Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

stand sunset

I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

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Are You Driven By the Process or the Project?

success road.jpg

My mom is a prolific knitter. She always sewed, crocheted, did needlepoint, but ever since she retired she really took off with knitting. Mom loves it, and I have drawers full of pretty scarves, shawls, and gloves as a side benefit.

Recently she told me about the concept of being a “process knitter” versus a “project knitter” and determined that she is most definitely a process knitter. She likes choosing a new pattern (the more challenging, the better), hunting down the right yarn, selecting the needles, and working through the mathematical process of following the pattern and watching it gradually transform into a finished product. I suppose there’s a meditative aspect to it too. Once she finishes a project she’s ready to move on to the next one and begin the process again.

It made me wonder whether I am a process-driven martial artist or a project-driven one. Am I more stimulated by the long-term aspect of honing my skills over time or by the project, the higher belt rank at the end of a process? Am I driven by the journey or the destination? Both mindsets allow me to apply what I’ve learned, but the motivation is different.

From the beginning I was more process-driven. I wasn’t concerned about getting a black belt when I first returned to taekwondo, much less getting to the next color belt level. I just wanted to be there, learn new things, and practice. The emotional, mental, and physical benefits were almost immediate and addictive. I started this blog, in fact, because I was so enchanted by the process.

I’ve had my moments of being more project-driven, sometimes so much that I would lose long-term focus, especially during my red belt year. I just wanted to work on my testing requirements rather than the comprehensive whole of my practice. The six months before my black belt test I was definitely project-driven, but the Monday after the test I showed up to class with my same goofy, eager smile, ready to start over with a new process and learn new things. I don’t want to discount my short-term focus, though. It served me well when I needed to quickly learn and apply new techniques and polish my performance before tests.

Doing “black belt stuff” feels more process-driven since so much of it revolves around honing previously learned skills, although there’s a fair amount of new content to learn too. The waiting periods between promotion tests stretch out to years rather than months, so the black belt student has plenty of time to focus on details, refinement, and revision. This past year alone has given me a lot of time to think, experiment, and reflect on the improvements I’ve been able to make through my practice both as a student and as an assistant instructor (and become more aware of stubborn, long-term bad habits).

With other students I seem to be more project-driven. There’s nothing more fun for me than getting a student ready for an event (okay, hitting stuff with my hands is more fun, but helping students is a close second). Let’s get you ready for the tournament! Let’s get you ready for your red belt test! Hurry up and get bo dan so we can get you ready for your black belt test! I think I am more excited about the students who will be testing for their first degree black belts next year than I am about my own upcoming second dan test.

Perhaps there is a way to be motivated by both the process and the project over time. We may be able to see the forest AND the trees. I don’t want to devalue the finished product or project nor do I want to skim over the lessons I can learn along the way. I know I will become more project-driven as I get closer to my second dan test next year, but hopefully I will remain aware of the overall process of being a taekwondo black belt, regardless of where I am in the process.

My Health Heroes Aren’t Athletes

SuperheroHealth

The two people who inspire me the most to stay active and healthy aren’t professional athletes or models. They aren’t yogis or taekwondo black belts.

They are two women with life threatening illnesses.

I’ve been writing about health a lot on my blog lately, and lately I’ve come to appreciate the saying, “When you have your health, you have everything.” The concepts of prioritizing health and taking it for granted both occupied my mind today. It all began with Tejano music…

Health Hero #1
3:39 AM. My alarm clock began humming softly with the cheery accordion rhythms of Tejano music. (Whatever, Tejano music is awesome, and if you don’t like it then you must not like puppies or rainbows.) Ugh. My swimming alarm.

I started to roll out of bed to turn off the alarm, and I was stuck! The mean little fiery knot of pain in my right lumbar region was still angry from the day before, and when I tried to turn over it flared up and immobilized me. After rocking back and forth like an upended bug I finally was able to fling myself off the bed. I turned off the alarm…and went right back to sleep. What was the point of going to the gym? I couldn’t even stand upright. Besides, my bed gets exponentially more comfortable the longer I stay in it. By almost 4 AM I’m ready to melt into it forever.

“Eh, I’ll swim tomorrow when I feel better,” I thought, and rolled back under my covers.

Later in the morning I thought about my aunt. She has always been the “fun” aunt, the one who shares makeup tips along with dirty jokes, and her infectious laughter can be heard from one end of the house to another. This year had not been kind to her. Following the tragic and sudden death of her father she sank into a deep depression and turned to junk food for comfort. Her health quickly deteriorated.

She lost her laughter and nearly her life. In early fall she was hospitalized with pancreatitis and complications due to diabetes. She knew she had to stand up for herself. Once she was discharged she promptly joined a gym and hired a (hunky) trainer, insisting that this was a matter of life and death.

When I saw her at Thanksgiving she was glowing with life and ringing with laughter again. She had already lost a considerable amount of weight and was determined to get her glucose levels to a healthy number. (And she had a sassy new haircut!) She goes to the gym rain or shine and drinks the smoothies my uncle dutifully makes for her. She dreams of  the day when she can eat grapes without worrying about a spike in her blood sugar.

“Health,” she said emphatically as she looked me dead in the eye across my grandparents’ living room. “Health is what matters. When you have your health, you have everything.”

My aunt would have gotten up with the Tejano music and gone to the gym, and she would have told me to get my little ass out of bed and go  too.

Health Hero #2
When you work in a corporate setting you inevitably have those moments when you feel like you’re living in a Dilbert cartoon. Today I watched with exhausted and detached amusement as my coworkers spent a good twenty minutes arguing over the wording of some power point slides about a fairly mundane topic. When the other people in the room joined in on the heated semantics debate over “guidelines” versus “ground rules,” I closed my eyes and thought, “My God, is this going to be my life for the next thirty years?” My mind drifted to a woman named Vanessa.

Vanessa is in her early thirties and works in the department that shares the same floor of the building as my department. She and I would often eat lunch in the break room together. She always had a bright smile on her face and was quick to crack jokes.

One week in July, Vanessa disappeared. News began circulating that she had a viral infection, and it was later discovered that she had very aggressive metastatic cancer. She was given months to live, maybe a few years at best. She is dying, and people are arguing over power point slides….yeah.

Recently I saw one of Vanessa’s close friends, who gave me an update. After several rounds of chemo her tumors had shrunk considerably. The prognosis was still dire, but Veronica’s response was:
“I still believe in miracles.”

I thought about Vanessa tonight as I debated between going to a long overdue yoga class and staying at home to watch TV. What would Vanessa do if she had her healthy body back and the freedom to enjoy it? I bet she would take any chance she could to get out of the house and move.

I decided that I would go to yoga class to honor Vanessa and her brave battle against cancer. I had to move slower and more gently than usual, just as I did in taekwondo class last night. Have you ever noticed in some workout videos there’s that one person designated to do the slower, more modified movements for the beginners and the old people? Tonight I was that person.

It didn’t matter how slowly or stiffly I moved. I felt fantastic and relished the opportunity to move and stretch my body. I had to modify upward dog down to cobra to avoid bending my back too much, and let me tell you, I was the fiercest little cobra in the room. Hiss!! When we did tree pose, I stood up as much as I could and was the tallest damn 5’3″ tree I’d ever seen.

By the way, here’s what upward dog vs. cobra looks like (although my cobra was sassier than hers):
upward-dog-and-cobra

When you have your health, you have everything. When your health is threatened, nothing else matters. Why should I put off being healthy until tomorrow? My aunt knew her tomorrows were dwindling and had to make a drastic change. Vanessa might not have many tomorrows left. Health begins today.

Take some time to think about what you prioritize in your life. Are you paying attention to what’s important? Are you honoring the people who love you and motivate you by making sure you’ll be around as long as you can to enjoy life with them?

My alarm is going off at 3:40 AM tomorrow morning. (I’m giving myself an extra minute to snooze). I can’t guarantee that I won’t crawl back into bed when the Tejano trumpets and accordions are silenced, but I will think of my aunt and of Vanessa and thank them for their bravery and their ability to inspire. I’ll make that day a celebration of health and of life. (And still eat chocolate…and some grapes for my aunt!)