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.
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.”
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.”
Now that summer is over, and Autumn is on its way, many people begin suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) a type of depression believed to be caused by the reduction in natural light. The longer nights and shorter days affect the mental state of 1 in 15 people in the UK, according to the NHS. These shorter days can cause depression, anxiety and low energy. So is there anything we can do to limit the effect of SAD on our lives?
In my teenage years, I used to suffer from very low moods during Autumn; I would get irritable, upset and would feel helpless about life. It was my early years of Kung Fu training, and the solution for me was to immerse myself in my training. I trained harder, pushed myself in class harder and this would cause my mood to pick up. The mind training that traditional Kung Fu developed in me helped me identify unskillful thoughts and thought patterns and stop them before they arose. I haven't suffered from SAD in a very long time, and I attribute this directly to my Kung Fu training.
Coming back from summer holidays and getting back to a routine at work can make us feel we are wasting our lives spending our days not doing anything of great consequence. These feelings of longing for something greater can become more apparent during this time of year, and this can cause depression and low moods. The start of Autumn is also a time when people turn to high carb foods to counter these low moods, causing weight gain and bad eating habits.
My advice, as someone who used to suffer from SAD, is to commit to investing time in yourself. Find a new hobby or a new challenge that will make you better and more importantly commit to it and don’t give up. As the owner of a Kung Fu school, I find September/October time to be the time of year that I get the largest number of new members joining my school, looking for a new challenge.
Tiger Crane Kung Fu is an excellent way to keep fit, lose weight, get strong and work on refining your body, mind and spirit. The classes that I run always start with a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout that aids in endorphin release. Endorphins are the hormones released in our brains and nervous systems that give us that post exercise high that we feel after a challenging workout.
So what are you waiting for? Come along and try a class!
As far back as I can remember in my own life, being a better version of myself has always been my primary concern. I remember as a child of 12 or 13 going into my local library and going straight to the mind body & spirit section or the psychology section looking for books that will help with my endeavour. I remember the librarians who I was very familiar with would jokingly tell me that, "those books had no pictures in them". I was always searching for that secret or that path that would lead me to become better. I began training in the Tiger Crane Combination system of Kung Fu a few years later, and the journey inwards that the training has taken me on has been wondrous.
As humans, whether we are religious or not, whether we base our world view on faith or reason, we all have a yearning deep inside of us for something greater. Some satisfy this longing through belief in gods or angels, others lose themselves in the seemingly infinite nature of our universe, and some fall into drink and drugs to satisfy this insatiable thirst for more. What I do is I look inwards because to understand the nature of self and consciousness is to understand the subjective nature of our gods, our demons and our universe.
I have always said that my training in Tiger Crane Kung Fu translates directly into anything I do in my life. This is a principle that I also try to get my students to understand. My role as a practitioner of this system is to get my body to respond, to do what I want it to do, to stretch further than it did yesterday, to hold the postures for a longer period than it did yesterday and to tolerate the pain for a while longer than it did yesterday. My success with my body is directly dependent on my ability to control my mind. My ability to not listen when it is making excuses, to ignore it when it tells me enough and to shut it down when it is not helpful.
The level of mental clarity and discernment that one gets while training in a system like Tiger Crane Kung Fu is beneficial in one’s career, relationships and in one’s attempts to be a productive member of the societies they live. As the practitioner's training develops and their Kung Fu matures so does their mind, The practitioner begins to see through the illusory nature of their mind, their emotions, their thoughts and their worldview. Giving them the ability to create better and more productive habits.
Training in a traditional martial art isn’t just about learning to kick and punch. It is about the journey one takes to create a better version of themselves every single day. So the next time you don't want to train on a training day, understand that this is your mind telling you to stagnate. When you understand this, you then have the choice to either listen or to not listen.
This choice is always yours.
Pain is inevitable when training Kung Fu. I always tell my students that if they are not in pain in every class, then they are wasting their time. Kung Fu training is pointless if the stylist doesn't push themselves beyond their comfort zone because unless they do, they are not improving. Pain is the feedback we get when our muscles, joints, tendons, etc. are being pushed beyond the point that they can comfortably manage. Kung Fu stylists need to learn the difference between “Good Pain” and “Bad Pain”. "Good Pain" being the kind of pain we aim to put ourselves through to improve our strength, flexibility and character and "Bad Pain" is the kind of pain we need to avoid as this can lead to damage and injury.
I spend a lot of time telling my students to get lower in their stance, or to maintain the pace or to hold the posture for a little while longer. At the same time, the student's mind is telling them to rest, as the pain is unbearable and the suffering will only increase if they maintain the posture. Training is a constant battle between the instructor trying to get the student to push and grow and the student’s own mind telling them to seek comfort and rest.
The Shaolin Kung Fu systems originated out of the Chan Buddhist methods and practices that were prevalent in China at the time. In the Ten Oxherding pictures, Chan Buddhist's teach that the mind is like a wild ox, wild and free and shows step by step the stages a student goes through trying to control this Ox. A considerable part of a Shaolin Kung Fu stylists training should be done in a state of mindfulness, this form of practice teaches the stylist a critical truth that most people are not aware of. This truth is that pain and suffering are two different things.
When we are pushing beyond our comfort zones, our body will give us feedback, this feedback that we call pain is inevitable. As mentioned above, it is our body telling us that it is being pushed beyond what is comfortable. Evolution has programmed in us to run away from pain, for this reason when pain arises in the body our mind decides we do not like this and this causes us to suffer while the pain persists. This suffering creates the need in us to do what we can to stop the pain. The reality is that suffering is not inevitable, suffering is the way we choose to interpret the feeling of pain.
So, next time when you are holding a painful posture or doing an exercise that is causing pain to arise; be still and just observe the feeling. When you notice the mind beginning to complain, stay calm and observe the mind’s complaints as an external observer. The pain will become more bearable, and you may be able to hold the posture for a little while longer than usual. Do this all the time during your training, and you will have taken the initial steps in taming the wild Ox that is your mind.
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.