Instructor Chris Radnedge's Journey of Self Development
– interviewed by Instructor Lis
Chris’s Martial Arts Background
Chris is a self confessed martial arts addict. His addiction began at age twelve in Cootamundra with Tae Kwon Do. At around age sixteen, he was fortunate in that a classmate, an advanced student who had studied widely, recognised his interest and talked to him about meditation and traditional Chinese methods of training. He became aware of Tai Chi for the first time through these conversations.
This friend invited him to a meditation seminar in Jugiong. It was here that Chris met his friend’s instructor. He was an inspiring man and teacher who had trained at the Shaolin Temple in China and was a high level Chan (Zen) Buddhist meditation practitioner. Chris was amazed by this man’s presence, which he had read was typical of a high level meditation master.
At eighteen, Chris moved to Canberra to continue studying martial arts with this instructor and his friend. They had recently set up a Martial Arts school in Canberra. He found a job at Woolworths and devoted all his spare time and energy to training.
Chris found that the training methods he was learning and diligently practising were very efficient at building speed, flexibility, strong stances and the ability to think multilaterally. This is typical of a good Chinese martial arts school. He was also practising the sitting qigong (with some interesting results) that he had learned from his friend’s instructor. However, after six years of martial arts training, he wasn’t confident that he could effectively use the skills he had acquired in a real self defence situation. He felt he was missing some kind of deeper foundation training.
In 1998, after about a year of Shaolin kung fu training, Chris came to his first Tai Chi class at Kaleen where Instructor Lis was teaching. He’d had problems with a sore shoulder but the loosening and relaxing movements of Tai Chi released the tension and it hasn’t bothered him since. He only attended a term or two at that time but returned to classes at Page a few months later. He was still curious about meditation. The concept of qi fascinated him. Also, being very interested in health and healing, he asked his instructor about acupuncture. Instructor Mike suggested he contact traditional Chinese medical practitioner Fei Wang, one of Chief Instructor Brett Wagland’s teachers. Fei Wang told him, “What I teach is foundation training for internal martial arts. If you love martial arts, come to my class.”
Chris went along and discovered a completely new way of training.
Wu Dao Gong Training
“I was scared at first. The low walking, the leg training – it was hard, much harder than anything I’d done before. I had to think about it for a couple of weeks before I went back. I asked Brett and he advised me to do the training. I couldn’t afford to do both so I stopped Tai Chi for a while but came back to it.”
Chris’s previous teachers often spoke of accomplished internal martial arts masters whose bodies could become so heavy that opponents couldn’t move them, or so light that they were able to jump metres into the air. These practitioners were able to produce tremendous power, were confident to engage up to twenty opponents at once, could withstand great hardships, rarely became ill, and were able to heal others through touch. Their secret seemed to lie in specific kinds of foundation training of which qigong was at the root.
“I was amazed to find that Fei had direct experience with practitioners of this calibre – his teacher and his kung fu brothers. I believe Fei Wang also possesses some of these skills, but he is a very humble man. Only rarely in the last eleven years have I witnessed him display his true skills. Those times are awe inspiring and have provided me with more than enough motivation to believe that I can succeed in this training. In the end, the training is about fully understanding yourself and your place in the universe.
The martial arts training that I learnt from Fei included: foundation training from Shaolin Quan, Xing Yi Quan, Xin Yi Liu He Quan, Tong Bei Quan and some movements from the Taoist Qigong of the Tai Yi Wu Xing Quan. All these elements have contributed to the Wu Dao Gong system which Fei passes on. From the training, my muscles, tendons and fascia lengthened and became more elastic, the joints opened and qi was able to pass through them in greater volume. My posture changed. I became fitter, faster and healthier than I had ever been.
The traditional method as taught by Fei and now Brett and myself in the Academy’s Wu Dao Gong classes are very efficient at strengthening and opening the joints. The emphasis is on training single movements to perfect them. This takes longer and involves more time and patience. Repetition is key.”
Gradually through his study, Chris began to understand the potential depth of internal martial arts practice, as they combine healing, meditation, self defence techniques and health development. He wanted to develop the Fa Jin power of the Tai Chi masters that he had heard about. He understood that it was through the traditional training that this power in Tai Chi could be acquired. He knew he needed to practise meditation as well as his other strength training to achieve this.
Tai Chi Training
The internal martial arts, of which Tai Chi is the most well known and most widely practised, are based on the concept of qi. The other two classical internal styles are Xing Yi Quan (Form Mind Boxing) and Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Trigram Palm). All of the theory and movements in these arts are concerned with building this energy in the human body, learning how to move it, how to balance it, how to apply it in healing, stress reduction, meditation and the power generation needed for self defence.
Chris says, “My previous teachers seemed to have a lot of respect for Tai Chi exponents. They valued the softness its practitioners possessed and the internal power they could generate. I was curious about how it worked and believed at the time that qi was what gave it its power. Qigong was the way that I knew qi was gained and I had a huge interest in meditation. I later found that I was not wrong in how the power was generated in Tai Chi, but my concept of what that means is more real now.
In the beginning, I remember not understanding why Tai Chi was practised slowly. My friend said that it is because they practise so slowly, that they can become so fast. I just thought of Tai Chi as a way of doing moving meditation in the beginning. It wasn’t until much later, when I first saw Tai Chi in an application, that I came to understand what my friend had told me. I can now feel why it is practised slowly. It is very smart. It follows Newton’s three laws of motion. For self defence, you are training your body to perfectly follow these natural laws.”
Chen Xiang is a high level Hun Yuan Tai Chi practitioner and a senior disciple of Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang (founder of the Hun Yuan system). He was invited to undergo a full biomechanical analysis of his Tai Chi Fa Jin (explosive power) at the Motion and Gait Analysis Laboratory of Stanford University in California in April 2007. The results were amazing and the researchers were stunned. Chen Xiang was producing four hundred pounds of force that accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 0.28 second. The researchers described Chen Xiang’s force production as striking and frightening.
Tai Chi focuses on a high level of coordination. It develops softness and removes tension while stimulating and nourishing the flow of qi. All these things are needed for the development of power in martial arts and are what had been missing in Chris’s previous training methods. Very keen to deepen his understanding and knowledge, Chris wanted to teach. He asked many questions and generally showed his enthusiasm and willingness. Chris’s addiction had gained more fuel. He was now hooked on Tai Chi as well as Wu Dao Gong. He understood the need to learn both and went to as many classes as he could.
Chris began the Academy’s Instructor Training Program in 2001. The first classes he taught were in Reid and Goulburn. “Brett began teaching me Yang style, Tai Chi. I have tremendous respect for Brett and for what he has accomplished with the founding of the Tai Chi Academy. Without Brett’s initial dream of setting up the Academy and following through on his dream, none of this would have happened. Through the Tai Chi Academy and with all the instructors and assistants involved, Brett has helped many people and changed many lives for the better.
Once I had finished learning the Yang Style Tai Chi 85 form, both Brett and Fontane spent a lot of time helping me to refine the form and learn the essential components that Yang style Tai Chi is based upon. Once these essential principles are integrated into the movements of the form, you can continue developing more qi, power and understanding without as much guidance.
Yang style Tai Chi greatly strengthened my legs, straightened my spine, improved my coordination and helped me develop some degree of softness in my body. I had also developed some qi. But my Fa Jin was still way too tense for the power to be issued properly, especially when I weighted another person on me during Push Hands.” In Tai Chi Push Hands, a competent practitioner can issue sudden explosive power to an opponent while a heavyweight is on his arms, without losing contact or pressure before the strike. This one skill takes years of intense practice to master.
“After five years of practising Yang Style Tai Chi, Brett began teaching me the Hun Yuan Tai Chi 24 form. Its movements allow greater freedom of motion than the Yang Style form and are more flowing. The spiralling movements (chan si jin) are more obvious and my body changed even further. My power increased, my co-ordination improved and most unexpectedly, I seemed to have more emotional freedom. I love the feeling Hun Yuan Tai Chi gives me. As well as the other Hun Yuan components, Brett and Fontane have also taught me the Cannon Fist forms which are learnt after the beginner’s 24 forms. They involve a slightly faster tempo, fa jin power strikes, jumping and more agile footwork. I also practise them slowly as in the 24 forms to deepen coordination and softness. This enhances the flow of qi and makes my Fa Jin even more powerful.
The training needed to become an instructor challenged me on every level. In hindsight, it was all worth it. It was a period of immense growth and the growth continues. The detailed one on one instruction I was given proved invaluable. After each instructor training lesson, my mind would be filled to the brim with corrections of not only the form but the qigong movements, chan si gong and even the warm ups. There is so much detail in the warm up exercises alone! It’s true – if you want to understand a subject deeply, teach it.”
Overcoming his fear of public speaking was a big challenge for Chris. When surveyed, most people state that they would rather jump out of an aeroplane over public speaking. Chris was one of them. He said, “I used to mumble a lot, spoke too fast and didn’t enunciate my words. I had trouble being understood when I first taught. This problem flowed over into my personal life too. It caused a lot of doubt and frustration within me. I was frustrated at myself. I couldn’t understand why something that appeared so easy for everyone else was so difficult for me. It wasn’t till years later that I realised how much my hearing problem as a child had hindered my speech. With Brett’s and Fontane’s encouragement, I enrolled in a Toastmasters course. My speaking skills gradually improved. The techniques and confidence I gained at Toastmasters have proved also to be of great benefit during my university studies, which at that time I had no intention of commencing. Fontane also encouraged all instructors to work on intonation by reading storybooks out aloud.
Brett has been a mentor to me since I first began my training with him. I was very fortunate to have his guidance in this way. He helped me understand the important points of the training and the philosophy that goes with it. He has also been there when I have needed emotional support in my life.
Most young people need guidance. Beyond my own experience, I see it also in the classes that I teach. There is great potential in teenage students and those in their early twenties. They have so much energy and time to train. They don’t have as many commitments in their lives, yet they easily lose their focus. They tend to stop and start the training without making much progress, just as I did initially. The opportunity is ripe for much growth. They need guidance from experienced practitioners. Otherwise, they don’t invest their time wisely.
Brett mentioned to me that if I put all my effort into this training for five years that I will produce something of great substance for myself and others that will enhance the rest of my life. Brett is a very wise and deeply spiritual person. He lives what he teaches. He trains around four hours a day and that doesn’t include teaching time. When I train with him, my thoughts turn towards a very spiritual direction. I feel tremendous hope for my life and feel that I can reach my highest potential and be of great benefit to others. That is the influence he has on me.
Young people need to have mentors in their lives. Brett is very open minded and will allow people to develop themselves if they want it.”
Yang Mian Training
In 2006, Brett began teaching Chris Yang Mian, a rare internal style that is fast becoming sought after as a martial arts system. This is due to its rapid development of power and individualised teaching method. Yang (family surname) Mian (means cotton) is a family system that has been passed down from generation to generation to the current lineage holder, Master Yang Zhen Hua who resides in Sydney. Its focus is upon developing flexibility and power instead of specific techniques. This allows practitioners of any martial arts to adopt Yang Mian as a supplement to their existing training to quickly raise their levels.
Yang Mian and Hun Yuan Tai Chi complement each other very well. Both emphasise relaxation, flexibility and the continuity of running water. Yang Mian makes use of spiralling energy in a similar way to Hun Yuan Tai Chi. The power built up in the Yang Mian training is easily felt during Hun Yuan Tai Chi practice. “It greatly deepened my understanding of coiling power and spiral movement. My Fa Jin power went through the roof within six months of commencing Yang Mian.”
Yang Mian teaches aspects of traditional Chinese martial arts training that are not usually openly taught. In a relatively short period, it enables the development of the different forces that are the domain of high level internal martial arts practitioners. Any hard-earned skills blunted by a lay off period or illness, are very quickly resharpened due to the speed at which this system opens up the body. Skills such as Steel Body and Steel Hand are trained through breathing techniques, qigong and impact conditioning. No special herbs are needed to supplement this training to prevent damage to the body and hands. They retain their normal appearance.
Yang Mian teaches the complete use of the elbows in self defence in an infinite number of ways and combinations. The system is perfect for both men and women. Chris added, “Yang Mian is unique among all of the martial arts styles I have come across. Most systems stop the practitioner’s power at the end of each movement. The Yang Mian system has built within its methods of linking the power from one movement to another. It can link many Fa Jin strikes into one continuous motion like a wheel, with no stopping or breaking of power. This is exactly what is needed for self defence. This power is overwhelming. The only martial art that I have seen that comes even remotely close to displaying this kind of linking power is Chen style Tai Chi which is what Hun Yuan Tai Chi is based upon.”
For Chris, the Yang Mian training was just what he needed at the right time. Through the Wu Dao Gong and Tai Chi training, Chris had built up a lot of power. Yang Mian enabled the power to be expressed fully. Chris explained, “Yang Mian quickly opened up my body even further than before. It also opened up windows in my thinking that allowed me to burst through a major plateau I had come to in my training. I began to see the previous training I had been doing and am still engaged in, in a whole different light. The outside changed somewhat, but the internal feeling and my perception changed dramatically. I can now feel my Dan Tian regularly when I practise Yang Mian. My body became even softer and more flexible. I overcame injuries that had been holding back me for years. Both my Hun Yuan Tai Chi and Wu Dao Gung training improved greatly.”
What Tai Chi Means to Chris
One of Chris’s main goals has been to acquire inner peace. Tai Chi, Wu Dao Gong and Yang Mian combine the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual elements required to achieve this.
Chris tells us, “Tai Chi isn’t just something I do apart from the rest of my life. It’s become integrated into how I think, how I move and how I react. It’s part of me. I’m much more sensitive to subtle changes in my health and can take measures to prevent a worsening condition. For example, If my body is fighting the start of a cold, my qi feels different. I’m also very aware of how my emotions affect physiology and impact on my health. I’m also more confident and have greater self esteem than when I began eleven years ago.
I feel clean internally. My energy feels clean and strong. I love practising outside. We are very lucky in Canberra that we have so many beautiful parks to practise in. The phrase ‘at one with nature’ sounds clichéd and corny but it feels like that as if I’m part of the environment rather than viewing it externally. This is quite different from going for a walk or a run.”
In contrast to many beginners, Chris never had a problem with co-ordination or remembering the sequence. His earlier martial arts training would have helped with this because he knew how to practise.
Chris commented, “Constant repetition is a necessity to get the memory of the movements into the nervous system rather than it being a purely cognitive process. As I progressed, I realised what I thought was co-ordinated movement wasn’t. To an untrained observer, my Tai Chi would have looked all right but the co-ordination was superficial. Deeper, fully integrated, co-ordinated movement comes through Qigong practice and relaxation, open flexible joints and softness of the body.”
He says that the meaning of these words changes as your understanding of Tai Chi and Qigong deepens. “In time, I began to feel what Fei constantly tells the class – be natural. When my training is firing, I feel quite different compared with times when my training has to be backed off due to injury or heavy study loads. I feel more confident and more compassionate. My memory improves and I can study more effectively. I tend to write my best essays during these times. My life just seems to flow.”
Chris has a degree in human biology from the University of Canberra majoring in sports science. This is the pre-requisite to enrolling in the Master of Physiotherapy program which he is currently studying. He started his degree in 2004 and will finish his Master’s in 2011.
Looking at Tai Chi from the perspective of a practitioner and a scientist, Chris stated, “Tai Chi is fantastic at reducing and managing physiological and emotional stress. Tai Chi can relax, overhaul and strengthen the nervous system. This is one of the key features in how Tai Chi can increase health and the overall well being of a person. Many students come to Tai Chi with major illnesses – even terminal. These students have reported that Tai Chi, and in particular, the Hun Yuan Qigong, is very helpful when coping with the effects of chemotherapy. I am in awe of these people. I hope that my courage may come out so strongly when I need it in my life.
Occasionally students have commented to me that they feel clumsy and uncoordinated when practising Tai Chi. This is perfectly normal and everybody will experience this at some point in their training. I love teaching. I am grateful for all of the students who have come to my classes. I see incredible potential in Tai Chi and its application in the future. Tai Chi is a healer. Many physiotherapists are already using exercises from Tai Chi to improve their patients’ gait, joint strength, range of movement and balance. I have a feeling that it can be applied in other ways too – especially in survivors of stroke.
Tai Chi can be modified to suit anyone and can be made to work around any injury, allowing time to heal. While the injury is healing, these exercises gently stretch and strengthen the area through the opening and closing movements of the form, Qigong and Chan Si Gong (silk reeling exercises). Qigong seems to open up injuries from the inside out. From my experience, directing qi into the minor knee and ankle injuries speeds up the healing process immensely.”
To conclude, Chris says, “I have been very fortunate to have been taught by very competent and caring teachers. Brett, Fontane, Fei, Lis and my martial arts peers have all instilled into me that growth takes time. This is something I have unsuccessfully attempted to disprove many times since I am a very goal oriented person. The hardest thing for me is to let go – not just of physical and emotional tensions, but also expectations. I also have a problem with overtraining. This becomes counter-productive leading to injury. I need to listen to my body and stop. It’s a yin yang, finding the balance.
Tai Chi affects people on a physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual level. This is why growth cannot be forced. The Chinese have a saying, ‘You can’t make the tree grow faster by pulling up its roots.’ The roots will break and have to reattach to the earth before the tree can continue to grow any further. Patience is needed in any endeavour, especially in Tai Chi and meditation. You will inevitably feel impatient and frustrated at some time in your practice. See it as a chance to examine yourself. I have come to understand that if you can see merit in accomplishing something, the desire to quit is only an obstacle to be overcome, not an excuse to give up.
Meditation is my main focus and I practise between one to three hours each day, depending on my work and study schedule. Through the practice, my focus and concentration have improved in a general sense. I see it in my university classes. I can engage in the subject more fully than I previously could. The calmness is retained for increasingly longer periods after practice.
My body feels heavy when I practise the Tai Chi form. It is not a sluggish heaviness but relaxed and fluid as though there are no angles and my body is filled with water. My spine is looser and more flexible. I can release tension when I feel it building.”
Chris’s dedication to his practice has transformed his life. His journey through various martial arts and Tai Chi has created a rich tapestry of experiences and discovery. No doubt he will continue to travel along the path of self development.