If your exercise program is designed to burn you out and consign you to the scrap heap of humanity, best you take a long, hard look at it!
One of the things that really sold me on Chinese Kung Fu was the discovery that a bunch of middle aged, very ‘normal’ looking Chinese guys could run rings around me when it came to fighting. I first travelled to Singapore in 1987. Training took place on the flat rooftop of Nam Yang’s clubhouse. The nights were hot and very humid: sticky, clingy weather with a strong scent of Chinese joss sticks. The teachers were, contrary to my expectations, rather ordinary looking people, who would not have looked at all out of place picking up children from school – but when they moved it was like watching somethin out of a Kung Fu movie. This was in total contrast to what I was used to and completely blew me away!
Back in cold, grey London, every young guy aspired to be the fittest and the toughest. We worked out and we strutted around looking hard. But we knew that our days were numbered and that we were destined to end up like all the ‘old guys’ who sat around moaning about ‘the youth of today’ and who we felt so superior to. We just accepted that, like every sports star, we would get to our thirties and then burn out. That a day would come when we would say ’I am too old for all of this’ and retire from sport in favour of more suitable exercise such as throwing darts and lifting pint glasses. Because this was what everyone did!
I had no idea what it was these old guys did that was different. But I was sharp enough to know that they were on to something here and that I wanted a piece of it. If it was possible to avoid the downward spiral that we called ‘normality’, to extend my days of being young and fit, I wanted to know everything about it! So I became a student of Grand Master Tan, followed him around, observed his lifestyle and the culture in which he lived and bombarded him with a constant stream of questions. I wasn’t the fastest learner – it took a while for things to sink in – but gradually the reality dawned on me.
The older generation of Chinese people measured their fitness not in terms of how fast they were, how strong they were or how long they could run for but in terms of being fit to live their lives happily and healthily. And they laughed at us crazy westerners! We pushed ourselves to the limit and beyond. We obsessed with building muscles but completely ignored our internal organs even though it is the internal organs which provide our muscles with food and oxygen, which remove their waste products and which also do just about everything else which keeps us healthy. We overworked our organs desperately. So we would come to a point when they just couldn’t cope any more. They gave up. And that would be the time, perhaps somewhere in our mid-thirties, when we announced that we were retiring from sport! In other words our whole approach to exercise was designed to burn out our internal organs so that we had to give up before we were even half way through our lives. Crazy westerners!
Try a little experiment with me. Picture in your mind a Kung Fu Master. Everyone will conjure up a different image but let me ask you – was it an old guy / girl? I have asked this question to hundreds of people – and all of them have said yes. This is what makes Kung Fu so fundamentally different. The whole ethos, the whole image of Kung Fu is one of never giving up. Of continuing right into old age so as to become that phenomenal old person who defies the norm and inspires all of those young people who can’t quite keep up.
Isn’t this how it should be? Shouldn’t our exercise keep us fit into old age? Keep us healthy, agile and mentally sharp? I found myself agreeing with those old Chinese – our western concept of exercise is just crazy! So I have spent my life learning how to take care of my body Chinese style: opening meridians, charging energy centres, cultivating breath, nourishing internal organs, sinking my chi and, above all, living a relaxed, mindful existence. I am not particularly beautiful and don’t look like a body builder but my Kung Fu is still way better than most people of half my age and I intend to keep it that way. My son is 7 years old and in the present highly uncertain world my dream is that I will still be sharp enough to guide him and look after him in thirty years time. Thanks to the Kung Fu that those old Chinese guys taught me I think that I am in with a good chance!