Becoming a Yellow Belt at Age 52

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I didn’t originally want to take Tae Kwon Do. I really wanted to learn Tai Chi. I was more interested in learning the elegant centeredness that Tai Chi seems to confer on its adherents, and, frankly, defending myself seemed like the last thing in the world I would ever need. I live most of the time in a kind of peaceful hamlet in northern New Jersey that is so safe that we leave our keys in the cars and sleep without bothering to lock the doors of the house. When I’m in New York City, home of desparadoes and other ne’er-do-wells, I hardly leave my apartment, and I’ve secured my fate of having to be there by essentially creating an impenetrable fortress. So, I didn’t think martial arts were my cup of tea. But Tae Kwon Do was only a five-minute drive from my home in New Jersey, and the nearest Tai Chi class was a full half hour away. So Tae Kwon Do it was.

I fell in love my first class. I’ve been running for almost twenty years. Yet, I never abided by the primary rule of running, the sine qua non of running – STRETCH, STRETCH, STRETCH. I never stretched – either before or after. So if there was anything my body craved, it was stretching. And stretching is what it got in my first Tae Kwon Do class. We spent a full half-hour just stretching. At the end of the class I felt like I was en route to becoming a fully elasticized rubber band. I went home contented, energized and excited about my new adventure.

My second class, I fell out of love. Apparently Mondays are the days that emphasize stretching, but Tuesdays are the days that emphasize sparring. So, there I was, paired with a 12 year old boy, chosen as my partner by my teacher, Master Lee, because of our approximate sizes. In our sparring that day, we were supposed to find that place in the crook of our arms that make our opponent scream for mercy. That was the first assignment. Then we were supposed to defend ourselves against punches, which of course, aren’t supposed to make real contact, but nevertheless came within an inch or two of our very real faces. I seemed to be the only one who flinched as that arm came barreling towards my aged, but still moderately attractive face that would have looked decidedly less attractive with a broken nose. I emerged from my second class terrified, but apparently, much to my surprise, unscathed.

A few more sparring classes and I began to get the feel for it. I began to actually get enjoyment out of having physical contact with my partner. I understood the thrill that contact sports have for the boys. The day that I felled my six-foot, 200 pound opponent with my leg wrapped around his in just the right position, at just the right angle, pushing him down with practically just my little finger – that was a triumph. It was exhilarating.

And so it went, for the next several months. I reveled in the hard sweat I worked up in each class. My legs felt strong, but not constricted the way they had become after all my running. I couldn’t quite get the punches, but I kept trying. Apparently, the entire lower half of my body has a tendency to be completely rigid when I throw a punch. I see how the guys do it. Their hips sway; their feet are loose. It’s a boy thing, I guess.

I remain in awe at watching the seasoned Tae Kwon Doers. Daniel, about 18 (who himself is, like the origins of Tai Kwon Do and like my teacher, Korean) looks like he was born to this. He has the elegance of Barishnokov when he moves. He has the jumps of Michael Jordan, having learned how to defy gravity. He is literally poetry in motion. Yet, when he spars, his face takes on the vengeance of a wronged man, not an adolescent, and he looks mean beyond his years. My first sparring partner, the 12 year-old boy, is already a black belt; his moves are clumsier than Daniel’s, more child-like but nevertheless a joy to watch.

In Tae Kwon Do, as in all martial arts, there is a belting system. There is some variation among martial art schools, and even within the various Tae Kwon Do schools, but ours goes from white to yellow to orange to green to blue to red to black. And there are stripes in between for some of them. When you walk in the door, you are assigned a white belt. You need to know nothing to have a white belt. A year into my lessons, I was still sporting my white belt. My white belt was just fine with me. I was taking the class, so I reasoned to myself, for the exercise, not to rise up in its hierarchy. This thinking and passivity was unusual for those for take martial arts. Most people graduate to their next belt pretty quickly – usually within a month or two, three max. And graduating to a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do is not a big deal. Everyone gets a yellow belt if you just show up. You can be a complete imbecile in the martial arts and you will still get a yellow belt. Five-year-old children get yellow belts. Only a fool would boast with pride that she is a yellow belt. It’s almost an embarrassment.

At the end of my year, my teacher suggested I take the test to become a yellow belt. I laughed. I declined. I thought about it. I agreed. I gave myself a generous two months to prepare. I practiced my forms. These are a set of moves that one memorizes; they’re about 20 of them, and you need to know more and more of them as you progress through your belts. As well, I did my stretches faithfully after my runs instead of just waiting until class. I even bought a book on Tae Kwon Do that I could study between classes.

The evening before the test: I was nervous. I kept rehearsing the forms over and over again. I didn’t trust that my 52 year-old memory would serve me. I couldn’t sleep.

The test: I was shaking from nervousness as I sat, waiting my turn, watching my classmates take their tests for their higher belts. As a child, I had performed piano in contests and recitals. As an adult, I have spoken at conferences to 500 people at a time. I have appeared on national television, on shows like Donahue, Sally Jesse, Maury Povich, Oprah. I was never as nervous for any of those events as I was for this silly little test for a silly little belt.

I took the test with a young man, about 20 or so, who had started classes just a month earlier. He was quite athletic, and I could tell that he was going to go far and fast in this endeavor. I felt comforted by his presence next to me. I figured I would keep an eye on him through my peripheral vision, and if I had a memory lapse, I would just copy him.

We started the first form. I watched him like a hawk. We both did OK. We started the second form. I kept watching him, following his steps, imitating his steps like an immediate, no-time- lapse instant replay. Halfway through the form, he stopped. I stopped. We were both lost. He had taken a wrong turn somewhere in the procession of steps, and I had, like a lamb to slaughter, followed him obediently.

Then, as I was standing there, red-faced and humiliated, I had a revelation. It hit me suddenly and powerfully. They say that as you’re dying, your whole life passes before you. This was something like that. In that instant, I realized that counting on him was a pattern I had followed my whole life: I was depending on a man. I had assumed he was better than I, knew more, had a better memory – was superior to me in a thousand untold ways — merely because he was a man. This pattern started, of course, with the man of all men: my father. I grew up with a sense that he could right all wrongs. I came to count on my sense of his omnipotence, to think that I needed his magical powers to be safe. Then there were all the boyfriends I have had, all the relationships that were so important to me that I felt I would die when the relationships ended. There were my male professors in college, who I elevated to such a god status that I believed that only they knew all the right ways to think.

In that instant, as I stood there, lost from my Tae Kwon Do form, I found an awareness: I became aware that all my life I had emulated men, elevated men and, in doing so, had denigrated myself and my wholeness. In that instant of recognition of this long-standing sexism of mine, I suddenly felt full and complete – as me and as a woman. I looked at my teacher. He told us to start again. I went inside my body, I concentrated – and I began again, this time with absolute confidence in myself. I never looked at that young man again. I performed the form flawlessly. The class applauded when I finished. My teacher smiled warmly.

I had never been so nervous as I was that day of the test, but, perhaps as a corollary, I also had never been so proud of myself. When my teacher ceremoniously wrapped the yellow belt around my waist, I felt that this accomplishment was as big as any achievement had been in my life. I understood that the yellow belt was so much more than mastery of exercises, performance of forms. It gave me a deep sense of independence that had eluded me all the previous years. I don’t know what connection, if any, my acquiring my yellow belt had to the ensuing life changes I have undergone. But since acquiring my yellow belt, I have decided to leave a 15-year relationship with a man. He had given me enough hints over the last several years that he wanted to end it, but I felt too terrified to even contemplate our separation, and he sweetly and deferentially allowed me my fear without pressing the matter. After getting my yellow belt, not only did I lose my fear, but I joyously embraced the idea of being on my own. That‘s where I stand today. Alone and joyous. Open to all possibilities. Working on my orange belt.

*Since the writing of this article, I have become a red belt, first strip, have memorized and successfully remember 8 forms, and have broken two 1 inch boards together with my heel.