Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Month 4: Like Magic, Only BETTER

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.