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

Peaceful place

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.

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Taekwondo Is Always There

love martial arts

Due to feeling ill, work deadlines, the inevitable siren song of TV and wine, and most recently heavy downpours, I’ve been out of taekwondo for about two weeks. Perhaps it’s for the best as I’ve needed some time off to sort out my feelings. After my last post I received a wonderful, heartfelt comment on my last post from a reader with the recommendation to take a little break (Thanks, Toby!). I always feel refreshed after a break from intense activities in my life whether it’s my job, exercise, taekwondo, or lately my efforts to secure a literary agent for my memoir. Soon I’ll return to class to see if it’s done me some good.

I’m in taekwondo limbo right now. I don’t want to be one of those people who did taekwondo for a while and then quit, leaving it in a compartmentalized box of my past. I don’t see myself stopping at second degree although that seems to be a typical pausing point for many black belts. I’m not sure how long my current training situation will continue or how I would adjust to something new. What I do know is that I can’t let go entirely, nor do I want to. I can’t get back what I had with my former school, but I can adjust and adapt and be creative about keeping taekwondo top of mind and an important part of my life.

That’s why after my ballet barre class at the gym, I did all my color belt through black belt forms. Quick reminder—my school does Palgwe forms rather than Taeguk, and you can read a description about each one in The Poomsae Series. We also have the rarely practiced “Koryo One,” which is learned at bo dan and “Nopei,” which is learned at fourth Dan (I talked my Master into teaching it to me last year.)

I kinda didn’t want to. It was raining outside, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home. I had to go to the bathroom. I was hungry. But I knew I needed to run through my forms to keep my mental and physical memory fresh. I knew I needed to do my forms just because.

As I moved through my stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes, I had an odd sense of both feeling something that was deeply ingrained and familiar and also a little shaky and unusual. I move in a very particular way when I do forms. It comes out when I’m striking, sparring, doing self-defense, etc., but that essence is more detailed and prominent when I’m doing a form. I’m certainly not used to doing these movements while I teach a class at work (I’m a corporate trainer), when I torture my core and legs in ballet barre class, and not really even in Body Combat class even thought I use that class as way to tweak my technique. The mindset is different. The mental presence is different.

I only spent about 15-20 minutes in the darkened gym aerobics room practicing my forms, but I felt reconnected to something that has been slipping away these past few months. I could see the way my body moved in clinging gym clothes as opposed to my loose doboks and was able to pick up on small details. I had quiet time to correct myself and refresh my memory. I stored away little nuggets of how I would teach (or more often than not, re-teach) these forms to my students.

I was doing taekwondo, and I didn’t need a school or a uniform or a belt to make it so. Running through my forms was a quick but powerful reminder that I may not practice and train taekwondo as frequently as I used to, but I can always keep it alive and thriving within me.

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

conformity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

number 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

passtorch-400x400

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.

 

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

stand sunset

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.

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…]