Fighting for a Better Life

May 18, 2005

Shaolin Temple studentsDaily News New York.
by Rebecca Louie

Call them New York’s kung-fu hustlers.

Outwardly, they appear to be mild-mannered citizens – Abdu the deli worker, Yu-Lin the history ­student and Urlich the German professor.

But they’re so much more: When these ­students of a ­celeb-adored ­Shaolin monk raise a single hand and ­utter “Amitoufo” – “Buddha bless you” – they transform into martial artists.

As new films such as Jet Li’s “Unleashed” and campy Hong Kong import “Kung Fu Hustle” offer up martial arts as a spectator sport, many fans of the form are actually giving its disciplines a try. Last year, 6.9 million Americans participated in martial arts, up 1.2 million from 2000, according to a report by the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association.

Much of the city’s best leaping, lunging, flipping and kicking can be found in the East Village’s USA Shaolin Temple, a lower Broadway retreat where New Yorkers strive for physical and spiritual enlightenment.

The work is grueling. During their two-hour classes, students’ streams of sweat are soaked up by thin robes – blue for level one, orange for level two – that cling like second skins.

Ulrich Baer, the 39-year old chairman of NYU’s German Department, has practiced the minute details of various stances, strikes, kicks and movements for weeks. At times during his eight months of study, he has gotten so sore it’s painful to walk.

But rather than make daily functions more difficult, the intensity of Baer’s training has improved his life.

“I have more energy and focus,” says the father of two, who practices moves while doing laundry and waiting for the subway. “I don’t drink coffee any more. I go to work and get done in a couple hours what would have taken a whole day before.”

The temple was founded a decade ago by Sifu Shi Yan Ming, who trained in Shaolin Kung Fu – the style beloved by fans of martial arts films – as a child in China’s Henan Province.

“Everybody has work, responsibilities, relationships and problems,” says Yan Ming, a 34th-generation Shaolin fighting monk whose sense of humor and even stronger sense of self has seduced the A-List set. (Guests at his recent 41st birthday party included Wesley Snipes, Jim Jarmusch, Dave Chappelle and members of the Wu Tang Clan.)

“People forget how to have sound body, sound mind. Kung fu is not only about fighting, but about the mental and spiritual, too.”

Abdu Alraheem Almunteser, a 23-year- old Muslim from uptown Manhattan, says the practice and philosophy have transformed him. When he’s not pulling a 12-hour shift at a deli, he trains – up to five times a week.

“My confidence, my mentality, my reflexes, even my eyesight feels better,” says Almunteser, who also takes Buddhism classes with Yan Ming. Though he doesn’t wear glasses he insists that “everything seems more clear.”

This clarity extends to the rest of his life. “Now I appreciate everything better,” he says. “Water is better, food is better, sleep is better. Everything is better because you know that you worked for it.”

But while more common forms of martial arts, such as karate and Tai Kwon Do, incorporate combat and competition, the classes at Yan Ming’s temple emphasize personal form.

“You train in martial arts so you don’t have to use them,” says Yu-Lin Kong, a 24-year old Brooklyn resident who has been training at the temple for six years.

Two credits shy of a degree in history at Hunter College, Kong postponed graduation so she could spend a semester training as many as nine hours a day, six days a week.

Last year, the level-two student decided to become a disciple of Yan Ming’s, an option the monk offers all of his students once a year. The path is nonspecific; it doesn’t require an altered or special curriculum. Kong says she opted in because, “my understanding of what I do now is deeper than it was before. I know now this is going to be part of the rest of my life.”