Monday, August 31, 2015

Month 5: Overthinking Things I Thought I Knew

{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}

Ever have that moment where you’re looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures and it’s a flat, simple, two dimensional image, but then you stare at it long enough and relax your eyes and BAM it’s a sailboat? That’s been me this month.

I don’t make a habit of re-examining things. Once I have a thing figured out, I pack it away in its own little mental box and stick it on the DONE shelf, content in a lesson well learned and ready to dust my hands and move on to the next thing. This habit, like so many of my staid and stubbornly-held ways, is being gently but thoroughly demolished by martial arts training.

There are things, really basic things, about Kung Fu that I thought I understood. I’ve been doing them over and over for five months, and I fancy myself a bit of a smartypants, so if there were any undiscovered complexities, I surely would have grokked them long before now. Clearly.

Like horse stance. I know horse stance, I do it all the time. Knees bent, toes in, hips angled, then I’ve got my weight placed where it should be and gravity takes care of the rest. I was pretty confident in my working understanding of the physics involved. Then Sifu had another student place a fist on my belly and push forward against my stance. In defiance of all logic, of all my secure little notions of leverage and how my own bones fit together, that lateral push moved my body, not back, not down, but up.

The mechanics of horse stance are, it would seem, the kind of beautifully designed machine that works wonders if you use it right. Which I have not quite been doing.

Turns out, gravity alone is not enough. Sorry, gravity. You do a lot of really good work, what with that whole keeping us from spinning off the surface of the planet into the endless void thing, but Kung Fu needs more. I have to be actively involved in the process, have to physically push myself downward, plant my feet into the floor, grow some roots. The process involves a lot of deceptively simple counterintuitive business with toes and muscles that I never even knew I had before I started this training, but if I don’t do it then any chump with a bad attitude can knock me over.

I don’t want to get knocked over. So I do it. And it works.

One simple push against my stance, and my amateur comprehension was taken right back to the drawing board for review and revision. Paragraphs of contemplation. So naturally, while I was in the throes of quietly overthinking my stance, Simo came along and gave me some details to focus on in my Siu Nim Tao.

I’m learning that “here’s a detail to focus on” is Kung Fu speak for “brace for a perspective shift in 3 … 2 … 1”.

My shoulders have a tendency to roll forward, so Simo asked me to focus on keeping them pulled back, square and proud, to give the structure of my arms a solid base. Speaking of structure, have a second detail: any time the hands move forward, such as in the first section of Siu Nim Tao, I should try to keep my elbow in front of my body. Up to this point, I’ve been moving my elbows to the side of my torso, collapsing my structure, which is only useful if you want to get hit. Which I don’t. So I tried these new details.

I thought I knew Siu Nim Tao. I do it every single day. I thought I knew my body, because I live in it, and how to make Kung Fu work around it. I was a fool.

See, I’m a lady-person, and not a slender one. There are, shall we say, anatomical obstacles to getting my elbow in front of my torso. I’ve spent decades rolling my shoulders forward to compensate, just so I can move my arms in certain ways. So literally everything about these new details is challenging the way my body has taught itself to move. The muscles in my shoulders and chest have never had to work this way, and my elbows haven’t seen my belly since middle school. It’s like the melodrama of teaching my legs how to horse all over again. Only, ya know, higher off the ground.

Behold my epic struggle:

What had once been a fluid and nearly unthinking Siu Nim Tao form now requires buckets of attention and constant self-correction. To be clear, it is totally worth the effort. The structure of all my limbs feels stronger, more stable, and I can't argue with improving my posture. But it's hard and more than a little frustrating. Making my body work with the Kung Fu, rather than letting the Kung Fu work around my body. It’s getting easier, but there’s a long re-thinking row to hoe before the form is easy again.

And maybe … maybe I don’t want it to be easy. These new details on my form, along with this new understanding of my stance, are sending little inevitable ripples of change throughout everything I do in Kung Fu. This month shook me out of a complacency I hadn’t even been entirely aware of. Not so sure I’m in a hurry to go back.


Years ago, a friend of mine - one of those wide-eyed breathlessly enthusiastic nouveau hippie types who (hopefully) loves me enough to forgive me for that description - recommended that I try this bizarre new kind of yoga class. The conversation went a little something like ...

FRIEND: You should really try bikram yoga. It’s hot yoga. So it’s this whole class full of people doing regular yoga, but it’s like over a hundred degrees in the room.
ME, THEN: That … sounds exactly like hell.
FRIEND: No, it’s great! You really sweat out all your impurities.
ME, THEN: Oh! So less like hell, more like purgatory.
FRIEND: Yes, only good for you.
ME, THEN: You know what else is good for me? Cupcakes and not sweating.
FRIEND: I don’t … think? … that’s true?

(SPOILER ALERT: I did not go to bikram yoga. Shocking, I know.)

Fast forward to present day, and this is me after my last class:
The sweaty over-the-shoulder-mirror selfie is gonna be the Next Big Thing. Just you wait.

ME, NOW: Training ain’t training till my SKIN is C R Y I N G.

I owe my friend an apology, is what I’m saying. Or at least a sheepish shrug. Sure, I’m not in an intentionally overheated room trying to twist myself into improbable pretzel shapes, but I am sweating through my uniform three times a week. Intentionally. On purpose. Smile on my face, song in my heart.

The amount of sweat is no huge surprise - I mean, it’s summertime in Texas; I could work up a steamy glisten just by standing near a window. But this is some Whole New Level business. Never before have I sweated so much. There are times (often!) that I actually reach a saturation point where new droplets trickle along completely unnoticed and suddenly it’s not even hot any more because, by some mysterious magic, the moisture that is weeping from every pore is literally cooling my body down.

… Which may or may not be exactly how sweat is intended to work.

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