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LIFE, UNEDITED: Know Your Strength

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Unexpected lessons from a self-defense class.

Last Saturday morning, I stood in the park near my apartment with a group of about 10 people. The autumn sun brightened the sky and yellow leaves spun around our ankles while our friend Careth, a 5-foot-tall second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, instructed us in the art of the straight punch. Also the straight kick, side kick, and spin kick.

It was decidedly strange that I would be here. I am not, and will never be mistaken for, an athlete. My build is most accurately described as “marionette.” When Careth called out an instruction that involved dropping your center of gravity, I raised my hand. “What if you’re too tall to have a center of gravity?” She smiled and didn’t answer.

We paired up and practiced punching and blocking punches, kicking and blocking kicks. Another friend and I kept laughing because we were so hesitant to hurt each other. (She was too kind to point out how my punches were more like slaps thrown by a 3-year-old on a sugar high.) Meanwhile, the two women practicing next to us looked like they were dancing — a choreography of blurred limbs that spun across the park.

Then it was time to spar. We switched partners. I ended up facing my friend Roger, a gentle public defender who recently officiated at my friends’ wedding. He smiled good naturedly and put up his loosely clenched fists.

I went at him like a cat after a bottle of whiskey, punching and kicking in every direction.

He emerged completely unscathed.

That’s when I learned what happens when you don’t have a center of gravity. I broke a toe (lesson: kick with the ball of your foot), smashed my knuckles on his knee trying to block a kick (lesson: do not punch knees under any circumstance), and acquired pancake-like bruises on both wrists from blocking punches (lesson: sometimes you have to get bruised).

I spent the rest of the beautiful November Saturday covered in ice packs, contemplating my morning. I wish I could say that I emerged with some deeper understanding of the post-election anxiety that drove me, a meditating yogi who is most at peace with a book in her hands, to believe that she must now learn the art of self- and other-defense. Or else.

That did not happen. My grief and worry did not magically turn to wisdom. Nor did my loose collection of limbs get transformed into a fast and furious fighting machine. But I did discover how important it is to locate my sense of gravity. And this made me wonder if getting grounded and staying centered might be the best way any of us have, at the moment, to keep from hurting ourselves.

It seems like a good enough place to begin.

Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.

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