The Countdown Begins

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August sucks. There aren’t any holidays, the comforting summer buzz of the cicadas has died down, the grocery stores are down to the last mealy dregs of my favorite fruits (nectarines and cherries), and for the much of the month the temperature is around 100 degrees. While summer is my favorite time of year, I’m usually not sad to see this particular month come to a close.

The end of August marks the beginning of scarves and knee-high boots, pumpkin-flavored everything, and apple scented candles. The end of August also means I have less than two months left to train for my black belt test.

Every time I think about it my stomach does a little involuntary flip, but I’m not as worried as I was when I tested from white belt four levels up to green belt during my first few months of training. I’ve known everything I need to perform for the black belt test for several months now thanks to my own hard work and the guidance of very patient and thorough instructors. I’m much stronger and have more stamina than I did during my white belt days. My jumps are higher, my shoulders and legs have gotten bulkier, and I’ve brought a new joyful aggression to my sparring. Despite my lingering hamstring injury I’ve been able to bring my A game to the dojang as much as I can and have supplemented my workouts with my usual swimming, yoga, and Pilates. I’d like to think I’ve gained a little bit of the emotional maturity a black belt needs since I first donned my dobok…some days anyway.

As for nutrition, I kind of let my diet go by the wayside, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Due to family visits, my birthday, work events, my discovery of Jif To Go mini peanut butter packs, etc., I’ve had the good fortune to indulge in some delicious although not very nutritious food over the summer. I did get back to my veggies/brown rice/boiled eggs/green juice regimen during August (uh, for the most part) and have been completely off alcohol since March, but I haven’t been as strict as I have been in the past. I’m a bit of a hedonistic hippie: I’ll wash down a cheeseburger with kombucha and not blink an eye about it. And of course chocolate is still happening. Oh is chocolate ever happening.

I’ve had body image and eating problems since I was a teenager so the fact that I gave myself a pass to eat pimento cheese and cookies without judgment or regret is an improvement in my book. I may be a little heavier (as in, closer to 120 pounds than 110 pounds), but I’m happier. During a deep tissue massage to help ease my hamstring pain the massage therapist told me she could tell my muscles were “very strong.” That made me feel prouder than being told I’m pretty or thin. Besides, I’m always one stomach virus away from Grandmaster telling me I look “too skinny” anyway.

I finally sought out help from a sports medicine doctor for my injured right hamstring. Turns out it’s not a pulled muscle but rather a suspected labral tear in the hip—meaning the little ring of cartilage where the femur attaches to the acetabulum (socket) in the pelvis is torn–not a good thing. He also detected some calcification and impingement syndrome in the right hip…the old problem that began about seven or eight years ago and is most noticeable by sharp pain in the front of the hip. Next week I will see the very same physical therapist who helped me with severe pain in my right hip all those years ago (and what may very well be contributing to things currently screwing up on the backside of that leg).

It’s frustrating not only because of the pain and discomfort, but also because it impedes my performance in taekwondo class when I’m so close to testing for my black belt. This is a not-so-rare problem in athletes that if serious enough requires surgery. So leading a healthy active lifestyle for all these years is now keeping me from being as active as I want to be. Ugh, really? The upside is that I’ve gotten more experience coaching and holding kicking pads for other students so I can give my leg a rest—I swear we need a separate class on how to do that. I’ve learned to listen to my body and be more patient with myself. I have faith in my PT and my doctor to help me heal. And besides, every good sports story needs some kind of challenge right at the climax.

Let’s do this.

Body Image

body image

For the last few days I have done absolutely nothing. The pain that I’ve been experiencing during and after taekwondo classes will not let up and even flares up with gentler physical activities such as swimming and yoga. In fact, in last Sunday’s yoga class I ended up going to my knee for every Warrior I, crescent lunge, and even Warrior II. Somewhere between Sun Salutation B and savasana I decided that I needed to rest.

I didn’t go down without a fight though. Immediately after deciding that I would take a little break from taekwondo the controlling little busybody in my brain said, “Well maybe we could do that gentle stair-steppy thing that doesn’t make us do any foreword motion with the legs or do Pilates every day because we still are a little too pudgy around the middle and, and maybe we could just lift weights and focus on the upper body, and maybe we could do a hardcore diet during the week, and maybe swim even though it hurts and–”

Wait a minute! I was still trying to punish myself for not having the body that I thought I needed to have to be happy. I was still trying to keep tabs on myself even though my body was telling me to chill out and rest. Yes I was very frustrated by the pain, but in a sick way it bothered me more that it kept me from my normal means of controlling myself. I have had a poor body image and mild eating disorders since I was in high school. That is twenty years of hating myself for not being “perfect.”

Some people reading this might think, “What’s the big deal? Just eat less and exercise more, duh.” Yes, in theory, it’s simple, but for those who have certain mental disorders, eating disorders, or low self-esteem, it’s agonizing. We feel like our bodies are these evil foreign blobs conspiring against us when our brains desperately want to be thin. In reality it’s the opposite: our brains are going haywire while our poor bodies can’t keep up.

“All right, that’s it, enough!” I thought as my yoga classmates and I stretched into tree pose. “I’m not doing ANYTHING for the next few days. I’m going to sit on my ass and rest. See how you like THAT!” I was going to force myself to face the discomfort of not being on the endless loop of exercising and watching what I eat.

And that’s exactly what I did. I went off the grid for four days, which isn’t much, but for me is a long time to go without any form of exercise. I DID go on a walk Tuesday night and did my forms in super-slow motion Thursday night, but that was about it. I slept in and used my extra morning time to read and lounge around in bed, I got caught up on my Netflix queue, I cleaned the house and worked on writing projects, and I spent a lot of time with my ice pack. I baked chocolate chip cookies and took myself out for frozen yogurt topped with candy. I knew I was getting a little rounder–I could feel it. ugh–but I took it in stride. I’ll get back to my routine of taekwondo and brown rice and vegetables and eventually deflate. I just ate another cookie and thought, “I love you, and I’m going to take care of you.”

I went back to taekwondo class last night and had trouble sleeping from the lingering little jolts of pain from the kicking we did in class. At one point I had to switch to just using my left leg during drills. As I drove home I thought that perhaps I should rethink the right leg hook kick I plan on using to break during my black belt test. I finally conceded to contacting a sports medicine doctor. Obviously a month and a half of pain and injury can’t be undone by four days of rest and cookies. It’s frustrating to not be able to do what I know I can do…but maybe slowing down is exactly what I need.

Body image and how I treat myself will be a lifelong struggle. It and all the problems that come with it have clung to me in secret for decades. That’s a hard habit to shake. Taekwondo has been a real life-saver in that area. Sure I’m a little bulkier (that is a good thing; I like the muscular look) and have much-improved cardiovascular strength because of it, but mentally I’m in better shape too. Who cares how big my ass looks in my dobok? I’m too busy kicking yours!

I’m sure one day I will be shaking my head at how I used to make myself miserable over the facts that I don’t have a flat stomach or that my upper thighs stick together. Someday the aches and pains of age will overshadow the superficial looks of youth. I’ll probably give anything in the future to have the body I have now. Right now I’d give anything to make the pain go away so I can have my ass-kicking body back, no matter what it looks like or how much I weigh. I might as well love what I have now before it’s too late.

The Distraction That Won’t Die

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“What distracts us?” my yoga teacher asked last week as we sat on our mats waiting for class to begin.
“People’s cell phones going off in class,” I thought darkly, wishing I could throw a few punches at the perpetrators as if I were in sparring class. What’s really been distracting me lately is physical pain. Usually when I’m distracted it’s more of the emotional or mental type—anxiety, anger, sadness, or simply my brain wheels clicking as I solve problems. But right now it’s good old-fashioned pain, that pain in my right hamstring that’s been bothering me for a few weeks now. I don’t know if it’s a tear, a pull, or just irritation from over-use but it’s starting to be a real pain in the…well, you know. Literally and figuratively.

The pain isn’t THAT bad—I can walk and run just fine, and if I have enough adrenaline pumping I can hop around in taekwondo class without feeling a thing. Sitting for a long time such as in a meeting at work or in the car makes it feel irritated and crampy, which makes standing up after prolonged sitting a bit of a chore, and after the feel-good chemicals of a hard workout subside then I feel the pain shooting through my leg. It makes me miss my old hip pain. I use my legs a LOT in taekwondo so it’s not like I can completely avoid aggravating the injury in class.

Sometimes we can simply ignore distractions, and they will die down. A fleeting thought, an unnecessary worry—those are things that don’t need to be given more power or recognition than they deserve. The point my yoga teacher was making was that through our practice we can discipline our minds and bodies to focus and be present rather than be pulled in a million different directions by unnecessary distractions.

Other things, though, will poke and pry and vie for our attention until we can no longer ignore them—a gut feeling that something is very wrong, a pattern of behavior from someone who isn’t treating us right, an illness or pain that refuse to be ignored.

Pain in any form, physical or emotional, is a warning sign telling us that we need to listen. Distractions might be more than just mental clutter; they might be trying to tell us something. Maybe it’s time to leave a draining relationship or job. Maybe it’s time to take it easy with your body. Maybe it’s time to simplify your life and say ‘no’ to all those obligations while you focus on what’s really important. A sign of emotional maturity is having enough self-awareness to listen to what’s calling us and carefully deciding whether it should be addressed or not.

A sign of emotional maturity in an athlete is having enough self-awareness to listen to what our body tells us and carefully deciding whether it should be addressed or not. I could keep brushing aside my pain and sit on ice packs every night, but my body is no longer letting me ignore it. I can still do a front snap kick even though now it comes with a wince and a sharp inhale. I don’t want to get to the point where I can’t do one at all without searing pain, especially as my black belt test looms nearer and nearer.

So what am I going to do? Am I going to heed this distraction or ignore it? My hip pain became so bad several years ago—as in so distracting that I could barely function—that I ended up going to physical therapy, which turned out to be the best thing I could have done for it. Now is the time to be a smart athlete and a responsible future black belt. As much as I don’t want to I will probably sit out of some of the more vigorous classes and use that time to heal so I don’t end up back in a clinic.

The only thing that bums me out more than having to miss out on the fun I have in class is how I should probably cut down on how much I eat during these upcoming low activity days. I won’t be able to indulge in my normal “if Michael Phelps were a martial artist” diet if I want to stay my same petite ladylike size. Damn.

Crowdsourcing

happy crowd

Yesterday I didn’t feel too jazzed about “cardio night.” My allergies have been acting up since Friday, so I was headachy, grumpy, and phlegmy, plus my right…um…“high hamstring” still had shooting pain whenever I did a front or roundhouse kick on that leg. However I knew I needed to get out of the house and get some exercise, and I know I always feel better once I get some sweat and endorphins flowing. When I arrived a white belt class was still going on, and a few advanced students had trickled in to quietly warm up. As I squinted and creaked and stretched by the barre I was approached by a little blonde red belt who sells Girl Scout cookies and has developed quite the hook kick. She began peppering me with questions about red-to-black belt training.

“Do you want to be a black belt?” I asked, raising my eyebrow. She nodded emphatically.
“Then you’ll have to work hard. Do remember your form?” I asked, leaning down to look her in the eye.
“Yes, but it’s confusing,” she said, miming some of the motions of Palgwe Chil Jang.
“Okay, we’ll work on that after this class is finished. We have to be quiet until then.”
She gazed at the white belts and mused, “I like watching them sometimes.”
“You can learn how to teach by watching a white belt class,” I said. “You have to know how to do that to be a black belt.” She nodded again and started mumbling all the things white belts have to learn under her breath: stretch kicks, front snap kick, low block…

Once the white belts had scattered I rushed her out onto the mat and soon convinced a fellow bo dan and a red belt who is testing for black tip on Friday into joining us. Even though I sounded like I was smoking a pack a day I quickly started to feel better as I walked the kids through the form. I smirked with pride when my fellow little bo dan took it upon herself to explain to the blonde red belt a particularly difficult part of the form.

It was a great class with lots of variety to keep us on our toes and infectious enthusiasm from other students. We giggled when a black belt (and incidentally the only one who speaks Korean fluently) did the wrong kick when we were told to do “hyeo chun cha-kee”–I’ll give you a hint; it’s NOT jump snap kick. We muttered compliments and words of encouragement to each other during fast paced rounds of flying kicks.

By the end of class I still had a dry throat and the sniffles and couldn’t tell if I had a mild fever or I was just my usual roasting man-sweaty self, but I felt much better. I enjoyed the thrill of a good workout and had the feel-good fuzzies when I coached some of the younger kids.  Being around like-minded people I care about definitely helped lift my spirits.

Meanwhile tonight I am sitting at home pouting because I am coughing way too much to make it through a vinyasa yoga class…I even start hacking in savasana. Meh. You win some, you lose some.