Age and Kung Fu

gx_laojia1mAn interview with Shifu Ted Mancuso by Debbie Shayne

Q: There are a lot of people who ask us about age and Kung Fu. Do you have any advice for the mature adult who wants to be good in the martial arts…for instance, are there certain styles you recommend?

A: The real problem is, what do you want to be? If you think you are going to start out at thirty five and after five years of training look like a seventeen year old not only are you wrong – it won’t happen – but you are giving up great rewards for mediocre ones. You’re giving up a great experience for a mediocre experience. One of my best students started when he was sixty-three and I taught him for fifteen years. He understood what was important and what wasn’t: to know what the goals are. If you know your goals you can start at any time, within reason. I mean, if you are sixty years old it’s not smart to start in Northern Shaolin. But it could be done.

Q: It’s not smart because…?

A: Two factors. One is the athleticism. But you can change that: it’s an ego problem. For instance when I teach Northern Shaolin to middle aged adults, I say, “let’s take that jump kick out, let’s eliminate that spinning on the ground kick. But they can’t do it. Because they think that’s what Kung Fu looks like. They see the seventeen year olds doing it but the thought is completely wrong. It’s like thinking a shiny guitar will make you a better musician.

Q: What should they be thinking?

A: They should substitute another move and then concentrate on what they can probably do better than the young guys, things such as continuity. Or keeping the intent. Basically as you get older in Kung Fu you have to substitute mature standards for developmental standards.

If you are forty-five years old starting or continuing in Kung Fu then you should have a forty-five year old perspective. You should look at everything else in your life and say, “Here’s what I’ve paid dearly to learn. To live to forty-five. I’m going to assume it’s the same in Kung Fu.” Another problem is that everyone has the sports or the exercise mentality. That’s completely wrong. Kung Fu is about being a whole human being. For instance, older people should put more emphasis on intent and less on strength. Concentration should be on correct movement, not how hard you hit. Older people should work more on transition.

Q: From one posture to the next?

A: Yes, keeping the idea alive. And balance. And grace, which is incredibly useful. And which, if you started when you were five you would still be looking to improve when you hit forty. They should work more on meaning. Not the meaning of this movement or this technique but more the sense of bringing all one’s experience into each move.

Q: I’ve heard you say many times that there are no such things as internal and external styles but there are internal and external methods. Is that another point of concentration for the older student?

A: Yes. If you start when you are ten there will be a high percentage of external aspects to your training. You get limber. You get strong. You have good posture. That’s going to benefit your entire life. Of course when you reach a certain age you will concentrate on the internal aspects because you can perceive them. But if you start older, even though you will still have to go through the physical, you will concentrate more on these aspects.

You can’t skip ahead; however, a lot of the external training you do as a young person, you no longer need to do as an older person. You are no longer forming your bones or going through a growth spurt. When the younger students look good doing the splits and flipping around and all that, you get to write that off. Now those formerly young students are starting to work on the internal and you are working on the internal. It’s generally accepted that the external training they have had in the martial arts will make it easier for them to be good at the internal. On the other hand, if you are really smart and use your life experience you will compensate for an awful lot of their training that was wasted because they were too young to appreciate the fine points. At age ten you will learn great body posture, stamina and speed but, frankly, you don’t understand much of what you are doing. So, in a sense what people are bemoaning when they think, “Gee, I can’t do it like the young kids” is the loss of wasteful motions, the lack of having to learn the hard way. They are bemoaning aches and pains they don’t have to go through.

gx_tigercrane1mQ: Is there a point where physical limitations disqualify the student? If you can’t stand in a horse, do a Bow stance…does that mean there’s an acceptable substitution or you should think about something else?

A: Kung Fu is such a mental process and people have such a misunderstanding about it. You can literally do Kung Fu in bed. That’s how Yearning K. Chen learned Tai Chi. He had a Tai Chi master come over every day and practice in front of his sick bed for a year then he recovered and got up. And he spent the rest of his life practicing Tai Chi. I teach Shaolin, Bagua and Tai Chi. And I have had Shaolin open to people up to fifty years old for the entire life of my school. Is it easy? No. And the only requirement – the hardest one of all – is don’t compete with the younger people in class.

Q: Let’s get back to the person who is just starting. Are there particular styles you recommend?

A: One of my teachers always says that there are basically two kinds of styles: water styles and the other styles. The water styles are not named that way because they are fluid but because – for example – you can make tea from water, or coffee or soup. In other words from some styles you can continue in any direction. So some popular but very specialized styles, if they end up not being right for you, you have lost your time. It’s better to start with styles that are varied enough to offer you possibilities. If you start Chen Tai Chi when you are older, and the teacher isn’t adaptable, your knees could retire you before you get going. But Wu style anyone can do.

Wing Chun is another great example. Because if you look at Wing Chun there should be no reason, other than maybe the impact on the wooden dummy, why anyone couldn’t study it. Of course there’s a hard method and a soft method of teaching Wing Chun and the hard way would be inappropriate for most people. You can see it’s really dependent on the teaching environment.

Another mistake, though is to consider that doing “internal styles” is being put out to pasture. Styles like Bagua or Tai Chi are very engaging.

Q: What about Bagua? Do you think that’s a style that can be studied at any point?

A: I think it is one of the great styles, in part because it was developed late and has all sorts of ways to avoid teaching problems. Tai Chi Chuan is a good style, too. People think it’s for older students because it’s slow. This is silly. It’s like saying slower push ups are easier for older people. Slower push ups aren’t easier for anyone.

Q: So, isn’t the Tai Chi set done properly still a strenuous work out.?

A: Well, now you are talking about being good, too. And I do believe that older people can be good. I watched Ma Hong demonstrate and he started when he was forty, I think. And he is a top notch Chen stylist and very physical.

gx_laojia2mQ: What about the older person who thinks, “Well, I’ll never really get good at this.”

A: Completely wrong idea. I’ve learned in my lifetime maybe three hundred forms. And I keep telling my students, “You can be better than I am.” If you came to me and studied only Chen style you only know one form. Why can’t you get better at the Chen style than I am? If you are starting when you are fifty-five years old and I’m fifty-five now, of course, I’ve had forty years of training. But it hasn’t been in Chen style. So the main thing with an older person is: concentrate. If people concentrate on a few things learning, say, one style of Bagua and some Qi Gong to go with it, they could become masters. I’m totally convinced you can become excellent in the martial arts in three to five years.

Let me say one more thing about this idea of youth. It’s like having talent. There’s an old truth in martial arts that if a guy comes in with a bit of talent and things stop being easy, he will be the first one to quit. It’s the same thing with age. In other words, there’s an issue of perseverance. Confucius said that, “Someone past thirty will not be swayed.” I lose more young people than I do old people. I would rather teach a senior practitioner who is actually there, working hard, than a talented teen who is probably going to take up body surfing tomorrow and switch to something else after that.

Q: Would you say that getting good for an older person means getting healthier?

A: No, I would say that getting good always means finding a passion. Finding a way to express that passion and explore that passion. And you will get healthier. For instance, let’s take the martial aspects. I teach people in their sixties to do the martial part. Why? To enliven them. Because when they move in that way – I’m not talking about moving hard, but I am talking about moving efficiently – their whole sense of their liveliness, of their ability to not be restrained by age is incredible.

Q: So when you say to focus and concentrate you don’t just mean on one or two styles but also to focus their practice itself.

A: Yes. From a book we are going to be publishing by Adam Hsu, he has one outstanding essay about himself called “Selfish Training.” He writes about how half of his practice life has been spent pleasing teachers or pleasing people. And Adam is a very sophisticated martial artist. Concentrate on yourself. Don’t spend any time doing anything for anyone else but yourself and your teacher. You have to do some for your teacher because he’s guiding you. Get every benefit you can. Strength. Posture. Beauty. Self defense training. But mostly, get involved. And don’t be afraid, if you have a good teacher, and a good environment. A teacher who doesn’t have proper respect, and puts a sixty-year old man with a seventeen year old buzz saw, is stupid. Don’t put up with that, but don’t be prissy either. Because most teachers love older students. They love mature views on the arts. They have poured their whole lives into the art and they want to communicate with people who have other lives.

Q: Are there any final words you would like to say to the beginning student who is older?

A: Put some faith in the art itself. And don’t have a checklist. Let the art surprise you. Any art that doesn’t surprise you is an art you aren’t practicing as an art. You are practicing it as a regimen. Martial arts is not the greatest regimen in that sense because you have to hold passion.

Q: And for the experienced older student ?…

A: You should realize that every time you do the form when you mature you are writing one more page in your diary. The beauty of a form, for instance, is that when you are older you are supposed to be bringing your intelligence to it and you are seeing things. “Oh, that leg is better. I’m doing it this way.” As you get older you become more interested in your own life. You start to see the shape of that life. Practicing every day and watching what is changing in your practice, what’s getting better, what seems to be a problem now but you are overcoming it… it’s like having a dossier on yourself. It’s really interesting. That’s the main thing I’m trying to tell people. Kung fu wasn’t invented for competition. It wasn’t invented to look good. It wasn’t invented to please the instructors. Think of villages. People practice in villages their whole lives and no one has ever even seen them practice. And they don’t care! That’s their own private glass of port at night. That’s the wine they make for their own family. That’s their secret study. That’s for them. And the older you are the more permission you have to do it that way.

Ted Mancuso will celebrate his fortieth year in Martial Arts in 2006. He’s just starting to make some headway.
Debbie Shayne, martial cinematographer and bon vivant, currently runs one of the best used bookstores in California.

3 Responses to “Age and Kung Fu”

  1. Ken says:

    I know the article was written several years ago, but I want to leave a comment anyway. I’ve studied Western fencing and Chinese martial arts for many years, but I stopped in the middle until I was 55 – that was when my wife died. At that point I moved to San Francisco and now have been studying Hung Gar and Tai Chi with Y.C. Wong for over five years – with around 2,500 hours of in-studio time with Sifu. I have found this time to be a pure gift from Wong Sifu transmitted to me, as he says of one of the ‘great treasures of China’.

    Being gifted physically helps a lot, but there are people studying there who are my age, and who practice ‘iron wire’ and tai chi daily. I can’t say enough good things about Hung Gar and Tai Chi, those have been said anyway, but I will say with as much humility as possible, that I have gotten pretty good (for an older guy). Through Sifu’s guidance I feel younger now than I did five years ago!

    It hasn’t been easy; to get good at a martial art (or any art) the Chinese say you “have to eat the bitter” for awhile, practice hard, commit, sweat, hurt just a bit from exertion. And as an older person, it is wise to take the gentle, slow path, as opposed to the radical, fast, steep one…..Thank you for the great article.

  2. patrick hodges says:

    Yes, we “seniors” try to keep as much as possible for as long as possible. I still practice my so called “hard style” southern routines once in awhile with some softened refined moves and also know that iron wire can be practiced even by beginning older students. Remember the joke about the older rooster and younger rooster when faced with the problem of o many hens. =)

  3. Ken Y says:

    I was so happy to see this piece on age and kung fu. I trained in Northern Shaolin for a couple years around 15 years ago when I was 30 (at Sifu Wing Lam’s school in Sunnyvale) but had to stop when I injured my back (not martial-arts related). After minor surgery, I switched to yoga to recover and heal, and never really looked back… until last year when one of my yoga friends invited me to her belt ceremony for where she was learning Kung Fu San Soo (aka Tsoi Li Ho Fut Hung) and it was like an old door re-opened, and now I find myself learning that style at 45 years of age! And it turns out the yoga has helped me achieve *excellent* stance work, who knew? There’s a part of me that thinks I’m insane, but I’m enjoying seeing where this takes me! Thanks again, for such an encouraging article! -Ken

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