What can we learn from martial arts about remaining calm under pressure? If you’re anything like me, it isn’t just the explosive power or lightening speed of a great martial artist that you find fascinating. It’s their ability to expend massive amounts of energy but remain calm, relaxed and even playful. I have no illusions of being an urban warrior, but it’s a skill I’m eager to learn more about. My teacher was Shifu Yan Lei, 34th generation Shaolin disciple, Kung Fu and Qigong master…
The Martial Arts have always been associated with the word “Discipline” and Shaolin Martial Arts even more so.
In recent years, studies into discipline have pointed to the importance of creating routines and rituals that support our goals, and designing positive surroundings, of both places and people, rather than relying just on the strength of our own willpower.
What are the Shaolin views on the topic of discipline and will power, and can the rules of a monastery, high in the mountains, be transferred to the distracted lives of city dwellers?
SYL: When we train at the Shaolin Temple, we get up early and sleep early. Temple life is simple life. It is also lonely especially when you are a child. There is not much fun, just training. eating, sleeping, cleaning. But when you grow up and look back, you find that it is the best time you had because it was such a simple life.
When I came to the UK, I felt that this early temple life helped me a lot because I’m a martial art’s teacher, I know how to make people better and I also know how to make my skill better. Everyone has discipline because most people work from 9 -5. This is life. When you know you can’t change then you need to accept it and make it better. You can’t always give yourself a lot of choice, you just have to live in the moment.
This means your mind doesn’t argue with your heart and this makes you feel peaceful because your mind is not everywhere. If you can’t control your mind then you desire too much and this makes a person unhappy. I’m a martial artist so when people look at me they think I’m boring and lonely but no one can read my mind. They don’t know who I really am.
Most people I work with are fighting a battle between their ambitions and their desire to be calm, or at least suffer less stress.
Many, if not the majority of serious Martial Artists I have met, appear relaxed and calm. And yet studying a martial art is in fact learning how to perform a violent activity.
In the modern world, where society does everything it can to discourage the use of physical force as a way of resolving our issues, how does the practice of violence translate into mental calmness?
SYL: When you do fight training, you use your physical energy to build up your muscle strength, if you do hard training everyday then you use your energy and this makes it impossible to still be angry. When we spar, this gives you an understanding of what equal means. If you are 12 stone, you don’t fight someone 6 stone, you fight with people who are similar to you. When you have skill you want to fight with someone who has more skill because you want to challenge yourself . Your body and mind is always on the path, always on the way, this takes away your anger and makes you feel peaceful.
Maybe you do have desire to fight but this is a desire to go to the ring, not go to the street. This is the reason if you feel angry, you can control yourself because martial arts is all about control. If you can’t control yourself then you can’t control your life or any situation you have. For this reason alone, you can’t call yourself a martial artist.
Sticking with your martial arts training
You must have witnessed many people start and then give up their martial arts practice over the years. What are the mistakes you commonly see people make and how can we avoid making those mistakes ourselves?
SYL: People have many reasons when they study martial arts, people give up for many reasons too. Martial Arts is very hard. But you don’t know how hard it is until you try. People tend to give up because they don’t get into a proper routine. Many people easily forgive themselves for not training, they give themselves a choice. When you do martial arts, you have to give yourself no choice. You need to know that you can lose anything but you can’t lose your health. Health is the most important thing.
This puts a very deep seed in your heart: I want to be healthy, martial arts can make me healthy. And then your life is the cultivation of that seed. Also, the beginner needs to set up small targets, and slowly build his or her routine. When your body starts to feel happy then your mind and body will work together and you’ll be happy to train. Your martial arts becomes a part of your life and everything will be easy.
Hard or Soft
My observation of Shaolin Martial Arts is that; whilst on the surface it appears punishing and hard, when combined with Qi Gong, Meditation and Massage, it provides a balance of hard and soft practice, which is actually very nourishing and calming.
Most western-based exercise philosophies are lacking that balance of hard and soft and tend to focus only on the hard. But what it is really like in the Shaolin Monastery, are the “soft” aspects practiced there, or are they merely for the benefit of old women and us softer, desk-bound westerners?
SYL: Qigong is for everyone. Hard and soft are like the two wings of a bird, you need to do both to fly.
I’ve found Qi Gong to be particularly beneficial and I consider myself to be a pragmatic person. To me, Qi Gong is nothing more than breathing, stretching and simple visualisation. A moving meditation which rewards me with an energy that is simple to explain in purely physical terms. As you once said, “do it, and in time your body will understand”. But despite my own views, there are many who talk of spiritual energy, invisible forces and magical powers in relation to Qi Gong. What are your views on Qi, what is “it” and can we use it to perform Jedi mind tricks?
SYL: Qi is life. You have life you have Qi. When you die, you have no Qi. Qi is all about breathing. Qigong is to practice a breathing exercise to make your blood flow properly, your internal organs strong, open your channels. So when your body works properly, your organs, Qi, blood, this means you are healthy. Qigong makes your body run at its optimal level. Qigong makes you powerful. It can make you train hard because Qigong is all about looking after your body and giving your body a good foundation. It can help you to work more efficiently and be more creative but I don’t believe that Qigong has a magic power. I just believe Qigong is about self-healing.
In the Western world, we are wrapped in cotton wool. Our cars are like tanks on the outside, and protected by airbags inside, restaurant doors have plastic covers to prevent us trapping our fingers and the other day I saw an advertisement selling crash helmets for toddlers. Shaolin practice is reported and demonstrated to be some of the toughest in the world. From punching brick walls, to being a human battering ram and breaking iron bars on your head. Over years of serious practice you must have picked up a few injuries yourself. What are your strategies for dealing with pain?
SYL: I have flat feet, so every time I run I feel pain. I really want to run so when my feet start to hurt, I think of disabled people who can’t run, or athletes who only have one leg and they can still run, I tell myself to run ten minutes for them. Sometimes when I’m running I see some old people run and I think if they can run then I can run too. Because my mind takes me somewhere else then, after I’ve passed a certain time I don’t feel pain anymore.
To lessen the risk of injury, it’s important to warm the body up and make the body sweat, and also practice Qigong at least three times a week. If Qigong doesn’t stop your injury, then it can help you to recover more quickly. If I kick someone and my shin is painful, it will only take one or two days and it is gone, but if you don’t practice Qigong then it will take weeks, It’s not that my body is stronger than someone else’s, it’s because I do different training to help. When you want to become a good athlete or martial artist then you have to know how to look after our body because your body is your weapon.
Re-thinking the 6 pack
You can’t pass a magazine stand or a health shop without seeing a wall of abdomen photographs. These days its just as likely to be a woman sporting a six-pack as a man. As far as the media is concerned, the six pack is the highest ideal that all physical exercise is trying to achieve. When I first became interested in Shaolin, I was taken aback when I saw the body that you have created as a result of your practice and I have several of your postcards pinned up on the wall as motivation. I could only describe your physique as part human, part fighting machine. I would back you in a fight, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet money on you winning a six-pack competition. So, what are your views of the importance (or not) of aiming for and maintaining a six-pack?
SYL: Having a 6 pack doesn’t mean that you’re healthy or you have good stamina, it only means you have a 6 pack. Training is about how to make your body stronger and healthier, not just look good. Sometimes, people train their body and damage their body , they train hard for one week then Friday night get drunk. When you train, you have to make your outside and inside look good. Making your outside look good is very easy but keeping healthy is not as easy.
I’m not saying that everyone who has a 6 pack is not healthy but my advice is don’t train or put a lot of desire into looking good, put your desire and focus to train to make you feel good and make your insides stronger so that you gain in confidence. I see many young people who want to look strong, they eat protein shakes, build up their muscle strength, they look good but their insides are empty. For me, I like everything to be natural.
What do you think?
So this question is for the readers: What do you think about the value of fighting skills in an age where we spend most of our time sat down behind computer screens? Have we all gone soft or are we just letting go of skills that are no longer necessary? Have we swopped the confidence and respect that can come from being able to physically handle yourself, for the faux confidence of executive titles and social media rankings? What do you think? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share this article.
Connect with Shifu Yan Lei
Interview by Paul Magee. Special thanks to Cat at Yan Lei Press.
Photo credits: Manuel Vason.