A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It

tornado

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.

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The Poomsae Series Part 10: Keumgang, or Why Do We Make the Simplicity of “Being Present” So Damned Difficult?

mount-kumgang

The Poomsae Series is BACK! This series of blog posts discusses the life lessons I’ve learned from taekwondo forms, or “poomsae” in Korean. Forms put the “art” in martial arts, and are one of the best ways to practice discipline of the body and mind. I’ve begun learning the two forms required for first dan black belt, and am just now starting to uncover what these forms are challenging me to do beyond stances and strikes.

Today’s post is about Keumgang, a form named for a beautiful mountain (“Diamond Mountain”) in the eastern portion of North Korea. Since there are many resources on the web about the history of this form and the region from where it derives its name and influence–plus this lovely song–I’m simply presenting insight gained from practicing the form.

This form is RAW. There is nothing pretty or lyrical or intellectually complex about it (one could argue against that, but we’ll save that for a different post). The movements are thick, heavy, and forceful. Other than a few palm-heel strikes and knife-hand blocks at the beginning, it’s all popping fists and stomping feet. To the untrained eye it might even appear boring and crude. If Koryo, the other first dan black belt form, were a conversation, it would be a razor-sharp battle of wits (and knee breaks), whereas this form simply says, “Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”

It’s been surprisingly difficult to learn Keumgang compared to how I learned the color belt forms and Koryo. For whatever reason I have a mental block that sets my brain into panic mode rather than letting me muddle through the learning process with ease. I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable flowing through this supposedly “easy” form on my own without the guidance of an instructor or the visual cues from more experienced black belts.

As with my other forms, I’ve opened my mind to what Keumgang can teach me aside from the physical movements. I think I’ve figured out the lesson from this form:

Be present. Stop avoiding it and making everything so difficult. Seriously.

I’ve mentioned before how taekwondo, whether I’m free sparring or doing forms, forces me to be more focused on the present moment than any other venture, including yoga and traditional meditation. There’s a sense of mindfulness and presence with all the forms, of course, but this form, this simple flow of anger and brute force, shoves the ugly truth in my face: I, like millions of other people, am still stuck in my head more than I thought I was.

Just as the busy, chattering mind can wander during meditation or a car ride or a conversation, it’s very easy to get lost in this form if you’re even stuck in your head for just a moment. Before you know it, the repetitive, simple movements can lock you into a continuous loop, a purgatory of horseback stances and side punches. Even my instructors have gotten caught up in the hypnotic nature of it, urging us to continue after the form has actually ended, and leaving my classmates and I to glance at each other helplessly while we do yet another mountain block.

How often does your mind wander when you’re trying to be present? Focusing on the present moment can be unappealing and difficult if we don’t practice. We love to make simple things needlessly complex. We’re in our heads all the time, telling ourselves stories and worrying, and meanwhile we’re just sloppily going through the motions with whatever we’re doing at the moment. Just as I go into mental overdrive as I continue to learn Keumgang in class, my mind, if unchecked, tries to unleash hell when I’m seeking peace and quiet. I make it too complicated. I’m sure I’m not alone in this: I avoid resting in the stillness of presence even though I know it’s the best thing I could do for myself.

I’m looking forward to the day when I truly experience the quiet depth and meditative power of this unusual form both in the dojang and in daily life.

Stop.
Breathe.
Be still, and you will be strong.

I Can Do This With My Eyes Closed

Tightrope-walking-blindfolded

“Uh-oh, I know what we’re going to do,” said a teenage black belt in a half-groan/half-giggle. It was red and black belt class, our late night class after sparring. My fellow red belts and bo dans abandoned me after sparring, so all that was left were me, the teenager who never comes to sparring (ahem!), and an older man who got his black belt last year.

My instructor’s face lit up as he steepled his fingers together and positioned us in a wide diagonal line across the floor. “I want you to do Koryo One again,” he said after we had just completed the form as a warm-up. “But this time I want you to do it with your eyes closed.”

My eyes danced furiously under my closed lids, trying desperately to make sense of what was going on. I ignored them and focused on breathing deeply, shifting my weight, and making sure I stayed low in my stances. I opened my eyes and felt refreshed and excited, as if I’d gotten to know the form on a much deeper level.

Then we did the two other red belt forms, and that’s when things started to fall apart. I began to feel wobbly and unsure. I lost my balance, shuffled timidly and stiffly through stances, and somehow inexplicably flung myself into the left side wall and ballet barre during the part of the Palgwe Pal-jang that is directed straight towards the back of the room. (Notice that my instructor did nothing to stop me, probably because he was laughing too hard).

“What the heck just happened?” I shouted when I stumbled into the end of the form and blinked open my eyes. Perhaps my attempt at Koryo One was successful because it was the first form I’d ever practiced with my eyes closed, and I had no expectations. Perhaps it was successful because unlike the other forms, it only goes back and forth on the vertical axis. The individual strikes and blocks are complex, but the movement pattern is simple. (Koryo One is also the only form that I can fully do in my hallway without modifying it or running into anything….hey, I was doing laundry and I was bored.)

Perhaps my deteriorating performance of the forms Chil-jang and Pal-jang was because I started to lose confidence and doubt my own abilities.

My last post offered the concept of trusting ourselves when our worlds get turned upside down. It could be the same challenge or something very similar we’ve faced before, but the perspective has changed, and that makes it scary. Sometimes we might be facing a challenge with limitations such as time, money, resources, support, or one of our senses. If we get too wrapped up in dwelling on what we can’t control then we will end up emotionally paralyzed and will run into even more walls, figuratively or literally. The trick is to focus on what we can control and what we can do, no matter the limitations or obstacles we face.

Tricks Up Your (Dobok) Sleeve — The Poomsae Series Part 9

An ace up the sleeve  (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

An ace up the sleeve (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

“It’s a short form. If you can do palgwe pal-jang you can do this form,” one of the masters said as he walked me through the form I will need to perform when I test for black belt.

Famous last words.

A few weeks ago we learned Koryo 1. UPDATE: Thanks to an update from reader Jon (see video link in the comment below), this form actually exists out there, albeit with some minor changes. It’s not used very often. There is a universal form called Koryo, which we’ll also have to learn (in our school it will be Koryo 2), but for now until first dan we have this additional form. No pressure, right?

This form has a surprise around every corner. I haven’t thought “WTF??” this often when learning a form in a long time. It has the same funny-strange creepiness of oh-jang and the same diva-like flair as yuk-jang. While it doesn’t quite match the anger of chil-jang or the cool complexity of pal-jang it’s full of dirty fighting and unconventional combinations. It starts with two nose strikes (or they could be throat or eye punches depending on where you aim), a knee to the face punctuates the middle, and it is topped off by a flying snap kick to the head at the end. Ouch.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun. It keeps you on your toes even though we’re not supposed to be on our toes except for this one part at the end and…never mind. I actually wish it were longer so I could keep “playing” in it. Pal-jang seems to take an eternity, but like yuk-jang, this form is over in a flash.

If a form could be humorous, this is the one. Oh, you think I’m backing off and retreating? Nope, how’dya like a knee to your face, BAM! HA HA! Oh, you think you can sneak up on me because my back is turned? Nope, gotcha with a knife-hand block, BAM! HA HA HA! Looks like I’m slowing down, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?? Doesn’t it—BA-BAAAM!! Two kicks to your face, sucka!

So what’s to learn from this form? As the great George Strait sang, “you’ve got to have an ace in the hole, a little secret that nobody knows.” Whether it’s a hidden talent you use when you really need to shine, a few thousand dollars in your “F You” account (yes, that’s a real thing), or a few dirty moves you can pull in a street fight, that little ace in the hole can boost your confidence, maintain your sense of humor, and remind you that everything is going to be OK if you just trust yourself.

Little Black Belt is ONE! A Year in Review…

first-birthday-party-cake-eating-by-cute-baby-boy

Eating cake like a BOSS.

If you’ve completed filing your income tax returns then I’d like to invite you on a retrospective journey through the evolution of this blog—the discoveries, the triumphs, the tears, the deep questions, and most importantly, the jokes. If you haven’t completed filing your income tax returns….what the hell is wrong with you?? Get back to work!!

A year ago today I tentatively uploaded my first blog post “Fear of Flying Kicks.” I didn’t share it with anyone other than whoever might stumble across it on the other side of the internet. For a month I walked around with the secret tucked in my pocket until I shyly told one trusted person about it and then started sharing the posts on Facebook. Since then I’ve gained some followers, and my posts have been very meaningful to them. I’m delighted that my words provided some insight and comfort to others even more than they have been to me. I’ve received a little criticism too, which is just par for the course of sharing one’s thoughts with the world. Most importantly it’s given me a platform to share all the learnings and epiphanies that were bubbling up inside me so ferociously I thought I would burst.

“Does it give you peace of mind?” a coworker asked when I was trying to convince him to enroll his little daughter in taekwondo when she gets older. I was about to go into a long spiel about how it made me more focused, confident, self-aware, etc., but he continued with his question. He was asking if it gave me peace of mind as far as physical safety….oh yeah, there’s that part of it too! I told him if I go through life never having to use it in a real combat situation then I will be very happy. Confidence, staying cool and calm, and making safe choices are my first lines of defense against attack. As far as gaining the other type of peace of mind, something I had been pursuing my entire life—yes, I get that from taekwondo. A thousand times yes. More than I thought was possible.

I came a across a quote on the blog Runs for Cookies. The author shared a weight loss story of a running friend that included this quote:
“Running didn’t change me. It just helped the real me find my way out.” I can say the same for taekwondo. The real me has been dormant for many years and it has literally kicked its way out into the sunlight.

The Best of Little Black Belt
This was tough, but I pared down the list to my ten favorites. Why ten? As the great George Carlin said, ten is a “psychologically satisfying number.” And he said a lot of other things that I can’t write here.
1. Accidental Elle Woods – the one where I discover with horror that my life is the plot of a romantic comedy. NOOOOO!!!!
2. Style Guide for the Fashion-Forward Fighter – the one where I write a funny list about juicing, makeup, and stretch pants
3. Everyday Struggle – the one where I first explore the concept of resistance…and yes, I’m quoting a Biggie Smalls song
4. I Traded Magical Thinking for Martial Arts – the one where I stopped being delusional
5. Sparring with Demons-A Response to the Death of Robin Williams and the Societal Stigma of Mental Illness – the one where I get super serious
6. I’ve Become the Person I Hated and I Couldn’t Be Happier – the one where I stop thinking I’m fat
7. Having an Attitude of Gratitude When Cynicism is So Much Cooler – the one where I delve into the law of attraction and make a sarcastic argument for smoking
8. Back to Basics – the one where shit goes down in yoga class
9. Ain’t That a Kick in the Head – the one where I get some sense knocked into me
10. Why I Chose to Pursue a Black Belt Instead of a PhD – the one where my pocketbook and waistline thank me

If you want more on the actual gritty details of taekwondo practice, check out the 8 posts in The Poomsae Series or anything tagged with the categories “Class Diaries” or “Training Tips.”

Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m bowing to you right now, you just can’t see it. 🙂

Quiet Storm – The Poomsae Series Part 7

peace-in-the-stormThe Poomsae Series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

I am crushing on Palgwe Chil Jang. It’s as beautiful as it is forceful and brutal. The form begins with a defiant glare and a powerful double low block. We then weave through a series of meticulously placed blocks, kicks, strikes, and a crazy spinning low block until we gracefully slide back into the starting position with a vicious punch and the same steely glare.

As dynamic as this form is Palgwe Chil Jang more than any other brings a sense of quietness to my movement and my thought processes. I wondered if that state of mind is possible outside of choreographed and carefully performed movement. There is clutter in our work and home environments, in our actions, and in our minds. We let our focus be easily seduced by “multi-tasking” and end up getting so far off track we forgot what we originally set out to do.

Being mindful and present is easier said than done. I’ve been trying it for years, and the most I can get is a fuzzy sense of presence that wavers in and out of focus. The advice you typically find on mindfulness is savoring every bite of food, meditating, de-cluttering on a literal or metaphorical level, and noticing sensations in the body. They’re helpful actions and can temporarily snap you back into what Eckhart Tolle calls being “awake,” but if the underlying habit isn’t there the tiny efforts will be disconnected pieces of good intention rather than a connected thread of practice.

Being mindful and intentional in movement means I was finally patient enough to master caramelizing onions and took the time to let my home-done manicure set (not at the same time I was cooking onions). Not being mindful and intentional means I dropped a container of parmesan on the floor when I was rushing to make my salad for lunch and then had to sneak past the security guards in the office building because I forgot my work badge. Less is more.

Taekwondo has been a great vehicle for quieting the mind. The threats of falling over or being hit in the face are pretty good motivators to pay attention, but they don’t always apply outside the dojang. What’s worked best for me is just making a promise to myself to be mindful (or at least give it a shot) and to declare my brain, body, surroundings and actions a clutter-free zone. It requires constant reminders and refocusing, but it’s working. I don’t get all bent out of shape as much. I’m a lot more content AND I have a much more organized closet.

Can We Pause for a Change? – The Poomsae Series Part 6

change leaf

The Poomsae series is intended to glean lessons from the meaning of each form. My school studies the palgwe forms so that’s what I will use for each post. Descriptions are taken from the book “Complete Taekwondo Poomsae” by Dr. Kyu Hyung Lee and Dr. Sang H. Kim.

My favorite yoga teacher often says “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He will sometimes offer a variation on it: “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Palgwe Yuk Jang is all about change. It starts off inconspicuously enough with a standard knife-hand block, snap kick, and punch. Okay, I can do this. I’ve done it a million times.

Then you’re asked to do a funky knife-hand high block AND simultaneous knife-hand neck strike, oh, and THEN leap towards the front and land in a cool-ass little cross footed stance, and be sure to yell and give it some glamour. Oh yeah I almost forgot, you don’t end facing the right as usual. After a few blocks and kicks to the back you pivot menacingly towards the front and like a viper paused to strike, ending in a back stance and double knife-hand block. Dare I say this form is sexy.

Hold up, WHAT? We never did that stuff before!

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” – Tuli Kupferberg.

Oohhhhhh.

Palgwe Yuk Jang is a ticket to red belt, which is a pivotal change in the career of the taekwondo student. This form carries with it the pressure and responsibility the transition to red belt entails. The complexity of the form pushes the practitioner to perform at a higher level of precision and creative interpretation (as much creative license is allowed by a very strict and traditional martial art).

What adds complexity to this form are the pauses, the silence, the negative space that floats in the air after a staccato palm-heel strike or a dramatic leap into that rear cross stance as your yell echoes into silence. My very quotable yoga teacher asked us during class one day to be mindful of the pauses in our practice and in our life. A pause can be a moment of decision and precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.