So…How Are You Doing With Those Taekwondo Tenets?

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Maybe when I had a lotus flower, symbolizing the characteristics of Jidokwan, tattooed on my arm I should have also had the common taekwondo tenets etched on there too:
Courtesy
Integrity
Perseverance
Self-Control
Indomitable Spirit

…cause I’m doing a crap job of them lately.

What we want the most is often what is just out of reach, and the more we chase it and try to force it into our hands the more evasive it becomes. I want a sense of calm and ability to stay present and also be slow to anger or judge. Apparently it’s Opposite Day, because for the last few months I’ve been a stressed out, short-fused, worrying grouch. EVERYTHING is serious and EVERYTHING is a crisis. I have good intentions to calm the hell down, but it’s been slow-going in the face of the real-life tests put in front of me.

I might not be training in taekwondo at the moment, but as I’ve said in previous posts, I am and always will be a black belt, which for me has as as many mental and emotional indications as physical. I didn’t get into taekwondo for the physical aspect. I wanted to get hold of my wily mind. I’ve gotten a lot better at it, but in times of stress I seem to revert back to some old habits.

I doubt my fellow martial artists are perfect at applying these tenets at all times. We’re human. We’re fallible. We slip up. The world can be a difficult place that breaks down our indomitable spirits. But it’s nice to have these guideposts in place.

So maybe this is the real test: how I conduct myself outside the dojang. Courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and having an indomitable spirit are not meant to be trotted out for belt tests or sparring matches and then be tucked neatly away. They’re in place to help us shape our daily practice and interactions with others both on and off the mat. Maybe self-forgiveness should be part of that guiding system too.

Let’s live the tenets in real life. Let’s use our black belt ability to pause in the face of stress, calm ourselves, and respond in a way that corresponds with our guiding values. I’m still going to have my bad days, but I’m going to use my black belt perseverance to keep trying.

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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.

My New Goal: Give Zero F*cks By Forty

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I am celebrating my 39th birthday this week. While I won’t be eating complimentary cake in my dobok with my other black  belts and taekwondo students like I did last year, I’ve enjoyed some extended time off and have a few fun things planned. The biggest thing I plan on doing is embarking on a year-long quest to take me into the next decade of life with a smile: I want to give zero f*cks by forty.

Many people start improvement plans on their way to forty: some do a “Fit by Forty” exercise regime, which I don’t need because I already am. Some people get their financial act together, which I don’t need to do because it already is…Hmm, I suppose I could embark on a year of humility, but…nah!

So why the “Give Zero F*cks by Forty” program? Frankly, I have spent most of my life sweating the small stuff—and the big stuff that turns out to be relatively small in the big scheme of things. Work, school, what other people think of me, what other people say to me, my body, what I do or say, the worries and limiting beliefs and troubling thoughts that take up real estate in my mind–ENOUGH! I’m exhausted!

Giving zero f*cks about the  things that really don’t matter (which is most of “the things”) sounds like a dream. I would be calmer, more relaxed, more open-minded, and more accepting of the shifts and tides of my life.

It won’t be perfect from the beginning, and I know I will have many setbacks and have to re-commit myself many times between now and next July. I’m a control freak in many aspects of my life. It’s served me well academically, career-wise, and financially, but it’s left me pretty tightly-wound too. Letting go of my hatred for a particular body part will be hard. I’ve been failing at that since I was 13. Not being pulled into senseless panic over things at work that don’t matter can be difficult to resist if everyone else is doing it (although working alongside true lifesavers in the healthcare industry has given me a pretty good perspective on what is truly important and what isn’t). The political landscape and division in the United States is a nightmare. Social media is a tempting time drain. Sometimes I daydream about rude, hurtful things people have said or done to me in the past, and it can be a chore to yank myself away from those runaway thoughts and move forward. Letting go of the things I want the most out of life and trusting that they will come to me in due time and without desperate attempts is a huge act of faith.

Does this mean I won’t care about anyone or anything anymore? No, it doesn’t. My new mindset doesn’t mean I’ll stop loving people who are important to me (but it will mean I won’t waste thoughts on people who aren’t) or not put in a good effort at my job (but it will mean I’ll stop taking myself and all the corporate-ness so seriously) or stop trying in taekwondo class (but it will mean I’ll loosen it from my heart strings just a little; holding onto taekwondo too tightly is hurting me this year). What this really means is I’ll stop needlessly worrying about all the stupid petty crap that makes me miserable. We all get pulled into senseless worrying depending on what’s going on in our lives. It sounds so easy and so inviting to let it all go, but sadly we’re programmed to hang on tightly to the very things that make us unhappy.

I’m glad I’m giving myself a whole year.

…but I can do it. If anything I have that black belt stubbornness that makes me continue to challenge and motivate myself.

Join me. Sit back, relax, give zero f*cks, and let yourself finally enjoy the people, things, and experiences in life that truly matter to you and bring you joy.

Zero F*cks by Forty begins in three…two…one…

Guest Writer: How Top Managers Motivate Their Employees

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Sometimes it takes more than intrinsic motivation to get the job done. A great leader and a great black belt are those who inspire their employees or students to push themselves further and produce great results.

My friends at ClickTime shared an article with me on great leadership that I’d like to share with you:
How Top Managers Motivate Their Employees at Work

Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

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I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

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.