I took a Taekwondo class today.
I began studying Songahm Taekwondo when I was fourteen years old. My practice of this martial art started as a way to exercise and to make friends. I did get a lot of exercise, and I found my best friend. But there’s more. For me, Taekwondo was never about becoming Bruce Lee or impressing people with impossible feats. Instead, it was about personal challenge, pushing myself further than I imagined I could go. Initially, “pushing myself” meant finding ways to step outside of the shyness that had seized me since childhood. Later, I was challenged to see myself as more than the bookish girl that everyone else saw and to acknowledge a new self…a “me” that could face physical challenges and meet them. I came a long way. Both in personal growth and technique (though nowhere near Bruce Lee). I reached my goals as a student of Taekwondo and a trainee instructor. Then, life moved on. I went to college, got married, headed to grad school in New England. I graduated, moved back to my home state, and continued with more grad school. I had two babies. And all the while, I looked for ways to stay connected to Taekwondo. Why? My friends had moved on to other things. Obviously I, too, had moved on in big ways, but something about Taekwondo stuck with me. I like who I am there. In my work and my personal life, I push myself intellectually and emotionally on a regular basis, but I can easily forget about my physical self. I can ignore my body, forget to rest, forget to provide healthy fuel, forget to stretch and strengthen my muscles. Most importantly, I can totally forget the close tie between physical and mental well-being.
In today’s class, I was frazzled. I’ve been feeling overly stressed for weeks. I thought that I could set those feelings aside for 45 minutes, but I could not focus on my techniques at all. My head was all over the place. My instructor recognized my distracted state-of-mind. To close the class, he led us through a quiet exercise during which we had to focus visually through a large plastic ring. I never quite achieved focus, but gradually, I became aware of my body. I could feel the tension in my shoulders, and I realized that I was taking tiny little sips of breath. No real, deep breaths at all. I was afraid that my classmates would hear me breathing! I remember times in my past when physical and mental were tightly intertwined—when I was studying Taekwondo regularly, when I was pregnant, when I was giving birth! These were the times when I was more present. I had focus. I was listening to my body and responding to its needs…just as I would respond to the needs of a newborn baby. I’ve stopped doing that.
“Songahm” means pine tree, and the forms (known as “kata” in other styles) are based upon the growth of the pine from seedling to majestic tree. Nice image, isn’t it? Having quite a few years of Taekwondo under my belt (pardon the pun), I should be a solid, mature tree, but today I learned the importance of being willing to go back to being the seedling…if only to take the time to contemplate the factors that create the grown pine. What does it mean to be grown? Growth equals health, right? How is health maintained? Does growth ever stop? I could learn every form, every technique; where, then, would the growth and learning happen?
Driving home, I listened to Christian radio as I usually do. One teacher was talking about spiritual growth, the need to move on from “mother’s milk” to the food of mature Christianity. The image of milk versus solid food returns several times in the New Testament. I thought about how, too often, I have rested on the work of my past spiritual growth, failing to push myself toward greater understanding because I’ve become comfortable in knowing “enough.” Well, no more of that! Whether I’m looking at a physical, intellectual, or spiritual task, I don’t want to be the kind of person who rests on “good enough.” I don’t want to get by on tiny sips of breath.