Why China?

Continue reading

Advertisements

What happens when chi meets photography?

A fellow student at the school, Anthony Feoutis, is an avid photographer. A collection of Anthony’s photos are shown below to give some idea of life at the school, the quality speaks for itself. He can be found at:

http://tony-f-photography.tumblr.com/

The School

China Hill Xifu

Clemens Clint Grading  Quentin and Bob  Bob boxer copie Luke Bloody

Power Stretching (Post here)

benpain 1 logo

pain Dave 4 with logo pain bob 2 with logo diapo Oli

Fortune tellers

vieille homme fortune teller 1 copie vieille homme fortune teller 2 copie vieille homme fortune teller 3 copie

Locals

vieil hombre cigarette 2 copie riskshaw 132 copie vieil hombre copie kids on the car copie  cartes 2 copiefish copie cook copie gamine happy copie

Death by horse stance

Training becomes the thread of your life. Wake up at 6, Tai Chi or meditation before breakfast at 7. Then soon enough the training schedule begins taking chunks out of your stamina and replacing it with chi.
But it’s so rewarding, it becomes an addiction. You can’t wait to go to sleep so another day of practicing staff form, sparring and stretching can begin. The weekends are welcomed as a chance to let your body rest, but by sunday morning you become restless and await the whistle of a training session impatiently.
The aching continues…temporary pockets of muscles within your body feel it at times, but there seems to be a permanent hold on the hip joints, which constantly need a good clicking. This ‘need to click’ feeling can persist for days, but similar to how a cow would feel with an itch on it’s back, you just can’t get to it. When the great CLUNK finally arrives there is an almost celestial pleasure and relief. These aches can feel as though they limit your flexibility temporarily but a more pliable future is promised.
The master walks around the training hall swinging about something akin to a medieval mace, elegantly practicing a form, while we stretch. After the training session he points out a few aspects: “Pay attention to the details of the form”, “If your body hurts, just insist!”
One weekend there was an open bar party nearby and among the rampant debauchery a couple of guys vomitted on the floor of the school when we got back. As a punishment they had to do horse stance and plank (supporting your horizontal body with just your toes and forearms) for half an hour each. They also had to help the cleaning team for three days.
Someone previous to my arrival was also sick in the school, he had to do 1000 press ups. After pushing through 250 in two hours under the master’s steady watch he was stopped at a sudden bout of mercy from the headmaster.
All of this becomes a big talking point in the school and makes for solid entertainment. But underneath that it does embed the school’s ambition to provide a focussed environment, and the students respect the managers for persevering with the discipline.
My own experience of punishment is as follows: As I arrived at my group for line up in front of the master, he had a look of sheer grim anger on his face, like he wanted to eat a child. Never had I seen him that angry. We were scheduled to clean the training hall that day.
Me and two others explained we did not know it was our turn. “Horse stance” he shouted and pointed to the side, thrusting a four foot broadsword to gesture. We crouched in to horse stance in a row facing him. “Flat!” He stabbed the sword in our direction as he roared at us. We didn’t know how long we would be down, but when he shouted “I will not say it again… Flat!” we went as low as our lactic-infused muscles would allow.
We got our horse stance flat and waited for him to call to get up. “You can stop when your sweat hits the ground.” All of our legs shook within three minutes and it became impossible to stay flat. The rest of our group still lined up waiting for us to finish, waiting for the sweat to drop. His look had been fierce and I fought the temptation to look up at him, I could feel the glare burning a hole through my skull, aware that he was still thrusting his sword at us.
Lactic acid seared through the muscles. I felt a first-rate tit and was glad I wasn’t doing it alone. The master said that he had “told the other masters our group would be the best! Only four people cleaned. You have let your group down. You have let me down.”
Twelve minutes we did the horse stance, all the while trying to blow sweat off our upper lip so that it would hit the floor.
The discipline here is important. One of the founders explained to us that most prospective students ask if they are allowed to drink and smoke on site. My own policy of no drink or drugs (except more than a bit of caffeine) is to try and ensure focus while I’m here. One thing I can say for sure is that punishment through horse stance is as effective as it is painful.
Ben, pictured, practicing sword form for grading.
2014-10-31 15.28.31 2014-12-11 13.50.04

Unadulterated killing machine

A short note on the masters: whenever they show you anything they exert such explosive power, it’s alarming. Every one of them is of a small wiry build, their muscles must be the only known location of neutron stars on this planet. My master weighs about 60kg, but he moves gracefully, swiftly, and with lightning speed. When he took my wrist, during a demonstration, and swept my foot he moved like a snake, I could only see the start and end position. He and the other masters are dressed in orange Shaolin robes with bands tightening the lower leg.
His resembles the wiriest of strengths. You would walk past him on the street and just think him a particularly handsome Chinese guy, not an unadulterated killing machine. They are to the fighting world what Nairo Quintana is to the cycling world: a human anomaly of sheer force. In a wrestle they may well get beaten by some of the more experienced students, but if they kept their distance they would be capable of inflicting a lot of pain rapidly.
The style of the Shaolin training regime ensures lower body mass: strength training using body weight exercises with lots of repetitions, training everyday, eating minimally; very different to a bodybuilding schedule. His strength is in every sinew, every ligament, it seems to reach down to his very bones. They smile knowingly when they warn us to drink less and play table tennis relentlessly. Two masters share a motorbike and speed out of the school everyday helmet-less, their robes billowing in the wind.
Visiting Shaolin shows are popular around the world, and you can see why. It’s watching someone with the elegance of a dancer worthy of a Swan Lake production, the strength of Mike Tyson and the enlightenment of the Buddha!

In the afternoons we warm up in the same way as the mornings (stretching and the indescribably dreaded two-minute horse stance) and then start Sanda, Chinese kickboxing. Kung fu seems to be split in to two components: forms (previously mentioned) and sanda. Sanda, translated as ‘free fighting’, gives the impresion of being a more operative fighting style. It incorporates sweeps, wrestling, takedowns, throws and kick catches and was developed by the military to test soldier’s realistic fighting ability, derived from traditional styles of training.

Contrary to the kung fu forms and the associated punches and kicks, sanda-style strikes are practical and feel more applicable during sparring. The kung fu kicks, for instance, would find a rare place in an actual fight, the key difference being a maintained straight leg. They seem designed to improve flexibility and range, as well as garner discipline in the practicer. Sanda uses power as the main motivator for technique and we pair up, punching and kicking pads held by your partner in relay, improving technique and force. The master, as with the basic kung fu and forms, looks for ways in which we can improve and illustrates this on students.
During the practice of forms, aesthetic is paramount, and there are Wushu competitions in which the winner is judged solely on that. Sanda is about power and how it will affect the opponent. During sanda the maintenance of the guard is pivotal in ensuring the master is satisfied with your style and delivery. This is not aesthetic, the only question being ‘Can your opponent hit you?’
Although sanda causes pain, it is not designed to inflict serious injury; forms practice aims to disable an opponent quickly by using a palm strike to the throat or a spear stab. Where sanda would hurt, forms practice is what is referred to when the master says “this is the art of killing”. This is why it is practiced against an imaginary opponent.
We regularly spar after training finishes, but as soon as you put on the gloves and start trying to smash your opponent’s face in all training seems to be resolutely thrown out the window and instinct kicks in. While you try to look for gaps in their guard and inflict some power in a punch, the sweat trickles down your forehead and a focus on the present moment develops that most Buddhist monks would envy.
2014-12-04 16.17.36

Ever wanted to eat a chicken head?

We sit in a restaurant, fans whiz above us and a sign on the wall proclaims this establishment class ‘C’, out of three classes. As we wait for our meal there is some speculation about what we have ordered. A friend asks for the wifi password so he can search for a picture of sweet and sour pork online, to show the chef. The standard of ordering in a Chinese restaurant goes by pointing at random at Chinese characters on the menu, then hoping we haven’t ordered tofu.
The first meal arrives…what looks like lumps of straw, in fact cold tofu with green peppers interspersed. The second: tofu again. This is a worthy punishment for our lack of Mandarin knowledge: they should have called us lazy tourists and relieved themselves in our soup, but we got the tofu instead.
The next two meals arrive: dumplings and noodle soup. Delicious examples of Chinese cooking which leave us ordering more. The couple who serve us are friendly and curious, typically charming people who want a picture with us before we leave.
One Chinese restaurant menu has the English words ‘Bowl of Mess’ to describe a meal.
It’s not uncommon to get a diversity of chicken limbs on a plate of rice: feet, head, perhaps a windpipe. And locals say it’s easy to find fried grasshoppers or scorpions in the food market in the summer. One restaurant we visited had a crocodile in a cage outside, unexpectedly waiting for the chop. Many restaurants keep their food fresh, ie. alive, and you can choose your doomed chicken, turtle or fish from a cage or tank. The chef will then stop smiling and butcher it there in front of you, as nonchalantly as if he had just peeled a carrot! Being a meat-eater becomes a much more genuine experience, seeing what is needed to conjure the plate in front of you.
Supermarkets are another excuse for a natural history museum: abundant live fish and crabs in tanks, pig trotters, whole dried ducks, cricket-ball sized apples. The staff there are so helpful, weighing your fruit and offering tastes of the mountains of dried mushrooms.
The food in China is spicy. Even the lowest category of spice has you wishing you could dive in the sea to cool off. One local dish I tried was a one foot whole fish on a bed of spinach, cabbage, garlic, mushrooms, potato wafers, and broth. Served in a gas-heated metal dish, we each had small bowls of rice to munch away with chopsticks.
The mushrooms come in a variety of unusual shapes and sizes: long and pencil-thin; stalk-shaped like celery; wide disc-headed. They are all tastier than English mushrooms, often tangy and spongy. The combination with chicken makes all-time matches like cheese and crackers look mediocre!
The food in the school is delicious: a chicken dish with mushrooms in oyster sauce; a second chicken dish with aubergine or bean shoots in soy; egg with spring onions or tomatoes; rice. Athough there is as much variation as the survey results of a Communist’s favourite colour, these dishes remain wholesome and tasty, most students wait expectantly outside the dining room before meals.
2014-11-27 18.53.50 2014-10-23 10.00.37 2014-10-23 09.59.09 2014-10-08 18.11.43 2014-10-26 13.15.12

Horses, chopstick forms and sunsets

It feels the right time to give an overview of our schedule.

There are three training sessions per day, two in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each training session starts with a 1km run, followed by stretching and warm up.

The schedule below details each of the three daily sessions.

Monday: basics; practicing forms; sanda.
Tuesday: basics/forms; jumps and rolls; sanda/ wrestling or takedowns
Wednesday: basics; forms; wing chun
Thursday: qi gong/ conditioning; free training; power training
Friday: basics/forms; power stretching; free training

Tai Chi runs every morning at 6am. There are also mandarin classes after dinner each evening.

A quick note on stances. Kung-fu stances form a fundamental part of the martial art, demonstrating stability and protection. There are five stances in kung-fu, from what I’ve seen the most frequently used is horse stance (in the position of a horse-rider).

drunkenmaster

To stand in horse stance, pictured, the toes point forward and the feet lie outside shoulder width, then the knees are bent to right angles and the back stays straight. Some masters do not allow their students to practice any form until they can hold horse stance for five minutes.

We hold horse stance for two minutes twice a day, during which the master will poke your hips with a 5-foot spear if you’re not low enough. By the end of these painful minutes the legs involuntarily shake like a tap dancer. Simply dreading it consumes a significant part of my attention, but as with everything else the benefits are illustrated by the more experienced student’s abilities in the training hall.

Most mornings involve practicing the basics: straight kicks, rotating outside and rotating inside kicks; side kicks; the five stances combined with punches; sweeps and fast kicks. As we practice these in shuttle runs within the training hall the master observes us and dictates corrections. He then takes beginners aside to instruct on aspects of movements: pointed toe, raised palm or steady fist. These basic moves provide the ingredients for “forms”, the set patterns of movements described in a previous post.

Practicing forms provides the core of our training. They are elegantly performed by other students, a bit like a violent dance. We learn one form, one pattern, at a time: learning a few steps per day and trying to perfect them before being taught the next step. The form a student learns gives a good indication of their experience as forms are taught in a progression from easy sequences to harder; from short basic fist forms to longer more complex weapon forms using increased flexibility and knowledge.

There are no belts in kung-fu so the form someone learns is the clearest sign of their ability. There are around 700 Shaolin forms, including Monkey and Eagle style; the weapon forms can vary from chopstick to sword to fan to dagger. Most students here have time to learn staff form.

Sanda (Chinese kickboxing) sessions involve practicing all punches: straight, hook and uppercut; and all kicks: low (knees), middle (waist) and high (head). Then working with the pads to increase power and technique. If we’re lucky the master will get us sparring.

Jumps and rolls allows practice of backflips, frontflips, flying kicks, aerials and kick-ups.

Power training, power stretching and conditioning have been described in previous posts so I won’t go in to detail here. But asking our master he explained that in the Shaolin temple they are inflicted with power training every day and power stretching four times per week.

The schedule is tiring in the best way, practicing something this physical every day is satisfying, your hands are dirty and you feel you deserve an evening meal. There are times when all you want to do is rest but it is apparent that what you put in to the training you will get out and there’s enough free time to focus on the aspects you find most interesting.

My favourite time of the day is sunset. As the training schedule finishes and the smog amplifies the size of the fading orange fireball that is the sun, students practice Tai Chi or a sword form in the training area outside. There is an atmosphere of quiet concentration, each person tuned in to their own movement. Some do pull-ups and others spar in the training hall, and it is this focused environment that I will miss most when I’m gone.

2014-10-27 16.55.52 2014-10-27 16.56.27

Stretch Armstrong

If there’s one thing which drives me to excruciating agony in this place, it’s the stretching. ‘Power Stretching’ takes place on Fridays. We divide in to groups of three and take turns to stretch each other in different positions. The person being stretched simply relaxes and lets the others position his limbs.

stretch armstrong

One of the positions involves laying down while the other two take on the role of terrorists for two minutes. During which they raise your straight leg upward (as though kicking a football straight) as far as it will go. If you touch the stretched muscle at this point it feels hard as ice, your leg becomes numb and tingly, and screams can be heard throughout the training hall. This stretch is held, pushing further every thirty seconds, for two minutes. The last ten seconds provide particular trauma as the muscle is pulled towards your pain threshold and fierce breathing is required to stop you passing out. As a stretcher you can feel the limit of the muscle, like an elastic band that is ready to break.

U211P5029DT20140729081613-1

All this pain isn’t just for the fun of those pulling the limbs, although that is a bonus. It emphasises the importance of flexibility in kung-fu. When we watch the master do any sweep, no-handed cartwheel or flying kick it becomes clear that the most limiting factor denying us is our flexibilty. But a pliable body can also allow much more subtle movements, the elongation of a stance or lowering of a crouch, to be perfected. If a leg can reach head height it can replace a punch, and a kick will always outpower a punch.

When the master exhibits his skills, he conjures the same respect as would an esteemed dancer. The practise of decades has allowed him to perform each movement in such a controlled and elegant way that they have exact precision. Images come to mind of factory consistency: lines of identical products and the reams of Quality Control documents to produce them. Even the most meticulously regulated procedure could not adhere to such Quality Control standards as a Shaolin master.

Alongside the weekly Power Stretching session we must stretch for about an hour per day, spread across our three training sessions. These are led by one of the students and remain rigorous routines stretching everything from the ankles to the neck. Muscles in the hamstring area always receive particular attention and there seems to be multiple stances to pull these. Perhaps contrary to a fighting style such as boxing, the stretching targets the hip joints: the junction holding tendons, ligaments and cartillage receives a constant battering, from almost every stretch we perform.

Another student explained, “Strength and fitness are easy to attain, it’s flexibility which requires the hard graft.” Most students here can kick above their head.

4e845864-5897-4b0a-b6bf-ff80b0f9cb1c