Healing a Martial Artist

I broke my leg nine months ago. This was not your friendly hairline fracture – the tibia and fibula were broken clean through and emergency surgery was required. A few hours after the break, I had a new permanent addition to my body: a titanium rod running through the length of my tibia, held in place by a couple of screws. And screwed is how I felt.

art_shinn1Approaching my mid thirties, this is the only serious injury I’ve ever had. I seem to recall asking the surgeon something about whether or not I’d be able to do martial arts again, but the sedative was kicking in and I don’t even remember what the answer was. Immediately after the surgery, there was no question of doing any martial arts. Everything was pain and exhaustion and I needed help simply to get from the bed to the chair next to it.

Eventually I was able to start moving around by myself (more or less). From crutches with no weight on the leg, to crutches with weight on the leg, to one crutch, to no crutch while wearing a walking boot, I made the progression. It was once I was able to get rid of the crutches that I started turning back to martial arts training as an adjunct to the physical therapy prescribed. My leg had atrophied terribly, especially when you looked at the other one, which had been doing all the work for the last few months. I knew I had a lot of painful work ahead of me, and I wasn’t sure how much I’d really be able to get back. Sixteen years of training my stances, kicking, running all the force I could generate with my body through my legs so that I’d have an anchor to the ground as I hit out – now I didn’t know if I’d even be able to stand in zhan zhuang.

Actually, I’d begun a little training while still in the crutch mode. One of my teachers advised that I should do silk-reeling training from a sitting position. “The idea is that even if you don’t move your legs, the tendons are going to a) align properly in “sympathy” to the thought b) subtly pull on the bones, making them stronger in all the right ways.” Obvious, huh? Nope, not for me. I smacked my head and was yet again thankful that I have great teachers to keep me pointed in the right direction.

The challenge with the so-called walking boot is that you can’t walk at all normally with it. The ankle is completely immobilized. So I began to think what I might possibly be able to do to start working my leg back into martial arts shape. I started with the maximum I could manage at the time: standing and gentle, minute weight transfers. Another problem with the boot then became apparent – it’s sole is really high. Finding another shoe that matched the height of the boot took a little bit of creativity. But eventually I was able to start concentrating again on the most important of basics: aligning the body structure and then learning how to correctly and smoothly transfer weight. I had no choice but to take things slowly and in proper alignment – it was the only way I could do anything without prohibitive amounts of pain.

But there I was again, training. Part of this, of course, was trying to heal my bruised self-image – what kind of martial artist can’t do martial arts??? Sure, you’ve got the romantic stories of the crippled martial artist who makes his handicap irrelevant or even work to his advantage. From one of the arts I study there is the story of Pak Serak, who had a bad leg and a bad arm. He developed a systematic study of body leverage and balance points and was able to work with just his one good (and strong) side. So sure, once I had graduated from little weight transfers to basic stepping, I started drilling my silat. But deep down, you still want to be able to drop your butt to the ground in a deep sempok or dao cha bu (cross-legged stance) and spring right back up again in a kick.

I remember Nick Gracenin once talking about a woman confined to a wheelchair who could only do the most basic of qigong with her hands. As he pointed out, at least she was able to practice, and that practice gave her enjoyment and some health benefit. But none of us want to be in that place. We want to have our practice be a life-long path which climbs upward – whether steadily, in fits and starts (more commonly), or even imperceptibly, we all want to at least feel that our practice can lead to higher levels of some sort or another. For some it may be in self-expression. For others it lies in health, simple physical ability, or self-defense skills. But when even standing a little is a major challenge, you begin to wonder if all you will be doing is trying to regain some of what you once had attained. At least, I did.

Finally the day came when my surgeon (to whom I am very grateful) got to play Christ and literally told me to get up from my bed and walk. My unprotected foot touched the ground for the first time in about four months and I took a few steps.

Now came the fun part of my re-training. I decided that since I was having such a challenge walking, I would revisit my old bagua training. I’m not what I would consider a bagua practitioner, but I have learned a bit. Circle walking with a single palm change became part of the daily regimen, and gradually I added more and more changes until I had the full eight.

I can’t say that I gained a new, but rather a renewed appreciation of stance training and body work in traditional Chinese martial arts. We’re always theoretically aware of the importance of these things; alignment, rooting, movement in harmony with the configuration of our bodies’ joints. But healthy, strong legs can do so much more than weak and infirm ones. Normally we can get away with lots of little bits of sloppiness due to the strength we build up through training. But when we’re injured, every aspect of alignment becomes vital in order to make a movement even possible.

So from static standing and weight transfers,
to circle walking I moved on to a very gimpy version of Chen Xiaowang’s 19 form. Once I was able to do that five times in a row (still in high stances), I moved on to the 38 form, then Lao Jia Yi Lu. I still couldn’t (and can’t presently) do the jumps involved. I just can’t push off that injured leg properly. But I gradually (read really, really slowly) began to feel comfortable again.

Finally it was time to begin training my mantis again.
I had a small group of students that were learning some northern mantis and they wanted me to come back, even if it meant I would just watch and direct them. Well, I can’t quite bring myself to do that (just sit back and watch), so I started working the classic eight stances of northern Chinese martial arts. Again, I was impressed with the brilliance of the body’s organization through this training. So many people seem to want to treat “hard style” stance training as purely a grueling feat of muscular endurance. While “soft” or “internal style” practitioners seem to feel they have a monopoly on the six harmonies and rooting. As I moved through the stances and the basic form my group was working on, I had an acute awareness of the balance and alignment produced by these forms, and I felt lucky to have added these things to my life when I was a teenager.

About a month ago, my first teacher, Paul Sun, agreed to teach me a form I’d been wanting to learn, but hadn’t yet had the chance to. I wasn’t really ready for the two or three jumps in the form, but he taught it to me anyway, since I was moving out of state again.

Much to my surprise when I started practicing the form (a version of Er Lu Cha Chui), it didn’t really hurt. Sure, there was some tenderness, but no real pain. I’m still not up to snuff, but through learning a new and dynamic form with the renewed awareness that my rehabilitation produced, I have become more optimistic and confident in my abilities and the prospects for full recovery. Needless to say, I fell immediately in love with the form. It’s funny how that happens. Forms seem to have personalities, and different ones appeal to different people. I’d always likes the looks of this form, but feeling it made it that much better. Somehow, the particular moves in this form, the way we practice it, proved just right for challenging and strengthening my injured leg. Pure luck, I guess.

And that’s where my progress stands to date, nine months after the injury. My surgeon said to expect pain and swelling for a year or so. Yes, it’s still there. But the martial artist image I have of myself has been healed, and the physical abilities are coming back at a rate which is not disheartening. While I would never wish anyone to experience any type of injury, I have learned some things from mine. Primarily, I have reinforced my understanding and appreciation for the body work in traditional Chinese martial arts. For the first time, I really feel (rather than understand) that my taiji, bagua, tanglang and changquan are all different energetic expressions of one art in my body.

Andrew Shinn
October 31, 2007
Seattle, WA

Andrew Shinn is a student and teacher of traditional Chinese wushu under Paul Sun (mostly Praying Mantis and Long Fist). He has also studied Chen style taiji from Ren Guangyi, Amerindo Pentjak Silat from Jim Ingram, and Toda-ha Buko-ryu from Steve Bowman. Andrew Has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Asian Studies from Temple University, and a master’s in Political Science from the University of Washington. Having bounced a bit from coast to coast, Andrew is now settled in Seattle, where he continues to teach and practice these arts.

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