What 14 Days of Intense Martial ArtTraining in Italy Taught Me: Part 2

What 14 Days of Intense Martial ArtTraining in Italy Taught Me: Part 2

If you were to imagine an overseas training adventure, where would your wildest dreams take you?

China? Thailand? Maybe the Philippines?

Though each of those are incredible choices, an opportunity to receive world-class training recently popped up in a piece of the world many don’t think to go for that type of experience: Italy.

For two weeks, Henny Eleonora and a squad of professional martial artists taught various subjects, ranging from the external methods such as Shaolin Kung Fu and Sanda to the internal methods such as Wu Style Tai Chi and Pa Kua.

Read on to see what it was like to survive those two weeks!

The Break Down

As the week progressed, the training didn’t get easier but we certainly became more resilient.

Each time I would phone home to my girlfriend, she would ask what we did today. Survive, I would reply.

After we made it through the third day, our bodies seemed to accept the pain. We knew that we may be barely able to walk between sessions but after a well crafted warm-up and stretching routine from Philip Sahagun–even taking us through some of the same exercises he has led the Jackie Chan Stunt Team through–we knew we would be ready to handle any task.

Though Philip has a prolific performance career, he was quick to remind us that what is functional is not always what is aesthetic. The stances and drills he took us through were rooted in helping us improve the health of our bodies and as well as build up our combat ability.

As the days progressed and training grew more intense, Philip let us know a goal Henny had for the camp: he wanted us to put on a performance at the end of the week.

Invigorated by the goal, we began to double down in the effort we put forth in training–we couldn’t let our teammates down, we all wanted to be able to put on a good show!

Even when tasked with challenges to test us, such as Dragon Push-Ups – a synchronized push-up done with three of us layered on top of each other, feet resting on one another’s shoulders–we stuck together and gave our all.

We began working with the striking poles, heavy iron swords, and rehearsed a short routine. By the end of the week, all of us had bruises up and down our forearms, shins, and random spots across our body; cuts and scrapes; and trembling, tight legs.

When one of us lost a chunk of skin on her palms while hitting the wooden poles, she just wrapped up her hand and kept banging it out. We were making progress and nothing was going to stop us.

Throughout the week, we had guest instructors Emanuele Mustillo and Samy Berjaoui teach us the fundamentals of Shuai Jiao, ancient Chinese wrestling. With bare feet burning in the European heatwave, we spent hours drilling skills and, at the end of the training, attempting to use them against the internationally recognized competitors in a live setting.

During the week of training, friendships were made. During the breaks, the bonds were cemented. As the Dutch, Italian, and American mingled, we had some of the greatest laughs and best times. Over time, our down time changed from taking naps to holding group massage sessions and teaching/learning foreign words.

In particular, the dirty ones. Those are always fun.
The most fun words to learn, however, are the words that belong uniquely to a language and

culture. One such word was “gezellig”.

Though it doesn’t have a direct English translation, it can be summarized as cozy or nice, alluding to the feeling you get when you are among family or see a loved one after a long absence.

After many nights filled with (humorously bad) attempts at pronouncing the guttural word and many others like it, the week of training came to a close and it was time for our performance.


The end of the week came and it was time to perform. As we donned matching shirts to commemorate the camp and gathered into the now-familiar paved training space, our

excitement–and nerves–grew. It wasn’t a large crowd, largely filled with many of the locals and martial artists Sifu Henny knew, however that didn’t alleviate any of the pressure.

Actually, to be honest, the crowd size was irrelevant. We simply wanted to show our coaches how grateful we were to be able to learn these new moves–and how dedicated we truly were to being able to perform them appropriately.

As the sun continued slumping towards the horizon, our performance prepared to come alive. At 6pm, we “woke up” the lion used in the traditional lion dance. Starting inside the kung fu school and then carefully traversing across the irrigation canal, the performers danced with the lion costume to the training space and brought the excited crowd with them.

As the lion “ate” the ceremonial lettuce and began to close the routine, we all stepped into position to take the stage.

Cue music.

None of the cramps, bruises, or sore muscles stopped us from giving all we had in every punch, kick, stance shift, and sword swing.

Having only pieced the choreography together in one day, there were a few hiccups when it came to timing, however we were largely together.

By the end of it, Henny and Philip stepped out to join us. Performing a short movement piece symbolizing the transfer of wisdom and skill from one generation to the next, we concluded with a final pose and waved good-bye to the audience.

The External Camp had finished and we were now preparing to bid farewells, not only to the audience but also our newly-established teammates.

The Internal Training

Sometimes goodbyes are better stated as “see you later”.

Though only two of us from the External Camp were originally going to stay for the second week of training–a week that promised Tai Chi, Pa Kua, Xingyi, medicinal theory, and more–more students ended up staying longer to experience the internal training as well.

Like a bout of déjà vu, the first day of the second training camp came with a familiar routine. The new students came trickling in and started checking into the Standard Hotel, we gathered together in the evening for a dinner to meet and chat, then we went to bed with uncertain expectations of what the week would hold for us.

Similar to the first group that trained, this was a hodgepodge of personalities, some who knew each other and many who didn’t. We followed the same training schedule, however with a dramatically different experience.

The early morning session would get kickstarted with Daoyin, ancient movements for health that precede the practice of qigong. This would be taught by either Henny or guest instructor Fabio Smolari.

Rather than focus on athletic attributes, this was the time to tune into your body and focus on the lengthening, twisting, and/or relaxation involved in every square inch of your body.

Certainly a great way to freshen the body and mind for the day!

After we closed the morning session and headed back for breakfast at the hotel (yep, still the same food), the remainder of the day would be comprised of either Wu Style Tai Chi or Xingyi taught by Henny; Pa Kua as taught by his wife, Ying Pang; or Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory as taught by Ruud Vercammen.

None of these sessions were exactly alike, they each brought their own unique set of struggles and successes. Internal training is often thought of as easy to do, however the technical–and especially the physical–demands of them proved to be the farthest thing from being a breeze.

Notebooks in hand, we captured as many nuances as possible and reflected on them in our off time. Even if we wouldn’t be able to master the skills in a week, the least we could do was capture the idea and work it over for a lifetime.

One other distinct difference between the External training camp and the Internal training camp is that we went on many more adventures this time around.

Though we never replaced a training session, we squeezed in trips to don hard hats and visit a damp, cold cave; tour the sweets, eats, and sites of the town; and swim in a lake nestled in the mountain with the snow capped peaks of Austria in the distance.

Though there was no performance to mark the end of the week, there was resolution as we neared the completion of memorizing choreography and began to grasp the feeling of new skills.

We concluded the week with more utterances of “see you later”, rather than “goodbye”, as we knew that this would not be the last time we each saw and trained with each other.

By the end of it all, we had new capabilities, more friendships, and made memories that were irreplaceable.

All in all, very gezellig.

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