Can you break a spear across your neck? What about balance your bodyweight on two fingers? Smash iron bars over your head? Matthew Ahmet can, because he’s the first ever British Shaolin monk, and that’s what Shaolin monks do (among other things). We caught up with him and attempt to balance our inner Qigong.
Why did you decide to become a Shaolin monk?
Like a lot of young boys, I was always interested in martial arts – Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and that sort of thing, and when I was 11, I was invited along to see the original Shaolin theatre show, The Shaolin Wheel of Life. It really inspired me – seeing these guys live on stage was amazing. It blew me away and gave me this dream to study Chinese martial arts and travel to China to the Shaolin Temple.
When I was 16 I wasn’t really happy with school. This idea to go to China had stuck with me all throughout my education and I thought then was the time to follow it through. So I ended up flying out to China where I spent about four years training. It was very intense, waking up at 5.30am, running up mountains, crawling back down on my hands and knees, doing headstands on concrete for hours on end. I progressed quickly and ten years after I saw the show I was chosen to be the first and only non-Chinese Shaolin warrior in that same show.
Is Shaolin kung fu a good way to keep fit?
Kung fu is more a way of life than it is exercise. The philosophy of Shaolin is to create longevity, positivity and happiness for yourself, and I think there’s a confusion in the Western world, where exercise has become almost a chore, where you choose to do it. You don’t choose to eat, you don’t choose to sleep, but you choose to exercise. However, it should be for everyone, and kung fu is very much that: it’s a way of life, where the exercise element is peppered throughout the day with meditation, stretching, jogging, walking, forms and movements which are inspired by animals and wildlife. It’s a very creative and uplifting practice.
What does it teach you about discipline?
Any exercise is a form of discipline – through achieving your goals, setting yourself a target and so on. Discipline comes into play when you reach a stage where you train and exercise not necessarily for pure enjoyment. Shaolin kung fu gives you that discipline. You don’t just get to pick the days you have fun – you have to go through the whole process and complete that puzzle. That kind of discipline is very much taught and required to practice kung fu.
How long before you’ll see results?
With kung fu, you’ll see results after pretty much the first day – often the mindset will change instantly, and with that mindset you’ll see how quickly you can make progress. It’s about understanding that you’re always going to be progressing and kung fu is a way in which you can achieve those progressions. A thing I often say is “NOW”, meaning “No Opportunities Wasted” – it’s about taking every one you have and getting the most out of it.
How painful is learning Shaolin kung fu?
Good question! There’s 168 hours in a week, and you might sleep for eight to ten hours a day, so it’s all about how many hours you want to put in, and how hard you’re going to work. If you really want to go all out and give 100%, then you’re going to feel pain, but we have a saying: pain is glory. You go through the stages of pain to reach that stage of glory, and without struggle there is no progression.
What about self-defence? How good is Shaolin kung fu in a fight?
With any martial art, there are elements that can be used in self-defence. We don’t specifically train for combat but during practice, the movements become so regular that in a situation when you needed to use them, you could definitely defend yourself without a doubt.
When you were training at the temple, what did you miss most about home?
Things like family, obviously, but you also miss the smaller things like hot water, showers, beds and electricity. We were sometimes living in huts the size of a garages, with no windows, no running water, no electricity, just light that came in from outside.
If there’s no hot water or heating and there’s three foot of snow, it is cold. But when I came back to the UK, I appreciated this simplicity of life and found it added value to my life, just by understanding. On the map, the UK is just a tiny speck, and there’s all these other countries around you and people live completely differently to us – it’s very valuable to understand that, and it gives you a powerful purpose in your life when you see the other way.
What’s the greatest feat of strength that you’ve witnessed?
One of the things that really inspired me about the Wheel of Life show was the one-finger handstand. Bruce Lee could do a press-up using a finger and a thumb on one hand, and he made that famous, but then I saw a guy support his whole body weight on just one finger on each hand, and I was blown away. In that moment, it wasn’t something I thought I’d ever be able to do, but one of the reasons I was chosen to be part of the show was because I was the only person in the group who could do the one-finger handstand.
Recently I’ve been kicked off my block by one of my young students who’s just 13 years old – he wakes up every day before school and he can do the one- finger handstand. He’s the second Westerner, and I believe the only boy under the age of 15 in the world that can do that. It’s one of the most advanced practices of the Shaolin Qigong.
Finally, what’s your favourite martial arts film ever?
I would have to say Wheels On Meals with Jackie Chan. He’s one of my favourite martial artists – he trained at the Beijing Opera, and the training they undergo is very similar to Shaolin. They live on site for years on end, from when they’re young children, and they are made to train between eight and ten hours every single day. His level of expertise is very high.
The breathtaking new show SHAOLIN from the Shaolin Monks is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.
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