Spring Has Sprung

flower boxing gloves

April showers bring flowers in yo face!

“Whew, that was a good workout! I needed that,” I said to my chief instructor as I sipped water and leaned against the back of a chair in the dojang waiting room. It was Monday night, the first night back after an “off week” due to an abbreviated workout schedule and a little bit of Spring Break indulgence (okay, more than a little bit). That night’s class had a simpler structure than our usual classes: foundational kicks and a little bit of partner work with blocking and striking. That was it.

Lately it’s been a rare occasion that I’m just in student mode when I’m in class. Very often I’m refereeing a sparring match, holding pads for kicking drills, or overseeing students working on forms or self defense. As much as I love teaching and coaching and accept that responsibility of being a black belt, once in a while I like the times when I can shut down that part of my brain and just work. My body, my space, my mind, my practice. I felt invigorated and refreshed by a simple workout. I was ready to emerge from the quiet cocoon I’ve been in since the new year.

Spring has always been an opportune time for me to take my fitness regimen up a notch, and not because bathing suit season is around the corner. (I know it’s still snowing in some parts of the country. I live in Texas. We go from winter to tornado season to summer in about week.) The weather is nicer, the days are longer, there’s a wider variety of fresh produce available for nutritious snacking, and after Easter there’s no more holiday candy–who wouldn’t be inspired to get healthier?

New Year’s resolutions can get lost in the grey days of winter and the rush of the holidays.On that note, perhaps this spring season of rebirth and awakening is a time to reexamine what I want from my taekwondo practice.
For the most part I want to continue the trajectory I’ve been on since I got my black belt last year:
-becoming a faster, stronger, and more strategic fighter
-learning and quickly applying hand-to-hand combat techniques and weapons defense (our traditional school has some hapkido influence, so we practice joint locks, sweeps, and throws)
-doing a badass spinning hook kick, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time and am finally seeing improvement. I broke a board with spin kick at my bo dan test, so it would be nice to have that same precision and power consistently.
-bringing power, grace, and finesse to my forms (Jon, I finally got Keumgang!!!!)
-improving my explosive power, speed, and strength
-being a patient, knowledgeable, intuitive, and helpful assistant instructor

…y’know, being a good black belt.

I feel like I’m starting to emerge from hibernation in other areas of my life too. Very soon I’m going to be coaching my head off with several clients at work, and I can’t wait. I’ve already been doing a little bit of coaching here and there with a few people, but within the next few weeks it is going to be my primary focus at work. I have been dying to do leadership coaching for years, and I’m finally getting my chance. I just hope I don’t talk to them the way I talk to the nine-year-olds in taekwondo class.

As for writing, last year I started a huge project. I made a massive amount of progress by the end of the year and took a much needed rest. Once I finish binge-watching another season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” (ha ha) I’ll be ready to pick it up again, and at some point I hope to share more details about this project with my blog readers. I will also be guest writing for the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com….so I have stuff going on.

And with sunshine and blooming flowers and birds chirping will I be ready to emerge from my year-long dating hibernation? Will there be a Mr. Little Black Belt in the near future? Mmmm….NAH! It’s still all grape soda to me!

Why? How Understanding Leads to Inspired Action

Question Everything Clean_0

“Why do we do this?”

I was in taekwondo class and had corralled a small group of students to the back of the room to teach Palgwe Pal-Jang, one of the most complex forms of the color belt repertoire. It was the most difficult form for me to learn (Even Keumgang didn’t make me weep with frustration the way this one did), although since then it’s become one of my favorite forms for the very same intricacy and complexity that frustrated me in the beginning.

The student asking me the question did a backfist with her right hand, a movement that immediately follows the low block that opens the form. She wanted to know why she was supposed to do that. I could have just told her, “Because that’s part of the form,” or “Because I said so,” but I thought it would be a fun opportunity to help her and the other students develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of something they would be doing over and over again.

“Ah!” I said, “Because of this. Do a low block in front stance.” I kicked at her so she would block my foot.

“See?” I continued. “I just kicked you, and you blocked, but I’m still not out of the way. I might attack you again. You have to strike back, and that’s when you do the back fist.” She swung her fist through the air, and I nodded approvingly.

As the lightbulb went off over her head I remembered when Pal-Jang finally clicked for me. One night Grandmaster had corralled the red and black belts to the back of the room much in the same way I was working with the young students, and explained the purpose of the form piece by piece. Someone grabs your arm. Someone tries to choke you. Look out, your attacker is still behind you. Click!

“Forms help us practice self-defense. That’s why you have to be strong in your blocks and strikes in a form. They’re not just pretty movements.” I demonstrated a few of the particular forceful motions of the form to emphasize my point.

Over the rest of the hour the students asked more questions about why we did certain movements in the form. Every time I acted out the reason behind a block, strike, or escape move I had some lightbulb moments of my own. It helped me fill in an outline with energy and intention. I know my understanding of all those “Whys” will influence the way I do the form in the future.

The next morning at work I was sitting in a planning meeting for one the most complex projects I’ve ever worked on in my career. My team and I were making decisions about an extensive program that would impact the future of many people in the company. It’s been in development for nearly two years and is ready for launch, but as we dove deeper into the finer details we found ourselves asking the same questions the young taekwondo students had asked the night before:

“Why do we do this?”

The danger my colleagues and I could have fallen into was just accepting things “as is” because a decision had been made six months ago or twelve months ago. We could have just gone through the motions the way a taekwondo student might half-heartedly breeze through a form, both of which would result in inefficiency and lack of understanding. Instead we chose to be intentional about our decisions and actions.

With a deeper understanding of our program we realized we had the power to shape it into something that was effective and meaningful. We had a thoughtful discussion that did exactly what my “Pal-Jang Theory Workshop” had done for me and my students the night before: it filled in the outline. We made solid decisions and figured out what exactly needed to be done to make our program successful. It wasn’t quite as much fun as elbowing someone in the stomach, but I had the same sense of satisfaction after that meeting as I did after my Pal-Jang lesson with the kids.

The takeaway? Ask why. Seek clarification and understanding. Question the status quo. Use your newfound information to set your intentions. Don’t just react blindly. A deeper awareness of the “why” behind our actions will help us be more mindful and tactical about the decisions we make.

And if you ever get a chance to elbow someone in the stomach, it’s awesome.

When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe

chairs

I am not, by nature, a loyal person.

Connecting with other people has always been difficult for me. Although I come from a close-knit family and have been a serial monogamist in romantic relationships, when it comes to groups of friends or associates I tend to shy away. I truly enjoy interacting with people, especially those with whom I share similar interests, but I have a little problem with commitment. When things start to move too fast, and it starts getting too close, I bail. Once the fun wears off and things get serious, I don’t want to stick around. To be honest, I’m a bit of a player. I like the flirtatious rush at the beginning, but I don’t want to deal with the long-term time and energy investment.

I’ve been a member of a Catholic Bible study group, a running club, and even a swing dance syndicate. (Hey, swing dance was a thing in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Don’t act like you don’t remember.) I went to their homes, their parties, their events. Eventually, though, I felt cramped by the commitment and began to put more and more distance between myself and my various social groups until I disconnected myself completely.

My longest standing “group” relationship has been with the young professionals crowd at my city’s modern art museum. On paper I seem like a perfect fit. I live in a trendy part of town. I love art. As much as I despise hipsters and yuppies (the major demographic of the young professionals group), I’m a blend of both with just a dash of hippie thrown in. I’m still skimming under the age limit, although I will not be in the “under 40 friends” category for much longer. I’ve been a member of this group for over ten years, but I consider only one of them a friend.

I am a lone wolf, an Ebenezer Scrooge, a ghost.

I knew my relationship with the modern art group was fading fast at an event last Friday. The event, which was held at an offsite gallery downtown, featured the work of a local artist, and more importantly, a donut food truck. I rarely get dressed up and go out, and I had been looking forward to this event for weeks.

Thirty seconds into the event, I wanted to leave. There I was in a cramped room, sipping mediocre wine, looking at mediocre art, and surrounded by people I didn’t know and had no interest in getting to know better. I loathed the thought of being dragged into the false-cheery, superficial, “What do you do? Oh, interesting! Oh, and what do you do?” vicious circle of vacuous conversation. I realized with a sinking feeling that I had absolutely nothing in common with these people other than an appreciation for art.

I missed my dojang, my classmates, and my instructors, and found myself thinking more about the color belt students who were testing that night than the people milling around in front of me in the gallery. I turned on my heel, bought a Cinnamon Toast Crunch donut from the food truck, which made the otherwise dull outing worth it, and rushed home. As I ate my donut in my fortress of solitude (WORTH IT!) I eagerly gazed at Facebook posts from testing students and parents of testing students and looked forward to when I could see everyone in class the following Monday.

donut

WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!

It’s been said that you “just know” when you’re in love, and I think the same can be said for when you know you’ve finally found your tribe.  It’s taken me over thirty years to find a group of people besides family that I can be loyal to. The funny thing is, I wasn’t really looking for a  “community” when I began taekwondo training. I took up taekwondo because I wanted to put a stop to my self-destructive behaviors and do something good for myself. What I didn’t expect to get was camaraderie, closeness, and a desire to serve. Now I have two families.

Maybe the reason why I feel so at ease in my dojang and am willing to stay late, help out, listen, learn, and finally make a commitment to a group of people I’m not linked to by blood is this: I went into the relationship with no expectations. I wasn’t trying to figure out how I could use anyone to fill some kind of void. I wasn’t vying for anyone’s attention or approval, and perhaps for those reasons, my very high walls began to crumble. They bring out the best in me, which sadly hasn’t been the case with my other relationships.

So maybe that’s the trick to finding your tribe, in whatever form that may be: when you’re willing to give more than you get, you’ve found them. When you don’t hold anyone to the impossible expectation of making you feel better about yourself (because that’s your job, not theirs), you’ve found them. When you find yourself thinking about them often and counting the days until you can see them again, you’ve found them.

Meanwhile, I think it might be time to change my membership level at the modern art museum.

A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It

tornado

Sup, tornado! Wanna fight??

Sometimes, for reasons that make sense and just as often for reasons that don’t, I get sad. The feeling can overtake me in a flash. It’s not dissimilar from the Texas storms that mark the beginning of spring (and more pointedly, tornado season): suddenly the sky turns greyish-green, the tornado sirens are wailing, the rain starts pounding sideways, and the household lights flicker. It can be terrifying and paralyzing, and then just as quickly as it began, it’s over.

Recently I was hit with one of those emotional “rain squalls” and found myself hunched at my dining table with my head in my hand and tears streaming silently down my face.  It just happened, and while I knew it wasn’t for a rational reason, I gave in and let it take over for a few minutes. I knew it would pass, but it was agonizing.

Then I popped up out of the chair and did something I’ve never done before when I’ve been upset and overwhelmed:

I did a taekwondo form.

I stood in ready stance at one end of my living room, took a deep breath, and launched into what we call “Koryo One” at my dojang. This is a rarely practiced form that is different from the well-known and universal “Koryo” black belt form. At our school a student learns Koryo One as a bo dan in preparation to test for first degree black belt. To read more about “Koryo One” click here. To read more about the universal “Koryo,” click here.

Anyway, our Koryo One is a short but powerful and interesting form. It has eye punches and face smashes, and you can’t get much better than that in a form. Going through the form only took a minute or two, but I immediately felt better. The tears had dried, my breathing was steady, and my mind was calm. I decided to see what happened when I tried another one.

I did Koryo Two, or what is better known as the universal black belt form “Koryo,” and was especially forceful with the knee breaks and throat grabs. I played around with the timing and tried to incorporate some of the things I’d been tweaking earlier in the week in class.

Not bad. I was feeling a little better.

I kept going through a short list of my favorite forms that are especially strong and beautiful: Keumgang (yes, really, after all the confusion of learning, it I love it), Palgwe Chil Jang, and Palgwe Sah Jang.

As I was going through the forms I thought about the advice I had given some younger students the night before: “Make it look powerful. Don’t just walk through it; you’re in a fight. Make it POP!” I remembered how I demonstrated power to the students: as I was glaring at them out of the corner of my eye to make sure they paid attention, I lunged forward into a front stance and snapped my fists forward into a double gut punch. I let out a sharp exhale and imagined clocking someone in the sides. POP!

When my emotions tried to take over again, I fought harder against my invisible enemy. My blocks were strong, my kicks were sharp, and my transitions were smooth. I was light on my feet (mostly so I wouldn’t disturb my downstairs neighbors) and highly alert. There was no feeling of terror or paralysis as long as I was kicking my mind’s butt. The flash flood was over.

It felt appropriate to end my little cool-down session with Palgwe Pal Jang, a form that according to taekwondo tradition, symbolizes a return to earth and a sensation of becoming grounded. By the time I finished my set I even had a little smile on my face.

I stood still for a moment as my breathing slowed and realized that my mind was completely quiet. I didn’t feel drained as one might after a good long crying session. I felt more that I was cleansed. Out of curiosity I tried to muster up the stress and anxiety I had been feeling earlier, and I simply couldn’t. My mind was too quiet and empty to put forth the effort.

We do not have to become terrified or paralyzed when feelings of sadness, anger, stress, or fear loom over us like a storm cloud. We can observe the emotions for what they are (a passing storm), and let the rain wash through us as we stand strong. I regained my power through my forms. For others it might be prayer, meditation, a deep breath, or a long run that helps them refocus and regain a sense of calm. Whatever it is, find what grounds you, and stand strong.

Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class?

sparring spicy food

This post features both empanadas and taekwondo sparring. What could possibly go wrong?

I like Wednesdays. If it’s a payday week I can log online as early as Wednesday to look at that Friday’s paycheck so I have something to look forward to over the next two days. Wednesday is a good day to stay busy and productive without the drudgery of Monday or the frantic rush of Friday. Most importantly, Wednesday is empanada day at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.

Wednesday is also the day my dojang holds sparring class, and for some reason, I can’t shake the feeling of dread I’ve had around this particular class ever since I began training.

A little bit of history about my relationship with sparring: as much as I loved taekwondo when I trained in it as a child, I came to hate sparring and eventually taekwondo class itself. Each time I fought I was overcome with anxiety. As we sat along the sidelines of the imagined fighting ring I would try to shrink myself as small as I could and pray silently that my instructor wouldn’t call on me. I hoped the time would run out before it was my turn.

As a child I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt during sparring. I was afraid of being wrong. I was a sad and extremely self-conscious child and felt like ridicule and humiliation were always waiting around the corner. That fear and low self-esteem naturally bled over into taekwondo. I felt like if I didn’t do the right thing in sparring then I would be exposed as a fraud, a failure, a loser.

For the longest time, sparring felt like nonsensical improvisation. As a young taekwondo student what stressed me out the most was the panicked feeling of not knowing what to do next. I was technically very good, but when let loose in a sparring match, the thought of just “making something up” terrified me. That feeling of terror followed me into other ventures. For example, the days I hated the most in high school theater class were when we did improvisational acting. I couldn’t think of what to do next! It didn’t make sense!

I was also never good at improvising in music. Even though I’d been trained in a few instruments my technical, lockstep mind couldn’t deviate from pre-programmed actions. When I studied classical guitar, which is a skill that requires a high level of technique, I was able to play intermediate-level pieces fairly well, but ask me to jam around on a few chords? No way! My brain would freeze and then quickly melt away.

In retrospect I don’t think I really hated sparring or taekwondo class. I hated myself for not living up to my impossible expectations. As I grew older I hated myself for not being clever enough or popular enough or thin enough, which was one of the most destructive expectations I placed upon myself. It took many years and a lot of hard work to get over those feelings of inadequacy.

Fast forward to today: I love sparring when I’m in the moment. I get high off the racing adrenaline, secretly enjoy getting a little mean and nasty, and I even get so excited that I cheer on my partners with admiration when they hit me hard with a well-timed and well-executed blow. But I never can shake that sinking feeling I get every Wednesday afternoon.

Sparring exposes me. When I’m sparring I can’t hide behind my graceful skill in forms, my strength and speed when I kick a pad, or my knowledge of a self-defense techniques. It’s time to act and immediately apply what I’ve spent weeks and months and years practicing.  There is no time to ponder, analyze, or ask questions. When I’m sparring, it’s Go Time.

Although I know now that sparring is not just “making stuff up,” it’s taken me a much longer time to develop my sparring skills than it has with other taekwondo techniques. It’s also taken me a long time to shake that old self-consciousness that creeps in occasionally during a match; I thought I had defeated it for good. Up until close to the time that I tested for black belt, sparring was stressful, frustrating, and fruitless. I had not yet figured out how to look for patterns, use strategy, or quickly pull the appropriate kick from my arsenal. I’m still not there.

While I’ve gotten much better and feel more comfortable with it, I still often feel clumsy and slow when I spar, and that old self-consciousness bubbles up. These days, though, with my black belt perspective, it doesn’t stress me out as much. I see it as an opportunity to constantly learn and improve. My chief instructor once said that if I didn’t have a challenge I’d get stale, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that I still struggle in many areas, especially sparring. What kind of black belt would I be if I stopped trying once I got that coveted belt? Imagine how good I’ll be if I keep working hard and learning from trial and error.

As if the Universe knew I needed a break, this week’s sparring class gave me a reprieve from a hour of straight fighting and put me more into the coach/referee role. Several students are testing for their next belt level this week, so we spent the first twenty minutes helping the testing students with self-defense techniques. Then after a short sparring match with my usual partner, a girl who is bigger, stronger, and a lot younger than me and therefore always a good challenge, the black belts were asked to referee other students’ matches.

I still got a good workout. Chasing around (and artfully dodging) two big guys during their match definitely kept me on my toes. I felt a little bit like a mosquito flitting around two big male rhinos fighting on the African grasslands: I was trying hard not to get squished while still staying close enough to buzz around their ears and annoy them.

Coaching and refereeing is also an excellent brain workout. I have learned just as much about the art and science of taekwondo from helping other students as I have from my own instructors. In the workplace I’ve always known I’ve reached a comfortable level of conscious competence when I can (1) run the place or a project on my own and (2) advise somebody else on what they should do. It’s a similar experience in taekwondo: I try to use the objective lens I’ve honed from coaching on my own practice whether it’s trying out the sparring strategies I yell at the students during a match or using the refined techniques I preach to students as they practice a form.

Sparring class is still stressful and frustrating, and sometimes I secretly wish for a late afternoon work meeting or project that will hold me over, but I have a much deeper appreciation for what sparring has given me than I could ever understand as a child.

Fighting gives me a focus and clarity that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. It’s an incredible workout that keeps my heart and lungs healthy and my muscles quick an strong. Heck, just this week someone told me I was built like a “brick sh-thouse.” (For a 5’3” strawweight fighter, I suppose I am.) The constant challenge keeps me sharp and interested. The opportunity to coach and referee gives me the warm and fuzzy satisfaction of helping another person and the ability to learn more quickly.

So, despite the underlying anxiety sparring class always gives me, it has pushed me to improve further than anything else in taekwondo…but if given the choice, I’d still rather have an empanada.

Guest Post: What to Do When Your Martial Arts Practice Feels Stagnant

 

Boxer-working-with-coach

Check out this guest post I wrote for BookMartialArts.com: “What to Do When Your Martial Arts Practice Feels Stagnant”

BookMartialArts.com is the world’s leading martial arts travel company. It is a unique travel site that appeals to martial artists, yoga enthusiasts, fitness buffs, and anyone who wants to challenge their minds and bodies while visiting another part of the world. Search the site to find destinations near or far that will help you make your martial arts dreams a reality.