Black Belt of the Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

Having been confined to my home with my three children, and being married to an emergency physician, I’ve decided to shift my focus from writing only about karate to the situation at hand.

On the other hand, being a karate-ka means practicing mental strength. A few days ago, after the reality of the pandemic and what it meant for us as individuals and as a family sunk in, I realized I had to begin practicing mental resilience. I needed to develop a “black belt of the mind.”

My shift from practicing karate to working on mental strength started earlier this year, due to a persistent hip injury. In early March, my injury unresolved, I decided to take a month off karate. Telling my students that I’d be back in April, I arranged for my colleagues to take over my class and prepared myself for an enforced rest.

Now, with many of us stuck inside, barred from gyms and exercise classes, I figure we’re all in the same boat. Time to share our stories.

The situation will probably get worse before it gets better. If you follow the news, or if you know a health care worker (or, in my case, are married to one and suffer an onslaught of regular health care updates), it’s clear that our 2-week isolation period is likely to be extended to several weeks and possibly several months. At some point, like the Italians, we might be confined to our living spaces (if we’re lucky to have a living space – many are not.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll post my COVID-19 diary, taken largely from my personal journal.

On Transverse Abdominis and Miyamoto, Or, On “Not Doing Anything Useless”

It turns out that when you’re over forty, you should not practice karate one week after delivering your third child – at least not full out. Who knew?

With my first two pregnancies, I trained right up until delivery, and went back to the dojo a few days postpartum. I assumed I could do the same with the third child; I hadn’t factored in that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, I’m no longer a “spring chicken”.

Since having my third child almost four years ago, I’ve had several injuries, all related to an injury from having returned to training too soon after delivery, before my body was ready. The original culprit was a bulging disk, and the remedy, according to my physio therapist, was strengthening my transverse abdominis, or “core”, in laypersons’ terms.

For the past few years, I’ve relapsed several times. Every time I’m pain free, I embrace exercise with gusto. I lose myself in training (in the throes of meditative aspects of kata) – and pull a muscle. The other day, when I told my students I would only be kicking with one leg due to a pulled hip muscle, a child asked: “Is Ms. Baudot injured again?”

Yes, Ms. Baudot was injured again.

It’s maddening.

Last year, I was running a household, working on two books, and managing a major family celebration. I started feeling unwell. I struggled to get out of bed. Since I consider myself a morning person, I saw my struggle to rise as a warning to pay attention – a canary in a coal mine. I booked a consultation with my doctor. Tests showed that I was in excellent health.

I was simply burnt out.

I hate to slow down. I love to move. I adore the physical aspects of karate. The clean line of each movement, the Ki. I value losing myself in the flow of training, which keeps me physically and mentally fit.

Nevertheless, I’ve slowed down my training. I’ve decided to see my injury as an opportunity to fix what I’ve been doing wrong all along. Turns out that I never properly engaged my core strength in my training. This means that my strikes, while speedy, don’t have the force necessary to disarm an opponent.

So I’m working on increasing my strength. I’m diligent about doing my physio – when I’d rather be doing anything else. Listening to audio books helps. (Lately I’ve been reading cardiologist Kathy Magliato’s memoir, Heart Matters, which effectively distracts me from the mind-numbing effort of doing yet another transverse abdominis contraction.)

I’ve also slowed down my kata practice, focusing on engaging my core with every move. It’s a laborious, frustrating process. But I’m working on it.

A co-instructor who struggles with a disc injury gave me some advice. He reminded me that karate is about training the mind as much as the body. He suggested that I use my enforced stillness as an opportunity to focus on karate’s mental aspects.

My first sensei lectured us on the ideas of Musashi Miyamoto, 17th century swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings. “Don’t do anything useless,” my sensei used to say. I took this instruction to mean that I should bring an equal amount of effort to all tasks. When writing and raising children, I try to marshal a razor-like focus. In life, as in the art of karate, I’m heeding my first sensei’s advice, all the while repeating to myself Miyamoto’s teaching: “Don’t do anything useless.”