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Silk road to inner strength

Kevin Berry reports on how Chinese exercise made it to a Leeds college

There is a sudden loud noise in the gym. It is rather like the pistons of a great steam engine or the tide on a stormy day.

"Oh it's that group. They're doing a breathing exercise", explains Desmond Murray, principal of the College of Chinese Physical Culture.

Six of his students are indeed breathing through their teeth. Mr Murray describes their exercises as "internal weight training". His students all wear college T-shirts, loose black trousers and pumps. Others in the gym are doing astonishing things. These are people with day jobs but they clearly have the expertise of top-flight dancers or acrobats.

Two men each make an arch with their bodies. Then each has a girl, serene and impassive, lifted onto his chest. Near them a girl leans forward to form a leap-frog obstacle. A man jogs towards her. He leaps and makes gentle back-to-back contact and then rolls away. People are jumping and then landing on the hard wooden floor as if it is a deep-pile carpet.

We are in Leeds at the Carnegie campus of Leeds Metropolitan University.

Desmond Murray is British, his instructors are British. The college offices are in south Leeds - yet it teaches Chinese physical culture and teaches it successfully. What do the Chinese think? Are Mr Murray and his tutors taken seriously?

"The work we do is appreciated by Chinese experts," he explains. "That is unique and it is something I am proud of. I have been to China many times and explained what we do. We have their respect."

Some of the students are working in pairs. They seem to be confronting each other. Some are using staffs, some have industrial-sized chop sticks, others are using their hands. Is this kung fu? Certainly not, I am assured.

One person makes a move and the other must think up an immediate response.

There is absolutely no contact and no aggression. It is instant choreography and it begins to look like physical chess.

Alex Boyd, the college's deputy principal, explains that this pair work helps with problem-solving. Conversations with students emphasise this.

The college teaches Wei Hai Li Shi Quan Fa a traditional exercise form dating back 3,000 years. It is about finding inner strength and balance.

How it came to be established in Leeds is a fascinating story. "Chan Kan Li knew these physical arts," explains Mr Boyd. "He was a merchant in precious stones and he travelled between the major cities in China and London. He set up classes in London and had many students.

"One day, in Hyde Park, he met Chee Soo, an orphan from a Barnardo's home.

They became friends. Chee Soo was teaching within a few years and he succeeded Chan Kan Li. Chee Soo had thousands of students in the UK and many other countries. Before he died, in 1994, he named Desmond as his successor."

Students work to develop their skills and train as teachers at the same time. They receive certificates accredited by the National Open College Network. Then there is an NVQ to aim for. Some have gone on to take Masters degrees in sports sciences and human development. They use Chinese physical culture (CPC) in their research work. Coaches of CPC study for seven years and are awarded City and Guilds-approved qualifications.

The college sends its coaches all over the UK and has staff based in Europe, Africa, Australia and the USA. There are general classes and there are specific classes for the elderly, for stressed workers, for young people who have been excluded from schools and for the long-term unemployed. Results are very impressive.

The elderly have classes to help with their balance and reduce falls.

Simple exercises build up bone and joint strength and improve mobility.

Stressed workers? Won't taking the stress away make them too relaxed and therefore less productive? Apparently not. Clive Nunnington, who teaches CPC in the work place, says that the exercises emphasis focusing and concentration. Relaxation can take place on the move.

Sumeet Kumar takes groups of excluded youngsters and sees self - esteem growing within minutes, though he does admit that success is not always easy.

"They can measure their own progress with exercises and remember they don't have to read or write. We let them choose their own programme and through breathing and relaxation they can deal with their own anger. There are changes in attitude. They experience success and improvement, many for the first time, and they want to get back into the school system."

I am introduced to Wai-Yii Yeung a British-born Chinese. Taking up CPC has helped her overcome shyness and feel better about herself.

"Now I have my own business, an organic shop in the city centre. I am not saying that I would never have started the business but I certainly wouldn't have started it so soon. Certainly not at 23."

I hear similar stories from the other students. They are all told with quiet sincerity.

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