Improvement Right Under My Nose

luxury yacht

“It’s spelled Raymond Luxury-Yacht, but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.'”

Last night was one of the best classes I’ve had in several weeks. I had been a little discouraged lately because classes have consisted mostly of me and little kids, maybe a teenager or two if I’m lucky. Being the only (or one of the only) adults in class for long stretches of time can be discouraging and makes me forget why I signed up in the first place. While I enjoy watching the little ones flop around I get hungry for a challenge and intellectual stimulation. I’ve also been dealing with a slew of grown-up stressors, and it’s been very tempting to tumble down the slippery slope of skipping class.

Apparently the Universe heard my wish although it didn’t start off great. I dragged myself to Monday night class after seriously considering staying home and curling up on the couch, got annoyed at a cut on my knee that decided to start gushing blood once I slipped on my snow-white dobok pants (nothing a little Shout spray can’t remove), and I had to take longer than usual to get my mind out of the real world and into the dojang. Last Friday I could barely keep it together. Trying to learn my new form palgwe pal-jang was not helping. I’ll add it to the Poomsae Series once I actually learn the damn thing.

To my delight there were five black belts (three adults, two teens) and an adult bo dan in attendance in addition to the two brave little green belt regulars who do a great job keeping up with the “big kids.” Our instructor was a seasoned sixth dan whose quiet soft-spoken nature makes his demands seem all the more sadistic. We kicked, slid, punched, and jumped for the entire class. Try doing 360 roundhouses all the way across the floor, but don’t switch sides—just do one side all the way across the room…see what I mean? I was spotting the wall like a ballerina doing an unholy number of pirouettes. We were all stumbling into each other by the end. He just watched us with a smile and made us do it again.

When I had a moment to catch my labored breath and mop my beet-red face I smiled. I’ve made a lot of progress and forgot to tell myself!  My spin kicks have finally gotten respectable (at least on the right side), and my hook kicks shoot out with a satisfying pop. My balance is more solid, and my speed has improved. Even when I’m running low on steam I can still maintain decent technique and focus. Sometimes when I’ve gone on a short hiatus from physical activity such as swimming (I’m talking weeks, not months) I come back stronger and refreshed. I haven’t missed weeks of taekwondo—only a class here and there, but I’ve been less mentally engaged and my non-taekwondo physical conditioning has significantly dropped. In light of other things taekwondo just wasn’t at the top of my mind.

I don’t recommend going AWOL on classes to see improvement. Once in a while, though, the best way to get over a plateau is to take a deep breath and take a break. Don’t forget to come back, though! Last night’s class was a good reminder of why I rejoined the ranks, how much I love doing taekwondo, and how much I really need it to keep me going. It makes me a better person inside and out, AND I was able to justify eating a leftover hot dog after class since I had burned all those calories.

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

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

  1. Changed my graduate school major to Library Science – I had just graduated with an oh-so lucrative degree in English with no internships and little more than clerical work experience. I had no freaking idea of what I wanted to do so I just put off life by going to graduate school. I like to write so I thought I’d try journalism. The journalism majors I met seemed like arrogant yet dorky combinations of English and theater majors…think about it for a second and it will make sense. I was never as eager or as hungry as my classmates. Then 9/11 happened. I realized that I didn’t want to be that close to the action, so after panicking and dropping my journalism classes I changed my major to library science and started a new career.
  2. Accepted a job at the company where I now work — Ten years ago I was working for a major oil company right as I was finishing the MLS degree. I was gaining great experience and will always be grateful to that company for that…but it was getting old. It was the most lonely place I’d ever worked, and this is coming from an introvert. “Something’s got to give,” I thought and began sending out resumes. Right when I had given up I received an unexpected phone call from my soon-to-be new manager.  I was young and dumb and didn’t realize how fortunate I was to get a job with a nice benefits and retirement package plus exactly the direction I wanted to go in my career–medical librarianship. Thankfully lucky stars were watching out for my dumb ass.
  3. Got an MBA – Kind of an impulsive decision, but it helped boost my career and get me to item #4. I had gone through a devastating breakup with someone I had hitched all my hopes and dreams to–never a good idea. He was in the process of pursuing an MBA, something I’d never given thought to before.  I did not go all Elle Woods and follow him to his school; I’m not a stalker. I am thankful though that he indirectly put the idea in my brain. I was also starting to get a little stagnant in my career. I “saw the writing on the wall,” as they say and didn’t see much room for change or growth in my department. I went for it and slogged through three-and-a-half years of very long weekdays and driving home in the dark. I wasn’t that great of a student and knew I’d never truly be a “business” person, but thanks to the MBA and other factors I was able to snag a job within the same company in a new department and new industry with many more opportunities to grow professionally and financially.
  4. Bought a house – This was also an impulsive decision but was grounded in such an odd sense of calm and resolution that I’m not sure if the inspiration to do it came from me or a greater source. My parents had moved from my childhood home and their residence of thirty years, which was very emotional for all of us. During that summer I had given up on two very toxic people in my life. It was an emotional year. I was ready for a fresh start and a new phase in my life. I was okay with renting if I didn’t find the right place–I was very much in the law of attraction / letting go groove that fall. One night in my dreadfully boring finance class I was playing with a home finder app. “Okay,” I thought, “That’s it. I want a condo or townhouse in THIS neighborhood under THIS amount. If I can’t find it I’ll stay in my apartment.” That night I found an adorable little place in my dream neighborhood, and it had only been on the market for four days. There weren’t even pictures online yet. That weekend my realtor and I put in a bid. I’m typing this from my little dream home right now.
  5. Started taekwondo after a 22 year hiatus — My head wasn’t screwed on right in early 2013. I’d had a string of breakups with men who weren’t right for me in the first place. I let them carry my fragile hopes and dreams and since that of course wasn’t their responsibility, the pieces slipped through their fingers and shattered. I was a wreck and felt like a huge loser and a failure. Most evenings were spent in tears. I wanted to immerse myself in something good and healthy, something that was purely for me and no one else. TKD had always been in the back of my mind. I just needed a shove to go through with it. Next year I’ll test for my black belt.

It often takes a tragedy for people to soften their hearts towards each other. (Remember how nice and helpful everyone was for a month or so after 9/11? It didn’t last but still…) It often takes a swift kick in the pants or a scrape along the sticky floor of “rock bottom” for people to get their act together and make positive changes in their lives. I’m a little sad that it took being pushed to my emotional breaking point to make such dramatic and positive changes in my own life. Sometimes it takes learning lessons the hard way to motivate us to change.

I’m currently in a stressful place in my life. Last night in class I nearly teared up with the frustration of learning my new form. The form wasn’t really the problem as much as the threat of my little snow globe of a life being shaken up again. Two of the closest people in my life have opportunities to move on to bigger and better things. I am watching them grow and wondering if I am doing the right thing or I have become comfortable in a gilded cage. Things are going to get emotionally tough very soon. My life is going to be shaken up. I am prompted to deal with it through starvation and sleeping pills, which isn’t a bad way to combat holiday eating. Giving in to the pain is actually quite comforting–you don’t have to think. But that will keep me in a helpless state of despair, and once again I’ll reach my breaking point. What will it prompt me to do? Make a major change? Maybe. Or it might encourage me to be more present in my fears and ambitions, to let go of some of the worries that grip my throat and punch me in the kidneys. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If I can just make it to class next week I’ll be okay.

What Does a Black Belt Look Like?

taekwondo_female_black_belt_t_shirt-r448f00567fa04f68a087add61c414c18_8nhmm_512“Yer too purty to be a lah-barrian,” a man at the gym said many years ago (I live in Texas, hence the accent). I was a medical librarian in my past career. No, it does NOT mean I filed people’s medical records. I was a straight-up librarian in a large hospital system, and my main duty was conducting research for the clinical staff. I got to research cancer treatments, surgery, nursing care—if blood and guts were involved I was pulling articles about it. When I found myself thumbing through a dermatology journal while eating a messy hamburger and not gagging I knew I had arrived.

Being a librarian was being part detective, part consultant, and part puzzle-master. With that job, however, came the burden of the decades-old stereotypes of librarians. I was afraid to wear my glasses or put my hair up lest people point and say, “Ha HA! I caught you looking like a librarian.” The “anti” librarians all seemed to be riddled with tattoos and piercings and wrote Harry Potter fan fiction, and that wasn’t me either. Don’t even get me started on all the guys with who made the “hot librarian” jokes. Ugh. I always felt like I was walking the thin line of validating society’s stereotype or disappointing people for not fitting their ill-informed mold. It was just a job, not who I am.

Some things, though, do shape who we are in addition to what we “do.” Taekwondo re-entered my life when I was in the midst of a crisis. I had completely lost faith in my capabilities and the fragile sense of self-worth that I had slowly built up over the years. For a long time I had been clinging to external sources of comfort—work, relationships, education, material possessions, appearance—hoping my “success” in those areas would prove to the world that I do deserve to continue breathing air. We know what happens when we place all our eggs in the “external stuff” basket. Coincidentally, when I stopped taekwondo as a child I started to lose who I was and what I enjoyed and instead began clinging to external sources of validation, especially approval from other people. Fast forward twenty years. I still felt like a huge unlovable failure. Sometimes we have to die to our external selves in order to truly begin to live.

When I started hanging around martial artists I noticed something—they were very comfortable in their own skin, no matter their age, gender, shape, or size. Even if their skill wasn’t top notch they enjoyed what they did and how they felt. They were respectful, kind, and very funny and easygoing when they weren’t barking orders. Their “vibration” was very high, for those of you who subscribe to the Law of Attraction. Recently one of my classmates was awarded his black belt. While soft-spoken and always smiling, even the instructors are afraid of his hard hits and swift throws. He is sixty-seven years old. If he can do it I can do it too.

I started figuring out that being a black belt wasn’t just about performing all the right moves or dominating in a sparring match. Taekwondo is just as much mental as it is physical, and the effects have followed me out into other parts of my life. Things don’t bother me as much as they used to anymore. I don’t get as caught up in the external trappings of life as I used to. I see some of the teens in my class who have black belts but don’t act like it. They’re mouthy and lack heart. At a recent tournament I saw countless examples of blatant cheating and arrogance by “seasoned” black belts. They might be able to perform beautiful forms or throw fierce kicks in a fight, but they lacked the calm humility and quiet confidence of a true black belt. Meanwhile one of my favorite little yellow belt students keeps coming back to class every week to try her hardest and never loses her determined smile. She beats any of those young men in displaying the Black Belt Mindset.

I’m little. I have skinny wrists. I’m at the age where lack of sleep shows up on my face, and it isn’t pretty. I may get my ass beaten to a pulp in a fight. I can’t always think of the right thing to say. I still get angry and I still cry once in a while. So what? I’ve gained so much confidence, trust, and faith in myself through taekwondo and other means of self-development that I feel like a new person, like the real me is starting to shine through. I won’t test for my black belt until another year or so, but I feel like the biggest hurdle has already been crossed—the sparring match with my own doubt, guilt, and fears. Sometimes they come back to challenge me, but these days I can usually beat them back into the shadows in round one. In the yoga world we talk about taking our practice “off the mat” and into our daily lives. The same thing can be said for taekwondo—we might only wear our belts in the dojang, but our attitude encircles our hearts and minds every day.

Back in the Groove…Kinda

rock-n-roll

Last night I went to class after being absent for a week. I had spent the past several days focusing on another important aspect of my life that needed attention. It was exhausting and anxiety-ridden and ultimately very beneficial. Focusing so much attention on that aspect of my life, however, made me wonder what the point was of the other areas on my life wheel. Ever since I had too much thinking time on my hands at the last belt test I’ve been in a mini existential crisis. I’ve probably also been under the influence of a bonus mini depression, but that’s just par for the course. Needless to say the last several days I’ve been under a lot of emotional and physical stress.

It would have been so easy to stay home Monday night in my sanctuary, my fortress of solitude, and huddle up on the couch with leftovers and Netflix. It’s finally getting chilly in Texas, and nothing beats a chilly night like a warm blanket and someone to snuggle with. My partner in crime was feeling the same way, but we’re also pretty good accountabilibuddies when it comes to our martial arts, so he went to jiu jitsu and I went to taekwondo.

At first I was a little discouraged at the small number of students and wondered if I was better off at home with my TV. As usual it turned out to be fun and a great way to put my mind on pause and do something that flips my frown upside down within seconds…even doing those f-cking awful duck walks. Sometimes I stop and observe myself from the outside, jumping around in a white uniform, kicking and screaming, and usually the only adult among a group of kids. It is both hilarious and awesome and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Oh, you had a hectic day at the office and got stuck in traffic? Fabulous, go do a flying snap kick and see if that doesn’t shift your focus.

A reader reminded me that I challenged the world with the question “Are you a taekwondo person?” I was really pointing that question at myself. Lately it has been so tempting to give up on everything (and I mean everything), shut down, and just coast through the days on autopilot under the hazy smog of depression. It’s not a pleasant state of mind to be in, but it’s comfortable. It’s also not very fun. I’m looking forward to going back to class soon. Hopefully my short hiatus is over.

I don’t feel like I am out of the dark woods of the dark night of the soul yet. What’s comforting is that I have more coping tools than I’ve ever had before.

Quiet Storm – The Poomsae Series Part 7

peace-in-the-stormThe Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

I am crushing on Palgwe Chil Jang. It’s as beautiful as it is forceful and brutal. The form begins with a defiant glare and a powerful double low block. We then weave through a series of meticulously placed blocks, kicks, strikes, and a crazy spinning low block until we gracefully slide back into the starting position with a vicious punch and the same steely glare.

As dynamic as this form is Palgwe Chil Jang more than any other brings a sense of quietness to my movement and my thought processes. I wondered if that state of mind is possible outside of choreographed and carefully performed movement. There is clutter in our work and home environments, in our actions, and in our minds. We let our focus be easily seduced by “multi-tasking” and end up getting so far off track we forgot what we originally set out to do.

Being mindful and present is easier said than done. I’ve been trying it for years, and the most I can get is a fuzzy sense of presence that wavers in and out of focus. The advice you typically find on mindfulness is savoring every bite of food, meditating, de-cluttering on a literal or metaphorical level, and noticing sensations in the body. They’re helpful actions and can temporarily snap you back into what Eckhart Tolle calls being “awake,” but if the underlying habit isn’t there the tiny efforts will be disconnected pieces of good intention rather than a connected thread of practice.

Being mindful and intentional in movement means I was finally patient enough to master caramelizing onions and took the time to let my home-done manicure set (not at the same time I was cooking onions). Not being mindful and intentional means I dropped a container of parmesan on the floor when I was rushing to make my salad for lunch and then had to sneak past the security guards in the office building because I forgot my work badge. Less is more.

Taekwondo has been a great vehicle for quieting the mind. The threats of falling over or being hit in the face are pretty good motivators to pay attention, but they don’t always apply outside the dojang. What’s worked best for me is just making a promise to myself to be mindful (or at least give it a shot) and to declare my brain, body, surroundings and actions a clutter-free zone. It requires constant reminders and refocusing, but it’s working. I don’t get all bent out of shape as much. I’m a lot more content AND I have a much more organized closet.

Are You In?

quitting

“So…then you’re not a taekwondo person?” my instructor said coldly as he raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips. Eric*, a sixteen-year-old black belt who uses his intellect to make sarcastic comments and talk back rather than improve his martial arts skills, was sighing and complaining about a minor injury and was accepting none of my instructor’s encouragement to keep coming to class and doing his best. “You can at least come here with the taekwondo spirit: fall down seven times, get up eight. You need to set a good example for these new green belts.” The two young freshly minted green belts fidgeted in the back, wide eyed and wondering if anyone was going to erupt.

I have seen Eric erupt. He stormed out of sparring class spewing obscenities and swearing he was DONE with everything. He doesn’t know that I have housed those same volcanic demons longer than he’s been alive. Those are the same demons who told me that no one understood, that life was pointless, that the only way to react to the world was with a combination of anger and shutting down. I have learned how to tame them.

Lately, though, I have wanted to shut down on everything, not just taekwondo. I had a lot of time to think during last week’s never-ending color belt test, and it sent me into a bit of an existential crisis. I don’t think it was the demons whispering in my ear, and I don’t think it’s burnout with tkd or work or anything else. I’m just hitting “pause,” looking around, and wondering if this is all worth it. It’s something my busy and questioning mind likes to turn over and examine every once in a while.

Months ago I was struggling to find the point of this blog. Lately the same thought has flashed across my mind on a grander scheme. What’s the point of all of this, of any of this? Why am I here? Is this my life? If I think about it too much I’ll turn into that David Byrne song: “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!” I started to wonder if taekwondo would go the way of my other hobbies.

“You started doing this so you would’t be afraid, right? Don’t be afraid of this” another instructor said, coaxing me to hit harder as I was practicing turning back side kick. I was turning too much and letting my bent leg fly out too far, which threw me off balance and diluted the power of the kick. “It’s not a matter of being afraid,” I laughed. “It’s muscle memory.” I was actually a little offended by his question but later wondered if it had some truth to it. I didn’t start taekwondo because I was afraid of muggers or street gangs. I started taekwondo because I was losing myself. I was giving up and giving in after fighting so hard to become a better person. I was erupting and shutting down at the same time. I needed a drastic change. I wanted to tap into that steely independence and confidence of my long-buried eleven-year-old self who just wanted to draw cartoons, listen to the Beatles, and go to taekwondo class and didn’t care what other people thought. So maybe I did start taekwondo because I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my steam, my drive, and my newly found enjoyment of life. I was afraid of erasing all the hard work that I had done to uncover who I really am.

A taekwondo person doesn’t give up. A taekwondo person deals with failure and disappointment with grace and determination. A taekwondo person doesn’t erupt or walk away. A taekwondo person gets back up.

I’m in. Bring it on.

*Name changed

Can We Pause for a Change? – The Poomsae Series Part 6

change leaf

The Poomsae series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

My favorite yoga teacher often says “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He will sometimes offer a variation on it: “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Palgwe Yuk Jang is all about change. It starts off inconspicuously enough with a standard knife-hand block, snap kick, and punch. Okay, I can do this. I’ve done it a million times.

Then you’re asked to do a funky knife-hand high block AND simultaneous knife-hand neck strike, oh, and THEN leap towards the front and land in a cool-ass little cross footed stance, and be sure to yell and give it some glamour. Oh yeah I almost forgot, you don’t end facing the right as usual. After a few blocks and kicks to the back you pivot menacingly towards the front and like a viper paused to strike, ending in a back stance and double knife-hand block. Dare I say this form is sexy.

Hold up, WHAT? We never did that stuff before!

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” – Tuli Kupferberg.

Oohhhhhh.

Palgwe Yuk Jang is a ticket to red belt, which is a pivotal change in the career of the taekwondo student. This form carries with it the pressure and responsibility the transition to red belt entails. The complexity of the form pushes the practitioner to perform at a higher level of precision and creative interpretation (as much creative license is allowed by a very strict and traditional martial art).

What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.