These Tough Guys Did Martial Arts…For Health

Do you know how martial artists spell irony? R-B-S-D.

RBSD, or reality-based self-defense, is a blanket term for martial arts training that purports to focus on practical applications. In truth, however, these applications—gross motor skills such as the straight punch and Thai-style knee strike—can only be deemed “practical” within a fiat-based reality.

Reality as measured by the CDC is strikingly different. Among the leading causes of death in 2005, assault ranks in 15th place—behind heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses. In the USA, death by suicide is 50% more common than homicide. Statistically speaking, influenza is far deadlier than any fatigue-clad RBSD play-warrior, or the threats they would prepare you to face.

Despite the indisputable fact that sickness is the greatest danger to the average person, martial arts for health have somehow earned a bad reputation. Why? It may be that because health and wellness are relative and intangible (compared to the result of a fight or sparring match), these claims are most frequently made by teachers that would, by any other measurement, be regarded as unqualified frauds.

While acknowledging that there is no shortage of incompetence among the New Age wellness set, we should also remember that many well-respected masters used the arts to improve their poor health. In doing so, they not only cured themselves, but gained formidable combat skills almost as a side effect. Here are a few examples…

As a consequence of his premature birth, Morihei was rather frail and sickly as an infant. Early on, though, he displayed an insatiable interest in both esoteric and exoteric science. The boy devoured hundreds of books an all manner of subjects, being especially intrigued by mathematics and physics.

Yoroku, concerned about his son’s weak physique and nervous temperament, encouraged Morihei to engage in sumo wrestling, running, and swimming…Morihei gradually built up his body.

Awakened to his potential power, the body dreamed of someday becoming the strongest man in the world. He toughened his skin by dousing himself daily with ice-cold water and asking his friends to pelt him with prickly chestnuts. His power increased so much that he was called on to carry sick children on his back to the doctor in the nearest town, some fifty miles distant.
[source: Abundant Peace by John Stevens]

Morihei Ueshiba

In adulthood, Morihei Ueshiba became an incomparable master of jujitsu, and later founded the art of Aikido.

Chen Fake was the youngest of three brothers. Both of his older brothers passed away in their early ages. His father was in his sixties when Chen Fake was born. Fake was spoiled as a young child, and did not have a good diet. He eventually developed a stomach ailment and could not digest food very well, and his health was poor. While playing outside one day when he was 14 years old, he overheard family elders lamenting his laziness: “This family has produced so many accomplished masters: his ancestor, his grandfather, and his father. This glory seems to be ending now because he is only interested in playing and having fun and not in practicing Taiji.”

From then on, Chen Fake started working hard and practiced the form several dozen times a day. After a few years of training, he cured his stomach problem and became very strong.
[source: Center for Taiji Studies]

Chen Fake

Chen Fake introduced his Chen style Taiji to Beijing, and became famous both for his good character and his outstanding skills. (His second-generation disciple Chen Zhonghua overcame severe health problems of his own, including bronchitis and arthritis.)

The Huo family had a long tradition as Wushu practitioners. Huo Yuanjia, however, was born weak and susceptible to illness. At an early age he contracted jaundice, an illness that would recur periodically for the rest of his life. His father refused to teach him Wushu; because of his weakness, Huo En Di wanted his son to pursue scholarly interests instead of learning Wushu. This was perhaps a blessing, as he in later life became renowned for his humility and educated judgment.

However at the time, pursuing scholarly interests was a great blow to Yuanjia’s pride. As As a twelve year-old child, he was continuously and humiliatingly defeated by local eight and nine year olds. His father hired a teacher from Japan, Chen Seng Ho (Chiang Ho), who in exchange for being taught his family style of martial arts (Mízongyì), taught Yuanjia the values of humility and perseverance.

Refusing to accept the vocation his father had chosen for him, Huo Yuanjia hid in bushes, and even dug out a small hole in the wall of the training area, to secretly observe his father teaching martial arts. Each day he quietly sat and watched, and each night he went to a tree grove and practiced secretly with his tutor. This continued for about ten years.
[source: Bookrags]

Huo Yuanjia

Huo Yuanjia founded the Jingwu Athletic Association, and his life served as the basis for Jet Li’s hit move Fearless.

Wang Xiangzhai was born in 1885 in the Shenxian district of Hebei province. As a small boy, Wang developed a severe case of asthma which stunted his growth and left him in poor health. When he was 8 years old, in order to remedy his illness and help him regain his health and strength, his father made him take up the practice of Xingyiquan with his Elder Uncle, the famous Guo Yunshen.

Actually, the old Master did not really want to take on young Wang Xiangzhai as his apprentice, because he was old and suffered from “sickness in the legs” such that he could barely walk. But two things changed his mind. First, his own son and heir to the lineage had an accident; he fell from a horse and died. Also, Wang had come with excellent recommendations from another relative. Thus, Guo Yunshen relented and agreed to accept Wang Xiangzhai as his live-in student.
[source: The Tao of Yiquan by Jan Diepersloot]

Wang Xiangzhai

Wang Xiangzhai became famous after issuing a challenge, printed in the Beijing newspapers, for any and all martial artists to visit and taste his skills. Wang Xiangzhai founded the art of Yiquan.

Helio Gracie, the youngest son of Gastão and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children, was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why.

At age fourteen, he moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Botafogo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Following doctor’s recommendations, Helio would spend the next few years limited to only watching his brothers teach.

One day, when Helio was 16 years old, a student showed up for class when Carlos was not around. Helio, who had memorized all the techniques from watching his brothers teach, offered to start the class. When the class was over, Carlos showed up and apologized for his delay. The student answered, “No problem. I enjoyed the class with Helio very much and, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue learning from him.” Carlos agreed, and Helio became an instructor.
[source: Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy]

Helio Gracie

With their winning fight records, Helio Gracie (and family) revolutionized the popular perception and practice of martial arts. Helio swore that, due to his diet and exercise habits, he never suffered a single day of sickness in his entire adult life.

Other examples, such as the biographies of Gao Fu and Guo Lin, show that even the middle-aged and elderly can realize substantial health benefits from martial arts practice. Whether or not they become able fighters, their participation should be encouraged.

If you’ve beaten arthritis, bronchitis or cancer, then you are tough. Otherwise…maybe you really don’t know a lick about reality-based self-defense?


  1. AMEN! What a great article!

    In the west, we have this love affair with allopathic medicine and the RCT, and outcomes, etc… to the exclusion of homeopathic or wholistic approaches (like martial arts).

    Part of it (I guess) is you can’t measure a heart attack or an accident that doesn’t happen. So, if you do martial arts for 30 years without having a heart attack it’s hard to say that the martial art is the cause of your apparent heart health (even in the face of anecdotal cases like ueshiba and chen).

    But then again, you can’t measure a violent attack that doesn’t happen either, so RBSD might be just as unreasonable (or moreso) as claiming health benefits from MA.

    I think, instead of measuring health benefits from MA in terms of the non-occurance of negative outcomes (like heart attack), it is better to measure in terms of stuff you can do. If you can kneel down and get back up off the ground after age 60, if you can slip, fall, and not break a bone, if you can carry your own groceries at age 80 – and you want to attribute this to an athletic, ascetic lifestyle, I think that would be more reasonable.

  2. When my late mother was in an assisted living home, than later a nursing home, I spent a lot of time around people who were living train wrecks. Much of it was needless.

    This experience was one of the reasons after many years of not training in any martial art, that I wanted to take it up again. I wanted an exercise that I could participate in, well into my dotterage and was menally engaging enough that I’d stay motivated to continue.

    If martial arts practice brings you no other benefit than a good sense of balance, you’re ahead of the game.

  3. I enjoyed the article, too. I’ve trained with Chen Fake’s grandsons – Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing – and a couple of their disciples. One of my teachers also claimed to have been very ill when he was younger, and I’m told he has been very ill the past couple of years. Depending on the illness, no martial art is going to have much of an impact beyond any other exercise. Brisk walking will help, too. So will a brisk game of golf, if you don’t ride a cart.

    We can’t put a lot of faith into some of the stories of these old masters, since stories tend to be embellished over time. The “sickly child” story is as common as the “he learned from a Taoist that he met on a mountain” story. These masters still come down with ailments and problems — Chen Xiaowang’s knee surgery of a few years ago is a good example.

    Good post, though, and a good topic for discussion. Any activity that gets you moving is a good one, especially one that helps the flexibility. Standing stake alone is an outstanding leg workout. I’ve had elderly tai chi students who have seen great drops in blood pressure and other benefits. So more power–and health–to all of us. I prefer, however, to practice tai chi for its intended purpose — as a fighting art. The health benefits are a natural byproduct. 🙂

  4. Great post, and good comments. I agree with Ken: “We can’t put a lot of faith into some of the stories of these old masters, since stories tend to be embellished over time. The “sickly child” story is as common as the “he learned from a Taoist that he met on a mountain” story.”. . .these stories, which are read like history, are more like hagiographies, and they have intentional bias. In any event, whatever keeps you moving is going to help! For me it is indeed the martial arts, but a walk works just as well. . .warm up stretching, etc. Martial arts are just awesome, but there are so many other avenues to health. Thanks.

  5. I’m aware that some martial arts students disparage the form I practice, Taoist Tai Chi. It is not, in fact, martial, being designed purely for health benefits. But its founder, Moy Lin-shin, was also a sickly child who was taught Tai Chi and Lok Hup Ba Fa (or, liuhebafa) by the monks and improved his health dramatically.

  6. I prefer, however, to practice tai chi for its intended purpose — as a fighting art.

    Ken (or anyone else), please humor a hypothetical question. If all guns and other advanced weaponry disappeared from the Earth today, and you needed to protect your city from roving bandits…would you invent Tai Chi Chuan as the solution?

  7. Great post! I totally agree. MAs can give so much mroe than fighting ability. When I look at my teachers who are in their 60s, they put many young men to shame on all counts: endurance, power, speed, etc.
    It’s not just training, it’s consistent training: every day (or almost), for decades on end. But in today’s society, lots of folks just want a quick fix for everything. And then they don’t understand why you can run up a flight of stairs and breathe normally while they’re gasping to get to the top…


  8. It’s true that I seek the ability to maintain my dignity in old age. My Taiji training (hopefully) gifts me the ability to stay mobile, hold my bowels, and not-piss myself when I’m 100.

    But using Taiji “just for health” seems silly. Each man above offers us a history and proof that: it’s the martial training that offers the health benefits.

    So I’m with you Ken. And, I’d prefer (though this will never happen) that the “no-fighting” Taiji people use a different name for their “health” system.

    Chris — I’m ready for no-guns bandits. My students are too.

  9. S. Smith, that is a good answer. It doesn’t really answer my rhetorical question.

    Nobody would have ever invented Taiji solely as a means to win fights–whether or not it could, and can be used for that purpose. That particular origin story is no more plausible than the fantastic stories about Zhang Sanfeng!

    My homeboy Scott Phillips has a great series of posts on the true origins of Chinese martial arts, and the social forces that have obscured them.

    I smeared general physical fitness and shamanic medicine together for the purposes of this post, but they are definitely not the same thing. Walking and stretching are no substitute for the latter.

  10. Chris,
    You may be right that tai chi wasn’t invented just as a method of fighting, but Chen Wangting was a retired warrior when he developed the system. He is said to have combined different fighting techniques from –no doubt — his own experience of other fighting arts — with the silk-reeling movement that was unique to Chen tai chi. And considering the culture from which they came, it’s very possible that he was thinking traditional Chinese medicine when he did it. His descendants were all known to be top fighters, including Chen Fake. They were not known to be top medicine men. Most of them could barely read. In fact, only Chen Bing of the modern Chen family has a college degree. Chen Xiaoxing, who spent a week in my home, has such narrow interests that he only cares about practicing tai chi — very little else.

    Everyone has their opinion on the link between TCM and the internal arts. I’m a bit of a heretic because I believe it has been wildly exaggerated by people who want desperately to be looked upon as having supernatural abilities. It’s a human disease to want to obtain these powers, and for some reason the mythology about it all has persisted most loudly in the internal arts. That’s why you have the “masters” trying to knock people down without touching them (although even some non-internal folks like George Dillman are bitten by that terrible bug).

    Way back in 2001, I offered $5,000 on the spot to some of the people who were appearing in the national magazines showing these powers, if they could even make me wobble. The experiment would have to be videotaped with witnesses and media present. It would have been 5 minutes work for these guys but no one took me up on my offer, despite the fact that “Inside Kung-Fu” put my offer on the cover of the magazine. I was flamed and threatened but the offer was never accepted. A student of one of these masters wrote to me and said I would have to fight all of this master’s students before he would do to me what he did in front of hundreds of specatators at a tournament (causing a dozen of his students to fall down by merely shuddering his body).

    A prominent Chinese journalist spent years trying to uncover the truth about chi “masters” in China, and spent a lot of time in the hospital when the chi masters, angry that their fraud was going to be exposed, had their followers beat him up severely. These guys earn a lot of money from poor people who believe they can be healed. There is no proof that they are ever healed due to chi.

    So you might believe that we have “lost” the medicine link to tai chi, but I tend to believe that stories about this type of link have developed over time without much basis in reality. The Chen family can flat out fight, and tai chi is so amazingly deep with the concepts of internal strength, that it takes a lifetime to master, giving it a deeper aura of something mysterious.

    Don’t get me wrong about all this. I do believe this is a spiritual pursuit as well, and I practice it that way. But Taoism, balancing the mind and body, and other beneficial mental activities that can be part of tai chi are more the result of easing stress and developing your ability to deal with the tensions of life (and people). Since stress is a killer, when you exercise (tai chi) and practice chi kung and the philosophical aspects of tai chi, your body is able to perform more efficiently as the healing machine that it truly is. But that is not the same as what I call the “mythology” of chi. And again, spend some time with the family that created tai chi and you get a much different picture of the art than you do from a lot of other so-called “masters” out there who want you to believe that maybe they, too, have some mystical ability.

    Just my two cents. 🙂 Again, I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I have a perspective that many share but few express. I just don’t mind expressing it because if we don’t call out the people who perpetuate this myth, tai chi will continue to draw a lot of people who want to be supernatural. What we need are more fighters who want to do more than get in touch with their chi.

    I hope I didn’t take this conversation too far off course. 🙂

  11. Ironically, right after I posted that last message to Chris, I ran across this article that someone posted online. It says tai chi can help you do stuff like move through time.

    It’s this type of silliness that causes the mythology to persist. Even though we can understand that it’s ridiculous, there are enough people out there who this will make an impression on, and it does a disservice to tai chi as a powerful martial art.

    I still compete in tournaments and have a lot of friends in TKD and karate. Years ago, they thought of tai chi as a “soft” art. They don’t anymore. Today, I’m holding a workshop in Moline, Illinois on the fighting applications of the Chen 38 form. It’s going to be my 16th DVD later this month. Some external guys will be there today, and I can’t wait to see their faces when I show them the relaxed power and body mechanics of these techniques.

    Check out this crazy article and you’ll see why it’s so hard to kill the “tai chi versus mystic” link:

  12. Ken,
    You are welcome to share your perspective here.

    The link between Taiji and shamanic medicine has nothing to do with formal education, or even with modern TCM. It is not about adding some moves to a long boxing form that are “good for chi”, or “good for jing” or some other such nonsense. It is (first) about developing a particular kind of inner vision, and identifying correspondences that are not obvious within the 3-dimensional space (e.g. kidney and knee).

    I certainly do not believe this link has been “lost”. I do believe that a relative few have the motive, means and opportunity to discover it for themselves–which is perfectly OK.

    One has to be very careful when writing about these topics. It is not enough to be lucid, and practical, and factually correct. I don’t really like that article you cited either, though probably for different reasons.

    Regarding no-touch masters, I respect your willingness to put money where your mouth is. Though if you really wanted to know what one of these people was capable of–and every one is different–then you would have quietly visited one yourself. I’m guessing that trip would have cost you much less than $5000. Well, technically, I’m not guessing, I know it to be true, because I have made these trips myself.

  13. A former teacher of mine had a straight forward explanation regarding the connection between martial arts and TCM. He said that if you and your buddies were going to go around fighting with people, someone was likely going to get busted up, and it would be very helpful if you knew how to put each other back together.

  14. It doesn’t necessarily have to be martial arts or clean-living that helps you stay in shape. Floyd Mayweather, Sr., at 56 years old, is probably more muscle-toned than I’ll ever be, eating ice cream, cake, Kool-Aid, and other junk food, and just training himself and other boxers.

    I’m sure other benefits of martial arts training like humility and reservation would have benefited him if he did some sort of traditional martial arts training, but boxing seems to have suited him just fine.

  15. I believe that health benefits are a by product of martial training, not the other way around. Since training the martial aspect will get the health benefit, then why not do so? Seems like you get the best of both worlds 😉

    Many of the masters you cited in the article started for health reasons, but I am sure there training was pretty martially orientated.

    But ultimately, to each there own. I am just not part of the camp that if you train for health, you will magically be able to defend yourself if someone tried to attack you. When I spar someone for fun, I can easily pick out those who have been in a real fight and those who have not.

    Personally, I like a more well rounded holistic approach of martial, health and spiritual 😉

  16. Martial Arts can definitely have a health benefit as with any fitness program. I understand that it can be helpful to chidren and adults with ADD. Thanks for your contribution to Take Charge of Your Health Care Carnival.

  17. I see so many opinions in this thread, but that is all I really see. We all have them, but does that really mean anything?

    I am sure my opinion is not the same as that of many people here.
    I mean, my studies clearly indicate to me that the health aspects of taijiquan were found in daoist yoga that was incorporated into amalgamation that is the Chen family style.

    The Chens say that the village now named after them was originally Changyang Village and that the ancestor of the Chens, a certain Chen Bu moved there and that he was a martial artist and since that time there have been martial arts in Chen village.

    Chen Bu was 1st generation chen village and Chen Wang Ting was 9th generation. Wang-ting was reported to be a very skilled martial artist and a scholar and he did amalgamate many existing arts into his own which became passed down in the village. However there is no mention of this art being taiji until the Chinese government of t5he 1930s sent a scholar, Tang Hoa to investigate and he is the one that claimed that taiji was a Chen invention.

    The evidence clearly shows common elements with the Chen art and taiji, however some people still maintain that taijiquan as a daoist martial art was not an invention of Chen, but was actually among the arts that Chen Wang Ting employed in the creation of his own art.

    What is clear is that many of the martial internal elements found in taiji predate Chen Wang Ting. One version of things maintains that this was just dao-yin yoga, which according to this version was practiced for health. If this version is true then the health promoting aspects of taiji are not part of the martial training but are added to the martial training to achieve better results. However if this version is not true then taijichuan is likely not an invention of Chen village at all and actually predates it.

    But who cares? History is always obscure and comes down to opinion. What about facts?

    The facts are that non-martial practice of taiji has been studied quite a bit in modern times and moreover it has been repeatedly shown to be healthy in a way that mere calisthenics are not. I would actually care enough to link such studies, but the opinionated are known for basing their concept of truth on the ability of evidence to support their opinion, not for having a standard of truth outside of their opinion. So what is the point?

    The truth is that your odds of dying of an attack are so remote it isn’t funny. Chances are you will die because of a poor diet or some other preventable cause, this is what is killing most people these days.

    I consider it a joke when people are more concerned with protecting themselves in a martial way than they are with protecting themselves against the biggest threat they face, themselves!
    In fact half of the martial attitudes are more likely to put the person at greater risk than one oriented towards health by making people think the key to self defense is to fight it out. However there will always be someone, bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled.

    When Yang Luchan taught the imperial soldiers he focused upon weapons like the jian. He was not interested in promoting health, he was interested in teaching them to kill, that was his and their job. History shows that you can have the taiji be martial, martial and healthy, or just healthy. There is no mutually exclusive combination or nature to this.

    As a daoist art there is far more to taijiquan than just the martial or the health. This has nothing to do with the internal art BS that is so common today, none of those frauds are actually familiar with Dao. However they are clearly not the only ones who remain in ignorance of the profound connection of the dao and taiji. Sadly this aspect of the art, which is at the very heart of things is almost totally lost due to the modern emphasis of form work and martial application.

    Will they ever realize that the 13 postures are not just physical?
    I hope so.

  18. Josh,
    Well, of course some people still say tai chi was not created by the Chens. There is a lot of jealousy and pettiness among martial artists. It is clearly true that Yang style began in the Chen Village. They still train in the courtyard where the founder of Yang style, a servant of the Chens, watched them practicing over a wall. He was taught Chen but told, when he left the village, that he could not teach Chen family tai chi. That’s how Yang style was born.

    Tai Chi folks in China, even the masters, are guilty of back-biting and criticizing and gossiping as anyone else. I spent a day training privately with Chen Xiaoxing during one of his visits to the U.S., and watched him in a living room as we put on a DVD of Chen Zhenglei doing a form. CXX began speaking bitterly and stomping around the room, shaking his head, then demonstrating the mistakes Chen Zhenglei was making. They are cousins and grew up together (CXX is a little younger, I believe).

    I believe the Yang folks still like to say that tai chi was created by Zhang Sanfeng centuries before Chen Wangting. It’s probably in their interest, they think, to shift the attention away from the Chen family.

    Again, that’s my opinion, but no one can find evidence that Zhang existed, and no one can trace tai chi past Chen Wangting.

    All that is immaterial. I’ve studied both styles and have found no comparison between the two. Chen is so much more alive, fluid and powerful, at least compared to the way Yang is taught in America.

    When you say you think it’s a joke when people are so focused on defending themselves, you might be missing the point. Mastery of a self-defense art is mastery of yourself. I love the martial aspects of tai chi, but I stopped doing martial arts to protect myself around 1989, when I had become a good fighter at last.

    Until you can learn the art well enough to use the concepts and principles to defend yourself, you’re practicing an empty art. Learning to relax and soften when force comes at you, change, maintain your center, neutralize the attack and counter, are skills that are at the very heart of tai chi — NOT becoming one with the universe.

    I haven’t met one Yang stylist in the U.S. who can fight. They have to be out there somewhere, but I have yet to run across them. I’ve been to major tournaments in Chicago where I was the ONLY internal artist who stuck around for fighting competition. I have met Yang folks who have been teaching for 20 years but don’t know how to use the kua. They think “double weighted” means your weight is 50/50 on both legs. They have little concept of ground and peng in their movements. I’m sure there are several who have these skills, but for the most part, Yang style tai chi in America is weak. The reason for that is the focus on the “health” and meditation aspects. The more you focus on “cultivating chi” the more you miss the real meaning of tai chi.

    Any art could be bastardized into a health and meditation art. I could take taekwondo and slow it down and make it an art for cultivating chi. Unfortunately, it happened to tai chi because the Imperial family didn’t have the dedication to learn the complex nature of the art, and the “health” aspects grew from there.

    I think your post was good. I might not agree, but I enjoyed reading your perspective. I agree that Tai Chi is a Taoist art, and there are deep aspects to the art that can be used for those purposes. But when you say that the modern emphasis of form work and martial application is causing this connection to be lost, I see it as just the reverse. When so few tai chi folks in America know how to fight with tai chi, and spend their time cultivating chi and nonsense like that, they are the ones who have ruined the art’s reputation in order to feed some psychological need for supernatural powers that they believe are developed with their focus on chi.

    I’m enjoying the discussion.

  19. I will humbly choose to disagree with the idea that the origin of taiji is in Chen village. I think that it may be the case this is true, but that there are several versions and they are all rather credible.

    I don’t think modern tournaments are ideal, but Yang style was proven rather well in tournaments of the past by CC Chen. Michuan was also proven well by Zhang Qin Lin.

    If you could do me a favor and read two articles on my blog, you can link to it through my name above. The articles are titled:
    form=dance and Unseen forces. I am interested in what you think of them, feel free to comment here or there.

  20. Regardless of the various view, the following cannot be refuted.
    1. What we know as taijiquan came from Chen family village.
    2. Yang, Wu, Sun et al got their art form Chen family
    3. No other art of taijiquan was able to influence those who learnt taijiquan of today
    4. All the Johnny come lately taijiquan are afterthoughts of the Chen village taijiquan and they only appeared after the strem overflowed its banks i.e. after Chen and Yang reached Beijing.
    5. Before that (#4) no other taijiquan existed anywhere despite the now proliferation of “Other Tai Chi’

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