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Fit in my 40s: will Shaolin training bring me calm?


I wasn’t sure I’d recognise the whereabouts of the Shaolin monk in north London, but the martial arts temple was bedecked with a splashy red arch. Heng Dao is not a monk; he is a practiser of Shaolin, an ancient combination of Zen Buddhism and martial arts. What is this place, anyway? On one side, a long boxing gym: very Fight Club. In another, a room with a sprung floor and a kung fu class. Heng Dao and I sit in a windowless, carpeted temple-ish space, with loads of fruit and three Buddhas looking down on us peaceably.

According to Shaolin, we are all made of the elements fire, water, earth and air, and they have to be in balance. I find these ideas quite calming. I don’t fully understand, because I’ll never understand, and I can’t leave because someone is talking to me. This is as close to letting go and inhabiting the moment as I will ever get.

Except, wait: there is concrete activity attached to these elements. Fire is kung fu, physical movement, the life of the muscles. A lot of it is punching, slowly, then faster, with one arm, then with two. “You do this a lot,” says Heng Dao, “and it’s good for stamina, strength, relaxation – and also you get good at punching.” The surprise element is the relaxation: like sewing, colouring in or cutting out pastry, a punch is at exactly the pitch of repetitiveness and concentration that engrosses your mind without depleting it.

Water is qi gong, which is sometimes called Chinese yoga. I can see similarities in the battle poses. This is the stuff people who look like your aunt do in a park, poses and movements with symbolic foundations: pulling an imaginary arrow; pouring water over yourself, beatifically, like the lady in that shampoo ad. Is the symbolism secondary to the summoning of your inner energy? Or is that how it’s summoned, and glute strength is really a side-issue? I don’t think these are the right questions; I think you have to wait for your body to deliver you an answer.

Earth is meditation and you start with this: sitting cross-legged, connecting with each muscle one by one, just to check it’s still there. I wonder if this is a ruse to keep your mind present, but it works.

Finally air is (tell me if I am stating the obvious) breathing: noisy and demonstrative, again like yoga breathing; huffing, holding, gasping. The sequencing and the emphasis change as you get older, although you always start at earth. The water sequence becomes the most important as our bodies get harder with age (Ha! Try telling that to my body) because water embodies softness. We are in the territory of metaphor. The complexity of it, its unfamiliarity, demands a concentration so deep it is effectively mindful. It works, in other words, though a tough crossword might too.

Heng Dao teaches across the UK;

What I learned

When punching, keep your active fist fast and your non-active one pinned tight to your rib cage.

Source: TheGuardian