Monday, May 4, 2015

Week 4: The Worst Of Times, The Best Of Times

Folks warned me there’d be ups and downs with this training. I just didn’t realize both could happen in the same week. Silly me.

Tuesday night started simply enough. We warmed up with Siu Nim Tao, and then Simo offered us the option of starting with conditioning or drills. I appreciate conditioning, but I like drills. See the difference? Lemme ‘splain.

Conditioning is … It’s a lot of things. I’m not about to try and explain the theory and spirit of it better than much smarter people than I already have. The long and short of it is that I’m pushing my body to the point of discomfort, and then a little farther. Every time I do, that point gets reset to that new distance and I can measure my body’s growing strength in how long it takes me to get there. Incredibly valuable work, if not very exciting.

Drills are a different beast. Not just the motions, but the response to those motions, and the response to that response. If conditioning is a monologue, drills are a conversation. Two people dancing to the music of skin and breath while calculating the endlessly mutable equations of muscle and bone around the infinite variables of physics and human thought. Or, ya know … trying to hit each other. Depends how poetic you’re feeling. I tend to fly a bit fancy in my own head about it (as you might have noticed).

So on Tuesday, when I was presented with the choice of which aspect of training to start with, I chose conditioning. Having the brain candy of drills to look forward to would, I figured, help the conditioning go by faster. Spoonful of sugar and all that jazz.

And you know what? I rocked that conditioning. The body that had spent half the day nursing a migraine had no complaints about moving through the exercises Simo presented. I sailed past points that had once been full of breathless near-agony, and actually caught myself grinning when my legs finally, long after I thought they should have, began to shake just a little.

I was mighty. The superhero version of myself. I could arm wrestle bears and hurl exploding cupcake grenades at evildoers. Obviously. Pondering how many busloads of orphaned kittens I could save with my newfound powers, I sat down for a quick break to rest and rehydrate.

Break done, I measured off with my partner for cross-arm drills. Imagine my bewilderment as every word of Simo’s instructions skittered off the surface of my mind like oil across a hot skillet. There and gone, nothing sticking or sinking in. With a buzzing behind my eyes, I watched my partner move through the drill a few times and hoped I’d catch on. Alas. The buzz turned into deafening static on the line of communication between my brain and my body. Signals were being sent out, but the reception was garbled. Lacking any clear orders from my brain, my arms became sluggish noodles, delivering my hands to their positions long seconds after my partner’s fists arrived.

The fog had rolled in. The dreaded brain fog.

Lupus Fog is a real thing. You can tell, because it has a page on WebMD. When I get tired, or the lupus kicks itself into high gear, I find it hard to think around the fuzz inside my skull. Memories disappear for a little while. I lose the words for things and the will to find them as my vocabulary dissolves and my attention span shrinks to microscopic levels. It’s like being stuck in that moment when you’re just about to nod off to sleep. There’s a short list of things you can do with a brain in that state, and Kung Fu isn’t on it.

The fog is frustrating under any circumstances, but when it happens while I’m trying to learn a new thing? When I should totally have seen it coming, what with the migraine and the conditioning-induced fatigue, but either didn’t see it or didn’t want to see it? When my goals for the night rapidly dwindle from the long, lovely conversation of drills to simply getting the damn sequence right once, just one time, before I call it a night? That took me so far beyond frustrated that I would’ve chewed nails and spit bullets if I could’ve focused on my teeth for more than two seconds.

It felt like I was saying "I won't do this because it's too hard", which is something that I'd sooner walk on my own lips than say. But I didn't exactly have a choice.

Simo and the other student were fantastic, very empathetic and totally willing and able to work with my sudden onset of special needs, but ultimately I had to concede defeat. Splash some water on my angry face and quietly play through Siu Nim Tao until I calmed down. The drive home involved a lot of really loud, melodramatic music.

The next day dawned on a clear, but discouraged mind. I made coffee and did the grumpiest Siu Nim Tao ever. But I did it, so that’s something. Eventually, I remembered that there were people I could talk to about this mess. Sifu and Simo, other students. Plenty of folks had reminded me, repeatedly, that they were available to help out. One student at the school, in particular, had also started his training with a disability, and he had said I could ping him if I ever needed to.

Now, look ... I’m not normally one to reach out for help or commiseration. People say things like “if you need anything, call me” all the time, and they don’t really mean it. It’s just the Nice Thing to say. Besides, it’s been the habit of a lifetime to stew in my own moody juices until I either work through the mess or decide it’s not worth my time any more and just move on. But this wasn’t something I was going to get over on my own. And it seems to me that maybe Kung Fu isn’t made for loners. There’s a community that builds itself around the study, the teaching and the learning and the work that goes into it. People who have been, if not precisely where I am, then at least very near it.

So I took a deep breath, got over myself, and messaged my fellow student:

Bless his socks, he got it. Mine was not a unique incomprehensible snowflake of an issue. Someone else had gone through something similar, survived it, thrived on it, and was happy to help me do the same. I’m starting to get the idea that, in this Kung Fu life thing that I’m still trying to figure out, when someone offers to help you it’s not an empty courtesy. They actually want to help. They have energy and knowledge and muscle on reserve for you, should you ever ask.

So we talked, and I felt better. I walked into the Friday morning class expecting no more of myself than to get through the basic forms and drills without falling apart. Setting the bar low makes it easy to step over, thus scoring myself a quick victory to help rebuild what discouragement had knocked down. It’s pretty standard op when you’re used to nursing yourself through rough spots. It also turned out to be pretty unnecessary.

I don’t want to wax fangirly, here, but that class was … it was fantastic. Somewhere in the quiet intensity of a room full of people working very hard, an environment both soothing and invigorating, through the calm encouragement of instructor and friends, I found the superhero me that I’d left behind on Tuesday. I wasn’t leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but I was damn sure throwing and pak’ing hundreds more punches than I’d thought possible, testing my balance in new and exciting ways, and finally starting to grok the concept of relaxed energy.

In the middle of conditioning, with sweat soaking my bandana and one foot in the air, I realized … If I have to power through the Crucible Of Teeth-Gnashing Frustration every now and then, I'm cool with it. Because now I know that there is support within the school for me and my crazy princess disease, and that for every day of defeat there will be at least one day of triumph. Maybe more, if I play my forms right.

The drive home from that class may or may not have involved Uptown Funk on repeat and car-dancing all the way to Round Rock. No regrets. Everyone should have a chance to feel that awesome.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Week 3 - A letter of apology. To my knees.

My dearest knees,

I love you. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but I do.

You have dutifully bent my legs at the middle for over three decades, now. You have endured a childhood in which I spent more time on my bike than off, an adolescence full of horseback riding, and an adulthood that has (thus far) included a college campus made entirely of hills, two pregnancies, and an inflammatory autoimmune condition. You have been slammed, scraped, kicked by horses, swollen and waddled upon, and attacked from within by crazed antibodies. And yet, not once have you shirked your task. Not even back in ‘97 when that half-drunk frat boy hit you with his Toyota Supra and gave one of you a bone bruise and the other umpteen stitches. My knees, you are troopers.

Horse stance must have seemed like quite the betrayal.

After all you’ve done for me, here I am asking you to support my not inconsiderable weight while bending at heretofore unimagined angles. And not just briefly, but for long minutes at a time, until your ligaments groan under the strain and it’s almost a relief when I start forcing you to awkwardly hobble across the floor in a shuffling movement that could only, at this stage of my training, be very charitably called a “crab step”. Horse stance has been deeply unpleasant for you, and for that I apologize.

It’s my fault, you see. I was doing it wrong.

My toes were pointed forward, which left you canted inward, bearing the full brunt of my forward-tipped hips with no support from the lower legs. Literally all of the pressure was on you, my stalwart knees. You had no assistance from the feet gripping the floor, no counterbalance in the angle of the shins, no even distribution of my weight in the space between tailbone and heels, you and toes, rather than on the joints themselves. 

How you endured weeks of this without packing up your patellas and leaving me to a lifetime of skipping certain lyrics when I sing with my kids, I’ll never know.

Simo caught the problem at our last training session. In that gently matter-of-fact way that I’m starting to suspect may be the hallmark of all good instructors, she told me to turn my toes inward. I wouldn’t think such a little thing would make all the difference in the world, but I’m sure you can agree, sweet knees, that it has made all the difference in the world. Also, she hooked us up with these:

kungfuslippers (2).jpg
(the shoes, not the cat hair)

What these shoes lack in hella cuteness, they more than make up in usefulness. Which is like being cute, but better. See, up to this point I’d been training in sneakers. The feet got to lounge in cushy comfort while you knees did all the heavy lifting. But now? Now the feet can actually feel the floor. They can spread the toes to grip and balance and provide better support for you and every other bit of me. There is actual balance, now. Suddenly, we have a chance for stability and a growing awareness of where tension is and is not being held.

These are some magical freakin’ shoes.

And so, my darling knees, with our Cinderella kung fu slippers and some improved technique, I promise you it’ll all get better. We will get stronger, you and I, and soon horse stance will no longer be a thing of wobbly torment, but our go-to place for strength. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter of apology to write to my feet. They’ve never had to grip a floor before, and they’re kind of freaking out about it.

Peace, love, and buckets of cayenne salve,

- Stefannie

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Week 2 - Who's in charge, here? (she said to her limbs)

Turns out, there's actual hitting in kung fu. Who knew?

Well, I knew. Intellectually. Up in my higher brain functions where I do things like on-the-fly calculations to double a cake recipe. But apparently the notion of sanctioned, controlled violence didn't soak all the way through to the lower levels, where my brain keeps the machinery that runs the reflexes.

Seems I have this instinct to not hit people.

Maybe it’s a deep subconscious conditioning that can be traced back to pre-school, when Toddler Me took a swing at some other kid and brought down the hellfire wrath of Mommy. Maybe it's a lifetime of never once throwing a punch or catching one, presumably with my face.

Whatever it is, every time Simo tells me to punch her, I hesitate. Which is ridiculous. It's not like she's asking me to maul her face off; in training, any punches that don't get smacked neatly aside will, at worst, land a solid thump to the center of the chest. It's harmless. It's an excellent basic skill to have, in or out of kung fu. It's consensual. And it makes a really satisfying sound. 

So I shouldn't hesitate. I don’t want to hesitate. I tell myself that on the next reset of the drill, I won’t hesitate. And then I do.

Block, block, pause … 


... punch-punch-punch.

I scowl and set my jaw and ultimately do punch her, and sometimes I even extend my arm all the way (which is another issue I’m working on), but that hesitation? That refusal of my limbs to do what my brain is telling them to do when my brain is telling them to do it? Bugs me.

It doesn't help that my left hand is a sullen teenager

No matter what I ask my left hand to do, it does the opposite. When I say punch, it says taan sao. So I say okay fine, taan sao if you want to taan sao, and my left hand says NO, I want to punch and YOU CAN'T MAKE ME taan sao, and then it stomps off to its room and slams the door and listens to moody music at top volume.

I’m a little grumpy about my lack of coordination, is what I’m saying.

The only thing my left hand has ever been asked to do with equal skill to my right is typing, which it does very well. It typed at least half of the letters in this blog post. But ask it to do anything more complicated than Hold A Thing, or Sit On Hip All Sassy, or Just Hang There, and it gets confused. Then I get annoyed. Then it gets annoyed that I’m annoyed, and down the hate spiral we go.

Sifu gave me some exercises to work on getting both halves of my brain to speak with both sides of my body without the conversation devolving into gibberish. The simplest of them goes a little something like this:
  • Hold out your fists, thumbs on top. 
  • Shift your left thumb in between your index and middle fingers. 
  • Now, switch: left thumb on top of the fist, right thumb between fingers. 
  • Switch back. 
  • Keep switching until it doesn’t make your eyes cross to do it anymore.
The exercises are helping. I might actually have a shot at winning over that cranky left hand.

This kung fu business is finding all kinds of rewiring to be done in my brain. Move the left hand. Be willing to strike another person when I need to. Wires are being uncrossed and soldered into new connections, little changes that will gradually alter the overall circuitry of my cerebral motherboard and wow am I ever beating this metaphor to death.

Basically: change is happening. Good change! But change is hard. Grumble whine mutter.

The real ongoing issue is going to be my physical endurance. Lupus puts a hard limit on my energy. Once I’m done, I’m very very done. The decline from normal to exhausted is a steep slalom through Tired And Increasingly Sloppy. However! Last week, I lasted an hour and ten minutes before I had to call it quits. This week, an hour and twenty. Measurable improvement makes me happy. Turns out, doing siu nim tao at least once a day, every day, actually does pay off.

I suspect that the key is going to be taking more frequent, shorter breaks. Which is logical, but logic has nothing to do with how much I hate having to throw up the cross-arm and call a halt. Making my partner stop their workout just because my silly lupus-brain is getting too foggy to punch straight gives me a serious case of the guilts. I’m going to work on getting over myself on this one, because everyone at this school has been nothing but respectful of my own knowledge of my body’s limits.

Lupus also threw me a curve with a mini-flare of my right sciatic nerve. It happens sometimes, when my roving immune system decides to pick a fight with an innocent bystander, and the nerves in my hips are common targets. Standing in horse stance did a remarkable job of relieving the pressure on the nerve itself, so hurray for less pain. But after not much work at all, my right leg felt weak and numb to the knee, so boo for questionable balance.

But hey! My legs didn’t shake this time, not once. Victory is mine!

Bonus epiphany:

I'm finding little moments throughout my day to incorporate VT. For example:

Pour a fresh, steaming hot cuppa coffee.
Play through Siu Nim Tao three times.
BAM! Coffee is now the perfect temperature to drink.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Week 1 - Watch that first impression: it's a doozy.

{Prologue, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4}

I’m not sure what I expected on my first day of training.

Okay, that’s not true. I know exactly what I expected. Hollywood saw to that. There would be regimented rows of students wearing matching gis. Everyone would move and ferociously shout in perfect unison while inspirational powerchords played in the background. I would be the misfit, obviously, because I am the protagonist of my own story, and someone would sweep my leg and I’d end up painting a very nice old man’s fence until I found my inner strength. Then there would be a two minute montage during which all of the hard work happens, and BAM! Kung fu.

Never believe a word Hollywood says. Lies, all lies.

There are no matching gis. There are t-shirts in various colors, and it doesn’t take but a minute to figure out that the colors denote skill level, or at least the amount of time spent training. My shirt is red, and I try not to let Star Trek make me nervous about that. It doesn’t mean I’m first to die on the next new planet we visit, it just means I’m a newbie.

The class is quiet. Like, library quiet. Half a dozen people working out in the room, and I could hear all the little sounds: two instructors having a murmured conversation, soft hum of the fan, the rustling of cotton t-shirts as a dozen arms moved in poetically precise ways, stuff like that. This is a place of study, so shush. There’s even a polite sign on the wall asking for no loud talking, ever.

My daily life is filled with small people who have turned their volume up to eleven and broken the knob off. The quiet of this place was a shock.

It would be nice to say that I adjusted quickly and got right to work, so let’s say that’s what happened. Let’s not say that I stood there awkwardly and stared at everything with too-big eyes while my brain tried to grind the rust off of my Quiet And Focused gear.

Luckily, a very patient Simo scooped me and the other students up and started leading us through the most basic form. I was suddenly too busy to be awkward. Strange to think of standing very still on oddly bent knees while slowly and carefully moving my arms as being busy, but there it is. All of my muscles were doing things, and I was attempting to pay attention to all of them at once. Busy.

It began with Siu Nim Tao, the basic form. I had done it before, as a warm-up during the Women’s Self Defense class. Simo led me through it a few times before she asked me to lead her through it, and boy did I overthink that one. I kept comparing my form to everyone around me (am I moving my arms faster than they are? I totally just turned my wrist in the wrong direction aaaaaand GREAT now I’ve lost count of how many push-wrist-forward thingies I’ve done) and quietly freaking out while my thighs burned and this mysterious liquid appeared all over my skin that turned out later to be something called "sweat".

Simo and the other ladies in the class pushed on, quietly, calmly, and to varying degrees as sweatily as I, and I grokked my first lesson: we’re all in this together.

Everyone in that room is there to learn, whether it be from teaching or being taught or both. We are not there to compete or compare. I was surprised to learn, in talking (quietly) with the other students, that many of us are there for the same reasons: to repair and reclaim our health and our bodies.

There is support and understanding in that school, trusting each other to fling fists without doing harm and murmur encouragement through the smack of hands catching hands, and respecting the cross-arm signal to halt (which I am always the first one to give). While there is no judgement for sick ladies like me who need to sit down from time to time, there is a bottomless well of kind expectation that we’ll get back up and keep training for as long as we’re able.

Once I let that concept soak in, the time flew by. New challenges were presented, and I tried to meet them. Kept on trying even when my legs trembled and my breath rasped and my hands shook. I’ve never tried like that before. Never enjoyed the process of trying for its own sake, without some shiny finish line in sight. 

I won't say call it life-changing, but it was certainly perspective-shifting - now that I've figured out how to try, it's the only way I want to try. If that even makes sense.

(*ahem* Sorry not sorry, if that got a bit sappy. It was kind of an a-ha moment for me.)

Speaking of my hands... I’m a lupus patient, and the primary manifestation of my symptoms has always been pain and swelling in the joints of my hands. There are days when I can’t close a fist around the inflammation. I often lose circulation and feeling in my fingers. My biggest worry about this training was that it would cause all manner of havoc below my wrists.

The exact opposite happened. Every twist of the wrist and curl of the fist seemed to free the flow of blood and energy into my hands. I walked out of that first class fluttering my fingers like a crazed pianist just because I could.

Well. I sort of walked. My knees had a less magical experience than my hands did. Hopefully that will get better with more training.

I staggered to my car, drove home, and fell into the best night’s sleep of my life.

Practical takeaways from this session:

  • If your hands are shaking, it’s already too late to take a break. Sit. Down. Get some water.
  • Take a minute to stretch out your legs before you try to drive a standard transmission vehicle all the way back to Round Rock, you fool.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Prologue: How Did I Even Get Here?

{Prologue, Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4}

I am not the kind of person who does Kung Fu.

I’m thirty-five years old, for one thing, and at least that many pounds overweight. My two kids are just old enough to supervise themselves, and just young enough for that to potentially be a terrible idea. I’m lazy. My idea of a strenuous workout is a marathon cookie baking session, conducted in my tiny kitchen while standing hipshot in pajamas and binge-watching Star Trek. I’ve never thrown a punch in my life. Even as a kid, I was never very rough-and-tumble, relying on snark and bluster to get me out of the confrontations that they got me into in the first place.

If all of that basic me-ness wasn’t enough, there’s also my permanent get-out-of-gym pass: I have systemic lupus. My immune system is like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills all over my body instead of fighting off germs. What little energy I have each day is absolutely finite. More often than not, my joints ache and a fever hovers right around the hundred-degree mark. And it’ll be like this for the rest of my days.

So really, medically speaking, I have no business exerting myself, or touching other people, or going anywhere, at all, ever again. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

The first step, the hardest step, was actually deciding to start. See, I’ve spent my entire adult life viewing exercise as something incredibly boring and uncomfortable to be suffered through in order to fit into smaller jeans. It was something that my body had to be forced to do for an hour every day (okay, thirty minutes … okay, twice a week), while my brain got to do whatever fun stuff it wanted for the other twenty-three. You can see how there might be some resentment, there. My mind and body found each other repugnant and intrusive, like really bad roommates. The only way that either could get away from the other would be rather final and unfortunate for me. Something had to bridge the communication gap, find a common ground between mind and body. Some couples’ counseling was required.

I tried meditation, but I kept falling asleep. I tried yoga, but it was boring. I tried dancing, but I have all the left feet.

In a fit of frustration, I signed up for the Women’s Self Defense Class. Then I used my pride to blackmail myself into not flaking out by telling everybody I knew that I was going to take the class. I announced it on Facebook, so it was super mega official. The possible shame of having to admit that I had somehow failed to attend free lessons in how to protect myself turned out to be a pretty good motivator. I went to the class.

It was sweaty. Crowded. A room full of strangers getting physically confrontational with each other. So far outside my comfort zone that the warm, rosy light from my comfort zone would take years to reach it.

I loved every minute of it.

Here was a project that mind and body could work on together, something that required every ounce of concentration my mind could pour into guiding my body. Limbs had to be moved in certain ways, at speed, towards other peoples’ limbs, with a specific mix of power and restraint tempered by observation and reaction.

It was exhausting. And fascinating. Total brain-candy that worked muscles that I had completely forgotten existed. That hour-long class positively flew by, and this was just the freebie lesson tailored to the average lady staying safe on the street. As I practiced what I’d been taught in the week between classes, moving through basic forms in my kitchen while I waited for cookies to bake instead of just standing there, I started to wonder if maybe ...

… despite all the me-ness and the lupus, or possibly because of those things ...

… I am the kind of person who does Kung Fu.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roadtrips & Kung Fu Life

"The Journey is the Reward."  
~ Chinese Proverb

Mary Ceallaigh
and Sifu Vyvial

The Chinese New Year of the Snake arrived on February 10th, and, being a Snake person myself, I welcomed this New Year feeling with an especially happy anticipation about the Tao’s unfolding. And it wasn’t long before I found myself travelling for Kung Fu,  to two different cities within one month...

My Sifu regularly travels to visit Moy Tung Kung Fu Academy Houston, a 3-hour drive away, and this time he was joined by Simo and a couple other of us along for the ride on a journey that turned out to be a continuous training – in balance, coordination, timing, sensitivity, and relaxation – kept intact with respect. From the dark winter morning gathering at the school, to attending the Saturday morning Houston class led by Sifu & Dai Sihing Nic, we trained. From some fun side-errands in Houston’s Little India, and an evening return and lingering wrap up conversations in the school office with my Simo, we trained, trained, trained.

This sort of togetherness is called “Kung Fu Life” in Ving Tsun and something Grandmaster Moy Yat emphasized often. It's the process of putting ourselves in situations where we have to directly face moment-to-moment reality through relationship, and respond with our martial attributes. Doing this, we experience the consequences of our actions immediately, and in this way, our physical practices and Kung Fu Life go hand-in-hand. This is why it is said that making the many sacrifices involved to travel for immersion-style training & socializing can exponentially increase your Kung Fu development, as each hour spent together with practice in mind is an hour of great potency. Traditional practitioners of mind-body arts throughout Asia took regular journeys and retreats very seriously, as a way to deepen their practice.

Within days of the Houston trip, I was in my Sifu’s office and he said “You should go to Richmond - you really should! The school can take a van, we’ll take turns driving, it’ll be fun!” Knowing that it was a good date for me to travel, my natural response spontaneously arose without thought – and it was a question: “Is Simo going?” My innate intelligence understood that, as one of the few females in the school, I needed to travel with my Simo, who is not only the most skilled Ving Tsun female presently training in Austin, but also the other half of Sifu. I knew if my Simo was going I would go – and that everything would align in order for me to do so, which it did.

Snakes of the Wood element type of people rarely rely on others, and I wouldn’t normally consider a continuous drive group road trip experience any fun, having done plenty of trekking in my 20s...  And though I have a stable group of close friends that I feel connected to and I love each of these people quite deeply, I am also easily content with solitude!  So, even though 24 hours on the road encapsulated in a jiggling van with 6 other people and a variety of strange pit stop locations isn't my usual thing, I knew it would be wonderful test of martial attributes. I also knew that the Richmond workshops would be energizing and amazing, due to some previous experiences with training transcendence...

Sifu-Simo's presence helped steer our little crew of committed students owards successful improvisation with this trip adventure. Our rental van was a new luxury Chrysler, replete with movie screens, adjustable seats, and fancy seat lighting & air streams - crazy like a jet airplane:

Sifu sat next to the driver, kept drivers awake all night, served up music requests, and helped keep us aware of our progress.

And by the 16th hour on such a journey, when chronological time no longer makes any sense, it was just the power of intention and community spirit that carried us to the final goal.  And after after about 24 hours on the road, we arrived at the tail-end of Richmond West school's Friday night class.  Sifu wanted us to attend, even though we were very sleep-deprived, disheveled, and unshowered....  While normally in such circumstances I would just head straight to hot water and a bed, my Sifu-Simo were enthusiastic so I kept up, understanding that we were in Kung Fu Land with precious people. 

After the class, when everything started to wind down, and I was relishing the thought of crashing at the hotel, I learned that we were headed to a diner for a late night snack of champions (of course)!  My stomach wasn’t growly, so I ordered just a cup of tea, and feeling the heavy, warm diner mug in my hand instantly re-ignited the fires of gratitude and Wu Wei (harmony) in my heart there at the table, in Richmond, Virginia. Sitting across from me was Dai Sihing Neil, and when his plate of food arrived he shared his corncake with me. I was especially touched by this simple act in the wee hours of the morning after what seemed like a really long journey, and it tasted very, very good.

A little later, when our smaller group of Austin students arrived at our hotel at 1am, Sihing Rubin patiently parked our van and got us checked in, paying attention to a multitude of details, just like he had done with all the groundwork before we left Austin and all the fueling on the road. As we walked/stumbled the downtown hotel's hallways in a place I’d never been before (a city formerly known for its very dangerous circumstances), I noticed I felt safe, and that was a remarkable thing as the only female in a small group of men in a city I’d never been in before.

Our two days of training at Sigung’s nearby Richmond school began the next morning. More experienced students who were simultaneously my nephews served as my Sidais, and again, gratitude swelled in me, as they offered their unique structures for me to learn with. The energy of 40 people training together with shared commitment is an awesome thing, both indoors and outdoors under the brilliant Spring light and fresh cool air. Training outside the vacuum of our Austin school was super refreshing, as each new training partner provided a whole new universe to train with. 
Later at the evening banquet event, which was also Sigung’s birthday, there was the sweetest jazzy music, along with food, cake, chitchat, and group photos. 
Eventually Sigungmo & baby Giovanna departed with the senior ladies accompanying their trip home – and Sigung dimissed all other locals. It was then that I realized I was again the only female, this time in a room of a few dozen men, as they started to move tables around and began to train.   I soon realized I also felt protected by the presence of many high caliber, noble warriors - as well as the reliable sign of my own relaxation.

Sigung, seated in his observation post compound near a handful of newer students practicing Luk Sao, had warned me to be careful when he asked me to go around the room filming during the Chi Sau practice - where things change fast and bodies can fly!  As the minutes passed, it began to dawn on me that I was getting to see senior Kung Fu master killers in motion, all of them with at least 10 years of training (and some of them with over 20) and it was so good that it wasn't televised!!! This high-level training ground was the very same dimension inhabited by the ancient Taoist masters - except that we were in the American Northeast. Serious force was being harnessed and let loose in a bar-room brawl without much of a bar, the room permeated with the sounds of bodies crashing on tables and banging on walls, with just enough groundrules to sustain Kung Fu. It wasn't until someone got thrown into a wall and a huge oil painting in a wood frame knocked down to the floor, that I started to know that we were in an alternate dimension, really...

Meanwhile, I was intent on good filming technique and fulfilling my duty - even though one of the bodies that happened to painlessly encounter a wall was mine at one point.  It was really only afterwards that the true reality hit me: my Sifu and Dai Sihings and all the other Chi Sau players were allowing their Kung Fu to flow in ways few people ever get a chance to see, and the energy of the room was Life Force itself. In other words, it was Beautiful Springtime City, and we could have been in some high mountain meadow village.  I was feeling a relaxed trust in the exciting scene - as well as a serious amount of loving nonattachment as I saw dear ones risking bodily harm.  My Sifu was successfully knocking bigger bodies than him into the air, and younger men were surprising older men, and nothing was as it seemed. I was a very different person witnessing this than many years before when I started to cry at an Irish boxing match!!!

Eventually Sigung announced the wrap up and Chi Sau came to a close. I just sat there, blinking.  It had only been maybe an hour of Chi Sau, but Time had definitely stopped. 

The next morning was Sunday,  and Sibak really helped us get more training in by opening the school early just for us.  This was at Sifu’s request of course, because Sifu wanted us to get in as much training as possible in between riding in the van on the road!

Then later the Simos and all the female students were invited to join Sigungmo’s women’s training workshop at the historic Byrd Park carillon, where we practiced
10 Siu Nim Taos in a row, in glorious Spring air. A hawk flew over us many times during this, catching the light like kung fu, and casting huge moving shadows of wings across the pavilion. Sigungmo practiced the highly advanced Babywearing Chum Kiu, and many of us trained Toi Ma on the corridors of the stone tiles. When Dai Sihing Neil, and Sihing Rubin arrived to collect Simo and me so we could join the Austin departure, they took some photos of us, the largest Ving Tsun female group in modern times.

As our Austin group reconvened, Sifu helped us focus on a timeline despite us feeling like we could stay for days. We said our goodbyes at the school, receiving many compassionate wishes for a safe journey in our famous 24 HOUR VAN RIDE to come…. We stopped at the house and Sifu-Simo had a goodbye visit with Sigung, and then we were off, headed to North Carolina. Later, driving through the night’s hills and tree-lined highways, Sifu DJ-d some great tunes and indulged my request for Cibo Matto, even though it made him sleepy. The trip home seemed a lot faster, due to our supercharged SNT energy and enhanced Kung Fu. We drove through a rainstorm in Louisiana, listened to lots of Clifton Chenier, and arrived back in Austin in time for Monday evening’s class.  

This is just one angle of our epic adventure - as a lot more happened as those who were there well know. Personally I have experienced this journey's positive impact on my training life - it has made a regular weeknight class shimmer and fly by quickly - Life is even more alive.  My internal Kung Fu had a huge growth spurt through this experience, and body & mind have opened to whole new foundations.  I love my training even more.  How can this be?  You have to figure that out for yourself, just like the rest of Kung Fu.