Are You Making Good Choices?

A few years ago I was visiting my brother and his wife in another part of the state. It was Mother’s Day weekend, and we went to my sister-in-law’s parents’ house for lunch. Her brother, sister, and brother-in-law were there, as well as her sister’s two children.

“Are you going to make good choices today?” her sister said to her kids as they ran off to play. Her tone was sunny, but there was a shadow of consequences lurking behind.

Continue reading “Are You Making Good Choices?”
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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?”

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 To Speak and When To Listen: What I Learned From Practicing Taekwondo Forms

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I can always count on taekwondo poomsae (forms) to have a calming, focusing effect on my mind and body. Forms were very much needed yesterday when I was feeling out of sorts.

Yesterday I learned the hard way that reintroducing black coffee back into my body after avoiding it for about a year thanks to a fun digestive illness needs to be done in relatively small doses. After a large cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a venti cappuccino from Starbucks, and another half cup of coffee later my body was shaking and my heart was fluttering. I swear for a moment I had double vision and nearly missed a step when I was walking to the front door of my taekwondo school.

On nights when I have class I usually arrive to the dojang about 40 minutes early to warm up and run through my forms. Since my brain and body were feeling scattered I decided to start with my familiar Palgwe color belt forms rather than the eight Taeguk forms I still hadn’t quite mastered. Okay, this will be easy. I can do this. I began with Palgwe Il Jang, the lowest ranking color belt form, turning to my left and executing a low block in a front stance.

Then I did an outside block with my back hand without stepping forward.

UGH.

I gave my reflection in the mirror I was facing an exasperated glare. I was caught red-handed.

Blocking with the back hand is a signature move in Taeguk forms, much to my dismay and that of my fellow Palgwe snobs. I thought about texting my former Master what I had just done because I thought it was funny. He would either laugh along with me or threaten to punch me. I decided to just get my head on straight and do Palgwe Il Jang the correct way, starting with a low block and then stepping FORWARD to do an outside-to-inside block with my leading hand just as God and logic intended.

As I flowed through my trusty Palgwe forms, the oddity “Koryo One,” and transitioned into Taeguk color belt forms I noticed shifts in my thought processes and little cues I gave myself. Once I got into the groove of the forms I’d been practicing and teaching for years it felt effortless. When I switched to Taeguk, however, my awareness and physical decisions slowed down and required more forethought. It was like I had shifted from speaking my native English to a different language.

I used to be fairly fluent in Spanish. I took four years of Spanish in college and attended a   language immersion institute for two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I loved the language: speaking it, writing it, reading it. I never quite got the hang of being able to think in Spanish, though. When I was having a conversation I was always rapidly translating back and forth in my head and had to rein in my individual linguistic peculiarities and idioms. I felt like a bit of my personality had been washed out in order for me to get my message across efficiently. Once in a while I would have a brain scramble and I’d mix the languages together as I did when I threw a Taeguk move into my first Palgwe form of the evening.

Trying to speak a second language might have limited my ability to fully express myself, but it did make me a better listener and forced me to be mindful about the words I chose to say.

I now know thirty forms, but I wouldn’t say I’m fully fluent in all of them yet.*

Practicing my Palgwe forms reminded me of when I was on a roll with a writing project at work or giving a presentation I’d given many times before. I felt intelligent and creative. As I practiced the black belt form Keumgang I caught myself giving myself not only corrections  and cues I’d picked up from instructors but was also using my “instructor voice” on myself. Once in a while I might have a brain freeze, but I was quickly able to clearly articulate with my body and mind the full expression of the forms. By the time I got to the beautiful and elusive Nopei I felt like I was performing Shakespeare.

During my Taeguk forms I was reminded of my internal English/Spanish translation experiences. I had to be much more thoughtful and careful. I knew I was still “speaking” Taeguk with my Palgwe “accent” and had to fight myself on those tricky back hand blocks and unfamiliar walking stances. I had to think much more simply in order to perform what I had not quite yet memorized and hadn’t begun to fully explore. My taekwondo mind shifted from experienced black belt instructor to concentrating and still learning student. I had to listen to my body and my memory much more acutely and in a more steamlined way than I did with the forms I know so well.

I am building my fluency and confidence in Taeguk. On the other side of the training room some kids were asking an instructor about a knifehand block/elbow strike combo.

“Is this in Taeguk 4 or 5?” one of the students asked.

“It’s in 5,” I muttered aloud to myself without skipping a beat. Maybe I’m learning this new language faster than I give myself credit for doing.

Noticing the shift in thinking during my different sets of forms made me appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and conversation. Sometimes it’s our moment to let our personalities and talents shine as we wax poetic about a topic we’re passionate about, and other times it’s more appropriate to listen and very carefully choose what we’re going to say next. A skilled conversationalist knows when to do both. I hope at some point I can be as expressive with my Taeguk forms as I am with my Palgwe color belt forms and black belt forms. I also think I have the opportunity to slow down and mindfully choose and refine my techniques in the forms I’m much more familiar with.

By the time I’d gone through my forms for the evening I was sweating and panting. Thankfully my body had shaken loose the coffee jitters and fragmented focus, and my heart was now just pounding healthily from an athletic workout.

Now I was comfortable. I was speaking (and listening to) a language I love.

 

 

*If your’e keeping count: eight Palgwe, eight Taeguk, Koryo One, universal Koryo, Keumgang, TaebaekPyongwon, Nopei, universal Kibon One plus seven Kibons my former Grandmaster created

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.

 

My Home is KonMari-ed…Now What?

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Disclaimer: Okay, let’s get something straight. This is first and foremost a taekwondo blog and will continue to be, but since taekwondo has taught me so many valuable life lessons and has so profoundly shaped the way I think, react, and approach life, I inevitably will address other topics that pop up. Today it’s that question of what to do after you’ve gotten your act together in one area of your life.

Like everyone else in the world, I jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon at the beginning of 2019. Disclaimer #2: To be fair and to give myself back a little street cred, I had been aware of Kondo’s de-cluttering (or “tidying”) method for many years and didn’t learn of the Netflix series until after I’d purchased her book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” on a whim over the holiday break. Whatever, maybe the collective energy of scores of people wanting to clean their lives up at the beginning of the year subconsciously inspired me to make that Amazon purchase. Either way, I read her book in one sitting on New Year’s Day and got to work following her “KonMari” method of tackling one category at a time: clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous, and sentimental items.

The whole process of de-cluttering my two-bedroom/two-bath 1100 square foot condo took about a month. On the surface things don’t look much different, but they FEEL new and refreshing. I didn’t pile all my clothes into one giant mound as Kondo suggests, but I did fill up a donate bag, and I diligently folded all my shirts into those funny little rectangles. The supplies and containers artfully tucked into the nooks and crannies of my tiny kitchen aren’t jumbled into stressful clumps in the cabinets anymore. My financial and medical paperwork is in order and easily accessible to me or to loved ones who may need those records. After organizing my jewelry drawers I feel like I have a new set of treasures to accessorize my outfits with. I have a new skin care and makeup regimen thanks to paring down old stuff and committing to using what I have left before I buy anything new.

The discipline of sticking to one category at a time kept me on track and quelled the urge to get distracted with several mini-projects. I was so thankful that I followed Kondo’s suggestion of saving sentimental items for last during the height of my fevered desire to purge and re-organize, which happened about halfway through. (Luckily, I had a box of industrial-size trash bags in my now very organized storage closet.) That doesn’t mean I still hung on to tons of stuff; I just didn’t get rid of things in a rush to de-clutter only to find myself deeply regretting it later, which is something I’ve done in the past.

Going through the sentimental items felt like a reward after a month of meticulous hard work. I spent about a week methodically assessing, weeding, and placing carefully selected photos, memorabilia, and cards into several scrapbooks and was surprised and delighted at the emotional benefit of this process:

  • I had fun (and some laughs) revisiting high school band and theater moments, college shananigans, and family gatherings and giving them a new, neatly packaged place to live.
  • I FINALLY took the time to read a history of my Lithuanian ancestors, which was about a 5-page typed document that had been stuffed in my desk for years. I was tickled to find out that my great-great grandmother liked to make wine from berries that grew wild in the area of Pennsylvania where they lived (“moreso than doing housework,” according to our family historian). I saw the variety of professions covered by my extended clan. I learned the names of the relatives in my treasured photo of my great-grandparents’ wedding.
  • I was deeply moved by a high school graduation card I had saved from my third grade teacher. She died several years ago, so it was nice to revisit her life in her beautifully penned words.
  • Through re-examining photos in Christmas cards I was able to appreciate how my little cousins have grown into sweet, funny, and interesting young girls.
  • I was able to let go of heart-wrenching guilt I heaped on myself a few years ago after I did a major, manic purge of sentimental items and mementos. Those departed things no longer haunted me, and I felt a peaceful sense of emotional distance from the items I chose to keep.

The Verdict: I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book and method. (The Netflix show, on the other hand, got a little repetitive and seemed like a scaled-down, less interesting version of “Hoarders.”)

Disclaimer #3: 
I am very fortune to have the time, space, and energy to maintain a high level of organization over my personal and professional life. That’s always been how my mind works. I know many people don’t have those capabilities or think the same way I do, so I’m not going to tell you how to live your life or organize your time. Surprises, emergencies, and last-minute opportunities still happen in my controlled realm. However, I feel like being organized has given me the capacity to shift my attention to quickly deal with these things and keep a sense of calm. Now all I have to do as far as housework is usual maintenance cleaning and upkeep. Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—has a home.

So Now What?

I feel a little bit of a loss now that my big project is over. I had something productive to do after work and on the weekends for a few weeks.

Now I have time. Possibilities. Opportunities.

The only thing left to de-clutter is…me.

And that’s what I’m asking my fellow fans of tidying to join me in doing: after you’ve gotten your home in order, examine, reflect, and decide what you can do to “spark joy” in your life. What can you let go? What can you gain? What destructive habits can you break? What new activities or ways of thinking can you commit to? How will you change your life for the better?

Let’s have some fun.

You Guys, I’m Serious, This Year Really IS Going to Be Different! (Or, a Cautionary Tale of Good Intentions)

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I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but I am going to make this year awesome.

This year is going to be different. This year already feels different.

Maybe I have a more optimistic outlook because this year started out so much more relaxed than 2018, or what turned out to be 2016 Part 2. That and I made the conscious decision to take more responsibility for my happiness and how I respond to the often unpredictable world around me.

Around this time last year I was pulled in many directions personally and professionally. Some of that was due to expectations people had of me (it pays to be valuable, but it is time consuming), and a larger part was due to the expectations I set on myself. I HAD to say yes. I HAD to answer every request. I HAD to put 100% effort into every situation. Everyone wanted a piece of me, or so I led myself to believe. I had gone from servant leader to indentured servant.

I was frustrated, on edge, easily upset, and wanted to scream at everyone to leave me the hell alone for five seconds. And frankly it was just a crap year. I had some unexpected home and car expenses. I’ve nearly gained back all the weight I lost from Plankton the Parasite. (Okay, I’m 119 pounds right now, so I will begrudgingly admit that I needed to gain the weight back, but still, that gap in my waistbands felt soooo good….) I developed a Ganglion cyst in my right hand. A former coworker died. My building got STRUCK BY LIGHTING AND CAUGHT ON FIRE (sort of). Y’all I was even smoking cigarettes for a little while (I quit; I promise).

Last year’s blog was a big drag, now that I can review it in its entirety. Other than a post about how much I enjoyed Body Combat classes at the gym I was dropping some pretty strong hints about how unhappy I was. My biggest heartbreak was that I could no longer feel joy and satisfaction from going to taekwondo class, plus the agonizing decision I made to leave my dojang and go somewhere new. Thank you to the readers who stuck it out. This year should be more fun.

This year I’ve shied away from over-committing myself to others and promised to commit to myself 100%. I can continue to help people professionally and personally, and I enjoy doing it, and I can keep my physical, mental, emotional, and financial well-being at the top of my priority list. I have to, or it will just end up being unpleasant for everyone. I’m taking my “Give Zero F*cks By Forty” mantra seriously and resisting the urge to sweat the small stuff. I’m not scrambling to address minor hiccups at work, and I’m not overstaying my welcome with my new taekwondo family.

As I close out the month of January I noticed that just about every day, even the busy ones, I’ve come home and thought, “Wow, that was a really nice day.” January 2019 has been so much more fun and fulfilling than last year, even though January 2018 had me catering to larger obligations. I started out this month with a surprising upswing in my pool game (I took it up about a year ago), and during the final weekend of this month I got to be a scoring judge for the first time at a taekwondo tournament and saw the hilarious musical “The Book of Mormon” for a second time. The cyst in my hand rapidly shrank. Everything in between has been pretty sweet.

I’m about to enter two very busy and demanding months at work, but I’m looking forward to them rather than dreading them. I feel much more in control of my choices and my boundaries, and I’ve been able to pare down my work to things I really enjoy doing. As for taekwondo, right now I’m just in training mode. Yes, I’ve helped out at a black belt test and a tournament in the last two months, but I’m not offering my services 24/7, and right now it doesn’t feel like work. Helping other practitioners feels fun again. I’m having fun just getting to sweat and practice, and occasionally shout “good job!” to a color belt (I can’t help it), and there is no greater feeling than that.

As a society we’re collectively leaving a decade (hello, roaring 20s?), and when my birthday hits this summer, I’ll be entering a new decade of life (stay tuned for a blog post about that milestone). I can’t wait to see how this year unfolds. It’s going to be a good one.

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.

Why I Left My Taekwondo School

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A few days ago I told my Grandmaster and fellow instructors that I would not be returning to the community center where we hold classes twice a week. I kept my explanation simple: my job is demanding, I have health issues to address, and frankly, I just don’t want to teach anymore.

That was the simple explanation. I’m not sure it was truly heard or accepted, but that’s no longer my problem. I’m done. I’m out. I’m free.

I wrote this post for all the black belts and instructors who made the heart-wrenching decision to leave their martial arts school in the face of potential backlash and harmed relationships. There are tons of articles and posts online about quitting martial arts or a particular school from the students’ perspective, but I could find very little solace in stories of my fellow instructors who finally said, “enough” and cut ties. (Although I did get some hits when I paired the search terms “martial arts” and “cult,” which is telling.) I know the stories are out there. This one is mine.

“Quitting” is such a taboo word in the martial arts word where we all proclaim to be white belts who never gave up, and those who quit really aren’t dedicated and blah blah blah. We all like to make ourselves feel good when we say, “I’ll never quit!”

Sometimes quitting is exactly what one needs to do depending on the situation.

I once heard someone describe their religion as a “prison of the mind.” Religion can be a wonderful thing for many people, but like any institution or philosophy or way of life, it can be a trap for those who are susceptible. I knew I needed to leave my taekwondo situation when I realized I had mentally trapped myself in a state of believing I was helpless to change a situation that I have not been happy with for months.

The irony of my fascination with cults and my past history of staying in toxic personal relationships that were past their due date is not lost on me.

I brought the cult-like devotion on myself. I entered my taekwondo school when I was in a very vulnerable mental state. (And as martial arts imitate life, I happened to enter a controlling, emotionally abusive, classic gaslighting relationship around the same time) I was beyond thrilled at how wonderful taekwondo made me feel. I had traded one mind-numbing substance for another.

Recently as I was agonizing over whether I could muster up the courage to quit my Taekwondo situation I reflected on why I left my last job in 2011. I left that job and the library profession because there was no opportunity for growth (an expanded position my manager and I had proposed to her corporate leaders was twice shot down so bye Felicia to them) and the department strategy overall changed very little. At 30 years old I was about to hit the ceiling of my salary range, and I knew I had more earning potential. I wasn’t going to settle for a librarian’s salary, which for a professional with an advanced degree is on the lower end of the middle class spectrum. My manager asked me if I’d ever go back to a library job. At the time I probably said, “I don’t know” to be polite, but I knew I’d never go back.

Without going into too many details, that’s essentially why I left my school. I have higher “earning potential” for my own black belt capabilities elsewhere. I was bored. I was frustrated. I hadn’t done higher level black belt training since last year, and as much as I liked my students, I felt like I was teaching the same old stuff over and over again to the same handful of people. I was tired of teaching all the time and longed for the days when I could just be a student and work out. While I realize teaching is part of the black belt’s job, only teaching and not training caused an imbalance in my practice. I was having more fun in my Body Combat classes at the gym.

Taekwondo wasn’t fun anymore, and that’s what made me sad. It used to be loads of fun, including the times when it was really hard, even frustrating work. It was still rewarding for a while, especially when some of my favorite students tested for black belt, but even that wore off. Now it just felt like work. I already have a job that I am well compensated for. When I do things in my free time I want them to be FUN and STRESS-FREE.

I’d already bowed out of teaching the earlier class because I hate teaching white belts and little kids who are too young to be in martial arts, and I didn’t want to get pulled into that again. (Nothing against white belts; that’s just not where my teaching talents lie. As for four-year-old white belts? Get the f–k outta here. The last four year old white belt I saw was dancing around in the corner with a McDonalds Happy Meal box on his head. Let him be four. Just don’t let him do taekwondo yet.)

I didn’t see anyone making much progress during our very limited class time in a location I didn’t care for. It didn’t help that our rush to clean out the old school and coordinate the move at the beginning of the year happened during a time at work when I was also feeling used and stretched to my limits.

I’d like to say it’s not personal and it’s strictly business, but it is personal. There were practices and behaviors I deeply disagreed with (let’s just say I was in a cultural institution where saying “no” and taking back one’s independence was frowned upon), but I’d let my cult-like devotion take over, and as frantic and unhappy as I was, I didn’t see how I could leave.

I was making myself miserable with worry about how certain people would react–my Grandmaster, parents, students. It got to the point that I hoped not only for the community center to kick us out due to low numbers, but I also secretly wished for ridiculous things to happen like getting kicked out for my tattoo or hoping to get into a verbal altercation that would allow me to leave in a self-righteous huff. But in my heart I didn’t really want those things. I didn’t want drama or damaged relationships. Finally I stopped waiting for a deus ex machina to release me from an expired obligation. I decided to just up and quit. I stopped caring about how other people would react or what they would think about me.

And I don’t care how people will react. I had to make a choice that was best for me to regain emotional health and balance in my life.

I know I’ll come back to teaching taekwondo. I like helping other people learn, and I like being that positive coach, poking and prodding and guiding people to their highest potential. I just don’t want to do that right now.

You may be tempted to ask, “Why did you wait so long?” One could ask the same question about why I stayed in certain relationships when they showed their true unpleasant colors. I ask you not to judge those in difficult situations. For a long time you tell yourself that things will get better, and that certain disappointments were just flukes or one-time incidents. The sinking realization that things will not change is a blessing in disguise because it is the first baby step out.

Taekwondo, whether it went beyond the realm of hobby to addiction or not, was the impetus for me to get control of my mind and my life and become who I truly have the power to be. I am a much better version of myself. I’m confident, much happier, and according to some people, funnier than I used to be….and I let it burrow deep into my brain and inject my veins with the sweetest, most wonderful high you could ever imagine. I needed taekwondo to feel whole, and when I lost the comforting structure that I had, I kind of lost my mind too. I think that’s why making a break with the people and the place and the practices and that particular institution is what’s best for my emotional well-being.

There is a future for me in taekwondo—just not where it has been for the last five years.

When It’s the Right Time for You to Be In the Right Place

Peaceful place

I’ve spent some time away from taekwondo both physically and emotionally. I’m still recovering from what I now realize was a fairly traumatic change at the beginning of the year and accepting what is my new reality. I suppose it’s my own fault for letting myself get so emotionally attached to taekwondo, the affects it had on me/my thoughts/my actions, and the good thing I had going with it for years since you know…attachment leads to suffering…those platitudes that sound good, but our heart never listens.

There are certain aspects of my old taekwondo life that I can’t get back, but there are others that I could recover by leaving and joining another dojang. There are also some benefits to taking an extended break from it entirely to figure out what I want to do.

I went to class last night (not without a little feet dragging and thinking ahead to what I wanted to do when I got out). I was greeted almost immediately by one of my recent black belts and older students. This young man was soon leaving for college and had wanted his instructors to sign a framed photo from our April black belt test. The fact that he had been carrying out that picture and a black permanent marker for two weeks waiting to get everyone’s signature made me smile and broke my heart a little bit. Of course I signed it. We took a picture together, and then by request, he and I went through Koryo Two, the first black belt form he learned. (Black belt readers, I really mean the universal Koryo. Read why we call it Koryo Two in this blog post.) I felt a little shaky and out of practice–that’s what happens when I do my forms once a week at the gym, ha ha–but I enjoyed helping my student further his black belt practice.

The rest of the class seemed like it was designed to remind me of why I’m exactly where I need to be. The Universe was sending me a message saying, “This may not be where you want to ultimately be, but for now, this is the right place and the right time.”

I ended up teaching the entire time alongside our senior instructor, and I felt myself completely relax and enjoy myself. I led warm ups and a few drills and spent the sparring portion of the class running around the matches yelling good naturedly at the students. I always seem to toggle between being a responsible sparring coach and the goading little devil on their shoulders. I spent the last ten minutes of the class working with students on their forms.

During one of the sparring matches I got to see my aforementioned college-bound student make a perfect connection between poomsae (forms) and sparring, and as a an OD professional and taekwondo instructor, I couldn’t have been prouder.

“You should try using a sliding side kick, like in Koryo Two!” he yelled to his brother and proceeded to knock him across the room with a kick to the chest. He was referencing the stepping side kick in the middle part of Koryo, and smartly used an opportunity in the sparring match to apply his practiced technique.

“Ooh, good way to apply your learning! You made the connection!” I shouted. I couldn’t resist geeking out a little bit.
“Yes, ma’am!” he responded with a smile and continued chasing his brother around the room. (That’s for the critics who say poomsae has no realistic application. That was a mighty fine sliding side kick.)

I’m not where I need or want to be for my training, but I’m where I need to be for my students and for the other black belts. I can pick up training elsewhere, but I’m not ready to give up the rapport and relationships I’ve built. Besides, jumping around and kicking kids is pretty fun.