Thursday, March 31, 2011

Students Break for Breakthroughs

There are four things that you should know about me:

1. I love to break things.
2. I love rituals, customs, and ceremonial rites of passage.
3. I love to help others.
4. I love to break things.

On Saturday night, all four things came together in a unique fund-raising event that will help East Austin youth gain self-confidence, physical strength, and spiritual peace.

My mother always frowned upon me breaking things when I was a child (big surprise). But now that I’m an adult, and a Taekwondo practitioner, I’m encouraged to break wood, tile, and brick—stacks of it, if possible—and I always gleefully oblige.

Some martial artists are known for fancy flying kicks, fierce sparring ability, impeccable balance, or the ability to knock an opponent into next week with a powerful punch or kick. I’m known for my breaking ability, but in order to feel complete, I had to find a way to turn my gift into a ritual that would help others.

“Breaking for a Breakthrough” was born in 2005, and it’s been a powerful source of fund-raising and transformation ever since.

“Breaking for a Breakthrough” is a physical, mental, and spiritual exercise that emphasizes board breaking skills as a way to break through problems and obstacles, and symbolizes how oftentimes we need the support of others to move through life’s toughest challenges.

Participants select a whitewood pine board (12 inches long, ¾-inch deep, various widths) and write on it a problem or obstacle they have in their life. Something that really eats their lunch. When they are ready to let that problem go, they hand the board to a nearby martial artist to break for them. Participants take the two halves of pine home and put it in a place where they will see it every day. The day they walk by it and realize the breakthrough is complete, they set it aside to burn at their next campout or on the next cool, fall evening—returning it to the earth.

Saturday’s “Breaking for a Breakthrough” Break-a-Thon benefitted the East Communities YMCA’s Partner of Youth fund, which ensures that every kid who wants to take a class at the YMCA can—regardless of the ability to pay. The Break-a-Thon was phenomenal in many ways. Financially, we raised $225 ($25 more than our goal). At $5 per board, that’s 45 white pines to smash through. It may not sound like a lot, but for our humble little martial arts group, it was a tremendous feat of feet and hands. Here’s why: Thanks to our breakers, there now is a spiritual crack—a ray of hope—at the center of some very stubborn obstacles that have kept many people from living in peace and freedom.

Our group gathered in a half-circle, sitting side-by-side on gray folding chairs, to root on individual breakers in the center. I explained how “Breaking for a Breakthrough” worked, and we got down to spiritual business.

Little 4-year-old Lev handed me a board that read, “I can’t break a board.”

“Is this your board or someone else’s?” I asked.

“It’s my board,” he said, almost hesitantly.

“Well, how about this: I’ll break your board if you break mine.”

I showed him a 3-inch-wide board that had “Uncertainty” written on it in red marker.

“O.K.,” Lev said, smiling wide.

Lev chose to break with a stomp kick.

He only had to hit my “uncertain” board twice before it snapped.


The roomful of spectators cheered.

“You CAN break a board, Lev!” I said, holding up the two board pieces, one in each hand.

He grinned from eardrum to eardrum as I handed him the broken pieces, and then he ran to his parents for a big bear hug.

My students were not only challenged with bigger boards than they were used to breaking, but also tried by the oftentimes intense emotional/spiritual factor. This makes the boards even harder to break. Some obstacles are tougher to overcome than others, and when you participate in this kind of exercise, you quickly realize that some boards—though they may be identical in size and sap—are harder to break than others because of what has been written on them. We humans are capable of carrying around a lifetime of painful worries and fears in our souls. When dark energy has been in our cellular structure that long, it’s not that easy to free.

Still, many people were willing to let go of a lot of longstanding and heartbreaking obstacles on Saturday, and each breaker never quit. I was very proud of both parties.

One student in particular—a persistent, 7 year-old green belt—hit the mega-obstacle jackpot. He was breaking for someone who had written in black ink, “Fear of people, fear of failure, fear of economic insecurity.”

Poor kid must have hit that 5-inch-wide board with a side kick a dozen times before I stopped him. I could tell he was getting tired, but he never lost composure and wasn’t about to give up.

“Listen, this is a huge problem,” I told him. “It has nothing to do with whether you’re doing the kick right or not. It’s just a really big obstacle for this person. Lots of fear, and that’s real scary. So think about the person, about how much you want to help them overcome their fears, and then hit it hard and fast right in the center. It’ll break.

“Try again,” I said, holding the board with a good grip. I locked my elbows. As I turned my head away, I gave him the command to begin.


He hit the board with a powerful side kick. It still didn’t break—but everyone heard a little crack.

“That’s it!” I said. “One more time.”

He hit it again just as hard. It still didn’t break.

“O.K. guys,” I told the spectators. “It’s time to send good, healing chi to this person. Let’s help this young man break this board.”

Everyone nodded and leaned forward in their chairs. Some clasped their hands in prayer.

We set up again, and this time he hit that board with the hardest kick ever—accompanied by a loud, thunderous kihap.


The room erupted in applause—for him and for the person who now had hope that many lifelong fears would soon vanish.

“That was hard-fought,” I whispered to him as I shook his hand. “Good job.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said humbly, then returned to his seat.

All evening, the energy in the room was intense. Even East Communities’ executive director became teary-eyed.

“I found myself getting emotional—over a board,” she said later, looking a bit baffled.

I could tell she didn’t understand why she had such strong feelings.

“In this kind of breaking exercise, that’s what happens,” I said. “You’re feeling all that energy moving—from dark to light, from sadness to joy. Some of the people we broke for tonight have been stuck in hell for a long time, and tonight they’re on the road to freedom.

“That’s huge.”

She gave an understanding nod.

I am continually amazed at how easily our Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s group is willing to help others in need. I have to send out a Herculean electronic hug and thank you to all our breakers: Calvin Redman, Ziyah Parramore, Elijah Kleinman, Lev Kleinman, Jonathan Kleinman, Danielle Hamilton, Karen Rivera, and Waylon “Way-Way” Redman. They were selfless in service to others and bold in spirit.

Does reading this make you crave a breakthrough of your own over something that’s really troubling you? If you didn’t get the chance to participate in Saturday's breakthrough event, contact me via email.

I’ll never turn down an opportunity to break something.

Then again, you already knew that about me, didn’t you?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Flexibility Quote of the Week

“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”
— James York, mathematician / scholar

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Case for a Quiet Kihap

I encourage all my students to practice strong, loud kihaps, or spirit voices, so that they can defend themselves with ultimate power. No kihap is right or wrong. No two kihaps sound the same. If done with the right spirit, though, all kihaps should scare the crap out of you.

Three-year-old Logan loves to use his spirit voice. He takes it very seriously.

Recently Logan came running full speed into the Tiny Texans training room and made a beeline for me.

"Ms. Cathy," he began. His blond hair was ruffled and he was a tad out of breath. "I have [heavy breathing] something to tell you."

"Yes, sir, I'm all ears," I replied.

"My baby sister is coming with my daddy today!" he said, holding his index finger up in the air.

"Wow! How exciting is that?" I replied.

"Yeah, I have to make sure I don’t scare her with my kihap," he said in a serious tone, then darted off to run circles around the room with his classmates.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Better Bodies Every Day

Our main goal at Tao of Texas Martial Arts is to build better character every day. Character development is hard work, but it can feel invigorating when we finally accomplish goals and overcome nagging issues.

Now I know how my students feel.

My Taekwondo students get so excited about a little strip of black electrical tape on their belt. In my class, I award black stripes to indicate strides in character development. These students work so hard on really tough issues and are thrilled when I wrap that one-inch stripe around their belt. The moment I snip my scissors and press the tape end to the belt, you might think I'd just delivered an empowering, chi-charged exclamation point. My students smile widely and deeply, and I am so proud of them.

Their efforts toward becoming better little people are so admirable that today they’ve inspired me to work on an issue that is challenging me to let go of old behavior and make better choices.

More specifically: To eat well.

Yes, today I humbly admit that I:
• Do not always give my body the nutritional things it needs to work at an optimum level
• Often succumb to eating what’s convenient instead of what’s healthful
• Hate to cook
• Crave fried foods and starches
• Usually give into my cravings

Martial artists are supposed to be the epitome of good health and fitness. We’re known for our strong bodies, clear minds, and serene spirits. So I’m pretty embarrassed to admit today that I often falter when it comes to putting healthful food in my body.

I have made progress. Almost 20 years ago, I quit drinking alcohol. Four years ago, I gave up sodas. Both were super duper hard to do, but now bearable—afterthoughts, in fact.

I’m hopeful that avoiding the Danish staring me in the face this morning and that fried chicken sandwich calling me for lunch will one day also just be something that passes under my nostrils and through my psyche—and keeps going.

At age 47, I can no longer afford to neglect my body by not giving it what it needs. After all, it works hard for me. My body has kept me active and healthy all this time, and energetic enough to chase after Tiny Texans and teach ADHD youths Taekwondo for 11 years.

But in the last four months, I’ve had three upper respiratory illnesses. My immune system is shot. It’s time—check that: overdue—for me to take steps to better care for myself.

On Monday, I started thinking about my little students and the black character stripes I award them, and I got an idea: I have a size 5 white belt in my gym bag. Why not use it to mark my own achievements in eating better?

Here's my character challenge: Every day I eat well, I’m giving myself a black character stripe.

“Will you take away a stripe every time you don’t eat well?” my partner Marianna asked last night.

“Oooh, that’s—a good point,” I replied. “Consequences; just like I have with my students. I guess I’ll have to.”

My plan is simple: fill that white belt with as many black stripes as possible in one month, and then take it to my Taekwondo classes and show it to my students—to let them know that I, too, have to work hard every day to become a better, healthier person.

On Monday, I received an acupuncture appointment to help boost my immune system. Yesterday I followed up with that by eating well—all day. This morning, I’m awarding myself my first black stripe! Woo-hoo!

Today I fill like a giddy little girl. Now I know how my students feel.