Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

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This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

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Screw Up With a Smile

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“Um…” A tall teenage yellow belt tentatively raised his hand. I had just walked him and his fellow yellow belts through their new form, Palgwe Il Jang. As newly promoted students they had just started learning this form and were still getting the hang of it.

“Yes?”

“Isn’t the middle part supposed to be this?” He stepped into a back stance and did a double knife-hand high block.

“Ah yes it is! Thank you for pointing that out! Sorry about that, guys. Black belts make mistakes too!” I said with a laugh. Apparently I had told them to do a low block in a front stance rather than the correct move, a double knife-hand high block in a back stance.

“Black belts have to practice too,” piped up a five-year-old, nodding his head gravely. I told him that once, and now he takes every opportunity to remind me.

To date I have learned 20 forms and even more self-defense techniques. As I’ve moved up in the ranks it’s become easier to store more complicated patterns and techniques in my body and brain, but once in a while all those forms swirling around in my head can lead to errors.

The thing is, I had no clue I had done the wrong thing until the student pointed it out. I didn’t question myself when I was leading the students through the form, nor did I hesitate when I changed directions and threw blocks and strikes. I was confident, damnit! My misplaced front stance and low block looked pretty darn good: my front knee was bent in a 90 degree angle, my back leg was straight and sturdy, my shoulders and hips were square, and I know that low block would have worked against an attack. It just wasn’t the correct step in the form. Oops.

I’m glad it happened. It not only showed me that I can still be confident when I mess up, but it also gave the teenage yellow belt a chance to speak up with confidence as well.

We all make mistakes. We screw up, forget things, do the opposite of what we intended, and that’s just part of being human. There’s no way around it. What helps is a dose of confidence. That’s not the same as arrogance. I don’t think I’m any better than the lower ranking students in class, and my job is to serve them, not the other way around. Confidence means you respect, love, and trust yourself and have a positive outlook on your own capabilities. There is SO much I still have to learn nearly two years into my gig as a black belt and so many fundamental techniques I need to tweak. Even when I screw up and do the wrong thing or teach the wrong thing, though, my heart is in the right place. I’m confident in my abilities and trust myself to do the right thing (most of the time).

If I don’t trust myself how can the students trust me?

You’re not always going to get it right (or heaven forbid, perfect) the first time. You still have to keep moving. In the martial arts world, sparring is the perfect laboratory for trying out new and different things—sometimes what you choose to do works, and other times it doesn’t, but you have to keep moving. Failure, whether big or small, can teach us valuable lessons we’d never gain if we stayed on a steady, unwavering, but also unchanging and kinda boring plateau forever. Mistakes are going to happen so you might as well brush it off and not let them rattle your confidence. If you fail, do it with grace and make your second (or third or fourth) attempt even stronger.

I still think my low block and front stance looked good.

Guest Post: Using Martial Arts Forms As Moving Meditation

Check out July’s guest post from Book Martial Arts!
Discipline of the Body and Mind: Using Forms as Moving Meditation.

Poomsae_Training (Medium)

Nothing, and I mean nothing has helped me practice presence better than taekwondo. This month I go all hippie in the dojang and discuss how the martial arts student can use their poomsae, kata, or other type of form to quiet the mind, focus the body, and ultimately improve their practice.

Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It

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Sup, tornado! Wanna fight??

Sometimes, for reasons that make sense and just as often for reasons that don’t, I get sad. The feeling can overtake me in a flash. It’s not dissimilar from the Texas storms that mark the beginning of spring (and more pointedly, tornado season): suddenly the sky turns greyish-green, the tornado sirens are wailing, the rain starts pounding sideways, and the household lights flicker. It can be terrifying and paralyzing, and then just as quickly as it began, it’s over.

Recently I was hit with one of those emotional “rain squalls” and found myself hunched at my dining table with my head in my hand and tears streaming silently down my face.  It just happened, and while I knew it wasn’t for a rational reason, I gave in and let it take over for a few minutes. I knew it would pass, but it was agonizing.

Then I popped up out of the chair and did something I’ve never done before when I’ve been upset and overwhelmed:

I did a taekwondo form.

I stood in ready stance at one end of my living room, took a deep breath, and launched into what we call “Koryo One” at my dojang. This is a rarely practiced form that is different from the well-known and universal “Koryo” black belt form. At our school a student learns Koryo One as a bo dan in preparation to test for first degree black belt. To read more about “Koryo One” click here. To read more about the universal “Koryo,” click here.

Anyway, our Koryo One is a short but powerful and interesting form. It has eye punches and face smashes, and you can’t get much better than that in a form. Going through the form only took a minute or two, but I immediately felt better. The tears had dried, my breathing was steady, and my mind was calm. I decided to see what happened when I tried another one.

I did Koryo Two, or what is better known as the universal black belt form “Koryo,” and was especially forceful with the knee breaks and throat grabs. I played around with the timing and tried to incorporate some of the things I’d been tweaking earlier in the week in class.

Not bad. I was feeling a little better.

I kept going through a short list of my favorite forms that are especially strong and beautiful: Keumgang (yes, really, after all the confusion of learning, it I love it), Palgwe Chil Jang, and Palgwe Sah Jang.

As I was going through the forms I thought about the advice I had given some younger students the night before: “Make it look powerful. Don’t just walk through it; you’re in a fight. Make it POP!” I remembered how I demonstrated power to the students: as I was glaring at them out of the corner of my eye to make sure they paid attention, I lunged forward into a front stance and snapped my fists forward into a double gut punch. I let out a sharp exhale and imagined clocking someone in the sides. POP!

When my emotions tried to take over again, I fought harder against my invisible enemy. My blocks were strong, my kicks were sharp, and my transitions were smooth. I was light on my feet (mostly so I wouldn’t disturb my downstairs neighbors) and highly alert. There was no feeling of terror or paralysis as long as I was kicking my mind’s butt. The flash flood was over.

It felt appropriate to end my little cool-down session with Palgwe Pal Jang, a form that according to taekwondo tradition, symbolizes a return to earth and a sensation of becoming grounded. By the time I finished my set I even had a little smile on my face.

I stood still for a moment as my breathing slowed and realized that my mind was completely quiet. I didn’t feel drained as one might after a good long crying session. I felt more that I was cleansed. Out of curiosity I tried to muster up the stress and anxiety I had been feeling earlier, and I simply couldn’t. My mind was too quiet and empty to put forth the effort.

We do not have to become terrified or paralyzed when feelings of sadness, anger, stress, or fear loom over us like a storm cloud. We can observe the emotions for what they are (a passing storm), and let the rain wash through us as we stand strong. I regained my power through my forms. For others it might be prayer, meditation, a deep breath, or a long run that helps them refocus and regain a sense of calm. Whatever it is, find what grounds you, and stand strong.

The End of March Madness

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Shady’s back. Tell a friend….And now that song is stuck in your head. You’re WELCOME.

Last night I went to the dojang for an extra day of practice, and it felt like I was finally turning a corner on what has been a weird, mentally foggy month spent in a dark exile of depression compounded by snacks, Netflix, and wine. I don’t know what the hell was up with March, but by the end of it I felt like wrapping myself in a blanket, shuffling around my home with all the blinds closed, and saying annoyingly morose poetic things like, “Now is the winter of my discontent.”

BLEAHHHH!

At the end of March I took a much-needed vacation to the east coast to spend some quality time with my boyfriend and get away from the daily grind. It was just what I needed to regain my curiosity, hone my focus, and pull me out of my shell…well, as much as someone like me can be pulled out of one’s shell. I kept hearing George Harrison singing in my ear: “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting…here comes the sun!” And by that I mean the metaphorical lifting of my mood along with my optimism for the future, not just the big hot round yellow thing on the box of Raisin Bran. A good taekwondo practice was the icing the delicious sugary carby cake that I’ll soon be avoiding on the last leg to Black Belt.

Tuesday night is not a class night for me, but I asked to come in and use the space to work out since I am testing for bo dan at the end of the week and had missed three classes due to my vacation. I was a little worried about how I’d hold up in TKD after a week off, but it went surprisingly well.

It was white belt class night, so my instructor suggested that I stay in the back and help two other test preppers with their forms and then work on my own stuff. The best way to learn something is by experiencing it, and teaching and coaching others only adds to your understanding. As I said in a previous post, I’m not that great at sparring, but I caught on to refereeing a lot faster than I thought I would. Some of it involves common sense things like firmly telling a bossy seven-year-old that she was NOT allowed to do head contact even though she swore that last week the instructor said it was OK. Other times it requires a sharper eye to provide technique tips and guidance. So I took the opportunity to see what new things I could learn by helping others learn and practice.

The two other students testing were a young boy whose sixty-seven year old grandfather is a black belt in our advanced class. The other was a tall, lanky twenty-something orange belt who is being skipped to green belt. I had tested from white to green belt two months after I started back in taekwondo so I immediately felt a mix of empathy for the stress he was under and admiration for his advancement.  I walked them through palgwes il-jang and yi-jang, first doing it with them by my count to make sure they knew the sequence. Then I watched them flow through it by their own count. I challenged myself to provide useful feedback to them the way my instructor does whenever he leads us through forms. What good is having them do it over and over if the details of the technique aren’t correct?

The boy made the typical mistakes young children do—rushing through it without breathing, loose fists, weak front stances. The adult orange belt looked pretty darn good—his breath was controlled and purposeful, he landed his stances before performing a strike or block, his eyes were focused, and his posture was strong. I reminded him to make his front stances lower and more solid since weak stances stand out more on tall guys (not to mention throw them off balance) and helped him correct a front snap kick that was just flopping forward rather than being snapped back and landed correctly. His mind was getting wrapped up in all the things you have to do at once, which is overwhelming to a beginner. If he was making any particular mistake it was what all adult students do (yours truly included)—worry too much!

Then I got a taste of my own medicine when Grandmaster meticulously walked me through palgwe pal-jang, picking apart each movement until I did it to his satisfaction. “You need to fix your side kick,” he said, glaring at me.  His tone suggested that it was not just a friendly reminder. When I performed it the final time I tried to be mindful of everything I saw the other students do plus the things I needed to correct—breath control, strong striking while staying loose and relaxed, proper foot placement, and of course locking and then properly pulling back that damn side kick before landing. And to think side kick was my favorite kick when I was a child. UGH!

I ended my workout by practicing my breaking technique with Grandmaster and my instructor. I started with an elbow break, one of my favorite hand techniques, and then followed it with a jump front snap-kick which oddly enough is a lot better on the left side. My “finale” was a solid spin kick, my old nemesis. It felt cathartic to not only smack the crap out of a practice pad but to also prove to myself that I could do something that once seemed impossible. (But pride cometh before the fall. Funny story about spin kick to come later) Maybe this was all some kind of spring awakening after a mental hibernation. My favorite reader joaquindfw (yes, he’s my favorite and he knows why) shared a comforting thought from Nietzsche: “just as we pass through physical stages in life, we pass through various stages of consciousness. We are constantly growing.” Maybe March was a deliberate and needed period of suffering to work through some old habits, resistance, and mental blocks so I could progress along my journey. Either way, it’s nice to feel like my old (or new, really) self again and get back to life.

The Devil is in the Details

The_Robot_Devil

I couldn’t find an image that accurately reflected my thoughts. Here’s a picture of my favorite Futurama character, the foppish Robot Devil.

“I’m not good with this technical mechanical stuff!” I shrieked in mock-desperation after a number of flubbed attempts at hand-to-hand techniques (painful twists and joint locks) with my partner. Including my instructor there were only four of us in advanced red and black belt class. It was getting late, and three of us were already worn out from an intense sparring class beforehand, so we were all getting a little loopy and giggly. Throwing in complicated and intricate self-defense work after a long day only fried my brain even more.

As far as martial arts go, my skill with detail seems to be a mixed bag. Thanks to years of yoga and dance training (and classical guitar, oddly enough) I’m very attuned to my body and can make minute and precise adjustments as needed. This helps me with executing kicks that are effective AND look good, and I can bring a form to life with very intentional movement, focus, and breath. I’ve got the art part of martial art down pretty well.

….Not so much with one-steps and hand-to-hand. Maybe it’s because I get tangled up in my thoughts, which are moving faster than my body can keep up. Wait, do I step here and what do I do with my hand? Is it like this or this…or maybe more like this? One-steps and hand-to-hand are very logical, but I’ve discovered that it takes time to build up not only the muscle memory but more importantly the intuition of how to perform these self-defense techniques. It’s not just about a block here or a strike there. It’s about weight distribution, timing, accuracy, force, balance, and a working knowledge of how to incapacitate an attacker as quickly as possible. It’s actually quite interesting but can be frustrating if you get hung up in the details. I can’t even wrap my head around grappling arts. My boyfriend, a longtime wrestler and Brazilian jiu jitsu-practitioner, has taught me a few moves, but it’s all grappling Greek to me. Wait, I move my arm here and turn this way or that way? What do I do with my other leg? Is it clockwise or counter-clockwise? I felt like I was playing Twister, but I was able to choke him out (okay, he let me, but he still had to tap out).

Ironically I was praised by my boss for my organization skills and level of detail during my annual performance review today. My other colleague, who is a P to my J if you’re playing the MBTI game, is amazed at how I keep all my work organized, fine-tuned, and executed while remaining cool and calm. I don’t know any other way to be! Organization is calming to me. I even wrote and conducted a workshop on time management because I love that stuff so much. Details seem to elude me, though, when someone grabs my wrist or throws a punch at my face.

Like my slowly but surely growing intuition with free sparring, comfort and muscle memory with the complexities of one-steps and hand-to-hand will just take time and patience although right now in my head I can hear my instructor protesting: “Complex? How is it complex? It makes perfect sense!” Other physically and mentally-demanding activities I’ve done (swimming, ballet, classical guitar) have all had that distinct moment when everything clicks. I can never go back to a clunky slow crawl stroke and can never un-know the technical tools of the musical trade when I watch a classical guitar performance. One of these days I’ll glide through a one-step flawlessly and throw my partner to the ground before he even knows what hit him.

At the end of class Grandmaster unknowingly demonstrated to me how intuition and precision are the perfect pair. He was chatting with us about some of the nastier self-defense tricks when he gently clasped my wrist, turned my forearm up to face the ceiling, and lightly but firmly pressed his forefinger and thumb into the flesh just below my elbow, smiling innocently the whole time. My eyes widened and I squeaked in pain, not even knowing what was happening. Then, still smiling sweetly, he pressed his thumb into the middle of the underbelly of my forearm, which left me stunned and hoping the feeling in my arm would come back to me some time that evening. He didn’t even have to look down at my arm to know what he was doing. Decades of practice and intuition have made him quick and very effective.

Whatever you are pursuing, you will have that “click” moment. Your intuition will kick in and you will be so smooth and effective you’ll wonder why you ever found it difficult in the first place. You just have to be patient and trust the process.

How I Get My Sweat On When It’s Below Freezing Outside

funny-Texas-cold-Solo-cup-iceLast night for the first time in over a year, a winter storm rolled into much of Texas. Now, before you start scoffing at us for running inside with our cowboy hats tucked between our legs at the sight of a few snowflakes, let me tell you about winter in Texas. Other than the far northern panhandle areas we don’t get much snow, but we get ICE. Ice, nasty sleet, and freezing rain that happens so fast that the Texas Department of Transportation can barely keep up with sanding the roads behind it. Even if there’s barely a dusting of snow outside the road could be covered in several inches of slick deadly black ice. A week ago it was 70 degrees. As a native Texan and lifetime resident our wacky weather still never ceases to amaze me.

True to Texas winter storms the area outside my home is a skating rink, and the temperatures aren’t rising above freezing for days. I’m not going anywhere for a while. While it’s nice to have an extra long weekend thanks to Jack Frost, not having access to the gym or the dojang can spell trouble for staying fit. It was really tempting to stay huddled up in my nest on the couch with an electric blanket, hot tea, and my laptop, AND I polished off the last of the stuffed shells I made over the weekend. I had to get creative and come up with a home workout.

After a quiet day of working from home and chilling out in my nest I got up and started moving. I did forty-five minutes of yoga, combining some vinyasa that I learned from my teacher with my favorite relaxing and deeper poses such as pigeon for the hips and hamstrings and shoulder stand for my back and upper body. Then I did a half-hour taekwondo work out: I ran through all eight kee-bons (we have seven more in addition to the universal kee-bon one) and eight palgwe forms. I also did a few kicks on each side: stretch kicks, front snap kick, roundhouse, side kick, turning back side kick, sliding kicks. My downstairs neighbors are home, so no jumping or flying kicks unless I want them to bang a broom on the ceiling.

I finished my kicking workout with spin kicks on both sides about seven or eight times. Just since my little home spin kick “workshop” one or two weeks ago it’s improved even more, especially the left side. I’ve discovered a new trick. I imagine I’m winding up my body like it’s a slingshot. I slide my front foot back and take a little step, almost as if I’m replacing the position of my back foot. It feels a little like cheating, but it works for me. Taking that little step helps propel my body into a spin but gives me enough control that I can whip my kicking leg around in a pretty hook. Finally I ran through a few one-steps, which is awkward without a partner, but at least I know what I’m supposed to do in theory.

After my home yoga and taekwondo practice I’d worked up quite a sweat, which felt pretty good on a cold day today. I celebrated with a big bowl of roasted chicken and vegetables, a glass of wine, and a chocolate rice cake to satisfy my sweet tooth (hey, I’m stuck inside the house; I’m desperate). I crawled back into my warm nest, satisfied with my home training and eager to do it again tomorrow since I’ll be stuck here at home for at least another day.