When a Hiatus Leads to Victory (i.e., the Best Jump Back Kicks Ever)

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Okay, I didn’t do THIS, but it felt like it.

Last night in taekwondo class I did the best jump back kicks I’ve ever done in my taekwondo career. Ever. (I’m a second degree black belt, it’s about time, right?) It’s not like I haven’t been doing jump back kicks lately, but it’s a whole different ball game when you’re hitting targets versus just kicking the air. Hitting targets, whether they’re pads, kicking pads, or people, is extremely important in taekwondo or any striking art. You can hit the air all you want and get fairly well conditioned, but it’s quite a different thing when there is weight and resistance at play, as well as the precision required with hitting a target, whether it’s moving or not. This is not only important for sparring and breaking, but it builds power and speed as well.

Now that we’re at a community center we have to bring equipment with us, meaning we don’t have access to the stacks of focus pads, shields, heavy bags, and other striking targets that we used to at our old dojang. I usually keep two focus pads in my bag, but this time I lugged in a heavy black rectangular-shaped kicking shield. There were a few students from the advanced class stretching while the orange belts practiced, and their eyes lit up with delight when I held up the pad, grinning and wiggling my eyebrows. They immediately grabbed it and started doing little drills with each other. This was going to be fun.

After some warm ups the senior instructor picked up the shield and asked us to form a line.

“Why don’t you show them what to do?” he suggested. Hmm, what’s a good drill with a heavy shield?

“Okay, listen everyone,” I said. We’re going to do a sliding side kick [I kicked the pad with my front foot] “…followed by…a turning back kick.” I turned and slammed my other foot into the pad as I talked. “Think about when you’re sparring. They’re getting close to you so you hit them with a side kick [I kicked again] and then…knock them…back.” I did one more turning back kick to emphasize my point.

I’ve been hit or miss with targets in the past (no pun intended), especially with turning back side kick. My problem is usually not chambering my leg high enough to kick right in the center of the pad (which in theory is someone’s gut) or sometimes not turning the shoulder of my kicking side down enough. That night, however, I was doing a pretty good, consistent job and had a respectable amount of power behind my kicks. Cool.

Then my Grandmaster stepped to the side with a small focus pad and gestured for me to come over to him. I saw him working with another black belt on jump turning back side kick. Uh-oh, was it my turn now?

“Jump back kick?” I asked. He nodded and lunged towards me. (Sometimes a drill the holder will “fake” towards the kicker so the student can work on timing and distance.) I took a small step back, jumped in the air, twisted my torso, and smacked the heel of my back foot squarely into the meat of the focus pad.

POP!

What?? I’ve never done that well before. Grandmaster gave a short nod of approval. I did a double take in surprise and then quickly repositioned myself.

POP! He moved towards me again.

POP! Well, I’ll be damned.

POP! “Your left side is perfect. Right side—turn the shoulder down a little more,” Grandmaster advised.

POP! Cool, maybe I could break with this kick someday!

POP! Grandmaster smiled in approval, and I trotted away, panting and pleased with myself as I straightened out my uniform.

I ended up doing about eight or nine jump back kicks across the floor and hit that little focus pad every single time. I didn’t graze the edge or tap it. I HIT it. I jumped up, chambered both legs mid-air, and kicked the crap out of that pad square in the middle every time in front my 9thdegree Korean Grandmaster. Sweet. Maybe doing all those jump snap kicks and simple but highly repetitive back kicks in Body Combat class have kept my legs in good condition over the past few months of minimizing my taekwondo training.

I don’t think I haven’t done a drill like that in about eight months, probably not since we moved from our old school. It’s been easy to get complacent lately. Meh, same old kicking drills. Meh, a few forms and sparring. Eh. Who knew giving my body and brain a break and inadvertently doing cross training (Body Combat, barre, swimming, yoga) would lead to some of the best, strongest kicks I’ve ever done? I don’t think I need to wait another eight months for target practice. I think I do need to look for more opportunities to surprise my taekwondo brain and muscles and keep up the diversity in my own training and also for my students.

So I guess these little breaks have done me some good.

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When It’s the Right Time for You to Be In the Right Place

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I’ve spent some time away from taekwondo both physically and emotionally. I’m still recovering from what I now realize was a fairly traumatic change at the beginning of the year and accepting what is my new reality. I suppose it’s my own fault for letting myself get so emotionally attached to taekwondo, the affects it had on me/my thoughts/my actions, and the good thing I had going with it for years since you know…attachment leads to suffering…those platitudes that sound good, but our heart never listens.

There are certain aspects of my old taekwondo life that I can’t get back, but there are others that I could recover by leaving and joining another dojang. There are also some benefits to taking an extended break from it entirely to figure out what I want to do.

I went to class last night (not without a little feet dragging and thinking ahead to what I wanted to do when I got out). I was greeted almost immediately by one of my recent black belts and older students. This young man was soon leaving for college and had wanted his instructors to sign a framed photo from our April black belt test. The fact that he had been carrying out that picture and a black permanent marker for two weeks waiting to get everyone’s signature made me smile and broke my heart a little bit. Of course I signed it. We took a picture together, and then by request, he and I went through Koryo Two, the first black belt form he learned. (Black belt readers, I really mean the universal Koryo. Read why we call it Koryo Two in this blog post.) I felt a little shaky and out of practice–that’s what happens when I do my forms once a week at the gym, ha ha–but I enjoyed helping my student further his black belt practice.

The rest of the class seemed like it was designed to remind me of why I’m exactly where I need to be. The Universe was sending me a message saying, “This may not be where you want to ultimately be, but for now, this is the right place and the right time.”

I ended up teaching the entire time alongside our senior instructor, and I felt myself completely relax and enjoy myself. I led warm ups and a few drills and spent the sparring portion of the class running around the matches yelling good naturedly at the students. I always seem to toggle between being a responsible sparring coach and the goading little devil on their shoulders. I spent the last ten minutes of the class working with students on their forms.

During one of the sparring matches I got to see my aforementioned college-bound student make a perfect connection between poomsae (forms) and sparring, and as a an OD professional and taekwondo instructor, I couldn’t have been prouder.

“You should try using a sliding side kick, like in Koryo Two!” he yelled to his brother and proceeded to knock him across the room with a kick to the chest. He was referencing the stepping side kick in the middle part of Koryo, and smartly used an opportunity in the sparring match to apply his practiced technique.

“Ooh, good way to apply your learning! You made the connection!” I shouted. I couldn’t resist geeking out a little bit.
“Yes, ma’am!” he responded with a smile and continued chasing his brother around the room. (That’s for the critics who say poomsae has no realistic application. That was a mighty fine sliding side kick.)

I’m not where I need or want to be for my training, but I’m where I need to be for my students and for the other black belts. I can pick up training elsewhere, but I’m not ready to give up the rapport and relationships I’ve built. Besides, jumping around and kicking kids is pretty fun.

Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

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.

 

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…]

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.