Breathe in and draw down into dan tien. Breathe out, up the back, then out into the arms as the elbows lift almost imperceptibly. I stand in the first posture of the Shaolin I Jin Jing on a hard packed dirt practice area, looking down on the Shaolin temple. It is 102o and the sweat flows more easily than the chi that I am trying to circulate. Through a small gap in the trees, I see the temple entrance gate framed in evergreen. Focus, stop seeing and work on the circulation. Make each breath the center of my world. But the mind is weak and begins to wander.

Behind me I hear footsteps. Feet stomping on the packed dirt, they stir the dust that drifts past my shoulders and mingles with my breath. They slap against hands as kicks are practiced in succession. They scrape the ground as sweeps serpentine in procession. I can’t see them, but I know each of their movements. These are the movements of the warm up drills taught at the Shaolin temple. Forty to fifty minutes of kicks, stance manipulations and dynamic stretches designed to push the body and prepare it for the days lessons. I know these well as I have done them two times a day, for each day that my travels have allowed me to practice at Shaolin over the years. But not this year.

Was that the 21st breath? Get control of you mind or you are wasting your time. Five more breaths to be sure and now the arms move from the Universal Post to extend out at the sides with the palms up. I feel circulation now, ….try to hold the feeling. There is no fatigue, only calm. But I hear footsteps…

The smack of the shoe against the hand tears at my heart. My students are behind me, extolling each other on through what feels like endless passes in the 102o heat. I ache. I want only to turn around and take my place in line, to share the work with them. But here I stand, a stone amongst the trees. A 49 year old breathing stone, working the inside while my students work the outside.
Life dealt me a card at birth (hip dysplasia) that my body now plays out as arthritis. I have made peace with this but when I returned to train in China in the Summer of 06 with 10 of my students, changes had to be made. I trained hard on the external arts at all of our other stops (although I kicked low and swallowed a bit more ibuprofen), but when it came to Shaolin, I knew I had to cut back. Here I opted for internal training. It was time to put more effort into balancing this part of my training. But I hear footsteps.

This time it is not my students. This time it is the echo of footsteps that have pounded this dirt long before we have. Those footsteps killed the grass in this glade, beating it down until long ago it agreed to never grow here again. There is strength in those footsteps. Time invested, skill gained and when they started their day, they stood motionless as I do now.

My arms feel fuller now, no longer heavy as I hold them extended to the sides. Inhale, exhale as the arms are lowered. Inhale as they draw up in front of the body and exhaling I press them upward to support the sky.

There is peace here among these trees; peace of mind and peace of spirit. But still I hear footsteps…… my students’footsteps in the dirt. A smile rises with the breeze and I realize that I hear another set of footsteps. Echoed in the footsteps of my students are the years that I have drilled, the repetitions that I have done, and the knowledge I have gained. The seeds of my work bear fruit in them. Echoed in the footsteps of my students, … I hear my own.
Inhale…. Exhale… change…

Steve Matchett

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