Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Becoming One with The Suck

My current banner, cracks me up -- "Something Fresh." What, you mean it's April already?

Their rejection is your luck. Here -- have a story.


The morning they introduced the new routines I knew it was time to find a new workout. With the music thumping and our lycra-encased behinds gyrating in rhythmic circles, I felt like I was cross-training to be a cheerleader or a stripper. At 9:30 A.M. I wasn’t ready to be either.

For the past year I had received acupuncture treatments to alleviate the symptoms associated with endometriosis (i.e. – menstrual cramps that could drop a horse). A daily workout that gave me the benefits of circulating qi (energy) through my body would be ideal. Tai chi, with its long, slow movements combining the qi circulating effects of acupuncture with aerobic strength training, seemed perfect. Finding an instructor was easy – there was only one listed in the phone book.

But when I called and asked about classes, the instructor laughed sheepishly and apologized for the outdated listing. The school hadn’t taught tai chi in years, he said, but they did offer something called “qigong.”

He explained that qigong is similar to tai chi as far as moving energy, but unlike much of what is taught in the U.S., the qigong taught at this school is not separated from its martial roots. His school taught bagua zhang, which consists of two parts – the external, martial art, which is bagua, and the internal, health-building art, which is qigong. Both share the same fundamental concepts and many of the movements.
Me? Martial arts? I’d never done anything like that before. No way.
Except… I didn’t like how I automatically cringed when people tossed things at me. And when it came to expressing a contrary opinion or telling people what I really thought, I folded. Maybe martial arts could teach me something about the art of confrontation.

Sifu (“sifu” is the Chinese word for “teacher”) seemed more jovial than I expected a guy with 40 years of martial arts experience to be. With his gray beard and sparkling blue eyes, he seemed more like… well, Santa Claus. He began my training with warm up exercises (some of which required me to hang on to a chair because my ankles were so weak) and floor stretches.

One in particular, the “sideline stretch,” increases the twist of the spine while opening the pectoral muscles. The arm goes back and the shoulders rest on the floor. Except that mine wouldn’t. Actually, my arm didn’t even go all the way back. “Well, sometimes the intercostals and shoulders get tense and they take time to stretch out,” Sifu explained. “Just relax into the position.”

In the months that followed I learned that the more beautiful the Chinese name for something, the more tortuous it is. Contemplating poetic phrases like “Small Mountain-Climbing Step” or “Wild Goose Skims the Water” directed my focus away from my screaming quadriceps. “Relaxing in these stances will strengthen the tendons of the legs,” Sifu explained. “Eventually you’ll hold all seven stances, forward and backward, for one minute.” Forward and backward, left and right sides meant… 26 solid minutes.

This did not help my shoulders to relax.

The slow motions of qigong move energy through the body, but the same motions used at a different speed make for devastating self-defense. In the lyrically titled “Flower under Leaf,” the “flower” is actually a “snake,” coiled for a sweeping blow across the ribs. Only every time I moved the top arm (the leaf) over the bottom one (the flower), my shoulders popped up next to my ears. When Sifu did it with toes and knees turned in, he looked dangerous and ready to strike. When I did it, I looked like I was hugging myself and trying hard not to pee. “You’re carrying too much tension in your upper body,” Sifu explained. “Just drop your shoulders and relax.”

And then it hit me: I sucked at this.

Of course I was tense. This was something completely outside my experience. After six months of turning my knees in, twisting my spine, and trying to feel qi move, I was still really terrible at it. And I didn’t care if he did look like Santa Claus; if Sifu told me to relax one more time, I would have to train that much harder just so I could beat the crap out of him.

But if I was so bad at it, why was I still there? I could always go back to the old workout.

No I couldn’t. It was finally time to confront what made me so tense: my expectations to succeed fabulously at everything. The reason that qigong was outside my experience was because I had never let myself continue anything in which I couldn’t be perfect. And for me, qigong was unquestionably The Suck.

Physical coordination is not one of my particular talents. At my age, I could not compare myself or physically compete with 23 year old men. We were fundamentally different, and I could not change that. But if I could allow myself to become One with The Suck and make the mistakes… I might learn from them.

And I learned that in martial arts, your first confrontation is not with an “opponent,” but yourself – your own expectations and ego. I learned that I do not have to hold on to an identity that longer works for me.

Slowly, with each palm strike, I saw that proficiency isn’t always about skill (although believe me, it helps), but about quitting or not quitting. Some people can accept their mistakes and try again, and some people can’t. Their egos won’t let them. They have to quit, or risk losing an identity based on unrealistic expectations. But once you embrace The Suck – that your skill level is what it is right now, and whatever that is is okay – you can get rid of your insistence on perfection and relax.

And your shoulders will drop, just like that, because you are no longer trying to squeeze yourself into an identity that does not fit.

Recently I was practicing an exercise called “dragon back,” which moves qi in slow undulations up the spine. Sifu stopped to watch, and after a minute of silence, he nodded and said, “It’s looking very nice.” I thanked him for the compliment, but I finally understood. As Sifu has explained before: “Dragon back is not something we ever perfect; it is only something we practice.”