Why we decided to learn kungfu
Why do people count the span of a lifetime in years, and not in days? Wouldn't we be more aware of the value of a day if we knew we had only, let's say, 30000 days - in this specific lifetime - to accomplish whatever it is we are meant to accomplish or to at least figure out that life does have a meaning?.. One thing that a long trip makes you realize is that every day counts. Now that we've been travelling for over a year, we realized that we remember every day of the trip, very much unlike back home when we could sweep through the entire year with general descriptions of what we'd been doing and only a few real highlights. When you travel, as the mind gradually learns to give in and go with the flow, you also have the time and the right state of mind to look for things that have meaning beyond the framework "making money + looking forward to the next weekend". That's how - among other things on this trip - we realized that we want to learn kungfu!
Yes, of course, one of the - selfish - reasons to do it was the desire to learn to do COOL STUFF :-). I mean, most people who have watched the Matrix must have had that WOW moment when watching Neo fight with Morpheus after uttering those legendary three words "I know kungfu", or watching Trinity fight Smith with her cool kicks and moves. And although the progression rate in kungfu is much slower than running the 5-minute program that loads all the algorythms into Neo's mind and actually "The Matrix" kungfu is only "movie kungfu", watching people do cool stuff in movies can be a great inspiration to try learn it. After all, haven't you ever asked yourself a question why all the cool stuff has to happen only in movies? Does it really have to be that way? I always felt that "not really". So to sum up, from the ego perspective we want to learn kungfu because it's cool :-). But this said, one thing that we found out through conversations with our Shifu, is that "movie kungfu" is a very special "breed" and is very far from real kungfu, in the sense that almost all of that spectacular stuff you see in movies is implemented with the help of various media (other than just the human body) and cannot be executed even by the best kungfu masters. So what I mean is that a real kungfu fight will probably not have a jaw-dropping effect on anybody, but it would still be cool - just in another, 'real life' scale :-).
But we also have totally sound, logical reasons for wanting to spend half a year now, and hopefully, a lifetime later, to practice kungfu. Here they are:
Reason one: Kungfu, as we see it, is an ancient system of optimized bodily movements meant to use the power of the whole body as well as utilizing the power contained in the opponent's movements to achieve the most efficient ways to block and attack. Through diligent practice of the sequences of these optimized movements, or the so-called quan (= forms), you gradually acquire a set of block/attack reflexes that make much more efficient use of the power of your body (no matter how big or small and in what weight category :-) than the reflexes you are originally equipped with. For example (we ran this one in the gym), when someone grabs your shoulders, your first reflex would be to simply push the opponent away with a movement that would use only the strength of your arms and would only work for a smaller/weaker opponent. If on the other hand, you've been practising kungfu and your mind reacted with a movement that utilizes your whole body and therefore contains the energy of a much longer vector, you have much higher chances to shake off even a bigger opponent. And it's like this for every block, punch and kick.
Ok, that's all great, but I don't really see myself as the next Chun Li, taking to streets to fight injustice and bullies, so why bother learn the most efficient way of fighting? Reason two: based on the above definition of kungfu, we perceive it as a kind of active meditation, in which you maintain the awareness on the bodily movements, which on a deeper level are vectors of your body power, or bioelectricity, or - using the traditional Chinese term - qi. So if Vipassana is a static meditation in which you train your mind's equanimity towards stored vibrational patterns, kungfu is an active meditation in which in the long run you develop awareness of fast, explosive qi flows (and at the same time acquire an optimized set of self-defense reflexes).
Reason three, practical: learning kungfu extends the range of things you can do with your body, trains your flexibility and makes you stronger, and that cannot be anything but good. It gives you a pastime which even at ten minutes Taijiquan a day will make you healthier than without it (hundreds of people practising it daily in the streets of China must have their proof based on health records of their friends and relatives :-) But like any skill, it can only be developed through lots and lots of practice, many many repetitions. In fact, according to kungfu masters, it takes one thousand repetions to remember a form, and ten thousand repetitions - to master it! And another fact which reflects the same idea: the Chinese name of this martial art - gongfu (功夫) - means "a skilled man" and can be used to refer to training of any skill, like calligraphy etc.
And finally, what do we do at our trainings? Lately to make better use of our time in China, we changed our training routine from twice daily to once daily, so we go to the gym only in the mornings but for a longer - three hour - session (in such a way, we have the whole afternoon free for learning Chinese). During the first hour we do the following preparation: stretching (ya tui = 压腿), warm-up (re shen huo dong = 热身活动), a sequence of sanda kicks and punches (ti tui = 踢腿), body conditioning (basically, beating ourselves in all places to harden the body and improve the qi flow). Then we do the basic training (takes about half an hour) - a set of several bodily movements that lie beneath most of the kungfu moves, and as such are the building blocks of kungfu practice. All these movements are based on making the movement of the arm a continuation of the circular movement of the hips: this trains our ability to block and punch using the whole body, not just arms. After that, now that we've finished learning the 75-moves Chen style Taijiquan (陈式太极拳老架一路), the next part of our training is learning the combat applications of all its movements. At the moment we are not practising those applications, we just watch the demonstration by our Shifu and record them in 1-minute videos (practising these applications is our longer-term project). After this we dedicate the last hour of our training to learning new steps of some new form: at the moment it's the Single Sword form (陈式太极拳单剑). By now, we have also learnt a very short Five Stances Form (五步拳, Wu Bu Quan).
More forms are on the plan but not because we want to have an impressive "list of honours": we simply want to make the best use of our time with our Shifu. We are fully aware of course that getting those forms to any decent level will take umm... what was it?.. oh, yes, ten thousand times of practice! But practising kungfu is real fun and gives us more sense of evolving than uttering yet another "wow" while watching a cool action movie :-)