The start of this kung fu training camp begins just before dawn, with a group of 9 figures huddling on top of a hill in the cold, as they wait for the first warm glow of dawn to appear on the horizon. Across the valley we can discern the silhouettes of hills rising out of the clouds that blanket the deep valleys. The moon is still bright in the sky. We hear dogs barking as packs set off for the morning hunt and lights in distant houses appear. The world is waking up and this is light enough! We set off down the hill for the morning run, descending quickly into the valley below.
I must admit that I wasn’t there that morning solely for the exercise. I was there for the adventure of scurrying past a stone fortress in the dark while the moon was still high, for the shock of fresh air, for seeing our companions ahead running down into the clouds below and disappearing from sight. I was even there for the slow return up the hill, when on looking back I could then see the sun rising above the skyline, revealing the hills and valleys of beautiful Umbria.
A fortress has stood on top of this hill in the Umbrian countryside since the 11th century, and it was to be home again for another martial group over the next week, for our annual kung fu camp. There were fifteen of us, some very young, others, well, older, I wouldn’t want to speculate as that always gets me into trouble, but it was a trip for all ages and all skill levels.
Our days began with a morning run, see above, or a suang yang session for those who wanted to warm up at a slower pace. After breakfast, when the sun had risen fully, we trained on the terrace beside the pool. We were working on the foundations of our kung fu, which every beginner knows is the feet, but slightly more seasoned practitioners like myself have an embarrassing tendency to forget. After we had refreshed ourselves and were suitably humbled, we worked on our patterns, peppering our stoic instructor with questions and requests to teach us more moves. Some learnt their very first pattern, others progressed to higher ones, and I myself was relieved to learn there is in fact a light at the end of the tunnel that is fifth pattern.
Food is an integral part of any training schedule and there was no shortage of that. We took our meals at a farm restaurant in a neighbouring valley, a place where it was technically impossible to leave hungry. Lunch consisted of four courses, at dinner sometimes five, served in the slow Italian style where each meal is an event to be savoured and time well spent. I had never cared for pasta in the past, but it turned out I had simply never had ‘proper’ pasta, and we all found no difficulty eating vast quantities of it, alongside home grown vegetables, generous shavings of seasonal truffles, and plenty of prosciutto for my more carnivorously inclined comrades.
After eating, it was back to training. As part of our schedule for the week we were introduced to the subtle art of push hands, a skill that requires a discipline beyond the aggression and speed that can characterise the hard style. We attempted to understand and sense the minute tipping points in the balance and stance of our partner and how to take advantage of it. It’s a skill that can take decades to master, so I’m relieved I got to make a start on it sooner rather than later.
Our training was punctuated by a trip out into the local area, to the nearby town of Citta di Castello, where we explored its markets and cafes. Such a trip also afforded us the sight of a legendary white truffle, one of the most expensive foods in the world per gram which we feared would surely be too terrifying to eat? We put rest to that notion at the following lunch where we dined enthusiastically on a truffle cheese fondue and thought nothing of ordering a second.
If I found any element of the trip ‘difficult’, it wasn’t the morning run or attempting to fit vast quantities of food into my stomach, it was ignoring the view to concentrate on my training. The terrace on which we trained looked out over another aspect of the surrounding countryside, more wooded hills, some with farms on top, some towns, one with a convent which lit a bright blue cross at night that could be seen from miles around. I grew up in a very flat part of the world, so any landscape feature with a slight incline is mesmerising. There are few places I would happily get up so early for, but this is certainly one of them.
Before embarking on this trip, several family members and friends asked why a martial arts club would go abroad to train? After taking this trip I came to understand that there was a value in taking my training out of the context that time and repetition of circumstances had placed it.
Training each week in the same hall, facing the same wall, does have its limitations on the imagination, despite our best efforts. Those stacked chairs have died a thousand deaths as our imagined foes, that mark on the wall that looks a bit like a face has parried hundreds of blows. How would my kung fu fare out of this safe and familiar context? How would training be different if I began without a day’s worth of work and stress already stacked against me?
This trip was restorative, to both the mind and the body. Having such time and space to dedicate to kung fu is a luxury that I appreciated wholeheartedly. Having nothing to worry about in the day but getting my stance into shape and whether the puppies from the neighbouring farm would visit again is such a weight off the mind that it made space for new understandings and expressions in my kung fu. I hope I improved technically, but the most noticeable difference for me was my attitude and the new understanding that a week of intensive training can in fact be a restful holiday from which you return refreshed.