When you find yourself furiously whacking your forehead with a bundle of sticks, let's hope you're at the Shaolin Temple in Tufnell Park.
Before we get onto the self-flagellation, a little background on the building the temple resides in: it used to be Junction Road railway station, a stop on what's now the London Overground line between Gospel Oak and Barking (affectionately known as the GOBLIN). The station lay between Gospel Oak and Upper Holloway and is the subject of a characteristically upbeat John Betjeman poem entitled Suicide on Junction Road Station after Abstention from Evening Communion in North London.
The station was closed in 1943 after the nearby Tufnell Park station opened on the Northern line. The temple came along in 2001, the last time the building was up for sale. It'll hope that recent calls to reopen the station won't come to fruition.
We were curious to know what attracted people to kung fu and the Shaolin lifestyle. Growing up we'd always associated kung fu with Bruce Lee movies and the music of Wu Tang Clan. And talking to Elliott — who works at Shaolin Temple and trained here for many years — that's the initial jumping off point for most people.
Yet although that's what drew him to the temple, it's not what he stuck around for. Instead, qi gong — an ancient Chinese health care system based around flexibility, core strength and meditation — was where Elliott's attention shifted. We'll come to our own experience with qi gong soon, but in layman's terms it's a a kind of ancient Chinese yoga. With self-flagellation.
Shaolin Temple offers two classes most nights, a meditation and qi gong session, followed by a more traditional kung fu session. The temple's demographic has changed, as Tufnell Park had changed around it. Qi gong and the like are now practised widely by those who've gentrified the area. Not that Elliott views this as a positive or negative thing, rather just an aspect of life.
It was time to get hands on. First came meditation. We're rather fidgety, so this could have gone better. It proved difficult to focus on breathing with trains constantly rattling by. Elliott had told us that meditation went hand in hand with physical training (there was no way we'd be mastering this today). After a seemingly eternal half an hour, we moved onto the qi gong... which is where the real difficulties began.
The lesson started with some simplistic core exercises we could just about keep up with, and even a move akin to Goku from Dragon Ball Z's kamehameha, which roused a sense of childhood joy. Then the instructor spoke those five fateful words. "Now we do the splits."
Then the instructor spoke those five fateful words. "Now we do the splits."
As low as we could go, the distance between our legs was still at rather an acute angle. When the instructor wandered over, we gave him a look, appealing to his sense of pity... suddenly we felt our legs kicked further apart. After that, everything was a struggle, John Betjeman's poem popping into our mind on more than one occasion.
The act of hitting ourselves turned out to be our favourite part of either class. Apparently it's an energy massage (though this wasn't made clear at the time) and begins with the class slapping each part of their body with their palm, before moving onto the brush. Despite straying too close to a delicate region a few times, it turned out to be a pretty painless, almost enjoyable experience.
It was time for the next class to drain our joy.
The trendy qi gong crowd seemed to have scarpered. Instead, here for the kung fu class, was a group who'd been drawn in by those Bruce Lee movies, and the ever increasing popularity of MMA.
Journalistic integrity was at stake and we didn't feel we could cover the Shaolin Temple without both experiences. On we went. The second class started with some similar aspects of the first, the core holds and damned splits. This time our legs weren't kicked apart, so either the instructor had decided to take pity on us, or has forever widened our stance. Then we practised kicking as high as possible — at alarming pace.
Either the instructor had decided to take pity on us, or has forever widened our stance.
At this point we employed a trick from our school days — trying to do as little in PE classes as possible. Every time the instructor looked away we stood still, desperately trying to catch our breath. No, we're not proud, but to adopt the oft-quoted wartime phrase: "I did what I had to, to survive."
Then it was time for a drill where we'd try and string some punches and blocks together. This had a rhythmic quality to it; when we moved in the right direction with the rest of the class it felt amazing... though it meant we looked like a real sore thumb the few times we didn't.
Finally, a (brief) fling with sparring. Here, we made a miraculous discovery — we're weren't the only ones dead on out feet. Our partner seemed to have as little behind his punches as us... if punches is the right term. Rather, it was like falling towards each other with our hands in front of us, followed by lengthy pauses.
It turned out our partner, whose name we've shamefully forgotten (possibly a sign we were in pure survival mode at this point), was also a relative newcomer to kung fu. For him, it turned out, kung fu was just one in a long line of martial arts he'd tried before falling out of practise. Perhaps Shaolin Temple was the place to get back into it. Although, judging by his punches, perhaps not.
Ultimately our fitness had let us down, though considering we did back-to-back classes that's not surprising. Shaolin Temple is an outpost for the tradition of Shaolin culture, catering to both young and old, those who can do the splits and those who can't. And just when you feel you're about to collapse from exhaustion, you discover it's got a vegetarian restaurant too.
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All photos by the author unless specified.