Wushu (Kung Fu) Stretching in Malaysia
Today was our first official day of training. I say official, because at what was understood by us to be a social meet up the day before, Huan Huan* was still asked to show all of his forms, and had most of them corrected.
Huan huan got invited to join the advanced class, which was a treat, because he was the student with by far the shortest training status in the group. The group was full of children who trained for 6 or 8 years, and had won many medals in Asian competitions.
At the beginning, like in most martial arts sessions we have attended, the coach tells everyone to stretch. But forget trying ardueosly to touch your toes… The coach drops into front splits – and everyone in the class is supposed to do the same. You do not stretch for the splits, you stretch in the splits! Luckily, Huan Huan* has worked loads on his flexibility over the last 2 years, and is currently the most flexible in his home club: so he dropped into an almost-split rather effortlessly, and with that, was on par with the Malaysian group. And we sat in that split (or almost split, or something looking-like-one-day-it might-become-the-splits, as mine was), for much more than 20 seconds. No one counted, but my rather educated guess was about 3 minutes. On each side, of course.
Then, after a few “minor” floor stretches, the coach asks everyone to take off shoes and socks, looks at us, the white extraterrestrials, with what I read as a well-contained mixture of contempt and playful challenge, and tells us off-handedly to just rest and watch if we cannot follow. He clutches his heel and up goes the leg… up, up, up… into the famous shaolin “my leg is my umbrella” pose. The Malaysian students cannot quite achieve the same feat, but they do raise their legs pretty high, and - so does Huan Huan. That is something he has been practising in the garden since he saw it on youtube in a shaolin show. Who knew that youtube can come that useful! He must have felt more than a tinge of satisfaction, as when he stretched like that in the UK, he was sometimes accused of showing off by other kids. Here, he fitted right in, or rather, without this ability he would have been shamefully lost. A bit wobbly maybe, but so were the Malaysian youngesters, until the coach told them to go and grab a bar while they do the stretch.
And what of me? Well, my leg was not quite as high as Huan Huan’s, but it was relatively high and relatively straight, and I managed to stand without too much wobbling. When the coach specifically pointed at the kids mentioning even their number, when sending them to the bars, he excluded me. That felt strange, it left me wondering if this was because I wobbled less than the others (I really did, yippee, and I attribute this to my Qi Gong training), or, that as an adult attempting this weird thing, I am not even worth paying serious attention to? Never mind, I told myself, I shall persevere, since I want to present myself with the splits for my next birthday.
A word of thank you to Huan huan here, my private little wushu coach. When I attempted to raise my leg like that before, I had thought my efforts were absolutely pathetic. It did not seem to make much sense. And then my little son tells me: never mind how high you can go Mama, as long as you keep at it, it will eventually get higher.
It did! And this allowed me to set my goals even higher yet.
Now, I have two thoughts about this stretching routine that I want to share. One is fitness-related.
Basically, a good one third of the session was done standing up. This is different physiologically as some of your muscles are tense… but anyway, I will not go into the physio of stretching details here. The point I want to make is that for a martial artist, I think this is a very important and often neglected part of stretching – it trains the balance so well in addition to lengthening the muscles and tendons. In kung fu routines, balance is crucial, as there are many poses where not only you have to raise your leg high, but you hold it there. The actual holding of the leg needs not only streched, but also strong muscles (the so called static flexibility), and this one you do not train by just holding your leg high with your hand, Howver, that act also requires very good, that is both strong and coordinated, muscles of the supporting leg and the torso, so that you do not wobble and fall like a badly positioned doll. And these things are trained very well when doing your stretches upright.
Secondly, I wanted so touch upon the idea of cultural expectations. This is a bit of a philosophical hobby horse of mine – having lived on many different continents, countries, and cultures, I am fascinated by the idea of how what is assumed to be normal in one place completely is not such in another. So here is the issue of how flexible you are as a wushu kid. Are you a super star because you can do the splits, or is it just the beginning, like the alphabet, without which you aren’t even viewed seriously? When Huan huan joined his local UK club, there was ONE kid there who could do the splits. Our coach does tell everyone to stretch properly, but… the cultural norm speaks it’s own truth. You are the one, the special one, or the odd one out, if you can do it, maybe other kids think you show off, maybe you yourself become boastful about it. Here in Malaysia, you better do your splits quickly and move on!
Likewise however, there is an expectation that old people like myself are better off sipping green tea with the Master, passing their time in contemplation of life and shaping of the youth. Why would I stretch? The Master smiled at me with poblazanie when I told him I want to do the splits, too. “Stretching, it is easier for the kids. At your age, you need to make sure you are very well warmed up to avoid injury.” True, or course, but as long as you humour this old lady doing what gives her a sense of satisfaction, I’m gonna keep at it.
To protect his privacy, I will be referring to my son by the name given to him by his Chinese teacher, Huan Huan, or 欢獾..