Martial Movement & Feminine Power, with Wu Woman
Born three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Svitlana Zavialova (AKA “Wu Woman”) grew up knowing what it was like to not have water and how to do homework by candlelight. In these dark formative years, Svitlana decided she had two choices: exit the earthly plane or take full-blown action toward her dreams, dreams that turned reality when she became a world champion Wushu artist. Now, Svitlana performs martial movement, an art designed for combat, to express the multiplicity of human emotion. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to hear how Svitlana founded a new method of martial art, how that art fosters a growing community, and why that community sees Svitlana as more than an artist, but a modern-day philosopher.
Read the episode transcript below.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
I can’t even pretend to do our normal teaser today because you are about to experience one of the most energetically powerful interviews I have ever conducted and I cannot wait for you to meet none other than the Wu Woman herself, Svitlana Zavialova. Let’s get into it.
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together, we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hello my babies. I just got off this video call with Svitlana and I feel like a wave of calm has just washed over me. Svitlana is amazing. She is a martial artist. She practices martial movement and is an absolute performer. Her movements combine the grace and beauty of dance and the power of martial arts to create this stunning expression of the flow of human emotion and the complexity of human consciousness. I mean, y’all, I cannot wait for you to hear from her right now because it is absolutely one of the most stunning conversations I’ve ever had. This is a heart and mind expander. But before we get into that, I cannot help but be inspired by Svitlana. And so this week, my inspiration is the concept of true power. And true power is actually graceful. True power is not aggressive. True power is not a dominant force. It is not an oppressive force. It doesn’t get in your face and flail its arms. True power is calm and centered. True power is the understanding of exactly what your needs are, and the unequivocal confident and embracing an expression of exactly what those needs are. True power is owning who you are. True power does not leave someone else powerless. It does not squash somebody else. It does not impose its needs and its values and its demands on you. It embraces you. That’s true power, man. I am so inspired right now, y’all. Can you hear it? I mean, I’m soaring. Alright. I’m not even gonna belabor this because we’re about to go into a stunning conversation. Here we go. It’s time to talk to the Wu Woman herself. Leggo!
Welcome, Svitlana. Thank you for joining The Cultured Podcast. I’m so excited to have you here.
Svitlana Zavialova 3:01
I’m excited to be here.
Michelle Khouri 3:02
So you are known as the Wu Woman. And this is certainly an exciting conversation because we’ve been focusing a lot on visual arts lately, like painting and sculpture. And I always feel like returning to home when I get to speak with someone who engages in the performance arts. And I think that is even a pretty narrow definition for what it is that you engage in. So why don’t we just level set real quick, tell us who you are and what your artform is.
Svitlana Zavialova 3:35
Thank you, Michelle. My name is Svitlana Zavialova. You may also know me as the Wu Woman. I’m an artist of martial movement. And I found the Shen-fa method, the philosophy of expressing the wide spectrum of human emotions through martial movement, which is a movement originally designed for combat. And I call it the Shen-fa: The Art of Cognitive Transmission of Martial Movement and Emotion.
Michelle Khouri 4:03
Wow. Okay, so that carries a lot of feeling in it. And it’s also the reason why the second that I saw that first video of you on Instagram, I was mesmerized. When I watch you, Svitlana, I see the embodiment of the divine feminine. And I won’t get too woowoo no pun intended with the Wu Woman. But I do see this core essence of what womanhood is, which is flowing and graceful and gentle, but powerful, and able to, in the split second, either destroy like Kali or create new forms of energy. And that is what I find so mesmerizing about the way that you move. So talk to us about what it means to be this channel, this transmitter of that martial movement. What is that?
Svitlana Zavialova 4:57
Everything starts with the language and martial moment is a language itself. My foundational martial art is called WuShu. In the Western world, it is often referred to as Kung Fu, which actually doesn’t mean anything related to martial art. It means the highest level of perfection, the mastery. So the actual term is WuShu, the first character is Wu. And the second character Shu. Wu means warrior, in the sense of military, police, combative. And then Shu means art. If we speak about other forms of art that are not combative, such as fine art, dancing, the art of film, you name it, the term in Chinese that will be used would be Yishu. Shu, art is this immaterial element that connects the intention with the substance the combative intention or the intention of expression. This idea, contemplation on the semantics, inspired me to think, what if I use the language of combative emotion and cognitively chose to express multiple layers and multiplicity of human emotions? In this case mine. And to answer your question, this is an expression of my inner labyrinth, as well as dialogue to the powerful feminine within me, and within every single human being of all the genders. So it’s a dialogue inward and outward. And I believe that you are seeing the Wu Woman in you when you’re watching my movement.
Michelle Khouri 6:44
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the expression and the exploration of those labyrinthian emotions within you. I definitely want to talk about in a moment, your background and your self-identifying as a philosopher and your background as a philosopher and psychology because those are all connected to what we’re talking about. But right now what I want to explore is how this movement and the outward expression of the inward has helped transform you, and has changed you as a person. Because you’re still young, and yet you’re an incredibly old soul. You’ve been around the block, as an energy being, it’s very clear to me. So talk to me about how the discovery of this art form and this movement has changed you.
Svitlana Zavialova 7:32
I don’t think this form changed me. I think this form is a product of an extraordinary life that I’ve been living. This form is a cognitive embodiment of my story. The form did not change me. The form is my gift to the world from the things I’ve learned and continue learning.
Michelle Khouri 7:53
That’s beautiful. What are some of those things?
Svitlana Zavialova 7:56
Those things are my story. Being born three years before Soviet Union collapsed.
Michelle Khouri 8:02
That is no joke right there.
Svitlana Zavialova 8:04
That is very much no joke. Single mother. There was no way out. And I have two university degrees, which there was no foundation for that. And then moving to China, to pursue the career in the arts, experimenting and pursuing the variety of modalities in which I could express my gift and enrich people’s lives. And then finding myself in the western part of the world where I have an opportunity to see different points of view, and also share my gift with others, especially here. I think it’s important.
Michelle Khouri 8:47
It’s very important here. So let’s actually talk about the importance of someone specifically like you, Svitlana, embodying power and grace. Because in the western part of the world, you know, I was listening to some of your past interviews, one of them mentions how you are this beautiful blonde woman who is petite or whatever it is, you know, all of these stereotypes of what society deems to be that ideal feminine. And yet, you know, I see the ideal feminine as the other side of this. It’s not your looks, it is the embodiment of power and flow that you portray through your movement. Is that something that you come against a lot is people pointing out that like, “Oh, my gosh, look how you look on the outside, but also you’re a martial artist, and you’re this warrior presence.” It has not come across your journey a lot.
Svitlana Zavialova 9:41
Michelle Khouri 9:41
And how does that feel? How have you navigated that?
Svitlana Zavialova 9:45
Well, Michelle, I’m still kind of looking for an answer to this question for myself, because I think that it would be good for us women not to even have a question how to navigate around stupidity.
Michelle Khouri 9:58
Yep. I agree with you. It’s an emotional burden.
Svitlana Zavialova 10:01
It is an emotional burden. I think society is still catching up and learning how to see women as multi-layered, multi-dimensional being. In the martial arts culture, there were a lot of amazing male figures that brought amazing messages to the world and inspired a lot of people. Though very often, if I really asked a lot of people to recall several women that they would say, also made this enormous contribution to martial arts. And you know, there were a lot of them. Though somehow the history never written them in as those multi-dimensional beings that not only physically are impressive, there is also cognitive impressiveness to them. There are philosophers attached to them. And it’s not because it never existed. And it’s not because there wasn’t anything like this. Because a lot of time the male is like, “Oh, wow, they’re so strong, and they’re also so smart. And they’re also so sexy. Women. Oh, look at the woman. Oh this one is a beautiful one. And this one is a sexy one. Oh, you know this one is nerdy. And this one is strong but tough, right? There’s this division.
Michelle Khouri 11:11
It also in my experience when you’re complex, listen, all women are complex, whole and powerful. It’s whether we choose to embrace it and break the structures put around us. What I’ve found is it’s also a very threatening or scary prospect to see a woman, when you’re deeply ingrained in those patriarchal principles, to see a woman who is all of those things and more can feel threatening and confusing.
Svitlana Zavialova 11:36
Michelle, I think power is not threatening. Insecurity is.
Michelle Khouri 11:41
Talk to me more about that.
Svitlana Zavialova 11:43
Well, fully realized power goes hand in hand with responsibility. That’s why power in my view isn’t scary. And insecurity is scary because insecurity is rooted in fear, which makes it very unpredictable. So I find insecurity scary rather than power.
Michelle Khouri 12:03
I love that. And that’s ego, right?
Svitlana Zavialova 12:05
Depends. Ego is also identity. Your body is your identity. So you’re coming here in the physical realm, there are still some points of identity that you need to live. And ego is one of them. So that sense I wouldn’t call this ego just for the purpose of respecting this part of us that is important here to survive.
Michelle Khouri 12:28
You’re right. How would you describe your movement?
Svitlana Zavialova 12:32
Combative poetry of my cognitive story.
Michelle Khouri 12:35
Everything you’re saying is slaying me. Alright, you are poetry. So let’s explore philosophy. Because every movement you make, the way you describe it, your captions on Instagram, the way that you tell your own story is inseparable from this philosopher’s mind and clearly you see duality in everything. I am putting thoughts in your brain, so do correct me as I can see, you’re sort of looking around, like…mmm…
Svitlana Zavialova 13:04
Duality in many ways, it’s too simple. And life is more than just two colors. I choose to see colors in between. That’s why I wouldn’t say that I see duality that much because I consciously make an effort to see the multiplicity of colors.
Michelle Khouri 13:22
The multiplicity. That’s beautiful. That’s what it is. At what point did you realize: I’m a philosopher?
Svitlana Zavialova 13:28
That’s a very good question because I realized that not so long time ago. I never intended to be a philosopher. And I’ve never seen myself as one. I’ve been building a community, the Wu Woman community, and they reflected this idea back at me in a very, very beautiful way. First, they started to share the captions. Then they started to create things based on the ideas I presented to them. And then with time, some of them literally told me, you are a philosopher for us. And then I felt that I have to own my new position.
Michelle Khouri 14:10
Your power, the responsibility of that power, right? Community is an interesting thing. Tell me a little bit about why the need to build the community around what you do and teach the community about this martial movement.
Svitlana Zavialova 14:30
This is a very interesting question. I wrestled with this for a long time as a performer. I personally come from the dynasty of teachers, but I never really see myself as a teacher. I don’t really still see myself as a teacher. I’m driven by this passionate desire that has so much energy that I want to share. Because it’s a symphony. It’s a music inside of me. And I want to give it to others because eventually, I will leave the earthly plane, and I don’t want this music to still be inside me. Also, when you make anything new, the only way to actually give it to the world is to teach others. So it’s important to teach others that are curious minds. My community are very curious minds. Many of them are scientists, artists of different kinds, philosophers themselves, fascinating people. People I would very much enjoy to just talk, even learn from them. And it’s an absolutely extraordinary phenomena that I’m experiencing right now with a community that’s been built around martial movement.
Michelle Khouri 15:39
What have been some of the most surprising aspects of building that community?
Svitlana Zavialova 15:43
Well, first of all, I’ve never envisioned building community especially worldwide and virtual community because I’m very analog mind. So the surprise is how strong is the unity based on the idea translated into emotion. It’s almost like it gives this birth to the vibration that is impossible to grasp. You can’t hear or see it. And it’s there. It’s very empowering.
Michelle Khouri 16:10
It’s a powerful vibration. I think the power you embody is the kind of power I want to see surfacing more in the world as we continue to shift as a collective, potentially, if we choose to do that together, which is a calm, centered and kind, balance and power.
Svitlana Zavialova 16:28
Thank you for your kind words. I strongly believe the feminine power in humans prevails.
Michelle Khouri 16:34
I agree. And it’s prevailing more and more. And we’re starting to see, because of that prevalence, and rising, it’s creating conflict because it’s shifting the pendulum. But I do believe that we’re going to land in a really beautiful place after some of that dust continues to fly up and then settle.
Svitlana Zavialova 16:56
Well, balance in my personal use is not constant anyways. Everything is an act of balance. Even nature, it has a way to bring everything to balance sometimes in a very scary way. But it does bring everything to balance. So divine disorder is also divine.
Michelle Khouri 17:16
That’s the universe, right? At its essence, it seems to us, to be chaos. But it’s through that chaos that we find all this harmony, and this order, which is also chaos. I love it. I love me some chaos.
Svitlana Zavialova 17:33
I think chaos is a very passionate substance.
Michelle Khouri 17:38
Svitlana Zavialova 17:38
I don’t know. I just feel like just the word chaos, I think it has a lot of passion. And everything that has passion is a pure creative energy.
Michelle Khouri 17:46
Oof. Everything that has passion is a pure creative energy. I’m getting that tattooed immediately after this. So do you find yourself questioning everything around you constantly?
Svitlana Zavialova 17:47
Michelle Khouri 17:48
Is that a natural way part of how your mind works or does it get overwhelming? Or both?
Svitlana Zavialova 18:03
It doesn’t get overwhelming. Yes. This is how my mind works.
Michelle Khouri 18:06
It’s fun. Because all of this, to question it constantly is to me a game, the game that we’re here to play, you know? What is real? What is not? What is the in between? How do you see life?
Svitlana Zavialova 18:19
How do I see life? Isn’t it interesting that life is this conglomeration of passionate pursuits of being alive?
Michelle Khouri 18:27
And what does that mean for you? Do you embody that?
Svitlana Zavialova 18:31
Yes. I’m curious about everything. I think happiness is overrated. I don’t really care about being happy. I care about being curious.
Michelle Khouri 18:40
That’s particularly interesting, because also from doing my research, I found you really discovered this path and started this journey by way of depression.
Svitlana Zavialova 18:53
I did not discover it. I made it and I built it. And that’s very important. There are paths to discover and there are paths to create, this one is created.
Michelle Khouri 19:05
And what’s the difference?
Svitlana Zavialova 19:07
The difference is, you know, creating labyrinth within your mind and then you turn the physical reality into the reflection of your inner world, consciously and consistently. This is creating. And discovering is not having a solid vision and then stumbling into something that is equally beautiful and passionate. This is just two different ways to get to your true or not true path.
Michelle Khouri 19:35
It sounds like the difference is intentionality or conscious intentionality.
Svitlana Zavialova 19:40
Yes, but I also wouldn’t say that one is better than another. I just want to emphasize that I never found my path. I made it.
Michelle Khouri 19:48
That’s an incredibly powerful delineation. So will you tell us a little bit about why you chose to create this path for yourself?
Svitlana Zavialova 19:59
To bring it very, very close to maybe relatable terms, I was born in probably one of the biggest political collapse of the previous century. It was very scary in all senses, physically and mentally. I know how is it not to have enough. And I know how was it to understand that you don’t really want to survive. We want to be. And when you get to that point, any risk is worth it. I wanted to speak. I wanted to explore I wanted to be alive. It wasn’t possible for me there. I made it possible.
Michelle Khouri 20:36
How did you make it possible?
Svitlana Zavialova 20:38
My strategy. Strategically doing the impossible things and not listening. Just so you know, Crimea after Soviet collapse, like I know how is it not to have water, not to have food, to do homework with the candle. While I was the best at school and the best in almost all the country, and this is how I got scholarships, and then I got into the university and at the same time, I was a part of the national team. So I signed the contract with one of the athletic associations. And then I moved to the capital of Ukraine, where I actually lived at the gym for almost two years so I could be going back and forth finishing my studies, and at the same time training with the team. And then I finished university earlier as a parallel I patented psychophysiological program. Yes, and finished university and I wanted really to participate in the World Championships 2010 that was in China, but Ukraine at that point was in a very sad place economically. And so I decided to just go and work in performance in Europe, so that I would just raise funds, you know, by working and then they would go to China and participate. But while performing in Europe, I got picked up by theater agents in China. So this is how I got in China. And then I obviously went to that World Championship and to the World Championships two years after…
Michelle Khouri 22:13
Okay, we need a pause and rewind, because you tell this very matter-of-factly.
Svitlana Zavialova 22:19
It is matter-of-factly. That’s how I did.
Michelle Khouri 22:21
It is a matter-of-fact, but it’s also as an outsider looking in, it’s spectacular. You know, one of my joys in life is appreciating people’s courage.
Svitlana Zavialova 22:34
But that’s very easy. Call it courage. You call it courage. But if you are the place where you don’t want to exist, there’s two choices: to exit the earthly plane voluntarily or to go opposite direction. And opposite direction is full-blown action towards what you want. Isn’t it an easy choice?
Michelle Khouri 22:53
No. For a lot of people, it’s not an easy choice because they’re programmed with so much fear. The thing is, you were born into a situation that right off the bat, that choice was extremely clear cut. It was literally, like, life or death. And so I think that it became very natural for you to make those choices to live and to be. What’s interesting is I see so many people riddled with fear and anxiety over smaller situations. And those can be near paralyzing. And so that choice that you’ve just presented us with isn’t so clear cut for a lot of people. And I think that’s why someone like you can wind up being, quote, unquote, inspiration porn, you know? You’re very inspiring.
Svitlana Zavialova 23:44
Michelle Khouri 23:45
Hashtag inspiration porn.
Svitlana Zavialova 23:47
I like it. It’s interesting.
Michelle Khouri 23:49
And I say it like that because it can become this addictive thing where you’re like, give me your inspiration, right? It’s like people farm off of you, but it’s because it’s not so clear for folks. It’s a beautiful thing that it’s that clear for you. So for instance, let me make this more tangible, right? Bringing it down to earth, I’m hearing. First of all, what sport? Was it martial arts from day one?
Svitlana Zavialova 24:11
Michelle Khouri 24:11
Oh, wow. Okay. So it was martial arts that you were competing with. Your studies, your martial arts, you’re creating that path with every step that you take. And then you get into theater and they just like find you for performance. How did that leap happen? Because that’s one of those leaps that takes courage.
Svitlana Zavialova 24:28
Well, because my martial form is very performance form. It’s a musical form. It’s essentially a Kung Fu martial movement and with elements of acrobatics, and with different weaponry. That is very musical. That is very performance-like. I offered my art form and I was picked up for that.
Michelle Khouri 24:49
So even that, I offered my art form. That’s something that by way of this podcast, I’m trying to show that no matter your self-expression, whatever your creative drive is, as a human being, express it. My neighbor, who is my boxing coach, and one of my dear friends, makes music. This is an example. And he’s really, really good. And I’m like, Daniel, you’ve got something here. You have to release this to the world. What has been stopping him since he was 13 years old and making music is he’s afraid of showing the world that vulnerable self-expression. We’re afraid of showing our true selves. That’s vulnerability. Being an artist, especially using your body as your art form is a fundamentally vulnerable thing.
Svitlana Zavialova 25:39
Michelle Khouri 25:40
Svitlana Zavialova 25:41
Yes, I think it’s a fundamentally powerful thing.
Michelle Khouri 25:44
So what I was about to say was, what you do is find power in vulnerability.
Svitlana Zavialova 25:49
One thing is to gracefully exhibit power through vulnerability. That’s one thing. Another thing is to a woman thing, the emotional moosh and call it vulnerability.
Michelle Khouri 26:02
Svitlana Zavialova 26:02
So I want to I want to draw a very clear line.
Michelle Khouri 26:05
What’s the difference to you?
Svitlana Zavialova 26:07
Oh, it feels very different. Even viscerally. There’s a visceral response to the emotional throw-ups in front of you and to gracefully contemplated emotional content that is laid in front of you in the form of art piece. That is very different.
Michelle Khouri 26:24
Yeah, I mean, one feels like true authenticity and true self-expression. And the other one feels like codependent energies, like a seeking of validation.
Svitlana Zavialova 26:33
And it also becomes a trend in many ways.
Michelle Khouri 26:37
Yes. I’ve said this before, but social media is so curated, you only show the good stuff and my response is: yeah, because it’s not real.
Svitlana Zavialova 26:46
Social media is an imaginary world. Computer is an imaginary world. The way we communicate is in imaginary world. It’s not the main world. It’s not real. Your body, if you are the listener listening to this right now, look at your hand. Touch it. This is real. Try to hear your breath, focusing on the diaphragm. This is real. Look outside. This is real. The computer? The images? That’s not real.
Michelle Khouri 27:14
How do you interact and feel your way through social media with your performance? Because you’re also a filmmaker, an exceptionally talented. I mean, you’re such a multifaceted artist and human being it’s beautiful to witness. So how do you engage with social media as part of your community and art form?
Svitlana Zavialova 27:34
Thank you for your kind words. I limit myself. I don’t go on social media unless I have a purpose. And then I also have my own community letter, community board, that’s how we call it. And I also have my online Academy where I have live classes right now. Most of the community is able to engage from different parts of the world. So I’m focusing on that and I also keep up affirming for myself, that it’s a tool. And if you think it’s real, then you fall into an imaginary world, and there is a chance to miss out on the happenings of the real one. And since my instrument exists in the physical world, I choose to pay attention to that one.
Michelle Khouri 28:19
How are you perceiving and processing the state of the world right now, which is to say, experiencing a global health and economic crisis?
Svitlana Zavialova 28:29
I will answer this question, but I won’t go into details.
Michelle Khouri 28:33
Svitlana Zavialova 28:34
In the voluntary participation, in the battle of perception, with physical consequences.
Michelle Khouri 28:41
That’s beautiful. Okay, so last question is an exploration of where you find inspiration for your artwork, for your work in all spheres. When I look at you, I see an artist who expresses that labyrinthian self and human emotions through martial movement, captures it through film, and also supplements the story with poetry, in a sense. So, talk to us about where you find inspiration for all points of that ecosystem.
Svitlana Zavialova 29:21
I don’t really look for inspiration. It doesn’t require inspiration. It’s a privilege to be able to do what you love in any capacity you can. I have an opportunity to wake up and do even a fragment of something that is my passion. In that sense, I’m not sure if I need inspiration.
Michelle Khouri 29:41
Do you feel compelled? Do you feel that inner drive? Do you move every single day?
Svitlana Zavialova 29:46
Yes. And I listen to classical music every single day. I think classical music is so beautiful. I mean, like Richard Wagner, he has such a sound of complexity, but at the same time, it’s so simple at times and then I like to think about the people of the past, because they are asked very often I’m thinking about Pina Bausch and Martha Graham. And as we read about their lives, it feels linear because the story has point of birth and point of death. And the same with Wu Zetian, the Chinese vigilant Empress. I would say she’s my spirit, inspiration. Sometimes I think, how did they feel and what they were thinking, because right now, they are stories. But by default, has lineages to it. And I imagine it three-dimensionally. And sometimes I feel like I could talk to them. Another person like this is Alexandra David Neil, the first Western woman in Tibet. I read her book when I was 13. When I was in my mid 20s, I went to Tibet and I went to the places where she described in her book My Journey to Lhasa. And I just went there. I just stood there. And I was just saying, “Thank you.”
Michelle Khouri 31:01
Is it making you emotional?
Svitlana Zavialova 31:03
I don’t know. How can you make something that is already emotional already, like more emotional?
Michelle Khouri 31:08
You can allow yourself to feel it. How are you feeling? And what are you thinking in this moment?
Svitlana Zavialova 31:16
I’m feeling grateful. I’m feeling passionate, curious, eager to be. And I feel very grateful for your thoughtful questions.
Michelle Khouri 31:26
I feel grateful for your presence on this earth at this time. I get to share a planet with you. That’s pretty cool. It’s pretty awesome. And I also get the tremendous privilege to actually thank you, to look at you and thank you, in the same way that you went to Tibet and had to really connect with that energy to think that energy. I get to thank you directly and I get to be the channel of gratitude from The Cultured Crew because this has been a spectacular conversation. And certainly I want them to be able to connect with you personally, find your community, follow your work as it continues to evolve and unfold. So, tell us, where can we find you and connect with you.
Svitlana Zavialova 32:13
Thank you for this opportunity. My Instagram is @wu.woman. My website is www.svitlanazavialova.com. My online Academy is www.academy.wuwoman.com, and everything “Wu Woman,” pretty much.
Michelle Khouri 32:33
Good. Nice and consistent. Nice and easy. I like it. Well, thank you so much Svitlana, this has been such a joy in such a pleasure and such a privilege.
Svitlana Zavialova 32:41
Michelle Khouri 32:48
You know what? I’m not even gonna say much. I’m gonna let you process that on your own. And I’m gonna send you all the love and wishes for authenticity, vulnerability and power in the world. Till next time my babies, you know what to do. Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it Cultured.