Shaolin Kung Fu: as English as high tea

Messing around isn’t something the Shaolin really do. They have a program for martial perfection and they stick to it. This is rigorous, demanding, and occupies the majority of their waking life. Bones are strengthened, styles perfected, and sinews stretched. It is a complete martial form and an extremely demanding one; it requires the complete devotion of its monk practitioners. So what exactly happens when this art is refined and repurposed for modern life? What if, say, instead of the ancient art being passed down by a senior Shaolin monk, it was taught by a city professional and maths graduate? He was low on hair and high on bulk, his eyes blue with an intense stare. The thing about him was that he would arrive in a smart green tweed jacket and chinos, exactly the way I wish any English kung fu master would dress. The men in the class were generally stocky and strong. I’ve noticed this about complete forms, there is a tendency towards strength with a low centre of gravity.

Warm ups were intense. The class was unrelenting; the sifu did not permit rest for the full two hour plus class. Water was also discouraged as well as fresh air. It was all part of disciplining the body to do without. We would run, jump, take it in turns to carry each other and all manner of other activities the sifu would devise. It was fantastic training and you would feel it the next day. Muscles quickly become familiar with routines, but there was little chance of them second guessing this sifu’s program.

On one memorable occasion, we were told to pair up and one of us adopt the horse pose, bent legs spaced widely apart with a straight back channeling the weight through the thighs. Your partner, in my case a sixteen stone amateur rugby player, was told to climb up onto your hips. This tested their balance, the accuracy of your stance, and, in my case, the body’s resistance to compact damage.

Shaolin kung fu itself is a complete form, it’s got locks, drops and strikes; it even has animal styles and a variety of weapon techniques. I spent a number of classes focusing on a back heel kick, which looked superb and took hours to learn. Unlike Wing Chun, which consists of a relatively restricted syllabus, mastering Shaolin kung fu takes years. This is both the great appeal and the disadvantage of the art, it’s a long term enriching project, but successful application won’t come quickly.

Shaolin is perhaps the highest form of kung fu, and the most demanding. It is a beautiful and deadly form resting in the keeping of London University maths graduates. It demands tremendous physical commitment and a long path to mastery, when achieved it is perhaps the finest looking and most effective kung fu; just remember, you’re in it for the long haul.

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