Others have written about the transition from training at Claremont and St Luke’s to training in our living rooms, here and here. Going to class entailed a set of practices or habits that I relied on to get myself into a training frame of mind, reinforced by how we are taught by our instructor to approach our training. From changing into my uniform to bowing as I enter the room, or arranging myself as part of a row of students: this was all necessary mental and practical preparation.
The principle that we check our day at the door and emerge into a space ready to learn was central to this. So, how would I prepare for and approach training when my usual habits were no longer possible? How could a community of people used to training together now do this in their individual homes?
This blog is an exploration of how I’ve cultivated new habits which enable me to train at home. Further to this, it is also a broader reflection on the importance of habits. These are understood in their most basic form as repetitions of movements, which we form and reform over the course of our lives depending on the situations we might find ourselves in. Habits are not to be viewed as something we do mindlessly on auto-pilot, but are a series of evolving practices we develop, and which are aimed at striving to live better.
Responding to change
Whereas the training hall was specifically for training, my living room is not. For me, the biggest difficulty has been shaking off the day and throwing myself into practice.
In the last four years of training, I have found whatever thoughts and feelings had been percolating for me during the day come to the surface in the first 10 to 15 minutes of class. I’m not sure what it is about this time that allows the vulnerability I feel to manifest as it does, and this is a source of ongoing interest to me.
At the beginning of lockdown I felt a great deal of anger, stress and irritability which translated into anger, stress and irritability with myself for not being able to train ‘properly’. In these moments I was confronted by the choice to either power through class, or give into dark clouds of thoughts. In these moments, training felt at times like moving through treacle.
On two occasions I even found myself leaving the living room, something I would never have done in the training hall, to cry or rage in private frustration. I recognize now this was a period of necessary adjustment, and training was allowing me to steer through a wider crisis which has been confining so many of us to our homes.
After about three weeks I noticed my general levels of anxiety were down and that training between 3 to 4 times in a week was now a habit, developed through the desire to retain some normality. I cultivated new ways of preparing for class, whether this was accessing a Zoom link, listening to the patterns class finish before we begin Kung Fu, or opening windows in anticipation of working up a sweat.
In the course of the class, whatever energy and need dominated the living room before became refashioned in the service of training; an open space was created in the middle of the room which allows for some backwards and forwards movement, furniture that inhibits the swinging of arms was removed.
Through Kung Fu practice the living room becomes something else – namely, a training space. At the end of class, it reverts back to being a living room where I switch off overhead lights and put the furniture back. These are now the rituals which surround training.
One of the most important aspects of training Kung Fu is the ability to change the way we practice. While sometimes the instructor places an emphasis on speed, at others it might be on the precision of movement. One frequent question students ask is, “What’s more important, X or Y feature in training?” The response is: it’s all important and you have to learn to do it all together at the same time!
But, being mere mortals, this is a tough ask for many of us. So training often focuses on addressing the specific aspects of our practice that need the most work. The primary criticism from the instructor about our efforts to change our practice is that we become mired in our habits.
We find it difficult to attend to different ways of thinking about approaching a movement that we might have done hundreds of times. He describes this problem as being “stuck in a rut” or “going into autopilot”, whereas changing how we train a movement requires the conscious (re)direction of our energy.
This is the most life-changing thing I’ve learnt from training Kung Fu. It is not so much the actual content of the habit that is relevant here (i.e. learning the ‘right’ habits) but the insight that habits can be formed and reformed depending on the situation.
I’ve written elsewhere about how trauma and its faithful companions, depression and anxiety become embodied experiences which manifest in “fight or flight” responses to everyday life. I noted how Kung Fu is allowing me to cultivate ownership of my feelings, a healthy sense of perspective about their fleeting nature, and an evolving ability to direct myself consciously through my movements.
Almost a year since I wrote that blog, I have a greater understanding of the role habits have played in this journey. This may seem like a contradictory position, after all, aren’t habits the things that get in the way of change?
Habits often get a bad press. We hold them responsible for our mindless snacking, or putting that unnecessary yet fashionably expensive pair of jeans in our shopping cart, or posting yet another picture on Instagram of our avocado on toast, as if there weren’t enough already.
Psychoanalytic approaches to capitalism tell us these habits relate to sating temporary desires which only meet their end through some kind of monetized transaction. A purchase, a social media post, or that diet protein shake, at the bottom of which we will find happiness. Except, these desires, which make some people very rich and have the rest of chasing after our own tails, do not have an end. Their very power lies in us not being fulfilled, and so always left wanting more.
From this perspective, our habits are formed out of wider social arrangements through which certain behaviours are normalised, whereas others are made much more difficult to undertake. However, if we stop to consider much older philosophical insights about habits and their power in our lives, we can come to see them not as something which we have to be enslaved by. Rather, habits are deliberative practices over which we can exercise control, and through which we can learn more about ourselves and what it means to live well.
My latest depressive episode took me by surprise at the start of this academic year in September 2019. However, this time I understood before it really took hold, what was happening and I was able to act quickly. I re-arranged my work schedule and I told close colleagues openly that I was not in good mental health; they proved very supportive as did almost everyone I shared my thoughts with. I cut back on my social calendar and focused on eating, sleeping and continued going to class. Eventually, I felt OK again.
Then earlier this year, the pandemic struck and I knew it would be a real test of all the things I have learnt over the years to manage my mental health. I waited to start feeling utterly overwhelmed. And some days I didn’t feel too good, full of tiredness and self-reproach.
However, it was an online Kung Fu camp we had on the practice of Damo Qigong that made to stop to think. The all-day session came attached with a disclaimer that this form of Qigong practice could unblock trauma that has otherwise been residing in the body. I did the camp, and I felt… just fine. In fact, it’s been many weeks now and I feel like myself. While I recognize the tremendous material privilege that is entailed in making such a statement at this time, I am also utterly grateful.
In fact, this realisation of being OK has felt powerfully magical to me. Upon closer reflection, being able to steer through this time reasonably intact has been the culmination not just of learning new habits, but my knowledge that I can to do this when I need to.
Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk argues part of the trap of trauma lies in the people’s belief that things can’t change. This involves a distortion of the sense of time where your body is effectively “trapped” in the experience of trauma, to which there is no beginning, middle or end. As van der Kolk also points out in his discussion of yoga, undertaking an uncomfortable movement until it becomes comfortable, teaches us that time passes.
Through the habit of training Kung Fu, I have learnt things can change and that I can change them. In class we are constantly challenged to “empty our cup”, and to practice movements as though we had never done them before, in order to emphasise a slightly different aspect.
It is no longer fluctuating emotions and their ability to hijack my everyday life that controls me. I can more or less ‘feel’ my feelings but also move through them, safe in the knowledge they will pass. Rather, it is my evolving habits, which I am consciously developing that in turn structure my life.
Some habits can leave you exposed in tough times, and we’ve all probably learnt a great deal in the last few weeks about what this means for each of us. However, other habits come to function much more like a good friend. They offer self-understanding, uncomfortable truths, wisdom and support, for whatever life is throwing at us.
In some respects, this is the place Kung Fu has assumed in my life: that of a faithful friend. It is no wonder the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, placed such value on both the importance of good habits in the making of your character, and the value of friendship in undertaking the hard work (in Chinese “gōngfu”, or “Kung Fu”) of living well.
Author’s note: This blog involves discussion of my mental health. I am not a mental-health practitioner and am merely reflecting on my own journey. If you are experiencing mental health issues, please contact a specialist.