London’s Shaolin warriors are on a quest for self-mastery

London’s Shaolin warriors are on a quest for self-mastery

Pumped up kicks — In a leafy London suburb, a group of dedicated warriors have carved out a space where they can be the best versions of themselves – mind, body and soul. Welcome to Shaolin Temple UK: a martial arts school where the path to mastery starts within.

Akin Akinsiku, a 35th generation Shaolin Temple disciple, is standing shirtless in a dimly lit gym. At his feet are three objects: a brush (made up of over 100 thin metal rods), a bar (also metal) and a brick (wrapped in plastic, to remove the coarseness). In a moment, he will begin striking his body – hard – with each of them. Over and over again.

In an ideal world, Akin – who is 51 years old; a creative director by trade – will do this five days a week, with each session usually lasting around 80 minutes. He begins with the brush (called a Qigong stick), before moving onto the rod, and then the brick. With each blow, he exhales sharply, releasing an acute “Gah!” upon impact. But at no point does he ever look like he’s in any real discomfort. When he’s finished, there doesn’t appear to be a single mark on him. “The idea of this is that you can reduce the amount of damage in combat by training your body to take impact,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow.

The practice is an ancient method known as ‘steel jacket’, and Akin’s display is one of several examples you can find of people pushing themselves to the extreme at Shaolin Temple UK – a martial arts school and centre of study for Shaolin culture in Tufnell Park, London. Since its inception at the turn of the millennium, it has been home to a diverse cast of characters, all of whom share one common bond: a deep-rooted desire to be the optimum version of themselves – physically, mentally and spiritually.

Hidden between two blocks of flats and overlooking a train track, the temple building was once a disused petrol station. Today, however, it contains a gym, training hall, meditation room and courtyard – which comes complete with a painted mural, Koi fish pond and bamboo trees. There’s also a cat, Panther, who wanders between different rooms with the airy nonchalance of a pet that knows it has the run of the place. The temple was founded by Shifu (‘teacher’, or ‘master’) Shi Yanzi, 52, who had arrived in London from China in 1998. “I wanted to go overseas and learn more culture,” he says, speaking via WeChat from China, where he lives currently. “I believed that it would help me improve my martial arts level and help me reach my dream.”

A kung fu master among the 34th generation of Shaolin monks, Yanzi is a product of the original Shaolin Temple back in his home country – a 1,500-year-old Buddhist monastery where “warrior monks” train relentlessly to master the martial arts. He spent almost 15 years there, practising kung fu and chan (Buddhist meditation), before the opportunity arose for him to take his knowledge beyond the temple’s walls and teach in England.

“This guy had opened a school in London so I stayed there, to teach the students about Shaolin culture – zen Buddhism, traditional forms, Shaolin combat skills, [the posture, movement and breathing practice] qi gong. But after one year, the guy sold his school to a nightclub company, for them to make it into a music club. So I opened my own school.”

Shaolin culture, as a catch-all term, refers to pillars that have historically defined the monastery in China: kung fu, chan Buddhism, health and medicine. This commitment to self-betterment on a broader scale (as opposed to, say, focus- ing solely on combat) is what helps make Shaolin unique among martial arts. It meant that when Yanzi opened his school, people arrived looking for different things. Whereas some wanted to learn how to fight, others were more interested in meditation. What linked everyone, however, was a determination to learn and improve; to progress.

Akin was one of Yanzi’s earliest students. Born in London, he moved to Lagos, Nigeria, as a child, where he developed an interest in Chinese martial arts through movies. A slight kid who spoke with an English accent, he came to the swift conclusion that he should probably learn how to look after himself. So he began studying the likes of Bruce Lee, memorising the moves and employing what he could. “It was all kinds of ad hoc,” he remembers, grinning. “I had to fix up – really, really quickly.”

When he moved back to England in his teens, he picked up Muay Thai (‘Thai boxing’) and became very good at it, before a chance meeting with Yanzi put him onto Shaolin. For Akin, the film buff, it was its “mythical status” that grabbed him from the get-go. “It’s almost like King Arthur,” he says. “It’s immersed in history and myth and culture – they all kind of… rub up against each other.”

He, along with a handful of other original members, was there as Yanzi built the school from the ground up. While today, the labyrinthine building feels like a sprawling self- contained world, the original site was – as Akin terms it – a “waste dump”. Cash was hard to come by, so when it came to renovating, it was the students who mucked in and helped. “Financially we were zero,” remembers Yanzi. “We tried to eat basic food, sleep on the floor… I saved every pound and penny. I wanted to grow fast, but I had to accept the reality and work hard, step by step – like rolling a snowball.”

Eventually, the patience began to pay off. In 2003, Yanzi entered his students in the British Council for Chinese Martial Arts (BCCMA) championships, which resulted in a healthy haul of medals. People began to take notice. A year later, he took a group of them to China, where they were able to stay in the original temple and train alongside the monks. All the while, brick by brick, the temple was slowly beginning to resemble something closer to Yanzi’s vision. As word of mouth took hold, more and more people began to join.

One of these was Markus Tamoev, 35, who started in 2007. Born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, he had been training in martial arts for three years before turning to Shaolin specifically. “My ambition was to be professional in the fighting level,” he says. “But in fighting situations, I was uncomfortable, panicking. I wanted to calm down.”

It was Shaolin’s focus on the internal as much as the external that appealed to him specifically. While Markus had no problem with the physical side of combat, he was looking for something richer. “We say ying-yang,” he explains. “[Shaolin] brought my fire down, it balanced me out. It makes you realise what’s different with other martial arts. You find it here – the heart part, the spirit part, the meditation, the wisdom. That is what was missing.”

His commitment and discipline saw him begin teaching at the temple in 2011, where he garnered a reputation for an unwavering dedication to improving his students. As a competitor, he has fought 16 times (10 wins, 5 losses, 1 draw), but, according to him, none of them was as difficult as the battles he has with himself daily. “I have to beat myself every day, that’s the biggest challenge,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Once you master yourself, it’s better than fighting thousands of battles.”

This idea, of turning one’s gaze inwards, is a recurring motif throughout Shaolin. For Akin – who’s also a shifu at the temple, with around 10 years teaching experience – it’s one of the main reasons that it resonates with so many. “One of the things I talk to my students a lot about is the concept of your adversary. When you learn martial arts you always think about the opponent,” he says. “But a higher level of martial arts is seeing yourself as the opponent, not the other person.”

William Ko, a student at the temple for about 18 months, understands this better than most. Originally from Toronto, Canada, he sought out Shaolin after his brother announced that he’d started kung fu back in their home country. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you should try and find a martial arts centre in London and do the same, because I’m going to kick your ass in six months,” the 37-year-old recalls, laughing.

When William started, he had been a smoker for 15 years, while a stressful job in business intelligence was contributing to both a poor diet and disjointed sleeping pattern. But the temple’s mantra – that anything is achievable with the right dedication and focus – was drilled into him from day one. As he began to look at what he could do to transform his own behaviours, rather than the external factors influencing them, he soon found his habits were changing.

“You just start thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not going to eat that piece of fried chicken, or smoke that cigarette.’ But it’s that belief that you can do anything,” he says. “It’s interesting that in Shaolin Temple UK there are no belts, because it’s not about how you compete with those around you. It might be a cliché, but the biggest competitor is yourself.”

Roxana Ortmann-Zachos, meanwhile, believes Shaolin has actively improved her relationship with herself. For the 29-year-old – an actress from Johannesburg, South Africa – the “warrior archetype” was something she always aspired to. “It wasn’t always like for the physical thing, it was for the inner strength of a warrior that appealed to me.”

After joining Shaolin Temple UK in 2011, she quickly discovered that the physical exertion of training was having a positive impact on her mental wellbeing. While many people experience this with different forms of exercise, Roxana – who also teaches at the temple – believes that Shaolin’s holistic nature makes it special. The emphasis that external change starts from within, and vice versa.

She points to the fact that there are very few mirrors in the gym, which emphasises the arbitrary nature of placing too much focus on measurable physical changes at the expense of internal ones.

“It has helped me [become] a lot more self-aware,” Roxana says. “It helps brings you to the here and now. I think it has definitely helped me with so many things – my own behaviour, or recognising other behaviour that isn’t good for me. Health-wise, mental health-wise it keeps you more stable.”

Since the early days, thousands have students have gone on to pass through the temple. While its makeup has invariably changed over the years (Shifu Yanzi returned to China in 2014 to set up a new school at the foothills of the Songshan mountains), the values that underpin it have stayed resolute.

The notion of respect, as is the way with all martial arts, remains paramount. But just as key is the culture of support that has always been there – a commitment to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable to pursue their own interests. “Shaolin style is not only martial arts,” says Yanzi. “There are three, four, five dimensions. Wisdom, knowledge. If you seriously persevere, study and go through to the Shaolin culture, you will understand about many knowledge.”

In that sense, Shaolin can mean a lot of different things to different people. For Ayesha Tan Jones, a 26-year- old artist from Chester, northwest England, it was an opportunity to connect with their Chinese heritage while learning something new. “The macho side of martial arts has become more prominent in the West, while the art side – the spirit side – has got lost in many clubs,” they say. “That’s why somewhere like the temple attracts me. Because I’m not coming just to get fit and punch people. I’m coming to learn about my soul and myself.”

Ayesha grew up in Chester, northwest England, but moved to London for university. In 2016, as a response to a rising number of attacks on women and members of the LGBTQ community, they launched Shadow Sxsters Fight Club – a self-defence group for women and non-binary people – along with friend Monique Etienne. While Ayesha initially left the combat side of things to Monique and instead focused on herbal methods (“We made our own pepper spray with really hot chilli peppers and herbs”), their interest in martial arts was always there. So one day, having long been intrigued by the big red gates that signposted the temple’s driveway, they decided to check it out. Three months later, they haven’t looked back.

“For some people, it’s literally about being their favourite film star and being badass. To be honest, I am kind of like that as well,” Ayesha says, laughing. “For some it’s just purely fighting, for others it’s meditation. People come from different backgrounds. But we do all have different reasons for coming to practice… it’s a really beautiful thing.”

Today, the temple’s diversity – in both the people that come and the practices they engage in – is one of its defining features. For every devoted kung fu master, there’s someone who’s simply keen to learn more about traditional Chinese medicine. For Akin, it’s a place where you can seek out whatever truth is important to you.

“If you want to do backflips and perform, that’s fine, that is your truth. If you are doing this because you feel that you want to be a custodian of culture, you can find someone to teach you that. If you want to carry on the tradition of Shaolin as an authentic combat art then you can look for that too.”

What binds everything together is the belief that anybody is capable of positive change. In Shaolin terms, martial arts is about self-mastery: once you learn how to overcome the challenges you create for yourself, anything is possible. For Shifu Shi Yanzi, this kind of thinking not only benefits his students, but the environments they inhabit too. In that sense, the temple’s influence extends way beyond its walls.

“This is my job, I will never stop,” he says. “In London, I teach a lot of people. I always tell them, ‘You learn Shaolin fighting skill, but it’s not for fighting.’ You should use your skill to stop fighting, stop the bad things. Stop the war, stop the anger. Control yourself. Be peace, be compassion, be humble. That is what Shaolin martial arts is for.”

Follow Niall Flynn on Twitter.

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