“How hard can it be?” is one of our favourite questions. It prefixes many of the training challenges we have done, and is based on presumptions of strength and fitness that we (almost) take for granted. But physical condition should not be. After the vanities of testing VO2 max a couple of weeks ago, we spent some happy time at the next training camp testing all those who wanted to give it a go. Nobody beat Instructor Adam Prout’s score of 74 (with grumbles from the purists insisting it’s not a “proper” test) though the youngsters now have boasting rights about their “superior” scores. But “how hard can it be?” is a different question for people who are mostly glad to breathe without too much difficulty. And so here is Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s account of his Kung Fu journey with FWC London South.
“Breathing and eating. Maybe two of the most important principles behind Kung Fu. OK, sinking lower in your stance first, then breathing and eating. For most people it’s a simple place to begin: breathe deeply, eat well; learn to generate and direct your energy as a consequence. Everything else can be built on these basic foundations.
Not so much for me – I have cystic fibrosis. CF is a genetically inherited disease, and I was diagnosed at six months’ old. It’s not that uncommon. There are 9,000 of us cystics in the UK, and about 100,000 around the world. Like other genetic illnesses, CF springs from a glitch in my DNA. This one gets its kicks by making my body produce more and thicker mucus than it should. This has serious knock-on effects all over the place, since mucus of one form or another is used all round the body. The worst-hit areas are the lungs and digestive system: the pancreatic ducts (where enzymes are produced for digesting fat and protein) become blocked and stop working; gunk-filled lungs become a haven for infections, leading to a progressive (and ultimately irreversible) loss in lung function over time.
Any student of Kung Fu will be aware of how its benefits ripple throughout their body. CF works somewhat in reverse: poor breathing and poor digestion lead to all sorts of secondary problems. One example among many: vitamin D, which helps with calcium uptake and therefore bone density, is fat soluble and so especially difficult for me to absorb; among my 10 or so daily medications are calcium and vitamin D supplements to counteract this. And with those protein enzymes not working properly don’t even talk to me about muscle gain.
I originally took up Kung Fu to help improve my lung function. In 2009 I spent two weeks in hospital getting over a chest infection. That’s not an unusual occurrence for a cystic but this was my first admission in nearly a decade, and my wife, understandably anxious given that we had just started a family, put her foot down. It was time to start taking some structured exercise. She had a family connection to the FWC Club, and so I began training. It certainly seems to have had the desired effect. I’ve not been back to hospital since, and recently my consultant calculated that my lung capacity was the largest it had been in seven years.
Other benefits are harder to measure, but I keep finding new ones. Learning how to breathe deeply from my stomach, rather than with the high, shallow breaths that a lung condition encourages, is no doubt a big one. And although I’ve had some (unrelated) back issues recently, the improvements to my posture have also helped, I’m sure. Then there is the work on bone conditioning (all those bruised forearms …) and the new-found respect for diet. Plus, I also have an ace up my sleeve at every hospital check-up when my physio asks “and what exercise do you do …?”
The benefits of Kung Fu to CF are big, and obvious. But that doesn’t make it easy. If you’re looking to lose weight the answers are also obvious: eat less and exercise more. Yet plenty of people struggle with these simple rules. Training can be just as tricky. Come to class regularly, and many things will get better. But as soon as it starts to feel like part of my regular treatment (and I have plenty of that already), it starts to feel like a chore. Part of my own personal training is about getting my head in the right place so that I can feel like I’m doing it for myself, not for my condition. And being in a class and knowing that your limits, your capabilities, are 10, 20 percent lower than those of your fellow students can be a tough pill to swallow.
I’m still working on that, I admit. But then you dig deeper and Kung Fu has an answer here too . Because unlike, say, running marathons or playing squash, the competition in Kung Fu is not against your fellow students but against yourself. My instructor Richard explained it to me once in terms of digging your own well as deep as you can and filling it up. Other people’s wells have nothing to do with it; it’s all about making sure yours is the biggest it can be.
And when things are going right, nothing beats the feeling of coming home from class, breathing deeply and cleanly, and stuffing myself with whatever is in the fridge. Breathing and eating, working as they should.”
Tim might feel that his capabilities are lower than his fellow students but capabilities come in many forms. When we tested VO2 max some people were a bit taken aback that they did not appear to be as fit as they thought, but that’s not really the point. It’s what you do with your potential that matters, and having a firm grip on the realities of your potential is an important cornerstone of progress. The history of Kung Fu is littered the invincible beaten by the vincible who dared to ask “How hard can it be…?”.
Photo of dandelion taken by FWC Instructor Sharon Ngo – “Roots as tough as rope, Seeds as light as air”