The Essence of a Warrior

Arm locks, head locks, and the hammer lock. Kicks and fists, eight directional stepping, and eight mother palms. Plum-blossom hands, ground boxing, and the dreadful animal forms. Worst yet, the 64 form must be executed perfectly. Last but not least, we will hold the horse stance for fifteen minutes. These are the components of my Shaolin Kung Fu Green Belt test from many years ago.

Initially, my only goal in taking Kung Fu lessons was to improve my core strength, which I thought would make me a stronger runner. That’s when my husband drove me to meet Sifu, explained that I was interested in lessons, and asked him to tell me about them.

Sifu Nate had spoken directly to my husband for several minutes before my husband interrupted him, “Don’t tell me; tell her!” Sifu seemed somewhat nervous (my husband will sometimes affect people that way), but I noticed that Sifu’s eye contact never faltered, first with my husband and then with me. I am pretty shy and introverted, and I craved nothing more than to develop that level of confidence to maintain eye contact despite my nervousness, as Sifu had done. Tai Chi and Kung Fu became my new cross-training program, but core strengthening took on new meaning.

For two hours, twice a week, every week of the year, we practiced push-hands, locks, and an endless number of forms. I’ve done hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiger presses, although I can’t say they ever became easier. When we learned the diving roll, Sifu demonstrated it by having three of us kneel in front of the mat. Then, he dove over us, landing in a perfect roll that brought him to his feet in the fighting stance. By the time I got home that night, everything hurt. Eventually, we bought a body bag that hung in the garage so I could practice the movements, punches, and kicks on an inanimate opponent, and my training evolved at what I considered a snail’s pace. Sifu reminded us often that the translation of Kung Fu was hard work over time.

When we moved to Ecuador, my uniform was white satin instead of the black slacks and t-shirt we wore at home. We practiced barefoot and spent most of the lesson running in circles around the kwoon, jumping as high as possible, turning mid-air, and delivering a massive kick to our imaginary opponent (preferably in the head). Everything was the opposite of what I had learned. It was so confusing that I wrote Sifu and asked what to make of this training. He encouraged me to keep an open mind, but I was relieved when we moved back home all the same. Immediately, I went back to training with Sifu Nate.

A couple of years later, a classmate took an interest in Wing Chun and described it to me before class. Wing Chun teaches relaxed forward energy that always seeks the path of least resistance using the harmonies of the body – if pushed, then pull; if pulled, then push. I had been the only female and one of the oldest students all these years, which made this training style all the more favorable. So, I found this new kwoon, and with Sifu Nate’s permission, I began Wing Chun lessons with Sifu Armando.

Sifu Armando taught me the attacking sequence and basic hand drills. I learned to disarm an opponent with a gun, where, if done correctly, I could break his arm at the elbow. And I practiced the one-inch punch, wherein, contrary to what one might think, the greatest force lies on the side of the pinky finger. Before Sifu would teach me this deadly punch, I had to repeatedly punch him in the stomach to prove I had the strength to proceed – maybe those tiger presses were working after all.

Finally, Sifu introduced me to the wooden dummy. Initially, I was skeptical of this block of wood, but it was mesmerizing to watch him go through the forms, fast or slow. Eventually, my husband called Sifu to inquire where we could buy a dummy; he drove to Atlanta to pick it up and installed it in the garage along with the body bag. Over time, that wooden dummy became my trusted partner.

Each time we moved, the dummy landed in a different spot – in a gym in the basement of our house in Greensboro, back in the garage when we returned to the mountains a year later. Then when we made our final move to the cottage several years ago, the dummy sat disassembled in a storage room along with the dining room furniture, grandfather clock, and Christmas decorations until we expanded the cottage and built my garden shed.

Unfortunately, by this time, Sifu Armando was an hour’s drive away. There were closer options in Asheville, but I never made the decision. I trained with Sifu Nate again for some time but eventually stopped, and now the notion that I’d ever return has begun to fade.

Last week, I searched for kwoons in Asheville and dialed the number of the first listing. When the Sifu answered, I explained that I had a wooden dummy that needed a new home. He told me it was the best phone call he had gotten in a long time, and a few days later, he sent one of his students, Cody, to pick up my wooden dummy.

Cody arrived barefooted, which reminded me of learning Kung Fu in Ecuador, but he was a kindred spirit. My husband disassembled the dummy so Cody would understand how to reassemble it himself. Meanwhile, Cody explained that his goal was to become a Sifu. He believed his Sifu had sent him to pick up the dummy because someday, he would teach his students using my dummy. It was an honor for him to be here, and it was an honor for me to have met him.

Finally, we walked the disassembled wooden dummy back through the garden to his truck. As I watched him protectively load it for the trip home, I thought about how many students would learn this beautiful martial art from my wooden dummy. My partner has found a good home, and it brings tears to my eyes but warms my heart.

On a crisp spring evening in 2011, my husband and I sat at a high-top table sipping wine at our favorite jazz bar in Greenville, South Carolina, when the conversation turned to tattoos. I wanted one. Framed pictures of Chinese characters, or Kanji, lined the walls of Sifu Nate’s kwoon, and those characters intrigued me. One stood for courage, another work, effort. He liked the idea, and while I talked, he searched the internet for the character representing ‘warrior.’ We paid the bill, went to the tattoo shop, and had this warrior character tattooed on our right forearms. The interpretation of this Kanji is warrior spirit or the essence of a warrior. The symbol, 武, is part of the word “wu shu,” which is sometimes translated as “martial arts” or “kung fu.”

It can be disorienting when our life’s passions ebb and flow or end altogether. But how wonderful that, like my tattoo, these things become part of who we are. They are part of what makes us the person we have become. And for me, that will always include a warrior spirit.