Last summer, L and I drove thirty minutes to Clifton, New Jersey. We had seen an ad for a kung fu school on Groupon for somewhere in Manhattan, and though we missed the deal, we decided it might be a good thing to do during the summer. I had taken Tae Kwon Do as a kid and for a semester and a half at Cornell until a shoulder injury derailed my exercise plan. And as a child, if my essay on wrestling with my brother was any indication, I was down for some violence. Finding myself free for a few months from my four hour leash to Ithaca, this might be a good opportunity to release some aggression, get in shape, and become what all of us want to be at some point in our lives: badass.
We arrived at Yee’s Hung Ga, the international headquarters for Hung Ga, a small martial arts studio with hardwood flooring, a weapons rack, and walls adorned by the foo-dog style lion heads used in lion dances. After some introductions, we signed a waiver for some trial classes and got onto the floor. For some idiotic reason, I was wearing jeans my first day, not the most conducive legwear for stance training. The first thirty minutes of the class is “warm up.” What they don’t tell you is that this warm up will leave you with a sopping T-Shirt and legs that feel like numb rubber.
It starts off innocently enough, a few Qigong, or breathwork, exercises that focus your qi, or energy, at different points of your body using dynamic tension. Then they stick your ass in a position with your knees at ninety degrees bent with thighs parallel to the ground (or some wimpy approximation of it). The first minute holding this position is one that stretches into the hours, and you sort of wish they’d let you play some Netflix because you could catch up on a few seasons of Lost and not feel your quads cramp-shaking. It’s actually embarrassing how weak you realize you are. And once you’re broken, they make you twist your legs into Dragon Stance, or what other kung fu styles call Unicorn Stance or Twisted Horse Stance, which is basically a Horse Stance twisted around so that you are facing the opposite direction and one knee is a few inches from the floor and the other is bent at a right angle. You should try this stance, right now. It looks like this:
Needless to say, we were hooked, and couldn’t cough up our monthly tuition fast enough.
One of the main attractions to the school, besides the hope of one day becoming superheroes, was the fact that it fosters an amazingly supportive community, something that’s terribly important when you are a transient who moves from place to place, displaced from family and origin. For some reason, these people really believed in what they do, which is train. And training for the sake of training, not for competition or a real street battle.
So over the last year, I’ve progressed (with L) through the first three handforms and we just finished the sequence of moves for the first weapons form. I’ve had bruises nearly constantly along my ulna from an exercise we do called three star blocks (where you bang the bones of your foreman against a partner’s forearm bones in order to harden bones and dull pain). I got my lip busted by a stray crane wing. I’ve been punched in the nose twice. I’ve had my Sifu, Pedro Cepero Yee, give me herbs and poultices when I broke my ribs doing some MMA at Cornell. We leave Jersey in August, and hopefully we’ll pick up another form or two so that we can have something to practice while figuring out a kung fu arrangement in the South. We plan to stay affiliated with Yee’s Hung Ga, and a lot of people don’t realize how difficult a decision it was to move away from our kung fu school.
I don’t want to be trite and explain too much of why this is important to me, but there’s something about living in your body that’s especially important for writers and artists to do, something that can ground us to the earth, something that makes us potent because the world of imagination is so fickle. There’s a sophistication to fighting as well, something that does power the creative side, but through muscles and tendons. Through bone.