3 weeks of Shaolin Kung Fu in China
“Our school is not a holiday retreat.”
The last piece of hair fell on the floor.
My head was shining like a moon.
“Tomorrow, I’ll be in China.”
In the first week of June, I was stuck.
We desperately needed to come up with a startup idea. Our company was in free fall, and I had to do something about it.
But I couldn’t.
I spent weeks trying to figure it all out in my head. Every day, we would sit for hours in the office. Trying to understand what we really want to work on. Brainstorming ideas. Nothing worked.
I had the idea to take some time off for a while. But I never really explored it. I’ve always believed the only way to solve a problem is to start working on it. A mere thought of lying on a beach all day long and doing nothing caused physical pain in my head.
After a few weeks of struggle, I accepted that we’re not moving anywhere.
I needed a change.
I used to do martial arts as a kid. I remember when I first read about Shaolin. I was amazed. It seemed like something sacred, unreal to me. Very distant, but also very close in some way.
I remember begging parents to allow me to go there and train with monks.
“You’re out of your damn mind!”
I’m not blaming them; I’d probably tell my kids the same.
But now I had no excuse.
I decided to fly to China and study Kung Fu at The Shaolin Temple.
The Shaolin Monastery is like Mecca for Buddhists.
It’s a mysterious place where monks live, train, and meditate.
Some of them never leave the temple.
And while you can visit the temple as a tourist, there’s no way for a stranger to get into the private part of the monastery, where real monks train. There’s no website where you can apply. No email address.
But I had a plan.
I decided to find a martial arts school in Dengfeng, which is a small town 12 km from the temple. My idea was to get to Dengfeng, and then try to meet some younger monks from the temple and beg them to death to let me in.
After a few days of research, I found a school that seemed reasonable and applied.
“Unfortunately, we’ll not be able to enroll you. We’re shutting down.”
That’s what I heard from the school 24 hours before the flight.
Finding this school was tough. There are hundreds of fake “Shaolin Kung Fu” schools in Dengfeng. They’re making money off the Shaolin brand, but there’s no real, authentic, hard training involved.
Getting another good one to accept me over night seemed impossible. But I kept looking.
I was looking for something original and challenging. And all Kung Fu schools I’d seen before were like holiday camps.
A few hours later, serendipity kicked into play.
I found a YouTube video from a former Xing Long student. I loved it. I went on their website and smiled.
The website said:
“Our school is not a holiday retreat.”
On a warm night of June 14th, I landed in Beijing.
When I arrived in Beijing, I still hadn’t heard from Xing Long.
But I had no choice. I was in China, and coming back was not an option. So I bought a train ticket and embarked on 600 km journey to northern China.
After six hours of slumber in the high-speed train, I was in Siping.
At the exit of the train station, three students of Xing Long waited for me with a welcoming sign, “Vasili Shynkarenka.” They drove me to school.
That’s when I met the Master for the first time.
Shifu is 5”2, fast as a jaguar, has a bone-crushing handshake and dark brown eyes that look right into your soul.
He once tore off someone’s shoulder with bare hands.
At 12, he already trained in Shaolin.
Shifu turned pro after seven years. He started competing professionally, won the famous “Kungfu King” tournament, and achieved the rank of a 7th-degree master at 19.
And then he broke his back. It was a full-contact sparring match, and he cracked his fourth vertebrae.
Doctors said he wouldn’t be able to walk ever again. Shifu made a full recovery in six months.
He couldn’t return to professional fighting, but life without Kung Fu was not an option to him.
He began teaching.
His vision was simple:
“To spread classic Shaolin skills throughout the world.”
To achieve that goal, Shifu had to learn English. He worked hard for 18 years, and he speaks almost fluently now.
Shifu believes that Shaolin Kung Fu is not just a martial art from Jackie Chan movies.
In its origin, Kung Fu refers to any discipline achieved through hard work. Anything that requires patience, energy, and time to complete. And once you learn it in martial arts, you can transfer this knowledge to other domains.
He is also a great thinker. I saw him reading Meditations from Marcus Aurelius once. That’s the kind of teacher I needed.
The Shaolin Temple has become fancy.
More tourists. More noise. Less signal.
Three years after opening his first school near the temple, Shifu moved to the northern province of Jilin.
Xing Long school is located on a small farm in the countryside.
There's one large training hall, full of equipment and dried sweat.
Second training hall in the back. It's used during the winter when the temperature drops to -15. During the summer, training takes place outside for much of the time.
When I arrived, there were 12 students at the school.
During the year, this number varies from 5 to 15. Having a small group helps Shifu to dedicate enough time to each student, but also make sure there’s a lot of practice for everyone.
People all over the globe came to China to study Kung Fu. Explorers; seeking for something deeper than living in the Matrix.
Some of them, like Matt, had been at the school for six years already.
I was surprised by how diverse, open, and curious students were.
We had a scientist who worked on quantum computing, a famous reporter from Hollywood, and a primary school teacher.
We spent hours at the dinner table talking about everything from farming to teaching to space.
It felt like a brotherhood.
It was the final lap of 45 degrees uphill mountain running.
My legs were destroyed. I barely strolled. The sole purpose of my existence came down to two words:
I questioned myself a thousand times.
“Why are you doing this to yourself? What’s the purpose? Why don’t you just walk the rest of the run?”
And then it hit me:
“Because that’s who I am.”
I kept running.
Every day we had six to eight hours of Shaolin training.
We woke up at 5:30. At 5:50, we lined up.
We ran for about three miles uphill and then stretched for twenty minutes.
After the warmup was done, we had Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is like action movies in slow motion. It’s a very steady motion, supported by breath control.
“If you want to go fast, you need to go slow first.”
Soft movements helped us to recover our energy faster, heal sore muscles, and release body tension that accumulated throughout the previous day. After eight hours of hard training every day, Tai Chi was saving my life.
Here’s a little video I made of Johny and Emilian doing 42 Tai Chi Steps:
After an hour of Tai Chi, we had breakfast and an hour of rest.
At 8:30, the morning training started.
Every morning we practiced forms.
Forms are like shadow boxing.
It’s a very ancient set of techniques arranged in patterns. Each form is a sequence of sets, and each set is a sequence of movements. You go from small moves, like striking with a left fist, to a five-minute-long combination of strikes, turns, and jumps.
Shaolin monks designed forms by contemplating animal behavior for hundreds of years. Some forms are even called this way: The Monkey, The Dragon, or The Snake.
Forms help to develop strong footwork and learn striking.
When you practice long enough, you unconsciously start using individual movements, sets, and sequences in a real fight.
The morning training finished at about 12, and then we had lunch and an hour of rest.
At 2:30, the afternoon training began.
After one week of basic training, I started doing Sanda.
It’s a form of kickboxing, which allows you to learn all basic punches, kicks, and combinations.
Sanda is how you actually use your Kung Fu in practice.
Three times a week, we had power training, like doing burpees for two miles.
Or “lizard moves,” when you literally crawl uphill for half a mile.
But that’s where the spirit was sprouting.
After dinner, we had Qigong.
Qigong is a standing meditation. You freeze in a stance and focus on breath control. No movements for ten minutes. Then you change the position.
I thought I was fit. I wasn’t for Qigong.
I couldn’t stand still for more than two minutes in a horse stance. My sore legs were in agony.
But after a week it began to work. Minutes began adding up. I’m still not sure how exactly Qigong heals sore legs, but in two weeks I was able to stand in the horse stance for 10 minutes. Soreness was gone.
Every Friday, we had power stretching.
It was torturous.
We ran five miles uphill first. Then we stretched for about twenty minutes. And then power stretching began.
Shifu was assisted by one student. I laid on the floor, and the guy sits on my knee, so I couldn’t move. Shifu took my leg and started moving it up to my head, in short, swaying movements.
He didn’t stop.
That’s when I learned what the pain really is.
When you scream. When you cry. When you’re short of breath and can’t scream anymore.
Don’t get me wrong; Shifu knows his stuff. But knowing that he won’t tear your legs apart is not making the process more enjoyable.
Over time, I learned to accept the pain. To breathe. To let go.
And that’s when I felt the power of it. In two weeks, I came closer to transverse twine than in two years of doing my own stretching.
Lunch was over.
I went to my room and fell on the bed. I was exhausted.
Suddenly, the thoughts started pouring in my head.
The mental fog was gone. I knew what I needed to do.
I saw the forest for the trees.
Three weeks in, I figured out that I want to work on longevity.
Not just figure out how to live 200 years, but to help people feel as 30-year olds at 70.
And as all benefits in life come from compound interest, I believe that extending human health and life spans just a little will yield tremendous, non-linear outcomes.
What theory would Einstein come up with if he was as mentally and physically sharp at 90 as he was at 40? What products Steve Jobs could’ve invented?
The dots connected. I was a pro athlete, lost 55 pounds myself, and always kept learning about nutrition, fitness, and mind.
I talked to Shifu, and he let me go.
Next day, I was heading home.
To keep the clarity of mind, I wrote down four principles I learned from kung fu.
FOCUS IS ESSENTIAL
Most of the things you do don't matter. But you cannot accept that until you drop all of them, open your eyes, and see.
Everything you consume is just noise. Focus on learning and understanding the basics well.
WORK CRAZY HARD
Remember power stretching: you can only grow if you overcome pain and misery. There are no shortcuts to greatness. Have a clear schedule, and put in ten hours of hard work every day. Rest, reassess, and sprint again. Accept the pain. Work as hard mental as you did physically during the training. Don't let other people and their opinions prevent you from working hard.
KEEP YOUR LIFE SIMPLE
Get rid of the things you don't need. You need much less than you think you need: a functioning body and a functioning mind. Don't buy lots of stuff; keep your place simple: a bed, some food, and tools for work.
P.s. If you think you have what it takes to join, you can join Xing Long Kung Fu School here. I’ll be there again next year.
Thank you very much for reading my work.