The Spirit is Willing, But the Flesh is Weak…But Sometimes the Spirit Needs to Chill Out and Listen to the Flesh

lower back pain

Part One: The Taekwondo Spirit is Annoyingly, Overachievingly Willing

Last night in class, which is affectionately known as “cardio night,” my chief instructor tried out a new drill. Instead of setting us up in three lines to do drills straight back and forth across the middle of the room he had us make one long line that snaked around to the side. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I knew it was going to be high-energy.

For the next 15-20 minutes we continuously moved along the two long sides of the training room as my instructor yelled out kicks and eventually added combinations: double punch, snap kick. Okay, not bad for a warm up. Roundhouse, spin kick. Ugh, okay, I can do this even though I hate my spin kick (and what do you know, somehow magically it improved, at least for that night). Snap kick, spin kick, sliding side kick. Wait, what?…ugh…alright, let’s go. Then we moved onto flying kicks…continuously without taking any extra steps in between: jump, jump, jump, jumpFlying snap kick, flying roundhouse, flying side kick, and ki-yahp louder!

My mind and body were having an “on” night. I don’t know if it was having a more consistent flow of movement, or if a break from routine was confusing my brain and muscles in just the right way, but I was doing well, better than I expected. My kicks improved with the repetition, and I wanted to see what I could do next. No, I mean I really pushed myself. I’m always gross-looking after a tough workout, but this time I started getting those little mucousy gobs around the corners of my mouth, and my ponytail stuck to my sweating face every time I whipped around for a spin kick. But I wanted to keep pushing. I was doing so well! I’m leaping! I’m flying! Look at me, I’m getting both knees and feet high in the air!


My lower back, which made its nefarious debut on the blog last November, had been giving me what I called “warning signals” for the last several days. I’m very aware of my body and listen to it carefully, but I don’t always heed its suggestions in a timely manner. I’d felt a dull aching along the lower muscles and a sensation just above my sacrum and sometimes a little flash, like when you get the shivers that run through your body. It wasn’t sharp pain, but It, my suspected bulging disc, was reminding me of its angry presence. (I’m too chicken to get an MRI, so for now we’ll just say a bulging disc is my physical therapist’s prime suspect.)

In my mind’s eye I began to picture the dull, aching sensation as a rock, hard and lumpy, and pouting at the base of my spine. Eventually the sensation morphed into a spiny sea urchin, prickly and cranky. I knew if I wasn’t careful it would turn into a  very pissed off teeny version of Mount Vesuvius…mind you, all this stuff came from my imagination without the help of any painkillers. Told ya I have good body awareness.

About halfway through Monday night’s class, Sea Urchin/Mini Mt. Vesuvius was speaking up louder. I had already planned on stopping when the aching turned into pain in order to avoid another excruciating strain and had even told my chief instructor that I would have to stop at some point, but the little devil on  my shoulder encouraged me to keep kicking and jumping. I felt so strong and agile, dull ache and all. Why stop now? I try to go 100% in every taekwondo class because I love it so much, and this night I was crushing it.

Meanwhile I could have sworn I heard something like, “Bitch, I said be cool!” emanating from somewhere around my lower spine.

I can’t deny the fact that the body my high-octane taekwondo spirit is inhabiting is pushing forty. I have had hip problems since my late twenties, and in the past four years I’ve severely strained my back three times probably thanks to the angry Sea Urchin at the base of my spine. The first two incidents were non-TKD related, and the third was likely a build-up of everything in my life, including taekwondo to having a sedentary job. The first two times were incredibly painful and greatly limited my movement, but I could still drive and walk. The third time kept me bedridden for three days, and I couldn’t walk upright for a week.

That evening  I stayed on the ground during the next series of drills involving jump kicks. I ended the night with an ice pack and started the morning with a heating pad. I decided to be proactive and fess up to my physical therapist so we could avoid another back blowout.

Part Two: The Flesh Is Grumpy, Or My Back Pain Has a First Name. It’s L5/S1.


My physical therapist Cody, who was introduced in September of last year, was jabbing his thumb between the vertebrae at the bottom of the spine and the top of the sacrum while I frowned and winced. We were in an exam room at the clinic and were joined by a sweet-natured blonde PT student who was doing a clinical rotation under Cody’s supervision. I always enjoyed when the students tagged along because I got to listen in on Cody’s explanations and Socratic questioning, plus I got to be a live demonstration of the art and science of physical therapy.

The downside was that I was going to be a live demonstration of how the wonderful ligaments, tendons, and muscles attached to the pelvis respond to an irritated L5/S1 disc, and I knew that would involve pain that was much worse than any of my injuries.

Cody began what had become a regular part of my treatment: digging his fingers into the area of my psoas muscle, more commonly known as the hip flexor. Working on that area has in my case been very effective in loosening up everything around my hip and lower back. It also hurts beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I’m serious. A psoas “massage” (ugh) goes far beyond the aching and pressure of a typical deep tissue massage and turns into an unholy, white-hot searing pain that makes the room spin and will make you wish for the quick relief of death…or at least the quick relief of this jerk unhooking his fingers from your pelvis.

I’ve been through this many times, but knew I was in trouble when the pain began not long after his fingers began sinking into my flesh. I sipped air, grunted, and did a few slow blinks. I’m a tough little soldier and knew that this monstrous manipulation was for the greater good, so I just grimaced and screwed my eyes shut, focused on steady breathing, and occasionally snapped something sarcastic at Cody.

“What happens when you get a hand cramp?” the student asked. Cody paused for a moment mid-red-hot-poker-probe and thought for a moment.

“You’re probably just using your hands. I rest my arm on her knee and use my body weight to dig in. That way the pressure isn’t on your hands.”

“Oh God forbid the precious physical therapist has any pain during this! That would be so traaaagic!” I piped up, my eyes still shut and my breathing still shaky and shallow. Cody chuckled and dug his fingers in deeper.

“You can do it, you’re a black belt,” he said soothingly, doing what I call the “fishhook” and curving his finger under the lip of my hip bone…or at least that’s what it felt like.

“I’d still be a white belt if I had to do this in taekwondo,” I moaned and covered my face with my hands.

When it was all over, I shakily stood up with a very loosened up hip, and Cody drummed his fingers along my spine and the surrounding muscles. Once again he dug his thumb into the area covering the L5/S1 disc.
“Does it still bother you?” he asked. There was a huge difference. No irritation, no lumpiness. I turned around and tilted my head at him.
“Nope! It feels good as new. I should thank you, but I also kinda want to kick your ass.”

The moral of the story is: Listening to your body and practicing preventive care is just as important as challenging it. 

Reconciling passion with physical reality is something many athletes and martial artists face. When is giving 100% too much? When do we need to back off even when our minds and spirits are on fire and ready to rumble? When does safety and sensibility override endorphins and energy?

Before the cardio class I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I got a hint of what my flesh was trying to teach my spirit. I was chatting with a thirteen year old girl who had competed in the past weekend’s tournament. With a worried look on her face she told me that the side of her foot was still hurting from her sparring match a few days earlier. She was looking to me for answers and reassurance. I asked her if it increased when she walked and if she’d done anything to relieve it. I recommended using ice and letting our instructor know if it hurt too much to continue working out safely.

“Stop if it hurts. That’s the smart thing to do. Listen to your body and take care of it,” I cautioned her before I trotted off to change into my uniform.

Sounds like I need to listen to my own advice.



Eight Unexpected Things I Learned From a Taekwondo Tournament

sparring head shot
Y’all know this is your favorite part of watching a tournament. Boom!

Recently I had the privilege of coaching some talented kids at at taekwondo tournament. Thankfully my chief instructor has given me many opportunities to teach and coach in class and at other competitions, so I felt prepared. What I didn’t expect were some of the things I would learn from the experience:

  1. Relax and enjoy the ride. There are delays. And then there are more delays. There are discrepancies in judging. There are panicked searches for misplaced equipment. There are more delays. It’s best to just settle in and get ready for a very very very long day. Patience is key, and humor is a sanity saver.
  2. You will become a “kid person,” whether you naturally are one or not. I’m not naturally a kid person. I wasn’t even comfortable around children when I was a child, but somehow in class and at tournaments my mothering instinct kicks in, and suddenly I can relate to the kids from my own school and even kids from other schools. I’m protective, I joke with them, I enjoy teaching them, and I’m very proud of them. I learn from them every day…and then I hand them back to their parents.
  3. I’m a taekwondo purist, i.e., I can’t deal with demos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in full support of taekwondo demo teams. I certainly couldn’t do half the things they were doing…but I just couldn’t reconcile the drill team type of dancing and overuse of the song “Gangam Style.” If you want to do a demo give me some well-coordinated blocks, some kicks, some breaking, some self defense, and a few well-placed yells and I’m good. It can be done very well without the cheesy music, the goofy dancing, and for heaven’s sake, the FREAKING RIBBON TWIRLING. Otherwise get back to the regularly scheduled tournament. I wanna see someone get kicked in the head.
  4. You will be on the edge of your seat. Who’d have thought grade school kids would have me gripping my chair and staring wild-eyed like a madwoman. We had two tie breakers with both our little green belt star students: one of them had to do his form three times against different kids before he was awarded a well-deserved gold. Another, after two rounds of dealing with me screaming at him to “Get in!! Stay close!! Do combinations!!” finally won the sparring match with a tie-breaking point. Whew! That made my entire week.
  5. Sportsmanship is classy, and bragging is trashy, no matter the sport. Humility is a tenet of martial arts. Most of the time this is maintained throughout a tournament, and sometimes it’s not, and that is truly disappointing. Anyone who raises their fist and does a snotty little cheer after scoring a point in the middle of a damn sparring match deserves a well-timed kick to the chest. A true martial artist practices grace and respect, even in the heat of competition. Life is too short to be a jerk. We’re all in this big sparring match called “life” together.
  6. Your students will surprise you. Some competitors crumble under pressure. Some rise to the occasion. I am always amazed at their determination and ability to tap into their taekwondo spirit and do things I’ve never seen them do before.
  7. You will surprise yourself.  You will find yourself being present and entirely focused on another person rather than being caught up in your own thoughts, worries, insecurities, or doubts. There’s a special kind of joy in watching others work hard and succeed that keeps me energized for hours.
  8. A hot dog from the snack bar tastes like manna from heaven if you’ve been pacing around exhausting yourself all morning. This needs no explanation.

A Black Belt Goes to Barre Class

Martial Arts Ballet Dance Kids Teens Adults Southlake TX 76092

I usually avoid the latest fitness crazes because I’ve found what works for me, but I’ve been intrigued by a trend that started catching on last year: barre class, as in, a body sculpting workout using a ballet barre.  Ballet, like Pilates and yoga, is well-known for its ability to build long, lean muscles and improve flexibility and balance. I actually like the fact that I’ve bulked up from taekwondo, which probably makes me the odd woman out, but having studied dance as an undergrad, I have an appreciation for the lean muscle tone ballet training can provide.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to scrounge Groupon for a discounted pass to the PureBarre studio in my neighborhood. My gym, where I mostly swim and take yoga classes, recently added a barre class to the roster. Tonight I donned my favorite tank and stretch pants and went to check it out.

The only hesitation I had about the class was the name:

….um, okay, whatever.

First of all, I don’t need any help in that department. Nineteen years of yoga practice plus intense taekwondo classes and all the squats and box jumps I do in physical therapy have served me very well. Second of all, what a childish, pandering name for a class! It feels too ridiculous to even say out loud. I’m not trying to be a humorless prude, but…Bootybarre? Really??

I didn’t go into the workout expecting an easy, soft stretch class. Let’s level set here: Ballet is HARD. It’s strenuous, deeply technical, and demands full engagement of the body from head to pointed toe. The physical training and mind-body awareness I developed in college dance classes has helped me quite a bit with the equally highly technical demands of taekwondo, although kicking the crap out of someone has a certain…hmm…je ne se quoi that can’t be replicated in a dance class. I didn’t expect it to be too hard, though. “Bootybarre” is held at my gym, not a professional dance studio, so how hard could it be?

The short version: This class kicked my ass. Walking down my stairs tomorrow is going to be painful.

The class began with some simple plies. Okay, this was familiar, I could do this. When my quads started burning less than ten minutes in I knew I was in trouble. After the warm up we switched to dumbbell lifts. 2.5 pound weights? Pssh! No problem…until we started doing all the dumbbell lifts while standing tall on the balls of our feet. Ugh. Hopefully in taekwondo class my Koryo ready stance that I do on tippy toes (yes, that is the technical term) will be solid as a rock after this.

The rest of the class was a blur of leg lifts that left my legs feeling like jelly. After squeezing a ball between my burning thighs for what felt like an hour (okay, more like five minutes) it was a relief to drop to the floor and do some ab work. After being reminded to “zip up my core” for the last forty-five minutes I was pleased that my abs held up better than my legs did. Plus, the final song that was playing was a dance club mix of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” so I had extra motivation to keep moving. “Gon’ make you sweat, make you sweat, make you sweat!”

“Do you do ballet?” a woman asked me after the class.
“Oh, I did a little in college, but now I’m into martial arts,” I said as I put the aforementioned evil ball back in its designated box.
“Well you look like you do it. You move very gracefully.”
“Thanks…except these aren’t from ballet!” I cackled, flashing my bruised forearms at her.

I went home exhausted and sore and consoled myself with a leftover empanada and Cuban rice.

The verdict: worth a try. It was fun, and it can complement the cross training I do to be an agile (and aging) athlete. Like Pilates, yoga, and taekwondo, it taps into the mind-body connection and keeps my muscles lengthened and joints supple. And most importantly, bathing suit season will be here before I know it. I’m already looking forward to next week’s class, ridiculous name and all.

How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic

empathy blood

Once upon a time I knew a man who didn’t in believe emotional intelligence. He even bragged about heatedly arguing with a facilitator who had been brought to his workplace to give a presentation about emotional intelligence. As he told me this story I silently thanked my lucky stars that he didn’t work for my company and therefore would never attend a workshop that I facilitated as a leadership and organizational development consultant.

This Man-I-Used-to-Know’s argument against emotional intelligence was that he shouldn’t have to “change” himself to please the other person. In his mind, it was no better than false representation. For example, if my style is very direct, and I’m doing business with someone who likes to warm up meetings with small talk and niceties, too f*cking bad! It’s my way or the highway! To this man, adapting his own personality tendencies and communication style for the sake of another person was nonsense and no better than lying and deceiving the other person. He felt like the concept of emotional intelligence was forcing him to be something he wasn’t. The other person’s needs, personality, and style weren’t a consideration.

This man also claimed to be incapable of feeling empathy. I later found out the hard way he was telling the truth.

I am not going to get into the nitty gritty details of defining emotional intelligence. You can find that elsewhere on the web. Here’s a really quick definition according to Psychology Today:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include 3 skills:
1. Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others;
2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving;
3. The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions, and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.”

I’ve written posts on here before about how taekwondo has brought me out of my shell and helped me connect with people in a way I haven’t been able to (or outright refused to) in the past. I believe it’s also made me more empathetic, self-aware, and mindful of other people. I’m not perfect and still have lots of work to do, but I’ve come a long way.

Less than a decade ago, my emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and pretty much everything lying between my ears was crap. I was so blinded by my own self-loathing, loneliness, and misery, that I didn’t even know how to interact with other people, much less be mindful of how I did it. Anxiety and sadness had swallowed me up to the point that I was just running on auto-pilot to make sure my façade to the world was still intact: go to work, go to school, pay the bills, cry in private. Who cared how I related to other people? In my mind (at the time) they were all going to hurt me anyway, so why even bother?

Fast forward to 2016: I am pleased to say that during my recent annual performance review, my boss repeatedly praised my empathetic nature and self-awareness. I don’t mean to brag; I’m just so glad that I’ve done a 180 from where I was a few years ago. I told him that while some of that came from growing into my job and having the support of an amazing team, much of that came from taekwondo, especially in the early growing pains of being a new “assistant instructor.”

In the very short time that I’ve been a black belt, I’ve learned that while an authoritative, one-size-fits-all approach is often what’s most appropriate for the militant discipline of a martial arts class, there are plenty of opportunities to flex my EQ muscles and adapt my style to the needs of others. Depending on age, belt level, maturity, and personality, my coaching style can morph. I’ve started to pick up on more subtle learning factors of the other students, such as confidence levels, how they’ve responded to past direction, how they are responding to me, and their general mood during that particular class. I’ve learned to go against the adult learning practices I use in the workplace (i.e., talk it out) and be more directive with the kids. I’ve learned that I need to be mindful of the parents’ perception of me in addition to the students’ and instructors’ perception.

I once had a participant in a workshop I was teaching at my workplace remark that my facilitation style was very nurturing (Note that he did not try to argue me out of the room the way the man I mentioned at the beginning of this post probably would have). That’s carried over into the dojang. With some students I am gentle and patient, although with others I know I can be a little tougher.  “Nurturer” is still my default, which may provide a softer contrast to the no-nonsense approach of my male instructors, but I know I will have to push myself out of that comfort zone. I can’t be the mother hen all the time. After all, I have to adapt to what my instructors need from me as well as the students.

Am I a saint who can instantly empathize with everyone? Oh heck no. I’m still anti-social and detached in many situations. I’m polite, but being friendly takes a concerted effort. I could go an entire week without speaking to anyone and be fine, and I still have to remind myself that it’s important to others that I acknowledge them (greeting someone at work in the morning, stuff like that). I’m still the nicest version of myself in the dojang, which unfortunately means people in other areas of my life get the short end of the stick.

…But I know I’ve made progress. My boss wouldn’t have praised my awareness of both myself and how I relate to and serve others if I wasn’t displaying empathy, and I don’t do that to put on an act. I have a big, fat, blood-gushing heart and care very much about the well-being of others, sometimes to the point that I worry too much and can become overly protective. Mother hen turns into mama bear. Finding that balance is still a work in progress.

Putting myself in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s at work or in the dojang or anywhere else gets me out of my head for a while and helps me focus on something outside of myself.  Being able to serve other people and hopefully make their lives easier through the way I treat them is truly heartwarming. That’s a feeling can’t be replicated without making the conscious effort to connect with other people.

And I get to punch some of the people I’m making a conscious effort to connect with. That’s pretty sweet. Told you I wasn’t a saint.

Love is Like Grape Soda…or, Being Happily Single on Valentine’s Day

Nope to grape soda…and to crushes, for that matter.

“For me, right now anyway, a relationship is like…grape soda.”

I was talking to a trusted friend and mentor a few weeks ago, and the subject of dating had come up. After a serious relationship ended last April, I spent several months doing the exact opposite of what I used to do after breakups: I wasn’t thinking about dating at all. I wasn’t wishing for it. I wasn’t interested. I was genuinely surprised when friends asked if I was dating because it was so far from my mind. My parents knew not to ask, and they were probably glad that I was taking time for myself. Even when my ex attempted to reconcile, I was tempted but ultimately declined. I was officially closed for business.

I continued my explanation to my friend:
“Grape soda is one of those things I don’t dislike, but I just don’t think about it, and I never buy it. If I see it at a potluck I think, ‘Oh look, grape soda,’ and then I forget about it and pour myself a cup of Sprite or Coke instead. Same thing at the grocery store: ‘Oh look, there’s grape soda on the shelf. You don’t see that every day. I guess some people like it,’ and I keep walking and forget about it. I don’t have negative or positive feelings towards grape soda. I just don’t care.”

That’s how I now find myself feeling towards dating and romantic love: nothing. I just don’t think about it. It’s become this fuzzy, foreign concept that doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I don’t dislike relationships, and I’m still attracted to men, but I’m not pursuing love or companionship.

After the big April breakup last year I needed to stay OUT of the dating pool for a long time because I was bitter, angry, and sad and needed time to grieve. Now that I’ve worked through those feelings (well, for the most part), in some people’s minds I should be ready for love again, but…nah. I don’t wanna. Telling me to “get back out there” is like telling me to get a puppy or go on a hot air balloon ride. It sounds nice, but….nah….not for me, thanks. I don’t hate puppies or hot air balloons or relationships; I’m just not that interested.

I’m a little dismayed at all the biased information on the internet about being single: how to cope with it, how to handle it, how to feel better about it. I’ve tried to find information about people who don’t want to date just ‘cause, but all I come up with are a bunch of sob stories from people who dramatically claim they “don’t believe in love anymore!” when they’re secretly pining for it or from people who are so burned and scarred from past experience that they are terrified of entering into another relationship again. I don’t feel angst, fear, despair, or…well…much of anything.

Being single is not a disease, and it is not a curse. It is an opportunity to discover who you are, what you want in life (and what you want in a partner), and what makes you happy. People take being single like it’s an insult or it’s something bad that has been intentionally inflicted upon them. I know that because I used to think that way. Oh, the time I wasted feeling sorry for myself! I thought all the men in the world had conspired to reject me. Boo-freaking-hoo! Now that I’ve let go of the self-loathing and resentment, I’m totally fine being alone, and in fact, nearly a year after the end of that last serious relationship, I prefer it. No dates, no texting, no set ups, no Match profile, nothing. If I sense a man is showing some interest, I run like hell. I go to work, go to taekwondo, do the things I like to do, and enjoy my life.

I am a rock. I am an island. Leave me alone.

And for the record, since I know people are going to assume this: I’m not anti-relationship. A lack of interest in something doesn’t mean I hate it. Grape soda, for example—don’t hate it, just don’t care. Same way with love. I’m not anti-marriage. I’m not anti-men. I don’t hate my ex and am not irreparably heartbroken. Maybe when I’m good and ready, I’ll welcome love back into my life, or maybe I will spend the rest of my life alone and unattached. Either way, I’m fine with whatever happens, and just being able to say that is an accomplishment I’m proud of.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if I’m deluding myself. Maybe I am so mired in loneliness and sadness that my foggy, fuzzy brain doesn’t know what’s normal anymore. When my friend of the grape soda conversation asked me to define love, I was stumped. I said I knew that I’d experienced it, but I couldn’t describe it. Months after that discussion I still don’t have an answer.

Maybe I’m in such a deep depression (or denial) that self-imposed exile has become the norm. I do get lonely, and sometimes I wish I could get dressed up and go on a nice date with a nice man. But then again, I don’t feel like something is missing from my life so much as something extraneous has simply been removed, perhaps temporarily, or perhaps permanently. It’s truly a strange sensation to feel no desire for something I’ve longed for and pursued all my adult life.

That absence of feeling puzzles me more than anything else.

Perhaps this absence of worry and longing for love is part of my larger shift toward relaxing and loosening the reins on my life a bit. Things have begun to fall in place like magic (or the law of attraction): Ever since the Christmas holidays I’ve stopped worrying about certain aspects of work, and without any doing on my part, my responsibilities were shifted away from activities I didn’t enjoy to things I find greatly fulfilling. I stopped trying to cram my free time with activities, and now the weekends feel longer and more restful. I stopped caring about having a perfect body, and now I’m a fitter and leaner version of myself than I was at an even smaller weight. I finally, finally stopped feeling angry and sad about that failed and possibly final relationship.

…Not giving a shit suits me.

Letting go of the “need” for a relationship felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. In getting over my addiction to love from another person (it was more likely a need for validation and attention rather than real love) and an anxious need to be in a relationship, I learned the power of loving and valuing myself. Sounds cheesy, but if you’ve spent most of your life hating yourself and desperately seeking the approval of others, experiencing this kind of shift is profoundly liberating.

I did feel a little down a few weeks ago when I saw Valentine cards in the grocery store and thought about how I didn’t have anyone to buy a card for…but just like whenever I saw grape soda, I kept walking and promptly forgot about it.

So, if you’re in a relationship this Valentine’s Day…good for you! I hope you have a nice day. If you’re single…good for you! I hope you have a nice day. Drink some grape soda, whatever. Either way, I hope you recognize your own value and beauty. You don’t need anyone else to tell you that it’s there.

Watch, right after I post this, some joker is going to come along, sweep me off my feet, and ruin all my single fun. *Sigh*

Thinking Too Much Makes You Stupid

When your brain is all:  “Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap!!!”

I have two master’s degrees and a well-established career. I also have a first degree black belt in taekwondo. I manage my finances and pay my bills like an independent woman in a Beyonce song. That and a quarter won’t even buy you a cup of coffee anymore. Despite all these credentials, I found myself struggling to follow instructions that were intended to be simple enough for children during taekwondo class Monday night.

Being an overly educated, intelligent, complex-thinking adult brings with it the tendency to f*ck up really simple things…you know…like where to stand in line although it’s just slightly different than how we normally do it, or say…doing a series of snap kicks across the room and then immediately switching to roundhouse kicks on the way back, which we haven’t done in that exact sequence before. I swear I could have done brain surgery right there on the floor, and that would have made more sense than what I was being asked to do. Other than Grandmaster, who urged us to give ourselves a half-hearted round of applause for a job well done, everyone seemed frustrated and cranky by the end of class.

In my defense, I did some killer flying snap kicks at the beginning of that set of drills, and all the other black belts were just as confused as I was about the logistics. All it took was a slight change to the routine, and we were dumbfounded and helpless. The red belts had no problem following along, probably because they’re used to everyone yelling at them, and they got the added benefit of watching the black belts screw up first.

I like sequences, patterns, and routines. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day. I plan my outfits for the entire week on Sunday afternoon. My keys are ALWAYS in their designated bowl, and my bed is made every morning, even on weekends. Routine, planning, and organization make my life much easier. Any deviation in the pattern, though, seems to knock my common sense down by about 20 points. Form the line a little differently or do kicking drills in a different way in taekwondo class? Receive instructions in a slightly different way? Hold a focus pad for an unusual kicking combination? Oh hell no, it’s all over. My highly structured little world has just imploded.

The funny thing is, I keep things very relaxed in other aspects of my life, especially at work. I have little tolerance for digging into the details and am okay with vagueness and ambiguity, which isn’t always a good thing and sets me apart from many of my coworkers, but it keeps me from getting too lost in the gobbledegook of corporatespeak and the needless fretting about the “what ifs.” Here’s the issue, here’s the decision we made, boom, done, this meeting should have ended thirty minutes ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy my job very much and feel like I’ve hit the jackpot with some of the cool things I’ll get to do this year. And yet, I’m emotionally detached, keep things streamlined and simple, and poof! Things almost always work out in my favor because I’m not worrying about anything or thinking things to death. I’m even cool with the dreaded and seemingly constant change in the workplace.

I “work smart” at my job and even at home in my organized way, but I wonder if I’m working “too hard” in taekwondo, meaning I’m getting lost in the details rather than keeping it simple, detaching myself from the outcome (I must do a perfect spin kick this time or all will be lost!!), and letting things happen naturally. I’ve learned how to be more efficient as far as maintaining physical endurance, but mentally the wheels are still churning at an accelerated rate.

As I hinted in my January post, and as I’ll expand upon in my upcoming Valentine’s Day post (stay tuned!), my “heart,” meaning the metaphorical, emotional one, is rapidly disappearing without much conscious action on my part. That’s a good thing! I feel much more at peace about my life in general and more detached from many things I used to worry about. If I don’t have a heart, it can’t be broken, right?

I’m still in this world but not of it—except in taekwondo. Taekwondo seems to be the last bastion of passion left on the dwindling list of things I actually give a sh*t about. While I am a better, more caring, hard-working, and more loving version of myself in the dojang, I’m also more vulnerable and more open to heartbreak. In this aspect I’m still a people-pleaser and feel like if I don’t do a good job in the dojang, I am letting down people I care about. That bothers me more than the thought of letting myself down.

I’m not okay with ambiguity in the dojang the way I am at the office. I don’t need things to be perfect, but I want them to be right. I’ve gotten over much of the self-consciousness I experienced as a color belt, but I still care very much—maybe too much–about doing a good job and making sure I’m constantly learning and improving. I work harder in there than I ever have at anything else in my life, including those two graduate degrees. Maybe that’s why it’s harder to let it go and let it happen.

But sometimes there is no deeper meaning. There is no room for negotiation. There are no “moving pieces,” as we like to say in the corporate world. There’s nothing to worry about. Sometimes face value is all there is. Getting lost in the details, the “what ifs,” and too many technical questions means we miss what is right in front of us. A slight variation in the familiar makes us suddenly question ourselves, and our confidence, along with the common sense I mentioned earlier, is in danger of drooping.

So what to do when you’re knocked off your perfect little pedestal of predictability?
-Roll with it. Be okay with screwing up; just make sure you correct yourself quickly.
-Be humble.
-Don’t worry too much about what other people think. Trust me, we’re all too wrapped up in ourselves to take time out to judge anyone else. Do what’s needed for the people who are holding you accountable, but don’t waste time second-guessing every step. They’ll forgive you, and if they don’t—well, you don’t need them in your life.
-Learn from it.
-Embrace the new. A change in routine may be just what you need.
-Let it go. Life isn’t perfect. That’s okay. You’re still you, and you’ll still be you years from now when you’ve forgotten about whatever little hiccup put a wrinkle in your day. If it helps, get a little morbid and remind yourself that NONE of this matters because we’ll all be dead! Hooray!!

As for thinking too much, I’m looking forward to sparring class tomorrow, when my lizard brain takes over, and I punch and kick without a care in the world.
Simple, right?

The Poomsae Series Part 11: Koryo, or Managing Change Like a Black Belt

This post is part of The Poomsae Series, which discusses life lessons gained from taekwondo forms or “poomsae.” Forms, typically practiced to hone technique, have also been for me a type of moving meditation that quiets my mind and helps me stay present.

[A Note for Taekwondo Folks: In this post I’m discussing the common first dan black belt form Koryo. In my school we refer to it as “Koryo Two” because we also do a rarely-used, older form at the bo dan level we call “Koryo One.” Bo dan is the final color belt level before first degree black belt. Reader Jon Karlsen was kind enough to post a video of “Koryo One” in the comments of this post. To avoid confusion among readers from different schools, in this post I will refer what my school calls “Koryo Two” by its universal name, Koryo.]

In case I’ve needlessly confused anyone with that introduction, I’m talking about THIS ONE:

koryo ready stance


Even though it’s not a mind-melt like the primitive, creepy, and confusing other first dan form Keumgang (don’t tell me that mountain block/horseback stomping thing isn’t unnerving), Koryo gave me a run for my money when I was first learning it. While it follows the familiar sideways H pattern of the color belt Palgwe forms, Koryo is complex and full of intricate pieces, much like the blue belt form Oh Jang or the black tip form Pal Jang.

Not only is Koryo complicated, it is downright nasty, incorporating double side kicks, throat grabs, knee breaks, and a move that a teenage classmate so eloquently refers to as “mining the family jewels.” Even the ready stance at the very beginning is threatening. There’s a lot going on in this form.

As I do whenever I’m learning a new form, I’ve been waiting for the lesson of Koryo to emerge. It hit me during a recent staff meeting that Koryo can teach me how to manage change in a confident and mature way. Guess what we were talking about in the staff meeting? Hint: it wasn’t knee breaks, although that would have been fun.

My team recently experienced a major change that we’re just now figuring out how to maneuver around. For some of my teammates the change is a profound shift in their identity and focus. For me, it’s narrowing the scope of what I do. I still report to the same person and will hang onto the major projects, so it’s not as big a change for me as it is for others. As with Koryo, I’m still following the same foundational “pattern,” but some of the details will be new and different. I see this as an opportunity to help my coworkers who are experiencing a greater change than I am. If I’m expected as a black belt to guide less experienced students, I can also help the teammates who are going through greater change navigate the unfamiliar.

Like most employees in the corporate world, I’m no stranger to change. As a long-time employee in the corporate headquarters of a large multi-hospital healthcare organization, I’m VERY used to experiencing change. Notice I said “used to” change, but not necessarily “comfortable” with change. I’ve had to learn how to adapt along with everyone else.

Whether you’re a martial artist, a couch potato, a corporate employee, entrepreneur, a new parent, or a college student, there are some things you can do to manage change with black belt confidence:

1. Trust your past experience.
You know more than you think you do. Everyone has transferrable skills they can use to help them adapt to new situation. Koryo is a complicated form, but much of it is comprised of strikes, stances, and blocks that I already know. I’ve also developed enough skill and body awareness to pick up on new things more quickly than I could when I was a lower ranking student, so I know I’ll get it down eventually. Are you changing careers? Beginning an internship? Starting a business? Trust your past experience.

2. Ask for help.
I learned early in my career (and my taekwondo journey) that it’s better to ask for clarification up front rather than pretend I understand and then have to go back and ask for help later. Asking for help does not mean you are stupid, lazy, or incompetent. Asking for help shows humility, thoughtfulness, and dedication. If someone has a problem with you asking for help, that’s on them, not you.

3. Surround yourself with smart allies.
This goes hand-in-hand with asking for help. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. Seeking out those with different experiences and skills will help you deal with areas that are out of your comfort zone.

4. Ask for the “why.”
The biggest complaint I hear about change is the feeling of being kept in the dark. If you’re not given the reason why behind a change, ask for it! You’re not being insolent or difficult. Explain that understanding why things are changing will help you be better prepared to adapt quickly and contribute to the change process. On the taekwondo front, when I was learning the black tip form Pal Jang, things finally started to click for me when my Grandmaster explained the purpose of each of the blocks and strikes. Koryo has a logical flow and rhythm to it as well. (Keumgang still makes no sense.)

Incidentally, if someone has a problem with you asking “why” then they are probably the same type of jerk who gets huffy when you ask for help.

5. Learn!
Learn from your failures as well as your triumphs. One of my coworkers has a saying: “Don’t be frustrated; be fascinated.” When presented with a challenge, view it as a puzzle to solve rather than a hardship to endure. The willingness to learn (and APPLY what you learn) gives you your power back when you may be feeling helpless in a volatile, changing situation.

….or just break someone’s knee if that’s easier.