This past Tuesday was my final taekwondo class before a nearly two week break for the holidays. It was a wonderful way to end the year—a bunch of black belts beating the crap out of each other…in a loving way, of course.
Now it’s time to do an annual review of my taekwondo practice.
At the beginning of this year I set some New Year’s resolutions even though resolutions are normally not my thing. Let’s call them “goals” instead. As much as I resist it, I’m a long-time corporate person, and we love the G word.
Have I accomplished my goals? The short answer—yeah, kinda. Here’s a run down of the goals I set at the beginning of 2015 and my take on how I performed.
1. To stop hopping during 360 roundhouse.
It’s gotten better. I still sort of scoot while I’m pivoting, especially on the left side, but it’s better than a hop.
2. To cleanly and precisely execute a turning back side kick.
What I meant by that was that I should be kicking straight back towards my target. Students often end up doing an ineffective combination of a turning back side kick and spin kick because they let the knee of the kicking leg fall out rather than pulling it in tightly. My kick isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot straighter. I try to use it as much as I can during sparring, and I’ve kicked people in the stomach with it, so yay for me!
3. To be able to run through all color belt forms by memory. Yup, I can do that.
4. To be able to accurately teach and correct other students (emphasis on accurately because I have sometimes taught them my bad habits!) Overall I’m comfortable sharing what I know with other students. I’ve made some mistakes, but so far none of my charges have had to put their white belts back on.
5. To improve my left side spin kick to match my right side. Still really crappy for where it should be. It’s not as strong as my right side, which still isn’t where I want it to be (I am TOTALLY blaming my messed up right hamstring for that; BAD standing leg, BAD!), but I’m finally getting that nice hook at the end. At this point I think my troubles with spin kick are in my head.
6. To really execute a flying side kick the way God and nature and all the taekwondo masters intended. My right side kick is respectable. My left side will get there once my lazy right leg builds up more strength to push me off the ground.
7. To finally nail a flying turning back side kick instead of getting confused and just doing a half-assed ballet tour jete.
Got it! I managed to keep myself from confusing my left and right feet during my black belt test, which was my biggest fear with this kick. Whew!
8. To pull my partners in closer during takedowns. Yes (well, most of the time), and my partners’ shoulders thank me for it. I also scared the heck out of a teenage black belt when I threw him down faster than expected, thanks to my newly developed technique of stepping in close and hooking the leg.
9. To memorize all the (red belt) hand-to-hand techniques on both sides. Done.
10. To accurately execute my one-steps during my tests…and bonus if I can re-memorize all the past one-steps. I did just fine on my bo dan and black belt tests. The earlier ones are a little fuzzy, but I’ve been studying them quite a bit. Monday night I worked with a red belt on the ones at his level, and I did show him the correct series. They’re coming back.
11. To improve my speed, stamina, and strategy during sparring. Done. Always room for improvement, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on what has been one of my weakest skills.
12. To break a board with a ridge-hand strike and with my nemesis, the spin kick. Yes to the spin kick, which I did at my bo dan test. I was discouraged from doing a ridge hand strike due to fears that I could damage my hand, so I settled for breaking two boards with a spinning back fist during my black belt test. That was pretty sweet.
13. Oh yeah, to get my black belt. DONE!!
There’s still so much for me to learn and still so much room for improvement, so I don’t think I’ll have any problems setting some New Year’s Taekwondo Resolutions, or “Goals,” whatever, for 2016. Stay tuned!
Practicing taekwondo has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’ve changed inside and out, and I feel like a million bucks. Women, however, are still sorely underrepresented in martial arts, so I’d like to encourage all the ladies out there who want to do something healthy, challenging, and fun to give it a try. Here are a few reasons why martial arts is especially helpful to women:
This is a tried-and-true benefit of martial arts, but it’s worth repeating. Practicing martial arts develops the mental discipline one needs to stay focused and present, and also to be persistent. You learn not to give up so easily and to not doubt your intuition and your choices. My confidence soared as a result of taekwondo, and it’s evidenced in the way I interact with people and how I carry myself. My family has noticed a change, and even my boss noticed too. Even on my bad days (and I’ve had plenty), I know that I will not give up and will show up ready to work at the next class.
A coworker once asked if taekwondo gave me “peace of mind.” He was referring to the fact that I knew how to physically defend myself. I interpreted it differently. Yes, martial arts does give me peace of mind…meaning I’ve made peace with my mind. I accept myself for who I am and focus more on what I can accomplish rather than judging myself for what I’m not able to do.
2. Upper Body Strength
In just about any martial art, whether it’s a striking art such as taekwondo or a grappling art such as judo or Brazilian jiu jitsu, upper body strength is key to becoming a proficient fighter. Legs seem to get all the attention with kicks, sweeps, and submissions, but if you stick with martial arts long enough you’ll be handing out free tickets to the “gun show.”
You don’t have to think about working out particular body parts in a martial arts class as you might when you’re lifting weights at the gym. Trust me, it’s a full body workout! Sure, we like our push-ups, but most of the time our upper body is curled into a fighting position and we’re either striking or throwing opponents to the ground. You’ll be working your arms before you know it.
For a woman my size, I already have a strong upper body due to genetics (thanks, Dad) and a lifetime of swimming, but I became even more toned with taekwondo. My shoulders and biceps are more rounded, and my abs are tighter and more defined. Plus, it’s nice to know I’m working on my bikini body while I’m beating someone up.
3. Healthier Body Image In martial arts you’ll become amazed at what your body can do rather than how you measure up to other women. As your confidence develops (along with your upper body and legs), things like the numbers on the scale, your so-called “problem areas,” and what you look like begin to matter less.
You begin to see your body as an ally rather than a foe, and you treat it with more respect by eating healthy foods and getting plenty of sleep. There’s no 100% guarantee that one’s body image problems will completely go away, but at least when you’re in a martial arts class, you gain a healthy perspective and better sense of priorities.
Who cares if you’re not a size zero when you can do a wicked arm bar? What’s the point of starving yourself when you know you need fuel to keep up with the teenagers in sparring class? Isn’t it nice that you get to roll around in a comfy dobok or gi (uniform) rather than worrying about your cellulite showing through spandex stretch pants? (But see item #2—it does get you in killer shape, so it’s a win-win!)
And if you’re still feeling bad about your body at least you know you can beat the crap out of the little size zeros in yoga class.
4. A Supportive Community There’s a sense of camaraderie I’ve found in taekwondo that I’ve never been able to find before. I’ve also noticed this bond in friends who practice other martial arts, such as BJJ. I’ve gained a group of new friends who have become my second family. We’re a tight-knit bunch who just happen to enjoy kicking each other and throwing each other on the floor.
Respect for yourself and for others is ingrained from the beginning, and it is not just showing respect to instructors or higher ranking students. This type of respect carries an air of humility. I greet everyone with a respectful bow and a handshake, whether they are a seasoned black belt or a brand new white belt. Taekwondo has taught me to show reverence to all people, regardless of their age or status.
Oddly enough, a somewhat violent contact sport has made me more nurturing, patient, and caring, especially with the opportunities I’ve been given to coach and teach. We (instructors and students) are all bound together by something we love—martial arts—and even when there’s healthy competition, we want to see each other succeed and will do everything we can to make it happen.
5. Self Defense…But Not in the Way You Think
I didn’t start taekwondo because I wanted to learn self-defense. I started because I was living a very unhealthy lifestyle and knew I needed to do something wholesome and good for myself to stop the downward spiral.
That being said, it’s good to know that I can get out of a dangerous situation. I’m small and female, which makes me Target #1 for attackers, be they serial killers or douchey frat boys who want to show off in front of their friends. I can defend myself if I have to, but more importantly, I know the best self-defense technique of all: prevention.
One of my instructor’s favorite phrases is, “Don’t let it escalate.” This can be applied to any interaction, whether there’s an element of danger or not. Most of the time, a confrontation is not worth it. As my high school theater teacher would say, “Paint it grey and walk away.” My knowledge of taekwondo has had a calming affect: I’m less defensive (on an emotional front) and less intimidated by people. I’m a big fan of talking my way out of a situation…but I have no problem jabbing someone in the throat either.
Here’s an example of how self-defense begins in the mind:
Recently I was walking to the dojang from my car for Saturday class. I was dressed in gym clothes and had a workout bag slung over my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye I could see two older men lumbering towards a parked red pickup.
“HEY!” a loud voice called behind me. Oh brother, here we go. Redneck men in Texas are an odd bunch. They can be the most respectful, chivalrous gentlemen one minute (opening doors, tipping their hats, calling me “ma’am”) and annoying, harassing assholes the next minute. You never quite know which version you’re going to get.
“Yes? Can I help you?” I said sweetly as I turned around.
“You goin’ ta TAH KWON DO?”
“Yew think yew can kick our asses?” he shouted. I smiled and waited a beat. Hmm, how to respond?
“Well…I don’t want to,” I replied. Immediately the man started laughing and walked up to me to shake my hand. (I was relaxed but I did have a few strategies in mind in case he tried anything funny.)
“Good answer! Well, girl, you go in there and you kick ass!” he said. I nodded and hurried inside the dojang before I burst into laughter.
Had I been self-conscious or confrontational, that interaction might have turned into a shouting match. Most bullies and loudmouths are really just scared and insecure. Using humor and kindness, I hopefully showed the man that he didn’t need to pick on a random stranger to feel better about himself.
So give it a try ladies. Sign up for that taekwondo class or judo lessons or even just a beginner self-defense class. As my new redneck friend would say, go in there and kick ass, girls.
When I received my new black belt uniform a few weeks ago, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the bright white fabric, colorful patches, or black lapels. I noticed this phrase on the packaging:
“I Am My Own Nemesis.”
This stopped me in my tracks. We usually see cheerful phrases like “Just Do It” (Nike) or “Impossible is Nothing” (Adidas) on our athletic gear. Yeah, I can do anything, especially now that I’m wearing this $50 dry fit running shirt! The company that packaged and sold my uniform may have the same motivation to pump up their customers, but their motto came with a warning and a dose of reality.
It was a stark reminder that I have a long road ahead of me. No matter how fast or forceful I am as a black belt, my deadliest opponent is lying in wait squarely between my ears. Mental discipline is a tenet of all martial arts, and can be more difficult to master than the physical demands. It’s fairly easy to hit a kicking bag (or another person) with a solid roundhouse kick, but trampling down our own doubts and fears can take years if not a lifetime to master.
The enemy nestled in our minds can attack us in many ways and in many incarnations. It can begin to drive us insane as we begin to doubt more and more our abilities to overcome adversity or accomplish goals. It often appears in these forms:
Fear:Fear of the unknown, fear of being rejected, fear of physical harm, fear of loss (money, relationships, stability, job, etc.), fear of being exposed or “found out,” which goes neatly in hand with self-doubt.
Self-Doubt:Doubt in our capabilities, intellect, choices, and many more. The more we doubt ourselves the more our sense of self begins to crumble. Doubt is like scraping a big eraser across a drawing of yourself; your essence begins to disappear. Doubt yourself enough and you will be frozen in indecision and fear. Self-doubt can lead to self-hatred, which is a very dangerous downward spiral.
Anger: Our inner enemy likes to be combative and paranoid, and it will convince you that the world is out to get you. Anger can often stem from a feeling of vulnerability and a deep fear of being hurt. When mired in anger we start to see conflict everywhere and begin to take every encounter as a confrontation. I have known people who created many enemies in their life simply because they began to assume the worst about everyone they encountered.
If there’s a silver lining about being your own nemesis is that you know the enemy better than you’ll ever know your other opponents. One way you can battle this Self Nemesis is by observation, which is a useful tool my fellow martial artists and I use in sparring. We don’t just rush into a fight with fists and feet flailing. We study our opponent and look for their strengths, weaknesses, and patterns to help us plan our attack and defense.
Are you beginning to feel overwhelmed by doubt, anger, or fear? Stop. Observe, and more importantly, observe without judgment. Don’t berate yourself for your feelings. Simply acknowledge them. You’re afraid? Well, that’s okay. What is it you’re afraid of? What’s the very worst that can happen? Are you 100% sure that what you fear will happen? Are you really and truly 100% helpless, or is there something you can do? Ask yourself if what you’re thinking is true or if you’re telling yourself lies. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Taekwondo has been my saving grace for overcoming low self-esteem and crushing anxiety. Sometimes when faced with a challenge at work or in my personal life (or most recently, trying to climb up onto a Bosu ball at physical therapy) I think, “Chin up, you can do it! You’re a black belt!”
There are real dangers and opponents out there, but sometimes the great nemesis is all in our heads. I’d love to see in the comments below your tactics for overcoming your self-doubt and fear. What do you do when you realize you are your own nemesis?
The two people who inspire me the most to stay active and healthy aren’t professional athletes or models. They aren’t yogis or taekwondo black belts.
They are two women with life threatening illnesses.
I’ve been writing about health a lot on my blog lately, and lately I’ve come to appreciate the saying, “When you have your health, you have everything.” The concepts of prioritizing health and taking it for granted both occupied my mind today. It all began with Tejano music…
Health Hero #1
3:39 AM. My alarm clock began humming softly with the cheery accordion rhythms of Tejano music. (Whatever, Tejano music is awesome, and if you don’t like it then you must not like puppies or rainbows.) Ugh. My swimming alarm.
I started to roll out of bed to turn off the alarm, and I was stuck! The mean little fiery knot of pain in my right lumbar region was still angry from the day before, and when I tried to turn over it flared up and immobilized me. After rocking back and forth like an upended bug I finally was able to fling myself off the bed. I turned off the alarm…and went right back to sleep. What was the point of going to the gym? I couldn’t even stand upright. Besides, my bed gets exponentially more comfortable the longer I stay in it. By almost 4 AM I’m ready to melt into it forever.
“Eh, I’ll swim tomorrow when I feel better,” I thought, and rolled back under my covers.
Later in the morning I thought about my aunt. She has always been the “fun” aunt, the one who shares makeup tips along with dirty jokes, and her infectious laughter can be heard from one end of the house to another. This year had not been kind to her. Following the tragic and sudden death of her father she sank into a deep depression and turned to junk food for comfort. Her health quickly deteriorated.
She lost her laughter and nearly her life. In early fall she was hospitalized with pancreatitis and complications due to diabetes. She knew she had to stand up for herself. Once she was discharged she promptly joined a gym and hired a (hunky) trainer, insisting that this was a matter of life and death.
When I saw her at Thanksgiving she was glowing with life and ringing with laughter again. She had already lost a considerable amount of weight and was determined to get her glucose levels to a healthy number. (And she had a sassy new haircut!) She goes to the gym rain or shine and drinks the smoothies my uncle dutifully makes for her. She dreams of the day when she can eat grapes without worrying about a spike in her blood sugar.
“Health,” she said emphatically as she looked me dead in the eye across my grandparents’ living room. “Health is what matters. When you have your health, you have everything.”
My aunt would have gotten up with the Tejano music and gone to the gym, and she would have told me to get my little ass out of bed and go too.
Health Hero #2 When you work in a corporate setting you inevitably have those moments when you feel like you’re living in a Dilbert cartoon. Today I watched with exhausted and detached amusement as my coworkers spent a good twenty minutes arguing over the wording of some power point slides about a fairly mundane topic. When the other people in the room joined in on the heated semantics debate over “guidelines” versus “ground rules,” I closed my eyes and thought, “My God, is this going to be my life for the next thirty years?” My mind drifted to a woman named Vanessa.
Vanessa is in her early thirties and works in the department that shares the same floor of the building as my department. She and I would often eat lunch in the break room together. She always had a bright smile on her face and was quick to crack jokes.
One week in July, Vanessa disappeared. News began circulating that she had a viral infection, and it was later discovered that she had very aggressive metastatic cancer. She was given months to live, maybe a few years at best. She is dying, and people are arguing over power point slides….yeah.
Recently I saw one of Vanessa’s close friends, who gave me an update. After several rounds of chemo her tumors had shrunk considerably. The prognosis was still dire, but Veronica’s response was:
“I still believe in miracles.”
I thought about Vanessa tonight as I debated between going to a long overdue yoga class and staying at home to watch TV. What would Vanessa do if she had her healthy body back and the freedom to enjoy it? I bet she would take any chance she could to get out of the house and move.
I decided that I would go to yoga class to honor Vanessa and her brave battle against cancer. I had to move slower and more gently than usual, just as I did in taekwondo class last night. Have you ever noticed in some workout videos there’s that one person designated to do the slower, more modified movements for the beginners and the old people? Tonight I was that person.
It didn’t matter how slowly or stiffly I moved. I felt fantastic and relished the opportunity to move and stretch my body. I had to modify upward dog down to cobra to avoid bending my back too much, and let me tell you, I was the fiercest little cobra in the room. Hiss!! When we did tree pose, I stood up as much as I could and was the tallest damn 5’3″ tree I’d ever seen.
By the way, here’s what upward dog vs. cobra looks like (although my cobra was sassier than hers):
When you have your health, you have everything. When your health is threatened, nothing else matters. Why should I put off being healthy until tomorrow? My aunt knew her tomorrows were dwindling and had to make a drastic change. Vanessa might not have many tomorrows left. Health begins today.
Take some time to think about what you prioritize in your life. Are you paying attention to what’s important? Are you honoring the people who love you and motivate you by making sure you’ll be around as long as you can to enjoy life with them?
My alarm is going off at 3:40 AM tomorrow morning. (I’m giving myself an extra minute to snooze). I can’t guarantee that I won’t crawl back into bed when the Tejano trumpets and accordions are silenced, but I will think of my aunt and of Vanessa and thank them for their bravery and their ability to inspire. I’ll make that day a celebration of health and of life. (And still eat chocolate…and some grapes for my aunt!)
The way forward isn’t always a straight path. Sometimes it’s curved. Sometimes it’s a zigzag pattern. Other times you have to take a few steps back or even start over to get yourself going in the right direction.
My injuries these past few months (first the hamstring, now the back) have been trying, but they’ve also been interesting lessons in patience, balance, and as I experienced in tonight’s class, modification. Another way to look at modification would be to call it adaptability.
I thought I was following a nice forward path to recovery, but for some reason tonight my body decided to take the proverbial two steps backwards. Before I headed out to taekwondo class, my lower back began stiffening up from the bottom left lumbar region up to the shoulder blade, and on the other side a nasty knot of irritation began boiling near the right sacroiliac joint. I felt like I needed my back to pop so badly, but I just couldn’t get that satisfaction.
I knew from the beginning of class that I’d have to modify. A jump in the air–NOPE. A spin kick–NOPE. Not happening. My instructor gave me some cues at the beginning to help me adjust my movements, and I did the rest of the jumping kicks from the ground.
I could have quit with the first botched spin kick. I could have sat on the sidelines while my classmates sweated and jumped. That would have been a 100% guarantee I would be protecting my back by doing nothing, but I would have been doing nothing to improve my taekwondo skills or sharpen my ability to adapt to a difficult situation. Besides, while my body needs a little more gentle care right now, completely stopping all exercise would make me feel more stiff, lethargic, and depressed.
No way. I was sticking this out.
I spent the rest of the evening seeing how I could adapt my kicking and striking approach to balance the demands of the class with the demands of my body. Instead of focusing on what my body couldn’t do, I focused on what it COULD do. I couldn’t jump or twist or move as quickly as usual, but slowing down helped me concentrate on being more focused and precise. I gave myself more time to work on little details I often gloss over when I’m going full force in taekwondo class. And for the record, I still worked up a sweat.
Adaptability means we can quickly make sound decisions and adjust our approach when faced with change. Being adaptable helps us flex our creativity muscles and try things we might not have normally tried in more supposedly ideal circumstances. When we make the choice to adapt to a situation, especially an adverse one, we have the chance to prove to ourselves that we are stronger than we gave ourselves credit for being.
We are all on our paths forward. Sometimes we hit some bumps or even run into brick walls. We still, however, have the power to change our attitudes and control our responses to the situation. Sometimes the adaptation is even more amazing than the original.
I spent the week of Thanksgiving eating my weight in food at my parents’ house. It all started with a pumpkin donut at the airport Dunkin Donuts the Saturday before Thanksgiving, plus a free drink coupon from Southwest Airlines, and it went downhill from there. I spent the week before that convalescing (i.e., pouting at home) due to a severe back injury. I’m feeling a little more like Steven Segal than Bruce Lee these days.
So, I haven’t been moving around as much for the past few weeks. I’d probably built in a buffer from all the exercise I normally do and my regular boring diet of brown rice, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and protein bars. I’m not too concerned about it though. As I mentioned in my last post, life and food are meant to be enjoyed, especially during the holidays.
Thanks to a few taekwondo, physical therapy, and swimming sessions and a low-carb, high protein Mediterranean diet (but no fish, gross) I’m back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight. Not a big deal, right?
Unfortunately for the next two or three months, weight, food, and exercise are going to be top of mind for many people, and not in a mature, healthy way. Americans are going to be obsessing about what they eat, what they look like, and how they supposedly don’t measure up to all the beautiful (albeit manufactured) people around them.
All the magazines will have guilt-laden, naggy guides on how to stay in shape during the holidays, and afterwards they’ll pummel us with suggestions for cleaning up the indulgent messes we’ve made of ourselves. I won’t be able to find parking at my gym during January and February thanks to the influx of people with good intentions and, well…good intentions. (I’m not hating on the New Years Resolution gym-goers. I start and stop plenty of things because I get burned out or lose interest or whatever else causes me to stop. It happens to all of us in different ways.)
As someone with former eating and body image problems, those articles make me laugh. It seems like such small potatoes, excuse the pun. I wasted YEARS obsessing over my body and hating myself and the way I looked to the point of being suicidal. I still try to exhibit control over my body and what I eat, and I know I’m always going to have those tendencies (e.g., I’m a size four and panic when I’m puffy with water weight), but I’ve pretty much overcome the worst of it. I’d rather read about how to improve my emotional and spiritual health or how to help others, or hell, just something about shoes than freak out over my slightly and temporarily fatter ass.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be helpful information about nutrition and exercise this time of year. This country more than any other needs it. I just wish it weren’t so laden with self-consciousness and guilt.
Please please please, do not beat yourselves up over eating an extra cookie or piece of pie this holiday season. It’s so not worth it. Enjoy the cookie. And then do what I do and beat other people up instead.