Put simply, it was hard. The images projected by media did not match up with how I saw myself. Magazines and Hollywood portrayed yoga with very lean female yogis demonstrating gymnastic or dancer-like abilities. I could not imagine my broader, more athletic frame being able to achieve those kinds of postures. In other words, whatever I associated with yoga, I found very intimidating and inaccessible. I was young, perhaps not as self-assured. So with all the excuses in the world and very little understanding of the practice, I wrote yoga off as something not for me.
Growing up I played soccer. I found confidence, a need for movement, and a love for training that required discipline and respect. Once I graduated high school, I always found myself chasing after the same methodology of movement I found in competitive sports. Nothing matched the hard work, camaraderie, and lessons I gained from soccer. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I competed in co-ed adult soccer leagues. There were no daily practices, just once-a-week 90-minute games. Injuries were inevitable without training and practice. On game days, I noticed I was surrounded by adults, many of us trying to recapture our glory days of soccer, physically ailing with wrapped up ankles and knees. Then I sprained my right ankle two summers in a row, the second sprain putting me in crutches for two weeks and rehabilitation for several months. Never before had I hurt myself this badly from soccer. Many of my teammates empathized, but said it was common and I would learn to deal with it. That was unacceptable to me.
So I stopped playing and I focused my efforts at the gym. Lifting weights and doing cardio on stationary machines made me feel strong and in shape, but I became stiff and lost mobility in my shoulders and hips. Movement, training, and discipline felt different. I needed something, something I could grow old with, something, I realize retrospectively, that would impact me not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
While living in Beijing from 2007 to 2015, any preconceived notions I had of yoga seemed to disappear as I was no longer inundated with ideas projected by media. I entered my first yoga class with a clean slate. I was older, more confident, more comfortable in my own skin, and had a particular intention in mind. That is, let’s try something new! I had no expectations for myself except to try, to learn, and to explore. I didn’t care that I couldn’t achieve many of the postures. Rather than think yoga was hard, my mindset was more curious and fascinated by questions of why and how. Why is it difficult to hold a high lunge for five breaths? Why can’t I breathe easily here? Why are my shoulders fatiguing in downward facing dog? How is it that I am so strong but cannot do these “simple” movements or postures? How can I begin to improve?
I found the mental and physical challenges of practicing yoga reigniting the discipline I knew I had inside of me. I loved how hard it was and I was open to trying any part of the practice, any of the postures, any of the modifications, any of the props that would help open, support, engage, relax, and improve my practice. I found teachers I respected. I watched. I listened. I read. I chanted. I breathed. I tried over and over again. I was excited to learn. I began to understand things about myself that I wasn’t even aware of before. And overall, I just felt so good inside and out.
Yoga practice across the years, the breakthroughs, the setbacks, the plateaus, the intensity, the relaxation, and the people who have taught me, with whom I have practiced, and whom I have taught, were all teaching me invaluable lessons. With the constant change of the self and the adaptability of yoga practice, I knew I had found something I could grow old with, where no limitations were limiting enough, and where there was no endpoint to my progression and learning. I have always said that progression will beat perfection in its sustainability, wisdom, and state of mind. And that is exactly what I have found through yoga.
People that know me well know that Kung Fu is very important to me. It has been a large part of my life for almost 20 years and I would not be who I am today without it. But, for those on the outside, who maybe think it is just a bunch of kicking and punching, what is it about this art that makes it so unique and valuable as a tool for self development? What does this traditional practice have to offer us to help us deal with our modern world? Kung Fu is not just a martial art, it is a holistic tool for self-development. It teaches us self-control, confidence, humility, self-reflection, and provides us with a healthier body and mind.
Kung Fu is a ‘peace-time’ martial art. The chinese character for martial art, ‘wu’ (武）, when broken down into its parts actually means ‘to prevent violence’. We train to have control over our responses and not allow aggression to dictate our actions. This is in stark contrast to the predominant physical culture in the west. It is very common during sports for coaches and players to say things like, “get angry”, “kick their ass”, “kill ’em”, to trigger a response in their players and teammates. I grew up playing western sports and progressed to a high level and I can remember the highs and lows this type of environment created. I learned a lot, but I never understood the need for such triggers. I performed better when I was calm and focused, but I was not given the tools to find that state. I had to figure it out on my own. In Kung Fu we learn a different way. We learn to react to aggression and stress with a calm and focused response. We train to challenge ourselves, not others.
One of the most common sayings in China when you talk to martial artists is “ xi wu, hui you”. This translates to “through martial arts, friendship”. Kung Fu brings people together. Some of my closest friends have come through training kung fu. People from incredibly diverse backgrounds, but the common ground of training and loving martial arts created bonds that last. In Kung Fu demographics don’t matter. Just your willingness to train and learn.
In kung fu we focus on cooperation over competition. It does not matter who is better, because we are all there for the same reason, working towards the same goal. Our first responsibility in class is to help your classmates improve. This creates an inclusive environment without fear of judgement. There might be students of different abilities, ages, but everyone is on the same path, and it is the responsibility of those ahead to help those behind.
When you start training kung fu it is a path that never ends. There is always more to learn, like a musician who spends a lifetime mastering an instrument. However, in this case the instrument is your body. As it evolves and changes we learn to adapt and new lessons are presented to us. We don’t graduate from kung fu, or fail to make the team. Whether you begin classes when you are 12, 25, 40, or 70 you have a lifetime of lessons ahead of you.
When I began kung fu I had no idea how much potential it had to create positive change in people’s lives. I feel very humbled to be able to share my experience with others and give them the same opportunities that have been so impactful in my life.