This weekend, I went to my instructor’s house in Kent. It meant getting up ridiculously early to arrive at Victoria station just after 8 am, but believe me, it’s all worth it.
I met a few others outside Smith’s and we caught the train together, sharing two taxis at the other end. This was quite a significant camp, as my instructor is moving house, so we had this weekend to make the most of his sizeable garden for the last time.
We covered, as usual, various aspects of white crane kung fu. One of these was style-specific sparring, but not, as many people imagine, just seeing who can get in the most punches. We were to focus on emulating cranes and their elegance; their movements; their grace; their evasion skills (not being there when someone aims a punch at you is the ultimate way to make sure they miss). It’s certainly not easy: punches can be quick and difficult to dodge. And a few of us came away with what will turn out to be bruises and perhaps even scars. But these are the price to be paid for training in martial arts and, apart from the initial impact, I don’t think they really bother any of us. It’s all part of the process and you just have to accept it.
We also spent some time on Saturday going over and over the first pattern, San Zhan. A few beginners needed to be taught this, which usually happens at camp, as they are open to students of all levels. We were trying to equate our bodies, not bounce, wobble or sway as we moved (easier said than done, trust me), make sure we were low enough on our stance so that our legs could move and actually carry our bodies, rather than our bodies following our legs (you with me?). Then we partnered up, ideally, if it was possible, with someone our own size, and one person went through the pattern with the other person on their back. I’d never done this before – the last time I’d tried to get someone up onto my back, the person was also no bigger than me, but she slipped off as I couldn’t figure out how to distribute the weight – but between us, India and I managed to work out a system where I grabbed one of her legs and then the other as she jumped up. Man, this was hard, going through the pattern with someone on my back. It was difficult to move at all, leave alone get the movements correct, and I now have places on my hips where I know I will eventually have bruises. But it was a challenge I forced myself to step up to, because camps are like that and my club is amazing in the fact that there is always so much to learn. It’s a scholar’s style, and the more you learn, the more you find there is to learn, and the more you find yourself hungry to grab as much as you can possibly absorb.
Yesterday was particularly exciting for me. Kala and I passed our second pattern (San Zhan Lie Ma) at the same time and have been learning third pattern since. We asked if we could learn a bit more, as Dave had said a week or so ago that we were both ready. So he summoned another instructor, Nick, to teach us the next segment, which we went over and over and over. All the time we were practising our highest pattern, I made the most of the chance to create in my brain new neural pathways so I wouldn’t forget.
It’s fun learning new stuff, so long as you’re interested and excited by what you’re being taught, and white crane kung fu offers up endless opportunities to learn something new and infinitely fascinating. The knowledge that, in our club, we have what is considered to be the best martial arts instruction outside China is borne out by this simple but fundamental fact.
If you go to respected classes and you already have an interest in martial arts but you find yourself not learning anything, particularly about yourself, that’s probably no reflection on the club (unless it’s a bad club, and they do exist), and perhaps you should find yourself something else to do. Watching kung fu films, with their sound-effect-laden kicks and punches which are choreographed to look spectacular (apart from the odd examples such as Shaolin Temple and a couple of other early Jet Li films, which were not choreographed at all), is not going to give you the best idea of what kung fu is all about. It is not about beating the crap out of someone. It is not about being hard. It is certainly not about showing off. It is about learning to better yourself as a person, which includes being able to defend yourself and counter-attack if and when necessary. It is about knowing how to fight if you have to, but knowing that the best thing is to walk away without a punch being thrown. It is about self-discovery, opening yourself up to new experience and a level of trust (if you have a good enough instructor) that you may previously have not been able to imagine, as long as you let yourself go with it and don’t resist.
I now cannot wait for the next patterns class, in which I’ll go over what I’ve learnt so far with excessive gusto. Because you can never put too much into it. You can never practise too much. There is no such thing as ‘enough practice.’ The more you train, the better you get, because repetition over time makes whatever you’re repeating automatic.
It’s a wonderful feeling when you know you ought to be doing something else but all you want to do is practise what you’ve learnt. It’s frustrating, and the itch you feel you need to scratch won’t be relieved until you practise again (hence why, during the writing of this blog, I went over the third pattern in the kitchen, despite it being really too narrow, because it was – and still is – nagging at me).
There are no more weekend camps until May, now, and I can’t wait.