Friday, March 17, 2006

Putting the MA in Martial Arts

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Like many mothers, I began martial arts training due to my children. My boys, ages 5 and 3, started pre-karate and I soon followed. Our dojo’s promotional materials highlighted potential benefits like increased focus and enhanced sense of self-discipline. After five years at home with my kids I needed that stuff as much, if not more, than they did. Plus, I wanted to try something new and challenging before my looming 35th birthday. And a mom-friend advised that the kicking and yelling was especially therapeutic after a long day with preschoolers.

Although I’d started exercising a few months before I signed on at the dojo, I’m not what you’d call athletic. I’ve never had a reputation for being coordinated or strong. I’m only five feet tall with a pound or two left from my pregnancies and my dominant learning style relies on note-taking. This experience would be a stretch in every sense of the word.

I signed up for a 13-week summer session figuring I could stick it out that long even if I hated it. When Sensei, the head instructor, welcomed me to my first night of training his words echoed in my mind. “Training? No,” I thought to myself. “I’m just taking a class for the summer.” The only karate I’d observed was my boys’ pre-k class.

I envisioned myself punching and kicking, jumping and ducking or maybe tossing the medicine ball as we shouted kiai! I didn’t know kata (forms) from kumite (sparring). In the blissful ignorance of my Beginner’s Mind I had no idea what I was getting into. Needless to say, my class was a bit more challenging, but fortunately, I joined an adult beginner section with a supportive atmosphere. We were spoiled by a high ratio of attentive senpai (teachers) to novice karateka (students). Our class was small and cozy. Well, as cozy as karate training can be.

I’d nervously watch the “real” adult class that took place before mine, heart pounding in anticipation of my turn. I fretted: Would my back give out on me? Would my chronically dry mouth burn before our water break? What if I had to pee? At the same time, I was in awe of the power, skill and intensity of those I watched. Might that be me some day?

Initially, my schedule only let me to train once a week. Each time I returned to the dojo it felt like a month had passed. My muscles burned. It took weeks to get my right and left sides to cooperate. I remember learning soto-uke (inner blocks). It looked easy enough when senpai demonstrated, but when I tried to imitate his movements, my brain was unable to communicate with my limbs. I couldn’t perform my first kata independently until I’d written down all the steps. Yet, the confusion, the sore muscles, the rising blood pressure--these were Good Things, signs that I was being challenged. Besides, it was nice to get an adrenaline rush from something other than watching my boys zoom and crash on their bikes.

When I saw Sensei at the dojo it was our first meeting in 15 years- he’s a friend from high school. In our brief discussion he mentioned personal goals. “Goals? I can’t even have a conversation,” I sighed as my children velcroed themselves to my legs and dragged me out the door. I do have goals, but they revolve around my family and don’t make for interesting reunion banter. Would my bachelor friend be impressed by the fact I’ve never run out of diapers in five years?

While that conversation took place just a few months ago it seems like a distant memory. In addition to numerous playdates as well as trips to the zoo and pool this summer I’ve also published two articles, launched a zine for women in the martial arts and, of course, kept my family fed and in clean underwear, even if the house got a bit messy. And my chocolate consumption dropped to an all-time low! I can’t say karate changed my life, but having spent the last several years cocooned in the Land of Young Children, it’s reassuring to know that I can find a place in the world beyond my backyard.

That summer I tested for my first rank promotion. The night before my test I stayed up way too late obsessing over petty concerns, wallowing in self-pity and a sense of victimization (unrelated to my upcoming exam). I psyched myself up to “powersleep,” so I’d be well rested by morning. But instead, I got a bedful of boys around 4:00 AM thanks to a loud thunderstorm. The early morning excitement took its toll on us and we slept in until nearly 8:00, leaving me in a rush to get everyone fed, dressed and dropped off at grandma’s in order to make it to the dojo by 9:15.

The exam was physically demanding and mentally challenging; I punched, blocked and kicked. I moved forward and backward and executed turns in every direction. I held stances until my legs shook; did pushups until my arms felt like overcooked spaghetti. I passed and proudly received my new rank. The previous night’s feeling of helplessness was replaced by a sense of strength. Exhaustion turned into exhilaration. The details of my day look uninspired in print- I played with the boys, did laundry and whatnot, but everything flowed. It was a great day! Over the course of a few months I’ve made great strides and I’m eager to continue on the long path ahead. For many seasons to come, I hope I’ll be going to the dojo.


jim mcnelis said...

That's great Kim. That takes a lot of discipline and dedication. I started a jujitsu class way back when but never stuck with it for various reasons. Good for you and keep it up. Remind me not to mess with you. Mental note: do not get between Kim and her coffee ;)

Anonymous said...

I started with ATA Taekwondo at the age of 30 - mostly after watching my young daughter begin her class. I decided that it would be fun to get in shape via martial arts, and besides, I reminded myself, I've always wanted to be a black belt.

It took 3 1/2 years to reach that goal. For those years I was at TKD school almost daily. It was quite a commitment.

Somewhere along the path toward "black belt," though, something magical happened. It was no longer about reaching black belt, but all about the lifestyle. I learned strengh I never knew I had. I became balanced, both physically and emotionally. I worked through pain and reached a goal.

I must interject at this point that at the same time I was fighting a nasty divorce battle. The taekwondo helped me deal with the emotional pain I was going through.

That was when I was 30....

We moved to Atlanta just after I reached that magical goal and I was unable to find an ATA TKD school close enough to our home to be practical.

Now I'm 36. I haven't trained in TKD in over three years and now my 7 yr old son is starting karate. I also enrolled my (now) 12 yr old daughter. Yesterday, during their second class I decided I would do it too.

What a blow, though, a TKD black belt suddenly starting all over as a white belt!

Last night was my first class and I have to say that even though I can barely walk today or lift my arms (from all those push ups), it felt so good to be back in martial arts.

I can't say enough about the good one gets from martial arts training. Honor, respect, balance, coordination, physical strength, inner peace, emotional strength, etc. etc.

Bravo to you, Kim, and STICK WITH IT! I promise you will never be sorry...

An Atlanta Mom

Erik Mann said...

great post, i'll come visit again soon...erik