“Are you driving it like you borrowed it or are you driving it like you OWN IT?!”
My Body Combat teacher growled and grinned at us as she threw jabs and pushed her sweaty acolytes to work harder. As I bounced and punched I had to suppress a chuckle and filed her comment away in my brain for a future blog post.
Sometimes our best laid plans are sabotaged by our own habits, shortcomings, misgivings, or desires. We fall into patterns that are comfortable and routine although not always the healthiest or the most challenging for us. Lately I feel as if my brain and body are two kids that goad each other into getting into trouble. Here’s what some of their conversations look like: Brain: “Let’s do a spin kick! We finally got it down and it was looking really good last week.”
Body: “Nah. I’m gonna tighten up the left hip to limit mobility and give us vertigo every time we try to lower the shoulders.”
Brain: “But we understand exactly how to do it! This is a fundamental—“
Body: “NOPE. Hip tightening in three…two…”
Brain: “You’re a jerk.”
Body: “It’s really early and I’m awake and energized! Let’s go swim laps before the 5:30 crowd gets to the pool.”
Brain: “Nah, let’s go back to sleep. This bed is so comfortable and warm. Besides, it’s cold and dark outside and we hate the cold. Besides, don’t you think more sleep will help us feel refreshed?”
Body: “But swimming makes us feel even more refreshed! We can nap after we swim!”
Brain: “You’re getting very sleepy…”
Body: “You are such an a…..zzzzzzz”
Meanwhile I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, shaking my head with irritation at my good intentions once again being ruined. What are we to do when we want to make a positive change or try something new but we’re the ones holding ourselves back?
Psyche Yourself Out There are all kinds of ways you can motivate yourself: giving yourself compliments, tough love, reminding yourself of what’s truly important, staying positive. As long as you’re not being abusive or too self-deprecating there’s nothing wrong with talking yourself into doing something challenging. When I’m having trouble with jumps or tricky balance exercises in physical therapy I’ll roll my eyes and think, ”Come on, Black Belt!” Other times I just remind myself of how freaking good I’ll feel after exercising or how relieved I’ll feel after finishing an arduous work project.
Good Old Fashioned Bribery My goal is to swim two miles in one workout. I’ve worked my way up to about 1.6 miles. At this point is my motivation is not the cliché of overcoming obstacles or pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible or even getting a killer workout. No, at this point my number one motivator is pancakes. Now, can I have pancakes any time I want? Yes, of course I can, and I even made some at home not too long ago. But there’s something deeply pleasurable about eating a heavy meal after a long hard swim, and bonus points if I pass out for a nap afterwards. Maybe I’ll get pancakes or maybe I’ll get something like pizza or enchiladas depending on what time of day I complete my mega swim. Either way, carbs and a nap are happening. Brain and body, it’s time to get on board.
Forgive Yourself You are not perfect. Neither is anyone else. You may not always live up to your own or somebody else’s expectations. Maybe those expectations aren’t realistic. If you’re feeling discouraged or losing confidence put the challenge on hold. Take a deep breath and reassess what is important to you in this moment. Does it make you feel good pursuing this goal? Would you be happy even if you didn’t achieve this particular goal? (Hopefully that answer is yes) What do you need right now to feel satisfied? What can you do differently? Is it still worth it?
Sometimes we have to put down goals for a while or even give them up entirely if we choose a different path. Other times we simply need a breather so we can get back on track, refreshed and ready for the challenge.
This morning I woke up feeling alert and refreshed at 4 AM. I almost rolled over and went back to sleep, but I dragged myself out of bed…only to discover that a cut on my foot wouldn’t stop bleeding when I took the Band-Aid off that I’d put on it last night. Now, I certainly can’t go swimming with (1) a bleeding cut or (2) a bloody Band-Aid that is guaranteed to peel off my foot and float around in the pool like a rubbery little germ ball. Grudgingly I went back to bed, but I did it for the good of all the people at the gym, I swear! I WILL be going to ballet barre class mid-morning so I’ll still put my useless brain and body to work.
Sometimes we have to indulge our brains or bodies and let them have what they want. Eventually though, it’s time to get back to work and do what you know is ultimately best for yourself…tomorrow anyway.
There are parts of me that are bony. There are parts of me that are muscular. There are parts of me that are squishy. Often these parts are right up next to each other, which I think gives me an odd appearance (big sculpted and kinda bony shoulder, delicate wrist, soft batwing tricep hanging from a hard bicep), but it’s probably a lot closer to being “normal” than my perfectionist tendencies allow me to believe.
I tend to isolate my body parts. I thank genetics for the bony parts, take pride in the muscular parts, and admonish the squishy parts. I forget that these bony, muscular, and squishy parts all work in harmony to help me do really cool stuff like chop an onion, drive a car, swim laps, and beat other people up. Unfortunately it can be a little more difficult in today’s society to appreciate the squishy alongside the bony and the muscular.
Similar to the end-of-year holiday eating guilt trip, we are all being bombarded with the ads, messages, promises, and media-induced panic to get our bodies “ready” for the summer. What it really means is, “You don’t look good enough to wear a bathing suit yet, and holy crap, it’s June!!” Almost every week at the barre class at my gym, the instructor reminds us that summer is almost here, so we’d better squeeze our glutes and “zip up” our cores. Everyone is going on cleanses and amping up their workouts.
Of course the one place I don’t feel a barrage of mixed messages about body confidence is in taekwondo class. I don’t have time to think about whether my waistband feels too tight or if my butt looks big in my dobok. I’m too busy learning, practicing, fighting, coaching, and generally trying to not get hit in the face. Even if my waistband feels tight, um, there’s a f-cking black belt around it, so I’m doing just fine without washboard abs, thankyouverymuch.
Taekwondo reminds me of how powerful my body is. One night in class we were working on jumps. Sometimes for “fun,” we’ll drag out a thick mat, and two people will stand on either side holding a spare belt between them. Depending on the size, age, and rank of the student, the belt could be held anywhere between two and five feet off the ground. The student then takes a running start, leaps off the ground, tucks their legs in close to their body, and ideally clears the belt and lands softly and safely on the other side. The holders always keep the belt soft with slack in case the student doesn’t quite make it over. It’s meant to be used as practice for flying kicks, but usually ends up being more of a source of entertainment as the giggles (and applause) get louder and the gentle teasing increases.
I was knocking it out of the park. It probably helped that (1) I had done this drill many times before and (2) I was working on jumps in physical therapy earlier that day. I leapt over the belt with no problem and room to spare. There’s always a little rush of fear and adrenaline when I hoist myself off the ground, but I’ve learned to power through it and trust my awesome body to get the job done. I was proud of what my injured, aging body could accomplish.
That night as I undressed at home I caught my eye in the mirror, and my gaze inadvertently went straight to the squishy parts. Out of habit my mind turned to the inner critic that had dragged me down the dark road of disordered eating and body hatred for decades: How can you work out all the time and still look like THAT? Once a man figures out you’re not as skinny as you appear he’s going to reject you. Are you really going to wear a two piece bathing suit at the pool this summer? Perhaps you should rethink that. Why are you flabby? It’s not like you’ve had children and can justify it. You’re not allowed to look like that. [Sorry if I’ve offended any mothers. I’m just repeating what my mean-spirited mind said.]
I think you’d better skip your post-workout snack.
It took me a moment to remember that just thirty minutes ago my body, squishy parts, bulging lumbar disc, aching hips, irritated hamstring, and all, were helping me fight hard and fly through the air as if I were light as a feather.
“F_ck you! I look GOOD!” I said aloud to my inner critic.
I’m starting to believe that a little bit more every day. I’m still learning to love the squishy parts as much as I love the muscular parts. I still glance in the mirror anxiously to make sure the shadows under my cheekbones carve dark hollows into my face. I still count the bones of my sternum when I wear a low cut shirt. My hand still flies to the squishy parts, patting them down in hopes that they’ve shrunk. I’m surprised when I see how thin I look in photos. And then I remember that this body, every single piece of it, earned me my black belt.
Today, on a hot, humid, rainy Sunday, I bought not one but two bikinis. One is leopard print and the other has thick pop art colors and black lines. They weren’t my first two pieces, but there’s always that little voice that asks, “Should I??” My teenage and twenty something selves would be mortified at the thought of exposing my squishy parts. But the only thing I could think today when I was trying on the suits in a multi-mirrored dressing room was, “Damn, black belt, you look GOOD.”
As I write this I’m lying on a heating pad, feeling sorry for myself about my aching back and looking out the window at storm clouds. I certainly won’t be putting these bathing suits to use today or any time soon since there is more rain in the forecast. But it’s nice to know they’re waiting in a drawer for me. It’s nice to know that I’ve stood up to societal pressure to be perfect, and even more so, I was happy that I was beating back my slowly dying habit of harsh self-criticism. It’s nice to know that I’m starting, one day at a time, to embrace the squishy.
“Whew, that was a good workout! I needed that,” I said to my chief instructor as I sipped water and leaned against the back of a chair in the dojang waiting room. It was Monday night, the first night back after an “off week” due to an abbreviated workout schedule and a little bit of Spring Break indulgence (okay, more than a little bit). That night’s class had a simpler structure than our usual classes: foundational kicks and a little bit of partner work with blocking and striking. That was it.
Lately it’s been a rare occasion that I’m just in student mode when I’m in class. Very often I’m refereeing a sparring match, holding pads for kicking drills, or overseeing students working on forms or self defense. As much as I love teaching and coaching and accept that responsibility of being a black belt, once in a while I like the times when I can shut down that part of my brain and just work. My body, my space, my mind, my practice. I felt invigorated and refreshed by a simple workout. I was ready to emerge from the quiet cocoon I’ve been in since the new year.
Spring has always been an opportune time for me to take my fitness regimen up a notch, and not because bathing suit season is around the corner. (I know it’s still snowing in some parts of the country. I live in Texas. We go from winter to tornado season to summer in about week.) The weather is nicer, the days are longer, there’s a wider variety of fresh produce available for nutritious snacking, and after Easter there’s no more holiday candy–who wouldn’t be inspired to get healthier?
New Year’s resolutions can get lost in the grey days of winter and the rush of the holidays.On that note, perhaps this spring season of rebirth and awakening is a time to reexamine what I want from my taekwondo practice.
For the most part I want to continue the trajectory I’ve been on since I got my black belt last year:
-becoming a faster, stronger, and more strategic fighter
-learning and quickly applying hand-to-hand combat techniques and weapons defense (our traditional school has some hapkido influence, so we practice joint locks, sweeps, and throws)
-doing a badass spinning hook kick, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time and am finally seeing improvement. I broke a board with spin kick at my bo dan test, so it would be nice to have that same precision and power consistently.
-bringing power, grace, and finesse to my forms (Jon, I finally got Keumgang!!!!)
-improving my explosive power, speed, and strength
-being a patient, knowledgeable, intuitive, and helpful assistant instructor
…y’know, being a good black belt.
I feel like I’m starting to emerge from hibernation in other areas of my life too. Very soon I’m going to be coaching my head off with several clients at work, and I can’t wait. I’ve already been doing a little bit of coaching here and there with a few people, but within the next few weeks it is going to be my primary focus at work. I have been dying to do leadership coaching for years, and I’m finally getting my chance. I just hope I don’t talk to them the way I talk to the nine-year-olds in taekwondo class.
As for writing, last year I started a huge project. I made a massive amount of progress by the end of the year and took a much needed rest. Once I finish binge-watching another season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” (ha ha) I’ll be ready to pick it up again, and at some point I hope to share more details about this project with my blog readers. I will also be guest writing for the martial arts travel site BookMartialArts.com….so I have stuff going on.
And with sunshine and blooming flowers and birds chirping will I be ready to emerge from my year-long dating hibernation? Will there be a Mr. Little Black Belt in the near future? Mmmm….NAH! It’s still all grape soda to me!
I usually avoid the latest fitness crazes because I’ve found what works for me, but I’ve been intrigued by a trend that started catching on last year: barre class, as in, a body sculpting workout using a ballet barre. Ballet, like Pilates and yoga, is well-known for its ability to build long, lean muscles and improve flexibility and balance. I actually like the fact that I’ve bulked up from taekwondo, which probably makes me the odd woman out, but having studied dance as an undergrad, I have an appreciation for the lean muscle tone ballet training can provide.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to scrounge Groupon for a discounted pass to the PureBarre studio in my neighborhood. My gym, where I mostly swim and take yoga classes, recently added a barre class to the roster. Tonight I donned my favorite tank and stretch pants and went to check it out.
The only hesitation I had about the class was the name:
….um, okay, whatever.
First of all, I don’t need any help in that department. Nineteen years of yoga practice plus intense taekwondo classes and all the squats and box jumps I do in physical therapy have served me very well. Second of all, what a childish, pandering name for a class! It feels too ridiculous to even say out loud. I’m not trying to be a humorless prude, but…Bootybarre? Really??
I didn’t go into the workout expecting an easy, soft stretch class. Let’s level set here: Ballet is HARD. It’s strenuous, deeply technical, and demands full engagement of the body from head to pointed toe. The physical training and mind-body awareness I developed in college dance classes has helped me quite a bit with the equally highly technical demands of taekwondo, although kicking the crap out of someone has a certain…hmm…je ne se quoi that can’t be replicated in a dance class. I didn’t expect it to be too hard, though. “Bootybarre” is held at my gym, not a professional dance studio, so how hard could it be?
The short version: This class kicked my ass. Walking down my stairs tomorrow is going to be painful.
The class began with some simple plies. Okay, this was familiar, I could do this. When my quads started burning less than ten minutes in I knew I was in trouble. After the warm up we switched to dumbbell lifts. 2.5 pound weights? Pssh! No problem…until we started doing all the dumbbell lifts while standing tall on the balls of our feet. Ugh. Hopefully in taekwondo class my Koryo ready stance that I do on tippy toes (yes, that is the technical term) will be solid as a rock after this.
The rest of the class was a blur of leg lifts that left my legs feeling like jelly. After squeezing a ball between my burning thighs for what felt like an hour (okay, more like five minutes) it was a relief to drop to the floor and do some ab work. After being reminded to “zip up my core” for the last forty-five minutes I was pleased that my abs held up better than my legs did. Plus, the final song that was playing was a dance club mix of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” so I had extra motivation to keep moving. “Gon’ make you sweat, make you sweat, make you sweat!”
“Do you do ballet?” a woman asked me after the class.
“Oh, I did a little in college, but now I’m into martial arts,” I said as I put the aforementioned evil ball back in its designated box.
“Well you look like you do it. You move very gracefully.”
“Thanks…except these aren’t from ballet!” I cackled, flashing my bruised forearms at her.
I went home exhausted and sore and consoled myself with a leftover empanada and Cuban rice.
The verdict: worth a try. It was fun, and it can complement the cross training I do to be an agile (and aging) athlete. Like Pilates, yoga, and taekwondo, it taps into the mind-body connection and keeps my muscles lengthened and joints supple. And most importantly, bathing suit season will be here before I know it. I’m already looking forward to next week’s class, ridiculous name and all.
I spent the week of Thanksgiving eating my weight in food at my parents’ house. It all started with a pumpkin donut at the airport Dunkin Donuts the Saturday before Thanksgiving, plus a free drink coupon from Southwest Airlines, and it went downhill from there. I spent the week before that convalescing (i.e., pouting at home) due to a severe back injury. I’m feeling a little more like Steven Segal than Bruce Lee these days.
So, I haven’t been moving around as much for the past few weeks. I’d probably built in a buffer from all the exercise I normally do and my regular boring diet of brown rice, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and protein bars. I’m not too concerned about it though. As I mentioned in my last post, life and food are meant to be enjoyed, especially during the holidays.
Thanks to a few taekwondo, physical therapy, and swimming sessions and a low-carb, high protein Mediterranean diet (but no fish, gross) I’m back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight. Not a big deal, right?
Unfortunately for the next two or three months, weight, food, and exercise are going to be top of mind for many people, and not in a mature, healthy way. Americans are going to be obsessing about what they eat, what they look like, and how they supposedly don’t measure up to all the beautiful (albeit manufactured) people around them.
All the magazines will have guilt-laden, naggy guides on how to stay in shape during the holidays, and afterwards they’ll pummel us with suggestions for cleaning up the indulgent messes we’ve made of ourselves. I won’t be able to find parking at my gym during January and February thanks to the influx of people with good intentions and, well…good intentions. (I’m not hating on the New Years Resolution gym-goers. I start and stop plenty of things because I get burned out or lose interest or whatever else causes me to stop. It happens to all of us in different ways.)
As someone with former eating and body image problems, those articles make me laugh. It seems like such small potatoes, excuse the pun. I wasted YEARS obsessing over my body and hating myself and the way I looked to the point of being suicidal. I still try to exhibit control over my body and what I eat, and I know I’m always going to have those tendencies (e.g., I’m a size four and panic when I’m puffy with water weight), but I’ve pretty much overcome the worst of it. I’d rather read about how to improve my emotional and spiritual health or how to help others, or hell, just something about shoes than freak out over my slightly and temporarily fatter ass.
I’m not saying there shouldn’t be helpful information about nutrition and exercise this time of year. This country more than any other needs it. I just wish it weren’t so laden with self-consciousness and guilt.
Please please please, do not beat yourselves up over eating an extra cookie or piece of pie this holiday season. It’s so not worth it. Enjoy the cookie. And then do what I do and beat other people up instead.
There are two things I love about this time of year: the extra hour of sleep and Thanksgiving. That’s about it.
Sure, I love my scarves and knee-high boots, but I mostly love the idea of them, not the fact that I actually have to start wearing them to stay warm. We do really have four seasons in Texas. They just happen to be ice, tornadoes, a really long summer, and rain. Now we’re in that period of a few nice days that are ruined by torrential downpours and dangerous flooding. Thanks to the rain and the fact that, uh, it’s November it’s started to get a little cool. It’s also the time of year when I begin to get grumpy until about…oh…May.
I’m a native Texan and a summer baby. I like running out of the house in flip flops, sunscreen, and a sweaty ponytail. I get anxious and cranky when I have to start wearing layers. My mood plummets from annoyance at mild chilliness in November (for me, anything below 70 degrees is “cold”) to full-blown depression during the dismal, ice-storm-heavy days of January and February. It didn’t come as too much of a surprise when, right after the excitement of my black belt test died down, my mood dropped sharply along with the decreasing temperatures.
I was wondering when the inevitable post-black belt low was going to hit. Some people get depressed right after the holidays–the weather is abysmal, there’s nothing to look forward to other than Valentine’s Day candy, and people suddenly stop being so nice to each other. I wondered if the same phenomenon was hitting me now that the family has gone home and I’ve begun to break in my new belt and uniform.
It was easy to stay motivated and upbeat while I was training. A long day at work? No problem, I knew I’d sweat it off during an intense sparring class. A tough physical therapy session? No problem, the pain was worth it as I was healing and strengthening my body. I could just zone out, visualize my board breaking sequence, and I’d sail through the day. Now that it was all over what did I have to look forward to?
When I get down, I want to shut myself off from the world. I don’t want to talk to anybody (more than my usual introvert avoidance), think about anything, or interact with the world in general. Sometimes I do need a little break from constantly thinking, observing, interacting, etc. and like to veg out with Netflix, but if I’m not careful about it I can go into full isolation mode. Last night when I got home from work that feeling punched me in the stomach and shoved me up against the wall. I wanted to crawl under a blanket and steep myself in solitude. For whatever reason I felt dull, pouty, tired, and very tempted to call it a night.
“REALLY?” I thought, irritated. “I haven’t even had my black belt for a week and now I want to shut down and hibernate? What was all that flowery stuff I said about it being just the beginning or just a small stop along a lifelong journey?”
“But,” I whined. “It’s daaaark outside and I wanna curl up on the couch and reeeeeaaaaaad.”
I rolled my eyes and paced around the living room. Maybe it wasn’t Black Belt Blues. Maybe it was because I’d felt dull and listless at work that day and my energy was low, or maybe it was because I was feeling mopey and sad, which I tend to do if I let myself ruminate on things (regrets, worries, personal issues) for too long. Or maybe I was just being lazy. No, I wasn’t about to give up this quickly.
“You JUST started learning a new form, and you were so excited about that, remember? And you’ve been sitting on your butt at work all day; exercise will do you some good. Now put on your gym clothes and go to class!” I countered before stomping into the spare room and shoving my new uniform with the tell-tale black lapel into my duffel bag.
Moving around seems to be the best remedy for a tired body and a tired brain. One of our second-degree black belts, a transfer from another school with a background in MMA, led the class. It was one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done in all my years of being a gym rat and a taekwondo student. He never screamed at us like a drill sergeant or an overly enthusiastic personal trainer. He just gave us our instructions with the expectation that we could (and would) do it, no questions asked. I think we all had too much morbid curiosity to not at least give it a try.
The class was fun the way riding the Titan roller coaster at Six Flags was fun: in the moment I just tried to keep focusing on what was directly in front of me without screaming, I questioned why the hell I was willingly putting myself through it, and the next day I woke up with a mild concussion and a feeling like I’d been smashed around in a washing machine. And in a sick way, although I swore I’d never do it again, I just might. (Well, not the roller coaster. NEVER AGAIN. I haven’t had a concussion after a taekwondo class….yet.)
For nearly an hour we did sadistic things like burpees, clock pushups (get into push up position and bounce around on the floor in a circle–fun, right?), and countless spin kicks in a row. With nearly every drill was the caveat, “Now, for the black belts, I want you to add THIS…” as he added something extra like finger-tip pushups or another jump spin kick. It didn’t seem like I was going to get a cooling off period, but rather a running start as a new black belt.
Any listlessness or creeping depression or loneliness had been thoroughly wrung out of my body, although at one point one of my classmates who had paramedic training began giving me a worried look. I just stared back with glassy eyes and a red face while swearing with an insane smile that I was fine. I was better than fine and so thankful that I’d pulled myself out of my Fortress of Solitude and went to class. And wouldn’t you know, my 360 roundhouse (tornado) kicks were looking pretty damn good.
This morning I dragged myself to physical therapy. It seemed like every part of my body EXCEPT my finicky right hamstring was exhausted. Even breathing too deeply sent cruel swaths of achiness across my upper back. I was hoping to get a nice long therapeutic massage, but my PT looked worse for the wear than I did. On Sunday he had competed in a half-marathon/obstacle course than involved running through mud, tumbling down hills while carrying bags of gravel, getting cut up by trees and cacti, and climbing ropes in the rain. Suddenly the clock pushups, burpees, and spin kicks I’d done on a smooth, pliable surface inside a well-lit air conditioned building didn’t seem so bad. He barely left his wheeled stool as he winced and scooted between patients.
“You’ll likely have delayed-onset muscle soreness, or what we call DOMS, which means it might be worse tomorrow. The best thing to do is some light movement to keep your muscles from stiffening up too much,” he advised while grimacing and readjusting himself on his stool. So today I have my classmate to thank for a reprieve from box jumps and kettle bell lifts: I did a low-key workout of gentle squats and lunges, the stationary bike, light kettle bell lifts, and some core work. An Epsom salt bath, some ibuprofen, and a good night’s sleep will have me ready and eager for tomorrow night’s class. As tired as I am today I was comforted to know that I have an antidote for the depression that I am never truly free from and the cold crappy weather that is just around the corner: go to class, go to class, go to class. (Well, let’s see how sore I am tomorrow.)