Dr. Yang’s Fight Club
(Page 5 of 9)
Of the five students, only John Chang could pay his way. Another found a sponsor. Dr. Yang planned to support the rest, including Mike, with funds from his own retirement account.
The acceptance ceremony took place in September 2008, in the rotunda. As a few dozen locals and kung fu notables looked on, the disciples knelt before Dr. Yang and bowed three times. Then they repeated the process twice, and Dr. Yang raised them to their feet, signifying his acceptance of them as “indoor” students—they had the master’s complete trust. (“Outdoor” students are taught only mao pi—literally, the teeth and the hair, the veneer of the art.)
And so the training began. Every day started at 6:00 a.m., when the candidates meditated in the tea gazebo, facing east. Then came qigong exercises to loosen the limbs; then breakfast, tai chi chuan, Chinese language studies, and lunch. (The disciples took turns cooking.) The afternoon was devoted to body conditioning: running, jumping, pull-ups, staff training, stance training, and cinder-block flipping. The greater part of the first year would be devoted to these sorts of strength-building exercises. Until the disciples were strong enough, there was no point trying to teach them real kung fu.
Dr. Yang proved a merry but inexorable drill sergeant. When their times running the mountain improved, he added backpacks filled with rocks. Mike was first to run the mountain bearing 50 pounds. He was less coordinated than the others, but he’d developed a certain rubbery durability growing up in Wilkes-Barre. When calluses formed on his hands from flipping cinder blocks, Dr. Yang suggested slicking his grip with hand soap. When his legs stopped shaking from holding horse stance, Dr. Yang had him stand on bricks—first one tier, then two.
In four months, Mike burned through three pairs of sneakers. Nosebleeds were common for the disciples, bruises even more so. Part of the training entailed whacking their forearms together like dueling swords, to deaden the nerves. Bruises were treated with a jar of Chinese healing herbs that Dr. Yang had been soaking in alcohol for 25 years. He gave each of them a monthly allowance of $300, which they pooled to spend on groceries. Their caloric intake was massive, as was their output. They shat two, often three times a day. Everyone lived by the same inflexible schedule. Even their digestive rhythms began to coincide, and they competed for the best bathroom (second floor, rotunda). Gradually, real life receded, and they entered the kung fu fairy tale.
“It is weird how time passes here,” Chang blogged one day, via the wheezy satellite uplink. “Months go by and seem like days, but a day can go by and seem like a month.”
Mike struggled to keep up with the others, and Dr. Yang tried to give him extra attention. When Mike expressed interest in iron-shirt training, Dr. Yang set aside time to teach him. In the mornings, after sharing a cup of buttery oolong, Mike helped Dr. Yang tend the garden. This was their special time together, when Mike could ask Dr. Yang all the questions he was too embarrassed to ask in front of the others.
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