stretch to fit
learning a new kick; or a new combo of strikes and kicks; getting the best in a round of sparring; being awarded an advancement in rank: these are what feel like an acute burst of pride, of accomplishment. they are a short-term high.
learning a new poomsae is a bit of a longer-arc of satisfaction. to first memorize the basic moves takes me from 5 days to 2 weeks. even so, that is with trying every day, and getting a higher rank’s help or watching a video to refresh the memory. five days is my fastest yet, and that is because i really love Taegeuk Chil Jang and want to really dive into it.
to shift the pattern into muscle memory takes a month or so to begin; not to complete. to really sink them into that memory, and to refine your moves further; to add power to them (happens once you have the confidence that comes with total memorization), and really begin to shape it up can take months. these times are also dependent on the amount of time you put into your practice, your standard of excellence, and a person’s ability, or their level of “kinesthetic intelligence” as one friend worded it this morning.
so that’s a longer term satisfaction.
lately, two things have been happening that bring satisfaction on an even longer timeline. one is flexibility.
increasing flexibility is not something you can do quickly, obviously. especially when you are talking about the larger hip tendons. hamstrings, too. and it hurts! if it doesn’t hurt at all, you aren’t stretching far enough. although i suppose to what degree you feel pain over it depends on how hard you stretch, which depends on how fast you want to gain flexibility. even so, there is no rushing it past a certain point. it’s going to take months and months, and years, too. of course, if you begin training in your teens or younger, you can keep that natural level of flexibility by continuing to train and stretch as you age. but i didn’t do that. i began in my late 20s, and then took a break from training that lasted over a decade.
how limber you are is going to affect how high you can kick, and how loose you are overall. which will affect the degree of injury you sustain at times, and how fast you can move, and so on. plus it’s healthy to remain as limber as your body will allow. even if you are not training in anything. not that i did much stretching while i wasn’t training. but as i get older, i think this sort of thing is more important. so one of my goals has been to increase my flexibility. in june, i set a goal to be able to do a sideways split in one year. that gives me until june of this year (2011). i really have no idea at all if that is possible or probable, but i set the goal, so i’m going to see if i can meet it. last june i was nowhere close, but a year seemed like long enough to pull it off.
lately, i’ve noticed progress i’ve been making.
you always feel resistance to your stretching, that’s just the nature of stretching. you bend or reach until it hurts. and then you hold it. breathe deeply, keep pushing, and hold it. one day you realize if you push hard enough, you can touch your head to your knee. wow! little markers like that. very satisfying. or like when i throw my leg over the bike seat to get on and ride, that it is no longer an effort. this is notable, too. my bike is actually too big for my body; i bought it because it looked cool, and was cheap second hand, and available when my old one was stolen. so getting my leg over the seat used to be a bit of an ordeal. but anymore, it’s not a problem.
another sign: when i do my sideways split stretch (put your legs as far apart as they can go, and let your weight push down on your legs and keep trying to push your legs further as you do), i can no longer keep my soles planted firmly on the ground. at the end of the stretch, i’m having to rest more on the insides of my feet. that’s great! that means i am getting closer to that split. getting this far took almost eight months. four more to go!
another long-term gain i’ve been making—and this is one of my most important ones—is my lung power. lung capacity. another area that cannot be rushed. it’s also an area that has been a long-term physical challenge.
i was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma when i was 19, and before that, never understood why i would burn out on the basketball court, doubled over with chest pain after a few minutes. i thought i had a heart problem and just…dealt with it. i just lived with it. it wasn’t even until 19 i was diagnosed, and prescribed albuterol to take 30 minutes before exercising, which helps prevent my bronchial tubes from perversely closing up when my brain needs oxygen. but it doesn’t solve the problem. hell, when i came back to training in june of 2010, i was heaving before the trial lesson was over at the new dojang! i couldn’t even lift my legs anymore and finish properly. and that’s just a mini workout of about ten minutes or so where you are stretching and throwing kicks. in the beginning—no, in fact, for a solid 7 months—i dreaded each class. because it meant pain, serious pain in my lungs. it meant i worried about even being able to keep up. i’ve written about this issue in depth before.
lately—and this is just the last week or two—i’ve felt this changing. i can’t tell you how this elates me. to be able to finish the first 20-30 minutes of class stronger. that’s the period where we stretch and then throw punches, blocks, and numerous styles of kicks from both sides/arms/legs, over and over. it still gets me sweating and breathing very hard and nearly out of breath. but i end with more breath now. i don’t get that deep chest pain of an oxygen-starved heart quite as much, where i end up clutching the front of my dobok without realizing it. sometimes i don’t get that pain at all.
it is novel, and amazing, to make it through sparring sessions or other drills with a bit of strength and wind, not just flopping all over as if i’m going to drop any second. a couple times i’ve even seen other people who were more out of breath than me. which, let me tell you, is definitely new. and quite a strange realization to my mind. it reminds me of the days i finally had a growth spurt at 16 and the delayed reaction as i realized there were people in the world shorter than me. it took years to acknowledge that. my brain had trouble recognizing the fact. but i’m smaller than…everyone! said my mind. after years of countless class photo sessions and lining up by height, or not being allowed on amusement park rides, or being thought five or more years younger than i was as a child, it was hard to accept that things change. but they do.
and after almost a year of pain and continued effort, and my body is responding. that’s what i find so amazing about my body. from callus to muscle to lung capacity to flexibility. it adapts. you provide it with a world in which to function, and a set of operations to perform, and while it will resist along the way, it will adapt. it will stretch to fit the environment.
the biking back and forth to the dojang adds a challenge on top of training, and no doubt has helped in the effort to push my lungs. every time i come up the hill by the stadium, i look to the spot on the side of the road where i used to rest because i couldn’t push any further up the hill due to my lungs hurting. every time i pass that spot i remember sitting there, embarrassed. imagining drivers and passengers in cars passing by me were thinking less of me, or mocking me.
i know the biking has helped because on those rare times i catch a ride home from training, i feel less exhausted walking in the front door.
occasionally i think back to when higher ranks would instruct me to relax. that i was carrying tension in my body; that it would slow me down, that it would steal breath. it’s been a long time since i’ve heard that. over half a year. i’d like to think i’ve loosened up a lot. i’m sure i have. i feel that i have.
on that topic, one of the things i find very beautiful about the taekwondo and dojang community and about the long, slow, climb up the ranks is how it is a community thing. your form, your technique itself and thus one day, your black belt, is created by many people. you ask for and receive unsolicited, too, many pointers and tips on your form; on your execution of techniques. that’s how it works. higher ranks help lower ranks.
the effort, the perseverance, the will to complete your task and that long path to black belt—that is all you. but all along the way, you learn from other people. so when you do get that black belt one day, you can beam with pride in all you pushed through; in meeting that goal you made years ago; in every drop of sweat and every moment of pain you refused to let stop you. but you can also feel warm and grateful and loved in that countless people helped you become what you are.
making brown belt is noticed in the dojang. i mean, most people are happy to see others advance. we always congratulate each other when we are present for the ritual, or notice a new belt. and it is a sincere congratulation. we all know what it feels like. we are all there doing the same thing. but i noticed after i made brown belt—the penultimate geup/color belt before black (tho there are four more rank advancements before the black belt test, marked by tape stripes on our belts there are only brown and red belts before you reach black)—it was especially remarked on. extra congratulations were made, that nearly co-conspiratorial warmth you get from the black belts as you rise above green was more palpable. and all of that for good reason. just as you get used to watching white and yellow and green belts drop out of training at a regular and brisk rate, the higher someone climbs in rank, the more you begin to feel they will be there with you at the “top.” and after all, as one black belt remarked to me while helping me learn my new poomsae, Taegeuk Chil Jang: “You’re one of the upper ranks now.”
by itself, brown is just a color. by itself, a belt is just a symbol. but along with all these other happenings and marks of progress i see and feel happening with my body and my martial art, it feels a real achievement.