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What Taekwondo Has Taught Me About Gratitude
You're Never Too Old
Last night as my taekwondo instructor was showing me the techniques I’ll need to learn to earn my next belt, I was reminded that I’m no longer in my twenties. At age 51, I don’t have the agility, speed, balance, strength or flexibility I had when I was younger. So why did I decide only a year ago to take up a sport that requires all those things? Exactly because I can no longer take them for granted. Sometimes you have to lose something to really appreciate it.
I thought I had learned a long time ago not to take anything for granted. When I was younger, I volunteered in Guatemala, studied Spanish in Costa Rica, participated in an exchange program in India, and visited China and Japan. I learned through these experiences to appreciate daily luxuries, such as hot, running, clean water. One in nine people in the world doesn't have access to clean water, much less hot running clean water, but every day I can step into a hot shower and let the water cascade over me. That's bliss!
I didn't always realize that. When I was in Guatemala, we only had running water two hours a day and relied on 5-gallon bags of water with a spout on one end to "shower." In India, I washed up every day using one bucket of water warmed over a fire. Those experiences and others gave me a life-long appreciation of the myriad of things we too often take for granted in the United States.
As a result of my travels, I have always tried to remember what is important: Love. Life. Family. Friends. Everything else is incidental. All we really need to survive are food, water, shelter, and clothing... and love, in my opinion. Everything - EVERYTHING - else is a luxury.
So how is it that I forgot to appreciate the one thing that should have been obvious, the one thing that was literally right under my nose for the past 50 years? Because I was looking outward rather than inward.
The one thing that I forgot to appreciate was my own body, my own health. Oh, sure, I told myself all the time how "thankful" I was for good genes. Every time I went to the doctor's office and filled out one of those long intake forms that asks if you or anyone in your family has this condition or that one, I zipped through it, checking "no" on everything. No heart disease. No diabetes. No cancer. Lucky me!
I know everyone is not so lucky. My partner broke her back in three places in a car accident and now lives in chronic pain. She is a prime example that good health is not something everyone can count on. But even with this constant reminder right in front of me, I was still missing the obvious.
All the time I was congratulating myself on my lack of health problems, I was sitting at a desk all day long and not exercising. I was gaining weight and doing nothing about it. In short, I was patting myself on the back for being healthy while sabotaging the very health I'd been blessed with.
All the time I was congratulating myself on my lack of health problems, I was sitting at a desk all day long and not exercising.
From Couch Potato to Zumba to Taekwondo
I'd like to say that one day I simply had an epiphany and realized what I was doing, but that's not what happened. What actually happened was that a friend of mine decided to start going to the gym and she wanted someone to keep her company. So I went.
She wanted to do Zumba. I knew I couldn't do Zumba. Shortly before she dragged me to the gym, I had spent two weeks struggling to learn a simple three-minute dance so I could participate in an event called One Billion Rising, a worldwide dance protest to bring awareness to the problem of violence against women and girls. The fact that it took me so long to learn one short dance obviously disqualified me from doing Zumba. If it took me two weeks to learn one song, how in the heck would I keep up with an hour of songs?? But my friend liked Zumba, and, much to my surprise, I liked it, too. It took me months to stop going left when everyone else went right or to not go backward when everyone else was going forward, but I just kept doing it because it was fun.
After a few months of Zumba, I discovered something amazing - I had muscles in my legs. Holy hamstrings, Batman! I'd never had muscles in my legs. I mean, sure, they were there, but I never actually noticed them. Not for a long, long time anyway. Suddenly I realized that I was getting some strength and definition in my legs. I could also make it through the class without feeling like I was going to die. It was kind of exhilarating.
I decided to take up taekwondo about a year later. Learning a martial art had been in the back of my mind for a long time. I took taekwondo for two quarters in college, but the class was designed mainly for fitness. We did a lot of exercise and learned self defense techniques, but if you wanted to learn poomsae, earn a belt and move up the ranks, you had to go to the instructor's dojang off-campus and test outside of the regular class hours. I never did that. So I started as a white belt and ended as a white belt. Last year, more than 25 years after graduating from college, I decided it was time to go back to taekwondo.
It took me awhile to find the right school. I didn't want to be the only woman in a class with a bunch of muscular men. I didn't want to be the only adult in a class with teens. And I didn't want to go to a school that didn't exemplify the spirit of the martial arts it was teaching. When I found the women's taekwondo classes at THE STUDIO Martial Arts & Fitness, I knew I had found the right school.
Stop Wishing For It and Start Working For It
In the beginning, I was completely lost. I'm not a natural-born athlete, and this was immediately apparent. I wasn't coordinated. I couldn't get my hands and feet moving in the right directions at the same time. I couldn't do a single push-up to save my life. During my first belt testing, I was sweating so much from nervousness that I looked like I'd stayed too long in a sauna. And for months, every time Master Pourarian looked at me, I immediately forgot everything because I was so in awe of her amazing taekwondo skills compared to my pathetic attempts.
But gradually I realized what I'd been missing my whole life - I finally stopped taking my body and my health for granted. Taekwondo makes you focus on every little aspect of your being, from the angle your foot is planted on the floor to the position of your wrist as you're punching. I finally had to pay attention to the way I breathed, the way I stood, and the way I moved my hands. I had to recognize that years of sitting in the same position made it harder to bend and flex. I had to realize that all those years of feeling "lucky" had lulled me into ignoring the greatest gift I'd ever been given, the gift of good health.
At age 51, I do have to try a little harder than the younger folks. I don't have the speed, agility or flexibility I had when I was younger, and the fact that I misplace my keys frequently these days is a sure sign that I don't have the memory either. It takes me longer to learn the poomsae, and I can't kick as high or punch as hard as many of the younger people in class. I still need to lose weight. I still need to make improvements.
But what I've learned is that I appreciate what I can do and what my body can do. I'm not just feeling lucky for good health now. I am doing something to maximize it. I am engaging in a sport that requires me to focus on the physical abilities we lose as we age. Instead of working against my good genes, I'm now making the most of them.
So this week as I practice the techniques my instructor was showing me last night, and as I struggle to get my hands and feet moving in the proper direction, at the proper time, with the proper angle and the proper force, I will be thinking of a line from our student oath. It says, "I will practice living in a state of peace and gratitude." As I think of that line, I will be grateful for my health. It is a luxury that I've finally learned to appreciate.
Taekwondo makes you focus on every little aspect of your being, from the angle your foot is planted on the floor to the position of your wrist as you're punching.
© 2016 LisaDH