Giving Back

Every aspect of life is a journey and I suppose that’s the fun of it – nothing remains static and we always have the opportunity to grown and learn.  As we get older we are often bombarded with the idea that we have to be young, have to portray that image, or that it is simply too late.  None of that is true – there is so much beauty in getting older, and it is absolutely never – ever – too late to try, learn, do something new…especially when that “something” makes your soul glow or your heart beat.

I spent a long time in industries that I was, perhaps, “meant”…but not “destined”…for.  While life ebbs and flows, and is indeed rife with ah-ha moments along the way, I’ve realized that I just had a monumental epiphany. And that’s not only okay, but amazing…

I didn’t question my work in fashion – I’d loved so many aspects of the industry from early childhood that it made sense that I was heading that direction.  No matter we all thought I was primarily left-brained, I was incredibly drawn to the arts, performing sports, to fashion, to photography, makeup artistry – they were worlds so colorful and captivating that I sort of just “knew” that’s the broad arena in which I’d eventually land.  That said, my pedigree was – finally – to the contrary.  I did a double major in International Business and Marketing, not exactly the design and creative background required for a position in Product Development.  But, what I lacked in typical education, I made up for with enthusiasm and a no-bullshit work ethic.

I suppose throughout it all, I always had a feeling that something was missing – I didn’t have a name for the sensation, nor did I know exactly what, specifically, was absent.  I’ve always wanted to do more, be more, achieve more, so I believe I attributed the growing hollowness to that.  

But, it wasn’t.

The truth is, life for me is vastly more magical than it isn’t – I will always strive to be better each day, in every aspect of my life, and I will always have goals and aspirations.  So that sense of still seeking fulfillment might be there…but after having had more recent revelations, I’m willing to bet it will die down a bit.

I began working with children on a whim many years ago as an instructor in Karate – I wanted to get out of my home town (not to escape an increasingly prosaic routine, but to evade one person, of all things) and this amazing gift, so aptly timed, just fell into my lap.  I initially contacted the Sensei in effort to learn new Arts – my background was in the Korean Arts of Hapkido and Taekwondo.  Despite my lack of knowledge (or experience) in his Japanese styles, he welcomed me warmly, and with sincere enthusiasm.  In seeing my passion for Martial Arts in general, and, I imagine, my personality, he encouraged me to stick around and teach. Game changer.

I realized at that moment both the responsibility I was given, and that I was in the unbelievably fortunate position to offer inspiration to these children. You never know when such moments of motivation and revelation may occur. Knowing that I could provide a strong role model, not only by means of a physically active body, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, was a gift to be valued.

I was, and still am, more of the disciplinarian – it is incredibly important to me that the children enjoy their time at the Dojo (why bother otherwise?!) But it is also a place in which we discuss and learn core values – how to treat one another, the meaning of respect, responsibility, healthy living, honesty, courage, integrity… It isn’t just about how we control our own bodies and space, but how we affect others around us in a physical way, and beyond.  Our attitude matters. In some cases, we are reinforcing what is taught at home.  In others, however, we are providing a framework and structure that they child is not exposed to elsewhere – a framework that hopefully will help them blossom and embrace life fully, challenges notwithstanding.

I’ve continued working with children in Martial Arts simply because I love to do it – I appreciate the opportunity to instill positive values, to encourage and nudge potential, to lead by example, and to help the children develop important life skills.  Along the way, however – and frankly I don’t even recall the impetus – I began to look into working with Special Needs children.  The opportunities for children with disabilities is far less, and as a huge proponent of physical fitness, I realized I needed to be out there helping kids who are often denied the chance.

Having a BLAST and high-fiving!

By some great fortune there is a volunteer organization in my state that offers the kinds of hands-on activities I was looking for – they serve children with varying disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, ADHD, apraxia, and others.  None is so severe on the spectrum that they must reside in full-time facilities, but depending on the child, there might be some aggression, or major athleticism (as in, the “runners” who are hard to keep at one’s side!)  For me, though, that’s the fun of it – each child is different, and with my background in Martial Arts training and instructing, I feel very comfortable taking on the toughies.

My time with these children has been relegated to my 39th year of life (and some of my 38th) – my path managed to diverge rather drastically in some way, but I feel suddenly so much more aligned.  While it is not currently my profession to work with children with disabilities, I have made it my mission to find ways to help.  I have purchased several books to begin self-educating myself, and have reached out to others in the field whom I know are both honest and passionate.  It is in so many ways the beginning of a new journey for me, but life has a way of doing that…

Life presents us with opportunities along the way if only we remain open to them. When we listen to what our hearts are truly saying in between the beats, we allow a magic we may not have known existed the opportunity to unfold.  The gifts you will receive will be priceless…

The Secrets Of Ninjutsu

Ninjutsu is probably one of my favorite Arts – its unique and unorthodox techniques, its higher-level, somewhat ethereal concepts, and the intriguing furtiveness captivated me from the get go.  It is, truly, an Art…and as a dancer and ice skater at heart, artistry is my language.

I’ve (rather sadly) seen traditional Arts dismissed as irrelevant – many modern-day practitioners want techniques that they can apply to modern-day scenarios.  Makes sense.  But therein lies the deception. Being rooted in a deep and complicated history also means that there are thousands of gems lying within the teachings.  Ones that have not only stood the test of time – when it was truly life and death – but ones that can also be very readily adapted and applied to “today.”

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One of the most interesting facets of Ninjutsu is the whole air of “secrecy.”  It sounds like an exaggeration but trust me, it isn’t.  Even within the walls of an official school, we find lots of “Henka,”or variations on specific techniques – the thing is, they are not always relayed in a straight-forward fashion, and sometimes are only hinted at.  For some Artists, that idea doesn’t go over (I can feel the eye rolls.)

While reading a Curriculum, for example, you might see images that don’t always jive with what the written directions are saying.  It ISN’T a lost-in-translation mistake either.  It’s completely deliberate.

The idea here is not that the “powers that be” of Traditional Ninpo are aiming to be unreasonably difficult, nor necessarily that they want to add some mysterious air that the Art can’t back up.  It’s more about the principle that learning is very much about DOing. Your Sensei is “passing down” the traditions, so to speak, and it drives home the idea that just reading a book, going online, or cerebrally understanding concepts ISN’T enough.  Martial Arts transcends any one approach – it takes grasping the fundamentals intellectually, absolutely, but the Art cannot be realized without being fully hands-on.

Taking it a step further, there are countless layers to the Art – you may learn a technique at one level, only to discover – throughout your own progression – profound jewels embedded deeply with in them…ones you neither could see, nor were capable of comprehending, in earlier training.

Ninpo embraces that we are not always ready for all of the “secrets” but that to develop our true “artistry” will take time, hard work, both finessing and breaking down the techniques until we can create our own. I suppose in a way many Martial Arts take that tact but here, some of the information is simply not shared until one has proven oneself to be ready.

The multi-faceted Ninjutsu is 1,000% NOT for everyone. It is acrobatic, intense, a little bit cryptic, unabashedly sneaky, and incredibly down-and-dirty at times.  Remember, the Ninja needed to survive…not stand on the battlefield until they – or you – were terminated (a la Samurai.)  

Ninjutsu focuses more on learning to keep distance, disabling, taking up an opponent’s space (including mental and spiritual) and getting away with one’s life.  To me, that’s the ultimate – I never began Martial Arts to “beat someone up.”  It’s an ART first and foremost for me, personally.  But, should I be faced with a true threat, I want the ability (or at least the tools) to disable, disengage, and get to safety.  It isn’t about “the fight,” but minimizing injury and getting away.  No ego.  No heroics.

Ninjutsu specifically will expose the student to everything from joint locks, small joint manipulations, grappling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, striking and weapons, to name a few.  I love that we have the opportunity to have such exposure, as many Arts are much more limited in scope. That said, the journey for each practitioner is unique, and built upon vastly different goals – in my own heart, I believe all Martial Arts are worthy and beneficial, markedly different they may be.

Martial Arts isn’t for the faint of heart – Ninjutsu isn’t “gentle” by any stretch, but it does teach us skills by which we can learn to keep ourselves – and our opponents – safe.  At the end of the day, however, we are taught that if we must overcome that individual, we must be prepared to do so.  Fortunately in modern times we don’t have to take it quite that far (certainly not in practice!)

Sometimes techniques hurt, sometimes they baffle, and other times they’re a little difficult to track down…. But each one of them – both the clandestine and the clear – are there should we be required to use them.  

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Volunteering

This past weekend I had the wonderful fortune to work with children with disabilities doing an activity close to my heart – Taekwondo. ❤  My background is predominantly in dancing (classical ballet and ballroom), as well as in figure skating, but being a Martial Arts practitioner for many years, and an instructor, has proven to be not only incredibly fulfilling, but also life-changing. 

I moved to a new state some months ago, leaving behind a job teaching children Okinawan Karate.  I was eager to find an opportunity in which I could work with children again, specifically doing a physical activity.  I believe that movement of any kind is incredibly beneficial (for countless reasons!), especially for children, for whom creating this healthy, lifetime habit comes more easily. (If you are an adult who began fitness, for example, later in life, you know what I mean – if we start early on, embracing exercise as a positive, FUN activity, it is more likely that we keep up with it as we age.)  Learning spatial and body awareness, as well as how to interact interpersonally and physically with others are valuable life skills – Martial Arts definitely cater to both.  

I am blessed to be able to assist both at a Ninjutsu Dojo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy, where I am also a student – working with children is always eye-opening, and I find that they teach me just as much!  That work aside, I was also eager to find a way to volunteer to guide those less able to participate in such activities – I don’t like to see ANYONE left out!  It is easy to take for granted that many of us CAN do sports…  When our routine takes over, we almost run on autopilot, dashing from one class to the next, sometimes even begrudgingly!  But. . .how blessed are we?!  For some individuals, the process of making a fist with which to punch a target may take many weeks of practice!

The disabilities this particular organization – KEEN of Greater DC – works with (for the Martial Arts Program) range from Autism, to Echolalia, to Cerebral Palsy – so the group is mixed, requiring different levels of guidance and instruction.  Though my background is not specific to disabilities, I find that working with these children comes very naturally – their genuine enthusiasm, eager curiosity, and love of playtime is absolutely contagious!

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(My own photo)

The activities we coached the kids through ranged from running about the room holding hands, to simple stretches, to punching and kicking targets.  We also hauled out an enormous, thick mat onto which they jumped from a mini trampoline – it was tremendously crowd-pleasing! 🙂

For a few of the children, these activities are “new” each week – they might need us to form the fists for them with our own hands, or have us demonstrate a couple of extra times.  For others, you can see exciting improvements over the course of the class (and over time.)  In both instances, though, you see a LOT of smiling, and hear a TON of giggling. ❤

The experience is so richly rewarding, I’d be hard-pressure to measure, or describe it! What we “get” from coaching is as much tangible as it is not – there is no recognition, nor compensation…but neither do I (nor any of the volunteers) want any such reimbursement.  There is, instead, a profound thankfulness that seems to fill each cell to the point of overflowing.  As an Empath, I cry as much for joy as I do sadness – I was moved to tears by the elated shrieks when contact was made with a target…or my extra “that-was-AWESOME” high-five! produced a flood of smiling.  How can you put a value on something like that?! 

The absolute jubilation that is felt all around makes every moment worth it.  These children face physical and mental challenges that most of their peers are unfamiliar with entirely  – the burden is a heavy one, and it prevents them from taking part in many school sports and extracurricular activities.  I was so delighted to find an organization that caters to allowing individuals with disabilities to experience the same fun and enjoyment with exercise and physical play.  Keen, incidentally, has only three main employees. . . and yet making a difference is SO important to them that they manage to offer twenty-seven programs!  

I will definitely be back for the next round – how precious a gift were the smiles and laughter.  Add to that the grateful nods of parents able to take comfort and joy in their child’s participation?  True blessing.  And then some.