The development of kung fu in China is most closely associated with the monks of the Shaolin temple. Modern Shaolin monks now tour the world entertaining audiences with extraordinary physical feats. Of course, it takes time to reach this level of mastery, but as Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Learning kung fu offers multiple benefits; all you have to do is begin.
Developing Personal Energy
Kung fu as an exercise system is a close relation of tai chi and qigong, or chi kung as it is also known. All three systems are based on the same principle of cultivating personal energy or qi. This is a really important aspect of kung fu: with most sports we have less energy for them as we get older, while kung fu teaches you how to keep replacing your energy stores, so that when you are middle-aged or older, you still have the energy -- plus physical and mental capabilities -- of a much younger person.
Both tai chi and qigong are accepted by the orthodox medical community as effective methods for relieving stress in people of any age. The qigong techniques for drawing energy into the body through flowing movement, breath and visualization are a fundamental basic building block of a kung fu practice, and learning these alone will improve your general health. One of the reasons for this is that the basic kung fu techniques encourage you to counteract your body's "fight or flight" mechanism by teaching you exercises that activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is like putting the brakes on adrenalin rushing around your body. Ultimately, it helps prevent you developing stress-related symptoms.
Stamina, Flexibility and Coordination
Kung fu is more strenuous than tai chi or qigong, so it has a greater impact on your cardiovascular system. You need to exert more physical energy to perform the kicking, striking, throwing and locking joint movements that form the four core techniques of Shaolin kung fu. As a result, you'll develop your physical stamina as you progress, along with greater limb flexibility and coordination.
At its core, kung fu, like other martial arts, is a method of self-defense. But the kung fu student learns that avoiding fighting is the best form of self-defense. Knowing you can defend yourself gives you self-confidence. Some kung fu teachers encourage students to apply self-defense techniques to situations where mental self-defense might be important such as exams and job interviews. An additional social benefit of kung fu is the emphasis it puts on moral development, such as respect for others. Self-discipline is another important element in a kung fu practice, and these are qualities and skills that you can transfer to other areas of your life.