There is no sugar coating it, this year has been a disaster, and we will feel the effects for years to come.
Not many people know this, but at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I saw a therapist. Not because I had any specific issue or reason to, but as an instructor and a relatively new father to two children, I didn't want to pass my baggage onto my kids and on to my students. The idea of seeing a therapist felt like it would be a short affair, I imagined that I would go in there and the therapist would quickly see that I was fine and didn’t need to spend money on a therapist.
How wrong I was!
My therapist was excellent. We spent three months doing weekly sessions. She was able to help me see that the view from the window I was looking out of was beautiful, I just needed to shift focus and stop looking at my own reflection in the glass. This stood me in good stead to face 2020.
In January, I took some of my senior students on a trip to Singapore. Singapore is my favourite place in the world to visit, and it happens to be the home of our Tiger Crane Combination and Shuang Yang system. Apart from the two days of food poisoning that I suffered, we all had a wonderful time, eating our way through the food courts.
We visited a Feng Shui shop to get hold of some amulets for the new year on this trip. The Feng Shui Master explained that this coming year is the year of the metal rat, and it will not be a fun year. He explained that this year will be a year of disease, economic collapse and that there will be a significant hit to the travel industry. As a sceptic by nature, I am still trying to logically understand how his prediction was so accurate.
Covid-19 hit us in March and lockdown after lockdown started. In this time, my Kung Fu School, like most others, has suffered a lot. We have had to teach a lot of the year on zoom, this was a difficult transition to make, and we have not been allowed to spar or practise partner drills at all since March. On the business side, we have lost around 30% of our students, and have had to adapt to last-minute rules from the government on lockdowns and restarts.
On a personal note, 2020 has been a year of refinement and learning. My own Kung Fu level has taken a massive leap forward, and I have reworked and adapted the way I teach. I have already seen the improvements my students are making and continue to make with these new methods.
Here is what I have learnt this year.
Many businesses have been forced to close for good, and many more are on the brink. Our school has been able to continue and is looking good moving forwards. Many people tell me that this is due to my hard work and my ability to keep my students motivated to train. I politely thank them but know this is not the real reason. The reason is very simple, as much as we like to think we are the masters of our own fate, no person is truly an island. I have been able to continue teaching and running Kung Fu Zone because my students refuse to let me stop. Through zoom training, to training in the rain outdoors, to covid secure training in halls, back to zoom training. My students have been there with me, learning and keeping me motivated to teach them. I even have students who have trained in maybe 3 or 4 classes all year, who refuse to cancel their memberships.
I have always considered my role as a teacher and guide as a lonely role. My students have taught me this year that it doesn’t have to be lonely and that when the waves are violent, and the ship is in danger, they will all lend a hand to keep us steady. I love them all and will always be grateful to them.
I don’t know what 2021 will hold, nobody does. I just know that if we are resilient, we will get through it, and if we are together, we will thrive.
As a father to a young son, I will do one thing in 2021 that I wasn’t so good at before, I will tell my male friends I love them more. If you feel it, and it will bring joy to another person, why hold it back?
My family and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Head Instructor - Shkar Sharif
“Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
The above quote and others like it are quotes I have seen repeated over and over again in the current climate. Prescribed as if it is a magic pill we can use to remedy the unprecedented situation we have all been forced into. The truth is that it can do the opposite, exacerbating our suffering and destroying our minds.
Our minds are fragile things, and an untrained mind is often unable to deal with the demands our current way of living places on us. The way our societies here in the developed world are structured currently have made our lives safer and more comfortable. The vast majority of us no longer need to worry about dying from starvation. We no longer need to worry about external threats from animal attacks or other people wanting what we have. Our ancestors on the African savannah, on the other hand, faced real existential threats, and their minds developed mechanisms like anxiety and stress to take these threats seriously. The humans who didn’t have these mechanisms in place died off because they didn’t feel fear and a need to protect themselves when they heard a noise in the bush, they got eaten by the tiger waiting for them there. Those humans that heard the sound in the bush and ran off out of fear and anxiety survived to breed; and we humans of today are their direct descendants. It is no surprise that humans today have highly honed anxiety switches that switch on and off without warning.
The threats we face today are usually not existential, but these triggers in our minds do not know the difference. Whether you fear a wild animal or fear having no work to go back to when this is over, you will get the same fight and flight response either way. As these existential threats are mostly non-existent any longer, our sensors have shifted. We no longer look for threats to our lives; we now look for threats to our comfort and our way of life. Our anxiety and stress triggers are switched on as soon as we feel challenged in any way that will take us out of our comfort zone.
Mental processes like anxiety and stress are analogous to fire alarms. They are there to warn of a potential danger to us, and our judgement and aversion to this feeling cause us to suffer. We feel guilty and bad for feeling anxious as we think that we should be tougher. This thought process can make things even worse for us.
Try dealing with your mental health with compassion, acceptance and love. Accept that it is an evolved part of you like your feeling of hunger or thirst is and try understanding what message it is giving you. This is how we develop real resilience and toughness in a universe that we have very little control over.
I often get asked by other martial artists, “How long have you been training?” As the length of time training is commonly used as a measure of ability and understanding.
Length of time training is essential and a beginner can get to a satisfactory level by just putting in the hours consistently over a sustained period. But there will come a stage in one's training where more time training isn’t enough on its own. The quality of training is the most crucial factor.
Training quality consists of two things,
The quality of one’s training will help a student very quickly advance with their Martial Arts.
Here is my little equation for Kung Fu ability.
L (Kung Fu Level)
T (Time Spent Training)
Q (Quality of Training)
L = TQ²
Time spent is vital to one's level, but the real multiplier here is the quality of your training.
A common misunderstanding within the Southern Shaolin arts is that we need to tense the arm/torso at the point of impact to transmit power into the opponent. This is not correct; the type of power we are aiming to transmit to the opponent is hindered by tension and muscle contraction.
So what do we do?
Southern Shaolin systems like our Tiger Crane Combination are based on the energetics & internal dynamics that was introduced by Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma’s teaching introduced the idea of creating power not through contracting the big muscles but by getting them out of the way as much as possible and engaging the Fascia & Sinew channels that run around the body like guitar strings. The training when done correctly should begin to develop these channels and link them up together; so that plucking one end of the string causes an effect in the other end. To get this we need to inflate & stretch. Our Suang Yang Form, which is a Shaolin soft fist emphasises this inflation of the body and this stretch constantly.
So instead of contracting and tensing on impact, which will give you a kind of brittle hardness. Try to find the stretch in the movement, this will give you a more taut and elastic type of hardness and then your body will be able to transmit the kind of power Shaolin Kung Fu is famous for, which we call Jin or Geng.
There are different ways to look at one's progression within the traditional Chinese martial arts. One way that I like looking at one's progression is based on our Tiger Crane Combination systems teaching on the three battles. I have discussed the three battles before but want to offer a slightly different perspective.
The three stages of development:
The first stage a student must go through is the stage of forms and shapes. A student must learn the specific shapes, movements and physical structures that the particular system they have chosen teaches. They must change the physical body so that the structures and shapes are not forced and can be settled into with ease. Taking them to a stage where the shapes and structures of the system become the intuitive way they move and stand. Thought is no longer needed to align correctly; it’s automatically correct. These shapes can be like external scaffolding that allows the student to now enter inside and do the next stage of work. - This stage can take between 5 to 10 years of training - this depends mainly on the quantity and quality of one's training.
With the body now aligned correctly and holding our structure in place correctly, we move inside and begin the long and challenging process of changing our inside. This process is not about adding anything - it is purely a process of letting go and abandoning all that is unnecessary. We build up a lifetime of bad habits, ways of thinking, emotional states and these all have a direct effect on how our body and energy move and react. The work at this stage is about letting go physically and mentally of all that offers resistance, our first 5 to 10 years of training has given us the scaffolding and structures physically and mentally so that we don't crumble during this process of abandoning the unnecessary. Most martial artists begin this stage but do not leave it. This stage can take between 20 years and a lifetime of training - Again, this depends on the quantity and more importantly here, the quality of your training. This part of training is also challenging to achieve without a good teacher who knows the path through experience, not intellectual understanding.
The third stage is about removing the scaffolding, the structures and shapes you have mastered no longer matter, you have changed your mind and your body to become Kung Fu completely so everything you do and don’t do, think and don’t think, say and don’t say is Kung Fu. Internal and external are no longer separated, and all things are united.
In essence, the journey is about learning how to to do so we can abandon doing.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from Chuang Tzu that embodies this process,
“Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”
Our fourth syllabus form is Shi San Tai Bao. Shi San Tai Bao translates to Thirteen Wonders and is a White Crane form that can be found in some Yongchun White Crane Lineages from Fuzhou.
This form is unique, as the name tells us that unlike many external styles of Kung Fu, The White Crane system has the full internal picture, understanding how the internal dynamics create power without the need for Li (muscular strength).
From my experience (and this can and will change as I train, teach and learn more), the Five Ancestor Systems of Southern Shaolin through the influence of Yongchun White Crane, and any good Tai Chi or soft style systems when practised, lead to the same place, the understanding of the Thirteen Wonders.
The Thirteen Wonders as described in the Tai Chi classics are the Eight Trigrams and the Five Elements. Ignoring the five elements, for now, The Eight Trigrams are Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao. The different ways we can use our body to create force without Li (muscular strength). Peng, Lu, Ji and An being the four main directions of force and Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao being the quarter directions between the main hands. Peng (Ward Off), Lu (Roll Back), Ji (Squeeze), An (Press)
Those who train in any Southern style that teaches San Zhan or Sum Chien will have learnt to Float, Swallow, Spit & Sink their opponent's force.
When using Peng, you are creating fullness and expansion, causing your opponent to lose their root to the ground, causing them to float.
When using Lu, you are emptying your force, and this causes your opponent to feel like they are being swallowed into the area you have emptied.
When using Ji, you are focussing your force into a single point like a strike causing your opponent to feel like they have been hit by a venomous spit that penetrates their structure.
When using An, you are bringing your force above your opponent and pressing it down, causing your opponent to feel pressure above them, causing them to sink.
This should make it clear that the Southern Shaolin systems from Fujian probably through the White Crane system have the complete internal picture and understand how it applies in combat.
As always, the key to understanding this is practice. The external style approach is through understanding the San Zhan or Sum Chien form and the internal style approach is through understanding whatever Tai Chi or Soft form you practice. But in the end, all roads lead to the same summit!
The wonderful thing about a new year is the promise of fresh beginnings and the realignment of goals. The truth is we don’t really need an event like a new year to begin anew or set new goals and targets for ourselves. Still, as humans, the idea of a societally accepted line in the sand is a tempting proposition that we can use to realign and make new promises to ourselves. The problem often is that the motivation to be better starts to falter within the first two weeks of the new year. A study conducted in 2018 claimed that most people give up on their new year’s resolutions by 12th January! That’s not even two weeks into the new year. Are we as a species really that effete that we give up on our most important goals as soon as it gets difficult?
I have mentioned in previous blog posts and continue to tell my students in class the problem with using motivation as a tool to reach goals. The mistake most people make is they are using the wrong tool to achieve their goals. Motivation is a fantastic tool to get you started; this is why the first few days of your new year, you are sticking to your plan. But as life gets back to normal after the holidays and old thought patterns creep back in, motivation disappears, and this is when most people go back to how they were before.
The tool that is so often lacking is discipline. It is discipline that keeps you going when motivation has got you started. And discipline is rooted in the foundation that is resilience. The ability to face discomfort physically and mentally and not be halted or even destroyed by it. Be resilient and have discipline, and I promise you, your life will transform for the better.
“I can’t because...........” is the thought pattern that will always sabotage you. It is harmful and keeps your ego safe in its current state. Everything that has gone in your past, positive or negative, achievements and failures only matter if you choose to hold on to it. You are who you are today, and you have the power to achieve anything you want to achieve. You just have to get out of your own way. So promise yourself that you will get out of your own way now, and walk into 2020 with the most significant obstacle that is yourself left in 2019.
I hope you all have a happy new year and I look forward to helping you achieve your goals in 2020. I’ll end this year with a question to you from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus,
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
By: Elizabeth Nightingale
On 28th July this year, a large group of us headed off for the Kung Fu Zone club’s first-ever training holiday. We stayed in the pretty village of Pismenovo in Bulgaria, enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding countryside from our private resort. The resort came complete with a pool, much needed given the 5 hours of training we averaged each day! Training alternated between our resort in Pismenovo village and Perla beach in Primorsko. Training included a mixture of running, Kung Fu, and Suang Yang Tai Chi led by our Head instructor, Shkar. As well as training hard, there was also plenty of playtime, meaning we not only came back fitter and more focused, but closer as tiger cranes.
“It was amazing to have so much focused, individual time with Shkar to work on details and adjustments which made a huge difference to my kung fu, and which a normal class wouldn’t have allowed for”
“Oh, what a beautiful morning” …run
Many of us were apprehensive about the sustainability of consecutive early morning training and the prospect of voluntarily setting our alarms for 5:45 am. However, we surprised ourselves; no man was left behind, and each morning, we gathered as a collective. The stillness you experience at that time – soft, quiet and sunrise – made all the bleary-eyed weariness worthwhile. After stretching, the majority of us headed off on a 6k run which provided an opportunity to see the local landscape before concluding with hill sprints. Those with injuries were overseen by instructor Kristina and were given 100 burpees and 100 stand-ups to complete. Whilst demanding, many people’s times improved throughout the week, with Shkar and senior student James achieving 6.1k in a particularly impressive 28:10 on the final training morning.
Seaside Suang Yang Tai Chi
Two hours of beach Tai Chi is as amazing as it sounds. Each beach session began with the group going through a Qi Gong form that was new to many of us. The Qi Gong training sessions provided valuable new learning both to less experienced members and to those who know the full 66-move Tai Chi form. We then began training our Suang Yang Tai Chi form. Whilst a number of us took to shade to get out of the hot sun, most of us decided to train at the shoreline, with the aim of learning and retaining as many new moves as we possibly could by the end of the trip. Shkar and the seniors were on hand to help with new moves and how to make our form better. It was inspiring and motivating to experience the transformation we observed in our learning when applying this level of daily diligence and discipline. Though the beautiful backdrop was obviously an added perk.
“It was inspiring and motivating to experience the transformation we observed in our learning when applying this level of daily diligence and discipline”
The art of meditation
Late afternoon training was focused on a mixture of patterns work, meditation, and an introduction to another Qi Gong form. We had the opportunity to delve deeper into the principles of Vipassana (insight) meditation, more commonly known in the west as Mindfulness Meditation and the Dzogchen approach to meditation. These talks lead us into some thought-provoking discussions on free will and determinism. The meditation discussions were a truly valuable part of the day, giving us all a chance to reflect and learn about training our minds, as well as our bodies.
Our last full day of training concluded with a grading. Each person grading took their turn in the late afternoon heat. Observing the impact of dedicated practice on members’ patterns was inspiring. No more so was this evident than in seeing Shkar give an exceptionally rare A* to club member, Ed. “I very rarely do this” Shkar said, but gave merit to observing Ed make all the changes he had instructed. This was a valuable takeaway for both juniors and our seniors. Several of them excited to pass their fifth pattern grading, and will now move on to learn how to use a staff in their sixth.
Playtime in Pismenovo, Primorsko, and beyond
In between and after training we enjoyed some downtime which included time in the pool, frisbee in the sea, reading/chilling on the beach, and (for some of us!) a well-deserved pint – an absolute bargain at 40p. Our karaoke tradition continued at the resort, with a particularly epic rendition of Jonny Cash featuring on one evening. Though we frequently just gathered and chatted around the fire-pit enjoying the stars and each other before someone sensible suggested we get some sleep.
A refreshing hike in Malko Tarnovo featured on our day off in the middle of the trip, followed by an incredible lunch sampling some local fish. Experiencing Bulgarian culture continued that evening with a trip to The Windmill restaurant in Sozopol. We enjoyed some stunning seaside and sunset views, authentic cuisine, and traditional folk dancing, with many of our members joining in.
Bulgaria was an amazing destination for our first trip together as a club. The opportunity for such dedicated training time appeared to have a holistic benefit for everyone, and the resort, beach and surrounding villages were a wonderful introduction to this beautiful country. We are very thankful for the generous and accommodating staff we met at our resort, who made us feel so welcome and filled our hungry bellies multiple times a day. Thank you to all our member drivers who carted us to and from the airport, the beach, and various day-trip destinations. A shout out to Kristina’s Dad too who generously gifted us some of his delicious home-brewed beer and spirits, and loaned us his tents to keep us cool while we trained on the beach. A HUGE thank you must go out to Kristina, and club member Darina, who single-handedly coordinated and arranged the entire trip – we literally could have not done it without you! We are so so grateful for all your hard work.
Shkar - thank you for all your support, patience and input. It was a transformative trip, and you modelled discipline and motivation to us throughout.
So now we are back – back to work and back to reality. But the best way to beat the post-holiday blues? Bringing all those friends, and all that learning, home with you. See you in class!
Why do I train in the Martial Arts? - I genuinely believe that we should always strive to become better than we were yesterday. We should disassemble our minds, our identities and truly understand what it is that we fear, what it is that holds us back. What baggage are we carrying that stops us from climbing higher and higher. In my opinion, nothing does this as well as Martial Arts training.
This critical self-analysis cannot be done while in a state of comfort. If your mind and your body are not at the extremes of what you can tolerate you can not honestly see your ego for what it is, a mechanism for keeping you where you are. If you don’t force your body to continue doing those burpees when your mind is screaming “enough!” You won’t understand how much your mind lies to you. If you are not doing your 25th first form in a row, you won’t realise how much you can truly tolerate.
To truly understand who you are and why you are this way, you need to put yourself through the fire. Because it is this fire, that burns away the lies and the illusions and leaves you with the truth. Your demons have nowhere to hide when you place yourself way outside your comfort zone; and when you can see your demons, you can begin slaying them!
This is personal growth; this is refinement, this is how we reach enlightenment! I have spent 2018 putting myself outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis and have grown as a result of doing this. I have also spent 2018 putting my students outside of their comfort zones, and they have become better as a result.
In 2019 I will not relent, I will keep climbing and refining my mind and body and will take my students along this journey with me. However, I have just one requirement from them,
“Leave your excuses in 2018.”
A man once went for a walk in a lovely garden. He came across a cocoon, it was moving, and he stopped to watch it for a moment. On closer inspection, he noticed a butterfly struggling to get out but was finding it very difficult. The man waited a little longer and started feeling sorry for the butterfly. Maybe the butterfly is stuck, he thought to himself. The man took out his keys and used it to make a hole in the cocoon. The butterfly emerged, but it could not fly, It was deformed, and its wings were withered. The man by helping pry the cocoon open had deprived the butterfly of the struggle it needed to go through to develop itself correctly and be able to fly.
Anyone who turns up to train at my Kung Fu school knows within the first 10 minutes of their first class that they will be pushed to their extremes. It doesn’t matter how fit or unfit, strong or weak they are. They will, within the first 10 minutes come face to face with their character, all lies they tell themselves about who they are every day falls away, and the reality of their true nature stands face to face with them. This metaphorical mirror usually appears around the second set of burpees.
Why do I take this teaching approach? The answer is straightforward, this is my way of creating a club of students who want to learn. Student’s who try my classes will be pushed in their first class. When they go home after class and feel body pain in the next few days, this is when they either decide, “The classes are too difficult”, and they don’t come back. Or, they decide “The classes are too difficult, this school is exactly what I need!” The first kind of person doesn’t understand that it is through the struggle, pain and hardship that character is developed. They are like the undeveloped and withered butterfly. They don’t want to change to overcome the things they are not comfortable with. They want to shield themselves from everything that challenges them. I don’t need students like this in my school, and my classes effectively weed these people out at their trial class.
People have told me in the past that this approach is not suitable for growing the school, as beginners won’t come back to train and I should make the classes less physically demanding. This slow growth may be the case in the short term, but in the long run, I know that I am developing a group of students who will become true martial artists in character and spirit.
It doesn’t matter who you are, in every one of my classes you will face struggle because without the hardship, there is no progress and without progress, life leads to nothing.