“Turn off the computer,” instructs a voice behind me.
I jab, jab, covering my own nose in the mirror, block, then sink a chop to my windpipe.
“Don’t get into a boxing match,” Sifu Andy Norman says. He indicates his own head. “Take the computer out, and the rest will stop working.”
Andy knows what he’s talking about. He’s been doing Kung Fu for over 40 years. He is a ninth-generation successor to the Northern Shaolin Seven Stars Mantis style, which originated in China 266 years ago, and is personally responsible for passing this method on to hundreds of students across the region.
And he’s already taught me a lot. I’m a relative newcomer, joining his South Yorkshire club just 12 months ago, but he’s already shown me things that would bring a grown man to his knees. And that was why I initially joined Arrow Martial Arts Club in January 2016. I was having a tough time with a crippling episode of anxiety; almost overnight I’d gone from happy and outgoing to nervous and filled with a constant dread that was making it difficult to function. It was my husband who recommended I give the martial art he’d trained in for nearly 15 years a go.
And it worked. Slowly, the focus and the discipline of this weekly escape helped me bring myself back.
The new confidence I gained from learning how to handle my body - how to move and manipulate it in response to different situations - seeped into my daily life.
But in the course of doing this, I also discovered a love for Kung Fu that I hadn’t been expecting. Before joining the club, Kung Fu was something I associated with Bruce Lee, and school-aged boys in colourful belts, yet here I was, a 30-something mum.
And I’m not alone. Every week I meet with a group of people - of all ages and from all walks of life - to learn Kung Fu.
“This class is my happy place, I look forward to it all week,” smiles Rachel Rowe, a 41-year-old doctor who started training nearly four years ago.
“It’s a complete change of environment. You’ve got a group of people with busy lives - jobs and families - but once they walk in the door, it’s their time for themselves.”
Learning mentor Lee Priestley, aged 51, agrees: “It’s the perfect place to come after a tough day,” she says.
“I love going toe-to-toe with some of the guys, who are well over six foot, and fighting full pelt. When you’re doing that every week, as a woman, it really does give you something to take away with you, a confidence. I’ve been doing Kung Fu for 16 years and I know that I walk down the street differently now because of it; I don’t look at the floor anymore, I’m conscious of having my hands free. It allows me to project something out there I didn’t have before.”
Rachel Lang, a 42-year-old special needs teacher nods: “I suffer with anxiety and it has definitely brought me some internal balance and calm. I’ve only been doing Kung Fu for a few months but I’ve already noticed a change.”
And it’s not just the women who feel this way.
“The confidence it gives you is something you carry with you always,” confirms Simon Rowe, a 41-year-old software developer.
“You’re more self aware, more comfortable in your skin and it really hones your peripherals.
“I also love the technical side, the precision work and physicality of it.”
Lee adds: “A lot of people think that being a martial artist means that you could wipe the floor with someone in a fight, but it isn’t about being aggressive.”
That’s something Andy is keen to put across.
“If you’re in a situation where you need to use your art, you’re in the wrong place. Having a fight is stupid,” says the 50-year-old, who started doing Kung Fu in 1980, aged 14. He now teaches three classes a week, in Barnsley and Leeds.
“Martial arts isn’t about kicking and punching, it’s about giving you something to take into the outside world, that gives you an awareness of your body and what it can do. The fighting is a by-product of learning the artform. You hope you never have to use it.
“I was pretty seriously bullied at school and fear of not knowing how to handle yourself in a violent situation is a common reason for wanting to learn Kung Fu. It creates an air of something in you, it teaches you not to be a target, not to be a victim.”
Engineering manager Dan Mills began training under Andy 12 years ago and says he’s noticed a big change in himself in that time.
“I’m less aggressive since I started doing martial arts,” says the 46-year-old.
“I was always the kid who skived off PE and Kung Fu is the first serious physical exercise I’ve ever done, and the only one I’ve stuck with.
“I didn’t think of myself as insecure before I started, but I think I was, often getting a bit in people’s faces on a night out. I’m not like that now, I suppose because I don’t feel I need to be.”
“That being said,” adds Simon. “I wouldn’t hesitate to use it if I needed to.”
Rachel nods: “I was once at work and somebody grabbed my arm and, without thinking, I just turned their hand and hooked them straight off. He did look at me like ‘uh oh, maybe I shouldn’t do that again’ and that felt good.”
And Andy has his own thoughts on what it is about Kung Fu that draws so many people in. “It’s beautiful,” he says simply.
“It’s a very old system and the beauty and grace of the movements are steeped in rich history. And when you start to understand the movements, what they can do, that’s when it really becomes special.
“Some people like the idea of learning a martial art, but it’s hard work and it won’t work unless you’re prepared to put in some serious time, it’s real dedication.
“Knowledge is the greatest gift you can give to anyone, and the look on people’s faces when they nail something I’ve taught them is very humbling. That’s the reason I teach.” Visit Arrow Martial Arts for details.