The journey of Jake Pinnick from an American kid to Wudang martial arts coach
"I came to Wudang Mountain when I was 20 years old. At that time, I was asking myself a lot of questions, like what do I want to do with my life? What do I aspire to be? What career? What lifestyle? I couldn't really answer that question easily. I wanted to do something unique."
That's American Jake Pinnick's answer when asked why he left the small town of Kewanee in Illinois for central China's Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province to study at the Wudang school of martial arts as well as learn Taoist culture and philosophy.
Jake found the Wudang Martial Arts Training Academy online at the beginning of 2009. To support himself, he had to work two jobs, attend classes online, and go to classes on his days off work.
The class was a five-year traditional program of Wudang Martial Arts training, and for traditional programs, students would have to start from the basics and go all the way through the curriculum.
Jake thought it would be a great opportunity for him to travel, to experience challenges, and to learn more discipline - not just for the body but for the mind as well.
When he announced his plan to his family and friends, nobody laughed. They just smiled and thought he would be going for a while and coming back.
They thought the experience would be a good substitute for a college education.
Having graduated from the Wudang Martial Arts Academy in 2014, Jake seemed to have found his calling. Now he still helps to teach there.
"There was a little bit of a cultural shock," he said, of his arrival. "But because the school has a community of foreigners, and my master Yuan Shimao also spoke English, and so did some of the staff members in the office, there was support just within the school itself."
The full-time training itself would make a student adjust to a new life quickly. Jake returned home after 6 months of study in Wudang.
Interestingly enough, he found it was actually harder for him to leave China and there was more of a cultural shock going back to America because he had fully adjusted to life in China. It was like a reverse cultural shock.
Jake has a Douyin account that is run by his wife. He now has more than a quarter million followers. Every now and then he is recognized by someone in the street who refers to him as Wudang Jake, from which friendly conversations ensue.
When people talk about the martial arts from Wudang, the first thing that pops up in their mind is Taiji, or shadowboxing.
Jake has actually learned all Wudang martial arts, from empty hands, weapon training, and the external side of Kung Fu as well as the internal, known as Neijiaquan, or internal fist.
Because Jake is a 16th generation disciple of the Wudang martial arts lineage, he went through the trainings in Qigong, breathing techniques, and Taoist meditation. He is mostly well-known for his internal fist and weapons such as swords, staffs, and spears.
Being a qualified and strict teacher, the idea is not just to teach someone one thing. They want to teach students a system from which they can improve. It all depends on what's necessary.
Jake's teaching is between himself and the students.
Keeping the classes pretty intense, he tries to push people and challenge them while he trains alongside them for he's not going to tell a student to do something that he's not going to do.
Jake said he learned a lot from his Shifu Yuan Shimao. When he says something, Jake trusts him, because he also believes in very similar things.
Jake practices Taiji in one of his recent videos.
Self-cultivation vs. fighting techniques
The main focus of the school has always been health practices and self-cultivation. The modern-day training at Wudang is divided into two main training programs: the traditional program and the health class program.
The traditional training program is designed for long-term students who wish to live at the school and train. They still follow the old master-disciple relationship and address their masters as shifu.
In the traditional programs, because the students are able to train with the same people for a long period of time, the classes are more disciplined and strict. There's more emphasis on techniques in more demanding subjects such as Qigong, or breathing technique, and combat training.
With the health class, which is taught for the majority of people, it's more of an individual-based class that takes on a more health-cultivation approach. The idea is to identify problems with an individual and correct posture, improve flexibility, condition the muscles, and improve stamina.
Health cultivation is more about building a person up. There's less emphasis on combat technique and application and self-defense. This is reserved for the traditional class, as its complete practice takes years.
With improved, modern living, students interested in combat, are more likely to enter a competitive school for Kung Fu rather than Wudang.
Jake believes a large percentage of the modern-day Wudang Kung Fu, especially that focused on combat, doesn't exist anymore because the quality of life has improved so much.
Two main types of classes are held during the day; group basic training, then individual basic training. In the evening, there is a meditation class.
How is the Taoist meditation different from the mainstream concept of meditation?
The bigger emphasis in Taoist meditation is on the energies and the listening to your body, whereas in the West, or just everywhere, it just has more to do with the mainstream interpretation of meditation.
When something gets popular, for example, with yoga, it becomes more superficial, and people focus more on the very simple part of the practice.
Jake thinks there's a different evolution of meditation in the West, where it's about the mind and emotional balance. This includes relieving anger doing these techniques which is really true for meditation, but it's the first level.
The Taoist meditation Jake explained is about the energetic circulation with Chi and being able to listen to that and improve that system through basic training and through meditation so as to be able to understand yourself, not just emotionally, but to peel away the layers physically as well.
The Western idea, or the popularized idea of meditation, is a good starting point. Taoist meditation is what people use to go deeper into those same ideas to understand them and structure them in a way that one can normally improve.
The goal of the Taoist meditation for Jake in his lineage of practice is to cultivate the body and to improve the natural energies of the body, as well as to tune oneself to your own purpose and to achieve balance. So that way one can move forward towards one's destination.
Everyone's destination and the method they use to get there can be different, but all rivers lead to the same ocean. You might have a different idea in mind, but we are all finding a moment, giving ourselves time to grow.
And meditation is that moment where we can nourish ourselves, whether that's physically, mentally, or spiritually.
How do you manage to keep up with a decade of training? Ever thought of going home?
"Definitely. The difficult things about training for a long period of time has nothing to do with physical practices, which are hard, but they are instantly rewarding," Jake said.
For Jake, there's a really big interest in the art of martial arts. One can break down moves, try to understand them, approach them differently. The training keeps one's mind very active and it keeps his body very healthy.
"I have never really thought about giving up because of the practice," he said. "It's more about the dedication of your life around the practice is difficult. You have to be engaged with society. You have to have jobs, you have to have some way to make money and continue to support yourself. For me, that is the harder part. The training is actually the fun part."
The Book of the Tao
Everyone always says the Book of the Tao is like the Bible of Taoism because it's the foundation of everything. The hard thing about Taoism is that you can't just really understand just the martial arts or just the Book of Tao. They are all parts of a practice.
A good analogy is Chinese medicine. They are using a lot of the same terminology like the Taiji theory. So there has to be a pretty comprehensive study just so you can understand the culture in its complete form in its whole context.
Every time when he reads the book of Tao, he understands something different.
One chapter Jake particularly like is the 16th. It is related to how we understand things. He has really related to this specific chapter in a lot of different ways.
The imagery of this chapter is about the transformation of Yin and Yang, and how this is the endless cycle of the world, always comparing.
"Because we recognize what's beauty, we thus create ugly, because when we recognize short we create long," he said. "Good and bad, black and white. We understand that transformation is not something that's supposed to be separate. Things are reflecting each other. Once we understand the connection, the relationship between the two, we can return to the center."
There we don't move. There we can understand everything in nature can continue to grow and live. We can find peace, enlightenment, and balance.
He went on to explain that if one think about the Taiji symbol, the Yin and Yang, and the turning movement. We are not trying to follow the extremes. We are trying to get to the center point of the Tai Chi symbol. That is the one point that doesn't move and it stays the same.
Do you think the wisdom from Taoism can help us become more tolerant and peaceful when facing life's challenges?
"I think every religion can achieve that goal," he said. "You can use Taoism as a tool to create a better life, create a more balanced life, and cultivate better and healthier relationships with other people."
Taoism is special for him and for a lot of people because of its simplicity and because of how Taoism can be applied in all situations. He thinks sometimes with Western religion, since he was raised with a lot of different Christian religions and different things where I grew up.
"The problem that I have always encountered was always an "us versus them" mentality," he recalled. "And it's like we need to help people because if we don't, things are going to be bad. I never agreed with that because I couldn't justify that people were unknowingly doing the wrong thing."
With Taoism, one can apply it to everything and that doesn't require faith. It doesn't require your belief. It's just an explanation of the natural world, how things change, how things interact. If you can understand that, you can find balance because you are going to understand the environment that you are in.
Taoism never said that if you don't understand, then you are in trouble. The first line of the Book of the Tao actually said that the Tao that you can talk about is actually not the real Tao.
That's the very first sentence of the book. One can't really explain what we are going to explain to you, now we are going to explain it.
Taoism as a religion understands that it's not necessary. It just says we recognize there's a pattern. Here's the pattern, and that's it. I think that is very beautiful and simple.
"If people can understand that, they don't need the Book of the Tao," Jake said. "They can just live their life."
Jake's future goals are to open his own school where people can live and train
When Jake spoke of Taoism to his friends and family back in the US, where it's virtually unknown, people don't have a lot of questions because they don't really know what to ask.
When he's back at home and when the time is right he will share these concepts with them. He's gotten his mom and uncle to read some of the books and do some basic stretches, and now they have taken an interest.
With an aim to set up his own Wudang martial arts and culture training center in the future, Jake is also trying to set the stage and create awareness about what he's going to teach.
That's the reason why he's doing videos on social media such as Douyin in China and multiple YouTube channels where he shares the music he plays and videos of his Kung Fu training.
He's quite optimistic that with his sharing of this content, he believes that when he has built enough of a reputation for himself and when he goes home, that people will be interested in it.
The dream is still to start a center where people can live and train, and he can bring a little bit of the Chinese culture and Taoist Kung Fu.
Jake plays Xiao for his daughter Linna.
Spending more quality time with family
Jake gets more family time now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so he has more focused on teaching online. Before, he never thought it was possible.
"I feel really comfortable with my experience in what I'm able to teach, because I can see my students improving who aren't in the country," he said.
Now his daughter is also training in martial arts. Jake hopes that when she gets older, it is something they can do together.
When it comes to the raising of his daughter, Jake and his wife have very similar ideas despite their cultural and geographic differences. They think very similarly, and he also has a very traditional mindset.
"Whatever the girl tries to do, we just try to support her and give her more chances," he said. "My wife and I, when growing up, we didn't have a lot of chances to do as much learning and different things. We try to give our daughter the best of both sides."
Jake shows his daughter Linna moves from the Taiji sword.
If you were to use a few words to describe you, what would it be?
"I would just describe myself as honest and engaged," Jake said. "I want to listen to people. And I also want to be heard. I also want to share. I try to give you my best self."
You can find Jake Pinnick through the following links
Jake's Wudang Martial Arts Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/c/wudangway