In Black

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If you would’ve told 18 year old me that I would one day be a martial arts black belt, I would’ve exhaled the smoke from my hippie chic clove cigarette and laughed in your face.

At 27, I would have told you sadly that they don’t give black belts to fat girls.

By 30, I might have been interested but still a little incredulous. By that time, I had shed fifty pounds and was starting to learn that almost anything is possible.

Last week, at 33 and some change, I did something I never actually thought I would do, even when I started taking classes two years ago.  I  became a certified, card-carrying (for real, there’s a card, like a license to kill or something) 1st degree black belt in hapkido, an accomplishment I share with at least a third of Korean ten year olds.  But, still, it’s a big deal to me.

I don’t know that I can convey to you the ways learning hapkido is changing my life.  First of all, it’s instilled in me an appreciation for mixed martial arts.  I feel like I better understand the strength, poise, skill, precision, and grace necessary to fight well.  Contrary to the way the sport has been promoted to American couch potatoes, MMA done well isn’t violence or gore.  It isn’t bloodsport fueled by rage.  At their core, martial arts are about precision, detail, balance, control.

Balance is concept essential to being successful in the martial arts (and in life in general), and it’s something I struggle with.  Martial artists have to learn  to move decisively and forcefully, but lightly and gracefully as well.  They have to understand fundamentally how the body should occupy a space, how to ground oneself firmly enough to draw power from one’s stance, but lightly enough to move quickly, surely, fluidly.  Like yogis, martial arts masters are in complete control of their breath and their bodies.  Their movements are deliberate, precise, economical.  Watching a master at work is like watching ballet or modern dance, albeit one where your partner ends up face down in an excruciatingly painful joint lock.  Learning martial arts is about learning control:  of your breathing, your movements, your impulses, and ultimately, of your opponent.

For me, however, this journey has been mostly about learning patience and persistence.  My body has never been naturally athletic or graceful.  Even at a fit, healthy weight, I am big for a woman, heavy and curvy and with no natural tendency toward spinning or jumping lightly and easily.  I have the kind of footfalls you can hear coming down a hallway.  I am not a delicate or exceptionally flexible.

But worse than these physical challenges are my personality failings.  As much as I hate to admit this, deep down I am impatient and would rather abandon an activity than fail at it.  My entire life, I have skillfully and shrewdly avoided things that didn’t come easily, events or activities where I couldn’t excel easily and assuredly.  Now this is not to say that I’m lazy or not a hard worker.  I will work my fingers to the bone doing something I’m good at, especially if there is any type of praise or reward at stake.

What I don’t like is failure.  I abhor not being the best, having to admit that I might not be perfect or outstanding or even very special at all.  Throughout my twenties, I let this fear of imperfection keep me from trying new things, avoiding making big decisions if I couldn’t be assured they’d be the right ones, confining my choices to things like paint colors or a new dress so that I could only mess up so much.

Then I lost my mom.  Her passing was one of the defining moments of my existence, laden with realizations about the fragility of life and the stupidity of squandering the scant amount of time you’re given.  And if life is short–fleeting, even–then failure is even more transient.

So, two and a half years after saying goodbye to my mom, in a country where I had one friend and almost no command of the language, I walked into Yoon’s Hapkido School in Gwangali  And for the past twenty months, I’ve been learning about balance, control, persistence, patience, and failure.  And I’ve learned some hapkido, too.

In that dojang, I have failed more spectacularly than anywhere else in my life.  At first, I rolled with the ease and grace of the gigged flounder my father used to flop into the boat when he took me fishing (and some days I’m still not much more elegant).  During soft front falls, my hip joints hit the floor so hard, I swear the room shook.  I have inadvertently hit, kicked, elbowed, or stepped on every friend I’ve made in my thrice weekly classes.  I am an endless source of amusement for Master Yoon, who is sometimes so frustrated with my incompetence that he retreats to his office, muttering Korean and shaking his head.

And I have fallen.  One my back, butt, sides, stomach, and face.  I have fallen while attempting kicks, break falls, throws, basic self-defense maneuvers,  even simple footwork.  The only thing I’ve done more often than fall is get up.  That’s what this experience has been about for me–the getting up.  The going back to class the next day after you spent most of the previous lesson failing at what you were supposed to learn.   In the end, I have a martial arts black belt not because I’m a killing machine (although I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with me these days), but because I kept getting up.




Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Black Belt, Busan, Hapkido, Korea, Martial Arts, Yoon's Hapkido School


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