Master Iain Armstrong is the heart behind Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat in Pai, Thailand. He and his wife founded the Retreat in 2007 in this magical location where Master Iain lives and teaches.
Master Iain Armstrong has over 35 years experience in Kung Fu. He was trained by Grand Master Tan Soh Tin in Singapore. Amongst his wide experience he has written for Martial Arts magazines, he has won the World Championships, he has been a judge for the World Championships, he has made several public demonstrations (including washing his body in broken glass) and he has even met the Queen of England. Master Iain is a member of the Executive Committee of British Council for Chinese Martial Arts. It is possible to read a complete biography at Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat website and follow up on the knowledge that he shares at Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat blog. Master Iain Armstrong has also written Get Your Health Back Fast with Chinese Chi Kung. I’ve just finished reading this clarifying and practical book and in the upcoming future I will share with Skin at Heart’s readers what I’ve learned with it and why I highly recommend it.
I had the privilege to interview him for Skin at Heart about Kung Fu, Chi Kung and life and I proudly share the interview:
1 – First of all: what has drawn you into Kung Fu? When and how were you hooked? Why did you choose this path?
What drawn me into this was:
1 – Martial Arts
Where I come from in England, the culture is that you have to be the toughest guy and you have to be the fearless, the hardest. After a certain point of getting into it with your natural instinct, you need the training to be better.
2 – Kung Fu as opposed to other Martial Arts
First I did boxing, but I wasn’t really into it. When I went to the University they had a Club doing Chinese Kung Fu. And Chinese Kung Fu as well as Martial Arts has culture, has history, has philosophy, has traditions, has an ethos. That’s a way that western people get to learn about all of these things.
We were in the 70s/80s, the world wasn’t as it is now, and studying Chinese Kung Fu offered a lot more than just the fighting which was – for me – important.
Now it’s easier to travel and we also have the Internet. It was much harder to learn something back then than it is now. I wanted to make sure I was learning it well.
I worked as a School Teacher and then I began the process of joining the Marines. But then they suggested to me to become a Kung Fu Teacher. So I went to do the selection course in the Marines and by the second day I already decided that I was going be a Kung Fu Teacher, not a Marine.
This was around ‘86 and since then I never had any doubt that this was what I wanted to do, this was my life purpose.
Being like a lot of young people – I don’t know if it’s the same now but in those days – we used to like to fight a lot (body fight) and then as you get older it becomes more serious, so by the time that I was maybe 23 I’ve seen a lot of my friends going to prison for a long time and people getting badly hurt and then obviously a lot of guys have problems with alcohol and drugs and similar so by the time I kind of made that decision that Kung Fu was my path, I knew that I needed something to get me out of all of this. So that was my way out. That was my escape route. And I think it’s very sad that a lot of teenagers get put in prison and 25 years later they let them out and their whole life is gone. You go from being a 17 year old to being into your mid-40s and suddenly you get out of prison and then what can you do?
The doors to kung fu are open to anybody.
A lot of Martial Arts Teachers, they teach to earn money, so that when they’ve got money they can do what they want. If I won the lottery tomorrow then I would have a bigger better Martial Arts School. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than where I am now! This is the life I choose every day. I don’t do it to earn money, I do it because it is what I want to do more than anything else.
2 – Looking back to the young man you were what would you say to him now?
I would say learn to use soft as well as the hard and learn the Kung Fu of the mind, not just the Kung Fu of the body.
3 – As you are growing in your path what are the main challenges you find and how do you overcome them? What motivates you to keep on learning?
The challenges are constantly changing and when faced with a new challenge, it often means learning new skills to overcome those challenges.
In the physical sense my challenge is an aging body, now I’m 55 and the body is very different than when I was 18.
In the sense of teaching our school is growing fast and what I’m having to do is creating more structure and that’s a new one for me, really.
Also the world is changing faster than it’s ever changed before and I have to keep up with that. Now we have to consider things like what software we use or what to do with social media and these are not issues a teacher had to deal with in the past! All the time we have to change, we have to evolve so – again – the key is never to stop learning. Kung Fu is a model of life, you never finish you’re always a student, you’re always learning. If you understand that, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed.
4 – How do you master yourself?
Well, most people never do.
If you consider philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, which are the predominant under Chinese Culture and Kung Fu. The aim in all of them is to master yourself. So you know a good place to start is to study these philosophies. Ultimately Kung Fu is about mastering yourself. And that’s not easy. It’s a life’s work.
5 – How can you put Kung Fu into words, when really it is something that is beyond words?
You can’t! So instead of trying to put it into words, everybody in their mind has a concept of a Kung Fu and Kung Fu Masters. And even though you can’t put it into words for you that is Kung Fu and no two people ever have the same concept of Kung Fu.
6 – Kung Fu can’t be learned in books. It has to be experienced. That may be one of the main reasons why it is such a secret art in the sense that there is not so much literature about it. It has to pass from one living force to the other. In that sense how is the relationship between the Master and the Apprentice? How do they find each other? Is it automatic like a click or is it a growing process?
The relationship it’s just like parent and child.
Sayings that we have in kung fu:
“The master doesn’t distinguish between saints and sinners: his doors are open to all.”
“What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job?”
“When the time is right the student will find the master.”
The first two are from the Tao Te Ching, one of the most important Chinese philosophical texts.
7 – How is the apprentice tested? Is it something that a Master knows automatically once he meets him or is it something that develops as the energy of the Master grows in the Apprentice?
The teacher constantly tests the student. That’s the way of Kung Fu. And the teacher constantly sets more challenges, which is what makes the student develop. And in terms of choosing the students I don’t really choose the students, the ones who are not appropriate remove themselves. In Kung Fu character values are the key and the people that don’t have the character values, in the end they will give up.
8 – What are the most important characteristics that someone who wishes to engage in Kung Fu needs to have present?
Diligence, perseverance and openness to learning. The last one is the key, an open mind.
9 – What does teaching and the transmission of this life force mean to you?
Most people want to do something good with their lives. This is my opportunity to do that. By doing that I find contentment in my life.
10 – In a way I guess we can say that someone who follows a Kung Fu path has two families: the Kung Fu Family and the Private Family. How do these two families come together in your life? How do you find balance between them?
By sticking to the principles that I teach and trying to live a good life, be good for the people and then it’s quite easy to succeed with both families.
This Kung Fu school is as much my wife’s achievement as it is mine. It wouldn’t have happened without her. I’m very conscious of that. Although you don’t see that, there’s two people running this Kung Fu School. And in a relationship, if you have a common goal that’s a very good factor.
11 – What’s the relationship between Qi (or Chi) and Consciousness?
Qi is energy. And to raise your consciousness it helps to first raise your energy. Another way to say the same thing is maybe Qi is the energy that powers our consciousness so strengthening our Qi sets us up towards raising our consciousness.
And then another very different way of answering the question or another element of the answer is Qi is breath and the breath is closely identified with the spirit, in fact the breath is like the link that holds the mind, the body and the spirit together. And the breath is Qi.
12 – In your book “Get Your Health Back Fast with Chinese Chi Kung” you refer to the complex relationship between sex and Chi and how this affects men and women differently. Can you say a few more words about women and these differences?
Women have a great power, a deep power. They have a greater power than men in a way. Society almost manipulates women’s thinking to disempower them and to disguise their inherent power so they don’t see it. It’s kind of trying to disguise it from them. I think you can unleash their inherent power simply by starting to appreciate it. Build their inherent qualities and their inherent femininity. Stop looking for answers outside of yourself and look inside.
13 – How can one implement Kung Fu in his or hers everyday life from a western perspective point of view of “everyday life”?
Kung Fu is a way of life, so if you don’t live it 24h, then it’s not real Kung Fu. Every breath that you take it’s Kung Fu! Every time you interact with another person it’s Kung Fu, every movement that you make it’s Kung Fu and the list just goes on. When you begin: sure Kung Fu is what you do in class, but when you start to get there, Kung Fu is every aspect of your life!
14 – Perseverance and flow seem to be the key words when it comes to Kung Fu. How can one cultivate perseverance?
The key is: knowing yourself. And the barrier for most people is that to really take a look at yourself is hard and quite frightening. To face up to your weaknesses, your bad character traits, it’s for most people too tough so they go through life hiding them away. If you want to master yourself, first you have to know yourself.
“Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom, mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.”
The point is the hardest thing to do is looking at yourself.
15 – When can we expect your next book?
Don’t expect it in the next year. It’s still being created. It will be more about the philosophy of Kung Fu or the Kung Fu of the mind!
16 – Any last words to share with the readers of Skin at Heart?
In Kung Fu to succeed you have to do only two things: start and don’t give up!
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