I am already exhausted when I take my position at the far side of the mat, still awash with the sweat of all the students who attended class earlier in the evening. I am alone here now; the distance between I and the four walls around me make up my whole world. I am reminded of the master’s wheel, the marked arena in which Anthony Hopkins’ Zorro teaches his successor to emulate his methods and adopt his creeds. “This [wheel] will be your world, your whole life,” Zorro dictates. “Until I tell you otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.”
My hips, a perpetual source of noise since I began running again, made their usual protest as I folded my legs beneath me, sat back upon my heels, and waited for training to begin. I wring my hands in my lap. I am exhausted, but the fraying sinews of my body are alight with an fiery determination to leave it all on the mat tonight. As well I should be so purposed – after all, my instructor this evening will have nothing less from me.
The Monkey emerges from the back of the school, nondescript in the billowy black pants of our school’s uniform and the green tank he seems to reserve for occasions only as special as what we now fondly refer to as Late Nite Kung Fu. Taken out of context, it could be the title of a post-dinner, weekday talk show, or maybe a sitcom. The thought stabilizes me some. If I couldn’t maintain some sense of humor while running these gauntlets, I doubt I’d make it through intact.
Well, mostly intact.
I stand as he approaches, already maneuvering one foot to the rear in anticipation of what is always the first drill of our sessions. He doesn’t even feel the need to give the order before he takes his position alongside me.
My imaginary trajectory rockets forth like a firecracker and I steel my legs. In a lot of ways, this is the hardest part of training with Monkey: his unrelenting focus on fundamentals makes no one exempt from drilling the body mechanics of our most basic stances and techniques. I try not to let my body remember that this is the week I chose to get back into the gym and my muscles already feel somewhat gelatinous from pushing myself on the machines. Sure enough, it is not two lines in before my thighs begin to burn and my body encourages me to break posture. I straighten my legs, seeking momentary release from the rushes of discomfort attacking my thighs, and it is then I am reminded of who I am dealing with. Monkey snaps a quick order to retake my position and continue. One more line down and back. “Rest,” he instructs, and my left knee meets the mat. I breathe out hard.
We go again, progressing through the four walking stances: mǎ bu (horse stance), sì liu bu (four-six stance), gōng bu (bow stance), and xi bu (false stance). Sixteen total lines, thirty seconds rest between each set of four. I cringe, recollecting how long it’s been since I trained this way, and how much strength had waned in the meantime.
Prior to earning a black belt at Shaolin Wu-Yi, a student learns the four primary kung fu weapons: staff, broadsword, spear, and straight sword. Nunchucks, though not a weapon traditional to kung fu, is also taught. Generally, students are encouraged to choose the versions of weapons that best suit their ability to effectively wield them: for example, while I am adept with a nunchuck made of dense wood, I much prefer rhutan, as it is more responsive to my movements. However, given that my current physical goals involve getting stronger rather than honing my individual techniques, Monkey drives the weapons segment of our session down the path of most resistance.
As he scours the racks for the heaviest versions of swords, spear, staff, and nunchucks he can gather, I try to refrain from guzzling the gallon of water that’s going to get me through this evening. The Dragon’s voice echoes in my head, parting the bees like Moses in the Red Sea, don’t tank up. Monkey returns, and an armload of weapons meets the mat with a dull series of thuds and clanking of metal. He unsheathes his own straight sword and flips it over, extending the handle to me. I have always admired Monkey’s sword. Shaolin is inundated with weapons, and straight swords come in many colors: three types of metal, an array of tassels, and various designs adorn them. Each is balanced in its own way, some less efficient than others because of it. My own is spring steel, not as whippy as the wushu version, but not as weighted as combat steel. It sports a bright blue tassel, leather belt strap, and upon the hilt the emblem of a bat in a distinctly Chinese style of illustration. Monkey’s, though not sharpened, is completely rigid from the tip of the tang to the handle and due to its three-dimensional blade outweighs my own sword by a significant amount.
The task was simple enough: do my straight sword from (San Tsai, or “three treasure”) as quickly and as cleanly as possible. My first run-through is expectedly, inconsistently unclean. The weight of the sword disrupts my usual rhythm until I am both blending maneuvers and skipping them altogether as I attempt to muscle the weapon into the proper positions. Still, Monkey praises my energy as I retake my ready position and shake the sweat from my hair, breathing hard.
“How much more do you have in you?” He asks. The question isn’t entirely left field. As much as possible, Monkey strives to reach a new level of depth in each of his students. I like to imagine he is an explorer in the deep recesses of some intricate network of jeweled caves, looking for something never before brought to the surface. It’s not a glistening gem or flowery shoot, he’s not interested in that. It’s a nondescript thing, I envision, like a chunk of coal. A piece of soul. A reason for everything someone does, including kung fu.
“As much as you want to take, sir,” I reply, without hesitation. When I had nothing left, I’d let him know.
“Eibei,” he orders. “Take three deep breaths, then explode.” I nod, feeling those alight fibers of my body and mind tightening into a glowing center. I trust Monkey implicitly, inhale deeply, and close my eyes, breathing out.
We proceed through two more run-throughs before he is satisfied, and move onto staff (an iron version that weighs 6.5 lbs), then nunchucks.
While my nunchuck form has a long way to go, I am continually proud of the progress I’ve made since I started learning them over a year ago. My dexterity has increased significantly and I am able to spin them much faster now than before. Monkey was happy with my initial pace and expressed as much by raising his voice loud over the mix tape playing in the background and commanding me not to slow down from there. Still, cracking yourself in the back of the head with a pair of the densest nunchaku in the school has a way of interrupting your flow. As I sit here narrating this story, I can still feel the bruise on the back of my skull. Anyway, I press onward, and only have to do this form one time.
Last was saber, following a rest period and some concentrated focus on straight sword techniques. Four weapons down, one to go. Seven Star Saber (performed with a broadsword) is a common form taught in traditional kung fu schools. Any search of Google or Youtube is bound to turn up videos of the various interpretations. Unlike straight sword, the broadsword does take some inherent muscling to maximize the effectiveness of the techniques.
Three deep breaths. On the first run-through, I feel a blockage of energy as much of it is redirected into my arms trying to work this heavy-ass piece of metal into the right positions. My strike extensions suffer, I finish with energy to spare, and my instructor is not impressed. Monkey picks up the staff that has been idling patiently on the floor at the edge of the mat and slings it across his shoulders. He indicates for me to go again with a warning, “if it’s not going to tax you, we’re going to do it until it does.” I nod respectfully, and go again. Three deep breaths.
You’re here, Monkey is fond of reminding me. You might as well do it right.
I have no perception of time at this point. My arms and legs are coated in a thin layer of sweat, making me feel feverish underneath the flourescent lights. My hair, recently cropped, drips endless beads of the salty stuff into my eyes; I wipe it away futilely.This was my idea, I remind myself. Monkey drew the staff – the prototypical Northern style, thin and made of flexible waxwood – away from his shoulders and held it at his side, the instrument with which he will make corrections to my form. Here, at the last leg of our session for this evening, training will test what little strength I have left.
In the days prior I had requested that during the upcoming training session Monkey coach me through my most basic white belt sequence (Lien Huan, the “continuous linking fist”) move-by-move, making intricate, detailed corrections to my form. But Monkey has a vested interest in another of my forms, Xiao Hu Yen (”small tiger swallow”), an intermediate Long Fist sequence that became a focal point of empty-hand training during our sessions leading up to my first-degree black belt test in August of last year. Xiao Hu Yen is a much more advanced, technical form than Lien Huan, and demands far more of the body in terms of raw strength, stance fluidity, and explosive energy. To go through it move-by-move will be no walk in the park.
“Eibei,” he orders, and calls for the first maneuver.
Much to my surprise, he makes no corrections on my first move. Small victories. The next series, however, I repeat no less than ten times. By the halfway point, my legs feel like Jell-O, and after breaking my posture to go down on one knee more times than Monkey can tolerate, he begins counting down from three every time I give in to the discomfort. The countdown only expires one time before the the pros of breaking posture cease to outweigh the cons.
One day, Monkey hopes to open his own school. Once he acquires his third-degree black belt (he’s close), he’ll be permitted by the laws of our governing federation to do just that. When I was a younger belt, getting to know him, I considered him overly cold, calculating, and generally insouciant about his students’ mental needs. What appeared to the untrained eye an instructor who relentlessly pursued perfection at all costs was, I realized – once I’d been initiated and awakened – actually an incredibly cognizant instructor with an innate sense of when to push his students and when to back off. Even more surprisingly, his method of encouragement (which, in the background of a training session is so gruff and loud it more or less may as well be the primal chanting of some tribal leader egging you into the great wide world of your own capability) does not rub me the wrong way. I have always been the more mellow student, sensitive to harsh orders and susceptible to a low pain tolerance. I have worn the attitude of a defeatist and lost my mojo time and time again. But training with people who understand you and know what you’re capable of (and if you’re acting on it or trying to be sly and skimp) has a way of making all the suffering seem inconsequential. You obtain a willingness to suffer to achieve something invaluably great and begin seeking every opportunity to eat bitter.
Xiao Hu Yen comes to a close and I bow, returning to my ready stance and hoping for one specific order. “Rest,” he acquiesces, satisfied. Happily I return to the benches alongside the mat, holding the gallon of water in my lap and gently pounding my sore thighs with a closed fist.
“Let’s do another,” I grinned. Monkey smiles from the center of the mat and gestures for me to take my position.
Unsurprisingly, the next form Monkey chooses to correct is Lien Huan. Given that is is the form every student has known the longest, and the form most foundational to the rest of the curriculum, Monkey was neither reserved in making the most microcosmic adjustments to my technique nor hesitant to reprimand mistakes with a quick snap of the staff.
About a quarter of the way through, I perform a maneuver that, as it turns out, I have been executing in the incorrect stance nearly as long as I have been training the form. Consequently, I remain in this stance until it is perfected. Monkey circles me, making minute corrections to my posture, foot placement, and hand techniques. The horse stance I am attempting to maintain begins to take its toll on my legs again and once I venture to straighten them, breathing out a sigh of momentary relief and allowing my high block to collapse upon my forehead. Monkey doesn’t miss a beat, his countenance hardening. He gives but a moment’s pause to correct myself before slamming the staff into the mat and shouting “go!” I sunk back down, taking a deep breath as I did so. Come on, Goat, I encouraged myself, piggybacking my internal dialogue on how much I really did enjoy training the way one of my favorite badass black belts trains.
Mindset is such a fickle thing.
when your body gives out.
“Lower,” he orders.
My posting leg quavers, protesting against muscle fatigue, as I attempt to obey. It is the final two moves of Lien Huan when the previous two hours of leg strain begins to catch up with me. While I am typically acutely aware of physical pain, training with the Monkey has a way of dulling the din of pain in your mind until it is no more vociferous or pervasive than any other thought. Train long enough with him, and you forget altogether what your body is (or isn’t) capable of. While this may seem dangerous, I find the the greatest student-instructor relationships are those built on the premise of trusting submission to the instructor’s will. More or less, as Monkey does not allow for me to give less than everything I have, it is easier to persuade myself to keep going. Perhaps it is the taskmaster in him – indeed, it’s hard to listen to your own head when all you can hear are shouted orders not to quit, give in, or crap out. But muscle failure was impending, the magnitude of which I was not yet aware.
I sink lower in my xi bu, and a spasm of searing pain rips down my inner thigh. I clutch the area, and in a quick attempt to relieve the pressure, straightened up. Punitively, the muscle contracts again, and I collapse onto the mat. Following one more failed attempt to stand, the pain erupts into a continuous wave of the searing, I’ve-been-stabbed sensation that characterizes most cramps.
Monkey had been watching sympathetically while I was standing, attempting to do what I’d been trained to do when a muscle spasms (stretch it out), but upon my meeting with the mat he dropped his staff and came to my side, giving me calm, firm orders to relax as he massaged my leg. My response was not so composed – I writhed and cried out as the afflicted muscle was forced to loosen. Only one thought eked its way through the veil of pain: I was grateful Monkey was there and able to help. My pain threshold often presents itself as fairly unimpressive, and while I had, in the dead of night, been the victim of more than a few always-unexpected charlie horses, I’d never otherwise experienced a leg cramp.
Hydrated as hell, it could only be due to muscle fatigue or, as Monkey detected later, once we were both home, a pinched nerve around my kneecap. Or both. That massage made the impromptu one during our training session seem like a cakewalk. Perhaps it was because I requested that he work on the muscle more (it still felt tight) or because the gentler he was the longer it would have persisted (and my pained cries were already threatening to wake the Dragon, sleeping down the hall), it was a quick but painful session, and a full recovery followed in the next two days.
Monkey massages the burning muscle for another few seconds while I attempt to obey his order to stay calm. Very anatomically-minded (a knowledge base that lends itself greatly to martial arts training), Monkey is as firm with his efforts to heal his students as he is to instruct them. That said, I don’t know of many of his students that have been on the receiving end of one of his patented massages. They’ve actually become somewhat of a commodity in our household – Monkey’s ability to knead out stubbornly tense knots comes at the cost of what is no trivial discomfort, but coupled with a day’s rest and an Epsom salt bath, the results are well worth it.
Back on my feet, the pain has all but subsided. I bounce on the balls of my feet and shake my afflicted leg, breathing out in relief and wiping my face on my sweat-soaked school tee, smiling abashedly at him. You need to stretch every day, Monkey would later command, knowing full well I’d been skimping on serious leg stretches. He allows me a few minutes’ rest before we finish the last two moves of the form, and break.
While Monkey runs through his own three-sectional staff form, I carry the empty water jug to the locker room for a refill and check the time. I know we are nearly done, but I almost want to admit to Monkey that I could keep going, that I’d be excited to keep going. But real life has to take precedence at some point – Monkey, a college student, will need to be up in a matter of hours to go to his morning classes, and I could do with some rest, myself, following the crippling muscle spasm. I return to the mat, and Monkey directs me to my position for one final form – Lien Huan, done at full speed this time. One, two, three, he counts my breaths.
While it was not particularly brilliant, and my stances weren’t nearly as low as they could have been, nor my techniques as clean as they ought to have been, I must admit that strangely, I didn’t much mind. When I was starting out at Shaolin three years ago, I thought that there was only one way to train: do your forms at their ideal rhythm, every time, until they were perfect. But Monkey has alerted me to the fact that you can take one form and use it as the medium to train all kinds of things, one at a time. You can do it fast, training your speed, explosive energy, and fast-twitch muscles. You can do it strong, harnessing your power. You can do it move-by-move under the watchful eye of someone who can spot your mistakes, improving your technique. Or – as it was while I flew down the mat, my maneuvers eliciting those guttural, passionate kias from my gut – you can do it just for the sake of doing it. Because if I had any energy left, it wasn’t in my body, or my mind. It was in my heart, my heart for this awesome thing that I do, that so many of us do. If you have a golden attitude about your art, if you truly love it, then of your mind, body, and heart, your heart will be the last to give out. No matter how grueling it is or how bitter it tastes, you’ll find something to smile about.
All I can say about that Lien Huan that is any definition of redeeming is that, man, I loved doing it.
The music cut, a silence had fallen over Shaolin. In the wake of a hard two hours’ training, the mat was littered with weapons and workout equipment. While Monkey changed clothes, I put things away so that in the morning everything would be prepared for Sifu to begin another day of classes. I imagined the students, young and old, pounding the same thick canvas that had been my entire world, lending their own blood, sweat, and tears to the tapestry beneath our feet.
I change in the tiny locker room, feeling chilly as I shed the sweat-soaked shirt and pull on my favorite blue sweater in its place. In socked feet I plod to the front of the school, hitting the lightswitches as Monkey sets the alarm and we exit the front door. As he slips the key into the lock and turns it, it sticks in the usual place. He muscles it into position and withdraws it, giving the handle of the school’s front door a testing shake.
“See you at home,” I smile, stepping off the curb into the arid night. I count my breaths on the way to the car. One, two, three.