This blog is about my own experiences as a black belt Taekwondo student, which are grounded in practice and research and other sources about Taekwondo. I hope this blog is a good read for Taekwondo students (past, present and future), because I believe that students under the guidance of good instructors will not only learn the art, but will also learn to live the virtues that this art stands for and who will be able to bundle up their knowledge that allows them to “take it into your life.” I’ve learned in my life that it’s important to be able to step outside your comfort zone and be challenged with something you’re not familiar or accustomed to. That challenge will allow you to see what you can do. - J.R. Martinez As many of you know, when I started to practice Taekwondo at the age of 40, I had a goal in mind, to lose weight, and although I have at that time spent about one year watching my sons practicing the art, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I did however have some sort of understanding of the class structure and the type of exercises and drills that students in my first Taekwondo school in Hawaii do. Everything looked like a lot of fun, judging by the happy faces of the youngsters whom I have been watching practice, alongside with their enthusiasm and excitement to train hard to be invited to test to advance in rank. So, here I was, 40 years old, entering the dojang, for the first time not as a mother who is watching her child, but as a student. For time reasons, I initially choose not to train in the late adult class, but rather, practice with my younger son in the beginners class until we both could join the advanced class that my older son was in. It was uncomfortable to be the only adult student in this class, because for some reason, the other “white belts” appear to expect that I “know” things they don’t, because I was the adult. However, I knew about as much about training in the art as they did, nothing, because I was no longer a spectator, but a participant, and had to start as the same blank slate as they did. Exercising after years of not doing much of any exercise was also very uncomfortable, I got tired out fast in the beginning, but was determined to not show my fatigue and pressed on with a smile on my face during training just to sit in the car after practice barely able to move and wondering if I had actually lost my mind trying to keep up “with the kids.” Then it hit me, I was not keeping up with them or anybody else, I was pushing myself to get better and overcome my own sluggishness, fatigue, and to reach my goal, to get into better shape and achieve a better stamina and figure. And indeed, after a few months, I saw changes in myself, I got better and overcame, whether it was being able to do more push-ups or simply pushing my body through previous limits with new exercises that I never did before. One thing that I always have and always will enjoy is learning new patterns as I continue to study the art. My excitement about practicing patterns is really high, I also love teaching them to junior ranking students. I love to learn and improve all the time and to try to get them as “perfect” as I can when I train. However, to me, training is one thing, but testing for the next rank is a totally different issue. I don’t test well, and don’t review for testing well. While I do great practicing patterns with my rank cohort, actually going up in front of the class for review is a situation that makes me want to hide in a closet with a comfort blanket, because it seems that all the sudden my confidence and comfort level goes below zero. Even though the critique of my technical performance was usually minor, the black belts that critiqued me usually alluded to the fact that I “need to have more confidence,” because I “know the pattern.” I have over the years learned to be more comfortable, but I am not quite there yet that I can say, “yup, I just go up and test, and have no doubts whatsoever that I will pass with flying colors.” In a way, alongside the words of my first instructor, I think self-doubt in a way is good, because it is not arrogance but rather humility and the ability to understand that while failure is an option, one has to constantly push oneself through whatever the personal comfort zone is and move beyond those self-imposed limits, even though I do have to admit, that I was binge watching “24” the evening before and the morning of the black belt test to get my mind of what was actually going to happen. Sparring to me is yet another area where I truly have to push myself outside my comfort zone. While I have no problems with partner exercises and serious kicking to the hogu, actual sparring is different. Not necessarily because I have to apply all the skills I have learned, but more because I am afraid to not control a kick properly and accidentally really hurt my sparring partner, while I myself, do not mind bruises that much (I wear those as a badge of honor). Even after almost a decade of training, sparring is uncomfortable, but then again, it is another limit that I need to push further and eventually learn to overcome. I few weeks ago, at our new Taekwondo school (we moved), we did some serious self-defense training, not just blocks and punches, but evasion from an aggressor that kicks you down and an aggressor that is on top of you pretending to choke you, or an aggressor that chokes you from behind or traps you in a corner. What made the whole situation even more comfortable was the fact that my training partner was my oldest son, who really did not want to choke his mother as much as I did not want to choke him. This I think was one of the most intense and most uncomfortable trainings I have ever experienced. I think the boys felt the same way when we talked about it driving home. I told them, yes, it was unusual and uncomfortable, however, we were in a safe place and learned how to deal with a potentially very dangerous situation, by repeating the exercises over and over again so we could apply them should the unthinkable ever happen in real life. I also told them that this was a prime example of stepping out of your comfort zone in a safe place to be ready for it in real life, which, without training and a sense of preparedness, would be even more uncomfortable. These are just a few examples from my training that I can think of that I found and at times still find very uncomfortable. I believe that for each of us Taekwondo or martial arts students, there are certain domains in our training that made or still make us somewhat uncomfortable, yet, we have learned to deal with this and learned to push ourselves out of our comfort zone because we simply had to and were also motivated to do so to get better. We have learned to not only see our (possibly self-imposed) limits but learned to push beyond them every time we take of our shoes and step on the training mat in our respective dojangs. So, while we learn that being uncomfortable in different domains in Taekwondo is something to be expected, we also learn to overcome being uncomfortable and with that, learn to step out of our comfort zone. This is a skill that is useful not just in practicing the art (or any other martial art for that matter), it is useful in real life as well, as we have learned to just push ahead and challenge ourselves, be that in school, meeting new people, traveling to different places that we are not familiar with and most of learning as we go, about ourselves and others which also contributes to a sense of empathy, that Taekwondo helps develop. If you like to read more about what Taekwondo can do, please check out the link to my publications, "Beyond the dojang: A phenomenological perspective on transferring the virtues of Taekwondo into daily life," and "Taekwondo, more than a martial art, a journey for life” on my website focusedsolutionsconsulting.com.