A Black Belt Takes a LesMills Body Combat Class

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Good lock of the kick, but y’all need to turn your hips and point your toes down…then again, what do I know. I’m just a black belt.

Two years ago I wrote a review of the ballet barre class my gym introduced in early 2016. I’ve since gotten the hang of it, have become pretty proficient in the moves, and have seen some improvement in my core and leg strength. I usually did a little barre and swimming on the side while I took 5-6 taekwondo classes per week.

Now that my taekwondo training has dwindled to next to nothing, I need something else to keep me in fighting shape. About 2-3 months ago I started taking Body Combat at my gym. Body Combat is one of the latest parts of the Les Mills gym class machine, which now includes 16 different branded classes that are taught at gyms across the world. There are certain “versions” that are released every few months, which keeps both the certified instructors and participants on their toes.

Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT. I’ve taken my share of aerobics classes over the last 20 years, but I’ve never found one I wanted to stick with for the long term. Barre is turning out (no pun intended) to be one of those classes, and it looks like Body Combat will be the same. The course purports  to combine techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, taekwondo, capoeira, and karate (sorta). I like to think of it as a technique class as opposed to specific practice on things like self-defense, poomsae, or fighting. It both helps me hone my well-trained skills and let’s me spend time on techniques I rarely or never get to practice.

So what is the experience for a trained martial artist in a Body Combat class? Training pickiness aside, it’s an excellent high-intensity cardio workout, which keeps me in good cardiovascular shape for my sporadic appearances in sparring class. It hits all the major body parts–legs, butt, core, arms, shoulders and back and offers enough variety that it’s very difficult to get bored. Hell, yesterday my Tuesday instructor threw in a flying side kick! Most of all, it is pure FUN! Having absolute fun is something I’ve missed over the past six months in my taekwondo classes.

I recommend that any martial artist go into this class with an open mind and a goal of refining the basics and building speed and strength. They simplify some techniques (for example, roundhouse kicks and side kicks are only done on the front foot, there’s no turn to the back kick, and their “front stance” is most decidedly NOT a front stance)…and that’s okay. This is not meant to be for only those who have advanced fighting training.

The simplicity of the techniques gives you the opportunity to tweak and refine the foundational skills that you still rely on as a black belt. I’m short and have a hard time hearing the instructor with her muffled mic, so I intentionally plant myself in the front in every class so I can see her. The added benefit is that I can watch myself in the mirror as I punch, kick, lunge, and throw knees and elbows. I have a visual target when I punch to the side of the head or snap kick to the torso. There’s lots of repetition, so I can make tiny changes every time I strike, and I definitely take this technique training with me back to my traditional taekwondo classes.

Another benefit is this class breaks me out of my taekwondo rut. We will sometimes go through an entire tkd class without doing one hand strike, and those who know me well know I loooooove hitting shit with my hands, even if it’s just the air. My favorite breaking techniques are hand strikes, and I try to punch as often as I can in a sparring match. From a practical point of view, I’m most likely going to be using my hands in a real self-defense situation, so even though my Friday instructor is just dazzled by my head-high roundhouse kicks and the occasional spin kick I throw in (meh), I’m paying more attention to the technique of my punches and elbow strikes. And in Body Combat there are so many punches…oh the punches…so many punches…

Finally, theres’s a sense of both anonymity and camaraderie I get in Body Combat that I don’t get in taekwondo. In taekwondo I’m either an instructor or a student, and I’m constantly communicating with students or other instructors. I can’t go to class and just be. As much as I love the closeness I have with my other black belt instructors and students I also want to be left completely alone once in a while when I’m working out. There’s certainly no pressure for me to teach at the gym, nor is their pressure to perform (although most of that pressure comes from me). Sometimes I get funny looks at the gym when I’m warming up before class with a form or two, but that doesn’t bother me. I’m enjoying silently critiquing myself in the side and front mirrors. Extra practice!

Some days in taekwondo I look into the (sometimes) listless eyes of my students and realize none of us want to be there. We’re all tired of the routine. I have to repeatedly remind my black belts to do simple things like keep their hands up and bend their knees with a snap kick, which is frustrating and tiresome. None of that in Body Combat. Sure, the technique is kinda terrible, but people work their butts off. Hands are up all the time (and I think it’s cute how some of the women will wear MMA gloves). Feet are moving all the time. People are eager to keep up and try their best. I’m punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing my ass off like a good second degree black belt. Everyone wants to be there because they know it’s their workout and no one else is going to do the work for them. We all have off days, days when we’re tired and bored, but I wish I could see more of that self-motivation in taekwondo.

If you’re a martial artist needing a supplement to your training, give your local gym’s kickboxing class a try. You may be surprised at how much you like it.

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Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

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This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

Guest Writer: Should Adults Begin Martial Arts? (I bet you can guess the answer)

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Hello Little Black Belt readers! Have you always wanted to try martial arts but feel like life keeps getting in the way? Do you feel like you’re too old or out of shape or just plain busy? Or are you like me, who did a martial art as a kid and never though you’d return to it?  

Now is the time to start, and I have a treat for you! I’d like to welcome my second guest writer Richard to the blog. Richard runs the fantastic BJJ and MMA blog Attack the Back and shares his thoughts on what it’s like to start a martial art as an adult and the benefits he has experienced. Enjoy!

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When people think about martial arts, they normally think of a few things, poorly dubbed kung-fu movies and a class full of children shouting “KAI.” But not everyone who does martial arts started off as a child. My story is a little bit different. I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and for those who don’t know the belt system in BJJ it’s a follows:

White
Blue
Purple
Brown
Black

Not many belts huh… The thing is it’s not about the amount of belts, it’s about how long it can take to get to each BJJ belt. Like I said, I’m a blue belt, but BJJ has been a big part of my life for around 6 years now. I train on average 3 times a week, and while my journey is a little slower than some, it takes around 10-15 years to get your black belt, most people can go to university and become a qualified doctor in the same time.

Anyway, that is a little background story, what may surprise you about me is that I started my martial arts journey in September 2010 at the ripe age of 24. Which maybe surprising for some, not a lot of people decide to take up a martial art so late. My story may sound familiar to a lot of people. I was stuck in an unfulfilling 9 to 5 job, I was working my job, coming home, having tea, going on the computer/watching TV, going to bed, wake up, rinse & repeat.

I needed something more in my life. I had an interest in MMA and used to watch it in University in the evenings (but I didn’t want to get hit in the face.) I remembered my friend used to harp on about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; in fact that friend is now a black belt and runs his own academy, so I got in touch and decided to give it a shot.

And that’s where my life changed and Jiu-jitsu became my obsession. I gained more confidence in my day-to-day life, partying and going out become a low priority (why spend money on booze when you can train?), and overall I felt healthier.

Should adults start martial arts?

So if you were reading this and were thinking about starting a new martial art or sport, then I would recommend that you at least give it a go. You may find something you love, you may not. What I do suggest is that if you’re looking to lose weight, get healthier, and fitter, find something that you love doing that’s active. That way anything lifestyle choices are done because of your new hobby, not because you’re forced into it. For me Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was a new lease of life, which is why I started my blog Attack The Back, to give back to the community. So what are you waiting for? Have a go, it maybe the best decision you ever made.

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?

Guest Writer: How to Turn the Great Outdoors into a Martial Arts Ground

Hello Little Black Belt readers! I’d like to introduce my very first guest writer, Diamond from the health and wellness website eHealthInformer. Enjoy!

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Some of the most influential martial artists preach that no matter what form you practice, you can take it anywhere with you. Martial arts are about physical and mental health, radiating balance and positivity throughout the student’s life. This opens up a huge amount of opportunity for the martial artist, as it means they can and should practice anywhere they please. Ideas such as this also help students to reinvigorate their love for martial arts, as repetition and constantly similar surroundings can cause boredom that leads to bad form and concentration levels.

Martial arts can’t be confined to a dojang or studio. They can certainly be taught and practiced there, but it’s a lifestyle choice, not a hobby. Now we’re going to explore the possibilities and opportunities for how you can turn the great outdoors into a martial arts ground.

Use Your Imagination

When you put your mind to it, almost any environment can be transformed into an area to practice martial arts. Whether you’re in a forest or a field, it doesn’t matter; nature has everything you need to master certain elements of your chosen style. Fulfilling an exercise routine using what you have around you in nature can be a fun and educational experience. Try using strong tree branches for pull ups or utilizing the exercise equipment at your local park.

Also, many teachers advise students to use meditation as a part of their daily routine. Why not meditate in an undisturbed, peaceful environment, such as near a lake or on a hilltop? Get creative with your local area and see what ideas you can come up with.

If you’re already outside in the wilderness and are finding it difficult to use your imagination, you can scan YouTube and the rest of the internet for ideas, as there are many martial arts based exercises, drills and meditation techniques you can learn from the platform.

Be Safe

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Nobody wants to be a spoilsport, but it is worth mentioning that the risks and dangers of injuring yourself in an unsecured environment are higher than in the dojo. Without safety mats and your Sifu, Sensei, or Sabumnim (depending on your chosen style) present, you must take precautions and be realistic as to what you take outside of your regular studio sessions.

Also, understand the laws in your area. If you aren’t allowed to take certain weaponry out into the open (especially without the correct licensing), you could be arrested or have your equipment confiscated.

In the spirit of safety, it’s worth mentioning that if you do choose to use YouTube while outside to learn exercises and drills, you’ll be vulnerable to hackers. It is worth hiding your IP address so that your information is secure and can’t be stolen.

Embracing the Unknown

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Practicing your martial arts outside is beneficial for many reasons, one of which is conditioning the body to react with accuracy in all types of weather. The outside training ground gives us a unique and unpredictable area to practice in, which heightens our senses and spatial awareness. Also, the predictability of the environment in a dojang is obvious to most students, since the temperature, ground condition and personal space is so familiar.

In the outdoors, the ground may be uneven, the temperature is constantly changing, and who knows what will enter our personal space. We can put ourselves in situations that test our abilities to the next level outdoors, as there’s a wide range of circumstances and environments to explore.

Nature gives us a new dimension to experience when practicing martial arts outside. Hearing wildlife, water and the sounds of your surroundings induces a sense of connection and wonder into your immediate location. You might find yourself conjuring up images of Kwai Chang Caine from the legendary series “Kung Fu.” However, don’t let this take away the seriousness of the practice. The fact that you’re learning a way of life that will protect you and give you a sense of balance and health in life means a great deal.

Have any tips or experiences for training outdoors with martial arts? Please leave us a comment in the section below.

About the Author: Diamond is a martial arts practitioner who enjoys spreading the lifestyle and its many benefits through blogging. She also likes to practice in all environments and believes that the “dojo” is taken with the student wherever they go. Check out more of her articles on fitness, healthcare, nutrition, and technology at eHealthInformer.com.

Did I Meet My Taekwondo Goals? A Year-End Review

2016

This past Tuesday was my final taekwondo class before a nearly two week break for the holidays. It was a wonderful way to end the year—a bunch of black belts beating the crap out of each other…in a loving way, of course.

Now it’s time to do an annual review of my taekwondo practice.

At the beginning of this year I set some New Year’s resolutions even though resolutions are normally not my thing. Let’s call them “goals” instead. As much as I resist it, I’m a long-time corporate person, and we love the G word.

Have I accomplished my goals? The short answer—yeah, kinda. Here’s a run down of the goals I set at the beginning of 2015 and my take on how I performed.

1. To stop hopping during 360 roundhouse.
It’s gotten better. I still sort of scoot while I’m pivoting, especially on the left side, but it’s better than a hop.

2. To cleanly and precisely execute a turning back side kick.
What I meant by that was that I should be kicking straight back towards my target. Students often end up doing an ineffective combination of a turning back side kick and spin kick because they let the knee of the kicking leg fall out rather than pulling it in tightly. My kick isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot straighter. I try to use it as much as I can during sparring, and I’ve kicked people in the stomach with it, so yay for me!

3. To be able to run through all color belt forms by memory.  Yup, I can do that.

4. To be able to accurately teach and correct other students (emphasis on accurately because I have sometimes taught them my bad habits!)
Overall I’m comfortable sharing what I know with other students. I’ve made some mistakes, but so far none of my charges have had to put their white belts back on.

5. To improve my left side spin kick to match my right side.
Still really crappy for where it should be. It’s not as strong as my right side, which still isn’t where I want it to be (I am TOTALLY blaming my messed up right hamstring for that; BAD standing leg, BAD!), but I’m finally getting that nice hook at the end. At this point I think my troubles with spin kick are in my head.

6. To really execute a flying side kick the way God and nature and all the taekwondo masters intended.
My right side kick is respectable. My left side will get there once my lazy right leg builds up more strength to push me off the ground.

7. To finally nail a flying turning back side kick instead of getting confused and just doing a half-assed ballet tour jete.
Got it! I managed to keep myself from confusing my left and right feet during my black belt test, which was my biggest fear with this kick. Whew!

8. To pull my partners in closer during takedowns.
Yes (well, most of the time), and my partners’ shoulders thank me for it. I also scared the heck out of a teenage black belt when I threw him down faster than expected, thanks to my newly developed technique of stepping in close and hooking the leg.

9. To memorize all the (red belt) hand-to-hand techniques on both sides. Done.

10. To accurately execute my one-steps during my tests…and bonus if I can re-memorize all the past one-steps.
I did just fine on my bo dan and black belt tests. The earlier ones are a little fuzzy, but I’ve been studying them quite a bit. Monday night I worked with a red belt on the ones at his level, and I did show him the correct series. They’re coming back.

11. To improve my speed, stamina, and strategy during sparring.
Done. Always room for improvement, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on what has been one of my weakest skills.

12. To break a board with a ridge-hand strike and with my nemesis, the spin kick.
Yes to the spin kick, which I did at my bo dan test. I was discouraged from doing a ridge hand strike due to fears that I could damage my hand, so I settled for breaking two boards with a spinning back fist during my black belt test. That was pretty sweet.

13. Oh yeah, to get my black belt. DONE!!

There’s still so much for me to learn and still so much room for improvement, so I don’t think I’ll have any problems setting some New Year’s Taekwondo Resolutions, or “Goals,” whatever, for 2016. Stay tuned!