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Guest Writer: How to Reduce Stress at Work

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Work can be stressful although it doesn’t have to be. Even black belts can’t be super calm and relaxed at work all the time. Once in a while I sneak in a little taekwondo practice in my office (yes I’ve done a spin kick in a dress). Other times I look for more traditional ways to bring a sense of calm to my workday.

I found these tips from the blog at ClickTime helpful and great reminders of simple things we can do to reduce workplace stress:
How to Reduce Stress at Work: 12 Strategies to Handle Stressful Careers

 

 

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The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

The Poomsae Series Part 15: Learning Taeguk Forms and Accepting Corporate Bureaucracy

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It’s begun. I am learning Taeguk forms. Sigh.

A little bit of history about poomsae (forms): The preference for Taeguk rose alongside the focus of taekwondo turning to sport taekwondo, or Olympic style sparring. Stances are higher and shorter, and the movements are much simpler than the Palgwe forms. I also think some practitioners just didn’t want to associate with the similarity Palgwe forms had with karate and in turn the unpleasant history Korea shared with Japan. But what do I know.

I don’t like Taeguk forms, but it seems like the rest of the taekwondo world does, and if I want to continue my career as a black belt, instructor, and potential poomsae competitor I’ll have to put them into my repertoire at some point. I mean, white zinfandel is loved by lots of people for some reason even though it’s terrible. But it’s popular enough that I have to deign to walk by it in every grocery or liquor store. White zinfandel is cheap, common, but does the job if you need to get buzzed.

I need some more poomsae stimulation. The 22 forms I know just aren’t enough to get me high (We have an eight-pack of keebons my grandmaster created in case ya’ll are trying to count. Plus four black belt forms and the outliers “Koryo One” and Nopei). I’m a poomsae-aholic. I need that buzzzzzzz of a fresh form. Guess I might as well open up my mind and learn a whole new set.

The business of taekwondo is becoming more and more like a corporation. There are more hoops that coaches, referees, school owners, and instructors have to jump through. If USAT or Kukkiwon decides everyone is going to dye their hair purple and kick while standing upside down, then by God we’d better all do it, and for a fee we have the privilege to be certified in purple hair and upside down kicking. I know the intention is consistency, and we all appreciate that, but when does too much control in the name of consistency impeded individual talent?

And wouldn’t you know, I’m experiencing some of this encouragement to conform in other areas of my life. The department I work in has greatly widened its reach across my large company, and understandably, the powers that be are trying to systemize processes and standardize services. My little team of experienced and creative consultants can no longer make completely autonomous decisions in our little princedoms. Services we deliver must be approved, sanctified, and tracked. It makes sense, but sometimes the red tape can blind us to the immediate and unique needs of our clients.

On the flip side, I do appreciate a more structured approach to what my team does. I don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request, and I don’t have to create everything from scratch. I get what I bargain for by working for a large organization: a nice salary with great benefits, and I have to play along with the decisions that are made. I can live with that.

I’m pretty open about my Palgwe snobbery. #sorrynotsorry. Palgwe forms are intricate, beautiful, strong, and pretty badass when it comes to self-defense. I think Taeguk forms, on the other hand, are boring and unnecessarily illogical. Why yes, of course when I turn to face an opponent who’s coming at me from my blind left side I’m going to block with my BACK HAND while leaving my torso open even though my little right arm is too short to effectively reach whatever kick or hand strike is coming towards me. Oh my goodness it makes perfect sense. And I feel so stable in this walking stance, which one of my masters used to call “broken knee stance.” Why, I feel like I could kick or jump out of the way or…wait, no I don’t.

My students still do Palgwe forms at tournaments. Sometimes they win gold because technique speaks for itself no matter what style of form they’re doing (I’ve seen plenty of crappy snap kicks in both styles), and other times they are at the mercy and bias of judges who are openly anti-Palgwe. I’ve been told by other instructors, judges, and referees that we need to change our ways at our dojang if we want to have any chance of doing well at tournaments. For now though it seems we’ll be that rogue school sticking with Palgwe because (1) tradition, duh (2) they’re excellent for teaching self-defense (3) my Korean grandmaster has over 60 years of experience, so I’m good with his direction and (4) Palgwes look really cool, and I feel like a gangster when I go all out with them.

Okay, okay, I’ll give you this: I do find myself standing taller when I spar than when I’m doing other taekwondo-y stuff (but not with completely straight legs). And during sparring I do end up doing some weird instinctual blocking based on whatever is flying at my body or my head. But look, I’m 5’3” and have zero interest in nor the build for sport taekwondo. I’m looking for practical ways to beat the crap out of someone, and Palgwes provide a good opportunity to practice that. And when I’ve taught forms I’ve been able to make references between those forms and sparring on many occasions. But that’s just me, that’s just my style. I like the way I do things, and I’m good at it.

Same thing at work. Sometimes I go rogue. I can’t wait on my “USAT” to make a long drawn-out decision when I have “students” who need my help right now. I have to rely on what I know, what my strengths are, and what I think is best for the people I serve. But, as with the politicized realm of taekwondo, I have adapt to the balance of what I can do as a creative individual and what the needs and direction are of my organization. I have to rely on others rather than being completely independent, and I have to adjust to new processes. My ultimate goal is helping people through the work I do and making as much money as I can to support myself (hey, I’m an independent woman, and that involves looking out for number One)…so I can play nice. The work I do is not life-saving (I leave my clients to do that) so it’s not worth worrying about.

I can still be me, but I have to also be very good at playing the political professional game and drinking the “company white zinfandel.” (And as a side note, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is such a horrible, morbid, and overused reference. Real people died. Let’s lose that expression and stick with white zinfandel.) I’m looking at it as a learning experience, an interesting challenge, and something I might as well get good at if I want to keep up with the changing times.

So, Taeguk it is…in my living room…by myself.

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

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My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Taekwondo Has Become an Afterthought and an Albatross

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I used to be a taekwondo person with a growing career. Now I’m a successful career person who just happens to have a (2nd degree) black belt in taekwondo.

I don’t like that feeling.

Sure, I have a poster in my office that says “A Black Belt is a White Belt Who Refused to Give Up,” and I go to class once or twice a week…and that’s it. I don’t think about it much. In reviewing the past several months prepping for my four year anniversary blog post I realized I didn’t write about it much either, even last year when I was heavily preparing for my 2nd Dan test. Regular life has taken over, and taekwondo has taken a back seat.

Taekwondo had a very prominent place in my life for several years, and within a few months it suddenly dropped to nearly nonexistent. I’m just now starting to notice the negative effects. I’ve let myself get pretty stressed with increasing work demands the past few months, and I attributed a piece of it to my lack of “outlet.” I had taekwondo to look forward to almost every day for the last five years. I planned for it, thought about it, daydreamed about it, and could always count on it to be a healthy balance of all the “adulting” I had to do during my day job and just keeping up a household.

I have a nice home and nice people to visit with outside of work and nice hobbies, but I’m missing that euphoric high I used to get from a hard-working, fun taekwondo class. I’m missing my drug and my life balance. I feel like I’m missing part of my identity too.

My taekwondo world went through a huge upheaval at the end of last year. I don’t want to go into details here. Suffice it to say there was some tension and stress among everyone involved. The schedule has changed, the location has changed, and some of the people have changed. I went from going to the dojang five or six days a week to maybe two. I backed away from teaching the lower ranking class because I realized how much I disliked it and how stressful it was for me after a long day at a busy job. Now I only go to the “advanced class” once or twice a week. The temptation to stay home after a late meeting or long commute instead of going to class is fairly regular.

I’m not very happy with my current situation at my taekwondo school. I’m not getting much in the way of “black belt training,” my favorite instructor is gone, the location is sub-par, and I know I don’t have the same conditioning I had last year. There’s only so much one can do in two hours a week, especially if about half that time is spent teaching. (I also don’t have an intestinal parasite to keep me really skinny like I did last year) I’d like to train and test for third degree, and in the meantime I’d like to compete in forms and breaking at tournaments. My current situation allows me neither the time nor attention to focus on those goals.

If I were coaching me as I do with other people, I would remind myself that I do have the choice to leave…and right now I’m choosing to stay. I’m not very happy where I am but I feel like I need to stay out of obligation even though the world would not fall apart if I left. Certain people have certain expectations and assumptions about black belts and “loyalty,” and if I chose to leave there might be trouble, at least in the short-term.

I don’t know if going to another school would inspire me to make taekwondo a bigger part of my life again. I think some of that has to come from me. I think I can try harder to make the best of the situation I’m in now and come up with ways to practice taekwondo outside of the limited class time.

Right now I have eight students testing for first degree, and that is keeping me motivated and positive. I care very much about my students and am not ready to move on from them yet. After the test I think I’ll have to reevaluate my place in the school and decide whether I’m brave enough to do what’s best for me or to wait it out a little longer and hope for a deus ex machina.

When Fun Becomes Work: How to Get The Love Back

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Funny, the last tweet that appeared on my blog was an article I’d written for the website BookMartialArts.com titled “How Martial Arts Can Reduce Work-Related Stress.” What happens when martial arts IS the cause of my “work-related stress”?

I found myself in that situation at the beginning of this year. We were shutting down our old dojang and moving to a local community center. Imaging packing up a house you’d lived in for 20 years, chuck it all in storage, and move to an efficiency downtown. Also throw in the fact that you didn’t know from day to day when the new owner of your old trusty home is ready to kick you out and move in. I spent the first week of January working long hours at the office every day and spending every evening sorting, packing, cleaning, and commiserating with the other black belts. I was also making myself sick with worry trying to keep parents and students informed of our changing schedule. No one asked me to do it. I just decided that’s what needed to be done.

I also had a lot of demands at work: do this presentation, set up these classes, go to a staff meeting at a clinic, make an appearance at a big leadership retreat. Facilitate new employee orientation for 80-100 people every week. For someone who clearly prefers (and NEEDS) introversion I have a very people-focused job that requires me to do a lot of talking and being “on stage” whether it’s teaching a class or conducting a consulting meeting. I’m weirdly very good at it, mostly very satisfied with my job, but sometimes I absolutely hate it. It’s exhausting, so I take every little break, down time, day off, whatever solace I can, even if it’s just hiding in my office for a day. I don’t want to quit, but once in a while I get overwhelmed need a change.

That’s how I began to feel about taekwondo. After all these years it had finally felt like “work.” I’m good at what I do, enjoy it very much, but I was exhausted and starting to hate it. The first time I realized that I was near tears. I’d had plenty of moments of not feeling like going to class, but unless I was sick and truly needed to stay home, I always ended up feeling better once I got there. This one particular evening I felt in my gut I did not want to go. I didn’t want to quit, but I was overwhelmed and needed a change.

I drank a lot of wine in January and February.

I’m still coming down from two months of feeling stretched thin, sad, and worn out from over-stimulation. Here are some things I did that may help you if you’re dealing with the same love/hate situation and if you’re an introvert like me who seriously needs everyone to f*ck off once in a while:

Take a break, whatever that looks like
I’ve scheduled some random days off from work this month, and I already feel like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. As if the Universe was listening (it was), I’m in somewhat of  a self-imposed exile at home right now. I’m having some unplanned construction being done at home because my crappy glass tub enclosure decided to fall apart, so I’m hanging out in the Fortress of Solitude while two guys tear up my master bathroom. I’m still accessible to my coworkers and clients (and they sure do know how to find me), but I get to enjoy working in my sunlit home office, not wearing shoes and makeup, making fresh smoothies when I need a snack, and most importantly, NOT TALKING TO ANYONE unless I choose to. I have a few conference calls and possibly an in-person meeting at the end of the week. No presenting. Awesomesauce.

I’ve also taken about two weeks off taekwondo and concentrated on my workouts at the gym. This week I was finally excited about going back to taekwondo class. It felt fun again.

Maybe you can’t take time off from work in the same way, so take breaks (even if they are just mental) in whatever way works for you.

Set Boundaries
As much as I like to please people, I’ve learned how to say “no” or at least “here’s an alternative” in work situations. That’s taken some pressure off me and allows me more time to do quality work.

I told my parents they couldn’t spend the night this weekend while I was still having work done on my bathroom. Fine, they’ll meet me for lunch and visit another weekend.

I decided not to go to the earlier taekwondo classes to help out and teach (white belts and the occasional higher ranking sibling) because (1) I needed downtime between work and taekwondo (2) I don’t enjoy teaching really young kids–one or two at a time is fun but not the whole class (3) the last time I went to the early class I got stuck with two little blue belt boys who just wanted to play and piss me off and waste my time and (4) I suck at teaching white belts, and at this point in my TKD career I don’t have much interest in perfecting that skill. (Not that white belts aren’t awesome. They are; I just don’t want to spend my mental energy on creative but simple ways to keep them educated and entertained…especially when they’re all little kids). There are other people who are higher ranking and with more responsibility over the school who can do that. I don’t have to be there all the time…it’s taken me several months to convince myself of that.

Find Comfort in Simple Activities
Around the end of February I felt the urge to do some spring cleaning. I went through all my closets and drawers in the Fortress of Solitude (home), changed out my winter decorations to more colorful items, and cleaned out a bunch of papers in the Batcave (my work office). I feel like I have a bright, clean, fresh start in my two cozy sanctuaries (and soon a new tub and shower area).

Sometimes on an evening off or a Sunday afternoon I like to practice my taekwondo forms at home. It’s a different environment, I can listen to a podcast or music while I practice, and I don’t have to interact with everyone. It keeps my memory for poomsae sharp and gives me time to concentrate on what I want to work on, not re-teaching a color belt their form—ooh did I type that out loud? (if my students are reading this…PRACTICE ON YOUR OWN!!!)

Change Your Perspective
I don’t have to work. I get to work and be creative and write and help people learn and do things I truly enjoy (and make money, which I TRULY enjoy as well). It’s a new year and I have new and long-term clients that I get to help and coworkers I get to create with.

I don’t have to go to taekwondo. I don’t have to train or teach–I get to. I have the privilege of training under very skilled masters and a grandmaster and I have the joy of sharing what I love with other students. I’m adjusting to our new space and even learning to appreciate it. I have 7 or 8 bo dans testing for black belt next month, and I get to guide them every step of the way.

You get to wake up every day. You get to provide for yourself or for others. You get to experience life and make your own choices even when you don’t think you have any choices.

Sometimes all we need is a break to get back on track…and a glass or two of wine.

 

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.