This interview was conducted by IAI Senior Instructor Svilen Pronev.
IAI: What made you want to train martial arts, and when did you start?
Mark: The very first martial art I took was Judo when I was 9 years old, because I was getting picked on at school. The sensei was a traditional old-school Japanese teacher. If you misbehaved, he hit you with a bamboo stick. I had begged my father to let me take Judo, and then, after I got hit on the ass with that stick a couple of times, I begged my father to let me quit. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I started training consistently. In high school I got into a lot of situations where I wished I knew how to fight.
IAI: Which martial arts did you train then?
Mark: I started taking Kung Fu and Tai Ji with a local guy I met in Ohio in my first year in college. He was this guy named Steve Hollister. He was quite a character – tough. He had studied with a guy named Dr. Wu who was somewhat legendary in Ohio and in Chicago. (Fred Wu – there is another Dr. Wu who also teaches). Steve taught Tam Tui (Spring Leg) a northern-style long-fist form which was great for conditioning. He also taught a style of Tai-Chi called “medicine form.” The name is misleading because it is a very “martial” style of Tai Ji. Steve also taught a somewhat external style of Xing Yi. Years later I learned that this style is called Muslim Style Xing Yi. A lot of punching and blocking and two-person exercises. Not a lot of standing or stance training. It was good for me when I was younger. It’s very different from the style of Xing Yi I study with Tom Bisio. Tom’s style (from Master Li Gui Chang) is a much more internal, and for lack of a better word, a deeper expression of Xing Yi. Over the years I have transitioned from hard external styles to softer more internal styles. This is true for a lot of longtime practitioners, in part I think because if you don’t make this transition, it can negatively impact your health. Also, as you get older, you need to find things to rely upon other than speed and brute strength. I’m still working on the soft & yielding part of it all.
Having traveled a lot, I had the opportunity to train in a lot of styles. These included Wah Lum Praying Mantis in Boston with a teacher named Yao Li; Cha Chuan in Ohio with a teacher named Jesse James; and Yang style Tai Ji in New Jersey with Master Sidney Austin.
A major part of my training has been in Capoiera which I studied for 15 years in NYC with an amazing Mestre (Master) name Ombrinho and occasionally with his teacher from Brazil, Mestre Nô. As with the internal arts, people often don’t realize how effective Capoiera can be. There’s a lot more contact in this art than people realize. The conditioning is hard-core, and if you train at it for a while, you become both very strong and very limber and lithe. That was the main foundation of my training before I transitioned into Ba Gua.
IAI: And why did you decide to get into Ba Gua?
Mark: When I was around 40, my back started going out badly. This was due in part to an injury I sustained play-fighting with a friend when I was 19. I tried a lot of different things to continue training in Capoiera because I loved it, but my back kept going out. I eventually had to give it up. I continued doing forms from the various martial arts I had studied, but I was kind of adrift for a while.
I tried Pilates and Yoga and all these different things for my back, but nothing worked. I tried not exercising at all (except for doing forms occasionally). After 2-years of this, I began seeing an acupuncturist I really liked. He was also a martial artist. I asked him to recommend a teacher. I said “I want to train in a martial that is not going to injure my back, but I want to study with somebody who knows how to apply the martial art they are teaching.” He directed me towards Tom Bisio. Almost immediately after starting with Tom, my back showed some improvement. It still goes out sometimes, but in general, Ba Gua has helped my back a lot and has allowed me to maintain a level of movement I don’t think I would have otherwise.
IAI: So, in addition to Ba Gua being a martial art, it has also contributed to your health?
Mark: Absolutely. But it can be deceptive because in Ba Gua you don’t get six-pack abs. And I’m 60 now, so I’m not as spry or athletic as I used to be. No more spinning on my head like we did in Capoiera. But for my age, I’m in very good shape. Ba Gua is good for longevity. Self-defense can be many things. It can be knowing how to fight. It can be fighting off illness and the effects of aging. It can be cultivating a sense of well-being. Ba Gua and Xing-Yi are wonderful forms of meditation. I don’t mean this in the navel-gazing sense. I mean that I always feel better after practicing. When I was younger, I used to do things like smoke pot to feel better inside. I’m happy to say I gave that up years ago. Ba Gua has the same effect of making me feel better, but without the negative side-effects. It makes me feel happier – and that is also a type of self-defense.
IAI: I can relate to it being more than just exercise. So, what are you working on right now in your personal practice? What are the things that you focus on?
Mark: I do Ji Ben Gong (the 28 foundational exercises) at least 4 or 5 times a week. I’ve also started doing Tian Gan (Heavenly Stem Nei Gong) a lot lately, in large part for my back. In terms of forms, I do Lao Ba Zhang (Old Eight Palms) close to every day. That’s my go-to form in part because I can jump into it without any warmup. Lao Ba Zhang always puts me into a better place. I try to do a lot of Ding Shi (fixed posture circle walking). That takes a bit more effort on my part. I tend to like the forms that have more choreography and more things to distract the mind, and Ding Shi is very pared down. Tom is always encouraging us to pare things down to the basic elements, like Ding Shi and standing. I have also been doing a lot of Ba Mian Zhang (8 direction palms) which is a pretty elaborate form that embellishes on Ding Shi.
When I’m teaching, I focus on basics, but once we are done doing basics and forms, I like to make sure we also do some exercises that can’t be done on your own. I like to do arm-banging (7-Star Drills), applications, two-person drills, working with focus-mitts, or pushing-hands. Something that brings what we train to the surface. There’s this thing that happens when you are arm-banging or bouncing off of other practitioners in some way, where at first you feel sore and it hurts, but then, as it becomes a more consistent practice it starts feeling good. Like you’re engaging the Qi you’ve been building up, bringing it to the surface, activating it. Having the right liniment to apply after you arm-bang is an important part of this process
IAI: It’s kind of like doing the yin-yang meridian patting as well. Something gets activated when you do it.
Mark: Yes. The patting is another thing that always makes me feel better after I do it. The other thing I’m working on lately is the Chinese Broadsword. I’m not naturally inclined to do the broadsword. The staff feels a bit more natural to me (maybe because I can visualize drubbing someone more easily than I can visualize stabbing someone, and for me, visualizing what you are doing to an opponent is an important part of forms training). But what I’m noticing as I practice the broadsword more consistently is how it informs the rest of my empty-handed forms.
IAI: What are some of the challenges you face when you are teaching Ba Gua?
Mark: Part of the challenge is navigating the space between health-practice and self-defense. I don’t like fighting (as in real-life combat). Some martial artists do. I don’t. I like sparring. I like play-fighting. I like pushing the edge with these things, but when it comes down getting hurt or to really hurting people, I don’t like it. It’s easier for me to convey the forms and the parts of Ba Gua that are about the health benefits and the meditative qualities of it. Conveying the martial part of it is more difficult. I also find it harder to convey the self-defense part of it to people who have done only Ba Gua and who don’t have experience in any other martial arts. Part of the challenge is that the internal arts sometimes attract people who are looking for kung-fu magic. They think if they move a certain way and engage in certain ritualistic practices then they will magically be able to defend themselves. You want students to feel confident, but you don’t want to encourage unrealistic fantasies in them. I want students to be more capable of defending themselves after they worked with me than they were before. For the record I’d say that in the 40 years since I started studying martial arts, I’ve used it as self-defense in real life maybe 4-5 times at most.
IAI: It is better that way.
Mark: Yes. And when I have used it, it hasn’t been in like a giant fight-it-out brawl. It’s been more like somebody (usually drunk or high and without training) tried to hit me in a stupid way and I managed to do something to diffuse the situation. In one instance, it was how I responded when I got hit by a car. It was never the kind of thing where “this guy came at me with a knife, and I did the creeping shadow technique on him.” In the early stages of my training, I realized that a lot of the situations I got into in high school were the results of problematic behaviors on my part. One of my first teachers impressed on me that most fights happen when other people are watching. They result from us trying to impress people, from our ego. There is almost always something you can say (or not say) to avoid those kinds of fights. I’d like to say that over time I learned how to raise my antenna, cultivating an awareness of the environments around me, and developing the common sense to know when a problem was brewing and how to get out of there. But forms, techniques, martial principles and being in the right kind of shape has proved helpful at points – so that is what I try to transfer to students.
IAI: If nothing else, at least the stepping and the positioning, because when I look at videos of people fighting using other martial arts, the stepping and the positioning often looks clumsy compared to what you see in Ba Gua. The emphasis we place on stepping can benefit any martial art.
Mark: I think so.
IAI: Any final thoughts on training in and teaching Ba Gua and Xing-Yi?
Mark: So much depends on what an individual wants. But even if you’re just doing Ba Gua or Xing-Yi as a health practice, I do think it’s good for people to bang arms a little bit, or to hit focus-mitts a little bit, or to spar a little bit or do some pushing-hands. Something. Because if you just do forms or stand without some sort of contact with another practitioner – without that feedback, all the Qi and energy you’re building up, I don’t think it gets get fully activated. It’s sort of like learning a lot of guitar chords but never playing a song. It’ll kind of lay under the surface. You need something to bring it to the surface to cultivate it.
There are NYIA members who approach it differently. When I suggest arm-banging, they laugh at me and say “That’s what you always want to do.” And I have to keep that in mind, because the things we ought to practice in martial arts aren’t always the things we want to practice. I need to make sure that arm-banging isn’t just a way for me to avoid the things that are difficult for me, like Stance Training and Ding Shi – the basic elemental forms that don’t let me escape myself. My other last thought is about Circle Walking. There’s something about circle walking in Ba Gua that really does puts one into a meditative state.
IAI: Yes. I find that even in a short span of time, let’s say 20 min – you can pack in so much that your body is fully covered. Like there’s nothing that’s been missed in terms of health and in terms of preservation.
Mark: I think that’s true. You don’t need to do 2 or 3 hours. Really, the only reason I sometimes train for 2-3 hours is because I just enjoy it. But in terms of getting the benefits, I think you’re right. 20 minutes of doing Xing Yi correctly is like an hour of doing another type of exercise, because you’re so focused and every part of you is in that thing and it exercises every part of you. Yeah. And because of the mental component.
IAI: Any other last thoughts.
Mark: I mentioned that I initially started martial arts to learn how to defend myself. And what I’d say is, the self-defense part of it worked. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to win in a fight against a Bas Rutten, or a Mike Tyson, or someone like that. But that’s not the measure of how well you do martial arts. Where I am in terms of my ability to defend myself today, and where I was before I studied martial arts, is profoundly different. The me of today at the age of 60 could successfully defend myself against the me of age 30 (even though I was already training in martial arts back then). There’s something that worked for me in that fundamental aspect of my training.
IAI: There is a development. It’s not about how old or young you are. It’s just It’s a cumulative understanding of what it is that you’re trying to do. And since you’ve done many different martial arts over the years, you have accumulated from many different places, and have used each of those arts to grow further. It’s a cumulative effect. But not like MMA. It’s not cumulative in that way, because that’s externally cumulative. It’s more the kind of cumulative quality that you can feel.
Mark: Martial artists must continuously grow and change. Especially as we age. Your go-to techniques must change. At a certain point you can’t kick as high. You’re not as fast. You can’t punch as hard. What’s interesting about the martial arts is that aging forces you to learn new things to adapt to your body.
IAI: As a popular saying goes, if you focus only on your muscles and the external, when you get older, you have nothing left.
Mark: Yes. That makes sense.