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An Interview with IAI Instructor Thad Wong: Part 1

IAI instructor Thad Wong has trained extensively in Ba Gua Zhang with Internal Arts international (IAI). In the course of his training he has made several trips to Beijing with IAI founder Tom Bisio and Valerie Ghent to study Ba Gua Zhang with Master Gao Ji Wu, and Ba Gua Zhang and Qin Na with Master Zhao Da Yuan. In this interview Thad talks about his background in internal martial arts and Chinese medicine and provides many insights into training and teaching internal martial arts. Thad has recently moved to Sydney, Australia. He is missed by the students and instructors in the New York area, however lucky Australia gains a talented Ba Gua practitioner and skilled instructor.

IAI: When did you begin training in martial arts?

TW: I started at age fifteen. I didn’t make the high school soccer team and I had always wanted to study martial arts, so I found someone who taught Jeet Kune Do. I liked, it but it was short-lived. He was renting out space in another martial arts studio a couple days a week, and he left town after a little while. So I looked around and found a Southern Shaolin lineage that I trained in for many years.

The system was called Shao-lin Do and it was led by Sin Kwang Thé who grew up and trained in Indonesia, and then brought it to the US through Kentucky. In retrospect, now having seen some Silat, I think there was a bit of an Indonesian Silat influence in what they taught. But the fundamental movements were Luohan Fist, so the roots of the system were Northern Shaolin. It was a good survey of Chinese martial arts but mostly forms based. We did do a decent amount of sparring and external conditioning such as iron bone and iron palm skills training. We worked applications from forms, but I would say the bulk of our efforts was in learning and maintaining forms, so I got to see a wide variety of things.

We actually had a few Ba Gua forms in our system. Our main one was the Jiang Rong Jiao Ba Gua Linking form. There was some Xing Yi and Tai Ji forms too, but the fundamentals were in Luohan and Shaolin based animals. Also, having stepped away from the lineage for many years now, I feel that there may have been plucking of material from different Chinese martial traditions. For example we had a Tiger-Crane form, which did not seem like a traditional Shaolin form. However the other tiger forms were more shaolin and different from Hung Ga. Some other animals we practiced were bird, white crane, monkey, and praying mantis.

        Thad Wong Teaching Shaolin

IAI: So maybe the idea of Shaolin as a repository of many different styles?

TW: That’s exactly what it was. And we learned all the basic Chinese weapons as well, which turned out to be very handy later. We started out with Chinese staff, and then nunchaku and short stick. We practiced both single-ended staff and double-ended staff, which is similar to the way we use the staff in Ba Gua. Later there was broadsword, Chinese straight sword, spear, some of the double weapons, and also flexible weapons like three-sectional staff and chain whip…

IAI: That’s a lot!

TW: That is a lot! [laughs]. The training was very much a broad survey learned over a period of time. I started in 1994. As I got to brown belt I started to teach by assisting with the beginning level classes and I loved teaching. I dove into it for the next three years in high school, and I took a year off between high school and college to focus on training. When I went to college I continued learning long distance, I would train on my own and when I would come back to the school I would test, and learn new material to take back to college and train. I did run a class briefly in college but then I switched majors and did not have time to teach. After college I moved to NYC and kept studying long distance. After four or five years in NYC I wanted to start teaching again, so I spoke to my teachers and got permission to open a class in New York. I rented space from a dance studio and taught for 6 years. So when I began to study Ba Gua with IAI (then New York Internal Arts), I had been training for 16 years and teaching for 4-5 years.

IAI: I believe you had quite a few students?

TW: Yes. The classes grew quite well. Although I think our shockingly low prices helped [laughs]. But I was also very enthusiastic. It did grow really well. In some ways I think external arts are an easier sell because you come and you do the pushups and the calisthenics and you feel that you got a “real” workout. We probably had about 50 students at our high point and got some people into the first couple levels of Black Belt.

After that I studied with Internal Arts International (IAI) – specifically Ba Gua and Xing Yi. I started training Ba Gua with IAI in 2010, and then began learning Xing Yi with IAI in the first two-year Xing Yi intensive taught from 2012-2014 .

IAI: What made you want to study internal arts? Obviously you had been exposed to the internal arts as part of your Shaolin training.

TW: Yes I think it is one of those things where you don’t know, what you don’t know [laughs]. I had thought, “we do internal arts.” When I started formally studying internal arts with IAI I realized, “Oh! We didn’t do internal arts.” Ultimately we did internal arts forms with a Shaolin mechanic. We tried to go slow and be relaxed, and I had read books on the principles and tried to embody them, but in fact it is quite hard to do that without the fundamental training of a clear method.

For me another big part of the transition was a political fallout in our lineage. As in many communities where there is a hierarchy, it can be problematic. Power can be corrupting, and it was very much that for my teachers in the Shaolin Do lineage. This led to myself and some other instructors around the country separating from the lineage and becoming independent schools. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a bit of a death knell for my continuing to practice Shaolin. I lost my passion for it. Who is going to maintain a ridiculous amount of forms if you no longer love it? On the other hand, the separation did give me freedom to work with the curriculum and tinker with it in ways that I had wanted to for some time, including designing a teacher training to help some of my advanced students to be assistants. I led this teacher training in New York City over a period of about a year with some of the more advanced students who also showed an interest in teaching.

As part of this I put together a reading list and Tom’s book A Tooth From a Tiger’s Mouth was on the reading list, so we were all reading that book. In the book it says “he [Tom Bisio] teaches in New York.” I thought we should look him up. I emailed him and asked if we could come and check out a class. At the time it wasn’t so much that I wanted to learn internal arts specifically, it was more a question of loving the information in the book. I had started using it, and it worked. I thought, “this is gold, we should check it out.” And really, we were floating without a lineage anyway, and I was hoping to connect with teachers outside of my Shaolin background. The fallout with my Shaolin teachers had been a bit traumatic, and felt like a deep betrayal at the time. But in a way it was a good thing, because I would probably not have looked outside the lineage if I hadn’t been forced out.

So that is what brought me to study with Tom. And it did not take me long to see that what they were doing in Tom’s classes is what I had read about, but never experienced [laughs]. And I thought, “maybe I should start walking a circle really slowly and see what it feels like.” And then I thought, “Oh my god, I am terrible at this.” [laughs again]

It was the combination of having Tom do applications on me, and feeling what that was like, and the practice itself which reveals so clearly where you are off. And I felt, “I am not good at this. I should practice this.” And of the internal arts forms in our Shaolin lineage, I was always drawn to Ba Gua so in that way it was an easy sell. Its funny the internal art I liked least when I practiced Shaolin was Xing Yi. And now, maybe it’s just getting older [laughs], I kind of love the Xing Yi!

IAI: What would you say are the hardest things for you or maybe just in general in studying internal martial arts?

TW: I think the consistency of practice is one of the hardest things. Partly this is hard because there is less immediate feedback. If you run a really difficult form or do some gymnastic things, there is an immediate sense of accomplishment, even if you did not do them that well. With internal arts everything is so distilled. Training in these arts made me have to really enjoy the process. In Shaolin there was always a new thing to learn and then feel like you “got it,” and then you would get another new thing. So one is constantly being fed this idea of making rapid progress through accumulating material. In the internal arts, it is kind of the opposite. I am doing the same things I have been doing for months now, but maybe that one step will feel a little bit better.” [laughs].

IAI: Maybe this ties into the next question. As a Ba Gua Instructor, what do you feel is the most challenging aspect of teaching Ba Gua, and internal martial arts in general, in your experience?

TW: I think it is communicating this thing that resists categorization. I feel that internal arts is a very practical method for directly experiencing some of the things that they talk about in Daoist philosophy that seem really esoteric, but are actually quite tangible. So something like Wu Wei, effortless action, sounds like gobbledygook. But I think internal arts is a very practical way to experience it, because when you do a drill with another body with that quality, it works better. They go flying, and you feel like you didn’t do anything – you think, “but I didn’t do anything and yet something happened.” So it is very down to earth in one way, but very hard to describe to someone who is just getting into it.

One thing that is quite difficult is getting students to find that balance point, especially students in Western culture. In the West we want to categorize – it is a comfortable place for us. We feel like if we can understand the intellectual framework of a system, we are well on our way to being good at it. I for sure had that problem, and it is still something I grapple with – I have to regularly calm down my thinking brain. Actually Tom gave me some great advice on that front. I have heard him mention this several times – basically “sometimes its better if you just train like you are stupid.” [laughs] Don’t overthink it. Train like you are not going to get it right away. Especially for beginning students, they are aiming at something fuzzy, that isn’t easy to hold onto in that well-defined way. I think it can be a little disheartening.

I also think that getting people out of a pure Western anatomy perspective of thinking about the body is difficult. Internal arts develop this other thing that is not just biomechanical, and I feel in our world that can come off as snake oil or charlatanism. But it is in fact the best way to describe that thing when you feel it. And when you feel it done to you and when you feel like you can start to do it to other people, you think, “okay, my arm was touching you, but I didn’t push you with my arm.” And it’s not that I have to thoughtfully recruit this specific chain of muscles – that just gets in the way. Lo and behold, it turns out that the things that old Chinese masters say, like: “move from Ming Men, it comes from the Yao – so simple, but elegant – are also a really good solution for getting around this trying-to-figure-it-out-thing. I find it hard to talk about this to people, or maybe I am self-conscious of the fact that in trying to discuss this thing it can sound like witchcraft.

IAI: You also study Xing Yi Quan. How would you compare learning Xing Yi to learning Ba Gua?

TW: I think that all the internal arts give a very honest reflection back to you of what is going on in your body. When it’s working well, it feels quite good, but a lot of times there is discomfort, or a feeling that something is not working, and I feel that Xing Yi is almost more relentless in that way [laughs]. Xing Yi is so distilled that you can’t get away with anything. To some degree I think in Ba Gua the stepping gives you space, a buffer that makes up for small errors.

For me there is a sense that doing Ba Gua still feels more natural. I can flow and move more, and “let the horse out of the stable more.” Now that could just be a level thing. I have spent more time doing Ba Gua and have also taught it. And teaching is a huge accelerator for development. In Xing Yi I feel I have to be so attentive, but not too attentive because that also makes it go off the rails. There is that indefinable balance point. The two arts are quite different but also kind of the same. I find it valuable to view them as different facets of the same gem. Each informs the other to some degree. There are other outward categorizations we can think of – Xing Yi uses a more vertical energy and Ba Gua a more horizontal energy. Ba Gua is a little more about mobility and maintaining space; Xing Yi maybe wants to drive through the middle a little more, but each does the other thing sometimes too. I find it hard to talk about.

Gao demonstrates on Thad Wong
Thad Wong Studying with Ba Gua Zhang Master Gao Ji Wu

IAI: You have trained in China with masters like Gao Ji Wu and Zhao Da Yuan. What is the difference between studying here and studying in China? Is there any difference?

TW: That’s a good question. I think the experience is very intensive because we are traveling a significant distance there to learn. I feel the teachers are pretty generous with us. They give us more than they would normally give us if we were just training regularly in the park with them. In some ways I feel that because we make the long trip, it is difficult and expensive, and because the training days are long, it pushes me to stay very present when I am there. I think Tom’s teaching style pulls a lot from the teaching styles of the Masters in China. I am very used to the way Tom teaches, so it is maybe a bit clearer when he explains things, and it is easy to understand what Tom is talking about more immediately. In China we are going through a translator and although I speak some Mandarin – it is functional and I can get around – it is still very helpful to have a translator, and I definitely feel like I miss some things. But in many ways it is very similar to the way Tom teaches.

Next Month the interview continues…..