Hapkido Black-belt and founder of the KYUP! Project Mel Thomas
A lay-off from training can give a new perspective on what’s important, and an opportunity to try new things — or to realise the value of what was left behind.
Let’s face it, seven years of a cheeky glass of red or two each night coupled with an addiction to chocolate and binge-watching Netflix series wasn’t going to prepare me mentally or physically to return to the dojang. Returning to my beloved hapkido was a pipe dream. “Some day,” I told myself, “when I’m fitter and can remember the syllabus.” Ha!
Life was happening, as it does; with two babies to care for, a new house and my partner having just taken on a national role, I had plenty of valid excuses to move on from training. All I needed was ‘a little exercise’ and maybe after more than 10 years of hapkido, it was time to try something new.
So, I had a crack at karate. Kicking and punching drills were familiar and as a Whitebelt, I was under the radar (sort of) — my black hapkido uniform in a sea of white was a bit of a giveaway. Thanks to the pregnancies and a steady diet of chocolate and red wine, I was in the worst condition of my life and in no hurry to fess up to a previous life of martial arts.
The karate crowd was a welcoming bunch and fantastic to train with. I was set up with a popular, first-class club but I ran into a problem: full-contact sparring, something I hadn’t considered fully until I was face to face with my opponent. I can laugh about it now — just! A couple of senior belts were keen to spar with the mysterious little lady in black and it didn’t take much for my competitive spirit to kick in. With their fast kicks flying at me, the adrenaline rushing and my ‘fear of getting cleaned up’ response triggered, I discovered something interesting about myself. My go-to technique is a jumping Superman punch to the head. This is a problem when the head is off limits.
Like being told to think of the colour blue and describe the sky without saying blue, the more I was cautioned for head strikes, the more I panicked, lost focus and, naturally, went for the head. Like a runaway train, the only techniques I could naturally recall simply didn’t belong in my new club. It was a huge challenge to adjust my mindset. I may have been on the path to karate enlightenment but I never got there — the decision to leave karate was made for me when we moved house (again).
I am thankful for my short stint in karate, as I learned heaps in a short time and it ignited the old desire to get back to training and break the red wine/couch cycle.
So I signed up for krav maga in the city. Wow! I loved it! The classes were fast, upbeat and packed. I enjoyed the self-defence techniques and felt my hapkido training was a perfect fit for this new style. This was it!
Did I think disarming a gunman was particularly relevant as a stay-at-home mum from the eastern suburbs of Sydney? Not really, but whatevs, I can appreciate the origins of Israeli combat as much as the next girl and I went with the flow.
But cracks started to appear in my krav maga training quickly. I was getting hurt. With all the music blasting it was hard to hear the instructor, and clearly I wasn’t the only one. I was a beginner training predominantly with beginner blokes with zero martial arts experience.
Whether my training partners could hear the instructions or not didn’t make the slightest difference to their enthusiasm. They charged, cranked and strong-armed me. I never once believed the guys were trying to hurt me but I was expending so much mental energy slowing the techniques down, it dampened my enthusiasm (and theirs too, I’m sure).
If I am honest, it wasn’t just the environment that was getting to me. Master Kevin Brown of the Australian Hapkido Association would often talk about the principle of a student who has a ‘full cup’ — i.e. has defined ideas of how things should be and is therefore uncoachable. The master can’t fill a cup that is already full. I’m not as diplomatic as Master Brown; my interpretation of the full cup is being a bit of a know-it-all who needs a dose of humility and better listening skills.
Looking back, my cup was on the way to full at krav maga. I stubbornly held on to my self-defence training and my way of doing the techniques, and as a consequence I missed out on so much brilliant instruction. I don’t think anyone was surprised, myself included, when I called it quits.
So, martial art was on the backburner again. Old habits die hard, and I was back on the couch with Tim Tams and Game of Thrones. Then, guess what? We moved again! Unexpectedly, our dream house was in Middle Harbour, near Brookvale on
Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Some say (well, mostly me, really) that Brookvale is the heart of hapkido.
As I drove by the old dojang and remembered Master Brown’s Black-belt classes, I was reminded how much I loved those classes. The flashbacks made me think of the investment my masters and instructors had made in me. All those years of first-class training and I hadn’t paid if forward. Clearly I had unfinished business at hapkido, but (there’s always a but) there was no way I could go back. It was too late. I was away too long. Was I too old? What would they think of me after all this time? Was I too unfit? What if I couldn’t remember the syllabus? What if they wouldn’t have me back?
I finally plucked up the courage to take my first class and it was as though I was the new kid on the first day of school. My new teacher was Master Matt Geister, who I remembered demonstrating back when I was an awestruck junior belt. My return was so exciting and surreal — a sensory overload — but under Master Geister’s expert guidance I am easing my way back.
I didn’t take returning to hapkido lightly. I knew walking through the door and showing up to class wouldn’t automatically quieten the moments of self-doubt that were coming my way. It would take the same commitment to pay it forward that my instructors had afforded me.
Was it going to be easy? No. The truth is, I can’t recall the syllabus, and don’t get me started on my fitness, but I’m no longer hung up on what I don’t remember or how high I can kick because after all those years, I went back to training with something of far greater value.
At last, I am an empty cup.
Mel Thomas is a mother, martial artist, writer, speaker and the founder of the KYUP! Project, which offers education in violence prevention “that moves beyond awareness into strong-hearted action”. Thomas’s workshops have impacted the lives of thousands of women and students in schools, universities and local communities across Australia and NZ. She is also a founding member of the WMANA (Women’s Martial Arts Network Australia), a member of Australian Hapkido Association and an ambassador for Layne Beachley’s Aim for the Stars Foundation. For more info, visit kyupproject.com.au
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Andrew Raynor New Hampshire