Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Bent-arm Beauty

While practicing punches last week, Si-Fu Shoellhammer mentioned that it was better to hit an opponent with the lower knuckles than with the upper. When I asked why that might be, he grinned his boyish, cockeyed grin and challenged me to figure it out for myself. (Is it just me, or are all Si-Fus required to have this cryptic, all-knowing grin?) I’ll be honest, I still haven’t come to a conclusion. I’m open to suggestions, if any of you know the answer to this one, Si-Hings!

However, there is one thing I’ve learned this week that doesn't require homework: how to be a Bent-arm Beauty.

In Wing Chun, punches are practiced with arms slightly bent. If you've been practicing another martial art for a while, this may look to you like it’s not “full-out” or it’s improper form. In some martial arts—karate, for example—the punch is fully extended when practicing. But, while it looks good and, yes, it could possibly hurt the other guy, the danger in real combat is that you may not hit your target.

The very first thing I ever learned about punching, I learned as a teenager. You don’t try to hit your target, you try to hit THROUGH it. Don’t aim for the other guy’s teeth—aim for the back of his throat. Through his teeth. When you practice a fully-extended punch, you don’t leave yourself any room to push through your target.

Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’re trying to hit something and you just can’t connect? Practicing with straightened arms puts you in danger of hitting air when push comes to shove. What if your opponent pulls his chin back? Perhaps you do hit him, but it won’t be with much force, which means your fight is going to be a lot longer than you may have stamina for, especially if your opponent picks an inopportune moment to land you on cement (you have a bad cold, your kids are close at hand, you're carrying a backpack and an armload of books, etc.). One of my good buddy Si-Hings says, “If the fight lasts a full minute, you’re going to get hurt.” So it has to end as quickly as it starts.

Perhaps because your punch is just out of serious damage range, you lean forward to extend your reach. This, of course, throws you off balance. Remember, you’re going to have an adrenaline rush propelling you further than anything you did on the mat. It’s not going to be perfect--it's probably going to be ugly. Who cares, as long as you're winning? But if your balance is compromised, you could really be screwed.

It seems to me (neophyte that I am) that the whole basis upon which Wing Chun rests IS balance, the foundation upon which all other principles can be built. It’s hard enough to maintain proper balance when dealing with an opponent who is trying to jackhammer that foundation out from under you. You certainly don’t want to sabotage yourself in the first round.

In Wing Chun, then, punches are practiced with a slightly bent arm, allowing for an extension through the target, allowing for the possibility of a backward-moving target, and allowing you to maintain your balance. As an added bonus, you’re also less likely to painfully hyper-extend your arm during practice--like I did back when I was a sashless newb. There are so very many benefits.

Si-Fu tells me when I’ve done 10,000 punches, perhaps I’ll have the answer to my knuckle question. I’ll probably have an adequate amount of practical experience with those bent-arm punches, too. I’ll let you know what I discover when I’m through.

Yut, yee, sarm, say, ng...

I guess I do have homework afterall. Mm. Beauty has it's price, right?

Luk, chut, bart, gou, sub…

Monday, 7 December 2009

Wing Chun Training: What Are You Looking At?

What are you looking at? WHAT are you LOOKING at?

I’m not looking at your ugly face, that’s for sure.

But isn’t that where most people look in a fight? They get in the other guy’s space, they stare him down, they bounce around with fists at the ready, they look at shoulders, body, legs…everywhere but at what really matters. And that’s okay with me. You go ahead and stare at my gorgeous baby-browns, boys. I’m watching the part of you that interests me the most.

Your elbows.

The elbow has to move past the plane of the body in order for the hand to reach out, right? And the closest elbow will indicate the closest possible weapon my opponent can use on me. So that’s the one I’m going to watch. The shorter the distance between the weapon and the target, the faster it can arrive. In simple terms:
Distance = Time
Maybe your opponent decides to throw a punch with the rear arm. If you’re watching the forward elbow and a punch arrives from the rear, you will see it, peripherally. And you’ll have more time to react because the distance is greater between that far weapon and you. But you won’t know what your opponent will do until he or she commits to something, so you must be prepared for the closest weapon, first.

Actually, let me rephrase that:
You should be watching the closest elbow that you’re not touching.

Not only do you want to watch that elbow, it’s the primary body part to get under control. Let’s suppose your opponent throws a lead-arm, straight right at your chin. You block his arm with a left-handed pak-sao and simultaneously punch over that pak-sao with your right. Now what? Assuming your opponent is still standing, you want to immediately follow up. Let’s say your first punch was effective, so you roll punch to his face. But what if he throws up his right elbow to block me? you suggest. Yes, potential problem. Solution? Don’t let him move that elbow.

As long as you’re touching it, you know exactly where that arm is. As you roll punch with one hand and then the other, you lay down “cover fire” with the opposite hand in a continuous pak-sao/lop-sao trade-off while your opponent’s head is being repeatedly rocked. If he steps away, you’re touching him. You know exactly where he’s going. Wherever he goes, he’s going to pull you along with him, punching his head while pounding down his arm, all the way. You should be able to close your eyes and always know where your opponent is, letting his movements drive where your center goes.

Okay, save the closed eyes for practice. Let’s get back to the real thing.

If you’re touching that right arm, maintaining constant contact, do you need to watch for that right arm to be hitting you? Of course not. You’ll know if it’s getting anywhere near you because you can feel it. And your reaction to touch is faster than your reaction to sight. So where should you be looking, if not at that closest weapon?

I repeat:
You should be watching the closest elbow that you’re not touching.

You’re hitting this fool on one side, but you’re always watching that other, free elbow, lest it attempt to rise to the occasion and swing around after you. (And when it does, you’ll be ready to take it on, right Si-Hings?)

What about my opponent’s feet? you ask. Or his head? Both are weapons of destruction in and of their own right. You’ll be watching them peripherally, of course. But from what I’ve learned so far, controlling the elbows is a key component in Wing Chun combat. No, not the be-all-and-end-all, but important, nonetheless.

So go ahead and laugh when I put my guard up and stare at the middle of your arms, oh enemies dear. I may look stupid, but it’ll only be for few seconds. After that, you won’t see me at all.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Drunken Kung-Fu

Never underestimate a drunken opponent!

This was too great not to share. Thanks to Si-Hing Jessica from LAWCA for the Fight Science link!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Patience, Grasshopper: On Being Offensive

I know it takes time and practice to learn anything new. As still as the green blades of a rice paddy appear, they are indeed growing and will one day yield a harvest that will sustain you. But unless I've got a book in my hand, I'm not always good with stillness and boring repetition, with identical green leaves repeated endlessly. If there's one thing Wing Chun is trying to force into my dull, adult brain, however, it's Patience.

For the first year of my training, I had to travel 365 miles to find the best Traditional Wing Chun. Needless to say, I wasn't at the Academy all that often. Is it any wonder there have been gaps in my understanding? This may sound ridculous to you, Si-Hings, but it wasn't until this week that I finally understood--and I mean really internalized--the merits of an offensive pak-sao.

This was not the fault of my instructors, per se. Looking back, I can see that all of the elements were there--the right words spoken, the correct forms demonstrated and practiced, the attempts by one particularly kind and patient Si-Hing to pound it into my brain. But the pressure of sash testing time and time again collapsed these barely-processed thoughts into the same wrong maneuvers every time.

After eleven years as a college instructor, I have a decent understanding of the millions of ways students come to connect with classroom material. It isn't simply differences in learning styles (auditory, kinesthetic, mathematic, spatial, etc.). The specific material is also being filtered through a lifetime of experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes it takes throwing an entire toolbox full of strategies at a student to help a particular concept stick. I can explain the adiabatic process five different ways to Sunday (basically: what happens to a big chunk of air as it rises or sinks through the atmosphere) and get nothing back but crickets. Then someone in the back of the room says, "I get it! Rising, rainy. Sinking, sunny." And half the room sighs and nods. Fifty pairs of eyes refocus. The whole room gets brighter.

Sometimes that moment never comes. That's okay, too. But I'll do my darnedest to find the right wrench to unscrew that nut and let in something new.

When I began training with Si-Fu Tom Schoellhammer up here in the Bay Area, I was mildly frustrated to be starting again from scratch. How to hold my guard. How to stand in low-horse stance. How to punch. But my husband had agreed to take the class with me. He knew so little and needed to go slow and get over his fear of inexperience. (Okay, okay. I give. I needed the practice, too. Okay, shut up, already. I REALLY needed some back-to-basics.) By the time we'd finished the first session, I felt like it had been an important lesson in patience and simplicity. When the second session started, the class had grown. And so we started, once more, right back at Square One.

I thought I'd lose my mind.

When do we go over the bil-sau? Or practice a proper tan-sau? How many weeks before we even get to the gosh-darn front stance, again?!? (click here for a glossary of terms*)

I didn't dare ask. You know what happens when you ask one of those pushy questions of your Si-Fu, right? Exactly. Because the other students were new and timid, Si-Fu was being extra kind, but I wasn't ever going to assume he was above making me do endless push-ups or spending the rest of class crouched in low-horse stance. As my senior Si-Fu, Eric Oram, said once as he bowed to a student, "Never take your eyes off of your opponent." As he reflexively bowed in return, the student looked down. "Never," repeated Si-Fu. And he attacked the oblivious student. With a smile. Of course.

Eventually, we DID learn some new techniques. And because we were going excruciatingly slow, I was able to process maneuvers like the gan-sau from beginning to end: my forward guarding hand sweeping the opposite shoulder in its arcing trajectory, the pinky-side blade of my hand facing outward as the hand comes back down, protecting my belly button from an attack with room to spare. No, not perfect, but sinking in.

What grabbed my attention most, however, came on the last night of the eight-week session. Offensive footwork. Yee-haw.

Defensive footwork makes perfect sense, to me. A fist coming at you? Side-step. "Get out of the way of the bus," says Si-Fu Schoellhammer. It seems perfectly intuitive, doesn't it? If someone tries to hit you, isn't the most common human instinct to tuck your chin in and pull backward? Of course it is. (Okay, Si-Hings, maybe you have the reflexes of a superhero and would be around the attacker's back in 1/50 of a second. Work with me, here. I'm still a hero-in-training.)

But offensive footwork requires that you actually step TOWARD your opponent. And you step using a leading foot that starts out facing 90 degrees away from the direction in which you're about to move. What gives?

My biggest problem is remembering to crank my hips around. If I'm starting in a left side neutral stance, my hips, shoulders and toes all point to the right oblique and the left hand of my guard is out in front. I watch my opponent, who is standing in right front stance, until the lead elbow indicates to me that a straight punch has committed to coming my way. I swivel my hips to face 90 degrees to my left, so that they end facing the left oblique, as I'm also stepping forward on my left foot toward that left oblique. My opponent's punch has just passed over my right shoulder. But, for a beginner, it feels counter-intuitive to step in the same direction the punch is coming from.

This was my initial stumbling block. Why would I step INTO my opponent's guard? But I'm not, actually. I'm stepping past it on the outside. (There are times when I might step inside my opponent's guard, but I still don't feel comfortable doing that, yet. Just my own lack of experience, at this point. I'll be writing a post explaining this, called "The Box Of Doom", soon. Stay tuned.)

The trick is the change of direction. One minute I'm in a left side-neutral stance, the next I'm charging forward with my left foot driving past my opponent's leading right foot, my left hand barely moving in the pak-sau to send the offending fist just enough off course that the straight punch passes me by. By the time my right foot steps in to catch up, my opponent's fist is past and I'm in a great spot to control his/her right elbow. I am now completely out of the way of both arms, on my opponent's side or rear quarter.

I think I like it here!

I don't know why, exactly, it took me so long to understand this. I've been executing the offensive pak-sau maneuver since Day One at the L.A. Academy. I guess it was one of those "doing it without understanding it" things. (Heck, that's how 99% of us live 99% of our lives anyway, isn't it?) For some reason, Si-Fu Tom Schoellhammer's inexorably slow training progression did the trick. That wrench applied just enough torque on this nut to loosen her up and make her understand. about that offensive lop-sau? Maybe in the next. Slow. Session.

*Sigh.* Patience, Grasshopper. Patience. There is an entire field stretching out before you, waiting. One blade at a time.

When she's not being offensive, Angela can also be found on Twitter and at her other blogs: A World of Words, Sundance...Or Bust!, and the Silicon Valley Mom's Blog (for which she is a contributing writer). This is an original post to the Basic Training to Black Sash blog.

*Please Note: The sounds of the Chinese words used in Wing Chun have variant spellings when translated. The glossary linked to here is not exhaustive in showing the many spellings possible.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Muscle Memory: The Importance of Sil Lim Tao

It's June 12.
My plane is late coming into Burbank, California. Traffic is heavier than usual for this part of town. Thankfully, I've got a ride, so I'm able to change in the car on the way (when you grow up with a little brother, learning how to change without being seen becomes second nature). The regular Basic Training instructor is vacationing, so I worry aloud about the temperament of the substitute and any waiting punishment for being tardy. Maybe, with traffic this heavy, everyone else will be late too. I cross my fingers.

I bow just inside the door and looking up see that the room is packed with students. I rush to get my mat shoes laced up, execute the push-up pennance required, and bow onto the mat. Si-Hing Joseph is a small and wiry man--entirely steel wire, by the look of him. The few times I'd seen him enter the Academy to the enthusiastic greeting of the other students, his watchful intensity made me look twice, sizing him up. Tatted up to the neck, he's the kind of person I'd probably saunter to the other side of the street to avoid. Lucky for me, he barely gives me a second glance, tonight.

I've come in during the partner drills, feeling scattered and nervous. But I manage to focus on the moment, thanks to G., the biggest guy in the place and my favorite sparring partner. I figure if I can handle someone that muscle-bound in a fight, my miniscule 5'2" frame might bring enough hurt to buy me time and make a run for it. He accidently hits me in the ear, though it doesn't hurt as much as he thinks it must, and now he's afraid to throw a real punch. I try to remind him that I can't learn to effectively block if there's no power behind his fist, but he's still feeling tentative. So I start giving him a ration and we laugh our way through the rest of the drills.

Si-Hing Joseph closes out the class with a long, thorough Sil-lim Tao so that the newest students in the Basic Training course can catch on. And so that those of us who already know the Sil-lim Tao can work on permanently etching the forms into our minds. So why is this silly-looking set of moves that look like some weird dance so darned important?

Try this on. Have you ever had to do one of those dreaded "team-building" exercises where you have to fall backward into the waiting arms of your trusted colleagues? It's darn-near impossible to force yourself to stay stiff when everything inside you is screaming, "Open your eyes! Put out your hands! Sit on your butt!" We learn that first reaction to falling backward as babies, when our fat little rumps and soft bones can take that kind of rear-end beating while we first learn to walk.

Small children LOVE repetition. You know, the kind that drives parents bonkers, as they beg us to read the same bedtime story for the fifth time tonight. From the same book we've been reading. Every. Single. Night. For the last three weeks. But as bored as we adults get, children use that repetition to soak up information like little sponges--from our voice inflections, to the look of the printed words, to learning the colors and shapes on the page--they absorb it all. Through this experience, slowly but surely they learn to read.

It doesn't stop with childhood. Every action we perform, even as adults, creates a neural connection. And the more times we perform that same action, the more those neural connections become hard wired. I drive the same way to work every day. I get in the car, strap in my daughter, and turn on the mental auto-pilot. I don't think about each turn, I know them all by heart. So when I go grocery shopping, I have to force myself to think about what I'm doing, to make that right turn instead of the left. Many's the time I've been distracted by something going on in the back seat and belatedly realized I'm headed for the freeway instead of into town. Ugh.

But apply that same neural principle to learning the basics of Sil-Lim Tao, and it becomes a reflexive reaction to whatever might come at you. Each move is a defense, a response, an attack. Each move has a purpose, whether you've been shown it's exact nature yet, or not. Once you know the Si-lim Tao, you don't have to think so hard about what to do next--it's downloaded into your mind, like a program from The Matrix. And your muscles remember.

Neural connections and muscle memory are the keys to any sports activity. In fact, you can even program your muscles to remember an activity through thinking about it, if you can imagine it doing over and over and over again. Have you ever noticed Olympic athletes sitting quietly before a gymnastics routine or a slalom run? It's called creative visualization. They're going over every maneuver, imagining themselves executing a perfect performance. And their muscles remember what their minds imagine.

Motivational coaches use this strategy to encourage you to "think yourself rich" or "imagine your way to success". Yes, it sounds ridiculous. But there is a grain of truth to that spiel--and we know it, deep down. When we think self-sabotaging thoughts, worrying about failure and seeing worst-possible outcomes in our lives, we're reinforcing neural connections and essentially programming our minds for self-destruction. This is why I believe praying, wishing, even meditating with a clear need, want, or goal in mind can, in one way or another, bring those things to us. We're programming our minds to see the steps that will get us there. Programming our bodies to remember.

That's not to say that imagining yourself winning the lottery will beat those bzillion-to-one odds. (I wish.) But practicing and, later, imagining your way through the Sil-lim Tao over and over may help cement it into your mind. And make the work of programming your muscles that much easier.

Afterall, no one's going to give you time to think about it in a fight.

If you liked this post, you can also find me blogging at Silicon Valley Moms as contributing writer, A World Of Words, and Sundance...Or Bust! Or you can follow me (AngelOrr) on Twitter.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Shut Up And Punch: On Breathing Through Your Nose


The month when mother issues REALLY start to come to the forefront of my training.

Kids' school functions, family celebrations, a new team-taught course I'm participating in, and prepping my Geography students for the first exams of the semester are all sucking up my time and mental energy. This weekend was the first of Si-Fu Oram's seminars that I've missed in I-can't-remember-when. It fell during my anniversary get-away, so I can't complain...much. But it was hard to chill out when I knew my Si-Hings were surging forward without me. I missed the mat.

What I really needed to do was BREATHE.

The subject of breathing came up during one of Si-Fu Shoellhammer's classes, recently. I suppose I'd been a bit too talkative that evening (who ME???) and at one point, Si-Fu reminded me that there were "many benefits" to breathing through my nose. Curious, I asked what they were. "You mean, besides not talking?" he smirked. I shut up and went back to the combination at hand.

After class, though, I cautiously asked again. Here are the ones he offered, though he explained that there were more:


1. It warms the air. As it passes through the sinuses, the air is warmed in its longer path to the lungs. Warm air is more readily-absorbed within the lungs than cold air.

2. It slows the heart rate. When we experience moments of conflict, our brains tell the centers of adrenaline production to pump this chemical into our systems. This speeds up the heart, which prepares us for the human fight-or-flight response. However, at rates of over 100 bpm (beats per minute), fine motor skills begin to decrease. Not a good thing in a fight situation. Missing a critical punch is the stuff my nightmares are made of. Breathing through the nose can slow the heart rate enough to maintain the coordination necessary for overcoming an adversary.

3. It increases saliva production. Breathing through the mouth dries up your saliva. With the mouth closed, however, the tongue rests on the roof of the mouth, which actually increases saliva production. Saliva nourishes the mouth and throat, and moist airways allow for a more efficient flow of air. (Might I add, from personal experience, that a dry throat also HURTS?)

4. It protects your teeth. If your mouth is open, your teeth and jaw can be more easily broken by a hit to the face. Keeping your teeth together can also prevent you from biting your tongue accidentally--or on someone else's purpose.

Such simplicity. Each of these seemed perfectly reasonable. And what's more, when I was in L.A. for a class the following week, I started breathing through my nose and I found I was more focused. Why? Well...

Maybe it was because I just shut up and punched.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Wing Chun and The Butterfly Effect

No, I didn't do exceedingly well on my testing. I passed, but not with the high marks I would have liked. But that was three weeks ago. And something's changed.

The Butterfly Effect states, in essence, that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forest, the movement of air in that one spot affects all of the other molecules of air around it. This creates a cascading series of events that can ultimately effect the course of a larger event--that movement of air becomes the seed from which a hurricane develops.

In a similar sort of internal butterfly effect, I've often found that a shift in one life circumstance leads to shifts in other parts of my life. Each change supports the next until what once seemed unimportant suddenly becomes life-altering. In Wing Chun, something as simple as a shift of one's balance or a movement of the hips can realign your center, lead to new openings, and change the course of a confrontation.

Si-Fu Shoellhammer's class in Millbrae has realigned my center in ways I never imagined.

Up to now, I've only been able to drive or fly down to L.A. every other weekend, leaving huge gaps in my training. Now I'm able to stay focused, reinforce the neural connections I'd built, and I'm internalizing more of what I'm learning. In the Millbrae class, I have the chance to ask questions, I'm getting more personal attention (I love attention), and the slower pace has helped me to work on my structure and breathing. Funny, you don't think about breathing much when you're doing it. And yet, it's become one of the most important parts of my training.

Add to this the fact that my husband agreed to join me in the class. At first, he was nervous and somewhat unsure of himself. But he was diligent about practicing at home (even more so than I was, to tell you the truth), which encouraged me. We practice together the basic movements, allowing me to focus on my own structure as my husband slowly builds his. We often discuss basic principles and strategies of Wing Chun over breakfast. And I finally have someone with whom I can share what I've learned during my visits to the Academy in L.A.

We've both started shaping up. I can feel my hips again (after two kids, I'd almost forgotten I had them) and my clothes fit better. I've saved a lot of my pre-baby clothes (what woman doesn't save at least one pair of pants, just to remember?), and might even fit into some of them again soon. And my husband? God bless 'im, the man-boobs are finally starting to shrink.

I've gotta say, it's helped (ahem) other areas of our marriage, as well. Heck, just having time alone on the way to and from class has turned it into a date night. I know, sad but true. Welcome to the modern world of parenting.

When I was in L.A. last weekend, the senior students started feeding me real punches because they could see how much my focus had changed. I'm no masochist, but the energy of a real punch felt good!

Between Si-Fu Oram's seminars and Si-Fu Shoellhammer's regular classes, I'm starting to feel like more than just a lowly white sash. I'm starting to feel like I belong...right where I am.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Who Needs T.V. When You Have Wing Chun?

Si-Fu Eric Oram and Si-Hing Robert Downey, Jr., training on-set

Sorry for the long absence. I’ve been doing my best to enjoy my summer vacation and have spent more time running up and down the state for classes than I have in front of my computer. But I'd rather be doing Wing Chun than sitting in front of a screen, anyway.

A week ago, Si-Fu Oram (who is currently co-ordinating fight sequences for Iron Man 2) was forced to change the upcoming sash testing date from a Tuesday to a Saturday, so I now have no excuse for not going. Nevermind the fact that I have to leave at stupid o’clock that same morning, in order to accommodate a previously-organized Friday night sedition session of part-time community college faculty. One week. Now, less than that. By the time I post this, I’ll be staring down the barrel of the weekend. Urg.

One new development has been extremely helpful. Si-Fu Tom Schoellhammer, who graduated from LAWCA, is trying to build a following on the Peninsula—his Millbrae Rec. Center courses started this week on Monday. My husband signed up, so we got a sitter for the kids and made a date of it. He was nervous, but Si-Fu went easy on us and my sweetie did quite well. And while there haven’t been enough classes yet to truly help me with my testing this weekend, I’m ecstatic to finally have an instructor who knows the style I’ve been trained in, and who will likely continue to teach in the area. Six consecutive Mondays for $40, total? You can’t beat that.

The best part? My husband finally understands exactly where my bruises come from. And I have a training partner!

Still, I’m stressing. I know I have the offensive pak-sau/punch and the defensive lop-sau/punch footwork down. We actually practiced the latter in Si-Fu Schoellhammer’s class on Monday. But offensive lap-sau/punch? I’m still not 100% sure. I know that I’m stepping forward, pressing my opponent’s balance, but which stance am I using for which punch coming at me? I combed through YouTube videos until the wee hours, last night, to no avail. Every one of the instructors who had posted there used a different term. Annoyed after watching too many modified versions of Wing Chun, I gave up and went back to Spider Solitaire.

This morning, my husband and I practiced our stances in the kitchen while the kids ate breakfast. When I looked over, they had the same fascinated, slack-jawed expressions on their faces they exhibit while watching cartoons. I turned back and grinned.

I mean really, who needs T.V. when you have Wing Chun?

Photo © 2009 CraveOnline Media, LLC

Monday, 8 June 2009

Catching My Breadth

After sitting on my last post for a while, I started thinking that perhaps I've got some more crap to let go, in my life. That rotten ex took more than just a ring from me...but is facing him going to solve the problem? Highly doubtful he'll give it back. So why put myself through the ringer all over again? I have more important things to worry about. Like testing. And surviving Si-Fu's classes.

I missed the last round of exams. Since I'm only able to make it to classes once every other week, and the Saturday classes are oriented toward chi-sao, I've been missing out on the Basic Training and am really feeling the lack. I didn't feel ready at all--I would have made a complete ass of myself in front of the whole Academy. Hell, the five year-olds in the kids' classes know the Wing Chun pledge better than I do. No, really. Those little guys rock. But not me. Not right now, anyway.

My experience in Si-Fu's class two weekends ago really rammed it home.

You see, the only class that Si-Fu teaches on weekends is the black sash chi-sao class. He often includes sets of basic movements, as well, but mostly it's partner drills (such as bon-sao/lap-sao combinations like these, demonstrated here by the pros). But this class is also geared toward students who can already demonstrate the difference between a defensive and an offensive pak-sao (sorry, couldn't find a good video for these). Honestly, do you know how long it took me to get the difference straight? I'm still not even sure I have it down solidly. I know that was the one thing I blew mightily on my first test.

I haven't been able to make it to the Friday night Basic Training classes in several months because I've been watching a soon-to-be-divorced friend's kids after school. Which of course makes it tough to get to L.A. in time for class at 6 p.m. It feels like this gap in my training is threatening to swallow me.

Immediately after my black sash class on Saturdays is the gold sash course (the gold sash being the highest level you can attain in this particular program). After the break between classes, Si-Fu has kindly allowed me to sit at the edge of the mat and jot down notes from the earlier class, any useful information shared by my Si-Hings (senior students), and the lovely golden nuggets of wisdom Si-Fu happens to let drop. I'd been drawing diagrams, scribbling quotes, and making mental connections between the art and life-in-general. I'm not just cooling down, I'm processing what I've just learned.

In other words: I'm catching my breadth so I don't end up out of my depth.

Two weeks ago, the black sash class ran over time and, effectively, blended into the gold sash class. During the water break, I spoke to Si-Fu for a few minutes and he asked me if I'd be staying for the rest. I was surprised, because I'm not officially a gold sash student. It's one thing to observe the class. It's another entirely to be out on the floor. I told him I'd like to continue to stay and take notes, if he'd let me. "The best seat in the house is on the mat," he replied. Say no, at that point? I think not.

So, I bowed back onto the mat. And immediately turned into a drooling infant. At least as far as the other students were concerned, I'm sure. I was struggling just to put the combinations together in the right order, while the rest of them were moving into the realm of thinking creatively, fluidly pushing past the set movements and testing each other for openings. All of them were kind and, for the most part, patient. But there were a few annoyed sighs and some barely-disguised frustration at being stuck with a total neophyte. Honestly, I can't say I blamed them. They paid full pop to learn, not to teach. But I suppose there was a lesson there for both of us.

This weekend, Si-Fu wasn't there, so the next most senior instructor ran the class. My husband and kids were in town with me, so I wasn't able to stay the extra hour. Part of me was glad--I didn't want to be on the mat, this time. The class is amazing, but a little scary for someone who grew up in a family where looking like a fool was right up there with the worst of social sins. I'm not sure I'm ready to join the ranks of the more serious students. Not because I don't want to. But because my training hasn't gotten me far enough, yet.

Summer officially begins on Thursday for the kids. And you can bet I'm going to make the most of it. Momma's got a ticket to ride, babies. I'll be flying into L.A. for the Basic Training class once again, come hell or high water. It's time to get caught up, kiddies.

Oh, and one other thing...
One of the gold sash students from the L.A. Academy recently moved up to the Bay Area. I had hoped to meet with him to train and now he's going to be teaching a beginner's Wing Chun class at the Milbrae Community Center. The class runs six successive Monday nights in July and August. If anyone's interested, please leave a note in the comments section below, and I'll post the details here. It's only $40 and totally worth a try. I think my husband is even going to give it a go. (Crossing my fingers--I need a work-out partner!) I'll be there for sure.

Hope to see you on the mat!

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Walking Into The Lion's Den--Gracie Jiujitsu

I've been watching YouTube videos of martial arts, lately. Just about anything I can find on Wing Chun, of course. But this week, I discovered a show called Fight Quest. It's a Discovery Channel series showcasing two fighters who travel the world learning different martial arts disiplines and recording their experiences. After watching all the Wing Chun pieces, tonight I found the Brazilian Jiujitsu segments (see the first segment, above). And--


I remember this stuff. All too well.

In college, I dated a martial arts expert. A crazy-ass con artist who still goes by his nickname (but I know who he really is). He was so deeply into Gracie Jiujitsu, he hung out at the home of the Gracie cousins on a regular basis (don't ask me which ones...there were a lot of them in L.A., at the time). I learned a lot, living with this asshole and his sparring partner. It was quite an education. Though I wasn't actually training with them, I was around them all of the time and I couldn't help but learn some of it.

Mostly, the guys found it fun to tie me into knots. That was my training. Practice dummy.

After training in Wing Chun, I'm sure I'd rather know how to keep from getting to the pavement to begin with. But if I was ever there, Gracie Jiujitsu would be the tool I'd want most to use.

Learning it, though? I don't know if I have the mental fortitude to walk back into the lion's den and learn that evil ex's style.

Then again...he still has my high school class ring. He borrowed it once, said he'd lost it at his boxing school. I know it was a lie. Like so many other lies he told, I believed him at the time because I was kind and trusting and loyal. And naive. And just plain stupid.

But I know where he teaches. And I vowed once to someday get that ring back. He took it like he took a lot of things, from me. But this is one thing I can get back. Certainly not with Wing Chun or Jiu-jitsu (I've gained a little bit of wisdom since I was 19). But...

Someday it's going to happen. Someday.


Sunday, 10 May 2009

Momma's Gettin' A Bruise On

So this weekend I gained my first real "battle" wounds, a set of bruises I can be proud of. That's right. I traveled almost 750 miles, round-trip, on Mother's Day weekend just to get beat up.

I'm actually looking forward to showing off when I teach tomorrow. I feel like these red marks might give me some measure of street cred with my students. Don't fuck with the teacher, dude. She's not afraid to get a black eye--and she may take your ass down in the process.

This weekend, I worked hard trying to learn a new technique. And I spent time after class taking down notes on the different styles and suggestions of each of the more senior students that I practiced with during class. "Different partner, different energy," Si-Fu said after each exchange. And he was right. I learned something new from every person I came in contact with.

From Jonathan, I learned to "snap" each move to put power behind the motion and throw my opponent off balance. From Craig I learned to move from a snap to a more fluid combination of one move into another as we drilled bon sau/lop sau/punch combinations back and forth. From a third student I learned to keep my center of gravity low--not because he suggested it, but because he was taller than I was and I kept trying to reach up to him. When I realized I was doing it, I dropped my weight and, though it felt awkward at first, I managed to find the sense in it, as his punches went over my head more often than they came at my nose.

It was a tough class and I was sweating madly by the end. All I could think was, Damn why I can't I just live closer? I'd be a pro in two years flat, if I worked this hard all week! Well...maybe.

I consider myself both lucky and priviledged. I'm not sure what it was that put me in Si-Fu's good graces, but after my black sash class, Si-Fu let me sit in and audit the more advanced gold sash class. He allowed me to do the same the last time I was there and both times I feel like I've pulsed forward further for having been able to sit quietly and take notes. In fact, I think it's been the most valuable part of my training, so far.

It's getting late tonight and I want to post this ASAP, so...I'll share more quotes and stories tomorrow.

Until then, if you're one of the parents I see at my daughter's elementary school drop-off, I promise those marks are NOT the result of domestic violence. No, really. Promise. I actually had a kick-ass Mother's Day weekend.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

One Class At A Time

So it's official. I've started the black sash training. Somehow, I feel like I'm learning less than I did in the basic training classes. It took me a while to figure this out, but I think it's because I know how much more is available to me, now--and how little of it I actually have time to experience.

It's like living in a town with a small, one-storey library with enough books on the shelves to keep me busy for a long time, but not so many I couldn't read them all in a lifetime, then discovering a big-city library the size of a mall, one town over. It's overwhelming. I still have the same interest and I'm still going to the library just as often, but there's no way on Earth I'll ever be able to read all of those books with an every-other-weekend visit.

It's another mental hurdle. Well, there have been others. And there will be others again. One class at a time, right?

Quite honestly, it feels good to hold the big-city library card in my hand.

The best part is that I've started to deepen some of my friendships with the more advanced students, or Si-Hings. It's as if joining the program shows you're serious and you intend to stick around, so people are more inclined to take the time and get to know you. It's like any other milestone in life, I suppose. Welcome to the Married People's Club or, Congratulations--you're in the Mommies Clique! Thankfully, this school isn't that obvious or obnoxious about it. But still, the feeling is there.

When Si-Fu invited his students to join him at an inspirational stage performance, recently, of course I said, "Yes." I had hoped there would be time after the performance for some conversation--I'd like to get to know Si-Fu a little bit as a person the way I've gotten to know my basic training instructor. Call me silly, but I find myself more motivated to learn when I like the person I'm learning from. A college instructor, myself, I've found that when my students enjoy the lectures (and the person giving them), they come to class more motivated and ultimately retain the information better. I wish I knew a specialist who could explain that to me, but there's probably some chemical reason for it. Whatever. It works.

Unfortunately, I have yet to talk to Si-Fu one-on-one for more than 60 seconds. It's frustrating that he's so aloof and I've taken to wondering more than once if it's something about me that's kept him at bay. Without a channel of communication, I can't know for sure.

Instead, I've found myself turning to the other senior students for companionship and guidance (not for training, mind you--that's the job of the instructors). I've been a shoulder to cry on, a networking contact, a counselor, a friend. And they've been many of the same things for me. It feels good to be connected.

After that stage performance, I had one of the best conversations yet with a hard-working student who's been kind to me from the very first weeks of my classes. I discovered that she and I came to this discipline for many of the same reasons, and stayed at this particular school because we both felt an indescribable calling. And the more I connected with her, the more I felt inclined to stick it out and stay in the program, despite the hardships of long-distance, cost, and my own mental machinations.

I tell my Geography students that the best ways to survive a college course are to 1) get the instructor's attention so he or she ends up teaching to your abilities and interests, 2) make a friend so you can encourage (or shame) one another into making it to class and you can study together, and 3) just get in the door--because being there is half the battle. So far, I think I've done those things, though I'm still working on #1 with Si-Fu.

Now is the time, he says.

Yep, Si-Fu. Right now. So notice me, already.

Oh I forgot one very important college survival technique: study your notes when you get home. I keep forgetting that one. So, if you'll excuse me, I've got homework to do.

One pak-sao, one roll-punch, one day at a time.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Don't Fight Force With Force

There is an old story about a mighty tree and a lowly blade of grass. The grass looks up to the tree, impressed by its girth and its gnarled, weathered bark and wishes to be so strong. When a powerful hurricane comes, the great, old tree is upended, pulled from its roots and left to die, while the tiny blade of grass bends with the wind and survives. Sometimes it is better to bend to a greater force and let it pass by than to try to withstand it head on, or fight back with equal strength. The allegory is apt, I think, for studying the second basic principle of Wing Chun:

Don't fight force with force.

What does that mean, exactly?

As a mother, I watch my children face me head-on on a daily basis. "I don't want to go to school!" my preschooler cries, as I struggle to pull her shirt over her ducking head. She's learning to use the toilet, but has accidents now and then. Does spanking and shouting work? Or the encouragement of stickers and special privileges? Take a guess.

The nail won't go any deeper as I try to hang my favorite painting from the newly-painted living room wall. I slam the hammer down as hard as I can, bending the nail and sending the hammer head careening off to the side, where it makes a glaring, half-moon dent. At that point, it's all I can do not to throw the hammer across the room in frustration.

Don't fight force with force.

Wing Chun was developed by a woman (or so the legend goes). And as strong as many women like to believe they are, there remains a high percentage of us whose bodies will never be as strong as those of the men in their lives. I can admit it--while I know it would never happen, if my husband and I were ever to go head-to-head, he'd most likely lay me out in a matter of seconds. I could never stop his fist from moving forward. But I could send him off course. And it doesn't take much, once you know how to guard your centerline. A well-directed, forceful slap will change the vector of a moving fist. A little goes a long way.

I should point out that I said IF we were to ever throw down. There was one lesson I learned long, long ago, so far back that I'm not even sure where it came from. There is one sure-fire way to keep from ever being hit.

Don't be there in the first place.

Sounds stupidly simple, doesn't it? But think about it: if you're not walking in a dark alleyway, no one can jump you there, can they? If you walk in the middle of the quiet roadway instead of on the sidewalk near the dark and threatening landscaping that dresses the homes in your neighborhood, you'll have a much better view of anyone approaching you, won't you? And more time to react. (I'm assuming, of course, that this isn't a thoroughfare and that you're smart enough to get out of the way if a car approaches you.)

Of course it doesn't address every situation--humans are collective creatures, after all. We like to be around our own kind. Sometimes we forget to check our 6 o'clock. Still, it's an effective technique, in its own right.

Don't want to get hit? Don't be there.

It's as simple as: Don't fight force with force.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Guarding The Centerline

After another class with Si-Fu (and his reassurances that he'll remain in L.A. for a while while filming Ironman 2), I've decided to take it to the next level. I've got my first sash. I'm ready to move beyond Beginner. I'm pumpin' up the volume and goin' for the gold. Er, black.

Holy crap.

Why am I freaking out? Let's see...I'm a 38 year old, out-of-shape, part-time college instructor, mother of two little girls, and a struggling writer. I'm not entirely sure how I'll be able to afford this. Not just the classes themselves, they're expensive enough. But what about the plane tickets or drives to L.A.? Once a month is one thing...but once a week? What the hell am I doing?

I know this is something I want--and want badly--so I'm going to take the plunge before the water dries up. It's certainly not a blind leap. I've spent a lot of time studying and planning this path. Testing the waters, as it were. No, it's more of an educated jump. I just hope the water's deep enough to keep me from hitting the bottom.

I don't have some grand, over-arching vision. I'm not doing this to save my soul or change my life or become Lara Croft (though, come to think of it, those all sound like great ideas). As much as I joke about throwing down with senior student Robert Downey, Jr., I'm realistic enough to understand it ain't gonna happen. Seriously, friends. I'm not that stupid.

So I guess I'm doing this because... because...

Because I want a piece of something that is indefinable. A piece of mind, perhaps? I know there's another side to Wing Chun, one that involves meditation, healing with pressure points, and development of internal energy, or "chi". I haven't seen it yet, but then again, I've only been there on occasional Friday nights. I haven't had the chance to talk about these components with Si-Fu or my current instructor, Si-Hing Jim. I'm hoping those are part of the next training level. Part of what I'm looking for is the opportunity to learn from a man I believe is destined to become a Master. Granted, I don't have much to compare him to, but as far as I can tell, he's an amazing instructor.

Just in case the thought presented itself, it doesn't feel like any kind of cult. No one's preaching, pushing, or intimidating. So far, the only person I've heard of who's had a life-altering experience there has been Robert Downey, Jr. And I'd say he's none the worse for the wear, wouldn't you?

So why this? Why now?

Maybe it's a family thing. At age 35, my father decided he didn't want to be stuck a police Sergeant in Vacaville, California, so he moved us all to L.A. He wanted to work for the best S.W.A.T. team in the nation. He followed his dream, despite all of the nay-sayers and hardships, and he eventually earned the right to own that dream in real life. An element leader, an expert marksman, a hostage negotiator, a member of the climbing cadre, and the underwater strike team--his accomplishments are too many to list. He's not my only inspiration, either. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. At age 50, she decided to learn how to S.C.U.B.A. dive, spent over a year in Writer's Bootcamp learning the craft of screenwriting, subsequently wrote four feature films, and is currently working on a novel. So you see, I have a lot to live up to.

Life doesn't end after 30. There's just too much to do.

I'm not going off selfishly on my own. I'd rather take my kids and dear husband along with me, on this ride. It certainly couldn't hurt to see Michael and I both get into shape, or Emily and Caely learn some discipline and self-preservation skills. And there have been unexpected side benefits. I've always been a white-knuckle flyer and the one-hour plane trips have helped me conquer one of my worst fears. It's been good to spend time with my parents and connect with people I've known since I was a kid. And, ultimately, I'm learning a new skill that I'm passing on to my family. One that could even save my life one day, literally or figuratively.

I'm not quite ready to uproot the four of us and move to L.A. the way Dad did. I'm not trying to make bold pronouncements or grand gestures. I'm not quitting my job or leaving my spouse. I'm not making promises to my kids that I don't intend to keep. I'm not becoming a "new" person or changing my religion. No.

I am, quite simply, trying to learn Kung-Fu.

Is it worth all the effort? Dear friends I'll be happy to share the journey with you, should you be so inclined. So let's start with the very first principle of Wing Chun, shall we?

Guard your centerline.

As I understand it, this basically means protect your middle and guide any blows away from the center of your body. It doesn't take much force to nudge a moving fist off its course toward your nose. And if you do it correctly, your attacker ends up with you at his side, roll punching him in the jaw before he can turn and get in another shot.

But I think tonight I'd like to look at it another way. My family is the line that keeps me centered, keeps me grounded, keeps me sane.

And you know what?

Perhaps that's what this is really all about.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

We All Need A Little Validation

Do you ever have those moments where you start to doubt whether you're heading in the right direction?

It kinda goes like this:
You get excited about a new project, a new job, a new hobby, a new outlook. You start telling everyone you know all about it until you're so obsessed it's all you can talk about. Your best friend's eyes glaze over. Even your mother starts tuning you out.

And then something goes awry...maybe even something you shift the wrong way in your yoga class and botch a move and you're at the front of the room and you feel EVERYONE LOOKING AT YOU. And you feel so silly, you leave early and give yourself an oh-so-reasonable excuse for missing the next class. By're not even sure if it's worth the trouble.

A downward spiral of ridiculous shame and frustration. The death knell of your latest love. Your thrill ride jumped the tracks.

How much does it matter to you? Do you wait for someone or something outside of yourself to push you back into the ring? Do you search for inspiration on your own? Or do you walk away? Do you put the yoga mat in the closet? Do you give it to a friend or to Goodwill? Do you throw it away?

You see, I was one of those kids for whom so many things came easily, when I hit a wall, I often gave up. My parents tried to teach me "stick-to-it-tiveness" by making me slog through a whole season of soccer when I was seven...the only girl on the team with a rotten coach who never let me play anything but full-back and was once yellow carded for shouting obscenities at us kids. The last game of the season was played in drizzle and mud and cold--I was sure they'd cancel and let us go home for hot chocolate. But Dad squeezed my jersey over my jacket and noodged me back onto the field. My feet were so numb by the time we were done, I held my wet, yellow-white toes against the heater vents the whole way home. Dad still feels bad about that day, yet at the same time, he stuck to his guns. Lesson learned, right?

Not quite.

I think the big thing I took away from that game was a new-found hatred of team sports. I still love to kick the ball around with my two little girls, or join in a random pick-up game. But don't think you'll ever get me on a neighborhood team, no way. I know I suck. My coach used to tell me, every practice, just how much.

Now if I find myself disliking some new endeavor, no matter how attractive initially, I turn around and walk the other way. I resist buying special clothes or new gear. I question everything. I watch to see if my husband's tuning me out. Will I make it through this one? Will I fight this impulse, or give up? Is it worth it?

And the most critical question...the one that defines it all...


Afterall, we all need a little validation now and then.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

From The Sparrow To The Hawk

Over the summer of 2008, I began doing research while writing a screenplay. As part of this process, I began reading scripts and watching the films created from them. I fell in love with the movie "Chaplin" and started reading up a bit on Robert Downey, Jr., who earned an Oscar nomination in 1992 for playing the title role. In the course of watching an interview with Mr. Downey, I first heard about Eric Oram. Known to his students as "Si-Fu", he runs the Los Angeles Wing Chun Kung-Fu Academy in West L.A. I figured he must be someone special if he could help Mr. Downey turn his life around. So I read up on the school and the martial art. And then I took a class.

Have you ever walked into a situation or met a person and known that you were right where you were meant to be? I knew the minute I walked in the door that everything I'd been doing that summer had led me to this place, this feeling, this NOW. Before the month was out, I was a student.

Did I mention the Academy is in L.A.? Did I also happen to mention that I live in the Bay Area? Everyone who knows me thinks I'm nuts.

Mr. Oram doesn't teach the Basic Training class for newbies like me. But I figured if I could stick it out long enough, I'd get a chance to meet the man my fellow students raved about. I'd heard a podcast he'd been featured on, read articles he'd written, and caught snippets written about him by reporters. But shortly after I joined the school, Si-Fu left for London to help choreograph the fight scenes for the film, "Sherlock Holmes". And he didn't return until after Christmas.

Why on Earth would I drive or fly several times a month just to take classes at THIS school? Why not one closer to home? For those of you who have wondered what the heck I'm on about with this guy and his school, I thought I'd share a revised version of the letter I sent to him describing my reaction to meeting him on the mat for the very first time. To be honest with you, I just haven't been able to find anything like this place. Or this man. Anywhere.

9 January 2009

Si-Fu, all I can say after meeting you for the first time I get it.

For the longest time I've listened to everyone talk about how amazing you are and how much they missed you. They talked up Si-Hing Jim and the great classes he ran in your absence, of course--funny and demanding, kind and dedicated, we all enjoyed every minute of his instruction. Yet when I asked the other students why they were so anxious for you to return, they couldn't exactly explain what it was about you that was so special.

They'd squint and look sideways, thinking hard, and attempt to describe some intangible intensity. Something about the way you explain things, the way you make every moment seem immediate and important. And then they'd promptly launch into how "scary" it is having you around, with your penchant for launching random strikes at unwary students at the most inopportune moments, keeping everyone in a constant state of condition orange. That they were in awe of you was abundantly clear. But they just couldn't quite articulate whatever unique quality it was that made your Academy feel somehow empty without you.

I tried to take as many classes as I could afford over the holidays. Muslima and Dale had both clued me in when they'd heard from you that you'd be back for a few days before returning to New York to complete the filming of Sherlock Holmes. So when Si-Hing Jim announced you'd be teaching a special, all-level class, I was there with bells on.

We were warming up when my peripheral vision caught your dark eyebrows and eyes like night floating above your black work-out suit in the dark doorway. You did little more than grunt, a wry grin the only indication of your happiness at arriving "home" once again. The energy in the room became palpable as every head turned to you and every body began pumping adrenaline in anticipation. Ever the kindly father figure, Dale passed me with a whispered warning as you stepped onto the mat and the students began circling the room: "Keep your guard up!"

Watching the way the other students avoided you as you jogged through the group, looking to test how well each had stayed in shape in your absence, was like watching a flock of birds over a vineyard when a hawk flies over, the near-panic passing from one to the next until the whole flock has turned, and turned, and turned again. As much as they wanted you there, they were wary, clearly nervous.

And then you passed in front me. Jogging backward, eyes locked on mine, infinitely black, unblinking, and seeing everything at once.

I was totally lost for a heartbeat (okay several very rapid heartbeats), wearing what I'm sure was a ridiculous grin, too excited to be cautious, as yet untested and unaware what you were capable of. A key synapse finally fired off, a little late for my own good, perhaps. I remembered to watch your elbows, not your eyes. Watch the leading elbow...guard the center line...two of the most important first principles... Finally, either uninterested or, I imagined hopefully, satisfied that the sashless student did something right, you turned away. A hawk, intent on cutting down another sparrow from the flock.

I took a breath. It was a conscious effort.

The class you led WAS intense. And there was an eagerness among the students, a desire to please. Or perhaps, survive. I was suddenly grateful to be among them. All of the effort to physically get to the Academy over the last few months finally came to fruition. This was why I was here.

Thank you for the time and energy you spent in class that day, especially given that you were only in town for such a short time. After class, we all very much enjoyed the hilarious, suspenseful, fascinating stories of your filmmaking escapades and frustrations.

And, finally...though I fear it will be my downfall when next we meet on the mat...thank you for letting the littlest sparrow pass through your talons unscathed, thusfar. I hope one day to at least approach the level of proficiency of Si-Hing Craig (whose battle on the mat with you was really quite something to watch). Until then, however, I humbly but fervently await your return. As do all of your other students, I'm sure.

Deeply and Respectfully,
Angela Orr