Already a week has gone by since my four day baptism of fire, and my life is still reverberating from the consequences.It has been good for me to check in with other attendees and hear that for them too this was the toughest thing ever attempted, because this confirms and justifies for me the incredible battle that I had with myself over the course of the event.
Rather than feel an immense pride at my accomplishment, I am in fact humbled by the depth of the teachings that were given to us by Steve Cotter and Qigong teacher Ed Coughlin, and the realities, limitations and potentials of my own body that are now revealed to me in vibrant color.
To say that I learned a lot is in itself an understatement because above and beyond what was shown to me over the course was the primordial lesson of working with my own mind and my own understanding of the words effort and persistency. Rather than stay in semantics, I will recount for you events as they occured and you can draw your own conclusions.
Welcome to the four days that changed my life.
It was a cool evening in Malaysia when Steve and I flew into the airport in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday night last week.We had just completed a weekend of demonstrations, an IKFF introductory kettlebell seminar and a few meet and greets here in Japan, and during all that I had taken the opportunity to rest as well as I could behind the very busy schedule, for I knew that what would come next would test my very mettle.
We were in Malaysia for the CKT 1 and 2 training, where 11 other students from around Asia and Oceania had gathered together in order to receive pith instructions from the very best there is.
At the start of each day we did a very vigorous warm up, combining both Qigong and mobility drills, preparing the body for the heavy workload that would be endured by all. One thing that strikes me even now is how we balanced hard work and rest- after each intense burst of energy, we recharged, sometimes for as little as a minute or two, but then were soon back at work doing the same thing- pushing hard. Breath became so important- when it left the body, when it entered; each cycle crucial in charging and priming the body for further effort.
On day one, we concentrated on the basics- kettlebell swing variations and the kb clean. I must say that I did not realize just how detailed and technical these lifts were, but Steve broke down every possible factor of the exercise and introduced the physical issues that can appear in a student which need to be corrected before further progress can be made, dealing with our posture, joint mobility and flexibility. Pretty early into the course I understood that he was teaching from two perspectives- both to us as potential teachers and to us as students, so that we could remain with an open mind ready to spot problems with those wanting to learn the way of the kettlebell.
I was nervous for sure, as indeed were most of the group, as Steve’s laser eye and warm smile went one by one around the room time and time again, using our own physical issues and tightness etc as practical examples of remedial exercises that could be applied effectively- stretches, joint flexibility checks and warm ups, then back to the exercise to note the effect this had on each movement. Bone by bone, nut by bolt, we went through the body until it started to operate in harmony with the bell.
It was hot, rainy season hot- so hot that by the time we were about fifteen minutes into the warm up on start day, the whole class was sweating profusely.
What makes Steve such a great teacher is that he leads by example- doing each exercise with us, pushing himself harder than the rest of us, and then by pure osmosis, showing us his natural, relaxed rhythm with which he approaches every exercise.
Vince Choo and his wife Kate had done an amazing job in having the days flow so smoothly- lunch was a ten step out the front door of the gym, where delicious Chinese food was the order of the day, every day, and the group of sweaty and smiling athletes happily replenished their energy levels. I do pity the other folk who were in the same restaurant who had to deal with our healthy aroma….!
The kettlebell has a leveling effect, as everyone naturally gets progressively more tired, regardless of whatever weight you are lifting. It was really about learning to pace yourself and work with the bell as a team mate, not as something that you chose to manipulate and try to enforce your will upon. Its a piece of metal, and as such it wants to do what it wants…regardless of your own intention to do otherwise.
Any attempts at muscling through the exercises on day one were quickly faced with the reality that our bodies grew more and more tired, and muscles started to fail. By the afternoon, arms, legs and hands were starting to show wear and tear. Five o’clock suddenly was around the corner and during the last long timed set of kettlebell cleans to get through, it was at this point that my left hand started gripping my 16 kg bell a little too tightly as the sweat pored off my body. Yet, I pumped out repetition after repetition. We made it to the last minute and with about fifteen seconds to go, I felt the skin on the palm of my left hand start to gradually give way with each rep. When the Gymboss interval timer finally beeped the end, I looked down to a rather large skin rip in my left hand about the size of a dollar coin, painfully welcoming me to the world of the Girevoy sport.
I felt a sense of mixed relief; happy that the days events had been survived, but mindful of the fact that there was always tomorrow, and the next day. Shrugging to myself, I just rested my mind in the moment’s little victory and enjoyed my little bliss: day one was over!
The first night, we all met for dinner, and the tired smiles and laughs reflected around me showed a sense of camaraderie that was starting to develop between us. Throughout this all, Steve remained 100% positive and encouraging, making time to give each member a little personal time and advice, acknowledging their progress so far and providing more solutions to any physical issues that had arisen.
Day Two: Soft and Hard
The morning of day two I started to hear that others were in a similar condition as myself- broken blisters, torn hands, body aches and pains, lack of flexibility..we really were in the same boat. But a resilience was starting to show through: we had made it through a series of increasingly longer timed sets which had made us gradually re-asses our own parameters. Although the end was not in sight, we could do it. Many gave encouraging words to each other as the second day began.
Qigong warmed us up each morning and afternoon, and then we went into the daily flexibility and mobility exercises which I now realize are so crucial to any kb’er, regardless of level of physical fitness. Confirmation of mobility is a must. Joints need to be warmed up and lubricated, tight areas to be stretched out properly and prepared for the heavy workloads expected at a course such as this. And did we work.
For all, it was not only a physical journey into consistent effort and exertion, it was also a journey into the heart and soul of yourself, pushing just a little bit longer, resting effectively and then reapplying yourself to the same efforts, over and over again until the final beep signaled a chance to break..in readiness of another exercise.
I definitely found myself on the second day. My left hand was in constant throbbing pain as each repetition moved through my grip, but thanks to a great bandage job by Vince and Ed Coughlin, I was able to endure, learning to relax my grip more and more and let the bell become the natural expression of gravitational forces, rather than the expression of my feeble attempts to muscle my way through.Time and time again I put my mind on my breath and just concentrated on breathing in and out, being with whatever was happening in that very moment, regardless of whether it was soaked in sweat or echoing the grunts of exertion as the group pushed itself further and further.
Yes, there was pain; yes, I was totally taxed, but I was doing it and taking each exercise one breath at a time. As were all the others around me.
The course ultimately became for me a form of meditation in action: I learned to relax myself between each repetition, and conserve my energy until the next explosive burst of power was called for, then back into rest again. I went beyond my hand and aches and pains and into the now, where I stayed for the next four days.
We worked our way through all the core single kettlebell lifts, snatch, presses, push press, jerk. It was so hard that the other course members started to encourage each other, seeing the intensity in the faces of those around you not giving up, not giving in, and all searching for a physical expression of the best of the kettlebell sport.
Thursday afternoon we did our Level One test, with Steve having us do the exercise as he went round the dojo, checking everyone’s form and making final suggestions to fix any issues that had appeared, unmasked by the tiredness that was all around.
By that time everyone had given in to the natural movements: students stopped fighting against themselves and started to find the natural rhythm that is so important to long cycle and timed workouts. Steve was ever encouraging. The room was filled with grunts and sounds of exertion, all the members pushing themselves on further and further, finding a strength in the community of effort.
During the lower body work that day I suddenly discovered all the tight areas on my body- lower back, upper shoulders, hips that refused to open when squatting with a ‘bell overhead. Steve talked us all through it, giving me solutions to range of motion limitations which gradually improved over the course of each day. His ability to impart belief in oneself is one of his greatest attributes, all the while done with a smile.
CKT2- Qigong and Fitness & movement dynamics- Letting Go.
Level two was much more about teacher training and technique- how to spot physical limitations in a client, how to gradually improve their range of motion, and a whole bunch of other useful information on the responsibilities of being a teacher for the IKFF. That plus a whole host of double kettlebell drills and a further learning curve for me- gotta love it!
I really connected with the Qigong element of the classes- finding that this combines so well with the more aggressive physical expression of kettlebelling, and providing us with tools we can use to recharge ourselves, any day.
The most important factor was the exhaustion that I felt as we started the second course. My body was already tired and beat up, and the only way I knew I would get through was to integrate all that Steve had been saying about relaxation and technique, and surrender myself to the movements in their purest form. I started copying his rhythm, saving myself for the end of each timed set for a sprint to the finish beep, pacing myself so that I always had a little left to give if called for.
The camaraderie in both groups was awesome- everyone had a smile for their brothers and sisters, remaining open in mind and spirit.
The Qigong movements we learned in Level Two were detailed and superlative. Ed Coughlin has totally integrated the practice into his daily life and lives and breathes Qi. As a long time meditator, it is easy for me to accept the realities of the body’s electrical power and I can already feel that what I learned is the beginning of a new and incredible lifetime journey. Thanks Sifu Ed!
I walk away from the experience, probably like the other attendees, both humbled and uplifted at the same time; humbled in the sense that I now know for sure the limitations of my own body, and uplifted in the fact that I also now possess the techniques to gradually do something about it and bring a new balance to my physique.
One thing that really stands out in my mind is something that Steve said on the first day- that we were to view ourselves as teachers, not trainers, for as a teacher we take on the responsibility of the wellbeing of the student from that moment on, and that it was with that sense of responsibility that we were to always share our knowledge.
Inspiring and humbling stuff.
For me, this was a mental/spiritual journey as well as a physical one, as I discovered, in the moments of it all, a deeper level of doggedness and persistence inside me, which I take away as the crowning jewel of the course.
Anyone who wants to take their kettlebell skills to their highest levels, do yourself a favor- go sign up for an IKFF CKT program today. And get ready to find yourself.
Live life to the fullest.