blog 202102Outdoors training is one of my favourite things, and I do my daily practice out in the open troughout the year. Indoors, you need to clear the space, accommodate others, ventilate before and after...whereas outside there's as much room and fresh air as you need. Of course, during the summertime everything is just peachy, but wintertime training may seem like a big challenge for many.

Actually, even in a country as cold as Finland, it really isn't as big a deal as one might think. So, here are some simple tips I've found useful for outdoor training during the colder seasons!

 

Rather a bit too warm, than a bit too cold

In arts like chi kung, kungfu and zen, where relaxation is crucial, practicing while freezing really doesn't do you any favors. Cold makes the body tense up; shoulders go up, breathing gets shallower, and the body generally just wants to move about to fight the conditions. This is not a good recipe for meditation or stance training, where you should remain static yet relaxed for long periods of time. A good rule of thumb is to be slightly too warm during practice. Make a point to wear clothes generously, and then start removing items if you get too hot.

 

Keep things loose

Probably the most common problem with any practice clothes - indoor or outdoor - is for them to be too constricting or restricting of movement. It's easy to go wrong here, especially when choosing outdoor training gear. First of all, make sure that you can do any movement with ease while wearing your full set of clothes. Secondly, your clothes shouldn't coax your body into wrong positions and bad habits. This can happen quite easily yet insidiously, and in the long run may cause issues where the actual prpblem may be hard to pinpoint. A tight-fitting scarf can cause shoulder stiffness and neck pain; a body suit with a snug waistline may cause stomach problems or shallowness of breathing; shoes that cradle the ankles too closely can spell trouble for your entire posture. For the outdoors, a good, loose-fitting coverall usually has all the important bases covered for outdoor practice.

 

In arts like chi kung, kungfu and zen, where relaxation is crucial, practicing while freezing really doesn't do you any favors.

 

Coveralls are great!

The problem with combining lots of different pieces like pants and jackets for your Winter training gear is that there are more openings, so it's easier for the cold to seep in. Also, outdoor pants may often prove to be constricting around the waistline. And, when your training gets lively, suspenders tend to fly off, buttons and zippers pop open, and so forth. Coveralls and outdoor full suits work great with training, because they allow for maximimum mobility, while at the same efficiently preserving body heat. For years now I've used coveralls meant for ice fishing and other Winter outdoor activities, and they've never got in my way.

 

Stay light on the hands and feet

Often I see people training kungfu in relatively heavy training shoes, which I personally never recommend. A common feature with many sports shoes is that they lift up the heel and bring slightly more weight to the toes. Especially in kungfu, I find that this messes with your posture. It might feel easy and nice to train with bit of air under your heels, but this often curves the back in stances, and may also be detrimental to your knees. I favor light shoes with thin, even soles - even when practicing outdoors. Yes, heavy winter shoes may be nice and warm, but they're too unwieldy for most kungfu leg techniques. Same thing with gloves; it's better to use light and well fitting fabric gloves, than heavy mittens only capable of forming a bad fist. Kungfu techniques can use any part of the hand, so you should keep your options available. And don't worry about getting cold - when you make sure that your torso, arms and legs are well warmed, hands and feet usually don't mind a bit of chill.

 

Wear layers

Up where I live, Winter lasts a long time, with temperatures ranging from about 5°C (40°F) to -30°C (-20°F). For almost 20 years now, I've done (and loved) my daily training outside through all this. To benefit from the same outdoor clothes through the entire wintertime, create a set that has layers you can easily add or take away. I have my coveralls, a good single body layer, plus a warm long-sleeved set of underwear. Add to that a knit cap, a loose cotton neck protector, two layers of socks, and optional two layers of light gloves, and I'm ready to take on pretty much any Winter day. Just adjust the set as needed, and you can find a combination from the same clothes for any temperature.

 

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Although that was a lot of gear-related advice, generally speaking kungfu training doesn't require much in the way of accessories. Of course, as with anything, you can go crazy with gear, but I think exercise shouldn't about the equipment. No need to supplement your kungfu with gyms or practice halls, special floors or yoga mats, treadmills or hand weights; just get some empty space and you're good to go!

 


 

 

Why I practice Kungfu, part 3: Spiritual Cultivation

(Continued from part 2.)

 

Spiritual Cultivation

A wood print of Miyamoto Musashi by Utagawa KuniyoshiI like the English term "martial art". In my native Finnish, the corresponding term which translates to "fighting skill" is, in my view, not complete; it only refers to competence in fighting, whereas in English - as well as in Chinese - combat is only one part of the concept. The other part indicates artistry; culture, sophistication and depth, which, as in all great arts, can demand much, but offer even more.

As a young boy, the book Musashi written by Eiji Yoshikawa left a great impression on me. It is a fictional story of the real-life Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Although the book revolves around martial arts and their practice, they are presented as much more than just a means for fighting: As an approach for Zen training in the pursuit for personal and spiritual cultivation, through the process of meditative action. This instilled into me the ideal what martial arts could be at their best, which has stayed with me throughout my life.

Shaolin Kungfu was created as a vessel for spiritual cultivation.

This idea has also been a part of Chinese Shaolin arts from their very beginning, a thousand years before the time of Miyamoto Mushashi. The first Shaolin Kungfu -practitioners were Buddhist monks, former warriors and army generals who had retreated to the Shaolin monastery, and combined the internal arts taught in the monastery to their fighting techniques, thus creating the first, early version of Shaolin Kungfu. All subsequent kungfu-styles are greatly indebted to this progenitor of Chinese martial arts. But why were Buddhist monks, whose highest aim was to attain enlightenment, interested in fighting?

Because Shaolin Kungfu was created as a vessel for spiritual cultivation. The connection between fighting and spirituality might seem like a strange concept, but if you've ever dedicatedly practiced martial arts, you may be able to confirm from your own experience that their training can also offer an effective way to becoming a better person - that is, if one wishes to follow it. For example, in high-level kungfu, every part of training promotes this aim, were it health, meditation, or cultivating the mind and the body through practical combat training. The demands of a combat situation are high and immediate, so any training meant to prepare for them keeps the bar high for practitioners striving to reach their potential.

Although my own ideals for martial arts developed early, my own training found its way only after many missteps. I know from experience how a certain kind of martial training can feed aggressive or violent impulses. On the other hand, I also know how another can help you become the best version of yourself. For some reason, spiritual cultivation is often considered intrinsically religious, which I consider an oversimplification. Its results should be first and foremost down-to-earth and practical. Would you rather be calm or nervous? Focused or confused? Confident or worried? Brave or fearful? Grateful or bitter? The former are benefits specifically for an internal martial arts practitioner.

The world has seen fighting and combat training probably as long as humans have existed. Similarly, there are endless reasons for it. Through its long history and unique position, kungfu had the opportunity to evolve way beyond mere fighting. Of course, most martial arts would never even strive for anything else than combat; after all, effectively conquering or defending is the crux of any fighting. However, sometimes it is worthwhile to judge an art by what it can be at its best. For myself, kungfu is an art that puts everything into perspective. Oftentimes, it is so insanely difficult, that I find myself wondering whether I should call myself a practitioner in the first place. Contrarily, I also find it so rewarding that I have yet to discover any aspect in life where I couldn't benefit from it.

 

Considering this, it doesn't feel like a stretch to see myself practicing daily also for the next 20 years.

 


 

The first Shaolin Kungfu -practitioners were Buddhist monks, former warriors and army generals who had retreated to the Shaolin monastery

Why I Practice Kungfu, part 1: Good Health

Sifu Markus in the first years of his kungfu trainingIn 2019 I had some cause for celebration, as I'd reached a milestone of twenty years since the beginning of my kungfu training. After that very first practice session, despite a few small exceptions, I've practiced daily - sometimes in different schools, sometimes different styles, but always with great joy. A long time ago, I knew that I would probably practice for the rest of my life. These kinds of revelations usually indicate that you're on the right path.

When doing something on a daily basis for a long time, it's beneficial to occasionally take a step back and really assess what you're doing, how you're doing it, and what results you are getting.

So, here are some of my thoughts on why putting thousands upon thousands of hours of practice into an ancient martial art is, for me, a no-brainer.

 

Good health

"If you want to be in great shape, go train ballet or something. Dancers are ripped." This is what a friend of mine said years ago, when I mentioned that I'd like to find a real martial art for getting in good shape. Perhaps in terms of physical performance my friend's suggestion was valid, but how about good health? And more importantly, the ability to fight?

Training a martial art shouldn't be slow, lazy or missing the crucial element of threat, but training skills should be systematic, so that students learn to use them safely and correctly even under high threat.

At first look, the idea of practicing a martial art for health might seem paradoxical. After all, how could training that involves punching, kicking, throwing and locking people make anybody healthier? Nevertheless, in kungfu, the idea that its practice should make the exponent healthy, has been emphasized throughout its history. The more advanced you are, the healthier you should be. To appreciate this statement, we should take a look what the training of traditional kungfu is actually like.

First of all, in traditional kungfu there's a great deal of time and effort put into finding and utilizing proper posture, good stances, and deep relaxation. Through this training, practitioners become increasingly better at using and listening to their bodies. "No pain, no gain" -approach doesn't really get you anywhere - unlike many western forms of exercise, practicing kungfu is daily. If you keep punishing yourself, it is just a matter of time before you have to stop your daily practice, or put it on hold. On the other hand, if you do demanding physical exercise every day, and you invariably feel better and more energized after than before the session, you can rightly say that it promotes health and well-being. I have a lot of personal experience on both of these approaches.

Secondly, another significant kungfu principle that promotes good health and high performance, is gradual progress. Especially regarding kungfu force training, there are no short cuts to success, or "hard and fast" -exceptions to advancement. Everyone who seriously practices kungfu knows that success is not a matter of weeks or months, but years. Every practitioner starts from where they're at, but correct and consistent practice inevitably changes their bodies in a profound way. The real test of training is to be able to safely and steadily add challenges at your own pace, and to keep expanding your possibilities both physically and mentally. This approach could be compared to a sculptor working on a work of art, rather than a hasty and sloppy renovation project. Figuratively speaking, if you start swinging at your work with a sledge hammer, you'll risk breaking your most valuable resource, ultimately crippling your progress. In kungfu, all progress is founded on good health.

 

 

Kungfu training in Malaysia in 2004Then how about practical combat training? In kungfu, the rule "safety first" doesn't only apply in training, but also in real fighting. If you stop to think about it, isn't the fundamental purpose of any fighting art to protect their exponent from harm in battle? Indeed it is ironic, that many seem to think withstanding hits is a necessity in any real martial art training. From kungfu perspective, it is crucial that we learn how to block and avoid blows properly, but we should also ensure that they won't harm us - not in training, or in application. During my years of training, I've met many dedicated martial art practitioners who've already at a young age received so much physical punishment that their health has been permanently compromised. I've myself received my fair share of this kind of training. In my experience, it is not necessary, but actually very harmful. However, it is important to emphasize that training a martial art shouldn't be slow, lazy or missing the crucial element of threat, but that training these skills should be systematic, so that students learn to use them safely and correctly even under high threat. This is a fundamental aim of combat training in kungfu.

Training high-level kungfu also involves internal aspects, which might be missing from many other martial arts. Nowadays many martial artists supplement their training by borrowing from other methods, such as deep stretching, Yoga or meditation. In Shaolin Kungfu and Taijiquan, there is no need for this - it's all built into the original system, where fighting, health, fitness, high performance, and personal as well as spiritual cultivation are equally emphasized. If you practice internal kungfu, you also train your mind and your spirit. Every aspect of your training is meditation. The immediate benefits of this kind of training, in addition to physical health, fitness and high performance, are well-being, emotional stability, and having a peaceful, focused mind.

All in all, good health is more than just a healthy body.

 

(continued in part 2)

 


 

 

Why I practice Kungfu, part 2: Martial art

(Continued from part 1)

 

Martial art

I've always considered self-defence as one of the basic skills in life, similarly to reading, swimming or cooking. Thus I always expected that my hobbies and physical workout would eventually gravitate towards the martial arts. However, self-defence in principle is basically quite simple - you can get far with a few good techniques and skills. On the other hand, kungfu is often regarded as a very demanding martial art, where training can require a lot of time and effort. So, why kungfu?

Here are some of my thoughts on kungfu as a martial art, from my own years of training.

 

An old mural from the Northern Shaolin Temple, depicting monks practicing kungfuIt goes without saying that in any martial art, physical strenght, weight and height are crucial factors. If two fighters are roughly at the same level, usually the bigger and stronger one beats the smaller, weaker one. In martial sports, these differences can be compensated, among other things, with weight classes, but in the past martial artists didn't enjoy these kinds of compensations. One didn't always have the luxury of choosing their opponent, and especially in warfare, the victor was often the one who could leave the battlefield alive. This defined how traditional martial arts, such as kungfu, developed over time.

I myself have always been a small-sized, slim person - especially by Nordic standards. For this reason, training arts like kickboxing or wrestling for self-defence didn't seem like the best fit for me. I surely would've benefitted from them, but using their techniques I would have still had to fight primarily with strenght, weight and reach, none of which are my strong suits. What if I was an even smaller or lighter person? Or an elegant, slender woman?

Likewise, speed, agility and skill are big factors in combat. Like myself, the Chinese have generally always also been a small-sized people. However, despite external and internal threats, they have persevered to be the single longest running, unbroken civilization alive in human history. Kungfu has developed uninterrupted as a part of their culture at least for a millennium and a half, perhaps even longer.

So, what can kungfu offer for self-defence?

 

A great deal, in fact. First of all, in kungfu your physical characteristics do not necessarily need to adapt to the method, but the method can offer countless alternatives to benefit from them in combat. During its long history, kungfu has developed into innumerable styles, ways and techniques for fighting. Is your physique short yet stable? You will benefit from using the simple yet effective stances and techniques of Xingyi kungfu. Are you thin yet tall? Apply the piercing attacks and eluding force of the Crane or the Snake. Are you slow yet big-sized? Choy Li Fut and Lohan kungfu offer crushing techniques to make best use of your strenght and reach.

Essentially, in one way or another, all imaginable fighting techniques from throws to locks and punches to kicks can be found in kungfu.

 

There are formidable applications, strategies and force training found in kungfu for any body type. In practice, with kungfu anyone can fight. It is also excellently suited for women - many of the most famous masters in kungfu history have indeed been women. However, the versatility of kungfu isn't only limited to physical characteristics, but it can also incorporate the character, the personality, and the mental inclinations of the practitioner. Is it natural for you to calmly observe and assess before reacting? The smooth, meditative flow of Taijiquan will serve you well. Are you inclined towards playfulness and trickery? These features are the hallmarks of fighting with the monkey style. Do you prefer direct, no-nonsense solutions? For a tiger, the direction is often aggressively straight forward and through.

There are formidable applications, strategies and force training found in kungfu for any body typeSpecialization is not only restricted to different styles, but the best kungfu styles are comprehensive as martial arts - they include all necessary approaches and styles of fighting for different needs and different people. Shaolin Kungfu and Taijquan are good examples of this. However, there is an incredible richness of techniques and skills found in different styles of kungfu. Essentially, in one way or another, all imaginable fighting techniques from throws to locks and punches to kicks can be found in kungfu. Furthermore, kungfu also has techniques that you might be hard pressed to find elsewhere - for example, different kungfu strikes make use of every part of the hand, instead of just the knuckles of the fist.

For myself, kungfu constantly offers new challenges, new surprises, and new discoveries. During twenty years, I've practiced at least ten different styles, and trained in as many kungfu weapons. I've had the great fortune to practice with three different masters, and have been handed the opportunity to pass these arts forward to future generations. Despite all this, I still feel like I'm at the beginning of my journey. Is this a discouraging thought?

 

Not at all, because practicing kungfu is simply just damn good fun.

 

(Continued in part 3)