HOW TO WATERBEND: a beginner’s guide to mastering the four elements

By Stephanie Tom

i. waterbending, the element of change
“they have a sense of community and love that holds them together through anything”

They’d be at the park every Saturday morning, gliding slowly through practiced tai chi sequences as my sister and I walked to our dance class. We’d see the senior citizens of Chinatown gathered in congregation, grandparents and resident aunties and uncles each standing a few feet apart in the grass. Loose sleeves and long pants, stepping in time to inaudible chants, arms sweeping in graceful arcs, legs shifting and sliding into each position with the ease of a water snake, their fluidity as natural as the wind, barely there. Back and forth, catching the strikes of invisible sparring partners in slow motion. Like most children, I didn’t have the patience to watch the full sequence.

Years later, once I finally did gather enough patience, I would find myself outside of Helen Newman Hall under the glow of the full moon for my last Tai Chi Chuan class before our semester on campus was abruptly cut short. The Worm Moon. Our instructor had finally deemed it time to teach us the traditional 24 step sequence – so you can practice at home as if you were still here with us.

I remember facing the empty pitch of the football field, tall grass tickling my ankles. It was hardly windy, but just cold enough that it could have been. Gently push and pull, as if flowing in a river current. Our instructor’s voice got snagged in the night and faded a bit away. I closed my eyes, thinking to Saturday mornings from childhood. Transfer your energy. Hands curling gently around invisible braids of rope, as Katara did while learning to master the water whip. Inhale. Center yourself. Under the light of the full moon, everything seems to glow harsher. Can you feel the energy? That’s the chi. A call to gather your sense, gather yourself. Hold your breath as you return to form. A return to calm, like the tides at night. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Slowly exhale. The moon, pulsing like a heartbeat. The ocean, gently hugging the shore. Finish exhaling. Thirty students, soon to disperse but for the very briefest of moments, moving together in harmony.

Art by Zahavah Rojer

ii. earthbending, the element of substance
“they are diverse and strong they are persistent and enduring”

If public school taught me anything, it was how to ground myself. To hold firm and never lose my grip in tug of war during field day in second grade. To trust my gut above others’ in games of Jeopardy in seventh grade. To persist and power through my goals all the way through twelfth grade even when the end seemed never closer before yet infinitely far away at the same time.

The first time I watched Avatar the Last Airbender and met Toph in “The Blind Bandit” from Book 2, it made sense that she was an earthbender. Who else could be so in tune with the earth beneath them, and need something to ground them? Who else could have possibly trusted their senses more, the only thing they truly had even though they had everything? Despite her blindness, Toph laughed in the face of danger and persevered every time because she was more than capable of holding her own. I admired her spirit, her spitfire and tenacity.

I joined Cornell Wushu last fall for the same reason. It was one thing to hold your ground verbally, metaphorically, but another to do so physically as well. Despite years of opportunity to take self-defense classes and taekwondo in Chinese school, my younger self had never considered it. Now, I was determined to make up for squandered years.

I’d never heard of hung gar before I met my friend Autumn. Among practice sets and warm-ups, basic five stance drills and shows of weaponry, she was the only one who made it her specialty. When I watched the first performance of the year with my fellow newbies, the seniors took turns jumping and flying across the stage, twirling broadswords and spears and fists alike. When Autumn took the stage, the music turned. Thrumming, as if by quivering drums. Her legs squat squarely, arms held out in front of her. Quick jabs heavy in concentric circles, always swiping out to the side before snapping back to her center. Like Toph, earthbending in the ring against opponents she could not see.  For her final form, the drumming rose in tempo and volume, her palms outstretched and circling into one another like the eye of a hurricane before stilling.

Off-stage, we clapped and cheered everyone on for a performance well done. We talked highlights and missteps to focus on in future practices, and like always, said that we wished there was more time in a year to learn everyone else’s specialties. Imagine the scripted duels, the dramatic finesse of spears and swords and fists clashing. Imagine if we all learned hung gar, said Robert, laughing as he did his best to imitate Autumn’s squat armwork. Wouldn’t that be fun? I remember Autumn’s smile, cheeky like her glasses. Yeah that’d be fun, she said. Flashing a grin like Toph. I want to teach you how to do it properly

The next practice, we sparred, and Autumn tipped Robert over easily. It’s because you’re not grounded properly, she told him. You’ve got to have good balance. Earth, sky. Everything in between. Otherwise you won’t have a firm grip. Otherwise you won’t be able to hold yourself. Hold your own. Otherwise, you’ll fall. 

Art by Zahavah Rojer

iii. firebending, the element of power
“they have desire and will and the energy and drive to achieve what they want”

Growing up with the illustrious magic of Kung Fu Panda and Mulan, I’ve always wanted to learn martial arts and to wield a sword. To learn how to channel confidence into form. To unlearn flinching. To learn how to grow into my body. I learned all the lyrics to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” to get into the right headspace. I pretended that pool noodles and back scratchers were swords and played at parrying and thrusting with invisible enemies. I never did end up getting my hands on a sword, even when I found out that my high school had an affiliated fencing team, but that was alright. Come college, I would have my chance.

Going to Cornell Wushu’s first fall practice had been the result of both careful examination of the Club Fest organization list and of a disarming smile by the club president as she stuck a quartercard into my hand. After my first two hours of wushu, I was hooked, despite not being able to climb the stairs to my room without wincing the first night. Through warm-up sets and seniors demonstrating what years of advanced technique could look like, I could see myself growing into the sport. I wasn’t sure if I eventually wanted to compete like most of the other members, but I knew I wanted to make it a personal challenge to advance through as many sequences as I was able to. 

As the semester rolled forward, our practices became more advanced. From learning basics like horse stance to proper punches and kicks, to coordinating every element into a choreographed set, I learned to stretch my body in new ways. Like the Chinese army coached through song, our gang of ragtag beginners who for the most part, had never attempted martial arts before in our lives, was on the path to greatness. 

The first and final sequence we started learning in full before the year ended was daunting, a full-bodied choreography that reminded me of flight: Longfist 3, otherwise known as elementary changquan. It was a dance that united strength and technique that one could only pull off with the right combination of balance and agility. For reference, it’s reminiscent of the dragon dance that Zuko and Aang learned from the Sun Warriors in Book 3 of Avatar the Last Airbender.

We never officially finished learning it before we left campus. I learned it in bits and pieces, stealing moments to practice whenever I could. Each step visualized in perfect execution even if I couldn’t yet. Bow stance, then punch. Arms and legs learning to sync. 

Snap kick and punch again. Learning to sharpen my hands, every corner of myself. 

Alternating slap kicks, then jump kick. Sweat sticking my hair across my forehead, even though I don’t have bangs. 

Punch down. I could remember every beat of footsteps echoing in Barton Hall, flat-footed shoes slapping in empty space. Not a soul besides our small practice group. 

Squat and swing hammer strike. Strike with purpose, as if it were a real fight. 

Empty stance, palms and feet together. As a wise man once said, hope is something you give yourself. Don’t forget –

Right hand outstretched in a fist against the left palm, upright. Though it may not seem like possible, humans were made to fly as long as they dreamed enough for it. 

Art by Zahavah Rojer

iv. airbending, the element of freedom
“the air nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom”

In the cartoon, the animators and storyboard artists have described the influences of different styles of kung fu on each of the four elements. Waterbending was based on tai chi, earthbending on hung gar. Firebending was inspired by Northern shaolin, and airbending on ba gua zhang, a style similar to tai chi.

I confess: I didn’t actually watch Avatar: The Last Airbender until the summer after tenth grade. For most of my early memory, the picture of a young monk I had envisioned whenever friends mentioned the legendary cartoon that was Avatar was from a different Chinese cartoon that I had forgotten the name of. It was an odd realization – the fact that a vivid memory could be so far from what you imagined it to be.

I was introduced to Aang and the rest of Team Avatar – the Gaang, if you will – during a summer of precipices. June trickled into July into August, a summer of holding my breath before junior year, looming. I spent those months volunteering at the district’s summer school program. During the day, I helped teach English and algebra to seventh and eighth graders. I corralled them through high school hallways, in lines to the bus circle and around various museums and outdoor parks around my hometown.

That summer, I also started learning how to dance. Not the traditional Chinese ribbon dances that I had long forgotten from childhood classes nor the brief snatches of ballet that I’ve picked up from observing children’s books and cartoons carefully. Nights were filled with the glare of the television screen playing loops of bubbly pop songs, my limbs flailing as I attempted to follow the sharp choreography of urban jazz and hip-hop. It was a slow process of coordination, of learning to anticipate what would come next and flash my arms into the right position in time with my feet stepping to the quick beats.

Figure eights and fleet-footed flashes of energy. As the golden days of summer stretched on, I learned to find my rhythm again. Tight circles, loose limbs. The music as a guide, not a blueprint, for choreography that extended beyond my body.

Inhale. Summer, stretching from infinite possibility to the soon return to tangible time. Hold still. Autumn, the condensing of infinity into countable measures. Choreographed lines and perfunctory motions ahead. Exhale. But not if you learned to keep the summer sun in your heart.

Art by Zahavah Rojer


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