I’m closing in on my first martial arts promotion. I knew virtually nothing about martial arts when I signed up in January; all I knew was that I wanted more humility and self-discipline, and that martial arts would probably be a good way to make that happen. I was so raw and new that I didn’t even know the school offered kickboxing. I signed up for classes and walked out the door with a bag of gear I couldn’t name and didn’t know how to put on. This is a reflection on what I’ve learned in four months.
First, we wear colored belts to show which level we’ve reached. The color systems vary depending on the discipline. Every ten classes, we get a stripe, which at my school is symbolized by a strip of black tape. Right now, I have a yellow belt with two stripes for Krav Maga and a white belt with two stripes for Muay Thai. This system is not traditional but it is convenient.
I’ve participated in one promotion. Students are encouraged to show up and do the workout to support those who are testing up a level, and also so we know what we’re in for. The result of this is that daisy-fresh novices like myself are doing a hundred squats with blue belts who’ve been training for years. This four-hour workout stands out as one of the toughest physical challenges of my life, right up there with hiking Hrafntinnusker, a sweat lodge ceremony, and running my marathon. Certainly it was harder than the Warrior Dash. I bonked for the first time in years. I was so tired afterward that my hands were shaking and I had to fight to tie my shoes.
Working out with people who have been training longer is a sort of emotional bridge. It can be demotivating when you feel like you can’t keep up, or if you mistakenly attribute the results of their extra months or years of training to “genetics.” I almost ran out of the room at one point, and if I hadn’t had my arms linked with two other people, I probably would have. (I made a dumb mistake and called out the wrong number, and 50-60 people had to do extra squats to pay for my error). Fortunately the woman between me and the door is a legend in our school, possibly a decade older than me and an excellent peer role model. I’ll get to train with her after I reach advanced level. I doubt she has any idea what an example she is to newer students.
That’s the motivating part of working out in a group. If you have a growth mindset and you believe that each workout brings you one step closer to group level, it helps you to push harder. One more coat of shellac on the jar. One more drop in the bucket. Water can drill through solid rock, drop by drop.
When I showed up for my first class, it had never really crossed my mind that there would be this thing called a “warmup.” We usually start with “tens,” which is a set of ten pushups, ten sit-ups, and ten jump squats. (Um, what’s a jump squat?) I thought I was in pretty good shape, for anyone, not just for a bookish middle-aged lady. Then I discovered that I couldn’t really do a sit-up. I had to grab hold of my thigh to pull myself up. Demoralized, embarrassed, and stubborn as all get-out. This is what humility is supposed to feel like, my cupcake, so get back down there and finish your set.
Fast forward four months. Now I can do twenty push-ups and holding a plank for sixty seconds just feels like a nice calf stretch. I can do fifteen burpees. I can trot up three flights of stairs in the Metro in one minute. I can do a roundhouse kick. The stuff I can do now is starting to feel like superpowers, like the day young Spider-Man wakes up and realizes he’s not ordinary any more.
Perhaps more interesting, I’m going through some wild physical changes. I can see my tricep bulge while my arm is at rest. When I assume fighting stance, my trapezius muscles make a pretty intimidating bulge. My quadriceps are starting to pop again like they did when I was a bicycle commuter. My husband says he can see my lats. I’ve gained as much as twelve pounds since I started training, but weirdly, my clothes still fit. (It’s not all muscle but some of it has to be). Most importantly for my life, my pain threshold is much higher.
Things that should hurt don’t really anymore. It’s hard to express how major this is for someone with a history of fibromyalgia and migraine. I’ve punched myself in the eye and had the pads smack me in the mouth and nose. I’ve throat-tagged myself by falling onto my own fist. I’ve kicked someone else’s toenail and cut myself, and then a couple days later I kicked a pad, cracked my toenail, and drew blood. Fortunately I’ve managed not to bleed on the mat. I generally have bruises or minor scrapes in various states of healing on every limb.
I opened a pickle jar with my bare hands for the first time in my life. I was so excited I texted my husband, who was possibly even more thrilled than I was.
Learning to fight has changed a lot about my mindset. On the one hand, I find myself automatically sizing up everyone who passes by, and I’m a little more flinchy when people stand behind me. On the other hand, I get a lot more out of fighting scenes in action films, and I have a new confidence. A drunk guy catcalled me from where he sat on the curb as I walked by, and I just rolled my eyes, thinking, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
I nearly quit after my first few weeks in martial arts classes. I felt so unfit and weak and breathless and clumsy and uncoordinated, I genuinely felt like my presence was unfairly holding other students back. My teachers and fellow students were so encouraging, though, that I reminded myself why I was there. HUMILITY AND SELF-DISCIPLINE, not confidence or pride, although those feelings are starting to surface. I stuck around and started to be captivated by the forms.
Speaking as a distance runner and endurance athlete, martial arts is a completely different type of physical challenge. I don’t get the mood elevating or analgesic effects of running. Usually I don’t even get the “good workout” tingle afterward. The mental challenge, though, makes martial arts far more interesting. It’s a much better all-around workout. At least at this stage of my training, I haven’t incurred any overuse injuries. When I ran an 8k three months into training, I set a personal best, and it’s obviously been paying off in stronger glutes, quads, core, and hip flexors. I plan to add running back into my routine as soon as I can physically handle it, because I miss it, but this is something I can see doing indefinitely.
There are students at my martial arts academy ranging in age from four to seventy-eight. I remind myself of this every time we do an exercise that is outside my current abilities. I’m in exactly the right place, which is right here and right now. I’ll never be younger than I am today, and at least my skeleton is fully grown. The work I do today as a clumsy beginner is another drop in the bucket, work that will inevitably lead me forward to my next stripes.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.