Friday, November 6, 2009


Egemen and I spent a few hours training together yesterday. When I said that I was going to try to write about what he taught me, he grew concerned. The advice he gives me, he said, wouldn't necessarily be applicable to anyone else. I'm an atypical student. I have a few advantages and a lot of disadvantages. On the positive side, I'm extremely strong, for a woman -- stronger than many men of my size. I can't take much of the credit for this. I don't weight train or do anything in particular to build muscle mass. It's just genetic luck. I do think all the yoga I do helps a lot, because yoga (Ashtanga yoga, at least) requires a lot of upper-body and abdominal strength. I've also got Stakhanovite endurance -- at low speeds -- probably from all the distance running I used to do. Or perhaps I was attracted to distance running because my endurance is naturally good. And again by genetic luck, I'm flexible, almost peculiarly so; a career as a circus contortionist would have been within my grasp. I could have been a contender.

But strong, for a woman, is still weak, for a human being. Most men are bigger and stronger than me. And I'm very slow. When I say "slow," you must think in terms voice-overs on the Discovery Channel explaining the theory of continental drift. The human mind cannot easily imagine the age of our planet and the length of geologic time ...

My reflexes are appallingly bad. Egemen is so fast that he can punch me four or five times before I've even noticed that something very unfortunate is happening. He can catch flies in mid-air; I've been known to miss flies that are already dead on the floor. ("Hey, fella, you dead down there?") My coordination, both gross and fine-motor, is terrible. I have caused great hilarity at my gym by trying to punch a very large punching bag -- something twice my size, two feet away from me, and incapable of ducking -- but somehow missing it entirely, then falling, plop! right into the wall behind it. My balance is a lot better than it used to be, from ten years of doing yoga, but it's not naturally good.

I'm particularly hard to teach because I'm unable to translate verbal commands into physical action. I learn almost completely kinesthetically: If I don't feel what it's supposed to feel like, I don't understand it. If you tell me, "Keep your elbow above your wrist," I don't process the cue the way normal people do. I stand there thinking about it, getting more and more confused, contemplating the essence of elbowness and wristness, the many meanings of the word "above," all the uses of "above" in metaphor, in poetry, and what it means when we say a person or an idea is above something. If a teacher puts my elbow in the right position, I'll usually get it. It took Egemen a while to figure this out, but he understands that now. It's a problem for teachers who don't know me as well as he does, especially if they feel some awkwardness about putting their hands all over a woman to put her body in the right place. It's about fifty times more of a problem if they're trying to tell me what to do in Turkish. Even if they use words I understand, translating them into action takes a lot of extra cerebral processing time. This is immensely frustrating for anyone who tries to teach me, I know that. They say the same thing over and over again, but I don't do it, and I'm sure it appears to be sheer stubbornness and willful stupidity on my part.

My sense of spatial relations is lamentable, as anyone who has ever watched me try to parallel park will attest, usually while smacking his forehead in wonderment and screaming. I always did badly on those aptitude tests in which the examinee is shown a picture of some kind of complex object and asked what it would look like were it rotated 45 degrees. Indeed, the phrase "45 degrees" puzzles me: I had the chicken pox when we studied "degrees" in grade school, and I've never really internalized the concept. I learned it subsequently, but not until I was doing precalculus mathematics in college. I do understand it perfectly now if I think about it, but I have to think about it, which takes more time than ideally you'd wish if what you need to grasp is that unless your arm is 45 degrees higher, an elbow will imminently be smashed into your jaw.

The first thing you'll hear in any martial arts class is that it's all about distance and timing. If you're naturally extremely poor at visually calculating distance -- and I am -- you've got a huge handicap. If your grasp of how fast objects are moving is poor -- and mine is -- you've got twice as much of a problem. Egemen talks a lot about the magnetic zone: the distance from which an opponent can reach you with his longest weapon, which, if he's unarmed, would be his side kick. My ability to look at someone's legs and figure out how big my magnetic zone is, based on visual information alone, is poor, and you don't get to use a measuring tape in a fight, apparently. Egemen's sense of spatial relations is uncanny, which is why he's great at fixing household appliances and a great driver.

Then add the fact that I know very little about the martial arts. I started at 40, well beyond the age when it's naturally easy to acquire a new physical skill. I've never done anything like this before: no ballroom dancing, no basketball, nothing that would cultivate any of these aptitudes. I didn't even learn to throw and catch a ball when I was a kid. These were not the kinds of skills my family cherished. My mother's a cellist. By instinct, she took a particularly dim view of any activity that could lead to an injury of the hand -- any athletic activity at all, really. When I showed up at summer camp for the first time, I was the only kid there who had never thrown a ball. In the first grade, I struck out in kickball. (Stop and think about that one for a second.)

This adds up to my being an atypical student, especially for a woman. My strength, endurance and aggression are completely out of proportion to my knowledge, speed, form, technical proficiency and ability.

That said, I try really hard, and I am farm-animal strong, for a chick. That's got to be worth something.

1 comment:

  1. The term "gongfu" (kung fu) can be translated as "hard work over time". My understanding is that the Chinese speak of someone having gongfu in flower arranging or calligraphy as much as in a martial art. So part of the equation is just more time.

    What are your goals as a martial artist? Do you want to step into the Octagon (preferably one you built yourself with incredible plans from the intarwebs) and crack skulls? Do you want a workout that's more fun than Stepercize™? Do you want to be a bodyguard, bouncer, or professional assassin? Do you want to achieve some physical milestone? Do you want to be able to walk out of a dangerous situation with all your limbs, organs, appendages, and most of your blood? These answers, while not mutually exclusive, point to different training regimens, methods, and, perhaps, arts.

    Wing Chun is, from what I understand of it, a close-in art that requires great speed and coordination. If you want to make yourself faster and more coordinated, it's probably a great choice for you. If your goals are more on the order of self-defense, then you might want to consider another art.

    Then again, having studied a number of arts over the last thirty years or so, I find that it so often comes down to finding a great teacher. The art is secondary.