Once you meet Pavel Macek, you can't stop looking him in the eyes. They radiate inner peace and the unique magic of martial art masters. In an interview for LP-life.com, he spoke about what brought him to studying and later actively practising Chinese martial arts, which led him to the philosophies he now honours. He opened up about his adventurous beginnings in San Francisco and the feelings he experienced during his first encounter with a true master. Last but not least, he talked about the benefits of proper breathing for the human body and mind and revealed to us what makes him happy and what he likes to do when he’s not teaching at his school.
You studied at the Faculty of Humanities of Charles University, where you got acquainted with the ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy whose basic idea is to live in harmony with both nature and mind. You are also a master of Chinese martial arts. How did it happen that you chose this path of life? Did anyone lead you to it?
I got into philosophy through martial arts, because at one of the training sessions, my teacher at the time said that Chinese martial arts, specifically kung fu, are a kind of philosophy. So I thought for myself, "Right, philosophy!" Then I asked my mother if she would buy me a book about philosophy for the holidays. She was so kind that she got me several books, and they were all great picks. She chose books by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I have been very fond of ever since, and books on Buddhism. Gradually, I began to immerse myself deeper in these teachings - I was actually still in high school at that point. Afterwards, I went on to study humanities at college. I was de facto planning an academic career, because I was quite good at it and it was my passion. But then I got much more intensively involved in practising martial arts. It was thanks to them that I got to travel to San Francisco, Hong Kong and mainland China. Then I even opened my own school, I took up teaching as my main job and put my academic career on the back burner. But I sort of got right back to it again, because I try to teach martial arts In a way that they’re not only the cultivation of the body and self-defence skills, but also the growth of spirit and character.
Which Chinese martial arts specifically have you mastered and what are their merits and benefits for the human body and mind?
The main style that I practise is called Hung Kyun, and at my school, we teach its practical form, Practical Hung Kyun. Meaning we want it to be practical, not only in terms of health, but also fitness, strength, self-defence and at the same time in terms of personal development in the broadest sense. Next to that, I started studying a related style called Hap Kyun a few years ago, as well as its softer, inner variant, which is called "needle in cotton". These are the three main styles of Chinese martial arts that I practice. Otherwise, I have been practising and teaching modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and practical self-defence for many years. I think that traditional martial arts, modern sports and practical self-defence are an excellent combination.
And the benefits for the human body and mind?
Generally speaking, we live in a secure society. So the main kind of self-defence we need to practise is against our sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle, which means improved breathing, movement skills, strength, fitness and health in general. I'd say that's the main benefit. It comes without saying that it’s better to have self-defence skills and not use them than the other way around. As the saying goes, it is better to be a warrior in the garden than a gardener in a war. So that might be another benefit. Personal development in the broad sense is also important, to try and help people rather than hurt them. To work on yourself continuously so that you become a better person, more beneficial for the whole society and the whole world.
What was your first meeting with your very first master like and how did he receive you? And which other masters did you have the honour of working with? Are they always such serious and composed people, or is the reality different?
Being you, I wouldn't idealize masters of martial arts, they are, after all, only people. In fact, they were often quite rebellious in their youth, but as they gradually matured, they found out that being the best, the strongest, always the top dog was not the only way. They all eventually gain more depth. I'd say it comes with age. I started training here, as a little boy, basically as part of a big recruitment. And I trained for several years. I consider Wong Yew Ching Sifu from San Francisco to be my first teacher and master in this sense. He was a little over seventy at the time. When I first met him, he told me and my friend Aleš, with whom we’d come to study under him in San Francisco: “Welcome. Show me what you’ve got.” He laughed, clapped his hands, and said: “Let's get the ball rolling. We have training at such and such hours.” And so we began. And the inner calm and tranquillity, that's his very own personality trait. I’ve worked with a lot of high-strung people and a lot of peaceful ones, too. They’re only people, like the rest of us. And the idea that every master of martial arts is some kind of Zen monk hovering on a cloud, always calm and peaceful? That’s not necessarily always the case, but I'd say that at least for me it's definitely a goal to work on inner peace, mindfulness and concentration. Once you’ve achieved those, everything is much easier, and not only when it comes to martial arts, but also in terms of life in general.
And your inner feeling upon meeting with the master for the very first time?
Definitely excitement. I really wanted to learn and suddenly there's someone in front of you who knows the ropes. Next to the excitement, there was admiration. And I was really looking forward to finally being able to start training.
You were an instructor in the Škola dechu (School of Breathing) series, where you were teaching, both theoretically and practically, how to use one’s breath properly and unlearn bad habits. Why did you choose the topic of breath and how to breathe efficiently and effectively? And what are the benefits of proper breathing for the human body?
I originally suffered from allergies and asthma. My asthma was severe, so breathing has been a topic for me from an early age. In any case, as I started exercising and moving my body, my asthma and allergies were suddenly gone and I could focus more on strength training and building up my fitness during my studies and in the course of the following years. In one way or another, it always went hand in hand with breathing. Over the years, I began to study breathing even more thoroughly, which made me realize how important it actually is. When you think about it, everyone’s concerned with their diet these days, but the fact remains that humans can go quite a long time without food, and they can last even longer on a poor, low-quality diet. Of course, it's not good for us, but we'll survive. But we need to breathe much more often than we need to eat. Every day, we make about sixteen thousand, twenty thousand or more inhalations and exhalations, and their quality as well as what they’re like is really important. So improving one’s breathing in everyday life affects everything else, including breathing in sports activities. In sports activities, we also have specific ways of breathing for individual activities, which enable a person to significantly and immediately increase their strength or improve flexibility. Or use simple breathing exercises to improve their physique, cardiovascular endurance, calm the mind or get rid of shortness of breath. All this proves that breathing is of key importance, both in everyday life and in sports performance. Moreover, it is a bridge between the physical and the spiritual. It's simply a connecting factor that you can use to affect a lot of things. For example, it is difficult to relax or slow down your heart rate instantly, and so on. But with proper breathing, much can be achieved. So it starts with a purely physical component - I need to improve my strength and fitness -, continues with achieving certain mobility, flexibility - I need to improve my range of motion - and ends with calming the mind and generally gaining more balance in everyday life.
Martial arts are traditionally passed down in a straight line from generation to generation. How is it in your case?
I'm lucky to have had the chance to study with several masters who really come from very reputable and very long lines that go back many generations, and I don't think it's something that can really be planned, it simply happens. So I try to focus more on being a good student and passing on the essence as a teacher. In my opinion, a lot of people mistakenly believe that some style of martial arts was invented ages ago and that style is passed down from generation to generation in an unchanging form, because back then, it was the best and it’s only been getting worse since. I, on the contrary, think it is necessary to convey this essence. And when it comes to martial arts, it's definitely health, strength, fitness, self-defence. And because the times are changing, it’s necessary to update the existing curriculum and system. And if what’s passed on really is the functional core of a given system, it is passed on from generation to generation. And it's up to me and my students to try and carry the torch on. It's in the hands of destiny, so we'll see.
You were born in the Year of the Fire Dragon (1976), do you follow the Chinese horoscope? And how do you feel about the current Year of the Metal Ox?
Not much, and I can’t really tell you. I dabbled in both Western astrology and Eastern astrology. And I mean the real thing, not the horoscopes on the last page of a magazine. There is a system in China called "8 signs" and it is a very sophisticated method that is rooted more in psychology than in astrology and horoscopes, I’d say. In the West, it’s pretty much the same case. Real astrology is much closer to, say, Jungian deep psychology, and Carl Gustav Jung knew it thoroughly. At one time I was really into it, but new interests gradually replaced it and I started doing other things. There is no doubt that I am a Fire Dragon, though, you can ask any of my friends and students. But going back to your question, I have absolutely no idea what the current Year of the Metal Ox will bring. It will bring us what we put into it and everything we’ll be doing.
What do you do on the days when you're not teaching? What do you enjoy?
I teach more or less every day of the workweek. I wouldn't even call it a workweek, because I enjoy it and teaching, for me, is also exercising and meeting people. But I'm interested in a lot of other things, too. Lately, instead of watching something more often or reading a little more and being more active in these activities, I much prefer to spend time in silence. Whether it's simply sitting and staring into space, or the need to spend as much time in nature as possible. So that's what enriches me the most these days.