Interview conducted by IAI Instructor Eric Deutch.
IAI: I’m here with IAI instructor Jonathan Breshin. Jonathan, when did you start studying martial arts? And what was the first art that you studied?
JB: Well, when I was a kid, I took classes in karate for probably a year or two, but I never took it that seriously and never got into a serious practice of martial arts until I was an adult. And that was in 2010 when I was introduced to Tom Bisio, and Internal Arts International. That is when I was introduced to the practice of Ba Gua Zhang. So I really got started in martial arts through Tom.
IAI: What drew you to Tom and what got you involved in studying with Tom and studying Ba Gua at a later age?
JB: So I was working as an electrician in my early 20s, right out of college, and had developed some pain in my wrist and went for several surgeries. I had two surgeries on my wrist, I went for injection therapy, medication, physical therapy, chiropractic massage, and lived in pain for about eight years until I was introduced to acupuncture.
And the same person that introduced me to acupuncture referred me to Tom Bisio, as he was well known in the field, especially in New York City. And so after several months of trying out different acupuncturists and visiting different practitioners, eventually I was able to get an appointment at Tom’s sports medicine clinic downtown. The treatment was much more comprehensive than anything I had experienced prior. He did acupuncture, Tui Na, body work, and he gave me some herbs, and I think he may have also done guasha or cupping. My wrists did feel better after that first treatment, but more importantly he essentially introduced me to Qi Gong at the end of our session.
I think I went for a few rounds of treatments with Tom at that time (2010). He was the first person that actually showed me some exercises, the first acupuncturist, anyway. And he essentially told me, “Look, you’re going to have to fix this issue on your own.” And it was the way I was moving and holding myself that was likely contributing to the pain that I was feeling. He had this presence about him that was intriguing. I trusted him. He seemed like he definitely knew what he was talking about. And he suggested perhaps I’d take a class or visit his Ba Gua class and somewhere around that time, I eventually did take an intensive weekend course in Ba Gua with Tom. And from there I started to train weekly with him.
IAI: So, you were treated by Tom at his clinic? Because I know Tom had several people in his clinic working. But you were treated by Tom himself?
JB: Yeah, well I think Adam Wasserman may have been there, as well as Finbar McGrath and maybe Thad Wong too, but Tom was the main practitioner, he treated all of his patients at the Fifth Street Clinic. And at the end of the session, he taught me a few Qi Gong exercises, which were very new to me, but I trusted that I should do them because he prescribed them. He mentioned to me that there was an upcoming workshop intensive coming up in the city, which I attended, and which was very challenging. But again, I was pretty desperate for long term pain relief of my wrist, it was debilitating pain that forced me to leave the electrical field eventually, because that work was so stressful on my body, and on my wrist. And, that’s when I started to train. So it was for pain relief, you could say physical therapy, and just feeling better and healing my issue. That was my main motivation at the time.
IAI: And it seems like you have stayed with the practice ever since. Basically over the last 13 years or so?
JB: Yeah, I mean, I think in the beginning, I would train for a few months, and then I would quit or take a break, and then come back. I think I left maybe once or twice in that first year. But eventually I stuck with it. And I haven’t stopped ever since. Mainly because within the first few months of me going to weekly classes my wrist pain disappeared. It was almost as if I didn’t even realize it. One day, I just said, “Oh my God, my pain is gone!” And also all these other changes had started to take place. I had better coordination, I felt stronger. I lost some weight, I had more energy each day, really just a different perspective really on life, to a large extent just because I was moving and breathing and holding myself in a way that I had never experienced before. So I was hooked at that point. And I just continued training because I wanted to improve my skill set with the art.
IAI: And I know after a period of time in your training, Tom took a group of students a couple of times to China. And you made the trip with Tom and a group of people. What was that experience like? And was there a highlight of of your trip?
JB: Yes, so that was back in 2016. And it was an incredible experience. I felt really honored to be invited to go. So it was exciting. I was very nervous, since I was basically the low man on the totem pole, and also a bit intimidated as the most junior practitioner of the group. But, Tom motivated me. He said that he believed I could do it, so I went. And it was incredibly challenging and amazing at the same time. We learned a whole new form – Ba Da Zhang (Eight Big Palms) – from Master Gao Ji Wu and his school brother Master Liu. I had to demonstrate the form at the park in Beijing in front of our whole group, not to mention all of the strangers – local people – that were also watching. So that was incredibly hard and it pushed me beyond limits that I had ventured before my life. We also did a ton of Chin Na with Master Zhao Da Yuan and his assistant instructors when we were there.
The training was intense and I definitely developed as a practitioner, and person, in those two weeks being there. I’d say the highlight of the trip for me, or the one that stuck out unexpectedly was visiting the Ba Gua Zhang Museum in Beijing with Master Li Zi Ming’s daughter who runs the museum, and just seeing the history of the art. It showed me what I was connected to. All of these practitioners and the generations of practitioners that came before us, who had been practicing and handing down these arts. It for me, it was as if I was connected to all of those people practicing with Master Gao and with Tom and Internal Arts International, and it just made it feel more real. I guess for me, I felt, and still feel, connected to something that is much larger than my own personal practice, which was humbling, and enriching.
IAI: That is very inspiring. Part of the art of Ba Gua is studying different weapons, ancient weapons, if you will. And I know you’ve studied different Ba Gua weaponry. Do you have a favorite weapon to practice? And is there a reason?
JB: I love all of the weapons that I’ve trained in so far. I sadly don’t practice all of the weapons all the time. So right now, for example, I’ve been intensely training in the Ba Gua Dao. And that’s my favorite weapon today, because I’ve been practicing it so much, and I feel myself having a better handle of how to use the weapon. I feel like my skills are improving. A couple of years ago, we did an intensive training with the staff and I practiced the staff that for a good six months to a year, very regularly. And that was my favorite weapon at the time. It was the same with the mandarin duck knives. Each time weapon that I’m introduced to anew weapon, I spend a considerable amount of time focusing on that weapon, and it becomes my favorite at that moment. I think I don’t necessarily have one favorite over the other but right now, today, it is definitely the Saber.
IAI: That makes sense. So, you’ve chosen to pursue Ba Gua and Qi Gong and Nei Gong, what do you think makes these particular arts unique for you? Or I guess for anyone who trains in them?
JB: I think that a lot of people when they hear the term martial art, they think that that means self-defense and fighting. And while those aspects are exciting, and I believe a very important thing to learn, fighting and self-defense were not my main focus coming into these arts. As I mentioned, my main concern was getting better and feeling better and healing an injury that I had. And I think a lot of people come into internal martial arts with the same idea. They’re looking for more of a meditative or healing art that they can practice, especially here in the West. But I think the reason why I’m so drawn to the Internal Arts is because it does offer the practitioner the ability to engage in a practice that offers meditative qualities, and healing aspects in addition to the fighting and martial side.
And interestingly, although the martial side is what I shied away from the most in the beginning, now the martial side the thing that I really want to understand and develop more. A really important thing I have learned is that the more proficient I get in the self defense and fighting aspect, the more benefit I experience health wise, mindset wise and mindfulness wise. And so I think that it’s really amazing that Ba Gua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan are so comprehensive and so well rounded, and how every little facet, every nuance, of what we learn in this practice carries through to the rest of my life. Meaning when I’m walking down the street in New York, I’m thinking about all the principles that I practice and learn and think about in Ba Gua. Even retrospectively, after I’m engaging in a conversation, or an experience in my life, I can now look back and see how that relates to the principles and theories that are taught in Ba Gua and underpin the internal arts. So I think these arts are perhaps a bit more well rounded than some of the other martial arts that are out there, although to be honest, I am not really expert in any other system outside of the internal arts in general and Ba Gua Zhang specifically.
IAI: I would agree with you. Having studied other martial arts, a lot of them really tend to just focus on fighting. They say they there’s health aspects to it. They say they focus on the mind body connection. But in reality, a lot of it is just fighting. And some of the arts can actually make you more aggressive, like you’re always on high alert, whereas the internal arts give you a balanced mindset and that balanced energy in your body.
IAI: Are you currently offering any in-person or online classes? If so, can you share, when those are offered? And how people can contact you? And sign up for your classes?
JB: Yes, since becoming an instructor in 2016 with NYIA and IAI, I’ve dedicated my life to passing this art on and helping other people who are in similar situations to where I was when I first got started. My mission is to help people avoid the pitfalls that I fell in. Meaning, I never needed any of those surgeries that I was originally going through. And so my motivation is to help people avoid going through that same situation. And so I this is what I do for a living now, I teach classes every week, at various studios around the city. I also work with people one-on-one which is where I spend most of my time. And I also teach group workshops and corporate workshops for organizations, companies and not-for-profits.
I love presenting these arts to new groups, because many people have only heard about Tai Chi and Qi Gong and these workshops actually give people a real introduction and experience of what internal arts, Qi Gong, and Ba Gua Zhang is like. So this is what I do every week. And for anybody that’s interested in getting in touch with me, and working with me, they can find me at rootofmovement.com or on my social media @jonathanbreshin.
IAI: Last question for you. You touched upon it in the last question, but aside from teaching your current classes and students in New York and your workshops, do you have any additional plans for the future as far as teaching Ba Gua and Qi Gong and spreading these arts on a maybe a bigger scale?
JB: I truly believe that everyone on planet earth should understand and embody the principals were taught in the internal arts, especially the body alignments and breathing. I think these things can benefit all of humanity. So my mission is to help as many people as possible and ultimately I’d love to say that I was able to help promote these arts to 1000s, hundreds of 1000s and even millions of people around the world, and with the power of the internet, and platforms like YouTube, I do believe that’s possible. And I’d love to be running a school in New York, alongside other teachers like yourself, and some of our other instructors in the school, teaching hundreds of students every single week. So that would be my big vision and 1000s of people online every week around the world. I’ve worked with people all around the world through zoom, and so it really allows us to reach a larger audience. So ultimately, I would say if, if I could snap my fingers and make a wish, that’s what I’d love to be offering and working on long term.
IAI: That sounds good to me! Well, thank you, Jonathan. This was very informative for myself, and I’m sure for the people reading this. There were a lot of great insights shared in this interview.
JB: Awesome, thank you! That was fun.