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


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.


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.



The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again


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…]

You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did)


I’ve recently changed job locations within the company where I’ve been employed for the last nearly 13 years. It’s a bit of a homecoming since I returned to the hospital where I first began my career with the company. After a six year stint at our corporate office in an adjacent city, it was time for me to come home. A few weeks in I got a life lesson in how our perceptions of ourselves, who we are, and what we deserved can at times be flawed at worst, underestimated at best.

Last Monday the director of the department (I don’t report to her but we work together, and she manages the department where I’m now located) offered me a bigger office that had just recently been vacated. My initial reaction was to say no—(1) I was pretty sick from an upper respiratory infection and was out of it when she asked (2) I was being too impulsively sentimental and attached to my first “real” little office, and most importantly (3) I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by looking like the new kid who breezed in and took one of the biggest offices. We’d all gone through a difficult work situation that left many people feeling sensitive and vulnerable. I didn’t want to contribute to that…which is ironically a bit arrogant of me to make the assumption that I was responsible for everyone’s feelings and moods. I worry too much about what other people think under the guise of wanting to take care of everyone. All that’s done is cause unnecessary stress and heartache.

The next morning I changed my mind, took her up on her offer, and by the afternoon I was all moved in. I love my new space. It’s huge. I can even practice a form in there (slightly modified but still) if I wanted to. It turns out my assumptions about my adopted work team were unfounded. They’d wanted me to have that big office from the beginning and were very happy that it was finally mine. Several of them even stopped by and said so. Due to the nature of my job I have a lot of meetings, and many of them are very private coaching meetings. I needed a larger space so my guests and I could be comfortable.

The afternoon that I moved in to my big office I hosted a meeting with one of my coworkers and a mutual friend, a hospital leader whom we’d both worked with on different occasions. My coworker mentioned a recent disappointment she’d had on the job. She was feeling pretty down when one day she was contacted out of the blue by a recruiter. She ultimately didn’t take the offer, having decided to stay where she was, but she was flattered by the attention.

“It just felt good to know that I AM something to someone,” she said. The other woman and I nodded and smiled in understanding. I thought about how important it is to feel that, and it often takes an outside perspective to remind us of what we were too blind, self-conscious, distracted, or even self-centered to see in ourselves.

“I think you underestimated the support you were going to get when you came here,” the department administrative assistant told me the next day when was helping me set up my phone. Maybe, but I think it was more of a case of underestimating myself. I didn’t think I deserved the big office. I didn’t think that the work I did was important enough or that what I did mattered to other people. It took other people pushing me into a new space (literally) for me to see that hey, I do make a difference after all. I AM something.

So take that opportunity. Take what is being offered to you on a platter. Take the big office. Enroll in a college course. Apply for that job. Sign up for your first taekwondo class. Tell that person you love them. What is scarier? Acting on what you want or continuing to live in doubt, controlled by fear and anxiety? Say yes. Take it. You are worth it. You deserve it.

You ARE something.

My How You’ve Grown


Silence surrounded me other than the ticking clocks I love to have in my home. Afternoon sun poured into my living room as I settled into my recliner. On my lap was a plain brown envelope–my medical records. One of my physicians, a specialist I’d been seeing for years for a chronic condition, had passed away suddenly. I wanted to get a copy of my records so I could easily transition to another doctor, but I mostly wanted to see them just because. 

I was a little nervous about reading my doctor’s notes this afternoon. I was very sick when I first started seeing him. By the time I found him I was desperate. My health had rapidly deteriorated, and I was nearly out of options. I slowly opened the envelope and pulled out the stapled packet of notes. I was curious about his initial thoughts the first time he met me. He saw what my illness had done to me. He’d seen me through remissions and relapses. Sometimes he seemed concerned or disappointed with my ongoing struggles. Sometimes he was cheerful and proud of my progress. What had he really thought of me?

The last time I saw him, though, we agreed that I’d made vast improvement over the last five years. And I have. I am not the same person I was when I first saw him at age 32…or am I? Had I really changed? Were my records going to reveal the piece of me that I’d worked so hard to fight off? Was it still there? Had I made as much progress as I’d thought? Had I really gotten my health back, and would I never be able to let my guard down?

His notes not only told the story of my treatment and healing but of all the good things I did with my life during a very difficult period. His first entry of notes mentioned that I was in the process of buying a house. Later entries mentioned closing on the house, changing jobs, and completing my MBA. The next to last entry mentioned how excited I was about receiving my black belt. That one made me smile and tear up a little. I wasn’t so bad after all. I really had done something good with my life despite the ways my condition threatened to hinder me.

I have him to thank for helping me get my health back, and even more so, I have taekwondo to thank. He was a huge help, but taekwondo was the clincher. It helped me get my life and my health back on track. It is the absolute best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Getting me well was a team effort.

When I cross paths with my departed doctor in the next life I hope I’ll have a chance to shake his hand and tell him that I turned out okay.

Have Growing Partners, Not Growing Pains

heart hands.jpg

This is still too much commitment for me, but I like the idea.

I had this boyfriend who claimed at the very beginning and at the very end of our relationship that one doesn’t grow in isolation. I think he said them both as a means to convince me to (1) get together with him in the beginning and (2) not to walk away at the end…even though he technically broke up with me, but that’s a different story.

I recognized his point but disagree on the absoluteness of it. I’ve done most of my growth, and I’m talking the really hard, gut-wrenching, gritty, life-changing, come-to-Jesus stuff “in isolation,” other than with the guidance and confidentiality of one trusted mentor. It was my only option, or at least that was my thinking at the time. First of all, my destructive behaviors drove people away, so that took care of any crowdsourcing for help, and second of all, I wouldn’t allow anyone to see me at my worst. I had to face some really hard truths about myself, and I had to fight that battle alone.

But…when given the opportunity, having other people guide us, give us feedback, and share their journeys with us can be one of the best ways to grow. At the end of last Saturday’s sparring class my Chief Instructor reminded us that we couldn’t just go in to class with the singular mindset of fighting for ourselves. We had to be good partners, whether that was being mindful of safety, respecting the other person’s age or body capabilities, or knowing how to challenge them in just the right ways. He’s since reminded us in other classes that being a good partner is just as important as practicing our own skills.

I subscribe to that philosophy as well. At the beginning of that particular sparring class I had reminded a teenage green belt, who seemed dismayed at the prospect of having to spar little kids, that part of his job as an older student and one who was moving into higher ranks was not just working on his own practice. He needed to be able to look out for and mentor the younger, smaller students, which is a good challenge in itself. For me being a black belt has partially been figuring out what I don’t know (or one might see it as moving from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence), and just as importantly, if not more so, living up to the responsibility of sharing what I do know with other students.

I started taekwondo training as a means to heal in a number of ways and give my life some purpose. It was self-centered motivation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since then, though, I’ve learned (albeit a little slowly) the importance of community and the part I need to play not only for my own fulfillment but for others, in some cases, more for them than for me. My life is much richer and happier because of my taekwondo family. I’d like to think I’ve done some good for them as well. The desire to serve and to, as my Chief Instructor would say, “be a good partner,” is inherent. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

Having a good partner, whether it’s in the dojang, the workplace, or the home, offers us a fresh perspective. They help us see our blind spots and the potential for greatness we haven’t yet recognized. Good partners push us just beyond what we think we can do and encourage us when we want to give up. They help us through the painful times and celebrate the good times. Being a good partner lets us share our wisdom and sometimes hard-learned lessons with others. It allows us to serve others and get outside our own self interests and agendas. It allows us to see our passions through another person’s eyes.

We can grow more quickly and more fully with the help of a good partner.

I don’t always practice what I preach or what my taekwondo instructors preach in my daily life, though. In fact, I veer towards the other end of the spectrum. I hate sharing my struggles (so that last post about my sort-of eating disorder was REALLY hard to write). I hate opening up my life to other people. I hate sharing my precious down time with anybody, even people I like. I think I want human interaction and connection, I’ve finally admitted that I need it to have a more fulfilling life, but damnit, I HATE asking for it.

I even hate sharing the good parts other than the insights I write about on this blog. It’s not a matter of wanting the glory for myself. I simply don’t know how to ask. It doesn’t occur to me. I was a loner as a child and learned to rely on myself for everything. That thought pattern has followed me well into adulthood, sometimes to my advantage because I’m very independent and autonomous but other times to my detriment. It’s easy to get tunnel vision without any feedback or an objective perspective.

I still have a hard time accepting the fact that I do need other people. They enrich my life in ways that I’m not able to do in isolation, try as I might. I’ve gotten better at it at work. During my yearly performance evaluation my boss remarked that I had a knack for building and maintaining relationships. It wasn’t always natural, but as I grew into my “caregiver” roles (first as a librarian and then as a leadership development consultant) I embraced human interaction and connection as my means of doing my work. I’m good at it, and I think I’ve helped a lot of people grow. I’ve been a good training partner.

I don’t do that in my personal life. I don’t seek out relationships. I’m not loyal. I’m not consistent. I don’t stick around. The urge to do my own thing, and more importantly stay off the social grid and viciously guard my free time, almost always wins out over the desire to spend time with other people. I have long-lasting acquaintances but very few long-lasting friendships. Frankly, I’m not a very good friend or partner, and there is a big part of me that couldn’t care less.

What would my personal life be like if I looked to family, friends, and coworkers as my “life training partners” just as I do with my taekwondo instructors and fellow students? What could I learn from them? What could they learn from me? Would it bring me as much fulfillment as taekwondo training does? What would I bring to others’ lives and experiences? Would it help me be less self-centered and keep me from sinking into tunnel vision thinking or depression? Would I really have to keep shouldering my burdens or even my triumphs alone?

Am I ready to share my journey instead of stubbornly growing in isolation? I’m not sure about that one. For now taekwondo is a good start.

How Martial Arts Can Help You Succeed in the Working World


It’s either this or punch a hole through the monitor.

I’ve been in the corporate world for roughly 15 years, and much of that time has been spent in healthcare. Taekwondo has been a major influence in how I carry myself, how I handle stress, how I communicate, and how I prioritize.

You don’t need to be in martial arts to reap its benefits and kick ass at work because I’ve done the work for you! I’ve compiled a list of articles that can help you successfully handle the ups, downs, challenges, and changes of the working world. Enjoy!

Communication and Teamwork
Learning to Be Human
How Punching People Made Me More Empathetic
Teaching Means You’re Learning for Two
How I Would Teach a Taekwondo Class: a Parody

The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or, Managing Change Like a Black Belt
Closed Door, Open Window: How Adversity Can Hone Adaptability
Can We Pause for a Change?
What’s Your Span of Control? The Answer May Surprise You!

Conflict and Stress
Sparring Multiple Partners
Guest Post: How Martial Arts Can Help Reduce Work-Related Stress
When Life Takes a Swing at You
Don’t Be So Defensive—Unless Somebody is Trying to Punch You in the Face

To Lead or Not to Lead
What I’ve Learned from Coaching Children and Business Leaders
True North
The Jyo Kyo Neem’s On You: First Days as a Black Belt

It’s All Cookies and Crackers
In Defense of Complacency
Defending Your Work-Life Balance
Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD

Guest Post: How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt

Check out my latest guest post on the martial arts travel site
How to Deal With Life’s Uncertainties Like a Black Belt 

This an expansion on a post I wrote several weeks ago. Life can be frustrating, scary, and stressful, but maintaining a black belt attitude (whether you’re a white belt, black belt, or not even into martial arts at all) can help you get through tough times with confidence and grace.



Looking for a great way to lower your stress levels? Why not sign up for an affordable martial arts training camp? From Taekwondo to Krav Maga, has camps on various types of martial arts disciplines to choose from!