Thursday, May 22, 2008

A “Tang Soo Do” Bandicoot - Me!

Hey! I’m back! Lots of interesting things happening and there are several pieces that I’m working on, but I didn’t want to post stuff just for the sake of posting… so.

This morning though, I had a compelling reason to sit down and write…

Today is a particularly happy day for me. Today is the day I received my Orange Belt (the first level) in Tang Soo Do.

I have been learning this martial art for almost a year now, but with some breaks in between. Why and how I came to do this, you’ll read a little later on.

I do not know what images a “martial arts class” evokes in you. Perhaps a scene out of “Enter The Dragon”, with lots of h.a.r.d. types endlessly repeating punches and kicks, extreme macho types breaking piles of burning bricks with their bare hands, and alpha males sparring with precise, lethal moves and blows?

Enter the Dragon

Well, the classes I attend are very different. My instructor is a soft spoken lady who needs glasses to read. Make no mistake, though… she can break boards, burning bricks and bones with the best of them - she is a second degree black belt. She is just likely to do the destruction more gracefully.

Her daughter is 10 years old and the only reason she hasn't received her black belt as yet is that she needs to be at least 12 to officially get one. She’s been waiting 2 years already!

Classes last about 90 minutes and are held thrice a week in a spotless, well ventilated hall awash with natural light. When you look out of the big windows you see quite a bit of greenery around.

A typical class starts with the students - the majority of them ladies - lining up according to seniority and doing a few minutes of “chi” breathing.

At the end of this, the instructor and the students bow to each other and then everyone salutes the school flag by crossing the right hand, palm down, across the left chest. Then we all sit down for several minutes of meditation with our eyes closed.

We come out of meditation, stand up and then the real action starts – we do about 30 to 40 minutes of stretching and other strengthening exercises. At this point the instructor gives us a minute’s break to drink some water and when we come back we learn and practice punches, kicks, blocks, moving drills, sparring routines and combinations of all these for another 30 or 40 minutes.

At the end of this we salute the flag and sit down for another short session of meditation to bring the body rhythm back to “normal”. When we come out of closing meditation we stand up and repeat aloud the 5 codes and 7 tenets of Tang Soo Do:
  • Loyalty to country
  • Obedience to parents
  • Honor friendship
  • No retreat in battle
  • In fighting, choose with sense and honor
  • Integrity
  • Concentration
  • Perseverance
  • Respect & Obedience
  • Self-Control
  • Humility
  • Indomitable Spirit

I really love that part. The words tease and awaken something deep inside me. We all then raise our right hand in a fist, with the our left hand crossed across our stomach, and happily cry “Tang Soo!”and clap like children, for the sheer joy of feeling so alive.

Finally, we walk up to our instructor in a single file, in the order of our seniority, bow, make eye contact, smile, shake her hand, and quietly say “thank you” in Korean before dispersing.

There is soft, pleasant music always playing from a Bose i-pod port but I am seldom consciously aware of it during the 90 minutes of class. There is almost no chatting between students during class. There is an elegant protocol that governs every activity, every move we make while inside the training hall. The instructor is as patient as the hills but she can also be as tough as nails. In any given class, there are usually all levels of students - from rank beginners to fairly senior ones – and everybody gets the attention they require. Some classes are quite relaxed but some are brutal. But they are all invariably fun. Well, that’s the kind of martial arts class I go to.

As in most martial arts, in TSD too there is a system of colored belts to measure the progress of a student. Beginners wear white belts and the first color belt they test for is the Orange Belt. This usually happens after three to six months of training.

The instructor is the only person who decides if a student is ready for a test. It is not a student’s birthright and he or she cannot request, much less demand, to be tested. Tests are held roughly once in three months on a weekend morning. A notice is put up a week earlier with the names of the students appearing for the test and the level they would be testing for. Also, for each level there is a small written assignment to be submitted in advance. The subject for the first level assignment is “Why do I do Tang Soo Do?”

My test was scheduled for early April; I submitted my assignment, paid the test fees and couldn’t wait to get my first colored belt. I started picturing myself proudly wearing my Orange Belt in class.

I would have to tell all my friends about it. Tell my parents, too. Perhaps post a small, smug piece on my blog about it….

And then, a few days before the test day, I injured my foot during training and had to sit the test out. This was the second time I was missing a test. I was disappointed, but well, tough luck! Now I would have to wait for the next test in three months’ time. I resigned myself to more days of not learning any new techniques. It would soon be almost a year since I joined the class.

But this morning, the unexpected happened. I walked into class a few minutes late and vaguely sensed an increased focus on me from the instructor. Her daughter, who never trains with our morning class, was present. As I took my place in class, the instructor specifically asked me how I was feeling. I realized then that it was my test day!

Very occasionally, an unannounced test is held for one or more students who missed the scheduled test for whatever reason. My instructor, in her wisdom, had decided to accord me the privilege of being tested in the course of a regular class!

Tests are very challenging. But if you are expecting it, then it’s more or less OK. On the other hand, when it’s sprung on you on a Friday morning, with your mind already hazily zooming in on potential, delicious weekend excesses…then it’s…tough! On test day, all hell breaks loose.

Also, the poor co-students, especially the new ones who have never tested before, get caught unawares in the storm along with you… a little rain must fall into each life…;-)

And thus, this morning, I walked out after class, exhausted, drained, spent but at the same time energized, excited, ecstatic – the proud owner of a brand new Orange Belt!

I couldn’t stop smiling the whole day long and couldn’t wait to write all this down and share it with you!

Tang Soo!!!!!

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