Friday, July 7, 2017

"Lessons While Waiting" Deputy Black Belt PART 2 of 3

“Whether I like it or not, circumstances are thrust upon me, and being a fighter at heart, I sort of fight it in the beginning. But soon realize that what I need is not inner resistance and needless conflict, rather by joining forces to readjust, I need to make the best of it.” - Bruce Lee

It looks like this will be a three-part blog.

As I write this, my knee is still in an Ace bandage, and I have not yet tested for my deputy black belt.

Right up until the Friday of the exam, I had planned to push myself and test, no matter what.  The sharp pain in my knee was gone and I felt I could at least limp through the test and get my belt.

But driving home from work that day, I experienced some sharp pain in my knee that I knew was my body’s way of telling me I was crazy to even try.  I stopped by the Do Jang and told Master Lee that I would not be able to test.  She reassured me that I could test privately after my next class.

So I waited and I began to heal.

But as I slowly healed, I grew more impatient and restless.  I wanted to get back to the Do Jang, I wanted to get my full workout in.

Finally I had a day where I could quickly ascend the stairs in my home without issue and I decided to go back to life as normal.  Even though I still had a little tightness, I decided to ignore it.

Once again I twisted my knee, just a little, and the swelling returned.

Lesson one came through loud and clear.  The body needs time to heal.  You can aid it, but you cannot rush it.  I had to fight a lot of discouragement at this time, but finally I began to try to exercise my mind some and at least do some reading.

My next lesson came in two parts.

I have been reading about Wu Wei.  Wu Wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life.  I have always been baffled by something Bruce Lee said that he got from this system of thought.

He said, “I mean here is natural instinct and here is control.  You are to combine the two in harmony.  Not... if you have one to the extreme, you'll be very unscientific.  If you have another to the extreme, you become, all of a sudden, a mechanical man... no longer a human being.  So it is a successful combination of both, so therefore, it's not pure naturalness, or unnaturalness.  The ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness.” (Emphasis mine.)

I thought about this statement and I kept coming back to the same questions in my mind, “How? Do I do this in any other area of my life?  And if I do, how did I get there?”

Then it dawned on me, this is exactly what I do when I play guitar.  At first when I was learning, it was very mechanical.  Strumming and changing chords take work, effort and a lot of concentration.

But then, after time and much practice it is effortless.  Now I don’t think, I play.  I have repeated the unnatural movements of playing until it somehow linked to my being in such a way as to transcend effort.  It is unnatural naturalness.  Playing guitar is pure instinct.

Explaining this to Rika, she said it sounded just like shifting gears on a motorcycle. We don’t think about it, we do it.

And that lead me into realizing that I need to approach Taekwondo with this concept firmly fixed in my mind.  I must repeat the movements over and over again, with a concentrated effort, until I achieve what I have in both riding a motorcycle and playing guitar.  Until the unnatural movements become a natural part of my being.

Another part of this was realizing I could have used this time with my knee being out to practice my blocks and punches.  I could have even sat on a stool and simply repeated them over and over to get the movements down.  While one part of the body was recovering, I could have paid special attention to another.

I acted as if my whole body was incapable of Taekwondo simply because my knee is on the mend.  Instead of feeling like I was losing time, I could have kept my forward momentum.

I feel with these lessons in mind, I will emerge from this time a better martial artist.

I know from experience that this approach to Taekwondo will flood into the rest of my life.  There will be a part three to this blog when I return to class and finally test for my deputy black belt.

“If you truly love life, don’t waste time because time is what life is made of.” – Bruce Lee

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Two years in, reaching for my Deputy Black Belt PART 1

There are few things more discouraging than looking at an injury that has the potential of keeping you from your goal.

You work and you strive, often pushing past the pain.  You discipline yourself to achieve your goal.  And then, when it is within reach, something unexpected happens and sets you back.

I’m feeling that right now.

About a week ago I was in Taekwondo class and I injured my knee.  I knew that night when I came home, that I had overdone things.  I could barely walk after my shower.

 Then to make matters worse, 36 hours after the injury, I was on a plane to Toronto for work.  There was no time to treat it properly and let it heal. I did the best I could, but a day of traveling, (alternating between walking between gates and sitting uncomfortably on the planes) then teaching half a day standing up, only to wake the next morning and travel back, did a number on my knee.  By the time I got home on Saturday, it was throbbing.

Ice, wrap with Ace bandage, repeat.  That was my Sunday and Monday.  Now it’s Tuesday night and it is feeling somewhat better. But, it gave out a few times today like those “trick knees” you hear about on TV.  Just walking, I’d get taken off guard by a sharp pain.

I can’t trust it right now, and that sucks.

Old man David, he has that trick knee, it gave out on him… he fell down and broke a hip.  Need to chip in and get him an emergency alarm….


For months, in addition to my weekly classes, during the week, I’ve been waking up at five am to work out and work on poomsae.  I know my form, I know my kicks, I’m ready for my test, scheduled for this week.  This is a major step for me.  I just passed my two-year mark and I will be testing for my Deputy Black Belt.  That will make me a Level 4, and two-thirds the way to my Black Belt goal.

And right when it is in my grasp, I’m sitting here rubbing Tiger Balm on my knee and re-wrapping it with my trusted Ace Bandage.  Hoping it will heal enough for me to test Friday night.

I went through a short bout of self-pity, my mind really wanted to go down that familiar path.  But then I thought, what can I learn from this?

First, I can use this time as a reminder to work my body even more when it is feeling strong and uninjured.  Stop being lazy at night and skipping my nightly stretches. Push a little more on the weekends to make my legs stronger.

I can also learn to listen to my body more.  I knew, in class, that I was pushing beyond what my body could handle.  I knew something was wrong.  But I kept going anyway, I let pride get in the way of common sense.

This is part one of what will hopefully be a two-part blog. Let’s see what happens Friday night at my test.

"When life gives you obstacles, you must summon the courage and WALK ON." - Bruce Lee

Sunday, April 9, 2017

This is Taekwondo!

Saturday, testing day for my high red belt.

There were only two other adults testing and they were matched up with each other for the sparring time.  So when my name was called, I ran up to the mark and looked at the young man who I’d be sparring against.

Very young, I’d put him at maybe eleven years old.

He’s a deputy black belt, and therefore not someone from my class (my class consists of teenagers and adults.  When the command came to begin, I had already made my mind up to go easy on him.

That was my first mistake.

Sang Kyu Shim author of "The making of a martial artist"
This young man came out kicking!  He moved faster and kicked harder than his size first indicated.  I found myself backing away, using an X-block over and over again to stop him from scoring.

When he did make contact, it was intense.  Just goes to show, size really means nothing when it comes to Taekwondo.

For the first round, I struggled between wanting to do well against him, and hesitating to go all out because of his age and size.

Finally, I decided to give him back a little.  After all, we were wearing protective gear; I could afford to get a few shots in.  But I knew I had to engage soon, his youthful attack was wearing me out!

At one point he turned at me, leaving his chest fully exposed; instinctively I kicked.

And he was knocked to the ground and I felt terrible.

I offered him a hand up that he gladly took, smiling the whole time.  Then we continued.  Soon I forgot his age.  His skill level and higher rank made up for that.

I’d like to say he held his own against me, but truthfully it was the other way around. Had they been keeping score, he would have been the victor.

I thought about Yoda, “Judge me by my size do you?”

At the end of the match we shook hands and he gave me a quick hug saying, “good job!”

As we went to sit down, I knew I had witnessed a young man who truly had an indomitable spirit.  Later, as I was leaving the school, his father called over to me and said, “See you next time.  I saw you today, you are very good!” I pointed to his son and said, “Thank you, so is he!”

The rest of my high red belt test went well.  In fact, it went much better than any test before it.  I attribute this to my weekend workouts.  I was much more prepared.

Rather than just worrying about remembering my poomsae, I was focused on doing it well.  Kicking techniques went off without a hitch.

For breaking, I had to break two boards with a tornado kick.  Again, my weekend workouts assisted me, as I had been hitting the heavy bag with this kick.  The seventeen-year-old black belt who held my boards, smiled widely and congratulated me when I executed the kick.  The affirmation felt great.  This kick was my greatest challenge until now. Being able to execute it correctly, with enough power to break two boards, was a big accomplishment for me.

I left the school with my high red belt.

Sunday came and I went out to my personal dojang to work out.  I warmed up as normal with nunchakus, then did some stretching and moved right into poomsae.

It was around the seventh or eighth time going through Taegeuk Oh Jang that I came to a realization.

This is Taekwondo. 

What I mean by that is, the pressure was off.  I had tested with this poomsae and passed the test.

Yet here I was practicing it, over and over, for the simple pleasure of doing it.  The two poomsae I have worked in to memory, Oh jang and Yuk Jang, are becoming a part of me.  To neglect them would be to neglect my own body.  I could not just kick back this Sunday; happy I had earned a new belt.  I needed to spend time doing Teakwondo

It was a moment of clarity for me and I thought about it further as I was covered in sweat, stretching.  I have crossed over a barrier; something inside me has changed, or perhaps grown stronger.

I began this journey as a white belt who had lost pretty much all he had learned over thirty years ago, but now, almost two years later, my body is stronger and more flexible. I stretch daily and I work out four times a week.

Looking at my high red belt with its white stripe, I realized that the familiar white in the belt signifies a new beginning for me.

Perhaps I truly am on my way to becoming a martial artist.

“If the martial arts practitioner concentrates on 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.” – Sang Kyu Shim, “The making of a martial artist”

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

"There's a lion on the road! Yes, I'm sure there's a lion out there!"

My body is covered in sweat as I sit down on the floor in my personal do jang.  Slowly I bend into a stretch, feeling my hamstring beginning to protest.  I ignore its cries for mercy and lean a little more into the stretch.

I slowly count to ten and then relax my leg.  Now I give the other leg its fair share of abuse.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… ten.

Next I grab the ball of my foot, I slowly extend my leg upwards and accomplish something I have not been able to do since I began taekwondo over a year and a half ago.

My leg extends, completely, as my knees locks in place.  I sit there astonished.

Did I actually just do that?

What may seem small is a major breakthrough for me.  I have proven to myself that I can get my flexibility back.  My daily stretching is paying off.

And to think I almost skipped this monumental workout because it was cold and rainy outside.

It all started with my wife's morning walk.

Even though it was raining and cold, she was determined to get out there.  As she was out walking, I was inside the house, mourning the foul weather.  My do jang has no heat; it would be cold and damp in there.  My body is too old to risk tensing up working out in the cold.  I had about a half a dozen other excuses running through my mind, as I was about to skip my Saturday workout.

When Rika came back in from her walk, I commented on how I admire the fact that she went out in the rain.  Then she said something that echoed in my mind for the next hour or so.  She told me, “I’m determined to walk every day, if I start making excuses as to why I can’t, soon I’ll be out of the habit.”

So here is my wife, out walking in the rain, and me practically whining that my do jang will be cold and feel damp.  Although she didn’t purposely set out to challenge me, I couldn’t ignore the obvious.

I needed to man up!

Seriously, a grown man not wanting to work out because it’s a little cold and damp?

I suddenly had an image of Cain in Kung Fu, grasping the hot cauldron.  As it burns a tiger and dragon into his forearms, he looks up at me and says, “Really? And you want to call yourself a martial artist?”

I went out the do jang, wearing a flannel shirt over my tank top.  Within minutes, I had to strip that off.  The more I moved, the warmer I felt.  I worked the bag then I practiced my tornado kick. I worked my left leg roundhouse kick (a weak point,) and stopped to stretch throughout the whole hour.   I worked on my poomsae.

A few weeks ago, Master Hong pointed out that my front stance was too deep, so to break that habit I came up with tying a rope around my ankles, forcing my stance to be only two shoulder widths wide as it should be.

As I finished my workout with stretching and reached that milestone, I thought about excuses and Proverbs 26:13 came to mind.  This ancient book is over four thousand years old, yet it accurately described my attitude;

“The lazy person claims, "There's a lion on the road! Yes, I'm sure there's a lion out there!"

How many times to we stay inside and not embrace what we can do because we are simply too lazy?  How many other milestones are out there, left unreached, because we allow ourselves to be our own worst enemy?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

More effort = better results, imagine that!

Weekend workouts are starting to pay off!

Maybe it’s because of my age, or maybe it’s because of a busy life, but one of the toughest things for me to do has been remembering my poomsae.

Poomsae is a series of anywhere from 18 to 22 moves, performed in a pattern that basically simulates fighting multiple assailants attacking from many directions.

In taekwondo they are pretty important.

So what happens is, I work on one for a few months and get it ready for testing day.  But after the test comes and goes, the memory of the sequence of moves fades away.  Especially as I learn the next one.

This has been stressing me out a bit. I know that when I test for my black belt, I’m going to have to perform them all.

It’s not enough for me to remember the movements; I want to execute them well.  I want to have a strong technique.

My solution?  Being consistent with my weekend workouts.  I’ve been at this now for about a month and they are finally starting to pay off!

I do Taegeuk Yuk Jang (my previous poomsae) eight times.  Next I do Taegeuk Oh Jang eight times as well, for a total of sixteen times

There are a total of eight Taegeuk poomsae.  My thought is, I will eventually be doing each one twice for a total of sixteen times.

The result of this effort has been that I am remembering both forms!

As for the ones I already learned and have forgotten, they will be repeated again when I get my deputy black belt and work toward my black belt.

Remembering the movements is not the only benefit of this extra practice time.

The other night in class, I went over Taegeuk Oh Jan for about twenty minutes with Master Ko.  Because I already knew the movements, he was able to focus on refining my technique.

Even Master Lee came by and gave me pointers to have better technique.

So by putting forth the effort on the weekends, I’m getting more out of the class time.  This, in turn, makes me want to put in more effort on the weekends.

My personal Do Jang, a work in progress.
I also work on kicking.  After my body has been amply warmed up, first with nunchukus to get the blood flowing, then stretching and poomsae, I go into my personal Do Jang for kick training.  Most of this is bag work.

As my legs begin to get tired, I alternate with sit-ups and some light weight training.

All in all, a great workout!  I’ve passed the point of the, “I have to do this” and now look forward to my training time.   My enthusiasm is up, I’m enjoying myself and I’m seeing some results.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Be water, my friend.

It was another very brutal class. After almost 35 minutes of non-stop moving, including obstacle courses (two hops in, one hop backwards, faster and faster) and target kicking, it was time to fully gear up and spar.

First I faced a young black belt who Master Hong nicknamed “Bruce Lee” because he does look somewhat like the young Bruce Lee did.  He took it easy on me and was very encouraging, but by now I was winded.

Next I stood toe-to-toe with Mister M.  He’s a man closer to my age, with a great joyful spirit.  One look at him told me he was now just as exhausted as I was.  We circled each other like Rocky and Apollo at the end of Rocky II.  Remember that scene?  Their eyes are almost completely swollen shut after fifteen rounds of pounding one another, shuffle stepping, just wanting it over.

That’s just how I felt, I fully expected us to fall down at the same time, in slow motion.

Anyway, we were both taking it very easy on each other; both hoping the match would end soon.  I had nothing left, huffing and puffing.

But it was comical and we both laughed.

Master Hong approached, smiled and said, “Yes, you are both tired, it’s ok, go easy… go easy…”

At the end Mister M and I shook hands and laughed again.  Then he said something that will stick with me for a long time.

“I don’t compare myself with the young people in this class, but with the men our age who aren’t here.  To where I would be physically if I wasn’t here.”

Good point!

That leads me to something that has been nagging at the back of my mind.  I wonder why I still get out of breath when I spar?

The answer came with my last physical.  I found out that I have a “floppy valve” in my heart and need to see a specialist.  My regular doctor couldn’t tell me anything about the condition.  So I’m in a waiting mode.

What will the specialist say?  Will I just have to live with this?  Will it get worse?

The thought of this “out of breath problem while sparring" never going away, had me down for a little while.  

But as I wait to get more information, I’ve come to a conclusion that I will stick with no matter the results.

One of the tenets of taekwondo is to develop an indomitable spirit.  Essentially, never giving up.

Sure, at first I was disheartened, but then I thought, "What can I do?  If this never goes away, what am I still capable of doing?”

I can get more flexible and I can get stronger.  I can focus on poomsae and technique, making every kick, block and stance better and better.  I can get my Korean terminology where it should be.

As for sparring, I figure I will just have to adapt.  I will save my "wind," work on being faster with more accurate kicks and learn to breathe better when struck.  I will develop combinations that are fast and efficient.

So with this current physical challenge, I know no matter the outcome, I'll still be kicking!

I guess it's time to take Bruce Lee's words to heart, so I'll close with this very well known quote.

"Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Caught up with the past, now pushing to the future

It’s the morning of testing day and my eyes slowly adjust to the pitch-black bedroom. I know that it’s early still, and since it’s Saturday I can sleep in. I turn toward the alarm and see it is 5:00 AM.

Plenty of time to sleep!

At 5:22 I am still doing my poomsae in my head. There is one move I’m not completely sure of. In my mind, I repeat the poomsae over and over again.

 The test isn’t for another six hours, but now I’m wide-awake. No matter how much I try to shut my brain off and go back to sleep, I know as each minute ticks by, it’s pointless to try.

I get up, and head downstairs as quietly as I can. In the silence of my living room I go over the poomsae again. Then I check YouTube and reassure myself that, yes I had it right all along.

I’m pretty comfortable with public speaking, and I actually enjoy playing guitar and signing in front of a crowd. However, there is something about testing day that still makes me nervous.

When I get to the Dojang, I’m reassured as another adult student confides in me that even after time spent in the military, testing makes her very nervous as well. Ok, it’s not just me!

My nerves began to settle a little bit as the test got underway. When it was my turn to come up I remembered my poomsae and my kicking techniques.

Next came breaking and sparring both of which I enjoy, especially the board breaking.

When I broke three boards with a punch, it was rather dramatic. The boards are not very thick, so when I punched them, I basically hit the middle out of them, which caused the boards to break into nine pieces instead of six, scattering pieces all about!

In the photo, you can see the middle of the boards flying just past the black belt instructor's head.

I always find the younger students' reactions to my board-breaking amusing. After this test, one young boy told me with much enthusiasm, how I needed to be in a tournament because I always break "like, fifteen boards!”

It might be impressive to the little kids, but I know what is truly worthy of that kind of admiration.

We took a short break during the test and we had two visiting masters demonstrate poomsae. This was a huge treat! 

Master Kwon and Master An are both South Korean world champions and amazing to watch. Seeing them demonstrate is seeing Taekwondo on a whole different level. I am both inspired and challenged by their expertise. It is very much a privilege to have them help with the instruction during class.

The testing finally over, my name was called and I was handed my belt.

My red belt.

It is almost a surreal feeling putting this belt on. This was the highest belt I earned in Tang Soo Do over thirty-five years ago. The same belt I took off one day when I turned my back on something I loved. Putting it back on is a very symbolic reminder to me that I truly have picked up this journey again.

Life doesn’t always give us second chances to finish something we gave up on.

I write this blog for myself, to document my journey. But for those of you who are following along, it is my sincere hope that you can gain some inspiration and return to whatever passion you may have walked away from.

If a fifty-something-year old man can take up Taekwondo, anything is possible!