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.”
Any pursuit that will help you grow and help you better yourself physically and mentally will be tough. You will struggle, you will be in pain, you will suffer, and you will probably want to quit every lesson. The difference between those that persist and those that quit is simply a mindset. I have been teaching Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for a long time and have been training for a lot longer than that. I have experienced the suffering, the pain, the broken bones, the muscle tears and the desire to quit.
As humans, we tend towards comfort and ease. Physically, we do not want to be in pain, and mentally, our ego does not want to be exposed to the fact it can’t do certain exercises or movements. We want to be comfortable, and training for most people, is not comfortable mentally or physically. Our mind begins to natter away creating all kinds of excuses to quit, telling us, “this isn’t for you”, “you are too old”, “you are not fit enough”. All this happens so that we decide to take ourselves out of the situation that is challenging us and taking us back into our comfort zones.
I see this all the time with beginners attending my classes. My classes are not easy, within the first 15 minutes, you will have had a tough, cardio and strength workout that my seniors struggle with. My job is not to make it easy for you; my job is to push you beyond your made up limits and help you find a stronger, fitter, more focused you that you didn’t know existed. Beginners often stop and rest many times during their first few classes, and that is fine, but those that persist find that over time, the need to rest and take a breather isn’t always a physical one, it is usually a mental one. When they understand that difference, they know that they don’t have to stop just because their mind is complaining or making excuses. They can tell their minds to “shut up”, and they continue with the exercise. To get to that stage, a beginner will need to persist through their first few classes.
Traditional Chinese martial arts isn’t a quick fix; it is designed to be difficult so that it can help shine a light on all aspects of your personality, the good and the bad. It is a journey that you take to find yourself. It is an adventure that contains the highest mountains and the darkest valleys, the densest jungles and the loneliest deserts. Like any journey, we should not dwell too long and keep moving forward.
The Daoist Sage, Lao Tzu tells us, “A journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step” So don’t give up after the first step, put one foot in front of the other and keep walking to a better you.
Most of us go to school until our late teens or early twenties, and we believe that we are done learning after this stage. We throw ourselves into our careers, and our family lives, leaving less and less time to learn and develop ourselves further. Even when at school, we learn fixed curriculums and our teachers' primary focus is how to pass exam after exam. Our educators seldom address the important questions about the nature of self and consciousness.
I have been fortunate to take a path in my life that has helped me understand the value of learning and training oneself. I have been training and learning all of my life, and I am only starting to scratch the surface. I have had some remarkable teachers who have helped me along the path of refinement and growth. Some of these teachers would be proud of the road I have taken and others less so as it can be difficult to watch your students find their path, a path that may diverge from your own. In the end, we all need to be honest with ourselves. We must ask ourselves constantly whether we are making decisions based on attachments to principles that are themselves impermanent. Are we trying hard to hold on to the character or characters we believe we are in our own internal narratives of our lives? The further we develop ourselves spiritually, the more careful and the more mindful we need to become. Our sense of self, our ego is relentlessly trying to co-opt any progression for its own gain.
My Kung Fu training has been the single biggest tool that I have used to grow and learn. The word "grow" in this context can be quite deceptive as it implies adding stuff to make something bigger or larger. Most people will agree with that usage of the word as it is related to adding knowledge and skills to make ourselves better. But real personal growth is not about adding things; real personal growth is about taking things away. Our lives burden us with mental patterns, habits and ways of thinking that do not stand up to scrutiny when dissected and examined. We hold on to ideas that make us happy and push away ideas that make us sad. We lack the training and discernment to ignore the emotional swings and look at the true nature of what happiness and sadness actually are. We get angry, envious or greedy, but we do not detach from the emotions and skilfully look at the nature of our minds during these states. Like a scientist would when observing a natural phenomenon with unbiased attention.
When a beginner trains in my classes, I can see at first the battle they have with their bodies. Why doesn’t my arm go to where I want to it to go? Why can’t my hips and my legs flex enough to get into the posture I need to get into? At first, students try to force their bodies into the positions and stances that the system requires but over time something changes in the student. They stop striving for the perfect posture or movement, and they accept “as good as I can do.” They tell themselves, "my body won’t do it; I will go to as close as possible, without causing myself too much discomfort." This line of reasoning is, of course, an illusion, this is the mind, the ego wanting to stay within its comfort zone. A lot of students plateau at this level and refuse to push themselves, and this is fine because it is where they are at that current stage. They may end up training on and off and eventually stop training altogether, giving me their reasons for leaving. Reasons that they firmly believe to be true but when probed further is another illusion rooted in staying within their comfort zone. The students that continue to train eventually start to change. They begin training in more classes, repeating movements outside of class and even start dreaming about their training. These students begin to see the difference between what they can achieve with real effort and dedication and what the false limits are that their mind creates for them. This ability to observe the mind that students acquire through training is the most important tool one needs to grow and change.
Like a great sculptor you are trying to chip away at the unneeded excess to find the masterpiece that is the real you. Real refinement of self is about stripping away who you believe you are, eliminating the limits that you have created for yourself and abandoning the excuses your mind creates when going out of your comfort zone. Real maturity begins the moment you understand that the little voice inside your head, constantly talking you out of things is your biggest adversary.