Willjan Hendrikx – A Kung Fu summer

WiljanBeep…Beep…Beep. It’s a quarter to six in the morning and my alarm shows no mercy. From a far and distant dreamland of sheer happiness I’m being dragged into harsh reality. Again, whereas this ritual repeats itself daily. With a sigh, I get myself up with a fluent movement. At least, that’s what I intent to do but a soar muscle prevents me from making the movement as smooth as I envisioned it. During a morning yawn, the realization kicks in: I’m not at home and I don’t have a day of PhD work ahead. Instead, I’m at a Kung Fu academy in rural China and another warm day of Kung Fu training awaits me. Now hurry for some relaxing early morning Tai Chi!

My name is Wiljan and I work as a PhD researcher and lecturer at a Dutch university. Last April, two friends and I decided to make the summer of 2015 epic. Instead of the usual summer holiday of relaxation and traveling, we choose for something completely different. We applied for a one month stay at Maling Shaolin Kung Fu Academy, China. Each of us had his own specific motivations for doing so. Mine revolved around the fact that during the year practically all my activities are very cognitive in nature: reading, writing, gathering and analyzing data, teaching etc. Despite its many positive aspects, doing a PhD is not automatically good for your physical condition, to make a bold understatement. I enthusiastically accepted the physical – and mental – challenge of going to a Kung Fu academy in an effort to ‘be more active’. Nevertheless, the very fact that I went in slightly – ok fair enough, leave out the ‘slightly’ – untrained did worry me. Luckily, this worry turned out to be unnecessary. Yes, it was by far the toughest thing I have ever done, but yes, it was awesome!

Looking back on the entire experience, there are at least two things that stand out to me and that I am particularly grateful for. First, enduring – and most of all enjoying – the physical trial gave me a huge kick. Being challenged to work hard and push myself to the limit was not only a fantastic experience in itself, it was also very encouraging to find out this ‘limit’ moves up gradually, showing significant improvement of strength and fitness. To me even more important, the constant focus on control of movement, stability, and power in the different elements included in the Kung Fu training made me experience a more positive balance between body and mind. It made me stop thinking and start doing. A truly relaxing experience. Second, as a PhD researcher my work revolves around the professional identity of teachers and doctors. To keep it short: professionalism in broad sense fascinates me. Being a student at the Kung Fu academy offered me the valuable experience of a completely different perspective on learning and mastering ‘professionality’. In contrast to Western academia, where you learn to manage your own education, the process of learning at a Kung Fu academy is one of letting go of control. In a way you have to transfer the responsibility of your development to the Kung Fu master while working hard with discipline and commitment. In turn, the master is devoted to the training of his students, feeling responsible for – and taking pride in – their progress. There is no standardized trajectory; no ‘teaching to the test’. In a way this kind of learning seems to come close to the kind that took place in traditional gilds where students were working towards mastering crafts.

I would love to thank Master Du, Master Bao, Mona & Lisa – I could have put the last two names the other way around, but I prefer this order for obvious reasons – and all the other students for making this an unforgettable and truly inspiring experience. The future will tell whether it will be a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing for me, but I think I will definitely be back at the academy one day. For now, I even found myself doing Tai Chi at 6am in the park the other day before starting my PhD work!

Wiljan Hendrikx

George Sklavounos

George-sklavounosWhen writing this post after finishing my two months at Maling Shaolin Kung Fu Academy, I couldn’t really think of anything particularly amazing – mostly because everything I’d experienced had been amazing in one way or another. Having said that, there are a few choice moments that stand out: power stretching, power training, and stamina training. These three classes come but once a week, all on Thursday or Friday, and are all memorable experiences.

Power stretching is a form of medieval torture I’m assuming was reserved for only the most heinous offenders. It’s a series of stretches designed less to warm your body up and more to increase your flexibility, usually by having your body pushed as far as it can go and then holding that position for a count to 20. My first power stretching class wasn’t too rough; everyone’s always trying to prevent injuries and I was with the most senior student, so he knew what he was doing and took it easy on me. The next week, though, was significantly rougher. What made it even more interesting was the fact that at the end, the Headmaster told us all that we weren’t stretching far enough, and that students should be screaming in pain during power stretching class. We didn’t quite understand what he meant until the next week, when he personally took charge of power stretching some young Chinese boys who had come to learn at the school. Feeling your leg stretched almost to breaking point, then looking up and seeing a small boy crying and screaming in pain as a Shaolin master presses down on his back isn’t something I’ll soon forget. We were all kind of amused though, because we were all in the same boat as them, we just couldn’t bend as far.

china-kungfu-shaolin-wushu-malingPower training is the signpost used to mark the start of the weekend; it’s the last hurdle on a Thursday before training starts to wind down. It’s usually a series of exercises involving two bricks – things like holding sanda stance with two bricks until shifu says stop, flys with bricks while holding them up in between motions, side kicks with bricks, front kicks with bricks, and holding mabu (horse stance) with bricks. I’m not sure whether it’s because the school is running out of bricks or to give motivation for proper balance, but it’s common knowledge that dropping your brick will result in 30 pushups, and breaking your brick results in 100. Still not as bad as some sanda classes, where every punch your opponent connects with your face is 10 pushups for you.

Finally, stamina training, possibly my favourite class of them all. Stamina training is a 10 kilometre run through beautiful Chinese farmland, a small market nearby, then up a hill to a teahouse and back. It’s a fantastic way to finish off the week, running through trees and smiling and waving to the locals yelling ‘hello’ to you from their cars or from the street, then finally reaching the top of the hill and smelling fresh pine trees all around you – something I haven’t seen anywhere else in China.

Power stretching, power and stamina training make up the triumvirate of support classes that make you faster, stronger, more flexible, and able to practice longer. I could instantly tell the difference after my second week with how much easier it was to do my forms and basics, and how much stronger I felt. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Mandarin classes; I’ve been studying Chinese for a year and a half and still didn’t really feel like I had a grip on the language, but being around so many Chinese people and having the school’s translator, Mona, happily answer my questions and explain the proper way to say things has made me a lot more confident in my Chinese abilities.