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:
Power Stretching (Post here)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
So visa in hand I manage to sweep through the Hong Kong-China border and get my train headed for the kung-fu school. This time I have a bed. I am looking forward to seeing another side to China, a poorer side no doubt, to align better with my visa-ridden financial state of affairs.
So now I’m in the school and have been through my first day of training. I have never practised kung-fu before. Whenever anyone new joins the school every student lines up in front of the masters and translators. The new student makes introductions, is asked to bow to the master one at a time. Then left to make up his own mind about how to greet the translators, this usually becomes a sort of semi-curtsy.
One student new to the school turned up at training the next day with an apple-sized bruise on his forearm, his experienced conditioning partner had no sign of pain despite the forearm-forearm strike being identical.
Two new Australians, who arrived here last week, were a great boost to morale and spoke of how much they had enjoyed their first week. They ‘ditched shit jobs and booked the trip the morning after seeing the website’. After a brief night out in Shanghai they avoided the minefield of Chinese symbols and came straight here, ‘we didn’t go anywhere else cos we knew we’d die!’