Stanford Report, February 28, 2012
Seeking harmony of body and mind at Stanford through Shaolin Kung Fu
"The big plus is that I'm learning real kung fu from real Shaolin monks, whom I would have no access to if I were still in China – all under the California sun," said one Stanford staff member who is enrolled in the class.
By Kathleen J. Sullivan
Master Shi Yanran has performed kung fu all over the world – with the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Monks Corps, in the theatrical extravaganza Shaolin: Wheel of Life, and with contemporary ballet dancers in Long River High Sky.
In 2010, he was named martial artist of the year at the 12th World Congress on Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine, which was held in San Francisco.
Yet here he was, a Buddhist monk ordained at the legendary Songshan Shaolin Temple in central China, striding into a Stanford campus courtyard, ready to teach a mind-body fitness class sponsored by the university's Health Improvement Program.
He wore a cinnamon-brown robe with a sparkling name – a "triple jewel robe." It signifies that he has accepted the three gems of the spiritual life – the Buddha, the teachings of Buddha and the monastic Buddhist community.
Master Yanran was accompanied by six monks, ranging in age from 18 to 27, who wore light blue, belted robes, trimmed in black, bearing the embroidered logo of Shaolin Temple USA, which is headquartered in San Francisco. The logo shows the front gate of the Songshan Shaolin Temple, which is revered as the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and as the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu.
Their students – wearing T-shirts, loose-fitting pants and athletic shoes – soon converged on the courtyard for the weekly hour-long class, which takes place in a courtyard behind the Medical School Office Building on Welch Road.
Paula Bailey, an education coordinator at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, arrived with a straight sword, its blade resting safely inside a garnet-red scabbard.
Paochen Zhang, an administrative associate in the research lab at Stanford Blood Center, carried a slender wooden staff grasped firmly in one hand.
Kathleen Guan, an administrative associate in the Department of Structural Biology, brought no weapons – only her novice self, eager to learn. Guan, who was born in Beijing and came to the United States 30 years ago, said the class represented a rare opportunity to study with Shaolin monks.
"The monks are surprisingly good teachers," Guan said. "They are graceful, patient and eager to teach us. The big plus is that I'm learning real kung fu from real Shaolin monks, whom I would have no access to if I were still in China – all under the California sun."
They were among the 17 students – 12 women and five men – who attended a recent class. Currently, 22 people are enrolled in the class.
Master Yanran, who began his studies at the Songshan Shaolin Temple when he was 9 years old, recently celebrated his 30th birthday.
The monks began teaching Shaolin Kung Fu: Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced at Stanford during winter quarter of 2011.
"Participants will achieve harmony of body and mind through a well-balanced program, appropriate for people of all ages and physical abilities who seek to create better health and well-being, train for self-defense, and improve strength and flexibility," the class description said. "No prior martial arts experience necessary."
The class, which costs $100, is offered at a discount rate of $20 to Stanford faculty and staff who have completed the Stanford Health and Lifestyle Assessment (SHALA), an online questionnaire that is part of the BeWell@Stanford Employee Incentive Program.
Jerrie Thurman, group fitness program manager with the Health Improvement Program, said a Stanford employee contacted her about bringing the Shaolin Monks to campus. After reviewing Shaolin Temple USA, its curriculum and instructors, Thurman said she decided to offer the class for one quarter to gauge interest in the class.
"I was pleased at the initial response and am happy that the interest continues to be pretty high," she said. "The class is offered every quarter, and will continue to be offered unless interest in the class drops off significantly, or if the instructors become unavailable to teach the class."
Master Yanran said Shaolin Kung Fu is different than other martial arts systems because it incorporates the teachings of Buddhism.
"The spirit of Shaolin Kung Fu includes compassion, harmony, diligence and inclusiveness," he said, speaking through translator Diana Hong. "It is not a brutal fighting system. In addition to self-defense skills, Shaolin Kung Fu exercises also improve the health and overall spirit."
Courtyard kung fu
The class began with monks in a line facing students in rows. Monks and students alike brought their palms together for respectful bows.
L.A. Cicero Shaolin monks teaching class at Stanford
Warm-ups followed, including exercises for shoulders, arms, hips, knees and ankles; three laps of the courtyard; and stretches, including lunges, and front and side splits.
The courtyard soon became a makeshift kung fu studio as small groups of students, each led by a monk, crossed the pavement – back and forth, back and forth – doing kicks, punches, blocks and turns, in increasingly complicated combinations.
Later, the students divided into small groups. Nearly half the class members retrieved their staffs, which they had left leaning against a tree trunk, and headed to the lawn to practice a weapons form. Two monks led nine students in a choreographed routine in which each person battled an imaginary opponent wielding a staff.
The other monks fanned out to help other students, including Kitty Lee, a life science research assistant at the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine. She was practicing "Five Stances Fist," a fist form that incorporates the five fundamental postures of Shaolin Kung Fu: horse, bow, drop, empty and cross stances.
"Although the form itself seems possible to duplicate, it is the spirit of each movement that is hard to learn – as we don't really have a subject attacking us," Lee said. "The monks have been reminding us of the point of each move, be it that we have to follow our punch with our eyes, that the palm that pushes is meant for a direct cut, or that our sweeping motion needs to actually swing through with effort."
Lee said the set of motions, done in the proper spirit, is exhausting.
"You actually use all those muscles as if you were in a real fight," she said. "I think you probably saw us huffing and puffing last week in class. Imagine how much time the monks must have put in to perfect them and to perform seemingly effortlessly."
A kung fu workout can also be exhilarating, said Ben Scott, a mechanical engineer at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
"I was on a high the rest of the day," Scott said, referring to his first Shaolin Kung Fu class in January. "It was amazing how good I felt after it."
Students said they had seen gains in strength, flexibility and endurance since starting the class, and had benefited mentally from the positive attitude of the monks, who are always smiling, calm, patient and focused on teaching. Other students said they especially enjoyed kung fu for its power and grace.
At the end of the class, monks and students returned to the center of the courtyard, forming lines, each bringing palms together for a final bow. Then the students scattered, back to offices and labs and the rest of the workday.
One of the monks asked the visitors: Would you like us to perform?
They lined up on the lawn for "Seven Stars Fist," which is famous for being compact, agile, fluid, efficient and powerful.
Master Shi Yanran performed "Fiery Whirlwind Staff," using a staff to create whirlwind currents around his body.
Shifu Shi Hengyu performed "Drunken Sword," in which the monk staggered as if drunk, a disguise – Shaolin monks do not consume alcohol – designed to confuse the attacker with unexpected moves and attacks.
Reflecting on that day's class, Shifu Shi Hengyu, who began studying at the Shaolin Temple in China when he was 10, said he was "very happy" with the students.
"I saw some good movement today," he said. "I noticed their bodies are getting stronger."