My youngest child drove herself to work this morning. Her after-school and weekend job is across town in the martial arts school where we have both trained since she was five. We have been driving across Sydney, from the trees and water of the land just north of Parramatta River, the river that cuts through Sydney opening into the Harbour, to the denser, dirtier, livelier inner-south-west for twelve years.
I’m a martial artist, a black belt in taekwondo. I can perform the core techniques, from foundation white belt kicks through to complex kicks which require balance, accuracy and power. I can spar up to three opponents simultaneously. I can also repel attacks to any part of my body with different self-defence techniques. My strength and agility is demonstrated through breaking boards with spinning and jumping kicks. I incorporate weapons into different routines, an element of show which calls on our dexterity.
It also means I can perform patterns—the complex dance-like, or choreographed, routines which the sport’s founders incorporated into the art to allow for a mock fight without injuring each other. They comprise multiple steps of kicks, stances and hand techniques, moving from left to right, forwards and backwards, turning and twisting. They must be performed perfectly to pass gradings.
They are also incredibly hard for me to learn. I don’t think visually, or spatially. I have trouble recalling sequences—from street directions to recipes. I still make left and right-hand mistakes under pressure.
I learnt the first two black belt patterns in classes at my school, the Australian Martial Arts Academy, joining up with other students to go over them again. And again. And again. Even when they are embedded, they still require complete concentration—focusing on each turn or technique one by one through the sequence.
Learning the third dan black belt pattern, Guem Gang, required something different. I, like most of NSW now, am in lockdown. We are supported by videos taking us step by step through the pattern but I didn’t know how hard I would find it translating those remote visuals. I would watch them, pause the video, step again, but it was incredibly frustrating not being able to retain more than a few steps in my head at once. Each move is, in itself, a complex combination of arms, legs, feet, head. I was trying to see the video over my shoulder, or from too far away. It was hard to resume after pausing mid-sequence, the pattern interrupted. I got the first 10 to 15 moves, but then couldn’t progress.
But I am a writer of, among other things, technical, operational, instructional material. I had to write it out. I watched the videos again, pausing every few seconds to write down each move and its component parts: a stance, a turn, a direction. Then I recorded myself reading out those steps. I put in my AirPods and listened to the exact instructions, moving through the pattern. This helped me learn the intricacies of each step, but I forgot the sequence, the flow, as soon as I tried without the instructions. I needed to commit the moves to memory in a way that made sense to me.
I re-recorded it, this time counting before each move: one through to ten, again one to ten, and finally one to seven: all 27 moves. I practised again and finally, a breakthrough. I found I could remember the move that accompanied the number, for instance, crane stance was 8, 5, 8, and 5 again. We count the moves in class but I could only see how they fitted together when I wrote them down.
There were times I thought I’d never get it, and my ‘aha’ moment was only this afternoon, but I know the pieces have fallen into place. It’s another demonstration of the many different ways there are to learning the same thing and why technical writing is as much about understanding the user, as it is the system we are describing.
My taekwondo instructor, Master Hakan from the Australian Martial Arts Academy talked about flow in a Zoom class this week. He’d just taken us through a strenuous warm-up, exercise after exercise, pushing us hard. As we were catching our breath, he talked about that state which sits between the mental and the physical, where our engagement with our task is so complete that we forget time. It’s a state which others might know as being ‘in the zone’.
American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi articulates the concept in his classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, first published in 1990. He says, ‘The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding…. It provide[s] a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality’ (2002: 67).
Part of the deal, of course, is that it takes work and this was Master Hakan’s point. A state of flow emerges when we’ve put in the effort and are pushing our capacity to the limit. We see our kicks become more defined and accurate, can hold our balance for longer and our stamina surprises us.
The elements of flow, of indeed happiness, are ‘clarity of goals, feedback, feeling of control, concentration on the task at hand, intrinsic motivation, and challenge’ (89). Understanding this changed my life. When I read Flow in 2013, I saw that a few things had gone missing. But I knew where to find them.
I recognised that feeling when I worked with words: writing, editing, creating meaning in text. I became absorbed in my task. I drew on my strengths, extended myself, and found the work intrinsically satisfying. I changed my career, gained a second Masters degree, and set up my own business.
This is also my martial arts journey in a nutshell. We start as white belts and as we learn more and more difficult techniques, we are challenged to go longer, harder, higher. But that sense of optimal experience which Csikszentmihalyi describes can just as easily come from a perfectly executed white belt foundation kick. You can see and feel your mastery; the feedback is immediate.
This morning, I felt lighter and stronger, with energy to spare … With a hot shower, breakfast and work to get on with I didn’t keep going, but it was nice to feel I could have! As I sit here now, I am still alive with sensation. Yes, it’s partly endorphins but it’s more than the physical. Flow changes you: ‘[After] each episode of flow, a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills.’ (41). And this is the extraordinary compounding effect that allows us to improve, to keep on.
Finding the balance between challenge and capacity, finding your flow, is the biggest game-changer of all because, ultimately, it is the source of our happiness.
My taekwondo school, the Australian Martial Arts Academy, has been in operation for 35 years this month. I’ve been training there for six years and have a few ideas about its staying power.
I was asked recently whether taekwondo gave me a ‘workout’. The quick answer is yes! But you can answer that question on a few levels.
As a 1980s teenager I did my share of cardio fitness aerobic classes (New Body, Step, anyone?) Taekwondo does that and more. We drip sweat! Depending on the teacher, outside air temperature or any other variable (and the Grand Master can be unforgiving in those weeks after Christmas), expect 20–40 minutes of heart-pounding exercise. And we do it to music! I’ve never figured out who puts together the workout tracks, but hats off. They’re great.
While kicks are adjusted for belt colour, everybody is pushing it. Powerful repetitions of a white belt kick can be as exhausting as a senior belt kick. We add technique onto technique, building up combinations of punches, kicks, spins, jumps and occasionally gymnastics moves (who would have guessed that learning cartwheels as a kid would be so useful now!)
We all train together. As a beginner, I learned so much from the black belts’ patient tuition in class. I love giving back now, and helping others is one of the best ways to remind yourself of the techniques again.
The sheer pleasure in ‘getting’ a technique is something you’d never get in boot camp. I remember my incredulity in first learning a double turning kick: this is a turning kick on one leg, immediately followed up with a second kick with the other. What? How can I bring up that leg before I’ve even landed the first? It’s now second nature. And you move on, learning and applying more difficult skills. It’s impossible not to smile watching someone master something new. And the breadth of the curriculum makes this workout different. In any class you could be learning kicks, self-defence moves, sparring….or meditating.
I was once captain of my school tennis team. While I still think it is a beautiful game, those moments when I revelled in my control and skill seemed too rare. In taekwondo, you don’t need a partner or an opponent. You’re competing against yourself. Showing up, training, perfecting a technique will only matter to you, in the end.
And the real difference? We’re asked to reflect on who we are, and where we’re going. Setting goals in life as well as sport is the backbone of Australian Martial Arts’ operation. It’s working for me.
Happy 35 years, AMA.
Where is home? What is it? Does it convey a house, a city, a country?
The Oxford defines it as ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household’; the Macquarie says it is your ‘fixed residence’. When we’re kids, I think it means ‘where our parents live’. I grew up in Hong Kong. Friends came and went. We lived in four different houses. It was a transient life but always ‘home.’
The German word ‘heimat’ describes another kind of home. It has no direct English translation but a friend described it as that ‘place of one’s first memories.’ Although Hong Kong will always be home in that sense, I think ‘home’ is inseparable from belonging. I can’t replicate the innocence of my childhood days in Hong Kong. I don’t belong there anymore.
When I came back to live in Australia in June 1986, I marked the immigration entry card as returning ‘permanently’. The time I’d been away was 10 years, one month. I’ll always remember the official at Brisbane airport who stamped my passport. He looked up at me that day, looked at the 16 year old travelling alone who had left her family for the first time. He said ‘Welcome home’.
I had a love-hate relationship with Sydney for years. It’s a bitch of a city to get around. Real estate is prohibitive, public transport is wanting, its fads and fashions shallow. Even after my three children were born here, I felt no strong ties.
A few years ago, I was working in the city and crossed the Anzac Bridge daily on a bus. If I faced west, I could look across Iron Cove and see Glebe’s parks and terrace houses where I spent my student days, Fisher Library at Sydney University, the gothic elegance of its Main Quadrangle, the church spire marking Annandale where we lived as newly-weds, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital behind the first house we bought.
I could see the passing of those twenty or so years in that view. Sydney felt like home.
What does home mean to you?
I just disappeared down a rabbit hole. Sales, business coaching, marketing, sales, Snap Chat, Zoella, millennials, sales, vlogging. Anything you can read, you can read to screen. Better. Faster.
I learnt that blogging is passé. If you want to, you can write it down later, from the vlog. There’s your blog. In words. But it’s not as good, is it?
So nobody reads, video content is all but some video content is worse than none. If you’re not onto the next big thing, you’re doomed, it’s too late, you’ll miss it. Don’t miss out.
Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters: When you write a blog, all you have to consider is the best way to get your message across using good old-fashion words, sentences and paragraphs (Blogging Edge, Vlogging 101: Where to Vlog and Why it Matters, 19 March 2014, UK, http://bloggingedge.com/blog/where-to-vlog-and-why-it-matters/)
I get change. I love the new media for connecting, for selling, for messages. I consume it. I’m going to make a video or two myself. Stay tuned.
But I feel as though I need to sit in a library for a few minutes.
Who’s with me?
The other day my mother noted, surprised, that I’d been doing taekwondo at the Australian Martial Arts Academy in Marrickville for five years and I realised how it’s become a part of my life. With three kids, full-time work and a general disinclination towards exercise, how did I get here? I think it’s a combination of planning, commitment and taking advantage of a few indirect benefits.
I needed to be organised, needed something to push me. Having a sport with a built-in structure of milestones and targets has definitely helped. Why would you stay a white or yellow belt, limited to basic kicks, when you could be blue, or red, or black? Nailing a hard technique is such a buzz. But you don’t need martial arts to set targets. A friend taught herself to run by starting out walking and then running home. She moved the point where she started running further and further back until she left the house running. Now she’s doing 10ks.
My daughter’s aptitude and love for taekwondo was another key driver in keeping me going too. Use your children’s enthusiasm to motivate you.
Logistics can be tricky. I know a few families who all train together, parents and kids, which is a fabulous way to do it. My daughter was introduced to AMA through a friend and I’ve been sharing the driving with her parents from the beginning. I would swing by after work, do an Adults class, then bring the girls home. Find out if any children living locally are interested in coming along. There might be some days you can share pick-ups and drop-offs.
It’s helped that I’ve mostly had some flexibility at work. I negotiated a 10am-6pm day when I went back to work full time years ago. While I now work from home, I still take care of mornings, organising breakfast and school. My husband does afternoons and dinner (he’s a great cook!)
I’m vigilant in keeping Saturday mornings for my sport. Sometimes I know I’m going to be there for a few hours so I pack a towel and use the shower in the changing room. Stretched out on the grassy village green of the Addison Road Community Centre with a good book, or my laptop, it feels like a second backyard.
With trees to climb and plenty of friends, there aren’t any complaints from my daughter either if she has to wait for me.
Sundays we keep for family time and shopping—getting the week’s groceries done in one hit has long been crucial to our household’s collective sanity. Sometimes we give the kids a pass-out, but mostly we do it together. Ok, they might not love it but they don’t complain much either. There’s usually a packet of Tim Tams in it for them.
These are things that worked for us—there isn’t a cookie-cutter answer and everybody will have different routines. The Nike slogan, Just Do It is on the mark. It doesn’t matter what, only that you do. I made the time and then, without really noticing, it became a habit.
And the thing I’ve found about commitment is that it’s bankable. You get to a point where you can draw on it. And I did in the year getting to my black belt. My 6am wakeups to train in the dark and the cold depended on it. And I’d do the afternoon class, drive home, eat quickly, and return for the evening class. Once, I was wondering aloud whether I could manage it that night and my instructor said ‘just come back’. And I knew she was right. All I had to do was pick up my keys and turn around. My training helped me stop thinking how hard it might be, and just set my body to autopilot.
You can too.
I’ve never been sure about ‘Mother’s Day’. It wasn’t a thing where I grew up and my own mother was ambivalent (‘every day is a mother’s day’). But I’ve decided that if the world wants to offer you a day, take it. Use it in whatever way you want. Maybe think about what you want to do and how you’re going to get there. Starting martial arts at 41 was a turning point for me in thinking about my goals and setting my sights high.
I was hardly an exercise junkie. The physical and emotional intensity of parenting small children meant that the couch was usually my preferred surface for spending my downtime. And I just didn’t see the importance of making time available. Hey, I walked everywhere, kicked a ball around the yard, pushed swings… But I wasn’t fit and I was constantly tired. My rational brain knew that exercise would give me more energy instead of drawing on my last resources, but I couldn’t make it happen. Gyms bore me, I’m not big on team sports, yoga was either too intense or too benign. Fitting a schedule into work, home and commuting was too hard and I resented it taking up my family time.
I started training at 41 and this month makes the fifth year since I started taekwondo at the Australian Martial Arts Academy in Marrickville. My daughter, now ten, had taken to Little Dragons like a duck to water. Her enthusiasm was infectious and I realised, in that parent-induced joy at being able to kill two birds with one stone, I could exercise and spend time with her.
It didn’t take much for me to sign up too. With children and adults training together, or in adjacent timeslots, in an environment where my daughter has always felt safe, it wasn’t hard to fit in a few 40 minute classes each week. We talk about the techniques, train at home, take belt tests together and push each other when we’re not quite coping. We understand each other better because of our shared sport.
I am fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life and as slim as my 25-year-old self. I can do push-ups and land a punch properly. Now that’s something that girls don’t learn by themselves! The self-defence component of martial arts is critical to my enthusiasm, for me and my daughter. Being able to confidently block an attack, fight back and get away safely is an integral part of all our training. Another aspect I love is that every move in taekwondo has a purpose. Thinking about how and when to execute a technique distracts me from the burning in my legs.
Working through the ten tests to get to black in June 2015 took a focus and discipline I had shelved for too long.
Don’t think it’s too late.
It wasn’t the day we’d envisaged. Arriving at breakfast, too early to check in, we dumped our bags and went for a walk. Boston in the spring was nude—the shutters and lace skirts of the grand old ladies sweeping the boulevards visible through the bare branches of the trees. Taking in the old city, walking the riverfront, eating in style at a restaurant with tablecloths, and perhaps a sommelier, were on my list.
Within a few minutes, at virtually the end of our street, we almost fell over the stations at Mile 21. In that indulgent, touristy way of needing to be nowhere else, we embedded ourselves in a kerbside position, warmed by strengthening sunshine and coffee. It was to be one of the most exhilarating days I’ve experienced. Raw emotion was laid out before us in a tableau of pain, pride, humour, strength and vulnerability. It was a privilege being there.
The first through are the leads in the chair races who are a blur of angled spokes and elbows. They’ve just climbed Heartbreak Hill and glide a few metres down an infinitesimal decline before thrusting forward again. The crowd goes wild.
Then the runners appear. We are standing near a support crew, friends, compatriots of the Ethiopian runners. They wave flags and cheer ecstatically when the male and female leads appear, Ethiopians both. On our other side is Team Japan waving a poster, friends of a runner who streaks past in an early wave, sweat-slicked, smooth. We cheer them all.
I could have reached out and touched those who hugged the barricades, sticking close to the shade as the sun rose high. Could they could even hear us over their interior machine? Foot over foot over foot. Some people did reach out, holding out for a high five.
It seemed borderline voyeuristic at times but, later, some talked of how grateful they were to the crowds, that it did help them, even expressing astonishment that we could go on for hours! Us? And how, with the slightest encouragement, even a smile, we would get louder! Sometimes a runner would whoop up their arms, revving the crowd, and we responded joyously.
If a runner was in distress, we became anxious, heads turned to the nearest aid station. When a man stumbles towards the barricades near us, cramping badly, he is supported, fed a banana, continues to a chorus of: ‘Yeah! You got this! Nearly home!’ Gestures of shared humanity brought the tears; we were with them.
We can’t get close to the finish line, security is tight, the barricades close. This is where the bombs went off in 2013 which changed the marathon for ever. But you don’t need to see the finish to feel it. The vibe is all around. Runners sit, draped in their space blankets, children and partners nearby. In the subway, we offer seats.
Writing is another endurance sport—unforgiving hours with only one’s thoughts and a manuscript for company. Cheer them all.