Interview with Dr. Yang by Dan Cowan of Music Design's In Review magazineDr. Yang, Jwing-Ming is a martial arts expert who has spent the last couple of decades sharing his wisdom with students through the workshops and instructional programs of his company YMAA. It has grown from a single studio to an International Association of 60 schools in 18 countries. His books and DVDs have been translated into a dozen languages, and he plans to continue his teaching work with a new Retreat Center in California. I talked to Dr. Yang about Qigong practice and his on-going work in the martial arts community.
1) Would you tell me a little more about your background and training in the different fields of martial arts?
I studied martial arts, qigong, and meditation as child in Taiwan with several masters, starting in my teens. I was initially interested in Kung Fu so I could learn to defend myself, and be like the martial artists I sometimes saw performing in the streets. After I was accepted as a disciple, my master recommended that I also study Tai Chi in order to heal an ulcer I had since I was a child. This began my life's path of mastering external arts, like Kung Fu, and internal arts, like Tai Chi and Qigong. Throughout my schooling and my career teaching physics and working as a mechanical engineer, I continued to study, practice, and eventually teach.
I was born on August 11th, 1946, in Xinzhu Xian (新竹縣), Taiwan (台灣). I started my Wushu (武術, Gongfu, 功夫) training at fifteen under Shaolin White Crane (Bai He, 少林白鶴) Master Cheng, Gin-Gsao (曾金灶, 1911-1976). As a child, Master Cheng learned Taizuquan (太祖拳) from his grandfather, and at fifteen started learning White Crane from Master Jin, Shao-Feng (金紹峰), following him for twenty-three years until Master Jin’s death.
In thirteen years of study (1961-1974) under Master Cheng, I became an expert in the White Crane style of Chinese martial arts, including the use of barehands and various weapons such as saber, staff, spear, trident, two short rods and many others. With the same master, I studied White Crane Qigong (氣功), Qin Na (擒拿), Tui Na (推拿) and Dian Xue (點穴按摩) massage, and herbal treatment.
At sixteen I began the study of Yang Style Taijiquan (楊氏太極拳) under Master Gao, Tao (高濤). I later continued my study of Taijiquan with several masters and senior practitioners such as Master Li, Mao-Ching (李茂清) and Mr. Wilson Chen (陳威伸) in Taipei (台北). Master Li learned Taijiquan from the well-known Master Han, Ching-Tang (韓慶堂), and Mr. Chen learned his from Master Zhang, Xiang-San (張祥三). I mastered the Taiji barehand sequence, pushing hands, the two-man fighting sequence, Taiji sword, Taiji saber and Taiji Qigong.
At the age of eighteen, I entered Tamkang University (淡江大學) in Taipei Xian (台北縣) to study Physics and I began studying traditional Shaolin Long Fist (Changquan, 少林長拳) with Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang University Guoshu Club (淡江國術社, 1964-1968), and became assistant instructor under Master Li. In 1971 I completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University (台灣大學), then served in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. There I taught Physics at the Junior Academy of the Chinese Air Force (空軍幼校) while also teaching Wushu. I returned to Tamkang University to teach Physics and resume study under Master Li, Mao-Ching. From Master Li, I learned Northern Style Wushu, including barehand and kicking techniques, and numerous weapons.
In 1974, I came to the United States to study mechanical engineering at Purdue University. At the request of a few students, I began to teach Gongfu, founding the Purdue University Chinese Gongfu Research Club in 1975. I also taught college-credited courses in Taijiquan. In May 1978, I was awarded a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering by Purdue.
In 1980, my family moved to Houston to work for Texas Instruments, and founded Yang’s Shaolin Kung Fu Academy, now under the direction of my disciple, Jeffery Bolt. In 1982 I moved to Boston, and founded Yang’s Martial Arts Academy (YMAA). In 1984 I gave up my engineering career to devote myself to research, writing and teaching. In 1986 I purchased property in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston for the headquarters of YMAA. The organization has grown now into an International Association of 60 schools in 18 countries.
I travel between the schools and have also presented seminars around the world to share my knowledge of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. I have visited Argentina, Austria, Barbados, Botswana, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, China, Chile, England, Egypt, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Africa, Switzerland, and Venezuela.
My books and DVDs have been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Russian, Hungarian, and Farsi, and I hope that many cultures will adopt and preserve the traditional martial and healing arts.
2) What was your goal when you founded the YMAA training centers and its related publishing business?
When I arrived in America, I realized that the understanding of traditional Chinese arts was limited, and that many people were still confused. I felt responsible to share the knowledge that had benefited me so much in my own life. But now, though I have written 32 books and published more than 50 DVDs, I wish to move even deeper into teaching and preserving the arts. I have had many talented students over the years, but it is necessary for students to devote themselves entirely to training in order to reach a truly in-depth level, and this is very difficult in modern society. My new project, starting in 2008, is the YMAA Retreat Center in N. CA. This school will offer a few select students a chance to train in the traditional way in the mountains. If these chosen students train for 5 years, 6-8 hours per day, for 9 months per year, they will attain a higher level of skill, and I can pass on my complete knowledge to the next generation. Myself and these students will continue to produce DVDs to preserve the deeper aspects of the arts, so we can benefit as many people as possible.
This will introduce very in-depth traditional martial arts to modern society and publicize it, and will demonstrate a successful model for a return to the ancient way of training. I hope other masters will also create dedicated schools of this kind.
3) Your “Understanding Qigong” series offers a wealth of information for serious students of qigong practice. Would you tell me about your intentions when you started this series?
My original intention is to direct the practitioners into a correct and scientific path of learning and practicing. Since the art of Qigong is still new in western society, many are still skeptical about Qi (energy) and misunderstand how Qigong works. I hope through my explanation in this series from both an Eastern and Western perspective, I'm able to help people understand and practice Qigong arts at a higher level.
I've always believed that Qigong has continued for thousands of years because it is effective and the theory of correct practice is scientific. I have translated many ancient documents have were only recently released to the public, and they contain a detailed record of the experience and theory of practitioners. When practiced correctly, the result will be the same for others. Therefore, it can be explained by today’s science if we study it carefully. This research has only just begun in the West, but with healthcare the way it is, it should be a top priority so that as many as possible can benefit from the healing, prevention of illness, and insight that Qigong offers.
4) Though the Chinese have been practicing qigong for centuries, it is a new concept for Westerners. How do you appeal to the Western mindset? What barriers are there to overcome?
The most difficult point is to convince westerners the effectiveness of Qigong in health, longevity, and spiritual fields. I believe the way of convince them is through scientific explanation. Only when we prove to the skeptics that energy healing is real, we can stop those who have generated so much misunderstanding. Qigong is a science that is simple and easy for anyone to practice, but many treat it like a mysterious and confusing practice. For example, people are finally seeing that acupuncture is medical Qigong science, not witchcraft.
I hope and believe that in order to promote Qigong, American universities should develop a Chinese Qigong philosophy and science department. Through this, Qigong can be promoted into scholar society and research will happen more quickly.
5) Do you find that Westerners seem to be growing more open to alternate health and therapies?
Yes. Complimentary medicine has become an important part of western medical treatment and its influence has been increasing so rapidly in the last decade. Qigong is the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Acupuncture has led the way, and now Tai Chi and Qigong are more frequently prescribed as mainstream exercise for many illnesses. However, if western scholar and medical societies study and research TCM and verify its effectiveness, Qigong science can develop even faster. The first step of conquering this barrier is interpreting Qigong with a modern scientific and logical explanation.
6) What roadblocks have you come across in terms of acceptance of qigong in a Western medical context?
Studies of Qigong and TCM have started, for instance in Boston, but they take time, and there is still a lack of long-term data to support the claims. I have started to develop a Qigong Research Foundation to conduct a series of experiments using Qigong for treating various sickness. When we provide convincing data to western medical society, I believe Qigong development will grow significantly.
Actually, I urge all those interested in western medical and academic education to become involved in this work. Unfortunately, there seems to be only a small group of qualified, open-minded students and practitioners to conduct these experiments.
7) Some have trouble understanding the concept of qi energy and how it is used in the body. Can you briefly explain what it is and what kinds of things affect its flow?
To Chinese, Qi means any type of energy in the universe. The Qi circulating in the body's Qi meridians are believed to be a form of bioenergy, or bioelectricity. Western medicine has reached a very high level of understanding physical anatomy, but since Qi channels or acupuncture points cannot be seen, they have been neglected entirely in the West. New equipment to study this subtle energy more effectively will be developed soon. We all know through our experience of Qigong, meditation, or other arts like yoga that the human body is constructed by a physical part and an energy part. We have modern understanding of the physical circulatory systems, such as the lymphatic and nervous systems, but we still rely on the ancient documentation of the energetic circulatory system. Western medical science is focused still on "seeing, and “feeling” is still commonly ignored. "What you see is what you believe." For instance, in the East, nerves are considered electric fiber, and we focus ore on the energy within. It is time now to study the detailed structure of this Qi circulatory system. It cannot be seen, but it has already been measured through electric conductivity. If anyone is interested in understanding about how bioelectricity is related to Chinese acupuncture or Qi system, please refer to Dr. Becker’s book: The Body Electric.
8) What are the chief benefits of qigong practice?
Medical Qigong will give you higher quality of life. It will maintain and improve your health effectively, and can heal many forms of illness.
Scholar Qigong is meditation, which will give you a peaceful mind by regulating the emotional mind. With Qigong meditation, you will be calm and less confused about life.
Religious Qigong can bring you to a deeper spiritual understanding and insight, and also lead you to the path of spiritual enlightenment.
Finally, Martial Qigong gives you to a healthy physical and mind, and helps martial artists to increase the power of manifestation. Qigong has been developed from these four interrelated perspectives, but often your practice may incorporate aspects from each.
9) How do the ancient aspects of the Asian arts (qigong, tai chi, kung fu) fit in with modern thinking and approaches to health? What principles are applicable in today’s world?
These ancient arts helped people to be very health, strong, and relaxed, and they can do the same in modern times. This kind of training can bring people living in today's hectic lifestyle to a higher level of awareness and alertness. The society we have created in the last century has led today people to having a weak mind and physical body. Many people lack morality and self-disciple nowadays, and this causes people to move further away from mindfulness and compassion. Self-discipline, challenging yourself, and looking inward are the crucial keys and tool for knowing yourself and understanding the meaning of life. Traditional arts were created by those who attained high levels of self-mastery and these ancient arts are valued today as they should be.
By returning to these arts, people today can rebuild their relationship with nature and with each other.
10) How can martial arts be effectively incorporated into one’s daily life/routine?
A person must establish a routine habit, and simply stick to it. Choose a time of day and give yourself that time, for your health and longevity, whether you wake up and meditate for an hour, or practice a Tai Chi form every evening. Once the habit is established, you will want to practice more and more. It becomes easy to practice diligently once you begin to recognize how it benefits you mentally and physically. You must understand the theory and importance of the practice to take it seriously. If a person practices the arts just for fun, it will not last, but if you're deeply interested in the arts, then it will last for a lifetime. The art is forever. It becomes a way of life.
11) Would you tell me about some highlights of your career so far?
Since I resigned from my high paying engineer career, I have been very happy. I felt like a money slave, trapped in an office, sacrificing my own health to benefit a corporation. I deeply believe that as long as you understand yourself, trust yourself, and believe in yourself, any person can create an ideal life full of meaning and happiness. I have always visualized my dreams and then made them happen.
I am sixty-one years old and now I am moving into the most exciting stage of my life. My duties to my family have been accomplished. While many in my age group are planning for retirement and enjoying leisure, deep in my heart, I realize the value of life is not just simply enjoyment and personal benefit. I believe a more valuable and meaningful life is to transmit the precious traditional knowledge and skills which have been passed down to us through many generations. Money, glory, and reputation have no deep meaning. I want to contribute the rest of my life to something that will benefit future generations, which I will do through the YMAA Retreat Center and Qigong Research Foundation.
12) Tell us more about the Retreat Center and the intensive ten year training session.
I have dreamed for over 30 years about preserving the Chinese arts at a higher standard. My teacher knew three times as much as I. The quality and value of Chinese martial arts is downgraded with each generation and now it is taught mainly for money, whereas in ancient times, no money was involved. I never paid my teachers for lessons. I paid them respect and studied as hard as I could. The arts have been dying rapidly, but I intend to preserve what I know, and invite other masters to share their knowledge. Once people wake up from this commercial matrix that we live in, the arts will be again appreciated. If we let them die during this generation, then these precious arts which have existed for thousands of years will truly be lost.
I intend to take 15 students into the natural forest environment in CA for 10 years training and bring the quality back to the ancient time. They will master the arts to a higher level than myself and will go on to create their own schools to continue spreading outward so as many people can benefit as possible for future generations.
13) What is the primary mission of all the programs that YMAA offers?
The primary goal has always been to unite people of all cultures worldwide through martial arts practice and to preserve the arts to a higher quality. Through the YMAA International organization, we have achieved this mission to a certain degree.
14) What is it about martial arts that you love, and that has made you want to dedicate your life to their teaching?
My life has become meaningful and fruitful, and I am more alert. Through martial arts training I've developed skills and self-discipline that have benefitted every aspect of my life. I feel I can comprehend the meaning of my life better. I believe that others can receive the same benefit from this traditional training.
15) Do you have any other future plans?
I will continue to travel to teach around the world. However, I will spend more and more time on the West coast as I focus on the Retreat Center, and I will eventually spend equal time developing the non-profit Qigong Public Research Foundation (QPRF) during the next few years.
The QPRF will accomplish these main goals: First, we will translate the ancient Chinese Qigong knowledge into today’s language. Second, we will conduct a series of experiments to verify the ancient Qigong treatments for many illnesses. Thirdly, I wish to study how various forms of artificial radiation affect all living beings on the planet, such as cell phone radiation and wi-fi. This invisible field constantly affects our lives and its influence is growing stronger and stronger. It has already been linked to the sudden rise in autism and certain cancers. We are still very naive regarding electromagnetic radiation pollution. Before I run out of time, I wish to generate momentum for this study and bring the information to the public, or else ignorance of its dangers will remain. I believe Qigong can help protect us from the harmful effects of this radiation, and help all of us to live a more peaceful and meaningful life.