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An Interview with IAI Instructor Thad Wong: Part 2

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 the second part of 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, where is teaching and practicing Chinese Medicine.

To read Part 1 of the interview: CLICK HERE

IAI: Do you want to comment on the practicality of Xing Yi and Ba Gua? I don’t just mean for fighting, so whatever “practicality” means to you.

TW: Yes. I very much like the way that Tom describes internal arts as working these three different points of health and longevity, martial skill, and spiritual development. I feel there are practical benefits in all of these realms. Health and longevity for sure. From working at the old 5th Street Clinic with Marcus DeGrazia (acupuncturist and IAI Ba Gua Instructor) one of the main things I did was teach Qi Gong rehabilitation exercises. And now I see the effectiveness of these things in my own Tui Na practice. In the people that do the exercises, the path of healing is different. Their bodies respond more immediately to treatment; things get better faster, and they go beyond the level of just maintenance and having an acceptable level of low pain to a level of connected functionality they didn’t even realize was possible. It is like the problem was never there and then their practice starts opening up this other thing they didn’t even know they had been carrying with them for years. So for sure there is the practical benefit of Qi Gong and Nei Gong exercises, in that they seem to unwind trauma in the body really well, and at a pace the body can accept. Practically speaking they make being in your body a better experience.

I think the place where I apply internal body principles the most is in giving treatments. I use all the modalities of Tui Na I studied with Tom. This includes the Traditional Tui Na and bone-setting, and Zang Fu Organ Regulating Tui Na, as well as Cranio-Sacral therapy, and Gong Fu emergency medicine, which includes cupping, guasha, moxibustion etc. I don’t insert needles, because I was not trained and licensed as an acupuncturist. I do minimal herbal medicine because I have not had the time to invest in properly learning herbology.

When I apply internal arts to bodywork, I don’t get tired. Very recently, my back went out a bit and after treating someone my back actually felt better. And martial arts wise although I don’t spar like I did in the old days, I definitely notice it in applications. At first when I trained applications, Tom would constantly be having to point out the more subtle openings and explain where the best counters were. In the past, these possibilities and changes weren’t even on my radar. Now this aspect of application has gotten much better, and not because I memorized something, but because my body can now feel the possibilities and respond more appropriately.

And then when I am teaching and showing applications I can see my improvement not only in performing techniques, but also in terms of sensitivity. My sensitivity to the environment in NYC is also different. If someone comes on the subway train and something is not right, I sense it much more immediately. So there is an increase in sensitivity that allows me to perceive and to change with a possible risk factor before it becomes fighting. I also feel that I am a calmer, more receptive version of me when I get up and practice in the morning. When I get up and train it sets a tone for the day that is different – and mostly I notice when I don’t do it and then I am little more in my head, a little more short-tempered – I’m not as settled as when I practice.

IAI: You mentioned you learned Tui Na, bone-setting, organ regulating Tui Na, Cranio-Sacral Therapy and you learned emergency Chinese medicine, or “Kung Fu Medicine.” For you, what is the connection of these things to internal arts and do you feel students should learn Chinese Medicine when they learn internal martial arts?

TW: This is an interesting question. I think why not learn the Gong Fu medicine? Some of it is as simple as: “just put Die Da Jiu on it or take this hit pill”. It doesn’t have to be super advanced. I think, “why doesn’t everyone have a first aid kit with curing pills, Yunnan Paiyao to stop bleeding, burn ointment and Die Da Jiu for bruises and contusions?”

I’ve found these basic patent medicines are extremely effective, especially when you have them waiting in the wings to use right after something happens. When my son was learning to walk he had a migrating bruise on his forehead and Die Da Jiu was super helpful. The one time I did not put it on, the bruise took noticeably longer to go away, instead of immediately.

So when it comes to the medicine I think, “why not start to learn it?” It is helpful if you have an interest and the time to learn it. I find the medicine and the martial arts are super complimentary.

But at the same time I think you can still get tons of benefit from an internal arts practice without studying the medicine. It’s a daunting amount of material to really dive into. And one of the things I really love about the internal arts is that you don’t have to know how it works for it to work. You just have to practice.

Anyway, to get back to the connection between Chinese medicine and internal arts, I feel they are all the same thing. In my mind this internal mechanic that we build through regular practice can then be applied with either a medical intent or a martial intent, but it is the same mechanic. It feels not purely bio-mechanical, as in it interacts with bio mechanics but it is not only biomechanics. I really think it is described pretty directly in the boxing classics, in a way that sounds poetic and esoteric, but is actually quite literal. The classics are saying, “this is what actually happens in your body. Ming Men actually bulges out. It does not feel like the lower back expands – it expands.” And so the more I practice and the more I gain skill in the martial aspect, the better my treatments get.

Thad Learning Qin Na From Master Zhao Da Yuan in Beijing

IAI: And would you say that’s vice versa?

TW: Absolutely, 100 percent. I think Qin Na is one obvious place where this really comes out. No question doing Tui Na and bone setting improved my Qin Na. But also just being to feel into both my body and my partner’s body. The organ unwinding especially helps with this skill. I feel that the way we unwind the organs, where you are trying to tune in and listen to what is going on in the body on the table, very directly relates to the pushing hands that we have recently been doing. The Xing Yi style of pushing hands, derived from Tai Ji Quan pushing hands, has improved my ability to sense more accurately when I am on or when I am off, and feels like I am essentially doing the same thing as when I unwind organs, it just looks martial on the outside.

So the organ unwinding is a great place to practice the sensitivity, the listening skill part of internal arts, but also to fully dive into the skill of following. That was a hard part for me to reprogram as a martial artist, and old patterns of trying to force something to work still pop out. Sometimes I want to do something and make the thing happen, instead of having this quality of connecting and following, and almost always it goes a little better when I am able to connect and follow. I do feel I can do that with more consistency though.

IAI: What are you working on now in your own personal practice? Obviously one is always working on the basics, but what are you focusing on right now?

TW: Probably for the last 7-8 months I have focused on the Xing Yi fundamentals: Tu Na Si Ba breathing exercises, Standing in San Ti Shi and slow Pi Quan. And a little bit of the Five Element Fists, and a little bit of the Lian Huan Linking Form. I have also started to tinker a bit more with the animal forms, but mostly they are on the side occasionally, so that I can focus on fundamentals. With my training partner Kelly McDonald (IAI Ba Gua Instructor), we have been focusing on push hands and Wu Hua Pao, the partnered Xing Yi Exercises. For the last couple years I have made my priority getting back to basics. My practice time has been a little limited, which has made me prioritize fundamentals. And I don’t think it has made me worse. Some of the advanced forms might be a little rusty, but once I go over them a bit and get them back, I am doing them better. It is not a secret. Tom has for years been telling us to practice the fundamentals and I always did to some degree, but recently I have been forced to really focus on them.

It is kind of funny, but last summer I was going back to Colorado for a few months, and the assignment Tom gave me when I left was Kou Bu (hook Step) [laughs]. Tom said my circle walking was off and that I should make every Kou Bu look like the Chinese character for “eight.” I did that for 4-5 months, and that changed everything. And then at a certain point I said to myself, I think Bai Bu (Swing Step) needs work. [Laughs].

IAI: So on this note of having less time, you recently had a child and as we know that cuts into training. What have you learned from this experience?

 TW: So again I learned I had to hone in on a few things, and of course it was the fundamentals. Which was really just taking the advice I was giving. Fundamentals are the key – that is what develops the skills. I often have to squeeze training in so I am going to choose something formative like circle walking or standing.

I also think having a child broke up my rigidity about having to have a certain amount of time to practice. Prior to the birth, if I did not have at least 45 minutes, I kind of would not practice. Which is funny, as for years I would tell students, “if you have only ten minutes practice ten minutes.” But it didn’t apply to me! [laughs]. I had to have the 45 minutes, and I get it, it feels good to practice longer. But after my son was born my only practice for the first 2 months was to strap him to my chest and I would walk circles in the back yard and do the healing sounds while I circled. It put him to sleep and I got some practice in. But when he woke up, practice was over. So it forced me to let go of that rigidity around training.

It also made me focus more. To some degree the limiting of the time was not all bad. When I had time to practice it made me say to myself “I am going to fully pay attention because I might only have 20 minutes before there is a tiny human screaming at me.”

So a little fundamentals can go a long way. Also engaging with it outside of the martial – the way I hold my baby, can I open Ming Men a little, can I drop my shoulder, can my elbow be heavy? If I can find the principles in daily life and even squeeze in a little practice, I might not be advancing to my maximal potential but I don’t think I regressed.

IAI: Now you are going to be moving to Sydney, Australia? What are your plans? Are you planning on teaching and doing Tui Na treatments?

TW: Yes I want to do both. I have already looked into the licensing for the bodywork aspect. Once my visa allows me to work, and I get insurance I can work without re-certifying. So that is great. I would like to start treating because I like doing it. My ideal way of working is when both aspects are involved. Currently the way I treat is that after the first treatment, where I need to feel what is going on, I give exercises. They come back, we look at the exercises, maybe add an exercise and give corrections and then we get on the table. It is a great way to practice medicine. I really think the practice the patient does is the engine and I view treatment as a kind of pit stop or booster pack. The practice is what drives the engine. It is what I am interested in doing. I am a little hard-nosed about people practicing their exercises.

Ultimately I would like to treat and teach martial arts there too. Australia did a good job of keeping COVID at bay. So I would like to start teaching again in person. I have to see the lay of the land there, but I want people to train with so I guess I will have to teach and besides I like teaching classes.

Ultimately we are thinking about putting roots down there in Australia. That’s not settled since we are not there yet. But for as long as I am there, I would love to help train another generation of not only students, but also teachers. In my mind that is the way I keep the art alive through me. Both from my previous teaching experience, and from watching and helping Tom teach over many years, I know that this will be a slow organic process. It will be a slow process, but it is a process I love. If we can get even a few people there to do some internal martial arts and some Tui Na that would be fantastic.

IAI: Earlier you touched on the Chinese classics saying exactly what they mean, but often seeming poetic and esoteric. We know in Chinese martial arts the names of the moves are poetic and flowery. What is your opinion on this aspect of Chinese martial arts?

 TW: I think this aspect of the arts gets dismissed sometimes as being sort of old world and no longer applicable, but I find it incredibly helpful to engage with the names. I don’t feel you need to have a Chinese language background to do this, but I have found for myself that having that background was helpful. But if you don’t have a Chinese language background, online dictionaries like Pleco and Wenlin are super helpful.

The names are great mnemonics for movements. I can say or write Sparrow Hawk Flies Through the Forest, instead of: “ok back hand pierces under, but starts palm down,…..etc.” It is just much more efficient. I also think the names communicate a quality that is very hard to capture in a very lengthy description. They are describing primal energies that even if we don’t have a lot of exposure to them, we understand them. For example, dragons, none of us have seen a dragon, but we all kind of have a primal understanding of what a dragon is. A dragon is a very cross-cultural phenomenon. I don’t think that is a coincidence. There is something in the image of a dragon that connects to something useful that is much more than making my hands into claws or inflating my body a certain way. In some ways these poetic names and images are very potent packets of communication.

This takes us back to the idea that the internal arts are very practical methods of expressing esoteric concepts. So the poetic names are really the best you can do at describing what is actually happening., without tipping over too far into locking things in a box and categorizing them. The space that the more poetic descriptions allow gives things room to breathe; space for the art to be alive.

IAI: Any other words on practice?

 TW: Practice is like self-treatment. In standing exercises like Wu Ji, you get a sense of movement inside stillness, or larger spontaneous movements. These things have very much the same energetic feeling of the therapist performing fascial unwinding on you in a treatment. It is amazing that if you can just hold space in your body and listen and follow what happens inside, it does it itself. This reinforces this idea of internal arts getting us out of our thinking minds. The thinking mind is necessary and I like the thinking mind, but sometimes it is too tempting to want to read the book and understand the theory. Training makes you open to the experience as it is, that it may be different today than it was yesterday. Don’t think because I experience Ming Men one way that it will always be that way and that is all there is to experience. I think having a trajectory of training in internal arts really helps because how many times have I been practicing and practicing and then something happens and I say to myself, ”Oh! That’s the thing I read about. Ming Men actually opens.” Before I thought I knew what that was. Now I know what it is.” Then months later this process happens again.

We can’t “know” something until we experience it, and that is amazing because there is infinite depth. This has been helpful for me to let go of the thinking mind. Thinking mind is important, but for me personally, and when I look around me I can see I am not the only one, thinking mind drives the chariot of our lives a little too much.

I also want to say with regards to practice for someone at the beginning, the difficulty in practice is often just starting and establishing a regular practice. If people can just pick one thing, maybe standing in Wu Ji, maybe a rehabilitative exercise, maybe the mud stepping; but something fundamental that they can commit willingly to practice regularly, it will start a process that can grow into something profoundly impactful. And by regularly I mean daily – knowing that it is inevitable you will miss days sometimes. I think that is the biggest hurdle for people getting the essence of the art – that there is not that experience of the regular practice. I think this is one of the biggest issues for students. It is okay to do a little, and a little done regularly is so much better than a lot done occasionally. A regular practice is a seed that can be built on.

One of my first patients was pregnant with twins and could not leave the house, so I traveled to her house and did Tui Na with her. After the twins were born she said, “I only have three minutes a day to exercise.” so I gave her one exercise – the preparatory posture that starts every form. We refined it over time and it took awhile, but her whole structure change and people would tell her that she looked different, taller and more upright. So a little practice goes along way. Just do a little bit, and do it daily, and see what happens.