Tick Tock — What Are You Doing With Your Life?

hourglass

A few weeks ago I came across an article on LinkedIn that challenged to reader to think about what’s really important to them. Try it for yourself and see whether your current “priorities” match your dreams.

If I had one week left to live:
I would smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish, eat fast food at every meal, and prank call ex-boyfriends. Why deprive myself if I’ll be dead in a week? Oh and say goodbye to the few people who really matter to me.

The seven deadly sins aren’t much fun when you have more time on your hands so I allowed myself more leeway to do the things I really love to do and wouldn’t make my impending death come faster….

If I had a month left to live:
I’d get in a few more good taekwondo and yoga classes, get my affairs in order, and spend time with the few people who really matter to me. 

If I had a year left to live:
As many taekwondo and yoga classes as possible, trips to places in the U.S. I’ve always wanted to visit (Santa Fe, Hawaii, Miami, Napa Valley), check out all the hole in the wall restaurants in my city, drink really good wine, spend time with the few people who really matter to me.

If I had 5 years left to live:
Advance in my black belt studies, get yoga teacher certification, learn Italian or Portuguese, write a book, travel to South America and Europe. Spend time with the few people who really matter to me. Drink really good wine in every country.

If I had a life left to live:
Ahhh here’s the kicker. I’m still figuring this one out. Time for another good taekwondo class…

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Defending Your Work-Life Balance

work-life-balanceI am coming out of the corporate closet: I don’t buy into the “I’m so busy” culture anymore. More and more it seems to be the cultural norm (preferred in fact) to commiserate about how “swamped” and “exhausted” and “drowning” we are with our work.

The people I have known who put in the most hours seemed the most miserable. They chained themselves to overflowing email inboxes, sighed bitterly when asked to add one more thing “to their plate,” and appeared to have the most disorganized work spaces. Others would see them as dedicated, loyal, hard-working employees. I have no doubt they were but at what cost? Did they lose the rest of themselves in the identity of “employee”? Is the perception of dedication, loyalty, and hard work only granted to those who live to work rather than those who work to live?

If I tell you I’m “soooo busy” it more than likely means that I don’t want to hang out with you or don’t want to do whatever you’re asking me to do, and I am too chicken to say it. My secret’s out.

When I first started my current job four years ago I wasn’t very good at managing my time or my workload. I succumbed to the “urgency” of other people’s menial tasks and last minute changes. I created hours of busywork for myself that never saw the light of day. I would arrive at home with just enough energy to burst into tears of frustration. A few months into the job I discovered the urgency/importance matrix used by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey in the book “7 Habits for Highly Effective People.” It changed my life, and the day after I read about it I posted a defiant little note up on my cubicle: “am in charge of my time and my workload.” I never had a long day of unproductive tear-inducing busywork again.

These days I come to work positive, refreshed, and eager to learn and contribute BECAUSE I don’t let my work impinge on my home life. Ten years in healthcare has taught me not to sweat the small stuff, although I still sometimes fall prey to it. People are literally doing brain surgery and curing cancer around the corner from where I work. That powerpoint presentation you started at 4:55 PM on Friday can wait until Monday. I promise. And if anyone from work is reading this–I have PLENTY to do, don’t worry.

What does this have to do with martial arts?

Getting involved in taekwondo has reminded me that I am worth a lot more than what title is in my email signature or what income is reported to the IRS. The physical challenges and mental frustrations of tkd has given me a deeper sense of determination and accomplishment. Taekwondo has helped me become more responsive rather than reactive. I’m more relaxed, and as a bonus I have something fun to look forward to after 5PM.

During a stressful meeting or complicated project I remind myself that my biggest worry that day will be trying not to get hit in the head during sparring. I remember that I’ll be trading heels for a dobok and making a happy fool of myself doing flying side kicks. Companies are finally starting to recognize the importance of having a happy, healthy workforce. Work-Life balance isn’t the elusive Holy Grail. It’s at your fingertips. If we all step back, take a collective deep breath, and focus on what’s truly important then we can find the balance and sense of purpose we so desperately crave.

Practicing Ahimsa While Kneeing Someone in the Gut — Reconciling Taekwondo with Yoga

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Warrior I asana with fists of fury.

My introduction to yoga was a class called “Get Centered” during my first semester as a college freshman. The instructor was a tiny bird of a woman with hippie white girl dreadlocks and a voice like a dark, cool, quiet bedroom. I was hooked. Yoga has accompanied me through years of education, career growth, relationship struggles and joys, financial independence, and emotional maturity. Even when I skipped class for months and didn’t give yoga much thought it was always in the background patiently waiting for me to come back.

I’m just starting to realize how much of a solid force yoga was in shaping who I am. I always attributed my broad muscular shoulders and upper back to genetics and a lifetime of swimming, but I can’t discount the endless downward dogs and chaturangas I’ve done over the past 17 years. I have been ruled by my emotions, moved like a puppet by volcanic rage and bottomless depression…yet I never truly jumped off the ledge. Something deep inside always caught me by the shirt tail and whispered, “Just hold on. It will be OK.” Eventually that calm still voice overpowered the internal demons.

My boyfriend, a long-time wrestler and purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, began joining me in class, so I get to experience yoga through a fresh set of eyes. Together we celebrate his progress, and it is often his enthusiasm that motivates me to go to class after a long day at work. Seeing how yoga is helping both of us with our respective martial arts leads me to ask: are yoga and martial arts a match made in Nirvana? How can I share my years of yoga experience with my newfound community of martial artists and fighters? Would the yoga community question me for blending their practice of peace with combat sports?

According to the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra living ethically and practicing “ahimsa,” or nonviolence, is the first step of the yoga journey. Ahimsa not only encompasses avoiding physical violence but mental and emotional violence as well. Flipping off a driver on the way home from yoga class can cancel out all the peace and oneness that floated through your blissed out mind during savansana. As a trained fighter with an arsenal of self-defense skills how can I subscribe to two seemingly opposed schools of thought?

Frankly I don’t feel the need to reconcile the two. My childhood taekwondo training prepared my body and mind for yoga as an adult, which in turn has come full circle and enhances my adult taekwondo performance. My yoga and martial arts practices are so intertwined that I have almost screamed “Yes, ma’am!” at a yoga instructor.

On a purely physical level they’re the perfect complements. The core strength and balance required for standing half-moon and warrior III lend nicely to spin and side kicks. Deep hamstring stretches help ward off the nasty tendonitis that can set in for new tkd practitioners. Deep breathing keeps you from passing out during sparring. Eagle pose is a great way to creep out your grandmaster before class.

Yoga is also helpful for calming the mind during a stressful situation. Keeping your cool while a 6’4” 25-year-old punches you in the ribs can be a bit trying. Our natural tendency is to go into fight or flight mode under attack. Oddly enough the most frequent feedback I’ve gotten from my instructors is to….relax.

Both arts emphasize a positive attitude, humility, and respect for others, but the philosophical core is at times more difficult to grasp than the physical practice. Some gym yoga classes are just Pilates with Indian music playing in the background. I doubt the kindergartner white belts are concerned with developing their courage, perseverance, or “indomitable spirit” that serve as the mental foundation of taekwondo. It takes some mental effort, an open heart, and forces larger than ourselves to meld the efforts of our bodies with our minds. Besides, martial artists are some of the most peaceful, level-headed people you could meet. Our hope is that we NEVER have to use taekwondo in an actual fight.

While we don’t lie in savansana at the end of taekwondo class we have our own closing ritual of gratitude and recognition. After a quick meditation we bow, clap, and make our way around the dojang shaking hands and thanking each other for their efforts. It’s like a sweaty prolonged namaste lovefest with the same people who spent the last 20 minutes throwing you to the ground.

Within the next few years I hope to become a certified yoga teacher. My ultimate dream is to build a client base of martial artists and pro fighters. If I am met with skepticism by the yoga certification powers-that-be about marrying my love of martial arts with my yoga practice I will invite them to join me in the dojang with the guarantee that they will feel the same endorphins, mental clarity, and bliss they experience during an intense yoga practice. Plus you get to wear comfy clothes and go barefoot for both, so I’d say that makes them a match made in heaven. 

Taekwondo for the Voting Age Set Part 2

aTaeKwonDoClass

AWESOME

In a previous post I zeroed in on one adult who is braving the taekwondo waters. This time I’d like to share some of the most useful things I’ve learned along my martial arts journey and can hopefully provide some guidance to other adults tkd students.

1. You’re not in as good a shape as you thought you were. Unless you’re a regular Ironman competitor it’s likely that you’re along the spectrum of not-bad-for-your-age to so-out-of-shape-I-get-winded-looking-at-stairs. And that’s okay. Taekwondo will whip you into shape whether you like it or not. Make friends with Epsom salts, naproxen, heating pads, and ice packs. Be prepared to explain suspicious bruises at work.


I didn’t need to lose weight, but I have noticed that I have a more toned upper body, leaner and meaner thighs, and lower ab muscles popping out where Pilates had tried in vain. My stamina for the short bursts of sparring is still weak, but at least these days I’m not absentmindedly walking out the dojang door with half my sparring gear strewn across the floor because I was too exhausted and brain fogged to even notice.

2. You’re never too old to learn and you’re never too young to teach. I hadn’t had much interaction with kids before beginning tkd. At first attending class with the teens and younger children was a jarring. I was frustrated by their whininess and inattentiveness. These days I actually look forward to working with the teenagers. I might be the only adult in their daily life who talks to them like a normal human being. One of my favorite sparring partners is a teenage black belt who patiently coaches me and lets me try out new tricks on him. I find myself turning to kids young enough to be my own children for advice, especially the six-year-old who threw me effortlessly to the ground during one-step practice. (Really, he did). Besides, some of the things they say are hysterical.

3. Priorities may have shifted during flight. Some people start tkd as a way to bond with their kids. Others start it to get in shape or learn self-defense. I started it to save my life, which I chronicled in a previous post. Besides a more fit body a surprising bonus is a more fit mind. I have a clarity, focus, patience, and emotional maturity that I’d never experienced before. I learned to laugh off (and learn from) mistakes and not put so much pressure on myself to be perfect. I pay more attention to the “big rocks” in my life and less time on all the other stimuli and clutter.

4. Your passion can become your purpose. During a team building exercise at work we were asked to describe in three words or less how we would want to be remembered. Without any irony or self-righteousness I simply replied “enlightened.” That’s it. That’s the purpose of this blog—to help others gain confidence and inner peace. Without even trying taekwondo has been an excellent vehicle for quieting my mind and comforting my heart. It’s seamlessly become a part of my life, and I want to share that (and yoga) with others.

5. You see the benefit of the journey, not just the destination.
Getting a black belt isn’t the hard part. Being a black belt carries the weight. This rings true for anything that is important in life—raising healthy and happy children, maintaining physical health, finding inner peace, serving as a positive example to others. Exceeding your limits, overcoming doubt and anxiety, and learning something new every day may be less tangible benefits than a sweet side kick, but it’s just as powerful.

Sparring with Demons – a Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness

demons

Amidst the outpouring of sadness and sympathy over the death of Robin Williams come the inevitable accusations of selfishness and cowardice. Early this morning I heard a woman at work snidely remark that she was surprised it had taken him this long. I had to walk away.

Mental illness is real and it is crippling. Suicide is not a decision that’s taken lightly. It is sought after as a (misguided) way to escape crushing pain and despair. The demon of depression and its many friends are very crafty and very powerful.

Mental illness is all around us and doesn’t conform to society’s stereotype of an unstable or let’s just say it, a crazy person. Some people with mental illness have become masters of disguise, hiding their pain behind successful careers, accomplishments, and relationships. They pay their bills on time, show up to work, and have meaningful interactions with people. But they have to hide their pain in the shadows lest anyone find out.

Unfortunately there is a pervasive and poisonous stigma towards mental illness in our society. People are afraid to seek treatment for fear of being judged as weak, unreliable, or even unemployable. There are thousands of people who need treatment but can’t afford it or it’s not available in their community.

Bias against mental illness has made its way into our everyday vernacular. People are quick to make a quip that someone is “off their meds” or “bipolar” if a person happens to be in a bad mood one day or acts out of character. That is a real disorder that requires proper medical diagnosis, and that person you’re joking about probably doesn’t have it. Apparently we’re ALL “ADD” and “OCD” since we don’t like boring meetings and like our files arranged in a certain way. Those are real disorders that require proper medical diagnosis, and you probably don’t have them. If everyone in the country were truly ADD and OCD and required treatment I would be snatching up stock in pharmaceutical companies as quickly as I could. 

So how can the martial arts community help? There is no one-size-fits-all treatment or coping for the vast array of mental illnesses and disorders. While martial arts are NOT a replacement for clinical treatment they can certainly be an accompaniment. The quieting of the mind through physical practice is profound. Martial arts schools and gyms can provide safe environments with caring and healthy role models for both kids and adults.  Instructors and parents can be on the lookout for children who may be showing early signs of mental problems, and adults who have their own mental or emotional problems can look to martial arts as a way to channel their energy in a positive way and build their self-confidence.

Please stop the jokes and the judgment. People’s lives are on the line, and far too often they lose the battle like Mr. Williams did.

“Good night, sweet prince: and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Taekwondo for the Voting Age Set Part 1

ninja wine glass

Ninja glass! Your wine has vanished before your eyes!

My favorite student in the dojang is Thomas*, an orange-soon-to-be yellow belt. I haven’t had a chance to train with or coach him but I’ve been quietly watching his progress over the past few months. I’ve watched his eyes squint and his brows furrow in concentration as he performs blocks and strikes. Last night I smiled to myself when he breathed a sigh of determination before sparring with one of our black belt instructors.

Thomas is not a precocious six-year-old or an awkward preteen. He is a tall thirty-six-year-old man, and I can’t wait for him to join the advanced classes. I am starved for adult companionship. Other than my instructors and a twenty something red belt I’m usually the only adult in my classes. Unlike Brazilian jiu jitsu, which is literally crawling with machismo, taekwondo tends to attract the kid set.  The children range from space cadets who barely know where they are to quite talented little athletes. While they don’t connect with taekwondo on the deeper spiritual and intellectual levels as the adults do they do reap the benefits of confidence and discipline. The ads on the internet aren’t lying. Put your kids in taekwondo. But you join as well.

According to the black belt instructor Thomas is determined to become a black belt instructor himself. I see his hunger, perseverance, and a willingness to endure pain and frustration to do what he loves. I see a kindred spirit. I really really hope that he don’t give up after green belt, which seems to be the Bermuda Triangle of students. Just once I’d like to hear someone else’s back crackle during warm-ups. I wish I had someone else to roll my eyes at when the teenagers want to “jump over stuff” as a training drill. It’s weird being the one of the few students who can actually drive myself to class.

Thomas is testing for his yellow belt at the end of the month. An older man in the advanced class will test for his black belt in October. I hope that the obligations of work, family, and life in general as an adult don’t overpower the love and dedication for something that has obviously made their lives more meaningful.

Don’t be afraid to start taekwondo or any other martial art as an adult. They were originated and practiced by adults; there’s no reason why today’s adults can’t practice them. If your passion is mountain biking, baking, or painting go do it. Don’t let work and mortgages and the ever present demon of “time” stop you from enriching your life. Besides, why should kids have all the fun?

*Name changed

Life Detox

reset-buttonThe sweet pungent scent of tobacco wafted over my head as I puffed on a Cuban cigar (a gift from a friend) and sipped a fat glass of Gentleman Jack whiskey. It was my last hurrah before a planned detox. Earlier that day I had sanctimoniously stuffed a grocery cart full of fresh produce and told the surfer dude college student cashier about the juice I was going to make. I could say that this little detox (no alcohol, soda, meat, dairy, or processed food for a week or two) is a response to the stubborn 5 pounds that latched onto me around Christmastime, but it goes deeper than that. Frankly, I feel like crap. I’m bloated, my skin is red and splotchy, and I feel like I’m dragging under the salt and sugar and chemicals I’ve greedily stockpiled in my body.

To put things in perspective I still don’t break 120 pounds and I’m in pretty damn good shape for a 35-year-old. This is not going to be some miraculous story of going from couch potato to triathlete any more than my exploration of minimalism is going to result in me selling my condo and wearing only black and grey for a year.

The detox experiment is part of a larger shift in priorities. Over the past several weeks I’ve “detoxed” my home of clutter (some of it, anyway) and have developed an aversion to shopping for mass market cheap goods, clearance sales be damned. I’m less enchanted by the corporate rat race, my passion for yoga has been reignited, I’ve found true community and purpose in taekwondo, I no longer allow toxic “friends” into my life, and I’m finally in a fulfilling relationship. I don’t need to calm my nerves in consignment shops, and I don’t scour job ads on days that I’m pouting about a current project. I don’t care whether someone responds to my facebook posts. I’m more satisfied and still. With that stillness, though, comes a need to protect and preserve it.

I’m not preaching at anyone to make a drastic change if they don’t want to. I just know I was suffocating under the toxic mindset and environment I had created for myself. Will I go back to wine and pizza and hamburgers? Yes. Will I smoke an occasional cigar or hookah? Yes. Will I buy a new pair of shoes? Maybe. Do I need them to make me feel better? Nah. These days I’m enjoying more consistent contentment rather than temporary highs.