In this exclusive interview, we bring you Shaolin Kung-fu Master, Shifu Yan Lei (‘Lei’ meaning ‘thunder’) a 34th generation fighting disciple. He is among the most respected and renowned teachers of authentic Shaolin.
Many people think the term “Kung Fu” relates only to Chinese martial arts, but it has a far wider meaning. Shifu Yan Lei says, “‘Kung Fu’ literally means ‘hard work’, for example, for a virtuoso violin player their playing is their kung fu. They cannot learn violin in a year, neither can a person learn kung fu in a year. It takes time but it is worth it.” Our philosophy at Kung-fu Kingdom is the same as we endeavour to cover all ‘kung-fu’ styles and systems.
Shifu Yan Lei is well known for his teachings in Shaolin Steel Jacket, Sanshou fighting and Qi Gong and is highly respected for his frank, direct, no-nonsense approach. His mission is to help people get straight to the heart of training, helping them realise their physical and mental potentials without wasting valuable time and energy.
He is physically formidable too, built like a tank with legs like tree trunks! He’s been described by Men’s Fitness as: a physique that has been cut from solid jade. His presence certainly leaves you with a sense of respect and awe at the level of intense commitment to his art.
We also take a moment to talk about his film “The Turtle and the Sea”.
Please read on for more of the impressionable Shifu’s words of wisdom as he gives us some incredible perspectives and deep extended insights on his experience as a Shaolin Warrior, his philosophy, life and training.
We hope this article inspires, awakens and invigorates you to heightened levels of awareness, and gratitude for the gifts you have and, by extension, to increased levels of health and vitality. May you be free to enjoy the positive, enriching and meaningful life you deserve!
Greetings Shifu, nice to meet you!
Good to meet you Raj.
So, let’s get into a bit of background if we may. When were you born and whereabouts do you come from in China?
I was born in 1973 into a big family in Xin Jiang the biggest province in Western China (which has very clear cut seasons!). I am the youngest of seven, three brothers and three sisters.
What is your height and weight?
I am 5’6″ (1.68m) tall and weigh 68-72kg.
How did you first get into the martial arts? How old were you?
I was about 9 years old and I had seen Jet Li’s movie “Shaolin Temple” it was very popular when it came out!
Did you play sports much back then?
As kids we did wrestle. In addition, once a week there might be football, basketball and so on but they weren’t so popular back then.
When did you join the Shaolin Temple?
I joined when I was 14 years old in 1987. It was my decision but my family didn’t want me to go there. They wanted rather that I study hard academically and get a good job. That works out for some but not for all. I felt more attracted to the martial arts. So, my parents disagreed yet I told my father I had to go, I seriously begged him to let me go! One day my father took me to the station and from then my martial arts journey started.
How many years have you been practicing?
I’ve been training from 14 until now, so, 26-27 years.
Describe your time training at the Shaolin Temple, what did your martial studies consist of?
Basically it was like being in the army; wake up, training, eating and sleeping. You keep doing the same things everyday until your skill improves then you go to the next level. I didn’t think it was hard but sometimes just monotonous.
You had to do what you were taught, that was the hardest thing. It wasn’t fun that you couldn’t just go and do whatever you wanted, you had no choice but to follow others’ instructions. Now I understand why having no choice back then for this purpose was actually a good thing.
What kind of training was involved?
The basic kicks, punches, combinations and simple things to give the body good flexibility while preparing your muscle memory to help you do what you need to do. There was running everyday which is fun for a child but also hard work! When you do a thing often it becomes part of your life, your blood.
What is the purpose of such training?
To my mind martial arts means real fighting, if you do martial arts and you can’t actually fight, then to me, that’s not really martial arts. In Thai boxing, or Chinese Sanshou, you have an opponent, you really fight. The performance-based one (with weapons) is different, it’s all about you as an individual and making your movements fast, fancy and beautiful -it’s in effect, martial arts dancing.
Did you go to different gyms and practice other styles?
When I came here to the UK in 2000, I visited different kickboxing dojos to learn. You have to remember that China was still quite closed then, so I didn’t see other martial arts often, not even in the movies! Only the big cities had cinemas, the government controlled things quite a bit.
Are you able to do the more acrobatic moves as in wushu for example?
When I was I child I used to, but I don’t do those things anymore. It’s good as a child to be flexible, confident and be jumping around, it looks cool too! When you really train martial arts though, it’s not about those things. The more soulful you are, the more people can see the energy you have and the effort you put in, you capture people’s hearts. Martial arts gives strong discipline, teaches you to be humble, useful and not to complicate or confuse people. Wushu is in my view more like a kind of martial arts dancing!
Do you practice weapons?
Since I was 18 I’ve not used or practiced weapons, I’m not into weapons. I prefer to make my body my weapon with an array of punches and kicks. I would like this world to be free of war, so my reasoning is we don’t need weapons. If we get angry we may kick a person but we don’t need to kill them, however a knife can kill a person. If a person hasn’t hurt you or your family, you don’t need to cause him permanent injury. In America, everyone has guns and they lose control. Most people who don’t have a gun don’t have such problems. If you lose control, you make a person’s family suffer all their lives from a split second decision to shoot someone.
Which other Shaolin teacher/s have been a positive influence for you?
I’ve learned a lot from my older Shaolin brother Shi Yanzi, who came to London first, then suggested I come here. In some ways he’s my master as well. Even though I have my own fighting style, I’ve learned lots of things from him like fighting, strategy and how to utilise certain techniques.
Who else inspired you?
Bruce Lee. I read his book on Jeet Kune Do a lot as a child, I thought he was really cool. Fighting is about being challenged by at least another person, you need two people to fight. If you don’t punch he will punch you, if you don’t attack him, he will attack you!
So what are your aims in teaching then, what do you teach your students?
My aim is to give people the message that no matter what you want to do in life you need to:
- Have energy and be healthy.
- Know exactly what you want to do.
- Be persistent once you’ve set your goal and don’t give up.
- Not be too easily forgiving of yourself and unforgiving of others, this is the wrong attitude.
I want to say, if you want to get healthier in the martial way, you need to tell yourself, you have to do it! Don’t keep asking why you do things, you just have to get on and do it. In the West, people always ask why we do things, but if you don’t do, I won’t explain. You need to do what you’re asked to do not make excuses, people make too many excuses!
For example if you’re late, don’t make excuses about it. Make sure you’re not late again. If you know your teacher is not going to wait for you, you won’t be late and if you’re late for class, you can’t come in. You need to be punctual.
If you’re taking a train or a plane, you’re not going to be late otherwise you know you’re going to miss your journey, the plane or train isn’t going to just wait for you. On top of that, you may lose your money.
In martial arts you really need to know what you want. Just because you can stay in horse stance for 30 mins means you have certain conditioning but it doesn’t mean you are necessarily really strong. Horse stance by itself you need to ask yourself why you’re doing something. If you want to take heavy kicks, just horse stance isn’t going to help much!
Someone may think they’re really good in forms, but does that mean they can fight? They’re usually not fighters, their training is different.
The real test is to have people kick you, can you take it, do you have staying power and stamina?
You need to be aware of what muscles you’re using and which not to use, along with meditation, you will find that the more relaxed you are, the longer you can keep going. A way of intensifying your training is by challenging yourself against time, for example running 5 km in 20 mins, you have to really push yourself to make it in time, now this is hard training.
I teach people the Shaolin way, the stances, flexibility, stamina, combinations then move onto the next level. I teach qigong classes to get fit and fighting in the more advanced classes. I teach people the movement, they can’t move in exactly the same way as me, so I have to find the way that’s suitable for them. Forms is the same but fighting is different, you have to make the techniques work for them, that’s really hard.
You conducted a Shaolin Summer Camp in China’s Songshan Mountains a few months back, what does this summer camp entail?
Basically, the most important thing is to spread the energy, the qi and bring this into the local area around the Buddhist temples. Everywhere you go, they’re practicing martial arts. I want them to see the real Shaolin martial arts and to feel that energy and so promote it. There are young kids, adults, men and women. It’s like learning English in China, but you can’t speak it because you don’t use it. But when you come to the UK you have to use it!
So, in the same way I want to open people’s eyes in the local area, in the vicinity of the original of Shaolin Temple. I want locals to talk, see and spar with them as well as open their eyes to the real Shaolin, not the movies. We also have another school in China, Shaolin Fighting International.
Do you visit other Shaolin Schools often?
I do go to my brother Shi Yan Ming’s American in New York City school which is quite famous in the US as some of the Wu Tang Clan are his students.
You’ve produced many instructional books and DVD’s on everything from basic kicking and punching to qigong training, can you tell us a little about those?
I’ve produced 18 DVD’s which feature everything from qigong and health to actual fighting . These show real training and real techniques. There’s nothing tricky or complicated there. For beginner’s, a good way to start is with “Shaolin Warrior volume 1”, “Shaolin Workout volume 1”, then you can go on to the more advanced levels 2, 3 etc.
Now let’s talk a little about your movie “Turtle and The Sea”.
It’s a 90 minute long movie by British director, Marek Budzynski. It’s a more personal film based on a real story about me and my partner. The director suggested me to go to get some acting classes, but I said I do martial arts! So, since it’s based on me I didn’t really need to ‘act’ as such, I expressed the meaning of what they wanted me to show, but in my own way. The director said the acting I did actually turned out very well!
We heard this movie is a tribute to your mother?
I want to tell the story of how my mother was really in hospital, we have a chance to get a cross cultural view of other people from other backgrounds of what it means when they say they care.
My mother needed money and couldn’t have an operation and was just waiting to die. In certain countries we may think it’s a joke that someone may die because they can’t pay for an operation, but it’s not a joke, it’s real. Please remember to take responsibility for your life. When you have something you don’t appreciate it, when you lose it then you appreciate it. In this country we have a lot of advantages which other people don’t have and people still say their life is awful, it’s not awful! Realise that it’s much much better than other peoples’ you just don’t realise what you have and often people are too greedy and don’t want to make an effort.
So, in this story, this main character needed to come to the UK to make £25K in 9 weeks. His lessons were hard, he wanted to fight to make money, and on top if that, there’s the cultural fight. There’s even a contrast in the expression of love. In the West people say ‘I love you’, but they don’t mean it, Chinese say, ‘I hate you’, and they don’t mean it either. In both cases, action speaks louder than words.
I filmed some of it last year at the Shaolin Temple in China to give people a flavour of the temple, my character is quite stubborn and determined. He wanted to go into martial arts and make money. The message I want to give to people and my students is about doing your best so you don’t regret. I’ve funded this myself, it’s my dream to make this movie. Talks are going on about its distribution etc.
This sounds very intriguing so we can’t wait to see it! What are a few of your favourite martial arts movies?
I like “Ong-Bak” because it combined Thai and Chinese martial arts, along with gymnastics and wushu altogether. I also like “Warrior”, as it’s got a good touching story to it. I like films with touching stories I feel the Bruce Lee films were impactful simply because of him, but they weren’t necessarily big on story. The thing in movies is you may see lots of rapid punching and all these fancy moves, but I prefer one punch to knock the guy out and finish it!
Which fight scenes particularly impress you?
I liked “Tom Yum Goong” (aka “The Protector”), with Tony Jaa in that long fight going up the stairs to the restaurant which was one long, continuous take.
If I make a film, I want to work with real fighters. I’d like to make an MMA type of documentary where I go to six different countries, find six good fighters from each and study with each of them for a month. Then at the end of the month, have a real fight organised for me to put into practice what I’ve learned. It wouldn’t be a commercial movie, rather it’s real fighting, no tricks, just real hardcore fighting.
For example it could feature Jiu jitsu in Brazil, and an MMA fight, Thai Boxing in Thailand, Korea for taekwondo Japan for karate, China for Chinese wrestling. It would be a 6-series documentary with an emphasis on training, philosophy, comparing of our methods, styles and cultures their ways, my ways. I’d like to find a film or TV company to do this, it’s my dream to make a film. I’m the type of person who’d want to make my own movie with people who aren’t necessarily well known or anything. Just those who are keen to make a movie well and not lose creative control, whether it’s successful or not is another question!
We think there should be an “Expendables” movie equivalent starring top Shaolin Monk Masters maybe called “The Dependables”, what do you think?
(No immediate response from Shifu!)
Umm…OK, so swiftly moving on then…! What kind of training do you do these days?
Now I’m 42, so I make my training more simple, I have to make it work for me. I simplify it by making it more powerful, sharper and professional. For example, you want to punch and kick whilst getting the attack more organised and calculated, the timing more refined and the distance perfect. It’s not about doing “cool” movements for sake of it. The kind of exercises I do include things like cardio such as running, (short distance running, sprinting, short burst training) skipping, kicking and punching workouts, push ups and squats. I use light weights for high reps.
What’s your favourite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you like and bring out the best in you?
I like anything that’s connected with fighting! punching, kicking, take down techniques, wrestling pad work, sparring.
Do you do much qigong practice?
Yes I do inner qigong to look after the body which is akin to looking after your car and putting in the oil. In the same way, you look after your organs. So, after conditioning training (with the metal brush for example) I do the inner qigong.
What’s the most difficult physical exercises or training you’ve done?
The most difficult is stamina training, you have to keep going. That involves a lot of willpower. Before I used to do 500 kicks 5 days per week so, by now, I’ve built the memory of that internally.
Do you do breaking?
I do breaking, but it’s not really part of everyday training. I use sticks and the iron brush for regular day to day training. The body is strong. In martial arts you can break things by punching and kicking, you break things that can be broken. But there are some things that can’t be broken. Conditioning means you have the stamina to handle pain, the stamina to do real things. I might not break sticks, but if I punch or kick you, you’ll be on the floor.
Can you tell us about the more advanced levels of Shaolin attainment?
Top level qigong masters practice and make their organs really strong. They’re distinguished by the fact that they have a healthy life -you can see they’re very healthy, very peaceful. They don’t need to do any performances, they rarely or never get sick, they never go to the hospital, they are the embodiment of ‘Iron Body’ because no disease can come to them. Much of this stems from a positive mind. Benefit yourself by making your organs stronger.
As you advance you can use the metal brush to make your body strong, you can do it yourself, you don’t need anyone else to help. This technique builds up inner organ strength, resistance and endurance. Use the brush to ‘wash’ your body, by hitting yourself correctly with it. The best exercise for me is to use the brush to hit my body, it really helps and you can do it no matter how old you are. You can do it lifelong and it’ll never be a waste of time doing it as it stimulates your chi and blood flow to circulate properly.
When you’re injured, how do you work around it?
I have injuries all the time but because I do qigong, it gives good circulation so I recover quickly. Injuries usually mean swelling and inflammation resulting in a lack of blood flow. However if your blood flows vigorously you heal faster and the injury disappears quickly. Take for instance young people who jump around everywhere, they get injured but for example, a skin wound heals in 2 days. For old people it takes much longer, why? Because their circulation is too sluggish. A shin injury which might normally take most people weeks to heal takes me 2 or 3 days.
What kind of diet do you recommend?
I recommend that people eat what works best for them since everyone is different. For me, the morning meal is the most important because I train intensively, so I eat quite a bit to get started with less at lunch (things like brown bread, apples and bananas) and little at dinner.
Do you use acupuncture or supplements?
No. I don’t use Chinese herbal medicine, supplements, or protein powders etc. Actually, I’m trying to make my body smaller and more lean. I’ve been muscular since I became an adult which is both genetic and due to martial arts training.
What do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity? What do you recommend for those leading an especially physical and demanding lifestyle?
Some people like bankers for example, are stressed out. They should do something like a heavy workout, something exciting. If they do something tough, they don’t have time to think too much. Then, a hard workout becomes like a meditation for them, because they’re usually fighting everyday. If you punch, kick, spar and act rather than think, it’s like meditation.
What’s the key to a long healthy life and how do you achieve maximum health?
- Right diet: the body needs energy and you get that from food. Everyone knows, they just pretend they don’t know i.e., that fast food is not good. You know ready made food and ready meals aren’t good because you don’t know where it comes from. You don’t have time to check that.
- Exercise: find what physical activities you like and what suits you, you have to sweat! If you walk, you’ve got to walk fast to work up a sweat.
- You need to have your own routine: for example, I wake up at 5.30am every morning. I eat something then train everyday at 7am. Every day, I have the same routine including sleeping at the same time, before 10pm. It’s important for me, I can’t sleep late because I need to train in the morning. After some time, you don’t need discipline or willpower because it’s an automatic habit and becomes second nature.
People are different, but you need good conditioning. If you smoke and drink alcohol, it simply doesn’t work. Make your body healthy, then you can attain your goals by testing your progress on multiple levels eg. you can test your organs like the heart, liver, kidneys by gauging how far you can run and test your muscles by how much weight you can lift etc.
How important is it to have a positive mind?
Of course the body stays healthier if you’re positive than if you’re negative and miserable. Positivity and happiness go together. Negativity brings inertia and inaction. A positive mind makes you realise you have to do things, to do your work, whereas a negative mindset is defeatist, procrastinating and complacent. Such a person tends to blame others, and make excuses. If you want to stop smoking, then stop, don’t make excuses about it. If you end up in hospital everything stops! Rather study martial arts benefits with discipline.
What are some of the core values that you live by that lead to fulfillment?
I get a lot of happiness from seeing my students’ progress; I make myself an example, eg. being on time, punctual, positive etc. Life is very simple. When you eat, eat, when you sleep, sleep, when you train, train. Don’t let your mind go everywhere, focus. Your biggest enemy in life is yourself, you are your own biggest enemy. For example everyone is lazy, including me. Imagine someone doesn’t have an arm or leg, they love martial arts but they can’t do it. When I go for an 8K run, I’ll do 10K, I run the extra 2K for the person who can’t run. It’s a really good way to make yourself humble, you have to empty the cup of your mind and learn, have gratitude for what you have!
These are incisive insights reaching some deep marrow, Shifu, can you please tell us more?
Why do people say they can’t do this or that? Don’t tell me you can’t do something if you don’t even try. Your confidence comes from your actions, not your thinking! You don’t get confident from thinking. The more you do, the more confidence you have, it’s not that the more you think, the more confident you get. If something makes me scared, well that’s good, that tells me I’m human after all and that tells me that I have to make myself even more prepared! The only thing that scares me is not being prepared.
When it comes to real fighting you can’t think, people will just come and knock you out, so it’s really really different and tough. The real fighter doesn’t look beautiful, they can’t make movies! For example if someone with one leg runs 10K, a few times, he’s a hero right there, who cares how fast he runs? It’s his energy and determination which is important, believe in yourself, discipline, toughness these are the really important things.
If people would like to find out more about you where’s the best place to go?
They are welcome to visit my website:
Thank you Shifu Yan Lei for your kind participation in this interview, it has been most enlightening. We wish you all the very best in spreading the uplifting Shaolin message and your upcoming projects!