Lifelong martial artist Joe Harte tells us why the martial arts are so much more than learning to fight; and how anybody can find and benefit from the right training.
To the casual observer the first impression of Joe Harte is of a slightly-built, quiet, unassuming middle-aged guy. Even when training or teaching, there are no silk robes, uniforms or belts of any colour in his arsenal (other than to hold his trousers up). He speaks softly and thoughtfully, in a north London accent moderated by time and travel; he is open, honest, friendly and engaging with a self-deprecating and quick sense of humour which draws people in. Yet as his students know only too well, still waters sometimes run deep, and from time to time you get the sense that when he’s talking to you or watching you, he can not only see you, but see right through you.
When he practices the ‘form’ (the slow, elegant sequence of veiled martial postures most people would recognise without even putting a name to it as ‘Taiji’) he moves precisely and fluidly with an effortless grace that betrays his years of dedicated training and the difficulty of some of the moves. Yet when he leads me through the basic ‘set pattern’ partner exercises (the building blocks of Taiji ‘push-hands’) and some of the applications which may spring from them, he moves deftly and quickly: often too quickly for my mind to completely grasp the movement, even after four years training. An occasional soft jab with the fingers of an open hand or an elbow, or a pulled punch hint at applications whose potential are too terrible to countenance, but moreover, like being led through a dance, I find that more often than not the considerable bulk of my larger frame is mostly under the control of Joe’s centre, and little under my own.
Far from being intimidating, the experience only makes you want to know more: about how someone can be so soft, relaxed, still and centred, yet charged with an energy which is ready to burst forth at any moment, and a mental and physical capacity that is often hard to understand. We asked Joe to tell us about his experience of the martial arts, and beyond fad, cliché and rhetoric, what these ancient arts might offer mere mortals like us.
TBU: How old were you when you started training in the martial arts, and what was it that inspired or motivated you initially?
JH: Thinking back there were probably several factors that influenced me: being smaller than the average male, and growing up on an inner city London council estate where trouble was never that far away were two of them. More positively I was interested in physical culture but found my interests weren’t catered for at all well in the normal school sports curriculum of the day. In fact, if anything the way sports were taught in those days, at least at my school, put me right off as it seemed if you were weren’t already naturally gifted then you were pretty much left to the back of the pack. I found the usual ‘team’ games such as football or rugby tedious and more than a bit of a trial where the real game, as far as I could see, was to survive to the end of the match!
I was 14 when I first joined a local Judo club. It was around the time of the cult TV series ‘Kung Fu’ with David Carradine which captivated me and became enthralling regular viewing. It hinted at a discipline of mind, body and philosophy that went way beyond mere sport; it awakened something in me. Of course the Bruce Lee films were starting to come out around then as well and many were influenced by those.
TBU: What styles have you practiced over the years, and broadly speaking what was your experience of each of those styles?
JH: Spanning more than 35 years I’ve trained in a couple of different disciplines and along the way touched on a few others; but the balance of time is in favour of Taiji now as I’ve trained in that for over 20 years.
I started with Judo for a year or so but I didn’t really apply myself to it if I’m honest. It was also around that time I began experimenting with meditation, perhaps a little unusually for a 14 year old. But there was something I found very intriguing about training the mind and I’d read of the links between martial arts and meditation.
Fate intervened and I ended up sharing a tent on a camping trip with one of the school technicians, Pete. It turned out he had long been into Karate and Kung Fu. I managed to persuade him to teach me. He agreed on condition that I enlisted a few other friends to join us. So we began training twice a week in the school gym. After about 6 months my group of conscripts had dwindled to just 3, me and two friends.
Pete, our Kung Fu mentor decided it was time to introduce some sparring. Pete was a well built and powerful 5’11 or 6’ weighing easily 13 stone or more, where I was all of 5’5’ and under 9 stone wet through! During one fateful session that I clearly remember, my other friends hadn’t turned up and Pete was pushing me harder and harder. As we got to the last sparring session of the class an opening in his defence appeared, and somehow my front kick found its mark. I was simultaneously shocked, horrified and exhilarated as Pete collapsed in a heap in front of my eyes! I had never experienced the effect a well timed and well executed technique could have. He was ok, and after showering and changing Pete said ‘I think it’s time you met my Kung Fu teacher’. And so my journey began.
So at 16 I began Kung Fu training with Joe Holmes of the Shaolin Kung Fu Association in London, and that then turned into ten formative years of dedicated training where I really did make a sustained effort; often training 4 times a week at classes and then in between work and studying engineering, I would meet up with friends to train in the park or at home. That undoubtedly changed me forever and set me on a path that has carried me forward to deeper things that I train today.
Towards the end of that ten year period I was teaching a class of my own but deep down I knew I needed something else. I once again began to explore meditation looking for that link between mind and body that’s supposed to be so much part of true martial arts, but without guidance and a coherent training system that combined the two I couldn’t find it. The need to change was strong and after some discussion with my Kung Fu teacher I made the difficult decision to leave, but we still keep in touch even to this day.
I then began training in the Japanese system of Jujitsu; not the modern sport variety but a very traditional and formal dojo run by Prof Dick Morris at his London headquarters. Because of my previous training I was soon integrated well into the club and taken under the wing of some of the senior instructors. It was the habit of the instructors at that dojo to gives nicknames unbeknown to the students. I found out sometime later they called me ‘Duracell’. I had red hair in those days so they figured I was ‘the one with the copper-coloured top that keeps on going!’ It made me laugh anyway when I found out.
In terms of the fighting distance Jujitsu is much closer than what I’d been used to and much use is made of circular forces, locks, strikes, and throws. The techniques when applied well are effective and painful. The classes included some meditation but it wasn’t integrated well as far as I could see with the main training. I trained at the club for about 3 years.
It was only after I moved to the north of England in ’89 that I began to look into the so called ‘internal arts’ and Taiji in particular. I’d heard about these arts as they form part of the wide spectrum of disciplines that fall under the umbrella of Kung Fu but knew nothing about them really. Remember these were in the days before it was possible to just look up almost anything on the internet, and even buying decent books involved travelling to specialist book shops and were expensive.
So, after looking around I began Taiji training in the early 90’s with Dan Russell in Carlisle and have been hooked ever since. After some years Dan introduced me to his own teacher Patrick Kelly who I’ve studied directly with now for over 15 years.
I now live and work in the north-east of England and have a couple of Taiji classes in Durham; and I still attend the international seminars run by Patrick that gather his senior Taiji students, most of whom are teachers themselves, from all over the world.
Taiji is without doubt one of the most subtle, difficult, and profound disciplines I’ve come across, or at least the teachings of the late Master Huang Sheng Shyan (Huang Xingxian) (as taught to me) via my worldwide respected long time teacher Patrick Kelly.
TBU: Have you ever practiced full contact fighting or participated in competition? What was your experience of that aspect?
JH: Yes as part of the Kung Fu training I was encouraged to look at competition. It wasn’t the ‘be all and end all’ as it was for some clubs and organisations but something to learn from.
The traditional Karate semi-contact scene was much more prevalent in those days but it just didn’t suit our style of more boxing-based full contact fighting. Somewhere in the early to mid 80’s I spent around 3 years competing in what was known as ‘Full Contact Karate’ tournaments. This was before the term ‘Kickboxing’ had really stuck. And it was even before the rules for that type of competition had been fully established in theUK. In fact I won a few early competitions using techniques such as low leg sweeps that would later be outlawed because it wasn’t so exciting for the spectators to watch. A definite case of the tail wagging the dog!
It was interesting to challenge myself in this way. There was the discipline required for training for an up-coming fight, then the lead up to event itself, all the hype, weigh-ins, promoters, and spectators. Learning to deal with the pre-fight nerves was an eye opener. I read books on sport psychology and experimented with mental visualisation techniques in preparation. At that time I did enjoy being part of something where most of the fighters had a real respect for each other: we all knew how tough and potentially dangerous it was out there. In the full contact ring, as in a boxing ring, no one is usually in any doubt about who the victor is so people’s egos seemed a little tempered by reality, you might say. This was not my experience in semi-contact competitions where egos seemed to inflate way out of control.
But at the end of the day it’s a sport and although I learnt something valuable, after a few years I felt I was treading water so left it behind. Not to say there weren’t things I still needed to improve on and learn of course; but it just wasn’t heading in the direction I needed to go.
TBU: Have you ever had to use your training in a real-world confrontation?
JH: I’m not the sort of person who likes confrontation so thankfully I’ve managed to avoid much more than I’ve ever had to actually deal with, but everyone will have had one or two incidents I’m sure and I’m no different.
There is what turned out to be an amusing story from many years back. It was late at night and I was on my way home and for some reason all the lights were out on the landings and stairs in the block of flats where I lived. As I waited for the lift in the darkened lobby out of nowhere came a sudden attack. Before I knew what was happening I had swept the persons legs completely off the floor and was instinctively following them down with a punch; waiting to time it with the moment they hit the ground. Just at the last moment I somehow realised it was my brother and thankfully managed to pull the punch. We were both quite shocked, but needless to say he never tried that again! He now runs his own Jujitsu dojo in north London.
More recently I was in Rome with my wife and two children. We were just off the train and the family were following me along a crowded street, bags in hand, map in the other trying to locate our hotel. A street beggar grabbed my outstretched arm (with the map) and began vigorously shaking it whilst pleading loudly for money. Simultaneously a second beggar thrust a large piece of cardboard into my chest imploring me to look at the pictures of bedraggled children and scribbled text describing their plight. Because I had already instinctively relaxed my arm the vigorous shaking was not disturbing my balance as intended. I immediately felt the very first light touch from an unseen 3rd person hidden below the cardboard placard going for my pocket.
I remember smiling to myself. I felt completely in control of the situation, as I quickly withdrew my hip allowing a wave of (Taiji) stretch to travel powerfully through my body and into my arm, ripping it from the beggars grasp. The beggar was pulled uncontrollably forward, and at that moment it was clear I had time to consider whether to administer a good powerful slap or choose something more debilitating? As it turned out I chose neither as the other two had suddenly backed away in shock and fear, bowing and apologising profusely, quickly followed by the one who had been pulled forward.
There also was a fourth person a few meters back in the crowd who I had immediately become aware of: he was no doubt the ‘back-up’. In that moment of eye contact I sensed that he realised I knew he was part of the ‘gang’ and I was now in no mood to be messed with. He also shrank back in to the crowd and disappeared. It seems I may have been more trouble than they were hoping for!
Rather than feeling shocked or disturbed, I felt perfectly quiet and calm, but highly alert. My family were not quite sure what had taken place and my daughter asked why these people had been bowing and apologising to me. With my bag still in one hand and my map still in the other, almost without pause, we just carried calmly on and found our hotel. So of course some ability in self defence is useful on the odd occasion the need arises. But much more important are the lessons to be learned from the deeper aspects of true Taiji.
SanFeng Quickfist: The school’s Taiji fast form.
TBU: As a lifelong practitioner, how do you feel about the entertainment industry borrowing, exaggerating and possibly even bastardising the physical, philosophical and spiritual aspects of the martial arts? Do people come to the training with the wrong attitude or intention because of this?
JH: We all enjoy a good spectacle. It’s an interesting question as it’s perhaps in part a TV series that inspired me to look at the martial arts in the first place. It’s somewhat inevitable that the outer, showier aspects and some of the intrigue and mystery that surrounds the more esoteric practices will be depicted in films and the like. The martial arts world abounds with stories of amazing feats by mysterious masters after all; it’s exciting and entertaining. But for the most part you just have to see it for what it is – entertainment – sometimes good, sometimes bad.
Personally I’m not really into the martial arts movie genre; and I’ve never been to see the Shaolin Monks circus. I’m sure it’s fun to watch and there’s absolutely no doubt these are highly trained athletes – but true martial arts? The reality is not exactly like what’s depicted in the films. And for sure because of that imagery some people, but not all, come to the classes with the wrong perception and attitude. How could they not: it takes decades of training to even begin to understand something like Taiji.
TBU: In your experience, what are the real benefits of martial arts training? Is it purely about learning to fight or defend yourself ?
JH: By now you’ll probably guess that I’m not going to say learning to fight or defend oneself. Of course some skills in that may be useful on occasion – but the real benefit is learning about who you really are, deep down when all the veneer is stripped away and there is just the raw exposed you with nothing to hide behind; when you’re up against it, or more to the point, up against yourself! Attempting to balance the three centres of Body; Emotions; and Mind – easy to say….. but it’s at least a lifetime’s work.
Taking destructive negative energies and redirecting them, channelling them into something empowering, and positive, that’s a real benefit worth striving for.
I’ve had the honour to teach people who have completely turned their lives around, turning away from a destructive downward spiral and creating a positive path forward. Of course there has to be a desire from the person to change; they do it for themselves, but the martial arts and Taiji in particular can be the catalyst.
Learning basic Taiji principles in a partner exercise called ‘seven pushes’. The object is to yield to (and not resist) an incoming force; then neutralise it (in this case by careful alignment of the spine to take the forces efficiently to the ground). Relax, relax, relax !
TBU: Can anyone benefit or are there any barriers in terms of previous experience, age, gender or physical ability?
JH: There are no barriers really………. only in our own minds. We create barriers and then hide behind them. I’d like a pound for every person who has ever said to me that they ‘wish’ they could do something like Kung Fu or Taiji, or that they “….must get into something like that” but they’re too busy, too unfit, too tired, too fat, it’s too far, or they might look silly! The excuses go on and on. Rarely do they say it’s too much effort, which would at least be being honest with themselves.
Whoever you are, if you really want to develop yourself you must know that the connections to the true teachings are not bounded by race, gender, religion, social status, or physicality. There will be a teacher out there who can help you, but you will have to make the effort to look, and there may be some conditions that you have to meet in order to learn from that teacher. It may not be just at the local community hall or sports centre. These things generally don’t come knocking on the door.
TBU: How important is it to find the right style, class or teacher? Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about starting to train or wishing to explore these disciplines?
JH: You really have to enjoy and connect at a deep level with teaching being offered, so it is important to find the right style and the right teacher for you. Probably the best thing is to try a few different classes out. Teachers are very individual, even within the same system. If you have no experience then reading about what it might be like can be a long way from the reality, so go along and take a look and ask questions.
Be honest with the teacher and say you are just exploring to find the right thing for you, most will readily accept that. If not then leave immediately as they aren’t the sort of teacher you’ll get much from. In any system you are unlikely to get to see too much in one or two lessons, but you may be able to gauge the flavour of the classes. Look to the students and see how they are; not so much technically because without experience it’s not possible to judge, but in themselves are they showy, loud, egotistical, or are they unassuming and friendly, the sort of people you would be happy to spend some time with – it says a lot about a class and the teacher. Some of the most technically proficient martial artists I know would go unnoticed by all but the most aware. Also is the teacher still learning from a good source themselves? Some mistakenly train for a few years then become a ‘teacher’ and stagnate, stuck in their own ideas, or worse changing things because they ‘know better’.
Martial arts training may be serious and earnest; but that’s not to say it should not be friendly and relaxed: Joe warns against teachers (and students) with big egos.
TBU: You now practice and teach Taiji almost exclusively: what is it about Taiji that has led you to practice that particular art to the exclusion of your previous training?
JH: Well it’s a journey of course and I find myself at this point along the way. I sometimes think it would have been good to start Taiji earlier, but in reality I just wouldn’t have been ready for it as I’m sure the subtleties may well have just passed me by.
Taiji has a particular problem in that it’s grossly misunderstood, even by martial artists, as being something just for health, or just to relax, or just the martial aspects. True Taiji encompasses all of those and goes far beyond into the Deep Mind sphere. But often the deeper aspects of training, especially training the mind, are completely left out just as they are in the hard arts.
I deliberately left the hard/external martial training behind as it was conflicting with my attempts to get deeper into the Taiji. Having a good teacher is a must, and in that respect I feel very fortunate: my original Taiji teacher Dan Russell of Carlisle invited me to attend the international seminars by his own teacher Patrick A Kelly. That opportunity has changed my life you might say. The deep teachings that are handed down from genuine teachers to genuine students are a treasure that comes from an unbroken line of intelligence that transcends race and culture, and supports the individuals who hold it in trust for the next generation.
TBU: How often do you practice? What is a typical training regime for you?
JH: It’s changed so much over the years depending largely on outer circumstances. It’s not so much about the amount of time, but quality of practice that’s important. I have a demanding full-time job, and a young family. As a minimum I practice the equivalent of a full working day each week, but often more.
I attempt my best to ensure my training is high quality, never being happy to just go mindlessly through the motions for the sake of it. Often I train in the normal activities of the day by bringing myself to a state of deep awareness, or allowing a wave of muscle release to ripple through my body. Walking through a door offers a moment of opportunity to train; just pulling on the door handle can be training if done in the correct way. In these moments no one would notice as there isn’t an outer show of training – just an inner change.
There’s no doubt someone with more experience can put more into the training than someone with less. But with familiarity comes the danger of stagnation; it takes constant effort to ensure that you are actually challenging yourself and not just repeating old habits. I try to have a beginner’s mind where everything is new and has to be carefully trained. Each person has to decide for themselves what is reasonable.
TBU: You also explore and mix other arts occasionally in one of your classes: can you tell us a little bit about this aspect and which arts you borrow from?
JH: That class you refer to is my so-called ‘Combat Zone’. I left the more external training alone for quite sometime, years in fact, as it took me all my time to concentrate on the Taiji. In the last six years or so however I picked up a little of that training again as a way of exploring the Taiji principles in faster, more assertive situations.
Some of my old Kung Fu partners from way back and my brother had been exploring JKD, the conceptual art of the late Bruce Lee, as well as Kali, the Filipino martial art. I kept hearing the name of a specialist teacher in those arts time and time again from different sources, so I wrote to him and he invited me to come to a workshop he offers to people who already have at least a black belt and are teaching martial arts. I went to see him and was very impressed. I’ve picked up some things from him that were extremely useful, and now incorporate that into the mix that we train in the ‘Combat Zone’ class once a week.
Having said that, I strictly keep my Taiji classes pure to the original teaching that I receive from my teacher – adding nothing and taking nothing away – as was the advice from the founder of our system, Master Huang. My students who get the chance to meet my Taiji teacher have commented positively on that, seeing my attempts to keep to the path.
TBU: Do you think it’s important to keep an open mind and have an appreciation of other styles though it may be impractical to devote yourself entirely to more than one system?
JH: Yes of course. As in life, you have to choose a certain path, but can respect others who tread a different one along the way. And in fact there are many parallel paths that suit the different natures of people.
TBU: If you had the opportunity to meet any practitioner of the martial arts, living or dead, who would that be and why?
JH: That would have to be the Master Huang Sheng Shyan (Huang Xingxian). He died in 1992 but from all that is understood he transcended his own teacher’s Taiji abilities; the famous Grand Master Cheng Man Ch’ing.
He left a legacy that ripples out across the Taiji world for the benefit of all.
I know it’s impossible of course, but I would love to ask him about my own practice, and how he sees the art evolving. What he thinks of the great efforts that his own student, and my teacher, Patrick Kelly has made in systematising his teachings into a clear, 14 year training programme. I can only imagine he would nod with deep appreciation and approval for the work that Patrick has done in spreading the teaching toEurope.
TBU: Do you ever foresee a time when you will stop training?
JH: No. I might stop when I’m dead; but it’s not guaranteed, as there may be other things to work on!
TBU: Thanks Joe!
To find out more about Taiji and perhaps take a class or two if you’re in the vicinity of the north of England, check out Joe’s website at: http://www.communigate.co.uk/ne/taijiquan/