The Journey Continues

Things weren’t going very well.

I had all but given up on anything resembling a healthy lifestyle, stuck in an endless loop of lethargy. Inactivity led to laziness, which led to further inactivity. Something had to be done to break this cycle.

The solution to my problem came in the form of Darebee, a website run by fitness enthusiast Neila Rey (and formerly bearing her own name). I’ve actually talked about in an old post, back before I migrated my blog to WordPress. The website has ‘themed’ workouts based around superheroes, movies, video games and other popular media figures. Exercise and pop culture references? That’s my kind of workout!

That gave me just the motivation I needed. A Batman themed workout one day, a James Bond workout the next. Once again, exercise was something fun and not a chore that I needed to fit into my day. My old pants started fitting me again and I had much more energy throughout the day. I’m not a believer in diets of any sort, so I still eat pretty much whatever I want, but I try to keep everything in moderation and stick to my regular workout schedule.

I also keep up with martial arts from time to time, though it has become more of a personal fitness tool than the art it once was. I’d really like to find a solid karate community in the near future and re-build that aspect of my life. Now that I’ve settled into a new job and found some measure of stability, I may even work on creating such a community myself.

It’s certainly been an interesting journey from a scrawny, athletically-challenged kid to a college martial artist to an adult who sometimes plans his week around workouts. There have been occasional hurdles and stumbles, but I seem to have finally found a fitness path that I can happily follow. I can’t wait to see where the next stage of my journey takes me.

This is the conclusion to a five-part piece (which was supposed to be just one post, and then a trilogy, and then…) about my relationship with fitness. The other parts can be found here, here, here and here.

Fruitless Quest

When I landed back in Dubai 5 years ago, it didn’t have the best effect on my health.

I had left my whole life behind me and was feeling quite empty. It was a void I tried to fill with food. A combination of depression and home-cooked food sent my appetite into a frenzy, and it wan’t very long before my clothes started feeling snug again.

In the US, I led a very active lifestyle, taking long walks every day, training karate at least 4 times a week, and trying out new activities with my friends. With all that gone, my energy was sapped and I mostly just sat around, trying to invest myself in TV shows or just browsing the internet for hours on end. Things were looking grim.

Eventually, I decided to get back to karate, training on my own for an hour each day. I kept up that routine for a while, but after missing a few days due to other obligations, the whole thing collapsed. A little research had led me to a local karate club that wasn’t too far from home, but I procrastinated on getting in touch with them.

After another 6 months of no activity (and buying some new pants that were a size too small because I was still thin, dammit!), I finally contacted the club and started training with them. It felt good to be back in my uniform, even though it didn’t fit me as well. The ends on my karate belt were significantly shorter when I went to tie them at my waist, but it didn’t matter. Things would go back to the way they were soon, I thought.

Training in Dubai was a different experience from what I’d done in the US. For starters, I had made quite a few friends in my old club, having regular get-togethers and parties and finding stuff to talk about, karate-related and otherwise. None of the people at the Dubai club spoke much English, so my conversations were limited to pleasant greetings for the most part. Everyone was also something of a workaholic, or had families to get back to, so there was no question of hanging out. And even if we did, what would we talk about?

And of course, there was the training itself. I’d mentioned before that in my old club, we had learned karate as an art and as a system of self-defense, striving to understand mechanics and the flow of the techniques and movements we learned. Not so over here. Karate was seen purely as a sport, something to show off one’s skill and athleticism and gain accolades from peers and superiors. You’re not throwing a punch to effectively use the power of your body to deliver maximum force with minimum effort, you’re throwing a punch fast so you can score a point in a fight. It was disheartening, to say the least. That’s not what I was training for, and competitions didn’t motivate me. I wanted to walk on a path to understanding, not trophies.

After a year of training and trying to get excited about this sort of karate, I called it quits. I’d stick to training in my living room. But once again, my motivation evaporated with time. During a period of unemployment, the steady routine of exercise had kept me chugging along, but once that came to a stop, I went back to laying around on the couch and my waistline began its campaign for expansion anew.

Changes

Life is a journey that takes some strange turns now and then. I was taking a karate class in my senior year, in a desperate bid to halt the expansion of my waistline and get some college credit out of it. Even though karate was something I’d grown to resent through my childhood, I gave it a begrudging shot.

It was a little intimidating walking into the cavernous gymnasium; I felt like a complete dork, probably because I was one. There were also preconceived notions that martial arts movies had instilled in me. Grueling training with lots of flying kicks, punching of boards, and a hardass instructor with gravelly voice and a permanent scowl. I was quite surprised to instead find a beautiful young woman in a karate uniform and an attendance sheet, greeting each new student with a smile. Maybe I could get on board with this whole martial arts thing.

As expected, I flailed around awkwardly during my first lesson, but it was such a rush! Learning the finer points of each technique and movement appealed to the engineer in me, and gave me a goal to aim for. By the end, I was exhausted, having used muscles that had been lazing around for a long time, but I was eager for the next class.

With the progression of the semester, my interest in karate grew exponentially. At least part of it was thanks to the instructor, who I had a schoolboy crush on. Turns out she was engaged, though, so that wasn’t happening. However, I did strike up a friendship with her (and her future husband, who was also part of the karate club), one that’s been going strong for 10 years now, even though we’re halfway across the world from each other.

Over the course of my training, I learned how misunderstood the martial arts are. We didn’t do any crazy spin kicks, there were no boards to break, and I didn’t have to avenge anyone’s death by fighting ninjas in a ring of fire. Instead, I learned all about making precise, controlled movements to efficiently and effectively use my body as a weapon and a shield. I learned that karate should be a last resort, something to be used when combat was unavoidable; don’t use your fists when words will do. I also became fitter, stronger and more agile by following a regular training schedule. Karate truly is an art, one that challenges both the body and the mind. And it’s one that I found myself completely absorbed in.

After a long series of ups and downs in my personal life, and in my karate life (broken and mended friendships, forged and broken relationships), I finally reached the point where I was ready to take the next step n my training. In November of 2008, almost 4 years after I’d started training karate, I finally attained the rank of black belt. It was a major milestone for me and is, to this day, my proudest achievement. I poured my heart and soul into training for that test, and I’m glad I was able to make my teacher, and myself, proud.

It as the start of what should have been a long journey but, alas, a mere two years after that, I was ripped away from the world that I knew and found myself in a familiar land that now seemed so strange. Having moved back to Dubai from the US, I had to start over in many ways, including with karate. I needed to find a good local club that would help me in continuing to hone my skills.

Metamorphosis

I had always been a skinny little kid, the sort that might blow away in a harsh breeze. The word ‘lanky’ would have made a good description for my teenage self. But when I started college, everything changed.

American universities use an expression known as the ‘Freshman 15’ to describe weight gain that happens during the first year of college, set at 15 pounds (for no real reason). I may have gone for the Freshman 20. Away from home for the first time, I had complete freedom with my schedule and my meals. Turns out, too much freedom leads to a full plate. One of my favorite snacks during my freshman year, the thought of which makes my heart break into a cold sweat now, was mozzarella sticks dipped in nacho cheese sauce. That’s right. Fried cheese. Dipped in melted cheese. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Needless to say, all that cheese decided to hang around and settle on various parts of my body. My friends remarked on my more filled out frame, but I didn’t believe them. I was still the scrawny young man I’d always been. My pants had just shrunk in the laundry or something. It took a few months for me to come to terms with the fact that I was overweight. Attempts were made at a healthier diet. I even started jogging…in the fall. Once the temperature dropped, so did my jogging routine.

As I got closer to graduation, I decided that enough was enough. I needed some sort of fitness routine, one that I could stick with. My brother suggested taking up karate, as he’d done a few times in the past. I’d always brushed it off. Karate? Kicking and punching and fighting people? No thanks. But it could be the key to helping me drop a few pounds. I only had one semester of college to go, and I still had a health and fitness course pending as part of my graduations requirements. My brother urged me to choose a karate class for that. Maybe I’d like it. If nothing else, it’d get rid of that pesky course requirement. It was win-win either way.

So, on a chilly January morning at the start of my final semester, I found myself in one of the gymnasiums on campus, about to embark on a life-changing journey. Nerd that I am, I was in a buttoned down shirt and jeans. Perfect workout wear. I was ready to rock.

Man of Arts

So you’re already familiar with my writing and got an introduction to my love for drawing. I find it interesting that I have such a love of the arts as an engineer; a lot of engineers I’ve known are pretty much just focused on their field. Not to stereotype or anything. Then again, people do have some surprising and unexpected talents.

My dad, for example, is very much a computer geek. His hobbies mostly involve reading software manuals and tinkering around with old work laptops. He’s not much for fiction reading (or anything not computer-related, for that matter), and while he does enjoy movies, he only watches them when I do. But, he’s a very talented singer. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve heard him sing since my mom got sick, but before that, he’d regularly belt something out while cooking, or at any random time. He was also into theater. When we lived in Kuwait, he was part of a theater group, and I have a vague memory of going to watch one of his plays, though I have no idea what it was about.

The musical bug actually bit everyone in my family, but decided to skip me for some reason. My dad sings (well, sang), my brother’s also a great singer and can play music by ear. My mom taught singing and has even performed on stage. And me? When I was in kindergarten, or maybe 1st grade, I was part of the orchestra during some school show and played the triangle. Ding-a-ling-a-ling. That was me. I was supposed to be in some sort of musical play in 4th or 5th grade, but I had such a horrible case of stage fright that I dropped out during rehearsals. Music just didn’t want to be my friend, and I was happy waving to it from a distance.

However, there is one art that I fell in love with quite unexpectedly – karate. It was a classic movie romance: two people meet, can’t stand each other, spend most of the movie bickering, and end up together. My brother had started training karate towards the end of high school. He’s always been a fitness buff, and was on various sports teams throughout his school life. He’s also had a long-standing love of martial arts and martial arts films. But rather than running around the living room with a ruler pretending it’s a samurai sword, he decided to actually take up martial arts as a hobby, and a way of life.

As a skinny nerd with no athletic abilities whatsoever, I had no interest in any of that. My brother would often practice punches and kicks on random pieces of furniture or the walls, and would even try to get me to be a human punching bag. He wouldn’t actually hit me or anything, just throw punches aimed toward my face or torso, for practice. What it lacked in pain it more than made up for in annoyance. Imagine sitting in your favorite chair and reading a book, when a flurry of fists breezes past your face. Not distracting at all.

My brother was a fierce competitor too, participating in all sorts of tournaments and coming home with many a medal. He earned his black belt, became a part-time instructor, and took up a few other martial arts too. As indifferent as I was toward the martial arts, I was pretty excited when he started doing kobudo (weapons training) because it involved using nunchucks, staffs and sais. That’s three of the Ninja Turtles right there! Sadly, swords are banned here, so no Leonardo to complete the set. But I digress.

Martial arts was of no interest to me at all, even though my brother tried now and again to get me into it. Martial arts films were cheesy and over-the-top, and while Bruce Lee’s skills were certainly admirable, he couldn’t hold a candle to cartoons when it came to entertainment. I was pretty determined to never have anything do with any of that stuff.

Until college, when my stance on that matter took a pretty sharp 180.