„The search is always undertaken by those who are not satisfied with what they have done so far. If you’re satisfied with what you’ve done, it’s a deadlock.“
Olaf Pachten visited Manfred Steiner for this interview in his practice in Isernhagen, north of Hanover. The waiting room of the practice is filled with memories of Manfred’s travels and his life as a martial artist. On the walls hang certificates and photos of various martial artists who worked with Manfred. A large part of the room is taken up by an Indian totem pole. In his treatment room the medical skeleton wears an original Indian chief’s jewellery and in one corner of the room his old parachute is hung up. It is Friday afternoon and although the practice is no longer open, an emergency patient comes in during the interview. Manfred seems to be used to this and takes all the time he needs and so Olaf Pachten also witnesses a very impressive osteopathic treatment.
Where did you grow up Manfred, which corner did you come from?
Which corner? Grown up in Berlin, born in Saxony, on the flight of my parents from East-Germany. I was in Berlin until 21, 22 and then I joined the German Army. After longer escapades I ended up in Hannover and in the meantime I was abroad again, also because of martial arts. Since 1990 I have my own practice with chiropractic, osteopathy and so on. The martial art has always accompanied me, as a red thread that I have always held on to
when I was in a bad mood, and that has always kept me very much on the ground.
How did you come to martial arts or martial sports in the first place?
Actually through my father. When I was ten and a half, he sent me to boxing, said, „You have to learn how to defend yourself!“ Well, that’s when I started boxing in Berlin and then, at the age of sixteen, I slowly went over to judo. Then came Kyokushin-Kai and then it started here in Hannover, with the German Armed Forces in between. I was
also in various other clubs and then I went from Kyokushin- Kai in search of other things. You always heard rumors and stories, i was curious, what is all that? And all things that existed back then, they were pretty, how should I say, clear, so simply structured. There was karate, there was judo, and then there was a bit of jiu-jitsu, but it didn’t fit for me, there had to be more. And so I went on a search. And then I met Casey here in Hannover.
How did you two end up together?
Through Martin Höft, who had a martial arts shop here, and that’s where everything met. Casey ran into the store and then Martin, who had already talked to him about me, told me: „There’s a Yank who would like to get to know you“. So we met there. And then Casey arrived, actually inconspicuous, a guy from an insurance company, and we noticed right away that it suited us! And after that he came to school every now and then in the Kolonnenweg and looked at it like this and said: „Yeah, ok, I’ll do it a little bit differently!“ (laughs) „Well, that’s all right!“ I said. „Okay, come to my house!“ he said then.
He lived in Hannover-Anderten and had worked for an insurance company. And then I went to his house, and there he proved me wrong!
How did that work out?
He said: „Okay, do something!“ And then he just beat the crap out of me. At that time there were also a few other people from Germany who had heard about him through American channels, and he did about the same with them, but they didn’t want to go on! And I said to myself: „Oh, that’s it! That’s what you were looking for!“ That was the situation at that time. Well, and then it started like that, he came a couple of times to the school in the Kolonnenweg and then did official lessons and I was sometimes with him four or five times in the evening, that went on until deep into the night. We didn’t just train, we talked and did all kinds of things, and so we had a completely different exchange. That’s when I knew I had to do it, that’s what I was looking for! The other thing, I put all that down, that was the basis, of course! But it goes on!
And then I drove like through a tunnel, that’s all I did! After three years he had to leave again, back to America. I visited him a few more times over there and we trained together.
Where did he live at that time?
It was in New Haven. I was there twice and then in Hartford, I was with him three or four times. And then he was here again, I think it must have been in the spring of ’86. Klaus Kothe was there too and suddenly he was talking German, almost without an accent! So I thought: „Uh, what?!“ He then said that he had also taken lessons here, he was very interested in German, in other words in the German-speaking world. And so he always had a secret German teacher from the Goethe-Institut. He could understand everything, but he had never spoken. And suddenly he started talking! We stood there and thought: „Uhhh, what?!“ (laughs) So we talked on in German and that was very astonishing.
That must have been a pretty intelligent person?
Casey was hyperintelligent, but also extremely eccentric! He really was the champion of „My way or no way“. He didn’t give a damn! He never compromised. That’s why he had made his mark on the company. Of course he was so eccentric in his work with all the employees, they didn’t get along with him at all. That’s why they shot him down here again and sent him back to America, i.e. completely closed down the branch office. He had taken out reinsurance policies there for the American and South-East Asian, i.e. Chinese, region. That was his area of responsibility.
He was quite successful in that as well, wasn’t he?
Yes! He did some pretty big restructurings, I noticed that on the side. Years later, we had an interview with Bingemeier, the board member of Hannover Re, and he told me how it all went together. Once upon a time, it must have been in the 90s, there was a group of filmmakers from Berlin who wanted to film Casey’s story. And in this context there were a few interviews, among others with Bingemeier, in order to have a background for the film. But then nothing more came out of the project.
I always wondered how someone in the 70s, in a society like Taiwan, could get into this really, really tight circle, up to Hong Men Hui. Which is actually almost impossible for non-Chinese people. How do you think he did that?
I’m not quite sure now. I think his father was in diplomatic service in Taiwan. And that’s how he got in. Casey was in the Army and that’s how he got these connections.
So he was introduced to each of the teachers or masters?
Yes, of course he had already done a lot in America once, but because of his eccentricity, wanting to know more and more, wanting to get behind things, it naturally opened the door for him. And if you want something, then you just run off and do it. Don’t look left and right, you don’t care! And that’s how it came about in principle. Of course, his attitude opened the gates for him. When you have an ability and a skill that’s given to you by nature, and you have the spirit to do it, and then you meet the right people, then you shorten paths, that’s immense! Because you’re always doing research yourself, you’re usually just missing a little bit of glue to stick a few little stones together, and if you’re given the right glue by people like that, because of that connection, it’s a natural thing.
He probably learned an incredible amount there in a relatively short period of time, learned different styles and was able to synthesize them. With us it was like this: I was at a crossroads, wondering what the whole thing was about. The whole martial art and always the same, I was like a squeezed out sponge that only needed one drop to rise again. And that’s why it was very easy for me. And I was also possessed! That went on until 1986, and after that I continued in the Kolonnenweg and had other contacts. Then it started with Kali and Silat in America, after I left school in 1990.
Then in 1991 I went to Kenpokan. At that time I was also permanently in America, got to know different people there, also did camps, and that’s how all these other connections to Kenpokan came about. From everywhere.
Why did you give up your school back then?
Because I went in the direction of alternative medicine, which interested me before, actually already in the mid 80s. I just wanted to know, wanted to know more! And then I said: „Something’s not right anymore, there is more!“ And so the lotus opened even more, as they say. (laughs) Then other things came along later, Kali mainly. That started already in the mid 80’s, but not officially, and then the other developments like Pekiti-Tirsia and Silat. I also did Thai boxing for a while, but that was not my thing, because it was very one-sided. It was all very reduced, as I knew it from Karate before, such a certain one-sidedness. Yes, and then you developed further. At the same time I was always together with Helmut Barthel, since the beginning of the 80s. He wrote about Casey and about what he did.
Barthel was publishing a magazine back then, right?
Yeah, it was called „Martial Art“. Must have been 10 or 15 issues. He had also done a lot of research on martial arts, which was pioneer time here in Germany.
What style did he use to come to martial arts?
Barthel? Karate, Shotokan. Then he must have had an experience like that somehow and came to this direction. He then developed Tan Tien Chuan over several development phases. Once you’re on this role, then completely new perspectives open up again and again. I worked with Helmut for quite a while, then he withdrew completely. In 2005 he sought contact again. And since then I’ve also been working with Helmut with the Hamburg group and with the group from Stelle-Wittenwurth. And then I’ve been working on Systema for several years now. I find a lot of parallels there.
Yes, and so the circle closes somewhere. Or the circle hasn’t been closed yet, I don’t know. For me, research is always in the foreground. What else is there? To understand physics, to understand the interpretation of physics at all! Many, many laws related to the martial arts, we have been told. „That’s how it is, and that’s how it should look like!“ If you then question some laws of physics, then suddenly completely new things come to you and they work! And there you say: „Uh, yes, we always looked from the left side of the moon, but the right side, that was not existing, although it was there! So, and this is what I always came across in Tan Tien and how it works. And then I also saw parallels in the Systema. And one can connect them incredibly well with each other in this way. The way it sometimes looks on the outside, it is always an individual expression of the individual. Nobody does it like the other. But the thing behind it, or the idea behind it, the execution, is very similar. With the Systema, for example, there are very wide and also narrow movements, and with Tan Tien you simply make the movements inside the body. That’s why it’s quite difficult to understand.
What’s that supposed to mean?
It’s not a process where I do it like that and he does it like that. There is no such thing, you are actually physically transforming your own body! It is a process that takes place primarily in the head. Everything is somehow different and you first have to understand what is different. Because no one has ever told it to you, only some nebulous stories. I had an experience like this with Casey once or twice and he had done something like Helmut Barthel in certain approaches. And he used to say it, too.
I just didn’t quite understand it at the time. I only understood it mechanically. And because of this parallel development it went more into the head. You can’t do this on Saturday and that on Sunday, and then on Monday you understood it. It doesn’t work like that. It takes time to connect the synapses, it just takes time. And you can’t shorten that time, it comes automatically.
What does mind boxing mean to you?
Mind boxing, exactly! You can say that it’s exactly what Helmut and Casey did. It’s blocking the mind. How can you block the mind? In such a way, that it comes to an activity and a reaction of a counterpart, which he can’t cope with from his own head. He is missing a film, so to speak. During the movement, no matter what, he gets a film tear and can no longer understand the movement.
Or he can no longer follow the movement, because, and this is the special thing about Tan Tien, he always jumps after the movements. And that’s where I came up with the idea that shadow boxing is actually shadow boxing! You always follow a shadow, but there is nothing anymore. And through this transformation, when you feel that, the body slowly becomes different. It’s literally being beamed back in its movements. There’s nothing there that can catch it. I’m talking about Tan Tien now: There’s nothing to do with bumping or propping. It all becomes cloudier, more nebulous, and the more nebulous a movement becomes, the less information comes across at that moment. And the other one, he has the feeling that there is actually nothing! Because you don’t give him any supports, no stops, no possibilities of resistance. And that is actually mind boxing. The reaction to that is that there is nothing, and you can’t locate it or understand it, that is mind boxing. (thinking) Casey has done it that way too!
Casey has also repeatedly spoken of transformation or transmutation in this context.
Yes! And this is that transformation and transmutation. I always say „beam back“ to it. This is it. It’s the other way around. We’re used to it: Action – reaction. It’s always two-dimensional, linear. (He starts moving in space). You can also move like that, you can take a step, you can run around, you can do anything. But everything is aimed at it, the other one is watching you, you are watching him, short reflex arcs, back and forth. But it is always: action – reaction and it is always directed against something, against a resistance. No matter how easy it is, it is always against a resistance. And we are shaped by resistance. We can only act when we feel resistance. So now you have a counterpart and he can act without you realizing that there is no resistance. So I can’t react either. And that is this head process, which then leads you through many, many types of exercises slowly so that your body also becomes like your mind thinks it is. (laughs)!
So that’s transmutation?
That’s transmutation! And Casey’s had it. A resistance, like when I go like this (starts to build up pressure against my arm), that’s your reaction: Counteract! And the counterholding is not only here (points to the arm), but it happens all over the body, all the way down. And we know that! What is happening there, it is already getting dark. What goes against it? Where are your barriers anyway? If this were a water balloon and you poked in there: „Wait, there’s nothing there!“
There’s not this one, there’s nothing. But you have to get to know your body: „Where are all those corners in that water polo?“ That’s a big corner! (demonstrates), that’s a small corner. Where are all those in your body that keep you from the state of water, or balloon? And that’s what you have to get to know first. Get to know your own mistakes, which you don’t even notice anymore! Look at whether you can move your knee, look at whether
you can move it and whether you can solve it, because you are standing on it. If I want to move, I have to pull the trigger. Somehow! You have to dissolve all these pressure conditions in your body. And only when you dissolve them, you slowly get this transmutation state.
You get closer and closer to it, and that makes it more difficult for the other person – not only in the martial arts, but also when you talk to someone – to evoke something supportive in him. He is searching.
To what extent has medicine or chiropractic and naturopathy had an effect on your martial arts?
Let me put it this way, chiropractic has had no effect on the martial arts itself, rather the other way round! The martial arts have taught what can be done with the body. Once, quite banal, the laws of leverage. What tissues are connected to it, how do the tissues work? Medicine gave me this. Then I understood what you actually do in the martial arts, what is affected by it or involved in it. And that’s how the connection is. From the technical aspect, martial arts gave me the freedom to do things differently in manual medicine. On the outside they may look similar, but to do them differently means that I can get through the tissues. I know how far I can go. I know that the joint can take it for a long time. If you pull a lever, you can pull it so that the joint breaks down.
If you change the position of the lever and there is a lesion in the joint, for example, you can dissolve that lesion. Just by changing the direction. So in that respect you have a repertoire of martial arts and many possibilities that you can do with patients. You are free yourself. You don’t go around imitating things that anybody has shown you.
One could just see very nicely how you set impulses in the treatment of your patient.
The contraction, I’m redistributing. I can’t create an impulse like that by leaning on something. The patient, for example. I’d just kind of lift him up. And my leaning on him does exactly the same thing to him and he closes up. (Snaps his finger) And so you have to see that you are exactly centered on it, creating space through tension and relative relaxation in the body. Creating space! When you tense something, you create space in the room, because it’s the same. The volume is the same. If you tense something, you create space. When you let go, you have space again, so you take up the volume again.
Is that when you fill the room?
I fill the room or I squeeze it. I’m emptying it. But I have to put it somewhere. When I empty something, somewhere, it has to go somewhere, because the mass remains the same! I can move the room by taking a step or moving like this.
What does letting go mean to you?
Letting go? (Considered) That you don’t cling to the past and use the past as a benchmark, because benchmarks are open to the top! And as long as you hold on to something, in the sense of: „I need that!“, that is already inside you anyway, you don’t have to hold on to that extra on the outside. For example a form. 30 years ago I made a shape, but I forgot it. It’s on a folder inside my skull, but I don’t need it anymore. Because this thing once went through me. It’s a building block. But if I hold on to it like I did 30 years ago, I can’t! And that’s what I mean by letting go. That’s what everyday life is like. If you want to hold on to everything you used to do, then you can’t take another step! You waste your hard drive so much. What’s past is stored in some folder, but you put it away. And that’s what I mean by letting go. And not saying, „Oh, yeah.“
No, it’s now! And that it’s now is always a function of what used to be. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. For me, it’s letting go.
The exercise we just did had something about letting go. The moment you let go of the fixed point and distribute your weight and muscle tension differently … that was also something like letting go, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it feels like letting go. That’s like what Casey described with the dirt on the mirror. The way I am, so… there. He bends over at the table, and he gets hard on the outside, and he holds me intensely. That’s who you are in that moment. You are my mirror. Now I just have to recognize that I configure myself in such a way that your mirror remains as you are. Only you do not recognize it. Like this. I remain like this, but I configure myself differently … (He slightly changes his muscle tone and shifts his balance, but remains equally present and bent forward at the table) So, and now I can let go, now I can wipe the dirt from the mirror.
When I am like this and now move, the mirror, i.e. the mirror image, moves continuously with me. I can not let go, it does not work. But now I am moving here, inside, so … we have the same position, I can move here. One must always have one’s own thought processes.
Where do you see the future of the Chinese Boxing Institute?
For me it is an
institute or an organization, actually like any other. Even within organizations we have major change processes. It ultimately consists of two aspects. One is the financial aspect: we are an organization, we organize ourselves, we take by teaching, money, etc. And the other is the aspect: Should we continue to train like this, are we as afflicted as we once started or should we continue to research? Then we actually no longer have this old, original thought. Or the old idea.
It is just a name! With a marketing concept. But the development is something that everyone does for themselves. So he doesn’t need an organization. Maybe he needs an organization as a launch pad to get to people who can help him. An organization is always a form of administration to get as many people as possible on the same track. It’s different when you see it for yourself.
Then you can see where you can find someone and they do something with you. Hmm … record! Then you go there … record! And there … record! And you are going through your process of change and not what others think you have to see! You have to stand like this. You got the same thing in karate. Yeah, bullshit! Let me see how it’s done. What’s the point? It works, it doesn’t work! Whether it does or not, I don’t give a shit! It’s you. And this is your own development!
And so are all these terms. It’s more of a conglomerate, to have a clue: „We’re doing Chinese boxing!“ It could mean „We’re diving in the pond!“ as a technique. So what? It’s all it’s worth! The value is always in you and in a reflection of others.
When others say: „That’s what I was looking for!“ When others say: „No, I wasn’t looking for that, I don’t really understand what you mean!“ „Yeah, I don’t know, no!“ Then this is not the right partner for you. And all you can do is pass it on to whoever’s looking. Otherwise you do entertainment and sweating lessons. But there are others.
Do styles actually still play a role at all?
No! As a physical and mental individual you are a moving being with a background or with the ability to implement an idea with the movements nature has given you. That happens to be the idea of fighting. What can I do with these movements? Others, they might take a brush in their hand with these movements and smear a sheet of paper. The movements are the same. There’s only one physics, but you always have to see the idea behind it. I go like this … (He makes a sweeping movement.) One of them says: „Oh, you’re going to punch him in the nose! So I say, „Nah, look, I’ve got an imaginary brush in my hand, I’m painting the wall!“ Fuck it, the movement’s the same! Only the intention is always different.
What would you recommend to someone who says: „I’d like to learn internal martial arts, where to start“?
Just start by getting to know your body, see and explore what the body can do. Then you’ll realize: „Is that it?“ And then it will also show whether you have the patience to climb in. There are martial arts that are quite good at getting started. I say judo now, you get to know the body too. And then the questions of some kind automatically come up. And then you start to search. If you stay in this stage: „Well, I think it’s great“, but otherwise it doesn’t affect you, then you don’t have to go on the search. The one who is not satisfied with what he has done so far is always going on the search. If you are satisfied with that, then you are actually a zombie, then there is standstill. You may be alive, but it is standstill!
So is dissatisfaction actually a good motivation?
Yes! So, I always ask myself the question: „That can’t be it yet?!“ One always finds something in oneself: „Oh man, does that work? Couldn’t it work that way?“ To question oneself again and again, that is actually the engine. When you do that, questioning yourself, then you go on the next journey or on the next path and you are searching again, always finding new things. So it is basically an upwardly open system. Or you swim in the water and you don’t know where you are going, but on the way you find interesting things.
Do you think you’ll ever get there?
I don’t know! It’s not important for me whether I arrive somewhere, because I don’t know what the destination is. I don’t know what the destination is. Maybe, to get back to the martial arts, there is some physical law that we all haven’t learned yet or don’t know exists! Maybe there is a physical law slumbering inside of us, and yes, I want to reach that. But I don’t know it. That is why I have no goal. So I’m just going to be on my way. How far will I get? I have no idea. Maybe the next generation will do something completely different or have completely different insights, completely different abilities. You can see that in all sports today. What abilities they are already developing today! It’s always based on knowledge and small pieces of information from previous generations. You have to reduce yourself down there, you are just a milestone. Yes, on many bumpy roads as well (laughs).
And therefore: There is nothing fixed for myself. Outwardly, perhaps, because we can only move within a certain framework, i.e. from the optical point of view, but as far as the effect etc. is concerned, we are completely free. There you are! And not: You are Master Hung, who just happens to have arthritis and doesn’t really get the kick. And everyone says: „Man, this is a new kick!“ No, no, this is no new kick, he just has arthritis! And everyone imitates it. The imitation, I mean. No, you are your own imitation. And that’s why there’s no style. Style is always fixed. No, you are Olaf. I go to Olaf and want to learn from him, if he’s ready for what he’s doing. And that, if you will, is touch. He’s doing that right now! And that helps you for some parts of yourself to internalize that and take it with you on the journey. And then you go to Alfons. Alfons, he stands on his head every day. Yes, it’s Alfons‘ way. It’s his way, it’s not a style. He just happens to have been upside down for six months, because it got into his head. And you say, „Oh, that’s another piece on the milestone.“ And once you’re away from Alfons, after three weeks he bangs his skull against the wall. Of course, you’ll never know. But you saw Alfons standing on his head. And now it’s part of you. And it shapes you. And then the next one comes, he comes back to Olaf, and Olaf stands on his head, stands up and bangs his head against the wall. He says: „Oh, this technique, I have to copy it exactly.“
Nah, that’s just the process you’re in right now. If he goes away again, then you laugh at him, say: „What kind of fool is that? I was just fooling around.“ And he believes you. It’s just what you’re seeing right now. And all you ever see is what you feel. When you try to do something you don’t feel like doing, it’s not authentic. And the not-authentic comes across in a lot of people. They go, „Aha! That’s it, he’s playing us!“ And then it’s on, rip off. You can tell he’s not in the mood for it. No, you’re always just a milestone.
That’s how Chinese boxing works. And the Chinese boxing, that was once a term, actually just a word: „How can you sum it all up?“ I can’t say thirty different names „Hung, Peng, Pong, See, Chun“ and so on, and any Chinese people that anyone has ever met who were at the stage of their own development at that time. So, and you want to summarize that somehow. And then you say: „Well, what was the essence of it, the essence of the moment, to mix it up a little bit?“ And then you can say, „I’m tangled up.“ „What is that, is that a style?“ „Nah, that’s not a style“ „Yeah, but what is it, then?“ „This is a conflation! We’re going to mix it up today!“ „Huh?“ Nobody knows, because they can’t figure out what you mean by that. Because they haven’t gone through the whole process. But do you give them now: „Here, look! That’s Peng 1-35. That’s the style! And now I’ll show it to you!“ „Yeah, show me how it’s done!“ So a style itself, in itself, is always dead! It’s always just a hodgepodge of a development. And the terminology is general, a bit of PR, so that everyone has some kind of term they can hang on to. But otherwise…
That’s the way it is in medicine! Something is constantly changing, you are always trying out, you are always trying out. You happen to do something: „Oh, aha! Go! It works!“ Then you go ahead. It’s up to you – you carry on. It suits you even more – you carry on! Doesn’t it suit you – well, ok, I did it once, it’s actually boring, no, doesn’t suit me, leave it out. It’s all the same. You just have to try and filter it for yourself. In the past it was the same with me, of course. „Stand like this!“ … It doesn’t matter how I stand, it doesn’t matter! And there I am gone (laughs). That’s what I mean!
Many thanks Manfred, for the exciting conversation!
Pictures: Manfred Steiner, Olaf Pachten
Manfred Steiner, born in 1947, died in 2019. He started boxing in his early youth on his father’s advice. Later he switched to Judo and then to Kyokushin-Kai. In the German Armed Forces Manfred worked as a lone fighter trainer, among other things. After leaving the Bundeswehr Manfred founded his own martial arts school in Hannover, which was later continued by his student Detlev Zimmermann. This was followed by several trips to America and Asia as an instructor and lecturer.
Manfred worked in his own practice as chiropractor, osteopath and alternative practitioner for Chinese medicine in Hanover-Isernhagen. He treated not only people, but also horses and other four-legged friends and was considered a master in his field.