Dyslexia – a Path to the Heart of Karate


When I was six I started taking ice skating lessons.  I earned a patch or two then things started getting harder.  I would try whatever the instructor demonstrated, and inevitably the instructor would frantically call out something like, “No, start with your left  blade!”  Then she’d demonstrate by starting with what looked to me like her right foot (but it was really her left).  The verbal instructions didn’t line up with what my dyslexic brain told me I was seeing.  I’d freeze (pun fully intended).  Which foot was I supposed to use?    I gave up – the cold always bothered me anyway.  Yes, I told this whiney little story just so I could use a bad pun and play on a line from a song in the movie “Frozen.”

I gave up on ice skating but I didn’t have a choice when it came to math.  I had to study math in school.  I am dyscalculic – never put me in charge of cash!  Am I going to whine about dyscalculia?  No, because I got decent grades in math all the way through trigonometry.  I used reams of scratch paper and worked problems slowly so as to minimize errors.  Along about third grade I began to see arithmetic not as a mere collection of facts but an expression of the relationships among numbers.  I started relying less on faulty rote memory and relied more and more on principles.  In other words, I learned to beat my disability by getting to the heart of mathematics.

I also didn’t have a choice about learning history.  I hated memorizing dates.  Unfortunately, below college level a significant portion of test questions was about dates.  Numbers tend to jump around in my head and sometimes I reverse numbers while writing.  I learned to cope with history by memorizing key dates.  I then derived other dates based on the events leading up to and following those key events.  This meant I had to see history as a story.  I had to stop thinking of history as a mere collection of facts.  I thought about what influenced important people when they made decisions and took action.  I used my imagination a lot.  I chuckled nervously as I watched John Hancock sign the Declaration of Independence.  I shivered in the cold at Valley Forge.  Using my imagination to make events come alive made it easier to construct a timeline in my mind.  If I accidentally reversed numbers while writing the date of an event I could easily spot the error because the event wouldn’t fit in with the story of that decade or century.  I was well prepared for writing essays in college history classes because I had long since found the heart of history.

The less said about me learning to drive the better (my poor parents!), but I eventually did that too.  I think my driving record speaks for itself.  I am very appreciative of GPS technology.  Driving should have a heart – after all, some people wax poetic about Route 66.  Me – I just go through the motions of driving.  I don’t look for ways to enjoy it and I’m not about to do anything more with my driving skills than get from Point A to Point B safely.  I hope I never have that kind of attitude about Karate.

Sometime in junior high I decided to try karate and found I liked it.  I still had trouble with left and right.  I couldn’t translate Sensei’s demonstrations into what I was supposed to do.  However, I didn’t give in to despair.  I was shoulder-to-shoulder with students who were learning the same things.  More experienced students were in front of me.  I could watch my fellow students and learn.  By the time I got to the front row I could see how I was doing in the mirror.  Of course there was always the option to ask for help before and after class.  I beat my disability.  Since then I’ve learned more about coping with directional dyslexia.

Life circumstances led to a 27 year hiatus from karate.  I recently joined a different dojo (my former dojo closed down long ago).  I’m learning a similar style but the differences between what I learned long ago and what I’m learning now sometimes throw me for a loop.  Directional dyslexia is still with me.  A good bit of what I struggle with can be addressed by drilling and practicing on my own.  The sheer repetition will eventually get through to me.

So how do I cope with kata when it’s hard for me to tell left from right?  All those twists and turns and which arm goes where while what leg moves in which way?  You might think kata makes me scream with frustration but actually I really enjoy kata.  Bunkai makes kata real and much easier for me to learn and remember!  Sometimes while practicing kata in the garage my daughter and I come up with crazy scenarios involving some pretty outrageous opponents (drunkards, evil clowns, big hairy bikers).  When we put some fun into it, I get those katas memorized all right.

Here are the most important coping mechanisms I’ve come up with for dealing with directional dyslexia in karate:

Don’t whine and don’t refer to your disability.  Instead, ask questions.  “Excuse me, Sensei, may I please see that again?” is a good place to start.  Here’s another example: “Sensei, what does this hand do when this leg comes forward?”

Apply what you learn by practicing with a partner – you’ll need to move slowly so as not to injure one another!  Make it real so it’s easier to remember.

Link movements to what some other part of the body is doing – for example, if my head turns to look at my new opponent coming at me from the left, I look over at him and my arm on the side I’m looking towards will block his attack.  I’ve also learned to translate “left” or “right” to “the side with the leading leg” or “the side with the back leg” while watching demonstrations.

Be patient with yourself.  You can overcome this challenge over and over by allowing yourself some time, working hard, and receiving plenty of help from others.  Don’t undermine this process by thinking you have to nail the technique immediately!

If you just aren’t understanding the movements, try anyway even if you fall behind the count.  Sensei will come around to you eventually.

Ask for help before or after class!  While you’re getting the individual attention, position yourself to watch demonstrations from whatever perspective makes sense. I usually stand side-by-side or behind.

Practice, practice, practice.  All students need this, but I can’t emphasize it enough for those challenged by directional dyslexia

For an extra challenge during practice time, start your kata by facing a different wall than the front of the dojo.  Yes I have done this, so you can too!  Thank you, Sensei Isao Gary Tsutsui for this idea.  Confession – I need to do this more often.

I will always struggle with directional dyslexia.  So be it.  In fact, I’m actually glad for the challenge.  It means I am not just going through the motions.  I am learning to understand what I’m doing.  I’m on a path into the very heart of karate.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

10 thoughts on “Dyslexia – a Path to the Heart of Karate”

  1. Osu, Joelle! Great information here! Which style of karate do you practice? I practiced Kyokushin-kai karate when I was a teenager, and let me tell you, that style was rough! It was more about the physical side of karate, versus the more spiritual side that’s found in styles such as Shotokan or Shito-Ryu karate. And see for me, I’m a kata guy. I’m not one of those aggressive souls looking to get into a tussle with anyone. As a matter of fact, when I do start up karate again, I want it to be in either one of those styles. I’m not interested in training to become a fighter. You’re a true warrior. I say that because you’ve worked hard to make sure that your disability did not keep you from living life. There are others who would sit around, moaning and groaning that they can’t overcome their disability. By the way, thank you for commenting on my story. You’ve given me a great idea for a short film. I didn’t think of it that way in the beginning. You’re the best, my friend. Thank you also for continuing to read my blogs. Take care.

  2. Osu, Anwar, thanks for stopping by and commenting, and for your compliments! And you’re welcome.

    I’m not sure what you mean about “more spiritual.” What I mean by spiritual is anything that has to do with metaphysical stuff, or any teachings on how I should relate to God. I trained in Hayashi-ha Shito-Ryu in the early to mid 1980’s and even went to a seminar by the late Soke Hayashi and there wasn’t anything spiritual taught. I’m now training in Shindo Jinen-Ryu, and so far there’s nothing spiritual there either.

    If what you mean by “spiritual” is something along the lines of ethics, then yes, I’ve been taught ethics. I’ve recently discussed ethics with a few Senseis both within the organization of dojos I belong to and even with a couple of Senseis whom I haven’t actually met in person 🙂

    I hope you find a dojo soon!

  3. What a great testimony to being the person you are meant to be, following your destiny, not allowing your personal obstacles to ever stand in your way. Be flexible with yourself, make adjustments as necessary, and keep on going!

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