. His chest protrudes, and his lumbar curve is not straightened. Thus, he doesn’t look like he’s truly sitting into his postures, and he seems to lack the flexible connection between his trunk and hips that is so important to Tai Chi. In one scene, he’s instructing a young woman whose lumbar curve is pronounced, yet he seems intent only on making sure that she’s stepping correctly on the floor grid that he sells along with his other course materials. His Tai Chi looks balanced and centered, but without sung, the postures cannot truly generate power or thoroughly produce the internal healing effects of Tai Chi.
In addition, there is only a limited amount of instruction in chi kung, which is essential in developing the chi and, ultimately, power. To Cheng’s credit, he does talk about abdominal breathing, and he shows specific exercises to teach the student to breath abdominally, but the bent-spine posture of many of the students does not allow them to sit into their root and to actually utilize abdominal breathing throughout the form. They all look top-heavy, which is a fault that an in-person teacher can help correct, but which will probably slip by all those video students out there. That’s one of those questions they don’t know to ask. Tai Cheng, then, seems to be a purely physical exercise. While seasoned Tai Chi players know that the physical exercise aspect, taken alone, is still a pretty good workout, they also understand that those physical movements are nothing but a container one creates with one’s body. The really important aspect isn’t the container, but the chi energy you learn to fill that container with, and that can happen only if one's alignments are correct and the body is sung.
Another complaint of mine is that Cheng’s Tai Chi form is only eighteen movements long. That’s too short, but maybe understandable considering that his target audience seems primarily to be seniors. I know of one instructor who teaches an eight-movement Wu-Hao Style Tai Chi at a senior center, and maybe that’s enough for some. Cheng’s advertising materials claim—as have many Tai Chi books and videos since the creation of books and videos—that Tai Chi can be learned by one and all, healthy or sick, young or old. To which I say, BS. In my experience, most people who are older than about 70 and who have done little physical exercise or work during their lives are physically incapable of learning Tai Chi, whether because of poorly supported joints, weak musculature, or stiff tendons. They could benefit from practicing some sort of Tai Chi or chi kung, but the physical demands, though less than many other exercise forms, is prohibitive and the learning curve too steep for those in advancing age, and they give up.
Further, their capacity to learn new things has been drastically diminished by age, and they have difficulty in remembering how to do the movements, much less remembering how to string them together into a form. And most children younger than the middle-school years don’t have the patience, understanding, or determination to practice Tai Chi on a daily basis. Other people have physical debilities that can inhibit learning or performing Tai Chi. And finally, there is a tremendous percentage of the population who just doesn’t want to learn Tai Chi, maybe because it looks weak and ineffective, because it’s too complex, because daily practice is too demanding, or for whatever reason. For them, learning Tai Chi also is an impossibility. From what I’ve observed, in order to learn Tai Chi, you have to have a minimal physical capability, and you have to want to learn Tai Chi.
And that brings me back to an old criticism of mine: You just can’t learn Tai Chi from a video or book. Those media might serve to enhance your understanding and practice, but you need to learn from a real, live person. In-person classes not only instruct the student in the movements and principles or Tai Chi, they add the kinds of reinforcement for practice that can only be found in observing and participating in the challenges, struggles, and successes of the other students.
Further, I am quite disturbed by this statement from one of Cheng’s promotional videos: “You learn Tai Chi the right way. You’ll never get that from any other Tai Chi video or class out there.” Really, this is such a load of crap. Does Cheng mean that if I personally took Tai Chi classes with Yang Jwing-ming or Richard Clear (assuming I could afford it!) or any other of the thousands of expert Tai Chi practitioners in America today, I would learn the wrong way from each and every one of them? Gosh, if I’d only paid Mark Cheng that $60, I wouldn’t have wasted my time on other teachers, all of whom teach bogus Tai Chi.
Also irking in this regard is his referring to Tai Chi as Tai Cheng, as if he owns it. Well, perhaps he developed the particular sequence he teaches out of Yang Style, but that’s been done by a great many others, and you don’t see them changing the basic name. The Yang family didn’t rename the art Tai Yang, and the Wus didn’t rename it Tai Wu, no matter how they reconfigured the form. As a long-term Tai Chi player, I find myself slightly insulted that, in the name of “branding,” Cheng has grafted his name to this venerable and philosophical art as if he somehow owns it. Tai Chi means the “Grand Ultimate,” so I guess Tai Cheng means the “Grand Cheng,” but doesn’t that leave “chi” out of the equation? And that brings me back to the point that Cheng’s version looks like just a physical exercise that resembles Tai Chi but seems to ignore much of the best of what Tai Chi has to offer.
I’m sorry that I have devolved into such a negative critique of Cheng’s offerings, but I couldn’t help myself. Actually, though, I think he’s probably doing a service for those among his target audience who actually take up the practice of Tai Cheng. Considering its limitations, Tai Cheng does seem to have a solid foundation and is probably quite good for some. To that point, there are a great many more postive reviews of Tai Cheng than negative. It would be of particular value to seniors who can’t or don’t get out much or who can get together in a community or senior center.
But really the best way to really learn Tai Chi is to take a class in person from someone who is relatively proficient. Such teachers are fairly easy to find via an Internet search. Learning from a knowledgeable person in person doesn’t guarantee that the student won’t get a watering down of the art, but that watering down definitely exists in “exercise-only” Tai Chi. I realize that some areas of the country might be poor in Tai Chi resources, but if you’re forced to learn Tai Chi remotely, find a teacher who is reasonably expert, who can clearly demonstrate and explain a complete standard form—such as Yang 108 or Cheng Man-ching's short form—and who sells his or her product at a reasonable rate. You’ll be better served than by learning a truncated and energetically and philosophically incomplete version of Tai Chi. So if you do take up Tai Cheng, don’t think that you’re actually learning Tai Chi, or you’ll be fooling yourself.
Come to think of it, maybe I don’t mind him calling it Tai Cheng after all.
It is well known that the type of business that fails the most in the first year is restaurants, but martial arts schools might be a close second. Over the years, I’ve watched a large number of small schools crop up in strip centers, warehouse spaces, and buildings formerly occupied by other sorts of businesses, only to see them disappear in short order. Undoubtedly there are a number of reasons for such failures. The primary one is probably that of demographics. There is a huge number of people who like to watch martial artists on movie and TV screens, but there are relatively few who really want to learn and who are willing to put in the time and energy to do so. If you open up a hotdog stand in the middle of a crowd of vegetarians, you just aren’t going to sell many hotdogs, even if your dogs are kosher.
Other reasons might include an insufficient practice space, a perceived lack of expertise on the part of the teacher, or even negative personality traits exhibited by a teacher who otherwise seems competent. You can probably come up with other reasons, but now, there is a whole new school of sharks circling those who want to bolster schools that are floundering. These sharks are marketing companies that target martial arts schools. I guess all those folks who flocked to earn MBA degrees over the past couple of decades have to do something with those degrees. Why not target martial arts schools?
Even a cursory online search for martial arts marketing companies reveals dozens. Most of them make it seem that opening a martial arts school is no different than opening any other sort of health and fitness club, but this isn’t actually the case. Clients at most health and fitness clubs come once to a few times a week, and many don’t require instruction, only access to exercise machines. And for those who attend classes that do need an instructor—an aerobics class, for example—the training for such an instructor is pretty short-term when compared with the time frame necessary to learn a martial art, chi kung, or yoga adequately enough to teach. A health and fitness instructor needs only a year or so under the belt to be able to teach because most exercise is simply repetitive physical movement that works one or more parts of the body’s musculature. You memorize a few routines, do the exercises until you’re fit and know what they feel like—which for younger people, isn’t that long—and presto! You’re an aerobics instructor.
On the other hand, most martial arts and other chi-building practices—especially Tai Chi—aren’t so simple to learn. You might be able to learn the basic forms or katas in a year, but it takes much longer than that to integrate the movements into one’s daily movement patterns and begin to comprehend how to use them and how the energy flows inside the body. Most people cannot attain sufficient knowledge to really teach any martial art in less than five years of practice and training, and Tai Chi takes even longer to consolidate one’s movement patterns and to comprehend the art on some of its deeper levels.
Many of these martial arts marketing companies focus on generating traffic to a school’s website, and some offer website services. Some even say they’ll help promote your school not only with digital media but with print media as well, such as direct mail, posters, door hanger, brochures, print advertising, T-shirts, and so forth. They are full-spectrum promotional companies.
Maybe some of these maketing schemes will do wonders for some martial arts schools, especially for teachers looking to expand from hole-in-the-wall studios to the bigger time. I can’t knock big aspirations, especially among those whose goal is to become professional martial artists of significant caliber. But frankly, for most grass-roots teachers, it’s probably a waste of money. Most areas, even in major cities, simply don’t have the kind of audience that can provide enough students to fill a large school—at least not on the scale of an average health and fitness club or aerobic class. Part of this is the perceived benefits of health-club-style exercises designed for the musculature alone—the kind that makes you buff and sexy. That’s the kind of exercise that tends to draw the most participants. Thanks to movies, the other side of this coin is that the general public thinks that the martial arts are just about fighting rather than about keeping fit with intentional and purposeful movement that produces effects that are not readily perceivable to the uninitiated and that aren't at all related to combat.
It’s ironic that while the marketing of the martial arts in the past was dependent on a personal physical demonstration of prowess and skill, today it is dependent on an advertised supposition of skill or expertise that might not match the reality. How many times have you seen a movie advertisement that promises the movie will slam you into your seat or astound or thrill you, only to discover that it’s just the same old standard Hollywood fare with a louder soundtrack? Martial arts schools are no different, and you have to shop around in person to judge for yourself. Shopping for the right martial arts instructor—and the right martial art—is kind of like shopping for shoes. The shoes might look good on the shelf, but you really can’t tell if you want to wear them until you’ve tried them on and walked around a little bit to see if they fit. You just can’t do that from reading promotional material or learning remotely.
I have to admit that my feelings about martial arts marketing companies is a bit jaundiced. I worked for my entire career in publications production—a good portion of that time in the public affairs department of a major university. Over the course of several years, I watched marketers move in and put their stamp on higher education in ways that seemed to me to be detrimental to the supposed goals of higher ed. I always thought that when people start hyping how important they are instead of about matters that really count, they’ve lost the edge of truth and reliability, and everything they say becomes a hedge.
CORPORATE MARTIAL ARTS
Marketing Tai Chi in this way is only one step removed from the latest trend, which had its roots in Tai Chi classes offered by corporations. But even in those cases, the Tai Chi class usually was taught by a local expert hired by the corporation to come in and teach. That’s not much different—for the teacher, at least—than holding a class in any other location. Now, though, there’s a new and perhaps inevitable development perfectly exemplified by Body & Brain, a corporation that sells Tai Chi and yoga school franchises. Yes, you have that right. Now there is a martial arts franchise, much like restaurant, convenience store, dental clinic, and dog spa franchises.
According to its website, Body & Brain is an organization “committed to spreading comprehensive wellness of the mind, body, and spirit to individuals and communities. We wish to create a healthier and happier society where everyone lives as a true master of one’s life and works for the compassionate benefit of all living beings on Earth.” (13) Aside from the fact that the violent, bigoted, and ignorant neighbor who lives down the street from me will never, ever live as a true master of his life or work for the compassionate benefit of all living beings on Earth, that doesn’t mean that those of us who want to can’t try to be better people. So I can’t really argue with Body & Brain’s stated goals, though I remain skeptical of the company's methods and claims.
Specifically, Body & Brain teaches a yoga practice melded with Tai Chi and other martial and chi-building arts called Dahn Yoga. Dahn Yoga, the Body & Brain website explains, was developed by Korean-born Ilchi Lee, who began teaching his system in a park in 1980 after he supposedly used his chi kung method to cure an individual of partial paralysis. One page of the website reads:
The principles behind the practice and exercise that he [Lee] taught originated from 9,000 year-old Korean traditional practice for spiritual awakening and self-realization called Sun Do (Tao). Sun Do originated from the ancient Korean people in Northeast Asia. It was practiced as part of popular culture during the Dahngun era, from 2333–108 B.C., then disappeared into the mountains where it continued to be practiced in secret by Sun Do masters for centuries. From a modern perspective, Sun Do may be considered similar to other types of yoga, tai chi, meditation, or martial arts. Body & Brain yoga includes most of the elements of these body and mind practices. (13)
This last assertion is part-and-parcel of my sketicism. I might have been less so had the statement read “select and important elements of” instead of “most of the elements of.” So, does Body & Brain teach its students push hands, sung, jumping spin kicks, focused punching, chin na, grappling, Iron Palm, Golden Bell, spear and staff forms, etc., etc.? It doesn’t look like it, so it can’t really claim to “include most of the elements” of the many and diverse arts it cites. You’d have to master each and every one separately to get that, not simply skim the surface of a few principles and movements. This isn’t to say that what Body & Brain teaches isn’t worthwhile. From what I can tell, it’s primarily akin to chi kung melded with yoga, with a touch of Tai Chi thrown in. That might be enough for some people, but it certainly isn’t the all-inclusive practice the company’s promo materials say it is.
Other aspects of Body & Brain’s website trouble me, too, because I automatically distrust anyone or any organization who dissembles in an effort to aggrandize themselves. The Body & Brain website provides a perfect example on the “Affiliates” page, which lists ten other organizations affiliated with Body & Brain: “Our vision is big, but we believe that the strength of collaboration will create tides of change for a brighter and happier tomorrow. We are proud to work with the following organizations who share aspects of our spirit, purpose, and/or principles.” (14)
Again, I can’t argue with the apparent good intentions stated here. I, too, want a more meaningful, productive, and happy world. And to have your vision bolstered and activities joined in by others with similar outlooks is an indicator that something truthful and real is going on. But a closer look at each of these other ten organizations reveals the actual reason they “share aspects of our spirit, purpose, and/or principles": All of them also belong to Ilchi Lee, though you have to dig around in some of their websites to discover that fact. So, instead of having ten independent verifications of the quality of Lee’s efforts, you actually have only Lee, his associates, and his acolytes all patting themselves on the back while trying to make it look like it’s all just a common philosophical alignment instead of being a matter of unified ownership and hierarchy.
I tried to discover what it would cost to open a Body & Brain franchise and what kind of training is required, but the website is vague on these points. I then sent an email to Body & Brain, requesting information on the kind of training that is required of its teachers and franchise owners, but the company never replied. This is not a good sign, at least with regard to the company’s responsiveness to potential customers and franchise owners. So, regarding Body & Brain’s franchising, I can only rely on the testimonials by current franchise owners on the website. One of these owners said she’d practiced seven years before opening her own franchise, but in the testimonials of other franchise owners, none of the owners seemed to have that much pertinent background.
One aspect was consistent throughout the many testimonials: that the owners bought a franchise because they wanted to help other people realize a more complete life. They all seemed sincere, and at face value, the desire to help others isn’t a bad thing. But I have to wonder how many also secretly desire to be viewed as a spiritual guru with the "true knowledge of spiritual fulfillment."
The funny thing about chi-building exercise programs is that any decent Nei Kung (internal-type chi kung) can enable the average person to sense and enhance chi, as well as to mobilize it to some extent within the body. Some chi kung can do that relatively quickly, and some people sense chi more readily than others. But some leaders of large organizations imply that their particular chi kung is the most productive in this regard or that the power actually emanates from the leader rather than from within each and every human. Worse, too often they use this idea to create a cult-like mentality. In fact, Body & Brain has been categorized by some as a cult “that uses coercive persuasion and thought reform methods to create deeply devoted Dahn masters (teachers) who persuade others to devote all their time, energy, and money to Body & Brain programs, events, and ceremonies, and to become loyal Dahn masters themselves.” (15)
Further, “Rolling Stone Magazine published an article in March 2010, titled, ‘The Yoga Cult,’ alleging that ‘Dahn’s calling itself “yoga” is just a marketing ploy to enhance its appeal to Americans'; that instead it is a mind control cult designed to part people from their money. According to the article, the group brought in $30 million in the U.S. in 2009 and charges as much as “$100,000 for a seiminar.” (15) Forbes magazine had something similar to say in 2009 about Body & Brain. “It reported allegations by former members that they were pressured to train to become paid ‘Dahn Masters,’ paying up to $10,000 each for workshops that lasted as long as three weeks. If students could not afford the training, the article states, they were encouraged to take out loans and carry credit card debt. Plaintiffs in a suit against the group claim that once they became ‘Dahn Masters,’ they were then given recruitment and revenue quotas that had them working up to 120 hours per week.” (15) A large number of legal suits have been brought against Body & Brain, including sexual abuse charges against Lee and one wrongful death suit, though most of the charges and suits were dropped or settled out of court.
The truth is, each person is surrounded by a chi field that melds with the chi fields of other nearby individuals. If all of these people begin performing the same chi kung in unison, their interlinked fields begin working in unison, creating a gestalt effect on the entire energy construct of the group. Many religions, knowingly or unknowingly, take advantage of this gestalt effect by programming their followers to believe that the sensation of the gestalt is the spirit of the deity. And many chi cult leaders corruptly do the same thing by claiming that the gestalt effect is a product of the cult leader’s own personal spiritual power.
Yet another reason for my skepticism is a weird piece of paraphernalia sold by Body & Brain. It’s a T-shaped device covered in yellow rubber called a “Belly Button Healing Wand.” It’s a hard to tell from the website exactly what this device is for, though it is advertised as a meditational aid. There is a page that describes the user placing the smoothly pointed end of the T’s upright into the navel, grasping the T’s bars with the hands, and digging the T into the navel. But I have a better description: It’s bullshit. Worse, it’s $85 bullshit. Take the following with a grain of salt, since I was not there and my speculations are just that: speculations. I was chatting with a Tai Chi buddy of mine about various questionable schools in the Houston area, and he mentioned a school that an acquaintance of his told him she’d visited. At this school, the instructor insisted on sticking the point of some sort of device in her belly button and gouging her there in an effort to “open up her power center.” She said that the experience was painful and quite unpleasant. As she was leaving, a gentleman who also was leaving and who was, like her, just a visitor, told her that he knew something about Tai Chi, and what was going on here wasn’t legitimate.
I didn’t know about Body & Brain or the Belly Button Healing Wand at the time, but I have no doubt that was what was going on. There are, apparently, nine Body & Brain locations in the Houston area where this occurred, most of them clustered in the area where this woman tried out the class, and I’m tempted to believe it was a Body & Brain franchise operated by someone with little knowledge of chi and who used the Belly Button Wand on her students. Anyone who thinks you need to gouge your belly button to open up your tantien is sorely mistaken—and I do mean sore. You’ll achieve much better results by placing your palms over your tantien while engaging in abdominal breathing. For men, place the left hand first and cover it with the right hand; for women, use the reverse order. This naturally channels the chi flowing down the insides of the arms into the tantien, creating a circuit and empowering the tantien with a stronger—and natural—flow.
I find myself very ambivalent about the sorts of efforts employed by Ilchi Lee and others to promote their products or programs. On the one hand, it all seems like a watering down of the martial and chi-building arts that divorces these practices from their philosophical roots and turns them into esoteric—and possibly harmful—health-club fare. But on the other hand, the martial and chi-building arts have been in flux and experienced growth and change since the very beginning. Tradition is all well and good, but society and its practices do not advance through overly strict adherence to what has gone on before. Each generation should add a level of sophistication, utility, or meaning to any human endeavor, and the martial arts are no different. If they were, we’d all be practicing Go-Ti or some such primitive martial art instead of any of the great variety of excellent martial arts available to folks today. The real question is whether or not the new version is an improvement on the old, a watering down of principles in the name of expediency and money-making, or just pure snake-oil.
None of this is meant to say that a nearly corporate version of a martial arts school—such as Yang Jwing-ming’s YMAA—might not be able to morph into a true—and trustworthy—international educational corporation, or that such a corporation would necessarily be a bad thing. But the energies fostered by exercises that enhance and mobilize chi seem to be inherently susceptible to manipulation by those who desire to control others. If the allegations against Body & Brain are true, the company might be large in scope, but it remains little more than a magnified yet weaker version of the martial arts and chi kung cults that pepper Chinese martial arts history. But it is remarkable that it has made significant inroads in several countries outside of Korea, and apparently Body & Brain’s headquarters is now in Sedona, Arizona, with centers in twenty-one U.S. states. Often there are multiple locations within a given city, as is the case here in Houston.
Ilchi Lee seems to me to be yoga/Tai Chi/chi kung’s version of L. Ron Hubbard. So, for the time being, I think I’ll just continue practicing with people who I know are going to give something real to the best of their abilities. Very few corporations are going to give anything anywhere as close. And there’s a reason for that. Corporations treat the martial arts as they do higher education: as a product to be sold for profit instead of as a benefit to be learned and integrated into one’s humanity. If other corporate martial arts franchisers do arise, let’s hope they have the kind of integrity of a Yang Jwing-ming.
Our martial arts marketing odyssey is now at an end. We’ve seen such efforts begin with expertise personally demonstrated, move through the use of various expanded media forms to spread the word more widely if less personally, and wind up with a lack of expertise impersonally touted to the world. It’s always sad to see people who are in real need get taken by charlatans, but I suppose we all get what we deserve. In any case, caveat emptor.
1 “Thor Pub. Co.” OpenLibrary, https://openlibrary.org/publishers/Thor_Pub._Co.
2 Bruce Tegner: Another Western Pioneer of Martial Arts,” The Way of Least Resistance, http://www.wayofleastresistance.net/2014/11/bruce-tegner-another-western-pioneer-of.html
3 “Bruce Tegner—A Man Before His Time,” USADojo.com, https://www.usadojo.com/bruce-tegner-before-his-time/
4 “Bruce Tegner,” Martial Talk, http://www.martialtalk.com/threads/bruce-tegner.34346/
5 “Bruce Tegner,” Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=48116464
6 “Alice McGrath,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_McGrath
7 "The Works of the Late Bruce Tegnér," American Combato, http://seattlecombatives.com/?p=1456
8 From the dust jacket for The Secret Art of Chinese Leg Manoeuvres by Lee Ying-arng (1976)
9 “About Clear’s Tai Chi,” Clear’s Tai Chi, http://www.clearstaichi.com/tai-chi-master
10 “Sifu (Teacher),” Monkey’s Retreat Tai Chi & Chi Kung Center, http://www.monkeysretreat.com/Taichi/sifu.html (Page defunct)
11 “YMMA Community: Schools around the World,” YMMA, http://ymaa.com/training/schools
12 Enter the Warrior’s Gate, IMBD, www.imdb.com/title/tt4652532/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
13 “Our History,” Body & Brain, https://www.bodynbrain.com
14 “Affiliates,” Body & Brain, https://www.bodynbrain.com/our-friends
15 “Body & Brain,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_%26_Brain
BOOKS BY BRUCE TEGNÉR
Compiled from Amazon.com, alphabetical order. Note that many of these appear to be re-issues, perhaps with additional material, or previous books combined into single volumes.
Aikido and Bokata (1983)
Aikido and Jiu Jitsu Holds & Locks (1969)
Aikido for Self-defense: Holds & Locks for Modern Use (1965)
Aikido Holds and Locks (1970)
Aikido Self-defense: Holds and Locks for Modern Use (1961)
Black Belt Judo, Karate, and Jukado (1973)
Black Belt Judo, Karate, and Jukado: Advanced Techniques for Experts (1967)
Black Belt Karate, Judo & Jjujitsu (1980)
Book Of Kung Fu And Tai Chi (1976, 1973)
Bruce Tegner’s Book of Kung Fu and Tai Chi: Chinese Karate and Classical Exercises (1973)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Aikido and Holds & Locks (1970, 1974)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Judo (1967, 1968, 1973)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Jujitsu (1978, 1986)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Jukado Self-defense: Judo, Karate, Aikido, Jui Jitsu (1968, 1970, 1974)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Karate: Two Complete Courses (I. Self-defense, II. Sport Karate) (1967, 1970, 1973, 1978)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Self-Defense (1963, 1978, 1992, 1994)
Bruce Tegner’s Kung Fu and Tai Chi: Chinese Karate and Classical Exercises (1973)
Bruce Tegner Method of Self-defense: The Best of Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Savate, Yawara, Aikido, and Ate-Waza (1960, 1969, 1972)
Bruce Tegner’s Book of Kung Fu, Tai Chi: Chinese Karate and Classical Exercises (1968, 1973)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Aikido and Holds and Locks (1971)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Judo: Beginner to Black Belt Sport & Self-defense (1967, 1975)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Jukado Self-defense—Judo, Karate, Aikido (Jui Jitsu Modernized)—White Belt through Black Belt (1968)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Jukado Self-defense—The Only Step-by-Step Illustrated Course (1970)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Jujitsu (1976, 1977, 1978, 1986)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Karate (1974, 1975, 1981)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Karate: Self-defense Karate and Sport Karate (1970, 1973, 1981)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Karate: Beginner to Black Belt Sport and Self-defense (1975)
Bruce Tegner’s Compete Book of Self-defense (1975, 1978, 1992)
Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Self-defense Judo, Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Savate, Yawara, Aikido, and Ate-Waza (1961)
Bruce Tegner’s Karate: Beginner to Black Belt (1983)
Complete Book of Aikido and Holds & Locks, with Step-by-Step Illustrations (1975)
Complete Book of Judo (1967, 1970)
Complete Book of Juijitsu (1978)
Complete Book of Jukado Self-defense: Judo, Karate, Aikido (Jiu Jitsu Modernized): White Belt Through Black Belt (1970, 1974)
Complete Book of Ju-jitsu (1978)
Complete Book of Karate (1966, 1970)
Complete Book of Karate: Beginner to Black Belt and Self-defense (1967)
Complete Book of Aikido Holds and Locks (1970)
Complete Book of Self-Defense (1965, 1968, 1970, 1992)
Corgi Library of Oriental Martial Arts (4 vols. boxed set) (with Michael Minick) (1975)
Defense Tactics for Law Enforcement: Weaponless Defense and Control and Baton Techniques (1972, 1986)
Instant Self-defense (1965)
Isometric Power Exercises (2013)
Judo and Karate Belt Degrees (1963)
Judo & Karate Exercises: Physical Conditioning for the Un-armed Fighting Arts (1963, 1965)
Judo: Beginner to Black Belt (1982)
Judo for Fun: Sport Techiques Made Easy (1961)
Judo for Fun: Sport Techniques (1970)
Judo for Fun: Sport Techniques for Exercise, Recreation, Tournament (2013)
Judo Sport Techniques for Physical Fitness and Tournament (1976)
Judo, Karate for Law Officers (1962)
Judo: Step-by-Step Instruction: Beginner to Black Belt (1976)
Judo: Sport Techniques for Physical Fitness and Tournament (1976)
Karate (1961, 1968, 1994)
Karate and Judo Exercises: Physical Conditioning for Oriental Sport Fighting Arts (1972, 1981)
Karate: Beginner to Black Belt (with Alice McGrath) (1965, 1982)
Karate: Traditional Forms for Sport (Vol. II) (1961, 1963)
Karate: Self-defense & Sport (1963, 1970, 1973)
Karate: Self-defense & Traditional Sport Forms (1973)
[These may be two separate books also combined into Bruce Tegner’s Complete Book of Karate (1974)]
Karate: The Open Hand & Foot Fighting (1959, 1961)
Karate: The Open Hand & Foot Fighting, Vol. I: Self-defense (1965)
Karate: The Step-by-Step Illustrated Training Manual (1965)
Kung Fu and Tai Chi: Chinese Karate and Classical Exercises (with Alice McGrath) (1969, 1973, 1986)
The Martial Arts: Boxed Set (Five vols. boxed set) (1974)
Nerve Centers and Pressure Points for Atemi-Waza, Jukado, and Karate (1968)
Savate (1970, 1983)
Savate: French Foot Fighting, Self-defense, Sport—What Is Savate? (with Alice McGrath) (1960, 1970, 1977)
Self-defense: A Basic Course (1979, 1982)
Self-defense and Assault Prevention for Girls and Women (1977, 1986)
Self-defense for Boys & Men: A Physical Education Course (1973)
Self-defense for Boys & Men: A Secondary School and College Manual (1968, 1969)
Self-defense for Girls and Women: A Physcial Education Course (1972)
Self-defense for Girls: A Secondary School and College Manual (with Alice McGrath) (1967)
Self-defense for Women: A Simple Method (1961, 1969)
Self-defense for Your Child (with Alice McGrath) (1993)
Self-defense Nerve Centers & Pressure Points - For Atemi-waza, Jukado and Karate (1968, 1973)
Self-Defense: Nerve Centers & Pressure Points for Karate, Jujitsu and Atemi-Waza (1978, 1983, 1984)
Self Defense Nerve Centers & Pressure Points for Atemi Waza, Jukado & Karate (1968)
Self-defense Tactics for Law Enforcement (1972)
Self-defense You Can Teach Your Boy: A Confidence-building Course (1970)
Solo Forms of Karate, Tai Chi, Aikido and Kung Fu (with Alice McGrath) (1981, 1988)
Stick Fighting Forms (1982)
Stick Fighting: Self Defense: Yawara, Aijkido, Cane, Police Club, Quarter Staff (1961, 1982)
Stick Fighting: Sport Forms (1982)
The Survival Book (with Alice McGrath) (1981, 1983)
Teacher’s Guide for Self-defense for Boys and Men: A Secondary School and College Manual (1968)
Teach Your Boy Self-defense and Self-Confidence (1961, 1967)
Note: There may be many more of these than I discovered.
Guia Completo de Kung Fu Tai Chi: 370 Movimentos Ilustrados com Fotos (1973)
Le guide marabout du Kung Fu et du Tai ki
Libro Completo De Karate
Libro Completo de Karate (Un curso ilustrado de karate deportivo de principiante a cinta negra) (1990)
El Libro de la Supercivencia (with McGrath) (1988)