Sunday, November 4, 2018

Black Belt, it's only the beginning.

I have to laugh when I look at this photo.

I’m flying high, fist ready to power though ten boards. My eyes are laser focused on the ten boards below. Those ten boards are what's standing between me and finally getting my black belt.  In that moment my heart is racing and I know I have this. There is no doubt in my mind.

But to quote one of my favorite movies, The 13th warrior, "And things were not always thus."

The night before my black belt test, I was a wreck.

Friday night we had a pre-black belt test class. Maybe it was the fact that I am not used to doing poomsaes in a group setting, surrounded by young kids... But I kept forgetting the moves. I could not make myself focus.

Perhaps I even over-trained

I have been practicing a lot; group classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, private lessons with Master Ko on Wednesdays, Saturday practice with Rick (3rd Dan black belt who is my age) and Sunday poomsae practice in my home dojang. In addition to that, my work moved to a new building with a gym. Five days a week I was using my lunch to work on my condition training.

Bicycle, weights, stretching, repeat.

Whatever the reason, Friday night I made mistake after mistake and by the time I left the dojang my confidence was shot.

The battle now was truly in my mind. I saw myself screwing up in front of my wife and the whole school. How could I trust myself to remember what I’d learned?

But I started to back off the ledge talking to my wife and a few text messages from Rick got me back into reality.

I finally laughed at myself, what am I picturing? Do I see myself being summoned by the resounding sound of a massive gong? A giant drum beating a slow rhythm while I am marched to the lit center of dark chamber? An ominous voice announcing, “Begin!” as I engage into a life and death struggle fighting off ninjas?

I really have to do something about my imagination.  I calmed down and simply decided to do my best.

The day of the test arrived. I walked onto the mat and was met by Rick who gave me a final pep talk and told me once again to relax. I slowly stretched and moved through my poomsaes to get my body warmed up.
Getting hydrated with Rick

The test finally began and we were called to sit and meditate. I slowly breathed in and out as Master Kim spoke soft words of encouragement to myself and the other students who were testing.

To my relief, when my name was finally called I would be performing my poomsaes, demonstrating my blocks using Korean terminology and basic stances, alone on the mat. 

Void of distractions, I performed the poomsaes, one after another without mistakes, building my confidence. I could hear people clapping for me after I passed each one, and the encouraging sound of Rick cheering me on.

Ironically, I made one mistake during the last one after I started feeling relieved, thinking I’m almost there!  Master Kim had me repeat that part of the form and I moved on.  By now I was so relaxed the mistake did not bother me at all.

Next came kicking techniques and footwork that I did with the rest of the group. It was good to get my blood moving for the sparring that came next.

For sparring I was matched up with Chris, a young 3rd Dan testing for his 4th.  I was feeling great and very pleased that after two rounds I did not run out of breath.

Next came breaking. I had to break three boards with a punch, three with a turning back kick and then three with a jump front kick. I was stressed performing the back kick, as I worried about my knee twisting. I broke through the first two, and then ran to break the last with the jump front kick

This was the toughest kick of them all. Three boards were held chest high. The challenge came not from the height, but the way the boards were held. For the other two breaks the boards are held on both edges creating an unmovable target, but these boards were held on only one edge, like someone handing you a plate of food. The challenge is you have to kick them very fast to make up for the lack of support.

I took a breath, let out a yell and ran.

I jumped. I kicked. I hurt my foot.

The boards did not break.

I stepped back a few feet, ignored my throbbing foot and tried again. This time I broke right through.

Me and Master Ko
Now it was time for endurance. I had to first jog fifty times around the dojang. My much younger classmates began to literally run circles around me as each in turn finished long before I did. But I kept my own pace, happy that my knee allowed me to run at all, and that all the cardio I have been doing paid off. Soon it was just me running, followed by student instructors and a crowd cheering on the old guy! I felt like I was in the latest installment of the Rocky franchise!

100 sit-ups, 150 backups and 55 push-ups later brought us to that final moment. 

This was the last challenge, the power break.  I took a breath, focused on my target and with one hammer fist broke through the ten boards and accomplished my goal.

I was a black belt!

As I reflect on this journey, I realize that getting my black belt will not be the end; it truly is only the beginning. I have achieved so many benefits from Taekwondo in the areas of physical health, mental focus and spiritual strengthening that I know I will continue this path for the rest of my life.

At the beginning of every class we state the ten student commitments. The tenth is, “always finish what I start.” For me, this is a commitment to continue daily in my study of Taekwondo for the rest of my life.

My advice to anyone, young or old who is considering taking up Taekwondo can best be expressed in the words of Master Sang Kyu Shim in his book, “The Making of a Martial Artist.”

“Venture into the unknown of your potential; you will surely come out the victor.”

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Black Belt Candidate

It has been a very long road building up to this point.

This past weekend I passed my final test as a Deputy Black Belt earning a fifth belt tip. At the end of testing, Master Ko handed me a large envelope with my name on it.  I have been invited to test for my Black Belt, officially making me a Black Belt Candidate.

Deputy Black Belt, five tips; Black Belt Candidate

 Inside the envelope is a schedule full of extra classes and pre-test sessions I’m required to take over the next few months. My test day will be November 3rd, 2018.

A brief glance over the testing requirements shows me I’ll be testing on all my poomsae, kicking techniques, 5 board-breaking techniques, sparring, physical endurance/strength tests, as well as Korean terminology and a written essay.

The judges may also ask for other random things during the test.

As the large letters indicate in our Do Jang, “A Black Belt is not purchased, it is earned.” I’ve been told by my friend (and 3rd Dan Black Belt), "This test is grueling, at the end you’ll know you earned your Black Belt.”

The next two and a half months are going to be busy ones to say the least, as I prepare for this test.

Although I have been working toward this test for the past three years or more, I find when I think about the test, I’m a bit intimidated.  It’s one thing to perform all these things, and yet another to have to perform them in front of the watchful eyes of the judges.

Two and a half months feel like a very short time.

It’s funny how the mind works. Part of me sees the amount of tasks I’ll have to perform and thinks, “Why on earth did you sign up for this? Why did you choose to put yourself into this situation? You must be crazy to invite stress like this into your life.”

But then another voice says to me, “Keep your eye on the prize, you are almost there, don’t give up.”

I guess there are two ways of living life. One is to avoid anything truly difficult to minimize discomfort and chance of failure.  I’ve lived long enough to see people who keep to this philosophy. They are not all that fun to be around, and are usually the first to voice objections when I bring up Taekwondo or riding motorcycles.

I don’t judge, to each their own, live and let live and all that.

But for me, to embrace life is to embrace risk. That is how we live a life fully alive.

I love the movie “Point Break” (both the new one and the remake). I know I’m supposed to root for the good guy FBI agent, but in this movie I find myself identifying more with the criminals.

Or at the very least, agreeing with their way of life.

Their philosophy can be summed up in one quote by the character Bodhi, “If you want the ultimate, you've got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It's not tragic to die doing what you love. “

So here I go, pushing myself a little bit more each day. I am not taking my eyes off that prize.

Or, I die trying.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Mister David, I think he is trying to kill you!

I’m covered in sweat and my muscles are at the point of exhaustion. Master Ko has me performing a push-up drill. Do one push-up, stand up, then do two, stand, three stand, you get the idea… and keep going like that until you reach ten.

This came after we’ve done some warm-ups, stretching and pretty intense leg work with what looks like a huge rubber band.

Master Ko
Master Won is looking on as I have my private lesson with Master Ko. I look over at her and she laughs, “Mister David, I think he is trying to kill you!”

I laugh back; I know she’s only joking, at least I hope so!

About five weeks ago I started weekly private lessons with Master Ko.

Master Ko is a 5th degree Kukkiwon black belt. He graduated from the Korean National Sports University and is a winner of four International Gold Medals.

He has also had five surgeries on his knees and therefore understands knee issues on a personal level. He is the perfect instructor for me, knowing just how to get my knees stronger and my overall technique better.

He works me hard from the moment I get there to the minute I leave. 

It is said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” This has proven to be true in my life.

I don’t think I was ready to take on this level of training before now. For the past three years I’ve worked hard with my black belt goal firmly in sight. But now, in just five short weeks, I feel as if the real work has only just begun.

So far, in addition to the conditioning work, there has also been work on my basic technique. We’ve covered stances, blocks, punching and some kicks.  Master Ko assures me he has many plans for my training.

This new phase has been both challenging and rewarding. I’m already reaping the benefits of sharper technique and a stronger body.

I have realized I’m capable of working much harder than I have been. The formation of an indomitable spirit, spoken of so many times in Taekwondo training, takes an effort and dedication I haven’t embraced up until this point.

But I really feel it’s time to do so.

Bruce Lee once said, “If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

I always liked that quote, maybe even used it in another blog post, but I never really understood it until now.

When I train by myself or even in a class full of students, it’s easy to coast. But when someone else trains you there is no room for that. Your instructor gets to know you better. They see your weaknesses and they push you to improve.

My "belt journey" so far.
Looking back on the past three years of Taekwondo training, with all I have been through and achieved, I feel it has all been to prepare me for this next level.

But it’s a battle. There is a definite battle going on between my spirit and my body.

In his book, “Moving Zen – Karate as a way to gentleness,” C.W. Nicol said “The Martial Artist must regard his body as a splendid tool for the spirit to use. The body should not be allowed to dominate the spirit.” Nicol, who studied Shotokan in Japan, touches on the key to successful training.

If I want to succeed in my goals I have to focus my spirit to conqueror my body. The tool needs to be sharpened and brought under submission.
4 black tips, 1 more to go!

Basically I cannot allow laziness to affect my training.

Currently I have my fourth black tip on my deputy black belt. In August I will test for my fifth and final tip, and at that time (if all goes well) I will be invited to test for my black belt in October.

Now, armed with this new insight and aided by these sessions with Master Ko, my black belt goal is firmly within sight.

And as that black belt comes within tangible reach, I realize it truly won’t be the end of this journey, only the beginning.

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

“The rewards of action are tangible and the opportunities for action are many.” - Bruce Lee

It’s funny how large an obstacle can become when we choose to avoid it. The longer we keep something at a distance, the more insurmountable the problem becomes.

For me that particular nemesis took the form of Taegeuk Chil Jan (number seven of the Taegeuk poomsae).

For some time now, I’ve been working on seven out of the eight Taegeuk poomsae forms on a regular basis.

I started doing this because at one point I realized I was forgetting each poomsae after testing for it. So over the past year I progressively added them to my weekend workouts, as they were needed for testing.  Slowly the number grew.

When I earned my deputy black belt, I began having to test with them again, two at a time. First with one and two, next three and four and more recently I tested with Taeguk five and six for my third black tip.

One a side note, only two more of those black tips and I will become a black belt candidate.  That black belt is getting closer!

But now I’m going to be testing on Taegeuk seven and eight. Eight I know because that was the first poomsae I kept practicing after I tested with it. But seven I have been avoiding. I haven’t worked on Taegeuk Chil Jan for over a year or longer.

I’ve watched others perform it, even looked at it on YouTube. But when it came time to practice it, I kept putting it off.

I’m not sure what it was about this particular poomsae that kept me from working on it in my private practice, but there is something that just looked overly complicated and impossible for me to remember. Even though I tested on it once already, it was far gone from my memory.

I kept telling myself I would review it before I needed to know it in class, but I did not follow through.  The knowledge that I would eventually have to face this poomsae nagged at me in the back of my mind.

Then I passed my third black tip test and I knew next class I would have to finally face my nemesis.

Deputy Black Belt
3 out of 5 Black Tips
The time came for me to review the poomsae with Master Won. She asked me if I knew Chil Jan and I had to admit I could not remember it. I could see the surprise on her face, perhaps even disappointment.

In traditional Taekwondo, being taught a poomsae is actually treated as a gift from instructor to student. That principle is still ingrained in me. I felt like I neglected the gift.

Inwardly I kicked myself. Of course she smiled and began to re-teach it to me. Even encouraged me, saying it was a difficult one to learn. But I knew that I had let myself down.

I recently ran across a quote from Bruce Lee who said, “The rewards of action are tangible and the opportunities for action are many.”

Basically we have numerous opportunities to get off our lazy butts and do something and when we do we always feel better for it.

I left the Do Jang feeling regret for my inaction, but I was determined to conquer my nemesis this weekend.

So Saturday came and I decided to work on nothing but Teaguk Chil Jan for my practice. I still wasn’t looking forward to it. It had grown in my mind to an almost impossible task. I felt that it had some confusing steps in it that would take a lot of time to get right.

But I went into my personal Do Jang and began working on it, one step at a time..

It was slow going. I started from the beginning, over and over, gradually learning the next step. I’m not really sure how long I was out there, but eventually I got the flow down and that’s when something amazing happened.

I started to love it.

First there is nothing in this poomsae that my bad knee will hinder. The front kicks and crescent kicks do not require the same twists as other kicks do and I am able to perform them equally with both legs. Also there are a lot of cool hand techniques involved that make it very interesting. The tiger stance is a great one for strengthening my knees so I’m getting a needed workout there.

I finished up feeling great, the hurdle was behind me.

But would I remember it next time I tried it?

When evening came, I decided to go at it again and see what I could remember from the morning's practice. I went out into the backyard and performed the poomsae over and over. I remembered every move.

This is a poomsae I really feel I can get into, to reach that level beyond just trying to remember the next moves. To climb inside it, forgetting everything else and just move effortlessly through it as a true expression of Wu Wei (effortless action)

And to think that by putting off the challenge, I’ve been putting of this awesome expression of movement.

That’s the amazing thing about pursuing something like Taekwondo. It teaches us so many things about ourselves.  No matter what the obstacle is, if we become determined to tackle it, breaking it down a step at a time if we have to, we can accomplish anything.

And sometimes the thing we dreaded becomes something we love.

Bruce Lee’s quote is worth repeating, “The rewards of action are tangible and the opportunities for action are many.”  

Sunday, April 8, 2018

What one man can do, another can do!

And I’m still at it

Just a few months shy now of the three years mark of practicing Taekwondo, that Black Belt is solidly within reach.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve been through so far.

Looking over the physical hurdles I’ve had to leap- just barely at times- over, I’m not sure if it stands as a testimony to my stubbornness or stupidity that I am still going strong.

Perhaps all men my age have to go through these challenges, we certainly cannot go around them.

There was the prostate cancer scare that dragged on for months, with doctor appointments, tests, and simply waiting. At the same time I had my heart looked at and they found an enlarged aorta that I’ll have to have monitored once a year, forever. But I can’t complain.  I didn’t have cancer and the heart issue could have been much worse. It was just the prolonged “not knowing” that played tricks with my mind for months, but through that, I went to class, I practiced, I advanced.

Then, of course, my famous knee issues that have never really gone away. Hips are doing better but my knees will never be the same. Old motorcycle injury for sure is a factor. Physical therapy was good, and educational.

Then who could forget my on again off again back issues? I missed a few classes these past weeks because of that. But I’m now combating this one with Pilates and weekly visits to my awesome Chiropractor.

Over these three years I’ve had times when I felt like I could go on forever and times when I really wanted to just give up. Nights when I felt encouraged after class and others when I just took a shower popped a few Advil and went to bed thinking “why am I doing this to myself?”

I stick with it through all this because I love it. I see the benefits and they outweigh the challenges.  I picked up something I left behind many years ago and I have no plans of putting it down again.

So why am I sharing all this? The ups, the downs, and the physical challenges? Am I looking for a pat on the back? Should we be cuing some sad music while I look thoughtfully out the window as it rains? Maybe I want the “atta boy” and “you can do it!” accolades social media so easily provides these days?

I really am not looking for any of that.

I share all this now for the same reason I’ve been posting this blog for almost three years.

I want to show it is possible to keep going. If were one of those men who had zero physical problems and could do anything I wanted, that would be the anomaly.

I firmly believe I am not the exception, nor exceptional. 

Like my favorite line from “The Edge” where Anthony Hopkins shouts, “What one man can do, another can do!”

For those of you who are thinking about starting at a, shall we say more advanced age, then believe me when I say:

You can do it. It is possible. If you’ve taken the first steps and begun Martial Arts training, keep going. If you are thinking about it, maybe now is the time to begin.

What one man (or woman) can do, another can do.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Strengthen What Remains

Once when I was about seventeen years old, I was riding my bicycle home from a friend’s house. It was late and dark outside with only streetlights to navigate by. But, I knew the city streets pretty well and had confidence I could easily get home.

I remember rounding a corner and hitting a patch of sand on the road. This caused my front wheel to hit a curb and abruptly turn sideways. I flew over the handlebars of my 10-speed bike, Superman style. Instinctively I tucked and rolled and landed rather impressed with myself.

I got up, walked over to my bike, twisted the handlebars back into place and rode home.

The next day I didn’t even feel the bruises I had earned from my crash. My attitude was more like, “oh, yeah, I must have gotten that last night.”

Oh to be young again.

Deputy Black Belt, 2 out of 5 black tips.
Now it seems it doesn’t take anything to make my body ache. Sit too long at the desk at work, sleep on a different pillow, twist wrong and a new pain introduces itself.

Injuries that I bounced back easily from in my forties simply linger in my fifties. Especially, I have learned, knee injuries.

That’s the way it’s been for me lately. My road to recovery with my knee and my hips has been a long one. It seems that stretching has almost become a necessity for moving well. I start each day on the stationary bike followed by stretching.  Although I’ve graduated from barely making it around my building at work to walking during my lunch again, I never feel normal. Something always tightens or hurts.

When I started this black belt journey a little over two and a half years ago, the thought never occurred to me that I would not be able to do everything. Oh sure, I figured I may not be able to kick as high, or as fast, but I never saw myself as having any physical limitations. I never knew I could get injured so easily or take so long to recover.

Now I’m realizing some of the jumping and spinning kicks may be a part of my past. I have to be very careful and it’s not easy. I’m still in a class full of teenagers. It’s hard to back off when I need to.

It’s not easy getting older. This part of my journey is not easy. Not by a long shot.

But I keep thinking of this one phrase, “Strengthen what remains.” I have always held a life philosophy of not focusing on what I cannot do, but focusing on what I can. I’m not saying this is easy, but it is what I have to work with.

2018 is the year I turn fifty-three, and also the year I will earn my black belt. Currently I have two black tips on my deputy black belt. I need a total of five before I can test.  It is possible I may test as soon as June, however I’d rather have the extra time and test in October.

So now, what’s my goal? What’s my focus?

I will strengthen what remains. I will focus on what I can do.

I am working on the basics. I want a sharp-looking sidekick and round kick. These are kicks that show up in my poomsae. I’ve let them slack, as the twisting required has been almost impossible. But I’m ready to start working on them again. Slow tension kicks at first and then move into more power.

I also want the details of my technique to look sharper. I have noticed in class that when I come prepared already knowing the moves, the teachers give more attention to the details of techniques.

And most of all, when I finally get a chance to wrap that black belt around my waist, I want to feel like I have done my absolute best to earn it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

50 Shades of Physical Therapy: Still working toward my Black Belt Goal.

These days I find myself tied up with rubber bands, lunging onto equipment that has been made purposely to be unstable and working my muscles until they ache and beg me to stop. My ice bag has become my newest friend. Working through pain has been come a regular part of my life.

These past months have been the most physically challenging of my life.  My knee injury and the lack of activity following it had a profound negative effect on my whole leg as well. To sum up what my Physical Therapist told me, the work I did to build my larger muscles put stress on the smaller supporting ones. The result was muscle fatigue and tightness. The injury was basically my legs screaming, “enough!”

The cure has been a concentrated effort of PT on flexibility in my hips and target strengthening of my knees and hip flexors.

Currently I still walk with a slight limp. I’m not free to do any twisting kicks or to kick any solid targets.

I’ve been back in class, where I modify the workout to my new requirements. On the nights I’m not in class, I do my PT exercises. I also do PT every morning. I ice my knee often.

This has been a huge exercise in patience! It is hard to stick with all this when only seeing the smallest hints of progress. There are days I wonder how much I will be able to recover. Sometimes at night, after class or a PT session I have to claw my way up the stairwell, hanging onto the railing and wall like some monster rising from a pit.

Did I leave my book downstairs? Crap, now I have to go down and come back up… again?

Progress has been slow, very slow. Only this week have I finally been able to lock my right knee out again so my leg is completely straight.  So my legs are getting stronger, but slowly.

However, as the saying goes, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” There has been some good coming out of the last few months!

Recently I have joined forces with another man my age and this has added an awesome new dimension to my practice.

I have always respected Rick, a 3rd Dan Black belt from my school. His great attitude and indomitable spirit stands out to me in a sea of young people where I often find myself lost.  Rick had come to symbolize to me that I can do it, I can make it and that I’m actually not crazy for trying.

Or maybe Rick is just as crazy as I am, but either way I enjoy his friendship.

Recently Rick has come to join me on Saturday mornings at my home Do Jang. This allows us to work on many of the aspects of Taekwondo that our school does not focus on.

And we work at a pace we can’t always get in a class designed primarily for the young.

First there is extra stretching that people our age need. Rick introduced me to a form of stretching that combines isometric tension and stretching. The result is remarkable. We have both seen some progress with this in only a few short weeks.

We are also able to work on one step fighting. Basically one person throws a punch while the other works on countering with a predetermined set of movements.  The benefit of these exercises cannot be stressed enough. Through these time-honored practices, we are able to work on timing for defenses, control of movements and targeting an actual human body with our punches and kicks.

Rick and I also combined our warm-up routine with working with the bo staff. It is amazing how much of a workout you can get, going back and forth practicing attacks and counter attacks with a bo.  We are a far cry from the speed of Master Po and Cain in the opening sequence of the “Kung Fu” TV Series, (although I often have this in mind as we work back and forth...) but we are working slowly and deliberately. Speed will come.

I truly am thankful to be able to practice with Rick. For whatever reason, our school does not offer an adults only class, so being able to practice with someone my own age, who sees Martial Arts training the same way I do, has been a huge blessing to me.

So each day I work to get better, and I push forward to my Black Belt Goal.

Check out my Youtube Channel "Keep Kicking"

Keeping in mind the words of Sang Kyu Shim, “If the martial arts practitioner concentrates on (or “invests in”) one basic technique a day, striving for complete perfection, he will, after even one year, have accumulated a wealth of techniques that no money can buy and no thief can steal. The individual does not have these qualities so much as he is them.”