Picture this: I’m on Oprah in a fabulously flattering martial-arts uniform. Oprah and I are chatting about my taut, muscle-clad body. She commends me repeatedly for my rock-solid abs and butt. Bored, I suggest we move on to my performance. She introduces me to an audience full of my e-boyfriends and steps offstage. I ease into a complicated Bruce Lee routine that leaves me airborne for the finale—and my ex-boyfriends breathless and chanting, “Forgive us, Jill.”
Hey, it could happen. Since I’ve been learning Shaolin Kung Fu at the Iron Fist International School of Chicago, I’ve seen the glimmer of a few taut muscles and the faces of a few ex-boyfriends on the punching bag. The fact is I’ve always been afraid to try martial arts, and at the same time, I’m intrigued by it. So, as part of my Shape adventure, I decided to take kung fu.
My first experience at Iron First involved an Open Training class. I didn’t know this going in, but the class brings martial artists of all levels – from beginning white and yellow sashes to more advanced green, blue, purple, red and brown – together to work out. Imagine my surprise when I was paired with a blue sash, who promptly put me in a headlock. Imagine my surprise (and his) when I got out of it.
Yet, that’s what martial arts is all about: self-discovery, endurance, acceptance, renegotiating your own perceptions so you view your body as a functional system, rather than something purely aesthetic.
“It makes sense that women who may take martial arts may a more positive body image because they don’t see their thighs as large, for example, but as powerful,” says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., the psychologist I’m working with. “They’re more inclined to take care of their bodies.”
Since that first class, I’ve gotten closer to living this sentiment. When I leave Iron Fist, I feel tougher than I’ve ever felt after 30 minutes on the treadmill; tough enough to endure another headlock and go for my white sash (one of the few white fashion accessories you can wear after Labor Day).
And I got it, with the help of Iron Fist owner and fifth-degree black sash Sifu Dino Spender (“Sifu” is a title of respect). “Martial arts helps you develop the balance, fitness, health and energy to live a long life,” he tells me.
I started working out with Sifu after the headlock incident. He challenges me to go beyond my limits. Now, I’m able to jump rope for longer than when I started, lift my knee higher to my chest, and straighten out what used to be a painfully twisted crescent kick.
I’ve also come to see the practice of martial arts as a metaphor for the weight-loss process. Both require me to overcome fear, embrace important rituals, and show discipline (strength of body and character). I fantasize about the possibilities. I just hope Oprah comes back for another season.