Metamorphosis, M.C. Escher
Many people say how martial arts has changed their lives.
I've heard people say the same about attending a Barbara Streisand concert. I didn't go, they may be right.
I do feel that my martial arts training was a driving force behind, not just a series of mental transformations and attitude adjustments, but an actual physical transformation and real physical healing. A transformation that would not have happened otherwise.
I am by nature a reserved and introverted person. Jordan Peterson's "Understand Myself" Big Five Personality Test has me very high in Agreeableness, and very low in Extraversion (that's how he spells it) and Assertiveness. If I'm not paying attention, I'll let people walk all over me and think it's my fault.
My wife may take exception with the Agreeableness part.
I have, by necessity, developed strategies to work around these traits, to make my way in the world after a fashion.
I had moved to Canberra in 1977 to take up my first real job. I was grappling with the issues of early adulthood, heavy Impostor Syndrome, my first time living in a different city alone, dealing with the cold, and the soul-crushing loneliness of Canberra. I took that job because that seemed to be all that there was to do.
I was adrift in the ocean of life, buffeted around, I had no sense of there being waves to catch, waves you could ride.
An affable workmate organised for another guy who worked in the same building, and was a kung fu instructor, to run some informal introductory training sessions in the park across the road from work. This was David Crook. He was a wonderful teacher, a fabulous technician, and managed it all as a regular working stiff and family man. No guru here.
He would occasionally give us a moderately painful punch to the solar plexus, or dig his fingers unerringly into painful pressure points, while demonstrating a technique. "A good boxer is stung frequently and hurt occasionally" was one of his mottoes. More than one student suggested he enjoyed inflicting pain and could not be truly happy otherwise. Perhaps, but I suffered no injuries at his hand.
I found I could take the knocks. With some surprise, I found I was not a total wimp after all. I began to see warriorhood as a possibility.
I saw great potential here. A path with heart. A means to self-transform.
I also ran up against my limitations PDQ.
I had suffered a back injury, resulting from a fall from a wharf at a school swimming carnival, onto hard sand. I had a lumbar spondyliolisthesis with L5 slipped anteriorly on S1. My L5 vertebra is misshapen.
My sole treatment at the time had been six weeks enforced abstinence from physical activity, as ordered by my GP. Nothing else. These days, your GP will happily send you to an orthopaedic surgeon and for a course of physiotherapy for just about any injury. At the time of my injury, sports medicine was in its early stages, and only in the communist bloc.
I found my hip mobility and flexibility, especially abduction (the side split), was terrible as a result. I developed a pretty good front kick, but had godawful trouble with round and side kicks.
This was incredibly frustrating. And, it seemed, unfixable, at the time.
Despite this limitation, I persevered, and progressed. David waived the one dollar per session he was charging me, once he saw I was sincerely keen on following his path. He wasn't teaching a class while I was there, only a couple of private students, who I got to meet and train with. I was taught privately for eighteen months at little or no charge. I was incredibly fortunate, and David incredibly generous.
I did my best to stretch and develop more flexibility working toward the side split. I had a huge amount of involuntary tension in the muscles around my lower back and hip. It would take me twenty minutes of stretches to be able to function well enough to train.
A holiday at Christmas on the South Coast, with some old and new friends, motivated me to wind up my affairs in Canberra and move back to Sydney. My only regret was the losing the benefits of David's top notch instruction. He very kindly stepped up the training, and made sure I learned all his forms up to instructor level before I left.
There weren't many good training options back home. There was no internet, you had to rely on word of mouth, and MMA wasn't around to provide that certain level of quality control.
I met a guy who had been training with David a couple of years longer than me, and trained with him, but we were both looking for a decent club. His brother in law lived a a squat in the back of Darlinghurst where one of the guys had taken up with an older Wing Chun student of William Cheung, under whom both David Crook and Rick Spain had trained. This guy's flexibility was even worse than mine.
Training in the squat was too weird. It was impossible to tell who lived there, who was an invited guest, and who was a stranger who had just walked in off the street. There was a heavy bag hanging in the front room, and one night a guy on ice or PCP burst through the front door and, screaming, started wailing on the bag, trying to destroy it. Somehow the collective managed to navigate him out the door, headed back toward whatever savage fate destiny had in store. People of both sexes were coming in to bathe naked under the tap in the backyard while we were training. I'm pretty broadminded, but ... talk about distracting. I saw a cute young blonde go walking down the street with a couple of guys, and a little while later they all come staggering back, eyes rolling, drooling like the smackheads they were.
My training bud and I concluded quickly that this was way too ghetto for us.
Chan Cheuk Fai had and has some excellent fighters, but the Jin Wu Koon Double Dragon style looked too different to what I was used to. My training bud suggested that David would have been disappointed, had we taken up so hard a style. Laughable when considering the technical chasm between kung fu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu which I enthusiastically navigated later, and Rick Spain's own pursuit of Kyokushin and BJJ black belts in more recent times.
I took up Xingyi, Bagua, and Taiji with a then prominent instructor, who no longer teaches. There's quite a story there, but I'll just say I found David Crook and Rick Spain to be more suitable instructors. But the guy was also a chiropractor and acupuncturist.
I sought chiropractic treatment for my hip and back issues from several sources, including my new instructor. I tried acupuncture, but mine was a structural problem for which needles and moxa were not the solution.
Over a long time I made small, incremental improvements. But I still had flexibility problems, and my kicks did not improve. Treating the symptoms, but not the disease. Small criticisms, and occasional vague encouragement here and there about my kicks, but nothing that motivated me enough. I was as self critical as they came, and frustrated, but not to the point of formulating a solution.
That academy ceased to serve my purpose - after about five years (!) - and the accumulated negatives of that experience had me take a break. I went surfing and applied myself to my IT work, which started to click, and pay dividends across multiple facets of life. I had already met my future wife at the office.
A dream made me realize that martial arts remained an irritation that would not be salved.
Rick Spain had started up a club in Sydney. At the time he was William Cheung's most senior and accomplished student. I thought Wing Chun would suit my limited flexibility, as it was meant to employ only low level kicks.
Of course, once I started, I saw Rick Spain dropping into the full side split and throwing fluid multiple side, round and hook kicks up in the stratosphere. Something he strongly encouraged his students to also work towards. The easy way out I was hoping for? Not around here.
Rick/Sifu did demonstrate an exercise in class that would allow me to work my way out to maximum flexibility and relax the muscles around my back and hips without unnecessary pain, or taking undue time.
A year or two after I started there, we had a grading. "Your kicks let you down," was my instructor's blunt assessment. Damn straight. I had one option.
I reread all the material I had on sidekicks. I was an avid reader, and book and article collector, so there was a lot. Video was still in the far future. I spent about an hour a day, over a fortnight or so, holding on to the kitchen bench top experimenting with lifting my kicking knee, pivoting on the supporting leg and extending out fully so my whole body was in a straight line.
I started to get an inkling. Next time in the academy I was kicking a partner-held focus bag with my new side kick. Sifu said, "Yeah, now you're getting some power." My partner concurred.
I was sparring a while later, throwing in a few round kicks. Rick advised me to stick to front kicks and side kicks. It was pretty easy to connect the dots. *Your round kicks suck, man.*
I had a mortgaged house and backyard with a gum tree, a small heavy bag, and a rope, by this time. I returned to the reading material. I began weekend sessions experimenting with the kitchen benchtop again, but spending more time out in the backyard throwing endless round kick attempts into that bag. My left leg was much better than my right, so I did rounds of a hundred, forty five with the left leg, fifty five with the right. I couldn't do too much, or my back would give me hell for days, but I did do a lot.
I started to loosen up more with continued chiropractic treatment and stretching. I could kick now, but in small doses. Much of the tension had gone, but now something was weak, or too loose. If I pushed it too hard, I'd have pain for days. Sometimes to the point where I needed a walking stick. The chiropractors gave me only temporary symptomatic relief. One of them mumbled something about my spinal alignment being OK now, but that I needed some stabilization exercises. But he didn't prescribe any exercises, and because of the offhand delivery, I discounted it.
For a long time I had to give myself a mini chiropractic adjustment to get everything working properly for training. Otherwise I'd have a restriction in my hip to train under. My personal adjustments didn't always work, either. Always, a veneer of frustration.
A while later, I'm kicking the focus bag again. This time Sifu says, "Ah, Mr Nerlich is showing us a roundhouse kick!"
I felt that I had exhausted what chiropractic had to offer. I had invested much time and cash. No doubt beneficial, but it wasn't going to get me all the way.
I changed tack and went to a physiotherapy clinic in North Sydney. A guy called Kingsley assessed me, and diagnosed significant muscular weaknesses and imbalance around my hips. I was shredded with a six pack, did tons of ab training, but somehow still had weak abdominal muscles in critical ranges of motion. Kingsley prescribed a series of exercises which required close attention to proper form, but were not unduly onerous or taxing.
Maybe ten visits over three months, and my back pain was pretty much gone forever. I might get a twinge every six months or so. The stabilization exercises my chiropractor had mentioned, in passing, were my keys to the highway. I could stretch and kick as much as any student could wish. I was fixed. And stoked.
After a while, my body turned the corner. My frustrating rigmarole of self adjustments became unnecessary. I couldn't do side splits, or kick high without a warmup, but I felt that my body was no longer an obstacle.
A while later in sparring I saw a gap and popped my sparmate with a fast but controlled round kick to the head. A couple of sessions later I popped another guy in the ear with a low/high round kick combo. Another time I faked a round kick, and when the guy reacted, I drove a side kick with the same leg into his solar plexus.
Rick gave a little speech about perseverance and overcoming obstacles during one class. He used my own development as a kicker as the example. As an agreeable introvert, I did not react much. But, I had arrived. I was exemplary. Validation rocks.
I had completed a transformation. It took many years. It was a task in personal alchemy that I would not have begun, except for my strong interest in martial arts, and the attention of my instructors.
My aptitude at the start was probably average, and I had challenges. I am in no way special or unique. Some have dealt with much more adversity than I have.
At nearly sixty-three years old, I have achieved many things I had once thought impossible. Through determination, but also through lots of help.
Perhaps this is what "internal kung fu" is about. Invisible but significant change within. Just because most people can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't real, or isn't profound.
Without fail, my teachers were kind and tried to encourage me in the right direction without driving me too hard. In a class full of students, it's very hard to give the exactly right individual attention at the perfect time. The windows of opportunity appear and disappear about as fast as those on a car going the opposite way to yours on a motorway.
I needed to be pushed. What ultimately helped me transcend the problems, attitudinal, mental, emotional, and physical, was a realization that someone saw the leap I needed to make, thought I could make that leap, and told me I needed to do it. And once I realized that I could do it, I worked on a plan to do it, executed that plan, and did it.
If one of my teachers had come up and, instead of being so nice, had screamed in my face like a drill sergeant, "Your kicks suck! They are what's holding you back! You have to fix them! Now! Or forget it!" I might have concentrated harder on that weakness, got past it quicker, progressed faster, and been happier.
The Tree of Life from the Kabbalah. Pillar of Mercy on the right, Pillar of Severity on the left
The pillars of Severity and Mercy (Bohas and Jakim) also appear in the Tarot
Seeing yourself objectively, without veils of self deception, is so difficult, but so necessary.
I wish you well in your own journey of self discovery, healing, and transformation. If this article helps or inspires you in some way, all the better.