Sunday, September 7, 2014

Your Life Is Your Toolbox

I recently opened my own Kung fu School. If you're interested in opening your own martial arts school this post may be of interest to you. The decision to open my own Kung fu school came after several years of very hard work (Kung fu), intense focus, and sacrifice. But by the time I was ready to open the school, everything that I needed to start a school seemed to already be in place. It was almost as if I'd been unconsciously laying the foundation for this moment over the course of my entire life. Maybe I had. You see, I've used almost every talent I've ever had, every skill I ever practiced and refined, every experience I've had in the creation and promotion of my school. I'll start from the beginning so this will make more sense.

Since I was a young boy I've been creating. I created my own comic books from characters to stories to drawing, inking, and coloring. I never sold any, never wanted to--they were just for me. But what this early creation did was get me started with visual arts and design. I'm not saying that the comics were extraordinarily well drawn or the stories were examples of the craft of writing. I mean, I was nine, or ten, or eleven years old. But it was a start. And I took those early attempts, knowing that they were crudely drawn and roughly crafted examples of writing, and worked on making improvements the next time I drew a comic book.

Once I'd achieved a level of proficiency at them, I moved on to other art forms. I tried wood working. I worked with clay. I made 16mm movies and played them on my brother's projector. I was part of the first generation of personal computer users and learned to program in BASIC on my Commodore 64. As time progressed I became very computer and tech literate and eventually used my skills to design newsletters and event programs using design programs like PageMaker and Quark for one of my early adult jobs.

I tried working with acrylics making "glass" tabletops. I tried my hand at photography, and bought a base model DSLR and took it everywhere shooting pictures and learning how to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and other settings. I turned my eye to mounting and framing some of my pictures with varied success. All of this is to say that over the course of my entire life I was trying out skills and testing my various talents, experimenting and learning the right way to things by doing them, usually, completely wrong.

As a thirty-something, after starting my Kung fu training but long before the thought of owning and operating my own school was born, I began purchasing equipment to use for my workouts. A BOB heavy bag. A weight vest. Little things here and there over the years.

I opened my school on a tiny budget. I knew I'd have to make use of many of the talents I'd developed and honed over the years, and I did. I made a sign for the exterior of my school out of an old shelf, a chisel, a hammer, stain, spray paint, and lots of elbow grease:

The sign for my school is made from a 24" x 36"
30+ year old wooden shelf. I used a chisel, hammer,
sand paper, stain, and gold spray paint to create it.
It says Shaolin Kung fu Institute. It took me six straight hours of drawing, chiseling, staining, and painting to complete it. I'd never done anything like it, but my experiments as a boy had prepared me for it.

I made business cards and brochures for my business using the design skills I honed during my time as a PR Coordinator. In short, I've used every skill, artistic and otherwise, in the creation of my business. I hadn't realized how directed my life was toward this one destination until I'd finished most of the work and looked back. But, serendipitous or synchronous, all of these times and experiences had lead me to this moment in my life.

The BOB heavy bag found it way into my school. I acquired fu dogs for the entrance to my school and created pedestals for them:

The parts of the pedestal
 for the Fu Dogs
The pedestals assembled and spray
painted with stone spray paint
The finished pedestal with Fu Dog

What I say to you, martial artist, prospective instructor, student--wherever you are on the path, is this: use everything you have learned in your life in your business. Never forget the lessons you learned as a child. Don't be afraid to try something because if you fail at least you've learned something, and can use that knowledge in your next attempt.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What I Love About Training At My School

Fitness, Instruction, Application

The list of reasons that I love training in Northern Dragon Kung fu at my school is long and continually growing, but I’ll try to express some of them as best as I can. 

First off is the way classes are structured. I know that many, many martial arts schools probably structure their classes similarly, but all I can speak realistically about is the one I train at. I try not to take more than one quarter of a class block for calisthenics and stretching because 1) students should be working on strengthening and fitness at home, and 2) I value the instructional time with students as a time for tweaking and correcting improper technique. Forty-five minute classes are structured as follows:

Warm-up and Calisthenics
Skills Training

(On Staff Training days, we’ll teach students for three hours and then have an hour to two hours of training from our Sifu without students present.)

Warm-up and Calisthenics

Class begins with twelve to fifteen minutes of High Intensity Interval Training interspersed with Northern Dragon basic exercises. These instructor-led exercises, such as upper block exercises, vertical block exercises, kicking exercises, and basic forms, move across the training hall floor. The warm-up is meant to work up a sweat, get the muscles warm, and the body relaxed. It is a time to focus on basic skills like proper breathing, striking, stepping, and posture while also building strength and endurance. A typical warm-up routine might look like this:

Four minutes of high-kneed running in place or hop scotches
25 pushups
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by a basic unpaired blocking exercise that moves across the floor in a stepping pattern
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by a kicking exercise that moves across the floor
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by 50 Russian Twists 
5 ladder Burpees
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by 100 straight punches in a horse stance
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches 
1 minute plank

The warm-up can also be done without the basic blocking and kicking exercises as standalone High Intensity Interval Training, in which case it would look something like this:

Four minutes of high-kneed running in place or hop scotches followed by four to eight sets of the following:

25 pushups OR Spiderman Pushups OR Walking Pushups
30 seconds running in place or hopscotches
50 Russian Twists OR mountain climbers OR squats
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches

Either way, by the end of the warm up students (and instructors) have developed a good sweat, they've increased their heart-rate and deepened their breathing, and are relaxed and ready to begin training. The great thing about the warm up is that it combines aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

While an instructor is leading the warm-up, another instructor should be checking student progress reports/sheets to focus on skills that need improvement and review. If there is only one instructor, this is usually done before students have arrived and class has begun.

After the warm-up, and students have had some water, an instructor will lead the class in static and ballistic stretches. This is great, too, since the muscles are now warm and “loose”.

Instructional Time

Typically, instruction begins with a review of basic stances and strikes, and then skills training begins as students execute techniques or go through their forms as instructors watch and make corrections with explanations about why the correction is necessary. If the students are at a basic level, the explanations are simple and limited to basic applications of blocks or stances or strikes. The more advanced a student is, the more advanced the explanation. This occupies the remainder of the forty-five minute class session, and always proves enlightening both as an instructor, and as a student.

This instructional period is an incredible time of learning and connection—if the student has practiced away from class. What is incredibly gratifying to see is the uniformity of instruction across the training hall; there is never an instructor teaching a technique differently than another instructor. If an instructor has a question about the execution of a technique, he or she refer, or in some instances defers, to a higher ranked instructor or to Sifu/Sigung. It makes group demonstrations look crisp, and clean, and tight. Hopefully, students understand that the repetitious nature of practicing their forms is preparing them for more than demonstrations--it's preparing those techniques to become second nature when called upon as a response. I made that connection after two years of training or so.

To accomplish this uniformity of instruction and deep understanding, instructors attend a staff training session once a week where techniques are reviewed and new instruction is given. It’s really one of my favorite days of the week. 

Another of my favorite aspects of training is the genuine appreciation shown by students when you teach them. When explaining the application of a technique of the execution of a technique and the best way to accomplish the execution properly, there is no better reward than the smile of satisfaction on a student’s face when they “get it” after performing a technique properly. I’ve also had adult students directly tell me that I’m doing what I should be doing because I’m a good teacher. There’s almost no feeling that can compare to the feeling of validation that comes with a sincere compliment from a satisfied student.

Sparring As A Learning Opportunity

I’ll end with my appreciation of sparring. Before beginning my training, I’d never sparred in an organized setting. I’d play fought/slap fought/messed around with friends but it was never serious. I had no training beyond the streets of New York City! But since beginning sparring I’ve had the chance to apply the techniques learned in class to an actual situation, and its been enlightening. Sparring is a true learning experience. Its not a time for “winning” or “beating” someone, its a time for figuring out how to use the knowledge gained in class, to avoid the errors made last session, to contemplate those errors and make adjustments. It’s also a time to observe your peers’ skills and learn from your opponents. Kung fu is as much timing and quickness as it is having complete confidence in your techniques to keep from being hit while moving into an opponent’s technique. 

It's important to practice all learned forms and exercises because forms train strikes and stances in different contexts. Its the repetitious nature of forms training that will allow techniques to become second nature when responding to an aggressor, or initiating contact in sparring. Every hand and stepping technique should be practiced to exhaustion. This includes short bridge backward stepping techniques.

After gaining proficiency with hand and stepping techniques, it is really important to remember that you learned blocks for a reason; to block strikes. You learned stepping patterns for a reason; to step off line and around opponents. Opponents think the way you do—when confronted with an onslaught of strikes you’ll probably step back to avoid engagement and being struck. So will your opponent. Its your job to step into the opponent’s zone and block, parry, deflect, or control his/her strikes and counter attack, driving forward protecting yourself with each attack.

Use your legs! Practice your kicks—front, crescents, lift, side, side lock outs. The front kick is your friend. It is a tool to keep opponents at bay, a tool to lull them into a trance, a tool to defend yourself.

Time your attacks and remember to attack the opponents inattentive side. Vary the rhythm of your strikes. If you attack mid to high range with hands, attack mid to low with feet when the opponent defends. If you attack mid to low with feet, follow quickly with a mid to high hand attack.

Change your “type” when fighting—be aggressive, counter attack, angle in on your opponent, be defensive. Use all stances. Confuse your opponent. The greatest compliment you can get is having an opponent say that your style is “weird” or “strange” or to call you “fast” just because you’ve beaten them to the punch, so to speak.

I always leave the training hall and school with a sense of accomplishment at both instructing and having learned something new.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Importance of Practicing Basics

Time, Training, Progress

Here are a few thoughts on instructional time, training, and progress, as they're all related.

The school I attend is a traditional Kung fu school. By this I mean that there are protocols to be followed on the training hall floor, instruction is taken seriously, and the instructors teach under the authority of the Sifu or Sigung. This instruction begins with, of course, basics. 

Basics are taught by instructors and are expected to be practiced until a level of proficiency is attained by the student and observed by the instructors on the floor. This level of proficiency differs from student to student, but should take a few months to attain at the least. I have taught students who have worked on stances, stepping patterns, blocks, and basic strikes for many months, some for nearly a year before progressing to the next set of techniques. This is all at the discretion of Sifu, who observes the students’ progress as an indication of the instructor’s teaching ability—after all, if the student isn’t learning, whose fault is it? 

Well, that’s not as simple an answer as it might seem. There is a gray area to be addressed. On one hand, if the student isn't practicing at home, but simply attending forty-five minute classes two or three times a week and only practicing during those classes, is he or she really learning anything or just re-learning what they did the previous class? On the other hand, if the instructor isn’t able to break down techniques into their component parts so that the student understands exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, the instructor is partly at fault. It’s a delicate balance. Let’s address the student side for now.

Problems arise when students observe their classmates advancing either in rank or in knowledge of techniques, and question their own learning. Why aren’t they advancing? Why haven't they been taught the next form or next exercise? The answers to those questions generally lay within the students themselves. When an instructor makes a correction to a technique does the student practice that technique until the mistake has been worked out of his or her muscle memory? Or do they continue to practice with the same mistake in their technique? This is why practicing at home is so important—and why commitment to that practice, and to the art, are integral to eventual mastery. Instructional time is for instruction; not practice.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

Then, of course, comes the next step in training; practicing perfectly. The old saying goes “practice makes perfect”, but is that true? Isn't it more correct to say, after the example of the student discussed above, that “perfect practice makes perfect”? If you're training every day, and training correctly, you are bound to see progress, and so will your instructors. Correct training means training slowly with an emphasis on accuracy and precision of techniques rather than on speed and/or power. My Sifu says that speed destroys accuracy at the basic level, and he’s right. Would any other art advise practicing basic maneuvers hastily to achieve perfection? When I was learning to play the violin as a boy, I practiced scales for a minimum of an hour a day, usually many more. It was laborious work, but it had to be done, otherwise every note I played would be off pitch, or out of tune. A violin, unlike guitars and banjos, has no frets to guide finger placement for finding the correct notes on the strings; a violinist needs a good sense of relative pitch, and the commitment to learn where his or her fingers need to fall for each and every note on the four strings. So it is with martial arts. Techniques need to be practiced slowly and with care. 

In Northern Dragon, there are many circular techniques with both arms, hands, and legs. Students need to feel the circling motion in the techniques they are practicing, they need to know the directions that the circles are moving in, and the proper distance from the body to execute the technique. It is only after a technique has been practiced repeatedly over a period of time that a student can gain proficiency in that technique. And it is only then that a student is ready to advance to the next set of techniques. The student that can first master his eagerness can then master the techniques. A student’s enthusiasm can sometimes be his worst enemy.

Finally, when it all comes down to it, the farther a student progresses, the clearer it should become that all he or she is doing is practicing basic skills with different intent. Of these basics are flawed and imperfect, their progress will be hampered. There are Kung fu styles where many techniques that appear in more advanced forms show up first in basic forms. Its brilliant, really; the student learns this basic technique, practices it for a long period of time in the context of a basic form, and then might not see it again for a long time until he or she begins learning a more advanced form, and the technique appears again, now in an advanced context. Same technique, same movement, but perhaps a different name. Often times a student might even express a familiarity with this “new” technique to their instructor or Sifu, because they already know it from basics. Its all about basics.

Progress can only occur after the basics have been mastered, which can only occur after careful, perfect, practice.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Am I Too Old For Kung fu?

Age Is Just A Number

Kung fu is a great for students of any age! I know, I know—the above heading is an easy statement to make if I’m not “X” years old, or don’t have rheumatoid arthritis in both knees, or aren’t slightly to very out of shape…the list might go on forever. But to all of those statements, I would still say that age is just a number where Kung fu is concerned; especially Northern Dragon Kung fu. Here’s why.

While there are many styles of Kung fu that require acrobatic leaps and dynamic athleticism, Northern Dragon is not one of those styles. In fact, there are many styles of Kung fu that stay firmly rooted on the ground, and with good reason—being grounded to the earth allows the generation of power from the feet on up. What this means is that as an art firmly rooted in the earth, your main physical concern will be building up the strength and endurance in your legs and core muscles that will allow you to maintain a stance for longer and longer periods of time. That’s why its a practice, a discipline. Anyone can do it, given the commitment to the practice. Yoga is the same…so is the violin or piano…painting…any art requires commitment.

And yes, commitment requires, no, demands, commitment. That’s just the way it is.

But I digress; Kung fu as a practice is great for people of all ages. Its low impact movements and techniques share similarities with Tai Chi techniques, the health benefits of which are well known and documented:

But, I don’t want to be an instructor of the art, I’m 58, or 65, or 70…why would I begin learning this art now? Well, for exactly the reason I stated in the preceding paragraph. At that stage in your life, you wouldn’t be looking to learn an entire system or art form. You’d be looking for an effective form of pain relief, one who’s only side effects have no relation to any anti-inflammatories, analgesics, biologic response modifiers, or steroids. Looking for more information on arthritis treatments? Click here The only side effects of proper Kung fu instruction are a feeling of well-being, increased strength, renewed vigor, and satisfaction. 

Why not just practice yoga, if that’s the case? Well, if pain relief and physical conditioning are your primary goal, then sure, yoga will work. But a secondary benefit of Kung fu training is your training in self-defense techniques. With Kung fu you can learn how to defend yourself long enough until there’s an opportunity to use your newly naturally lubricated joints to get away to safety! 

I’ve found that to be the beauty of Kung fu—you learn at your own pace. Instructors are trained to individualize instruction for each student. Need two months to get into a proper horse stance? Great! As long as you don’t give up and keep practicing, you will get it. It only gets better the more you practice. Can’t get all the way down into a low stance? That’s okay; the stance can be modified for you. The point is to teach you to defend yourself, not to destroy your body in the process.

The Living Art

Yet another ancillary benefit of Kung fu training is a non-physical in nature. Kung fu is a living art, by which I mean that it evolves and grows as you learn more of it and your knowledge of the art becomes more intimate. It constantly challenges you to make connections—backwards connections to older skills and techniques, forward connections to complete understanding of applications with information that instructors may have left incomplete to test your understanding. This is called completing the square; you’re given three sides of the square, or an amount of information, and are expected to complete the square with the fourth side, or to process that information to create new knowledge or comprehension. You never stop thinking. The more you learn, the more connections your mind makes. It is inescapable. 

As I’ve grown in the art, I’ve found that I’ve grown as a person. The layering of the techniques in the art, growing from basic understandings, to intermediate level understandings, to more advanced understandings, can be seen in non-martial life as well. They are found in relationships with friends and family. They can be seen in job performance. They can be seen in every aspect of your life—if you remain focused on them. The phrase “everything is basics” is a familiar one in Northern Dragon Kung fu, but it is quite apt. Everything is basics. The way you treat people on a daily basis, strangers, friends, family; you learned, or should have learned, the appropriate way to address people, to thank people, to acknowledge people when you were a child. Why should that have changed? Somewhere, someone, whether it was a parent, a relative, or a teacher in school, taught you the value of hard work as a child. Why should that have changed? And why should that same hard work not be continued at your job? Everything is basics. Yes, life becomes complicated the older we become, but that’s when you need to be able to observe the layers of understanding you should have accumulated through the years. Those basic life skills I just mentioned remain, only now they’re more complex to deal with more complex situations. Part of your training in the art is leading you to awareness of these complexities and understandings, but all of the hardest work must be done by you. 

Age Can Be An Advantage 

In some ways then age is an advantage in the learning of Kung fu. Your accumulated knowledge and wisdom can serve you well in making connections to other facets of your life, and drawing parallels to other situations. As I said earlier, at a more mature age, your goal might not be mastery of an entire system of Kung fu, or to become an instructor. It may be much simpler than that. It may simply be to increase your wellness through the conditioning of your body, development of your internal energy, and mental acuity. If that’s the case, Kung fu may be for you.

The Union of Kung fu and Life

Intergrating Kung fu and Daily Life Kung fu and Life

Let me start by saying that I'm not going to preach.

I'm not going to sell you anything. I'm not going to judge anyone but myself. I'm simply going to relate my experience of finding Kung fu and how it's affected my life. So, I'll just begin.

Skill achieved through hard work over a long period of time. That is the essence of the practice known as Kung fu. Though the term Kung fu is generally recognized by and confined to its martial definition, i.e., as a fighting art, Kung fu has applications and meanings that are wide ranging, outside the scope of the martial world. If life is truly about the journey rather than the destination, Kung fu, working hard to achieve a goal over a long period of time, can be a way of life, a way of journeying. I would argue that it should be a way of life.

My journey along this path began on a November day many years ago. My life to that point had been filled with music, and writing, and learning from the time I’d entered high school, through college, and into my thirties when I became a teacher. I’d always enjoyed being fit and joined recreational basketball leagues, studied and practiced yoga on my own, jogged, and did various bodyweight exercises to stay in shape as I aged. I was happy with my life, but through all of my endeavors, the learning, educating, exercising, I felt a sense of disconnectedness, as if all of these things I was doing were being done in tiny vacuums independent of each other. There was no common bond between them. I was relatively healthy, I was moderately well read, I was a well trained teacher of Language Arts and Social Studies, but at my center, I was empty. I was, unconsciously, searching for something that would fulfill me mentally, intellectually, and physically. There is no telling where inspiration will strike and, in my case, it struck after a large and delicious Thanksgiving Day dinner with friends and family in White Plains, NY.

I sat in the family room before a television watching football and chatting with a family friend, Butch. Butch was a sexagenarian who looked to be in moderately good shape. Our conversation began about NFL players’ resilience and recuperative ability, and soon turned to our own fitness regimens. Butch was a regular at the gym, riding bikes, working on the elliptical machine, lifting light weights. I recounted my discovery and enjoyment of yoga, and love of bodyweight exercises particularly pushups. That’s when Butch disclosed his martial past—he’d studied karate, which style escapes me at the moment, but recounted how he’d started studying at the late age of thirty-something which was close to my age at the time (I was thirty-nine that year). He asked If I’d ever studied any martial arts, to which I replied no. I listened intently as he recalled his training, and the school, the skills he practiced, the discipline of the instruction, the strength he developed, and the joy he felt through it all. What really caught my attention, though, was when he said that if he’d had it all to do over again, he would have studied Kung fu.

Why? I had asked.

It was the internal aspect of the training, Butch had said, the reliance on soft, circular movements requiring not power, but finesse and proper technique. He contrasted this description with the hard style of karate which required power and strength to blast through bricks, and wood, and opponents. Butch had laughed at that point and said that he couldn't imagine trying to punch through a brick or plank of wood as a seventy or eighty year-old man, or even executing some of the techniques. But Kung fu, he finished, Kung fu you could practice as an old man.

Do you know what Tai Chi is? he had asked me.

I said I’d heard of it but didn’t know much about it. Click here to learn more about Tai Chi.

Tai Chi was Kung fu, he’d continued with a nod. It was practiced all over the world, and many older people practiced it because of its health benefits and non-reliance on pure power in its techniques. But, he’d continued, many styles of Kung fu were like that. If I was interested in learning a martial art, I should look into a style of Kung fu, he said. He finished by repeating that he wished he’d studied Kung fu in his twenties.

We returned to football when other dinner guests retired to the television room, but our conversation stayed with me for the remainder of the evening. It was difficult not to use my smartphone to research kung fu schools in New Jersey, where I was living at the time, but I managed to not be rude.

The evening ended, I drove my mother to her home in the Bronx, and returned to my home in New Jersey. I immediately began researching Kung fu schools in New Jersey. I was living in Clinton, NJ at the time, off of Interstate 78, about twenty minutes from Easton, PA. As I researched I discovered that there were lots of different Kung fu schools in New Jersey. There were Tiger schools, and Tiger-Crane schools, Eagle-Claw schools, and Choy Li Fut schools. I found Praying Mantis schools and Hung Gar schools, 5 Animal schools and schools with names in Chinese that I couldn't pronounce. And, of course, there were the Tae Kwan Do, and Karate, and Jiu Jitsu, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools, none of which I was interested in after my conversation with Butch. No, I had to find a Kung fu school. Click here to find out more about Kung fu and other Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).

There were a few, northeast of me, that seemed legitimate, but also seemed too far for me to commute to after working all day teaching ten year old minds the intricacies of reading comprehension. I narrowed it down to one school based in Hightstown, NJ, which was still far from Clinton, NJ. But this school had a branch in Easton, PA, a driving distance which I found manageable. I sent an email inquiring about class times and fees, and never looked back. I still have all of the initial correspondences and look back on them fondly from time to time.

Northern Dragon Kung fu

Five days after Thanksgiving Day, I was at the Easton branch of the school for a free introductory class. The style, the Chief Instructor explained to me, was Northern Dragon. For more information about Dragon Style Kung fu click here. It was a defensive art, a point that he stressed throughout our conversation. We sat outside of the training hall surrounded by certificates on the walls documenting his experience as a Sifu, or respected teacher. We discussed my life to that point, my reasons for choosing his school, my objectives in training, and his school’s philosophy, the expectations of a student at the school, and then, I was learning how to properly enter the training hall. What I didn’t realize then, but know now, was that Sifu was measuring my character, my outlook, and, most importantly, my potential to learn, work, and succeed.

What I discovered after my forty-five minute class, was that Kung fu was as much stretching and strengthening as it was self-defense. It was being asked to perform difficult tasks, and trying your hardest to do them. And even at this initial point, even the most basic of tasks were hard for a novice like me. While yoga does strengthen your body and improve balance, it did not completely prepare me for Kung fu.

That first class consisted of learning basic stances, like horse, left and right fronts, and san ti; and how to make a fist and throw a proper punch. The class ended with me combining stances and punching into a simple, brief exercise. I worked hard for the entirety of the class, checking posture, making sure my foot placement was correct, knees bent, stances proper. I snuck a glance every now and then at the other students training at the school and admired the graceful movements they executed, the strength they exhibited standing on one leg, dropping down into lower stances, corkscrewing their bodies, punching—everything. I left sweaty, and tired, happy, and consumed with thoughts of what lay ahead.

I was hooked.

I became a student at the school two days later. Classes were offered two nights a week and Friday mornings in Easton, but because of my job, I could only make the weeknight classes. I arrived early to every session, and waited patiently outside the training hall while the instructors worked with Sifu. When it was six o’clock, Sifu would wave me in, and I would demonstrate everything I’d practiced since the last class—and I’d practiced everything I’d learned everyday. It was the most committed to anything I’d ever been, including playing the violin, which I’d started at 6 years old, or writing, which I’d taken up in my twenties. I was consumed by the art. I was practicing blocks as I drove home from class, and practicing my initial forms and exercises in the narrow hallways of my house. Slowly, but surely, Kung fu was becoming my life.

How is that, you ask?

All My "Free" Time

Well, up to my Kung fu instruction, I was still finding ways to divert myself with friends—drinking, going to parties, generally wasting time. After my instruction? I realized that the art was so expansive, so huge in breadth and scope that I would have to devote much of my “free” time to learning it if I wanted to progress and become proficient. And this required a redefining of the word “free” as it related to my time.

I was, by this time, nearing my forties in age. Sifu would, in the course of teaching techniques and their most basic applications, also lay out in linear fashion the curriculum of the art. Though I only truly understood him on the most shallow of levels, I could comprehend that the skills and techniques I had learned and was learning were one layer of the art. As students progressed through the curriculum, these skills and techniques would be refined and perfected, and eventually executed with different intent, understanding, and purpose. This kind of synthesis and processing of knowledge would take years, decades even, to attain. I was nearly forty years old.

Had I been a child or a teenager, it would have been a much different prospect. With no job occupying eight hours of my day, I could have learned constantly, progressing rapidly through the system, practicing, perfecting, layering the art on top of itself, making connections within the art, processing and synthesizing the knowledge, and attaining mastery in my twenties or thirties. But I was nearly forty years old and Kai Shan (opening the mountain), or beginner .

So, at almost forty years old and realizing that I had found something special, how much of my time was actually “free”? At my age, every second was valuable. When men and women my age and younger were dying from heart attacks, cancer, strokes, and other health issues, no time was “free”. No second was promised to anyone, and I understood that life was precious, a fragile treasure that might crumble at any moment. I made the commitment in my mind at that moment that I would no longer waste a second of my life on anything that did not enrich it, enlighten it, or deepen my understanding of it. Nothing in life was free, not even life itself. Kung fu, then, became as much a part of my life as breathing, thinking, or the beating of my heart itself.

I balanced my teaching job with my training. I tried to maintain friendships with my close friends, but my days of drinking and partying, and wasting away entire days being hung over, were over themselves. Now, if I wasn't teaching fifth graders or grading their work, I was training at home, or at the Kung fu school. When I wasn’t doing those things, I was sleeping. It took discipline, not going out, spending less time with friends, devoting myself to learning and moving in strange ways, but I did it.

My diet changed, too. That took discipline as well. I wanted to develop the coordination, strength, and flexibility required of the art, and that meant trimming the fat from my ever decaying body. I worked out every day to strengthen my muscles to allow me to stay in stances for longer periods of time. Eventually, I began iron palm training, to strengthen my hands from the muscles to the bones. I learned Qigong to calm my mind and strengthen my breathing, because I had been diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, a chronic lung condition, in my early thirties. Discipline.

I was researching our art and others online, trying to learn as much as I could to inform my training. I bought and read books on arts related to our Northern Dragon style. I wanted to learn it all. More discipline.

Where before my life contained various unconnected aspects of my new life, the physical fitness, the learning, it was all now connected, and Kung fu was the hub around which everything rotated. I was spending 5 hours every week training--that equalled six forty-five minute classes each week (Sifu allowed me to come at an earlier time every Monday and Wednesday because I was in the all-inclusive membership plan which basically included a ridiculous number of class-hours each week. It was flexible so that you could meet your minimum mandatory commitment of four forty-five minute classes each month. This mandatory commitment was meant to lead the student to self-generated commitment). A few months later I was welcomed into the Instructional Staff Training Program and attended classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays as well. This meant that I was spending eighteen hours a week training on top of the forty hours I spent at my job, and the other hours I spent at home grading and planning. I had to do chores, shop for healthy food, cook meals, and see family. Discipline. Life. It all merged together.

I was on the path, and every day, I walked a little farther.