Are You Living Life Like You Borrow It or Do You OWN It?

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“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.

Continue reading “Are You Living Life Like You Borrow It or Do You OWN It?”

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Little Black Belt is FIVE!!!

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On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…

Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.

Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!

If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂

For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.

2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner.
The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly)
I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good.
Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close.
Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On.
It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.

2015 – The journey to black belt gets REAL!!
Power Trip – Do you stand in your power or do you shy away? Food for thought from one of the best yoga teachers I’ve ever had.
Final Color Belt Test – Savoring my last moments as a color belt before the new black belt journey.
Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into…Well, Kicking and Screaming – My former Master gives me some words of wisdom, and I reflect on where taekwondo has taken me. (And I’m still working on the book, you guys!)
I Tested for My Black Belt and Ate a Cupcake: Both Were Equally Glorious – Of course I have to include this post. Testing for black belt is a Veuve Cliquot kind of day.
I Am My Own Nemesis – The uniform in question by the Mooto company still pops like a freshly washed sheet on a laundry line. “Designed for maximum sound!”

2016 – Settling into being a black belt student and instructor…
Love Is Like Grape Soda – This might be my favorite post of all time, and it has nothing to do with taekwondo.
Why Do I Still Dread Sparring Class – This post continues to get hits and seems to be popular than readers. And yes, I still have a love/dread thing for sparring.
When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe – A disappointing art exhibit (and a non-disappointing donut) made me miss the ones who mattered the most.
You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too Long – My musician brother’s take on success and continuous improvement
Black Belt: a Year in Review – It turns out the black belt test never really stopped

2017 – I recommend checking out this entire year. I had a lot of good personal/professional experiences and translated it into writing
Channeling Your Power – Makes me miss my days of teaching poomsae (forms), and it’s a nice call back to the “Power Trip” post in 2015.
Don’t Forget Where You Came From – We’re all still that white belt who never gave up, whatever “white belt” is to you.
The Best Birthday – This was seriously the best surprise I’ve ever gotten on my birthday, and it just happened to take place in the dojang.
You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For – Don’t wait for someone else to show up and fix things, rescue you, or make you happy. YOU are that person!
Being Okay With Where You Are – A hiccup in plans forced me to reflect on whether I really accepted….well…self-acceptance.

2018 – The crappy year that ended with a tattoo and beaten up hands, and I couldn’t have been more thankful for that.
You Know More Than You Think You Do (Nopei) – My favorite Master’s departure gave me the courage to forage my own path.
The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed) – A poster I bought for my office gave me motivation when I wanted to quit in more ways than one.
Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo – I got a permanent (and pretty!!) reminder of who I’ve become and what’s gotten me there.
Why I Left MyTaekwondo School – In case you were wondering, here’s the story…some of it, anyway.
I’m at a New Dojang! (And Have the Cuts and Bruises to Prove It) – The year started out on an incredibly stressful note, but it ended with a fresh start and lots of board breaking.

2019 – It’s been an awesome year so far. I got serious about a new hobby and finally connected with a different style of forms. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
When In Doubt, Go To Class – You all have that thing that puts you in the zone, in that right frame of mind. GO DO IT.
Taekwondo Never Leaves You – A post I started two years ago came back to haunt me in a good way. I’ve left taekwondo a few times, but it has never left me.
Being a Good Black Belt Is Being a Good Mechanic – Being a good black belt means you get to roll up your (dobok) sleeves, dig in, and PLAY!
When Starting Is More Difficult Than Finishing – This seemed to be popular with many readers. Looks like I struck a nerve!
When to Speak and When to Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms – Taekwondo forms are like performing Shakespeare and speaking beginner conversational Spanish…that’s my take anyway. During one solo practice in the dojang I learned a lot about how we interact and speak with each other without saying a word.

Thanks again for all your support! Let’s keep this going!

When Starting is More Difficult Than Finishing

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I can win a game of pool, but I’m not very good at starting one. Let’s just be real–I’m terrible at breaking. I can never seem to get enough power to create a smooth and clean strike. More often than not, the cue ball barely moves the rack of balls, and sometimes I end up scratching. The last time I did a decent break had more to do with the extra-smooth surface of the table I was playing on than any of my technique.

Come to think of it, I could never get the hang of serving in a tennis match either. Sure, I could chase after the ball and lob it over the net, but starting the game on a strong note always seemed to elude me.

Why is it that sometimes starting something is more difficult than finishing it? I am very organized in my job and love completing tasks. I love making lists, not only to keep track of what I need to do, but also for that sense of satisfaction when I cross them out. But I occasionally find myself sitting at my desk feeling totally unmotivated to do what I know (and have spelled out) what needs to be done. Eventually I get to work, but making that first step can be more difficult than making the final one.

Is it not knowing how to start or is it plain old procrastination?

Finishing strong is important, but so is starting strong. When I was teaching poomsae (taekwondo forms) I would sternly tell my students that their ready stance (legs straight with toes forward, strong fists in front of the belt) was just as important as the rest of the form. I didn’t want to see any dead, glassy eyes, limp hands, or duck feet. If they went to tournaments the judges would most certainly be looking a that. Our beginning stance is our first impression. Focus and determination happen when you’re standing still.

Maybe finishing a task is easier because we’ve had some time to build confidence from our successes. We’ve had a chance to try things out, maybe even learn from our mistakes. Maybe the expectations on ourselves are too high at the beginning. We think there won’t be any mistakes or setbacks. We don’t think we’ll lose the game. Going into the unknown is scarier than conquering the familiar.

I don’t think I have the final solution to this conundrum, even as a VERY CLEAR (and impatient) “J” in the Myers-Briggs world. It can be helpful, if time allows it, to ease into tasks. Drink some coffee, journal, catch up on news, do whatever pleasant distractions you need to do to get them out of your system. Procrastination happens to everyone, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get it out of your system.

After a little while of working on a task, I find myself picking up momentum and completing what I’d been dreading getting started. This happens a lot with writing projects at work. I feel like I have writer’s block, but after I force myself to get started without the high expectation of finishing it immediately I churn out something that’s pretty good. Letting myself relax when I get started (but with focus and determination) often leads to a strong finish.

So maybe that’s the key–just relax and start. Do SOMETHING. Do ANYTHING. And try to do it well. Trust yourself to do it well. You’ll get to the end in no time.

When You Love What You Do, You Do It Well (Whether You Think So Or Not)

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“Your form looks REALLY good,” said B, a sweet, friendly and very tenacious blue belt/red stripe during a break in her taekwondo class. She added an emphatic nod and I smiled and bowed in her direction.

I had shown up early to the dojang to warm up and practice forms while I waited for the later class to begin. I usually try to get there about 40-45 minutes early partially to warm up my otherwise fairly sedentary body (thank you, office job that pays for my taekwondo classes) and to practice the 29 forms I had committed to memory. Practicing forms is a great way to shift my mental and physical focus from the outside world and the rest of my life into the pure taekwondo black belt zone. It was nice to know that my efforts had not gone unnoticed.

B and I go way back. She was a student at my old dojang until yellow belt. She was tiny, fierce, and serious. She LOVED our previous Master’s stern style of teaching and attention to detail and followed his every precise move with her big brown eyes. Eventually she warmed up to me too, ha ha. B transitioned to our new school in early 2018 and was thriving at tests and tournaments. I finally followed her to our new taekwondo home at the end of the year. Back to our conversation…

“Thanks, B,” I said, shaking her hand after our bow. “I was doing Palgwe Yi Jang. Remember that? It’s the second form you learned when you were a yellow belt.” I did a quick high block/kick/punch combo to jog her memory. Secretly I was very pleased that she took the time to observe, pass judgment, and give me feedback on my form. Black belts are students too.

“Oh yeah,” she said with a laugh. “I kind of remember it.” I gave her the standard black belt instructor you-should-be-practicing-all-your-forms-including-the-Palgwes-you-remember lecture and sent her back to her class.

I have no idea what form B thought I was doing. Maybe she thought I was doing a higher level Taeguk form that she hadn’t learned yet. Maybe she thought I was doing a black belt form. I was even caught off guard a little that she was impressed by what was seemingly a “simple” form.

Then I realized how sharp her eye was. Whatever I was doing, B thought I was doing it well. The thing is, I wasn’t trying to “look good.” I was just doing a form the way I do forms–taking it seriously and giving it my best effort. It didn’t matter that it was a low level color belt form. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a form that is currently taught at my new dojang. It didn’t matter whether anyone was watching. I love doing forms, and apparently the love shows.

There are all things we naturally do well. Sometimes we like doing them, and other times we do things (well) out of obligation. You can tell when someone is doing something they love. They seem at ease, relaxed, happy. They’re charming and impressive. They draw us in with their charisma. It’s nice once in a while to get an outsider’s perspective, that fresh set of eyes watching us when we do something we love. It’s a snapshot in time of being in our element, of being the highest version of who we really are.

We won’t always have the watchful eyes of a child or a friend or loved one when we do the things we love. That’s the time to appreciate, revel in the moment, and let yourself be fully immersed in doing something that just feels so damn good.

Taekwondo Never Leaves You

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Note: I originally started writing this post on April 9, 2017 and then forgot about it. Now seems like a good time to bring this back. This is a bit of a love letter and a call back to a post I wrote last year when I was in a very different state of mind: Taekwondo Is Always There.

Two years ago I attended the United States Taekwondo Grandmasters Society banquet in Dallas, Texas. The annual event attracted seasoned and honored grandmasters from all over the country, including my grandmaster from my former dojang.

One of the guest speakers was Olympian Jackie Galloway. She talked about how tradition was inextricably intertwined with a martial art that continues to evolve. People change too, but as Jackie said in her heartfelt speech, “Taekwondo never leaves you.”

I left taekwondo when I was twelve. I left it again for a few months in late 2018. Both times I felt lost. With delight I later discovered–twice–that taekwondo had never left me.

The first time I left taekwondo was due to a number of changes my family was going through. Life happened, as it is wont to do. Frankly I hated sparring so much by that point I was a little relieved to quit. As I got into junior high and high school and extra curricular activities it faded to the background as something I’d done as a kid. As an adult I’d remember it occasionally and fondly as the one sport I was good at performing (well…except sparring).

And then it came crashing back into my life when I absolutely NEEDED it. I had tried many other things to ease years of emotional pain and dumb choices. Some remedies worked to a degree, but I still reached a breaking point. I KNEW without external prompting that I had to get back to taekwondo. It was there waiting for me all those years later.

After making the the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decision to leave my dojang as an adult I wondered if taekwondo would slip quietly into the background and become something I used to do but wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.

Taekwondo was still there waiting patiently for me when I started classes at a new dojang in December 2018. It was there when I volunteered to referee sparring matches at a black belt test. It was there when I kicked a focus pad again. It was there when I tied on a chest protector and slipped on my fighting gloves for the first time in months (I’m better at sparring now and actually like it…most of the time). It was there when my new master welcomed me to her school with open arms. Taekwondo was there when I realized (with relief) how happy I was again.

I have felt so much more light-hearted and easy-going these past two months than the entirety of 2018 that I wondered with a bit of disappointment that I had an unhealthy addiction to taekwondo, like a dependency on a drug or alcohol. The past few years of training have not been all sunshine and flowers, even when things were awesome at my old dojang. I have had some dark times, and I know that at some points I used taekwondo classes as a band-aid for more deeply lying issues. Was this new happy, productive me the real me or was this just my addicted brain on taekwondo?

I talked to a friend about it, and he told me not to worry too much about it. He didn’t think I was relying on taekwondo to make me happy. His philosophy was that people needed some sense of belonging, whatever that looks like. As introverted and as guarded of my time as I am it does feel good to have a sense of purpose and connection. I think I was missing that more than I realize.

Even though I’m a planner I know life can still have unexpected twists and turns. I may have to leave taekwondo again at some point.

The nice thing is, I know now that it will never leave me.

 

I’m at a New Dojang! (And I Already Have the Bruises and Cuts to Prove It)

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I’ve gone under the radar for a while both on my blog and in the taekwondo world. After I left my former dojang I needed some time to recharge, take care of personal things, and deal with a very demanding season with my job.

Now I’m ready to emerge from my self-imposed cocoon (well, after hiding out during the holidays) as a new black belt at a new dojang! I’m so excited!

I agonized over and plotted my exit from my old dojang for a long time. It felt similar to leaving a long-term job or a relationship that was enjoyable at one time but had now run its course and needed to end. I knew where I wanted to go and was told I was welcome there when I was ready, but I had to wait for the right moment to leave…no, scratch that, let’s be honest. I had to wait for my over-thinking, worrying brain to let go of self-imposed obligation I’d put on myself to stay.

I won’t rehash my thoughts around leaving. You can read about that in this blog post. Now I want to celebrate my new dojang and soon-to-be new taekwondo family. My new Master is female. In the few conversations I’ve had and classes I’ve attended I already respect her greatly for her business savvy and endearing mix of compassion and firmness as a taekwondo instructor. It’s pretty awesome to be at a female-run school when so much of the taekwondo world is still dominated by men. Most of the senior black belts are male, but there are a few up-and-coming ladies who already display strong leadership skills and dedication to taekwondo. Even though I don’t want to burn myself out too quickly (I’ll get to that later) I already feel drawn to including myself in that group of leaders.

The classes I’ve taken so far aren’t too dissimilar to what I’ve done in the past. Although the bread and butter of the school is competitive sport taekwondo (state, national, international competitions—the elite team is doing quite well), traditional Jidokwan style is also taught, right down to the same one-steps and hapkido-inspired hand-to-hand techniques that I learned at my old school. The kicking drills seem more roundhouse-based and front foot-heavy than what I’m used to, but it makes sense since they train Olympic-style fighters. (I still have Body Combat at the gym if I want to do a boatload of snap kicks, side kicks, and back kicks).

I have to learn all the color belt Taeguk forms since Palgwe is now practiced few and far between (and that’s what USAT wants to see at tournaments)…but…damnit, I find myself actually liking some of those forms. Taeguk 7 and 8 may even deserve their own blog posts in The Poomsae Series since I had so much fun learning them. I won’t forget or stop appreciating and practicing the Palgwe forms (plus my old school’s outliers Koryo One and Nopei), but I think I’m going to enjoy adding a new set of forms to my current repertoire of twenty-two forms.

Most importantly, there’s room for me to grow, which sadly I did not see at my old school, and that was the main reason for my departure. When my new Sabumnim introduced me to the first class I attended she added that I would be eventually testing for third degree. That seems like a viable prospect; it was not at my old dojang. I also have the opportunity to compete—not sparring, ha ha! But I can do board breaking and poomsae, which I love equally. Who cares if the Bullshido guys think that stuff is useful or not; there is nothing quite as cathartic as breaking stuff. Now I can set new goals and refresh the part of my brain that is hungry to learn, not just the part that practices and hones old techniques.

Like love or any other committed venture, I have to be cautious not to get too involved too quickly. That’s what burned me out pretty badly this year. January and February were miserable. I had over-committed myself (and had been invited since I’m apparently so damn good) to projects at work. Meanwhile I was spending nearly every day at the old dojang helping clean out years worth of stuff, lead sparse classes, and communicating with parents while we prepared for our move to the community center. I’m tempted to get involved in “everything” at my new dojang, but I know I need to pace myself. I did not attend Tuesday’s color belt test and don’t plan to attend every one in the future. I did, however, attend the new dojang’s end-of-year black belt test and ended up refereeing several sparring matches (and out-yelled the guys) and held for every testing student’s board breaking combination, which resulted in a number of bruises and cuts on my hands and a chipped manicure.

The Master was very grateful and seemed a little surprised that I showed up and got involved. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to sit there and do nothing, especially as a newbie and a higher ranking black belt. As one of the adults I feel like I need to step in and help when I can, and as a second degree-going-for-third I feel a sense of responsibility to lead and assist. New black belts have expectations of leadership and involvement, and that only grows as we grow in rank and age…but I don’t want to give all of my heart and mind and time too much too soon. I’m excited about my new relationship, and I want to enjoy every moment and new step of the process slowly, one piece at a time.

Make Yourself Miserable or Make the Most of It: When That Big Change Doesn’t Go Away

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Last year I was on top of the world.

Due to some restructuring in my department at the end of 2016, I was sent to a different work location that is MUCH closer to home, a much more fun and lively environment, and I have a big office and garage parking. At the beginning of 2017 I quickly rekindled past work relationships and built new ones, and I created a presence in my new domain. I couldn’t wait to get to work every day.

Meanwhile in taekwondo I was going to the dojang 5-6 days a week. Some of those hours were spent training in my own upper ranking classes, and other hours were spent helping my Master teach lower ranking classes. We had a little clique of black belts that cracked each other up with jokes and worked together well as a team when it was time to lead in class or coach our students at tournaments. I couldn’t wait to get to taekwondo every day, plus I had my second dan test to look forward to at the end of 2017.

2018…not so much.

This year started out as a big ball of stress: During January I was filling in for the lead facilitator at new employee orientation, which my department hosts every week for 80-100 people. I had been specifically chosen for this task because I was so well regarded as a speaker even though I am extremely introverted. I don’t know where that talent comes from. Black belt mojo I guess. [insert eyeroll here] While it was fun and somewhat fulfilling, it was utterly exhausting. I didn’t like giving up my Monday every week. I didn’t like having to be “on stage” and deplete all my energy.

In addition to orientation I was quickly being pulled into other time-consuming work projects plus learning that expectations of myself and my team had changed as well as the direction of our work. I didn’t like some of that change. While I’m financially comfortable and really do enjoy my job most of the time, I was starting to feel stuck. I don’t want to do training anymore even though apparently I’m pretty good at it. I want to shift to coaching and writing and have more quiet time. I do have those opportunities on a small scale in my current role, but my “talent” as a facilitator will be tapped into more often this year and the next. I haven’t left due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences (namely, not having income).

Meanwhile in taekwondo we went through a MAJOR shift that took up a lot of physical and emotional energy. We were moving from our dojang to a community center at the beginning of this year. Every day for the first week or two in January I worked all day and then spent hours at the dojang with other students and family members helping to pack up and store items from the school. I took it upon myself to text parents daily about changing class schedules. I was micromanaging the process, and I wore myself out. I didn’t like this change.

Now we have class twice a week in a new, more ascetic location, and lately I’ve felt pretty unmotivated to go. I’m tired of teaching and want more “quiet time” just spent training. As much as I care about my students, I dread having to spend 12-14 hours at another tournament. I want to shift from being “on stage” so much to training in earnest for my third degree and possibly competing in forms and breaking at tournaments. I don’t see those opportunities on the near horizon in my current situation. Once again I began to feel stuck due to some sense of loyalty and fear of certain consequences.

By May and June the stress was starting to subside although as I said earlier,  I’m not thrilled with my current situation. I had been free of new employee orientation by the end of February. I had gotten into a more comfortable and organized groove at work (and more accepting of certain changes), and I found fitness activities to substitute the time I no longer spend in taekwondo class. Am I as ecstatic as I was last year? Nope. Do I have my moments of thoroughly enjoying where I am right now. Yes. A few breaks from the routine have been helpful, too.

It helps to remember that even though I feel “stuck” right now I always have choices. I have the choice to leave as much as I have the choice to stay. More importantly, I have a choice about my mindset. I can choose to be miserable, or I can choose to make the most of it. Usually when I make the latter choice things have a way of working out even better than I could have planned.

It also helps to have those refreshing moments that remind me that things aren’t so bad. This past week I taught a communication workshop to a group of enthused, fun, hard-working adult learners. Later I spent that evening sparring with some of my taekwondo students and teaching new black belts how to referee. Even though I’ve been telling myself over and over that I’m tired of where I am, I have to admit I had a pretty good time. I still love helping people learn, although for me it may take a different form in a few years. I made the most of it rather than wishing I were somewhere else.

For now I’m staying where I am and focusing on what I like about my status quo rather than ruminating on what I don’t like.

Here are some things we can all do when we feel stuck in a less-than-desireable situation:

  • CHOOSE how you feel. No one can control your emotions and reactions except you.
  • Accept what you can. My status quo might be…well…the status quo for a while so it won’t do me or the people dependent on me to fight it.
  • Look for the positive. It’s in there somewhere.
  • Plan when you can. Just because you are in a particular situation you don’t like doesn’t mean you can’t work on your exit (or change) strategy.
  • “Don’t borrow trouble from the future.” I heard this advice from a man in the course I recently taught. He warned against getting caught up in all the “what ifs” that can distract us from the real life that is happening NOW. That phrase is golden.
  • Focus on what feels good.
  • Make the most of it and remember, another change is inevitably coming.

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

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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.

Are You Driven By the Process or the Project?

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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!)