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Two months into my kung fu journey, I somehow booked onto a week of living and training with complete strangers, all with years (and years) of training ahead of me. Brave adventure? Reckless use of limited holidays? Fair enough.

Landing late on Monday night, Jason, Marc and I relied on What3Words to navigate the less-than-ideally-signed roads to Lise’s house. Complete darkness blanketed the countryside, leaving us to imagine what the morning sun would reveal (Italy, hopefully) and what the week ahead would bring.

Warmly welcomed by Lise’s homemade soup, we gathered around the dining table to introduce ourselves and share our aspirations for the week. Steve had his sights on all 66 movements of Shuang Yang, others for building core strength, beginner’s levitation, and so on. Some of the group also apparently held an unspoken yet shared ambition to throw Theo into the pool. All worthy goals, naturally. As for me? I simply wanted to learn something more about kung fu and practice for foundation grading (the first one, yes…).

I woke up late on the first morning (sorry, Dave) and missed the start of our daily Shuang Yang. The only other option we were allowed was to go for a run… down and up around 20 floors. But even that unforgiving hill could be forgiven on discovering the spectacular backdrop it made for our training.

Not a postcard.

So how best to train for a week under the Italian summer sun, by a pool overlooking serene, endlessly rolling Umbrian hills interrupted only by joyful birdsong? Dave chose “The Three Wars”.

“I love the smell of qi in the morning” – Dave “Bill Kilgore” Courtney Jones

Our First War would be the physical. We learned the importance of correct technique and, more specifically, to properly engage our joints / joint muscles to deliver an unbroken chain of force. On that first day, Dave demonstrated the opening sequence of Shuang Yang and of Yongchun, and we would return to these patterns each day to apply new teachings.

The Second War was breathing. You just know it’s not going to be as simple as it sounds. After a brief introduction to bagua (the eight trigrams), we enjoyed a period of Heaven and Earth breathing and dantian breathing practices. Following our breath up from our heels (Earth) towards our head (Heaven), our qi gradually became more refined, pure, and light, and, in reverse, more coarse and grounded. Breathing into our dantian (Cinnabar Field) combined these breaths and energies… at least that was the theory. Dave also explained how students of kung fu start out trying to match breath to movements. As we become more proficient, however, it would become more about how you find your breath in the moment and working with that.

Still grieving for my life of wrongful breathing, another curveball hurtled in from Dave: the Third War was consciousness. We were told this was not the same as thinking, but neither was it necessarily not thinking. Right. Drawing on my Buddhist / meditation practice, I took this to mean bringing our awareness to our kung fu (body, movements, etc), and staying as best we could with this sensory input. It was important to not allow the mind, through its thoughts, to layer any (mind made) meaning onto our direct experience. The longer we could maintain this concentration, the better. Dave’s lecture had an immediate impact, as a palpable sense of collective meditation and peace descended over the group’s silent patterns. Stillness in motion (plus one very happy Dave).

Our days largely kept to the same schedule of 6 or so hours of training, punctuated by meals, naps, and tea breaks. This daily repetition, like a meditation retreat, relieves the mind of some mental load (for example, not having to decide what to do). For me, this ease became more and more embodied over the week, allowing me to gather more of myself and my attention into my training.

Charming companions and views at La Miniera di Galparino

But all work and no play would make even Italy a dull place. On most days, we took a breather from training to inhale the simple-yet-delicious Umbrian peasant recipe meals prepared by Chiara and her daughter at La Miniera di Galparino. We spent a sunny Saturday morning exploring the weekend market (and espresso) offerings of local town Città di Castello, where Lise had also arranged a truffle-laden evening feast at Trattoria Lea by a very wholesome children’s festival. Closer to home, we would seek refuge from the Italian summer sun now and then with dips in the pool.

The group made tangible progress on goals this week

Even under our ideal training conditions, however, Dave took time to remind us not to grasp too much for progress (or, perhaps more accurately, our ideas about progress). In training we may find ourselves becoming frustrated or dissatisfied at, say, not performing a technique as well as we feel we previously have. But such change simply means we’re doing something differently – which is progress. And progress is gradual. While we need to strive, have discipline and ambition, it is also important to be able to balance this with acceptance of where we find ourselves right now in our kung fu. He knows a few things, that Dave.

My understanding of the club also made progress over the week. Dave’s passion, knowledge and character inspires all sorts of community. Lise opened up her house to us and surely did countless things in the background for the week to run so smoothly. Theo, Ela & Lise all offered their patient instruction to others throughout the week, including taking Anne for her first staff lesson immediately after her grading. Anne’s grading performance was impressive, not least because she trains with Dave entirely on Zoom from Germany. I learned that Alexei and Yael help out with the Yongchun classes Dave runs for the Claremont Project community. Oriana drove hours from the north to grace us with her company and to train with us for a day. But perhaps the biggest compliment to Dave was the group’s discovery, over pizzas and beers on the balcony, that Theo recalls his life events according to whether they took place before he met Dave (B.D.) or after he met Dave (A.D.). In the land of the Catholic Church, no less, this was high praise indeed…

Filial piety, done well

This week delivered more than I could have anticipated as a newcomer. Training with Tiger Crane Kung Fu offers the opportunity to explore Chinese martial arts and culture, personal development and real community. The benefits are holistic in the best sense, in relationship with yourself and with others. What3Words would I offer to anyone navigating the start of their own journey? Learn, practise, realise.