Fourteen weeks earlier and on the second day of my arrival in Shaolin Si Xiaolong Wuyuan, my Shaolin Temple Kung Fu boarding school, I was thrown head first into the fray. By 5:45 am I was in my uniform, standing like a soldier, among roughly 5,000 Chinese students clothed in similar fashion: a sea of red and black, divided into units of 15-20.
As I stood there chafing some warmth into my chilled palms, the other students began their ritualistic guttural singing in Chinese. When they were done, our Xiaolong Kung Fu army marched outside the school gates –myself included– and onto the road, stumping with their feet in unison not unlike real troops, with the leaders shouting, “Left! Right!” in Chinese.
Like a battalion, each unit gets herded by its Shifu (the Kung Fu master).
To be part of a formation like this, part of throngs upon throngs of identical crowds, felt both strange and glorious. Fighting for independence for most of my adult life, I was surprised at how comfortable it was to just be part of a mass, just following, and at being OK with being shunted left and right.
That first encounter with the famed “morning run,” was back in April, when the weather was still cold and on some days a little punishing during the wee hours. During the summer, it’s stuffy and hot. And both states made me grateful we don’t run a few hundred stairs up to the Dharma Cave, every single morning, like the Shaolin monks do –– getting chilled to the bones in winter or parched in summers.
However, as the Kung Fu students scuttled back into school, I wasn’t part of the flock, being erm … the slowest. Oh, yes! Of the 5,000 students of different ages, I was among a rare few who were knocked off course for losing breath and slowing down halfway. And I ended up to be the last to enter back into the school.
I despise running but I did press on though, I told myself. I made it, and this is what counts. So now do I get to eat something, slump into a comfy chair and celebrate my victory?
Not really. It was time for the morning drills.
That included hopping like a frog up and down flights of stairs (or in my case crawling and dragging dead, soft limbs … just to maintain some air of dignity and in a desperate effort not to give up entirely during my first few hours ever in training), doing high kicks, punches, getting pushed into backbends as I frantically flapped at thin air, or being forced into splits a 31-year-old like myself cannot –repeat CANNOT– do without several days (read a few decades) of practice. Those in particular left me with pulled thigh muscles, that made me wince and moan every time I walk up stairs. During practice, I squirmed out of each move helplessly to no avail.
The Shifus are merciless.
In the interest of perpetuating my humiliation, on one of those beautiful mornings and after a few embarrassing attempts at doing a headstand, I was attacked by Shifu and an older student who decided to flip me over “to show me it’s OK to be upside down.” I screamed of course and made a bid for freedom as they shoved my wobbly legs upwards, and I ended up creating a very entertaining sideshow for the rest of the students, some of which laughed at me.
“What are you doing?” I shouted at Shifu once released and back to an upright position.“Helping you!” responded the Shifu innocently. “Helping me? That wasn’t helping. That was gang rape!”
The Shifu looked inscrutable, so I emphasized gesticulating wildly for effect, “Yoga teachers would never do that. They’d ease you into the move. Slowly. Softly. Until you’re familiar with it.”
“We’re not Yoga teachers,” my Shifu said simply.
And it suddenly hit me. I looked around me. Macho faces, some shaved heads and light mustaches, coarse voices, hairy legs, battle cries ringing, the smell of male sweat. Warhorns to wake us up. China.
I wasn’t training in an air-conditioned Jasmine-smelling Yoga studio blitzed with “Namaste” poetry posters. That was a very bare training hall with flaking doors and windows, and a very sharp pungent stench, weather-worn faded carpets, and sturdy miserable-looking punching bags hanging like corpses waiting to be battered.
Shit, it’s a man’s world.
Deciding to be the survivalist only a night earlier, I swallowed any retort I was going to make, and flumped my hands down on the floor for another wobbly headstand.
Alas, now I feel a little violated when I do an inversion, sometimes. But in my good moments, when I’m perched up side down, my head on the floor, feet in the sky, breath even, eyes watching everything from the opposite end, I laugh softly when I remember my first one. Not Yoga teachers indeed.
Have I evolved? Not entirely! Now, I skip the morning run almost every day, simply because I decided it’s not good for my self-esteem. Yes, yes, I gave up, and unlike the enlightened, I still care a little about my position in the pecking order.
Oh well, I’m not Buddha … eh, yet.
This post was originally published by Cairo Scene.