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.
Every once in awhile it’s good to be a “white belt” again (no rank, new beginner). I’ve visited self-defense classes taught by instructors whose base arts are different from mine (read more here and here) and a couple of self-defense seminars taught by a sensei from a dojo in our karate organization. It’s been interesting to see the common points and the differences in those one-off self-defense seminars. Often these have little to do with the instructor’s base art. One thing I intend to do more of is to go to one-off workshops introducing martial arts that are not the style of Karate that I study. A few months ago I participated in a Capoeira workshop. Last week I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tai Chi.
As expected, most attendees were elderly. I spotted a seasoned warrior in a 2017 Judo tournament T-shirt and made a mental note to talk to him after the workshop. My daughter, who trains in Karate with me, was by far the youngest in the room, and I was maybe the fourth youngest. I saw a variety of physical challenges that can be accommodated easily by a “soft” art such as Tai Chi. I’ve been known to grumble about adult women not taking interest in martial arts, so I was pleased to see that women were the majority in this workshop. It’s pretty obvious that Tai Chi is the martial art that women are inclined to try!
Our instructor, an amiable young woman ( Dr. Hansie Wong), right from the start made it clear that Tai Chi is a martial art. I know I wasn’t the only one making comparisons to another art during class. After class, the Judo warrior and I talked about our observations with Dr. Wong. She explained to us that the soft arts, like Tai Chi, focus on the internals – breath, center of gravity, flow, whole-body movement, etc. and the “hard” arts like Karate and Judo focus more on the externals. I was quick to point out that in Karate we don’t put much emphasis on the internal aspects of our art when we’re teaching new beginners, but as an advanced student I am now learning more about those internal aspects. The differences in emphasis and curriculum are due to each art’s purpose and philosophy of teaching.
Dr. Wong explained at the beginning of the workshop that Tai Chi is a means of healing one’s own body. The art’s gentle movements are a great way to build and maintain strength, balance, and mobility. Accordingly, the emphasis for new beginners is on breath, flow, awareness of one’s center of gravity, and whole-body movement. The things Dr. Wong emphasized are exactly the things I’m now refining in my Karate, as befits a 1st kyu student. At times the feedback Dr. Wong gave me and other workshop participants sounded quite familiar!
I’ve briefly watched other Tai Chi classes and practitioners before, and can’t help but see some movements in the context of self defense. Certainly I will be exploring possible applications of the movements we learned in the workshop. I also drew parallels – “Oh, that’s hanzenkutsu dachi,” or, “That’s almost like a movement from Kanku Dai kata.” I sometimes had a hard time keeping my body from lapsing into more familiar movements from kata (forms)! And just as with Capoeira, the Tai Chi transitional movements were a little challenging for me because, well, we don’t have those transitions in Karate. Just like almost everyone else in the room, I was learning something new.
One thing that surprised me was qi, or, as we call it in karate, ki. I am a huge skeptic when it comes to ki energy. Now there’s a little chink in my armor. Before Dr. Wong mentioned it to the class at large, I’d felt a bit of what I’d describe as heat in the palms of my hands during a particular movement. As Dr. Wong mentioned to the class moments later, that’s supposed to happen along with that movement. Maybe there’s a purely physiological explanation for it, or maybe it could be ki. I don’t know, but I’m going try to be aware whenever I’m at home practicing Karate. Don’t worry, I’m still going to maintain a healthy skepticism. But maybe, just maybe, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.
I definitely had takeaways and things to think about after the workshop. I think the biggest takeaway for me from this workshop is encouragement to keep working on the internal aspects of my art. Dr. Wong gave the workshop participants a few interesting little tools for that, and I can incorporate those Tai Chi movements into my warm-up exercises at home. Something that Dr. Wong touched upon was yin and yang in the context of movement. I’ll most definitely look for that in my own art. Such a mental exercise will yield some interesting insights. I was definitely seeing my own art in a new light, but at the same time, I was on familiar territory.
Breathing, balance, smooth transitions, integrating the whole body into each movement, flow… All this is foundational stuff that both karateka and Tai Chi students learn – whether it be right from the start or later on. As the late Grandmaster Remy A. Presas (founder of Modern Arnis, a Filipino martial art) would say, “It’s all de same.” I’ve seen this every single time I’ve gone to a self defense seminar or a one-off martial arts workshop. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to compare and contrast!
One of the biggest Karate lessons I’ve learned is how to function while I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone. More often than not that push comes from a sensei (instructor), but sometimes I deliberately seek out martial arts experiences that will get me way beyond my comfort zone. Such was the case when I signed up for the Capoeira workshop offered as part of my employer’s Professional Development Day.
Capoeira is a martial art that was developed in Brazil by African slaves. Singing, clapping, drumming, and playing the berimbau is integral to the art. To an unenlightened European slave master, Capoeira looks and sounds like dancing. But Capoeiristas know that this is a fighting art. Participants in the workshop I attended were taught the chorus of a song about a man who went away to war. A man who told his family not to worry, he had the art of Capoeira to protect him. Not just physical protection – just as with most martial arts there are mental and spiritual sides to the art as well.
Our workshop instructor describes playing Capoeira as a conversation. This was familiar territory for me. If I do this, how do you respond? What if I seek to deceive you? Can I maneuver you into doing this so that I can do that? I recognized that this is an area of my base art (Karate) which I need to develop more.
My fellow workshop participants and I were taught three very basic “words,” as our instructor described them. The ginga, as near as I can tell, can be used as a baseline or default mode. In dance class it would be a basic step – analogous to the box step in Foxtrot. Next we learned an evasion from a kick, and just like the word “tomato” has two different pronunciations, there are two similar ways of doing this evasion. The third “word” we learned was a kick. Throughout the lesson I drew analogies to Karate. I wasn’t the only one drawing comparisons to their base art.
For partner drills I paired up with a Hapkido practitioner who is roughly the equivalent rank I now hold. In our first exercise we were to synchronize our movements, each mirroring the other in the ginga. I quickly realized that this was all about “flow.” My new friend and I recognized that our skills of reading our sparring partners were coming into play. After we had learned to evade and kick, we paired up again in order to apply what we’d learned. Now we had to read intent and respond in a “language” neither of us were familiar with! We had a blast.
Near the end of class, all the workshop participants and our instructor formed a circle. This space, called a roda, is considered sacred and is symbolic of the world. There is etiquette for players entering the roda. These concepts were familiar to me even if the format and emphasis were different. Our instructor called for volunteers to play with him in the roda.
To describe my feelings in that moment, let’s drag out a couple of characters I’ve used in past blogs: “Id” and “Superego:”
I was the first to volunteer. The clapping and the music began. The instructor walked me through the preliminaries and we began play. I went back to my white belt (no rank) days and remembered what I learned while sparring with sensei(s): all that matters is that I try. I knew I was out of my element, I knew my tools were limited, but by then I had the measure of the man who was in the roda with me. Like any good sensei, he was there to teach, to let me experiment, to show me what is possible, and yes, to push me a little bit in order to show me that my capabilities are more than what I think they are. All that happened in our play. The instructor ended my time in the roda with a lunge that I evaded neatly even though he hadn’t shown us how – I simply modified something I’d just learned less than an hour before. I was very, very sorry that time didn’t allow for more. I returned to the outside of the roda grinning from ear to ear and urged my new Hapkido friend to give it a try.
Capoeira is about as different from Karate as you can get – or is it? I admit I drew analogies – “Zenkutsu dachi but with the back heel up, shiko dachi is the transition, then step back into zenkutsu dachi with the opposite leg forward…” “Modify the crescent kick thusly then step back zenkutsu dachi…” The concept of flow and the art of reading and manipulating people were there too. But let’s look beyond mere physicality. Respect, personal development, camaraderie, community… All these things happen in both Karate and Capoeira. Are these not the most important aspects of any martial art? I certainly experienced these things during that workshop.
I came home with a lot of takeaways. Every once in awhile it’s good to be a white belt again, to be reminded of what learning a new skill is like. That reminder will make me a better teacher. I’m aware that I need to flow more (when applicable) in my art. I really ought to build my “conversational” skills for kumite (sparring) – my sensei(s) have been telling me that for quite some time now. I have a greater appreciation both for the things martial arts have in common and for the diversity in the world of martial arts. I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to expand my understanding of Capoeira in particular and martial arts in general.
The day after my last post published I put in a full day. It wasn’t enough to go to Saturday practice time at my dojo. Oh no, not when there was more fun to be had! A local dojo (not from the organization I belong to) was hosting two women’s self-defense seminars. I skipped the first seminar because I really needed to put my own dojo and my own practice in top priority. I had enough time to rinse off in a shower, gulp down a protein bar and some electrolytes, drive, and change into a clean set of workout clothes upon arrival. I found my way through the unfamiliar athletic club and into the studio perhaps ten minutes before the first seminar ended.
The first seminar was billed as basic but from what I could tell it had been different from the basic seminar I’d attended two weeks prior from this one. The ladies were drilling a sequence of defense and attack. I’m guessing that the skill-set was built gradually, movement by movement over the course of half an hour or more. My first inkling that I might be using skills I’ve learned from Karate came when I recognized a movement from the kata (form) we label as Pinan Yondan. Students were carefully grabbing their partners’ head and slowly bringing a knee up to simulate smashing an opponent’s face.
I joined in the closing meditation. The instructor led us in this, reminding us how and when to breathe. She’d say things like, “Know that you are powerful. If someone who wants to do something harmful sees you, they will feel your power and they won’t mess with you.” I thought this was a nice touch for this context. Guided meditation is not generally done during Karate meditation, so it’s good to experience something different.
After the end of the first seminar the dojo sensei (karate school head instructor) and the self-defense instructor came over to greet me. I’d “met” the dojo sensei online after I commended him for offering a free month of karate classes to women following a rape attack in the community. We’d had a little online “conversation” going off and on for a few weeks so it was nice to finally meet him in person. The self defense instructor is an impressive woman. Not only does she teach Kung Fu, she also teaches Krav Maga. Awwww yiiiiiiisssss!
Three other women stayed to take the advanced seminar. Four students – perfect.
“You’re all pretty fit, so let’s get that blood pumping!” the instructor announced.
It’s a good thing I’ve been to other seminars and camp and such. I’ve learned to go, go, go even if I’m tired, tired, tired. I learned a new movement to bring to the table next time I lead warm ups at my dojo. The warm up was vigorous but not beyond me. It turns out we would be demanding a good deal from our bodies so I was glad that the instructor had us thoroughly warm up.
I learned right away that my Karate skills were both going to work against me and work for me. Right away I was fighting the instinct to do something different than what was taught. No sooner did I overcome that when the dojo sensei requested that I slow down in order to reduce the chance of harming my partner. My immediate positive response to his request indicated that my Karate training was also working for me. One incident in particular highlights this mixture of blessing and hindrance.
We’d reached a point where we could drill the three of the sequences we’d learned. The instructor had us circle up and asked for a volunteer to stand in the middle of the circle. I tried to hang back but I got volunteered anyway. My understanding was that everyone was going to attack me in order “to simulate being attacked by a group.” I’ve done this sort of thing before. When I’ve done this at my own dojo the rule was only one attacker at a time. Small mercy because you don’t know what technique the attacker will use and you don’t know who’s attacking next. I knew I could handle that but I didn’t think I could reliably use the defenses that I’d just learned. They weren’t hammered into my muscle memory, unlike quite a lot of other things I could do without thinking. So I asked, “Do we have to stick with the techniques we learned in the lesson?” It turns out I completely misunderstood what we were about to do. I only had to go around the circle to each person and the attacks were predictable. Yes, go ahead and laugh.
I started thinking about the basic principles of what we were doing. Leverage. Kime (look it up). Weight distribution. Load-bearing stances. Smashing joints. I started to hear the voice of the late Professor Remy Presas (founder of Modern Arnis) whispering, “It’s all de same…”
Next up was ground work. This was totally and completely unfamiliar territory for me. Sure I’d been taught some throws as part of kata bunkai (practical application of movements from our forms). But so far I hadn’t been taught about what to do once I’m on the ground. I also had never been in a situation where some guy I’m barely acquainted with is, you guessed it, straddling me and “choking” me while I am flat on the ground. Not just in one position but three. Because of my size, strength, and martial arts experience I wasn’t rolling the petite lady instructor – oh no, I was rolling my gentleman acquaintance, the dojo sensei. I was a little unprepared for the mixture of dark, negative emotions that crashed through me. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
I had to fight myself to even lie down on the mat. I had to sternly tell myself that yeah, I was learning from watching the other ladies but actually doing this stuff would be infinitely better. The rush of elation after my first escape was fantastic. I learned to channel the negative emotional reaction to being in these positions into motivation to learn the lessons well and execute the sequences quickly. I relaxed and started thinking about leverage, push-and-pull, hip rotation, and using your opponent’s natural reactions to your advantage… Yes, it’s all de same. Ground work suddenly didn’t feel alien to me anymore.
After this it was back to more familiar territory. The instructor had us expand on something we’d learned earlier. Before this one of the ladies had to leave early. That left me paired with my gentleman acquaintance, the dojo sensei. He let me throw him a few times while the instructor worked intensively with the other two ladies on the sequence (and they weren’t allowed to throw each other). When it was clear I had a good handle on the sequence and the throw, the dojo sensei smiled, changed his position relative to me and to the padded mats, and said, “Now do it on the other side.” I grinned – every good sensei has his or her students train both sides of the body 🙂 Using my non-dominant side was a bit awkward at first but after awhile I managed just fine.
We ended with another circle drill and this time I knew how to proceed. It was a good review. When it was my turn to attack with a rubber knife I received the last sting of the day to my forearm. Earlier, we’d drilled that defense quite a bit so everyone got hit repeatedly when it was their turn to wield a rubber knife. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a bruise. I was willing to repeatedly take that pain so that others could learn, and learn they did. There are women in my community who know they can defend themselves against a knife and I was part of their learning. It’s a great feeling. For this knife defense we were essentially using juji-uke, a block that is very familiar to me from kata (forms). So as a bonus my kata will be that much better because I got to experience this block both on the striking and receiving ends.
I found out from the instructor that there’s an organization centered around women’s self defense. I can see myself someday registering as an instructor. Meanwhile I have a lot to learn. Throughout the seminar I kept thinking about the principles behind what we were doing and comparing what I was learning to things I’ve learned from Karate. I’m more eager now than ever to keep building my skills in Karate. I have a deeper appreciation for the foundation that my sensei have laid. Our kata are our textbooks. The self defense instructor showed me how to apply what I didn’t know I knew.
If you’re in the Seattle area and are interested in taking a self defense seminar from Kimberly Bowen, please click on this link: http://www.macabeeseattle.com/ Thank you to Greg Sommers-Herivel of Northwest School of Karate (Burien) for hosting and for letting me try some wicked awesome stuff on you.