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:

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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Month 4: Like Magic, Only BETTER

{Month 1, Month 2, Month 3}

Kung Fu is the reason I can walk.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. I’ve actually been walking at a semi-professional level for more than three decades prior to any Kung Fu training. Mastered all levels of mid-speed locomotion, from the wobbly toddle to the popstar power sashay, and I hardly ever fall over. Skills, I have them.

I also have systemic lupus. From time to time my immune system will lose its mind and declare all-out war on whatever part of my body strikes its fancy. A favorite target, lately, has been my sciatic nerve. When that flare hits, inflammation broils along this very special nerve that’s rooted at the base of the spine and trails along the back of the hips and thighs, making every movement of the legs a cold-sweat-inducing experiment in personal terror.

I go from perfectly mobile thirty-something to shambling octogenarian in a matter of hours. Walking just plain hurts. A lot.

Before I started training in Kung Fu, whenever a lupus flare would target my sciatic nerve I'd just have to resign myself to days of immobility, heavy medication, and gritting my teeth through very rare, very slow hobbles to and from the bathroom. Which is super duper fun when you’re the mother of two young kids, let me tell you what. But there was no other option. Sit still, take pills, wait for the pain to get bored with gnawing on my unresisting carcass and wander away.

But now?

After four months of Siu Nim Tao every single day?
After one hundred and twenty days of pushing the power of my kicks from the earth beneath my feet? Of pinning my heels to the floor and gripping with my toes and driving all forward momentum from the hips?
After I don’t even know how many hours of sinking into horse stance till my muscles burned, and then a little longer? Of shifting into back horse and one-two stepping my way across acres of floor?

Sixteen weeks of this, but with shoes on. Mostly.
Now, this very week, when my crazed antibodies made a blitz run against my sciatic nerve and launched a thousand spears of icy fire into every inch from the small of my back to the bend of my knees … I can still walk.

Imagine my surprise, when I felt that first twinge of real not-joking-around-here pain shoot across my hips, when I heaved a sigh and prepared to hunch into my customary little old lady shuffle only to … pause … and realize ... with the slow wonder of a cave-dweller blinking in the soft rays of its first sunrise ... that I didn’t need to

Sure, the pain was still there, so very there, but with a tip of the hips and a shift of the weight (something I’d never have thought to do four months ago, but which is becoming second nature these days) I was able to keep moving.  

It’s like magic. If magic was something that you could build for yourself by sweating your ass off.

The muscles and tendons and whatever other meaty bits wrap around my hips and legs are just plain stronger now. The soft tissues that surround my sciatic nerve are suddenly capable of supporting me without putting too much pressure on the nerve itself. I know how to shift my weight, now, how to angle my hips to ease the pain. How to slide my strides instead of swinging them from the hip joint and sending bolts of hissing agony along my backside. Sure, I look a particularly plump Ed Grimley trying ice skates for the first time when I walk, but I just can’t seem to care because I am walking.

If it can do this for me, for someone with the autoimmune equivalent of Russian roulette, what can it do for folks with other issues? Busted knees, a wrenched spine, twisted neurologicals, shattered confidence. There's not much I can think of that couldn't be improved by bolstering the strength and energy of not just the impacted area, but all the bits connected to it.

Look, I don’t mean to wax evangelical about the wonders of Kung Fu. Honestly, probably any exercise that I could have chosen to do would be helping me, if only by the empowerment of making the decision to help my own body. That moment, that point at which I decided to dive into something big and intimidating and new and way more physical than anything I’ve done before, was moonlight on my face and enough wind in my sails to carry me as far as the first class. 

Once that wind faded, I had to work to keep going. Had to sweat. Buckets. (hello, Texas in summertime) Surely I could have sweat those same buckets on a treadmill in a gym, jogging endless miles to nowhere at all; or in a spin class, covering imaginary distances to an upbeat soundtrack; or in a dance studio, trying to learn concepts alien to me, like grace and rhythm.

I could have done any of those workouts instead of Kung Fu. And they most likely would help to improve my basic health, as anything that gets the heart pumping and the muscles moving does. But … would they also teach me how to break a man’s ribs?

Or how to knead dough in mid-air? Very aggressively?
See, Kung Fu is nothing if not efficient - I can improve my health while simultaneously learning the skills to make anyone who tries to harm me regret that decision, immediately and with great pain. Extra special surprise bonus: it turns out that, fairly early in the training process, I can also earn the ability to stay on my feet when my own immune system tries to cripple me from the inside. Which is a little like getting two handfuls into a Crackerjack box and finding a winning lotto ticket. 

I'm not convinced that a treadmill could make the same offer.

That kind of payoff, that a-ha moment where I realized that months of hard work had yielded some very real, very practical results, made me want to thank Kung Fu somehow. Bake it some cookies or make it a pan of enchiladas or something. My gratitude, like all of my positive emotions, tends to express itself in food. But it turns out that the grand-yet-simple concept of Kung Fu doesn’t actually have a mouth, per se, so I had to say my thanks in the only other way I could think of: by training harder.

Thus motivated, I walked into a women’s training class with a special guest instructor, a guy who I learned to call Sisuk (he’s my Sifu’s younger Kung Fu brother, and therefore my uncle; thus does my comprehension of the great big Ving Tsun family tree grow by a little bit). We played our warm-up forms in the usual way, all facing the same wall so as not to cross the streams of our focus and distract each other. Sisuk found a spot just outside of everyone’s peripheral to play his forms at a 90-degree angle to us; it took me several minutes to realize that he was, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, observing our techniques. Subtle. And appreciated! If I’d felt stared-at, I would’ve become one giant bundle of anxious thumbs. Can’t nobody learn when they’re all thumbs.

After that came the two-man drills, the punching and the pak’ing, until I found myself pulled aside by Sisuk to have bright, friendly eyes pick out a few details, tiny things about my form and technique to concentrate on …

… That’s a jut with the hands in the second section of Siu Nim Tao, just after the taan and fook, not the downward shove that I had been doing. And now that I get that jut, what happens if we play Pak Dar and I incorporate the jut into the pak? Well, wouldyalookit that? Suddenly the window for my punch is wider, and I can throw my fist on the straight line of doom like I’m supposed to. Neat!

… Lop Sao is a whole new level of communication and sensitivity, of not just the action but the reaction and the reaction to that reaction. Feel when the punch is coming in, deflect it across the forearm. Move each answering punch like I mean it - not necessarily with strength, but with the dropped-elbow centerline form. Pay attention to the sihing’s signals for changes, or the best I can hope for is a tangled mess of arms trying to fumble back into the rhythm.

Breathe. All the time. So much air. Oxygen makes the muscles move. Breathe through the twenty minute slice of special hell that is a slow-motion Siu Nim Tao. Hold horse stance until every muscle from hip to ankle screams and the toes tingle. Stop. Shake out the legs. Jump right back into the form. For the luvva gawd, keep breathing.

And so the class went, for four and a half hours. Which may not seem like much to other folks, but to me? WOW. Since being diagnosed with lupus years ago, the only thing I’ve ever managed to do for four and a half hours is sleep. And yet, I did actually train steadily throughout that time. Took breaks as needed, but I kept up, dammit. Now please pardon me as I thump my chest and strut a bit.

I'm not saying that the power of Kung Fu has cured me. There is no cure for lupus. There's not even really an official treatment for lupus, just a grab-bag of pills and coping strategies. What I am saying is that this training is making my body strong enough to weather the storms that my disease throws at me.

That’s beyond magic. I don’t have a good word for what that is. Can’t call it a miracle, because I know exactly how it happened: I worked hard. Which might actually be what Kung Fu means.

Fun Bonus Fact:

Lupus is not contagious. You can’t catch lupus from me. You can’t catch lupus at all. It’s not that kind of disease. The only person who’s going to be harmed by my condition is me, which is why I take medications that kick my immune system in the teeth. Keeps me safe from my own confused antibodies, but it also leaves me vulnerable to infection. So, to all my fellow students who slather themselves in Purell from fingertips to elbows before working out with me - thanks! You’re all beautiful cinnamon rolls, too good for this world, too precious.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Month 3: One Of The Big Kids

Month Three is the best month of training. So far. I'll 'splain exactly why in a bit.

First, some real talk: I have a problem with authority. Always have.

See, I am the oldest of five children. The Biggest Sister. The playground defender, bedtime ignorer, and nutritionally inadvisable snack provider. The parental underboss: not exactly in charge, but I’d do in a pinch. The superhero who knew how to do All The Things (for no better reason than I had already learned how when they weren’t watching). The one who got the bumps and bruises and scars that taught four kids what not to do. The one who stress-tested The Rules so they’d be all comfy and broken in by the time my siblings got around to using them. The first of our generation to be given pieces of grown-up responsibility to handle, and the first to spectacularly screw those responsibilities right the hell up. The Example: good, bad, and very bad.

Now that all my sibs and I are grown, I’m the mother of two small children and the undisputed bossypants mamabear of my own little household. All of this, combined with the natural contrariness that seems writ upon my bones, and you’re dealing with someone who has all the willingness to cooperate with authority of your average scalded housecat.

I have an instinctual disregard for anyone who might wish to boss me around. If you could spare a moment’s sympathetic thought for my parents, teachers, and employers, I’m sure they would appreciate it.

To be clear: this is a character flaw. One that I have an on-again-off-again struggle with. It’s exactly the last thing in the world I would want to bring into Kung Fu training, but I could no more easily leave it behind than I could unzip my skin and check my contrary bones at the door. Dilemma.

Luckily, the Ving Tsun system is ready for punks like me.

There are many parts to this system, most of which I could probably list in under a minute but will spend the next many years of my life trying to fully comprehend. The one that’s most relevant to who I’ve been up to this point and where I am now in my training (and this blog post), is the concept of Kung Fu Family.

Kung Fu Family isn’t just a nice idea. It’s not some empty slogan, a set of words to be mouthed as needed, slapped on to a conversation to add the illusion of meaning, convenient and disposable as a post-it note. The concept of family permeates every aspect of this training, starting with the very basic structure of who’s who in the school.

We’ve got the school’s dad and mom: Sifu and Simo. All of the other students are siblings. Some are older because they’ve been training longer; we call them sihing. Some are younger because they’re newer to the school; they’re called sidai. It’s a hierarchy of sorts, but only for lack of a better word because it’s got nothing to do with skill or merit or some arbitrary measurement of each student’s worth, and everything to do with when we started training. We’re all equals, it’s just that some of us have been there longer than others. The first student to join the school would be the oldest sihing, and the most recent student to sign up would be the youngest sidai.

Which means that when I walked into that school for my first class, I suddenly became everybody’s baby sister.

I’ve never been baby anything to anybody who hadn’t given birth to me, much less to a small army of strangers trained in hand-to-hand combat. Nothing about my life experience thus far could have prepared me for this. When confronted with bizarro circumstances, my instinct is typically to puff up and bullrush my way through until things look familiar again. Which is exactly how you don’t learn Kung Fu.

So for the past three months, I’ve reined in that instinct and tried to keep myself on a simple three step program:

1 - show up for training
2 - keep my sassmouth closed and my ears open
3 - watch my sihings

If any of my new older brothers and sisters had ever tried to alpha dog me, had ever done any of the thousand little dominance displays we humans are too often capable of, had ever bossed or barked or demanded, I would have turned on my little heel, sashayed away, and never looked back. But that’s not what good sihing do, at least not at this school.

Being sidai does not come easily to me. I'm just too me for it to ever feel natural, and I’m going to slip up every now and again. Hell, just this past week I showed half an ounce of accidental disrespect to a sihing by thoughtlessly setting up my hands for a two-person drill as though I was the sihing. And you know what? Days later I’m still all squirmy inside about it, actually chagrined at myself for being the kind of pain in the ass I’ve always been. Weird.

See, when my sihings are all, for the most part, calm and skilled, friendly and willing to help a newbie along without being condescending, and (bless them, this above all) patient, well … it’s not so much a matter of having to suppress my attitude problems as it is not having to use them at all. The sihings are there to help their sidais, just as they are helped by their own sihings. Not just willing to work with the younger students, but happy to. Showing respect to people like that ain’t difficult.

Which isn’t to say that all sihings are the same. Oh, very far from it. Each offers their own lessons, just by being themselves.

Some sihings are extremely tuned in to a sidai’s fatigue level, and will call a halt to the exercise at the first over-large huff of tired breath. Which is a mixed blessing. I mean, I do get tired suddenly and often apropos of not much at all thanks to that whole chronic illness thing, but I’m also prone to melodrama. That gusty sigh in the middle of Pak Sao could be a surprise onrush of fatigue, or it could be that I just remembered that I have two loads of laundry waiting at home for me to sort and fold. I can either babble an apology and explain myself every time this happens, or just stay focused in the moment and stop being a drama queen. Huff only when I need to huff.

Some sihings are vocally encouraging, cheering you on even as they come at you with forearms like accelerating concrete pylons. It’s like trading blows with a very skilled, utterly merciless golden retriever. Pak’ing punches like theirs really helps me get over that whole fear reactivity thing. Because if I flinch away from that simple exercise I might as well keep on backing up out the door and go hide in my car until a real grown-up can come rescue me from my life choices.

Some sihings are so quiet, not just in voice but in personal energy, as though if you dropped them into a pond they’d slip peacefully through the water without leaving so much as a ripple, that I can almost forget that they’re even in the room, that anyone else is in the room, and the world can shrink down to nothing more than the play of hands and the lesson of the drills. Their focus is like an aura that moves with them, and when we work out together I get to borrow it for a little while.

Sometimes they’re all precision, the kind of sihings who make horse stance look graceful, with huen saos you could set your watch by. Sometimes they’re all power, the force behind their hands just enough to imply that there could be ever so much more. Sometimes they’re all control, calm limbs marking the drill, holding position quietly until the mistake is seen and corrected, helping the sidai to sculpt their muscle memory. Sometimes they’re all of those things at once.

Occasionally, I wonder what kind of sihing I am, but I’ll never have the cajones to ask one of my sidais. Because I do have sidais, now. I’ve been in the school, a part of the family, for long enough that new students have joined up behind me. Finally, someone upon whom to inflict my frustrated Big Sister-ness. As interpreted through the lens of all that my sihings have demonstrated, of course. Got to give back all the good that I’ve gotten.

It’s a relief, not being the baby any more. A big step, and one of many reasons why Month Three is The Best Month.

Up to this point, for the past dozen or so weeks, I’ve felt like the awkward puppy person trying to scamper along with the big dogs. Which, for a career Oldest Sibling like me, is pretty wretched. Not because anybody made me feel that way, mind you. Sifu, Simo, all of my sihings, they’ve all been, in their own ways, the very soul of patient encouragement. Any perceived awkwardness is coming from inside my own contrary skull.

They’ve hung in with me while I’ve tried to get all three stages of Siu Nim Tao out of my head and into my muscles while soaking up enough of a working Kung Fu vocabulary to know what to expect when new drills are introduced. When a sihing introduced me to Lop Sao, I knew by the name of the drill that there would be a curving of a monkey-paw hand over a wrist and a pulling of the limb. What I didn’t know, but would quickly learn, was that this would be the first drill that actually felt like I was doing some legit Kung Fu. Not just fumbling through the placement of limbs on an endless repetition until the muscles can do it on their own without my mental micromanagement, but actual practical application of what I’ve been learning.

Look at me, world! I can do Lop Sao. I'm Kung Fu’ing. I Kung Fu now.

Now, in marvelous Month Three, I can ask half-bright questions about the science behind the drills, rather than just going through the motions by rote. When we circle up for conditioning I can lead the group through an exercise and not feel like a goober. I may have to close my eyes when I do it, because seeing other folks’ limbs moving slightly out of step with mine throws off my groove like hearing my own voice echo back on a phone line, but I get it done. The first time I led a group of my sihings through Siu Nim Tao without any of those endless awkward moments where everybody’s holding still waiting for me to remember what the next move is? Felt like a miniature Christmas.

This is what a baby bird feels like when it perches on the edge of its nest. Totally gonna fly any day now.

And yes, I know that soon I’ll be learning even more new things and basically starting back over on that whole repeat-it-till-the-body-memorizes-it cycle, but I’m cool with that. Thanks to this whole huge family that I had no idea I would be gaining when I started this wacky training thing, I have the basic tools I need to make it work. They’re not handing me the keys to the Kung Fu Family car or anything, but at least I’m out of diapers. 

I’m one of the big kids, now.