First lessons

I stood before the mirror, legs apart, knees slightly bent. Think of your spine rising up, the master (not yet my sifu) said, tailbone to the crown of the head. Now, let the body relax down, as if it were suspended on a coat hanger. As he coaxed my body into a state of release, I felt like I was almost sitting down — although I was clearly, as the mirror showed, standing up.

It was these two vectors, rising up and relaxing down, which I was to cultivate repeatedly in body and mind. They formed the base of everything — in quite a literal sense, one’s stance, but also, in a more enigmatic way, the internal generation of force.

This was the idea the master wished to convey, however obliquely, so that you didn’t go about thinking wing chun (or the wing chun he taught anyway) was merely a repertoire of techniques and flashy moves. There was a repertoire — a curriculum — but all that was useless, actually counterproductive, if attention was not paid to the quality of movement. For it was one thing to copy the movements, entirely another to produce them correctly.

That meant that doing them the right way felt, at least at first, utterly wrong. A paradox of learning, then: wrong is right, at any rate closer to the truth than what feels right. Of course, the polarities start switching the more you advance. But as a beginner, it is wrongness — or if not exactly wrongness, strangeness — that indicates you are on the path. In other words: that you are learning something genuinely new.

~

In my bedroom at night, I got into what seemed to be the right stance. I tried my best to remember the instructions, but my thighs strained as I progressively relaxed. After a few minutes, I could take it no longer. I stood up slowly, stretched. My knees and back ached.

Over the next few days, I tried to learn what was referred to as simply “the form.” The sequence of movements — arms extending, retracting, spanning out in strange and awkward positions — was too difficult at full speed. I slowed down the video demonstration to its lowest setting, and was glad to shake off my stiffness after ten minutes.

~

I had been putting it off for a week, but there I was, waiting nervously in the cafe downstairs before class. A group session. A tough looking, dark-sinned Asian man getting takeaway coffee was wearing a kung fu shirt. I recognised the logo. I suspected the older but lean man, across the table, phone and piccolo in hand, might also be waiting for class to start.

Of the two hours, I remember the surprise as a senior student punched the pad I was holding and kept knocking me off balance. The whippy kicks of a petite Asian girl, surely no more than twelve or thirteen. (How could someone so small produce such force? I marveled.) Another Asian girl, a touch older with blonde streaks, whose kicks were hard and strong. And the slight terror that accompanied the sparring rounds, when my reactions failed against quick jabs to the body.

After class, I felt tired and tense. My jaw was sore, shoulders locked up, legs a little stiff. Was it always going to be like this? It certainly contradicted everything we had been told: to be loose with our punches, relaxed with our kicks, calm in the face of oncoming strikes. For one of the kicking exercises, I had been unable to release my legs, unable to imagine that my legs (as the younger girl suggested) were like boiled spaghetti.

If anything, my legs remained uncooked.

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