(of a person) strong, brave, and impossible to defeat or make frightened: an indomitable spirit/will.
By Alex Carpenter
The lessons we learn on the mat are the same lessons that apply to life. Every time life knocks us down – and it’s knocked me down a lot – we have to find the will and the courage to get up one more time. This concept also applies to martial arts.
The first time I walked onto the mat, I was terrified. When we started that first meditation, and for months after that, I would mentally prepare myself for class by becoming someone else entirely. Similar to an alter ego, I guess. Or, more accurately, the person I used to be. During that time, the fearful, broken woman I had become was someone I didn’t recognize. That’s because I wasn’t always that way. I was born fearless, with an attitude of adventure, a full spirit, and the confidence that I could do anything. And if someone told me I couldn’t, I would do it just to prove I could. However, life had worn me down along the way and knocked that out of me. Coming out of a relentlessly abusive relationship (that lasted almost two decades), I didn’t recognize myself anymore. Who was I? Who had I become? Where was that fire deep inside, that fire that had always pushed me to live my life to the fullest? Where was that girl who wouldn’t put up with BS from anyone? I felt like I lost her, like I would never get her back because too much had happened in my life to come back from.
But then something really beautiful happened. I found her on the mat. She was there all along; she was just hiding deep inside me. It wasn’t easy, pulling her back up to the light. It took me a long time to get comfortable on the mat, both in Kempo and in kickboxing. I was fighting not only my opponents but the inner trauma that was still living in my mind and my body. Trauma that came out every time someone grabbed me, during the exercises where we had to close our eyes and defend ourselves (I still struggle with that one, but I know how valuable of a training tool it is), and in the moments when the doubt would creep in, and the shame would take over. Finding peace amidst the inner turmoil was exhausting – and some days, it still is.
Over time, I realized that rather than feeling anxiety about going to class, I felt anxiety about missing class. I wanted to go every day, and when I couldn’t, it bothered me. As a single parent and an adult with endless responsibilities, it was (and still is) a constant juggling act to carve out time to practice. When something came up, and I couldn’t make it to the Dojo, I missed the physical exertion and the mental health it provided. I had found a home, a place where I felt at peace. Ironically, I found that peace in the place between self-defense and violence. Every time I tried to kick through a clapper pad, slammed my elbow into a heavy bag, screamed out a warrior cry after a takedown, or added a handful of extra moves to my defensive techniques during promotions (and the delight I would feel at seeing Shihan Kendall’s reaction at my exuberance over maiming my opponent), my soul felt at ease. Yes, I had endured frightening violence in the past. But now, I was taking control of that narrative. Every time I kicked and punched and elbowed my way through a class, the fear inside drifted away, little by little.
Being part of such a supportive community, building my physical and mental strength, and learning how to defend myself, I slowly went from being a victim to being empowered. I started to walk taller and with confidence, stopped listening to the put-downs and the criticisms that had been poisoning my head for years, and in doing so, began to feel like myself again. I started to believe I could heal, that I could live a new life. A life that was beautiful and full of hope. Martial arts gave me that gift.
However, there have been setbacks along the way, and this is where having an indomitable spirit is critical. After years of losing myself to trauma and then fighting hard every day to feel confident again, I went through a long period where all that self-doubt and fear came screaming back. Several triggers, most of which were out of my control, began rearing their ugly heads, and it was challenging to manage them, to remind myself of how far I had come, and not to falter and slip back into a defeatist mentality. There were many times I wanted to give up, many times I wanted to call it a day. But every time I got up off the mat, every time I showed up to class, every time I found the strength to talk to an instructor or a peer about how I was feeling – courageously showing my vulnerability, which is not something I am comfortable with or that comes naturally to me – I felt better. I became more empowered. I proved to myself that I can keep getting up no matter what happens because I am stronger than whatever life throws at me. I just have to believe it.
I’ve come to accept that the ebbs and flows, ups and downs, challenges, setbacks, and wins are all part of life. They don’t last forever; they are all seasons. When you’re in a good season, enjoy every moment. Be thankful for all of it. And when life takes a turn, and things get difficult, know it will get better. It always does. You just have to be brave enough to keep going.
I’m so grateful. For every class, every instructor, and every peer who was patient with me and helped me along the way. Looking back over the last few years, when my journey started as a white belt, I am shocked at how far I’ve come and where I am now. There has been so much growth from one belt to the next, with each belt offering so many learning opportunities. If I had to impart advice to someone first starting out in martial arts, it would be this: keep pushing yourself; you have no idea what you are capable of.
I feel so honored to be receiving my black belt. To me, it’s so much more than a belt. It represents what I have fought so hard to overcome, and it’s a reminder that if I keep going, if I keep getting up, no matter how hard it is, if I keep believing in myself and fighting to get through whatever obstacles, challenges, or traumas present themselves, better days are ahead. I’m grateful to the Dojo for reminding me of that and for helping me find my way back to myself again. This is only the beginning.
I would like to receive my belt in honor of my brother, Sean Perkins. He passed away in 2018, and everything I do is to make him proud. If I could be even half the person he was, I would consider my life a success. #BeLikeSean