"Just try to relax . . . " Little Takes on the Black Belts

"Just try to relax," he said. "You're too tense."

No, I was not trying out the MAC's instructional massage class. I was hip-deep in a small recreation room full of agility and calmness.

And, no, I did not embark on this journey as part of some kind of journalistic ego-trip. I am just another curious, and apparently tense, Harvard student.

It all began months earlier, in an unfamiliar building.

I had been asked by a family friend from Houston to take a prospective student on a brief tour of the campus. Eventually, the high school senior asked me if I could take him to the rec center on campus to check out the workout facilities.

Naturally, I was a little hesitant for two reasons: for one, the MAC doesn't look too hot from the inside, and two, I rarely need to go there anyway. But I relented.

After giving the tour, I realized that I didn't know a single program that the MAC had to offer. Mildly embarrassed by the fact that I was a junior that really couldn't care less, I picked up a schedule of activities there. I looked down the list: Water Aerobics? No. Massage? Interesting, but no. Hapkido? Hmm. I like Steven Seagal movies. That could be cool.

I had been pretty skeptical of club sports in the past, and the Hapkido Club was no different. Would it fit the club stereotype of poor instruction, no funding and a come-when-you-want schedule?

They advertised in Mather House with a cartoon of one man throwing another to the ground in what appeared to be some kind of kamikaze death roll. But most importantly, the sign read, "ANYONE can come!" I needed no further incentive. I decided to give it a shot.

So I gathered up my courage, threw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and headed to the MAC for the 9 p.m. Tuesday practice. As I climbed up to the third floor, I remember thinking, "What am I doing? As if I don't have enough stuff to do."

Further deterrence awaited me at the top of the stairs.

Clad in white and off-white gi with belts of all colors outside Rec Room 1, the mostly-graduate student Hapkido Club met me with raised eyebrows. I would definitely be checking my ego at the door. It felt something akin to showing up for a cocktail party in overalls.

"Is this the Hapkido Club?" I asked.

"It is," the instructor answered kindly enough. "Come on in. My name's Mark."

After introducing myself, I entered the room without bowing (a newbie faux pas) and started stretching out. We began to warm up, and the workout combined with my nervousness and the MAC's armpit-hot rec rooms led to copious amounts of sweat. Pig-like would have been an accurate description, but I was trying to avoid too much self-deprecation.

Then, all of a sudden, one of the black belts flew across the mat into an aerial forward roll without using his hands. "I am out of my league," I whispered.

This realization led me to create a few general rules that will be helpful for martial arts beginners should one decide to give it a whirl.

Rule 1: Pay attention to and avoid irritating the people with their names written on their belts, but especially if it's both in English and Korean. This is universally applicable. In Texas, we have a similar truism: avoid fighting with people who wear belt buckles you could eat cereal out of. Also, if their names (i.e. Bubba Ray or Merle) are branded into their leather belts, the rule applies.

Rule 2: Learn how to fall. This is very important, because as a beginner, I have done a lot of it, some of it optional. Whether being ragdolled by a 5th-degree black belt or simply trying to keep your prized Harvard mind intact, this is a useful skill. Yes, there is a wrong way to fall.

Rule 3: To quote Yoda, "Size matters not." Not here at least. Being thrown/choked/twisted/kicked by a petite, 5'1" woman has convinced me of this.

As we began stretching, my sweat became even more evident. My light gray t-shirt was now dark gray. A brown belt named Doug observed my jerky movements and paranoid demeanor and said, "Just try to relax."

"What?" I replied sharply.

"Just try to relax. You're too tense."

He was right. The rolling, the falling, the kicking and the joint locking had caught me a little off-guard. But I was fascinated--addicted would probably be more accurate.

At the end of the evening, tired and excited, we bowed out to the two black belts. I had learned a lot.

I decided to come back on Sunday afternoon to the club's open workouts. I showed up and learned for another two hours, practicing five ways to break the human wrist and elbow. The line between club sport and art of war was greatly blurred, and I think that's what made it so empowering.

What I didn't realize until hours afterward was that I had been practicing breaking joints on three women. We were the only four people there, and I didn't even have to turn off my "southern gentleman" switch.

I think that's the first thing your parents teach you before your first day of school in the south: "Don't hit girls." But given the chance, I didn't hesitate to learn some nasty new moves.

But they were the ones teaching me. I would not consider myself a feminist by any stretch of the imagination, but I will readily admit that there are, at the very least, three women in the world that can break both of my arms. Maybe more, but I'm not sure.

After practicing for a month now, I've learned how to roll without hands, how to deflect and defeat a knife attacks and how to throw people from headlocks. But I am also convinced that martial arts would also work well in conjunction with the massage class after taking multiple blows from the floor. Water aerobics might also be worth looking into.

Take it from a skeptic: if you want to learn how to protect yourself and get in shape, there's nothing more fun to do than beat up on people like me. For those of you lost in the morass of spring recruiting, I'm sure Goldman Sachs needs butt-kickers, too.

So get out of the library and try a club sport this week.

Just try to relax.