Sunday, February 16, 2014

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.