“Where does it come from?” the bearded man asked.
“Here,” the student said, protruding his shoulder to indicate his back. “Where?” he asked again.
This time, there was a small hesitation - a fraction of a second, more of a flinch than a thought before:
“Here,” he said, indicating his leg rather than his back. “That’s right,” the bearded man replied. The student took the redirection, generating force from below his waist, and, with new fervor, beat into the hanging leather bag. The smack of his glove now louder, energy reverberating beyond the leather casing and into the bag’s dense stuffing.
I see the bearded man often. Nearly five days a week. Short in stature but not at all in presence, with a salt and pepper beard, always donning a beanie under a black hooded sweatshirt. Each morning in tow is his various students, following him into the cold, empty studio where my yoga mat lays at 7:00 am. Between situps and leg raises, I’ve taken to eavesdropping into his lessons with novice boxers. By their gate and nervous smiles they reveal their self-consciousness of learning here, in the openness of a studio at a shitty mid-city gym. I’m privy to their determination but also their embarrassment, their excitement tangled up in their timidity, all of them appearing as though they wish to reignite a great many things: youth, aggression, release, masculinity, competition, vigor, self-esteem, attractiveness.
They each spend an hour with the bearded man who teaches far beyond the fundamentals of a kick or a punch. I hear him talk of where power comes from (as before, from the legs rather than the arms), of philosophy, of mindset. I watch him grapple with them in a dance-like way, their faces close together and I witness the students’ surprise at how much eye contact and intimacy they have with the instructor, getting used to a sport that is, yes, in most facets aggressive but in these moments reveals its tenderness, its inherent requirement of trust and camaraderie.
And I think, long after my own reps are done and my playlist run through, of where my power comes from. Was it not just my shoulders? Could I hit harder if I began from my feet? Would the earth rise up, through my long legs, through my back, extending out of my arms and into my hands and finally send a strong and mighty wave of force through me, through the bag, through the difference I want to make in the world, a butterfly effect that might be passed on further and further and further.
I am not here to spar. I’m here to heal, and to get stronger. My recent months saw a breaking of sorts with someone I loved deeply but not healthily. As the ties that bound us have broken, most of which did so by violently snapping apart in an instant while others dwindled and stretched until they finally separated after weeks under quiet tension, I began to question where my power had gone, but more so where my power to endure it all originated. Where was its wellspring? To fight with the emotions and my own demons that arise in such separations (feelings of betrayal, abandonment, thoughts of whether I am worthy of love or will ever know love again), took strength. And just like this student at first, I assumed my strength must come from the obvious: whatever extremity made contact. That is to say, I assumed my power to endure came from my presence in the moment. I assumed it originated from the person I am now and today. But upon instruction, I see: it’s from a deeper, more grounded place. From a place that makes contact with mother earth who helps me stand tall. Not erratically punching, but strategically defending. Not maniacally kicking and screaming, but methodically and with calm focus. My power to fight the thoughts telling me I am bad or wrong or unlovable does not come moment-to-moment nor from me. It comes from a rich and complex past full of experiences that prepared me for these hard moments. It comes from a lineage of strong women who taught me to be both soft and courageous at the very same time. It comes from a higher power that was always with me. My punches against the ego’s terrifying messages come from my feet, up my spine, through my arms. Not through feeble hands that could barely contain the moment anyway.
Tomorrow, on a fresh Tuesday morning, I will meet the teacher and his students again. I will be the hiss student as well. I won’t say a word, and I won’t watch too closely. But I will listen. And I will be open to the words even while my muscles are tensed and prepared to protect. Even as my body constricts and I am anxious. And I will take cues from the students as well. Remembering that while it is scary to put yourself out there and learn something new, to risk looking silly or foolish, to practice that which is highly unfamiliar until it becomes second nature, it is necessary. It is bravery. And it is powerful.