out of the blue…
there are only two tests per year for black belt at my dojang. in october and in march. and in march, i am eligible to test. of course, it’s a test you have to be okayed for. so while i’ve not been given a formal go-ahead, i will act as if i am testing when it comes to writing my reports, and in training. i’ll be ready in march, that’s for sure.
i put on a white belt in the summer of 1995. that same day, i quit smoking cigarettes. i took a break from both between then and now. that is, in autumn of 1998, when i moved to new york city to attend NYU, i left off my training. and shortly after diving into the wild energy of manhattan and college life, i found myself picking up cigarettes again. but not for long. once i arrived at that point where i no longer enjoyed smoking, i couldn’t really keep on with it too long. and after a couple stop n starts as well as attempts to switch to thin cigars and the like, i put tobacco down again. for good—as i think of it now. it’s been…i don’t know. eight years? something like that. it’s hard to imagine smoking cigarettes at this point. i put far too much effort, sweat, and pain into exercising my lungs for that junk now.
i came back to training in taekwondo in june of 2010. that’s a long break, but the love of the martial art never left me. and the goal of black belt never left me. and i’m so glad i came back, because in a sense, i was haunted by my memory of it. people who knew me and heard me speak of it were pretty aware of that, pretty aware that i wasn’t comfortable leaving it in the past. it’s a very intense practice, demanding no less than true dedication. and it’s not exactly easy to pick it up again, once you walk away. hell, it’s not easy to keep going, even when you don’t take a break. this you can tell by how many people you speak to about martial arts only to hear that one day in the past, they too had a green belt, or a yellow belt, or a blue belt…or something. there are quite a few people who begin the journey. but by the time you get to black, most of them have left the path.
yeah. it sure ain’t easy. in fact, i am hard-pressed to think of anything i’ve done (aside from parenting) that has posed such a prolonged, intense, demanding challenge. on the other hand, i’m not there yet, so i’ll leave off clapping myself on the back too much here. for now, there is simply the work. the hard work of training, refining my technique, and pushing my limits. as usual.
from here until march, its all about making sure i’m fully prepared to test. beyond the long term practicing i’ve done, of course. that arc cannot be faked, or crammed for, and i’ve put in the work. but now, along with all the heavy demo team training and regular training and assistant instructing i’m doing, there’s four written reports and a number of techniques and poomsae and combo breaks i’ve got to really lean into, keep drilling on, and become as comfortable as possible with. not to mention continuing to toughen up my hand for the knife-hand strike breaking of concrete i’ll be doing.
SAME ART, NEW CANVAS
after 20 years, the building owner where our dojang was had decided that he wanted us out. can you imagine? 30 days notice to vacate. after 20 years. this, to me, seems utterly disrespectful. our dojang was a fixture in town. and knowing master lee, rent was paid on time and i can’t imagine him being a troublesome tenant. but there it is. life does this sort of thing. and with 30 days to go, we all pitched in our time and talents and energy and moved the dojang. it was no small amount of work. nor was getting the new place in shape to be a dojang, instead of a flooring center. those renovations are ongoing. we had to tear up the floor, haul garbage, build walls, wire lights, paint, and more. it’s taken a lot of work, and the work isn’t over with. we even had to soundproof one of the walls (which cost master lee an astronomical amount of loot) because the guitar center next door was complaining about the noise that the kids’ class created. (i was seriously tempted to tell them “if it’s too loud, you’re too old!” but wasn’t sure they’d see the humor in this phrase).
i’ve gathered footage of the tear down, the move, and the building of the new place. at some point i’ll put together a fun little video to commemorate the whole transition, but i’m waiting until we are done setting up the new place. i think we’re getting close…but we’re not there yet.
obviously, it’s hard to match the size of our old place. it was huge. sure, the pillars that were in the middle of the room got in the way at times. but we had a ton of floor space. which made it easier to have extra equipment there. in the new place, we’ve lost our stretching machine, and our hanging kicking bag. i won’t lie: i miss those a lot! but there are a lot of pluses to the new place, too. one is that we all got to join together in creating it, building it, and bonding over custom-shaping our new place, from walls to murals on the walls, to the old Um-Yang wooden doors we brought with us and hung at the entrance to Master Lee’s new office space.
SHE BOOM DON
the demo team is still going strong. we’re in one of those arduous stretches, where suddenly your technique isn’t good enough, and so the training gets harder. we’re in one of those stretches because we are gearing up for the biggest TKD demo of the year, the annually recurring Asian Celebration, where every dojang in the area shows off its stuff. so as you can imagine, we’re being drilled pretty hard. this is a blessing and a curse, of course. a blessing, because you get to refine your technique. and that is definitely what i want, and what we all want. a curse, because, well—you don’t refine your technique without scrutiny, demand, and hard work. and that means more effort, more sweat, more pain.
i know i say it over and over, but i guess the reality of it still impresses me: how long it actually takes you to begin to get a handle on these kicks. i’ve been working on all my kicks and techniques, but i’ve given special attention to my Spin Hook and Tornado Round kick since brown belt days. (and obviously, i’ve been practicing the Spin Hook kick longer than that…since green belt days). that’s probably over half a year by now that i’ve been especially focusing on those two. i’m not anywhere close to perfecting either one. i can do them prettier than some, and not as well as others can. i can target and deliver enough speed and power to break wood with both of them, but there’s definitely a lot of room to improve in both cases. especially when we are talking about a combo of Spin Hook into Tornado Round kick–with no break between them; just a circling movement that moves fluidly from one to the other. that’s a combo i (and the team) work at multiple times a week.
at least the handful of martial artists in the dojang who can do them markedly better than myself are all at least first degree black belts. it’s comforting when there are signs that you can improve. when i see people who have spent more time than me in training, i hope they are better than myself at these moves. that’s the idea, after all.
but that’s why i tell people that it’s really not about what you’ve been shown, or what you’ve practiced a few times. you simply cannot remove the element of time and repetition from mastery of martial arts. i’ve spoken to some people who eat up the marketing of some of the more modern, combat-oriented martial arts and one or two of them seem to think that the “non-traditional” moves and “real-life oriented” technique are a panacea in the realm of self defense. i’m certainly not denying that traditional arts can be adapted to different situations with great efficiency, and that modernizing application of your art will be helpful, or can be. but even with those “modern” moves or styles, you still will have to practice thousands of times, over years, for those moves to become fluid, instinctive, powerful, and accurate in use. it’s not as if you can just see them, be shown them, read of them, or do them a handful of times and you’re set. thinking that would be a very dangerous notion to carry around.
Spin Hook Kick:
since our team began demonstrating this in a line, i’ve improved my technique. (we are all standing in a line with wood, each person spins and kicks the wood held by the person behind them, who then drops the wood and turns to execute the same kick targeting the wood the person behind them is holding, and so on, and so on). but then, a few weeks ago, suddenly, my technique seemed to take a back slide, and i could not figure out why! it was really aggravating. i felt like the joy i’d had at my little bit of progress was meritless, and the progress erased.
then, last week, i figured out what had happened. i had stopped paying attention to my arms. and in that stopping paying attention, i had begun to let them fly out around me as i spun and did the kick. this is bad form for any kick, and you have to train constantly to keep your arms up, and close to your body (until it is second nature). it’s usually much more of an issue with lower belts. but there are definitely some higher belts who need to buckle down on it. without bragging, i think i can say that i’m generally pretty good at doing this in most cases. better than many i see…because it’s a big deal to me. this is gonna sound pretty judgmental, but in my personal opinion, nothing makes a martial artist look sillier and kicks look sloppier than when a martial artist is waving their arms around as they kick. it’s one of my personal points of pride that i usually keep this to a minimum. but of course, i’m not even first degree black yet, and have much room to improve. and in this case, it seems i had eased up on my focus, and it began to drag my technique backward. glad i realized what was happening!
aside from looking sloppy and marking you as a tkd practitioner who (still) needs to rein in a common (newbie) problem, flailing your arms about will greatly throw off your balance. this is a habit to be corrected harshly and early, if possible. yes, for the obvious reason: habits are harder to break the more ingrained they are. but also, because if you get too used to it, you will compensate in other ways, and thus, compromise your technique. alternately, if you get too used to it for too long, and then finally do correct it, you will find your balance off because you had been using arms for help and now you have to reconfigure your movement to work well without the counterbalance you had been relying on.
there’s another very practical reason you want to train to pin your elbows close to your ribs, and your arms up in front of you. and that’s to guard your ribs. i learned this the hard way with my Reverse Turning Kick. that’s another kick where, unless you train to do otherwise, you will flay your arms about; you will hold them out as you spin to provide balance.
spinning kicks in particular tend to encourage a human to compensate for balance by holding their arms out. of course, this leaves your ribcage open. which is a very bad move when you are squaring off against a martial artist. we train to kick the ribcage, and if you didn’t know it already, the ribcage is a very sensitive area. well, at one point i was sparring a black belt (2nd degree?) as a green belt, and i nailed them with (what i’ll surmise was) an unexpected Reverse Turning Kick, and they responded hotly with a hard counter to my (exposed) ribs, which cracked one of them and put me out of training for a month. had my arms been pinned close to my body, they would have only bruised an arm. which is no big deal and happens on the regular.
that incident taught me to keep my arms close to my body when doing Reverse Turning Kicks ever since! which really did a lot to tighten up the overall technique, too. but apparently, that newly iron-clad habit did not carry over to every kick. so, i move a tiny bit of consciousness back to my arms, and remind them to stay close. (i’ve found, actually, that holding my fists in certain ways encourages my body to keep my arms up more than when they are in other positions. it’s interesting what you discover about yourself and the way you use your body in a pursuit like martial arts.)
Tornado Round Kick:
this kick, as well as the Jumping Reverse Turning Kick, are other good examples of kicks where you have to really rein in that tendency to throw your arms out. counterintuitively, holding your arms close actually helps you execute the kick better because you can spin faster. but if you don’t think about it, and don’t implement your own good training to counter it, you will most likely hold your arms out to the sides, something like I was in the photo above taken at Orchard Park in the Summer of 2010.
i had a tiny bit of a revelation, actually, with my Tornado Round Kick, just last week. (and this only came about through the demo team’s intensified training, and the scrutiny our technique has come under as we prepare for the Asian Celebration). as i said, i’ve been working on this kick since i learned it, at brown belt. and not just at the dojang, but at home (as you may recall, i have a kicking bag here). now…as it goes, these things are hard to write about. i’m pretty comfortable with written expression, and even so, it’s a risky proposition to try and translate these somewhat intangible physical understandings into the written word. but i’ll do my best.
because you learn, train for, and study the Tornado Kick in parts—at least in our dojang—sometimes it takes a while to all gel into place…to feel like one complete movement. which, of course, it must become, in time. and with this kick, so much comes into play. of course, all these things—balance, judging distance, targeting, etc—come into play with all kicks. but with the Tornado Round kick, they seem especially critical. i suppose part of that is because by the time you strike your target, you are already fully committed. with the Reverse Turning Kick, there is actually (if you want it) one last split second to size up your target and aim your foot as you turn your body. with the Tornado Round Kick, much like the Jumping Reverse Turning Kick (photo directly above this section), there is no time for a second look; there is no real room for last minute targeting, nor room for correction. when your foot is striking that target, you are in the air and turning to face it—unlike the Reverse Turning Kick, for example, where at least one foot is still touching the earth. when the Tornado Round Kick is done right, you are meeting that target with your foot tensed, extended and consciously aimed; but with your body corkscrewing so that the foot is whipped into the target, at the end of this body in motion, and thus bringing your inertia and power to a peak, where it all explodes into your target. ideally, that is.
but i had been spinning on my pivot foot (front) and then, jumping up to deliver the Round kick. this can look very much like a properly-executed Tornado Round Kick, but it is not. the difference is perhaps not drastic at first glance, but quite important a distinction. what i’d been doing was essentially an amalgam of a Turn Around Round Kick and a Jumping Round Kick. sure, you could deliver such a thing effectively. but it would not be a Tornado Round Kick, nor would it bring the great force that is inherent in that kick. obviously, the reason i was doing it that way (tho not knowing it until corrected by a 4th degree blackbelt, our team captain) is because it’s easier that way; you have time to gauge your target. and you are not throwing yourself into as much as a potentially-disorienting spin.
so what i discovered is that you really, really, really have to target very sharply on this kick. you have to know where your foot will land after you come out of this spin that you throw your body into. and that can only come about through (again), repetition. you have to do this so many damn times that this targeting is implanted in your muscle memory, and you know, even 5, 7, or 10 feet away (depending on how you deliver this kick and the size and speed of your body) where your foot will end up on the other side of this mini “tornado” that you will turn your body into.
these are the reasons taekwondo amazes and thrills me!
when you watch T., K., R., R.R. or (obviously), GGM Lee, do this (to name the ones i think, offhand, do it best), you can see how it works. they just launch their body like a top. they don’t stay cognizant and upright until the last moment where a foot shoots out. no, they throw their entire body into a spin that launches them off the ground, and before the nadir is reached, their foot connects perfectly with the target for a resounding SMACK. it’s a thing of beauty! and sometimes i can pull of a not-too-shabby one myself. but i’m a very hard critic on myself, and i don’t settle. so while i can perform one that would definitely do some damage, i’ve got a long way to go with it—because the goal is mastery, not functionality. and i will get there. i get closer all the time. realizations like this help me.
so it comes down to more practice. but then again, it always does.
finally, after much waiting and watching and even practicing her own improvised form of martial arts picked up from all the days she’d spent at the dojang, paloma lucha has begun training in earnest!
this is something lil p. lucha has waited for with great longing for the past year. always on the margins, always dancing and punching around the periphery of the mat, paloma—unlike luna, who joined because i wanted her to join—has long wanted to join the ranks of taekwondo students. first, she had to turn three, and of course, she had to be potty trained. in december of 2011, she reached both these markers. and last week, i took her to sign up.
she is an enthusiastic student, and so far (only two classes to judge by at this point), much more likely to get in the game and give it full attention than luna. whereas her big sister is so much a social creature that she’d much rather joke and laugh and talk with her friends at class, paloma lucha seems to really enjoy the exercises for themselves. but again, she’s had a very different introduction to taekwondo.
paloma has spent a third of her life around this community; in this atmosphere. she has seen and heard the sights and sounds of tkd before having much power of speech, even. taekwondo is for paloma, a cultural element in her life. ever-present and integral to so many activities in and outside the house; bringing language and principles along with it. she has napped on the couches in the dojang, worn her sister’s sparring gear around the house for fun, and seen her father kicking and punching a bag in the living room for a long time. she knows how to count in korean at only three years old. say charyot in a firm voice, and she will snap to attention. say kyungyae, and she will bow.
also of no small matter, paloma has not been allowed to be on the mat—even when she’s wanted to be there. she’s seen her family spend so much time on this practice, and has come to associate it with being a Big Girl, and has had it positioned as a One Day goal. how can we even imagine what a long time one year is to someone who is only three years old? if scale is relative in these matters, that would be equivalent to my waiting 14 years for something i wanted!
the pride on her face, wearing that dobok and being permitted, finally, to be on the mat herself, was evident. i’m very happy for her, very proud of her.
and now? it’s about time i fixed myself some lunch, showered, and get ready to take the girls to the dojang. we all have classes to attend later on.