Zen Martial Arts History

Origin of the Zen Martial Arts

The Zen Martial Arts first existed in 1980 as a Taekwondo school located in the back room of Dr. Phil Yip's chiropractic clinic in Gig Harbor, WA. The curriculum used by the school was designed by Yip, who pulled from his experience growing up training with only Korean Taekwondo instructor in Hong Kong during his youth. He also incorporated Karate and Judo into his school's practices, both of which he had trained in through early adulthood. Phil Yip is talked about in more detail in a later section on this page.

Dr. Yip's school was cofounded by Master Diane Miller, who taught many of the children's classes. She incorporated some of her Kung Fu practices into what she taught, including our traditional bo staff form, No Kon Cho.

Richard Stillwagon was an experienced martial artist by the time he began training in Master Yip's school, having prior experience in Wing Chun, Arnis, and Kung Fu weapon practices. He approached Zen Martial Arts as a way to be exposed to new styles and to gain additional practice, having no intention of testing through the system. However, after many years of training in Master Yip's school as a white belt, he was asked to complete just a few more things to become ready for his black belt test, which he then did. In the years to come, he became a major influence on the Zen Martial Arts and its students. Three of Master Yip's students in particular received lots of training through Master Stillwagon's own system he developed, the Living Arts. These students were Greg Di Loreto, Johanna Windisch, and Clem Hong, all of which later earned their black belts and began teaching either in their instructor's martial arts schools or their own. Their instructorship is what elevated Yip to the grandmaster status he holds today.

Master Greg Di Loreto began his own school in Seattle, WA, in the year 2004. Staying true to the Zen Martial Arts system he inherited from Grandmaster Yip and yet also incorporating what he had learned in the Living Arts from Master Stillwagon, he compiled a new curriculum. Though this curriculum has been iterated on since then, it is considered to be the new standard of the Zen Martial Arts as a whole. In keeping with the tradition of exploring external systems as an instructor, he has made a point of training with other instructors when possible, including MMA coaches and Tai Chi practitioners in the greater Seattle area.

James Swartwood and his dad, Troy Swartwood, joined Master Greg Di Loreto's school in early 2006, when James was five years old. In his teenage years, he began training under multiple other instructors in external systems, including Jujitsu and Budo Tanren, in addition to his practice and teaching in the Zen Martial Arts. After getting his Zen Martial Arts black belt in 2018, Master James Swartwood has worked closely with Master Greg Di Loreto as an instructor in Di Loreto's school while gaining his black belt in Japanese Fighting Arts NW. He used his background in jujitsu and judo to redesign the grappling system of Zen Martial Arts.

Who is Grandmaster Yip?

Kelly Warden, a long-term friend of Grand Master Yip, is one of the highest-level Arnis practitioners in the United States officially recognized by the head practitioners in the Philippines. Warden posted the following about Grandmaster Yip on his Facebook account.

“What makes history, history?"

From time to time I do my best to share short stories of practitioners who have inspired me and guided me through my journey in life; in this case a brief historical account of "martial arts and my way of life."

I have had several teachers that taught me their methods and style of martial arts. Above and beyond that I have also been blessed with mentors that provided guidance and motivational leadership in the path to "self-realization!"

Dr. W.P. Phil Yip is one such person!

A recent question was posed regarding the staff form I recently posted on my Facebook page. 

Although the origins include many variables, the influences can be attributed to only a few individuals. 

Breakdowns in structure, postures, tempos, timing, cadence, stylistic sequencing, and applications, were inspired by blending Modern Arnis, Isshinryu karate, and elements of a Tam Tui Broardsword set I had learned from Dr. WP Yip.

My first gym was with former U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist Sugar Ray Seales while he was still fighting pro. 

Later, after Sugar Ray retired, I took over the gym, purchased the boxing ring, and I transformed it into the United Karate Systems dojo. It was during this era that Dr. WP Phil Yip and I were introduced.

I was a loner in 1980, a bit, rough around the edges and a bit of a knuckle dragging T-Town back alley brawler. In my opinion, I was never a pretty or stylistic fighter, and in truth, "form just wasn't my bag!"

This Asian dude rolled up on my gym riding a brand new Harley Davidson "LowRider." Well, that was high marks in my initial assessment scale for Dr. Yip from the get go. 

It was a friendship that resulted in an immediate bond, 1980 to 2021, with lots of stuff between those timelines...

Although Dr. Yip became a Tae Kwon Do master trained by the only Korean instructor in Hong Kong, his personal approach to martial arts development was/is nonetheless a result of his mother and father.

Dr. Yip's father was a Tam Tui 18 Weapons practitioner and his mother was a collaborative Wushu practitioner, both were educators.

At the time of our introduction to each other in the early 1980's, Dr, Yip's sister was the highest ranked female in Goju Ryu directly under Gogen Yamaguchi,, 

Apparently the senior Chinese practitioners and teachers did not mind the younger generations training in external arts, it made them strong, disciplined, and allowed them to experience arts that also provided a strong foundation if they evolved to appreciate the indigenous classical and internal art methodology.

 As our friendship and martial art respect evolved, I traded Dr. Yip for time.

Dr. Yip taught me sword and other aspects of Tam Tui while I provided "thumper services for his highly skilled senior students."

It wasn't a planned arrangement, I suppose it was me, "just being in the right place at the right time." Since we never exchanged cash our exchange in martial arts was based on services rendered. A very thought provoking "old school" level of mutual respect!

I surely wasn't as stylized in movement as Dr. Yip's senior students, but I had an edge, I was unpredictable and somewhat scrappy. 

It's a pretty cool story, that still builds and evolves today; some of my home gym footage includes former USAF fighter pilot Colonel (Ret) Chris McMonnies, Chris was about 15 years old when we met at Dr. Yip's school. Today, he's in his early 50's and trains with NSI as well as NSI instructor Jeff Johnsgaard's Natural Tactical and 360 CQC.

Back to Dr. Yip, both our arts have evolved and the coolest short story he shared with me was what his father told him:

"I don't care what art you train in but you must always respect the Thai!' 

Things happen for a reason, including evolution and destiny.