The Power of Northern Shaolin

I never really believed the power of early Shaolin training until I saw what happened to my own son from practicing it since the age of four.

Webb grew up in my kung fu school so training was just part of everyday life. He was not always a willing practitioner. I would do anything to cajole him into training. While he waited for his lunch, he learned to count to one-thousand drilling his punches.

Webb was born during the seven-year period of time when I trained under Peter Kwok. I always felt that the combination of intense concentration required to assimilate so many forms and systems as well as the heavy doses of oxygen I inhaled during the training must have affected my son’s brain matter.

Webb’s Kung Fu training began at age four.  I taught him the way I was taught — the traditional way — sitting in postures to develop leg strength and correct alignment, drilling punches and kicks, and memorizing increasingly complex forms and systems.

Webb made games out of everything. Using all the space around him like a training coarse, he would spend hours in the living room hopping silently from chair to table to couch, clinging to door jambs and window frames. His goal was to never touch the floor or be heard.

Eventually Webb progressed to the walls and ceiling.  He used to perch, poised in the ceiling, hands and feet braced against the walls like spider-man.  Landing light as a cat, he would scare the daylights out of me or any other prey that entered the room.

Webb was fascinated with animals.  Growing up near ponds and streams gave him lots of time with lizards, frogs and toads.  He was attuned to the subtle differences in the toads’ leaps and frogs’ hops and even their facial expressions.  He developed his own style of kung fu based on the frogs he called Frog Fu,  which was complete with flying frog kicks and punch drills with little croaks instead of numbers.

Years later I read that ancient, Chinese masters would assign a student an animal and send them into the woods to follow it around for a year to copy its movements. Webb did this entirely on his own.

Cats provided rich material for Webb’s in-depth studies.  He would play games with cats, exploring their huge range of movements, running, hiding and springing out.  He would jump and twist in the air like them, and land silently in infinite variations. Watching Webb play with cats was incredibly entertaining.

Webb was not always a willing or obedient student. During kung fu, class former students can remember while they all sat in their Horse postures, Webb would dive onto his belly, and slide between their legs, weaving through the group like a small torpedo.

Webb’s first form was called Tan Tui (pronounced tan tway) or Springing Leg, and if ever there was a living testimonial to the efficacy of that form, Webb would be it. He has an ability to jump that is almost supernatural.  As soon as he was advanced enough, I taught him Shaolin fighting forms, T’ai Chi push hands, and some Xing Yi.

In the beginning, I was faster and stronger, but as time and his training progressed, Webb overcame me with strength and speed.  He especially loved the Xing Yi, with its animalistic pounces and unembellished fighting applications.

T’ai Chi was definitely not Webb’s favorite.  He shared the common prejudice that T’ai Chi was for elders and much too slow and unexciting. At one tournament, he and another young student renamed the two basic T’ai Chi forms, short and long, the not very short form and  the incredibly long form.

The quantitative difference between kung fu and all other Asian martial arts is similar to the difference between T’ai Chi and other kung fu systems.  To the trained T’ai Chi eye, kung fu looks like lot of storm and fury, a flurry of wasted energy. Conversely, to less sophisticated, external stylists, T’ai Chi looks — depending how showy the forms are — weak, simple or just plain boring.

Having been both an external and then internal stylist, I speak from first hand experience. It was many years after I learned the T’ai Chi forms that the internal material became my prime focus. For longer than I care to mention, I was obsessed with Shaolin. In those days, I taught exactly the way I was taught — the traditional way — sitting in postures, counting punches, drilling kicks and postures … practice, practice, practice, no matter how painful and boring it might be.

My son does all the things I dreamed of in my early years of training — run up walls, jump over obstacles right in front of him, scurry up trees at blinding speed. Webb has confirmed as truth all the stories that I thought were kung fu mythology. The stuff of movies, these stories have motivated lots of sweaty novices, and inspired the gifted few who move with the gods.

For his college applications, Webb wrote the following essay about an activity or interest that has been particularly meaningful to him.  Webb has since graduated from Stanford University with honors, worked in linquistics research for two years at MIT, earned his PhD in Cognitive Psychology at Yale, and is currently working at the Max Planck Institute for Neurolinguistics in the Netherlands.

After whipping across my field of vision in a hurricane kick, my right foot plants itself on the ground in front of my left, leaving me in a high lotus stance. My left foot spins into a rooster stance, knee raised above my waist. As I balance on one foot, my right arm arcs overhead, stopping in a palm strike. My eyes follow my left hand as it ascends from my  side in a willow leaf palm. “Your head-turn was late,” admonishes my Kung Fu teacher. That series of moves lasts only about a second, and is only a small fragment of a several-minute form.

My mother has been studying Kung Fu for over 30 years and teaching me for 13 (even when I was in the womb, she praciced Kung Fu). But even now, remembering all the details requires every ounce of my concentration. Kung Fu is a constant balancing act — between mind and body, between standing up and falling down.

Were it not for the mental and physical strain that Kung Fu put on me when I was young, I would probably be clumsy and weak. I don’t play sports in school, so my frequent rigorous training has helped me stay in shape. To me, Kung Fu is more than mere exercise. I savor the graceful stances of Shaolin, like the lotus, which makes my quadriceps feel ready to ignite at any moment; I wallow in the passion of Xing Yi, in which metaphors are attached to actions in order to channel emotion; I delight in the oblique footwork of Pa Kua, in which encircling supercedes direct attack. I often try to model my life after Kung Fu training — a strenuous striving for flawlessness. But the main ideal of Kung Fu is not the striving but what comes after: no-mindedness.

I interpret no-mindedness as the principle that Kung Fu should be trained until it becomes a reflex. I can’t help but be proud when, immersed in concentration, I execute a form without missing a head-turn or slurring a foot-pivot. I must remind myself, however, that true perfection is not mere competence, but the ability to drill the form without thinking.

Thankfully, I haven’t been able to reach a state of no-mindedness yet. Kung Fu has always required my complete concentration. The spillover into the rest of my life has made me more able to focus. Kung Fu has balanced my natural tendency to be introspective, causing me to be more aware of the present. My mother once noted that, from a young age, I could concentrate on one thing for long periods of time. I thank Kung Fu for that ability.

Struggling for physical balance must have affected me emotionally. Amidst conditions which could have been damaging, (my parents broke up when I was two, and I’ve never lived in the same place for very long since), Kung Fu has helped me maintain my mental health. I think my mother, who feels a similar psychological steadying when training, had my well-being in mind all along. Losing control of and contact with my emotions is the  equivalent of teetering to the ground from an unstable rooster stance. I have learned to deal with the force of gravity when training, and I think that the ability to center myself and balance has helped me become more well-grounded emotionally.

Webb’s words describe more powerfully the positive qualities instilled from early training than any other training testimonial I have ever heard.  I cried when I first read it.  It was the initial positive reinforcement I needed to write about all of this.
Early kung fu training can produce miraculous results, physically and mentally.  All my children are my greatest accomplishments;  well educated, hard working, talented, compassionate, creative … but it is Webb who bears the mark of Shaolin!

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