More Betterer V – I’m “There” Now…

In January 2016 I created a series of blog posts called “More Betterer” in response to a friend’s challenge to think deeper about who I will be when I am a Shodan (first degree black belt).

On October 16, 2021 I passed my test for Shodan. Yesterday at the time I’m writing this.

Dan-rank testing (1st degree and beyond) is held yearly in October. I was supposed to test in October 2020. That didn’t happen due to COVID-19. Yes, I admit I was bitter from time to time. OK, well, to be honest… I was quite often bitter. But sometime after July 2021 when I was able to be in class again in my dojo I started to realize that the extra year was very beneficial. My performance at my Shodan test confirmed this. Talk about a silver lining! Another nice bonus was that friends and family who would not be able to be there in person were able to watch online. I never foresaw that, and I loved it that they were “there” to root for me.

So. Now I’m Shodan. Did I predict what it would be like accurately?

More Betterer Part I – Introduction

There really aren’t any predictions here. I now have a better idea now of what it takes to run a dojo in different settings: in recreation centers, as a club, and as a business. Of the three, the business model scares me the most. In the last couple of years I’ve learned that leasing space is expensive and you’re locked in for five years. Often the contract says the rent will increase each year. Tuition from teaching children can cover the expenses, but as for myself… I cannot teach children because I am immuno-compromised. So I learned that if I some day start my own dojo the business model probably won’t work for me unless I have at least two other yudansha (“black belts”) in with me.

More Betterer Part II – The Nitty Gritty

Just some short, random comments on this blog post…

I’m very grateful to my online friend not only for being the inspiration behind the “More Betterer” series but also for his continued support throughout my journey. I am honored he took the time to watch my test online.

I have a more clear memory of the black belt oath now that I’ve signed it, but… Memory will fade. I need to ask for a copy so that I can read it from time to time.

I’ve changed my main dojo since 2016 (I’m still within the same organization) so I won’t be helping at the two dojo(s) (schools) I mentioned in the article. I will be doing some substitute teaching at my current dojo – heck, I already have done that from time to time before and after we were closed for COVID-19. I love teaching – in fact, that was a big part of my bitterness when the dojo(s) were closed down and I couldn’t test for Shodan and gain that credential that would grant me the official designation of sensei (“teacher”).

And yes, I anticipate dealing with “stuff” that I mentioned in my article.

More Betterer Part III – Mental

Yes, the “inner demons” are still there. Imposter syndrome hasn’t been much of a problem in the last couple of weeks because my Sensei and others have done a great job of building me up. You know who you are – thank you!!! But I’m sure imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head again sometime. I am better at dealing with all the inner demons I listed in the blog post. I think I have grown bigger and I have learned more about dealing with those dark emotions. They will never go away and there’s no “woo woo” magic about being a yudansha (“black belt”) that will make them go away. It’s what I do about it that counts.

More Betterer Part IV – Physical

Just some random comments…

I still watch those who outrank me but sometime since I wrote this blog post I learned to also watch those who are my peers and those who are lower in rank. My kohai (those who are lower in rank) have their gifts, and I know I have my challenges. For instance a new white belt might ask better questions than I could ever come up with. It’s my job now to bring out my kohais’ gifts and help them to shine.

Physical goals…

1) Lose ten more pounds – I don’t know what I weighed when I wrote this article. I do know that I did a lot of stress-eating in 2020 due to the COVID-19 situation. I did a lot of damage to myself. My knees felt it and I couldn’t fit into one of my gi(s) (uniforms). I was back to my pre-karate weight. When I got word that testing in 2021 might be a possibility I immediately went on a diet. I lost 20 pounds and reached my target weight a month before my test. I stopped dieting so that my body’s resources wouldn’t be strained. I’d like to lose ten more pounds, but if my half-century-old body won’t allow it, I’m at a good place.

2) Be able to do at least 30 pushups – Sometime in the summer of 2020 I tried. I made excellent progress and then tore something in my shoulder while doing push ups. It wasn’t a bad tear, I was still able to judiciously participate in online classes, but it put me off push ups forever. Once my shoulder healed I started doing alternative exercises. Months later I took up bo which has done wonders for my upper body.

3) Nice deep stances (if deep is called for) – I’ve been complimented on my stances lately. That said, in the years since I wrote this article I’ve had to revise my notions about stances. Form is good but not when one sacrifices fluid, balanced movement and smooth transitions. Like anything else in karate there’s a balance. I will continue to improve my stances.

4) Better endurance – well, I’m still working on that one. I’ve learned more about breathing, about not “powering through” with muscle, about kime (when to tighten up), about breathing, and about when to just move. Honestly that’s what got me though my test. I hate jogging. Hate, hate, hate it. Jogging could’ve been a good thing for me to do, but in the end? I think the time I spent just working, working, working on kata taught me more about how to get the most out of my body.

And yes, I’ve had to be very clever about my training. I’ve had to be even more clever than I originally predicted. I trained in my basement, I bought a webcam, I learned how to use videoconferencing technology. For the past year a friend has allowed me to teach an early-morning fitness class in his space and he doesn’t mind one bit if I practice karate after.

In this blog post I was looking at seven years from 2016 “give or take a year or two.” That would’ve put me at 2022-2024. Obviously I was off by two years. It took me five more years – four because originally I was supposed to test in 2020 but couldn’t due to this infernal plague.

Being a little bit better today than I was yesterday is still my goal… Or will be. I took today off to do some shopping and make the three hour drive back home. I’m taking tomorrow off too. But the next day I’ll be back in the dojo. Back to work!

And yes, there are things I was completely clueless about back in 2016, and there are still things I’m completely clueless about. There are still more depths I haven’t even begun to sound. Shodan literally means “first level.” I have taken the first step on a bigger journey.

This is the true beginning of my journey.

1 year, 3 months, 14 days

1 year, 3 months, and 14 days. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen anyone from my dojo because of the pandemic. This morning I met with my sensei. He had some good news for me – starting this Thursday our dojo will begin meeting again. Because my next test will be for my first degree black belt, we agreed that he would assess where I’m at so that he’ll know how to shape my training.

After the first couple sets of moving basics my sensei (instructor) told me to relax. He assured me, “I know, you’re feeling like ‘uh oh, sensei is watching me so I’m gonna kill myself five minutes in.’ It’s very normal and natural to feel like that, especially now.”

Tensing up when sensei is watching is a normal thing that every karateka goes through during ordinary classes. But because I was in a room with a sensei for the first time in over a year the feeling was far more intense than I was expecting. I’m glad my sensei said something about it. If you have not yet been back to your dojo yet be forewarned: you might have to monitor your internal state more closely than usual.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. A few weeks ago during my first time sparring with a friend I was tense as all get out. I ran out of energy quickly and had to ask for a break several times. I was scared that I might hurt my friend after a year of not sparring with anyone. It turns out I didn’t need to worry. My friend is quite capable of minimizing his chances of getting hurt. But I also should have known that my practice time hitting a piece of cardboard has preserved my ability to control my techniques.

Back to this morning. I did much better with kata (forms). Performing an advanced kata three times in a row with only three seconds break in between is grueling. My sensei has had me do this a few times in the past but until this morning I didn’t really understand that it’s not simply a test of endurance. Yes, the sensei gets to see the kata three times, but this exercise is also more than repetition. Having the student repeat the kata three times allows the sensei to see what the student needs to work on most. The student is so tired that it’s obvious which things break under pressure. Believe me, the third repetition is tough and I could feel for myself where my performance was breaking down. That said, I think I did better than I ever have with this exercise.

I’ve put in a lot of kata practice over the past year.

I am a bunkai junkie. Bunkai is interpretation of the kata (forms) that we memorize. This morning I finally had a live person to work with so I could (gently!) see how some of the techniques might work. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have missed being able to physically explore these techniques with another human being. In my basement “dojo” I have an eye bolt sunk into a wall stud and a rope attached to that eye bolt. I think of the eye bolt as being a shoulder joint. I marked an “elbow” and a “wrist” on the rope using my own body for measurements. This morning I realized that in spite of that rope (or maybe because of it) I had completely misinterpreted a movement from a kata. I never did get around to installing an eye bolt lower down to simulate a leg.

So, where is my karate at after a year of only online classes and some improvised equipment? All anyone, including myself, needs to know today my sensei has seen how my karate has changed in the past year+. I would like to think some aspects of my karate have improved in spite of COVID-19 lockdowns. I told the sensei who has been teaching me online, “If my own sensei doesn’t see improvement that’s my fault because you are an excellent teacher.” Let’s assume I have improved at least some aspects of my karate. OK, fine. But I think it’s more important that my sensei knows where I’m at and where I need to go. He can help me get there in the most effective way possible – in a real, in person class setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I do continue to place value on the online classes. I will still be attending one online karate class a week and a monthly bo (staff) online class. The online bo class will probably endure indefinitely because the karateka involved are scattered geographically among three states. There are plans to include some time for us to have a bo session at our next organization-wide gathering so that we can do some two-person drills. To clarify, kobudo (weapons) isn’t something we include in our belt tests. Online classes with an occasional in-person class is perfectly OK if only a handful of karateka are studying only because they find it interesting and fun. Yes, that is valuable in its own way.

But when it comes to things I need to know and do for my next belt test (which will be Shodan as of this writing)… No way can I expect to reach that significant milestone without in-person help. There is no substitute for a sensei, a sparring partner, and for someone to explore techniques with you. It’s been quite a year. There’s been a lot of making do and improvising. A basement rearranged. Classes on video conferencing platforms that were never meant for more than business meetings. A piece of cardboard. A rope marked with electrical tape. I won’t completely abandon those things, but now it’s time for life to get back to normal.

Normal is now more precious to me than it ever was and you bet I gave my sensei a great big hug after this morning’s training session.

Beginning Bo

Several weeks ago I started attending an online bo class for karateka in the organization I belong to. Before now I could probably count the number of bo lessons I’d had on the fingers of one hand. I am pretty slow to learn new material so none of the one-off lessons ever really stuck. The two bo that I own gathered dust. At least they’re stored flat so I don’t have to worry about warping. It’s very nice to now have enough material to work with on my own.

The ceiling in my little basement “dojo” is quite low so I had to buy a dowel to substitute for a real bo. Even the dowel isn’t always short enough. I’m getting better at not gouging the ceiling tiles that compose my drop-down basement ceiling. Nonetheless, I had those tiles tested for asbestos. I was fully prepared to take the ceiling out entirely. I can’t tell you how many of my friends in the karate world had good sound advice for that enterprise – I’m grateful for their support. I’m happy to report that I can gouge the ceiling all I want – the test for asbestos came back negative.

Obviously I have to let go of the idea that everything in my little dojo will be safe and perfect. A couple of months or so ago the old fluorescent light fixtures in my little “dojo” had to be replaced (new tubes didn’t work). In the process I accidentally dropped a plastic diffuser tile. As a result of that drop the diffuser is missing a corner. I didn’t replace the diffuser. What’s the point? I might accidentally hit it with my dowel. Interestingly enough all my knick-knacks and everything hanging on my walls have been completely safe – including a small full-length mirror. Studying bo is totally worth the risk to my belongings. That said, I am grateful for warmer Spring weather so I can get outside with a real bo.

Admittedly a bo isn’t exactly something you can carry easily on the street. I have to make special accommodations for my bo when putting it in the family cars. No way am I going to be able to easily retrieve a bo from under the bed and use it on a burglar in the middle of the night. I’m learning bo because it’s fun, because I’m loving what it’s doing for my upper body, and… Long time readers have probably guessed that I love being a beginner.

I love it that I suck at bo. I’ve sat in a judge’s chair and awarded points, I’ve watched some excellent bo practitioners both live and on YouTube, and I watch my sensei – so I know how badly I suck. And it’s OK that I suck. How long have I been learning? A few weeks? Perfectly OK for me to not look as polished as most of the kobudo practitioners who I’ve judged in tournaments. In actuality I’ve probably made rapid progress because a lot of things from karate carry over to bo. But I’m still awkward, I’m not sure I have combination #6 right, and combinations #11 and #12 are eluding me altogether. None of this bothers me because I am having an absolute blast being a brand new beginner at something.

I am even contemplating competing with bo. I’ve been competing in the advanced empty-hand divisions for a good chunk of my karate career now. With bo I’ll be entering the beginner/novice division. So long as I don’t clonk a judge or anyone else in the head I’ll be happy. Long time readers of this blog know that putting myself in challenging situations where the pressure is ON is something I do in order to prepare for my next belt test. Yes, the tests are fewer and way further apart for my level and beyond (1st kyu at the time of this writing), but I personally need to be in a situation where I’ve got a bunch of people staring at me and judging me. I need to practice quelling those butterflies and doing my utmost to perform in a “scary” situation. Competing with bo will be a different sort of pressure – something I’m brand new with, something I’m awkward at, and the very first (or second) basic bo kata to boot. It’ll be a test of my self confidence for sure.

I’m not sure exactly how I’ll juggle competing if I add another division to my repitoire, but I’m sure it’ll work out. I’ll have to change into and out of my dogi and official’s uniform a couple of times but I have a dandy suit bag and most venues have a locker room. So I guess it’ll be OK. I don’t have huge ambitions for my career as an official, at least not right now. If at some point I suddenly develop a huge talent for it and finally can pass the written tests with ease I might set some goals. But for now my goal with judging is to help out. So yeah, adding bo will make the day very interesting, but I think that’ll be part of the challenge and the fun.

I can make a pretty good list of things I’ve learned about bo. I can expound on how my empty hand study helps my study of the weapon and vice versa. But what are the deeper lessons? I’ve learned that new material can help stave off angst. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy looking more deeply into material I’ve previously memorized and I love it when I see a bit of improvement in my performance. But let’s face it: I’m human. There are days when I’m bored, frustrated, even mopey. Grabbing my bo engages my mind and gives me something else to think about. There will come a day when I don’t have to think, I’ll just flow through the bo exercises and kata. For right now, it’s OK that I don’t. Sometimes I need the distraction of working with completely new material. And let’s face it, the past twelve months have been hard. Anything that lifts my spirits helps. Martial arts are all about showing a fighting spirit in the face of pressure. I daresay I’ve learned a bit about that by beginning something new this year.

2020 Karate Thanksgiving

Written on Thanksgiving Eve, 2020.

As I type I am still in my gi. Dried sweat makes me itch from time to time. I smell a little ripe. After class I didn’t feel like stretching (bad, I know). Instead I jotted down some notes and then finally downloaded karate and fitness related files from my email. As I organized all of my files into folders I ran across a video I had taken of myself after an online class. I had just memorized a short kata in class. At a couple of points in the video I saw that I had to stop and remember what the next movement was. I was quite obviously dog tired to boot. And yet… I took the time to make that video. I realized then that as lousy as 2020 has been, I have retained my passion for my favorite hobby. I have a lot to be thankful for.

And yet… 2020.

I don’t mean to be a whiner: rather I want to acknowledge the negative in order to contrast with the positive. So I’ll list what 2020 threw at me and write my thoughts.

1) 2020’s attack: No in-person classes. I miss my dojo family. I miss chatting after class and getting together for meals. A little moving picture in online chat isn’t enough.

Each dojo in our organization has made its own decision about online classes. Bottom line is now I could attend so many classes each week that I probably would become dangerously exhausted. I’m also training with karateka who I used to see maybe once a month, some maybe once per year. And I’m training under multiple sensei – which means I’d better pay attention when they all give me the same feedback.

As I mentioned before, I’m building quite a treasure chest of computer files. Notes, pictures, videos… All emailed out either before class or maybe in answer to a question I emailed to a sensei. I love having all these resources! Since the pandemic began I have doubled the number of files I have.

2) 2020’s attack: No sparring. I can’t pressure test anything I come up with. I worry that if I have lost my ability to read intent and react quickly maybe I won’t be able to walk away from a real fight.

Not being able to pressure test anything I come up with for sparring sucks. Still, I’ve learned some good drills. Whenever we can meet in person again I should see results from practicing those drills. Also just tonight I’ve learned more about the connections among kihon, kata, and kumite. I can explore that while I wait. I’ve also made a cardboard dummy that has held up rather well. I have to be careful with “Cheapskate BOB” but then again, I have to be careful with my real training partners too. None of this is a substitution for real kumite, but it’ll get me through.

As for losing any ability to read intent and react quickly – since when have I been in a real fight? My first and only fight was in 1984 – and honestly it wasn’t much of a fight because I only used just enough force to make my point then walked away. 1989 doesn’t count either because I only gave a guy a light elbow to the gut (his wife gave him worse). Most of the time I’ve been able to completely avoid fighting. Honestly, worrying about it will probably cripple me more than not practicing for a few months.

I am thankful that I can at least do some kumite-related things on my own. And I’m grateful for the brutal techniques in kata, which I’m hoping never to use in real life application.

3) 2020’s attack: No tournaments. Nationals was supposed to be a five hour drive from my home – and my parents and uncle were looking forward to a little road trip with me.

I’m thankful that so far my parents and uncle have not come down with COVID-19. I am thankful they are alive and safe.

A week or two before lockdown I judged and competed in the only tournament of 2020. It had been a few months since I last saw some friends in other organizations. I’m glad I had that one chance to see them this year. I’m also grateful for the hard-earned medals. Sometimes in the past I’d get third place medals just for showing up. Not this time. I am thankful that even if there was only one tournament this year, it was a good one.

Right before lockdown I was doing my yearly cramming for the online tests I have to take to renew my USA-NKF judging license. I usually pass the test on kata rules the first or second time around, but kumite rules are another animal altogether. I failed the kumite test at least two times before everything was shut down. I have to admit I am thankful I don’t have to take those tests again for who knows how long.

4) Space limitations. Some kata take up a lot of floor space. Skinning my foot on the brick fireplace is painful.

I’m lucky to have what space I have, so I shouldn’t complain. During online classes I’ve seen karateka making do with smaller spaces. There are those who envy my basement room. Besides, I can practice kata one segment at a time – which is a good exercise even when one has all the space one needs. I am very thankful that I have more room than many.

5) No chance to test for my next belt rank – Shodan.

Testing for dan-rank candidates happens once per year. So yeah, no test for anyone i-kyu and above in 2020. It’s a bummer, but I’m OK. Who knows – maybe this wasn’t the right year even without this stupid plague. And I have been and am now enjoying preparing for the challenge, whenever it will be. I hope I’m making improvement in some very key areas. I feel like I do need time to work on stuff, so I’m willing to be patient and work my ass off.

My primary motivation is teaching, not rank. Once upon a time there was a 13 year old girl who learned how to make a proper fist. Then she learned to punch and she suddenly knew she had something to use if the bullies at school escalated to physical abuse. Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman who wasn’t sure she was going to survive her first class in decades. I want to do for someone else what was done for me. It would be nice to have credentials, but I can wait until I have “mastered the basics.”

And on that note I am thankful for all my sensei, senpai, dohai, and kohai who have helped me along in my journey so far. I am grateful for karate and martial arts friends outside my organization who have competed with me, trained with me at seminars, and cheered me on even if we’ve never met in real life.

Training Online

Before COVID-19 closed everything down I had a habit of showing up early to class in order to take advantage of floor space. Since then my husband and I made some changes to our home so that I now have more room than ever to practice karate. Space isn’t a consideration anymore when it comes to how early I show up for class. But it’s still good for me to keep the habit of showing up early. In the process of adjusting to online classes I learned that I can get lost in what I’m doing and lose track of time. Ironically, I dislike having to keep track of time and I also hate having to remember to set alarms. Accordingly I now get Zoom up and running right away when I come in. This means I could be right in the middle of figuring something out when a sensei comes online. Invariably I get some feedback – which is good! The first couple of times this happened were unsettling to me. In the generation I grew up in, people on TV couldn’t hear or see you. We figured this out by the time we were four years old. The first time I was startled by a sensei’s appearance and subsequent feedback the first thought that popped into my head was, “Big Brother is watching me.” I had to laugh at myself.

Maybe I was too young when I read George Orwell’s chilling dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four (written in 1948). I was 14 years old in 1984 when I checked out the novel from my high school library. I thought it would be cool to read Orwell’s vision about the year I was living in. That book scared me more than the classic horror movie “Alien.” As an introvert I have always valued my privacy and my time alone. The pervasiveness of the “telescreens,” the TV screens that were also video cameras, creeped me out. We didn’t have that technology in 1984, and frankly I hoped we never would. We have the technology now and it’s not all bad.

Unlike the people living under Big Brother’s watchful gaze we are using our “telescreens” mostly for benign and beneficial activities, including martial arts. After a couple of weeks of practicing on my own I started pining away for my little dojo (karate school) tribe. I know how to practice on my own, I’ve learned about conditioning, I know at least some of what I need to work on. I value having time and space to breathe and explore. But it’s not enough. Those first two weeks of quarantine before our sensei(s) got online classes up and running were kinda miserable for me.

But, but, but, but – there’s tons of videos out there, right? I could learn from anyone, right? Yes and no. If I were starting from scratch in a new martial art I would be at a severe disadvantage without a live instructor. If I did not have a good foundation in that art I would simply be mimicking. Mimicking will not get you very far in any martial art. I know – I’ve helped teach a very gifted dancer who is amazing at mimicking what he sees. But even he needs an instructor who is right there, who can see things in three dimensions and who can move in three dimensional space. Not to mention touch – not just to correct but to feed and receive techniques. Physical contact is something we marital artists cannot do right now, and at least in my state we won’t be able to do for quite some time to come. At some point I will need to test the new things I’ve learned on real people who might just show me exactly where things break down.

What I can do with pre-recorded videos is I can gather and analyze information. I love bunkai (interpretations of kata), so I’ve been watching videos about bunkai. I understand that there will be differences between what I see and what I was taught due to style differences. I also understand that one practitioner’s bunkai is not necessarily going to be in line with another practitioner’s bunkai – and that’s OK! I do have to understand the bunkai my own sensei (instructor) taught me and, someday, I will teach others what was passed down to me.

Here’s the thing – I don’t go watching videos about bunkai for kata that I haven’t memorized. But I do confess that a couple of years ago I did use a video to learn a new kata. I was supposed to be learning that kata. I made sure the video was from the same series of videos recommended to me by one of my sensei(s). I’d seen it practiced in the dojo so I had a rough idea of what to expect. I most certainly did not rely on the video alone to learn the kata. But there was one huge advantage the video had over live instruction. I could turn my back to the screen and watch the video using a mirror.

Long-time followers of this blog might remember that I am challenged with directional dyslexia. I have any number of coping mechanisms. As I predicted a few years ago I have a pretty good grasp of the basic principles of karate. I’m sure that’s exactly where I’m supposed to be on my journey right now given my current rank (i-kyu). But still… it’s a huge relief to be able to let go of right and left from time to time. Of course this doesn’t work for kata but it does work for learning complex drills. I had no idea of the scope of my learning challenge until now. It’s probably like someone who was born with impaired hearing getting a cochlear implant. Except… I can use the implant only intermittently and I’ll have to give it up at some point in the future. Totally worth it.

I miss the fellowship. I miss all the things that I cannot do without other people.

There are some learning methods I’ve picked up during this time of quarantine that I will continue to use in the future. It’s far easier for me to take videos of myself in my new space so I’ve been doing way more of that. This tournament season is shot but I’m using my judging skills on myself. Normally I have pen and paper handy in my gear bag so I can scribble notes after class. That’s fine, but I’ve learned that sometimes I need more. Nowadays after class I sometimes open up a video of myself or of someone else in one monitor and in the other monitor I’ll type notes. This is especially nice to do for kata. I can remember far more about the feedback I received when I have a video (even if it’s not me or my sensei) to jog my memory. And who knows? Maybe after all this is over the karate organization I belong to will use online classes for supplemental training.

P. S. – Ironically, I’ve become a minor character from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. I am now the “Physical Jerks” lady on the telescreen because I lead an early morning online fitness class via Zoom. I was scheduled to start this class in person at an athletic club the very week we were shut down due to COVID-19. I went online instead. What can I do but laugh?