beach, northern california

No fooling

Clearly my resolution to post more regularly is faltering somewhat.  Nonetheless, here I am to think about an event I knew would happen eventually.  Week before last, the assistant instructor taught class.  We wound up working a bunch of sparring drills, culminating in the long-anticipated and much-dreaded round-robin free-sparring session.

Sparring and I have a long and troubled history.  Because of my background, I've struggled with it.  I don't mean I've struggled to reach the point of enjoying it.  I mean I've struggled to reach the point where I can actually free spar with light contact without finding myself curled up in the fetal position in a corner somewhere.  But I did get there -- in fact, I got both places -- by a long process of skill development, trust-building, and desensitization.  It took years, but it worked.

Unfortunately, it's been at least 2 years since I've sparred and, as I expected, the desensitization is long gone.  That turned out not to be too much of a problem with my first 3 partners.  Either I was the more experienced fighter (scary thought) and could set my own pace, or I was pretty nearly matched with someone who was being very careful with me.  That part was fun. 

The trouble arose when I drew the assistant instructor as my partner.  Understand -- he has exquisite control and proceeded precisely as he should have given my physical ability.  There was precious little I was going to be able to achieve offensively, but I tried here and there to maneuver around his mile-long legs and arms.  Mostly I played defense, so he took on the job of challenging my guard, footwork, and reactions.  Unfortunately, not knowing any more about my background than that I get squirrely with stuff coming at my head (which I told him right as we began), he tapped me a couple of times in the face and took me down with a beautiful sweep once. 

I made it  through most of the round, but eventually took one too many brushes to the face and went into full panic-attack mode.  I managed to bow out of the ring before I started crying, and was able to walk off the worst of it in time to bow back in before the end of the bout.  That was the last one of the evening, so I was able to use the time it took to get my gear off to deal with the adrenaline after-effects.  Thank heavens I've experienced it enough that the wheezing and shakes didn't make the panic worse :)

So now I know -- I have, indeed, lost all of my desensitization.  On the bright side, though, I did enjoy the sparring and, odd as it may sound, felt very safe with all of my partners.  Now I need to figure out how to recover what I had.  It's tough, though, because we spar so seldom and because I don't have a regular training partner who can help me drill the way I need to.  I suspect that I'm just going to have to (gasp!) ask for help; I'm pretty confident that I'll get it.

Hard to admit that the tough chick needs help -- but there's no sense in trying to hide it if I want to grow in the ways that count. 

No fooling.
beach, northern california

Strategic Planning

OK, so much for my good intentions to post more regularly.  Although, come to think about it, 2 weeks is a shorter gap than whatever that big, long one was.  Anyway . . .

I recently celebrated (and I mean that in the fullest, truest sense) my 50th birthday.  Although I'm generally not one for long periods of reflecting on my life, much less making resolutions and establishing yearly (or longer) goals, there's something about reaching the half-century mark during a time of major life changes that seems to lend itself  to that kind of activity.  Mostly, I think, I was prompted by the realization that my life is going really well right now, and that I'm currently being presented with some exciting opportunities.  

As I considered all of this, I found my mind falling into something akin to what the business folks call a SWOT analysis, a tool used for strategic planning.  SWOT stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats."  I no longer remember what the differences are between strengths and opportunities, weaknesses and threats, but the general framework appeals to me.  I've been promising myself time to play with it here, and the time has arrived.

I have a lot going for me right now -- strengths and opportunities both.  My daughter is living more-or-less on her own and I don't need to structure my life so much around hers.  My husband is wonderfully supportive of anything and everything I do.  As sad as my parents' passing was, they left us with a level of financial security that allows a little more freedom than we had before.  Work is going well; although I'm very busy, I have a flexible schedule and can generally get away with a 40-hour week; I have time to do other things.  I'm in better health and physical shape than I've ever been in my life; I have the energy and ability to pursue both mental and physical challenges. Both my new karate school and new barn are making me very happy.  My personal trainer has stepped up my workouts and we're starting to do some serious weight work, which is great fun.  

Work has offered some new opportunities and challenges that I've been enjoying immensely.  I've been involved in some new campus-wide initiatives that have let me stretch my brain while working in exactly the kind of environment that should (but seldom does) characterize academia: collegial, interesting, intellectually challenging, and just generally fun.  A real change from the mire that is our department at thye moment . . .

In martial arts, I've recently joined the Board of Directors of one the Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors and begun to really sink my teeth into a host of new tasks.  At long last, I'm getting serious about studying self-defense as an enterprise separate from the martial arts, and am actively pursuing my instructor certification through the National Womens Martial Arts Federation.  This, in part, because my karate teacher hopes to have me take over the women's self-defense programming at the school, which is pretty awesome.  

I'm not anticipating riding in a lot of horse shows this year, but if Jordan heals up properly, my new trainer will ride her in some of the upper-end shows -- very exciting!  My own lessons are going well.  I'm not sure what happened, but a lot of my "jumping fear" has gone away and I'm starting to see some real progress there.  I ride with some really fun adults, and am delighted with the move overall.

So that all sounds good.  It is good.  But I have to try to be at least a little realistic about what I want to accomplish over the next year or so.  Although I'm stong and healthy, my joints aren't what they used to be, and I'm still prone to overtraining; I can't work out as hard and as often as I'd like.  I'm still as likely as not to overcommit myself and wind up burning out, making myself crazy from trying to do too much, or just neglecting the finer points of self-care (quiet time with a good book, watching TV, hanging out with my husband, and even sleeping).  I'm still struggling mightily with weight control, work still makes me crazy, and as comfortable as we are financially, I know I can't afford to show Jordan as much as I'd like (assuming she's as fit as we hope).  

Given all that, what can I reasonably hope for?  Barring accident and/or injury, I think I'll have my karate curriculum complete to black belt level by the end of the year.  I've committed to trying my best to achieve Gracie blue belt level at the same time (which is necessary, among other things, for an NKA black belt -- it's not just about the karate).  That'll be tight, but I should at least get pretty close. I hope to make a good start toward my self-defense certification and to at least start running a few of my own programs through the school.  And I'm really excited about working with an excellent AWMAI Board to get some new policies and procedures in place to help the organization grow.

Somewhere in all of that I'm planning to take lots of time to groom and hang out with my horse, to goof off with my husband, see chick-flicks with my daughter, and see as many of my friends around the country as a strained travel budget will permit.  Oh yeah -- and go to Ireland and get an awesome new tattoo.

Sounds like a good plan to me . . .
Philadelphia, reflections

Back on the Horse

The day after my last post (way back in October), I broke my right small toe doing a warm-up exercise in my Tang Soo Do class.   That, as it turned out, was the second of a whole bunch of straws about to descend upon my back (the first being my horse's hairline splintbone fracture that had her confined to her stall from mid-September to mid-December and to a healing saga that is still unfolding).  Some of the more memorable were my riding instructor (and dear friend) being admitted to the hospital with indications of a significant brain tumor (turned out to be an abscess -- thank heavens), my daughter's unhappiness with her job (and consequent venting phone calls to yours truly), and a truly surprising amount of stress associated with what was really a very nice thing: a complete kitchen remodel and the final work on the master bedroom.  Long story short, although I tried to keep training (in a fracture boot -- quite an adventure practicing kata with 3-point turns), and tried to hold things together, I wound up in an honest-to-the-goddess clinical depression.  

Fortunately, being an educated sort of person myself, and married to another such, I was able to get help promptly and am now enjoying Better Living Through Modern Chemistry.  And, as luck or the goddess would have it, the straws began to decompose one by one over the course of the late fall until, by Christmas, things were definitely looking up.  My toe bone healed, although it will still be a while before the last of the soft-tissue damage does the same.  My riding instructor was out of the hospital and living with another dear friend, having made a truly miraculous (but not complete, of course) recovery.  I was taking Jordan for long walks under tack and her leg seemed to be coming along well.  I managed to continue my workouts with my personal trainer and to keep my weight under reasonable control.  Finally, once all the holidays were over, I was getting back to the dojo.

I'd had mixed feelings about my injury and its effects on my training.  At my first school, injury meant that you still attended class and trusted to the instructor to modify the day's lesson to fit your needs.  You might be asked to do something different from the rest of the class, but you were still a part of the class; you were always included.  At my new school, things work a bit differently.  I was never in any doubt that I was welcome to come in at any time and work out on my own in whatever way I could.  I even knew that I wouldn't be expected to pay tuition until I was "learning" again (no dice on that one -- if I'm training, I'm paying . . .).  But no one ever suggested that I continue to join my regular classes and let the instructor figure out how best to include me.   So, on the one hand, I knew I was welcome and still part of the school; on the other, though, I felt distinctly margianilized and excluded.  

Of course, that turned out to be one of those situations that led to much contemplation and consideration, from which I think I managed to learn some good stuff.  I wondered if the exclusion I felt was a consequence of a general philosphy of "if you can't keep up with everyone else, don't bother", a manifestation of the traditional macho training ethos.  I wasn't sure, given my relatively recent beginning there.  Mr. O is certainly a "physical" guy who values athleticism.  But his students run as full a gamut as I've ever seen in terms of age, gender, fitness, coordination, and the like.  I've never seen him be less than fully supportive of all his students, and he is truly committed to promoting women in the martial arts.  So maybe it was just me -- this was an approach I wasn't used to.  And looking at it objectively, the invitation to train however and whenever I wanted at no charge suggested anything BUT exclusion.  I decided to just keep doing what I was doing and see what happened.

What did happen was a couple of really nice conversations about my long-term training and my potential role in the school.  First, as my foot healed to the point that I felt I could participate, at least to a large extent, in regular classes again, I asked Mr. O what he thought my best approach would be.  Should I try to take the lower-belt class because it was less strenuous?  My regular intermediate class and just be careful?  His answer was something else altogether: he suggested that I focus on the jiu jitsu classes rather than the karate classes, and set myself the goal of earning my Gracie blue belt by the end of the year.  He pointed out that my karate is fine, and that focusing on the Gracie curriculum intensively for now would let me achieve the best possible balance in my skill set as quickly as possible.  D'uh!  Although scheduling is a bit problematic, this is a good solution.  Jiu Jitsu classes, while strenuous, don't bang up my feet at all, so I'm not going to get in the way of that last 10% of healing that still needs to happen (damn soft tissue injuries!).  And I can still go in a couple of days a week to review kata, stretch, practice kicks, and beat up the heavy bag to keep my karate skills sharp.  I'm absolutely delighted with the new program, even though it means dragging myself into Norfolk on Saturday mornings.

Second, while we were discussing something else, the question of rank came up, and Mr. O said that he wasn't going to bother worrying about testing me; he was awarding me my green belt.  He said that he's watched me work, knows I know the curriculum, and saw no reason to let an injury prevent me from being promoted; he even indicated that he's done the same for black belts.  Um, so much for the whole "macho martial arts ethos."  That was kind of nice to hear.  

So now I'm back on the horse.  I'm training myself in karate and working hard at my jiu jitsu -- as my aching muscles can attest.  I'm feeling more a part of the school than I ever had before, in no small part because of how welcoming everyone was when I started taking classes again.  This is really a good bunch of people and I'm delighted to be training with them again.  I'm also renewing my commitment to use this blog as a way to take time to pause and reflect on what I'm learning and what it all might mean.  Should be fun . . .



Tai Chi

When I thought about martial arts many decades ago (to the extent I ever did), I was always attracted to Tai Chi.  The idea of moving meditation that both calmed and energized was very attractive, perhaps especially so because of my extreme Type A-ness.  But when I started training, circumstances and happenstance dictated that I start with the external arts; I left my exploration of the internal arts to occasional classes at Special Training. 

A few years ago, our Wing Chung teacher began offering Tai Chi classes on Saturdays.  I trained with him for a while, stopped when riding took over my Saturdays, and started again over the summer.  It's definitely a different sort of experience.

Now, my teacher is, himself, a pretty "old-school" artist.  His Wing Chung sifu trained alongside Bruce Lee with Yip Man in Hong Kong.  He, himself, emphasizes hard-core street-fighting technique (students wear shoes to train and require the kind of hard shin guards worn by hockey players and baseball catchers to protect their legs, if that's any indication).  He values Tai Chi for its physical and mental benefits, but doesn't spend time talking about chi development, chi flow, or any of that kind of stuff. 

So studying with him is, as I said, a different sort of experience.  Students send the first several weeks just learning to walk the "Tai Chi walk" that is the foundation of all Tai Chi movement.  When he feels you've got that down, he adds some arm movements.  Once you can move with balance and fluidity, he'll start you on the Yang short form (the one with 108 moves in 4 sets -- "short" has a very different meaning in Tai Chi!).  He demonstrates the moves, then just spends a lot of time watching, making small corrections here and there.  He does explain the why's and wherefore's of the moves, adjusting his explanations depending on each student's background, but focusing almost exclusively on the fighting applications.

I love Tai Chi class.  On any given Saturday, there may be anywhere from 4-8 of us working out.  The four advanced students are most of the way through the form, and I love watching them do it together.  I'm partway through the second set, and sometimes do the first part with them, which is really cool.  The rest are working, variously, on walking or adding arm postures.  We all work at our own pace, so it's not like we're all joined in a structured practice.  But at the same time, when everyone's quiet and the only sound is the brushing of feet on the floor inside and the traffic noises and bird song from outside, I feel very connected and peaceful.

For me, as I suspect for most people, the benefits of this practice run the whole gamut from the physical to the spiritual.  Physically, this practice forces me to focus on my center, alignment, and balance.  It shows me where my right and left sides are "uneven" and helps me correct those imbalances.  It's an awesome way to improve leg and core strength and is a great warmup for karate class.  Because of the slow pace of the form, it's a perfect mental exercise for me -- my brain tends to run really fast (but not always productively -- not by a long shot), and this makes me slow way down and really be present in the moment.  Karate does that, too, but the moments move a lot faster, so it's a completely different kind of presence (if that makes any sense).  Finally, I've had enough exposure to energy work to be able to work that into my practice.  I have a long way to go, but I do regularly experience a very beautiful flow of energy through my body.  When it's all working right, I can even feel blockages dissolving and my whole inner body opening up and expanding.  Lovely.

I'm so glad I have the opportunity to study both kinds of arts.  And it's especially good to get a start on the Tai Chi now; after all, as many of my internal artist-friends like to remind me, we all become Tai Chi players in the end!
Philadelphia, reflections

Testing 2

I took my white-to-yellow belt test on Saturday.  Surprisingly, given my prior experience with testing, I haven't been analyzing, probing, or generally stewing about it.  I so clearly remember that virtually every test I took at my first school left me wide awake in the middle of the night, reviewing the experience and finding all kinds of hidden lessons and depths that needed exploring RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  This time?  Not so much.

The test itself was simple, but really good.  We were a small group of nine adults variously testing for yellow, green, and blue belts.  I have taken classes with all but one of them, and I felt that we created a good, supportive atmosphere for one another.  I gather that tests traditionally begin with the junior belts.  White belts test one at a time, with each student going non-stop through all the various components of the test.  As fate would have it, I went first.  I had an "easy" beginning, with basic punches and kicks, followed by the first two forms.  I liked that I was able to demonstrate some things I'm good at (technique, speed, focus, power, etc.) before we got to the hard part.  From forms, I moved straight into a one-minute free-spar against a kicking shield that my instructor held in various positions while moving around.  I put everything I had into it, and was so glad I've been conditioning!  After all the kicking and forms, this got hard; by about the 45 second mark, I was flagging and really having to work to get my kicks and punches to connect with anything like power.  Finally, as soon as the timer called an end to the round, the instructor tossed the bag and started "attacking" for the self-defense/jiu jitsu portion of the test.  This was, as I expected it to be, my weakest area.  I had a couple of brain freezes and had to think hard about what I was supposed to do, but was generally pleased with my execution overall. 

My part probably didn't last 5 minutes, but it felt longer and was definitely a good combination of physical, mental, and spirit challenge.  I then got to relax and watch everyone else.  Boy, are there some talented students at the school!  It was really interesting to see the differences in strengths from one to the next: one of the other white belts did the most gorgeous free-spar; another had an unusually extensive jiu-jitsu repertoire because of his additional training; one of a pair of 40-something sisters had profound authority in her forms, while her sister had the most fluid jiu-jitsu of anyone.  It's really an honor to be training with these people.

I had only two disappointments, and both are matters of pride more than anything else (and therefore good lessons in humility and patience).  I felt that I could have performed 100% of the yellow-to-green-belt test with no more difficulty than I saw in the people doing it, and about 97% of the green-to-blue-belt test.  So part of me was definitely thinking "Hell, I want to do that today!"  But when I'm being really honest, I do recognize that, while my karate is in fine shape, I still need a lot of just plain time on the mat to pay those dues and to get my jiu-jitsu where it needs to be.  And, although part of me will always want just that little bit more, the best (and far larger, fortunately) part of me is actually fine with that.  The other was that I wasn't asked to participate in the board breaking.  That's because I broke 4 boards with side kicks last week during a series of self-defense demonstrations at ODU, and I think my instructor wanted to spare my feet (and possibly his inventory).  At the time, I was bummed because I wanted to prove I could do it, just like everyone else.  But really, what I actually wanted was the two-board break that the yellow-belts tried -- and I'm just going to have to wait for that, too. 

Anyway, when it was all over, I had my always-to-be-hoped-for good feeling about the test.  I did some things well and could have done others better, but I didn't hold back and didn't beat myself up over my mistakes.  I got to watch some other really neat people challenge themselves and succeed, and got to hear a whole lot of people, many of whom I don't know, congratulate me on a good test.  I was reminded once again of what a great community of people train at this school.  And somehow, taking my first test gave me an extra sense of belonging that I didn't realize I'd been missing until I felt it.  It was like finding that last piece to the puzzle, somehow, and making the whole thing complete.

Now I just need to get through a stupid virus so I can get back to train.  I gained some great insights on how to improve my training -- what techniques I need to work on and how, and what kinds of conditioning I need to add to my usual routines.  I want those two boards!
Jordan, friends, Lilly

Taking Chances and Establishing Trust

At my first school, one our our "mental education" principles was to "establish trust between teacher and student."  I'm just coming out of an interesting experience involving trust given, trust abused, and more trust given and accepted.  I haven't figured it all out yet, and it may well have continuing repercussions.  As usual, I'm pretty sure that this narrative will teach me some of them.

I'll try to keep the long story as short as possible.  About a month after I joined the school, I discovered that one of the students was a young man with whom we'd had some bad experiences at my first school.  He'd shown boundary-violating behaviors, in person and on the phone, with several young girls and, after a serious talking-to by my first instructor, he was dismissed from the school.  I elected not to say anything, but to keep an eye on him and my ears out for anything that might suggest that his behavior had continued.

About a month after that, I did hear some things from my instructor, who also mentioned that he understood I'd had some previous encounters with the guy.  I took that as my opening and had a frank discussion of what I knew.  He also shared some more recent information, including an allegation of groping/kissing a young girl at a local yoga studio.  My instructor explained that, while he recognized that the young man was a liability, he also felt that he (the instructor) might be this young man's last shot at redemption (he's been kicked out of every martial arts school in the area).  I let it go at that, with the assurance that the instructor was keeping the young man away from women and kids.

The next stanza of the saga is that I then discovered that the young man is a registered sex offender (statutory rape was the crime).  And found out that my instructor knew that.  About 2 weeks later, I saw the young man at the school and went on the most extreme hyper-alert I think I've ever experienced.  I planned my route into the building to avoid close contact.  I rehearsed how I was going to tell him to leave me alone if he tried to talk to me.  I kept one eye and half my attention on him every second he was present on the floor before and after class.

Later, of course, I had to try to figure out why that had happened.  I concluded, after some thought, that I had done some subconscious calculus and concluded that this guy is more than just a messed up young man with questionable judgment.  He's a sexual predator.  At best, he was using the school -- and my instructor's forbearance -- as camouflage.  At worst, he was using the place as a hunting ground.  I contacted a number of friends, many of whom are experts in this stuff, and all concurred.

At that point, I knew that I only had one option, and that was to approach my instructor.  It wasn't a matter of "me or him."  It was a matter of trying to persuade him that the young man represents a real danger, that he needed to be dismissed, and that the adults and parents at the school needed to be warned about him.  I also had to decide what I was going to do if my conclusions weren't accepted.

And here's where a lot of trust was involved.  I did trust my instructor to hear me out.  And, even though I've only been a student there for a few months, he trusted me enough to take what I had to say seriously.  I'm beyond grateful for that, as I have begun to put down real roots at the school and was really saddened at the thought that I might have to leave.  More importantly, of course, I trust him to ensure that his students are no longer at risk (even though I'm not quite sure he buys the level of risk I'm pretty sure exists).

I'm not sure how I earned his trust, except that I've tried to let my actions -- in this case, my training ethic -- speak for me.  I had hoped that I could trust him to see what that meant (that I value my training in general and training at his school specifically), and he did.  I trusted that he would understand how little I wanted to risk that, and again, he did.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I almost forgot the most important "trust" of all.  I trusted my intuition about the young man, enough so to risk some things I value dearly.  That's actually a huge step for me.  Like many women of my generation, I was taught that "women's intuition" was the fuzzy-mindedness that passed for real thought and analysis.  It was not something to trust, and certainly not something to act upon (unless it was predicting the sex of one's unborn baby, perhaps).  I had to teach myself to trust it, and that wasn't a lesson that came easily. 

Acting on it, once I accepted it, was both easy and hard.  It was a real no-brainer that I had to say something -- and I'm used to sticking my neck out and saying unpopular things when I think I'm right.  What was hard was knowing that I really couldn't just use intuition as my reason for concern; that my case would be strongest if I could reframe that intuition; if I could break it down into the empirical observations and connections that it comprised. 

I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.  On the one hand, I prefer that mode of thought; it's what I'm trained to do as a scientist and it's something I'm very comfortable with.  It led me to dig a little deeper and gather a lot more evidence and support than I would have otherwise.  And I learned a lot by doing that.  On the other hand, it would be kind of nice to live in a world where everyone's intuition -- but women's especially -- was given more credence.  That is, it would've been great to be able to say "You know, this guy creeps me out; my intuition says he's really dangerous." and to get, in response, "That's important information.  Let's work together to see what we can find out and how we can resolve things."

I hope we can all reach that level of trust some day.
kata, long stance, punch

Training with Injuries

As strange as it may seem, I entering what I'm pretty sure will be my first instance of having to train for an extended period with an injury .  Sure, I've rolled ankles, missed a few classes for minor surgery, and taken things easy due to tendonitis.  But, although I'm not really seriously hurt at the moment, I think this is going to be a little more complicated.

I'm not precisely sure what I did or how I did it, but I've pulled my lower left pectoralis pretty significantly.  I've also, either because of or in addition to, trashed my left shoulder.  It feels a lot like when I had a bout of biceps tendonitis -- restricted range of motion, dull pain at rest and sharp pain on movement, all around the front part of the joint.  It responds pretty well to rest, but doesn't take a whole lot to flare back up again.  So, although I can do some Tai Chi, I can't do any upper-body strength work; I can't punch, block, or hold targets; I can't even fully use the arm doing kata.  And I have no idea how long this is going to last.

If I were at my first school, I wouldn't worry about it too hard.  But I'm still new enough at the new school that I hate to have to restrict myself -- especially since I'm due to test in about a month and can't practice the biggest part of what I need to practice (the jiu jitsu).  I hope that I'll still be able to test -- my first instructor would simply adapt to my situation, but I don't yet know whether or not that's how this one operates. I also lack the inner confidence and patience to simply accept the situation and make the best of it.  That's what I'll be trying to do, of course, but it will be a struggle. 

What, me?  Struggling for patience and acceptance of what life offers?  Shocking!  NOT!!!!!  I guess this is the big lesson I'm supposed to be working on.  I hope I manage to get at least part of it right!
Philadelphia, reflections

Testing 1

I know this won't be the last time I think or write about testing; I'm going to be interested to see just how high the number goes. This particular set of reflections was inspired by a couple of things, notably the brief glimpse I got of the last black belt test and the notification that I am due to test myself for the first time at the end of September. 

First, the black belt test.  It happened two weeks ago and, as luck and my aging brains would have it, I got my times mixed up.  So, instead of getting to see the whole test (which included about 20 kids testing for various ranks and a couple of other adults testing for junior ranks), I got there just in time to watch the two black belt candidates do their breaks.  Each had selected 5 breaks to complete; whether by accident or design, both included one speed break, one 2-board break, and one cinder block.  It was awesome to see.  One candidate was a young man (just getting ready to go off to college).  Tall and thin, he flowed through his breaks like water.  I swear, the boards (and block) broke almost before he hit them; it was all about speed and flow, not about power. 

Next up was a slightly older woman (I'm guessing late 20's to early 30's, but no older than that).  She moved with confidence and strength from station to station, ending with an attempted 3-cinder block break that she missed only because she angled her strike a bit.  She wound up breaking the top block the first time and the bottom 2 on the second try.  Anyway, she was a complete contrast to the first candidate: she was all about focus and power. 

I loved the contrast these two presented in their approaches to breaking, and I especially loved the fact that it was the guy who embodied the speed/flow while the woman embodied the focus/power. 

So part of me was just in awe and wondering (in spite of the fact that I've already done all those breaks myself at one time or another) if I'd ever manage to demonstrate that level of excellence.  Another part of me was kind of sad.   For the last 8 years or so, the black belt tests I've attended have featured students I've had at least a hand in training (sometimes I've been the primary instructor).  This time, I was just a spectator, and I felt like a kid pressing her nose against the glass of the candy shop, watching the "cool gang" hang out eating all the goodies.  Another lesson in humility; I need to earn my place just like everyone else.  Also a lesson in patience -- it will happen in its own time.

And now I'm going to be testing myself next month and hoping to be promoted to yellow belt.  I've already been awarded my yellow tips, so I know I'm on the right track.  I'm excited about the opportunity, but also nervous.  For starters, if the curriculum sheet I'm working from now is correct, I'll be responsible for 26 different self-defense/jiu-jitsu techniques!  That's a huge number, considering that we train, at most, maybe 20 minutes per class, twice a week, on that stuff.  Yes, I've been through them all.  Yes, I can more-or-less execute them.  No, I can't remember them all without notes; no, I can't execute with speed and precision; no, I can't execute against a resisting opponent.  Hopefully, relatively little of that is expected at this level!  Of course, I'll be studying them like crazy for the next month . . .

I'm not terribly worried about other techniques.  I know the forms well into blue belt territory and can execute those as well as anyone in the class (which is as it should be -- false modesty aside, I've been practicing long stances and blocks a lot longer than most of them!).  Basic kicks and punches are no problem.  Sparring -- well, I'm hoping no one expects much in that realm, as I haven't done it in  years, including at NKA.  Breaking shouldn't be too awful, either, as I've broken with just about all of the basic techniques except the open hand strikes (chop, reverse chop, ridge hand, etc.).

What I am worried about is the usual (for me): failing to meet my own expectations, which include performing at a level that impresses others.  I think that's at least partly understandable -- I want to prove that I've earned the rank I hold outside the school and that my promotions were based on more than just putting in my time.  I want folks to see that I've achieved a level of excellence comparable to that of NKA black belts.  But the complete truth also includes the far more egotistical desire for people to be impressed with me, period. 

I'd like to think that some day, I'll overcome the self-doubt that leads to that kind of desire.  I do get new lessons to help me at unexpected times and in unexpected places, and I try hard to apply them.  So I do think there's hope.

In the meantime, I've got 26 techniques to learn and about a month to do it in . . .
beach, northern california


So Friday I was at the school; I'd completed my warmup and was waiting for class to start.  The advanced kids' class was in progress and wrapping up with some sparring drills, followed by free-sparring.  I watched a couple of blue belts go at things pretty much hammer and tongs, wincing at the sound of foot chops landing on stomachs, backs, and butts.  No one got kicked in the head, but one young man took a shot to the face.  No one was hurt, but I could feel my anxiety levels rise as one pair after another took the ring.

I've been nudged from several different directions in the last few days to think more about sparring in general, and free-sparring in particular.  It's the biggest gap in my own martial arts skill set for a combination of reasons.  To begin with, I seem to have no natural ability at all:  I can't read my opponent's moves and I can't analyze, plan, or strategize in the middle of a bout.  I can't even do simple things like move in and out of range appropriately.  In addition, for a variety of reasons, it stopped being part of my regular training with my first instructor a number of years ago, so any progress I'd made on those fronts has long been lost.  What's really frustrating is that I have developed a pretty good intellectual understanding (i.e., I can watch other people and coach them), and I know that my basic physical tools (kicks, punches, blocks, etc.) are sound.  I just can't seem to put it all together for myself.

On the one hand, then, I am well aware of what I'm missing and want very much to start work on it.  I value sparring, after all, for many reasons.  Even when the "rules" of engagement are more limited than true street fighting, it's a great way to build offensive and defensive reflexes.  That includes being able to judge and manipulate distance, read and counter attacks, stay calm in high-adrenaline situations, and, in my case, not freak out when I get hit, especially in the head.  It's also great conditioning, with its periods of high-intensity movement followed by short periods of rest.  Yes, I do know why it's important, and yes, I do want to acquire those skills and reflexes. 

On the other hand, my feelings are definitely conflicted about the prospect.  And the conflict comes from the most obvious possible place: fear, in a variety of colors and flavors.  First, because of my own history, I don't react at all well to being hit, especially in the head.  I worked hard for several years at desensitizing myself, but it's been long enough that I'm sure some of that has worn off.  So I'm afraid of my response when that happens.  Then there's the simple fear of pain and injury.  I am not a physically brave person and absolutely do worry about those things.  I don't mind bruises and sore muscles; I do fear the more serious stuff.  I'm afraid of "failing" -- of doing badly, and of how people might judge me because of that. 

The weird thing is that, in the right context, I can enjoy sparring.  When I was studying arnis, I probably spent a good hour each week on full-contact sparring and never minded the bruises and bashes.  For reasons I can't entirely explain, I could actually do some of the things I find so challenging in empty-hand work: I could read my "opponent", I could plan and analyze; I didn't mind getting hit.  (I think some of that had to do with knowing and trusting my partners; I also think that being hit with an impersonal weapon like a stick is fundamentally different from being hit with someone's hand.)  I've also had fun working with other women in open sparring at Special Training.  Of course, that's an ultimately safe environment, with lots of cooperation and trust, so  most of my "fear factors" simply don't apply.

I'm hoping that I'll get the opportunity to build up to free sparring again, and to really be able to study it and get better at it.  My riding has taught me that I am capable of overcoming my fear if I take things in small stages.  My gut tells me I'm ready for the new challenge.  I hope it's right!
kata, long stance, punch


A number of years ago, my first instructor became frustrated with traditional forms instruction (i.e., one form/kata/poomse per rank level, to be memorized for testing).  His biggest concern was that the younger students, in particular, were missing the point of form practice.  Most of them focused on memorizing each form just long enough to test on it, then wanted to grab the next one as a sort of trophy.  A more worrisome minority either had such a hard time memorizing the forms, or became so anxious about performing them during testing, that trying to "force" them was counterproductive.  Either way, students really weren't getting much out of the practice, as far as he could see.  So he started by reducing the number of forms, then eventually gave them up all together.  He figured that anyone who wanted to practice that way could make up their own patterns, and that was as good as, if not better than, learning traditional forms.

Watching our students, I agreed completely with his concerns, but felt (and continue to feel) that kata practice is worthwhile for many reasons.  It helps teach stability in stillness and in movement.  It helps us learn to coordinate and separate our body elements.  It lets us isolate and study individual movements to learn more about how to generate speed and power.  Practicing traditional forms connects us to our martial arts roots, making us a link in the chain connecting past to future.  And, as my new teacher pointed out, if they do nothing else, they're a great way to condition our legs. 

I missed practicing forms, and was delighted to learn that I would be taught a whole bunch of new ones at NKA.  The first 3, as it turns out, are pretty basic variations off my old "Chongi", so those I picked up pretty quickly.  The first Pinan form had some tricky bits -- it's asymmetric in the beginning, for one thing -- but came along without too much stress.  The second Pinan form is the one that has my brains leaking out my ears, and the one I am joyfully grappling with.  It's a great mix of simplicity and complexity, with some fascinating patterns and sequences that are just similar enough to ones I know from other forms to really mess me up.  It's a total blast to play with.

It also led to a sort of time-delayed epiphany.  I was practicing it the other night while one of the black belts was watching.  He was a little surprised that I was working on it -- it's the green-to-blue belt form, and I'm a white belt -- but understood when I explained that I was sort of working at my own pace with my instructor's permission.  Seeing that I had the basic pattern down, he offered to teach me the next form in the series.

I didn't even have to think about it.  I thanked him politely and said -- very honestly -- that I really need to work this form for a while.  And this, to me, is the best part of forms practice.  Yes, I have the pattern.  Yes, I can execute it adequately.  But I don't own the form.  I haven't explored its intricacies or played with its energies; I've barely begun to think about the bunkai.  I haven't asked it enough questions yet and I certainly haven't answered the questions it's asking me.  It doesn't live in my bones.  Those are all things I want to spend time doing; those are the things that make forms practice more than a strictly physical endeavor and bring it into the realm of self-expression, into art.   Ultimately, that is the point of forms practice, for me at least. 

Thinking about this just now, I bet that I'm able to reach these insights because of my prior training.  My first instructor took a pretty traditional TaeKwonDo approach to black belt poomse: you learn one form for each new black belt level.  Because testing intervals increase over time, students wind up spending a lot of time with each new form (compare the 4 forms I've learned in the last 8 years with the 4 I've learned in the last month . . .).  I've had time to grow accustomed to dedicating years to individual poomse, to understand the value of that sort of study, and to love it. 

I'm glad beyond words that I have the opportunity to experience that joy again.