Taekwondo Never Leaves You

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Note: I originally started writing this post on April 9, 2017 and then forgot about it. Now seems like a good time to bring this back. This is a bit of a love letter and a call back to a post I wrote last year when I was in a very different state of mind: Taekwondo Is Always There.

Two years ago I attended the United States Taekwondo Grandmasters Society banquet in Dallas, Texas. The annual event attracted seasoned and honored grandmasters from all over the country, including my grandmaster from my former dojang.

One of the guest speakers was Olympian Jackie Galloway. She talked about how tradition was inextricably intertwined with a martial art that continues to evolve. People change too, but as Jackie said in her heartfelt speech, “Taekwondo never leaves you.”

I left taekwondo when I was twelve. I left it again for a few months in late 2018. Both times I felt lost. With delight I later discovered–twice–that taekwondo had never left me.

The first time I left taekwondo was due to a number of changes my family was going through. Life happened, as it is wont to do. Frankly I hated sparring so much by that point I was a little relieved to quit. As I got into junior high and high school and extra curricular activities it faded to the background as something I’d done as a kid. As an adult I’d remember it occasionally and fondly as the one sport I was good at performing (well…except sparring).

And then it came crashing back into my life when I absolutely NEEDED it. I had tried many other things to ease years of emotional pain and dumb choices. Some remedies worked to a degree, but I still reached a breaking point. I KNEW without external prompting that I had to get back to taekwondo. It was there waiting for me all those years later.

After making the the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decision to leave my dojang as an adult I wondered if taekwondo would slip quietly into the background and become something I used to do but wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.

Taekwondo was still there waiting patiently for me when I started classes at a new dojang in December 2018. It was there when I volunteered to referee sparring matches at a black belt test. It was there when I kicked a focus pad again. It was there when I tied on a chest protector and slipped on my fighting gloves for the first time in months (I’m better at sparring now and actually like it…most of the time). It was there when my new master welcomed me to her school with open arms. Taekwondo was there when I realized (with relief) how happy I was again.

I have felt so much more light-hearted and easy-going these past two months than the entirety of 2018 that I wondered with a bit of disappointment that I had an unhealthy addiction to taekwondo, like a dependency on a drug or alcohol. The past few years of training have not been all sunshine and flowers, even when things were awesome at my old dojang. I have had some dark times, and I know that at some points I used taekwondo classes as a band-aid for more deeply lying issues. Was this new happy, productive me the real me or was this just my addicted brain on taekwondo?

I talked to a friend about it, and he told me not to worry too much about it. He didn’t think I was relying on taekwondo to make me happy. His philosophy was that people needed some sense of belonging, whatever that looks like. As introverted and as guarded of my time as I am it does feel good to have a sense of purpose and connection. I think I was missing that more than I realize.

Even though I’m a planner I know life can still have unexpected twists and turns. I may have to leave taekwondo again at some point.

The nice thing is, I know now that it will never leave me.

 

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When In Doubt, Go to Class

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It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.

I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.

But instead I went to class.

I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.

I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!

A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.

You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.

What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.

When in doubt, GO. TO. CLASS.

 

 

I’m at a New Dojang! (And I Already Have the Bruises and Cuts to Prove It)

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I’ve gone under the radar for a while both on my blog and in the taekwondo world. After I left my former dojang I needed some time to recharge, take care of personal things, and deal with a very demanding season with my job.

Now I’m ready to emerge from my self-imposed cocoon (well, after hiding out during the holidays) as a new black belt at a new dojang! I’m so excited!

I agonized over and plotted my exit from my old dojang for a long time. It felt similar to leaving a long-term job or a relationship that was enjoyable at one time but had now run its course and needed to end. I knew where I wanted to go and was told I was welcome there when I was ready, but I had to wait for the right moment to leave…no, scratch that, let’s be honest. I had to wait for my over-thinking, worrying brain to let go of self-imposed obligation I’d put on myself to stay.

I won’t rehash my thoughts around leaving. You can read about that in this blog post. Now I want to celebrate my new dojang and soon-to-be new taekwondo family. My new Master is female. In the few conversations I’ve had and classes I’ve attended I already respect her greatly for her business savvy and endearing mix of compassion and firmness as a taekwondo instructor. It’s pretty awesome to be at a female-run school when so much of the taekwondo world is still dominated by men. Most of the senior black belts are male, but there are a few up-and-coming ladies who already display strong leadership skills and dedication to taekwondo. Even though I don’t want to burn myself out too quickly (I’ll get to that later) I already feel drawn to including myself in that group of leaders.

The classes I’ve taken so far aren’t too dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past. Although the bread and butter of the school is competitive sport taekwondo (state, national, international competitions—the elite team is doing quite well), traditional Jidokwan style is also taught, right down to the same one-steps and hapkido-inspired hand-to-hand techniques that I learned at my old school. The kicking drills seem more roundhouse-based and front foot-heavy than what I’m used to, but it makes sense since they train Olympic-style fighters. (I still have Body Combat at the gym if I want to do a boatload of snap kicks, side kicks, and back kicks).

I have to learn all the color belt Taeguk forms since Palgwe is now practiced few and far between (and that’s what USAT wants to see at tournaments)…but…damnit, I find myself actually liking some of those forms. Taeguk 7 and 8 may even deserve their own blog posts in The Poomsae Series since I had so much fun learning them. I won’t forget or stop appreciating and practicing the Palgwe forms (plus my old school’s outliers Koryo One and Nopei), but I think I’m going to enjoy adding a new set of forms to my current repertoire of twenty-two forms.

Most importantly, there’s room for me to grow, which sadly I did not see at my old school, and that was the main reason for my departure. When my new Sabumnim introduced me to the first class I attended she added that I would be eventually testing for third degree. That seems like a viable prospect; it was not at my old dojang. I also have the opportunity to compete—not sparring, ha ha! But I can do board breaking and poomsae, which I love equally. Who cares if the Bullshido guys think that stuff is useful or not; there is nothing quite as cathartic as breaking stuff. Now I can set new goals and refresh the part of my brain that is hungry to learn, not just the part that practices and hones old techniques.

Like love or any other committed venture, I have to be cautious not to get too involved too quickly. That’s what burned me out pretty badly this year. January and February were miserable. I had over-committed myself (and had been invited since I’m apparently so damn good) to projects at work. Meanwhile I was spending nearly every day at the old dojang helping clean out years worth of stuff, lead sparse classes, and communicating with parents while we prepared for our move to the community center. I’m tempted to get involved in “everything” at my new dojang, but I know I need to pace myself. I did not attend Tuesday’s color belt test and don’t plan to attend every one in the future. I did, however, attend the new dojang’s end-of-year black belt test and ended up refereeing several sparring matches (and out-yelled the guys) and held for every testing student’s board breaking combination, which resulted in a number of bruises and cuts on my hands and a chipped manicure.

The Master was very grateful and seemed a little surprised that I showed up and got involved. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to sit there and do nothing, especially as a newbie and a higher ranking black belt. As one of the adults I feel like I need to step in and help when I can, and as a second degree-going-for-third I feel a sense of responsibility to lead and assist. New black belts have expectations of leadership and involvement, and that only grows as we grow in rank and age…but I don’t want to give all of my heart and mind and time too much too soon. I’m excited about my new relationship, and I want to enjoy every moment and new step of the process slowly, one piece at a time.

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.

Why I Left My Taekwondo School

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A few days ago I told my Grandmaster and fellow instructors that I would not be returning to the community center where we hold classes twice a week. I kept my explanation simple: my job is demanding, I have health issues to address, and frankly, I just don’t want to teach anymore.

That was the simple explanation. I’m not sure it was truly heard or accepted, but that’s no longer my problem. I’m done. I’m out. I’m free.

I wrote this post for all the black belts and instructors who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their martial arts school in the face of potential backlash and harmed relationships. There are tons of articles and posts online about quitting martial arts or a particular school from the students’ perspective, but I could find very little solace in stories of my fellow instructors who finally said, “enough” and cut ties. (Although I did get some hits when I paired the search terms “martial arts” and “cult,” which is telling.) I know the stories are out there. This one is mine.

“Quitting” is such a taboo word in the martial arts word where we all proclaim to be white belts who never gave up, and those who quit really aren’t dedicated and blah blah blah. We all like to make ourselves feel good when we say, “I’ll never quit!”

Sometimes quitting is exactly what one needs to do depending on the situation.

I once heard someone describe their religion as a “prison of the mind.” Religion can be a wonderful thing for many people, but like any institution or philosophy or way of life, it can be a trap for those who are susceptible. I knew I needed to leave my taekwondo situation when I realized I had mentally trapped myself in a state of believing I was helpless to change a situation that I have not been happy with for months.

The irony of my fascination with cults and my past history of staying in toxic personal relationships that were past their due date is not lost on me.

I brought the cult-like devotion on myself. I entered my taekwondo school when I was in a very vulnerable mental state. (And as martial arts imitate life, I happened to enter a controlling, emotionally abusive, classic gaslighting relationship around the same time) I was beyond thrilled at how wonderful taekwondo made me feel. I had traded one mind-numbing substance for another.

Recently as I was agonizing over whether I could muster up the courage to quit my Taekwondo situation I reflected on why I left my last job in 2011. I left that job and the library profession because there was no opportunity for growth (an expanded position my manager and I had proposed to her corporate leaders was twice shot down so bye Felicia to them) and the department strategy overall changed very little. At 30 years old I was about to hit the ceiling of my salary range, and I knew I had more earning potential. I wasn’t going to settle for a librarian’s salary, which for a professional with an advanced degree is on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. My manager asked me if I’d ever go back to a library job. At the time I probably said, “I don’t know” to be polite, but I knew I’d never go back.

Without going into too many details, that’s essentially why I left my school. I have higher “earning potential” for my own black belt capabilities elsewhere. I was bored. I was frustrated. I hadn’t done higher level black belt training since last year, and as much as I liked my students, I felt like I was teaching the same old stuff over and over again to the same handful of people. I was tired of teaching all the time and longed for the days when I could just be a student and work out. While I realize teaching is part of the black belt’s job, only teaching and not training caused an imbalance in my practice. I was having more fun in my Body Combat classes at the gym.

Taekwondo wasn’t fun anymore, and that’s what made me sad. It used to be loads of fun, including the times when it was really hard, even frustrating work. It was still rewarding for a while, especially when some of my favorite students tested for black belt, but even that wore off. Now it just felt like work. I already have a job that I am well compensated for. When I do things in my free time I want them to be FUN and STRESS-FREE.

I’d already bowed out of teaching the earlier class because I hate teaching white belts and little kids who are too young to be in martial arts, and I didn’t want to get pulled into that again. (Nothing against white belts; that’s just not where my teaching talents lie. As for four-year-old white belts? Get the f–k outta here. The last four year old white belt I saw was dancing around in the corner with a McDonalds Happy Meal box on his head. Let him be four. Just don’t let him do taekwondo yet.)

I didn’t see anyone making much progress during our very limited class time in a location I didn’t care for. It didn’t help that our rush to clean out the old school and coordinate the move at the beginning of the year happened during a time at work when I was also feeling used and stretched to my limits.

I’d like to say it’s not personal and it’s strictly business, but it is personal. There were practices and behaviors I deeply disagreed with (let’s just say I was in a cultural institution where saying “no” and taking back one’s independence was frowned upon), but I’d let my cult-like devotion take over, and as frantic and unhappy as I was, I didn’t see how I could leave.

I was making myself miserable with worry about how certain people would react–my Grandmaster, parents, students. It got to the point that I hoped not only for the community center to kick us out due to low numbers, but I also secretly wished for ridiculous things to happen like getting kicked out for my tattoo or hoping to get into a verbal altercation that would allow me to leave in a self-righteous huff. But in my heart I didn’t really want those things. I didn’t want drama or damaged relationships. Finally I stopped waiting for a deus ex machina to release me from an expired obligation. I decided to just up and quit. I stopped caring about how other people would react or what they would think about me.

And I don’t care how people will react. I had to make a choice that was best for me to regain emotional health and balance in my life.

I know I’ll come back to teaching taekwondo. I like helping other people learn, and I like being that positive coach, poking and prodding and guiding people to their highest potential. I just don’t want to do that right now.

You may be tempted to ask, “Why did you wait so long?” One could ask the same question about why I stayed in certain relationships when they showed their true unpleasant colors. I ask you not to judge those in difficult situations. For a long time you tell yourself that things will get better, and that certain disappointments were just flukes or one-time incidents. The sinking realization that things will not change is a blessing in disguise because it is the first baby step out.

Taekwondo, whether it went beyond the realm of hobby to addiction or not, was the impetus for me to get control of my mind and my life and become who I truly have the power to be. I am a much better version of myself. I’m confident, much happier, and according to some people, funnier than I used to be….and I let it burrow deep into my brain and inject my veins with the sweetest, most wonderful high you could ever imagine. I needed taekwondo to feel whole, and when I lost the comforting structure that I had, I kind of lost my mind too. I think that’s why making a break with the people and the place and the practices and that particular institution is what’s best for my emotional well-being.

There is a future for me in taekwondo—just not where it has been for the last five years.

Wake Me Up When September Ends

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UGH.

You. Guys. What the hell has been up this month?

July and August were such pleasant, slow, and QUIET months. Then September hit, and all of a sudden it seemed everyone awoke from their daydreams and determined that EVERYTHING MUST BE ACCOMPLISHED BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR!!! Plus it looks like this is going to be one of those North Texas falls with torrential rain and damaging floods. Awesome.

I got pulled into that Chicken Little panic that I revile so much almost immediately, right of course, when I vowed to myself to be more detached and not let the small stuff (and it’s all small stuff) bother me. Ha ha, Universe, I guess I needed humbling. What a wonderful cosmic joke!

I think I’ve been especially susceptible to groupthink and anxiety and panic this year because of my lack of balance and healthy way of relieving stress. Taekwondo has not been much of a failsafe this year, and the structure I’d gotten used for the last five years was turned completely upside down. There have been other stressors professionally and personally this year not to mention the total and utter garbage state of my very divided country. And yeah, I’m gonna get petty for a second because this pisses me off too: I’ve gained back about half the the weight I lost last year (albeit the weight loss was due to an intestinal parasite)…although the taekwondo change has been the biggest and most noticeable stressor for me personally.

I realize in hindsight that I’ve been a lot quicker to anger, more reactive, and more prone to worry this year. I either haven’t been myself  because of the taekwondo thing, or what I fear more, my loss of built-in stress relief and balance has revealed who I’ve been beneath the surface this whole time. I don’t blame anyone in my taekwondo or professional worlds. My emotional reactions to everything whether they were big changes or mundane ideas were ultimately my choices.

It’s been a struggle that I probably haven’t done as well a job of hiding as I thought.

This month hasn’t been all bad, though. I got my first tattoo, which I love! I celebrated a friend’s book release. I made a difficult but very freeing decision that I think will relieve a great deal of the stress I’ve been feeling this year. I got through four weeks of busy project work and course facilitation without feeling too drained or grumpy although I’ve been drinking more wine this month. Personally I’m doing well and enjoying my quiet life in my nice little home.

But seriously, everyone….can we all just chill and calm the f–k down for two minutes? Why all the rushing and need to have our hands in everything? It’s time for eating Halloween candy and Thanksgiving stuffing, not running around like the proverbial headless chicken.

knew I’d have to go back to square one on this not worrying/letting go thing over and over until it stuck. This is one of those times. I’m going to keep trying. I owe it to myself and the people around me to get back some of that joy and ease I’d waited so long to attain and seemed to so quickly lose. I’ve fallen seven times, and I’m getting up eight.

And if all else fails there’s a place in town where I can pay to throw axes at targets. Seriously.

Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo

I did it! I got a tattoo! And of course I wrote a blog post about it!

My tattoo

Tattoo by Crashlee Ink at Ink187 Tattoo Company. Dinosaur shirt and bra strap sticking out is all me in my cool suave glory.

So…THIS happened on Friday. After many years of being fascinated by tattoos, months of gearing up the courage to actually get one, and weeks of planning with my tattoo artist, I am now the proud owner of this beautiful black belt tattoo. My tattoo artist was fabulous: patient, caring, as clean and cautious and precise as a surgeon, and a talented fine artist who brought my concept to life.

It didn’t hurt; at one point I felt pretty sleepy and zoned out like I do when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Now as it heals it just feels like a minor sunburn. It helped that I psyched myself out with memories of my most painful physical therapy sessions and a recent eyebrow threading (ouch!!) to give myself some perspective on pain. It felt like a flu shot at first and then nothing. Seriously. I credit my tattoo artist with her light touch and the fact that my upper arm had enough muscle and fat to absorb all the stabbing…so much stabbing…so much…

About the tattoo itself: I didn’t want to be one of those white people with Asian lettering tattooed on me, but I suppose one can make an exception here since I study a Korean martial art. I wanted the belt to have some realism and not look like a flat “cause” ribbon (sounds terrible but you know what I mean). If I was going to get a taekwondo black belt embedded in my skin it might as well look like one. The Korean lettering on the left is my name, and the lettering on the right is “tae kwon do”….I hope. The lotus was chosen both to feminize the tattoo (I can’t resist a pretty flower) and serve as a sly shoutout to the symbol of the Jidokwan school of taekwondo, which is what I study.

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….This guy

The Jidokwan symbol of persistence is encircled by eight petals of what some sources say is a water lily and other sources claim to be a lotus. I’m sticking with the lotus for its connection to Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path (read linked article above for more details), which sounds great to me in theory although wrangling my tightly-wound and also unruly mind around the Path is sometimes very difficult.
One source states that the eight Jidokwan petals represent the “Spirit of Eight Manners of Justice:”
See rightly
Feel rightly
Think rightly
Speak rightly
Command rightly
Serve rightly
Have ability
Conduct with justice

….Church, I’m tryin’. It helps to have the reminder.

I didn’t get this tattoo just because I have a black belt. I could have done that three years ago when I was awarded my first degree black belt. I got this tattoo because I AM a black belt, and I wanted a permanent reminder etched into my skin for a number of reasons:

  1. I don’t want to take for granted what taekwondo has done for me, even if I have to stop training entirely at some point. I can’t take sole credit for the big successes I’ve had in the past few years. I did that with taekwondo. About eight years ago I started on a journey to heal some wounds, change some damaging habits, and make meaningful discoveries about myself. I had things along the way to help me, and I did improve, but when I returned to taekwondo in 2013 my progress SOARED. Taekwondo was the key to making overarching and long-lasting change. It gave me confidence, mental fortitude, strength in the face of adversity, perseverance in the face of challenge, and a really strong jump snap kick.
  2. I want a reminder that I can be a confident and capable badass woman. I have not always let people treat me well. Like most of us unfortunately I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by people close to me, by random strangers, by colleagues….I’ve watched other people I cared about be mistreated and didn’t step in to help. I’ve experienced and allowed this poor treatment as an adult, as a professional, as a taekwondo student, and even as a black belt. I was too quiet. I didn’t speak up or act out. Granted, most people I’ve encountered in life have been nice or at least neutral, but it’s really easy to be pulled down by those memorable assholes. I let the memories haunt me and shame eat at me. No more. The boundary is clearly drawn. Protecting myself emotionally and mentally is even more important to me than physically defending myself. I am making a promise to stand up for myself and for those I care about.
  3. Remember that blog post I wrote about “giving zero f-cks by forty?” I meant it, and damnit it’s HARD!! So hard I had a reminder inked into my skin! I want to be chill and content and let all the BS in life (and there’s a lot) just roll past me. I want to shift my attention away from situations or people that don’t give me joy towards those that do. That adrenaline rush in a sparring match, that cool feeling of resolve as I practice poomsae, the pleasure of watching a student do something well, the high I get and boundless sense of peace I feel from practicing what I love…I want to feel that all the time. I want to flow with life and not get too hung up on the past or the projected outcomes. I’m getting there. I’m making progress every day.

Shortly before my tattoo session I was texting with my mom. I didn’t know whether I was more nervous about the pain or the permanence. She replied:
“I got married to Dad and got pregnant with you and [your brother]. We all make things of permanence. Some are good and easy. But we have to deal with the decisions no matter what.”

I have made choices that have brought me sadness and success. For the most part, my decisions have created a pretty happy life for me.

I am a black belt in name and in spirit. I will never stop being a black belt, and I will never stop benefiting from what taekwondo has given me.