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Meet Carl Totton of Taoist Institute in In North Hollywood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carl Totton.

Carl, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and began my participation in the martial arts informally in 1961. I had three friends who knew a smattering of different martial arts. One had studied some judo for a time; another knew some Goju-Ryu karate. Yet another had practiced some Choy Li Fut kung fu while a boy in Hong Kong. From backyard sessions at age 13 with these friends, I was first introduced to the Asian martial arts systems.

Then, in 1963 at age 15, I began my formal study of the martial arts with Master John Leoning, a great martial artist. Leoning was a senior student of Adriano Emperado of kajukenbo kenpo karate fame. Leoning initially studied directly with William K.S. Chow, a student of the Kenpo Great Grandmaster James Mitose, before joining Emperado who was Chow’s first black belt. Although grounded in Chinese kenpo, Leoning’s kajukenbo workouts included kung fu, judo and jujitsu, aikido, and plain old Hawaiian street fighting. Leoning in fact often referred to kajukenbo as scientific street fighting. Kajukenbo, a hybrid art, was devised in 1947 when five black belts (Peter Choo, Frank Ordonez, Joe Holck, George Chang, Adriano Emperado) trained together to combine their martial arts systems into one. It included ka (karate, actually Korean tang soo do), ju (judo and jujitsu), ken (kenpo), and bo (boxing, both western and Chinese boxing or kung fu). As such, it was perhaps the original mixed martial art.

Leoning, a mix of Hawaiian, Filipino, and Chinese, moved to the mainland from Hawaii’s notorious Palama district and opened his first studio in North Hollywood, California in 1957. He called it the North American Kung Fu-Karate Association and it included several branch schools. Leoning’s senior student, Carlos Bunda, won several championship titles at the early Ed Parker International Karate Championships in Long Beach. Other prominent students included Sonny Gascon and Bill Ryusaki, trainer of Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. In addition to studying from Chow and Emperado, Leoning was also one of the first non-Chinese allowed to study kung fu, then a secret art, from Grandmaster Ark Yuey Wong and Share K. Lew. Leoning at the time was ranked 7th dan, then the highest black belt in Los Angeles (Leoning was also ranked 3’rd dan in Shito-ryu karate from Japan, 6th dan from Emperado, 7th dan from Ark Wong, and 8th dan from Share Lew, plus a large kajukenbo instructor’s certificate from Emperado). All ranks awarded at GM Ark Wong’s schools were certified through Leoning’s North American Kung Fu-Karate Association. Ark Wong is generally recognized as being the first Chinese master to open his teachings to persons from all ethnicities in 1959.

Next, in 1966, I became very interested in the mind force principles involved in aikido and began studying with Sensei Isao Takahashi, a fabulous instructor. Takahashi Sensei was, at 6th dan, just about the highest ranked aikido instructor in the US at the time, and his dojo, the Los Angeles Aiki-Kai, was filled with great practitioners like Sensei Daniel Mizukami, Rev. Kensho (then Daniel) Furuya Sensei, Sensei Stanley Pranin of Aiki News and Aikido Journal fame, Sensei Rod Kobayashi, and numerous others. There were nearly 30 black belts in the school, many of whom later went on to become very well known in the aikido world. At that time there was only LA Aiki-Kai so all of these great black belts were under one roof. It was a great experience to be able to train with so many really outstanding aikido teachers. And Sensei Takahashi was just about the best storyteller I’ve ever met. At each and every training session, during a break, he would tell some story from old Japan and then somehow relate it to that very night’s aikido lesson. If I only had a tape recorder! I also was able to train with visiting greats from Japan, including Master Koichi Tohei, the world’s only 10th dan and the Chief Instructor at Hombu Dojo in Japan on some occasions.

In 1967, I heard that a kung fu teacher was moving to LA from Hong Kong. Through intermediaries, I managed to get introduced to Sifu Richard Wan (Wan Tak Kei) soon after he started teaching, first in the Crenshaw district and later, in LA’s Chinatown. Sifu Wan was teaching a little known southern Chinese style called Yau Kung Moon which was influenced by an even older style called Bak Mei Pai, the White Eyebrow Style. Wan had studied in Hong Kong with Ha Kwok Cheung, son of the style’s leader GM Ha Hon Hung. This style is very compact and uses the elbows in to protect the centerline theory similar to that popularized by Wing Chun. Several arts in south China are known as “brother arts” for that reason. These include southern praying mantis, wing chun, yau kung moon, bak mei pai, bak fu pai (white tiger), southern dragon, and southern white crane, and hakka, among others.

This was an exciting time in Southern California because many of the best teachers in the world were all in the Los Angeles area teaching. People like Ark Yuey Wong, James Wing Woo, Jimmy H. Woo (San Soo), Ed Parker, Hidetaka Nishiyama and Tsutomu Oshima of Shotokan karate, Tak Kubota, Sea Oh Choi of Hapkido, Gene LeBell and Hayward Nishioka of judo, and so many others were always around in what seemed like a small martial arts world. And I, like a kid in a candy shop, spent every single day training, reading about martial arts, or going to watch some other great teachers train their students in a wide variety of martial arts systems.

This same year, 1967, I met several fellow martial artists at Los Angeles City College who would become lifelong friends and collaborators. Sifus Douglas Wong, Tom Chan, and Wilson Quan had all practiced a number of martial arts, and we began training together for several hours per day, both at the campus and then later in the evening at our training classes. We would go on to form the Sil Lum Kung Fu Association and work to strengthen the arts by experimenting with both combative applications and with maximizing the potential of forms for tournament competition. This would eventuate in our Sil Lum Team winning an unheard of 500 trophies within six months (Our team co-captains were Albert Leong and James Lew). Our aim was to share the Chinese martial arts with a karate community which had almost never seen such styles in competition before. We participated in forms, weapons, fighting, and fighting team competition, and gave hundreds of demonstrations throughout the state.

I frequently went to observe Grandmaster Ark Yuey Wong’s classes and began studying at one of Ark Wong’s branch studios in Huntington Park run by Master Ralph Shun, Ark Wong’s senior student, and his assistant, the giant Samoan Haumea “Tiny” Lefiti. Ralph had moved from Hawaii to study with Wong in 1961 and had previously trained in Hawaii at the highly regarded Gee Yung Chinese Physical Culture Association run by the famed Grandmaster Lum Dai Yong. Ralph trained there in Sil Lum Fut Gar Kuen, Northern and Tibetan White Crane, and in tai chi chuan. Many very excellent practitioners studied at GM Wong’s Wah Que Studio in Chinatown including Dan Inosanto, Sifu Melvin Armstrong, Douglas Wong, Albert Leong, actor/martial artist Jim Kelly, and many more.

During class, Ralph would focus on teaching Ark Wong’s 5 Family Styles (Choy, Li, Fut, Mok, and Hung) and 5 Animal forms (tiger, dragon, leopard, snake, and crane), while Tiny, also a proficient boxer, specialized in kung fu and tai chi combat from Ark Wong, especially Mok Gar and Monk Fist Boxing, and the newly emerging Samoan hybrid art known as Limalama, the Hand of Wisdom. Monk Fist Boxing is based on the rare art taught at the Shaolin Temple to the warrior monks and revolutionaries charged with protecting the temple gates. It has remained a highly guarded art to this day.

Tiny trained with both Ark Wong and Ralph Shun, and learned Limalama from his cousin, the founder, and grandmaster of Limalama, Tuumamao “Tino” Tuiolosega, the first non-Chinese to earn the coveted master’s certificate from Ark Wong. Tino later received a one of a kind certificate co-signed by both Grandmasters Ark Wong and Ed Parker, promoting him to 10th-degree black belt and recognizing him as the founding grandmaster of Limalama in 1970. Meanwhile, Tiny began teaching me privately as a “closed door” student with a focus on Monk Fist Boxing, martial arts principles, dim muk, and the poison hand.

Eventually, Ralph moved to open a new school in the Eagle Rock area of LA (still later to the Pico district of LA, then finally to Orange County), while Tiny kept the school in Huntington Park. I attended both Ralph’s and Tiny’s schools at the same time taking both class and private lessons and began taking private lessons directly with Grandmaster Ark Wong in his 5 Family & 5 Animals style of kung fu. One of my classmates at Ark Wong’s and Tiny’s school was Douglas Wong who would later go on to found the Sil Lum White Lotus style. Doug and I would sometimes take joint private lessons with the “Old Man”, Ark Wong. At other times, Ark Wong would train me privately alongside his grandson and successor, Ma Se-Ming. The legendary Grandmaster Ark Yuey Wong died on his birthday at age 88 in 1987.
In 1969 John Leoning told me that a special class was going to form to learn directly from one of his teachers, Grandmaster Share K. Lew, a temple trained Taoist priest and kung fu and qigong master. Up until that time, only Leoning had been able to learn directly from Lew (since 1960), and it was an honor to be one of five handpicked students selected to learn from Master Lew. So, in May of 1970, I began learning Choy Li Fut and the Taoist internal kung fu style of Tao Tan Pai or Taoist Elixir Style from Lew and Leoning. Master Lew had spent his youth in China learning at a Taoist Monastery called Wong Lung Kuan (Yellow Dragon Temple) in Canton. He also learned qigong, herbal medicine, bone setting, philosophy and spiritual studies, iron palm, dim muk, and more while there. Outside of the temple, he’d learned another powerful qigong for health promotion known as the tai chi chih or tai chi ruler, and a rare mountain bagua style.

Then, after arriving in the US in 1948, Lew lived in San Francisco where he learned Choy Li Fut and Shaolin kung fu from his uncle, the renowned Grandmaster Lao Bun (Ben Lew), an amazing martial artist. Lao Bun could wave his palm above a bucket of water and cause the water to splash the ceiling, just by using his qi and mind force! Share Lew says that from his uncle he was able to learn what he called, “the secret things”.

I trained with Grandmaster Lew for over 25 years, becoming his senior student. In addition to kung fu, Lew taught qigong (chi kung), again becoming first outside China to teach this art openly to non-Chinese. He also taught the more advanced aspects of the internal systems including nui gung, wai gung, shen gung, and kong jing or empty force. Grandmaster Lew also taught us about Chinese medicinal herbs, qi energy healing, and tui na acupressure massage. At 94 years old, he was still vigorous and active, traveling around the country to teach workshops in qigong and healing with qi. Two of his teachers in China lived to be 115 and 116 years old respectively! GM Lew died in 2012 at age 94.

At Grandmaster Lew’s school, known as the Taoist Sanctuary in North Hollywood (founded by the noted Taoist philosopher, actor, and psychologist Dr. Khiegh Dhigh), tai chi chuan was taught by Chao Li Chi. I had originally begun learning tai chi chuan from Ralph Shun, and continued learning with Chao Li Chi. Both taught versions of the Yang style of tai chi chuan which I have practiced since 1970. I officially began teaching my own kung fu and kenpo students at a club I started in Gardena in 1970.

During the 1970’s, yet another Chinese grandmaster moved to LA named Doo Wai. Doo Wai’s specialty is Bak Fu Pai (white tiger style), and he also knows the Bak Mei Pai or white eyebrow style, a deadly and “forbidden” art. He actually knows over 1500 kung fu forms from a large variety of styles. As a youth in Hong Kong his father, the previous grandmaster, would introduce him to all of his friends who were masters of many systems and they in turn would teach the young Doo their styles. So, me and my friend Doug Wong were honored to be able to take private lessons from this great teacher and learn the inner secrets of white tiger, iron palm, healing, herbal medicine, and more.

All during this time period in the 1970’s, I continued to practice kenpo, limalama, and kung fu, often with Mr. Tino or Papa, as grandmaster Tino Tuiolosega was affectionately called. By the early 1980’s, I began studying with Dr. York Why Loo from China who taught all four main styles of tai chi chuan: Yang Wu, Sun, and Chen, including tai chi weapons. He also taught me the rare art of Lu Ho Ba Fa or 6 Combinations/8 Methods, also known as Water Boxing because the movements flow like water.

During this same time period I became very close to Ed Parker Sr. through one of his senior disciples, my old friend Ron Chapel, and joined the International Kenpo Karate Association (IKKA). I fondly recall many days and nights I spent at Mr. Parker’s Pasadena home literally learning at the foot of this legendary grandmaster. Learning from Ed Parker was like learning physics and mathematics as he used these concepts to teach kenpo. Mr. Parker especially wanted me to take his concepts and apply them to kung fu to improve the arts combative efficiency. I, along with the entire martial arts community, was greatly saddened at the untimely loss of Mr. Parker in 1990.

I was introduced to the Filipino martial arts by Professor Remy Presas, the father of Modern Arnis in the mid 1980’s. Remy was an extremely skillful instructor able to apply his methods to both empty hands and weapons arts, and how to apply these principles to any martial art one practiced. I met a number of great Filipino style instructors during this period including John Lacoste, Angel Cabales, and Danny Inosanto, who was also the senior student of Bruce Lee. I visited Danny and Richard Bustillo many times at their IMB Academy in Southern California.

I began an intensive study of the Chinese internal systems with an exceptional teacher named Grandmaster John Fey in 1985. His encyclopedic knowledge of kung fu, tai chi chuan, hsing-i chuan, pa kua chang, lu ho ba fa (water boxing), and qigong really allowed me to deepen my understanding of how internal principles operate within the martial, healing, and spiritual arts. I continued with additional lessons in Chen style tai chi with Master George Xu and Grandmaster Zhang Xia Xin, and later studied Chen taiji privately with Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang.

My involvement in modern approaches to martial arts continued into the 2000’s as I began studying a comprehensive multidimensional martial art known as the Matrix System, developed by Grandmaster Al Garza. Mr. Garza was Haumea Lefiti’s first black belt and then went on to study for many years with Tino Tuiolosega, the founder of Limalama. Now he has made some important new discoveries that connect all levels of the fighting arts in a systematic way.

After over 55 years in the martial arts, I have become concerned that many of the comprehensive principles which were so important to the arts are becoming de-emphasized. This includes principles and methods applied to effective combat, meaningful forms, as well as to the internal systems, qigong, philosophy, spiritual development, and healing. These aspects were becoming fragmented and often lost, frequently not taught at all. Based on my years of study and research, I began to formulate a new approach to the practice of the arts based on restoring many of the most crucial aspects from the past, as well as contemporary material from current systems of practice and modern educational methods.

I call my new synthesis, the Core System. It includes martial, qigong, meditative, healing, philosophical and spiritual practices. In 2005, I was officially promoted to the highest rank possible in the martial arts, that of Sijo, Founding Grandmaster, by the Whipping Willow Martial Arts Association, under the leadership of Great Grandmaster Ming Lum, and an esteemed gathering of masters, grandmasters, and great grandmasters. My certificate was signed by masters from all of my major traditions including kung fu (Ming Lum, Douglas Wong, Andrew Ching, Antwione Alferos), American Kenpo (Bob Liles, Dian Tanaka, Tom Georgian, Sandy Amason), BKF kenpo (Daryl Jones), kajukenbo (Max Togisala), and limalama (Ted Tabura).

I’ve been the Director of the Taoist Institute since 1981 and have been teaching since 1970. In that time, I’ve only awarded about 30 black belts or black sashes in the past 48 years, and it’s really difficult to obtain that level of rank from my school. My senior student is Grandmaster Steven Baugh, head of Lohan Shaolin in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over 20 of my students, who I introduced to the study of Chinese medicine, have gone on to become licensed acupuncturists and herbalists. I have received three Presidential Sports Awards signed by President Bill Clinton; in 2002, I was named to the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame; in 2005, I received the Spirit of the Dragon Award at the San Diego Grand Internationals; and in 2011, the Steve Hearring Legacy Award; and was then honored with the 2011 Hall of Fame award from the Martial Arts History Museum.

I have officiated at hundreds of martial arts tournaments throughout California since becoming a black belt in 1970. I have acted as a judge, referee, and head referee at both small and large events, including Ed Parker’s International Karate Championships (IKC). I have appeared in films, such as the Karate Kid, and co-hosted an NBC special, Secrets of the Martial Arts. I was the book review editor for Inside Kung Fu Magazine, and have published several technical and historical articles in various martial arts magazines. My biography is in the Kenpo Continuum, Volumes 1 & 2, and I co-edited and contributed several biographies to the Volume 2, including those of Tino Tuiolosega, Haumea Lefiti, John Leoning, Dave German, James Ibrao, Al Novak, and Ming Lum. I included an interview with Ed Parker and wrote tributes to the Godfathers of Kenpo: James Mitose, William Chow, and Adriano Emperado. My biography has appeared in over twenty volumes of Who’s Who in the World and Who’s Who in America.

Today, I continue teaching the martial arts including kung fu, kenpo karate and kenpo jujitsu, limalama, tai chi chuan, hsing-i, bagua chang, lu ho ba fa, chin na, and the healing arts like qigong, tui na acupressure massage, and herbal remedies. I also teach psychic development practices such as remote viewing, and philosophical and spiritual teachings including the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, or Book of Change. For two years I and Tod Perry have co-hosted an internet podcast series on Taoism called “What’s This Tao All About”, available on iTunes. I offer workshops and seminars on topics ranging from the iron palm and the poison hand, to meditation and energy healing. My doctoral dissertation in psychology examined meditation as an altered state of consciousness.

Professionally, I hold BS and MS degrees in rehabilitation counseling (CSULA), and a Psy.D (Doctor of Psychology) degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University. I work as a clinical and educational psychologist providing a variety of therapeutic services to adults, adolescents, and children. I’ve taught at five different colleges or universities, including two schools of Oriental Medicine. Currently I am the chair of the department of school psychology at Phillips Graduate University and a professor of psychology, after working nearly 25 years as a school psychologist with children and families in Southern California schools.

My current projects involve documenting many aspects of both the martial arts and the internal systems of qigong and healing, and ancient and contemporary approaches to spiritual development. I am writing articles and books, and producing training DVD’s on both the martial and health arts from China. Still learning today, I have been involved in an intensive study of Peruvian (Incan) shamanic healing and energetic medicine, the Hawaiian spiritual developmental system of Ho’oponopono, Zen Buddhism with Master Yo Hoon Kim, and the ancient mystery school and native indigenous wisdom teachings of spiritual master Drunvalo Melchizedek (Awakening the Illuminated Heart, ATIH). Preserving the core fundamentals of the martial arts while continuing to restore its heart, soul and spirit so individuals can remember who they truly are, spiritual beings having a human experience, is my primary mission. As martial artists, I believe that our ultimate goal is to be spiritual warriors for life, not mere practitioners of the combative arts and sciences.

I’m known in the Chinese community as the “Keeper of the Flame” for my ongoing support and preservation of the traditions of the Chinese Martial Arts. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I would be able to meet and train with all of the great and famous masters that I have be fortunate enough to meet, and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful. I truly consider myself to be the luckiest person in the world. My favorite saying comes from Dr. Charles Richet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine: “I didn’t say it was possible. I only said it was true”

Has it been a smooth road?
Probably the more difficult challenges are keeping interest alive in these ancient arts in this modern age with so many other activities to distract one from being involved in these ancient practices. So, to that end, I try to help people realize that these arts promote mind, body, and spirit, which we all so need these days.

In addition, I’m also a trained psychologist and balancing the ancient ways with the study of modern psychology took a great deal of effort. I was able to complete a doctoral dissertation on “Meditation and Altered States” which allowed me to combine psychology with meditation ans a clinical practice. The best of both worlds!

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Taoist Institute – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I am the director of the Taoist Institute in North Hollywood. I direct all of the training, classes, workshops, and seminars in the Chinese martial arts like kung fu and tai chi chuan, and in meditation and Chinese yoga known as qigong.

I also have a psychotherapy private practice where I specialize in stress-related disorders, anxiety, grief, depression, and trauma. I use methods like progressive relaxation, guided visualization, and hypnosis, among others.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
The southern California area has many resources in the arts, the natural landscapes, and cultural opportunities which I really enjoy. Sometimes the fast pace and hustle of the lifestyle can pose a challenge though. That’s when these ancient practices and modern ways of stress management come into play!


  • Classes in Chinese Martial Arts like tai chi chuan and kung fu range from $85-$105 per month
  • Classes in qigong and meditation are $85 per month
  • Rates for psychotherapy and counseling start at $125 per session and sometimes insurance can help

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Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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