On Sunday, 2013 July 7, I learnt that a branch of the Shaolin temple exists in Chicago, IL. Being a little bit of a kung fu nut, I decided to take a look and see how they operated on 2013 July 8. According to the schedule on their website, they hold a morning kung fu class for adults, so that’s the one I attended (thank you, summer vacation). The schedule also had kung fu classes for children and teenagers, as well as a san da (Chinese kick-boxing) and qigong class. Their weekend schedule also includes a qin-na (grips and locks) class as well as a free and open-to-the-public sitting meditation class.
The branch temple is on Archer Avenue in Chicago, IL. I noticed on my drive there that Archer seems to be the martial arts street. Before reaching the temple, I drove by a Ng Family kung fu school, a Chinese Arts & Culture building (which advertised teaching kung fu), two karate schools, a tae kwon do school, a Muai Thai school, and an MMA school. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more martial arts schools past the temple itself!
The main hall is a spacious room covered in red carpet. Across the front doors are several shrines to various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I think I recognized Amitabha Buddha and Guan Yin Pusa, but there were a few who I did not know. A changing room, rest room, and storage racks for the temple’s many swords, knives, and spears were in the back, past the shrines. Upon entry, the left wall is lined with many mirrors, which I found useful for keeping track of my own movements.
Though I couldn’t quite catch their names through their accents, there were two teachers at the school this morning, one younger and one older. Both were quite friendly, straight-forward, and very patient with their teaching, especially with the children who showed up with one of the ladies there (I think the mother brought her children to practice, and they joined in; it was pretty adorable).
The morning class runs from 10:00 am ’til 11:30 am. We began with saluting the teacher with the typical Buddhist salutation and then spent the first half or so of the class time with basic exercises such as rolling and loosening the joints and muscles, strikes and kicks, and tumbling (including leaps, jogging, cartwheels and butterfly kicks, which I found very fun, though my butterfly kicks were rather erratic). All of the other students displayed superb agility and flexibility.
The second half of the class was dedicated to practicing several sets and routines. The elder teacher took the very young children off to the side (a true saint, that man) while the rest of us would rotate to have some time with the younger teacher. Those not under direct supervision would go off to the side to practice whatever it is that they were working on. The experienced students (aforementioned mother, a lady of about forty, and a young man in his twenties), at first, practiced a Northern Shaolin empty-handed set (whose name I do not know) before they switched to practicing weapons. The young man and some of the older children (perhaps ten?) practiced with their curved swords (dao) while the ladies were practicing with the narrow straight sword (jian). Later on, the young man practiced a set involving the use of a folding fan with metal tines. All of the weapons had the “whippy” blades.
During my rotations with the teacher, he taught me the beginning movements of an empty-handed Northern Shaolin set (sadly, I didn’t catch the name). I recognized many of the patterns from Northern Shaolin, but the set is different from Lohan Quan, Hong Quan, Taizu Quan, and the other Northern sets that I looked at on Youtube. The teacher gave me a few corrections in posture, but for the most part, he emphasized speed and force in my practice. I guess I got the stances and footwork correct, since he didn’t spend any time correcting me on that front! I was glad to see that the other students used the “feet hooked in” Bow-Arrow stance instead of the “feet perpendicular” version.
At the end of the practice, all of the students came back together to do some more strengthening exercises such as push ups, straight-legged sit-ups, and leap-frogs from the horse riding stance (ballet helped a lot in that regard). We then saluted the teacher with the typical Buddhist salutation and broke for the day. Afterwards, I asked one of the other students if they did application or sparring and she told me that most of the sparring was done during the San Da classes in the evening, so I may take a look at one of those later this week; I want to see how the students perform under sparring. I took a look at the student testimonials on the temple’s website and noticed that all of them emphasize collecting more and more forms and gaining confidence and grace, but little talk about self-defense or sparring.
On the drive back, I realized that I had some bruising on my palms and elbows from various parts in the set such as pounding a fist into the palm or striking the elbow with the opposite palm. I have to wonder if practitioners of Northern Shaolin can just naturally develop an Iron Palm, Iron Fist, or Iron Arm from the practice of their sets, haha. During his off-time, I noticed the young man some times striking a heavy hanging sandbag or a pillar wrapped in carpet and tape. I probably should have asked how the school deals with injuries and such conditioning.
Anyways, all in all, it was pretty fun! I do wish there’d been more application practice, though.
To remember the parts of the beginning set that I learnt, and as a fun exercise for myself, I drafted a Google document listing the forms of the set’s patterns (which I was taught) and applications I was able to derive from the set (which were not taught in the class I attended). I also composed a few combat sequences using the patterns from the set and a proposed program for someone intending to use the set as a basis for self-defense. I don’t recommend that anyone actually use the document alone to practice, but it may be of some use to experienced practitioners of Northern Shaolin wushu looking to add combat application to their practice or to those curious about a timetable and training program for self-defense. Remember, a good master will save you time and tears.