Didn’t He Say “Ease Off”??

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I should have taken my yoga teacher’s advice. I’m burned out.

I really knew I was burned out when in a matter of days I suddenly felt disgusted by three things I enjoy very much: Greek yogurt, eye makeup, and taekwondo sparring.

I could barely swallow the last few bites of the yogurt I was eating for my snack yesterday. Everything about Greek yogurt made me sick–the gloppy texture filling my mouth, the icky sweetness, how I had to kind of half-chew and half-swallow at the same time because that’s how you have to eat yogurt. I was completely grossed out.

As for eye makeup–I didn’t wear any last Tuesday for personal reasons and amazingly made it through the day without hearing “You look tired.” Everything about eye makeup made me sick–the way my eyes water and burn by the end of the work day, the dry mascara flecks on my cheeks, the infuriating way it seems to take days to wash off the last vestiges of it before I have to start all over again. When the shock of seeing my two bare blue eyes squinting back at me wore off I thought I might try it again. I worked my way down from eye shadow and liquid liner to just eyeliner pencil and by the end of today I was so annoyed at how sloppy the half-melted eyeliner looked that I rubbed that off my otherwise bare lids.

Sparring was something I learned to love as an adult. Just as I challenged myself to enjoy “The Scarlet Letter” in college after hating it in high school (try reading it again; it is a delightful, twisted, voyeuristic melodrama) I decided to embrace sparring after hating and dreading it so much as a child. Sparring brings out the best and the worst in the taekwondo practitioner. It is a true test of skills and literally thinking on your feet. Everything we learn is applicable to sparring and by extension, ‘real life.” Sparring is as authentic and raw as you can get in the dojang.

Just as I seemed to get worse with my side kicks on Monday, my sparring was abysmal tonight. I just couldn’t move. I was so unmotivated. My brain understood everything I was supposed to be doing, but my body shut down. It just wouldn’t do it. Whenever I’ve learned something very physically demanding (dance, classical guitar,  &$%# spin kick) there’s always about a 6 month delay between what I’m being directed to do and what my body actually does. I was so frustrated with myself that I froze completely.

When my sparring deteriorates (it’s not great to begin with), the healthy aggression I feel towards my opponent turns inward to a more sinister, poisonous self-directed aggression. I become very frustrated with myself and spend the rest of the match just defending myself as best I can (which isn’t much) and praying for it to be over. Here’s a rough transcript of the ticker tape that started flowing across my brain: “Failure. Fraud. Liar. Why did I tell my family and friends and coworkers that I’m training for my black belt? I fight like a white belt. I’m embarrassing myself. I look so clumsy and stupid. All I’m doing is scooting around taking on kicks full-force. I keep making the same mistakes! I don’t even deserve the rank I have–why did they give it to me?? Now I’m going to look like a huge idiot who was all talk and no action. You should walk out of the class and never come back.”

Here’s what I can do well: I can kick the air, perform a memorized set of pre-determined moves, and break stuff. I can think of no better response than this:
Matt-Foley-Motivational-SpeakerThat’s like bragging about having an advanced vocabulary of Spanish words but when put to the test you can’t carry on the simplest of conversations or even halfway keep up with any telenovelas, which aren’t known for their rich and eloquent dialogue. Yeah, I really deserve a black belt. Ha.

I considered going home and skipping the second class. Why let my negativity spoil everyone else’s evening? If I couldn’t give my all could I give anything? I didn’t want to do that to my instructors or classmates. They have no idea what taekwondo and by extension they have done for me. I owe them my life. I was falling apart at the seams two years ago, and if you’ve read other blog posts (and you HAVE, RIGHT??) you know the amazing life lessons I’ve gleaned from taekwondo. It was a group effort. There is so much love and support in that dojang it seems a little ironic that we willingly (and for the most part joyfully) beat the crap out of each other on a regular basis.

On the other hand, the second class is always small. What if only one or two students decided to stay? It wasn’t fair to ditch them like that. I’m glad I stayed. I ended up having a very pleasant evening working with a new red belt on his form and one steps although I don’t think he was having as good a time as I was. Learning how to teach is a part of black belt training, so my instructor would give me some guidance and then walk away, leaving me to try it out on a live victim. I work with adult learners, so I forget that giving feedback like, “I’m not really seeing the transition between your stances” to a blinking, frowning ten-year-old doesn’t do much good.

After I got home and closed my front door I rested my head against it for a moment and sighed. While my terrible performance really did upset me I felt a nagging unease about the underlying cause. This was just a symptom. There is still a tiny burrowing part of me who is a self-loathing perfectionist who doesn’t believe I’m “worth it,” whatever that means. That was tough to swallow after all the hard work I’ve done and exponential growth I’ve experienced over the past few years.

I don’t know if I can handle going to sparring class next week. I feel like I’m getting worse and worse. I think I need to follow my own advice and listen to my body and mind’s needs. They are saying, “CHILL! REST! Listen to us or you will burn out for good! Didn’t you read your own last damn blog post??” I am so sick of my one-steps and hand-to-hand techniques. Instead of going to bed early I am spending my evening nursing surprisingly painful welts on my elbow that will likely get a few snotty side-eyes at a black tie event I’m attending next week (but I’ll look smoking in my dress so who cares). I want a quiet evening to myself again.  I had to cut a big chunk out of the ball of my foot thanks to a ripped callus that is growing deeper and bloodier. I’m sad that something I love has become more trying that it is enjoyable.

There’s hope though. Whenever I take a break from swimming I come back stronger, more vigorous, smoother, and more powerful. Maybe the same will happen with taekwondo. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do next week. Whether I show up or not my love and dedication to taekwondo remains the same. If I’m absent it doesn’t mean I’m not coming back or that I don’t care. It means I need to do right by it and by me by giving us both a rest.

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So Just Chill Till the Next Episode

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“To surrender,” my yoga teacher said as he looked around the dark room at our upturned faces, “you sometimes first have to build heat.”

It was my first yoga class in about a month. When asked about my long absence I gave the ubiquitous answer of “I had things going on” with a Robert De Niro-esque shrug. I did have things going on (laundry doesn’t fold itself), but that wasn’t the entire answer.

Sometimes I avoid my practice on purpose when I am dealing with tricky issues or need some mental downtime. As I’ve said in previous posts, my mind does not shut off and focus in yoga the way it does in taekwondo. About halfway into the practice my mind quiets down, but for the first thirty minutes thoughts bounce around in my head like a racquetball. When a sticky issue is top of mind it likes to crab-walk down my spine as I dangle in forward fold, crawl into my ear and whisper, “Let’s think about THIS.” It’s even worse when I try to meditate on my own or using guided meditation. And you know what? I just don’t like meditation—there, I said it. Revoke my hippie card.

My reluctance to surrender to my practice reminds me of when I did some individual coaching sessions for a team about two years ago. One of my clients, a young woman I’d known for years, said she had put off meeting with me for quite some time because she knew a sticky issue would probably come up. We peeled back layers carefully, and by the end of our session she was relieved that she had finally talked about it and figured out how to address it.

It felt fantastic to be back to yoga. My body unfolded into the poses as if I were smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper on a cool kitchen counter. The old familiar pinching pain in my left shoulder was gone (perhaps since I hadn’t done yoga in four weeks) so the million chaturangas we always do didn’t have to be modified. About halfway into the practice my mind was finally quiet.

My teacher continued his original thought as he gently tugged my arms up and away into a fuller expression of locust pose.

“When you think you’ve reached your end,” he said, “Notice the tension in your body…and ease off.” He lowered my hands an inch. “It’s a life lesson. When you hit a plateau in your practice or your work or relationships…just ease off a bit…and then you can get back into it.” He released my hands, and my arms and legs felt twice as long as they floated to the ground. It was just what I needed to hear after mulling over the burnout I had been experiencing.

Plateaus and burnouts aren’t necessarily bad things if we don’t let them overrun us. They are cues, feedback to us to ease off for a bit in order to rest, recharge, and make any necessary changes. They are an opportunity for us to surrender and let go so the heat we’ve built doesn’t burn us to the ground. A healthy practitioner, no matter the trade, knows when to recognize these cues and surrender to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.

In other words, it’s OK to chill! (After I get home from sparring and red and black belt class)

4/20 Burnout…Wait, It’s Not What You Think!

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When you do something over and over you either become stronger or you break.

Tonight was an extremely small class, so one of the masters worked with me and a younger bo dan on our forms. We walked through it piece by piece, performing each move over and over as we made tiny corrections each time.

“Come over to the wall, let’s work on your side kicks,” he said since there was a side kick in our new form, and it wasn’t quite up to scratch. Side kick is tricky. It’s one of the kicks we learn early on in our training but is one of the most difficult to master. Many students tend to short change side kick by not pulling it back and instead do a weird twist and half-heartedly fall forward into “panic stance” before regaining balance. For the next half hour my classmate and I deconstructed and reconstructed our side kicks, first holding the barre for support, then stepping away and doing “free range” kicks, and then finally hitting bags.

“Go slowly, speed will come over time,” he said. “Get it right first.”

I did the side kick so many times that I actually got worse before I got better. My mind and senses started swimming about the same time my eyes became blurred with sweat. It was that same unnerving feeling of staring at a word or picture for so long that your brain disconnects from the meaning of it. The word begins to seem like it is nonsensical and the picture becomes dissonant shapes. I refused to admit that I was tired (“I’m tired of my low kicks!” was all I would say). I hoped the master didn’t think I was getting frustrated with him or myself. Even though I’m very serious most of the time in the dojang, being there is the highlight of my day. That’s where I’m happiest and most excited. Taekwondo has fundamentally changed who I am for the better.

But the truth is I’m burned out.

I have been living and breathing taekwondo for the last several weeks, especially the weeks leading up to my bo dan test. I need a break. I’m actually looking forward to having company this weekend not just to see my family but also because I will skip Friday classes to spend time with them. I need to get some distance from it, even if it’s only for a few days, before I can go back to it.

When I got home another burning situation I’ve been dealing with hit me with full force. The initial shock was long over. I haven’t cried in a week other than when I watched a World War II documentary all day Sunday and finally lost it when they started playing Mozart’s Requiem. (Who wouldn’t lose it at that point? I will again if I start thinking about it)

So when the tears threatened to well up I focused on the pain in my muscles, tendons, and joints, a pain that is hewn from growth and triumph. It distracted me from the pain in my heart, a pain sprouting from grief and frustration and loss. I was tired of being my own hero all the time and having to tap into every last reserve of my strength. I was tired of kicking and fighting over and over when what I really needed to do was rest. I had to back off so I wouldn’t get burned.

Sometimes what you love can burn you. The trick is recognizing when you need to step away from the deceptive warmth of the flame and rest in the cool quiet darkness for a while.

Week Two of Black Belt Training – Rolos, Man…Rolos

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Oh you won’t stay unwrapped for long, my friend. Enjoy your last moments on earth, Rolos.

Okay so I had a pack of Rolos Tuesday night. And Indian food for lunch on Wednesday.

I told y’all I was going to need some sweets during the next couple of months of amping up my training! Read the post! On the plus side I’d had a very healthy vegetarian lunch that day and a very light dinner. I had gone out to gas up my car and well…somehow I ended up inside the convenience store handing over some change for candy because…Rolos, man…Rolos. What child of the 1980s doesn’t enjoy a pack of Rolos now and then?

Other than the Rolos and the Indian lunch my diet was pretty solid—whole foods with a few protein bars thrown in. My boss has two big jars of candy in his office, so I steered clear when I had meetings with him. Thursday night I went to a happy hour supporting the local arts district, and I didn’t have a drop of alcohol. Hooray! Instead I snacked on treats catered by the hippie organic restaurant in my neighborhood. Then I walked over to the frozen yogurt place because it’s finally warm enough to appreciate a frozen dessert, but I topped my yogurt with tons of fresh fruit instead of the typical chocolate/peanut butter candy crumbles that I like to have with it. (OMG, you guys, what if you could have cut up Rolos on chocolate milkshake-flavored frozen yogurt?? ROLOS. I’m already having withdrawal symptoms.)

As for exercise—I sort of got back into early morning exercise on Friday when I got up a little before 6 AM and did some Pilates with my favorite DVD. I used to be such an early bird, getting up around 4 AM most days to swim, and then I turned thirty-five and my body said, “Nope!” I had two taekwondo classes Friday night. Saturday I lifted weights and did the elliptical. This morning I made it to the gym before 6 AM to swim laps, but apparently last night’s thunderstorm knocked out the power to my gym. Ugh! It’s not raining today so when this post is finished I’ll go for a run and do some yoga and Pilates at home later.

As for habits — I’ve found that the more I sleep in the worse I feel and the harder it is to wake up and drag myself out the door to go to work, so my goal is to get up earlier and stay up—no more 5 minute naps on the couch after I’ve eaten breakfast! Throughout the day I try to work on my “Pilates posture.” I have a tendency to slump forward and lurch my right side forward even more. A strong core is important all around, not just for athletic performance. Plus, it’s getting hot down here in Texas, and bathing suit season is around the corner. I don’t keep dark chocolate in my desk at work any more and amazingly the craving to have a piece of chocolate after lunch every day has finally worn off. I just don’t keep sweets around at home because they are too tempting. If I want something (like, say, a pack of Rolos or frozen yogurt) I go out and buy an individual serving.

And what about taekwondo training? I attended three nights a week, with two classes in a row on two of those nights. I got the hang of my new form, helped a blue tip with his form, figured out what I need to work on in sparring (I instinctively wince and close my eyes when someone’s foot goes near my head, ugh!), got thrown on the floor really hard, and toughened up the bottoms of my feet from lots of sliding. I did have to use an ankle brace, and I thought I was going to get through a whole week without ice packs, but I ended up icing my thighs, knees, and left ankle Friday night.

Oh, and I think I broke my middle finger a few weeks ago, so I’m going to a clinic tomorrow to get it checked out. But I NEEEED that finger to communicate! 🙂

I lost another pound (2 pounds from happy weight!), and have kept off the 2 inches I lost from my waist. The only thing that could derail me from my dreams are Rolos, man…Rolos.

Break Fall

falling-girl-part-02 Wednesday night in red and black belt class we practiced falling. “Don’t drop like you’re dead,” my instructor said to me and the other bo dans after we morosely plopped forward, landing forearms-first on a heavy mat. “Hit your arms against the ground and don’t sink your body into it,” he said, emphasizing his statement by popping his arms. Falling face-forward is scary, but if you know how to protect yourself, you can fall with confidence.

Our falls aren’t passive. In a way it’s similar to the technical aspects of partner work in modern dance and ballet. If you’re the lifter you’re not just muscling up dead weight, and if you’re the one being lifted (or in the case of taekwondo, thrown), you’re not a limp rag doll, even if you are pretending to be a rag doll in some kind of weirdo contemporary dance. You have to think about foot placement, weight distribution, safety, breathing, protecting your back if you’re the lifter/thrower, following silent cues from your partner, and landing so you protect your joints and head.

Anyone familiar with martial arts has probably heard the adage, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Or if you’d like a more modern version of this tenet in the rap song “Still” Dr. Dre says, “Even when I was close to defeat I rose to my feet.” Indeed, Mr. Young, indeed.

Perseverance is one of the guiding principles of taekwondo. It can also be easy to forget in the heat of defeat. Lying passively on the ground can be quite comfortable, but you can’t stay there forever. I encountered a major disappointment over the weekend, and I did have that dark moment of thinking things were never going to get better. But they do. If you’re lucky enough you wake up the next day and are still breathing. If you’re really lucky you can put one foot on the ground and then the other. Falls are going to happen. The trick is to break the fall so they don’t break us. Re-watching “The Big Lebowski” helps too.

Later in the class we played around with some advanced self-defense throws. To demonstrate one of the techniques my instructor hooked his arm around my leg after I’d kicked at him, grabbed my lapel with his other hand, and swiftly threw me to the ground all in a matter of about 3 seconds. I knew it was coming, but I was still a little stunned when I slammed into the mat. It was scary because he threw me so fast and I hit pretty hard, but it was also a little exhilarating. I had survived. I had made it.

Little Black Belt is ONE! A Year in Review…

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Eating cake like a BOSS.

If you’ve completed filing your income tax returns then I’d like to invite you on a retrospective journey through the evolution of this blog—the discoveries, the triumphs, the tears, the deep questions, and most importantly, the jokes. If you haven’t completed filing your income tax returns….what the hell is wrong with you?? Get back to work!!

A year ago today I tentatively uploaded my first blog post “Fear of Flying Kicks.” I didn’t share it with anyone other than whoever might stumble across it on the other side of the internet. For a month I walked around with the secret tucked in my pocket until I shyly told one trusted person about it and then started sharing the posts on Facebook. Since then I’ve gained some followers, and my posts have been very meaningful to them. I’m delighted that my words provided some insight and comfort to others even more than they have been to me. I’ve received a little criticism too, which is just par for the course of sharing one’s thoughts with the world. Most importantly it’s given me a platform to share all the learnings and epiphanies that were bubbling up inside me so ferociously I thought I would burst.

“Does it give you peace of mind?” a coworker asked when I was trying to convince him to enroll his little daughter in taekwondo when she gets older. I was about to go into a long spiel about how it made me more focused, confident, self-aware, etc., but he continued with his question. He was asking if it gave me peace of mind as far as physical safety….oh yeah, there’s that part of it too! I told him if I go through life never having to use it in a real combat situation then I will be very happy. Confidence, staying cool and calm, and making safe choices are my first lines of defense against attack. As far as gaining the other type of peace of mind, something I had been pursuing my entire life—yes, I get that from taekwondo. A thousand times yes. More than I thought was possible.

I came a across a quote on the blog Runs for Cookies. The author shared a weight loss story of a running friend that included this quote:
“Running didn’t change me. It just helped the real me find my way out.” I can say the same for taekwondo. The real me has been dormant for many years and it has literally kicked its way out into the sunlight.

The Best of Little Black Belt
This was tough, but I pared down the list to my ten favorites. Why ten? As the great George Carlin said, ten is a “psychologically satisfying number.” And he said a lot of other things that I can’t write here.
1. Accidental Elle Woods – the one where I discover with horror that my life is the plot of a romantic comedy. NOOOOO!!!!
2. Style Guide for the Fashion-Forward Fighter – the one where I write a funny list about juicing, makeup, and stretch pants
3. Everyday Struggle – the one where I first explore the concept of resistance…and yes, I’m quoting a Biggie Smalls song
4. I Traded Magical Thinking for Martial Arts – the one where I stopped being delusional
5. Sparring with Demons-A Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness – the one where I get super serious
6. I’ve Become the Person I Hated and I Couldn’t Be Happier – the one where I stop thinking I’m fat
7. Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism is So Much Cooler – the one where I delve into the law of attraction and make a sarcastic argument for smoking
8. Back to Basics – the one where shit goes down in yoga class
9. Ain’t That a Kick in the Head – the one where I get some sense knocked into me
10. Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD – the one where my pocketbook and waistline thank me

If you want more on the actual gritty details of taekwondo practice, check out the 8 posts in The Poomsae Series or anything tagged with the categories “Class Diaries” or “Training Tips.”

Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m bowing to you right now, you just can’t see it. 🙂

It’s Raining Men…or, How I Became an Honorary Dude

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Somehow I ended up being one of the guys. My closest friends in both rounds of graduate school were men. I’m the only woman on my work team. All but one of my taekwondo instructors and 80% of my classmates are male. My only sibling is a brother. Even my yoga teacher is a man. I love watching UFC, I know every single Led Zeppelin song by heart, I can out-quote any man on “The Godfather” movies (except my father, and he’s not even the Italian parent), and as a bonus, I do a pretty good Eric Cartman impersonation. And yet, I love purses and shoes, have long hair and delicate features, and am not even close to being a tomboy other than the secret delight I get at how bruised up I am after a night of sparring. How did this happen?

I’m the type of girl that girlfriends and wives are wary of because I get along so well with their men, but I’m no Sanchita*.  (1) That is big no-no territory for me on a moral standpoint (2) If I’m talking to a guy like I’m one of the guys then I’m not flirting. It means I’m NOT interested, and if I suspect unwanted interest from the other party I might even be more of a jock/guy in my conversation just to confuse him and put him off the hunt (not swearing and dirty talk, just the manner and rhythm of speech). I’m so naïve that I never know when a guy is hitting on me anyway unless he blatantly asks me out or someone pulls me aside after the fact to point out what’s really going on.

I missed the girlfriends boat, and I’m a little sad about that since I’m missing out on all the brunches and shopping trips and boozy movie nights or whatever it is that groups of women do, but I don’t mind my chosen lone wolf path. If I ever get married my bachelorette party will be me sitting at home alone eating cupcakes, drinking whiskey, and watching “Goodfellas” for the fiftieth time.

As a child and young adult I always seemed to attract female friends who became possessive bullies. Maybe those unpleasant experiences turned me off from getting close to too many women although the phenomenon unfortunately repeated itself with a few boyfriends until I wizened up. I do currently have a very close female friend who used to work at my company, and we have been through a lot of triumph and trouble together. She’s the exception. I enjoy my female coworkers and get along with them very well, but I haven’t figured out how to translate that female camaraderie into life outside the workplace. There’s a girl I’ve been chatting with before yoga classes, but for me, initiating a friendly hangout with a woman is even more awkward and scary than asking a man out on a date.

The nice thing about the men in my life is that they keep me focused on the task at hand. Not that they don’t express their emotions or reveal their doubts and fears or engage in juicy gossip, but they are less inclined than other women to tempt me into vomiting my emotions all over the floor and indulge in the rabbit hole the mind likes to travel down. Women commiserate. Men communicate (yeah I know, as much as they can anyway). A little side bonus–men don’t make self-deprecating comments about how their lunch was “bad” if they see me eating my weekday go-to meal of roasted vegetables, brown rice, fruit, and boiled eggs or chicken. Ugh, every single freaking day I get praise for “eating healthy” like I invented it.

I’m actually a very expressive, emotional woman. I cry a lot at home alone, but I rarely let anyone see it other than the few who are very close to me. I’ve never cried at work, at least not in front of anybody, and it wasn’t about anything work related. The only time I’ve cried tears from physical pain as an adult is when I had the most horrible headache of my life during a bout of strep throat. Sometimes the kids cry during sparring, but it’s usually due to being startled and scared rather than actually being injured. I fallen pretty hard from botched flying or spin kicks, but I usually just start laughing out of sheer surprise when I hit the ground. I get the crap beaten out of me by bigger teenage boys and men, but I don’t mind. My mantra is that if anyone is really going to attack me on the streets it’s going to be a man, not some petite woman my size unless she is on meth.

Maybe I am drawn towards male friendships because I haven’t figured out how to handle the rich complexities of female friendships. Maybe I subconsciously enjoy being the odd one out and the only alpha female in the room without any competition. Maybe men are just easier to talk to, at least on a superficial level. At some point I may need to rebalance the scale and incorporate more female friendships into my life. Until then I’m going to enjoy not having to be the one pushing around heavy kicking bags and plucking practice pads off the highest shelves.

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sancho
*
Sanchita is the endearing feminine version of “Sancho,” an archetype in Hispanic culture of the dude that is always lurking around trying to steal your woman when you’re not looking. He is the one who always seems to be right there when she needs a shoulder to cry on. Men, you’ve been warned.
Here are some examples:

1) In the 1997 song “Santeria” by Sublime the narrator bemoans the fact that his lady love has run off with a guy named “Sancho.” The name of the cuckolder might very well really be Sancho, but it’s more likely that the singer is using the popular slang term. And he won’t think twice to stick that [gun] barrel straight down Sancho’s throat. And now the song is stuck in your head.

2) The whole premise of the atrocious 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is that Count Dracula keeps Jonathan Harker imprisoned in his Transylvania castle so he can travel to London to woo Jonathan’s fiancée Mina with absinthe and long strolls through the city while he’s playing the act of the shy yet charming foreigner. SANCHO!

3) One day in the lunchroom at work a woman was mooning over the lead guy in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “He’s my Sancho!” she said, looking up dreamily and clutching a picture of him to her chest. I almost spit out my lunch from laughing so hard.