When I was in college I began to look for a way to expand my consciousness, just like the protagonists of many of my favorite books did on their own spiritual journeys. I loved the idea of living in a much larger universe than the one we see and feel every day; not silly and mundane but deeper, and filled with intimate knowledge. I wanted to step outside of my head and learn more than I should, become greater than what seemed possible. It may sound strange, but I don’t think it is. After all, what teenager isn’t eager to feel special?
I started looking into Tai Chi. I got out books from the library and rented DVDs, but it’s hard to learn that way. I just wanted more than I could possibly pull out of a book. What I needed was a teacher, I just didn’t know it yet.
My roommate at the time invited me out to a Tai Chi class he found. He wanted to check out Kung Fu, but I was only interested in the Tai Chi. I thought I’d go check it out and have some kind of context to put whatever I had learned from books into. When I got there, it was not my pre-conceived notion of class at all. I grew up watching Cobra Kai, that was what I saw in my head. Instead, it was regular people having fun and learning how to move. Even the Kung Fu looked fun! I put my money down for a month and dug in.
The funny thing is, I kind of never looked back. I stopped seeing the monthly fee at all and just lost myself in the classes. I was a maniac. I was addicted. There was something about it that pulled me, called to me, and made me show up night after night. And it must still be speaking, because I’m still here. Writing this in an empty kwoon, waiting for tonight’s students to start showing up.
Over the years as I increased my knowledge and came up through the ranks, other interesting things occurred. Some were predictable and expected, others were not:
My flexibility has improved greatly, and while I may never lie flat in the side splits, I can kick high enough to make me happy. And that’s not all there is to flexibility. I have learned that the spine and the hips move in incredible ways that generate power and spin when you know how to move them correctly. This discovery has made many things was trying to do along the way much easier.
My strength is at a peak level I never could have imagined. And I haven’t really touched a weight in years. Tai Chi and the I Chin Ching exercises have let me develop great strength with only my own body weight and determination. The constant variation of muscle groups that we work in Kung Fu works to keep the body healthy and strong.
My conditioning has become intense. Years of following eager teachers into “battle” has given me an indomitable spirit that will not quit. I may never run a marathon, but I can do katas for days. Sometimes it’s the most fun when you think you’re dying. I like to watch the faces of others and see if I can find the moment they want to quit. Because I’ve been there, and I don’t like to quit.
I have some of the best friends I could ask for. They accept me for who I am, yet they push me to achieve more. Most of them came right from Shaolin-Do. Some trained with me from the beginning. Some I met along the way. Some moved here from out of state and we became friends immediately. All because we have this one common thread that connects us all, something intangible that binds us together. Our love for Shaolin-Do.
I met my wife in this art. She came in from a sister school out west and showed up at Tai Chi, just weeks after Master Joe asked me to help out with that class. She said she wanted a review of the Tai Chi forms, but I misunderstood her. I thought she wanted to see everything from the beginning. She became so frustrated with me that she left that night and didn’t come back for a year. Then we met later in different circumstances, and recounting that story led us to become drawn to each other. Now I couldn’t imagine my life without her. The best thing in my life came to me through Kung Fu, and I never even saw it coming!
Go Julie, go!
I have watched kids start training early in life, and more often than not they become wonderful young men and women. They don’t seem to need the drugs or resentment of teenage life. They keep great relationships with their parents. They set goals and achieve things. Almost all of them go on to great schools and build amazing lives for themselves. I wonder where they learned those life skills? Many of them are still around in the art, now young adults with bright careers and budding families. It’s amazing to see a kid you taught when he was 10 years old go off to college, or get hired on to a respectable firm. Or to watch them fall in love and start a family.
This was going to be my story, but you see it really is a story of love and community. Hundreds of people coming together for the same goal. Not to beat people up, but to learn a piece of the sacred divine. To find a part of ourselves that we didn’t even know was missing.
I wanted to open my consciousness, and I fooled myself into thinking that I could do it alone. I thought I could just learn some meditation, dive right in, and hit my goal if I just tried really hard. I see now that what I really needed was everyone else. My teachers to set me right. My colleagues to call me out. My role models to define the path. My students to shove me through it.
Shaolin-Do is a web of connections that can change you forever if you want it to. The punches and kicks and the katas, that is the material that drives us along. The spirit inside that wants to develop and needs to be free, that is the martial arts.
Come fly with me.
Michael Sandham is a 4th Degree Black Belt in Shaolin-Do Kung Fu. He teaches in Lakeway, TX and occasionally writes blog articles about martial arts. He also might be immortal.
2009 Ranch Rd 620 N Ste 740
Austin , TX 78734