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}
{Month 2, Month 3, Month 4, Month 5, Month 6, Month 7, Month 8, 2016 WSD, Month 11, Month 12, Month 18}

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.