Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic

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If getting a first degree black belt is like passing a driving test, then being a second degree feels like learning to do your own oil changes and minor repairs. When you’re not “driving” you’re cleaning, prepping, trouble-shooting both with and without help, and making sure your “vehicle” is well-maintained and in good working order. You’re looking for long-term sustainability and reliability.

I’ve always been interested in the minute mechanics of physical tasks I have performed and, frustrating as they can be, have been drawn to activities that require fine-tuning and attention to physical details: swimming, dance, classical guitar, billiards (stay tuned for a blog post on that), and of course taekwondo. Once I get past the initial beginner’s clunkiness and the “click” sets in, I start to have some fun exploring and refining my technique. By taking a break from teaching and being a full-time taekwondo student (for the most part) I feel like I now have opportunities to dig into what I wrote about earlier this month: being a really damn good Second Dan. I’m very excited about it!

What I appreciate about the coaches at my new dojang is not so much that they can run a great workout (they do), but more so they take the time to point out details and explain the why behind  the movements. Wednesday I had a one-on-one kicking workout with one of the instructors. He had some ideas, and I had some ideas, and we collaborated on how to help me train and get better, namely on my back kicks and spin kicks. During our conversation I felt really energized to dig in and play with the mechanics of these seemingly basic kicks. How can I take them from a technique I learned as a color belt and make them advanced black belt-level precise and strong? How can minor shifts in my body, weight distribution, speed, power, and placement make big changes in my performance?

On Thursday another coach gave me some good feedback on choices I can make to improve my sparring. Instead of talking about kicks and punches, he talked about intellectual choices. He encouraged me to think about what kind of fighter I want to be rather than just reacting or thinking I had to match my partner’s aggressiveness or defensiveness (and factoring in age, energy level, habits, some go-to trusted moves, and the ability to “read” different partners). He likened sparring to a game of chess rather than checkers. I want to be a better fighter, and part of that is being a smarter fighter.

As a slightly higher ranking black belt I feel like I can’t rest on the laurels of passing that first degree test. Passing your first degree black belt test means you’re good enough at color belt techniques to move on to a higher level. Now I’m getting into the “why” of what I do and have set higher expectations for myself. I want to be very proficient at back kick to use in sparring, and I want to use jump back kick and spin kick for breaking. They need to be better, sharper, and more powerful than what we see at the color belt levels.

Refinement and mindfulness is not only for black belts. If you’re a color belt reading this, or even a white belt, begin your exploration now. Turn frustration into fascination and use that curiosity to make yourself a more proficient martial artist. You may be amazed at what you can do.

Sparring and a few particular kicks were just my focus for this week. I also have poomsae, self-defense (hapkido), defense against weapons, and overall conditioning. I think I’m fairly proficient and “acceptable” in my performance, but I don’t want that. I want to be the best damn Second Dan I can be. It’s time to break out all the knowledge and tools and expertise from others than I have and get to work.

It’s time to give this vehicle a tune-up.

 

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Don’t Let Your Future Get In the Way of Your Present

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“Third Dan…”

The thought drifted through my mind as I was burning out my legs in ballet barre class at the gym last weekend. And then I caught myself and re-worded my thought:
“Nope. I’m doing this for Second Dan. I’m going to be the best damn Second Dan I can be.” Either a smile or a grimace crossed my face. I don’t remember which; barre can be a pretty grueling workout.

Our culture pressures us to constantly chase after what’s next or what’s better. While I think having ambition and setting goals is important, taken to an extreme we can lose focus on what we are doing in the present. We tout climbing the leadership ladder as the only admirable career path. We expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to choose educational tracks that will shape their adult lives and get it right on the first try. I always internally gagged at the “see yourself in 5 years” exercise I had to present in a professional development course I used to teach (and obviously did not write). We never stop and examine what we’re doing RIGHT NOW.

Can we be satisfied with and put our best efforts towards where we are right now?

Ever since I watched a black belt test at my new dojang in December I have had my own third degree test (date/year to be determined) lurking in the back of my mind. I knew I needed to improve my overall conditioning, my sparring skills, and hone my technique. I hadn’t practiced defense against weapons in a year and hapkido/self-defense in almost as many months. I knew I needed to not just step up my game, but JUMP up my game.

Third Dan is my long-term goal, and it helps sometimes to corral my wandering mind during taekwondo classes or my non-taekwondo workouts into the idea that everything I do is building a better black belt. Every ballet plie strengthens my legs. Every freestyle swimming stroke powers my lung capacity for fighting endurance. Yoga keeps me mentally balanced and undoes the damage I do to my hips, back, and hamstrings all week.

[Disclaimer for the yogaphiles reading this: I don’t consider yoga a “workout.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years and am fully aware of the mental, physical, and emotional complexities of it. Let me reword it: the asanas of yoga, which are only one aspect, keep my body toned and stretched…and ready for meditation. Happy now?]

I’m pretty satisfied with my current job. I could do that for a long time (with merit raises and bonuses, of course.) I love the city I’ve lived in for the past 14 years; I could spend the rest of my days here. I can certainly apply my physical and mental fitness to the taekwondo rank I am right now, can’t I? If I stayed a second Dan forever could I be satisfied with being the best damn second Dan I can be?

I can’t lose sight of my current rank and its responsibilities and possibilities. I got plenty of teaching experience last year that I hope helps me live up to the Korean translation of my title “Kyo-sa-neem” (instructor). Now that I’m no longer teaching I have the ability to focus on physical training and really understand and demonstrate what a proficient Yi Dan looks like. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can articulate that right now. That tells me I need to back off from looking forward to (and dreading) my future third Dan test. There’s plenty of time to prepare for that. I think I need to do some reflection on what my current rank means.

Every color belt rank was a different learning and growth experience with different expectations. It seems like that is also true for black belt ranks. That makes me happy. It gives me something to explore and build on right now, in this moment.

Whatever journey you’re on, pause and take a look around. Where are you developmentally RIGHT NOW and what can you do to make your NOW better and more meaningful?

 

Taekwondo Never Leaves You

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Note: I originally started writing this post on April 9, 2017 and then forgot about it. Now seems like a good time to bring this back. This is a bit of a love letter and a call back to a post I wrote last year when I was in a very different state of mind: Taekwondo Is Always There.

Two years ago I attended the United States Taekwondo Grandmasters Society banquet in Dallas, Texas. The annual event attracted seasoned and honored grandmasters from all over the country, including my grandmaster from my former dojang.

One of the guest speakers was Olympian Jackie Galloway. She talked about how tradition was inextricably intertwined with a martial art that continues to evolve. People change too, but as Jackie said in her heartfelt speech, “Taekwondo never leaves you.”

I left taekwondo when I was twelve. I left it again for a few months in late 2018. Both times I felt lost. With delight I later discovered–twice–that taekwondo had never left me.

The first time I left taekwondo was due to a number of changes my family was going through. Life happened, as it is wont to do. Frankly I hated sparring so much by that point I was a little relieved to quit. As I got into junior high and high school and extra curricular activities it faded to the background as something I’d done as a kid. As an adult I’d remember it occasionally and fondly as the one sport I was good at performing (well…except sparring).

And then it came crashing back into my life when I absolutely NEEDED it. I had tried many other things to ease years of emotional pain and dumb choices. Some remedies worked to a degree, but I still reached a breaking point. I KNEW without external prompting that I had to get back to taekwondo. It was there waiting for me all those years later.

After making the the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decision to leave my dojang as an adult I wondered if taekwondo would slip quietly into the background and become something I used to do but wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.

Taekwondo was still there waiting patiently for me when I started classes at a new dojang in December 2018. It was there when I volunteered to referee sparring matches at a black belt test. It was there when I kicked a focus pad again. It was there when I tied on a chest protector and slipped on my fighting gloves for the first time in months (I’m better at sparring now and actually like it…most of the time). It was there when my new master welcomed me to her school with open arms. Taekwondo was there when I realized (with relief) how happy I was again.

I have felt so much more light-hearted and easy-going these past two months than the entirety of 2018 that I wondered with a bit of disappointment that I had an unhealthy addiction to taekwondo, like a dependency on a drug or alcohol. The past few years of training have not been all sunshine and flowers, even when things were awesome at my old dojang. I have had some dark times, and I know that at some points I used taekwondo classes as a band-aid for more deeply lying issues. Was this new happy, productive me the real me or was this just my addicted brain on taekwondo?

I talked to a friend about it, and he told me not to worry too much about it. He didn’t think I was relying on taekwondo to make me happy. His philosophy was that people needed some sense of belonging, whatever that looks like. As introverted and as guarded of my time as I am it does feel good to have a sense of purpose and connection. I think I was missing that more than I realize.

Even though I’m a planner I know life can still have unexpected twists and turns. I may have to leave taekwondo again at some point.

The nice thing is, I know now that it will never leave me.

 

Guest Writer: The Benefits Taiji Has on Mental Health

While taekwondo poomsae (forms) can be a rewarding form of moving mediation, there are many other ways to improve one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from martial arts. Guest writer Adam Durnham shares the benefits of taiji (tai chi) in this post. If you would like to be a guest blogger for Little Black Belt, please read the contributing guidelines here

Tai-Chi

Also known as tai chi, taiji is a low-impact body-mind exercise or martial art that originated in China. In Asia, people have practiced it for many centuries and it helps improve health and fitness 

Taiji has gained popularity in the West and people use it to enhance their overall psychological well-being and mood. Many scientific studies have researched taiji as well as breathing control and physical exercises related to taiji known as qigong. Many of these studies claim that taiji may enhance the mental health of individuals.

“This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and mindfulness, are thought to comprise a state that activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity,” according to some researchers.

The low-impact martial art is associated with reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. When individuals are unable to cope with life’s challenges, they may indulge in behaviors like abusing drugs and alcohol. They may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression. To help improve mental health and reduce the chances of abusing alcohol or drugs, individuals may want to practice taiji. Let’s examine how this martial art may help the body deal with mental tension.

Managing Stress

One reason to practice taiji is to reduce stress. People may experience stress due to many reasons. If you have a chronic disease, you probably deal with a lot of stress. You may also experience stress when you face life challenges relating to your finances, work, family, and relationships.

Conventional Chinese medicine teaches that illness occurs because of an imbalance between opposing life forces, yang and yin. Taiji helps reestablish balance and create harmony between the mind and body. It also helps connect a person with the outside world. Practicing taiji can help reduce stress and improve your mental health.

To practice taiji, people perform a series of body movements in a slow but focused manner. Deep breathing accompanies the movements. The practice encourages flowing from posture to posture without pausing, ensuring that an individual’s body remains in constant motion. The meditative movement is a noncompetitive, self-paced system that consists of physical exercise and stretching.

Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL)

When people are ill, their quality of life diminishes. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL)offers a comprehensive measure of well-being. It reflects people’s perceptions of their health and their satisfaction with life over a certain period of time.

People who suffer from mental health conditions may report poor HRQoL. When you compare individuals with common medical conditions to people with mental health conditions, you may find that there is a significant difference in their level of HRQoL impairments. People with mental health conditions may have relatively larger HRQoL impairments compared to those with common medical disorders. Taiji can help improve the health-related quality of life and may be an important exercise for the treatment of mental disorders.

Help with Anxiety, Mood, and Depression

A Japanese trial conducted in 2010 evaluated elderly people who had cerebral vascular disorder. The trial studied different approaches to deal with the participants’ anxiety. The participants practiced taiji or participated in standard rehabilitation in various group sessions at least one time a week for twelve weeks. The participants who practiced taiji experienced improvement in symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and sleep quality.

Help with Substance Abuse

For people who are receiving treatment for addiction, practicing taiji may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Withdrawal symptoms are one of the greatest challenges addicts face when recovering from addiction. The symptoms can be so severe that people are unable to cope with them. They may return to using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain of withdrawal.

Practicing taiji helps to lower relapse rates and reduces cravings. Individuals who have been treated for addiction may still experience the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol. Relapses occur when people who have received treatment return to using drugs and alcohol. Taiji may help reduce cravings, help people complete their treatment programs, and stay sober after their treatment.

Suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could create poor mental well-being. People may be unable to control negative feelings and emotions or even make sound decisions. Taiji exercises may help instill confidence, energy, and stamina to deal with life challenges. They may help reduce stress, depression, or anxiety.

If you are an addict, you may want to seek treatment at an addiction rehab and begin your journey to recovery. A rehab center will provide various treatment programs and techniques, which may include the use of mind-body practices such as taiji and yoga to help with treatment and recovery.

Author Bio: Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and martial arts lover that primarily writes about mental health, wellness, martial arts, and how they all pertain to everyday life. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet. You can find a lot of his work at the Willow Springs Recovery Blog

When In Doubt, Go to Class

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It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.

I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.

But instead I went to class.

I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.

I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!

A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.

You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.

What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.

When in doubt, GO. TO. CLASS.

 

 

My Home is KonMari-ed…Now What?

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Disclaimer: Okay, let’s get something straight. This is first and foremost a taekwondo blog and will continue to be, but since taekwondo has taught me so many valuable life lessons and has so profoundly shaped the way I think, react, and approach life, I inevitably will address other topics that pop up. Today it’s that question of what to do after you’ve gotten your act together in one area of your life.

Like everyone else in the world, I jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon at the beginning of 2019. Disclaimer #2: To be fair and to give myself back a little street cred, I had been aware of Kondo’s de-cluttering (or “tidying”) method for many years and didn’t learn of the Netflix series until after I’d purchased her book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” on a whim over the holiday break. Whatever, maybe the collective energy of scores of people wanting to clean their lives up at the beginning of the year subconsciously inspired me to make that Amazon purchase. Either way, I read her book in one sitting on New Year’s Day and got to work following her “KonMari” method of tackling one category at a time: clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous, and sentimental items.

The whole process of de-cluttering my two-bedroom/two-bath 1100 square foot condo took about a month. On the surface things don’t look much different, but they FEEL new and refreshing. I didn’t pile all my clothes into one giant mound as Kondo suggests, but I did fill up a donate bag, and I diligently folded all my shirts into those funny little rectangles. The supplies and containers artfully tucked into the nooks and crannies of my tiny kitchen aren’t jumbled into stressful clumps in the cabinets anymore. My financial and medical paperwork is in order and easily accessible to me or to loved ones who may need those records. After organizing my jewelry drawers I feel like I have a new set of treasures to accessorize my outfits with. I have a new skin care and makeup regimen thanks to paring down old stuff and committing to using what I have left before I buy anything new.

The discipline of sticking to one category at a time kept me on track and quelled the urge to get distracted with several mini-projects. I was so thankful that I followed Kondo’s suggestion of saving sentimental items for last during the height of my fevered desire to purge and re-organize, which happened about halfway through. (Luckily, I had a box of industrial-size trash bags in my now very organized storage closet.) That doesn’t mean I still hung on to tons of stuff; I just didn’t get rid of things in a rush to de-clutter only to find myself deeply regretting it later, which is something I’ve done in the past.

Going through the sentimental items felt like a reward after a month of meticulous hard work. I spent about a week methodically assessing, weeding, and placing carefully selected photos, memorabilia, and cards into several scrapbooks and was surprised and delighted at the emotional benefit of this process:

  • I had fun (and some laughs) revisiting high school band and theater moments, college shananigans, and family gatherings and giving them a new, neatly packaged place to live.
  • I FINALLY took the time to read a history of my Lithuanian ancestors, which was about a 5-page typed document that had been stuffed in my desk for years. I was tickled to find out that my great-great grandmother liked to make wine from berries that grew wild in the area of Pennsylvania where they lived (“moreso than doing housework,” according to our family historian). I saw the variety of professions covered by my extended clan. I learned the names of the relatives in my treasured photo of my great-grandparents’ wedding.
  • I was deeply moved by a high school graduation card I had saved from my third grade teacher. She died several years ago, so it was nice to revisit her life in her beautifully penned words.
  • Through re-examining photos in Christmas cards I was able to appreciate how my little cousins have grown into sweet, funny, and interesting young girls.
  • I was able to let go of heart-wrenching guilt I heaped on myself a few years ago after I did a major, manic purge of sentimental items and mementos. Those departed things no longer haunted me, and I felt a peaceful sense of emotional distance from the items I chose to keep.

The Verdict: I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book and method. (The Netflix show, on the other hand, got a little repetitive and seemed like a scaled-down, less interesting version of “Hoarders.”)

Disclaimer #3: 
I am very fortune to have the time, space, and energy to maintain a high level of organization over my personal and professional life. That’s always been how my mind works. I know many people don’t have those capabilities or think the same way I do, so I’m not going to tell you how to live your life or organize your time. Surprises, emergencies, and last-minute opportunities still happen in my controlled realm. However, I feel like being organized has given me the capacity to shift my attention to quickly deal with these things and keep a sense of calm. Now all I have to do as far as housework is usual maintenance cleaning and upkeep. Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—has a home.

So Now What?

I feel a little bit of a loss now that my big project is over. I had something productive to do after work and on the weekends for a few weeks.

Now I have time. Possibilities. Opportunities.

The only thing left to de-clutter is…me.

And that’s what I’m asking my fellow fans of tidying to join me in doing: after you’ve gotten your home in order, examine, reflect, and decide what you can do to “spark joy” in your life. What can you let go? What can you gain? What destructive habits can you break? What new activities or ways of thinking can you commit to? How will you change your life for the better?

Let’s have some fun.

You Guys, I’m Serious, This Year Really IS Going to Be Different! (Or, a Cautionary Tale of Good Intentions)

2019

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but I am going to make this year awesome.

This year is going to be different. This year already feels different.

Maybe I have a more optimistic outlook because this year started out so much more relaxed than 2018, or what turned out to be 2016 Part 2. That and I made the conscious decision to take more responsibility for my happiness and how I respond to the often unpredictable world around me.

Around this time last year I was pulled in many directions personally and professionally. Some of that was due to expectations people had of me (it pays to be valuable, but it is time consuming), and a larger part was due to the expectations I set on myself. I HAD to say yes. I HAD to answer every request. I HAD to put 100% effort into every situation. Everyone wanted a piece of me, or so I led myself to believe. I had gone from servant leader to indentured servant.

I was frustrated, on edge, easily upset, and wanted to scream at everyone to leave me the hell alone for five seconds. And frankly it was just a crap year. I had some unexpected home and car expenses. I’ve nearly gained back all the weight I lost from Plankton the Parasite. (Okay, I’m 119 pounds right now, so I will begrudgingly admit that I needed to gain the weight back, but still, that gap in my waistbands felt soooo good….) I developed a Ganglion cyst in my right hand. A former coworker died. My building got STRUCK BY LIGHTING AND CAUGHT ON FIRE (sort of). Y’all I was even smoking cigarettes for a little while (I quit; I promise).

Last year’s blog was a big drag, now that I can review it in its entirety. Other than a post about how much I enjoyed Body Combat classes at the gym I was dropping some pretty strong hints about how unhappy I was. My biggest heartbreak was that I could no longer feel joy and satisfaction from going to taekwondo class, plus the agonizing decision I made to leave my dojang and go somewhere new. Thank you to the readers who stuck it out. This year should be more fun.

This year I’ve shied away from over-committing myself to others and promised to commit to myself 100%. I can continue to help people professionally and personally, and I enjoy doing it, and I can keep my physical, mental, emotional, and financial well-being at the top of my priority list. I have to, or it will just end up being unpleasant for everyone. I’m taking my “Give Zero F*cks By Forty” mantra seriously and resisting the urge to sweat the small stuff. I’m not scrambling to address minor hiccups at work, and I’m not overstaying my welcome with my new taekwondo family.

As I close out the month of January I noticed that just about every day, even the busy ones, I’ve come home and thought, “Wow, that was a really nice day.” January 2019 has been so much more fun and fulfilling than last year, even though January 2018 had me catering to larger obligations. I started out this month with a surprising upswing in my pool game (I took it up about a year ago), and during the final weekend of this month I got to be a scoring judge for the first time at a taekwondo tournament and saw the hilarious musical “The Book of Mormon” for a second time. The cyst in my hand rapidly shrank. Everything in between has been pretty sweet.

I’m about to enter two very busy and demanding months at work, but I’m looking forward to them rather than dreading them. I feel much more in control of my choices and my boundaries, and I’ve been able to pare down my work to things I really enjoy doing. As for taekwondo, right now I’m just in training mode. Yes, I’ve helped out at a black belt test and a tournament in the last two months, but I’m not offering my services 24/7, and right now it doesn’t feel like work. Helping other practitioners feels fun again. I’m having fun just getting to sweat and practice, and occasionally shout “good job!” to a color belt (I can’t help it), and there is no greater feeling than that.

As a society we’re collectively leaving a decade (hello, roaring 20s?), and when my birthday hits this summer, I’ll be entering a new decade of life (stay tuned for a blog post about that milestone). I can’t wait to see how this year unfolds. It’s going to be a good one.