Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: isekhmet (a.k.a. Christine)
I'm a writer/storyteller/director/creativity & lifestory coach with a black belt in ITF Taekwon-do. I read voraciously and I write like my fingers are on fire.
I'm the founder and Co-Chair of the Association for the Arts in Mount Pearl and I'm the current president of the St. John's Storytelling Festival.
I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie.
A couple of weeks ago, I was helping* with a belt testing for Taekwon-do and watching the other students tests for belts ranging from yellow stripe to black stripe was really encouraging for me.
I spend entirely too much time with my eye on my next belt, on learning the next thing. It is all too easy to forget how much I have already learned, how far I have come. I mean, obviously, I know that I have more skills than I once did but since those skills are part of my knowledge base now, I end up focusing a bit too much on the skills I don’t yet have.
It’s a natural development of a graduated learning system. You are always aware of what you don’t know because that is what is between you and your next belt. I can always tell you what I need to know for my next test and how much of it I have already learned.
It’s a sensible approach for skill development but it can be a bit overwhelming sometimes. Even though I generally feel challenged rather than discouraged, I am still very aware of the areas in which I fall short. And I know that can be the case with any sort of goal, particularly fitness-related ones.
That’s why the belt test was so encouraging for me. In the course of a single afternoon, I was able to see my skill development at each level mirrored by the students who were testing. I could see what I must have looked liked at my first test – determined, yet uncertain, with my skills just beginning to grow. I could remember myself at each level, what I felt like I knew then, and how I must have been better than I realized.
Seeing how the students’ dexterity, strength, power, and speed increased at each belt level was an excellent reminder and a boost to my ego. I have followed that path. I am still on it. My skills are improving all the time and I’m sure that senior students can note that when they are watching me. That’s a good thought to keep tucked away for when I get frustrated with myself as I practice for that next test.
It’s good for me to have that test in my future – it helps to focus my practice and it gives me something to work toward. However, I can’t just keep my eyes on that prize, I have to take some time to glance back at my yellow stripe self, my green belt self, my red belt self and celebrate how much I have accomplished already.
I’m grateful that assisting at the belt test gave me such a direct opportunity to see how I have refined my skills over time. I’m not sure that I would have thought to do it otherwise.
Do you often take time to note how far you have come from where you started?
If so, what do you do?
*To be clear, I was *not* testing these students, I am not qualified to do that yet. I was just helping to keep the test running smoothly and assisting where needed.
One of the first posts I wrote for Fit is a Feminist Issue was about my desire to allow myself to be *seen* at Taekwondo this year. In that post, I mentioned that I wanted to be more willing to lead the warm-up, to be the person who demonstrates, to put myself ‘out there.’ In short, I want to take more personal ‘risks’ in class, to deal with the possibility of doing it wrong or making a fool of myself, all in the service of learning. And I very, very much want to learn.
Now, I’m not usually a ‘go big or go home’ person. I like to take things in small steps, so I have been working on this ‘being seen’ project in small ways over the last couple of months.
Since it is a bit tricky for me to turn knowledge of a movement into the movement itself, I often shy away from the opportunity to do a new movement from a pattern in front of my instructor. That’s not so much about not wanting to make a fool of myself, it’s more about not wanting the instructor to think that I am not trying hard enough or that they didn’t get through to me. However, recently, when shown new moves, I have gritted my teeth and done them anyway, no matter who could see me. It’s been painful, and I have not enjoyed it, but, it is working. I can get feedback right away and I can do a better job with my patterns sooner.
Being willing to be seen while practicing kicks and punches is also serving me well so far. A couple of weeks ago, we were practicing the punches and kicks I will be using for my third degree test (which will be some time in the next year) and I made some choices that were stressful but useful for me.
One of the kicks is a particular challenge for me – spinning hook kick. I can do a hook kick and I can do a spin, but bringing them together has been, well, interesting. (Let’s just say that the only thing that could make it harder is if I had to perform it to music.) In this particular class, I deliberately chose to join the group of black belt women that included my instructor – so I knew I would have to demonstrate the kick in front of her. And, I knew I would get detailed corrections. It was hard but I went through with it and made some great progress. Now, I know how to practice that kick effectively at home.
That same night, with that same group, I learned and practiced a new set of punches.* I had never done those specific moves before but because of my commitment to being seen, I decided to go all in. It will come as a surprise to no one (except a part of my subconscious) that you can do a move terribly, in front of someone who is working hard to instruct you, and you won’t faint or throw up.
In fact, the only result was learning how to actually do it. I started out feeling ridiculous, but by the time that part of practice was over, those punches were starting to seem like something I could get good at. This is HUGE.
Being seen in class is one level of stress, but, last weekend, I committed to a whole other level of stress – I attended a sparring seminar with a visiting instructor. So, not only would my brain be freaking out about trying to learn new things, it would also be freaking out about embarrassing my instructors in front of a visiting Grand Master, and about potentially doing something ridiculously poorly in front of him. These are not reasonable fears but they took up a lot of space in my brain all the same.
Despite all of these fears, I have committed to being seen so I decided that no matter what happened, no matter what I was asked to demonstrate, I was going to attempt it.
I’m proud to say that I did what I set out to do.
I’ll admit that I quietly grumbled my way through one set of exercises I couldn’t make sense of. Luckily, my practice partner is used to me and didn’t hurt himself rolling his eyes at my foolishness. (Thanks, Kevin!) Maybe not my finest moment but I am not being too hard on myself about it because I kept trying.
And, when I had to do one running exercise, I did have a face of thunder, but that was because I was irritated at myself for not being able to grasp what I needed to do. But, I kept doing it, even though I was frustrated. After all, I’m a big girl, a bit of frustration is not going to stop me.
Getting frustrated at myself didn’t negate my effort to be willing to be seen, and I’m pleased that I stuck with it. Even when another exercise left me with a hip spasm, I just stretched it out and then jumped back into the seminar.
My big test of being seen came about about halfway through when Grand Master Laquerre asked me to hold the kick pad for him to demonstrate a move. That may seem easier than being the person demonstrating but it was still very challenging for me – I had to do something exactly right so he could teach effectively.** If he had to spend a lot of time correcting how I was standing and where I was holding the pad, the seminar would be stalled. I didn’t shy away though, I just said ‘Yes, sir!’ and did my best to be in the right spot at the right time.
I didn’t do it perfectly and I can’t remember if I bowed at the proper time (which makes me cringe a little), but I was basically where I needed to be when I needed to be there. So, I was seen, I was imperfect, and I was fine.
Everything seemed a lot easier after that, the hardest thing had already happened and I had survived. The fact that Grand Master Laquerre went on to say that, in sparring, there isn’t a ‘right’ move to make for a specific target, there is just the move that scores a point, helped to reinforce that I could just let go of my notion of needing to do things perfectly.
The kicks I did in the next part of the seminar were some of the quickest and best I have ever done.
So far, this ‘being seen’ thing is working out marvellously and my Taekwondo is improving as a result. Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant.
*At the test, I will have two boards to break. They will be held one above the other and I will have jump up and punch the top one, then, as I am coming down, I will have to punch and break the second. I’ve been worried about this.
**To be clear, I wasn’t the least bit concerned about him kicking me. A Master or a Grand Master has very good control of their kicks and I was not going to get hurt either way.
How do you feel about push-ups? Do they make you feel strong?
Push-ups are the bane of my fitness existence. For some reason, they have become the hallmark of fitness in my mind and I want to be able to do them, in proper form, and with ease. So far, that has not happened.
I used to think that I could do them but it turns out that my form was all wrong. I was actually doing push-ups in two steps, lifting my upper body and then pulling up my lower body. And let’s not even get into how my elbows were all stuck out.
Those ‘push-ups’ weren’t serving me well or making me stronger. In fact, they were hurting my arm and shoulder. At one point, shortly after getting my 1st degree black belt, I had to take some time off of Taekwon-Do because I had messed up the muscle behind my shoulder blade and I was in a lot of pain. The pain wasn’t just the result of my push-up form but the push-ups definitely didn’t help.
After I recovered from that injury, I vowed that I was going to learn to do push-ups properly – and from the floor. However, life has gotten thoroughly in the way, and I have not made it as much of a priority as I had intended to.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried, it’s mostly that I haven’t stuck with any one system long enough to get results. That’s an issue that often crops up for me – that I am so interested in making the ‘right’ choice of exercises that I end up not doing any specific set consistently.
Here’s what I have tried – I have done some rehab exercises to strengthen the muscles around my shoulder blades. I have done push-ups against the wall, against my counter, and on the stairs. I have done them from my knees. I have done them with my knees resting on a foam half-dome. I feel like I have done every possible variation on a push-up.
Each of these things was moderately successful, I can do a fair number of wall/counter push-ups, for example, but I always have the feeling that if I were doing something *else*, it would be more effective. I don’t know what that elusive ‘something else’ might be but I often feel like I am wasting my time. I keep feeling like there is some other muscle I should strengthen first and then push-ups will come more naturally. I keep feeling that the work I do is not getting me any closer to being able to do push-ups from the floor.
Yes, I can see how ridiculous that is. Or at least, I can see it now, while I’m writing. In all of the times I tried to do push-ups, all I could see was that I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to be able to do. And, that it didn’t feel like I was on the path to being able to do it.
But, when it all comes down to it, I want to be able to do those push-ups from the floor. I want to be able to do them easily, with finesse. It doesn’t actually matter whether they are any sort of proper measure of fitness, I want to be able to do at least 20 of them. I know that going from where I am now to doing 20 push-ups is going to take consistent work. I will have to work hard at it. I will have to get over my (mostly subconscious) search for the shiny, perfect system that will work right away.
So, here’s what I am going to do. I am committing to push-up practice starting today. At least three days a week, I am going to do a set of the shoulder rehab exercises, then I will do a set of of push-ups with my knees on the foam half-dome, and I will finish with a set against the wall. Those sets may not be equal in number but I will be consistent with it.
Right now, I wouldn’t even say I can do one push-up from the floor in good form. I mean, if I *had* to, I could probably pull off doing a few, but they wouldn’t be in good form and I wouldn’t feel confident about it.
I don’t know how long it will take me to get to 20 push-ups. I am hoping it will happen long before I do my next belt test (which might be in June of 2018) but I am not going to worry about a time frame. My goal is to make consistent progress, to keep getting better. I just want to feel confident about my push-up ability – to be sure that I can do a specific number when I want to.
My first phase of this project will be one month. So, when I write my post for the 16th of December, I’ll give you a push-up update. Please hold me to it!
PS – Can you do push-ups easily? How many can you do? Do you have any ideas on how I can make them a bit more fun while I get used to them?
I find it challenging not to over-think my movements in Taekwondo.*
There’s a certain stage of practice that requires me to think a lot about how my body moves. I need to say the ‘choreography’ of each step aloud to myself so I can make sure I get all the pieces in the right place. If I don’t verbally walk myself through the movements, it’s nearly impossible for me to learn something new.
However, when it comes to actually pulling the pieces together, I have to stop thinking and just do. That does not come easily to me. I often end up so focused on accomplishing one part of the movement that I forget to let my body do the things it knows how to do. If I am learning a new kick, I will concentrate on getting my foot in place but I will forget to breathe out at the right point. If I am trying a different punch combination, I will focus on my hands and forget to lean my head away to avoid a blow.
I know that this is part of my learning process, but it would a whole lot easier if I could just layer on the new things without (temporarily) losing any of the old ones.
Even though I know that my mind gets in the way of my movements, it still takes a lot of effort to turn off my thinking and just move. Right now, a combination of perfectionism and a lack of trust in my body is impeding me.
I don’t want to just do a new move any old way, I want to get it right. I want to feel good about the results. I want to be in control of what I’m doing.
Despite the fact that I have been doing Taekwondo for 8 years now, my brain still doesn’t trust that my body knows its stuff. My mind doesn’t quite believe that my body understands how to move, that it can take direction and learn new things.
So, my brain hangs on tightly. It wants me to learn, to ‘get it.’ But, it focuses so clearly on just one aspect of the new move that it prevents me from actually ‘getting it’, it keeps me from pulling all the pieces together.
I know that, with practice, I always reach a point where there the mental process becomes automatic. Or, at least,I reach a point where I am not conscious of the commentary any more. Yet, no matter how many times I am successful after I give up that mental control of my movements, my mind still resists.
This is a different sort of challenge for me in Taekwondo. This isn’t about trying to learn a new physical thing, it’s about changing a mental pattern. Like I said above, I know part of it has to do with me wanting to do it ‘right’ and not wanting to look foolish by making a mistake. Mostly, though, it’s a habit. It’s me being used to living in my head and forgetting to trust my body to do what I ask it to.
I’m not sure how to work on that. If my experience so far hasn’t taught me to stop over-thinking at Taekwondo, then I don’t think it will just *happen.* Perhaps some sort of mental practice, meditation, for example, would be beneficial.
I’m going to to try it and let you know what happens.
In the meantime, if you have any tips, let me know!
*Anyone who knows me is laughing right now because this is the understatement of the year. And it’s not just Taekwondo, I am a champion over-thinker. I could compete in the over-thinking Olympics.
Last week, one of my Taekwondo instructors, Mrs. Cathy Downey, passed her 7th Degree black belt test. At that moment, she became MASTER Cathy Downey*, the first female ITF Taekwondo Master in Newfoundland and Labrador and one of only three female Masters in Canada.
While I have always found her to be an inspiration, this latest accomplishment has really wowed me. I am fiercely proud of her for pushing forward in the male-slanted world of martial arts, and I have realized how much her competence and skill has paved the way for my development in TKD.
I have always been a pretty determined person but I also have to have sense that there is a point to what I am pushing toward. If I were in a typical TKD school, most of the senior students would be men, as would most of the instructors. However, in my school, because of Master Cathy Downey, students have a female role model. Achieving higher ranks seems possible for the women in the class. We don’t have to be an exception, we can strive to be like Master D.
Like I said in my title above, representation matters in fitness, too.
I am sure that we can attribute the sheer number of high ranking female students in our group to the fact that Master Cathy Downey is a vital part of our school. She shows us that women can do everything that we need to in order to excel at Taekwondo. And she does it without making us feel like an exception, she just assumes that we can do it.
And because she is so clearly skilled and so obviously competent, she sets a precedent. The women in the class are also assumed, by everyone, to be skilled and competent. There is no sense that we are skilled ‘for a girl’, we are just skilled. We are learning, just like everyone else.
Now that I have given it more thought. I’m a little shocked that I hadn’t really noticed this before. I knew how important Master D was to our school, but I hadn’t thought about her as a symbol before. I hadn’t realized that she is a marker of all that the other women can achieve.
Thanks to her efforts, we don’t have to prove that ‘a woman’ can do these things, we can just do them to the best of our abilities. Obviously, some of us will be more skilled than others, but any challenges, or even failures, will not be automatically attributed to our gender.
What incredible power there is in that. We can just BE.
I wish that everyone could have this feeling in their chosen fitness activities. I would love for you all to have a sense that ‘someone like you’ – your gender, your age, your shape, your whatever – can do the activity that you want to do and excel at at it.
How much better off would we all be if that were the case? What obstacles would be removed between you and your own version of fitness if you had proof that you could succeed?
I know that I have a lot of people cheering me on at Taekwondo. I have incredible support from women and men alike. In my class there’s a terrific 16-year-old kid who seems to have taken me on as a personal project. He helps when when I mess up, coaches me through difficult new steps and kicks, all without condescension. (Thanks, Patrick!) There’s a team of high-ranking women above me who encourage me every week (Thanks, Sharon, Catherine, Joanne, Lynn & Lucinda). My friend Kevin helps me at every turn. Senior Master Scott Downey has an unwavering belief in my ability.
All of that is amazing and encouraging, but watching Mrs. Downey work so hard to become Master Downey?
That has added a whole new level of possibility for me and I love it.
I have long known that representation matters but I had no idea the visceral impact representation could have until now. Because I have seen her do it, I can see *myself* doing it. I may be ‘only’ on my way to my third degree black belt but you can only do this one step at a time and Master Cathy Downey has lit the entire path ahead.
Congratulations and thank-you, Master D.
I don’t mean for this post to diminish the effort that Senior Master Scott Downey puts in to ensure that our school supports and encourages female students. He is a major factor in our success and he works hard to create and maintain a respectful atmosphere. This post, however, is about how being able to SEE a woman reach such a high rank is important to the women in the class.
*Because my TKD school is run by a married couple with the same last name, this post and future posts could get confusing. So, to clarify: My TKD school is run by a terrific couple, Scott and Cathy Downey. Master Scott Downey was a 7th Degree black belt when I started and has advanced to 8th degree in the past few years, becoming Senior Master Downey. Mrs. Downey was a 5th degree when I started, and has advanced to 7th degree in the meantime. Now my instructors are Senior Master Scott Downey (a.k.a. Master Downey) and Master Cathy Downey (a.k.a. Master D).
For about ninety percent of the the school year, Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for Taekwondo. On those nights, I avoid taking storytelling gigs, I don’t teach writing classes, I don’t do social things – I just head to class and kick. The only real exceptions are emergencies and September.
September is a tricky month for me, not only is it back-to-school for my kids but my arts organization also hosts a week-long festival. So I’ll end up going back to Taekwondo for a few classes, then having to miss a few for curriculum nights and for festival events, and then I jump back into class.
If it were up to me, I would rather just get started and then stick with the routine (I know what what my brain needs). I used to fight the jumbled nature of this month. I would tie myself in knots trying to do part of a class and still make it to the events or to school stuff. I have gotten over that. I realized that I have to accept what September is like and just roll with it. It’s a lot easier on my brain.
So, I started this month by going to a few classes, even though I knew I would then miss three or four in a row. It was fantastic, even though I forgot a few things and the workout was a challenge.
I don’t know if it’s the same for other sports but, for Taekwondo, no matter how much practice you get on your own, getting back to group work is going to be tough. Doing your patterns surrounded by your peers is a lot harder than taking things at your own pace in your living room or yard. Not only do you have to work at a different speed, you have to avoid getting distracted by the person next to you.
My brain loved it though. You know how it feels when you are struggling to remember something and it is just on the edge of your thoughts? Then you get that great feeling of satisfaction when you finally remember? That’s what it felt like to get in the lines for our patterns. It’s not that I didn’t remember the patterns when I was working on my own at home, but there was a delicious feeling of familiarity to getting back into those lines and starting to move as a group.
The same people were to my right and left, the same people were in the row ahead. I was among like-minded friends. The routine was the same, the movements were familiar, they belonged to me. It had that feeling of being the right thing to do at the right time.
One of the things I have always enjoyed about Taekwondo is that it is just complex enough that I can’t let my mind wander while I participate. I have to focus tightly or I lose track. The sense that I have to leave the outside world behind and just do the thing in front of me is a sort of relief. I can’t multitask and do well in class – it just doesn’t work. Using that type of attention again after summer break was really enjoyable and sort of relaxing.
So, yes, I’m having a slow start, but it has been a good one. I’m enjoying the benefits of the classes I can attend and letting go of any guilt about the ones I cannot. It feels great to be easing back into that specific routine, and I especially like how I am able to observe my own muscle memory serving me well. This is going to be a great year of kicking and punching.
Hey there! I’m Christine and I am incredibly grateful to be part of this terrific blogging community.
I’ll be posting every 3rd and 4th Saturday. I consider my posts as the beginning of a conversation so I hope we can have a good chat in the comments!
Here are a few facts about me:
I’m a writer/storyteller/creative life coach.
That means I spend a lot of time up to my metaphorical elbows in stories. Either I am telling them aloud, I am writing them down, or I am helping people work through the stories in their heads that keep them from feeling effective in their own lives.
I like making things up and connecting ideas in interesting ways. I always urge people to be kinder to themselves. I want to make everyone feel a little better about their place in the world either with stories to entertain them or with reminders about how terrific they are.
I’m a martial artist.
I have my second degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo and I am working toward my third degree. I train at Downey’s Taekwondo here in NL. I can break boards, I can kick higher than my own head, and I like how much self-discipline TKD requires.
I have ADHD.
It’s the distractible kind, not the hyperactive kind. ADHD seems to manifest in different ways for different people but for me, it’s a challenge for me to stay on task, to make accurate time estimates, to break projects into smaller bits and to keep a lot of details in mind. The upside is that I am an ideas MACHINE and I have all kinds of creative energy.
Otherwise, I’m pretty average, demographics-wise.
I live just outside of St. John’s, NL with my husband and two teen-aged sons. I’ll be 45 in a couple of months. My pronouns are she/her. I like reading and drawing and board games but I sometimes forget to schedule those things into my life. I’m learning how to be a better judge of how much I can take on at any given time.
Okay, lady, but what will you write about?
As you may have already read in my guest posts (links are under this post), I’ll be writing about Taekwondo and my struggles with figuring out how to learn different parts of my martial art. I’ll be using myself as an example to discuss how challenging it can be to: make time for exercise, to make reasonable exercise plans, to deal with setbacks, and to allow myself to be seen. I will also get into more practical things like my efforts to have better balance, to develop more upper body strength, and to sharpen my TKD techniques.
As a coach and, as regular person, I am all about celebrating effort rather than just results, so I will end each of my posts with a KIYA! After all, self-reflection that moves you forward is a victory of effort.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next Saturday!