The term Kung Fu martial arts stands for a series of fighting styles developed in China over thousands of years. Today it is seen as a traditional sport, and is gaining increasing popularity throughout Europe and North America. Although it involves fighting techniques, its basic philosophy embraces peace and virtue, not violence, and it is practiced as a means of self-defense rather than aggression.

Although martial arts of this type have existed in China since about the third millennium BC, it is generally considered that the foundation for the modern practice of Kung Fu was laid in the 3rd century AD, when the Shaolin Temple was built in Henan Province in China, and the physician Hwa Tuo came to the temple to create exercises based on the movements of five animals, to improve the health of his patients. The Shaolin Temple remained a center of development for martial arts for well over a thousand years, and several styles of Kung Fu can trace their origin back to Shaolin.

In fact, the different styles of Kung-Fu can be classified into Shaolin, with an external focus, strengthening tendons and muscles, and Wu Dung, with an internal focus, developing the chi or life force. An alternative way of categorizing styles is into northern, focusing on legs, with more kicks and acrobatics, and southern, with more focus on arms and stable stances. Shaolin is considered the leading style in China.

The Shaolin style is still based on the movements of the five animals identified by Hwa Tuo — the dragon, leopard, snake, crane and tiger. Each animal is considered to embody particular characteristics, the way of the tiger being primary, characterized by self-discipline and conservation of motion. The movements of all five are distinct, but complement one another.

Another of the best known Kung-Fu styles is Tai Chi, which belongs more to the ‘internal’ school, and is partly based on Taoist philosophy. Tai Chi consists of continuous movements, which are smooth and graceful, but purposeful. Its principles are to move in a relaxed way, and to direct each position through breathing and concentration, thus developing balance, poise and fluidity throughout the body.

Yet another famous style is Qigong, which as well as being a martial art was also developed as a medical treatment, to improve physical and mental health. There are two forms of Qigong, dynamic and static. Dynamic Qigong involves limb and body movements, while static Qigong is practiced by adjusting the mind and the breathing, with little physical movement.

Although masters of Kung Fu take decades to achieve their expertise, you can learn the basics comparatively quickly. Before starting, you should identify your primary goal in taking up the discipline, and study the northern and southern styles, or the external and internal techniques, to determine which style is right for you. You need to ensure that you are sufficiently fit to undertake the training, and it is also beneficial to master some breathing and meditation techniques.

Learning Kung Fu martial arts is becoming increasingly popular, and many training centers and clubs have been established throughout the country, so you are likely to find one accessible to you. It often seems strange and intimidating to begin with, but as you learn step by step, and master different techniques, you can advance in confidence. With determination, perseverance, and willingness to succeed, you will come to experience all the physical, mental and spiritual benefits that this discipline can provide.

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