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.