Although Shi Yan Ming is a world famous kung fu master, he was lucky enough to survive a poor childhood as a peasant in China.
He was born in 1964 in Henan province, the heart of the country, where Chinese civilization is said to have been born and where food was scarce. Two siblings died of starvation before Yan Ming was born, and he was a very sickly child.
Fearing the same fate would befall him, his parents brought Yan Ming to the doorstep of a 1,500-year-old Shaolin temple. He was taken in by the monks there and began to live by the grueling schedule of a kung fu disciple – training, practice, meditation and racing. His health, as well as his ability, improved rapidly.
“I used to run a lot in China”, recalls Shifu (an honorary title meaning “master” or “teacher”). “The temple was built in the woods, in a mountain range; I ran to develop my strength and endurance.
In some ways, it’s been running ever since.
Kung fu meets Hollywood
In 1992, Shifu was part of a group of Shaolin monks invited to perform on a tour of the United States. The temple in which he was raised was the original Shaolin Temple, dating from 495 AD, and the line of monks practicing kung fu and Chan Buddhism (also known as Zen) helped make Shaolin one of the most graceful and disciplined martial arts. . Shifu, a 34th generation master, and his fellow monks have gained fame for their craft and have been invited to show their skills on international tours.
After a show in San Francisco, California, he escaped from his hotel room in the middle of the night and traveled by bus to New York. He opened the first Shaolin temple in America in Chinatown, rising early to train on the Brooklyn Bridge. Over the next 30 years, he taught countless others, from RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan to Björk to Wesley Snipes. It is also appeared in several films and helped spread the practice this has been his way of life.
Running is championed by many martial artists as a way to train both body and mind. Bruce Lee called running the “king of exercises” and had a remarkably consistent routine to back up his training. As an activity based on form, repetition and discipline, it is not surprising that it is considered an essential part of training physical and mental resilience. In recent years, Shaolin monks have even gone viral for their ability to “run” on water.
For Shifu, running is a form of “action meditation”. In kung fu, everything is an opportunity to perfect one’s skill and wisdom. “To speak is to meditate,” noted Shifu. “Walking is meditation. Jogging is meditation. Everyone has different abilities. To help people individually, you can’t use just one approach.
Such a diversity of teachings is central to the welcoming nature of the temple and to Master’s ability to meet students where they are. In doing so, Shifu aims to spread the Shaolin teachings of self-realization, dignity and compassion to as many people as possible. It is this spirit of inclusivity and access to life-changing practice that has drawn so many to the temple.
Running and Kung Fu: A Whole Body Pursuit
Kirby Koo, disciple of Shifu and director of the United States Shaolin Temple, fell into Shifu’s orbit seven years ago with the vague idea of reconnecting with her roots (she was partly raised in Hong Kong). After moving to New York, a childhood friend told her that if she ever wanted to do kung fu, the best master on the planet was right there in Chinatown. She checked it and didn’t look back.
“When you come from the depths of extreme poverty to train celebrities and be in Hollywood, you understand that everyone is going through a journey and we are all the same,” Koo said, referring to Shifu’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life. of life. “In the temple, everyone wears the same uniform, everyone does the same moves, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your bank account is.”
Still, embracing running was not something Koo envisioned when he started kung fu. “Before, I was the type of person to say to myself, ‘When I run… I only run if it’s for my life,'” she said. Yet Koo now sees running as a form of meditation, a way to deepen spiritual, mental and physical kung fu training by practicing with the whole body.
“Before I trained in kung fu, I always understood that the exercises were aimed at different parts of your body: you do a bicep curl, you stretch your hamstrings. But in order to maximize your power, your speed and stamina, in kung fu you use every part of your body for every move.
Running is championed by many martial artists as a way to train both body and mind. Bruce Lee called running “the king of exercises”.
“Shifu says the real gymnasium is when you look into the jungle,” Koo continued. “Animals don’t lift weights. If you look at a cheetah, it uses all of its muscles to jump in the air and then it keeps running, it’s not just using singular body parts.
Look at a trail or a road and you might notice the same thing about a runner jumping and bouncing with all their muscles pulling. This sense of a whole-body pursuit that is as much an action as it is a meditation – if one chooses to view it that way – is perhaps where kung fu and running intersect.
At 59, Shifu doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Whenever he talks about practice, it’s with language that’s both nurturing and fierce, indicating the support and discipline needed to inspire growth and maintain form.
“We are getting younger every day. We can work to get younger every year,” Shifu said. “If you don’t sharpen a blade, it gets rusty. We have to discipline ourselves to exercise. Young body, noble spirit. Keep challenging yourself. Exercise your precious life.
As Koo noted, his job at the United States Shaolin Temple would be much easier if Shifu did not commit to teaching all day, every day. As headmaster, Koo wouldn’t mind the master occasionally slowing down and being more available for other aspects of temple administration. He avoided the potentially lucrative path some masters of his renown might choose, teaching only privately and occasionally emerging for public showcase. But it’s not Shifu; its goal is to make the temple and the teachings accessible to all.
“If you’ve ever met anyone who knows what their purpose in life is, rain or shine, it’s him,” Koo said. “That’s why he’s on Earth.”
Master wouldn’t disagree. “We must take every opportunity we have to help as many people as possible,” Shifu said, invoking the Buddhist roots at the heart of kung fu practice. “That’s why we are here. You spread the word and help more people. It is meditation.
For Shifu, every moment, whether engaged in stillness or action, can be part of a purposeful, powerful, and compassionate way of life. And that’s why, after all these years, Master is still running.