My Journey Into Fitness: How Martial Arts Changed My Life

by Anna Desmarais, 27/08/2013

“Taekwondo is not for girls,” said my sometimes overly traditional Korean mother after only my second taekwondo class. I was about 10 years old and I had begged and pleaded with her for weeks to allow me to take taekwondo with my little brother, winning a small victory when she finally agreed. I guess she figured I would hate it and change my mind after trying it myself, but the opposite proved to be true: I absolutely loved it. While my brother was allowed to continue, she pulled me out of the class and made me switch to gymnastics, which I was terrible at. I had zero upper body or core strength and while I can still do a mean cartwheel, I was never able to pull off any of the more advanced techniques. Needless to say, I quit. And there began a lifetime of believing I was a bad athlete. I never played another sport, unless you count cheerleading as a sport, which at my school, it definitely was not.

I could never do a single push-up. Not even one. I ran (walked) a 15-minute mile on a good day. I consistently fell into the bottom percentile on all those fitness tests we were forced to take in middle and high school. I once joined the track team to try to lose weight, but I ended up running out the back gate straight to Taco Bell because I was one of the slowest on the team and I was too embarrassed to continue. As I moved into adulthood, I slowly started to gain weight, and by the time I was a sophomore in college, I was technically obese and could barely walk up a set of stairs without becoming short of breath. I knew something had to be done, but I didn’t know what, because I hated exercising and hated dieting even more.

And then I arrived in Korea, a land where it seems every female weighs less than 50 kg. (110 lbs.), and since I was half-Korean, I assumed I was supposed to be that tiny too. So I joined a gym. Knowing nothing about fitness, my gym sessions consisted primarily of jog-walking on a treadmill and a rotation of a few exercises on the machines. I lost quite a bit of weight, but I was bored senseless and hated every minute of it.

Soon, I lost my motivation and my trips to the gym dwindled. Not surprisingly, I gained some of the weight back. Desperate to find something I would stick with, I tried a whole assortment of different activities: salsa lessons, rollerblading, badminton, you name it…and then I remembered how much I loved taekwondo as a kid, despite the fact that I had only taken two lessons. I was on my way home from work one day, and just as I was having this thought, I looked out the window and saw a taekwondo school. I figured it was a sign. I stopped the cab right then and there, timidly entered the school, and mustered up the courage to sign up.

As soon as I put on that uniform, I somehow felt “at home.” I also felt like a total badass! My first adult lesson picked up right where I left off at age 10, and I was just as in love with martial arts as I was when I was a little girl. I started going to class practically every day, sometimes twice a day, and after years of hard work, I broke two boards with a reverse turning kick and completed all of the other necessary requirements to earn my 1st degree black belt. It was like a childhood dream come true, and I was over 30 years old.

The day I reached that milestone, I thought back on my pre-martial arts days and realized how far I had come. I was not only the most physically fit I had ever been in my life, but more importantly, I was on another level mentally and spiritually. My self-confidence, self-control, and sense of discipline had drastically improved. I know it sounds cliché, but I really felt like I could do anything I put my mind to. I couldn’t help but to imagine how different my life would have been if my mother had let me stick with martial arts when I was a kid. I certainly don’t blame her or have any regrets; I’m just glad I rediscovered them when I did, before it was too late.

Because I finally had physical strength, stamina, and agility for the first time in my life, I started to explore other physical endeavors, which leads me to where I am today. I currently practice yoga and Pilates, love the challenge of metabolic conditioning, and occasionally train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Krav Maga. And although I still have the utmost respect for taekwondo, I decided to give it up over 3 years ago to learn a martial art more practical for self-defense: Muay Thai, which to many people is synonymous with kickboxing. I loved the idea of combining my kicking skills from taekwondo with boxing and learning how to use my elbows and knees with devastating power. To me, this was the ultimate martial art!  

All this led me to opening Body & Seoul Martial Arts and Fitness Center in 2010. Martial arts and the path it opened up for me changed my life for the better, and I wanted to make them accessible to everyone, including people like me, people who spent most of their lives thinking they were unfit, weak, inflexible, or a whole host of other justifications for not giving something a try. Since Body & Seoul has been open, I’ve seen people lose half their body weight and compete (and win!) in their first competition. I’ve seen people with back pain and other ailments practically cured through yoga. I’ve seen children become less defiant and learn discipline and respect through their “master.” Blood pressure and cholesterol levels have gone down, tons of weight has been lost, flexibility and strength have increased, and lives have been changed forever. This, to me, makes all the blood, sweat, and tears (literally!) worthwhile.

Oh yeah, and I can finally do push-ups.

Several of them. On my knuckles.  

NOTE: Anna and Body & Seoul are offering a free Women's Self-Denfense seminar on 31 August.

About the Author: Anna Desmarais is the owner of Body & Seoul Martial Arts and Fitness Center in Itaewon, Seoul.   

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