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Of Martial Arts Training and Limitations

Black belt is

You are not rich until you have something that money can’t buy.

A new year brings new training schedules. It’s a year ago that I began my Kuk Sool Won journey and it has been a real roller coaster ride of successes and growth opportunities. Being a martial arts newbie at middle age takes determination and can only be accomplished if you learn to take yourself a little less seriously.

It has also been a year ago that I started this blog, along with a lovely and remarkable community of individuals because of the Seth Godin Your Turn Challenge.

I am a goal and result oriented individual while also being a time dependent personality so setting goals and making lists is an automatic practice at the start of a new year.

What is unique about 2016 though is that I did a training schedule first before writing down my goals in other key areas of my life. Given my usual approach I would add exercise and view it like a mountain that needs conquering. A necessary set of tasks on the way to taking better care of my health.

Now however I see a training schedule as so much more than a series of tasks. In the past I didn’t relish the idea of training. It just provided the means by which I could build a healthier me. Now training is like a chapter in a novel. Each one enhances the experience and within each one new lessons are learned. Taken together they all tell a story and become a collection of learnings building towards a specific end objective, in my case, a black belt before my 50th birthday.

After all, a black belt is a white belt who didn’t quit and I plan to see this journey through.

If you do what you love you never have to work a day in your life. If you train for something you’re passionate about then training is no longer a task. Every bit of training I do is leading me to a new point of growth.

It is said that an old dog can’t be taught new tricks but if the old dog is still young at heart it can still learn an amazing array of things. It’s just the willingness to do so that is required.

I am taking my body to levels of fitness that I never thought possible and it is changing my expectations with each new milestone I reach.

I expected that my age would be an automatic glass ceiling on my martial arts journey but the only limitations I’ve experienced are those I’ve imposed on myself.

How about you?

For some inspiration why not check out some of the other Your Turn Challenge Bloggers:

  1. Remarkable Runs
  2. The Positive Pragmatist
  3. Robin Estevez
  4. Women of Wonder
  5. Linens and Laurel
  6. Joyce M Sullivan
  7. Wholistic Sound
  8. Andy Stitt
  9. Listen and Hear
  10. Randall Hartman

Done is better than perfect- my first Kuk Sool Won public demo

Our Kuk Sool Won school has a select group of students chosen to do demonstrations. They are chosen because of their dedication, skill and commitment.

Kuk Sool Won, yellow belt form, demo in the park

Kuk Sool Won, yellow belt form, demo in the park

Every second Saturday of the month they meet to train together and practice. They are all black brown belts and their exemplary behavior has earned them a spot on the team.

At their last training session however there were two unlikely guests with the rank of blue stripe. They had been asked to join in the training for a particular public demo to illustrate the point that gender and age should not be a limiting factor in a martial arts journey. I was one of those blue stripes.

Since I had just celebrated my 45th birthday it was a fun way to mark the occasion. When I first pitched for the demo training class one of the black brown belt students looked at me incredulously. “You’re doing a demo?” he asked quizzically. “Yes” I responded, ” at my age one has to make every moment count!”

Fortunately I was doing the form along with my training buddy Ramya. I thought she was rather brave to appear in public doing a martial arts form alongside me. She is very energetic, fit and spirited so doing extra training together was great.

The demo was held on a hot and sunny afternoon at a nearby park. It was Community Night at the local Farmers’ Market. The demo team did an excellent job. They clearly were much more familiar with the requirements than I was.

When our turn came I surprisingly didn’t feel too anxious and initially started off well. We were about half way through when things went a bit awry and I kicked with the wrong leg!

At least I managed to smile at my error and move on. Our fellow participants were very complimentary and encouraging. My kids, dressed in their doboks were excited to be there and my sweet husband came straight to the venue after work to offer me support.

We had a second opportunity to do our form and lo and behold I made the same error the second time around! My performance was far from ideal but being there was already a challenge overcome. I still felt a sense of accomplishment and doing the demo in public motivated to keep practicing. We are all growing and learning.

Sometimes done is better than perfect.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Association.

The smaller they are,  the further they fly

KSW Quote Smaller fly

It was the strangest feeling being back in class after an unexpected absence. It reminded me of how I felt as a child returning to my family home after being away on an extended excursion.

There was the feeling of familiarity with the surroundings and the procedures along with a sense of affection for objects I had used which was comforting and reassuring but there was also a sense of guilt at shirking my responsibility and neglecting my duty.

Standing in the dojang with my feet on the tape, waiting for class to begin there was the awareness that this was a place to grow and be nurtured but also a place to challenge oneself and strive to continuously improve.

There was also a hint of anxiety about whether I would remember my forms and techniques when illness had prevented me from revising between classes as I usually would.

I have learned so much and experienced so many new things and challenges that I sometimes forget that my martial arts journey is still in its embryonic fourth month stage.

“Cha Ryuht” Master Saidi calls us to attention and the class responds in unison with a resounding “Yes Sir!”

Training begins and I cautiously go through the manoeuvres testing my still recovering body to see how well it can withstand the required demands.

My training partner and I start working through our techniques and realise that we are going to need some guidance and revision on the last one we learned.

My training partner and I at the dojang

My training partner and I at the dojang

Master Saidi happily helps us through the technique and simultaneously reminds us about the importance of persistent practice.

Then to keep us on our toes he teaches us a new technique. Growing and learning – that’s the journey.. He then also explains to us why the technique is designed to help us handle an opponent who is physically stronger and of course has a quote to help us drill it into our minds.

“The bigger they are the harder they fall. The smaller they are the further they fly,” he quipped.

The first sentence is very familiar to most – even to me as a non sports oriented type it was something I’d heard my Grandfather often say but the latter part was new and so apt for our setting.

It connected with me both literally and figuratively. Being short of stature myself I actually do feel like Kuk Sool Won has taught this small person to fly. It has released me from my self created cage of sporting inadequacy and allowed me to step into a new realm of self discovery and started me on a journey to reach new heights.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Association.

Kiai finding your voice 

KSW Quote Mastery of self

Noise, communication – it’s a biological instinct to use our voices to express ourselves. The louder the sound the more dominant and expressive the underlying emotional state is.

In a martial arts setting the kiai is meant to focus your energy and breathing and throw your spirit with sound.

It is also meant to communicate intention and assert power in an altercation.

Why did I find it so difficult?

When I used to practice Tai Chi class there was no such noise. Balance, calm and quiet were the order of the day. The focus was more internal.

In my Kuk Sool Won class it was different and I found it interesting to observe the other students during training. Each decided on their own style of kiai. Tiz, huz, hiya – there were all sorts.

Interestingly the stronger and louder the kiai the more assertive and powerful the student appeared.

A Masterful kiai

During one of my kids classes I was reading the dojang rules attached to the wall and my back was turned away from the proceedings. My reading was brought to an abrupt halt as I was startled by the Master’s kiai!

I would not want to be on the receiving end of that! Power, dominance, control -there was no question about who was the more intimidating presence. As Master Saidi told us “Mastery of self leads to mastery in martial arts”.

There were clear advantages to having an energetic kiai but how would I move beyond my reticence and convince myself to actually utter the sound?

Acting as if seemed to be a sensible approach so if I behaved like I was confident maybe my kiai would follow. I started practicing and steadliy my kiai got more noticeable. It went along with adding a game face to convey how serious I was about getting this to work.

While practicing techniques with my training partner, Vineela, I got so into practicing my kiai that I uttered a loud one when we were bowing to each other instead of saying “Kuk Sool” which I was supposed to do. It was a rather funny moment.

A Kiai for Confidence

I can’t say for certain that it was improved confidence that led to a better kiai or a louder kiai that improved my confidence. Nevertheless there was definite progress.

As Julie Andrews playing Maria sings in the Sound of Music  “I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain,… I have confidence in confidence alone!”  Confidence and convincing kiais seem to go hand in hand.

This proved to be rather useful at my first tournament where the weight of my inexperience was bearing down hard as I sat amongst a group of adult white belts waiting my turn to be called by the judges.

Game  face: Vanessa Thomas doing her form at the Pacific Coast Tournament Photo courtesy of Robin Thomas

Game face: Vanessa Thomas doing her form at the Pacific Coast Tournament Photo courtesy of Robin Thomas

As the fear of performance anxiety gripped me I made a decision. It was too late to hope for a lower stance or the ability to kick any higher but I could put on my game face and kiai like I was a warrior in the midst of a battle.

So I did and although my score for my form left lots of room for improvement it secured me a fourth place and it got me an enthusiastic response from my fellow competitors.

I found my voice and it wasn’t perfect but I delivered any way. Have you found yours?

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Association.


Tournament training: small moments matter

Quote small moments

Raindrops were falling on my black dobok as I walked to the dojang for my first tournament training class. As it fell harder I thought that perhaps I should hurry it up a bit so as not to be soaked by the time I got to class.

While waiting to cross a busy intersection though I noticed drivers looking at me standing in the rain in my black uniform and white belt and felt compelled to stand tall and pretend that the rain was not bothering me at all. You can’t let the art down by not showing good character in an awesome uniform!

I reached the training hall a bit soggy but with my pride intact. Class began and Master Saidi lectured us on the importance of tournament as a developmental opportunity.

Needing a training partner

“Tournament is a chance for you to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself” he said then continued “if I give 100% then I expect you to do the same. I want to see your lowest stances and hear your loudest kiai, now is not the time to be shy. Growth happens when you are out of your comfort zone.”

The Pacific Coast Kuk Sool Won Tournament is several weeks away in Folsom.

My training partner had been to an earlier training session with her daughter so I needed someone different to practice with today.

Forms and techniques

We were given the names and numbers of the forms and techniques we would be doing. We were also taught how to introduce ourselves to the judges. Etiquette is a very central element in Kuk Sool Won.

We had some time to practice our forms and then moved on to techniques where we had to face our partners. Only thing was I had no partner so I stood quietly while everyone else paired up waiting for my next instruction.

Another student who did not have a partner, a red belt, caught my eye and asked me to join him. Usually we are partnered with students of our own rank.

We were told which techniques to practice and one of them I had just learned and the other was new. I would be doing Ki Cho Hyung 1,2 ,3 and Ki Bohn Soo 1, 2 and 5.  We started practicing and then it was clear for me to see how effectively the joint locking techniques work. How cool is this I thought!

A different perspective

The various groups were asked to perform their techniques and watching the energy displayed by the more advanced students was awesome! It was like being in a live martial arts movie!

Oh to be able to fall like that! I would need lots more practice!

Small moments

I collected my shoes and was about to leave when another black belt Rick said hello while taking his sword out of its scabbard. I had to smile. It was the perfect reminder as to why I was putting myself through this extended learning process. My unfulfilled goal of learning a complete sword form and finding my green destiny.

Small moments matter – especially when they remind you of big dreams!


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Won Association.

Kids Kicking it Kung Fu style from Uganda to Kuk Sool Won style in America

Master Saidi martial arts quote

“Everybody in Uganda is Kung Fu fighting” – this article by Elizabeth McSheffrey caught my attention. It’s seldom that we hear the good news stories from Africa on this side of the ocean but this one made it.

The local film industry, also known as “Ugawood,” has been steadily growing thanks to new infrastructure and resources and has spawned a new fascination with martial arts. Seeing the images of these children finding new hope through a martial art is rather inspirational as well as hearing their stories of commitment to improve themselves.

Across the ocean in North America, with children who are far more affluent, martial arts is equally inspiring and motivational.

Martial Arts and Parenting

Modern parenting comes with the expectation that we adequately prepare our offspring for all the challenges that their futures hold. It’s a lofty goal and somewhat unreasonable. We can however provide them with some fundamental approaches to life that will help them to face any eventuality.

Ensuring that their self esteem is well honed while teaching them to set goals, maintain discipline and have a ‘can-do’ attitude can have a significant impact on what that child accomplishes in later life. In Kuk Sool Won, at the end of every training session, the Master asks “What is martial arts?” The response comes loudly “To develop and maintain positive, disciplined attitude Sir!”

I see the positive results in my children who have been learning this traditional Korean martial arts system for a year now. My somewhat shy and very loving son has connected with something he excels at when schoolwork is often a battle for him. Education can happen outside of the classroom too. He has matured enough to now lead warm-up at martial arts so it has done wonders for his self-esteem.

Positive female role models

My spirited daughter has been inspired by the powerful female role models she has encountered. There are two female Kuk Sool Won black belts we respectfully call Ma’m but since they are still confidently and unapologetically feminine she has a different view of ‘pink, pretty and powerless’ being the only options for girls. She has encountered real life girl power and thoroughly enjoys going to sparring class in her pink sparring gear.

Meanwhile another young girl Rachel Nattembo rushes to her Kung Fu class in Uganda. Racheal also leads her peers through a kung fu routine in the school yard of Nateete Mixed Academy in Wakaliga, Kampala. This young martial artist played “Liz” in “This Crazy World,” a 2014 action flick by Ramon Film Productions.

Interestingly Elizabeth writes that according to the Uganda Taekwondo Federation, South Korea was the first country to introduce Asian martial arts in Uganda in the 1960s when an instructor was invited to teach inmates at the Uganda Prisons Headquarters in Luzira. She quotes Isaac Nabwana, founder of Ramon Film Production in Wakaliga, Uganda who says Martial arts are rising and everyone now is trying to do what I’m doing because they see I’m doing something that is unique and is loved.

One Martial Arts Family

Such contrasting settings, so many inequalities but as Bruce Lee said, “under the sky, under the heavens there is but one family..”.

Martial arts is a uniting force and as Master Saidi says “You can’t prepare yourself for martial arts but martial arts can prepare you for many things.”

Connection. What is your intention?

Good teachers Quote

Connection and integration of the upper body was the theme during Tai Chi class yesterday.

Our Tai Chi teacher, Tim Gnazale, often uses very descriptive metaphors to drive his points home. The notable one for this lesson was the garbage compactor model, compressing the trash in a downward motion. Grinding down to connect with our ground paths was our aim.  In Tai Chi  the Ground Path is the concept of having properly aligned internal structural integrity from every external part of the body connected through the body down into the ground.

Sensing your state

Being aware of our upper bodies and sensing the state our various anatomical regions were in was a revelation. I became aware of how rigid and tense my shoulders were and had to focus on releasing some tension.

We got to apply the principle by trying to lift a student while they held their arms locked at the sides. Surprisingly not one of us was toppled. I wasn’t so sure that I had connected properly though so was prompted to ask my first question.

Asking questions

I had watched a Kung Fu training video about driving versus pushing energy that was rather cool and I imagined if I was driving myself downward that I would feel the connection more tangibly, which I didn’t.

So I asked the question about how I can tell if I was really connecting or just pushing down and thinking I was connected. The response was that if I was asking that question then I wasn’t connecting…

Blimey but my ego didn’t respond well to that observation! Sometimes the truth is hard to hear. Sometimes the feedback pushes you to grow even if it’s difficult to accept especially because you know it’s true.

So if it’s not working then I will need to return to the basic model as instructed. Good teachers don’t always tell you what you want to hear but point you in directions that show you how to grow.

Cars, social media and intentions

Another analogy in this lesson was constructing and using a car. Once you have all the components of the car, and they are working optimally together then what are you going to do with it? Drive up a mountain, cruise down the highway?

This analogy was used to show that once connection and integration is achieved then intention is required to leverage it.

Interestingly the car analogy had come up in an entirely different conversation I had the day before with Joyce Sullivan when we were talking about Social Media strategy management. She explained that once you’ve purchased a new car you want to prolong its lifespan through regular maintenance just like your strategy.

The connection economy is ubiquitous and the principles can be applied to both Social Media and Tai Chi – who would have thought!

The lesson then is knowing your intention in order to focus what you are going to do with the connection once you find it.

What is your intention?

Tai Chi – that’s how we roll

My Saturday mornings are reserved for Tai Chi. Often when I enter the studio I think “First learn balance“, the rest of the quote is “Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, might as well pack up, go home.” as Daniel was taught by Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984 release).

I try to find balance in my form and balance in my mind – both of which are not easy.

Following warm-up we get to practice some techniques and martial art applications of the form.

With today being Super Saturday where people get to try out any class they like, there were quite a few visitors. While our teacher, Tim Gnazale, gave the visitors an introductory talk and demonstration, one of his advanced students, Bob Dari, gave us warm up exercises and a techniques session.

We covered three key areas 1. the gates, 2. redirection and 3. rolling.

Tim always refers us to the “basic model” which involves standing in a grounded relaxed posture. All other movements rely on the basic model being firmly in place. This reminds me of another lesson by Mr Miyagi “First learn stand, then learn fly.”

Interestingly Tim is also the author of the book “Tai Chi for Stilettos“,  a percentage of the book’s profit will be donated to Born This Way Foundation, supported by Lady Gaga and her mother, Ms. Germanotta. Using the power of Tai Chi, Tim, unveils simple external and internal techniques to heighten one’s mind/body integration.

There are 8 gates associated with Tai Chi and they represent characteristics or special movement patterns for a particular objective. Every posture of tai chi has at least one of the eight gates (or, bamen) dominating the movement and each of the 8 gates has a certain martial “energy.” Centering, holding to one’s center, maintaining equilibrium, settling, moving downward, and staying balanced at one’s centre was what we focused on yesterday.

We needed to note where our centres of gravity were and recognise our partners gate to identify where it would be easiest to get them off balance. We also needed to feel when we were off balance and to practice rolling to regain our centres or redirect applied forces. In essence for me the lesson felt like applying the Law of the Lever by Archimedes “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Tai Chi shows that small forces can move large weights when you have the correct leverage.

Learning to get these movements to be intuitive in real life situations to prevent falls or injury will take time and practice. Each student learns at their own pace and needs to discover how their body works and when it is grounded and balanced.

Bob said that he used to enjoy BART surfing to practice maintaining his balance. As the carriages rock and pitch from side to side on the uneven tracks and grind to a stop at each station, he would stand in a good posture while not holding on to anything and keep his balance. An interesting exercise.

Martial arts is a journey of self discovery and in Tai Chi being able to centre yourself is key, that’s how we roll.

How do you roll?

Pain is where the growth happens

Pain growth 2

“Learning is a gift even when pain is a teacher” ~ Maya Watson. I had to focus on this truism the day after my first class of Kuk Sool Won.

My body, unaccustomed to the stretching, kicking, punching and body conditioning exercises demanded in martial arts training was registering its use.

It hurt. A lot. The next day, it hurt even more.

“Pain is where the growth happens” my husband, Robin, reminded me. He should know, he trains for triathlons (you can check out his blog Remarkable Runs).

Although my fitness has been steadily improving, doing 50 crunches after all the other exercises took it’s toll. Laughing was not comfortable.

I am still however extremely grateful for the privilege of learning this art. The book the Iron Butterfly, The Memoir of a Martial Arts Master tells the story of Choon-Ok Jade Harmon, the highest ranking female Kuk Sool Won Master, with a Ninth-Degree Black Belt. She relates how she had to beg and plead for an extended period to be allowed to start learning Kuk Sool Won. We don’t always value or recognise the opportunities presented to us.

I asked our instructor  Gyo Sa Nim Sahar about the pain in my hips. She encouraged me to stretch. She said I should expect to feel pain for at least the first few months. My body needed time to adjust to the new movements I was putting it through.

She then told me that with daily stretching it would be possible for me to do a full split in 3 months. She also revealed that she got so comfortable doing the splits that she once fell asleep in that position! Wow – now that’s impressive!

It was hard to comprehend let alone visualize me doing the splits! But what did I have to lose? “Challenge accepted “I said (I’m still all kinds of crazy!)

My kids have also set the splits as a martial arts goal for this year so at least I won’t be alone and it least it won’t be as bad as Master Pai Mei teaching Beatrix the Three Inch punch in Kill Bill Vol 2.

Our family doctor, who also enjoys martial arts, and demonstrated some Chen style Tai Chi punches during my last visit, advised me to take it slowly and give my body time to process the changes. He said the workout would be great to relieve my stress and increase my strength though so was very encouraging.

So despite my body feeling like it had been sat upon by a rather large elephant – I made it through the second class.

I was taught Ki Bohn Soo techniques, the first part of the Ki Cho Hyung forms and also given an explanation of some of the forms and techniques required to progress to the next belt level. “How do you recall all the Korean names?” I asked Rick. “You do them all. Repeatedly.” he responded.

“We need more practice” said In Hyuk Suh the founder, Grandmaster and President of the World Kuk Sool Association. I can see that with more practice there will be more pain. There is no pain free path, but when you’re doing something that matters, pain becomes your teacher.

As Seth Godin said, all athletes get tired, all of them feel pain. They just have to find a place to put the tired and the pain so that they can accomplish their goals in harmony with it.

So from now on whenever I feel the consequences of taking my body into unexplored territory I will use the mantra – Pain is where the growth happens!

Where will you put yours?


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Won Association.

Kuk Sool Won lesson 2 – Skip. Hurt. Destroy.

Image courtesy of Goodfon.Su Wallpapers By: anon001

Image courtesy of Goodfon.Su Wallpapers By: anon001

Intent – having your mind and will focused on a particular purpose. When you move in martial arts you need to know why, you must consider your objective.

Each posture in a form serves a purpose as it has a defined application. Similarly the transitions between postures require attention so that balance and focus can be maintained.

During training our instructor, Master Saidi demonstrated some self defence techniques on his senior black belt student Rick and another black belt instructor  Gyo Sa Nim Sahar to show how the system can be applied in an offensive scenario.

While observing these movements I could not help but be astounded by what the human body can achieve with dedicated training and commitment. Master Saidi is one of only nineteen 6th Dahn Kuk Sool Won Head Masters in the world and when you see him in action you can see why.

I felt a bit like Po in Kung fu Panda when he first watched the Furious Five in action.

The Master immobilised his opponent swiftly, precisely and effortlessly. Pressure point and joint lock techniques are clearly effective.

To see them applied first hand was awesome! Just like Po I too wanted a souvenir and given that my other passion is floral photography I instinctively wanted to run and get my camera.

“I always say that there are three steps to martial arts. I call them skip, hurt and destroy” said Master Saidi. Step 1 is to skip, to avoid or exit the situation, get out of the fight (at this point I just kept thinking Run Forrest! Run!).

If there is no way to avoid the fight then step 2 – hurt follows. The aggressor needs to know in no uncertain terms that there will be a world of pain coming their way if they do not desist.

In the event that the aggressor refuses to accept their impending doom you move to step 3- destroy.

Most females I know at some point in their lives have found themselves in situations where they felt threatened and vulnerable. The recent twitter trend #YesAllWomen was a sad reminder of this.

Much as we would like to, we cannot wish those with hostile intentions away. We can however equip ourselves with the mindset and the techniques to defend ourselves when necessary.

In a recent situation where I felt threatened while out at night I noted with interest how empowering it was to know that in the event of an attack, I could do something to defend myself.

Skip. Hurt. Destroy.

Photo: A quickly taken candid snap of Master Saidi after my second Kuk Sool Won lesson


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Master Saidi or that of the World Kuk Sool Won Association.

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