The Future

An Interview with Stefano Agostini, master of martial arts, instructor, and researcher,

by Paola Vignozzi.

P.V. I have known Martial Arts Master Stefano Agostini for many years, and apart from the fact that he is familiar to the general public above all for his writings and efforts at divulging the understanding of Yi Quan, I am aware that his martial arts’ itinerary has been a rather lengthy one that is in constant development.In this interview we shall try to know more about him and about his life.Master Agostini, could you tell us about your journey in the world of martial arts and about how and when you began the practice of Yi Quan?

S.A. I began the practice of martial arts in 1966 with Judo, like many other youngsters. I was attracted by the mystical and interior content of these disciplines, and although in later years I have, with my articles, re-dimensioned certain myths, I have to admit that this aspect is still, in my view, one of the greatest treasures of such traditions.

To come back to myself, I began in 1971, to study the style of Shotokan Karate of Master Shirai, which I practised for about twenty years. I also studied Iaido and Kendo with Miyazaki, and was in fact, together with Leonardo Amoruso, his first private pupil. I began the study of Tai Ji Quan in 1979, with the now deceased Chang Dsu Yao, and the practice of Nippon Kempo with Daniele Sinigaglia. I also studied Okinawa Kobudo with Mario Trezzi, who was a pupil of Master Tamano.
In 1992 I became acquainted with Master Kenji Tokitsu, and this was a real bolt from the blue: suddenly I found everything I had always been looking for, and since his was a school of research, I in turn became a seeker in the world of the Chinese internal styles. I studied Tai Ji, Xing Yi and Bagua in the style of Master Wang Shu Jin with Master Manfred Rottman, an exceptional personage, and I was until his retirement, his official representative for Italy. Then in Tokyo in 1994, I made the acquaintance of Master Sun Li of Peking, who became my main reference point for Yi Quan.
In fact thanks to Master Tokitsu, I had already heard of Yi Quan and was very taken with it, but like everything else that Master Tokitsu suggests, in order to go more deeply into the subject, a formal training with an orthodox master was essential.

P.V. So you are a pupil of Master Sun Li?

S.A. Master Sun Li is a teacher of excellent level who has done much for the diffusion of Yi Quan and who for seven years generously taught me his method. In fact I am the instructor, and representative of his association, in Europe.
I must point out however that as our association is one devoted to research, I believe it to be not only opportune but also necessary to work alongside all the most representative masters in order to have and propose an ever more correct and complete arrangement of Yi Quan. With this in view, I have studied with Jan Kallenbach, Li Jian Yu, Cui Rui Bin, Guo Gui Zhi, Ian Dispersloot, Yang Lin Shen, Timo Heikkala, and Yao Cheng Guang.
So much could be said about the experiences with each of these personalities: the humour of Jan Kallenbach comes to mind, when once he flung me with such force that I was unable to get to my feet, and reassuring him from my position on the ground, unable to move a single muscle, I remember him offering me an enormous Chinese supper in Amsterdam.
The exhausting sessions with Lian Jian Yu after which I was unable to go up stairs for a week. The first years with Master Sun Li in the old gym of Seikichi Toguchi, when wearing a pair of baggy shorts he would come to watch us training; the huge hands of Cui Rui Bin, which when placed over a glass of wine, changed the flavour of it; the kindness of Ian Dispersloot, and Master Yao at Peking, who with his ruined hands and eternal cigarette in mouth, told me of the bitter pill of hard times in his youth.
What I have noticed however, is that each of these masters has his own particular didactical and methodological vision of the art and thanks to an analysis of their teachings, I have been able to understand better and better the theoretical and practical basis of Yi Quan".

P.V. I believe that recently you have studied and done research in China?

S.A. I went to Peking and Macao. In Peking thanks to the introduction offered to me by my friend Vittorio Botazzi of Turin, I was able to begin studying with Yao Cheng Guang, the son of Yao Zong Xun and true heir of Bin Cuei one of Wang Xiang Zhai’s most able pupils, and I went to visit, in his academy to the north of Peking, Bin Cuei, an old friend of Lun Li, considered one of the best teachers of Yi Quan.
At Macao I met Doctor Hang Jin Yu, son of another famous pupil of Wang Xiang Zhai, Han Xing Qiao, now ninety years old. Having the possibility to know and to interview these famous personalities, establish a profound human relationship with them, collect precious memories and have priceless technical explanations with regard to them has been an exceptional experience, not only from the technical, but also from the human point of view.

P.V. Can you tell us briefly what Yi Quan is, and why so many teachers of other styles practice it?

S.A. In my opinion, Yi Quan is the energetic motor of all other martial arts, indeed, of life itself.
I believe that any martial artist worthy of the name tries to train and strengthen the muscles in order to perform optimally. But Yi Quan allows for the "reconstruction" and "strengthening" of the nervous system which is at the base of our every movement whether voluntary or involuntary. So through the practice of Yi Quan it is possible for example to have access to the integrated and involuntary force and explosive energy, the force which pugilists call "the knock-out fist" and which according to boxing instructors is a natural talent not obtainable through training. According to Yi Quan though, this explosive capacity is within anyone’s reach. In other words, with Yi Quan it is not a matter of learning new patterns of movement but of profoundly transforming one’s basic motorial capacity. This is the reason why Yi Quan has been used even by specialists in various sports such as basket ball, swimming and by skilled marksmen. No wonder that so many practitioners of great experience and sensitivity such as Vismara, Montanari, Regoli, Tokitsu, have adopted this practice with enthusiasm.

P.V. So we can say then that Yi Quan is a method of Qi Gong?

S.A. Not really. Qi Gong works with certain methods, on the energetic aspects of the individual, interpreted through the oriental tradition of Qi. Yi Quan is a very scientific method which does not adopt concepts of Qi, Ki or Prana, but seeks to recuperate the more instinctive and natural level of the nervous system and of the neuro-motorial apparatus by means of mental imagery only. And, let us remember, the nervous system governs all the functions of the individual. This is why it is sometimes said that with Yi Quan, the naturalness and instinctive capacity of animals can be recuperated, governed of course by voluntary mental activity. Furthermore, while Yi Quan does share with Qi Gong some excellent effects on well-being, it develops a martial dimension which is completely lacking in schools of Qi Gong.

P.V. Can you tell us about this martial dimension?

S.A. It can be said for certain that Yi Quan is a martial system in the fullest sense of the word. But as is the case in many internal styles, Tai Ji for example, it can be practised also for therapeutic purposes, using only the fundamental training. And I can assure you that the results are excellent, because Yi Quan allows for the recuperation of the natural capacity for self-healing in human beings.
Then whoever, with a strong and healthy body, wishes to enter into a fully martial dimension, will have to undergo a type of training very similar to other serious combat styles: running, shadow boxing, punch bag, target work and sparring with contact are an essential part of the preparation.
Naturally, someone who is already familiar with this sort of training , for example, a pugilist, will find it easier to rapidly understand the fundamental points of martial Yi Quan, and will be able to express the techniques already known at a much higher level.

P.V. But does Yi Quan take long to learn?

S.A. It is not that Yi Quan takes long to learn but that the transformations in the body take a long time to come about. Improving the musculature with weight lifting takes time, improving the individual’s cardio circulatory capacity with running takes time, and so does transforming the nervous system and, I must add, the sensitivity. But the results are rather more fundamental and longer lasting, because it is not a matter of constructing something artificial, but to find once more and strengthen, an energetic heritage that is instinctive and natural.

P.V. What concrete possibilities of study does your association offer?

S.A. Our association which is called The International Yi Quan Research Association, organizes lessons, seminars and instructors courses on a regular basis. The instructors first level course, which unfolds in four appointments in the course of one year has already conferred diplomas to more than a hundred participants, including well known personalities from the world of martial arts, such as Stefano Ricci, vice world champion of Thai Boxing, Andrea Stoppa, Italian Judo champion and world Ju-Jitsu champion, and Luigi Zanini, author of the book ‘Kung Fu’. It is a course for both professionals and amateurs, to provide in a short time, a panorama of the basis of Yi Quan.
Apart from this, we regularly invite prestigious masters to our headquarters in Florence for seminars and lessons which provide a deeper study of the art. In past years we had as our guests Masters Sun Li, Jan Kallenbach and Timo Heikkila. This year we invited Master Yao Cheng Guang who works with us and with Master Vittorio Bottazzi of Turin, who was his first pupil in Italy. We also have didactic videos of Master Sun Li , reserved for members of our association, and naturally my book Kung Fu Yi Quan (edited by Mediterranea), which illustrates the history and theoretical basis of Yi Quan in detail.

P.V. It appears to be a promising teaching schedule.

S.A. Our association aims at being a reference point for whoever wishes to study Yi Quan and to propose the best that the best masters can offer.

P.V. Can you tell us of any significant event during your years of practice?

S.A. I can tell you something that happened to me on a recent trip to China which had a profound effect on me and the memory of which has not yet faded. I first met Master Yao Cheng Guang when I went to visit him at his home, a very small and very poor dwelling in a Huton of Peking. We chatted for a while and at a certain point I asked Master Yao how he would act using Yi Quan against a pugilistic adversary who had taken up a very closed compact position. The Master said: let’s see! And told me to take up a guarded stance in front of him. In the tiny room there was a wall to the right and a little glass case to the left. Well, the master made a move, and in a flash I found myself face to face not with the master but with the glass case and only a very few inches from it. With really lightening speed he had spun me round and flung me so that my head almost touched the glass, but controlling me in such a way as to not harm me. I don’t think I have ever met someone so fast.

P.V. And finally some advice for our readers.

S.A. Martial arts can often after some years, bring us to a halt when the way forward cannot be found. For the serious student, who sincerely analyses his training and wishes to constantly progress, this can be a difficult phase to overcome, full of problems and frustration. In these cases, my advice is not to waste time with substitutes such as yoga, autogenous training, or use excuses such as being no longer young in age, or lacking in athletic ability, but to begin serious practice of Yi Quan. This can become the new driving force for our activity, and even cause us to discover an energetic, technical and spiritual dimension to martial arts that we had never hoped to find. It happened to me, and I hope it can happen to you!