You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned From Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14)

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This is my last essay examining an individual form. Unless I can talk one of the senior black belts into teaching me Sipjin or Jitae I’ve gone as far as I can go with black belt forms…for now. I plan on teaching myself Taeguk color belt forms, so that will definitely give me some insight to write about at a later date. But for now this is the end of the direction I’ve been taking with The Poomsae Series.

Anyway…

I don’t even know how to spell the name of the most recent form I learned. I’m going to take a guess and call it “Nopei” (pronounced NO-pay), or as one of the grandmasters in our circle calls it, “that old Japanese form.” At my school this form is learned along with Sipjin at fourth Dan. It’s the last form performed before one attains the level of master…in our school anyway. It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Nopei is a holdover from the old days of taekwondo, or at least the “old days” of the resurgence after the Japanese occupation of Korea and the rise of Korean grandmasters in the United States. It’s a very rarely taught or practiced form in the American taekwondo world, like Koryo One (see article for explanation) and more recently (and regrettably in my opinion) the Palgwe forms.

I asked the master who trained me for my black belt to teach it to me as somewhat of a goodbye. He was leaving the school to take a full-time job, and poomsae (forms) was one of his greatest talents. He always made forms look precise, strong, and smooth, and he expected no less from his students. He’s been my mentor, leader, and friend for several years, and I’ve modeled all the things I do well after his teaching, especially the way I practice and perform forms. I won’t blame him for the stupid things I do—that’s all me.

Nopei begins simply, even more simply than the Palgwe OR Taeguk forms: one double knifehand high block to the left followed by a slight shift in weight and another to the right. Fists go the belt and the black belt takes three determined steps forward—not slides, not in any fighting stances, just straight up walking (hell, practically strolling although in a very determined manner) with precisely rolling feet.

This is where it gets interesting. In a flash the black belt leaps from the simple walking position into a graceful landing onto the left leg and holds for a breath, just long enough to make an impression. The best way I can describe this movement is that it ends up looking like the Keumgang crane stance with diamond block except with knife hands and the lifted leg more angled for roundhouse kick rather than side kick. It’s a beautiful image, and I know my words don’t do it justice. Along with simple inside-to-outside knife hand strikes, a few middle punches, and a break in dead center with a downward punch (ideally with an actual board or block), the jump is performed three more times.

Nopei ends simply and softly with three high blocks to the back and, facing forward again, those same two knifehand blocks but with the body at a slight 45 degree angle, a subtle wink to whoever is paying close attention.

There are a few more novel pieces to the form after the break, but my favorite part to watch (and to do) is the jump. It’s so different from anything I’ve done in a form or anything I’ve done in five years of taekwondo classes for that matter. It takes some adjusting in both body and mental focus.

Things have changed dramatically for me in my little taekwondo world. The master who taught me the form is gone, we’ve moved to a new location and are still adjusting to the space, and there’s now a lot more pressure on me to lead classes.  For the first time it’s begun to feel like work and an obligation rather than an energy-booster and a pleasure, and that has broken my heart. My feelings toward and relationship with taekwondo has changed.

What this form has taught me is that I know more than I think I do. I can learn a deceivingly simple form with new and unfamiliar movements. I can lead other students and black belts. I can adjust to changes that I don’t necessarily want but have to accept.

Many years ago when I first got into the organizational development industry I was fretting over a project I didn’t feel qualified or experienced for. My director at the time, who was always kind and sincere, looked at me pointedly, said, “Melanie, you know more than you think you do,” and strolled into his office. I’ve never forgotten that moment and I keep that memory as a motivator whenever I’m faced with a challenge. I know more than I think I do at work, in taekwondo, and in life. I just have to relax and trust my instincts.

“Let’s do Nopei together so I don’t cry.” I was chatting with my master before an evening class during the last week he taught at my dojang. I was starting to get teary and emotional about the fact that I wouldn’t get to learn from him anymore. He has inspired, guided, and pushed me further than I thought I could go in the last five years. He’s the best “boss” I’ve ever had as far as grooming and preparing me for my own leadership role, even on the days when I didn’t like him very much, ha ha. These days when I really don’t want to teach I pull from a store of confidence I’ve been able to build through my master’s guidance. I know more than I think I do. He saw that in me before I even realized it.

Moving and breathing in unison we walked through the form together. Then he had me go through it on my own so he could observe, ever the instructor. That was the last form we practiced together and a fitting passing of the torch from teacher to student.

I know more than I think I do, and I know I can do this on my own.

 

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Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone)

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I really should title this post “Why I Consult/Inform/Coach/Question/Advise/Facilitate,” but it’s not as catchy. I find it extremely funny in a karmic way that an introvert like me who preferred to read and draw rather than interact with other kids grew up to make a living out of talking to people. In my personal life I’ve grown into the role of instructor at my taekwondo school, and I love it. How could this have happened? Lately I’ve begun to feel the pressure of my role as helper and guide and wondered if I needed to take a break.

January was a very stressful month at our dojang due to certain circumstances I won’t get into. I was beginning to feel burned out in my leadership role, and I was even in tears one night when I realized it was the first time in five years that I truly did not want to go to class. It felt like “work,” which it never had before, even on nights when I didn’t feel well and even during long tournament coaching days. I kept going back, though, and each time I felt reenergized by interacting with the other students and instructors. I can’t help offering advice before class or being willing to stop what I’m doing and answer questions from a student who asks for my assistance. I can’t walk away from it entirely even though some days I just don’t want to be there. Many bottles of wine have been present during the course of what has been the most stressful month of my taekwondo career.

Meanwhile at my day job…
No one in my personal life quite understands what I do professionally so here’s an example of what I’ve done a typical week as a learning and leadership development consultant for a large healthcare system: I’ve presented company culture and strategy at new employee orientation for 90 people, had a coaching meeting with a physician in a development program who was a little apprehensive about leading his team’s first project meeting, compared notes on what’s going on at my hospital with the director of HR, advised a former leadership coaching client that she needed to be up front with her boss about wanting to move into a higher role, presented a workshop on accountability to over 60 nursing leaders, and lead team building sessions for staff at two stand-alone medical clinics. Meanwhile in the dojang I recently ran a test to promote six students to bo dan, the rank just below black belt. And those many bottles of wine came in handy.

It’s been a busy month. I’m tired.

I took some time to reflect on why I’m so drawn to what I do at work and in the dojang and what I want for my future.

I’ve been providing information and facilitating learning my entire career from my first library internship at the UT Southwestern Medical Center to my current job. I didn’t choose learning as a career; I wanted to be an animator for Disney or an artist for MAD Magazine. Over time I just sort of…fell into it. I liked finding information and I liked helping people meet their needs, whether it was determining the next course of a patient’s care or determining the next step in someone’s career. As a hospital librarian I saw how my work could help clinical workers care for their patients. In my training and development role I’ve seen how my work helps people build better relationships, take bold steps in their careers, and improve their work processes. I’m thrilled when my coaching clients from years ago give me updates on their progress. In taekwondo I get more excited about other students testing for color belt or black belt than I do with my own black belt tests. It’s fun helping people prepare. It’s awesome seeing people succeed.

But damnit I’m worn out. I’m tired of talking to people and hearing myself talk. I’m so looking forward to next week because I have NOTHING on my schedule. A meeting or two, but no speaking engagements, no team building, no orientations, no professional development classes, no coaching, no belt tests. I’m going to hide in my office and not talk to ANYONE. I’m hoping during the taekwondo classes I’ll attend that others take on more of the teaching responsibility and I can just be a student for once. I wouldn’t say this is “compassion fatigue,” which can plague clinical care providers, but I think I need to use this little break in extraverting myself to the world wisely.

And then I’ll be right back to it, and I won’t be able to help myself. A little teaching here, a little coaching there. Sure, I’ll give that presentation. Yes, I can lead warm-ups in taekwondo class. Yes, I can help you with your form. I didn’t chose this. Helping people learn chose me. My success is seeing them succeed. I’m a servant leader and a caregiver, and this has become my calling. The pull is so strong I can’t see myself doing anything else. As tiring as this is sometimes, I hope I continue to feel so lucky that I get to do what I do at work and in the dojang.