Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress

Dreading going back to the office on Monday? Counting down the minutes until Friday? Then consider taking up a martial art to help you ease work-related stress. Check out how in September’s guest post for BookMartialArts.com: How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress.

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Some knife-hand blocks would serve him well right now.

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!

A New Normal

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What do we do when our reality is traded for a new one? How do we let go of what we can’t control, influence what we can, and embrace our new normal?

I can’t seem to jump very well anymore. For a while my strength was improving, but recently it seems that I haven’t so much hit a plateau as much as my body has decided to take a different path. I first noticed it when I had to exert a lot more effort to spring myself into the air for box jumps in physical therapy. (At least I can do them. About this time last year when my physical therapist tried to introduce them I was in tears with anxiety.)

I’m noticing it quite a bit in taekwondo. It’s harder to get off the ground, hike my knees up, and heaven forbid if I have to add a kick (or even worse, a twist) at the apex of that jump. It’s exhausting, and I feel like my legs are made of lead. My thoughts alternate between, “Come on, Black Belt, you’ve got this!” and “What’s wrong with you, Black Belt? Kids can do this. Maybe you don’t deserve your belt.” I feel like I should apologize to my instructors for being a disappointment.

I suppose I am entering a phase of a new normal. Maybe I just haven’t quite accepted the fact that I am not the kickass gazelle bouncing around that I see in my head when I’m in taekwondo class. I’m almost 40 years old, and in reality I’m lamely spazzing around in a too-big uniform that feels like a soaking wet king size bedsheet when I sweat. Despite my brain yelling “GO! GO! GO!” I’m slow in sparring matches and am finding the more gravity-defying aspects of my martial art increasingly difficult.

It’s frustrating that when I’ve reached the age, maturity level, and belt rank to understand the nuanced mechanics of taekwondo, my body can’t do them either at all or not very well. Although I sincerely believe I had to leave taekwondo as a child and go through a bunch of stupid shit for the next 20 years to find myself and find my way back to the dojang, it makes me wonder. Had I continued taekwondo into my teens or even stopped and taken it up again in my twenties rather than my thirties, would my muscles, nerves, bones, and brain would be more finely tuned to and more adeptly able to execute the movements that are becoming harder and harder for me to pull off?

Perhaps I’m not as hopeless as I think. Perhaps this is a new “normal” state of fitness for me: I easily swam for an hour this morning. Despite having to really haul ass in physical therapy to do my exercises, my jumps were pretty good today (I DID get my knees up and clear my boxes and land softly like a kitty ninja), my balance had improved, and I did nearly 9 continuous minutes of holding planks. And y’all, I can do a form like nobody’s business. Not bad, Black Belt.

Plus, I’ve noticed improvement in the more advanced aspects of taekwondo, notably around self-defense. In the end that’s rather what I’d be good at anyway. I can probably go my whole life without ever needing to do a 540 kick–good because I can’t do it anyway. Some of my kicks–the ones on the ground anyway–have become more solid and make more of an impact, which serves me better in a fight than more complicated kicks.

For my fellow martial artists reading this, I’m not discounting more complicated airborne kicks. This is not sour grapes because I can’t do them. Many people not only do them beautifully but do them effectively . When you’ve been whomped in the chest by someone slamming into you with a 360 roundhouse you appreciate that kick very much.

On the upside I’ve gotten pretty good at teaching and coaching. I might not be able to do a jump spin kick or a 360 roundhouse, but I can help someone else do them, and that is honestly more satisfying than being able to do them myself. If I can be one of those aging ladies who punches wood, slams guys on the floor, and inspires students to work hard and believe in themselves then I’m good. If this is my new normal I’m okay with that…but it’s hard to let go and it’s hard to embrace my new normal.

So how does this translate to “real life?” As I hinted at in my last post, my reality has been shaken up quite a bit. A new reality is being presented to me, and I have to choose how I will interact with it. Will I spend all my time mourning what I can no longer do and what I have to give up? Will I fight myself into a futile corner? Or will I take advantage of the opportunities lining the new path in front of me? Will I embrace a new reality and a new identity? I think I know what I will do.

When Life Takes a Swing at You

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And sometimes Life likes to use the spiked bat…just for fun.

“AH!! What are you doing??” I shrieked as I hopped backwards, narrowly missing a swipe from my chief instructor, who was holding a thin but painful-looking and very solid wooden bat. I was expecting an overhead strike, which I had just practiced defending against, but instead he had swung the bat from side to side.

“What do you mean?” he asked, laughing. “You don’t know what someone is going to do when they’re attacking you.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Life takes swings at us in expected and sometimes less expected ways. Illness, job loss, death, financial hardship, onions on your hamburger when you specifically stated, “No onions”–the unexpected slings and arrows shot at us can take us by surprise, leaving us feeling hurt, betrayed, and vulnerable. Sometimes we’re left in a state of limbo, not knowing whether things will turn out to be better than imagined or worse than expected.

I’m in that state of ambiguity right now, as are several other people in my life. Life took a swing at us, and while it wasn’t entirely unexpected (just as I knew my chief instructor was going to take a swing at me), the gravity of it shook us to our core. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I was angry, upset, and very worried about my future. I know I wasn’t the only one opening  a bottle of wine after the news hit.

And then a funny thing happened–I got over it. I bounced back very quickly, which may very well be a case of denial, but I’d like to think it’s partially due to the “indomitable spirit” I’ve honed from practicing a martial art. Fall down seven times, get up eight. It wasn’t forced or a mindful choice. After a day or two of stewing I suddenly felt very calm and positive. Just as I kept my mind focused on testing for black belt last year in spite of a very painful injury, I’m keeping my mind focused on the very favorable outcomes that could come from this situation. I’m banking on things turning out better than I could have imagined…and if they don’t, well, I’ll get back up that eighth time.

Gallows humor helps too. No sooner than we were hit with our new reality, we all started finding the funny in the situation. It helps us bond during a difficult time and keeps us from getting too bogged down in the grim details. We laugh a lot in taekwondo class too, maybe more than we should in a disciplined martial art, but it lightens the mood, strengthens our bonds, and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next, just as I didn’t know for sure how my chief instructor was going to attack me. All I know is I need to be prepared for anything, trust my instincts and my training, and not back down.

 

How the Olympics Rekindled My Love for My Sport…But Not the One You Think

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Most of the time I couldn’t care less about sports. I don’t go to games, I don’t watch sports on TV, and I don’t get involved in discussions about sports. My eyes glaze over when my coworkers talk about their fantasy football picks. I enjoyed watching the Texas Rangers play in the World Series a few years ago, and I enjoy watching the occasional UFC match, but that’s about it. When the Olympics are on, however, my inner jock goes into overdrive. I love it. Whether it’s the winter or summer Olympics, the TV is playing the games whenever I’m at home.

There’s one sport that kept me on the edge of my seat and motivated me to get up early and go to the gym more often.  I eagerly awaited finals and semifinals, yelled at the TV, and jumped around the living room when my favorite athletes won medals.  I watched the athletes’ form and technique carefully, eating up any tips I could gain to enhance my own performance.

Was it taekwondo? Nope! It was swimming.

Swimming was my first love. My parents had me in the water before I could walk. Dad, who was an art teacher at my small town’s community college, taught swimming lessons in the summer, so my brother and I pretty much lived at the college pool for most of the summer breaks. The pool was 50 meters long and included a high dive that I decided I needed to jump off when I turned four because, well, I was four and needed to get that done. I still remember plummeting down towards the water like a happy little four-year-old bullet.

I would swim underwater for what felt like hours, enjoying the silence and solitude (even when the pool was crowded), amuse myself with games, and scrounge around for loose change. Sometimes I played with my brother or with friends; sometimes I did my own thing. It was only when we were starving and exhausted that we would go home, watching the twinkling lights on the West Texas horizon blink in the darkness.

As I got older I made the time to learn proper techniques for crawl, breaststroke, and backstroke from Dad, and by the time I got to college I’d fallen into a routine of getting up early and getting in a swim before I started my day. I also taught myself butterfly stroke in college and have always enjoyed the heart-pounding rush of a butterfly sprint. I always liked going to the pool when it was dark and quiet, meaning there was less of a chance I’d have to share a lane (I still hate that) and that I could stretch out the solitude and solace the early morning brings me a little longer.

A few years ago I fell out of the habit of waking up early and often, and sometimes I’ll go weeks or even months without a swim. Sometimes my best laid plans are foiled by fumbling for the snooze button in a half-asleep stupor. Sometimes I feel discouraged by my relatively slow pace and weakened long-distance endurance. Unlike in taekwondo class, my mind tends to wander while I’m swimming, leaving more room to be bored and distracted. Despite all that, I get to the point where I desperately miss swimming, and I know that no matter where I end up living throughout my life, I’ll need to have access to a pool. I always need a swim fix at some point, no matter how long it’s been since I was last in the water.

Watching my favorite athletes compete in my favorite sport pushed me to jump up when my early alarm went off and race to the pool. I looked forward again to my early mornings gliding through the water. There’s still no feeling like swimming, and it’s not the same mind-body union I get in yoga or even in taekwondo. There’s something about that sensation of your body being sand-blasted by oxygen, of combining the best of strength training, cardio, and stretching all into one swift motion–ahhhh. Nothing else wakes me up quite like swimming, and I’m energized (and ravenously hungry) for the rest of the day.

I love swimming, and I love taekwondo. I need them both in my life. I just love them in different ways, and I think they complement each other. They’re both great for upper body strength and cardiovascular health. There are the mental and emotional aspects to consider as well.

For me taekwondo is a combination of exercise, study, tradition, a second job, and community engagement. Swimming, meanwhile, is just for me and me alone, and as an introvert with a fairly interactive professional and martial arts life, I need that solitude in the water and the rare moments of being totally self-sufficient and disengaged. I am not intellectually challenged by swimming the way I am by taekwondo although perhaps I should explore that possibility. There is something more primal and subconscious about swimming. I was born with gills.

I hope to both swim and practice taekwondo for the rest of my life, as long as I am healthy and active enough to move. I wonder which one will be my biggest source of comfort in my final years. Maybe they both will, in their own unique ways.

Proactive Laziness…Sometimes We Need Breaks From the Things We Love Most

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Last spring I was getting really burned out with taekwondo. I think it had less to do with the pressure I was under to test for bo dan (and later that year black belt) and more to do with crippling depression and anxiety that set in during a particularly nasty and icy February and lasted through…hmm…May. I also went through a very painful break up a week after I tested for bo dan, I was in a lull at work, and was becoming increasingly isolated at home.

Everything kinda sucked, and it followed me to the dojang. I was unmotivated, cranky, disappointed in my performance, and tired of dragging myself to class. I needed a break. I took a little time off, although I didn’t feel much better. Life in general started to improve in June, and by the time my black belt test rolled around in October, I was a much happier and more confident version of myself. I never told anyone how bad things were in the early part of last year. As I always do, I kept the worst parts to myself and dealt with my pain privately and independently. That’s how I prefer to handle things.

This time I’m taking a break so I don’t…well…break. Things are actually pretty good at the dojang. I’m having fun, being challenged, and love helping other students….buuuuttttt…..weeeeeelllllll….I need a break. I’ve sensed the tiniest hint of burnout over the past few weeks, not too dissimilar from what I feel at work if I’ve gone for a very long time without a day off. I’m tired of my routine and of being held to a rigid schedule most of my evenings. I’m hovering around a plateau. My favorite training partners have disappeared, and I haven’t quite gelled with my new ones. Most recently, to my dismay and confusion, I had a very distinct thought the last time I was in class:
“I don’t want to be here.”

Note that I didn’t say, “I don’t want to be here ever again,” or “I don’t want to do this any more.” I just didn’t want to be there in that particular moment. I was dreading the nights I had class rather than looking forward to them. I was ready to go home the moment I got to the dojang and changed into my uniform and wrapped my treasured black belt around my waist. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t burned out, but I am. I’m burned out. It’s a disheartening feeling, but at least this time I caught it early.

Add to the mix that I have a lot of work events this week, including speaking in front of large groups, a conference, coaching meetings, and meetings with company executives. It’s only Tuesday and I already feel the need for a lot of introvert decompression time. My short term memory is shot. As much as I love my job and am incredibly fulfilled by the work I get to do, I’m feeling more and more drained. Sometimes I secretly hope for a bout of summer bronchitis or strep throat to knock me out and take me out of commission for a little while.

Taekwondo, which is also highly interactive and requires me to be “on” 100% of the time, has also felt draining as of late, and that’s a new sensation. Usually it lifts me up and invigorates my spirit. Not so much right now. Being an introvert who happens to love interacting with and helping people is exhausting.

So, yeah, I’m taking a little time off and hoarding all the alone time I get when I’m not at work. I need to recharge and refresh. If I’m worn out and disengaged then I don’t really need to be bringing that energy around the dojang anyway. I’d like to think I’m doing myself and everyone else a favor by removing myself from an increasingly unhappy situation.

The only true “breaks” I’ve had from taekwondo since last year’s very unpleasant spring were when I took about a week off due to my hamstring injury and the two weeks the dojang was closed over the Christmas holidays. They were forced breaks. This time, I’m being proactively lazy and proud of it. Maybe I’ll take an extra barre or yoga class, go out to dinner or the movies, or maybe just enjoy the extra time at home in my Fortress of Solitude. I’ll definitely be watching the taekwondo Olympic finals later this week.

Taking a break can be a very healthy thing for an athlete, hobbyist, artist, or employee. It can be just what we need to recharge our batteries and help us come back to what we love fresh, strong, excited, and ready to work. I have a feeling absence will make my heart grow fonder. They’re still my tribe and my second family. I miss my taekwondo instructors and classmates when I’ve been away for a while (and sometimes even when I’m only absent for one or two classes). Too much time in my Fortress of Solitude gives me tunnel vision after  a while…but for now it’s exactly where I need to be. The ice will melt eventually, and I’ll bloom once again.

Guest Post: Keeping an Eye on Taekwondo in the Olympics

Are you gearing up for next week’s taekwondo matches in Rio? Then check out August’s guest post on the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com for a quick guide to Olympic taekwondo:
Keeping an Eye on Taekwondo in the Olympics

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Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

Why I Like Mean Girls

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“So I was working with this cute little girl who looks just like Tweety Bird. She kept wanting to do the one step [self-defense technique] with the takedown. She had this crazy smile on her face and kept saying, ‘Takedown! Takedown!’ I like this kid!” I said to one of my fellow black belts. He paused for a moment and then looked pointedly at me.

“Why, because she’s like you?”

Absolutely.

There’s a running joke at our little dojang that all the females are mean and crazy. We move fast, fight hard, and go for blood….all in the spirit of good sportsmanship of course. One teenage girl has earned a reputation for kicking everyone in the face during sparring. It’s like a right of passage to get smacked in the head by her. Another woman regularly kicks the crap out me, and to add insult to injury, she punches me right in the chest. (It just HAS to be there instead of my stomach for some reason. And this is during “no contact” sparring, mind you.)

Meanwhile, tiny Tweety Bird, with her glasses and giant blue-green eyes, kicks really freaking hard for a little kid and ki-yahps with loud maniacal glee, especially when she’s tossing around her older sister. My instructor has trained me to be aggressive during fighting and move in quickly on my opponents during self-defense practice. I get a sick pleasure from breaking boards with my hands. Sometimes he seems surprised that he’s created all these monsters.

The underlying theme in our Taekwondo Mean Girls Club is CONFIDENCE. We might not all be the best, but we won’t go down without a fight.

Nothing makes me prouder than to see a girl kick ass, but it’s not for reasons you might think. Sure, I want to see them stay out of trouble, build healthy minds and bodies, and earn their black belts. More so, they have the power to avoid the pain I’ve experienced by being a lifelong doormat. Since childhood I’ve been bullied, teased, humiliated, and harassed. Other than crying or getting angry I never fought back. (Except that time I slapped a boyfriend in the face for calling me fat. God, that was satisfying.)

I let myself be abused in various ways over and over again, and that is my deepest regret. I was a lonely, sensitive child and a jaded, skittish young woman who retreated further and further into herself as the only means of self-preservation. I didn’t think I could defend myself. I didn’t know how, and my mind didn’t work fast enough to save me. Even to this day in all my black belt glory I find myself in situations where I later regret not saying or doing something to stand up for myself. I still have a moment or two of being in shock when someone crosses my comfort zone and chips away at my dignity. Do people really think it’s OK to act like that? I’m reluctant to get close to anyone again, be it friend, romantic partner, or otherwise for fear of being hurt again. My outer shell grows thicker by the day.

I have pain and damage to undo despite the huge strides I’ve made in taekwondo. I’d like to think most of the young girls I work with in the dojang aren’t burdened with that, at least not yet. It hurts my heart to think of them feeling scared, angry, in pain, or helpless. I can’t protect them all the time, and neither can their parents. They are going to make mistakes. They are going to get their hearts broken. They are going to do and say things they regret. What I hope they can avoid is the pain and shame of not standing up for themselves when they felt threatened or mistreated.

So yes, I like mean, aggressive, and most of all CONFIDENT girls. They are proud of who they are and won’t compromise to please someone else. They have self-respect and know when to speak up and speak out. They can value themselves highly despite what a friend, a boy, a teacher, a boss, or total stranger might think of them. They can avoid the mistakes I made and the missteps I took. They can have bright, bold futures filled with love and happiness. I can’t change my past behavior, but going forward I can be as tough and fearless as these girls I admire so much.