The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

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Being Okay With Where You Are

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“Yoga is about being okay with where you are today,” said the teacher as we slowly worked our way through poses in a mid-morning class. I’m not sure the ancient Yogic scriptures included that in their philosophy, but hey, it’s a nice thing to hear on a Monday morning. I’ve been practicing yoga for twenty years, and have for the most part been totally okay with those days when I’m more wobbly or the decline in my flexibility over the years. I’m pretty chill with where I am, at least on the mat.

It was also a reminder that outside of yoga class and perhaps the workplace, I often am not okay with where I happen to be in a given moment, which keeps me unfocused, wrapped up in my own thoughts and the lies I tell myself, unaccepting and unable to let go, and unable to comfortably remain in the present moment.

I had a very profound moment of not being okay or accepting of where I was during my second dan test. Everything was going well: I had retained my balance and strength during a very difficult slow-motion kicking portion, put power and precision into my forms (and it meant a lot to me that my mom said I should compete in poomsae at future tournaments), executed my self-defense well (and kinda accidentally hurt my partner, but that’s what he gets for attacking me), and fought two bigger, stronger black belts without getting whacked in the head. Cool. I was going to ace this test.

We ended the test with my favorite activity, breaking. We practice breaking quite a bit in classes, but it’s a rare thing to actually get to break boards. I love breaking not even so much for the challenge and creativity of putting a sequence together, but let’s just face it, hitting shit is FUN. Breaking stuff is cathartic. Black belt promotion tests are years apart so unless there’s a demonstration, actual breaking is a very rare treat. I was beginning my sequence with a spinning knife hand strike followed by a punch. I had practiced this countless times and had successfully completed it at a demo last year. Yay! Let’s do this. I took a deep breath, wound up, spun around and–

THUNK.

The board didn’t break.

Crap.

I was in shock that I didn’t get the outcome I was expecting, but I didn’t skip a beat and tried not to show my disappointment externally. I kept going, thankfully nailing my final break on the first shot, which was a flying roundhouse and the one in theory that was the most difficult. In the end everything was broken, there were shards of wood everywhere, and all was well.

Only in that moment it wasn’t. My mood dropped significantly, and I had to force myself to smile in the photos we all took after the test. Other than my breaking, I knew I did well, and I’ve known before the test that I had already earned that second degree with all the work and dedication I’ve put in over the past two years. My masters assured me that it was not a big deal and overall I had done a good job. On the way to lunch at my request for some “coaching,” my musician brother told me about a time he saw Billy Joel, one of his idols, make a mistake on national television. Billy just rolled his eyes and kept playing, and it helped my brother accept those times when he made mistakes in his own performances.

Not passing my test wasn’t the issue. I was disappointed that I didn’t perform at the level I expected, especially during my favorite testing portion. I wasn’t perfect, and I had a hard time accepting that. I was still able to enjoy a celebratory lunch (and of course Champagne and cupcakes) and a pleasant afternoon with my family, but my dampened mood nagged at me. I wasn’t okay with where I was that day.

I think my next big challenge and perhaps something I should focus my efforts on in 2018 is letting go of specific, “perfect” outcomes related to what I love the most: taekwondo and my personal relationships. Experience has proven that “letting go” and not agonizing over a particular situation opens up doors of opportunity to outcomes even better than I could have imagined with my limited knowledge. I care too much about certain aspects of my personal life, and all that does is cause me stress and pain.

I have mastered the practice of healthy detachment with my career, partially to keep myself from getting too stressed out about work and partially to spite society, which assumes that women who do not have partners or children MUST be married to their job and be absolute workaholics. I’m very good at what I do, like and respect my coworkers, care about my clients, have a fantastic work-life balance, and am happier with my job than I ever have been before. Just this year I got a big private office and the shortest commute I’ve ever had, plus twice the salary of what I made when I first started with my company…but I could walk away from it all in a heartbeat and never give that job or anyone related to it another thought.

It’s not that I don’t care about work. I’ve had plenty of moments of being upset, angry, or worried about work-related situations. But I don’t let those feelings overtake me or serve as a sense of purpose or fulfillment in my life. I love my job, but I don’t let work define me, whereas I seem to do the opposite with my personal life. I’ve made plenty of mistakes at work, but I’ve been able to brush them off quickly and remind myself that they don’t impact my overall performance.

If I don’t have work at least I still have my personal life, and perhaps that thought keeps my work detachment going. But if aspects that I value in my personal life go away or I fail or I’m rejected, I feel like I will have nothing. I’m holding on to those aspects so much that I can’t open myself up to the organic growth and opportunities that I’ve seen with my more relaxed take on my career.

I’m okay with where I am in my career. You could even say I’m content. I’m not always okay with where I am personally. Throw in one little metaphorical wobble to my personal life, namely taekwondo or the ambiguity of some of my personal relationships, and I panic. I feel lost and scared without the security of knowing that things will be okay, that I will still be accepted in my dojang and by the people I love. I berate myself for not trying harder and for supposedly disappointing the people I care about. I’ve put this same undue pressure on myself regarding my physical appearance since I was a teenager. Hell, I’m still underweight thanks to an intestinal parasite, but I habitually still look for flaws. “Thin” is such a an unfamiliar descriptor to me that I have a hard time attributing it to my physique. I’m holding myself and the rest of what I value in my personal life up to such impossible standards that the foundation threatens to crumble beneath me.

I can take disappointments at work in stride, and I long to have that healthy sense of detachment with my personal life. The fear of loss and the pain that it causes is unbearable. I never feel hatred or jealousy at work, and I rarely feel doubt. I can’t say the same for my personal life, and all that does is cause more pain.

Not breaking the board the first time wasn’t the real problem. Being so attached to things going my way was what made my mood crash when my expectations weren’t met. I’m so afraid of losing taekwondo or people I care about that I let the worry and fear overtake me before anything even happens. That causes more unnecessary stress and sometimes more mistakes.

I want to be okay and content with being who I am without those safeguards I’ve built into my personal life. I want to be able to not give them a second thought when they’re not needing my attention. I want to detach from everything and everyone in a healthy way.

Perhaps not breaking that board on the first attempt was the best thing that could have happened. It was a good reminder of where I am with the unrealistic standards I put on myself. No matter how I did at Saturday’s test, I’m still a black belt, and I’m still going to class tonight, ready to keep practicing…in a healthy, detached way of course.

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.