martial arts

You! Control Yourself!

After 4 and a half years of training in taekwondo, I am getting ready for my black belt test. As part of that, I am exploring what it means to become a black belt, and the 5 tenets of taekwondo. You can read about courtesy, integrity, and perseverance, and today I’d like to share my thoughts on self-control. What’s a black belt essay doing on a yoga blog? Well, everything is yoga, right?


It is “sports day”, during spirit week at my school, and I am proudly wearing my OMS tee-shirt. Our basketball coach, a man I have worked with for years, expresses surprise that I am doing Taekwondo, and asks if I can kick him in the head. I size him up. The honest answer is no (link back to integrity) I can kick as high as my own head, but not his. Instead of admitting that, I shrug and say, “hopefully, it won’t come to that.”

So many see martial arts as preparing for battle against a stranger. It is really a battle of self versus self. In my “handy” mental model of the tenets, self-control is represented by the index finger. Who controls you? Yep, you.


We teach a way of thinking about self-control at my school called the “Zones of regulation.”   It is a curriculum designed to help students consciously be aware of their actions and reactions. Not everyone in the building is targeted for the full curriculum, because many students already have experience in self-regulation. For those who have suffered trauma, or who don’t have skills in self-control, it helps to use some of the language from the curriculum,  to guide people into becoming more self-aware, and more able to control themselves in the future.

There is a touch of brain science taught, with an explanation about the amygdala being on guard duty, watching for any danger, and the frontal cortex providing executive control- deciding when to respond to the alarm. For people with anxiety, the amygdala is going off all the time, and honestly, in a middle school hallway, there can be a lot to be alarmed at.

In addition to the brain science information, we also teach about “zones.” The zones are color-coded:, green is happy and productive, blue is tired, yellow is  excited and red is “freaking out.” Freaking out is loss of control, sometimes as violence, or sometimes as tears.

There are times when someone comes to a tipping point, and something sets them off into the red zone without them knowing why. Practicing the mindfulness of the zones helps students reflect on what may have set them off.  As I reflect on my Taekwondo experience, and the zones, I realize the martial arts training helps me figure out what sets me off, and helps me prevent it. The path to becoming a black belt has helped me get better control over myself.


When I think about how hard it is to stay in the green zone if I am hungry, tired, or over caffeinated, I am amazed that my students can get anything done at all, much less sit still for an 80 minute class period. Middle-schoolers still have to rely on the adults in their lives to help them regulate.. I find it so much easier to maintain self-control when my basic needs are met, when I have slept well, eaten healthy food and not overdosed on caffeine. Who is in charge of that?

Yep. Me.

So, self control is a cycle, self care makes it easier to stay in the green zone, which makes self-care in the future that much easier. With disciplined practice, I am less likely to freak out, with all the stress and embarrassment that goes along with that. It isn’t just about not kicking the basketball coach in the head, it is about taking care of myself. I can help teach others self control much better when I am able to practice it myself.

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