Shaolin kung fu is a martial art developed in the monasteries across China and South East Asia to strengthen Buddhist monks for meditation and prayer and to help them defend the temples they lived in.
Unlike other styles of kung fu which were usually taught to family members or sometimes in schools, Shaolin Kung Fu was only taught to devout Buddhist monks, and then only those who proved themselves worthy of the teachings through their dedication and commitment.
Living a simple life, monks were able to practice for hours on end to perfect the techniques and achieve the highest standards of fitness and flexibility.
Seh Koh San, a Shaolin monk who lived from 1886 to 1960, was one of the first to teach the art form to outsiders. As a Buddhist healer he recognised the physical benefits of the training and saw it as his duty to pass the teachings on to others. He is widely recognised as being the father of traditional Shaolin Arts in South East Asia.
Nam Pai Chuan is a style of Shaolin kung fu descended from both northern and southern China which was brought to the UK by Grand Master Lai in the 1970s.
He was one of the first people to learn the art outside of a Buddhist monastery and set up a training centre in London to ensure that the martial art was passed on to others. He was also one of the first people to teach the martial art to women.
The style of training he developed uses traditional training methods to help students perfect techniques and develop fitness, alongside modern methods to make the training relevant and beneficial for modern life.
Nam Pai Chuan has grown to become one of the largest and most respected kung fu schools in the world.
Having never participated in any form of martial arts before, I was relying on my memory of the film Karate Kid for my expectations. Luckily my first shaolin kung fu lesson was extremely dissimilar to that of the dramatic Hollywood spectacle, and I found it a much more relaxed experience.
I quickly realised that there were a number of rules, from wearing no shoes, to bowing when leaving and entering the room and when leaving a sparring partner; all of which I still hadn’t quite adapted to at the end of the two hour long class.
What exactly do I do?
Following a bow as the instructor, Paul, entered the room, we were all swiftly put into neat lines of five people per row for the warm up which involved a number of stretches, jogging on the spot and some traditional warm-up exercises called ‘loh han’.
We then began what was a typical circuit session with the normal exercises such as press ups, sit ups and core stability, mixed with some very precise kung fu moves. I say precise as I was quickly spotted by the instructor for having the incorrect low shifting stance or ‘horse riding position’.
Shortly after the pulse-raising activities we began learning actual kung fu techniques. Luckily I was partnered with a blue belt who I quickly discovered was quite an established martial artist and very patient. Standing opposite our partners, the instructor demonstrated a series of techniques which we then attempted to copy and repeat a number of times, with a little help from our more experienced partner. Practice makes perfect definitely sprung to mind!
After learning a few more basic self-defence techniques (how to punch, kick, use footwork and blocking to evade an attack), we were lead in a short cool down of chi-gung (breathing exercises to channel your body’s own energy) and my first largely relaxed and calm Shaolin kung fu class came to an end.
What are the benefits?
An average training session burns approximately 1300 calories and is excellent for toning thighs, bums, upper arms and stomachs.
The training tends to be varied to develop and maintain an all-round body fitness and combines stretching, cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training, and body conditioning to help improve overall fitness and flexibility.
Many also find that the style of training helps them to boost their self esteem, gives them more confidence at work, helps them to focus, and to practice self-discipline outside of the training environment.
Who does it suit?
Anyone aged from six to sixty plus who wants to get fit, develop more self-confidence and learn self-defence.
Shaolin kung fu is surprisingly popular with women (two out of five students are women) because it’s great exercise, a good stress reliever, and as it relies on technique and body mechanics rather than brute strength, you don’t have to be muscle-bound to do it either.
Be warned though, unlike most fitness classes where you can drop in when you like, shaolin kung fu isn’t one for the faint-hearted! You are expected to attend a class at least once a week and train outside of class to maintain your fitness and practice the techniques.
What to do I wear?
Beginners should wear dark track suit bottoms or similar and a plain t-shirt as it does get quite hot and you need to be comfortable. Jewellery should be removed and any long hair tied back. But no footwear is worn throughout the class only bare feet!
After you have attended a few introductory classes you will be asked to buy a special training uniform and coloured belt to show how competent you are.
What are the costs?
A session costs from £3-£10 for two hours training. Most centres offer concessions for students/children and those training regularly.
There is an annual membership fee of the British Council For Chinese Martial Arts (BCCMA) of £35 (£30 for children and students) which covers you for insurance purposes. A training uniform is required for established students which costs £35 for adults, £30 for children.
Where can I do it?
There are currently 22 Nam Pai Chuan Shaolin Kung Fu training centres throughout the UK. To find your nearest centre visit www.learnshaolinkungfu.co.uk
Different styles of shaolin kung fu training are available at other locations.
Robyn Rashford, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine