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Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists

Uniting and empowering a diverse community
of women and girls in the martial arts.

Staying Calm in a Storm Cloud:

My chaotic journey from my first day in class to my black belt test

Alyssandra Yochelson


Photo courtesy of Alyssandra Yochelson.
I am amazed by how far I’ve come in Cuong Nhu. I am only 21 years old and yet, I’m sitting here typing out my Black Belt Test paper. I know that it’s hard to get to this point — I’ve spent almost 6 years working, training, falling down, getting up, moving. I KNOW that this is hard.

Through all that I’ve survived.

It may seem weird to use that wording but to me it makes perfect sense. I know that everyone has problems but that doesn’t make their problems matter any more or any less. I’ve gone through quite a lot, in and out of the dojo, just since starting martial arts and yet I’m still here, still standing tall and proud and working hard. I haven’t crumpled and been completely lost under the weight of my depression, my anger, my stress or my laziness. I’ve succumbed to them, like everyone succumbs to their weaknesses occasionally, but I’ve always stood back up.

I started training in martial for one reason, because I wanted a structured way to exercise. I was, and still am to some degree, quite lazy in my day-to-day life. I preferred reading and drawing to sweating and waking up early. If I thought I could afford a gym membership I might have done that but it still didn’t seem structured enough for my personal tastes. So I joined a dojo. I had never tried martial arts before. My previous exercise classes being gymnastics and a smidge of cheerleading, set me up with a decent muscle structure for what I would now be learning.

The first day in class I learned Taikyoku (kata 1) and I remember how sore I was the next few days afterwards. I came back of course; I already thought it was cool. I knew that being sore was going to happen a lot - I hadn’t done any form of regular exercise in almost 8 months - so I kept coming back. I met the rest of the instructors and students and I kept learning. After a while “coming back” turned into just “going to class”. Then before I knew it “going to class” turned into 5½ years and a hundred more reasons to stay and train and believe me, these 5½-6 years have been no cakewalk.

I’m young, not as young as some black belts I’ve seen but I’m still in the younger age range. To start and stay in martial arts I had to get odd jobs to pay for everything, the class time, the gi, sparring gear, weapons and everything else. I baby-sit, I nanny, I do yard work, house cleaning, house sitting and many other random jobs. About 75% of the money I make goes towards martial arts. One of the most valuable skills I’ve learned because of Cuong Nhu training is maturity in what I do, how I act and how I handle myself out in the world. Cuong Nhu was worth it to me, even before I saw major changes in my life. Martial arts has made me stronger physically, mentally and emotionally through my dedicated practice. I wouldn’t give up the skills I’ve learned and personal power I’ve gained from Cuong Nhu for anything.

I started Cuong Nhu in 2007. I was 16, in the middle of my teenage years but I was not your average teenager. Besides the jobs, I was also home-schooled. It gave me a lot of free time but also made it hard to make friends and when I got older I’ve seen how biased and bigoted people are against anybody who hasn’t been raised “the normal way”. I ended up having to grow up faster then a lot of my peers and I made a lot of friends 10, 20 and upwards of 30 plus years older than me sometimes. I thought it made me cool that adults were my friends. In martial arts as I got higher and higher up in the levels I started to realize that I would have to teach these adults; being their friend was one thing but being a Sensei to grown-ups?! I got scared, worried that they wouldn’t respect me; worried that they would think I didn’t respect them. I wanted to be seen as a capable, respectable young woman, but sometimes I got too worked up in my worry that I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted or what I needed.

My dojo and classmates helped to ease my worries immensely. I’m sure I’ve messed up a few times but all of my Senseis and fellow students have been so supportive and helpful on my path to growing up. They have taught me that respect and friendship don’t have to be so separated, just different hats on the same person, namely me. Helping teach without fear of making anyone angry or insulting anyone also gave me more confidence in myself.

Now for the hard part, I seriously considered leaving this out or re-writing my whole essay a few times, but in the end I decided that this chapter in my life was one of the most important and pivotal in showing how martial arts has helped me grow not only as a martial artist but as a person. It’s also a little strange to say but I really think sometimes that martial arts saved my life.

My mother died June 12th 2011, only 3 days after her 40th birthday. It was a Sunday morning and I had to call 911 when we discovered my mother wasn’t breathing. That week was a haze, nothing seemed real and I can’t remember a lot after that first day. Waking up was nearly impossible; every day I just wanted to wake up from a bad dream and when it wasn’t I didn’t want to deal with life. I did not go to dojo regularly; I can’t remember if I was the one to call my sensei and tell her what had happened or if it was someone else. About a month went by, I know I went to the dojo a few days during those first four weeks but I don’t remember them.

After the first week of July I told myself that I needed to get some form of normality back into my life. So I went back, it was so hard at first, trying to be normal. I wasn’t thinking correctly and martial arts hurt sometimes. Every time I would reach a goal, do something new or well I would think, “I wish my mom could see this, she would be so proud.” I didn’t feel like I could be proud or confident in myself anymore, nothing mattered, why should I keep coming back?

I couldn’t remember my reasons for wanting to train but I was so dead-set on becoming “normal” again and going to the dojo regularly was a part of that. It was slow; still is slow, and sometimes I still falter, but I gradually remembered why I wanted to train, why I loved martial arts. I slowly found myself able to be proud of myself and not feel guilty or become depressed. I will never be the same person I was before my mother passed, she was such a positive figure in my life, but I finally remembered how proud she always was of me for never giving up on what I wanted. I worked my tail off to earn money for my martial arts. I would always get myself to the dojo and back. Sometimes I would catch rides, I would bike or I would take the bus. I would falter but I would never completely give up. It has taken almost two years, and I know I’m not done, nor do I think I will ever be done but I know I can’t give up, not in remembering or in martial arts.

Last year when I went to Cuong Nhu's international train camp, I cried. My mother would have been so proud of me for traveling that far by myself, for being so supportive of my classmates testing for their black belt. I had never been so far away from home ever and I was scared. My dad was great and supportive of me but he was also still grieving and I knew that some things I just have to do by myself. It is part of growing up, though I definitely would never have chosen this way to learn that lesson.

I’m not proud to say it but sometimes I would use training as a place to forget, to run away and pretend I wasn’t in pain. I guess in some ways that is okay but I know now that I need to not run away. In the dojo I learned that if something’s hard, try to learn it or look at it in a different way but that I can’t give up. I’ve got to face everything eventually and postponing it only makes it that much harder to learn. Sometimes it's really hard but through persevering I’ve found I really can work through every obstacle.

I love my dojo, my Senseis, Sempais and fellow classmates. I can be proud of myself, feel confident in my abilities and stay strong under pressure. I’m not perfect, nowhere close but I’m not going to stop striving. I’ve come so far, survived so much and I would feel so silly and foolish to stop now. If I can do this much, how much can I do? I’m hoping to test for my black belt this May and my mom won’t be here when I get back and that sucks, hard. I know she’s still proud of me though. I know she’s proud that I didn’t give up when all I wanted to do was sleep, that I kept going even when I thought it was useless. I know she’s proud that I’m still working out even when it’s hard and that I still remember, even if I did forget why I loved martial arts for a while. I know she’ll be proud when I go test for my black belt and I know she’ll be proud of me whether or not I come home with a black belt in my hands.

Martial arts is something that some people start to work out, lose weight, get muscle and learn to defend themselves. I started out like that too. Now I go to martial arts to work out my mind, train with my friends and classmates, lose the weight of stress, depression and anger; and protect myself from losing sight of what I want most. To never stop growing, never stop becoming the best person I know I can be. I know my family will always be there to support me, I know my dojo will help me to get better and to train to the best of my abilities, but I am the only person who can truly change myself.

I will remember, no matter how sad, lazy, depressed or stressed out I get, I can always become better — I just need to keep trying.

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