Martial Art: Be afraid, be very afraid - it's the key to a happy, healthy life, says this fighting man

A martial art for cowards? Not exactly, but wing chun the Nino Bernado way is more Friends than Kill Bill. Rupert Cocke meets the unmacho master

Nino Bernardo is not a typical martial artist. For one thing, the 58-year-old would never claim to have conquered his fear of opponents. "When you hear a scared voice in your head telling you to run away from a conflict, you have to ask yourself: 'Is that dumb advice?'," he says.

Nino Bernardo is not a typical martial artist. For one thing, the 58-year-old would never claim to have conquered his fear of opponents. "When you hear a scared voice in your head telling you to run away from a conflict, you have to ask yourself: 'Is that dumb advice?'," he says.

Instead of blocking out this voice, Bernardo tries to "accept, harness and use" his fear. "If you can be in a state of fear and be so calculating that you make the right decisions every time, then you've got something good coming your way," he explains. In other words fear, rather than being a negative emotion, can become the basis of intelligence.

Bernardo developed this philosophy through decades of studying wing chun, a Chinese martial art that emphasises simplicity and effective body mechanics. The core of the system is an improvisational exercise called chi sao, which can be translated as "sticky hands". Bernardo describes chi sao as a combat-style game to be played by friends. He says one of the main aims of the game is to provide intelligent answers to stupid questions.

For example, one practitioner might sense a gap in another's guard and throw a punch. Bernardo would describe this punch as a question. The other practitioner must learn how to react intelligently to the punch, for example by instinctively intercepting the punch with another, more direct, punch. Practitioners learn not to flinch at each punch, but to stay within striking distance, relax and accept their fear.

One consequence of learning how to play this game is that skilled practitioners become much better at defending themselves. However, Bernardo calls this a side effect of learning the system, and not even the most important one at that. "It would be much more sensible to hire a bodyguard than to invest all that time and money in learning wing chun if self-defence was the only reason," he says. "How often in your life do you have to defend yourself?"

Instead of presenting wing chun as a fighting art, Bernardo has come to realise that learning the system helps practitioners sharpen skills in other areas of their life, as well as improving their overall health. This insight first came to Bernardo in the early 1970s when he trained with Wong Shun Leung, a legendary Hong Kong street fighter and Bruce Lee's principal kung fu instructor. Bernardo was able to train up to seven hours a day with Wong as he was working nights as a guitarist at the time. As he learned the system from Wong, Bernardo's friends noticed that his guitar-playing improved.

Over the course of the past 20 years, Bernardo has noticed the same phenomenon at work among his own students. This has been especially true of other musicians, actors, comedians, sportsmen and martial artists from other styles. Bernardo says that this seems to be due to practitioners' "attitude to learning" improving as they struggle to get to grips with the system. It isn't magic," he says, adding that it only seems to work if a practitioner already has a high level of skill in another area.

Bernardo says that this process was also true of his own teacher, Wong, whom he describes as "a naturally gifted fighter". Wong was able to develop his fighting skills to a remarkable level through wing chun, and always marketed the system as a counterattacking fighting art, as other practitioners still do. Wong made his reputation in countless full-contact challenge fights on the rooftops of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s. He emerged from these no-rules fights as the undefeated and undisputed champion. After retiring from challenge matches, Wong continued to teach wing chun in Hong Kong until his death in 1997.

Bernardo was one of a handful of students to learn from Wong before moving to London in the late 1970s. He set up an underground, word-of-mouth kung fu school called The Basement in 1984, and then moved to Ibiza in 2000.

Bernardo's latest project is an alternative wing chun school called the Ibiza Kwoon, which he describes as "the latest stage in my evolution". The school has dormitories for visiting students, a training hall, attractive grounds and even a swimming pool. He teaches wing chun the same way he learnt it in Hong Kong, with no coloured belts, no uniforms and no salutes. All levels train together, and everyone learns from each other.

Bernardo also tours Europe, teaching wing chun seminars and giving workshops in the network of schools that have been set up by his own students, including centres in London, Oxford and Reading. He comes across as far removed from the stereotype of the martial artist as humourless and remote. He cracks jokes, utters profanities, teases students and goes off on tangents as he urges newcomers and old hands alike to study the system for its own sake.

Bernardo begins each training session by looking at a single technique. He makes all the students, whether beginners or advanced practitioners, study it in pains-taking detail until all of them can perform the action with great precision. He then shows different applications of the technique. Sometimes he goes slowly, building one technique on top of another. At other times, he rushes through a series of related techniques.

Bernardo also explains his philosophy and insights through jokes and stories. For example, he tells his students that it is a common myth that martial artists need to bulk up by using weights as part of their training. He jokes that a martial artist lifting weights to get big forearms is equivalent to someone bashing their fingertips with a hammer before learning the guitar. He says that wing chun practitioners develop strong muscles as a side effect of repeating the exercises, the same way a guitarist will develop hardened fingertips. Bernardo's lighthearted view is that "the more beautiful you are, the more stupid you are", because you can only develop a honed physique through endless repetition of exercises.

At his seminars Bernardo tells his students not to believe a word he says, but to test everything. He says that one of the most important benefits is the way that the system teaches practitioners to think with both hemispheres of the brain in a co-ordinated way.

Bernardo's background as a performer is clear as he varies the pace of his teaching and delivers one-liners with expert timing. As well as his experience as a musician, he has worked as an actor and a fight choreographer. He has also travelled the world as a sailor and speaks English, Cantonese, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian fluently. He switches between languages instantly as he talks to students from around the world.

Throughout his seminars, Bernardo returns time and again to the theme of fear, which he describes as an emotion that evolved to ensure the survival of early mammals. He says that humans in many societies have somehow become ashamed of their fear.

"Fear is regarded as something cowardly, but every war hero who ever won the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross or whatever was wearing brown trousers at the time," he says. "The trick is to get scared in an intelligent way."

For information about Nino Bernardo's next seminar in the UK, contact: cybertonka@mac.com. For details of the Reading Wing Chun Academy and affiliated schools worldwide: www.teamwingchun.co.uk

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