The pain in my right hip that flared up three weeks ago seems to have slid around to the backside. While I don’t think it’s sciatica some of the symptoms are the same: pain shooting from what feels like the inner meat and bones of my hip socket down my leg, driving long distances becomes painful to the point that I’m in tears, and it’s only relieved by flicking my leg out from the hip socket so I get a nice loud pop.
In running circles it’s delicately referred to as “high hamstring tendonitis,” so as one can imagine I’ve taken to sitting on an ice pack when I have down time at home. Thankfully the pain doesn’t really stop me from doing much in taekwondo although it’s made me a little more hesitant to go full-out. I had tendonitis in both hamstrings (okay, uh, actually a little higher than my hamstrings) a few months after I first started taekwondo training, and eventually it went away. Hopefully this pain will too.
The most logical solution would be to take an extended break from taekwondo since it’s probably an over-use injury.
That’s not happening. I’ve come too far and my black belt test is too close to drop out for a few weeks. (Yes I know, what if the injury gets worse and I’m out of commission for the test? I’ve considered that too.) So I have some work-arounds: frequent breaks at my office job to stand and walk around; avoiding exercise that’s very demanding on that area (other than all those kicks); lots of stretching and warming up before taekwondo class; doing low-impact stuff like swimming or the elliptical when I do want some extra cardio; and ice packs and anti-inflammatory medicine. The pain is starting to subside, but it’s taking longer than I’d like it to.
So what can we do when we’re faced with something (or someone) that is a royal pain in the ass? Avoid it (or them) completely? Sometimes that’s not possible. What if it’s something you have to do every day as part of your job or home responsibilities? (I’ve never met anyone who looked forward to their work commute, have you?) What if you have to work with that person or worse, live in the same house with them?
Getting angry or venting may feel good for a moment, but it’s a fleeting high. Focusing on what you can control rather than what you can’t can help you regain some confidence in the face of adversity. You feel like you can actually do something about the situation rather than falling apart in despair or consigning yourself to crappiness.
I can’t rip my leg and the right side of my pelvis off (oh what a sweet relief that would be…for about 2 seconds anyway) and I choose not to skip taekwondo, so I’m going to go pop some ibuprofen and sit on another ice pack until class time…
“I’m sorry! I’ve lost my mojo!” I wailed as I clumped and teetered through a series of spin kicks. We had set up what I will now refer to as The Gauntlet: five or six holders stood in a line holding focus pads as each student whirled past, hitting each pad with a spin kick. I thought I was going to get off easy since it was getting late, and we had a large class. I sighed as I was asked to switch pads with another student and was glumly thankful that at least I only had to do the kick on my right side.
I can’t fully describe how awful it was. I kept falling forward, my leg either stayed in a cramped chamber position or flopped out ineffectively. My foot limply tapped the pad or missed it completely. Of course the more upset I became the worse I got. The advice my instructors shouted at me made perfect sense, but my brain and body refused to communicate. Grandmaster gave me such a disappointed and frustrated look that my heart nearly broke.
This should not still be happening. I have been doing spin kick since I was a white belt; I should have it down by now. I have no problem slinging my body upside down in a yoga pose or throwing a powerful every-other-kick-but-spin kick in taekwondo class. Why all of a sudden am I nearly immobilized when asked to do this somewhat basic kick? What the hell is going on??
“Cut yourself some slack,” said a soothing voice in my head. That’s the enlightened part of me that is the calm inside the storm. It’s been growing larger and more powerful over the years, but it has a lot of crap it has to fight through. “How many other thirty-six year old women can do what you do?” it continued. “Look at you, you’re keeping up with the kids like it’s nothing! It’s probably just PMS. That makes you bloated and dizzy. Go home, pout a little, and eat some chocolate. You’ll feel better.” (And to my guy friends who got tricked into reading this far: HA! Made ya blush!)
“Yeah, you’re thirty-six!” said another much more sarcastic voice. This was my ego, the judge who ruled my life for a very long time. I never encountered mean girls in school, but the Queen Bee is alive and well in my head. She’s gotten weaker over time, but she’s still a bitch. “Grow up and stop embarrassing yourself even more by whining and complaining! You’re such a drama queen! Shut up and quit holding up the line!”
I’ve learned that the more tightly you cling to something the faster it will crumble in your fingers, whether it’s money, a relationship, or something else that you feel must have otherwise you can’t be happy. I’ve never cared as deeply about academics or career as I do relationships or other interests, and yet those are the areas where I’ve had the stupid good fortune to succeed. I wasn’t forcing it. I let go of the outcome and let good things come to me.
I think in a similar way I might be clinging a little too tightly to taekwondo. It helped me get out of a serious pit of depression and break some damaging emotional habits, but I have to remember that I’d be OK without it too. I’ve invested so much of my heart in it though that any disappointment sends me into a panic. My instructors have been nothing but kind and infinitely patient with me. They don’t think any less of me because I didn’t do a good job tonight. The only harsh critic I have is myself. Plateaus or even the proverbial two steps back are just that: a pause in time. They eventually pass. This will too.
I do have to give myself some props though. As I drove home I thought, “Wow, even though I got upset and frustrated I didn’t start bashing myself for being ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘worthless.’ I’m growing up after all!” I was frustrated and upset, but for once I didn’t turn the anger in on myself. You guys don’t know how much of a change that is. While I may have hit a plateau in training it seems I’ve moved up in other areas. Yay!
Leave it to my chief instructor to bring me back down to earth. At the end of class as we were all shaking hands I sighed and fretted about my poor performance. “Oh, I don’t know what to do, I seem to be getting worse and worse! I’m letting everybody down!” I moaned.
“It’s just one day,” he said, shaking a kid’s hand and giving me a pointed look. “If you are really good at everything and don’t have anything to work on then you become stale and arrogant. You need a challenge.” In that moment I really appreciated his level-headedness and emotional maturity that seemed like it belonged to a much older man. If I’d had that same confidence and big picture mindset at twenty-three that he does then…well….for starters I probably wouldn’t be falling apart over a crappy spin kick….and I probably wouldn’t have sent all those long psychotic emails to ex-boyfriends…or changed my college major five times….and….well, you get the picture.
Defense against weapons typically begins once the student has achieved first degree black belt. Our school is small so we sometimes have to make do with the mix of students we have on any given day. I was the only bo dan among black belts in our tiny Friday night adult class, and that was my first opportunity to learn defense against weapons. We’ve been spending a lot of time on my test requirements, but my instructor didn’t want to neglect the learning needs of my black belt classmates, so he decided to bring out the rubber knives.
Taekwondo gets flak from other martial artists for the assumption that it is all about fancy kicks: jump kicks, spinning kicks, flying kicks, you name it, we do it. They claim we never do anything with our hands and don’t know how to fight in close quarters. Yes, there is emphasis on kicking because the legs are so much more powerful than the arms (even a Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner told me to fight off attackers on the ground with my legs since I’d have more leverage), but we do quite a bit with our hands. Several of our self-defense techniques include elbow and knife-hand strikes, and students start learning intricate wrist and elbow locks when they hit red belt.
“You look like you’re going to cut a piece of meat. Hold the knife right,” my instructor teased me as I readied myself to stab at him. Apparently I was not a very threatening foe. Trying to kill someone is a lot harder than it looks! I did get him back when I accidentally (or not?) swiped him in the eye with my ponytail as I grabbed his wrist and spun around to elbow him in the face. Just when I felt like I was finally one of the guys my feminine wiles resurface.
The next day in bo dan and black belt class one of the masters decided to continue with weapons training since we were all advanced students, and there were no little kids in the room to dampen our fun. Real life self-defense is not like the crazy choreography we see in the movies. The master advised us to keep it simple and become competent at one or two things we could do effectively and quickly. Protect yourself, disarm and/or incapacitate, and get the hell out of there.
For much of the class we practiced defense against stabs to the gut and overhead stabs from anyone who wanted to play Norman Bates. I was shier and more tentative than I usually am in class. My brain likes to make the hand-to-hand self-defense complicated. While I enjoy puzzles and complexities in other areas of my life I tend to feel overwhelmed with hand-to-hand. Suddenly I don’t know my right from left, up from down, or which way I’m supposed to turn. I forget to use strong stances to leverage my weight and instead stay stock still while I’m flapping my hands. I’ve talked about that magical “click” before, that moment when your body and brain FINALLY work in sync. I guess it just hasn’t happened yet with this technique.
For the last bit of class we tried out defense against “sticks,” which are actually like skinny baseball bats that could land a very ugly blow to the head. I’m not a boy from 1930’s New Jersey so somehow I resisted the urge to want to play stickball with it.
If anyone still doubts taekwondo’s powers to fight off a close-up attacker with the hands I would like them to have been in my place when I swiped at my instructor with the stick…All I remember is that my elbow was crunched, I was dropped on my face and then finally flipped onto my back while my wrist was twisted backwards. It happened so fast that all I could do was will myself to keep my head up in the safety position as I was tossed to the floor. This was all done with a quick block, a precise grab, and a few twists of the wrist and shifts in weight. No kicks. I was a little stunned right after it happened and had to ice my elbow later that night. He definitely got his revenge for the ponytail blinding.
“Did I hold you over?” my instructor asked as I scurried to the front of the dojang after a late night class. I usually walk fast because I have short legs and lots of places to go, but I also had a few troubling things on my mind, and I wanted to get home so I could stew and sulk in peace.
“No, why do you ask?” I replied. I didn’t tell him that I was worrying about a conversation with a recently resurrected ghost from my past.
“Well,” he continued as he straightened chairs, “I see you rushing out most nights, and you don’t talk to anyone. Sometimes it comes across as stand-offish.” He said it in a matter-of-fact way rather than acting offended or accusatory the way others have when they’ve addressed my quiet nature. (I still don’t understand why people take it so personally that I’m not walking around with a big dumb grin on my face 24/7. Pretty girls don’t owe y’all smiles all the time.)
I was crestfallen but not surprised. I’ve always had a quiet, serious expression and am hesitant to enter conversations. Some would say I have Resting Bitch Face. I just call it my Blank Introvert face. Arched eyebrows and slightly slanted eyes don’t help my cause. Some people have wondered if I’m about to cry, whether I’m angry, or they just assume I’m a “snob.” Those assumptions have all been true at one time or another, but for the most part I’m just in my own little world and am not concerned with what’s going on around me.
I actually love people and am very nurturing and caring, but some days I just…I just can’t. I’ve chosen to live my personal life in an isolated way, so it’s a bit jarring when other people seem to want me to interact with them. Maybe it’s some kind of anxiety brewing or maybe I just don’t need the level of interaction that others do. Sometimes I feel like I have to “fake it” as a normally functioning human to function in our society. I’ve forced myself to smile at babies when I’d rather ignore them. I joke around with people in line at the grocery store, but only if they initiate the exchange. I’ve become adept at small talk in social or work situations, but inwardly I feel exhausted and disgusted with myself for having to put on a mask. I’m always polite. I’m just not always engaging.
And then my yoga teacher offered us an intention for the evening that seemed fitting: coachability. Being coachable is having the ability (and willingness) to accept feedback and try something new or make a change. I had always brushed off suggestions from people to be more personable (or as my extraverted boss would say, “build more relationships”) because I figured they were just more sensitive to whether people paid attention to them or not. I put up my tough girl walls and claim I don’t need or want people in my life. The thought of planning an outing with friends, or…ugh, following through on a commitment to someone makes me want to double-lock my door and bury myself in my books. I had received some very valuable feedback from my taekwondo instructor. It was up to me whether I was going to accept it and use it or not.
Perhaps my reluctance to get involved is not only hurting people who care about me, but it’s hindering my growth as well. A former partner claimed we only grow in relationships. While I don’t fully agree with that since much of my profound growth has happened during periods of solitude and reflection I do see his point. I can become so isolated that my perceptions become skewed and I lose my ability to relate to the world around me.
Back to the dojang…I care very much for the people there. My instructors and classmates are right up there with family and close friends. I’m actually more outgoing in the dojang than I am in other situations because I am doing something I love and am so excited to be around other people with the same interest. During sparring rounds I’m a little Mother Hen, flapping around the kids and clucking words of encouragement. I just seem to shut down once class is over.
It does matter to me how I come across to my instructors and classmates, and I know there’s the expectation that I’ll play a bigger role and be even more involved than I already am once I become a black belt. Being an “introvert” isn’t a free pass to ignore everyone, especially people I actually like. So I tried to be a little more social and chatty after the next few classes, and it wasn’t that bad! Maybe one of these days it will feel more natural. Perhaps I could pull this human being thing off after all.
“So how many months is it between red belt and black tip?” asked a young blonde girl, tilting her head and narrowing her eyes at me. She was sporting a brand new red belt, still stiff and shiny and creased from her Friday night color belt promotion.
“Four,” I said absentmindedly, grabbing my foot and bending my leg at the knee for a quad stretch.
“Four months. It’s four, four, six!” piped up an adult blue belt at the back of the room.
“See, he knows too,” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows. I wanted to tell the little red belt not to get too wrapped up in rushing from one test to the next. There was a lot to enjoy in simply being a red belt…and black tip…and bo dan. I hoped she would slow down and savor the moments and the little joys that I have since I donned a red belt over a year ago…but sometimes people need to figure things out on their own.
The same blue belt looked up at me as he was doing a butterfly stretch and said in a slightly sarcastic tone, “So…are you going to quit when you get your black belt?”
“No way!” I replied. “If I quit what would I have to write about? I’m in this for life until my body or my money gives out.” And it’s true. I found my niche and I found my second family. They’re stuck with me.
It’s starting to hit me that I will test for black belt in about three and a half months. I didn’t even think about black belt when I first re-entered the taekwondo world. I just wanted to be there. Finally after years of searching I’d found something that quieted and focused my mind and opened my heart. I became more nurturing and loving with the people around me than I ever had during half-hearted friendships that died out or sporadic attempts at connecting with people of my same religious faith. I found acceptance, friendships, and a newfound faith in myself that I’d never had before. As long as I can find a place to practice martial arts with other like-minded people I’m happy.
A black belt is just gravy.
First degree black belt is by no means the pinnacle of the taekwondo student’s journey. It just means you’ve completed basic training and your instructor trusts you not to kill the little kids in sparring class. You keep growing and changing and uncovering more and more layers as the years go by. You get to see taekwondo through the fresh eyes of new white belts and learn nuances you would have never discovered on your own without the guidance of seasoned black belts. You get back what you invest in it a hundred fold.
It’s not that I’m not excited about my black belt test. I think about it often and look forward to it eagerly. But I also don’t want to take these last few months of being a color belt for granted. If I’m just cramming for a test and not appreciating the present then I’m missing the point entirely.
I seem to be on a body consciousness kick right now. Yesterday I talked about not letting one’s aches and pains get in the way of happiness. Today I want to talk about the sh*t women say about their bodies. Cut it out, ladies, and stop apologizing for the way you look and what you do!
“Oh I’m horrible at yoga blah de blah blah blah,” a blonde woman babbled at me as I washed my hands in the locker room after a late evening yoga class. Usually after yoga I’m a little dazed—my eyes are bloodshot, my ponytail is askew, and I have that “just had a really long nap and am still kinda disoriented” look on my face. I’m lucky if I remember how to operate a vehicle and drive myself home. Was she talking to me while I had my back turned?
“I’m sorry, were you saying something to me? I didn’t quite hear you,” I said, confused as I turned to face her.
“Oh!” she cackled and swiped her hands in the air, “I was just saying how terrible I am at yoga, how I can’t bend and move like everybody else!” She looked like she was in her fifties, and she was petite, toned, and had pretty blue eyes and smooth (natural, not Botoxed) skin. What in the world was this woman talking about, and why was she telling me?? I’d never met her before and didn’t recognize her from yoga class. I rarely notice who’s beside me in that darkened exercise room most of the time anyway.
“What? Why would you say you’re horrible?” I said, going into my soothing concerned counselor voice. “You’re just doing what’s best for your body. Everybody’s different.” She cackled again nervously and ran out of the locker room before I could finish my little speech. It was a drive-by apology, and an unnecessary one at that. I had no idea why she felt she needed to apologize for her “performance” in yoga. It’s a practice, not a performance. Could she have possibly been intimidated by me and felt the need to apologize in my supposed yoga rock star presence or was she looking for commiseration from a fellow self-hater and ran off when she didn’t get it? I was baffled.
It made me think about how many of us, myself included, fall into that self-conscious “I’m not worthy” mindset when we feel we need to impress someone or worse, apologize for our mere existence. Many years ago I was strolling through the underground walking path in the hospital where I worked. They had mile markers and little encouraging signs, so it was common to see employees in scrubs and business suits power walking the maze around the laundry and the morgue. I came to a dead end, turned around, and politely stepped out of the way of a heavy-set woman going the opposite direction. She stepped back, allowing me the right of way and as she gazed at me with a haunting longing in her eyes she whispered, “You go ahead….Skinny.”
It wasn’t a hateful epithet or laced with any sarcasm. She said it with this creepy sad hopefulness, almost…ugh…reverence. First of all, I’m not. Skinny girls have straight up and down bodies and wear bandeau bikini tops without worrying that anything will fall out. Nothing wrong with that. I don’t care; it’s just not me. I wear petite sizes but I’m short and have an hourglass figure. Nothing wrong with that either. I don’t care. Second of all—my size does not mean I’m better or worse than anyone else. She gave me the right of way because I was thinner than she was? What kind of self-esteem deficit did she have? I was so embarrassed for both of us that I ran (okay, power walked) back down the hallway as she stared sadly after me and cowered in the corner.
And here’s where I out myself as a long-time self-playa hater and apologizer for my very existence. I used to hate my body so much that I wanted to die either by my own hand or by cancer or some other horrible illness. The apologies didn’t stop with my looks. Even if I didn’t expressly say “I’m sorry,” for a long time I carried an attitude of shame. I apologized when I entered a conversation, when I made a suggestion, when I made a weak argument, when I proposed an idea, when I was forced to say ‘no,’ when I was intimidated by a man I thought was better than me, and even in taekwondo when I screwed up a self-defense technique or a kick. All of it was based on fear of being rejected and of not being a perfect little people pleaser.
There’s nothing wrong with apologizing as long as it’s sincere and relevant to the situation, but it’s become overused in our neurotic, self-conscious society. I notice that women especially interject “I’m sorry” into their conversations or use it instead of “excuse me” when they pass someone in the hallway. Remember, I even did that when I was hit off guard by the rambling blonde in the gym locker room (even if it was her own damn fault for mumbling to me when my back was turned). If I say “I’m sorry,” maybe it will soften the blow. Maybe it will show that I still revere the other person’s dominance.
Nope. I’m done. No more apologizing unless it’s necessary. I’m taking up space and oxygen on this planet, and I’m not going to cower and apologize for it. If you don’t like the way I look how ’bout I punch you in the eye and fix that little problem for you? If I offend or hurt someone or do something out of line then of course I will apologize. I’m way too empathetic to let myself off easy on that one. But apologizing as a way to soften the blow of my own crushing insecurities? Or to punish myself and justify my horrible sin of being less than perfect? No. No more.
Yesterday morning as I strolled down the galley of cubicles to get a cup of tea in the break room I had the sensation of a very uncomfortable air bubble in my left hip flexor. Strange. I didn’t notice any extraordinary pain or discomfort in Monday night’s taekwondo class. I thought I had popped all the kinks out with a 5 AM swim. For a split second I thought, “Oh great, now my left hip is acting up.”
When I was in my late twenties I had debilitating pain in my right hip stemming from an alignment problem with the sacroiliac joint and a dab of sciatica. Driving was excruciating, and I would squirm around for hours at my office job as I tried to ease the discomfort. Thankfully I was led to a very skilled physical therapist who helped me go from doubling over in pain every time I stood up to running half marathons. Ever since then, though, my right hip has been a bit of an adversary, an enemy I keep close in case it goes rogue again.
Later that night in yoga class my teacher shared a quote from the scientist Dr. Bruce Lipton:
“The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.”
About that time my hamstrings had started to protest my hanging over in forward fold for what felt like an eternity, causing a pulley of pain between my the dead weight of my upper body and my legs. Change my perception? Well, okay. I breathed into the back of my legs, stopped inwardly grumbling about the discomfort, and was getting quite comfortable when we were signaled to roll back up to standing position. Easy!
As we bent, stretched, and flowed through the yoga poses I thought about how we regard our bodies. We often either take them for granted (your body filters f*cking oxygen! How ridiculously cool is that??) or we’re scrutinizing and belittling and bemoaning all the perceived flaws and irritants in our body. It’s kind of weird and awesome to think that the human body can both cultivate the growth of a child as well as the rapid spread of a cancer or virus. Life and death all swirling around under T-shirts and sweat pants and yet we can’t help poking at cellulite or complaining about a bum knee.
As we crouched into Warrior II and sank into Half-Pigeon my teacher encouraged us to sit with the discomfort and change our perceptions. I’ve had that same advice for dealing with mental or emotional discomfort. Sit with it for a while instead of fighting it and don’t be surprised if it dissipates. Change your perception and don’t be surprised if you change your reality.
Instead of getting cranky about my aches and pains I thought about how I could appreciate my perfectly imperfect body. My left Achilles tendon aches because I am running and jumping and leaping and having tons of fun in taekwondo class. My lower back and hips get irritated from driving in a car I can easily afford that takes me to a comfortable job in an air-conditioned office. The few pounds that fluctuate up and down are thanks to the abundance of food I have easy access to. My bruises are evidence that I’m not afraid to fight. I have a lot to be thankful for, and my body is living proof.
My right hip is irritating me today. I have what I call the “ring of fire” that makes me want to snap off my leg at the hip socket like a broken Barbie doll. My sacro-iliac joint is wiggling and popping like packing bubbles. Driving home was a lot more painful than it has been in a long time. But I have the tools to cope with the physical discomfort and the emotional skills to not let the pain overwhelm me and ruin my good mood. I can change my perception. My “bum” hip helped me run on the treadmill early this morning. It helped me drive my car to work so I can continue to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I can walk, stand, jump, kick, and dance without a second thought or any extra effort.
Try not to let your aches and pains hurt your spirit as much as they hurt your body. Be kind to your body. Be thankful for what it CAN do rather than getting hung up on what it can’t do. Cut it some slack. It’s the only one you have.