Friday, July 27, 2012

The ultimate mind/body program

In recent years Western physicians and researchers have begun formally acknowledging what folks in Asia have known for hundreds if not thousands of years: the mind and body are intricately linked and must be developed as one.  And one of the most profoundly effective methods of achieving this mind/body unity is by practicing what martial artists generally call "forms."  In taekwondo, the martial art that I have practiced for over 40 years, these formal exercises are called poomse.  In essence they are highly choreographed battles against several imaginary opponents, and they require intense physical and mental energy when executed properly.
   Beginning martial artists start out with simple forms that contain relatively few basic techniques: blocks, kicks, and punches.  As simple as these beginning forms may look, they require something that many people lack: the discipline to execute the form or poomse precisely as it was designed by the masters who created it.  In theory, at least, if two martial artists are executing the same form -- one of them in the United States, the other in Australia -- they will do so in exactly the same way. 
   As you might expect, the poomse grow more complicated as you advance up the ladder to and beyond first degree black belt, or first Dan.  The techniques incorporated in the poomse grow more complex, and there are more individual movements -- sometimes vastly more than you find in the beginning forms. 
   So where does the mind/body link come in?  Well, the first step in mastering a form is simply memorizing the sequence of movements.  In this early stage you're basically repeating the sort of exercise you went through when learning multiplication tables back in elementary school.  All that matters is knowing which move follows another.
   Once you've done this, oh, perhaps 50 times, you begin to enter a different realm of mastery.  You already know the movements, so now the goal is to achieve what you might call a meditative state in which the mind and body flow through the poomse with intense focus but without the constant annoyance of troublesome thoughts.  Stated differently, you attain a level of performance at which you no longer think about what move comes next; your mind and body simply deliver the entire poomse without your active control.
   The taekwondo poomse offers practitioners the same sort of "mindfulness" that many people seek to achieve through seated meditation.  You are aware of the present moment, but the moment requires nothing of you.  The more you practice the poomse, the closer you come to achieving a freeing of the mind that permits the movements to flow without your customary habit of controlling events.  It's an "active meditation," naturally, since the body moves and can grow tired, but throughout the exercise you should find yourself at peace -- almost outside yourself but aware of what seems to be happening on its own.
   How many repetitions of a given poomse will it take to achieve this sort of mind/body union?  If you refuse to give up control, it will never happen.  But if you give yourself over to the poomse and allow it simply to happen, perhaps you will get where you want to be after a few hundred repetitions.  That may sound like a tremendous commitment, but consider that the typical taekwondo poomse takes about a minute to execute.  Is keeping your mind and body in balance worth an investment of 200 minutes?  Certainly.  Surely you can find a few minutes even in a busy day.  And it's precisely a busy day that would benefit most from the "active meditation" offered by a taekwondo poomse.
   If you haven't begun studying the martial arts, now's the time.  And if you've "retired" from the martial arts but are still healthy, get back in training.  Your mind and body will both thank you.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Free: "Self-Defense for Seniors"

If you're a senior who happens to live in West Windsor, NJ, or thereabouts, you can take part in two free "Self-Defense for Seniors" classes offered on August 8th and 10th by the West Windsor Senior Center.  Each session will run from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. 
   Since I'll be teaching the classes myself, the self-defense techniques you'll learn are those associated with Taekwondo, the Korean art of self-defense.  I learned my Taekwondo under Grand Master Bobby Kim, a former Taekwondo champion and martial-arts film star.  I believe that Taekwondo is the ideal martial art for seniors, since it relies heavily on kicking techniques.  And since your legs are longer and stronger than your arms, they give you the best chance to defend yourself against a younger, larger attacker.
   Will most seniors ever be assaulted?  Not if they avoid being in the wrong places at the wrong times.  If, let's say, you're riding a subway in Manhattan at 3:00 a.m., you're asking for trouble.  So you can greatly reduce your chances of becoming an assault victim by being smart about where you go and when.  But an attack can take place in a grocery store parking lot at noon if you happen to encounter the wrong individual.  The odds are greatly against this, but why not be prepared to handle the situation just the same?
   In my two upcoming classes you'll learn that the first response to an impending attack is to talk.  If there's any way you can talk your way out of the attack, do so.  Plead, beg, or be sweet.  If that fails, scream for help.  If you're in a busy parking lot, there's a good chance that someone will come to your aid.  But if help doesn't arrive quickly enough, you need to be prepared to keep from, let's say, getting punched in the face.  So in the two West Windsor Senior Center sessions you'll learn basic blocking techniques as well as follow-up strikes that can help buy you precious time.  And time is what you're after: time to turn and get away from the attacker and to dial 911.
   Should you consider taking a couple of basic self-defense classes?  If you're in reasonably good physical condition and don't have serious balance problems, why not?  Naturally, if you haven't been physically active for some time you absolutely should consult your physician before embarking on any sort of fitness-related program.  This just makes good sense.
    If you take a short self-defense class and find it stimulating, then by all means consider enrolling in a senior-friendly martial arts school near you.  In this blog I am happy to help publicize senior-friendly schools, so if you know of one, just tell me something about it.
    It's never too late to take self-defense seriously.  And since I've spent the last 40 years of my life studying Taekwondo, I know that this is a martial art that is perhaps ideally suited to those of us who are 60 and older.
   For more information about the West Windsor Senior Center self-defense program, call 609-799-9068.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sixty and silver

In my June 29th post I introduced you to 60-year-old Dennis Schaefer, a taekwondo black belt who was preparing to compete in the U.S.A. Taekwondo Championships in Dallas, TX.  So it's time to wrap up this story with the results of his most recent Olympic Sparring contest. 
   Dennis came home to Dayton, OH, with a silver medal after finishing second to a 51-year-old competitor.  Although he gave up nine years to the eventual winner, Dennis stood tall in what he had told us might be his final competition.  And if he does indeed retire after this year's major event, Dennis leaves the competitive arena with two important victories: a silver medal in USAT's most prestigious tournament; and the knowledge that he competed with honor while most guys his age were home flopped on the couch in front of a TV.
  The martial spirit doesn't need to fade because of age.  And you don't need to be a championship competitor in order to exhibit that spirit in the martial art of your choice.  All you need to do is take up a martial art for the first time -- and, no, it's never too late -- or come out of "retirement" and begin training again.  Whether you're 50, 60, 70, or older, all it takes is the willingness to commit yourself to the discipline of a senior-friendly school in your area.
   Look, those of us who are in our mid-sixties know that we're not 25.  And if your brain doesn't get it, your body sure does.  Perhaps you tire sooner than you once did.  And maybe your high kicks aren't as high as they once were.  And it's entirely possible that your sense of balance isn't as sharp as before.  All of this would matter greatly if the goal was to win an Olympic medal.  But that's not what this is all about.  The goal is to be as fully alive as possible, and the martial arts represent one of the most powerful mind-and-body training programs ever created.
   So in today's blog I offer three messages straight from my heart:
      -- A rousing "two thumbs up" to Dennis Schaefer for taking silver at 60.
      -- A glad salute to all seniors who are still practicing the martial arts to the best of their ability.
      -- And to everyone else a warm invitation to get in the game by visiting a senior-friendly martial-arts school in your hometown.
   Are you already training at a senior-friendly school?  Please send me the name so that I can tell readers about it here on "Seniors in the Martial Arts."  Don't keep the good news to yourself.