Lab Rat

Every quarter, students in the Personal Fitness Trainer program at the college where I work need practical experience for their certificates and degrees. In other words, they need people to train. Usually the email to faculty and staff from the Personal Fitness Trainer program manager comes either in the afternoon, when I’m not at work, or right when I’m in the middle of something and can’t respond. The time slots are usually claimed within the hour. Assuming that I get the email at a time when I can respond immediately, I haven’t had the time to take advantage of the opportunity. Finally, in April, the stars aligned just right. I signed up to be a lab rat.

I was expecting my trainer, Marissa, to be young enough to be my daughter. She is. But what I did not anticipate was the camaraderie we developed and the easy way she and I worked with one another. That said, Marissa pushed me hard and didn’t hesitate to ratchet things up a notch or five if she saw I could handle something more or less easily. But she was so nice and sweet about it. Her encouragement and high-fives made my day and pushed me to the top of my game.

Marissa confided to me that the college’s program has students learn how to design a program while they are developing programs for their “clients.” It’s a learn-as-you go deal. There is something to be said for that approach to learning. From my end, I really wouldn’t have guessed that’s the Personal Fitness Trainer program’s methodology. Marissa did an excellent job creating my program and revising it as I progressed. She has all sorts of numbers written down about my body measurements, the pounds pressed, the miles ran, and I’m sure all her numbers point to one thing – I’m better off for having worked with her.

Certainly I’ve been pushed out of my “comfort zone” a little. One of my sensei (instructors) used to nudge me every now and then to try weight training. I ignored that nudge. Now I see why he enjoys working out in the gym. I spent a couple of seasons training hard with karateka (karate peeps) who were going to Nationals. But I didn’t maintain that level of fitness. I loathed jogging and dropped it altogether. Marissa had me jogging or on the elliptical strider a lot. Now I’m seeing a difference in my performance in the dojo (karate school). My sensei has noticed a difference too. He hasn’t actually said that he’s noticed a difference, but I can tell because he’s been pushing me harder and harder in class.

There are loads of things I’ve gained from the time I’ve spent as a lab rat. I’ve learned that I can make significant gains in a short period of time. Of course I’ve learned a lot of very specific exercises, but I’ve also learned how to structure a workout. I’ve resolved to use this knowledge in my personal workouts outside of the dojo. Now I have a few more fun little things to have my fellow students do whenever I lead warm ups for Karate class. And if I want to go to the college’s gym and track after work, I won’t be completely clueless about what to do. I have a feeling that I’d better invite Marissa to my black belt test, whenever that will be. If she’s still in the area!

Marissa has a dream that I hope will come true. Yes, she wants to open a gym. But not just any old gym. She wants a commercial kitchen tacked on. The idea being that after a personalized workout, Marissa can hand her clients custom-tailored meals to take home. Not only is Marissa studying to be a personal fitness trainer, she is also studying to be a nutritionist. Marissa used to be a cook at a restaurant. She jokes, “I used to make people fat, now I want to make them healthy and fit.” Whenever I tell people of Marissa’s dream, they are enthusiastic, and invariably say, “Sign me up!” I’d like to see a studio added to Marissa’s business so that there’s room for yoga, Pilates, Zumba, and gee, maybe even Karate. Marissa’s future looks bright, and I’m glad to have helped her on her journey as she has helped me on mine.

Fifth Karateversary

June 3, 2019

Some martial arts bloggers like to do a yearly summary around New Year’s Day. I prefer to publish mine on or just after my “Karateversary.” You can read past years’ posts by doing this: 1) look to the right of your screen, 2) scroll down a bit, 3) under “Categories,” click “Karate Anniversary”

So here are the highlights of each month.

June 4 – June 30, 2018

Surprise! I tested for 2nd kyu on June 9. I was not expecting to test so soon after my 3rd kyu test 10 months prior. For some reason, I was calm during this test. I remember just trusting my sensei(s)’ word that I was ready. I actually had fun, and I haven’t said that of every belt test I’ve taken.

July 2018

Talk about learning and growing – my experiences at the USA-NKF National Championships were tremendously good for me. My parents and I took a road trip to Reno, Nevada for the event, so we enjoyed sightseeing before and after. I think I improved more in judging than in karate, but my parents disagree. My parents watched my next belt test (December 2018) and said that I had significantly improved since Nationals. Dad once reached an intermediate rank in Karate, and Mom once was very much into figure skating (she has a good eye for excellence in human movement), so maybe they know what they’re talking about.

Soon after, my younger daughter joined me in training.

August 2018

Our Gasshuku (camp) was led by a few of our sensei(s). As always it was a great experience, particularly for my daughter. She was free to learn in a safe environment, and she did well. It was nice for me to let go a little bit and let her learn on her own. At camp she could function a little more like the young adult she is. Autism presents any number of challenges, so I’m grateful for the karateka who were patient and caring with her.

September 2018

Looking back at my journals, I see a lot of introspection. It’s there in September’s blog posts too. In stark contrast to September’s positive blog posts, in “real life” I felt burnout for the first time. I blogged about it in October. As I wrote a few months later, it’s easier to push through growing pains than it is to live with regrets. I did not quit, and I’m glad.

October 2018

Testing for Shodan (first degree black belt) and beyond is held yearly in October. Some sensei(s) have their other students test at this time too. This year saw a number of my friends from Washington and Oregon moving up to 1st kyu (right before 1st black), Shodan (1st black), Nidan (2nd black), Sandan (you get the idea now, right?), and Yondan.

I learned that my time helping out with the college PE class was coming to an end. As a college employee I can see class schedules before the students can, so I saw that starting in Winter Quarter, the class days and time would change. As the change was incompatible with my work schedule, Fall Quarter was my last quarter helping. The college sensei, who is also the chief instructor for Washington State in our organization, made it clear that he wants me to push harder in my own training. I now have more hours to do just that.

November 2018

Early this month I was told I would test for i-kyu on December 1, 2018. I-kyu is the last colored belt rank. I was stunned at testing only six months after my ni-kyu test. It felt unreal, and I think I was kind of like a deer in the headlights for the entire month. I had extra help after the college class, for which I am very grateful.

I threw myself headlong into training. That said, I did set aside an hour for just plain fun. I participated in a one-off Capoeira workshop and enjoyed it immensely.

December 2018

December 1 saw me in Oregon testing for I-kyu, and I felt it was my best test ever. This was my last test for a colored belt rank. My next test will be for Shodan (1st degree black). I-kyu is a big milestone. Training after i-kyu is very tough, as the expectations get ratcheted up way more than a notch or two. There are more requirements for Shodan than for any previous test. I don’t know when I will test for Shodan – I will be told when I am ready. All I know is it will be October of some year. Regardless of whether my test is in October 2019 or a later year, I am expected to train as if it is imminent.

A few days later, my daughter earned her first belt.

The last day of the Fall Quarter PE class was bittersweet. What a great experience – to help teach where the head of our karate organization got his start in establishing his life in America! I miss it. There is no doubt in my mind that teaching new beginners helps one’s own development in the art. And yet… I learned it’s OK for me to let go. I need more time for solo practice and for just plain conditioning. I am, after all, training for a very difficult test. Others are filling my shoes, so the class is in good shape.

January 2019

Kigami Baraki – the first workout of the new year at our hombu dojo (the headquarters of our organization) was fun. I feel like Oregon is my second home!

The next day, I attended a self defense seminar taught by one of our sensei. This was my fourth seminar. My interest in someday teaching one-off seminars is still strong. It’s a good fundraiser and it might bring new students into the dojo. But most importantly, it gives people self confidence and a few tools.

My daughter and I switched dojo(s) (schools) this month. I was fed up with traffic, which has significantly worsened even on my little neighborhood streets. My daughter couldn’t take any more late nights. Her school frequently called me at work about behavior issues. We switched to another dojo within our organization so we could spend less time away from home and so my daughter could get to bed earlier. The phone calls ceased for awhile.

February 2019

Snow, a sinus infection, and my family’s needs kept me from doing much training during this month. Stuff happens. I did manage a trip to Oregon for brown belt training (3rd, 2nd, and 1st kyu all together) at the end of the month.

March 2019

The Karate organization I belong to holds a tournament in Oregon every year in March. I attended seminars and renewed my judging license on Saturday. On Sunday, I sat in a judge’s chair for most of the day, then competed. I was surprised to find myself in the medal round for kata (forms) and won second place in a field of eleven. I got thoroughly trounced in kumite (sparring) to make up for it 🙂

Later in March I attended a free one-off introduction to Tai Chi class at the local library. This was very interesting for me. I hope to have more opportunities to play with other martial arts!

April 2019

One perk of working for the college is, if an employee is lucky, said employee might get to be a lab rat for a student in the Personal Fitness Training program. At the beginning of Spring quarter, the stars aligned just right for me. I started training under a wonderful young lady who loves pushing me hard. I have learned a lot about fitness from her, and I plan on using what I’ve learned after the quarter ends. I need every bit of conditioning I can get.

I also had the opportunity to take on a sensei’s responsibility. I called out movements for the lower ranks during a belt test. I’ve done this before, but this time it was for one of our Oregon dojo(s). I was nervous because I haven’t done this outside my familiar dojo “homes.” It was a great learning experience. I also was shushin (referee) for the sparring portion of the belt test. I did get a chance to play – two i-kyu candidates needed a sparring partner. I was happy to oblige!

May 2019

My daughter decided to set aside her training for the time being. She has good reasons, and none of those reasons have anything to do with our dojo. Basically, her autism is getting in the way. She is burned out after school and needs hours to recharge from the strain of having to be social. This has happened before with other after-school activities we tried throughout the years. I had been getting calls from her school again even though she was getting to bed on time. Now those calls have ceased. I miss her. I must say, though, she stuck with Karate far longer than anything else.

Tournament season is intense, particularly when I choose to both judge and compete. I’ve told myself this year it’s OK if I choose not to compete sometimes. There are some aspects of judging that I’m still struggling with, so if I feel I need the time in the chair, that’s what I do. At one local tournament in May I gained a little more experience with refereeing, which is the next step up from judging.

And now for the good Karate stuff I did on my fifth “Karateversary.”

June 3, 2019

I didn’t do much Karate today, but I did do a lot for my karate. Today was the next to the last day with my student personal fitness trainer and the first day of a two-day assessment, my third assessment this quarter. I’ve lost four pounds and gained strength and endurance. Compared to when I started in April, I did more crunches and push ups and ran 100 meters more – some measurable gains! These workouts remind me a lot about training alongside athletes going to Nationals a couple years before I myself went. My trainer pushed me hard, and was so sweet and encouraging about it! I think my sensei (karate instructor) has noticed a difference – he’s been pushing me harder!

After doing all sorts of fiendish exercises and finishing a run of 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) in 12 minutes, I stretched, went home, and practiced five kata (forms). Here’s the five I chose:

Rohai (Vision of the Crane) – I love this kata. I like “showing off” by balancing on one leg not once, but three times. I’ll always remember my sensei when I was a teenager telling me that the “crane kick” in the original “Karate Kid” movie wasn’t completely ridiculous, that there is a move in an advanced kata (Rohai) that is somewhat similar. Now that I’ve actually learned this kata… I still think that “crane kick” is totally ridiculous and my bunkai (interpretation) of the somewhat similar move in Rohai is that of defense. Sorry, Sensei.

Aoyanagi (Blue Willow, not taught in the system I study) – To make up for my opinion of the “crane kick,” I practiced the first advanced kata I ever learned for tournaments when I was a teenager. I stepped out with the wrong leg forward the first time I presented it in a tournament! Thanks to Sensei You Tube I re-learned this kata about three years ago. Someday I would love to learn its counterpart – Seiryu, which is not in our system either. My first sensei said that Aoyanagi was taught to women and another version was taught to men (I suspect she was referencing Seiryu). I haven’t remembered to research that.

Seiunchin (To Control and Pull) – This is currently my tournament kata. I’ve had good success with this kata recently. There’s a tournament coming up on Sunday. I’m on the fence about competing. If there’s a chance that I will compete, I’d better have this in tip top form (yes, bad pun, I know). I don’t like judging this kata because by the time the first three moves are complete, the other competitor is mostly finished. I like performing this kata because by the time I compete the first three moves, my opponent is mostly done with her kata. All that aside, I do love the contrast between slow/powerful (“soft”) and lightning-fast (“hard”) movements that typify the Goju-ryu style.

Seipai (Eighteen Hands) – Another kata from the Goju-Ryu style, and just as with Seiunchin, I love the contrast of hard and soft elements. I have to present this kata for my next belt test (Shodan – first degree black) whenever that will be. There are still a few places that frustrate me. Oh well, I’ve only been practicing this since February 2018, so I’m not as “fluent” with this kata as with others. One of the lines from our Dojo Kun (school motto) is “Be patient and not discouraged.”

Empi (Flying Swallow) – Like Seipai, I will be presenting this kata for my next belt test. Other kata from the Shotokan style that I’ve learned are brutal – a real test of endurance. This one is short and sweet, very repetitive, but fiendish. That said, I absolutely love the signature move – a jump with a full 360 degree rotation. Just as with Rohai kata, I love showing off what an old lady like me can do.

I have no idea what my sixth year will bring. My family and I are going through a tough time right now. We hope that we’ll be able to live in this same area, but we might have to move to where it’s easier for my husband and my older daughter to find jobs. I’d have to find a new dojo, adjust everything I do to fit a new style, and jump through whatever hoops I have to jump through to catch up to the equivalent of the rank I am now. Or I’d have to find a new martial art (I’m partial to Filippino Martial Arts, but I’d be willing to go with Krav Maga or Kung Fu). Oh well, the journey is more valuable than the belt color.

That said, you can help us stay in our house and get off food stamps. See that bar on the right? Somewhere along that bar is a link to my Zazzle stores. Or just click here. Buy something – I get a royalty, you get a high-quality product. Thank you!

Sex and Karate

Now that I have your attention… Gender, people! Gender! What were you thinking?!?

Here’s where I’m coming from. For the vast majority of my life I have been hugely ignorant about the multitude of real live human beings who don’t fit the rigid definitions of “male” and “female” that I grew up with. This is actually pretty silly of me because I’ve always been ever-so-slightly transgender, and so has my husband. The unkind labels given me were “tomboy” and “butch.” My dear husband was “sissy” and “fag.” And here we are now – a monogamous heterosexual couple with a little over 28 years of marriage under our belts and two grown offspring who are quite obviously our natural biological children.

28 years of marriage means my husband and I are NOT transgender, right? My husband and I are “normal,” right?

What is normal?

One psychologist asserts that “normal” is merely a setting on the washing machine. The word is meaningless when it comes to human beings.

This is the lens I’m looking through as I write about gender and Karate.

Up until the class schedule was changed to a time that is incompatible with my work schedule, I helped out with the Karate PE class at the community college. This college is one of the most diverse in the nation, so my little white bubble has been expanded. Maybe two years ago, we had two students who, I saw, were at least friends. One day I happened to be eating lunch in the student union, and… Oh! It was pretty obvious they were more than just friends! I squished down some stupid ideas I’d learned somewhere along the way and decided to keep on being the best assistant instructor I could be.

It’s called respect, and it’s a key component of martial arts.

A couple of months later, one of these youngsters got a job at the grocery store. They were most definitely a part of my community for a season. I was sad when they moved away, as young people often do. Even when you’re just an assistant instructor, most of the time you form ties with students. Often you learn from your students, and sometimes the lessons are unexpected. My world was expanded by those two students. They were people I cared about.

I’ve recently finished an autobiography of a martial artist (Searching for Grasshopper by Cathy Chapaty). Her sexual orientation was an issue in a dojo she once studied in. That chapter was tough for me to read. Fortunately, years later Cathy and her former sensei reconciled. But oh, the pain of those lost years! I shudder to think of how much damage I could have inflicted on those two young college students. I read about the damage done to Cathy and I’m now very firmly committed to respecting every student.

If you think gender isn’t a big deal, think again. You need to see your student or your fellow karateka holistically in order to begin to comprehend where they are coming from. It’s the first step in seeing the world through their eyes. That’s called empathy. Empathy is the polar opposite of those careless remarks, those little hurtful things that might slip out when we are not thinking about the other person. The discipline of dojo etiquette is a great conduit of empathy. Communication between student and sensei and communication among students must be respectful, and brevity is encouraged. With such restrictions in place there’s less chance of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth. In other words, we have to think before we speak.

I can hear it now… “Oh, but they should have thicker skin than that, especially because they’re karateka. After all, I was only joking when I said…”

Stop right there.

A dear friend of mine explained this truth to me. Maybe I’ve been stung a few times in my life because of who I am. But she gets stung at least once every single day of her life – some days several times. Yes, Karate gives us strength of character to withstand that. But those stings shouldn’t come from our fellow karateka.

So, don’t discriminate. Right? Well… Here’s an uncomfortable truth for everyone involved. There are still practical things that must be addressed when it comes to gender and karate. What about tournaments? What about belt tests? What about training requirements? I have few ideas, and maybe I’m still ignorant about a lot, but I’m trying. Here are my opinions, for what they’re worth.

I am grateful for the fact that we’re making progress in accommodating transgender individuals in formal competition (Google search International Olympic Committee transgender policy). It seems like there are a lot of restrictions and rigid definitions in those policies. But it’s a start, and I see it as a positive development. There are no easy answers, so I’m sure the IOC is doing the best it can.

Belt tests:
In the United States of America, this is strictly a matter for students and their sensei(s). Some organizations’ testing requirements differ for men and women. Some don’t. There is absolutely no interference from any local, state, or federal government agency. This is a good thing. It allows each organization to grow and develop as it sees fit. Lack of government regulation allows each student to discuss their upcoming tests with their sensei(s) confidentially. The last thing that anyone of any gender needs is to have to go to some stupid government office to file paperwork about their identity and their upcoming belt test!

Training requirements:
I know what it’s like to run a class full of people with diverse physical types and fitness levels. The college PE class I used to help with gets an almost entirely new group of students every quarter. I’ve helped out at regular dojo(s) too. The best advice I have to offer is to simply think of your students as collections of strengths and challenges. Don’t think, “Oh, she’s female, her strength is in her legs but she won’t be able to do push ups worth jack.” No. You could be wrong on all counts. If you see a student of any gender who can do thirty push-ups but can’t hold a deep horse stance for longer than 20 seconds, you know where they need work.

And, ahem… As far as “equipment” goes… Protect yourself where you need protection. Mmmkay?

So. Maybe I’m still an ignoramus when it comes to gender issues. Perhaps I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth multiple times in this post. In my defense, I offer this. What would things be like if nobody were examining these issues? I grew up in an era when we didn’t talk, we didn’t form ties with people who were different from us. It was unhealthy at best, deadly at worst. The dojo is supposed to be a sanctuary for those who feel the need to learn how to defend themselves. We’re supposed to be building self confidence in our students and fellow karateka. Let’s do it. Let’s build those communities. Whaddaya say?