Taekwondo Has Become an Afterthought and an Albatross

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I used to be a taekwondo person with a growing career. Now I’m a successful career person who just happens to have a (2nd degree) black belt in taekwondo.

I don’t like that feeling.

Sure, I have a poster in my office that says “A Black Belt is a White Belt Who Refused to Give Up,” and I go to class once or twice a week…and that’s it. I don’t think about it much. In reviewing the past several months prepping for my four year anniversary blog post I realized I didn’t write about it much either, even last year when I was heavily preparing for my 2nd Dan test. Regular life has taken over, and taekwondo has taken a back seat.

Taekwondo had a very prominent place in my life for several years, and within a few months it suddenly dropped to nearly nonexistent. I’m just now starting to notice the negative effects. I’ve let myself get pretty stressed with increasing work demands the past few months, and I attributed a piece of it to my lack of “outlet.” I had taekwondo to look forward to almost every day for the last five years. I planned for it, thought about it, daydreamed about it, and could always count on it to be a healthy balance of all the “adulting” I had to do during my day job and just keeping up a household.

I have a nice home and nice people to visit with outside of work and nice hobbies, but I’m missing that euphoric high I used to get from a hard-working, fun taekwondo class. I’m missing my drug and my life balance. I feel like I’m missing part of my identity too.

My taekwondo world went through a huge upheaval at the end of last year. I don’t want to go into details here. Suffice it to say there was some tension and stress among everyone involved. The schedule has changed, the location has changed, and some of the people have changed. I went from going to the dojang five or six days a week to maybe two. I backed away from teaching the lower ranking class because I realized how much I disliked it and how stressful it was for me after a long day at a busy job. Now I only go to the “advanced class” once or twice a week. The temptation to stay home after a late meeting or long commute instead of going to class is fairly regular.

I’m not very happy with my current situation at my taekwondo school. I’m not getting much in the way of “black belt training,” my favorite instructor is gone, the location is sub-par, and I know I don’t have the same conditioning I had last year. There’s only so much one can do in two hours a week, especially if about half that time is spent teaching. (I also don’t have an intestinal parasite to keep me really skinny like I did last year) I’d like to train and test for third degree, and in the meantime I’d like to compete in forms and breaking at tournaments. My current situation allows me neither the time nor attention to focus on those goals.

If I were coaching me as I do with other people, I would remind myself that I do have the choice to leave…and right now I’m choosing to stay. I’m not very happy where I am but I feel like I need to stay out of obligation even though the world would not fall apart if I left. Certain people have certain expectations and assumptions about black belts and “loyalty,” and if I chose to leave there might be trouble, at least in the short-term.

I don’t know if going to another school would inspire me to make taekwondo a bigger part of my life again. I think some of that has to come from me. I think I can try harder to make the best of the situation I’m in now and come up with ways to practice taekwondo outside of the limited class time.

Right now I have eight students testing for first degree, and that is keeping me motivated and positive. I care very much about my students and am not ready to move on from them yet. After the test I think I’ll have to reevaluate my place in the school and decide whether I’m brave enough to do what’s best for me or to wait it out a little longer and hope for a deus ex machina.

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Proactive Laziness…Sometimes We Need Breaks From the Things We Love Most

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Last spring I was getting really burned out with taekwondo. I think it had less to do with the pressure I was under to test for bo dan (and later that year black belt) and more to do with crippling depression and anxiety that set in during a particularly nasty and icy February and lasted through…hmm…May. I also went through a very painful break up a week after I tested for bo dan, I was in a lull at work, and was becoming increasingly isolated at home.

Everything kinda sucked, and it followed me to the dojang. I was unmotivated, cranky, disappointed in my performance, and tired of dragging myself to class. I needed a break. I took a little time off, although I didn’t feel much better. Life in general started to improve in June, and by the time my black belt test rolled around in October, I was a much happier and more confident version of myself. I never told anyone how bad things were in the early part of last year. As I always do, I kept the worst parts to myself and dealt with my pain privately and independently. That’s how I prefer to handle things.

This time I’m taking a break so I don’t…well…break. Things are actually pretty good at the dojang. I’m having fun, being challenged, and love helping other students….buuuuttttt…..weeeeeelllllll….I need a break. I’ve sensed the tiniest hint of burnout over the past few weeks, not too dissimilar from what I feel at work if I’ve gone for a very long time without a day off. I’m tired of my routine and of being held to a rigid schedule most of my evenings. I’m hovering around a plateau. My favorite training partners have disappeared, and I haven’t quite gelled with my new ones. Most recently, to my dismay and confusion, I had a very distinct thought the last time I was in class:
“I don’t want to be here.”

Note that I didn’t say, “I don’t want to be here ever again,” or “I don’t want to do this any more.” I just didn’t want to be there in that particular moment. I was dreading the nights I had class rather than looking forward to them. I was ready to go home the moment I got to the dojang and changed into my uniform and wrapped my treasured black belt around my waist. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t burned out, but I am. I’m burned out. It’s a disheartening feeling, but at least this time I caught it early.

Add to the mix that I have a lot of work events this week, including speaking in front of large groups, a conference, coaching meetings, and meetings with company executives. It’s only Tuesday and I already feel the need for a lot of introvert decompression time. My short term memory is shot. As much as I love my job and am incredibly fulfilled by the work I get to do, I’m feeling more and more drained. Sometimes I secretly hope for a bout of summer bronchitis or strep throat to knock me out and take me out of commission for a little while.

Taekwondo, which is also highly interactive and requires me to be “on” 100% of the time, has also felt draining as of late, and that’s a new sensation. Usually it lifts me up and invigorates my spirit. Not so much right now. Being an introvert who happens to love interacting with and helping people is exhausting.

So, yeah, I’m taking a little time off and hoarding all the alone time I get when I’m not at work. I need to recharge and refresh. If I’m worn out and disengaged then I don’t really need to be bringing that energy around the dojang anyway. I’d like to think I’m doing myself and everyone else a favor by removing myself from an increasingly unhappy situation.

The only true “breaks” I’ve had from taekwondo since last year’s very unpleasant spring were when I took about a week off due to my hamstring injury and the two weeks the dojang was closed over the Christmas holidays. They were forced breaks. This time, I’m being proactively lazy and proud of it. Maybe I’ll take an extra barre or yoga class, go out to dinner or the movies, or maybe just enjoy the extra time at home in my Fortress of Solitude. I’ll definitely be watching the taekwondo Olympic finals later this week.

Taking a break can be a very healthy thing for an athlete, hobbyist, artist, or employee. It can be just what we need to recharge our batteries and help us come back to what we love fresh, strong, excited, and ready to work. I have a feeling absence will make my heart grow fonder. They’re still my tribe and my second family. I miss my taekwondo instructors and classmates when I’ve been away for a while (and sometimes even when I’m only absent for one or two classes). Too much time in my Fortress of Solitude gives me tunnel vision after  a while…but for now it’s exactly where I need to be. The ice will melt eventually, and I’ll bloom once again.

Guest Post: What to Do When Your Martial Arts Practice Feels Stagnant

 

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Check out this guest post I wrote for BookMartialArts.com: “What to Do When Your Martial Arts Practice Feels Stagnant”

BookMartialArts.com is the world’s leading martial arts travel company. It is a unique travel site that appeals to martial artists, yoga enthusiasts, fitness buffs, and anyone who wants to challenge their minds and bodies while visiting another part of the world. Search the site to find destinations near or far that will help you make your martial arts dreams a reality.

How Giving Up Drinking Saved My Skin

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The last time I drank alcohol was exactly three months ago after a lonely Sunday spent on the couch with a bottle of Malbec and a dark mood. I had been toying with the idea of giving it up after I got bo dan rank in April and would “officially” begin black belt training, but circumstances demanded that I give it up sooner.

My skin is very thin and sensitive, and I don’t just mean metaphorically. I can only use the gentlest cleansers and moisturizers or else my face will burn and turn bright red. My face regimen sounds like I’m making a salad dressing: I wash it with olive oil, tone with apple cider vinegar, and after I put on gentle moisturizer with SPF I splash on a little rosewater and glycerin for extra softness and a fresh sweet scent. I even exfoliate with sugar or sea salt.

The ever-present splotchiness and little broken capillaries across my nose and cheeks make me suspect some mild rosacea. In eighth grade a boy once called me “Rudolph” because of my red nose. At that age you could never really tell if a boy really liked you or hated your guts because they were all immature little assholes either way. That was long before I’d ever had my first glass of wine (even communion wine), so I know my red face isn’t just a symptom of riding the sin wagon.

My already pinkish nose and cheeks turn bright red if I have a hot drink, spicy food, wine, spend too much time driving straight into the setting Texas sun, or even just sit still at my computer too long, which causes the blood to pool towards the center of my face. I am tomato red through an entire sparring class, and during one particularly energized class I turned so red I was grey. The more alcohol I drank the more I noticed how red and splotchy my face was becoming….and staying permanently.

In case you still doubt the sheer crappiness of my skin and circulation, there’s more. I bruise very easily, and they last for weeks. Scars from small cuts or bites can last up to six months. I’ve gotten several drive-by diagnoses from nurse and doctor coworkers of Raynaud’s phenomenon in my fingers. The good thing about that is I was able to commission my mom to knit me several cute pairs of fingerless gloves.

So what did giving up booze do for me other than save me from too many calories and drunken Super Mario Brothers sessions?

I lost a few pounds. I don’t attribute that entirely to giving up drinking. I amped up my workout routine and cleaned up my diet about the same time I gave up the bottle. It certainly didn’t hurt though. Drinking wine is like pouring a big glass of sugar down your throat, plus it gives me the munchies. I wouldn’t drink a fully-leaded soda every night. How is drinking wine any different?

My vitals changed as well. I went to the doctor in April, and my resting pulse was 60, and my blood pressure was 114/62. I typically have low pulse and BP rates thanks to exercise and good genetics, but I’ve never seen it lower than about 120/75. At a June health fair it was 106/68. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

My skin did clear up. Even after just a few weeks of not drinking I noticed that some of the persistent redness had calmed down, and it looked brighter. Within a month other people noticed that my skin looked clearer.

The biggest thing was that I got out of my funk. I had fallen into a deep depression earlier in the year, aggravated by the cold dreary weather and some complications in my relationship. I was lonely, restless, and starting to question whether anything was worth the trouble anymore. I got to the point that I needed a drink when I got home, and it kept me company throughout long dragging weekends of isolation and brooding.

I learned to rely on my pure unfiltered self rather than the hazy distraction of an outside substance (whether it was alcohol, food, Netflix, whatever) to cheer me up, get me through a rough patch, or just pass the time. A few weeks after I stopped drinking alcohol my relationship imploded. I wanted to drink myself into a blind stupor during that lost weekend, but I didn’t have a single drop. These days I actually look forward to treating myself to an occasional soda, perhaps ginger ale in a wine glass if I’m feeling fancy, or if I really want to indulge, lemonade mixed with ice tea (and not the kind from Long Island).

Will I start drinking alcohol again? An emphatic YES. I have a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne that I will open immediately after my black belt test in the fall. I’d say that’s about as special as you can get for a special occasion. I LOVE wine, and not just for the slow-building heady buzz. I love the texture, the taste, the complexity of smell and flavor, the beautiful color of it, how it can complement anything from filet mignon to peanut butter crackers (cabernet sauvignon and a really dry cheddary chardonnay respectively in case you’re wondering). It’s my partner in crime while I make a fresh batch of marinara—some for the gravy, some for the cook. Virginia Madsen’s candlelit soliloquy about wine in the movie “Sideways” makes me tear up a little.

Yes, I will start drinking again after my self-imposed oenophile-exile is over. The difference will be that I will truly be able to enjoy wine without being weighed down with the anxious expectation for it to save me from my worries or give me a false sense of cheer and peace. Plus I’ll need to make a new batch of marinara.

Dead Week

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When something you love brings out the worst in you rather than the best it’s a good indicator to reconsider how you’re spending your time and energy. It’s also a big ole mind f*ck.

I did not go to taekwondo all week. I was utterly burned out and was beginning to dread class more than look forward to it. It broke my heart to feel that way. I was tempted to go on Monday just to get a good cardio workout, but my body and mind were begging me not to go. I did run through my forms since those are so intricate and in danger of becoming fuzzy if I allowed my memory to become too lax. I suspect part of my stress around taekwondo has stemmed from a personal situation that has caused a lot of grief and anxiety. It went off like an A-bomb and flattened everything in its path. This week has had too much caffeine, sugar, and stress, and too little sleep, wholesome foods, and laughter. I still managed to lose another pound even after a late-night decadent meal at a fancy society gala so yay for that.

It was nice to be anonymous for a week. I still went to work and wore my mask of cheerful dutiful employee, but before and after office hours I was off the grid. My social media activity was barely a whisper and I had limited contact with friends and family. The darkness of the A-bomb situation only clouds my thinking late at night or on lingering weekend mornings rather than completely engulf me. No one knew where I was or what I was doing. It was glorious.

It was relaxing to just exercise without feeling like I needed to perform for somebody. Once I got past a few days of sleep-deprivation and deep depression I got back into my Pilates routine and added some cardio and weights. I went to a Les Mills BodyCombat class one night just to keep up my taekwondo technique. Thankfully there were no ridiculous grapevine steps or clapping and instead had a lot of hooks, front snap kicks, and knee bashes. I still executed a side kick the way I was meticulously taught even though I didn’t have anyone shouting at me to lift my knee higher and turn my hip.

It reminded me of how much I hate aerobics classes, but I was pleased that my stamina was so strong that it felt like a walk in the park compared to a typical taekwondo class. I was surprised by my muscular silhouette in the mirror. I seemed so much less clumsy and blocky in a tight tank and running pants than I am (or at least my perception of what I look like) in taekwondo class. I didn’t know that’s what I looked like under my typical flowing white long sleeves and loose pants. Doboks make everyone’s butt look big, no exceptions. I was too shy to kiyahp with the hopping, grinning instructor. It seemed silly among the T-shirts and tennis shoes.

When you clean house cobwebs and dust bunnies can frustratingly drift from one corner to another rather than be transported to the trash. When you go through some major mental shifting and emotional overhauls a few things can fall through the cracks. After thirty-five years of ruling myself with an iron fist I realized that I could no longer remain sane while measuring my self-worth by my relationship status or by what I looked like. I’m exhausted. Something I loved was bringing out the worst in me rather than the best. I began to dread it rather than dream of it. It was killing me. I want to say “f*ck it all” and fade to black.

I was tired of punishing myself for not being “good enough” or worthy of being happy and satisfied.  I AM enough; happiness and satisfaction comes from within. I didn’t berate myself for “failing” at a relationship and stopped looking in vain for proof of improvements in my face and body. I am deeply sad about a certain situation, but I did not fall into the typical trap of viciously blaming myself for the outcome…and I didn’t start calling myself fat either, which somehow always comes up in unrelated situations. I hadn’t realized before that not hating myself was actually an option–how refreshing! I don’t want to measure my worth by that anymore, f*ck it all. Money, relationships, and a good-looking exterior are just bonus prizes to inner peace, not that I have that right now, but I’m getting closer. Plus, ever since I’ve stopped wearing eye makeup my eyelashes are longer and thicker. Yeah! #iwokeuplikethis

Apparently though I wasn’t “enough” for myself with taekwondo. That old black magic of self-scrutiny, judgment, and criticism began to rage full-force. My enlightened, happy and satisfied inner self wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I was beginning to be embarrassed by everything I did. I started thinking about how ridiculous I probably looked, how poorly I was performing, and how full of crap I am when I moon over how much more confidence I have or how happy I am jumping around and kicking the air with children. Really?? All the self-hatred and judgement that had been washed away from other aspects of my life suddenly attacked what had previously been untouched by deep-seeded anxiety and doubt. I wonder if I began to put too much emotional weight into taekwondo, like holding up the impossibly high expectation of a love interest to magically make you happy or more money to finally solve all your problems. It doesn’t work that way. Nothing external can live up to that expectation.

The air gets thinner and the trek becomes more treacherous when you near the summit of a mountain, and the same thing is happening as I edge closer and closer to black belt. I am questioning and doubting everything and sometimes find myself silently thinking in the middle of class, “Is this it? Is this all there is to my life?” This is not the first time something I loved began to bring on more stress and frustration than joy. Jobs, relationships, interests, and passions are all in danger of crossing over that dark line, and it is devastating when it happens. It feels like a betrayal. I still haven’t gotten right with myself and taekwondo. I still think I am a liar and a fraud who doesn’t deserve to be a bo dan. One might suggest I need to let go of that anxiety and let the Universe work its magic. I’m just not there yet.

P.S. On a much happier note–THIS IS MY 100TH POST, YO!!!!!

Didn’t He Say “Ease Off”??

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I should have taken my yoga teacher’s advice. I’m burned out.

I really knew I was burned out when in a matter of days I suddenly felt disgusted by three things I enjoy very much: Greek yogurt, eye makeup, and taekwondo sparring.

I could barely swallow the last few bites of the yogurt I was eating for my snack yesterday. Everything about Greek yogurt made me sick–the gloppy texture filling my mouth, the icky sweetness, how I had to kind of half-chew and half-swallow at the same time because that’s how you have to eat yogurt. I was completely grossed out.

As for eye makeup–I didn’t wear any last Tuesday for personal reasons and amazingly made it through the day without hearing “You look tired.” Everything about eye makeup made me sick–the way my eyes water and burn by the end of the work day, the dry mascara flecks on my cheeks, the infuriating way it seems to take days to wash off the last vestiges of it before I have to start all over again. When the shock of seeing my two bare blue eyes squinting back at me wore off I thought I might try it again. I worked my way down from eye shadow and liquid liner to just eyeliner pencil and by the end of today I was so annoyed at how sloppy the half-melted eyeliner looked that I rubbed that off my otherwise bare lids.

Sparring was something I learned to love as an adult. Just as I challenged myself to enjoy “The Scarlet Letter” in college after hating it in high school (try reading it again; it is a delightful, twisted, voyeuristic melodrama) I decided to embrace sparring after hating and dreading it so much as a child. Sparring brings out the best and the worst in the taekwondo practitioner. It is a true test of skills and literally thinking on your feet. Everything we learn is applicable to sparring and by extension, ‘real life.” Sparring is as authentic and raw as you can get in the dojang.

Just as I seemed to get worse with my side kicks on Monday, my sparring was abysmal tonight. I just couldn’t move. I was so unmotivated. My brain understood everything I was supposed to be doing, but my body shut down. It just wouldn’t do it. Whenever I’ve learned something very physically demanding (dance, classical guitar,  &$%# spin kick) there’s always about a 6 month delay between what I’m being directed to do and what my body actually does. I was so frustrated with myself that I froze completely.

When my sparring deteriorates (it’s not great to begin with), the healthy aggression I feel towards my opponent turns inward to a more sinister, poisonous self-directed aggression. I become very frustrated with myself and spend the rest of the match just defending myself as best I can (which isn’t much) and praying for it to be over. Here’s a rough transcript of the ticker tape that started flowing across my brain: “Failure. Fraud. Liar. Why did I tell my family and friends and coworkers that I’m training for my black belt? I fight like a white belt. I’m embarrassing myself. I look so clumsy and stupid. All I’m doing is scooting around taking on kicks full-force. I keep making the same mistakes! I don’t even deserve the rank I have–why did they give it to me?? Now I’m going to look like a huge idiot who was all talk and no action. You should walk out of the class and never come back.”

Here’s what I can do well: I can kick the air, perform a memorized set of pre-determined moves, and break stuff. I can think of no better response than this:
Matt-Foley-Motivational-SpeakerThat’s like bragging about having an advanced vocabulary of Spanish words but when put to the test you can’t carry on the simplest of conversations or even halfway keep up with any telenovelas, which aren’t known for their rich and eloquent dialogue. Yeah, I really deserve a black belt. Ha.

I considered going home and skipping the second class. Why let my negativity spoil everyone else’s evening? If I couldn’t give my all could I give anything? I didn’t want to do that to my instructors or classmates. They have no idea what taekwondo and by extension they have done for me. I owe them my life. I was falling apart at the seams two years ago, and if you’ve read other blog posts (and you HAVE, RIGHT??) you know the amazing life lessons I’ve gleaned from taekwondo. It was a group effort. There is so much love and support in that dojang it seems a little ironic that we willingly (and for the most part joyfully) beat the crap out of each other on a regular basis.

On the other hand, the second class is always small. What if only one or two students decided to stay? It wasn’t fair to ditch them like that. I’m glad I stayed. I ended up having a very pleasant evening working with a new red belt on his form and one steps although I don’t think he was having as good a time as I was. Learning how to teach is a part of black belt training, so my instructor would give me some guidance and then walk away, leaving me to try it out on a live victim. I work with adult learners, so I forget that giving feedback like, “I’m not really seeing the transition between your stances” to a blinking, frowning ten-year-old doesn’t do much good.

After I got home and closed my front door I rested my head against it for a moment and sighed. While my terrible performance really did upset me I felt a nagging unease about the underlying cause. This was just a symptom. There is still a tiny burrowing part of me who is a self-loathing perfectionist who doesn’t believe I’m “worth it,” whatever that means. That was tough to swallow after all the hard work I’ve done and exponential growth I’ve experienced over the past few years.

I don’t know if I can handle going to sparring class next week. I feel like I’m getting worse and worse. I think I need to follow my own advice and listen to my body and mind’s needs. They are saying, “CHILL! REST! Listen to us or you will burn out for good! Didn’t you read your own last damn blog post??” I am so sick of my one-steps and hand-to-hand techniques. Instead of going to bed early I am spending my evening nursing surprisingly painful welts on my elbow that will likely get a few snotty side-eyes at a black tie event I’m attending next week (but I’ll look smoking in my dress so who cares). I want a quiet evening to myself again.  I had to cut a big chunk out of the ball of my foot thanks to a ripped callus that is growing deeper and bloodier. I’m sad that something I love has become more trying that it is enjoyable.

There’s hope though. Whenever I take a break from swimming I come back stronger, more vigorous, smoother, and more powerful. Maybe the same will happen with taekwondo. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do next week. Whether I show up or not my love and dedication to taekwondo remains the same. If I’m absent it doesn’t mean I’m not coming back or that I don’t care. It means I need to do right by it and by me by giving us both a rest.

So Just Chill Till the Next Episode

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“To surrender,” my yoga teacher said as he looked around the dark room at our upturned faces, “you sometimes first have to build heat.”

It was my first yoga class in about a month. When asked about my long absence I gave the ubiquitous answer of “I had things going on” with a Robert De Niro-esque shrug. I did have things going on (laundry doesn’t fold itself), but that wasn’t the entire answer.

Sometimes I avoid my practice on purpose when I am dealing with tricky issues or need some mental downtime. As I’ve said in previous posts, my mind does not shut off and focus in yoga the way it does in taekwondo. About halfway into the practice my mind quiets down, but for the first thirty minutes thoughts bounce around in my head like a racquetball. When a sticky issue is top of mind it likes to crab-walk down my spine as I dangle in forward fold, crawl into my ear and whisper, “Let’s think about THIS.” It’s even worse when I try to meditate on my own or using guided meditation. And you know what? I just don’t like meditation—there, I said it. Revoke my hippie card.

My reluctance to surrender to my practice reminds me of when I did some individual coaching sessions for a team about two years ago. One of my clients, a young woman I’d known for years, said she had put off meeting with me for quite some time because she knew a sticky issue would probably come up. We peeled back layers carefully, and by the end of our session she was relieved that she had finally talked about it and figured out how to address it.

It felt fantastic to be back to yoga. My body unfolded into the poses as if I were smoothing out a crumpled piece of paper on a cool kitchen counter. The old familiar pinching pain in my left shoulder was gone (perhaps since I hadn’t done yoga in four weeks) so the million chaturangas we always do didn’t have to be modified. About halfway into the practice my mind was finally quiet.

My teacher continued his original thought as he gently tugged my arms up and away into a fuller expression of locust pose.

“When you think you’ve reached your end,” he said, “Notice the tension in your body…and ease off.” He lowered my hands an inch. “It’s a life lesson. When you hit a plateau in your practice or your work or relationships…just ease off a bit…and then you can get back into it.” He released my hands, and my arms and legs felt twice as long as they floated to the ground. It was just what I needed to hear after mulling over the burnout I had been experiencing.

Plateaus and burnouts aren’t necessarily bad things if we don’t let them overrun us. They are cues, feedback to us to ease off for a bit in order to rest, recharge, and make any necessary changes. They are an opportunity for us to surrender and let go so the heat we’ve built doesn’t burn us to the ground. A healthy practitioner, no matter the trade, knows when to recognize these cues and surrender to the needs of the body, mind, and spirit.

In other words, it’s OK to chill! (After I get home from sparring and red and black belt class)