It’s Not Failure. It’s PRACTICE!

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I belong to a fitness Facebook group. The other day someone wrote about his mindset regarding failure. He decided to regard failure not as a loss or as something negative, but as practice and a learning experience. Didn’t quite hit the mark on a deadlift? Practice–maybe there’s something off with your technique. Gave into temptation and had the donuts in the office break room? Practice–now you know to bring a healthy snack to fight the mid-morning munchies.

Last night in taekwondo class our instructor was encouraging us to try out something, even if we were afraid of failing. His example was 360 roundhouse, or tornado kick. It’s a complicated kick that can be tricky for anyone, including me and my fellow black belts and the lone blue belt in our class. Our instructor said if we’re afraid of failing and don’t try something, then we’ll never get better. Learning can happen incrementally each time you try something.

My 360 roundhouse kick isn’t great, at least where I think it should be for a fairly athletic 2nd degree black belt. So that means I practice. I’m not “failing” when I miss the pad I’m trying to kick or don’t get as much height as I want–I’m practicing. I tried out a tip he’d given for timing the jumping part of the kick, which pushed me beyond my comfort zone with that technique, and what do you know, it was better than the first time I did it.

By continuing to practice (even when that means messing up) we continue to learn, and when we continue to learn we begin to improve.

The fear of failure is often more painful than experiencing the failure itself. What if we regarded every “failure” instead as practice for getting better? Perhaps by regarding everything we do as practice and learning, we can make the world around us a little less scary and a little more exciting.

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Little Black Belt is FIVE!!!

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On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…

Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.

Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!

If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂

For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.

2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner.
The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly)
I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good.
Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close.
Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On.
It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.

2015 – The journey to black belt gets REAL!!
Power Trip – Do you stand in your power or do you shy away? Food for thought from one of the best yoga teachers I’ve ever had.
Final Color Belt Test – Savoring my last moments as a color belt before the new black belt journey.
Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…Well, Kicking and Screaming – My former Master gives me some words of wisdom, and I reflect on where taekwondo has taken me. (And I’m still working on the book, you guys!)
I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious – Of course I have to include this post. Testing for black belt is a Veuve Cliquot kind of day.
I Am My Own Nemesis – The uniform in question by the Mooto company still pops like a freshly washed sheet on a laundry line. “Designed for maximum sound!”

2016 – Settling into being a black belt student and instructor…
Love Is Like Grape Soda – This might be my favorite post of all time, and it has nothing to do with taekwondo.
Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class – This post continues to get hits and seems to be popular than readers. And yes, I still have a love/dread thing for sparring.
When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A disappointing art exhibit (and a non-disappointing donut) made me miss the ones who mattered the most.
You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long – My musician brother’s take on success and continuous improvement
Black Belt: a Year in Review – It turns out the black belt test never really stopped

2017 – I recommend checking out this entire year. I had a lot of good personal/professional experiences and translated it into writing
Channeling Your Power – Makes me miss my days of teaching poomsae (forms), and it’s a nice call back to the “Power Trip” post in 2015.
Don’t Forget Where You Came From – We’re all still that white belt who never gave up, whatever “white belt” is to you.
The Best Birthday – This was seriously the best surprise I’ve ever gotten on my birthday, and it just happened to take place in the dojang.
You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For – Don’t wait for someone else to show up and fix things, rescue you, or make you happy. YOU are that person!
Being Okay With Where You Are – A hiccup in plans forced me to reflect on whether I really accepted….well…self-acceptance.

2018 – The crappy year that ended with a tattoo and beaten up hands, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.
You Know More Than You Think You Do (Nopei) – My favorite Master’s departure gave me the courage to forage my own path.
The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed) – A poster I bought for my office gave me motivation when I wanted to quit in more ways than one.
Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo – I got a permanent (and pretty!!) reminder of who I’ve become and what’s gotten me there.
Why I Left MyTaekwondo School – In case you were wondering, here’s the story…some of it, anyway.
I’m at a New Dojang! (And Have the Cuts and Bruises to Prove It) – The year started out on an incredibly stressful note, but it ended with a fresh start and lots of board breaking.

2019 – It’s been an awesome year so far. I got serious about a new hobby and finally connected with a different style of forms. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
When In Doubt, Go To Class – You all have that thing that puts you in the zone, in that right frame of mind. GO DO IT.
Taekwondo Never Leaves You – A post I started two years ago came back to haunt me in a good way. I’ve left taekwondo a few times, but it has never left me.
Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic – Being a good black belt means you get to roll up your (dobok) sleeves, dig in, and PLAY!
When Starting Is More Difficult Than Finishing – This seemed to be popular with many readers. Looks like I struck a nerve!
When to Speak and When to Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms – Taekwondo forms are like performing Shakespeare and speaking beginner conversational Spanish…that’s my take anyway. During one solo practice in the dojang I learned a lot about how we interact and speak with each other without saying a word.

Thanks again for all your support! Let’s keep this going!

Guest Writer: Why Seniors Should Give Yoga a Try and How to Get Started on Your Journey

Yoga is an ancient spiritual and physical practice that can be very beneficial to not only martial artists but also people of any age or physical ability. Guest writer Harry Cline shares his thoughts on how yoga can benefit seniors. If you want to check out more of Harry’s work please visit newcaregiver.org: The New Caregiver’s Comprehensive Resource: Advice, Tips, and Solutions from Around the Web.

If you would like to be a guest writer on Little Black Belt, please check out the guidelines here.yoga black and white.png

For decades, people of all ages have turned to yoga to give a boost to their mind, body, and spirit. A truly special form of meditative exercise, yoga is beloved by everyone from the casual to the hardcore athlete. Seniors can see great benefits from yoga, as it is a low-impact activity that strengthens muscles, bones, and tendons without risking the joint degradation seen in those who are involved in high-impact exercises. Not only that, but yoga can help seniors in a few other surprising ways. Keep reading to learn more.

The Benefits of Yoga for Seniors

Many people like to focus on the incredible physical benefits of practicing yoga and rightly so — they are substantial. Yoga can help improve flexibility, strengthen your muscles, improve bone density, give your circulatory and cardiovascular system a boost, and assist with weight loss or maintenance. A 30- to 45-minute yoga session is challenging enough to qualify as your daily recommended moderate physical activity. When you need a way to exercise without leaving your home and without major risk of injury, yoga is there for you.

Often, less attention is given to other, equally important benefits of yoga. Yoga is the ultimate stress-buster. This is great for your all-around health, and it can even improve your dental health! Depression, anxiety, excess stress, and poor dental health like periodontal disease share a connection, believe it or not. Daily yoga can help you control your stress levels, which will, in turn, help you stave off the poor mental health linked to all sorts of physical maladies.

And speaking of mental health, did you know that the bacterial makeup of your stomach has a huge effect on your brain? Your gut microbiome affects plenty of your body’s other mental and physical systems, and alongside healthy eating and probiotics, exercise and stress reduction are the best ways to keep your gut healthy. In short, yoga can boost your gut flora, which will, in turn, boost the rest of your body!

Yoga is basically medicine for your brain. When it comes to helping you manage common mental health problems, few things can boast an all-benefit-no-side-effect pedigree. As Psychology Today says, yoga “has been shown to enhance social well-being through a sense of belonging to others, and improve the symptoms of depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity, and sleep disorders.”

How to Begin

Intimidated? You shouldn’t be. Yoga isn’t really about headstands and other crazy poses — at least not for the majority of practitioners. Yoga is about doing what makes you feel better.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Buy a home yoga mat. Without one, your yoga will be a painful mess.

  • Look up some free videos on YouTube. There are thousands of quality yoga routines you can try out for free. This will help you get a sense of your yoga-related fitness level.

  • Try to get a handle on some basic poses. Yoga builds on itself as you progress, so having a solid foundation of things you can execute well is crucial.

  • Sign up for a group yoga class. Seriously. If you think that group yoga is only for experts, then you’re misinformed. Doing yoga with others will keep you motivated, help you learn faster, improve your form, and is really fun once you get into it. Local gyms offer classes for beginners, as do a variety of other places like churches, community centers, breweries, and of course, yoga studios. Search online for one near you. If you need help paying for yoga classes, some insurance providers, including Aetna, offer Medicare Advantage plans that cover the costs of yoga classes. Take note that Original Medicare does not offer this coverage.

There is a reason for yoga’s increasing popularity over the past couple of decades. It’s not just hype. Practicing yoga at least a few times per week will help you feel better almost immediately, and the long-term benefits for seniors are striking.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

 

When To Speak and When To Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms

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I can always count on taekwondo poomsae (forms) to have a calming, focusing effect on my mind and body. Forms were very much needed yesterday when I was feeling out of sorts.

Yesterday I learned the hard way that reintroducing black coffee back into my body after avoiding it for about a year thanks to a fun digestive illness needs to be done in relatively small doses. After a large cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a venti cappuccino from Starbucks, and another half cup of coffee later my body was shaking and my heart was fluttering. I swear for a moment I had double vision and nearly missed a step when I was walking to the front door of my taekwondo school.

On nights when I have class I usually arrive to the dojang about 40 minutes early to warm up and run through my forms. Since my brain and body were feeling scattered I decided to start with my familiar Palgwe color belt forms rather than the eight Taeguk forms I still hadn’t quite mastered. Okay, this will be easy. I can do this. I began with Palgwe Il Jang, the lowest ranking color belt form, turning to my left and executing a low block in a front stance.

Then I did an outside block with my back hand without stepping forward.

UGH.

I gave my reflection in the mirror I was facing an exasperated glare. I was caught red-handed.

Blocking with the back hand is a signature move in Taeguk forms, much to my dismay and that of my fellow Palgwe snobs. I thought about texting my former Master what I had just done because I thought it was funny. He would either laugh along with me or threaten to punch me. I decided to just get my head on straight and do Palgwe Il Jang the correct way, starting with a low block and then stepping FORWARD to do an outside-to-inside block with my leading hand just as God and logic intended.

As I flowed through my trusty Palgwe forms, the oddity “Koryo One,” and transitioned into Taeguk color belt forms I noticed shifts in my thought processes and little cues I gave myself. Once I got into the groove of the forms I’d been practicing and teaching for years it felt effortless. When I switched to Taeguk, however, my awareness and physical decisions slowed down and required more forethought. It was like I had shifted from speaking my native English to a different language.

I used to be fairly fluent in Spanish. I took four years of Spanish in college and attended a   language immersion institute for two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I loved the language: speaking it, writing it, reading it. I never quite got the hang of being able to think in Spanish, though. When I was having a conversation I was always rapidly translating back and forth in my head and had to rein in my individual linguistic peculiarities and idioms. I felt like a bit of my personality had been washed out in order for me to get my message across efficiently. Once in a while I would have a brain scramble and I’d mix the languages together as I did when I threw a Taeguk move into my first Palgwe form of the evening.

Trying to speak a second language might have limited my ability to fully express myself, but it did make me a better listener and forced me to be mindful about the words I chose to say.

I now know thirty forms, but I wouldn’t say I’m fully fluent in all of them yet.*

Practicing my Palgwe forms reminded me of when I was on a roll with a writing project at work or giving a presentation I’d given many times before. I felt intelligent and creative. As I practiced the black belt form Keumgang I caught myself giving myself not only corrections  and cues I’d picked up from instructors but was also using my “instructor voice” on myself. Once in a while I might have a brain freeze, but I was quickly able to clearly articulate with my body and mind the full expression of the forms. By the time I got to the beautiful and elusive Nopei I felt like I was performing Shakespeare.

During my Taeguk forms I was reminded of my internal English/Spanish translation experiences. I had to be much more thoughtful and careful. I knew I was still “speaking” Taeguk with my Palgwe “accent” and had to fight myself on those tricky back hand blocks and unfamiliar walking stances. I had to think much more simply in order to perform what I had not quite yet memorized and hadn’t begun to fully explore. My taekwondo mind shifted from experienced black belt instructor to concentrating and still learning student. I had to listen to my body and my memory much more acutely and in a more steamlined way than I did with the forms I know so well.

I am building my fluency and confidence in Taeguk. On the other side of the training room some kids were asking an instructor about a knifehand block/elbow strike combo.

“Is this in Taeguk 4 or 5?” one of the students asked.

“It’s in 5,” I muttered aloud to myself without skipping a beat. Maybe I’m learning this new language faster than I give myself credit for doing.

Noticing the shift in thinking during my different sets of forms made me appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and conversation. Sometimes it’s our moment to let our personalities and talents shine as we wax poetic about a topic we’re passionate about, and other times it’s more appropriate to listen and very carefully choose what we’re going to say next. A skilled conversationalist knows when to do both. I hope at some point I can be as expressive with my Taeguk forms as I am with my Palgwe color belt forms and black belt forms. I also think I have the opportunity to slow down and mindfully choose and refine my techniques in the forms I’m much more familiar with.

By the time I’d gone through my forms for the evening I was sweating and panting. Thankfully my body had shaken loose the coffee jitters and fragmented focus, and my heart was now just pounding healthily from an athletic workout.

Now I was comfortable. I was speaking (and listening to) a language I love.

 

 

*If your’e keeping count: eight Palgwe, eight Taeguk, Koryo One, universal Koryo, Keumgang, TaebaekPyongwon, Nopei, universal Kibon One plus seven Kibons my former Grandmaster created

How Taekwondo Has Helped (and Hurt) My Pool Game

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About a year ago (and some change) I started playing pool with a friend. At first it was just something to do once in a while on a lazy weekend. I had never played before and was really looking forward to it. I had visions of lounging around in a dark dive bar, telling jokes, and swigging beer while my friend and I easily played round after round of pool.

That’s not quite how it happened. The beer and hanging around in a dark dive bar definitely happened (and still do; the bartenders are cracking open my Coors Light right when I walk in the door), but it was much more difficult for me to pick up the mechanics of pool than I thought it would be. I was TERRIBLE and I was SO frustrated. It felt difficult and clunky. I couldn’t control my hands or relax my shoulders or get my angle right or do anything that my brain was telling my body to do. I couldn’t let myself just have fun and keep trying.

I wasn’t the easiest person to be around during this painful growing period. I even had irrational fears that my friend would want to stop being friends with me because my pool skills weren’t up to snuff—sounds ridiculous, right?

After whining about how bad I was for a while, I decided to tap into my black belt perspective and see if it could help me improve my game. Taekwondo has taught me a lot about myself and in turn, how I approach my new hobby.

Taekwondo reminds me that my perfectionism crosses into other areas of my life. At the pool hall I was so hard on myself and so self-conscious about barely being able to move the cue or hit my targets. I foolishly expected success to be handed to me just because I showed up.

I have put these same irrational expectations on myself as a taekwondo practitioner (and pretty much my entire life).

My perfectionism finally started to ease off when one day my friend said, “Why are we here?” When I answered, “To practice?” he shook his head. “No, we’re here to have fun.” Oh. At the moment neither of us were having much fun. I took that as a cue (no pun intended) to lighten up on myself and just enjoy my beer and look at pool for what it was: a game.

The reason why I started taekwondo was not to get a black belt or learn self-defense. I just wanted to do something fun and positive. It was helpful to remember that fun was my number one goal with pool AND still with taekwondo.

Taekwondo made me a curious pool player.
Getting a black belt does not automatically make you perfect at every technique—as I wrote in an earlier post, part of BEING a black belt is making a conscious effort to raise self-awareness around technique, ask questions, and play with mechanics. I bring that same curiosity to my pool game. I scratched—hmm, let’s figure out why. I couldn’t get power behind my shot? Let’s have someone look at my arm to see what I’m doing. The angle was off? What can I do next time to think through the shot I want to make?

Taekwondo made me a persistent pool player.

Fall down seven times, get up eight. Miss a shot; try again when it’s your turn. Maybe it’s my lingering perfectionism, or maybe it’s the tenacious stubbornness one feels in a sparring match that’s not ended yet. I’m going to keep playing. Taekwondo requires a lot of patience, persistence, and mental and physical toughness. While pool is not nearly as physically as demanding as taekwondo, the mental tenacity required is quite high.

Sometimes you have to take a little break in the middle of all that persistence to come back fresh. Our playing had waned off at the end of last year. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2018 my friend and I decide on a whim to go play since it was free all day.

I won the game in eight minutes. I’d never played so well. I’ve since had great games (both through decent technique and pure dumb luck), but that first “comeback” game was all I needed to inspire me to keep practicing and keep playing.

Taekwondo made me an appreciative pool player. This goes back to my curiosity around my performance, progress, and what I can do to improve. Once I started to get the hang of things and get a handle on how I could purposefully learn and improve, I could really get “into” playing the game. Does that mean that I can only enjoy things on the condition that I have some kind of proficiency in them? Maybe. I probably would have quit both taekwondo and pool if I’d never been able to get my body and brain to move past the basics. That’s something I’ll have to deal with and/or just accept as a reality about myself. Either way, now I can really dig into pool, get curious about improving my game, admire what my pool-playing partner does well, and keep improving and celebrating my successes.

Taekwondo gave me faith that the physical “click” will eventually happen. It has with pool, for the most part, although  I have a LONG way to go to be as proficient as pool as I am at taekwondo. I look forward to weekends when I can drink beer, crack jokes, and play. My left-handed shots are getting pretty good. My friend and I are finally at the point where we can talk trash to each other. Most importantly, the fun hasn’t worn off. I just have to keep my perfectionism in check (the beer helps with that).

Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic

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If getting a first degree black belt is like passing a driving test, then being a second degree feels like learning to do your own oil changes and minor repairs. When you’re not “driving” you’re cleaning, prepping, trouble-shooting both with and without help, and making sure your “vehicle” is well-maintained and in good working order. You’re looking for long-term sustainability and reliability.

I’ve always been interested in the minute mechanics of physical tasks I have performed and, frustrating as they can be, have been drawn to activities that require fine-tuning and attention to physical details: swimming, dance, classical guitar, billiards (stay tuned for a blog post on that), and of course taekwondo. Once I get past the initial beginner’s clunkiness and the “click” sets in, I start to have some fun exploring and refining my technique. By taking a break from teaching and being a full-time taekwondo student (for the most part) I feel like I now have opportunities to dig into what I wrote about earlier this month: being a really damn good Second Dan. I’m very excited about it!

What I appreciate about the coaches at my new dojang is not so much that they can run a great workout (they do), but more so they take the time to point out details and explain the why behind  the movements. Wednesday I had a one-on-one kicking workout with one of the instructors. He had some ideas, and I had some ideas, and we collaborated on how to help me train and get better, namely on my back kicks and spin kicks. During our conversation I felt really energized to dig in and play with the mechanics of these seemingly basic kicks. How can I take them from a technique I learned as a color belt and make them advanced black belt-level precise and strong? How can minor shifts in my body, weight distribution, speed, power, and placement make big changes in my performance?

On Thursday another coach gave me some good feedback on choices I can make to improve my sparring. Instead of talking about kicks and punches, he talked about intellectual choices. He encouraged me to think about what kind of fighter I want to be rather than just reacting or thinking I had to match my partner’s aggressiveness or defensiveness (and factoring in age, energy level, habits, some go-to trusted moves, and the ability to “read” different partners). He likened sparring to a game of chess rather than checkers. I want to be a better fighter, and part of that is being a smarter fighter.

As a slightly higher ranking black belt I feel like I can’t rest on the laurels of passing that first degree test. Passing your first degree black belt test means you’re good enough at color belt techniques to move on to a higher level. Now I’m getting into the “why” of what I do and have set higher expectations for myself. I want to be very proficient at back kick to use in sparring, and I want to use jump back kick and spin kick for breaking. They need to be better, sharper, and more powerful than what we see at the color belt levels.

Refinement and mindfulness is not only for black belts. If you’re a color belt reading this, or even a white belt, begin your exploration now. Turn frustration into fascination and use that curiosity to make yourself a more proficient martial artist. You may be amazed at what you can do.

Sparring and a few particular kicks were just my focus for this week. I also have poomsae, self-defense (hapkido), defense against weapons, and overall conditioning. I think I’m fairly proficient and “acceptable” in my performance, but I don’t want that. I want to be the best damn Second Dan I can be. It’s time to break out all the knowledge and tools and expertise from others than I have and get to work.

It’s time to give this vehicle a tune-up.

 

Don’t Let Your Future Get In the Way of Your Present

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“Third Dan…”

The thought drifted through my mind as I was burning out my legs in ballet barre class at the gym last weekend. And then I caught myself and re-worded my thought:
“Nope. I’m doing this for Second Dan. I’m going to be the best damn Second Dan I can be.” Either a smile or a grimace crossed my face. I don’t remember which; barre can be a pretty grueling workout.

Our culture pressures us to constantly chase after what’s next or what’s better. While I think having ambition and setting goals is important, taken to an extreme we can lose focus on what we are doing in the present. We tout climbing the leadership ladder as the only admirable career path. We expect seventeen and eighteen year olds to choose educational tracks that will shape their adult lives and get it right on the first try. I always internally gagged at the “see yourself in 5 years” exercise I had to present in a professional development course I used to teach (and obviously did not write). We never stop and examine what we’re doing RIGHT NOW.

Can we be satisfied with and put our best efforts towards where we are right now?

Ever since I watched a black belt test at my new dojang in December I have had my own third degree test (date/year to be determined) lurking in the back of my mind. I knew I needed to improve my overall conditioning, my sparring skills, and hone my technique. I hadn’t practiced defense against weapons in a year and hapkido/self-defense in almost as many months. I knew I needed to not just step up my game, but JUMP up my game.

Third Dan is my long-term goal, and it helps sometimes to corral my wandering mind during taekwondo classes or my non-taekwondo workouts into the idea that everything I do is building a better black belt. Every ballet plie strengthens my legs. Every freestyle swimming stroke powers my lung capacity for fighting endurance. Yoga keeps me mentally balanced and undoes the damage I do to my hips, back, and hamstrings all week.

[Disclaimer for the yogaphiles reading this: I don’t consider yoga a “workout.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 22 years and am fully aware of the mental, physical, and emotional complexities of it. Let me reword it: the asanas of yoga, which are only one aspect, keep my body toned and stretched…and ready for meditation. Happy now?]

I’m pretty satisfied with my current job. I could do that for a long time (with merit raises and bonuses, of course.) I love the city I’ve lived in for the past 14 years; I could spend the rest of my days here. I can certainly apply my physical and mental fitness to the taekwondo rank I am right now, can’t I? If I stayed a second Dan forever could I be satisfied with being the best damn second Dan I can be?

I can’t lose sight of my current rank and its responsibilities and possibilities. I got plenty of teaching experience last year that I hope helps me live up to the Korean translation of my title “Kyo-sa-neem” (instructor). Now that I’m no longer teaching I have the ability to focus on physical training and really understand and demonstrate what a proficient Yi Dan looks like. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can articulate that right now. That tells me I need to back off from looking forward to (and dreading) my future third Dan test. There’s plenty of time to prepare for that. I think I need to do some reflection on what my current rank means.

Every color belt rank was a different learning and growth experience with different expectations. It seems like that is also true for black belt ranks. That makes me happy. It gives me something to explore and build on right now, in this moment.

Whatever journey you’re on, pause and take a look around. Where are you developmentally RIGHT NOW and what can you do to make your NOW better and more meaningful?

 

Guest Writer: The Benefits Taiji Has on Mental Health

While taekwondo poomsae (forms) can be a rewarding form of moving mediation, there are many other ways to improve one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being from martial arts. Guest writer Adam Durnham shares the benefits of taiji (tai chi) in this post. If you would like to be a guest blogger for Little Black Belt, please read the contributing guidelines here

Tai-Chi

Also known as tai chi, taiji is a low-impact body-mind exercise or martial art that originated in China. In Asia, people have practiced it for many centuries and it helps improve health and fitness 

Taiji has gained popularity in the West and people use it to enhance their overall psychological well-being and mood. Many scientific studies have researched taiji as well as breathing control and physical exercises related to taiji known as qigong. Many of these studies claim that taiji may enhance the mental health of individuals.

“This combination of self-awareness with self-correction of the posture and movement of the body, the flow of breath, and mindfulness, are thought to comprise a state that activates the natural self-regulatory (self-healing) capacity,” according to some researchers.

The low-impact martial art is associated with reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. When individuals are unable to cope with life’s challenges, they may indulge in behaviors like abusing drugs and alcohol. They may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression. To help improve mental health and reduce the chances of abusing alcohol or drugs, individuals may want to practice taiji. Let’s examine how this martial art may help the body deal with mental tension.

Managing Stress

One reason to practice taiji is to reduce stress. People may experience stress due to many reasons. If you have a chronic disease, you probably deal with a lot of stress. You may also experience stress when you face life challenges relating to your finances, work, family, and relationships.

Conventional Chinese medicine teaches that illness occurs because of an imbalance between opposing life forces, yang and yin. Taiji helps reestablish balance and create harmony between the mind and body. It also helps connect a person with the outside world. Practicing taiji can help reduce stress and improve your mental health.

To practice taiji, people perform a series of body movements in a slow but focused manner. Deep breathing accompanies the movements. The practice encourages flowing from posture to posture without pausing, ensuring that an individual’s body remains in constant motion. The meditative movement is a noncompetitive, self-paced system that consists of physical exercise and stretching.

Improving Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQoL)

When people are ill, their quality of life diminishes. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL)offers a comprehensive measure of well-being. It reflects people’s perceptions of their health and their satisfaction with life over a certain period of time.

People who suffer from mental health conditions may report poor HRQoL. When you compare individuals with common medical conditions to people with mental health conditions, you may find that there is a significant difference in their level of HRQoL impairments. People with mental health conditions may have relatively larger HRQoL impairments compared to those with common medical disorders. Taiji can help improve the health-related quality of life and may be an important exercise for the treatment of mental disorders.

Help with Anxiety, Mood, and Depression

A Japanese trial conducted in 2010 evaluated elderly people who had cerebral vascular disorder. The trial studied different approaches to deal with the participants’ anxiety. The participants practiced taiji or participated in standard rehabilitation in various group sessions at least one time a week for twelve weeks. The participants who practiced taiji experienced improvement in symptoms related to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and sleep quality.

Help with Substance Abuse

For people who are receiving treatment for addiction, practicing taiji may help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Withdrawal symptoms are one of the greatest challenges addicts face when recovering from addiction. The symptoms can be so severe that people are unable to cope with them. They may return to using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain of withdrawal.

Practicing taiji helps to lower relapse rates and reduces cravings. Individuals who have been treated for addiction may still experience the urge to use drugs or consume alcohol. Relapses occur when people who have received treatment return to using drugs and alcohol. Taiji may help reduce cravings, help people complete their treatment programs, and stay sober after their treatment.

Suffering from drug and alcohol abuse could create poor mental well-being. People may be unable to control negative feelings and emotions or even make sound decisions. Taiji exercises may help instill confidence, energy, and stamina to deal with life challenges. They may help reduce stress, depression, or anxiety.

If you are an addict, you may want to seek treatment at an addiction rehab and begin your journey to recovery. A rehab center will provide various treatment programs and techniques, which may include the use of mind-body practices such as taiji and yoga to help with treatment and recovery.

Author Bio: Adam Durnham is a freelance blogger and martial arts lover that primarily writes about mental health, wellness, martial arts, and how they all pertain to everyday life. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan with his dog Beignet. You can find a lot of his work at the Willow Springs Recovery Blog

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

split kick

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.

A Black Belt Takes a LesMills Body Combat Class

bodycombat-kick-shoes

Good lock of the kick, but y’all need to turn your hips and point your toes down…then again, what do I know. I’m just a black belt.

Two years ago I wrote a review of the ballet barre class my gym introduced in early 2016. I’ve since gotten the hang of it, have become pretty proficient in the moves, and have seen some improvement in my core and leg strength. I usually did a little barre and swimming on the side while I took 5-6 taekwondo classes per week.

Now that my taekwondo training has dwindled to next to nothing, I need something else to keep me in fighting shape. About 2-3 months ago I started taking Body Combat at my gym. Body Combat is one of the latest parts of the Les Mills gym class machine, which now includes 16 different branded classes that are taught at gyms across the world. There are certain “versions” that are released every few months, which keeps both the certified instructors and participants on their toes.

Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT. I’ve taken my share of aerobics classes over the last 20 years, but I’ve never found one I wanted to stick with for the long term. Barre is turning out (no pun intended) to be one of those classes, and it looks like Body Combat will be the same. The course purports  to combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, taekwondo, capoeira, and karate (sorta). I like to think of it as a technique class as opposed to specific practice on things like self-defense, poomsae, or fighting. It both helps me hone my well-trained skills and let’s me spend time on techniques I rarely or never get to practice.

So what is the experience for a trained martial artist in a Body Combat class? Training pickiness aside, it’s an excellent high-intensity cardio workout, which keeps me in good cardiovascular shape for my sporadic appearances in sparring class. It hits all the major body parts–legs, butt, core, arms, shoulders and back and offers enough variety that it’s very difficult to get bored. Hell, yesterday my Tuesday instructor threw in a flying side kick! Most of all, it is pure FUN! Having absolute fun is something I’ve missed over the past six months in my taekwondo classes.

I recommend that any martial artist go into this class with an open mind and a goal of refining the basics and building speed and strength. They simplify some techniques (for example, roundhouse kicks and side kicks are only done on the front foot, there’s no turn to the back kick, and their “front stance” is most decidedly NOT a front stance)…and that’s okay. This is not meant to be for only those who have advanced fighting training.

The simplicity of the techniques gives you the opportunity to tweak and refine the foundational skills that you still rely on as a black belt. I’m short and have a hard time hearing the instructor with her muffled mic, so I intentionally plant myself in the front in every class so I can see her. The added benefit is that I can watch myself in the mirror as I punch, kick, lunge, and throw knees and elbows. I have a visual target when I punch to the side of the head or snap kick to the torso. There’s lots of repetition, so I can make tiny changes every time I strike, and I definitely take this technique training with me back to my traditional taekwondo classes.

Another benefit is this class breaks me out of my taekwondo rut. We will sometimes go through an entire tkd class without doing one hand strike, and those who know me well know I loooooove hitting shit with my hands, even if it’s just the air. My favorite breaking techniques are hand strikes, and I try to punch as often as I can in a sparring match. From a practical point of view, I’m most likely going to be using my hands in a real self-defense situation, so even though my Friday instructor is just dazzled by my head-high roundhouse kicks and the occasional spin kick I throw in (meh), I’m paying more attention to the technique of my punches and elbow strikes. And in Body Combat there are so many punches…oh the punches…so many punches…

Finally, theres’s a sense of both anonymity and camaraderie I get in Body Combat that I don’t get in taekwondo. In taekwondo I’m either an instructor or a student, and I’m constantly communicating with students or other instructors. I can’t go to class and just be. As much as I love the closeness I have with my other black belt instructors and students I also want to be left completely alone once in a while when I’m working out. There’s certainly no pressure for me to teach at the gym, nor is their pressure to perform (although most of that pressure comes from me). Sometimes I get funny looks at the gym when I’m warming up before class with a form or two, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m enjoying silently critiquing myself in the side and front mirrors. Extra practice!

Some days in taekwondo I look into the (sometimes) listless eyes of my students and realize none of us want to be there. We’re all tired of the routine. I have to repeatedly remind my black belts to do simple things like keep their hands up and bend their knees with a snap kick, which is frustrating and tiresome. None of that in Body Combat. Sure, the technique is kinda terrible, but people work their butts off. Hands are up all the time (and I think it’s cute how some of the women will wear MMA gloves). Feet are moving all the time. People are eager to keep up and try their best. I’m punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing my ass off like a good second degree black belt. Everyone wants to be there because they know it’s their workout and no one else is going to do the work for them. We all have off days, days when we’re tired and bored, but I wish I could see more of that self-motivation in taekwondo.

If you’re a martial artist needing a supplement to your training, give your local gym’s kickboxing class a try. You may be surprised at how much you like it.