When In Doubt, Go to Class

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It would have been so easy to skip taekwondo class last night. I’d had a long but productive and satisfying day at work (complete with key lime pie from the break room fridge) and was ready to relax and turn off my brain. It’s been cold and rainy for the last week, which is to be expected for February, but as a native Texan I just can’t abide anything below 60 degrees and didn’t want to get out into the “bad weather” any more than I had to. My Netflix queue is bursting at the seems. The bottle of wine I was saving for Thursday evening was softly calling my name.

I’d already missed a week of taekwondo due to a busy work schedule, and as I discovered at the end of last year, it was seductively easy to fill my time with other activities.

But instead I went to class.

I knew I’d made the right decision after about twenty minutes of practicing forms before my class began. I was just beginning the last black belt form I learned (the rarely practiced and even more rarely discussed Nopei) when I felt some sense of release and ease. Ahhh. I was in my element. I had finally shaken off my professional and personal responsibilities for the evening. My corporate persona had dissipated. I was in BLACK BELT MODE.

I spent the rest of the hour doing speed drills, practicing advanced kicks with my fellow black belts, and did some leg conditioning, which my heart thanked me for and my still-aching (but protectively braced) right knee grudgingly accepted. I caught myself smiling as I wiped the sweat from my face and panted for breath. I was having fun!

A simple decision topped off an already good day and helped me remember why I got back into this martial arts game in the first place. Confidence and athleticism aside, taekwondo makes me feel freaking amazing, both physically and mentally.

You can tell when someone is in their element. My mom loves to knit, my dad is a painter, and my brother is a musician. They’re all very talented, but “being good at it” isn’t why they do it. Sometimes they don’t care what the outcome is; they just want to DO it. That’s how taekwondo feels for me. I just want to DO IT, no matter what. I am in my most heightened physical, mental, and emotional state when I am practicing taekwondo.

What puts you in the zone? What makes you feel most present and alive? What is that thing? If you don’t have it, look for it. Read a book, try out a new hobby, drag your ass to the gym, find some peace and quiet or a place that heightens your senses.

When in doubt, GO. TO. CLASS.

 

 

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Am I Replacing One Vice With Another? Part I

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These are a few of my favorite thin–oh you guys, lighten up, I’m joking!

A few years ago I questioned whether taekwondo was something I was going to stick with for the long haul or a hobby I was going to toy with for a while and then set aside. I’ve since proven to myself that taekwondo is most certainly not a “passing fancy.” It’s what I turn to for physical and mental fitness, it has pushed me to and beyond my limits (and many times my patience), and I’ve achieved milestones and goals in the dojang and elsewhere I never would have thought were possible a few years ago. It’s not just a hobby or a sport. It’s a calling and a community. I want to practice taekwondo until I die.

I once told a friend that I get from taekwondo the same feeling I had hoped to get from church–it has nothing to do with my Christian faith, which is very personal and private, but rather it gives me a sense of belonging and a desire to serve with like-minded people I care about. I always felt alone and guarded everywhere else but the dojang. I still do.

These past few weeks I’ve noticed a heavy weight sinking onto my shoulders and an increasing sense of emptiness. I put on a good front when I’m in public, but often when I’m home I deteriorate quickly. I’m struggling. I don’t completely fall apart though. I never allow myself to because I’m all I have–falling apart is not an option, but I know I don’t feel content in my Fortress of Solitude like I used to. Weekends and long nights have been hard. I don’t want anyone’s help though (and if anyone from my real life asks I’m going to give you the same answer). The thought of spending extended periods of time with people annoys me even more than the anxious thoughts that swirl around in my brain when I’m trying to sleep. So what should I do about this uneasy feeling?

Lately the only place where I’ve truly felt good is at the dojang, and this has been an excellent time to “throw myself into work,” as one might say. Last month we prepared students for a tournament and two other students to test for black belt. This past week we’ve been helping a number of lower ranking students prepare for a color belt test. I’ve been busy teaching, coaching, refereeing, fighting, kicking, sweating, and sometimes having a really hard laugh. Guys, I’ve sometimes felt so “high” I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive after taekwondo class.

And then I go home, and the dark clouds rush back. I’m ready for my next hit and wishing it were time for another class again because it feels so damn good and more importantly, it keeps me distracted from what I don’t want to face. Hell, after the color belt test on Friday I went home feeling what comedian Katt Williams so eloquently described as, “Hungry, Happy, Sleepy,” although he wasn’t attributing those feelings to taekwondo. My problems and worries seemed so insignificant! I was elated, if only for a few hours.

Things started to make sense when I asked myself a tough question I’ve been avoiding for quite some time:

Is taekwondo is just a replacement for other pain-numbing vices?

I can get addicted to things fairly easily–substances, people, exercise, ideas, hopes, feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, activities. I have poured my heart into taekwondo, but perhaps I set myself up for a new addiction right from the beginning. I went back to taekwondo because my life was in shambles, at least beneath the surface. At first it was a solitary activity. Getting a black belt was an afterthought. I went to class, listened intently to instructors, and practiced my techniques. Then I started to open up to my instructors and accept them as friends, and I also realized I had a talent for leading other students. Nothing has ever felt so natural. This little mistrusting, very guarded introvert was making connections.

I fell in love with taekwondo for many reasons, but the largest one was how it made me FEEL. Even on nights when I was frustrated, I still felt that endorphin rush, soul cleanse, mind rinse off awesomeness that I get out of just about every class. That’s why I continue to go. Yes, I definitely want to test for second degree, but I still mainly go to class because it’s FUN and I feel SOOOO GOOD. I love the physicality, practicing the techniques, seeing myself improve, and especially helping my instructors and other students, not to mention hitting stuff with my hands is indescribably, viscerally satisfying. I like to tell myself that the dojang is the one place where I can give selflessly. Or maybe I’ve found myself to be in a one-woman cult of my own trapping.

I think the real cause of this overwhelming, sinking feeling of loneliness and emptiness is a combination of things: illness among family and friends, the death of a young coworker, job insecurity, this ugly and frightening American political landscape, and just within the past few days, a death in the family that has hit me much harder and haunted me more than I thought it would. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. But let’s face it, 2016 has been hard on everyone. It started off with David Bowie’s death and pretty much fell to absolute crap after that. I suppose breaking from the weight of this awful year was inevitable.

I’ve learned the hard way  that no one and no thing (not even taekwondo) can save me from this exhaustion but myself. I’m pretty good about reminding myself that when I’m feeling down. I know I sometimes put too much stock into taekwondo to give me those happy feelings. Taekwondo is not magical. It’s just like money, weight loss, or a relationship–feels good in the moment, but at the end of the day I’m stuck with myself, so I’d better be happy with who’s looking out at me from the mirror.

These dark clouds will pass. These painful situations I’ve been in will lessen. As my dad said to me about this time last year when I was feeling low, spring will come. Things always work out for me in some form or another, and like a good black belt, when I fall down seven times, I get up eight. It’s time to get up, Black Belt.

I’m tempted to take some time off from taekwondo to see how well my emotional coping skills work without it, but right now I just can’t. If this is my new vice, then so be it.

Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism Is So Much Cooler

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Smoking looks cool. I’m sorry, it does. In my fantasy life, after I’ve gunned down human traffickers without getting any blood on my sleek black trench coat and before I head off to  a gig with my Led Zeppelin cover band I lean up against my black Ducati…and light a cigarette. It just wouldn’t have the same effect if I, say, bit into an apple or patted a kitten or posted a double rainbow meme on Facebook.

Smoking kills. Duh. And it causes a myriad of other problems. Duh. So why do people still do it? Despite knowing the risks there seems to be some sort of satisfaction from it, even if it’s temporary. The same could be said for letting anger and catastrophic thinking dictate our day. It causes you all kinds of grief but there’s something addictive about it. I’ve never been addicted to smoking, but I spent a good 25-30 years being a Negative Nancy. I hated school, I hated work, I hated people for not being my friends (how dare they!), I hated men for not falling at my feet hopelessly in love (how dare they!!), I hated my body, I hated my personality, I hated my inability to be perfect, I hated myself for not even being able to end my miserable waste of a life.

Venting my anger and hate and frustration had the same instant gratification of that first tingly drag on a cigarette. Having a good sobbing ugly cry was as much as a release as that first exhale of smoke. I was at the mercy of my emotions. Although I felt helpless, I also felt secure—something or someone else was responsible for my situations and feelings, not me! I didn’t have to do a thing but just sit back and watch the misfortune that I seemed to be so good at attracting unfold. My addiction was killing me.

If it takes more muscles to frown than smile then it burns more calories, right?
For years I was blind to the amazing things I DID have going for me. It was like having a garage full of beautiful race cars but continuing to commute on a rusty old bicycle. Putting all my happiness onto one outcome was a crapshoot. Narrow expectations often led to disappointment. Through guidance from a trusted mentor, using journaling as a way to observe myself, and several years of hard work, I realized that I had more power over my destiny than I thought. The more appreciative I became, the more good fortune came to me—work situations, relationships, money, health.

Here’s the thing: gratitude takes a conscious effort, at least at first. Complaining and commiserating is contagious and almost expected. Misery had been my default setting for so long that I had to (and still do) make constant attitude adjustments. That heady buzz you get on the first drag of a cigarette feels pretty good, but coughing up mysterious green goop the next day feels pretty awful. The more I practiced gratitude, though, the easier it became and joy eventually replaced the emotional stronghold of anger and misery. For those of you who follow the Law of Attraction, my vibration was much higher.

Okay I’m done rolling my eyes at the sappiness. What do I do to feel better already?
1. Have a crap day? What was ONE good thing that happened? It’s OK, I’ll wait…oh, you woke up, right? Awesome!

2. Something else I like to do is play the “Lucky Breaks” game. I think about all the “lucky” things that happened, even if they’re small and silly—I got a parking spot when people were circling a crowded lot like vultures. Yay! We happened to go to yoga class on a different night and saw a random display of fireworks outside afterwards. Woo-hoo! A coworker ordered an extra sandwich by mistake and gave it to me. Yeah buddy! A meeting on a day I wanted to take off was rescheduled. F*cking A!

3. Write it down. I know its clichéd, and I know you’ve seen this a thousand other times online, in books, and on TV, so I’m not taking credit for the idea…but it works. Writing down what you’re grateful for, the luck you had that day, or whatever positive things happened or epiphanies or changes of heart you had gets it out of your head and puts it square in your face—proof that things aren’t as bad as you thought they were. It’s like celebrating Thanksgiving every day but without gaining weight from all the stuffing and pumpkin pie.

4. Do something you enjoy to get your mind off how much you think your life sucks. For me it’s taekwondo, yoga, swimming, and cooking healthy meals. For others it could be watching a funny movie, playing with their puppy, or meditating. For others it’s smoking. Ha, gotcha! I said it kills you; I never said people don’t enjoy it.

And lest I contradict myself and fall into the trap of magical thinking, I still keep my feet grounded in reality. Bad things are going to happen, and I’m going to have to do things I don’t like to do. That’s just life. But gratitude for the abundance that I do have makes it a whole lot sweeter and opens my eyes to opportunities ripe for the taking.

I’m still sarcastic. I still narrow my eyes and ask a barrage of questions when something seems fishy.  I still get angry and cry and curse unpleasant situations. But I’m doing the work on a consistent basis. I am quickly wielding the power to change my reality instead of letting reality own me. These days the only thing I light up is a scented candle. When I see the glass half-empty it doesn’t mean life sucks. It just means I need a refill on my wine.

Priority or Passing Fancy?

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“I played for five years, and I was pretty good at it. I just had to put it aside and focus on other things,” I said wistfully to my brother as I reflected on my 5-year stint of studying classical guitar.

“That often happens with people who aren’t full-time musicians,” he replied sympathetically.

My brother, who IS a full-time musician, studies instruments like…well, like its his job. From the age of six to around 32 music was a constant part of my life. As my life began to dramatically change around 2010 it was put on the back burner and eventually disappeared. I hope the same fate isn’t in store for taekwondo. There’s always been a hint of sadness in my approach to music. I would hear a piece of music, perhaps a Beatles song or a Chopin etude, and I didn’t want to just hear it again. I wanted to feel it, breathe it, embody it. I had to play it or would be haunted by unrequited love. I loved music, but it also mocked me, always dangling ahead of me just out of reach. I had just enough talent to know that I didn’t have talent. It became more frustrating than fulfilling.


After the frantic excitement wore off I feared that taekwondo was another activity I was just getting out of my system, whether it was out of boredom, loneliness, or the alpha female need for a challenge. I’ve abandoned the Bible study group I learned and laughed with for a few years. I barely remember the names of the people I met in the running club I joined six or seven years ago(3 half-marathons and I’m all but retired from running). The MBA was just a race to the finish line.

This forces me to ask a hard question–is taekwondo a true passion and priority, or is it just another time-filler? Is it something I’m clinging to on the external plane to further ignore the needs and desires of the internal plane? Will it help me along my path of peace or is it just another distraction? The cool thing about taekwondo is that I CAN feel it, breathe it, and embody it. I have a more mature approach than I did to music: I’m curious but not obsessed. I see my limitations but don’t berate myself for them. I mentally high-five myself with each accomplishment rather than thinking, “yeah, but…” I may roll my eyes and grimace at my mistakes, but I forgive myself and keep moving. It speaks to my often-denied and often-ignored need for social interaction.

This is a passion I can share with other people through taking class together and teaching. Music can be a dangerous drug for a person who wavers between solitude and loneliness. In the leadership classes I teach for my job I encourage managers to incorporate the skills I’m sharing into their “daily management practice.” I should practice what I preach in taking my yoga “off the mat” and taekwondo outside the dojang. That’s the elusive Black Belt Mindset. Going to class is easy. Living the principles is a greater challenge.

I still have my beautiful custom-built cedar guitar. My eyes still close and my breath stops as my mind drifts knowingly along when I hear a Heitor Villa-Lobos prelude. Maybe I’ll dust it off and pick it up again someday. I know, however, that it doesn’t give me the all-encompassing feeling of relaxation and joy that I feel when I step into the dojang. It doesn’t make my heart smile the way taekwondo does.

Correlation Without Causation: 10 Health Issues I’ve Had Since Re-entering the World of Martial Arts

Any intense sport is not without its risks, especially when you’re not a spring chicken anymore, but this is ridiculous. Since I started back to taekwondo in April of 2013 I have had the following health problems that I’d never experienced before. Coincidence??

1. Tendonitis where my glute meets my hamstring. Classy.
2. Strep throat
3. A massively thrown out back
4. Two chipped teeth
5. A torn rotator cuff
6. A pulled groin. Even classier.
7. Perpetually bruised shins
8. A jammed toe
9. A concussion
10. A burst varicose vein

Five out of ten of these injuries occurred outside the dojang although I swear jumping around in a sweaty gym with a bunch of kids is what gave me Strep. (And don’t start on me with “Strep isn’t an injury.” The headache that accompanied it made me cry from the pain.)
Can you guess the non-TKD injuries?

I’ll give you a freebie: the first chipped tooth was from a Kind bar eaten between meetings at work, and the second chipped tooth happened just now when I bit into a soft chewy post-workout Powerbar. Sigh…