Monday, February 1, 2016

2016 Women's Self Defense

Once upon a time, I took my first ever Women’s Self Defense Class. My perspective on personal safety got flipped-turned-upside-down, thus starting the process of moving me from the Potential Victim category over to the Might Actually Be Able To Take Care Of Self category. That class inspired me to start training in kung fu, and everything’s been coming up roses ever since. Sweaty, bruisey roses.

So now, nearly a year later, my fellow Women’s Program students and I get to help out with the 2016 Women’s Self Defense class.

(Minor tangent, here, but if I promise it’ll make sense in a paragraph or so will you bear with me? Okay, here goes …) I’m a bit of a lapsed theatre kid. Which is to say, I have a degree in theatre but haven’t actually been involved in a theatrical production in years. Enough years to forget just about everything but the magic.

See, there’s this thing that happens in live theatre, a kind of spell - woven of effort and skill and talent and energy - that can draw the audience out of their seats, out of reality, and into the world of the story. It’s not actors up here on the stage and distant observers down there in their seats; it’s just everyone learning and growing by living in this moment together. At the end, when the curtain closes and the house lights come up, the spell is broken as everyone just kinda looks around, out of breath and full of heart, wondering where the time went.

It’s a uniquely human kind of magic that feels like flying, and it’s exactly what is happening in the 2016 Women’s Self Defense Class.

For women, by women - that’s how this class works. Because those of us who move through this world as females often do so at our own peril, in a society that bends the full weight of its will to shape us into soft-handed non-confrontational people-pleasers, so if we’re going to grow into badasses we need to start from a safe place. A place where we can hone our awesome to a razor’s edge because we’re comfortable with looking silly or getting overwhelmed or failing a few times before we get it right.

That means no dudes. 

Sure, we have guys to help with the drills, really great guys full of that special kung fu blend of calm-helpful energy, but they wait patiently offstage until we need them. The majority of the class time is spent in a room full of women, every size and shape and age of us, all working together. Ladies teaching, lady kung fu students helping, ladies learning.

There's just a few women involved, is what I'm saying.
The first class started off about like one might expect from any self-defense course. A general discussion about avoiding dangerous situations and being aware of our surroundings, presenting ourselves with confident body language and Using Our Words. The kind of stuff that we all know we should do but mostly forget to do because it’s uncomfortable or exhausting or just, ya know, life. But this is not a school that talks when we could be doing, so the discussion quickly turned into pairing up and practicing.

It’s remarkably difficult to maintain eye contact with someone who is walking towards you aggressively; even more so to put your hands up and order that person to stay the hell out of your personal space. But if someone out there in the world is coming at you with bad intentions, this is exactly what needs to be done. And so we practiced this in the safe space of the class so that we’d be able to do it in the uncertain space of the world outside. It was awkward. The room was full of the shuffle and nervous laughter of comfort zones being tested. Gradually, over the course of the exercises, that chorus of awkwardness was replaced by the sure steps and quiet chatter of a group at work. Folks got comfortable with each other and the practical aspects of the class.

And then ...

“You will be hitting someone tonight,” says the instructor.

A collective flicker of surprise rippled through the students. A few of them flinched. This was not what they were expecting - it’s supposed to be a self-defense class, not a hitting-people class. And if they would be hitting, would they also be getting hit? No, of course not, but the question alone was intimidating. They were there to learn how to protect themselves, not how to hurt somebody else. Little did they know just how much of the kung fu defense is a good offense.

If you go to a kung fu school to learn self-defense, you’re going to learn how to throw a punch. And then another punch. So many punches, a chain of punches, one after the other, over and over and over again. Because if the first one doesn’t hit then the next one might, or the next; however many it takes to make an attacker back off while deeply regretting their life choices.

So, for a little while we were back to awkward, operating well outside of many comfort zones. The lesson was starting to look a lot more like actual violence than most folks were comfortable with, but nobody shied away from the punching. The class had proven itself to be honest and safe up to that point, so why not give it a try? All of the students stepped up to learning how to form a fist that’ll strike solid and true, then hurling those fists through the air along the centerline a few hundred times.

But, hitting the air is very different from hitting a person. 
And, you don’t want the first time that your fist feels impact to be when your life is on the line. 
Sooooo … that’s when the guys joined the class. 

All the ladies had the choice of either hitting a pad held by one of us women-students or punching one of our kung fu brothers in the chest. Hit whatever you’re comfortable with, was the general instruction, but do try hitting something. A lot. Over and over. Chain punch till your arms fall off.

WSD punch.jpg
Line up those knuckles and punch punch punch punch punch BREATHE punch punch.
Thus the first class ended. Smiles and fistbumps all around, we said our goodbyes and settled in to wait a whole week to find out if anyone would return for the second class. Like actors backstage during intermission wondering if the audience will bother to come back to their seats and yes, I’m still trying to make this theatre metaphor happen.

A week later, the second class convened and - to! our! delight! - damn near everybody came back. They trusted the safe learning space we had made for them, trusted our instructors to teach them, and we met that trust with an eagerness to deserve it. That’s when the magic happened.

From that class through to the next classes, all the way to the end of the month, we flew through the rhythm of training, the inexhaustible time-devouring stride of Instructor Demonstrates Technique/Students Practice Technique A Bajillion Times.

WSD demo choke.jpg
Demo how to get out of a chokehold ... practice getting out of a bajillion chokeholds

WSD demo grab.jpg
Demo how to get out of a sideways bearhug ... practice getting out of a bajillion sidways bearhugs
The repetition is crucial; gotta embed the technique into your muscle memory, because if an attack does happen the muscles will react to protect you while your brain is still trying to make sense of what’s going on. Every student in that class knew it, and were totally on board with doing the techniques over and over, and a few more times after that.

An absolutely vital component to this phase was having the men to partner with in class. Now, I’ve made quite the fuss about how great it is to have a women’s-only class for women run by women omg women, but this class would not have worked as well as it did without those guys. At no point in the class do we tell women to fear men, or to view only men as potential attackers. Everything is geared towards defending oneself against any attacker. It’s just that odds are good that, as women, if we’re going to be attacked it’ll be by someone who is bigger and stronger than we are. The easiest way to simulate that size and strength difference in the lovely safety of a class space is to work with a dude.

So the guys integrated with the class as we got into more confrontational drills, with the full-on grabs and the chokeholds and such. These were guys who we lady kung fu students know and trust; they’re our kung fu brothers. We’ve worked out with them, we know they’d never try to hurt us and we trust their skills to keep from hurting anyone accidentally. As the guys demonstrated techniques with the instructor, or paired with a few of us kung fu ladies, the women in the class could see how we trusted them and choose whether or not they wanted to work with them. By the end of the month, almost every woman had trained with one of the guys at some point.

I’m a semi-pro worrywart, though, so I checked in with some of the students after class to see how they felt about working out with the guys, just to make sure everybody was still comfortable and cool with the class and blah blah fussy fretful blah. One of them smacked my worries down with some good ol’ common sense:
WSD chat.jpg
Well. Alrighty then!
Mind you, it wasn’t all just the Women’s Self Defense Class students learning from us. Oh my dear sweet goodness, no! Training works both ways. We were all in this together. We all dealt with the very scary idea of a potential attack; for every time we grabbed a student to simulate an attack so that they could learn how to defend against it, we would also have a turn to get grabbed. Every one of us, regardless of how much kung fu we might have, had to confront not only the idea of what we might do if someone tried to hurt us, but also how easily we could be hurt. 

That’s some heavy baggage to lift, but it’s lighter when you’re all lifting together.

Personally, I could not have been more impressed with the ladies in this class. I met women half my size who, completely untrained, could throw punches hard enough to rock my stance. Some of these ladies had the most wily wrists I’ve ever had the misfortune to try and get a grip on. I worked with a few of the ladies who had flinched at the mention of punching in the first class, who were deeply uncomfortable with the physicality of the drills, but they gritted their teeth and powered through, and good lawd by the end of the month they were stone coldest bruisers in the bunch.

We all flew through that month of classes, swept along on our own little magic spell of strength and the evolution of each other’s courage, a little high on the breathless laughter of folks learning how to be badasses together. Just walking in the door on that first day of class took guts. And to then stick it out for a month of ever-increasing challenge? Well, let’s just say that it’s my hope that those ladies will go out and face the world every single day as brave and powerful as they were in that class. 

Because WOW, will they ever be a force to be a reckoned with.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Month 8: There's A Reason That Word Has "Power" In The Middle

{Month 1, Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, Month 5, Month 6, Month 7}

Kung Fu is empowering for women. 

With the Women’s Self Defense class coming up, that’s something I’ve been saying a lot lately. It seems obvious. Clearly a woman is going to feel more able to defend herself if she’s learned how to throw a wicked punch. But is that all there is to this empowerment business? Just the ability to discourage (read: badly injure) a hypothetical attacker and keep myself safe? Don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty sweet benefit when you consider the sickening statistics of women being assaulted. That alone is reason enough to attend a month-long series of self defense classes, and then stick around for eight more months of sweating my cha-chas off three times a week.

Still, I can’t help but notice that there’s something more to this empowerment gig. And not just the fact that I’ve typed the word so many times that it looks weird and I’m not even sure if I’m spelling it right any more.

Maybe it’s this new independence I’ve got. I do find myself remarkably able to open jars and lift heavy things without hunting down a Big Strong Manto help me.

Or maybe it’s this freedom from the tyranny of the scale that’s haunted me for my entire overweight life. I have always (always, always) dreaded being weighed. Ever since I was old enough to catch society’s signal that the higher the number the less I was worth. But this month, when I stepped on my doctor’s scale I felt none of the grumbling hesitation, not a bit of the usual bracing for the impact of a wave of disappointment when the number would inevitably be too high, no bleak anticipation of spending the rest of the day trudging around in a cloud of self-loathing, planning how best to punish myself for gluttony and hate-downloading yet another diet app. When the scale reported to me with its cold indifference that I’ve gained twelve whole pounds since I started training, for the first time in my life, I just smiled. I grinned at those numbers, all wide and toothy, because now? Oh-ho, now anyone who wants to mess with me has to mess with Twelve More Pounds Of Muscle Me, and good freaking luck with that.

So maybe empowerment is those things - being able to fend for myself, and loving my body for what I know it can do rather than hating on it for not looking the way I think it should. Maybe it’s something a little bit more, too.

I have never been a shrinking violet, never had a bit of trouble expressing my displeasure about anything, but - like most women raised in Western society - I have also never been one to push for a confrontation when it could be avoided. Particularly with strangers. Extra particularly with men.

There had always been that back-of-the-mind thought, that cautionary whisper that said oooh, be careful, don’t cause a scene or he’ll escalate this to a level that you can’t handle, followed by vague images of crime scene photos and newspaper headlines proclaiming Mother of Two Found Tragically Slain After Inane Argument With Complete Stranger. Any time I was harassed or made publicly uncomfortable, I would either pretend I didn’t hear it or just put on my best bitchface to cover the fact that I was totally fleeing the scene.

But now, after eight months of Kung Fu training? Well, let me tell you a little story...

It was a bright, sunny day when I drove into a grocery store parking lot. As I pulled into a handicap spot, I passed a man who was standing by his car. And he stared at me. Unblinking and deliberate.

Now, I have a handicap parking tag in my car, so I am legally allowed to park there. Having lupus makes me extremely sensitive to sunlight and often limits my physical mobility, so my doctor basically wrote me a prescription for Not Having To Limp Across Big Sunny Parking Lots. Thing is, I often don’t look terribly handicapped, and sometimes people think they can judge me for being what they assume is a perfectly healthy person stealing a parking spot from the disabled. Which is what this guy was doing with his stinkeye so strong that I could feel it through my car windows.

I climbed out of the car and looked in his direction. We made eye contact and his gaze was heavy, full of judgement as he slid a very pointed glance between me and the handicap sign. Disgust was drawn all over his face in bold, ugly strokes. Like if my car hadn’t been between us he would’ve spat on me. It was almost cartoonishly intense.

Eight Months Ago Me would’ve put on the retreat-bitchface and walked away. He wasn’t particularly large, wasn’t standing between me and the store, and he hadn’t said anything or moved to stop me. He was just doing his best to silently shame and intimidate me into moving my car. Rude and a little scary, sure, but nothing that I couldn’t afford to let him get away with so long as I didn’t mind a tense walk to the store and having to keep an eye out for him on the way back to my car in case he decided to hang out for another round of unpleasantness.

But … dammit, I’ve seen scarier. I’ve had my forearms bruised by scarier, been taken down to the training floor by scarier, and gotten back up to deliver a few bruises myself. Hell, after thirty-ish weeks of punching and kicking and sweating, of measuring my strength against that of people who could take me apart without half-trying, I am scarier.

I am strong, and I know what to do with that strength (which are two different things). I am aware of my own rights and my worth, aware that I’ve earned that stupid parking tag through a gauntlet of illness and pains that this random guy was not entitled to have explained to him. I had nothing to be ashamed of, and the idea of wasting the next half-hour of my life on worry and fear that this guy might Do Something made my teeth grind.

So I didn’t walk away. Instead, I surprised myself.

Without consciously deciding to, I bent my knees and relaxed my shoulders. I faced him squarely across the roof of my car and met his glare with a flat stare of my own, felt my expression take on that too-calm, sleepy-eyed look that falls into place during drills, and heard my steady, clear voice ask him,

“Is there a problem?”

All of that negativity and judgement and shame he had tried to shove into my day slid right off of me and flopped in a useless heap on the pavement. It simply had not worked. Seems I’m not so easy to intimidate these days. There was a long, silent moment while I calmly waited for him to figure out how to respond. Apparently my not-wilting under his disdain and opposite-of-collapsing into a puddle of apologies was a deviation from the script he had in mind.

So help me, he blinked. Got into his car and fired up the engine. Thinking the conversation was over, I walked towards the entrance of the store. Apparently my ability to walk was infuriating, because he rolled down his window, leaned out, and shouted, 

“Really? REALLY?!”

I took a breath. Turned to face him on wide-planted feet, ready to turn and run for the store doors if he decided to use his car as a weapon, but unwilling to show him anything but steadiness. Moved my hands in front of me in a halt gesture that unconsciously protected my centerline, and repeated my question,

Is there a problem?”

Again, I didn’t follow his script. This time, he did spit in my direction, which was super classy, but he also drove away without another word. Revved his engine and squealed his tires a little on the way out to make himself feel better about fleeing the scene. The vehicular equivalent of retreat-bitchface.

Watching him putter away, I expected to feel some kind of smug triumph. Or maybe the jittery jangle of post-confrontation nerves. Someone had tried to bully me, after all, and I had faced him down. Surely a deep breath or two would be required, at least. And yet. All I felt was calm, comfortable on my own two feet, and a little sorry for that guy. I mean, how insecure does a man have to be to pick on a lady in a handicap parking space?

And sure, that moment wasn’t exactly EPIC. There will be no ballads sung of my heroism in defending my first-world right to be chronically ill in public. But it’s moments exactly like that, little aggressions and intimidations, that can happen every single day of any woman’s life. If it’s not about a parking space, it’s about the length of a skirt, healthcare choices, walking down the street at night, etc etc etc. We learn to live with those moments, avoid them, allow them, accept them as just an unpleasant part of life in modern society, but we so rarely learn to counteract them. To stand up for ourselves in the Little Bad Moments like my little parking lot showdown, so that we know we’ll be able to do it again when the Big Bad Moments come along.

That’s the core of this empowerment thing. The real result of all this training.

It’s made me very familiar with my limits and my strengths. Turns out that knowing those two things about yourself takes a lot of the stress out of everyday life. I know what I can handle and what I can’t; how to handle what I can and get help with what I can’t. My mind is calm, confident in the knowledge that the body it’s steering through this world is equipped with the skills and reflexes to defend it. If the situation calls for it, I know that I can throw a barrage of nasty little punches until the problem goes away. And, perhaps more importantly, I trust myself to accurately assess whether or not the situation calls for punching (hint: it almost always won’t).

I’m not borrowing strength and confidence from some outside source to wear like armor over my tender lady-body for a little while, a temporary fix to a forever problem. Nope. My empowerment is giving myself permission to access my own strength, to have a working comprehensive knowledge of what I’m capable of, to respect my own worth and require that respect from others.

I’m not saying that Kung Fu is the only place a woman can find empowerment. I’m just saying that’s where I found it. Me and a dozen other women at my school. And maybe you can, too.

Pictured above: friendly neighborhood stone cold badasses

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Month 7: We Are The Champions

{Month 1, Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, Month 5, Month 6}

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!