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Ancient arts of self-defense: combination of physical exercise and spiritual focus
Updated: 2004-03-22 09:03

Modern urbanites have discovered that the ancient arts of self-defense, with their combination of physical exercise and spiritual focus, make for an excellent workout. Reporter Xu Wei meets a British personal trainer who bring the old-fashioned one-to-one teacher-student relationship to his martial arts students.

In the spacious confines of the Chinafit Health Club, Richard Brown is drilling a student in the rigors of kickboxing.

His fiery eyes are the mirror to an intense energy that threatens to bubble over any minute, a drive that is summed up on the back of his T-shirt: ``Go hard or go home!'' The British personal trainer, who is in his 30s, offers private sessions in all types of martial arts, including kickboxing, karate, qigong (a method of breathing), and tai chi. Brown, who studied sports science in England, began martial arts training a decade ago. The potential for work in his related field brought him to Hong Kong, where he set up a gym with friends. When his fiancee relocated here last December, Brown followed. But while romance brought him here, Brown is the first to acknowledge that Shanghai is also full of opportunity for him.

``Since personal training here is not as common as it is in foreign countries, I'm trying to bring a fresh, different and practical fitness concept to Shanghai,'' he says. He performs a flying side kick, an animated punch and even the meditation of qigong. His flowing moves and focused expression bring to mind the image of Neo in the ``Matrix'' series. Nancy Yu, a client who has worked with Brown for the past four years from Hong Kong to Shanghai, explains why she prefers personal training when it comes to exercise. ``When I'm exercising on the treadmill or elliptical cross trainers, I have to face cold machines,'' she explains. ``But it's totally different with an experienced and energetic personal trainer standing by, constantly pushing me to improve.'' Yu's job, with an international financial company, keeps her both busy and stressed, and the workouts with Brown are, she says, ``quite an efficient method for stress relief.''

``In addition, I also get the benefit of Brown's rich knowledge of sports science which he shares to help me better understand the workout and his training,'' she says. The ability of a personal trainer to tailor a program to each individual's specific needs, goals and demands is another facet of its appeal. And as new interests and needs emerge, they, too, can be satisfied. ``I've turned to Brown for help with training in both marathons and tennis,'' says Yu. ``He gave me an extra short-term exercise plan which helped a great deal.'' But for Brown, creating a workout, even a short-term one, is a time-consuming process. It begins with a conversation with the client. ``I have a few things to figure out: whether the clients have had injuries before, what kind of injuries and so on,'' he says.

``Once I've done that, I can make a specific workout for each individual.'' Brown offers an explanation on the basic techniques of exercise and stretching, and even the principle of muscle movement during training, encouraging students to learn to listen to their bodies, rather than blindly following him. And Brown also adds his passion for Asian culture to his training, incorporating a spiritual aspect into his martial arts training.

``In addition to strengthening the body, sharpening the mind and building a spirit that refuses to quit, mental calmness and relaxation are the highest level of benefits brought about by martial arts,'' says Yu. ``But it does require deep devotion and complete concentration.'' Like Yu, most personal training clients are after stress relief, fitness and a trim figure. Although personal training is still not widely practiced in Shanghai, Brown is not the city's sole personal trainer.

Zhang Yi, a personal trainer at Megafit Fitness Center, says that personal trainers are in rising demand nowadays. ``Many of my clients also ask me for tips to keep fit and healthy,'' Zhang says. ``It's a wise approach in this relentless rat race of modern life. Why not trust the trainer who is familiar with your body, your weaknesses and your physical potential? But it's important to remember that a good athlete does not always make a good personal trainer.''

Zhang's words are echoed by Brown, who agrees that without the ability to transfer his knowledge to others, even the martial arts champion is not a good trainer. ``The trainer must build up mutual trust with his clients,'' Brown explains. ``Always question, always listen and always have something to learn. Knowledge is infinite.'' Brown himself also has diplomas in clinic acupuncture and manual therapy. ``That's another part of my position,'' Brown adds.

``When someone is good at teaching martial arts, he usually knows how to heal. I'm trying to combine the two.'' And sometimes Brown has to be a psychologist, as well, as emotions are tightly entwined with health. ``My sessions once helped an Indian girl stand up to her father, and marry a man of her own choosing,'' Brown smiles. ``I'm trying to build up the self-confidence in my students that may help them to do better in their own lives.'' Beginning at the gyms of five-star hotels in the early 1990s, personal training in Shanghai spread to independent gyms within two to three years. But the cost of personal training -- around 300 yuan (US$36) per hour, cheaper than that in other countries but still more expensive than training with a group at a gym -- has slowed its growth in popularity among local fitness buffs. ``I can't afford that,'' says Zhang Yue, a local marketing employee. ``I know that personal training is popular overseas, but it seems like a luxury to me. Group aerobics is much cheaper.'' Brown, however, points out that cost is relative.

``Quality should be the determining factor,'' he says.

``Even a tiny difference between the right and wrong pose can lead to injury.'' Group teaching, he explains, leaves the trainer little time to point out and correct the mistakes of every member of the class, resulting in a less effective exercise. And, as he points out, there is the pragmatic fact that the relatively high cost of personal training will stimulate both the trainers and the students to be serious and diligent.

``With people's rising living standards and demands for good health, I hold an optimistic attitude about the prospect of personal training,'' Brown says with a smile. On Martial Arts Unlike most Western approaches to health and fitness, the methods of martial arts do not separate the body and the mind.

Self-control and concentration develop along with physical skills, and both children and adults develop self-discipline and perseverance through regularly training.

Respect for others and a greater sense of self-esteem may also develop from training with partners and testing your limits and abilities with friends and fellow students. It is important to remember that learning martial arts does not make you invincible.

Whatever style you choose could train you to have better discipline and good health. Learning self-defense is one thing, applying it to real life is another.

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