My experience with Shaolin-Do
Hey guys, I've been a long time lurker of these forums and really appreciate your efforts to cut the bullshit out of martial arts because there is FAR too much of it nowadays. I've been reading a few of the recent threads about shaolin-do and thought I'd share my personal experience with the school.
I attended Chinese Shaolin Center in Boulder, CO (web site: shao-lin.com) religiously for about 3 years. Chinese Shaolin Center is a chain of schools throughout the western US (the first school in Denver and Boulder being their second school) started by 8th degree black belts David & Sharon Soard who started training with Sin The about 30 years ago in Kentucky. They used to be listed next to Bill Leonard on the shaolindo web site (shaolin-do.com/masters/index.shtml) as the 2nd group of people to test to 8th black but have mysteriously disappeared from the site, more on that later.
I've loved watching kung fu movies my entire life so naturally was looking for an "authentic" school to train kung fu at so I could beat up 20 or 30 people at a time just like in the movies. At first I was overwhelmed and excited by the vast amount of material they taught. They start you off in the lower belt levels with a good amount of practical self defense techniques that probably have nothing to do with kung fu. We trained extensively on these against "live" opponents and they do in fact work, and are pretty much identical to the self defense techniques I've seen taught at many other schools. There's also a set of 30 "short forms" that you learn and are supposed to be able to drill in under 3 minutes by the time you get to 3rd degree brown belt. Finally, there were the lower belt long forms which included a couple weapons. By the time I reached 3rd brown I knew 6 long forms, 30 short forms and 39 self defense techniques.
I was extremely psyched to reach brown belt because at that point the majority of the new material I learned was more complex long forms in various animal & weapon styles. I learned 15 of these over the 3 degrees of brown belt which I tested over to reach 1st black.
Anyway, I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail over these specifics because it's not the intent of this thread. I would rather attempt to be as objective as possible and share all the pros and cons of training at this school.
The masters were very big on showing applications of various techniques and incorporating them into sparring. They saw the forms as "blueprints" of techniques which were worthless unless practiced in a sparring situation. We spent a good amount of time (stand up) sparring and it was always my favorite part of kung fu class.
My FAVORITE part of the entire system was tai chi class because I fucking love tai chi. I'm not expecting to beat anyone up with chi fireballs but doing chi kung postures centers and relaxes me and I always practice them before big tests or high pressure situations.
I Chin Ching postures. I think the argument that Damo invented them is lacking, but it doesn't change the fact that they've helped my tendon & muscle strength greatly as well as my flexibility. If you haven't heard of I Chin Ching, they're basically like Yoga postures except with more emphasis on conditioning. Admitedly I don't have much experience at Yoga and am currently looking for a good teacher or school to see how I Chin Ching measures up to serious Yoga.
Black belt outdoor conditioning is a fucking blast. It's the most brutal workout I've ever had in my life and generally breaks every student in attendance, including the ones who have been going for years. The conditioning (especially by master sharon, who loved to get really intense about it) was definitely a huge pro for me.
The self defense techniques work in a variety of real life situations. I've had drunk people who are larger than me take swings at concerts and I had no problem handling myself on my feet. Granted, these were untrained fighters and there was nothing special about kung fu in these cases because I would have reacted similarly regardless.
The more advanced forms are very fun. I seriously doubt most of their practicality but they are damn fun to learn and practice. More about this under "cons."
Cons (this is going to be a lot longer than "pros")
The classes are generally HUGE and extremely overcrowded with barely enough space for everyone to stretch & warm up at the same time. During the summer when we can do forms outside in the parking lot it's not as bad, but the space inside is never sufficient.
Classes are always on "shaolin time" which is a euphamism for "really fucking late." Nothing ever starts on time, and generally "on time" for a 7:00pm class is about 7:30, though I waited an hour or longer for a class to start more times than I can remember. The instructers and senior students play it off like it's no big deal, but it IS if you have other things going on in your life that you want to be on time to. For the last year I was there I showed up at least 30 minutes later than scheduled for every class I attended and was rarely "late."
The material taught above the lower belt (pre brown belt) level seems completely impractical to me and I would never use it in a fight. As a student progresses to higher and higher levels, the forms they learn resemble complex coreographed dances. They're nice to watch, and MAYBE if you spent a lifetime training in one specific style you could use it effectively in a fight, but they're not martial arts. For many students this wasn't necessarily a con because they were more interested in the tradition but for me it was because I joined kung fu to learn a MARTIAL art, not a dancing art. I am not claiming to be able to defeat the 5th & 6th degree black belts who have been training for 15 years or more, but I believe the reason they could defeat me has nothing to do with the dozens of esoteric forms they learn and everything to do with the 15 years they've spent practicing sparring and conditioning.
Everything about shaolin-do, from our local school to the chain of CSCs (chinese shaolin centers) to the shaolin-do organization seems to attract drama and politics which really irritates me. There's apparently some type of feud between Bill Leonard (the other 8th degree black) and the Soards and it might have something to do with them not being listed on the SD site anymore. I come to class to train and improve under the instruction of people more advanced and more wise than me, not to hear about bullshit drama that I couldn't give a **** about. There was drama between the students (which probably had something to do with 95% of the female students dating male students), drama between students & the masters and drama between the masters. That type of thing really lowers my opinion of the people who are supposed to be above this kind of thing as a result of years of hard training.
Most of the people at my school were extremely self-righteous about their training, and this was at every level of advancement from white or yellow belt to 3rd degree black belt. Only at the higher levels (4th degree and above) did the students seem to be more level headed and less self-involved about how superior they are because they know kung fu. That's not to say that ALL the students were like this, but far too many were. Many of the serious students had literally NOTHING going else in their lives and basically relied on kung fu to form their personal identity, which I don't see as healthy. In addition, the popular hobby of the masters and students was to talk trash about every martial art that isn't "shaolin" (including & especially wushu).
As you all know, the lineage of SD is extremely dubious. I think you guys are more informed about this than me, so I won't go into too much detail but suffice to say, we are told many MANY stories about Sin The & the previous grandmasters that are obviously bullshit. The masters also love to re-tell false urban legends that anyone who has been using the internet for more than a year knows are false, and passing them off as genuine stories. There is also far too much chi wizardry going on.
Training ANY other martial art is looked down upon, and just finding out that a student was also learning another art (such as aikido, kickboxing or BJJ) was grounds for permanent expulsion from the school. Until I realised how vastly the students overrated kung fu as a fighting style (and the insecurity about how it would stand up to other trained fighters) I didn't understand this mentality at all. Any student competing in ANY type of competition is forbidden (because the art is "far too deadly"), and showing moves to your friends or even videotaping them is forbidden.
Absolutely no useful grappling or ground fighting is taught up to 1st black. Sweeps and arm/leg scissors are taught, but there is no training or sparring where both opponents are on the ground, and I find this to be a HUGE hole in one's ability to defend himself.
After a couple months at 1st black my doubts & critiques were far too large for me to continue training in good conscience. I think there are people who have been there 10 years or more who are not deluded at all about what they are learning and know, and are just really into kung fu and that's cool, but at the same time I think there's far more people who have been there 10 years or more who SEVERELY overestimate their fighting abilities, especially since the most "ground fighting" you learn is sweeps and when someone is swept in sparring their partner politely waits for them to get back up. I could go into a lot more detail about the specific problems I had with SD but if I did that I'd be late for my BJJ class. I just started about a week ago and am loving it so far! I continue to study martial arts because I want to learn how to fight effectively, not do fancy-looking drunken & sword forms and so far BJJ is living up to all of that.
If you have any questions for me or about SD ask away and I'll be happy to answer them when I get back.