Interviews with Wu Mei Students
Daisy Taylor Lifton (39), a Wu Mei teacher and disciple of Sifu Ken Lo who has been studying for 12 years
Abe Jasinowski (27), an architect and Wu Mei instructor who has been studying for 12 years
Michi Yanagashita (25), an architect who joined the school at the beginning of 1998.
The following child students of Daisy's were also interviewed, ranging from 1 1/2 - 5 years' experience studying Wu Mei:
Oliviero Borgna (9) Julien Levy (10) Vincent Santvoord (9)
Brett Tsuchiya (9) Bettine Aquilina (7) Darius Gass (8)
Arsean Maghami (8)
How and why did you join the Wu Mei Kung Fu Association?
Abe: I started back when I was 15. I injured my left knee crashing into a goalie during a soccer game and did some physical therapy with a doctor. A friend of my mom's who had been a dancer recommended Sifu as a great martial artist who had knowledge of how to treat injuries like mine. So I started Wu Mei almost by coincidence, having not been searching for a martial arts school.
Michi: I was working as an architect and needed some physical activity, and I was interested in martial arts. I didn't just want to go to a gym, I wanted to learn something. So I looked in the yellow pages for places that were either close to work or my house so I wouldn't get too lazy and not go to class. When I showed up, oddly, I saw someone I had already met: Abe Jasinowski whom I had met through a friend maybe three or four months prior to coming to class. I think that knowing someone at the school reinforced my decision.
How has Wu Mei influenced other areas of your life and daily activities?
Michi: I haven't been able to test Wu Mei out yet. But I like to snowboard, which is about weight on the front leg, being balanced, and having a center. That's something that's stressed in horse training too, so I'm curious as to whether it's going to make my snowboarding better.
Abe: It's more of a question of how hasn't it influenced my life. It's safe to say that Wu Mei has influenced me in all categories of day to day life. It has strengthened my personal growth through my teenage years at high school. Sifu was a great mentor and centering influence for me and many other students. Training in Wu Mei has definitely affected my sense of when the right time is to pull back, and when to rush forward. For instance in day to day business interactions with other people I have a very clear sense of how to negotiate - whether to be very open and accepting, or whether to be more clever or more forceful.
Oliviero: I got proud...of my progress, It made me into a different person. I never wanted to fight or control anyone.
Vince: It made me different, In Kindergarten I was a big chicken. Now I'm not afraid of fights, but I don't pick fights either. Kung Fu taught me to only use fighting when I need it. It's given me self-control.
Brett: If I wasn't here I'd just be wasting my time on Wednesday afternoon. If I have to fight, I can.
Bettina: It's given me a lot of things: the knee bends. I feel good, strong. I like the variety.
Darius: What it has given me is it has taught me what to do in different situations. Unlike other martial arts you can really struggle with a person and not get hurt. You can toy with them, and not get hurt. It is different, I feel different, safer.
Julian: It has given me respect for martial arts and the people who do it. It isn't all force, it's an art, and I'm not as aggressive as I was. I have better balance. I'm more flexible. I'm not as clumsy with things in my hands.
Darius: If you're on the train and there are no more seats and you have to stand, I use the horse stance!
What is the class experience like at the Wu Mei School?
Michi: I really like the class atmosphere. People of all levels practice in the same room and it's really non-competitive, open and relaxed. It was scary at first -- no one really sets you apart as a beginner student. But it's good that there's a wide range of students in the same room. You can tell that some people are beginners, and some are more. Even the more advanced students weren't intimidating or macho. It also didn't live up to the image of martial arts classes being all fighting and sparring, which I also liked. I didn't feel that I had to have myself compared to someone else.
Abe: Sifu Lo creates a class environment where learning takes place in two ways. One way is through individual training with the Sifu or Sihing, fine tuning your movements and learning details appropriate to your level. The second way is through group practice, which gives oneself a context relative to the either greater or lesser skill level of others. This helps to see the landscape and steps between where you are in Wu Mei and where the master is.
Daisy: Sifu as a teacher sets the attitude for the class, which is very encouraging, and very nurturing of people. And the more advanced people who were in my class at the time I started enjoyed teaching and encouraging me. Sifu always made me feel very special, and that I was able to do things that were special and that he was very happy to see it. But that's the way he is. I would say, the encouragement is just part of the fabric of the class. The class experience certainly changes over time because you see Sifu change as a teacher, you see the student body change as they come and go, you see enthusiasms come and enthusiasms disappear. It also gives you exposure to a large number of people in New York where often I think people are a little insulated.
Oliver: Well, it's not like any other martial art, I like the movements, they are interesting. They have hard and soft.
Vince: Hard and soft! It's not just the same thing over and over. Karate was boring.
Brett: I like the principle. How you can learn to walk away from a fight.
What are you working on right now to improve your Wu Mei?
Abe: I'm working on teaching. Teaching in Wu Mei is something you can only do at the right time, after you've explored all of the many forms and have a fairly cohesive grasp of the whole sphere of Wu Mei. This is not necessarily a complete encyclopedic understanding, but a big picture that allows you to sew all the various pieces of Wu Mei together. When you teach you have to express things to other people and convey them in a way they'll understand. This means you have to understand them deeply yourself. So teaching Wu Mei definitely helps me with my own Wu Mei practice because it helps me step outside of it so I can see a broader view, and then step back in to the details so I can teach it to others.
Daisy: This is where I get ashamed because I'm teaching most of the time, so often I'm very focused on what my students are doing. Sometimes, what happens to improve my Wu Mei come as a surprise to me; it often just reveals itself to me. I'll be doing something with someone and all of a sudden it will make sense to me. But now I think the general thing that Sifu has said I should work on is getting your intention and your mind to be clearly enacted in your movement at the precise moment that you think of that thing. I think I would improve faster if I were more directed.
Michi: I'm not doing anything in particular. I have a tendency to just work on everything at once, and let it all come along.
What was the most memorable moment during your training in Wu Mei?
Abe: My most memorable Wu Mei experience happened several months ago, without a doubt. It was the middle of May, and I can say it was the first complete feeling of Wu Mei I've ever had. I was doing Bodhidharma [a slow, internal form] outside in the sun during the early morning for the first time this year after a long time of winter training indoors. A total sense of movement dominated me - a sense that I was being infused with internal energy. It was the very first time I completely experienced and understood everything about internal energy that Sifu had been telling me all these years just to trust. It was a sense that I was not just a bunch of arms and legs and a torso, but that I was this spiraling, twisting, floating rope-like organism. I felt no fatigue or pain, just pure bliss, and I continued to do Bodhidharma probably ten times that morning until 11:00am! So that was my most memorable and probably only experience of Wu Mei that was so clear and believable.
Daisy: There were moments of torture, of absolute misery and torture, which unfortunately stand out. And those moments of really pushing yourself with other people and feeling energized by it. When you are really suffering and trying really hard and something just flips and suddenly becomes easy, people experience that like where you suddenly don't have to breathe any more and you feel a lot of energy. Or you just keep doing something and you don't feel any pain or not feeling the effort put into a movement.
Michi: I don't remember a specific moment, but my practice has changed. I've moved a step up from just doing it to feeling it. I think that's when I started to really enjoy it. Especially in my Ng Han [Five Elements, the first Wu Mei form that students learn], it was apparent because things started to flow and connect. And when things connect, it's everything. Even with the breathing. I know I'm not using breath keys as much as I should, but I now understand that when I use my breath my movement goes along with it. And that's when I really started to enjoy it.
What is your impression of or experience with internal power?
Abe: My sense of internal power is a beginner's understanding. Intellectually it's something I have to work on, understanding it as a force of nature. Most likely it's simply electromagnetic energy that exists in space and within us, coming from earth or from the universe. Internal power as we use it in martial arts versus medicine or meditation is a way of intricately understanding all the parts of your body. Your mind reaches into another medium that runs through all things. This medium is a map and your mind can tap into its flow and feel all parts of your body, allowing it to use them more efficiently, more accurately, and with greater speed and force. Without being linked to that medium you are somewhat blind to your own energy and someone else's. How it's manifested in terms of pure discharged energy or strikes, kicks, and pushing is something I'm exploring and can't really comment on with authority.
Daisy: I don't have an interesting story about the time I first experienced it because the only thing I remember was that one day Sifu said, "Oh, you have internal power." And I was like "Ohhh-kay". I don't really remember getting it, I don't really remember a transformation, but I don't remember not having it either. I was just so thrilled that my teacher said this to me; he was far more conscious of the change within me than I was at the time. Now I really am more aware of internal power. I feel a lot of things and I've been doing chi kung [energy exercises], which really helps you feel energy. Now I am aware of my own energy all the time and when I'm not feeling good it's always there.
What else do you study that is complementary to Wu Mei?
Daisy: I'm very interested in reading about other forms of chi kung and see the ways in which they parallel what we do and shed some light on what we are doing. I've seen a lot of different martial arts in competitions but I've never studied any other form of martial art and I never really wanted to. I would rather study something totally different that involved internal power like flamenco. What I study is Chinese language I'm hoping that it will settle in my mind and shed some light on the language in the martial art. I also study Chinese music because it helps me with the language. But I think any art can be complementary to Wu Mei because Wu Mei is self-expression.
Abe: In architecture school I was trained in structural engineering as an aspect of the design process. This helped me gain an overall understanding of statics and mechanics in physics. It is also interesting to note that all through history the human body has inspired many forms of building types.