It had been a long cold day. The queues to the Great Wall, the emasculative scale and grandeur of Tiananmen Square and the biting cold and oppressive grayness of a winter smog in Beijing had taken its toll on my ‘first day in the city’ enthusiasm. All I wanted to do was curl up with a book, a blanket and a large mug of hot chocolate when the bus took me past a large square building shining bright red behind a grid of lights. The rather imaginatively named ‘Red Theatre’ was hosting a show called the Legend of Kung fu. A montage of saffron clad sinewy bodies flying acrobatically and executing beautifully choreographed stunts flashed through a brightly lit stage in my head.
Warm room and hot chocolate versus braving the cold night for expensive seats to a kung fu show…. Hmmm, I must still be young for kung fu won hands down.
The show did not disappoint. A corny tale but beautifully told and the athleticism, power and grace of the performers made for a grand spectacle. It was there and then that I realized that if I was ever to draw up a list of fitness methods and rank them for what they do to enhance the human experience, Shaolin kung fu, has got to rank at the very top of that tall mountain.
And so let the drums roll, let the bugle call, and all rise to bow to the method that claims the prize – The Shaolin arts are the path of choice for both the beautiful and the wise.
Before you ask me why should you devote yourself to this system of Chinese self care, let me begin with telling that though the motherland for this system is China, the father of this martial system is India for it is a prince named Bodhidharma from somewhere in our neighbourhood who had taken the nuances and seeds of the system to the Shaolin temple (see issue dated: November 27, 2011 for the back story) and thus was born Shaolin temple kung fu.
But from a simple system of health and fitness, the monks nurtured the philosophy and principles of breathing, postures and forms into a martial art that integrates combat skills with fitness and internal health and well being with spiritual awareness. So straight away, you’ve got a fitness tool that covers more bases than anything else we have encountered till now.
Convinced? Come on, what more could you ask for? The Shaolin forms and calisthenics will tone and build muscle, give you an outstanding cardio workout and all that stance training like horse stance etc. will make you scream out and call people names but would also build fantastic muscle endurance. And it will do it all in a manner that would be good for your joints and build strength even in the tendons and ligaments which conventional strength training tends to neglect. No wonder you have had kung fu men like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li setting pulses racing and setting screens alight with their athleticism and world class fitness.
And as for power, Bruce Lee, who had trained in Wing Chun (a style created by a pair of Shaolin trained nuns) was famous for his explosive punches and kicks while other monks have been broken rocks, not boards or bricks but rocks, with their bare hands. As for aesthetics, check out the chiseled body of a man they call Sifu Yan Lei. Men’s fitness described his physique as one “that has been cut from solid jade”.
But Shaolin workouts aren’t about muscles alone. The first few words on Sifu Yan Lei’s website are “Qigong (the yoga like postures and forms that Bodhidharma brought to the Shaolin Temple) and Kung Fu is (sic!) not just for martial artists but for anyone who wants to live a long and healthy life”. Then it goes on to explain how qigong makes the organs healthy and strong, helps turn back the clock, builds immunity and generally gives the practitioner an energy boost that carries him or her through the most stressful of days.
And then of course, like yoga, qigong and kung fu train the mind and the spirit through meditation and breathing. Shaolin workouts push those who train in the discipline to connect with one’s inner self and the forces of the universe as much as with the opponents chin or solar plexus.
And lastly, Shaolin kung fu build courage and honour by teaching one how to defend oneself, but without losing control over one’s emotions or one’s punches.
Don’t take my word for it. Go out there and find yourself a Shaolin Sifu. It is an unbeatable workout that ticks all the boxes and far more than any other system that claims it can get you super fit and looking and feeling super good.
So there might be other systems that are better at building pure self defense skills, or better at healing the body or building huge muscles. But if mind-body fitness is what you seek, you could try kettlebells or clubbells and krav maga or yoga and yet there is nothing that compares with what those monks in the Shaoshi Mountain (that’s where the Shao in Shaolin comes from) have to offer.
We have our champion and you have your list. So don’t hang around the couch. The match is over and India has won. Let go of that remote and instead of gaping in awe as Virat Kohli crunches another one through the offside, get on your feet, pick something you’ll enjoy and stick with it for a while. For all you know, in months to come, your family and friends might be staring at you and your athleticism with a bit of the awe that they currently reserve for Mitchell Johnson and Kohli. So Happy Diwali and hope this series did a little to light your fuse…