A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Mass Marketing of the Martial Arts
by Christopher Dow
It is well known that the type of business that fails the most in the first year is restaurants, but martial arts schools might be a close second. Over the years, I’ve watched a large number of small schools crop up in strip centers, warehouse spaces, and buildings formerly occupied by other sorts of businesses, only to see them disappear in short order. Undoubtedly there are a number of reasons for such failures. The primary one is probably that of demographics. There is a huge number of people who like to watch martial artists on movie and TV screens, but there are relatively few who really want to learn and who are willing to put in the time and energy to do so. If you open up a hotdog stand in the middle of a crowd of vegetarians, you just aren’t going to sell many hotdogs, even if your dogs are kosher.
Other reasons might include an insufficient practice space, a perceived lack of expertise on the part of the teacher, or even negative personality traits exhibited by a teacher who otherwise seems competent. You can probably come up with other reasons, but now, there is a whole new school of sharks circling those who want to bolster schools that are floundering. These sharks are marketing companies that target martial arts schools. I guess all those folks who flocked to earn MBA degrees over the past couple of decades have to do something with those degrees. Why not target martial arts schools?
Even a cursory online search for martial arts marketing companies reveals dozens. Most of them make it seem that opening a martial arts school is no different than opening any other sort of health and fitness club, but this isn’t actually the case. Clients at most health and fitness clubs come once to a few times a week, and many don’t require instruction, only access to exercise machines. And for those who attend classes that do need an instructor—an aerobics class, for example—the training for such an instructor is pretty short-term when compared with the time frame necessary to learn a martial art, chi kung, or yoga adequately enough to teach. A health and fitness instructor needs only a year or so under the belt to be able to teach because most exercise is simply repetitive physical movement that works one or more parts of the body’s musculature. You memorize a few routines, do the exercises until you’re fit and know what they feel like—which for younger people, isn’t that long—and presto! You’re an aerobics instructor.
On the other hand, most martial arts and other chi-building practices—especially Tai Chi—aren’t so simple to learn. You might be able to learn the basic forms or katas in a year, but it takes much longer than that to integrate the movements into one’s daily movement patterns and begin to comprehend how to use them and how the energy flows inside the body. Most people cannot attain sufficient knowledge to really teach any martial art in less than five years of practice and training, and Tai Chi takes even longer to consolidate one’s movement patterns and to comprehend the art on some of its deeper levels.
Many of these martial arts marketing companies focus on generating traffic to a school’s website, and some offer website services. Some even say they’ll help promote your school not only with digital media but with print media as well, such as direct mail, posters, door hanger, brochures, print advertising, T-shirts, and so forth. They are full-spectrum promotional companies.
Maybe some of these maketing schemes will do wonders for some martial arts schools, especially for teachers looking to expand from hole-in-the-wall studios to the bigger time. I can’t knock big aspirations, especially among those whose goal is to become professional martial artists of significant caliber. But frankly, for most grass-roots teachers, it’s probably a waste of money. Most areas, even in major cities, simply don’t have the kind of audience that can provide enough students to fill a large school—at least not on the scale of an average health and fitness club or aerobic class. Part of this is the perceived benefits of health-club-style exercises designed for the musculature alone—the kind that makes you buff and sexy. That’s the kind of exercise that tends to draw the most participants. The other side of this coin is that the general public thinks that the martial arts are just about fighting rather than about keeping fit with intentional and purposeful movement that produces effects that are not readily perceivable to the uninitiated and that aren't at all related to combat.
It’s ironic that while the marketing of the martial arts in the past was dependent on a personal physical demonstration of prowess and skill, today it is dependent on an advertised supposition of skill or expertise that might not match the reality. How many times have you seen a movie advertisement that promises the movie will slam you into your seat or astound or thrill you, only to discover that it’s just the same old standard Hollywood fare? Martial arts schools are no different, and you have to shop around in person to judge for yourself. Shopping for the right martial arts instructor—and the right martial art—is kind of like shopping for shoes. The shoes might look good on the shelf, but you really can’t tell if you want to wear them until you’ve tried them on and walked around a little bit to see if they fit. You just can’t do that from reading promotional material or learning remotely.
I have to admit that my feelings about martial arts marketing companies is a bit jaundiced. I worked for my entire career in publications production—a good portion of that time in the public affairs department of a major university. Over the course of several years, I watched marketers move in and put their stamp on higher education in ways that seemed to me to be detrimental to the supposed goals of higher ed. I always thought that when people start hyping how important they are instead of about matters that really count, they’ve lost the edge of truth and reliability, and everything they say becomes a hedge.
Marketing Tai Chi in this way is only one step removed from the latest trend, which had its roots in Tai Chi classes offered by corporations. But even in those cases, the Tai Chi class usually was taught by a local expert hired by the corporation to come in and teach. That’s not much different—for the teacher, at least—than holding a class in any other location. Now, though, there’s a new and perhaps inevitable development perfectly exemplified by Body & Brain, a corporation that sells Tai Chi and yoga school franchises. Yes, you have that right. Now there is a martial arts franchise, much like restaurant, convenience store, dental clinic, and dog spa franchises.
According to its website, Body & Brain is an organization “committed to spreading comprehensive wellness of the mind, body, and spirit to individuals and communities. We wish to create a healthier and happier society where everyone lives as a true master of one’s life and works for the compassionate benefit of all living beings on Earth.” (1) Aside from the fact that the violent, bigoted, and ignorant neighbor who lives down the street from me will never, ever live as a true master of his life or work for the compassionate benefit of all living beings on Earth, that doesn’t mean that those of us who want to can’t try to be better people. So I can’t really argue with Body & Brain’s stated goals, though I remain skeptical of the company's methods and claims.
Specifically, Body & Brain teaches a yoga practice melded with Tai Chi and other martial and chi-building arts called Dahn Yoga. Dahn Yoga, the Body & Brain website explains, was developed by Korean-born Ilchi Lee, who began teaching his system in a park in 1980 after he supposedly used his chi kung method to cure an individual of partial paralysis. One page of the website reads: “The principles behind the practice and exercise that he [Lee] taught originated from 9,000 year-old Korean traditional practice for spiritual awakening and self-realization called Sun Do (Tao). Sun Do originated from the ancient Korean people in Northeast Asia. It was practiced as part of popular culture during the Dahngun era, from 2333–108 B.C., then disappeared into the mountains where it continued to be practiced in secret by Sun Do masters for centuries. From a modern perspective, Sun Do may be considered similar to other types of yoga, tai chi, meditation, or martial arts. Body & Brain yoga includes most of the elements of these body and mind practices.” (2)
This last assertion is part-and-parcel of my sketicism. I might have been less so had the statement read “select and important elements of” instead of “most of the elements of.” So, does Body & Brain teach its students push hands, sung, jumping spin kicks, focused punching, chin na, grappling, Iron Palm, Golden Bell, spear and staff forms, etc., etc.? It doesn’t look like it, so it can’t really claim to “include most of the elements” of the many and diverse arts it cites. You’d have to master each and every one separately to get that, not simply skim the surface of a few principles and movements. This isn’t to say that what Body & Brain teaches isn’t worthwhile. From what I can tell, it’s primarily akin to chi kung melded with yoga, with a touch of Tai Chi thrown in. That might be enough for some people, but it certainly isn’t the all-inclusive practice the company’s promo materials say it is.
And other aspects of Body & Brain’s website are troubling to me, too, because I automatically distrust anyone or any organization who dissembles in an effort to aggrandize themselves. The Body & Brain website provides a perfect example on the “Affiliates” page, which lists ten other organizations affiliated with Body & Brain: “Our vision is big, but we believe that the strength of collaboration will create tides of change for a brighter and happier tomorrow. We are proud to work with the following organizations who share aspects of our spirit, purpose, and/or principles.” (1)
Again, I can’t argue with the apparent good intentions stated here. I, too, want a more meaningful, productive, and happy world. And to have your vision bolstered and activities joined in by others with similar outlooks is an indicator that something truthful and real is going on. But a closer look at each of these other ten organizations reveals the actual reason they “share aspects of our spirit, purpose, and/or principles": All of them also belong to Ilchi Lee, though you have to dig around in some of their websites to discover that fact. So, instead of having ten independent verifications of the quality of Lee’s efforts, you actually have only Lee, his associates, and his acolytes all patting themselves on the back while trying to make it look like it’s all just a common philosophical alignment instead of being a matter of unified ownership and hierarchy.
I tried to discover what it would cost to open a Body & Brain franchise and what kind of training is required, but the website is vague on these points. I then sent an email to Body & Brain, requesting information on the kind of training that is required of its teachers and franchise owners, but the company never replied. This is not a good sign, at least with regard to the company’s responsiveness to potential customers and franchise owners. So, regarding Body & Brain’s franchising, I can only rely on the testimonials by current franchise owners on the website. One of these owners said she’d practiced seven years before opening her own franchise, but in the testimonials of other franchise owners, none of the owners seemed to have quite that much background.
One aspect was consistent throughout the many testimonials: that the owners bought a franchise because they wanted to help other people realize a more complete life. They all seemed sincere, and at face value, the desire to help others isn’t a bad thing. But I have to wonder how many also secretly want to be viewed as a spiritual guru with the true knowledge of spiritual fulfillment.
The funny thing about chi-building exercise programs is that any decent Nei Kung (internal-type chi kung) can enable the average person to sense and enhance chi, as well as to mobilize it to some extent within the body. Some chi kung can do that relatively quickly, and some people sense chi more readily than others. But some leaders of large organizations imply that their particular chi kung is the most productive in this regard or that the power actually emanates from the leader rather than from within each and every human, and they use this idea to create a cult-like mentality. In fact, Body & Brain has been categorized by some as a cult “that uses coercive persuasion and thought reform methods to create deeply devoted Dahn masters (teachers) who persuade others to devote all their time, energy, and money to Body & Brain programs, events, and ceremonies, and to become loyal Dahn masters themselves.” (3)
Further, “Rolling Stone Magazine published an article in March 2010, entitled, ‘The Yoga Cult,’ alleging that ‘Dahn’s calling itself “yoga” is just a marketing ploy to enhance its appeal to Americans'; that instead it is a mind control cult designed to part people from their money. According to the article, the group brought in $30 million in the U.S. in 2009 and charges as much as “$100,000 for a seiminar.” (3) Forbes magazine had something similar to say in 2009 about Body & Brain. “It reported allegations by former members that they were pressured to train to become paid ‘Dahn Masters,’ paying up to $10,000 each for workshops that lasted as long as three weeks. If students could not afford the training, the article states, they were encouraged to take out loans and carry credit card debt. Plaintiffs in a suit against the group claim that once they became ‘Dahn Masters,’ they were then given recruitment and revenue quotas that had them working up to 120 hours per week.” (3) A large number of legal suits have been brought against Body & Brain, including sexual abuse charges against Lee and one wrongful death suit, though most of the charges and suits have been dropped or settled out of court.
The truth is, each person is surrounded by a chi field that melds with the chi fields of other nearby individuals. If all of these people begin performing the same chi kung in unison, their interlinked fields begin working in unison, creating a gestalt effect on the entire energy construct of the group. Many religions, knowingly or unknowingly, take advantage of this gestalt effect by programming their followers to believe that the sensation of the gestalt is the spirit of the deity. And many chi cult leaders corruptly do the same thing by claiming that the gestalt effect is a product of the cult leader’s own personal spiritual power.
Yet another reason for my skepticism is a weird piece of paraphernalia sold by Body & Brain. It’s a T-shaped device covered in yellow rubber called a “Belly Button Healing Wand.” It’s a hard to tell from the website exactly what this device is for, though it is advertised as a meditational aid. There is a page that describes the user placing the smoothly pointed end of the T’s upright into the navel, grasping the T’s bars with the hands, and digging the T into the navel. But I have a better description: It’s bullshit. Worse, it’s $85 bullshit. Take the following with a grain of salt, since I was not there and my speculations are just that: speculations. I was chatting with a Tai Chi buddy of mine about various questionable schools in the Houston area, and he mentioned a school that an acquaintance of his told him she’d visited. At this school, the instructor insisted on sticking the point of some sort of device in her belly button and gouging her there in an effort to “open up her power center.” She said that the experience was painful and quite unpleasant. As she was leaving, a gentleman who also was leaving and who was, like her, just a visitor, told her that he knew something about Tai Chi, and what was going on here wasn’t legitimate.
I didn’t know about Body & Brain or the Belly Button Healing Wand at the time, but I have no doubt that was what was going on. There are, apparently, nine Body & Brain locations in the Houston area, most of them clustered in the area where this woman tried out the class, and I’m tempted to believe it was a Body & Brain franchise operated by someone with little knowledge of chi and who used the Belly Button Wand on her students. Anyone who thinks you need to gouge your belly button to open up your tantien is sorely mistaken—and I do mean sore. You’ll achieve much better results by placing your hands over your tantien while engaging in abdominal breathing. For men, place the left hand first and cover it with the right hand; for women, use the reverse order. This naturally channels the chi flowing down the insides of the arms into the tantien, empowering the tantien with a stronger—and natural—flow.
I find myself very ambivalent about the sorts of efforts employed by Ilchi Lee and others to promote their products or programs. On the one hand, it all seems like a watering down of the martial and chi-building arts that divorces these practices from their philosophical roots and turns them into esoteric—and possibly harmful—health-club fare. But on the other hand, the martial and chi-building arts have been in flux and experienced growth and change since the very beginning. Tradition is all well and good, but society and its practices do not advance through overly strict adherence to what has gone on before. Each generation should add a level of sophistication, utility, or meaning to any human endeavor, and the martial arts are no different. If they were, we’d all be practicing Go-Ti or some such primitive martial art instead of any of the great variety of excellent martial arts available to folks today. The real question is whether or not the new version is an improvement on the old, a watering down of principles in the name of expediency and money-making, or just pure snake-oil.
None of this is meant to say that a nearly corporate version of a martial arts school—such as Yang Jwing-ming’s YMAA—might not be able to morph into a true—and trustworthy—international educational corporation, or that such a corporation would necessarily be a bad thing. But the energies fostered by exercises that enhance and mobilize chi seem to be inherently susceptible to manipulation by those who desire to control others. If the allegations against Body & Brain are true, the company might be large in scope, but it remains little more than a magnified yet weaker version of the martial arts and chi kung cults that pepper Chinese martial arts history. But it is remarkable that it has made significant inroads in several countries outside of Korea, and apparently Body & Brain’s headquarters is now in Sedona, Arizona, with centers in twenty-one U.S. states. Often there are multiple locations within a given city, as is the case here in Houston.
Ilchi Lee seems to me to be yoga/Tai Chi/chi kung’s version of L. Ron Hubbard. So, for the time being, I think I’ll just continue practicing with people who I know are going to give something real to the best of their abilities. Very few corporations are going to give anything anywhere as close. And there’s a reason for that. Corporations treat the martial arts as they do higher education: as a product to be sold for profit instead of as a benefit to be learned and integrated into one’s humanity. If other corporate martial arts franchisers do arise, let’s hope they have the kind of integrity of a Yang Jwing-ming.
Our martial arts marketing odyssey is now at an end. We’ve seen such efforts begin with expertise personally demonstrated, move through the use of various expanded media forms to spread the word more widely if less personally, and wind up with a lack of expertise impersonally touted to the world. It’s always sad to see people who are in real need get taken by charlatans, but I suppose we all get what we deserve. In any case, caveat emptor.
1 “Affiliates,” Body & Brain, https://www.bodynbrain.com/affiliates
2 “Our History,” Body & Brain, https://www.bodynbrain.com/ourhistory
3 “Body & Brain,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_%26_Brain