Dealing With Uncertainty Like a Black Belt


A few weeks ago in taekwondo class we were practicing a kicking drill: one person held a square pad in each hand and walked backwards while another person moved forward, kicking the pad with each step. The twist was the holder changed the target’s position every time, so the person kicking had to quickly respond with the appropriate kick: snap kick, roundhouse kick, side kick or turning back side kick, and spin kick. The purpose of the drill was to practice reacting quickly to an uncertain situation. If the target is open we should take advantage of the situation and respond with the most appropriate kick, which may not have been the one we were expecting to use.

Some students picked up on the drill quickly and others had to take a little more time for their bodies to catch up with what they were seeing. I found myself thinking too much rather than resting in that sweet spot of my brain and body acting in sync. In a sparring match and even more so in a real-life altercation we can’t necessarily tell what kind of blow is coming next. There are some tell-tale signs to the trained eye, but even then things can change at the last minute. We learn how to strike and defend, and we also learn how to fake and change direction quickly. We shouldn’t be surprised when our opponents do the same.

In life we don’t always know what’s going to happen next, where the next blow is going to come from, or where the next opportunity may pop up (i.e., that open target). In taekwondo we’re taught to always be ready and to rely on our arsenal of tools and our (eventually) well-honed instincts. It doesn’t mean we won’t get hurt. If you get in a fight you’re probably going to get hit. If someone attacks you with a knife and you fight back, you’re probably going to get cut. Hopefully, though, if you think fast and respond quickly and intelligently, the blows or cuts won’t be fatal (and the proverbial knife won’t end up in your back).

Some friends and I are dealing with an uncertain situation. The first blows have been dealt although we’re not certain how or when the next attacks are going to occur. There have been some fakes, and there have been some low blows. Like seasoned black belts, people have responded with grace, confidence, and dignity. They have found ways to take their power back. They have learned to dodge the most fatal blows and strike back when necessary. It’s easy to get bogged down with thinking of the worst possible scenario, but just as when we are in a fight, we can’t become so consumed by worry, fear, or even anger, that we are blind to the opportunities in front of us.

When I was kicking during the class drill my holder was a male bo dan close to my age. When he held up the target he would mutter the kick along with it. Even though he was verbalizing the right kick, it took a few seconds for my body to catch up with what my eyes were telling me.

“Spin kick,” he said quietly. Ugh, I hate spin kick. Okay…whap!
“Spin kick.”
“Oh come on!” I protested jokingly. “I just did that!”
“Spin kick,” he repeated with a smile. Grrrr…okay, whap!
“Spin kick.”
“But it’s my left leg! I suck on this side! Can’t you switch to the right si-”
“Spin kick.” Dang it….whap!

While the spin kicks weren’t much of a surprise after the first or second time, I was surprised by my holder sticking to his guns and pushing me to do something I didn’t want to do. My spin kicks were far from perfect, but I got the job done. I think that’s what I can do at this point in this place of uncertainty–not be totally surprised when dealt blows or even a bit of dirty fighting, but I can use my strength, cunning, confidence, and skill to fight back as best I can.

Keeping Your Guard Up


Someone hasn’t learned high block yet!

“Hands up! Hands UP!!”

Pop into our dojang on any given night and you’ll probably hear my instructor, me, or another black belt yelling at students to keep their hands up, ready to block or strike at a moment’s notice. We keep our hands up most importantly to block blows to the body or head, plus, keeping our hands up is also very useful for maintaining balance during fast-moving drills. (And we’re not doing Riverdance because we like looking cool.)

Learning a martial art has taught me to always be a little bit on guard–ready to move, dodge, or simply keep a keen side eye on someone who might be at threat to my safety. I’m not paranoid; I’m just smarter about my surroundings than I used to be.

I’ve also unfortunately learned I have to be on guard with more people in my life than I thought, including people I genuinely liked and trusted. Recently something happened that, while not a big deal in the large scheme of things, still bothered me deeply and made me question whether I can ever fully trust that certain person. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and embarrassed. I don’t think this person even realized they hurt me, but their actions showed they didn’t have much foresight into how it might have affected me. I have seen them do something similar in the past, so maybe it’s my own fault for not being more guarded in the first place

A larger situation I’ve been facing has shown me who I can truly rely on and trust. It’s shown me who I can go to for comfort and who I need to be more careful around. I have to see this particular person on a semi-regular basis although I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping my distance. They mean me no harm, but this is not the first time this person has crossed the line. We both need things from each other, and I am more than happy to play nice…and my guard is up. My hands are up, I’m on the balls of my feet, and I’m ready to move quickly to protect myself.

Thankfully my taekwondo family are just about on par with my blood family–I trust them completely. Maybe beating the crap out of each other brings a certain intimacy to the relationship, but more likely it’s our deeply rooted bond over something we love to do. The desire to help, serve, and lift others up is implicit. In other non-taekwondo/non-family areas of my life I’m looking out for Number One. Although I’m interacting with, helping, and serving others, my ultimate priority is protecting my well-being, interests, goals, and plans. My guard is up, and incidents like these show me (the hard way) that I need to keep it up at all times. Sometimes you have to get hit to learn how to defend. Just like in a fight, it’s a necessary and sad truth.

It’s All Cookies and Crackers (or, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff)

cookies and crackers.jpg

I’ll take them with peanut butter please! ALL the peanut butter!

One of my coworkers used to work for Keebler. When people would get all bent out of shape over not-so-significant things as people are wont to do in the corporate world, she would remind them, “Guys, we make cookies and crackers. That’s it.” That was her reminder to them that they were not dealing with life or death situations, regardless of how big (or expensive) the problem seemingly  was.

Working in healthcare for over a decade has helped me develop somewhat of the same perspective. I’ve always been in a non-clinical supportive role–first as a hospital librarian, then as a consultant in the learning and development department. My years at the hospital reminded me that whatever we were worrying about in my department ultimately wasn’t that big of a deal. We could leave what we were doing at 5pm and forget about it. It wasn’t brain surgery or fighting cancer or running the emergency department. I work with people who do that and leave the life-saving to them. No one ever died because of a so-so team building session…at least I hope not!

Taekwondo has also given me a great perspective too. I had a two-and-a-half hour team meeting yesterday. We are dealing with a number of stressful situations, and emotions are high. We’re trying to stick together, but it’s easy to ruffle feathers when everyone’s a little on edge. I was able to quickly put it out of my mind because I had other things to worry about–namely, filling in for my instructor for three back-to-back taekwondo classes. Luckily I had some good black belt partners to tag-team with me, and I think we did a good job. The best part was how much fun we had. Do you think I really cared about a PowerPoint presentation when I was busy chasing around two teenage boys and yelling directions at them during a sparring match? Nothing else really matters when you’re trying to not fall over or get hit in the face.

“It’s all cookies and crackers” has become one of our favorite catchphrases around the office. We’re doing good things, important things, but ultimately, we’re not doing anything worth losing sleep over. As I said in my more recent and more nihilistic post, nothing really matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. “Cookies and crackers” is also a reminder to myself to just enjoy life and not worry about it being perfect or working out to the outcome I expect or demand. It will all work out as soon as I release my vise-like death grip on it. Usually when I let go things work out even better than I could have imagined.

And yet, here I find myself stress-eating gummy bears and drinking hastily chilled Chardonnay over–in the big scheme of things–a really insignificant and dumb work-related issue. It’s not even worth explaining, but it’s left me upset, embarrassed, and worried that someone’s feelings were hurt. Of course no one else thinks it’s a big deal, and I’ve already been reassured as much by a few trusted people. I know it won’t matter in six months. It won’t even matter in six days. It won’t even matter in six hours.

I’m not sure what bothers me more–this tiny, stupid little incident that I’m already starting to forget or the fact that my detached, too-cool-for-school attitude towards work had a weak spot. I don’t mean I’m detached in the sense that I don’t care. I really like my job. It’s fun, fulfilling, and I’m good at it. I’m just less emotionally attached to work than I am to other aspects of my life. I think it’s a healthy outlook to have and one I wish I could apply to things in my personal life that get under my skin (and insecurities) much faster.

But it’s true…it’s all just cookies and crackers, even the things that I think are a big deal. The failed relationships I agonized over–cookies and crackers. The current struggles I’m having around body image and food control and weight–cookies and crackers, no pun intended. Annoying or upsetting things that happen at work–cookies and crackers. I’m sure our upcoming taekwondo tournament will be filled with stressful incidents–cookies and crackers too. None of this bullshit is worth losing sleep over although I will have to remind myself of that every time I obsessively weigh myself or get angry at a referee’s decision or if I ever decide to date again. Cookies and crackers, all of it.

The moral of the story: Just have fun, try to be nice to people, and especially be nice to yourself. At then end of all of this I’m still me, and I’m awesome whether I succeed or fail. So are you.

Turning Lemons Into Limoncello


Last week I took the second worst yoga class of my nineteen-year practice. Taking yoga at gyms rather than a traditional yoga studio has always been a crapshoot. I have had some incredible teachers over the years. I have also had some who weren’t great. Thankfully I learned enough from the incredible teachers to recognize the difference. Although it was a pitiful class, it offered a great learning experience in patience, self-reliance, and making the best of a disappointing situation.

The worst yoga class I’ve ever taken was about a year or so ago. It was taught by a woman who was subbing for my regular Saturday teacher. She seemed like an aerobics instructor who had tacked on a weekend yoga workshop so she could teach more classes at the gym. Between the snarky, possessive comments she made about her poor whipped husband in front of the entire class and the bitchy, sarcastic little jokes she muttered every fifteen seconds I was unimpressed. After a few squats, lunges, and other ridiculous dance-y moves that weren’t any asanas I’d seen before I rolled up my mat and left.

This time I didn’t leave although I kinda wanted to. The woman teaching the class seemed very sweet, sincere, and also insecure, so I thought it would be bad form to walk out  on her…even when I realized with horror that she was playing a Celine Dion album in its entirety I didn’t want to be rude and storm out. It wasn’t downright horrible. It just wasn’t a yoga class. It wasn’t well organized, had no logical flow, and no explanation of “poses” (if you could call them that) to those who were new to yoga. Interestingly enough she did ask if anyone knew the Running Man and Peacock poses. Does every white woman in a pair of Lululemons make those poses a life goal or something? I quietly got my Crow on and silently willed her to focus on the basics, which she didn’t have much of a grasp of. Y’all, we didn’t even do savasana.

So I stuck it out for an hour. I decided that I would make it a good class for me and what my mind and body needed. I took full advantage of the opportunities to stretch and release my sore muscles that I had abused the day earlier in the dojang. I reminded myself to not let my thoughts wander or become impatient. Whether it was yoga or just a disjointed stretch class led by a very inexperienced teacher, this was the time for me to be quiet with no distractions–no phone, no computer, no TV, no taekwondo, no emails, no housework. Perhaps this was even better than a more traditional yoga class because it forced me to face head-on what was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

And before anyone jumps on my back for being a judgmental, anti-Yogic, ahimsa-eschewing snob…no, I’m not. I don’t think that woman was a bad person or even a bad teacher. She was trying her best with the information and experience she had. What she taught just wasn’t appropriate for the situation, and I have the right to point that out, which I did to the gym staff after the class was over. Call it a stretch class or relaxation class, but don’t call it yoga. Calling it yoga would be very misleading to those who are new to the practice.

My favorite yoga teacher might counter me and say, “But, don’t you realize, Melanie, that IS yoga.” In a way, he would be right. Yoga is not a fancy pose or a pair of fashionable stretch pants. It’s the union of body, breath, and mind. That union could take place in an ashram or standing in line at the grocery store. Yoga begins and ends within.

So what’s the lesson to learn from this? Sometimes in life we don’t get what we expected or thought we signed up for. We find ourselves in situations that may be somewhat familiar but are still Bizarro, uncomfortable versions of what we’re used to. We may have to adapt and change more quickly than we wanted. We may have to take the initiative to make the best of a situation without the guidance of anyone else. I will not return to this woman’s class, but I will remember the challenge it presented to me to take charge of an unpleasant situation and make the most of it.

What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!


A few days ago I was meeting with one of my coaching clients, a nurse manager at a mid-size hospital. We were joined by a nursing student who was shadowing my client for a business class. My client mentioned a thought provoking question her student had asked:
“What’s your span of control?” My client’s even more thought-provoking answer made me pause.

“I thought about it,” she said with a chuckle, remembering her conversation, “And I said…Nothing! Nothing is really in my control!” She relies on her employees, her boss, physicians, the budget, the executives, the larger healthcare system. She recognized that she didn’t work in a vacuum. I thought that was a very poignant and self-aware answer to a seemingly innocuous question.

“Isn’t that refreshing?” I said with a smile. “You’re only in control of your emotions, your reactions and actions, your thoughts.”

I thought about her response as I walked through my neighborhood this evening, enjoying the cool autumn air and still-warm Texas sun as I strolled along the winding side streets. Nothing matters, not really, not in the big scheme of life, at least not most of the things we worry about. Nothing is permanent, and as George Harrison said, “All things must pass,” which is a relief and a little heartbreaking too. The more pressure we put on ourselves to control the outcomes and be perfect, the more disappointed we end up being. We must let go.

Nothing mattered to me at the moment but the breeze against my face and the setting sun on my back. I had no worries, no obligations, no regrets, no control except putting one foot in front of the other. And then I got back home…

It’s easy to forget that nothing matters–not really–when worry creeps in. I’m fairly detached from what society would guess would be my larger worries (job insecurity, lack of relationships) and instead am haunted by all those little things: guilt over seemingly insignificant actions, secret regret over what I let go of too quickly and what I held onto for too long, the itching scars of old grudges and deep wounds, angst over things I did and things I didn’t do, the relapse of body image struggles, loneliness I refuse to acknowledge, and a lurking feeling of listlessness and dread. Those are the things that slither into my brain when I have crawled into bed and am no longer protected by all my superficial methods of occupying my mind.

Of course as I’ve said many times before, the best place for me to clear my mind, focus on what’s important, and let go of needless and damaging attachments is in the dojang. Taekwondo gives me a quiet and mindful outlook. Even as I am practicing what has become the most important and fulfilling piece of my life, I feel a sense of lightness I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. The only thing I’m in control of is me: my emotions, my thoughts, my body to an extent although lately it has overridden some of the things my brain wants it to do…and hitting shit seems to make my endorphins soar, so maybe that’s part of it.

When you realize your span of control isn’t as grand as you thought it’s somewhat freeing. You don’t have to shoulder your burdens alone, and when you put them down for a moment you may even realize that you don’t need to put certain burdens on your back anymore. You are simultaneously surrendering and being more powerful than you ever were when you held on (too) tightly to things you thought would make you happy or solve your problems. Things always seem to work out when you back off a bit and when you stop beating yourself up over every misstep.

I really want to get to that point of being one of those old broads with “zero f*cks left to give.”

Nothing matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Everything is impermanent. Our span of control is not what we think it is. We are not responsible for solving everyone’s problems. The worry, guilt, regret, and anger that gnaws at us will pass if we don’t hold onto it as tightly as it tries to hold onto us. The more we worry about everything the more we miss out on the beautiful parts of life.  I can’t beat myself up for mistakes I’ve made in the past anymore than I can worry about disappointing my instructors with a crummy jump spin kick or a hesitant self-defense technique. None of it matters–not really, not even taekwondo. And once I recognize that I can actually start to enjoy everything. If I have to remind myself of that every day I will.

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 How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress.


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, has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!