Guest Post: 4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

Check out my latest guest post from the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com:
4 Tips to Becoming a Better Martial Artist in the New Year

I’m not into New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about self-awareness and continuous self improvement, which can happen at any time of the year. Start out 2017 right with a renewed commitment to your practice. Even if you don’t do martial arts these tips can help you set and achieve goals in any area.

2017

 

Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, BookMartialArts.com has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!

How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World

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It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

Change
The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

Leadership
To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

Prioritization
It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

Breakdown or Breakthrough: Five Life-Changing Decisions I Made When I Was Feeling Like Crap

Sometimes our darkest moments bring us into the light. What were yours?

Little Black Belt

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I’m one of those people who not only needs a kick in the pants to make a drastic change, but I also need a swirly, a wedgie, and to be shoved in a locker and left over night until the janitor finds me the next day. I changed my major several times as an undergrad and each one was punctuated with hysterical sobbing phone calls to my dad during which I declared I wanted to give up on everything. I started my second master’s degree eight months after a devastating breakup. I started taekwondo two months after a string of dating humiliations and failures. Pursuing the MBA and returning to taekwondo were among my top 5 Best Decisions of My Life Thus Far and were decisions made with a mix of both impulsiveness and calculated determination. Decisions, choices, moves, whatever you want to call them, each event dramatically changed the trajectory of…

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Send Off to 2016…Bye Felicia!

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Ah 2016, the year where everybody sat back and said, “WHAT THE F_CK IS GOING ON??” Seriously, what was up with this year? A bunch of cool celebrities died, people were blowing each other up and shooting into crowds, scores of refugees were trying to escape their war-torn countries and many died in the process while the world watched, the US presidential campaign was a nightmare that further divided the country, sexual assault is still a thing that goes unpunished, racial inequality still runs rampant, people were walking into traffic trying to catch a damn Pikachu, and that’s just some of the stuff that was happening publicly.

Privately, I had three deaths in the family, lost a very sweet coworker to cancer, saw illness and death strike several friends and their families (and even a few pets), went through a very upsetting time of uncertainty at work, and to top it all off, a neighbor recently moved, taking her very friendly and affectionate cat with her. What the hell, 2016?

I have never been so happy to welcome in a new year. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the overall shittiness of 2016, so perhaps now is the time for me to be grateful for some good things that happened in my life:

  • I paid off my car. Now I can put that money into my mortgage and my vacation fund. Santa Fe, here I come!
  • I got my “Instructor” patch for my taekwondo uniform. Technically I’m an “assistant instructor” if we’re just going by rank, but I guess since I hang around the dojang so much they probably figured they’d better give me something to do.
  • I got more experience coaching at tournaments. This year we took students to five tournaments. I gained a lot of experience preparing students before the tournaments, coaching them during their fights, and giving little pep talks when they were feeling discouraged. I also discovered the joy of tapping into my inner Bianca del Rio and making fun of cheesy demos. Not today, Satan!
  • I FINALLY got to do leadership coaching at work! From April to early December I was running from one location to the next having coaching sessions with managers and directors in my company’s hospitals. I seem to have a knack for it, and it has been the highlight of my career. My clients trust me, value my advice and opinions, and on more than one occasion have referred to our sessions as “therapeutic.” Hmm!
  • I visited my West Texas hometown. I haven’t been back since my parents moved five years ago. In May there was a reunion for the high school theater department, and I had a blast enjoying the wide open landscape, driving around town (cuz “driving around” is a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment in West Texas), running around the old theater with my classmates, meeting the current fresh-faced students and watching their lovely production of “Julius Cesar,” and hanging out with friends I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Plus I got to stay in my old house! (It was purchased by a family friend.) AAAAND, they served really good catered chicken fried steak at the reunion because what else would one eat in a West Texas high school theater?
  • I didn’t lose my job, and I’ll be working a lot closer to home in 2017. That’s all I’ll say on that topic.
  • I stopped hating my body after twenty-five years of unnecessary pain and suffering…for the most part, anyway, and I reconnected with my Italian roots.

Okay, so maybe 2016 wasn’t ENTIRELY awful, but I’m glad to see it go, as I’m sure just about everyone else is.

So long, 2016! As Christoph Woltz’s character Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained said, “Normally I would say ‘Auf wiedersehen,’ but since what ‘Auf wiedersehen’ actually means is ‘’Till I see you again,’ and since I never wish to see you again, to you, sir, I say goodbye!”

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!

My Favorite Posts From 2016

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2016 is almost over, much to the relief of just about everyone. Thank you all for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s been a busy writing year for me. I posted to the blog every month, am in heavy editing mode of my book, and most notably I started writing guest posts for the website BookMartialArts.com. You can read them by clicking here.

In other exciting news, I got my “Instructor” patch, so now I have to act like I know what I’m doing, at least when I’m wearing the particular uniform I sewed the patch on. I cut my coaching/refereeing teeth at two black belt tests and several tournaments. Some things remain the same: I still can’t get through self-defense and hapkido practice without giggling, I still can’t do a decent spin kick, I’m still going to physical therapy, and I’m still rank and disgusting after sparring class. At least I’m consistent.

Now I’d like to share with you my favorite posts from 2016:

1.A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class – I started taking a ballet barre class at my gym in February, loved it, and have kept it up ever since. My core and legs, on the other hand, are furious with me.

2. Love is Like Grape Soda – In my Valentine’s Day post I revel in the fact that for the first time in my life being single is (1) a choice and (2) a non-issue.

3. When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A sub-par art museum event showed me the importance of sticking with my true community.

4. Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class? – I still feel this way. Every. Single. Wednesday.

5. Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four – One of my most popular posts and one that helped me get a very hurtful and embarrassing moment off my shoulders.

6. What I’ve Learned From Coaching Children and Business Leaders – There are more similarities than you’d think!

7. You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long  – Some insight from my musician brother showed me the importance of balancing the enjoyment of our past accomplishments with the challenges and possibilities of the future.

8. How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think – Aw, I miss the summer Olympics, don’t you?

9. Black Belt: A Year in Review – I celebrated my one year anniversary as a first degree black belt, and I learned several things along the way.

10. Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt – Since change seems to be the constant in the workplace, you might as well put on your sparring gear and brave the fight.

11. Are You Driven by the Process or the Project? – What motivates you – the end or the means?

12. The Case for Getting Your Ass Kicked – We all need challenges.

13. Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two – Teaching, learning, and leading all go hand-in-hand.

14. How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body – I finally had a body image breakthrough over the Thanksgiving weekend, of all times. I also sneak in my recipe for gnocchi.

 

 

 

When Your Brain and Body Are Conspiring Idiots

mind-body-split

Sometimes our best laid plans are sabotaged by our own habits, shortcomings, misgivings, or desires. We fall into patterns that are comfortable and routine although not always the healthiest or the most challenging for us. Lately I feel as if my brain and body are two kids that goad each other into getting into trouble. Here’s what some of their conversations look like:

Brain: “Let’s do a spin kick! We finally got it down and it was looking really good last week.”
Body: “Nah. I’m gonna tighten up the left hip to limit mobility and give us vertigo every time we try to lower the shoulders.”
Brain: “But we understand exactly how to do it! This is a fundamental—“
Body: “NOPE. Hip tightening in three…two…”
Brain: “You’re a jerk.”

Body: “It’s really early and I’m awake and energized! Let’s go swim laps before the 5:30 crowd gets to the pool.”
Brain: “Nah, let’s go back to sleep. This bed is so comfortable and warm. Besides, it’s cold and dark outside and we hate the cold. Besides, don’t you think more sleep will help us feel refreshed?”
Body: “But swimming makes us feel even more refreshed! We can nap after we swim!”
Brain: “You’re getting very sleepy…”
Body: “You are such an a…..zzzzzzz”

Meanwhile I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, shaking my head with irritation at my good intentions once again being ruined. What are we to do when we want to make a positive change or try something new but we’re the ones holding ourselves back?

Psyche Yourself Out
There are all kinds of ways you can motivate yourself: giving yourself compliments, tough love, reminding yourself of what’s truly important, staying positive. As long as you’re not being abusive or too self-deprecating there’s nothing wrong with talking yourself into doing something challenging. When I’m having trouble with jumps or tricky balance exercises in physical therapy I’ll roll my eyes and think, ”Come on, Black Belt!” Other times I just remind myself of how freaking good I’ll feel after exercising or how relieved I’ll feel after finishing an arduous work project.

Good Old Fashioned Bribery
My goal is to swim two miles in one workout. I’ve worked my way up to about 1.6 miles. At this point is my motivation is not the cliché of overcoming obstacles or pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible or even getting a killer workout. No, at this point my number one motivator is pancakes. Now, can I have pancakes any time I want? Yes, of course I can, and I even made some at home not too long ago. But there’s something deeply pleasurable about eating a heavy meal after a long hard swim, and bonus points if I pass out for a nap afterwards. Maybe I’ll get pancakes or maybe I’ll get something like pizza or enchiladas depending on what time of day I complete my mega swim. Either way, carbs and a nap are happening. Brain and body, it’s time to get on board.

Forgive Yourself
You are not perfect. Neither is anyone else. You may not always live up to your own or somebody else’s expectations. Maybe those expectations aren’t realistic. If you’re feeling discouraged or losing confidence put the challenge on hold. Take a deep breath and reassess what is important to you in this moment. Does it make you feel good pursuing this goal? Would you be happy even if you didn’t achieve this particular goal? (Hopefully that answer is yes) What do you need right now to feel satisfied? What can you do differently? Is it still worth it?
Sometimes we have to put down goals for a while or even give them up entirely if we choose a different path. Other times we simply need a breather so we can get back on track, refreshed and ready for the challenge.

This morning I woke up feeling alert and refreshed at 4 AM. I almost rolled over and went back to sleep, but I dragged myself out of bed…only to discover that a cut on my foot wouldn’t stop bleeding when I took the Band-Aid off that I’d put on it last night. Now, I certainly can’t go swimming with (1) a bleeding cut or (2) a bloody Band-Aid that is guaranteed to peel off my foot and float around in the pool like a rubbery little germ ball. Grudgingly I went back to bed, but I did it for the good of all the people at the gym, I swear! I WILL be going to ballet barre class mid-morning so I’ll still put my useless brain and body to work.

Sometimes we have to indulge our brains or bodies and let them have what they want. Eventually though, it’s time to get back to work and do what you know is ultimately best for yourself…tomorrow anyway.

 

How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body

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Foundation of the old school food pyramid, yo! But really, who ever got 6-11 servings in a day? Eleven servings??

After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.

I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.

At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.

Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.

I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)

Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.

Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.

I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.

“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.

Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.

Gnocchi to the Rescue

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.

After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.

Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.

I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.

And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.

I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.

Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.