Two Against One

Two men were closing in, angling me in the direction I didn’t want to go.  They were taller than me and they meant business.  I tried in vain to position myself to where the evening sun would be behind my back, shining in their eyes.  Eventually I stopped trying for the optimal position.  For an instant, the three of us were still.  I only had a heartbeat to make a decision.  As I drew breath I threw myself forward and sprinted between the men.  On my right, a brief flash of pain as my thigh absorbed a kick.  The left sleeve of my jacket slipped between the other man’s fingers.  I was free, running down the soccer field like a rabbit.  I ran towards cars, people, safety.  I was grateful for all those times Sensei (the title for a karate instructor) had me sprint uphill, trying to beat my best time.  This sprint on a level field was much easier.

I laughed around my mouth guard.  My little experiment was a success.  I ran just far enough to make my point, then turned back.  I raised my padded fists in challenge to the two tall men, who were closing in once more.  The whole point of the exercise was to engage, to experiment in a mostly safe way, so I threw myself into the fight.  When circumstances permitted, I tried sprinting again.  Sometimes I got away, sometimes I got caught.  I learned the ideal times and relative positions for running away.  This was as close to street fighting as I care to get.

Quite frankly, common sense, not Karate, has kept me alive for 47 years.  First my mother’s common sense, then my own.  To date, I have had to make a decision to fight or flee only once.  The decision to run kept me alive.  So in this more-or-less safe setting I practiced fleeing.  But I also practiced fighting – after all, this was my chance to experiment with that too.  My fellow students pressed me hard, and Sensei called a halt only when I was clearly exhausted and overwhelmed.

You learn a lot about yourself when your brain refuses to believe that you will come out of the situation with only a bruise on your thigh and some grass stains on your gi.  I really am my own worst enemy.  I’m glad I am learning how to deal with this in mostly-safe settings.  That evening, yes I fought terror, but there were also moments of elation when something I did worked.  Like when I got thrown to the ground and I twisted away from one opponent while planting both feet in the stomach of the other, pushing him hard with my legs.  The elation I felt when I regained my feet was sweet.

So what did I learn about fighting in a life-or-death scenario?  I learned I can’t be “nice,” otherwise I’m toast.  I was “nice” to my two senpai (more senior students).  I didn’t target joints, the throat, or (cough cough), um, “that.”  I didn’t use very many techniques against these gentlemen because I don’t trust my ability to perform some of the really nasty joint-shattering things we learn from kata (forms) unless I’m going slowly in a highly controlled drill.  So if I couldn’t kick knees, punch throats, or grab wrists and slam elbows, that left me with…  Not much of anything.  But conquering my opponents and looking like a superstar really wasn’t the point of this exercise.  The point was to come as close as we could to real fighting without harming each other.  The point was to see what worked and what didn’t work in a two-versus-one scenario.

Eventually it was my turn to be one of two opponents against someone else.  Again I was the smallest of our group of three, and the only lady.  My partner and our opponent fought hammer and tongs.  I darted in at the worst possible times for our opponent.  Sometimes our opponent saw or heard me coming and had a counter, sometimes he didn’t and I’d get a quick (light, controlled) hit to the kidneys or face.  A dark glee rose up in me when our opponent went down.  I have to admit at one point I even crowed, “He’s down!” and punched his nose (lightly).

Later, when I was driving home and processing things, at first I felt a little ashamed of this dark glee.  I thought, “Two against one isn’t really fair, after all.”  But then I realized that there is a time and a place for two against one.  It is always OK to stop evil from happening.  If the bad guy is outnumbered, too bad for him.  Learning how to work with someone to bring someone else down is a valuable exercise.  Processing the emotions that the successful execution of violence brings is also a valuable exercise.

I’m not sure I quite understand all the aspects of that dark glee I felt, but I’m working on it.  I don’t think I can explain it – and I tried while writing the draft of this post.  Most importantly, I’ve come to terms with that particular emotion and I recognize it has its place.  I’m very glad I had a more-or-less safe setting and hadn’t actually hurt anyone.  I wonder if policemen and soldiers sometimes feel this dark glee.  I wish I could ask my late grandpa (a WWII veteran) about it.

What we learn in Karate is not just physical.  I’ve come to appreciate being pushed and being pushed hard.  Quite often, the most difficult physical exercises lead to the deepest lessons.

On a lighter note…

While I was watching the first trio of fighters I heard a little boy call out, “LOOK!  A black belt is fighting two guys at the same time!!!”

Ya know, when I got through with my fight, nobody shouted, “Hey look!  A slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron survived being beaten up by two big guys!!!”

Life just ain’t fair…  LOL!


It’s not unusual for me to lead warm-ups at College Dojo (a community college Physical Education class).  At such times, College Sensei (instructor) might take attendance, get equipment out, consult with people who are sick or injured, or do other tasks he needs to do.  If he finishes quickly, he might then quietly go to the back of the class and follow along with us or warm up on his own.  Other times, College Sensei will take the space in line that I just vacated and he’ll do whatever calisthenics I have the rest of the class doing.  Recently when College Sensei took the sempai (most highly-ranked student) position in the lines and I took his place in front of the class, half my brain was involved in choreographing, leading, and doing the warm-ups.  The other half of my brain was engaged in observing and analyzing.  I noticed things I never noticed before.

During the early weeks of each quarter, the vast majority of the college students taking this Karate physical education class are still not used to acknowledging commands with a loud “Osu!” (in this context it’s the equivalent of “Yes, Sir!”) and they don’t quite know how to echo the Japanese counting of each repetition of the warm-up exercises.  New students need second-quarter students and more highly ranked karateka (those who study Karate) to model these behaviors.  Recently, College Sensei was in “my” spot in line and he was doing an admirably spirited job of modeling dojo (Karate school) etiquette.

I have to admit, hearing College Sensei, one of the more highly ranked karateka in our organization, shouting “Osu!” in response to my commands was, to me, both a little jarring and a tiny bit amusing. Given the vast disparities in rank, experience, knowledge, and ability between him and I it’s like a sergeant giving orders to a general!  I hadn’t really noticed my internal response to this situation before.  Maybe I’ve led warm ups so often that I now can devote some brain power towards internal reflection and observation.

As I listened and observed while sweating along with the class, I started feeling grateful for College Sensei’s spirited modeling of behavior.  I noticed the class growing more confident in responding with “Osu!” More students tried counting in Japanese.  I invest quite a lot into my kohai (students who are more junior in rank) and I’m glad to see them learning.  College Sensei was helping my kohai along, and their positive response helped me be a cheerful and spirited leader.  I really appreciated his support.

Knowing that College Sensei was giving the class a boost made my job as warm-up leader pleasant.  I experienced the positive “glow” of doing something together with a whole bunch of other people.  This is a very real phenomenon – I’m sure doctors can tell you all about the endorphins that are generated and the physiological responses such as lowered blood pressure.  All of this is very healthy for one’s mind and body!  I’m not sure I want to know the physical things that lack of spirit does to one’s mind and body.  All I know is it’s not fun.

Within the dojo and outside the dojo I’ve been both a student and a teacher when students (including me) are dragging a bit.  Nobody’s engaged, nobody’s having fun.  New concepts don’t sink into a brain that’s bogged down.  The instructor starts to wonder why he or she bothered to come to class.  Every class has its “off” days, but these can be turned around if someone takes it on him or herself to support the leader.  This is absolutely the job of the senior student(s) but really, everyone should take responsibility.  Even one person with good spirit makes a world of difference.

I find it interesting that there are lessons to be learned even during warm-up exercises.  Certainly as a student I’ve learned lessons during warm-upsWhen I was a teenager I first learned how to lead warm-ups by simply running through our sensei’s usual routine.  Of course I learned leadership skills and self-confidence even when all I did was run the class through a warm-up routine I’d memorized.  Last year I suddenly found myself in the role of senior student at College Dojo and I’ve gone beyond what I’ve learned as a teen.  I’ve been adjusting my leadership style and developing warm-up routines that work for College Dojo.  I have a feeling this will be an ongoing process.  But now there’s something new in me.  I’m starting to think about the psychological things that are going on not just with me but with the whole class.  I have a deeper appreciation for how my sensei (plural) are supporting me in my own development.  I hope I remember these lessons so one day I can help someone else grow into the role of senior student and, eventually, a sensei.


From time to time I need to be reminded that how we conduct ourselves in the dojo (karate school) is utterly foreign to a lot of people.  There are many people who are good-hearted but at the same time tend to struggle with remembering basic manners.  The more martial aspects (like shouting “osu” and having a hierarchy) will be alien to most.  At least three times per year I am reminded of how new students might view dojo etiquette.  In college dojo we get new students every Fall, Winter, and Spring quarter.  College Dojo is a Physical Education class that students take for credit.  Two quarters are offered, and we occasionally have a student or students audit more quarters just for fun.  So assuming on the first day of the quarter we have College Sensei (instructor), me (almost three years into my training), two second-quarter students and one auditing student…  What might we look like to the new people?

Student A speculates, “Is this some sort of cult?”

Student B wonders, “That’s not how we did things at the dojo I was in when I was a kid.  Which dojo is right?  Which one is wrong?”

Student C overdoes it and does some extra bowing.  Just in case.

Student D inwardly scoffs, “What a bunch of baloney!”

Student E nervously thinks, “All this is really strange and I’m feeling a bit intimidated.”

Student F tells himself,  “I’ll just roll with this and cheerfully do the best I can.”

I’ll bet you can spot my least favorite type of student among the five.  Yep (groan) – Student D.  That said, sometimes it’s that student who will often inspire me to explain things the rest need to learn.  Student F is pleasant to deal with, but if everyone were like Student F, would I remember to explain dojo etiquette?  Maybe not.

So why do we need to think about and teach the reasons why we do what we do?  It’s not just to reassure Students A, C, and E or to give Student B a deeper appreciation for the diverse world of Karate.  We could dissect each rule and discuss its origins and benefits (and that’s a fascinating study for some of us), but what it all boils down to is etiquette benefits everyone.  Etiquette provides a framework for building respect.  This includes respect for those who have learned more, for those who haven’t learned as much, for facilities and equipment, and most of all, respect for one’s very self.  Also, etiquette keeps things running smoothly.  Not only that, simple rules like bowing to Sensei (and Sensei bowing back) paves the way for the future – not only the future Karate career of the student, but also the future of the dojo and/or organization.

As I get more and more involved in helping with various things, I run into more etiquette.  Here are a few examples.  Deferring to the dojo’s Sensei on matters that are not mine to deal with.  How to treat VIPs.  The relational dynamics of sub-groups (such as a fundraising group interacting with the yudansha-kai).  Inter-organizational etiquette.  Working with service providers (recreation centers, catering, special event venues, etc.).  Fortunately I have any number of mentors to help me navigate the trickiest situations.  Those mentors have many more years of experience than I do, so I trust them.  And yes, sometimes the etiquette lessons “sting” a little bit because I’ve crossed a line that I shouldn’t have.  But if I learn my etiquette lessons well, my cooperative and respectful involvement will help the organization run smoothly so we can keep on having fun things like tournaments, seminars, and camps.

One More Push Up

Remember these characters?  Id and Super-ego?  Long-time followers of this blog will recognize them from this post and from this post.

Characters made by yurike – Free for both commercial and non-commercial use Credit is not required but it would be greatly appreciated

Sensei (instructor):  Everybody down.  Push-ups.  Hajime (begin).

Id:  Ugh.  Push ups.


Super Ego: Let’s rock & roll!  We’re getting stronger!


Id:  Aaaaaugh!  Sensei isn’t saying “Yame (stop)!”


Super Ego:  Chill.  Get ‘er done.


Id:  No more strength!


Super Ego:  Modify.  Keep going.  We’ve got this.


Id:  Ohhhkaaay, but I don’t know how much longer…


Super Ego:  Hey, you know what?  We’ve improved since last week – we’re doing more!


Id:  Oh man, seriously – now there’s nothing else left to give!  Ahhhh, sweet floor, how I love you.  Man, it feels good to lie here.

Super Ego:  We’re going to try anyway.  Rrrrrrgh!  Fight it!  Oh, look!  Here comes help.


Id:  That’s not HELP – that’s Sensei!  We’re DOOMED!


Super Ego:  You be quiet – I’m listening to Sensei.  He’s explaining how to do this.  KIIIIIIIIIIIIIAAAAAAIII!  There, see!  There was one more push-up in those muscles.  Sensei said to stand up now.

The sound that came out of me was unlike anything I’ve ever vocalized before.  It was a cathartic roar that came not from my throat but from the gut.  I’ve learned a little bit about vocal techniques from singing, so I know I could have damaged my vocal cords if they’d been tight.  Of course there wasn’t tension in my throat because the cry came from my gut.  Among other things this exercise was meant to teach us how to kiai properly.  But I gained more.

I was charged full of energy and ready to learn.  I usually am able to lock my problems in the locker along with my street clothes, but that day I was still dragging when I came to class.  With that one yell I shed the weight of those problems right off.  Afterwards I was focused, clear-headed and light-hearted.  My attitude had turned around.  I was full of wonder at what I’d just accomplished.  With a little encouragement from Sensei I won a battle with myself (the Id and the Superego).  I’d pushed beyond what I’d thought was a limit.  I admit I was feeling a little proud.

[sound of a record needle scratching]

I hear you asking, “Wait – you felt good afterwards?  Don’t you think your sensei was being mean by making everyone do all those push ups?”

I see you reaching for your phone to call the funny farm.

Sensei wasn’t making me do anything.  I could have walked out, changed back into my street clothes and driven away never to return.  That was totally an option.  I could’ve flopped around in a half-hearted effort and been scolded for it – that was totally an option too.  But I value my training.  I also respect myself and my Sensei.  So my “Superego” overpowered my “Id” and I listened when I was told how to get one last push up done.  Once again, I learned I am capable of more than I think.  It’s a lesson that I need to keep on learning because I am human.

Sometimes in life we face adverse circumstances.  We might think we’ve hit a limit and we’re helpless to do more.  We might be right – there are some circumstances that are too dire for anyone to overcome.  Or…  There might be enough strength left to fight back.  Sometimes we need someone to remind us of that and to help a little.  Our challenge afterward is to pass on what we’ve learned to someone else who needs to hear it.

After class was over I felt more equipped to face my real life challenges.

Interestingly enough, within two days very positive progress was made with those problems that I’d dragged with me to class.  The progress wasn’t due to anything I did – if anything it was the prayers of good people (yes, including Sensei), the grace of God, and a whole bunch of recruiters who called my husband so often that he couldn’t finish taking notes from one conversation before starting another.  But I could’ve done a lot of damage to myself and to my husband in the day before the phone started ringing off the hook.  The positive experience of getting through a physical challenge helped me find that strength.  It turned out that I just needed strength for one more day, one last push.

Do you still think Sensei is mean?  Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, and my Id actually agrees with you.  But my Superego knows better.  My problems aren’t solved yet, but things are looking better.  Even if my family and I end up putting four boxes and the dog into a car and driving off to another city, we will find the strength and courage to face that.  But I have a feeling things won’t come to that.  I think this could very well be the last push up.  I am roaring my battle cry in victory.

Desiring Depth

Now that I’ve reached a stage (4th kyu) where I can expect to take longer periods of time between belt tests I find myself eager to go deeper into my art.


My online acquaintance Kai Morgan recently wrote a brilliant article that sums up a lecture by deep freediver Sara Campbell .  Campbell lectured about seven principles of mental success in free diving, and Kai Morgan related those principles to martial arts.  This article really resonated with me.  There’s so much more that I have yet to discover about challenging myself and improving my performance.  I’m starting to understand the mental work that goes into this.  I’m looking forward to more growth in this area.


There are so many ways I need to improve.  I’m doing well for my age, but boy howdy I’ve got a long way to go before I’m satisfied.  I want to understand more about the best way to make those gains in strength, endurance, and flexibility while taking into consideration my middle-aged body.  I won’t be as fast or as strong as someone half my age at peak physical condition but by golly I wanna be one bad muddah.

I’m also eager to explore what I am capable of.  I’ve often been surprised.  I’m becoming more willing to try things that seem “impossible” for an “old lady” to do.  Every now and then I outperform or at least keep up with athletes young enough to be my sons and daughters.  That’s a great feeling and I’m thankful for the sensei (instructors) who have been guiding me.


I see so much that I want for myself when I watch more advanced practitioners.   I’m sharper, faster, and cleaner than the lower ranked students, so that’s a start.  My stances are deeper.  Most of the time I don’t wobble like a newborn fawn or flap around like a spastic duck.  But there’s so much more work I need to do.  There is still tension in my shoulders that needs to be banished.  I need to use my hips more.  When I’m doing the simplest of moving basics alongside the first-quarter students in the college class I concentrate on how I’m executing the techniques.  I think that effort is paying off.  This week I was given homework to help me with appropriate timing of kime (tension) and flowing through movements.  I’m looking forward to improvement!


I’m starting to learn about refereeing and judging.  I’d like to add coaching as well.  I don’t have sufficient rank yet to take a certification exam.  Quite frankly it’s going to take quite awhile for the information to really sink in, so getting an early start will benefit everyone once I actually get to work in a ring at a tournament.  Tonight, College Sensei emailed me a link to the information I want to know.

Etiquette and culture fascinate me, and I’ve bugged more than one Sensei with questions.  Even on the occasion when I was reprimanded then gently lectured for an inadvertent breach of etiquette the emotional sting was offset by my inner anthropologist gleefully scribbling notes and making comparisons.  I can’t help it – I’m a total nerd.  I will continue to make observations, think about, and ask questions about why we do what we do.   Poor Sensei.

For the future

I already have a fairly good start on how to teach, at least with the college program.  I’ve also had experience teaching child beginners in a dojo setting.  Currently I’m getting opportunities to help a wider variety of ages and ranks.  I want to improve on how I teach groups.

I must admit that I find teaching advanced kata (forms) very challenging, so I need to work on actually knowing the kata well enough to teach it.  I want bunkai  and lots of it!  I can’t ever get enough of bunkai.

Some months ago there was a period of time when I had a little taste of what I’ll most likely need to do once I reach Shodan (first degree black belt) and beyond.  I spent a good bit of time teaching and therefore I  needed to create or find learning opportunities.  I did a lot of work on my own time.  I’m now enjoying a more gradual road to that place.  Because of that period of time, I know I can do a little exploration on my own.  I also learned I will always need other practitioners who know more than I do to help me go deeper into my art.

I hope I’ll always enjoy diving deeper into the art of Karate!