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How To Be A Shaolin Warrior: Violent Calm & Sticking With A Martial Arts Practice. The Shifu Yan Lei Interview

Shifu Yan Lei 34th Generation Shaolin Warrior

Shifu Yan Lei 34th Generation Shaolin Warrior

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…

 

 

Discipline

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. As well as designing positive surroundings, of both places and people, rather than relying just on the strength of our own will-power.

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.

Connect with Shifu Yan Lei

http://www.shifuyanlei.co.uk
http://www.qigongworkout.com
http://www.facebook.com/ShiYanLei
http://twitter.com/#!/shifuyanlei

Meditation

Meditation

Violent calm

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 than 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.

Shaolin Temple China

Shaolin Temple China

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 art’s becomes a part of your life and everything will be easy.

Be like water my friend

Be like water my friend

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.

Energy

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.

Air

Air

Pain

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.

Mosquito control Shaolin style

Mosquito control Shaolin style

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.

Interview by Paul Magee. Special thanks to Cat at Yan Lei Press. Photo credits: Manuel Vason.

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Comments

  1. Really inspiring! Well written, interesting and, again, really inspiring! It made me want to leave behing the computer, at least for a couple of hours a day, and start trainning again!

  2. Great article!

  3. Paul / Angel – There is so much to love about this interview. Of course, I enjoy the ‘mindfulness’ piece, but there is so much value also to the last question, and the master’s response about feeling good, and feeling confident. Such an eclectic mix of interview subjects you guys have!

  4. Chris McInnes says:

    Fantastic article! Since I started training in Kung Fu With my sifu Derek lui who teaches a shaolin hung fut hung gar jing wu style. I have been using the Qi Gong dvd and shaolin workout along side my training this has enhanced my ability in my Kung Fu classes but also in my life.

    I believe that this type of training in society will always be needed, my view is that we are animals and animals need tamed within in a modern society and Martial Arts is the way to do this i.e Kung Fu Qi Gong.
    Thank you Shifu Yan Lei for sharing your knowledge of these arts truly inspirational.

  5. Hi Paul
    I’ve had the very good fortune to be able to study with Shify Yan Lei for over 10 years now… And it makes me happy to see that people all round the world are getting the opportunity to learn from him though articles like this.
    The advice and wisdom he shares with you all here may seem simple and straight forward but to truely live by this code is another matter all together… Shifu Yan Lei is one of the few who really do walk the walk. His dedication to his art is second to none.
    I count myself extremely lucky to be his student!

  6. An absolutely wonderful piece. This sort of mentality should be thought in schools. No peace of mind will ever be achieved from acquiring material goods alone. Or if that’s your goal, you’ll go to your grave quite empty & unfulfilled.

    I used to kick box for a few years. Ended up letting it slip away when I moved home, as I couldn’t find a class near me (excuses really). I didn’t train to any major standard or anything, but the tiredness after a good workout was so peaceful & relaxing for my head space. And I’d feel so alert in the subsequent days.

    I know enough of the workout routine & have the space to workout at home. I’d been thinking how much I missed the training of late. I’ll be ordering the punch bag later today.

    I love the work you guys do on subvert. I’ll be passing this round to everyone.

    Excellent work, well done. Oh! & keep it up as well.

  7. Love the unique perspective given here – his views on the simple life, but particularly his last statements about how we worry too much about what we look like and need to focus on inner strength and how we FEEL instead. I know I have always been more consistent, driven, and felt better when I focus on this rather than how much I weight or how I look.

  8. @ DOM:

    Could you please share the physical and mental benefits of your practice? How old are you?

    Thanks

  9. Excellent article; I also trained under Shifu when he was in Birmingham and he is one of the few people I have met who has really influenced my life and thinking. So many times I am unfocused or confused I use his teachings to calm myself and consider things in a different light. What completely impressed me about Shifu is he is a real and true Master who has devoted his entire life to what he does – it’s not about money, he doesn’t go home after gym and become someone else, he is what he is. These days people are so obsessed about work and careers and whatever else – it is awesome when you meet someone who is so much more than that.

    Martial arts is brilliant because you can devote your life to it: it pushes you to be stronger, faster, smarter; it makes you healthier, helps to instil control and discipline into your life; and rewards you each time for training and being more skilful. One of the things which I also took from my training with Shifu and something which I can use absolutely everywhere is that you can achieve absolutely anything you want – all you need to do is train and practice.

  10. Hey.
    I went to from Mixergy website. Nice article.
    Fighting skills are very important. Specially for bad emotions. I used to train Aikido for a long time (the calmest time in my life)

    Mirek.

  11. I don’t necessarily think it’s the actual fighting we are missing.  It is the character traits that come with it.  It is the control they have because you are not taught to fight simply to fight.  You are taught to fight out of necessity.  In Taekwondo, they are taught control to keep that in check as well as to allow themselves in order to think at full capacity during fighting or sparring, giving them the advantage over someone who doesn’t.

    It also develops the traits of respect for others, self-esteem, confidence, commitment, and perserverance as well as many other highly positive traits.  I think we are missing out due to these traits accumulated in the process more so than the fighting.

  12. I would say that fighting skills are still important.  Most of what I would say here is said better by Tucker Max during a presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium last summer: http://vimeo.com/28798093 .

    I think that the physical confidence that comes from training is still extremely valuable now, in particular how it can familiarize (and make you more comfortable) with feeling fear. It won’t make it go away, but your reactions can become much more considered and calm, which could help avoid escalation of already bad situations.

  13. I always wanted to live in the simple life in a temple where I could train but that option was never available. I Am 15 and I joined a new world martail arts programs at the age of 5 I still remeber watching the thousands of disciplined young martail artists on TV when I was younger and mirroring them as they did their kata’s. I live in the middle of no-where on 130 anchors of land and I feel lucky that we have one karate instructer in town 20min away. But Id like to chat with you about how I could Improve my self. I studied alot of the seven virtues of a warrior “Bushido”. I also practice aikido on my spare time.

  14. Btw my email is 1crazycolonel@gmail.com but it would be better if you reach me at my texting number 1-613-604-5795

  15. [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.] it’s very good article!! thanks!!

  16. lovely article. learn from it, thankyou. never ever thgt anyone in the world would consider a martial artist, especially Shifu here, as being boring or lonely. dedicated, disciplined and unpolluted for sure, but boring or lonely? never! when you live life in supposedly exciting places you see how empty and awful and uncaring such places truly are. no real conversations and all empty in wrong way. Think Shifu should let go of anyone thinking that way of him as such views are so not to be bought into his good space. had to comment on that :)

  17. I think shifu yan lei is doing an amazing job regarding to spread the shaolin martial arts into the west at the same time he’s not only keeping this shaolin traditions alive but also adjusting it in the 21 century overall the best shaolin master I’ve seen so far out side the shaolin temple
    Cheers!

  18. I googled ‘how to be a shaolin monk’ just as a joke not thinking I’d find anything worthwhile but this article is inspiring! I always wanted to learn a martial art,and still hope to take lessons one day. I’m so out of shape at the moment but I’ve recently started working out and I can feel myself get stronger each week and hopefully I can keep this up.

  19. Interesting post! REally enjoyed it. And this is off topic but anyone who trains in wing chun will find this interesting:

    http://voices.yahoo.com/correcting-misconceptions-wing-chun-12167380.html?cat=5

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