The thing that initially sparked my interest in Asian practices and exercises was my interest in Martial Arts. It started when I was in High School taking a Co-op class with the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves. We had a Master Corporal who was in Karate and he trained some of the new recruits in some basic blocks, punches and kicks. One of my fellow recruits was a Tae Kwon Do expert. He was practicing to be on the Olympic team. I called him Shanti, which I later learned meant Peace in Hindi, although it was actually just a short form of his last name. I could say that he was my first "teacher" or Geshe which means Spiritual Friend. I don't think I learned much from him in the way of Martial Arts, but he was a very philosophical and spiritual fellow. He got me thinking about life in a different way, and started me moving in a new direction.
I had several friends who either were going to, or had gone to a Kung fu school in town that they all recommended. I really wanted to attend but I was already intending to go to India with a cultural immersion program called "One World, Global Education". So for the next three months i worked at the same factory my mother worked at, trying to save up enough money for the trip. I would get home very late at night and would run to a local park to practice the little martial arts that I had learned from books and from friends. My friend Adam who was a student at the Kung fu school i wanted to attend, joined me sometimes. We would often spar but Adam was almost twice my size and I often ended up on the ground in pain.
While I was in India I had the opportunity to study with a Karate school in Kolkata. The head Sifu was named Popeye, or maybe it was Bupeye. It can be hard to tell with the accent sometimes. We spent evenings in a small (and i mean small) community park, practicing blocks, kicks, sparring, and rolling in the dirt for some reason.
When I went up North to Darjeeling I stayed at an all boys Catholic boarding school. The priest who co-ordinated where we would be staying thought I could help coach their basketball team. I have often been mistaken for a talented B-ball player due to my height, but im really not very good. I realized that the boys at this school played basketball all the time since there was not much to do at this live in world of academia. Although they were all mostly short guys, they could dribble circles around me. So much for me coaching them. Instead they asked me to join their team for the tournament. I never got to play though as we lost our first game and were disqualified. I did however get to drink from the team water bucket and ended up sicker than I ever imagined possible.
The school nurse gave me a rainbow assortment of huge pills and after a week I was back on my feet again. Since I wasn't coaching a team, the dean of the school asked me to sub classes for some nuns who were away. I was plunked in front of various classes of students and asked to teach, math, and english. I did not have a set curriculum (or a curriculum at all in fact) and was still a teenager myself so the classes ended up being more humorous than educational. Though I could never tell if the students were laughing with me, or at me.
Two of the students who were brothers befriended me while I was there. They practiced Praying Mantis kung fu in Kolkata where they were from, when they went home in the summer. They showed me a few cool moves and often liked to watch some of my daily practice regimen. I got a lot of my practice exercises from a book written by Bruce Lee on the style he developed called Jeet Kune Do, a very practical style he developed from Wing-chun style kung-fu principles.
I found a great pair of wooden nunchuku, a weapon with two short pieces of wood attached by a short chain. Bruce Lee's weapon of choice. It is very deadly as it can basically explode a human skull. It is prohibited to own one in Canada, but you can get them at any sports shop in India. You have to be very careful practicing with them or you can fracture your own bones.
I was moved to a small town next called Tendrabong, a tiny Nepalese village in the mountains near Darjeeling. This whole village was powered by a cable that ran from a nearby town and was illegally connected to a street light there. Most of the huts just had a couple dim lights though that needed power. One family though had a generator and would sometimes use it to watch T.V.
They had a small soccer field on the side of the mountain where the kids would play with a ball made of random plastic bags and garbage bound with wool string. It actually worked surprisingly well. Games would often have many rest breaks, as they would often have to run down the mountain to find the ball someone accidentally kicked over the edge. I would practice Tai-chi and kung fu forms on this field until i acquired far more than comfortable amounts of spectators. Again, most of these people did not have T.V. so my weird practices were fairly entertaining for them I guess. I decided to practice more in my room for privacy but soon found that privacy is not a very popular thing over there. I found out later they were still watching me through the windows in my room.
When I came back home to Canada I experienced some intense reverse culture shock. I found it hard to relate to my old friends who were into partying and drinking. I ended up spending a lot of time alone meditating and practicing martial arts. I decided it was finally time to join that Kung fu school I had heard so much about. I started to work as a ceramic engineer (dish washer) at Kelsey's to make money to pay for my School tuition and equipment fees, and was still living with my mother and her boyfriend.
The teacher at Golden Tiger was a long grey haired man we all called Sigung, which roughly means grand teacher. He had an air of mysticism about him and people often told stories about some amazing things he could do, and how a few foolish people had tried to fight him and ended up crawling under parked cars to escape. He was a big fan of one of my old favorite T.V programs called Kung Fu with David Carradine and he had similar mannerisms to this Kung fu master from the show.
I attended this school for about 8 years. I took time off part way through for a year and a half to travel to a Monastery in Arizona. Actually it was not quite a monastery yet at that point. But that's why I went down, to help build it. For every day you worked to help build the center you got to have a day of solitary meditation retreat. I lived in a small tent my sister loaned me out in the desert near the meditation yurt where i spent my mornings and evenings. I set up a training yard near my tent and would practice and workout there everyday. I had a makiwara (punching board) set up to practice strikes on.
An older fellow was there helping in the kitchen named Roy and we got to be friends. He was a Japanese man from Hawaii. He was probably the gentlest person i have ever met. He told me once he used to do purification meditation sitting underneath waterfalls in Hawaii. I have wanted to try that ever since. He had learned Tai-chi near the top of the lineage of Cheng Man Ching himself. I asked him three times to teach me, as is the way in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and he finally agreed. He taught me a new move every night, and before long i had learned to whole Old Yang style Tai Chi form. He wouldn't however show me the Martial Arts application for the moves, as he was only interested in the health benefits, and did not want to teach anything even remotely related to violence. Last thing i know of Roy is that he became a monk and is now called Tenzin. I imagine he is living at a peaceful monastery somewhere still talking seldomly and softly and practicing Tai Chi every day.
On my way back up north I stopped off in New York city where the Buddhist center was founded. It was a small bookstore called "The Three Jewels" where many Buddhist scholars were studying and working on preserving and translating old texts saved from Tibet. They were working on converting this place into a cafe/bookstore and asked if I could help. I was in no rush to get back to dish washing so I stayed for about four months. I lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with the head manager of "The Three Jewels". I found a Kung fu school nearby taught by a man that looked like "The Rock" from wrestling on T.V. His name was Sifu Lee. When I started training there he told me we had to be formally introduced, and so we had to spar to truly meet one another as warriors. It was a great experience. He was very fast and strong and I'm sure he went easy on me, but I did land a few good hits on him that I think I earned. He was very nice and respected that i already had some training. I still had to learn everything from the beginning, but he let me fast track since it all came easily for me. I would practice Tai Chi and Qi-gong in the park near where I lived, sometimes even late in the evening. I felt pretty safe there even though I heard many bad tales of NYC night violence. People told me that the "Three Jewels" was a very nice space since I was working there and that they felt it was much more inviting. I think I owe this to a natural sense I have in Feng Shui. I have only read a couple books on Feng Shui but find that it is a very natural art for me. I think i have a knack for making environments more inviting. Feng Shui principles and martial arts go well together actually. Its all about allowing the universal energy to flow properly.
When I came back to Canada i was taking Buddhist classes from a nun who lived in town. I always called her Anila which means Venerable Nun. She taught me a lot about Buddhism and she lived a very simple interesting life that inspired me. I will talk more about her in the meditation section. There was a man also taking classes in this Dharma group named Steve who owned his own Tai-chi and Qi-gong school. I took some classes with him and often met with him to talk philosophy over lunch. He taught me the application to the Tai chi movements I had already learned and showed me another form as well as some Qi-gong exercises. He suggested to me that I finish my Kung fu training at my current school and when I was proficient I should come back and make my style more internal. This is how it was done traditionally if you survived long enough through the many hardships of the time period.
So I focused hard on my training at Golden Tiger school of Kung fu and after a few years I was a teacher there. I helped Sigung (the head teacher) with self-defense classes he was teaching at high schools and produced some Kung fu style play skits for our bi-yearly tournament, which everyone seemed to enjoy. The school was very challenging as the classes ran for about five hours 2-3 times per week. We jogged many kilometers to warm up before we did a lengthy workout in which we would do more than 300 push ups on a regular day. Every week we were recorded and had to do an additional push up than the past week. And not just little half push ups you see people doing at the gym, we had to have a partner hold their hand on the floor under us and our chest had to touch for it to count. If you did not succeed at doing one more push up than the previous week you would have to do that many bur-pees. I remember doing 90 pushups once wish was one short of my minimum and having to do 91 bur-pees. This was all before the workout began. I hurt my shoulder from this over training and my teacher basically told me the only way it would get better is to do more push ups. The philosophy of the school was kind of like that. If you have a problem get tougher and plough through it. It taught me some great lessons in perseverance and discipline, however I have adopted a much gentler approach to my body and my practice since then.
In the more advanced belt levels class would often run from 5:15pm until past 11:30pm. My body took a literal and figurative beating. There was one black belt that went to the school that would occasionally spar with us. Everyone hated to spar him as he would hurt people pretty bad. We used to call him Scary Terry. We were used to pain by about orange belt level but not to that degree. One exercise we did involved three people walking around you while you stood in a horse stance with your knees bent flexing your muscles. The three people would hit you all over your body in every major muscle group really hard to toughen the body for about a minute at a time. There were dozens of similar conditioning exercises we would do regularly.
Here's a pic of my brown belt class during a tournament.
I made a lot of good friends at that school, mostly other classmates. Sparring can be a very bonding experience. My one friend Steve had a friend who owned a Karate dojo. The two of us were invited to come to a Karate tournament and ended up being the only non-karate practitioners there. We signed up for our belt level which was blue at the time and we ended up coming in second and third place. It was a weird experience. Because we were outsiders practicing a foreign style, we were considered almost as the bad guys. Many karateka were upset that we were winning so many fights. In my final battle with the soon to be champion i was getting boo-ed by the crowd and he was getting cheered on by the whole stadium. So i am kinda glad he won. The "good guy" prevailed over the foreign stylists. I am also glad he beat me because i would have had to spar my friend for first place, and my friend is a bit crazy to spar with on a normal day. Add in a trophy, and a huge crowd of people and it would not be much fun.
I had read in Bruce Lee's autobiography that he had done ballet as a way of increasing his balance and grace. My teacher, the Buddhist nun, got me into her friends ballet studio where she taught yoga by getting me to be her yoga assistant to her classes. I took a bunch of ballet classes there and it was fun. It was weird to be the only guy in a class of so many women though. Soon Sigung changed the days that we had classes and I could no longer attend ballet.
At this point I was working as a temp in a furniture factory spray painting chairs. I hated the job as it payed lousy, was hard work and required i get up very early. On top of that the fumes from the paint were toxic and the masks they provided were very uncomfortable and I was the only one there who used one. The think the other employees didn't like that I wore the mask as it reminded them what terrible air they were breathing in everyday. I really wanted out of there. I looked in the newspaper and saw an ad looking for "Attractive Ladies and Gentlemen to teach Ballroom dancing. Will train." I thought this would be a great idea. I would much rather dance than paint chairs and it might help my martial arts skill and co-ordination. When I told my co-workers they laughed and told me I'd be back. I promised them there was no possible way I would come back there and I went for the interview.
The man who owned the studio was a very stern European man named Goran. He was a martial arts champion back home who lost a huge tournament by one point because he got cocky or reckless, and his career in martial arts was ended. He liked that I had a background in martial arts because he knew I could learn physical movements well and had good body awareness. Unfortunately he had no idea at the time how shy I was around woman and what I terrible salesman I am. I and about six other people were taken on for training. After a year I was the only one left. I think the idea of dancing for a living sounded romantic and great, but when it came down to it there was a lot of practice, repetition and not a lot of money. And Goran was a very impatient instructor and did not tolerate mistakes. I had the opportunity to spar with Goran once. He was very fast and very intense, and his style was very linear like Karate. I could tell he would be good at scoring points at a tournament, but the tightness and jumpy nature of his style would drain his stamina in a longer fight in my opinion. I much prefer the relaxed stance you can adopt in Kung fu between and even during strikes.
I had started to teach some dance students after only a few months there. I found it easy to teach the steps of dancing, but i lacked the charisma while dancing to ensure my dance partner was having a good time. So i think my lessons were monotonous and dull. I got a bit better over time but still lacked the ability to sell the expensive dance packages I was supposed to. Then Goran moved his studio to the outskirts of town. I had no car so I was no longer able to work for him. I don't think he missed me much, as I did not bring him in a lot of money. By this time I was teaching more yoga classes and also got a job as a personal support worker on the weekends.
Here's a pic my friend took to recreate her favorite photo of a monk walking on a wall in China for a Photography class project.
During this time I had taken my Buddhist Rabjung Monk status (more on this in the meditation section). I was living with a fellow yoga teacher and Kung fu practitioner named Brad. We practiced yoga and meditation daily and lived very monk-like lives in this old house we were renting near downtown Kitchener. I had another friend and class mate named Bao who was working as bouncer at a night club in town. He asked us if we wanted to work there too and see if our Kung fu could work in real life. So we signed up. Brad would drive us in on his motorcycle and drop me off a block down the road. The other security guards would give us a hard time if we rode in together on the same bike. It was a very macho environment.
Sigung had told me that his teacher had worked a similar job years ago to put his martial arts to the test. We found however that it was not a very conducive environment for cultivating positive qualities and the very late nights made it hard on the body and mind. We found most situations could be resolved without the use of force. But that is a sign that your martial arts training is going well. You should be better able to avoid conflict due to the confidence you gain and the clear headedness you can keep in a stressful situation. I got to break up a few fights and use some arm locks but I never had to throw a punch. Once while i was breaking up a fight i got hit in the face by a glass someone threw at me. It did not hurt much but surprised me because i did not see it coming in the dim lighting. I went back to my post and someone told me my face was bleeding. I had a small gash beside my nose. The thing that scared me the most was that if it had gotten me in the eye I might have been blinded. I decided this job was not worth it for the meager pay and experience, and I felt like I was living wrong livelihood by being a partisan to the extreme drinking and partying that was going on around me. And people asked me what a monk was doing working at a night club, and I had no real good answer. We both quit.
My black belt grading was extremely challenging. And not just the grading itself but the months leading up to it were very tough. Going through the ranks over the 8 years i had about 20 class mates altogether. Classes sometimes merged and shrunk and merged again with other classes, so i trained with a lot of different people. However by the time of my black belt grading there was only two of us left. Nick and I trained almost everyday on top of our normal class and teaching commitments. We had to memorize over 25 different martial arts forms including over 12 weapons, and made a huge list of over one hundred different other practices we had to perform including back flips, throws, grappling and every thing else we learned over the 8 years of study there. It also included an essay portion of the exam.
Here's a pic my classmate edited and sent me from a tournament.
After the grading was complete we were taken out for a traditional ceremonial buffet with Sigung and congratulated on our accomplishment. A few days later I informed Sigung that I would not be continuing my normal classes at Golden Tiger. I felt that this style was too hard on the body. So many of my classmates had to drop out due to injuries and I could not afford to hurt myself as teaching yoga was my primary source of income. The kung fu classes were held in the evenings at times when most popular yoga classes were running as well, and so I was losing a lot of yoga jobs by not being available at those times. My teacher was very upset. He had been grooming me to be a main teacher at the school, and I was one of the better ones there at the time. I told him I could still come to help out with teaching some classes sometimes and he said okay. Later that week however he sent a message through a friend of mine from the school that I was no longer welcome there, and was not allowed to return to classes or tournaments. All of my friends and students I was close to at the school were not allowed to contact me in any way. I lost a lot of important relationships from that and was quite depressed for some time. I still miss many of those friends.
I decided to take up the learning of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine to help with my recovery and to eventually help others. It is also a tradition in Kung fu that if you learn how to cause a body harm, you should also learn how to heal it. Eventually I would open my own Acupuncture clinic.
I used restorative yoga to help overcome the adrenal fatigue, and I trained again with Sifu Steve in Tai Chi and got my basic Tai-Chi instructor certificate. I still try to visit Sifu Steve from time to time to learn some new principles and techniques. And he is a great story teller of Martial arts history and Taoism.
The principles and techniques i have learned from martial arts training has profoundly affected my yoga teaching. In one easy example, knowing how to manipulate a persons body in a fight can translate into knowing how to adjust a body in a yoga pose quite well. And martial arts has also helped my meditation practice. For-instance to be able to keep a calm mind and controlled body during intense training or sparring, develops deep concentration that is needed for good meditation.
What you can expect to learn when studying with me for Martial Arts is principles of how to live safely, wisely, avoiding conflict, overcoming fear, strengthening the mind, body and cultivating internal energy. You will gain, grace, poise, confidence, flexibility and wisdom. I teach weapons styles, animal styles, elemental principles and much more.
I am currently working with Brad on a workshop that incorporates a yoga workout that will help strengthen the body combined with martial arts principles of safety, and efficiency of movement, as well as internal energy development. Let us know if you are interested.
Thanks for reading.
Joshua Webster R.AC, RYT