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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spar Though Your Heart Is Breaking

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If I had abs like that I’d never stop smiling.

At the end of Tuesday night’s yoga class we quietly transitioned from savasna to the fetal position. Throughout the hour our teacher encouraged us to go big, take life, and when necessary, let go. “You can breathe through the tension, smile in discomfort, and use strength you didn’t know you had,” he said before summoning us to sit up. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. I have had to face discomfort and uncertainty and tap into a strength I didn’t know I had. I’ve had to let go.

I usually don’t set intentions during yoga class but that night I decided to practice a “loving kindness” meditation, something I’d picked up at a yoga retreat. Throughout my practice I thought about a person who is hurting and facing their own pain and tension and discomfort. I directed energy of peace and comfort during the class, reminding myself to get back on track when my mind wandered. I could not be responsible for this person’s happiness or emotions, but I could send feel-good vibes and well-wishes.

During our final backbend, wheel pose, my teacher put a cloth belt under my lower back and helped me flip up to standing and then bend backwards toward the ground about three times. “It’s scary!” I whispered as I flew up to face him and then fell back again, but I made it back safely to the ground in one piece. I would like to think that this person who is suffering will take comfort in fact that they will survive and land in one piece.

I tried to hold my mindset of peace and positivity during tonight’s taekwondo class too, which seems a little at odds with the purpose of sparring, but for some reason it works. I knew I needed to go big and take my life back, and part of that involves yanking myself out of my fog, throwing myself back into my passions, and remaining focused on my goals. If anything it was a welcome distraction, and as usual we had a lot of fun, hard work, and lot of laughs.

Thanks to a broken A/C, muggy Texas spring weather, and a dobok that doesn’t breathe I was so red that my face took on a charcoal gray tint and I had more than one moment of being dizzy. I got kicked in the head, knocked to the floor, and bashed against the wall. And I had a BLAST. I breathed through the tension and I even smiled in the extreme discomfort. (Don’t worry, none of the hard blows hurt. I’m as padded up as Randy in “A Christmas Story.”)

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I’m ready for sparring!

I’m still pretty bad at sparring. I get frustrated, I’m slow, and my body won’t obey my brain’s (or instructors’) commands. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, and exposes all my flaws. But it also reminds me that I have more strength than I thought I did in a scary situation. I’m able to breathe through the tension and smile in discomfort, and make it back to my feet safely and in one piece. I’m a fighter after all.

Break Fall

falling-girl-part-02 Wednesday night in red and black belt class we practiced falling. “Don’t drop like you’re dead,” my instructor said to me and the other bo dans after we morosely plopped forward, landing forearms-first on a heavy mat. “Hit your arms against the ground and don’t sink your body into it,” he said, emphasizing his statement by popping his arms. Falling face-forward is scary, but if you know how to protect yourself, you can fall with confidence.

Our falls aren’t passive. In a way it’s similar to the technical aspects of partner work in modern dance and ballet. If you’re the lifter you’re not just muscling up dead weight, and if you’re the one being lifted (or in the case of taekwondo, thrown), you’re not a limp rag doll, even if you are pretending to be a rag doll in some kind of weirdo contemporary dance. You have to think about foot placement, weight distribution, safety, breathing, protecting your back if you’re the lifter/thrower, following silent cues from your partner, and landing so you protect your joints and head.

Anyone familiar with martial arts has probably heard the adage, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Or if you’d like a more modern version of this tenet in the rap song “Still” Dr. Dre says, “Even when I was close to defeat I rose to my feet.” Indeed, Mr. Young, indeed.

Perseverance is one of the guiding principles of taekwondo. It can also be easy to forget in the heat of defeat. Lying passively on the ground can be quite comfortable, but you can’t stay there forever. I encountered a major disappointment over the weekend, and I did have that dark moment of thinking things were never going to get better. But they do. If you’re lucky enough you wake up the next day and are still breathing. If you’re really lucky you can put one foot on the ground and then the other. Falls are going to happen. The trick is to break the fall so they don’t break us. Re-watching “The Big Lebowski” helps too.

Later in the class we played around with some advanced self-defense throws. To demonstrate one of the techniques my instructor hooked his arm around my leg after I’d kicked at him, grabbed my lapel with his other hand, and swiftly threw me to the ground all in a matter of about 3 seconds. I knew it was coming, but I was still a little stunned when I slammed into the mat. It was scary because he threw me so fast and I hit pretty hard, but it was also a little exhilarating. I had survived. I had made it.