Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Month 7: We Are The Champions

This month, my school had an all day workshop. Students could show up and dive into their training from morning to evening, all Kung Fu all the time. The entire concept scared the hell outta me, for various reasons that I’ll explain in too many words later; naturally I had to attend. So I did.

I did Kung Fu for five hours. Consecutively.

Sure, there were breaks taken throughout, and I spent more than my fair share of time sitting on a bench and trying to remember how lungs work, but I was there. I was in that school, sweating and kicking and shoving and punching, for five straight hours. Mind you, everybody else at that workshop was there for a whopping eight hours, so if you were to graph the effort output of everyone in the school that day, I would absolutely be the lonely little dot way down at the bottom. The lonely, triumphant little dot strutting around to its own personal Queen soundtrack.

Why? Because I have systemic lupus.
Side note: It feels awfully melodramatic to write even this simplified account of my condition. I have never talked about my disease as much, or as publicly, as I have on this blog. Mostly because if I whined every time lupus interfered with my life, I’d never do anything else. And I would really rather do anything else. Since I’m a big dumb stubborn crankypants, I don’t typically let anyone outside of my immediate circle of family see what it takes to be functional with this ridiculous disease. My struggle is my business, ya dig? The world sees me only when I am Feeling Okay or Successfully Faking It. Because pride.
However. My lupus is a wee bit relevant, here. I am - whether I can admit it without grinding my teeth or not - a woman with a disability. And I am hauling that disability into a martial arts school three times a week. The details bear mentioning. So, I take a deep breath and ...
Less than a year ago, I had zero control over my condition. I lived entirely at the mercy of the whims of a madcap immune system, stuck in a tired body full of hurts, waiting in the limbo space between fatigue and pain for the rare moments when both would ebb just enough for me to possibly do a thing. Just one thing. I had to look over these brief windows of Feeling Okay with a quick, critical eye and try to assess what I could accomplish: take the kids to the park OR go grocery shopping, clean the house OR weed the garden, exercise OR cook dinner, etc.

One or the other; there was never time or energy enough for both. And there would always, always have to be a nap afterward.

So I would make my choice and scramble to get as much accomplished as possible before the fog would roll into my brain and hide the ends of my thoughts from their beginnings, or my joints would catch fire, or fatigue would mire my limbs in vertigo to the point that it was unsafe to do anything but find a horizontal surface and lay myself upon it. I could push past those limits, of course, and I often did. Things still needed doing, after all, whether or not it was medically advisable for me to do them. But the price for that push was always high and usually paid in prednisone.

Fast forward to now, seven months later. My physical endurance has gradually built up from barely gasping out an hour of training, through the sit-down-every-forty-five-minutes stage, to the point where I sometimes make it through an entire two hour class and realize that I forgot to take a break. I dared to feel a spark of cautious optimism. That spark made me decide to do the workshop. Gave me the gumption to point at a chunk of time in the future and say “There, there shall I perform strenuous physical feats for hours on end.”

I didn’t ask my disease for permission to do the workshop so much as inform it of my intention with all the calm, steely-eyed determination I could fake. Because I had a plan, see.

For the entire week leading up to the workshop, I prepared. Every day, I ate all the healthy things and did extra forms and took naps. Every night, I went to bed at a single-digit hour. I bolstered my defenses by taking my meds on schedule and supplementing with anti-inflammatory herbs. And the hydration; oh, the hydration. Buckets of water and juice poured down my throat for days, because I figured that every one of those buckets would be sweating right back out again. I even packed a little cooler to take with me, full of coconut water and a bag of those magnificent green grapes that only seem to turn up around this time of year.

Basically, I did everything I could to make sure that the body I walked into that school with would be a body that could handle what I wanted it to do. And if it couldn’t? If I got past the two-hour training mark that I’m accustomed to and everything started falling apart? Well, I had several well-practiced mental pep talks to choose from. Because if this failed - and there was a better than 50/50 chance that it would - I needed to be able to scrape my frustrated self up off the floor and try again.

I was thorough. All contingencies planned for and bases covered. I was going to Do This Thing. So, of course, the day before the workshop a hurricane flooded half the city and soaked the air in enough humidity to kick off a mild pleurisy in my chest.

Because fate is a comedian. Har. Har. Har.

Hilarious, but not entirely cruel - the roads between my house and the school were clear, and stretches eased my breathing. The only flood I had to drive through was the dark tide of questions and doubts in my own mind:

  • Was I insane?
  • Had I really thought this through, weighed the consequences of overtaxing myself with this Kung Fu business?
  • Was I about to let that one silly spark of optimism talk me into pushing myself through a physical ordeal that could land me on bedrest and enough corticosteroids to kick my immune system back into its cage?
  • Who listens to optimism these days, anyway?
  • People who have forgotten about the side effects of prednisone, the insomnia and the flop-sweats and the bloating, that’s who. People who have forgotten to live in perpetual dread of medication.
  • Oh, so the kind of person I’d like to be, then?
  • What am I saying?
  • Maybe I’m saying that I can sit very quietly in the middle of a very clean, locked room for the rest of my life and still run the risk of the lupus kicking up and eating me alive, so I might as well shake off the fear and go to the workshop because if all that Kung Fu gets me sick then at least I’ll know that I’m sick because I did a thing.

That’s how I walked into the school that day. Every other student in that workshop had their own journey, their own preparations and struggles, to get them through that same door. We were one big jumbled confluence of backstories and motivations. I couldn’t tell you any of their business, though, not any more than they could tell you mine (before reading this post), because once we got inside it was all quiet smiles and hello-fistbumps and getting to work.

Good lawd, did we get to work.

I went into that workshop thinking that it would be like one really long class. It was, and it wasn’t. Regular class has time constraints - you’ve got an hour, two if you’re in the women’s program, to cover forms and drills and practical techniques. It’s all about efficiency and focus. But the workshop? Well, it’s a different beast. There’s all these hours and hours of time stretching out luxuriously before us, time enough to savor the drills, to explore the techniques and evolve their applications, to really pick apart what we’re doing and find what works for our Kung Fu and what doesn’t.

It was like the difference between sketching a portrait and painting a mural. Like a powernap versus a full night’s sleep. Like eating an apple versus baking an apple pie. Like one good thing that’s quick versus another good thing that takes a really long time. My simile game is too strong, y'all.

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the company of the other students. Don’t get me wrong - I like my Kung Fu brothers and sisters. It’s just that, typically, the only people I spend that kind of time with are either married to me or share my DNA. Anyone else needs to quietly exit my space before my nice wears off. But there was something about the workshop environment, that crucible of sweat and effort and focus, that rendered us into a cohesive unit, a giant many-limbed learning monster. And sure, after hours of working out we all started to a little punchy*, and more than a few folks joined me on the Sit-n-Breathe Bench, but the overall attitude was cheerfully focused and game to try whatever came next.

The variety of experience was fabulous. I touched hands with folks who I rarely get to work out with, tested my Kung Fu against people smaller than me, taller than me, and much taller than me; folks stronger and quicker, slower and steadier. There was time enough to imprint the drill on my muscles, and plenty of encouragement to explore beyond the basics. And then suddenly it was over.

I had spent so much time prepping for that workshop, for a slog through a gauntlet of challenge, that when the day finally came I was able to not just endure it but enjoy it so much that the hours just flew by. One minute, I’m finishing up warm-up forms and contemplating how to kick out someone’s kneecap; the next minute, my shirt is so heavy with sweat that it’s stretching itself and I’m handing out goodbye-fistbumps.

The me of seven months ago would have fallen over half-dead within the first hour. The me of now floated out of that school on the unique high of having unexpectedly survived, not only for those five hours but for the days that followed. I suffered no ill effects other than a powerful hunger and an intense craving for sleep. The twinge in my left knee doesn’t count; nothing that can be resolved with generous application of cayenne salve and some rest counts as an ill effect.

I left that workshop so goofy, so giddy, so brimming over with effervescent pride not only in myself but also in my fellow students for clearing whatever hurdles we had to clear to get there, for working together and supporting each other and learning heaps of new things, that I cranked up the volume in my car and blared Queen all the way home. Sure, it was almost certainly the endorphins talking, and once they wear off I’ll be back to my curmudgeonly self yelling at kids to get off my lawn, but WHATEVER.

We are the champions, my friends.

TL;DR: Disabled lady attends a Kung Fu workshop and survives it. Learns a lot. Walks in a nervous mess, walks out like this …

*Ha! Kung Fu pun!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Month 6: Pros & Cons

When I first started training in Kung Fu, I promised myself that I’d stick it out for at least six months. 

I know it doesn't seem like much of a commitment, but I honestly wasn't sure I would survive the first class, let alone forty-some-odd more classes after that. Considering my physical condition at the time that I started (poor-to-middling) and my own natural tendency to not do difficult things, six months felt like a pretty ambitious goal.

It also seemed like a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to an activity so far outside of my comfort zone that it would need to invent faster-than-light travel in order to reach my comfort zone while I was still young enough to participate. Two months to warm up to the training, two months to settle into a routine, two months to decide whether or not I hated it. And if it turned out that Kung Fu was not for me, that the benefits were outweighed by the costs to my family, my time, my poor beleaguered health, nobody would judge me for bowing out after half a year of honestly trying.

Sensible, right? So here I am, six months later. Time to evaluate. Continuing with the sensible approach, I shall attempt to list the pros and cons of my training experience.

PROS of Kung Fu training:
  • Improved physical and emotional stamina. If I can slog through hours of sweat-soaked exertion and only dissolve into a puddle of scalding, frustrated tears once in half a year? Well, then there just ain’t much I can’t do.
  • Symptoms of my forever-disease have never been so mild and manageable. Starting this training was a gamble, a wild toss of the dice that such a dramatic change to my exercise might do more good than harm. I had nothing but a vague hope that studying a martial art might be like couples’ counseling for my mind and body, giving them a project to work on together instead of fighting each other all the time. And it seems I may have been right: the inflammation in my joints is minimal, my mobility is hugely improved, and I’m just not so daggum tired all the time. Which is great, because I love being right.
  • Now a part of a solid community of people who know that I have lupus and treat me like an adult about it. By which I mean they’ll scrub up with hand sanitizer before we work out, and they’ll respect my need to take breaks, but we are Gonna. Work. Out. And they generally don’t say any of the facepalm-worthy things that people can't seem to help saying to the chronically ill*, either because they’d never think to say them or because we’re all too busy training to talk. Either way, I’m happy.
  • Greater confidence moving through a world that is suddenly much less full of insurmountable threats. Spend enough time imprinting your muscle memory with a variety of efficient ways to overcome physical confrontations, and the world is a less scary place. Especially for a lady.
  • Greater humility to balance that confidence. I train with the kids’ class most of the time, see. Nothing keeps you humble about your kung fu, and about life in general, quite like getting your ass handed to you by a sihing who’s half your size and one-third your age. Speaking of which ...
  • My kids and I have something in common besides the fact that we live in the same house. They’re training right along with me. We bond over the challenge of drills and our mutual post-workout stank.

CONS of Kung Fu training:
  • Spangly dangly earrings no longer swing prettily over my shoulders. Because I have muscle there, now? Apparently? Weird.
  • Newfound tendency to talk about Kung Fu. Like, a lot. Please stop me.
  • No longer able to pawn heavy lifting tasks off onto my mighty husband. I am now perfectly capable of lifting rather heavy things. A solid tan sao can haul an awful lot of groceries, y’all. (note to self: move this one to the Pros list)
  • Strangers seem to feel that I owe them an explanation for my forearm bruises. Dear Concerned World: I am not being abused. Promise.
Girls can play rough, too, ya know.
Well. That seems like a pretty clear balance far in the PROS favor. But what about the introspective overthinking about the philosophical impact of my choices? Haven’t done nearly enough of that.

How has my perspective changed over the past six months?, I wonder to myself. Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, I had never thrown a punch in my life. Physical confrontation was something that I blithely pretended could never happen to me in this modern civilized world. Because ignorance is the best prevention. OBVIOUSLY.

Now, though? I’ve lost count of how many punches I’ve thrown and have been thrown at me. Thousands, maybe? No idea. Enough that a punch has ceased to be an astounding alien weapon, and has become a common tool, something that I use so often that it’s worn shiny and smooth, comfortable and efficient. All of the techniques that I’ve learned are tools. No more exotic than a hammer. There’s nothing mystical about them, just the simple physics of muscle and bone, plus a lot of practice.

It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people are not familiar with hitting and being hit. That when such things happen, it can seem too fast to follow, mysterious and complex and a little scary. Recently, Sifu and I did a brief demonstration of basic self defense techniques on a morning news show. During the demo, I did a simple tan sao followed by a pak dar to escape Sifu’s grip. My punch happened to tap his microphone, which made it sound very impressive to the viewers at home. Ditto for our lovely hostess, apparently:

(click this link to view the video that would be embedded here if I was smarter)

It was just a twist of a tan, then a pak dar. Just a little something that I learned on maybe my second night at Women’s Self Defense, before my actual training even started, but to the nice lady on camera with us it was magic. And Six Months Ago Me would have been right there with her, all agog and what-sorcery-is-this. But after spending hours out of every week for the past half a year training, immersed in the small, quiet sea of Kung Fu, where force is not the rocks we crash against, but the tide with which we ebb and flow, I’m seeing a different kind of magic.

The kind of magic that inspires swooning waxy-poetic run-on sentences, apparently. Not even sorry.

What I see is the kind of magic that’s not magic at all. It’s just practice. Hard work. Sweat. Repetition of good technique, or at least repetition until the technique gets good. Learning all of the pieces and then mix-and-matching them to suit any situation. Hitting and getting hit, and conditioning the body’s reflexes to handle both ends of that equation.

Any ol’ fool who’s willing to work at it can do this stuff. You can tell, because I’m doing it. A lot has changed in the past six months, but the basic facts about me remain the same. Still thirty-five years old. Still clumsy. Still the stay-at-home mom of two. Still chronically ill. And also? Still training.

Seems I’ve gone and talked myself into not quitting. I’ll give that Six-Month Milestone Quit Option a jaunty wave as I cruise by, on my way out the door to class. Because this training is totally worth a little less dangly in my spangly earrings.

*I’ve heard every single one of these things, in some form or another. If you look closely in that video around the 3:15 mark, you’ll find me and my overly aggressive lipstick.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Month 5: Overthinking Things I Thought I Knew

Ever have that moment where you’re looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures and it’s a flat, simple, two dimensional image, but then you stare at it long enough and relax your eyes and BAM it’s a sailboat? That’s been me this month.

I don’t make a habit of re-examining things. Once I have a thing figured out, I pack it away in its own little mental box and stick it on the DONE shelf, content in a lesson well learned and ready to dust my hands and move on to the next thing. This habit, like so many of my staid and stubbornly-held ways, is being gently but thoroughly demolished by martial arts training.

There are things, really basic things, about Kung Fu that I thought I understood. I’ve been doing them over and over for five months, and I fancy myself a bit of a smartypants, so if there were any undiscovered complexities, I surely would have grokked them long before now. Clearly.

Like horse stance. I know horse stance, I do it all the time. Knees bent, toes in, hips angled, then I’ve got my weight placed where it should be and gravity takes care of the rest. I was pretty confident in my working understanding of the physics involved. Then Sifu had another student place a fist on my belly and push forward against my stance. In defiance of all logic, of all my secure little notions of leverage and how my own bones fit together, that lateral push moved my body, not back, not down, but up.

The mechanics of horse stance are, it would seem, the kind of beautifully designed machine that works wonders if you use it right. Which I have not quite been doing.

Turns out, gravity alone is not enough. Sorry, gravity. You do a lot of really good work, what with that whole keeping us from spinning off the surface of the planet into the endless void thing, but Kung Fu needs more. I have to be actively involved in the process, have to physically push myself downward, plant my feet into the floor, grow some roots. The process involves a lot of deceptively simple counterintuitive business with toes and muscles that I never even knew I had before I started this training, but if I don’t do it then any chump with a bad attitude can knock me over.

I don’t want to get knocked over. So I do it. And it works.

One simple push against my stance, and my amateur comprehension was taken right back to the drawing board for review and revision. Paragraphs of contemplation. So naturally, while I was in the throes of quietly overthinking my stance, Simo came along and gave me some details to focus on in my Siu Nim Tao.

I’m learning that “here’s a detail to focus on” is Kung Fu speak for “brace for a perspective shift in 3 … 2 … 1”.

My shoulders have a tendency to roll forward, so Simo asked me to focus on keeping them pulled back, square and proud, to give the structure of my arms a solid base. Speaking of structure, have a second detail: any time the hands move forward, such as in the first section of Siu Nim Tao, I should try to keep my elbow in front of my body. Up to this point, I’ve been moving my elbows to the side of my torso, collapsing my structure, which is only useful if you want to get hit. Which I don’t. So I tried these new details.

I thought I knew Siu Nim Tao. I do it every single day. I thought I knew my body, because I live in it, and how to make Kung Fu work around it. I was a fool.

See, I’m a lady-person, and not a slender one. There are, shall we say, anatomical obstacles to getting my elbow in front of my torso. I’ve spent decades rolling my shoulders forward to compensate, just so I can move my arms in certain ways. So literally everything about these new details is challenging the way my body has taught itself to move. The muscles in my shoulders and chest have never had to work this way, and my elbows haven’t seen my belly since middle school. It’s like the melodrama of teaching my legs how to horse all over again. Only, ya know, higher off the ground.

Behold my epic struggle:

What had once been a fluid and nearly unthinking Siu Nim Tao form now requires buckets of attention and constant self-correction. To be clear, it is totally worth the effort. The structure of all my limbs feels stronger, more stable, and I can't argue with improving my posture. But it's hard and more than a little frustrating. Making my body work with the Kung Fu, rather than letting the Kung Fu work around my body. It’s getting easier, but there’s a long re-thinking row to hoe before the form is easy again.

And maybe … maybe I don’t want it to be easy. These new details on my form, along with this new understanding of my stance, are sending little inevitable ripples of change throughout everything I do in Kung Fu. This month shook me out of a complacency I hadn’t even been entirely aware of. Not so sure I’m in a hurry to go back.


Years ago, a friend of mine - one of those wide-eyed breathlessly enthusiastic nouveau hippie types who (hopefully) loves me enough to forgive me for that description - recommended that I try this bizarre new kind of yoga class. The conversation went a little something like ...

FRIEND: You should really try bikram yoga. It’s hot yoga. So it’s this whole class full of people doing regular yoga, but it’s like over a hundred degrees in the room.
ME, THEN: That … sounds exactly like hell.
FRIEND: No, it’s great! You really sweat out all your impurities.
ME, THEN: Oh! So less like hell, more like purgatory.
FRIEND: Yes, only good for you.
ME, THEN: You know what else is good for me? Cupcakes and not sweating.
FRIEND: I don’t … think? … that’s true?

(SPOILER ALERT: I did not go to bikram yoga. Shocking, I know.)

Fast forward to present day, and this is me after my last class:
The sweaty over-the-shoulder-mirror selfie is gonna be the Next Big Thing. Just you wait.

ME, NOW: Training ain’t training till my SKIN is C R Y I N G.

I owe my friend an apology, is what I’m saying. Or at least a sheepish shrug. Sure, I’m not in an intentionally overheated room trying to twist myself into improbable pretzel shapes, but I am sweating through my uniform three times a week. Intentionally. On purpose. Smile on my face, song in my heart.

The amount of sweat is no huge surprise - I mean, it’s summertime in Texas; I could work up a steamy glisten just by standing near a window. But this is some Whole New Level business. Never before have I sweated so much. There are times (often!) that I actually reach a saturation point where new droplets trickle along completely unnoticed and suddenly it’s not even hot any more because, by some mysterious magic, the moisture that is weeping from every pore is literally cooling my body down.

… Which may or may not be exactly how sweat is intended to work.