The ritual of the martial arts belt

25 05 2012

I’m still working on my basic skills as a white belt in my martial arts class. I have my uniform now and consequently I’ve had to learn to tie my belt properly which is an art in itself. Last night, one of the black belts in the class took me aside to explain the ritual behind the correct knot.

White belt

One of the things I’m learning and really enjoying is the fact that no movement or action is wasted. I remember a time not too long ago that I wondered how much mobility I’d have and I would plan even short trips from my bed to the kitchen, taking used cups and books to drop off along the way and returning with supplies for the afternoon, to save another energy sapping trip.

I’m learning that every action in martial arts has meaning and fluidity. It might be a functional movement, one that allows you to defend. It might be a stretch that opens and lengthens part of your body. It might be a breathing technique or even a stance that helps maintain balance. Nothing is wasted, nothing is superfluous.

Dressing for class is a ritual in itself and reminds me to stop, reflect and focus. Here is the meaning and ritual of the belt tying and why it is so important to martial artists.

The belts are LONG. They wrap around your body twice.  To start, you fold it in half lengthwise to find the centre. It must be even and symbolises the importance of balance, reminding us that there are two sides to training – the study and the application.

You then seem to put the belt on backwards by first placing the centre of the belt over your navel (your centre) and taking both ends around your back. The placement on the navel reminds us that we have received life and we are also givers of life. It reminds us to respect all those we come into contact with as co-creators.

When we cross the belt behind our backs, it reminds us to be prepared for things that are unseen, things that can go on behind our backs.  As the ends return to the front, we remember that ‘what goes around comes around’ eventually. The belt is now encircling us and we’re holding an end in each hand towards the front.

We cross the two ends over which reminds us that we can be double crossed behind our backs but also right in front of us too. We must be prepared for whatever difficulties come our way because they can come from various directions.

We bring one end of the belt up and under the waist which starts the knot. One end is now held up and the other down. This reminds us that there are two directions for us to travel – we can get up and we can fall down. It is important to keep getting up and striving to improve ourselves.

The Belt knot

The last part of the knot tightens the fastening. It reminds us that we need to be steadfast in whatever we do. It does not slip. The knot forms an arrow shape and reminds us that we can find our direction in life. After the knot is complete, we again check that each end of the belt is perfectly even.  We are balanced and ready to go.


It’s a long way to black belt

16 05 2012

Black Gi and White Belt

There are a lot of reasons why taking up a martial art at 43 might not be a good idea.  For starters, I’ve got more medical issues to manage than I care to mention.  I’m also very unfit and I have regular physiotherapy anyway, before even contemplating getting thrown to the ground.   I also startle easily and without my glasses on, I have no depth perception which isn’t particularly helpful if I’m trying to stop short of striking you.  So why on earth would I even dream of taking up a vigorous martial art?

Right before my 40th birthday I was diagnosed with H1N1 (the swine ‘flu) and after six months of debilitating illness my (still) burning and swollen joints indicated I had Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Fibromyalgia (FM).  My immune system had been fighting a cytokine storm, brought on by the voracity of the H1N1 virus and had not turned off.  It turned its attention to literally attacking my joints and organs, not distinguishing between the virus and my own healthy tissue.  The onset of the RA was aggressive and progression fast.  My hands were frozen into painful claws and my shoulders and hips felt like they’d been staked.  The bones in my feet were so painful it was like walking with two pebbles stuck in my shoes.  My rheumatologist insisted on an aggressive treatment approach to try for remission, which he estimated would take about two years.

So, the two and a half years since then has seen me trying various combinations of medication and therapies to enable me to arrest the progression of the disease and prevent further damage.  Last visit, my rheumatologist told me that I’m as close to remission as I’m going to get, which means the disease is still active but progressing much more slowly.  I notice it everyday, whether it be primary pain or just managing the side effects from the other medicines I need to take.

During the first year, I had a lot of time in bed and a lot of time off work.  My hands, hips and feet were painful beyond measure.  I could limp a short distance, I couldn’t pick up a cup, turn on a tap, do up my buttons or cut up my food.  I worked mostly from home via internet and email which meant I could fit my work in around the times I felt well-ish enough.  I had no idea what the future would hold.  Would I improve any?  Would I be able to walk more than 100ft?  would I need splints for my hands? would I ever find a comfortable position?  or be able to work full-time again?

I mourned the loss of some favourite activities like bushwalking and hiking, motorbike riding and an aimless wander in the sunshine.  In extended illness, like grief, people around you get tired of the illness. They tire of hearing that things are still not okay, that life has changed and it’s scary.  It’s confronting.  People wonder about their lives and what might be around the corner, what can happen without warning and how it can change your life.  They don’t want to think about it, let alone hear it or see you in person.  It’s awkward, uncomfortable and undignifying.  I had to accept that life would be different and I’d need to change some things, especially the stories I’d told myself about how life would be, or was supposed to be.

I made a long mental list of all the things I could no longer do.  It was a necessary part of the process but wasn’t helpful and only made me more negative and miserable for a time.  But actually, by going through the process I realised there were things in my life I was ever so thankful for and things on my list that I’d longed to try and never done.  The deep places you get to when faced with physical limits and the uncertainty of the future enables you to cherish the things you can do.  It also makes you stop and get angry about the things that have stopped you doing what you want.  It was mainly me – I’d been the one to stop me enjoying life.  I’d been working too long and too hard.  I’d been building a career, well, not one but at least three.  I’d changed my career  direction radically and was concentrating all my efforts into working, getting recognised, promoted, studying and achieving.  I made no time to relax, enjoy and savour life.  While I was ill, it was an achievement to be able to get out of bed, shower and dress myself ready for a day back in bed.  It sure put things into perspective.

I realised that work went on without me and through ‘wasting’ all that time working long days I’d missed out on life, missed out on enjoying, making and experiencing good times.  It sickened me to think that I’d missed those opportunities by my own doing. That moment was a double cruelty – much better to miss the opportunity and not actually realise.  It was an acute loss.  I was wracked with uncertainty and vowed that no matter how ‘capable’ my body was, from now on, I’d do things differently.  I didn’t expect to get better and at that point, it didn’t matter.  I started living and enjoying little things.  The view from the window, the birds in the hedge, the sunset, patterns in the clouds, the unfurling bud of a rose, the spiderweb glistening with dew.  I decided to explore new hobbies and habits, slow down, get out of living in my head, and learn to find joy in whatever was around me. I realised that the ‘small things’ in life are really the big things and I decided to revisit my ‘list’ of things not done.  One of the most joyous things I did during that time was grow a crop of vegetables in a tub.  I’d take a daily ‘hobble’ out to my little farm and check on progress as well as keep a log of the overnight rainfall that had crept into the rain gauge.  It was life.

Recovery gave me permission to move myself higher up my list of priorities rather than live to work. It has been a long road with plenty of good times and set backs along the way.  I’m not free of the disease but am keeping it at bay.   2012 has been my best year in a physical sense although it has been a year of excruciating emotional loss.  Life is never easy, but it is good.

I’m walking daily and have a lot of movement back in most of my fingers. One of the things I always wanted to do as a child was learn a martial art. If I was sensible, I’d be continuing with Tai Chi, which is a deadly martial art if you speed it up!!  Instead, I decided not to settle for something near enough to what I wanted, but to step out and try it, even if I failed miserably.

I joined my local club which practices Muay Thai and a freeform martial art. Despite being one of the oldest in the class, I was welcomed and encouraged to challenge myself.  It is a path of growth for each person and each does what they can to progress.  I’m now the proud wearer of a white belt, the lowest rank in a weekly class of skilled martial artists, mostly half my age.  There is a lot I cannot physically do but I strive to do as much as I can and I’m loving it.  I won’t make it to black, I know that, but I’ve already achieved more than I ever thought I could and it feels great.  I’m hoping I can get to yellow before the next RA flare up locks my bones.   🙂

white – yelloworangebluegreenbrownblack

%d bloggers like this: