Women of Wudang
by David Wei
"Women are yin," says Master Yuan Xiugang, founder of the Wudang Taoist Traditional Internal Kung Fu Academy of Wudangshan, China. "By nature, yin is a softer, calmer, and more enduring energy when compared to its yang counterpart; these factors can allow women to excel in an internal practice and progress much faster than men do."
Internal martial arts, specifically taijiquan, baguazhang, and certain styles of qigong, are primarily characterized by their softness. Even though these systems are often categorized as healing or longevity arts, they still have their roots in traditional fighting systems and therefore maintain very practical martial applications. In these systems, rarely will you find movements that directly confront an opposing force with force; instead, soft styles of martial arts often redirect, dissolve, absorb, yield to, or avoid an oncoming attack altogether as opposed to meeting it head on. These fundamental characteristics are some of the defining factors that set "internal" martial arts apart from harder "external" systems.
Some of the attributes to developing a strong internal practice are softness, coordination, and awareness; and from an evolutionary perspective, women generally tend to have these traits naturally. These natural capacities can often lead to a deeper understanding, and by virtue, rapid progress in an internal martial practice.
Softness is a very important factor for the development of internal kung fu. "If the body is stiff, the qi cannot flow," says Master Yuan. "Many of the male students that come here to train are very stiff, especially in the shoulders and hips. Their muscles are hard and their tendons are brittle. It takes a lot of time and practice to change this. Most women that come here to train are already soft and flexible, so it is easier for the qi to flow freely throughout their bodies."
Coordination is also an important attribute to have in building a strong internal martial practice. On the surface level, there is the external coordination of the six harmonies (e.g., hands to feet, elbows to knees, and shoulders to hips). These harmonies are common to nearly every traditional system of Chinese martial arts; but for soft styles, one must be aware of their internal mechanics as well. These include intention, qi, and power. In general, women tend to have more grace and fluidity in their movements, so external harmonies can be picked up relatively easy. With external coordination in check, more focus can then be placed on developing the deeper, subtler internal harmonies found in soft styles of martial arts.
Awareness is yet another key factor to developing an internal practice ? not so much the external, spatial awareness of one?s relationship to the immediate surroundings, but more so the internal awareness of the subtleties that occur within one?s body through a prolonged practice. With the capacity to give birth, many evolutionary theorists believe that women are more acutely attuned to their internal mechanisms as a result of this creative potential. Comparatively, men, perhaps through the reinforcement of social gender roles, tend to find it more difficult to attend to their internal feelings ? both physical and emotional.
Brandi Beckett, a practitioner from Canada, experienced a big change in her internal awareness through her practice in Wudang. "My body is much more relaxed than when I first arrived," says Brandi. "I think that because of this, I am able to feel whether I am doing a movement correctly or not. I used to have to see myself in a mirror or something in order to have a concept of what my movements looked like, but now I can figure it out just by noticing the way my body feels inside."
"In most cases, women have better feeling than men," says Master Yuan. "When you can feel the qi, you can feel where the qi flows freely and where it is blocked. Through a consistent practice, the body?s channels and meridians will eventually open allowing the qi to move freely throughout the whole body. When all blockages are cleared, the body can become soft and full of life."
Though it is ultimately different for each individual, in short, what most female practitioners generally lack in physical strength and competitive aggression, they certainly make up for in their natural softness, coordination, and internal awareness. But, despite these natural advantages to learning internal kung fu, the practice of any martial art still carries an overall masculine tone ? a strong stigma that some female practitioners regularly face.
"It is interesting being one of the few females training kung fu here in Wudang," says Brandi. "I've always been a bit of a tomboy anyway, so it doesn't bother me to be in the company of so many men; however, there is a certain feeling of having something to prove. I try not to focus too much on that, but I am aware that ? as a female ? we are being compared more to each other than to any of the male students. Though if we are doing something well, there are people who would add "for a girl" on the end of that phrase.
"Also," Brandi added, "it seems like most men are happy to train alongside women who are as hard working and dedicated as them. The times when it can feel uncomfortable is actually when discussing my practice with other women. A lot of women can't understand why I would choose to do an activity that, to them, seems violent, strenuous, and decidedly unfeminine."
For some women, however, the masculine stigma tied to a martial practice is the least of their concerns. Jaclyn Screen, a student from Scotland, gave up her entire life back home for a chance to train in Wudang. For her, it was more about following her heart and pursuing her passion for practice than anything else.
"I feel that I have left a lot behind in order to pursue becoming a martial artist," says Jaclyn. "It all began when I first started taijiquan in the evenings in the local sports center in Scotland. I attended most of the classes in the evenings and the weekend workshops but I felt that the amount of time I could commit was not enough. I felt that I was losing out on something and that I just couldn?t reach my potential. For a year it affected me until one day I decided that I just had to do something about it, I just wasn?t happy. I had a good career as a software engineer with a well-paid job that I enjoyed and a house. I sold the house and then left my job, then I bought flight tickets to Wudang and within a month I found myself here."
Katarina Potocnik, from Slovenia, also trains for nothing other than a deep love for the art. "?I absolutely love it here," says Katarina. "I have always been fascinated with martial arts, and I especially love watching kung fu movies. So, now that I have made it here to Wudang, I really get to live my dream. Here, we practice all day, every day, and we lead a very simple lifestyle; we?re like monks. This is paradise for me. I actually get to live the life that I always saw in the movies. I love it."
Though some female practitioners are able to look past the masculine overtones of a martial practice, their friends and family may not be so understanding. "Most of my friends think I?m just going through a phase," says Katarina. "They think kung fu isn?t for girls and that I?ll realize it and grow out of it one day. My father is especially disappointed with me. He would rather me focus on my studies than to be running off and doing kung fu; he thinks kung fu is just a waste of time. My mother is worried too. She thinks I will come home one day with a shaved head like a Shaolin monk. Very few people actually see just how happy I am to practice; but those that do are the one?s closest to my heart because they really understand my passion for kung fu."
Another thing that can be difficult for foreigners living and training in Wudang ? for males and females alike ? is coping with the extreme culture of rural China and the stress that comes with being away from the comforts of home. Melanie Beckett, sister of Brandi, has an interesting coping strategy. "It was certainly a little scary to be away from home in a foreign country at first," says Melanie, "but I'm really lucky because I've been traveling with my sister. I got to bring a piece of my family with me. Most of the people here are not so fortunate. I love my family and friends, we're very close. I miss them all a lot. Sure, it's hard, but looking at how much I've already improved in the three months that I've been here, I can only look forward to how I'm going to change and the person I'm going to be once I leave."
Down the line, committing to a long-term practice in a foreign environment is a difficult choice for anyone, regardless of gender; but the practice of martial arts has evolved so much along the course of history. Ultimately, the focus of a martial practice has typically been a direct reflection of a community?s sociopolitical atmosphere. In times of conflict, war, or tension, martial training was almost essential for one?s survival. In contrast, during periods of peace, practice was geared more towards sport, health, and longevity.
"We live in a much different world now," says Master Yuan. "We no longer live in a world where people have to fight every day to survive. With this new world, we need to have new ideas and a new practice. Today, we practice for health and balance ? both physical and emotional."
"Women are yin," Master Yuan adds. "Yin is soft and calm. For women, this translates to a sharper focus and a deeper concentration. So in most cases, it can be easier for a woman to find a physical and emotional balance allowing them to clear their hearts, and calm their minds. Today, internal kung fu is not about how good you can fight, it is about finding peace and joy within yourself, and sharing it with others.?
From an evolutionary perspective, theorists maintain that women generally tend to be more nurturing then men, and are more drawn to seek harmony within themselves and in their relationships. This idea compliments Master Yuan?s point in that these evolutionary mechanisms fall in line with the "yin" nature of the feminine, and all contribute to the progress of a strong internal practice.
The bottom line, however, is that the practice of martial arts, soft or hard, can be beneficial to anyone open to the idea of personal evolution and who chooses to commit to a consistent training regiment. Granted, women may have a natural capacity to excel at an internal practice, but the underlying contributor to true success in any art is passion and dedication ? two attributes that transcend the boundaries drawn by gender.
|?||Discuss this article online|
|Training at Wudang|
About David Wei:
David Wei lives and trains in China. His website is www.wudangwenwu.com