It is Friday morning September 19, 2014 in the kitchen at Growing Heart Farm in Pawlings, NY. The women preparing breakfast are silently humming to themselves the tune of a chant offered at the campfire the night before by Suzanne Sterling, a spiritual vocalist who happened to be visiting the farm that weekend. “Om mani padme hum,” a traditional Buddhist mantra to invoke infinite compassion has permeated the women as they prepare for a weekend of workshops and training at the Annual Moy Yat Ving Tsun Sisters Retreat, “Exploring the Warrior Method.” This is the second year in gathering women practitioners under the Moy Yat lineage to support and develop each other’s kung fu through shared experiences. This year, the women have embarked on dissecting the Ving Tsun exercises from Pak Sao to Chi Sao and including Chi Gerk. The goal was to understand the principles underlying the exercises, discover the attributes of each exchange, and ultimately how the Art of War can be understood through it and develop the warrior within. The female todai under Sifu Pete Pajil hosted this year’s event and welcomed other women from Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, and Toronto, Canada and from different clans: Sifu Sunny Tang, Sifu William Moy, Sifu Anthony Dandridge, Sifu Victor Chung and Sifu Jay Hitchman.
Coming from various schools, the different interpretation and application of the exercises were present. This was an opportunity to not only challenge the other’s perspective but also to question one’s understanding of her own practice. Each speaker facilitated an environment for exploration and learning. Some presenters were relatively new to the system and/or new to presenting to an audience and simply posed questions to the group instead of providing a definitive answer. From these analyses two repeating themes emerged as key principles: structure and centerline. When discussing Yi Chi Kim Yeung Ma, Sifu Liz Parry from Toronto introduced the concept “je lic,” the use of other structures to give you support. Supporting structures can be anything: a cane, a wall, another person, or a community from which energy can be borrowed. In Yi Chi Kim Yeung Ma, support comes from the ground beneath us and its energy is channeled to the skeletal structure, to the musculature and perhaps to a partner when exchanging hands. Likewise, the borrowing of energy can also come from one partner into the other where the energy can either be stored in the joints to generate potential energy, or returned to the ground. Both process work to empty the hands in order to maintain sensitivity and softness. Once the hands are empty of intent, one can begin to create a relationship with the centerline. Centerline is a real or imaginary line through the middle of something following a line of symmetry. When one is practicing her forms, she is creating her relationship with her own centerline. In the exercises however, it was understood that the line is shared between two practitioners where neither one is truly on the center. Because the center exists in the point of exchange, the exercises develop the ability to capture it using the three main positions (tan, fuk, and bong). Through rolling, shifting, and stepping, it was realized that the centerline is not a rigid point, rather a dynamic property that evolves, while the structure behind/underneath it adjusts to its new position and circumstance.
With the intention to create warriors of women, what naturally culminated was an overwhelming embodiment of Saam Fot – Heart Method: the proper caring for one another so one can realize her power. Development of one’s kung fu went beyond the training floor and into the relationships made during the retreat, through cooking and eating together, sitting/singing by the fire, walking through the trails at Stone Church Park, early morning and late night chats, etc. When you are rooted and grounded you become a better support for the other. Exchanging experiences, your stories becomes a source of encouragement to your counterpart, and their stories as yours.
As women explored and dissected their own ideas of kung fu, it exposed some perceived weaknesses defined as physical inadequacies (i.e. injuries), inexperience or doubt in skill, financial instability, belief in worthiness/unworthiness, home/family/work stress, the desire to belong, etc. Weakness upon further inquiry held the gate to their strengths. The gathering of women created a nurtured space that encouraged one to journey on that difficult path to discover her center which could be defined as priorities, purpose and/or goals. When one attains her center, the challenge then becomes how to maintain it when it is challenged. Should she adhere to her position and “ground/empty” those challenges, or should she shift her perspective in accordance to the center? Herein lies the strength of women and why the Ving Tsun system is so accessible to them: to use the exercises as a laboratory to their relationships outside the training floor. Furthermore, sensitivity and compassion offers a window to the feminine experience of conflict. Precisely what makes a martial artist effective is their ability to bring grace, vulnerability and centered abiding in an environment burdened with struggle and resistance.
The weekend closed with special guest speakers, Sifu Miguel Hernandez and Sifu Pete Pajil who arrived Sunday morning. Sifu Miguel introduced the concept “last to move, first to overcome” as an application to the exercises. The ability to understand the intent of the adversary through posture, movement and touch and develop an appropriate response is best defined in the Art of War passage,
In order to develop this, Sifu Miguel encourages “tea time,” the time taken between two practitioners before changing partners on the training floor. This method allows for feedback and better understanding of each other’s tendencies and clear one’s energy before engaging with a new partner. Additionally, he encourages meditation as a way to gain better understanding of self.
Sifu Pete gave a brief talk sharing his experience as a young todai to now being one of the gatekeepers of the system. Through personal stories and experiences he explained the duty of a Ving Tsun martial artist. He commended the women for their commitment to develop and attend the retreat and shared his excitement in the potential of such a gathering under the Moy Yat lineage.
The 15 attendees left Sunday afternoon eager to get home to their families. While exhausted from the intensive weekend, each sister left energized with renewed strength to face the journey ahead and persevere through its inherent challenges. For the second year now, women under the Moy Yat lineage have gathered for a meaningful and powerful focus around Ving Tsun Kung Fu. Certainly, all are looking forward to next year’s gathering and further cultivate the feminine warrior.