CENTERED: This graceful workout combines elements found in qigong, tai chi chuan and yogic stretching.
CENTERED: This graceful workout combines elements found in qigong, tai chi chuan and yogic stretching.
TAG: Members of the Cape Town Aikido club practice. Pictures: MARTIN VAN NIEKERK
TAG: Members of the Cape Town Aikido club practice. Pictures: MARTIN VAN NIEKERK
EFFORTLESS: Hans Menck demonstrates swimming dragon.
EFFORTLESS: Hans Menck demonstrates swimming dragon.

Dawn Kennedy

IT IS a well known aphorism that when the pupil is ready, the master will appear. I am definitely ready for some mind, body and soul medicine. At a certain age, with a long daily commute and eight hours sitting at a desk, I’m a stiff as a twig and ready to snap.

I read recently that sitting is the new smoking.

No one trashes their lives with drink or drugs any more; instead, slumped over desks and gazing at computer screens we quietly calcify. My 10-hour a day sitting habit is in all likelihood the equivalent of chain-smoking Gauloise. With my entire focus on the mental realm, it’s no wonder that my poor body has begun to protest.

Last year I found a wonderful antidote – an early morning swimming dragon class – a rare martial arts system that was taught in the Company’s Garden by sensei Hans Menck.

Originating from Wudang Mountain in China, this graceful moving workout combines elements found in qigong, tai chi chuan and yogic stretching and mimics a dragon gliding through the sky. The practice was a closely guarded imperial secret until Grandmaster Yu Anren took it to the public in the 1980s.

During China’s cultural revolution, while Yu Aren was imprisoned, his hair turned grey and his spine slumped. On his release he ardently practiced swimming dragon, regained good posture, a full head of black hair and started teaching his secret system.

Admittedly, even though I resembled more of a dragon reluctant to leave her cave than one soaring through the sky I was mesmerised by the teacher, Hans Menck, whose strength and flexibility is an excellent incentive to practice swimming dragon. But life took over, somehow I did not find the hours in the day and then the teacher went overseas.

Today Hans arrives, leather clad, alighting from a BMW GS motorbike, to tell me about his latest venture and a possible cure for my time pressed lifestyle: online swimming dragon training.

Born out of a need to share the knowledge that he has accumulated during 36 years of martial arts practice, Hans has compiled a website that offers online martial arts tuition, enabling busy people to practice in their spare time between classes.

Hans dismisses much of what is hailed as tradition in martial art as “politics” and “a selfish desire for teachers to retain students”.

While Hans is one of the first people to offer online martial arts training, he says that it is a natural evolution, explaining that Kung fu was originally taught by scrolls which were interpreted in various ways. When DVDs became available, masters soon adopted them as teaching aides. The internet is just an extension of a DVD and online training will, no doubt, soon become widespread.

Swimming Dragon is just one of the many martial arts that Hans practices. He explains: “For me, martial arts are like plants in a garden – I don’t just like one plant in my garden.”

Hans started martial arts at the age of 7 when his parents moved to Cape Town and he found himself being bullied.

He took up judo and once he learned how to throw someone to the ground and hold them in an arm lock the bullying stopped.

But the experience of being bullied left a lasting impression. “Being bullied is a reality for kids and they have to learn how to fend for themselves,” says Hans who says that bullies – and criminals – are predators and that to keep safe we need to remember that people, like animals, attack those who are weak or outsiders.

Hans believes that martial arts can help people protect themselves in crime-drenched South Africa by giving them “added confidence and added awareness” although he’s quick to add, “having some mace in your handbag could be just as useful”.

After judo, Hans took up karate and, at age 27, and in peak physical condition, he knocked a rugby player unconscious during a brawl. Although he has studied conflict, Hans does not enjoy it and decided that he wanted an alternative to punching someone’s lights out.

He took up Akido which he calls the “highest expression of martial art” because it seeks to fully resolve conflict and not just temporarily end it by incapacitating an opponent which, as Hans points out, doesn’t solve anything as the disgruntled combatant might just wait for another opportunity to seek revenge. “A soft response is always the more appropriate response,” Hans maintains.

As an engineer Hans travelled globally. Following Aikido, he studied swimming dragon 2005 in Australia with a top student of master Yu Aren.

Whereas Aikido is practiced with a partner, swimming dragon is practiced alone.

As with all forms of tai chi, swimming dragon looks beautiful and effortless. But although the heart rate remains stable your entire body is getting a workout.

Hans explains the purpose of the graceful movements: “We are 75% water – moving fluidly optimises all the bodily processes.”

Unlike conventional exercise, with swimming dragon, joints and even organs, not just muscles, are getting a workout. Swimming dragon also releases emotional blockages. According to Chinese medicine, organs like the heart and spleen can store tension and every organ has a corresponding emotion: the liver corresponds to anger, the lungs to sadness etc.”

If well-oiled joints and balanced emotions are not enough incentives to practice swimming dragon, how about the promise of immortality? Swimming dragon is known as an immortality technique in China because it reverses the weakening and stiffening effects of aging giving the practitioner strength and flexibility. By now I am pressing rands into Hans’ palm, begging for instruction.

I’ve signed up for the online training and I will be at Deer Park this Thursday for my first swimming dragon class having had a few days of online practice beforehand. Hans promises that in three weeks I will feel my body changing and after six I will have new physical and mental skills.

So goodbye aging stiff joints, hello, well, immortality.

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