The Best Birthday

Happy-Birthday-Cupcake

“Turn. Face Melanie,” my instructor said at the end of class. It was a Friday night and we had practiced my favorite techniques: hand strikes, forms, and breaking. What was coming next? Wait a minute, we’d already done the standard bow-to-the-black-belts part of our closing ritual: master, second degrees, first degrees. What’s going on? Is there something spe—oooohhh, right.

“Start singing,” he added, giving me a smirk as he strolled to the front of the room. The whole class sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I grinned and covered my face.

“Be sure to thank her and wish her a happy birthday,” my instructor continued when the students finished singing. “She helps out a lot getting you ready for tests and tournaments and teaching in class.” My grandmaster added his sentiments, reminding the class that I’d been an assistant instructor for two years and that I was always hanging around to help, making me, in his words, a “special” person. I couldn’t make a sound other than blush and do a little “Namaste” bow to him and my classmates.

Grandmaster and my instructor got to work setting up a table with drinks and cake (a cake! With my name written in blue icing–my favorite color! For my birthday!) and I smiled primly as my classmates shook my hand and wished me a happy birthday. I was truly touched and humbled.

Okay, let’s pause for a minute. A bunch of kids (and a few token adults) singing “Happy Birthday” and a cake doesn’t seem like that extraordinary of a birthday, but for me it meant a lot. No one had ever surprised me like that on my birthday, and the fact that I shared it with my taekwondo family made it especially meaningful.

My birthdays have been pretty quiet as of late. Even though I’m a grown-ass woman I’ve spent the last couple of birthdays either completely alone or with my parents. Now I know they’re reading this so disclaimer: I love my parents and very much enjoy spending time with them….but….They’re supposed hang out with me on occasion; that’s their thing since it’s kinda their fault I have a birthday and all.

Last year I spent my birthday out of town with the parents. It was fun but still a little lonely. The year before I was at home alone; I don’t remember if I even treated myself to fast food. The year before that when I was in a relationship I spent my birthday with a mean-spirited boyfriend who ruined the day with his constant negativity and criticism. Trust me, I was thrilled to spend this year’s birthday with other people’s kids and cake.

My little birthday celebration helped me get past a difficult place I’ve been in for a while with my practice. Over the past few months I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis around taekwondo. At first I wondered if I was using it as a vice like alcohol to avoid internal pain (I was). I wondered if I was using it to avoid maintaining real relationships (I was). I wondered if I even deserved to be there at all or if I was just a disappointment to everyone. Sometimes I even considered quitting.

But this seemingly small gesture of celebrating my birthday reminded me that I touched more lives than I gave myself credit for doing. It reminded me that I was loved and valued. It encouraged me to continue showing up for them, even on the days when I didn’t want to do it for myself. It was, in a sense, a rebirth of my commitment to my taekwondo family and my own practice. I felt reconnected to something I genuinely felt was slipping away.

And you guys, the cake was really good. Chocolate with whipped cream icing, mmmmm, who could walk away from that?

Don’t Forget Where You Came From

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At the end of Monday night’s class my chief instructor asked us what we thought a student needed to do to pass their next promotion test. It was a straightforward question, but everyone was a little stumped. The room was peppered with answers like “practice” and “come to class at least three times a week.”

Of course my mind drifted to adult learning theory: applying what they’ve learned and implementing changes in their technique. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but I’ve been in the learning and development business for a while, and I don’t shut off that perspective at taekwondo. Thankfully he spoke up before I could say anything.

The answer my chief instructor was looking for was much simpler. He pointed out one of our long-time students. The student was an advanced rank, but he practiced all his forms every day before class, starting with the ones learned at the lowest levels. This student hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, even as he inches closer to black belt. My chief instructor widened his eyes at us and planted himself squarely in the front of the training area.

“All you really have is a dyed white belt, whether it’s red, blue, black, whatever. You have to be a good white belt before you can be good at anything else.”

My chief instructor had an interesting perspective that I inherently “knew” but hadn’t meditated on in quite some time. Everyone in the martial arts world has heard the phrase (and seen the accompanying memes), “A black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” We can all rattle it off and have probably given that little nugget of wisdom to other students, but do we ever think about what it really means?

My last post was about a child who was right at the beginning of his taekwondo journey and taught me a lesson in grounding myself in the basics. It’s easy to get caught up in the more complicated (and to some, more fun) stuff, and it’s also easy to become complacent and even a little cocky…but when you think about it, everything we do stems from what we do as white belts—stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes. If you don’t master the basics they will come back to bite you later on, and it weakens your practice as a whole.

Besides taekwondo basics, the white belt mindset is something to consider revisiting. As I said in a post from 2014, “When you are a white belt your mind is open and your heart is humbled and ready for learning. You pay close attention to the new information you’re receiving and pour your efforts into practicing your new craft.” My inner white belt reminds me to maintain a simpler focus: what I’m learning, practicing, improving in this moment. I don’t need to worry about being perfect or ruminate on something that happened in the last class or admonish myself for not always performing at the level I think a respectable black belt should be.

I’ve been a white belt twice in my life—once when I was ten and brand new to taekwondo, and again when I was thirty-three and looking for a fresh start in more ways than one. Both times I was just happy to be in the dojang, no matter what I was doing or what I looked like. I loved learning new things and making time to practice. More responsibility and complexity comes with a black belt, but I will always be a student.

As an adult returning to taekwondo I desperately needed to change my life, and I knew in my gut I’d found the answer. Getting a black belt didn’t even occur to me at first. What kept me coming back was how learning and practicing in class made me feel, not the color of my belt. Of course I hotly pursued black belt later, but the real reason why I do taekwondo has never left me. When I test for second dan this fall I will do my best to keep an open, curious mind and an open, humble heart, just like a white belt.

Reflection: When can you use the white belt mindset in your life? Where do you need to slow down, refocus, and ground yourself?

You Can Rest on Your Laurels, But Don’t Stay There Too long

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“I’m just resting my eyes for two seconds!”

“I believe in my own skills. I just always try to look forward to what they can be rather than to always look back on what they used to be.”

This was my brother’s response to a friend complimenting him on his musical talent. My brother is a musician (primarily piano and keyboards), and has been able to support himself with his talent since graduating college. He’s proud of that fact, as is the rest of his family. His passion isn’t just his hobby; it also happens to be his paycheck. If only we could all be so lucky.

My brother’s no slouch, though. He works harder than most people I know, spending countless hours composing, rehearsing, teaching, and marketing. What he also hasn’t slacked off on is good old fashioned practice–building his skills and continuously improving them. As he said to his friend, he knows he’s good, and he also knows he can be better.

Good old fashioned practice is probably one of the things I enjoy most about being a somewhat freshly minted taekwondo black belt. Sure, I’ve learned new forms and self-defense techniques and will need to master them to test for my next black belt degree, but what I’ve spent the most time on since last fall has been refinement.

You don’t get a black belt and then just stop practicing…or you’re not supposed to anyway. Being a black belt is an ever-evolving process. Since I haven’t the pressure of a test hanging over my shoulder I’ve been able to relax and take a much deeper dive into taekwondo technique than I ever had time for as a color belt. I can always make little tweaks and adjustments. My front stance can always be sturdier, and my kicks can always be more precise and powerful. I can go back and add black belt level attention to detail to color belt forms and one-step sparring. I can try a wider variety of offensive and defensive moves in a sparring match. I can use my knowledge of color belt techniques to help other students improve their own skills.

The opportunities for growth are endless. And that’s a wonderful thing. It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied with one’s current situation–quite the opposite. It’s a matter of being infinitely curious and passionate.

If you’ve earned your college degree, married your childhood sweetheart, started a new job, or gotten your black belt in taekwondo, then celebrate! Be proud of your accomplishments. Relax and enjoy the moment. Go ahead and rest on your laurels…but don’t stay there too long. Don’t stagnate in what was. Look forward to what can be.

Last Leg

“So how many months is it between red belt and black tip?” asked a young blonde girl, tilting her head and narrowing her eyes at me. She was sporting a brand new red belt, still stiff and shiny and creased from her Friday night color belt promotion.

“Four,” I said absentmindedly, grabbing my foot and bending my leg at the knee for a quad stretch.

“Four months. It’s four, four, six!” piped up an adult blue belt at the back of the room.

“See, he knows too,” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows. I wanted to tell the little red belt not to get too wrapped up in rushing from one test to the next. There was a lot to enjoy in simply being a red belt…and black tip…and bo dan. I hoped she would slow down and savor the moments and the little joys that I have since I donned a red belt over a year ago…but sometimes people need to figure things out on their own.

The same blue belt looked up at me as he was doing a butterfly stretch and said in a slightly sarcastic tone, “So…are you going to quit when you get your black belt?”

“No way!” I replied. “If I quit what would I have to write about? I’m in this for life until my body or my money gives out.” And it’s true. I found my niche and I found my second family. They’re stuck with me.

It’s starting to hit me that I will test for black belt in about three and a half months. I didn’t even think about black belt when I first re-entered the taekwondo world. I just wanted to be there. Finally after years of searching I’d found something that quieted and focused my mind and opened my heart. I became more nurturing and loving with the people around me than I ever had during half-hearted friendships that died out or sporadic attempts at connecting with people of my same religious faith. I found acceptance, friendships, and a newfound faith in myself that I’d never had before. As long as I can find a place to practice martial arts with other like-minded people I’m happy.

A black belt is just gravy.

First degree black belt is by no means the pinnacle of the taekwondo student’s journey. It just means you’ve completed basic training and your instructor trusts you not to kill the little kids in sparring class. You keep growing and changing and uncovering more and more layers as the years go by. You get to see taekwondo through the fresh eyes of new white belts and learn nuances you would have never discovered on your own without the guidance of seasoned black belts. You get back what you invest in it a hundred fold.

It’s not that I’m not excited about my black belt test. I think about it often and look forward to it eagerly. But I also don’t want to take these last few months of being a color belt for granted. If I’m just cramming for a test and not appreciating the present then I’m missing the point entirely.

Finals Week – Bo Dan Edition

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The week of a belt test reminds me of finals week in college, specifically the fall semester sophomore year finals week when I was 19, had a bad flu, and still dragged myself (sometimes literally) to class and my little campus job. I’m physically exhausted, mentally drained, and emotionally on edge. My suitcase still isn’t unpacked, the fridge is empty,  laundry (clean at least!) is piled up waiting to be folded, and a jigsaw puzzle I started is woefully incomplete.
Ah, the trials of a lifelong student!

This Friday’s test is particularly meaningful. I will be testing for bo dan, the rank below black belt. It will be my last color belt test (EVER, at least in this martial art) and mark the beginning of serious training for my upcoming black belt test. I’ve really been training for black belt since the first day I walked into the dojang with my new, stiff, blindingly white belt and dobok. Two years later my doboks have greyed, my red belt is soft with nearly a year of wear, and my body sports new muscles and old injuries, but my desire is still the same. You could even say I’ve been training for this when I first joined taekwondo as a shy but eager ten-year-old.

Double the Pleasure, Double the Fun
Monday I was out of town so I went in Tuesday for extra practice time, which is detailed in this post. Last night I went back for my usual long evening of sparring followed by advanced red & black belt class. Sparring went well. My instructor and I had the quietest sparring match ever (quiet but still nice and violent) and I chased around a goofy 14-year-old who seems to be in denial that he is testing for black belt in three days. I still ended up beet red and glued to my clothes with my own sweat but my stamina was fine. It helps that we’ve gone to a system of alternating the children’s and teen/adult sparring sessions although we’re still “working” while we’re refereeing the kids. My two takeaways: (1) head shots to my opponents are fun even if I miss (2) I really need to incorporate more turning back kicks and stop falling into the roundhouse trap.

Red and black belt class was devoted to testing requirements. From an outsider’s perspective it may seem like we just do the same old rote things over and over, but it’s quite the opposite. Every class is an opportunity to learn from yourself and make the subtle changes that lead to long-term success. We marched slowly through four forms, doing them again and again until they were correct. Then we practiced one-steps and hand-to-hand combat with partners.

“This is as good as it’s going to get because I’ll be super nervous on Friday,” I warned my instructor, who might be my partner for the test.
“Then don’t be nervous,” he said with a shrug. I’m not sure if that was response came from the fact that he is a seasoned black belt master or the fact that he is a twenty-something year old guy. Men!

“You’re thinking too much,” he said later when I was getting lost in details that I’ve previously had no problems with. I sighed, remembering the adult orange belt I’d coached the night before and the advice I’d given him. Physician, heal thyself.
SPLAT!!!
We ended advanced class with breaking practice, which always seems to lighten the mood and relieve stress. Either my classmates were being chivalrous or they just did not want to do it first because they all cleared away and left me standing in the middle of the room. I set up my holders and executed what I practiced Tuesday night—an elbow, a jump snap kick, and a spin kick. POP! WHAM! SMACK!

“Do the spin kick again,” another master instructor said. “Make it more powerful.”
Ok, you want power? I’ll give you power! Watch how powerful I can–

SPLAT!!

Somehow in the course of two seconds I ended up flat on my back staring up into the startled face of my classmate. On the plus side I had knocked the pad out of his hands with a hard kick before I hit the ground.

“Did you see??” I squealed to my instructor excitedly. “I kept my head up the whole time!! I didn’t even know I was going to fall; I just did it by instinct! See, I listened!!” He just stared at me open-mouthed. Nobody even laughed, we were all too stunned. Each of us have eaten the floor more than once, so it wasn’t anything new.  I thought it was pretty funny but really hoped it wouldn’t happen during the test or I’d never hear the end of it. After I’d blinked the stars from my eyes and given the OK for my classmates to laugh I reset the pad, turned slowly, actually looked at my target this time, and kicked it with a satisfying pop. I threw my arms straight up in the air like Mary Catherine Gallagher and danced away to the sidelines.

My instructor pulled me aside and showed me what had gone wrong with my posture. It was such a glorious perfect storm of terrible physics that I probably can’t (and hopefully won’t) replicate it. I was glad Grandmaster wasn’t in the room. He certainly wouldn’t have found it funny.

Tonight I went back for more practice. I mostly hung out with a younger classmate who is also testing for bo dan, plus I ran through one steps with the big orange belt guy. It was tempting to stay in when I got home from work, but I knew I’d regret it if I let another chance to practice slip by.

Recovery Hacks
The last three nights I have gulped down a mini-Gatorade and forced myself to eat a Power Bar, which is pretty much a glorified Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I don’t like the idea of putting so many chemicals into my body, but I needed some recovery food and the mega-industry of consumer sports nutrition fit the bill. Plus I haven’t had time to go grocery shopping, and I’m too tired to cook after class. To my delight I found some ripe banana chunks in the freezer so I made a potassium-rich “ice cream” by pulsing them in the blender until they were smooth and creamy. Yum.

This past week I’ve been trying a recovery technique my boyfriend learned from one of his wrestling buddies: drink a little caffeine before your work out, take as cold a shower as you can stand afterwards and pop two ibuprofen. The next morning take as hot a shower as you can stand and pop two ibuprofen. Rinse, repeat, and try not to bleed out with all that ibuprofen in your system. I still woke up feeling like I’d been run over by a truck, but the only soreness I feel is from having my feet stuffed into four-inch heels all day.

The Devil is in the Details

The_Robot_Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home School

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Yes I practice taekwondo at home, and I wanted to share today’s home practice with you. It’s become more than a pastime; it’s become a practice and a purpose. I went to an invigorating vinyasa yoga class before lunch and then later in the evening I dedicated some time to my home tkd practice. Lately I’ve been trying to run through all the forms at home. I’ve decided to make forms my forte. I can’t be the best at everything and I’d say my skills range from lowest to highest from sparring to one-steps and hand-to-hand combat to kicks and then to forms, so I might as well pick one to excel in and be able to teach to others. Forms help me focus, forget, meditate, be present and be absent from this world all at the same time.

Today I took extra time to condition my body, work on some problem areas, and flow through all the forms. I did half an hour of gentle Pilates to strengthen my core and lengthen my muscles. Then I worked on my spin kick, which has been a thorn in my side from day one. My left side is just not acceptable for a person of my rank, so I’m determined to improve it greatly this year. First I did a few on the right side, which are comfortable and looking pretty good. Then I “workshopped” the left side and broke it down into pieces. It’s really just a hook kick with a turn built in. I’m good at hook kicks, so that boosted my confidence. After a few regular hooks I added a slow spin. Then I deliberately leaned far enough that my hand touched the ground so I could get used to the feeling of leaning my upper body back. Just for fun I did a few balancing half-moon poses, flinging myself back into gyrogi stance after I balanced for a few seconds. High school physics is coming back to haunt me.

For the next half hour I alternated between the kee-bons and the palgwe forms, making my way up to number eight in both series as I huffed and slid all over my living room. At that point I was panting and was coated in a slick of sweat. For the last few minutes I worked on psyching myself through flying turning back side kick. I can do a jump turning back side kick just fine. For some reason throwing in a few preliminary steps has really messed me up. What seemed to help was (1) reminding myself that the same foot that plants is the same foot that kicks and (2) slightly turning in towards the planting/kicking foot before I took off the ground seemed to help. It felt a little like cheating or cutting corners, but I need to get this kick down. Bo dan test is around the corner.

And then I spent an hour and a half on the phone sobbing uncontrollably and shakily sipping a glass of whiskey as I had a difficult conversation with someone close to me. Even ninjas get the blues. Nothing like a personal problem to test the strength of one’s practice. At my core I am still “happy” and satisfied with who I am despite a very difficult and painful situation I am dealing with. I am so thankful I have class tomorrow night. I could not have made it through the past few weeks, months, years, without taekwondo.