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.