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Interview with IAI Instructor Marcus DeGrazia

This interview was conducted by IAI Senior Instructor Craig Mitchell.

IAI: Can you give me an idea about your background in terms of how you got into martial arts and how you made your way into Ba Gua specifically?

Marcus DeGrazia: I studied some karate before I moved to New York City and after I moved, I studied some kung fu for about a year and a half, but it was never anything that I really committed to until I went to Tri-State College. My first semester I took an elective class in qigong and just kind of immediately fell in love with it. I’ve always been athletic, I’ve always been very physical, and the qigong class was great. It ended up being Marshall Wood as the teacher, who at the time was working with Tom Bisio at the 5th Street clinic and was one Tom’s senior students (at the clinic).

IAI: What year are we talking about roughly?

Marcus DeGrazia: It was 2006 when I started acupuncture school and after that first semester I wanted to continue and Marshall suggested that I go find Tom. I went to Tom’s Ba Gua class and was immediately so impressed by what I saw. I was then able to see Tom in his clinic and found out that he had this assistantship or apprenticeship that he did at 5th Street, so I immediately asked him if I could assist in clinic. Tom said “Sure, but there are three people in front of you, so it could be a year or more before you can get in.” I said OK and was definitely disappointed to hear that but I could see what was in front of me. Tom is such a  genuine figure and in contrast to what I was getting at school, where we were getting little bits of all of these different styles, to see Tom embodying such a true lineage coming out of his own deep experience, I was really taken by that from the beginning.

And then it was as if the seas parted – everybody in front of me decided not to do it or decided to leave New York City. So here I am in my second semester of acupuncture school and I was assisting Tom once a week. It was just such a special thing that happened for me. I was able to assist there for the whole time I was in school and as soon as I graduated Tri-State, Tom said, “Oh, you’ve got your degree, great – I’m going on sabbatical.” He left me at 5th Street for the summer, which was an amazing gift for him to trust me to be there.

I wouldn’t say that all that many of his patients came to see me that summer, but the 10 or 15 who did became the start of my acupuncture practice.  When Tom came back, I stayed on at 5th Street as a practitioner and so it was a continuation of this amazing situation where a couple times a week we would train in the morning, walk from Chelsea downtown, grab breakfast and then treat people all afternoon. To have that kind of access to somebody like Tom was really special and that was my start. That period lasted for seven years.

IAI: So during that time you’re in school and you had some exposure to qigong, but when you met Tom you just immediately started doing Ba Gua specifically?

Marcus DeGrazia: Yes. I went right into the the weekly Ba Gua class and then I just took every class I could with Tom. He was offering stand alone courses and was developing the Zheng Gu Tui Na stuff.  So, I quickly was immersed in all of this. And so you know, the five or six qigong sets that are really the foundation of Zheng Gu Tui Na and much of the Ba Gua stuff,  I immediately jumped into and practiced. Really seriously right from the get go.  It was great, the Zheng Gu Tui Na thing was really developing. And there were a number of us there – Adam Wasserman, Thad Wong, Aaron Stiles and Finbar McGrath. We were all kind of, I don’t want to say helping Tom develop all this, but we were there to be just like a think tank. Then we progressed so that a few of us trained to become basic level teachers. I was able to teach a couple of those level one classes in New York. And that was kind of the trajectory that was created and then it sort of switched, took a different turn.

Marcus DeGrazia Teaching Ba Gua Near the Hudson River

But for me, I was able to do that training and take those classes and then repeat them sometimes three or four times each. I was starting to assist and it was really a complete immersion into what I consider this traditional Tui Na practice, which was amazing. The more I do it, I really understand that internal martial arts and Chinese medicine are deeply meshed together. It is the same body skills. The same skills that you need to do Ba Gua well are the ones that you need to do Tui Na well.

I feel really fortunate that I was exposed to this and look, I went to acupuncture school as an older person, I was a musician for a long time in New York. So I think it was good fortune that I met Tom, but I think I also was somebody who was a classically trained musician and understood what it was to practice something really diligently. I switched from practicing saxophone for three hours a day to practicing Ba Gua and qi gong three hours a day. It was a seamless transition for me and super exciting because Fifth Street was just such a special moment in my development.

IAI: So I’m really curious. You just talked about something that is, I think an ongoing question for me and it has to do with the discipline of doing a practice. How do you think about orienting people, maybe who are new to Ba Gua, about what it means to practice and and how much is required?

Marcus Degrazia: That’s a great question, because, as you know, this curriculum is just huge. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed, I think, and I’ve definitely had chunks of my time as a Ba Gua practitioner overwhelmed and not really sure what to practice. I’ve actually thought a lot about that, especially in these last couple of years. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to train with Wes Tasker for a little bit these last couple of years and he has impressed many things upon me. But one thing that has been so influential is just this idea of organized practice. For beginners and with all of my patients I try and teach everybody who comes into my clinic some stuff, whether it’s basic qi gong or mud stepping or whatever I think can help them. And we all have these busy lives and are surrounded by this pretty chaotic information age right now, so I think the idea of carving out even 20 minutes a day to do some practice is super important because it truly is a cumulative form of knowledge.
I often talk to people about a stack of paper. If I hand you a single piece of paper, it’s easy to tear it in half. But if I hand you a stack of 10 pages, it’s harder, and then a stack of 100… There’s no way you’re gonna tear that in half. I think that is a beautiful, simple visual image about this practice. Every day that you do it, even if it’s just five minutes, it adds to what you are cultivating. Then you times that by 100, then 300, then 1000.

And to me, I realized that it’s not so much what you’re practicing, but that you’re practicing, right? You know, one time I was really frustrated in front of Tom about something I had been really working on. And after he took a look at it I said “I’m just practicing wrong”. He stopped me as we were walking in the street and he said, “Look, there’s no wrong practice. As long as you’re practicing with intention and at least a good idea, then it’ll work itself out.” And you see that you practice these concepts over and over and over and the nuance of them reveals itself slowly over time. So something like the single palm change,10 years into practice, feels completely different, but no less important and exciting and new. I think that’s the beauty of Ba Gua and the internal arts. As a jazz musician, this is very exciting to me, because this kind of knowledge, if you love it and you practice it, it never ends.

A couple of years ago, I just decided that every time I practice I’m going to do coin-stepping, ding shi, and lao ba zhang. If I can get that in, then I feel like I’ve done the required thing to move things forward.  And then, the list is just huge about what do I do next, right? That’s where I think having lists and being organized is important. In these last few years I’m trying to reacquaint myself with the whole curriculum. Trying to keep everything fresh in my memory and remember the names of things, which is hard for me. I just don’t have that kind of brain. And not being a martial artist from a young age, I am not able to kind of see a form once or twice and get it.

Marcus Leads Circle Walking Practice

There are practice days now where I try and run through many things: right from ding shi to lao ba zhang to Li Zi-Ming changing palms, right into ba da zhang, and right into 13 Elbows and just feel like I can hold all of that. That is one part of my practice and then the other part of my practice is where I think about movements in very minute detail. For example, the first two moves of the first line of the 64 Hands. What does that feel like? How many ways can that come out? So kind of working on the macro and the micro at the same time.

IAI: Well, there are so many different ways we could take this interview. It is just like Ba Gua, right? But I want to stick on the practice question for a second because I feel like it’s so crucial. Your basic practice is going to be coin stepping, ding shi, and lao ba zhang. Are you teaching students these days? 

Marcus Degrazia: Yes, I have an ongoing class that I’ve taught for a number of years, basically, since I moved up to the Hudson Valley, about ten years ago.

IAI: When you’re introducing this practice to your students, do you basically tell them to do coin stepping, ding shi, and lao ba zhang, and spend a minimum of 20 minutes a day on that. Or do you have any parameters that you use for people? How do you structure that? 

Marcus Degrazia: Ah well, Ba Gua is a tough sell. Not a lot of people know what it is. For me here in upstate New York, I generally approach my class as a qigong class. People are wary of what martial arts is. I am not really teaching a bunch of young men or young women. My classes have people who are in their thirties all the way up to into their sixties or the seventies. Not to say that older folks can’t do Ba Gua well, but they don’t necessarily come looking for a martial arts class. I usually start people with standing, breathing, and the foundational exercises (ji ben gong). I teach people how to stand in Wu Ji and embrace and I always will be teaching what I consider a seasonal qi gong set. If we’re going into fall, we’ll do 5 Element qi gong so people can build their reserves for the cold and flu season. In the quiet of winter, we’ll do the Six Healing Sounds and then coming out in the spring, we’ll do Tian Gan and Ji Ben Gong exercises in their full expression. I don’t really teach a very strict Ba Gua class, because, quite frankly, whenever I try and teach people the way I would want to teach it, they go away. It’s just too hard. Even in my history of private students, I show them foundational exercises, ding shi, mud stepping, and standing and then they’re gone. I think it says a lot about people’s ability to commit to things.

IAI: What is it about those practices that you think is is hard for people to connect to?

Marcus Degrazia: I feel like people just lose the thread. This is kind of a common thing between some of the other teachers that I talked with – it is hard to get people to commit. I vacillate with my class a lot about how purely Ba Gua it is and how much more of it is a qi gong mash up. But I now have six or ten people that I’m training where it feels like a Ba Gua class. We’re doing ji ben gong, we’re doing ding shi, I’m showing them applications, We’re doing a lot of standing, and they’re super into it. But these are people who have been training for a couple of years and I feel like it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can show an application and how it works. And they can throw somebody down and then feel okay with that, because they’re not really martial artists. I just think it’s a tricky world. I think when you get further away from somewhere like New York City, unfortunately, martial arts now means MMA. Or it means kids taking karate classes. There’s not a lot young adults who are looking for an internal martial arts class.

IAI: Or even maybe have an idea about what that would mean?

Marcus Degrazia: I think that’s more the root of it. Everybody knows Tai Chi, or thinks they do. So no matter what you show them, it is all Tai Chi. The learning curve is very steep. It’s been challenging as a teacher over the past number of years up here, to get to the point where I can show Ba Gua to people and it’s not going to scare them away or be too slow. And I find all of that really challenging, actually.

IAI: And it sounds like you have been in regular contact with other teachers and this is something that you’ve talked about.

Marcus DeGrazia: One of our instructors, JP Magenis, and I have discussed these issues. We also practice together, which is great. We are at similar levels and we can get together and hash out things. We can take our time and model things like, how does this movement turn into a throw or how does it turn into qin na. I don’t want to say it’s expected, but it is kind of understood that at some point, if you’re studying Ba Gua seriously, you need to teach it. Not only for your own development, but for the gift that this whole thing is. We want to continue to share it and get it to people.

For example, the single palm change will express itself through you a little differently than someone else. And with teaching, I’ve come to not try and emulate Tom’s classes because that didn’t work so well for me and for the crowd I was teaching. So it has been this whole interesting development of figuring out how I can get across the bigger ideas, not just learning how to throw somebody. For me as a practitioner, that’s becoming more and more deeply felt. I’m becoming more and more sensitive to the natural world – it helps that I live in a beautiful place out in the woods. But more and more I notice Nature and how that is inside us and how that expression is the root of our spirals. To me Ba Gua is way bigger than fighting. It always has been that way for me because I came to it not as a fighter and not really that interested in the fighting part. I wanted to be an amazing Tui Na practitioner.

IAI: I’m wondering what you are excited about and what you are working on these days? 

Marcus DeGrazia: The part that I’m really jazzed about is feeling confident that I am holding the curriculum, the basic and intermediate and advanced level forms. That I am holding them in the present tense. I have a training schedule. I do my daily routine, then there is a list of things that I want to get through and I try to get through it all before I start that list over, so that I am touching on these things over and over again. One of the things that’s super exciting is that you see things repeating – like body turning or windmill chopping showing up over and over again. And so you start to take this huge curriculum and consolidate it in some sense, as you see the similarities between the beginning, intermediate, and advanced forms. There are these building blocks. As it gets more and more dynamic and more and more complex, at the same time, it sort of becomes more and more simple.

I’ve also got a couple of new forms that I’m working, like ba mian zhang and working with weapons again. I’ve been focusing on the broad sword and the whip stick again. Those are my two favorite weapons. They just seem the most applicable to real life. It’s really timely that Tom put the Gao Ji Wu saber form online, which I just think is so generous of him. It really speaks to a change in the spirit in the community towards openness and sharing. Not only Tom, but other teachers. Being able to take pictures and write books about them and film them. It’s very different than what it was 20 or 30 years ago, and we’re really lucky. To be able to go on YouTube and call up Gao Ji Wu and see him doing the 64 Hands. I’m not super into technology, but I do like that part.

Marcus Practicing the Ba Gua Whip Stick (Seven Star Stick)

I also meditate and I do Dao Yin every day. I don’t even think about these anymore as practice. It’s just what keeps me healthy and happy and productive. One thing that I’m continually amazed about being around Tom is that he seems to never lose his excitement and his devotion. That’s so inspiring to me and I hold on to that, because there are days that I’d rather sleep in. But that’s become much less of a struggle and much more I recognize that if I don’t practice, I just don’t feel right. Now I find myself getting up earlier and earlier, so that I can have my time before I wake my kids and do breakfast and get them ready to go to school.

IAI: So what is your morning routine?

Marcus Degrazia: I wake up at five and I generally sit for 40 minutes, which is a relatively new thing for me. I’ve never had a formal meditation practice, but in the last like 12 to 16 months, it’s been really important for me. Then, I do Dao Yin. Those two happen all the time. And then if I am doing some standing, I do it then. Then I go into doing coin stepping, ding shi, and lao ba zhang. And then I get a little more of my working list. I consistently get in that hour and a half or two hours and then if I can get back to it later in the day, I will. In a perfect world, I would practice twice a day, every day. The morning routine is an integral part of my day and very important to me. In the afternoon if I’ve got another hour I play around with the saber or I go and hang with JP and work with him. It’s less fixed. I would say, three to five times a week, I get that second practice in. It’s a big part of my life.

I respect what it’s done for me. In the clinic, I see my skills growing and growing. And I have more and more success with people. To be in a job helping people and helping them navigate this interesting moment that we are in feels really important. I think that we all need to stand on the side of good. I know this is kind of off the topic, but you know, Ba Gua is bigger than just fighting and it’s bigger than my practice. We’re in a moment where people are lost and separated from each other. And there’s this great desire to come together. What we do with Ba Gua, being able to teach these things that help people center their bodies and their minds, look at things more confidently and more calmly is very important. I feel very grateful to be in that position, because I struggle with what I can do to help the world. I’ve come to the realization that you do what you can. I’m not a millionaire, I’m not somebody who can change some gigantic sector of the public. But there is this thing that I do that makes sense for people. That’s something that I’ve always loved about Chinese medicine, and especially the way I practice it. Many of my people come to me in pain and after I fix that, all of a sudden, they’re listening to what the conversation is. And not that I tell people what is right and what is wrong, but it opens up a real honest dialogue.  I have access to this huge swath of people from all different backgrounds and there is community building that happens. The spirit of Ba Gua is where I am coming from. It’s really a life practice.