It has been said that Americans are enamored of the quick fix, and I, for one, am no exception. Whether it’s “Thin Thighs in Thirty Days,” “Sixty-Second Abs,” or “Eight Minutes in the Morning,” I’ve probably plunked down my money for it at some point.
That’s how I came to purchase “The Shaolin Workout” a couple of months ago when I was spending a quiet Sunday afternoon at Borders Bookstore. I was browsing idly through the newly published section when a highly intense stare from a bald Asian man known as Sifu (“Master”) Shi Yan Ming caught my eye. (“Shi” is pronounced to rhyme with “Sir,” by the way.) The book advertised itself as “28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.” Twenty-eight days! Less than a full month! I could manage that. Nevertheless, I was skeptical. I put the book down, wandered the store some more, considered the matter, picked the book back up for another examination, meandered through the store still further, and finally grabbed the book a third time (hoping in the back of my mind that no one was watching this performance). I found a quiet spot in a corner where I could peruse the volume in detail to see if it looked like it would really deliver. It was, after all, $29.95. Not a bad price for total transformation, but that was also a lot to promise. (I’m not sure if it occurred to me then to wonder just how a soul is transformed by a physical workout.) I finally decided that it was worth the $30 price tag, and took it home that day.
Sifu Ming is, according to the book’s opening chapter, a 34th-generation warrior monk from China. I don’t know exactly what a “warrior monk” is (readers, can you help me out?), but the accompanying photos clearly indicate that this man is on a par with martial arts action star Jet Li when it comes to flying leaps and twisting the body into seemingly unachievable angles. He has been featured many times on national and international TV and in countless newspapers and magazines. His book is “yet another way to introduce people to the life transformation they may achieve through kung fu training.” While I didn’t have much (if any) hope that I could ever emulate some of his poses, I was willing to give the exercises, which were grouped into daily routines, a try. I also liked the look of the daily philosophical meditations. Here’s a breakdown of how things went in Part I.
Session 1 – Wrist and Ankle Rotations. I still don’t know if I’m doing the wrist part correctly. The written description seems to indicate one thing, and the photos another. And what is the purpose of it? At least the ankle rotation is easy to figure out – until you start doing it in conjunction with the wrist rotation. If you’re a fairly well-coordinated person, you’ll have no difficulty with this. If you’re somewhat uncoordinated, like me, it will prove a slight challenge at first - something like rubbing the top of your head and patting your stomach at the same time.
Session 2 – Neck and Eyes. The neck stretches cause a slight cracking. Not too much of a surprise. I roll my head to the left and right, forward and back. Not bad. But it’s the eye focus exercise that really puzzles me. This consists of snapping one’s head rapidly to the left, and then to the right, ten times in each direction. Sifu instructs his students to “see as far as Iceland and its polar bears in one direction, and as far as Miami and its dolphins in the other,” and to “fully extend your sight.” Frankly, I cannot figure out how to “extend my sight” to save my life, and all I can see are my bedroom walls.
Session 3 – Shoulders, Arms and Chest. I’m not sure I’m “windmilling” correctly – my arms seem to fly out more to the sides than in back of me, á la Sifu, but I keep at it regardless. Practice makes…well, if not perfect, at least better.
Session 4 – Waist and Stomach. Now, I think, we’re getting somewhere! These areas are, after all, my nemesis. The waist stretch is something I’ve done in Matt Furey’s “Magnificent Seven” workout. Matt calls it the “Tai Chi Waist Turner”; I call it “The Human Washing Machine.”
Session 5 – Legs. One look at the photos demonstrating the positions for this section and I know I’m about to be challenged. Suffice it to say that I can’t picture ever being able to touch my head to my toes. It’s all I can do to touch my fingers to my toes. Actually, I’m not entirely positive I can do THAT yet.
Session 6 – Upper Body and Lower Back. A few side bends here. Shades of Matt's Magnificent Seven again. No problem here. Then some forward stretches that make me feel as if I'm about to breast stroke across a pool, until I get to the rotation part, which makes me feel a lot like a human screwdriver. Next is another “impossible” move – getting my head on my crossed arms, which arms, by the way, are to rest flat on the floor. (See closing comment in Session 5 above.) This is followed by the ankle grip. How about we make that "the calf grip," Sifu?
Finally, review time! And then Part II, which I’ll cover next week.
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With all due respect to the master, I am not feeling a bit transformed. What I AM feeling is middle-aged, overweight, inflexible, and, at times (when doing the wrist rotations, for example) rather silly. I also feel distinctly American. We in the West have such a different way of approaching fitness than those in the East. I’m used to thinking of working out as something that involves sweat, weights, machines, soreness, and a lot of grunting (at least from men in the gym). This seems too…easy. (That is, until I try those human pretzel positions.) But I am beginning to understand that part of Sifu’s process involves achieving a deeper awareness of my body. Normally I regard it as something unwieldy and unattractive and cumbersome – even an enemy of sorts. And I suspect that many Americans do the same. However, as I am trying to stretch just a tiny bit further (“Get those fingers to the ground, girl!”), I am beginning to sense muscles instead of merely rolls or cellulite, to feel my body instead of just lugging it around. I may not feel transformed – but then again, perhaps my viewpoint is becoming so, albeit quite gradually.
Sifu and I are from different hemispheres and different religions – different worlds altogether, but I think he has something to teach this middle-aged, out of shape American gal. So check back in next week for The Shaolin Workout, Part II.