Smells like indomitable spirit

Tae kwon do, like many traditional martial arts, has a list of “aims to achieve” which are the attributes we hope to develop through our training to make us better people in mind, body, and spirit.  Of our five aims to achieve, indomitable spirit often strikes me as the most important; possibly due to the fact that many of the other aims like courtesy, perseverance, integrity, and self-control are built around this quality.

Indomitable spirit is also unique because it is somewhat difficult to define.  It is one of those things that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you see it.  It might be considered a culmination of things like intensity, determination, perseverance, and passion.  Some might call it a “never-say-die” attitude or maybe an internal energy that drives a person to push themselves to their full potential.  Oftentimes in the martial arts, spirit is thought of as a way of showing your respect for your art, your instructor, and your fellow martial artists.  For example, exhibiting good sportsmanship and respect for an opponent is often viewed as a strong reflection of a person’s martial spirit.

Recently I watched two separate videos of martial arts events that could not possibly be more divergent in terms of demonstrating the proper spirit of a true martial artist.  The first event was a big UFC fight between champion Conor McGregor vs. rival fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov.  I stopped following MMA fights several years ago, but I was aware of their rivalry from news items about Conor violently attacking Khabib’s bus months ago and getting into legal trouble as a result.  After months of bad blood, personal insults, and verbal sparring between the two fighters, Khabib choked out Conor and then leaped out of the octagon to attack some members of Conor’s team.  Both fighters’ camps started brawling and the whole thing resulted in arrests, fines, and bad publicity for the sport.

I didn’t see much of what went on during the actual post-fight brawl, but instead I watched a lot of video commentaries from martial artists and MMA enthusiasts online.  What I witnessed time and time again was feelings of sadness and disappointment for what happened and discussions about how this does not reflect the proper spirit of the martial arts.  While it can be stated without question that these men are great athletes and skilled fighters, it is hard to call them martial artists when you witness the violent attacks; out-of-control behavior; vicious insults involving religion, country of origin, and family members; and a complete disrespect for one another as opponents.  A competition with skilled martial artists should be inspiring and should encourage the people watching to strive for such spirit and discipline for themselves.  This event was nothing short of shameful and did nothing but build hype for big profits and help represent mixed martial arts as the “human cockfighting” that the late John McCain labeled it back when it started.

In start contrast to this UFC event, the other video I witnessed was from some sort of karate demonstration.  It featured three black belts  in an attention stance ready to demonstrate a kata.  In the center of these karateka, there was a fourth member of the team positioned down on the floor.  Upon closer inspection you quickly realize that the reason this person is on the floor is because he does not have normal arms and legs.  Where each of his arms should be he instead has small stubby hands barely extending out from the shoulders.  His legs are also short, barely reaching to knee length, and they appear not to work properly since he cannot stand on them.  Once the form begins, each person snaps into each stance and strike with focus and precision; including the person on the floor.  Despite his shortened limbs and his lack of mobility, he manages to swiftly change position in synch with the other members of the group, and does it with such intensity and devotion to his art that you can see him blocking and kicking in his mind with equal strength and skill as his team members.

This video reminded me of a recent demonstration my instructor did for our black belt event in which he demonstrated a 5th dan form with his arm completely immobilized in a very restrictive shoulder sling.  He had spent months recovering from a very involved shoulder surgery from a serious biking accident and was told to avoid moving his arm, since any further damage would potentially ruin this only chance at surgically repairing his shoulder joint.  My instructor talked to us about how difficult it was for him to not do any training, and spoke about the revelation he had when he decided to just work through his forms slowly, filling in the movements for his damaged limb only in his mind.  He demonstrated what that training looked like for all of us, and despite the inability to move that arm, his spirit and mental focus allowed him to complete the form in a way that showcased the beauty of the form and the true spirit of the art.

In both of these last two cases, despite overwhelming obstacles, these martial artists demonstrated what indomitable spirit truly is.  Certainly it takes a lot of courage and spirit to go into the ring or octagon to face an opponent; nobody is debating that.  However, it is the proper attitude, discipline, and respect that defines the true spirit of a martial artist.  A devotion to training, an unwavering mental focus, a desire to keep pushing the limits no matter how daunting, the perseverance to never give up, and the respect for the art and other martial artists:  these are all part of this most important aim to achieve:  indomitable spirit.

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Coming full circle with an inside swing kick

An analogy that has been used to describe training in the martial arts is that of climbing up a spiral staircase.  The point of this comparison is that martial arts training will often circle back to previous basic techniques; however, the martial artist continues to move higher and higher up the stairs of growth and achievement each time they return to those techniques.  You don’t learn the techniques and then advance past them to new things, but instead you build upon the foundation of these basic kicks, punches, and blocks to make them stronger, faster, more precise, and more efficient.  You may circle back to these basics regularly, but each time you are always climbing higher and reaching new heights.

The downside to this “circular staircase” of advancement is that it might lead to some students feeling bored from the repetitive nature of practicing the same things over and over.  As students reach higher levels, the amount of new techniques to learn may get smaller and smaller and some of the excitement and joy from learning that next special new move may fade away as they become few and far between.  The lack of new techniques may also lead some students to assume they have learned everything they need to know and may result in some complacency in their training.  They may assume that they have practiced the techniques enough that they know them now and do not need to think about them anymore.  This can lead to mindless practice that feels like work, rather than a fun, challenging expression of their art.

I was thinking about this idea the other day when I recalled an early memory I had about starting tae kwon do almost 25 years ago.  It was an outdoor class at a park in early summer.  I had only been in the class for a couple of months and was wearing my brand new uniform (somehow it always seemed like we would go outdoors to train whenever I got a brand new, clean uniform).  I remember there were a small group of 5 or 6 of us, and my instructor wanted me to train on my own with inside swing kick, which I had just recently learned.  I kept practicing it over and over in front of a bush while the high belts worked on more advanced techniques.  I was still pretty out-of-shape and uncoordinated at the time, so I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get the hang of the kick.  My balance was off, the kick didn’t swing across smoothly in a high arc like I had seen my instructor do it.  However, despite my difficulties, I clearly remember a strong feeling of joy that I experienced trying to figure it all out.  It was like receiving a puzzle as a gift and I was enjoying the challenge of working through my new puzzle piece by piece.

Eventually I put it all together and learned that kick, along with many other basic kicks, which I have practiced over and over again thousands of times over the last few decades.  After a while the kick just became something that I would do as a warm up and not think too much about.  Recently I have been researching and reviewing many of these basic kicks to explore some of their nuances.  I’ve been reading various books and watching different videos on basic kicks and their many variations, and I have enjoyed finding small nuggets of information that offer insight into applications or provide useful training cues that can enhance my kicks.   I also tried to change things up a few weeks ago when I was training in my garage and randomly decided to do a spinning inside swing kick as fast as I could ten times continuously.  It was fun and challenging, and at the end it put a smile on my face.  It reminded me of that same sense of enjoyment at practicing the inside swing for the first time at that park so many years ago.

It is not always easy to keep finding joy in your training.  Training can sometimes be a tiring, boring slog that just feels more like a job than something that you love to do.  My advice is to take a step back every so often and find something new to explore to elicit that sense of joy and wonder that you experienced at the start.  Maybe you break down and analyze techniques you already know and look for details you can appreciate and improve on.  Maybe you investigate and attempt variations on your techniques that come from other martial arts styles.  Maybe you take something you already know how to do and add personal challenges to it (e.g. kicking higher, faster, stronger, or with better control).  Each time you go around the staircase to return to what you’ve learned before, look for a new challenge or nuance in those basic techniques that can bring you joy, inspire your training, and keep you moving up step by step to your next level.

Adjust, alter, adapt

The other day I started a self-defense class with a discussion of the differences between martial arts and real-world self-defense.  One difference I highlighted is that a competitive sparring match in martial arts is generally in a controlled setting with protective gear, appropriate clothing, mats, open space, established rules, referees, one opponent, no weapons, and a selection of likely techniques that will be used.   Conversely, real-world self-defense is completely unpredictable.  A person might be attacked by one or more assailants, possibly with weapons, in an environment that might be dangerous and hard to maneuver in.  The defender might be wearing clothes that are restrictive and cumbersome, they certainly have no protective gear on, they most likely be attacked with “dirty fighting” moves, and there is certainly no one available to stop the fight once it starts.

I brought this up to the class to emphasize the importance of being able to deal with a surprising, unpredictable attack.  A lot of what gets practiced safely within a self-defense or martial arts class sounds good in theory until you try to apply it in a real situation while wearing tight jeans in a narrow hallway against an attacker with a broken beer bottle.  You have to quickly assess the situation and then adapt to it as best you can.  If the techniques you want to use or attempt to use don’t work, you need to quickly alter or adjust them.  If the attacker is very tall, don’t try to palm strike to the face; kick to the groin or knee.  If you were going to kick but then got pulled into a clinch, quickly switch to close range attacks with knees and elbows.

Interestingly enough, later on at that same class I was demonstrating a finger jab eye poke to the Body Opponent Bag’s face and I snapped the tendon in my middle finger.  The finger looked all crooked and disjointed and certainly freaked out the students.  I was a bit concerned, but it didn’t hurt too much so I just finished the remaining 40 minutes of class and then splinted it back at my office.  After visiting the doctor, it looks like I have another 6 weeks of keeping it in a special splint, followed by some therapy to get the hand working properly again.

The reason that I bring this up is that it certainly fits in with the lesson I just discussed.  I have spent the last 6 months healing up from a frustrating inner thigh muscle tear that keep me from stretching, high kicking, and squatting/deadlifting.  I just went to a physical therapist a few days before the finger injury and she gave me the okay to start deadlifting, stretching, and kicking again; so I was looking forward to being injury free finally.  Three days later, and now I am looking at 2 months of protecting my finger with no punching, limited (no-hands) sparring, and very limited weight training.  While frustrating, I have been through enough injuries to know that I just need to sit down and figure out what I will need to do to adjust, alter, and adapt in terms of my training.  For example, I brainstormed a serious of alternative weight training exercises that do not involve gripping a bar, but still maintain most of my training goals.  I have been using a spearfinger or palm strike instead of closed fist punches in my tae kwon do classes and have done the challenging “hands behind the back” all-kicking version of sparring with my students.  I also ran across a video last week before the injury on the “Art of High Impact Kicking” that had inspired me to work on my kicking more now that my inner thigh muscle was healed.  Now that my hand is out of commission, it presents a perfect opportunity to really challenge my kicking ability to reach some new goals and try some new techniques.

Real life rarely goes the way we hope it will go.  Plans for the future can often get derailed by unforeseen circumstances.  Just when things look like they are headed on a smooth trajectory, a new obstacle blocks the way and presents a new challenge we hadn’t anticipated.  In these cases you must assess the situation, alter your approach, adjust your goals and strategy, and adapt to the new circumstances as best you can.

Exercise should not be punishment

Years ago I worked briefly as a personal trainer and part of the job was to interview new clients to find out what types of activity or exercise they might enjoy to help me plan out our training sessions.  I remember meeting with one middle age woman and cheerfully asking her, “What types of exercise do you enjoy?”  She just stared at me enthusiastically and said, “None, I hate exercise!”

As a fitness professional I see this attitude regarding exercise all the time.  Many people equate the word “exercise” with work, torture, discomfort, and pain.  I can certainly understand that many people may see exercise this way.  The whole point of exercise and training in general is to push your limits and get you outside of your comfort zone so that your body will adapt to the stress or demand of training and become better, faster, and stronger.  Exercise is by definition uncomfortable since it involves overloading or stressing your body (and mind) in ways that it may not be accustomed to.

I can also understand why some people develop such a negative attitude of exercise, since we have a tendency to teach people from a young age that food is a reward and exercise is a punishment.  As a physical education instructor, it frustrates me to no end when I see kids punished with exercise.  I remember teachers from the past saying things like, “You misbehaved during recess, do wall sits until your legs buckle!”  “You are late for gym class, go run laps until I tell you to stop!”  I have also seen this in the martial arts world as well.  I took a weapons class where students were required to drop and do 10 push-ups every time they accidentally dropped their weapon.  I’ve seen classes where students had to hold horse stances for lengths of time if they did something incorrectly.

I think this is a shame, because I view exercise in such a positive light.  That doesn’t mean I’m always gung ho to do it though; I sometimes feel tired or lazy and it is daunting to think of getting all sweaty lifting weights or kicking the bag for an hour or so.  However, I generally see exercise as something to look forward to because I know the incredible benefits it has to offer.  I am a person who constantly feels anxious and I know that the one thing that truly keeps that anxiety at bay is exercise.  Not only does exercise help me control my anxiety, but it relieves stress, protects me from depression, and puts me in a better mood.  Physically, exercise helps me stay fit and healthy, allows me to enjoy the ability to move without pain or restriction, enhances my physical performance in martial arts and daily life, and helps me look better and feel better about myself.

In my roles as a physical education instructor and a martial arts instructor, I do my best to promote the beauty of physical movement, the growth that comes from training, and the benefits to the mind, body, and spirit that exercise has to offer.  When I ask students to do push-ups or sit-ups during my tae kwon do class, they understand that it is something that is meant to help them reach their goals and become better, not something that we do as punishment or torture.  Every time we punch, kick, or jump in the class we are challenging ourselves mentally and physically to adapt to become better at what we do.  In fact, to me the real punishment would be not being able to participate in training or exercise at all.  When I have to stay out of training for an injury, I feel bad; like I am not myself.  I feel like something is missing from my life and I can feel things like anxiety, stress, and doubt creep in.

Exercise was never meant to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it should be seen as something negative.  If you find yourself avoiding exercise because you are focused on the discomfort, try instead to look forward to the joy of movement, the sense of personal accomplishment from a tough physical challenge, and the benefits of strength, capability, growth, and emotional stability that it has to offer.  If you stick with it, you may even start seeing that martial arts class or exercise session as a nice reward that you look forward to during the day.

Stillness vs. action

I just spend the better part of the weekend binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s “Luke Cage” series.  On one of the episodes, the superhero martial artist known as Iron Fist shows up to help out Luke, whose anger has driven him to use his super strength in ways that have caused a lot of trouble.  Iron Fist takes Luke to a calm, scenic viewpoint over Harlem and tells him that he needs to find stillness so that he can find focus and control his anger.  Later they are walking down a street and Iron Fist says “Power comes from stillness”.  Luke smiles and says, “No, power comes from getting sh*t done”.

I liked this interaction between the characters, because I think they both had a point.  Sometimes we are wrapped up by so much anxiety, anger, or doubt that we have no idea what to do next.  This may cause confusion or impulsiveness in our actions that result in bad decisions, further distress, or other negative consequences.  We may need to take the time to find stillness, so that we can be clear and focused in our thoughts and our actions.  Lao Tzu said “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear”.  This means sometimes we need to stop stirring things up to let them settle a bit, so that in stillness things might become more clear.

However, Luke Cage did have a point too.  Sometimes it is important to act and take care of business.  Stillness may be useful for finding the way, but sometimes it is important to take action rather than spending too much time contemplating what to do next.  Bruce Lee often spoke of the danger of “paralysis through analysis”, which happens when a person spends so much time over-thinking a situation that a decision is never made and action is never taken.  A person might spend time researching, analyzing, and pondering in hopes that the perfect solution presents itself, only to end up being fearful of making the wrong choice and then making no choice at all.  Bruce Lee was quoted as saying “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done”.  Whether it is a personal goal you hope to accomplish or a cause that you firmly believe in, sometimes fear and doubt must be put aside so that you can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

So it turns out that both characters were right; sometimes we must find stillness so that we are clear on what we should do, and sometimes we just need to take action swiftly and decisively.  Like many things in life it may depend on the situation at hand.  It may also depend on your state of mind.  The key is knowing when you need to be still and when you need to act.

No practice is perfect

There is a common saying that states that “practice makes perfect”.  In the martial arts world I have often heard a modified, more specific version of this quote that says “perfect practice makes perfect”.  The idea is that simply practicing something will not perfect the skill; instead it is essential to practice the technique or skill with focus, precision, spirit, and intent if you want to master it.  If you simply go through the motions practicing sloppy, half-hearted, or incorrect techniques, you will program yourself to perform these skills in a sloppy, half-hearted, incorrect manner.  The old saying in computer programming is “garbage in, garbage out” meaning that you can’t expect to enter in poor quality code with errors and expect to have anything but faulty output be the result.  The same goes for martial arts training; if you want expertly performed forms for example, you need to practice each move correctly with precision and focus.

While I agree with this idea, I do think it is worth considering that unfortunately life is rarely perfect and many times it is hard for practice to be perfect as well.  Many times you may come to the dojang tired from a long day at work, sick from a cold, distracted by a stressor or problem weighing heavily on your mind, or incapacitated by an injury.  Although these situations will limit your ability to perform the techniques to perfection, there is much to be gained in each situation.

When you are tired, keep in mind that you can gain energy from those around you in class.  The spirit of the instructor and class as a group can be very inspiring and uplifting to help you to boost your mental and physical energy.  Practicing when you are tired also teaches you more about how you perform when you are pushed to your limits.  Learning to keep pushing yourself when you feel too tired to go on can be an excellent lesson in perseverance.

If you are sick, you should always take care of yourself first and foremost, and you should also be considerate to your fellow students to make sure they do not get sick from being exposed to you.  However, if you pass a “neck check” (meaning that the symptoms are above the neck like a headache or slight congestion) you should try to challenge yourself to train despite the illness.  You will likely feel better once you get the blood flowing and you may even clear your airways or fix your headache.  As with working out when tired, you will also learn what you are capable of doing when you are at less than 100% and will find ways to persevere.

Training while distracted presents another challenge.  When you have problems and stressors stealing away some of your limited attention it is hard to fully concentrate on what you are doing.  Car accidents, relationship issues, workplace conflicts, deadlines and so on can often take up all our mental focus when we start training.  The key is to realize that the all those things can be left at the door of the training hall.  You can put your whole focus into kicking, punching, and sparring for 1-2 hours and distract yourself from those many concerns.  By necessity a martial artist needs to keep focused to avoid the kick coming toward their head or to make sure they punch the target and not the target holder’s face.  Then after practice, when the wonderful cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins and other brain chemicals have elevated your mood and lessened your anxiety, you will be better equipped to pick up the emotional baggage you left by the dojang door.  You’ll even realize that you now feel more confident, focused, and calm to cope with these stressors.

Of course, probably no issue gets in the way of training at your best like an injury.  The pain of the actual injury combined with the need to protect yourself from further damage and the fear of getting hurt again make training a unique challenge.  My experience with injuries has been that you must first take the time to heal properly and then get back to training in whatever way you are capable as soon as possible.  Be smart about it and do not do anything that risks prolonging or exacerbating the injury, but at the same time, do not let an injury become an excuse to give up.  If you are creative and have indomitable spirit, an injury can actually provide a nice challenge to learn from.  If you hurt your foot, work on upper body techniques and conditioning.  If you hurt your shoulder or arm, focus on kicks, balance drills and leg and core conditioning.  If you hurt your back (the worst in my opinion), find ways to strengthen your arms, walk slowly through your forms, and practice rehab exercises to strengthen and stretch your back and core when you are ready.  In any case, you will learn how to work around an injury, which can be a valuable skill to learn for a real-world self-defense context.  You kick toward an opponent and they crack your 5th metatarsal in your foot with an elbow strike, now what?  You get your shoulder dislocated when an assailant puts you into an arm lock, how will you defend yourself and fight back with just one arm?  Use your injured condition as a way to train and mentally prepare for these possibilities to strengthen your self-defense skills.

As you can see there are always obstacles that can get in the way of achieving a perfect training session.  The key thing to keep in mind for any of these conditions is to keep training with the intention to persevere and to be willing to learn what you can from the experience.  If you approach your training with this mindset even a less than perfect practice will be well worth the effort.

The dilemma of donuts

Back in my days as a mechanical engineer it was common for contractors or co-workers to bring in copious amounts of donuts to share with everyone in the office.  Despite attempting to stay fit through my tae kwon do training and more disciplined eating habits, I often would crowd around the donut boxes along with the other engineers waiting for a bite of sugary goodness.  I maintained this habit for a while until one day when I stopped to realize that I would typically have a donut in my mouth while I was scanning the variety of donuts for my next choice.  Even though I only needed one donut (okay, no one needs a donut), I would always eat two since there were plenty of them to go around.  The problem was that I was so busy focusing on the next treat, that I barely paid attention to the one I already was munching on.

After this realization I decided to quit eating donuts completely.  Partially because I realized that they weren’t good for me and honestly didn’t taste that great, but mostly because I realized that I was being greedy, overindulgent, and wasn’t getting enough pleasure from the donuts to justify consuming their abundant empty calories.  There is a common saying in Japan (and probably in other countries with a good relationship with food) that the first bite of food is the one that will bring the most pleasure.  Every bite that follows the first will be less vivid and satifying, and as the belly fills up the pleasure will diminish accordingly.  There is something to be said about taking the time to be in the moment to truly enjoy what you are doing at that time, rather than diverting your attention to what comes next.

I went for many years without eating another donut after that day, but eventually I starting having them again rarely and in moderation.  The lesson of the excessive donuts did stick with me and can be extended to other aspects of life.  For example, if you are going to listen to music, really listen to it and enjoy each song.  Don’t always neglect it in the background while you do other things.  Turn off the lights, get away from other distractions, put on your favorite song on a good set of speakers and really appreciate the music at a deeper level.  You might hear technical aspects in the song that you were never aware of, or you may let your mind wander to memories that are connected emotionally with the song.

The donut dilemma can also apply to martial arts training.  When a student is moving up the ranks from lower belt up to higher level techniques, there is often the temptation to quickly learn something new and then focus on what comes next.  “I learned the green belt form, but I can’t wait to start learning the next one.  I just learned the hook kick, but I really want to start working on the jump hook kick.”  This enthusiasm is admirable, but sometimes this focus on what comes next leaves less focus for what is in front of you right now and may disrupt your ability to fully learn and enjoy the technique.

Consider this idea of being in the moment fully to take pleasure in the task at hand.  Whether it is eating a delicious dessert, enjoying a concert, or practicing a new form; take the time to fully absorb what is in front of you before concerning yourself with what comes next.