The Posts I Have Not Written

In this blog I open up my Karate life to public scrutiny. Or do I? Am I really presenting a true and accurate account of my journey? I’m sorry, but the answer is no. I remember very vividly the first lecture in my first college class in my major – Introduction to Mass Media. We were taught that every single time we point a TV or film camera at something, we are excluding everything else. We were taught that, in a way, we lie to people without intending to. I must admit that I do leave some things out of my blog.

Most of the time when I write an autobiographical post I set a lighthearted and sunny tone. Maybe I make my journey sound like it’s always a walk in the park. Sometimes I wonder if my breezy writing is a dis-service to my target audience (working adults who can’t imagine themselves starting a martial art). My audience does need to know there are tough things to deal with while one is studying a martial art. But on the other hand, who wants to wallow in the mire?  A good many of the things I don’t want to reveal are dark things I generated myself. Usually I’ll write about them only after I’ve already overcome them. But some of these things involve other people and are nobody’s dang business except for the people who are directly involved.

When it comes to writing about other karateka who are a part of my journey, I am cautious. I respect people’s privacy. If I have a conflict with them I don’t bring it up on my blog. If I am writing an anecdote, I try to make sure that I don’t interject anything negative into my portrayal of that other person or people. As I get more and more involved in the functioning of the Karate organization that I belong to, I must be even more careful. I must not overstep my bounds – I do not hold any authority to speak for my dojo or organization. There are things that are best left with those who are in leadership. Every once in a blue moon I will tackle an underlying social issue that my dojo or organization happens to be dealing with. But the vast majority of posts about broader issues have not had anything to do with anything specifically related to my dojo or organization. Most of the time with such posts, I simply had a flash of insight into a general issue or common situation.

Sometimes I’ll test the waters before I write about a social issue that either affects martial arts or is endemic to martial arts. I’ll private message a friend or two. Maybe I’ll post to more friends on Facebook. Other times I’ll leave a comment on someone else’s post and read the responses. I rarely post on forums, but that can be a good way to generate ideas and get a feel for where the topic might lead. This strategy has yielded gold in the past. But one time, it bombed. Even though I was able to express myself a lot better in six paragraphs than in six sentences, I’m not sure I’ll ever re-visit the draft I wrote while I was watching the responses appear. Oh well, I’ve got plenty more material.

Discarding material, omitting things, and shying away from some topics is a part and parcel of writing in general. To be honest, having more material than one could or should use is preferable to writer’s block! Yet leaving things out does affect my blog.  Sometimes I feel like I’m presenting a “Disney” version of Karate. I know huge chunks missing from the account of my journey. And yeah, I get the occasional rotten tomato lobbed my way, so I leave some things alone afterwards. Yes, I admit to using smoke and mirrors. But on the other hand, I think my blog is better off for all the posts I have not written. Who wants to read negative stuff? People who don’t respect others’ privacy are generally not popular. Not to mention I dislike rotten tomatoes, deserved or not, so I do my best to avoid them. All in all, I think I prefer the consequences of trying to do the right thing over the potential consequences for all the posts I’ve never written.

The Last Kyu

Tomorrow (12/1/18) I will test for my next rank – what we call “high brown” (otherwise known as i-kyu).  I won’t get a new belt – in our system, one wears the same belt through what is, for us, the last three ranks before black belt. No stripes adorn our brown belts – we have to talk to one another and keep track of every brown belt’s progress in order to figure out who stands where in line and who is senpai (senior) to whom.

My sensei (instructors) tell me that I am ready to test even though I’ve been ni-kyu (middle brown) for only six months. I have to admit I balked when I was nudged to test in October. I didn’t learn the two new kata (forms) that I will perform for my test until after I’d competed at Nationals in July. Annanko (kata) was no problem, but Kanku Dai (kata) is another animal altogether. For Kanku Dai I felt I needed more time than just three months. By mid-November I felt far more confident. My Kanku Dai isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. I have years ahead of me to polish it further.

The three ranks of brown in our system are meant to be a time of transition, particularly during the final kyu (colored belt) rank. I don’t know when I will test for Shodan (first degree black belt), but I do know that if I pass tomorrow’s test I’m in for a boatload of hard work. For my Shodan test, whenever that will be, there will be two new kata to present and a couple of significant format changes in the test itself. I will have to train just as hard if not harder than I did for Nationals. At least I have already shouldered a boatload of teaching, so I’ve already had significant preparation for the responsibilities that I will  have as a yudansha (black belt). In just a few days I actually will need to scale back the responsibilities I currently hold.

So far I have been balancing my own personal training with my dojo (school) responsibilities. But if I pass my test tomorrow I will need to give up one significant responsibility. OK, truth be told, I will need to give up helping with the college’s physical education class anyway because for next quarter the college has changed the class time and days. But even if the Winter Quarter Karate PE class was still going to work nicely with the rest of my schedule, I would still have to let go. Since the beginning of Fall Quarter I have been getting up at five in the morning to get personal practice time.   I admit I’ve been feeling a little ragged around the edges.  Pass or fail, I will need more time (and more intensive time at that) after tomorrow’s test to practice, to polish, to toughen my body further.

I am a little sad about not being part of the college class next quarter. It’s been a significant part of my journey and a tremendous boost to my growth for most of my training now. I will miss working alongside the dojo sensei and occasionally getting help with my own material after class. It’s been an honor to serve at the same place where the head of our organization got his start. But I understand it’s time for me to let go. It’s time to move on to my future. I’m excited about what’s next for me.  This time of transition is bittersweet.

Whether or not I pass my test tomorrow the coming months or years will most definitely see me intensively preparing to tie on a black belt. And yes, when that happens, I will still be a beginner. I will always be beginning something new.  I’ve been told that Shodan is the new beginning, the first step, and the true beginning of my own journey.  It’s gonna be a helluva ride.

My deepest thanks to all the karateka who have helped me get to this point.

Update:  I passed the test!

Training with Children

“Do I have to train with the little kids?  Don’t you have an adult class?”

Rumor has it that someone asked this question sometime in the past few months.  Honestly, I can sympathize a little.  All martial artists above the age of, oh, say, fourteen know that feeling.  But there’s something that any prospective teen and adult student should know:  You.  Are.  Needed.  And, quite frankly, a beginner is a beginner is a beginner, so you might as well begin your journey alongside the kiddos.

I’m not a sensei (instructor) yet, but I have a good solid history of assisting and teaching starting from when I was a teenager.  I’ve probably covered my background in previous posts, so I won’t go into detail about my exact qualifications.  But rest assured, I’ve seen enough to where I’m confident in my authority in writing this post.

As a teenager I often taught new adult students.  As an adult student, I have had and still have youngsters who are senior in rank (senpai) to me.  I know from my own experience and from watching my  young senpai(s) that teaching and having authority over an adult gives a youngster a huge boost in morale and confidence.  You never know -maybe at school that young senpai feels isolated and disrespected.  That certainly was my experience.  So, older beginning student, you could be water in the desert for your young senpai.  Of course young senpai(s) can and do enjoy teaching children, but being liked and respected by an adult student – oh I can’t even begin to describe the good it does for a young heart and soul!

A lack of teen and adult presence exacerbates the public’s perception that the class is just for children.  All too often martial arts are treated like just another glorified babysitter.  Of course, parents who just want their kids out of their hair for an hour can make the difference between a school paying its bills or being evicted, so I’m not bashing owners who allow such kids in their class.  I also acknowledge that it’s possible for the goofiest kid in class to become your best student even though it originally wasn’t her idea to study a martial art.  All that said, a dojo needs serious students because the presence of serious students (especially teens and adults) sets the tone for the class.  The younger students will look up to their big peers and will make better progress simply because they see what hard work and good manners look like.  The public will notice people of all ages learning together.  This unusual sight will hopefully attract a wider variety of potential students.

OK, so much for the mental and social stuff – now let’s look at the physical side.  Height and age are the only differences I’ll see while watching the performance of new beginners at the college class and at my “home” dojo.   If I teach two days in a row at both places I will see a college student making the same mistakes as an elementary-school child.  I guarantee it.  I will be giving the same feedback to  students in both classes.  Yes, prospective teen or adult student, you need to swallow your pride because you absolutely cannot assume that you will learn any faster than any given child.  Everyone is on their own timetable when it comes to learning a martial art.

I acknowledge that most days an adult or teen student will have to learn in a class that is, to some extent, pitched to the younger set.  I have to admit I enjoy teaching the college class because of how I can present the material.  I confess that I feel a tiny bit sorry for teens or adults who are thrown in with a bunch of goofy children.  Accordingly, I take every opportunity to give those older beginners nuggets of information that the younger ones can’t grasp.  If the host facility allows, I am more than happy to spend a little time before or after class with any serious student, regardless of age.  Most martial arts instructors feel the same.  This is an opportunity for adults to be taught as adults, even if it’s just for ten minutes!

Bottom line is we (your instructors and your senpai) want you to succeed.  You’re not going to be treated like a two-year-old unless you act like one.  If you feel like you’re ready for new material before the children in your new beginners’ class are ready, I encourage you to talk to your instructor.  Be forewarned that instead of getting new material your instructor might instead show you ways to improve what you are currently working on and/or the instructor will give you a deeper understanding of the techniques.  In other words, you probably won’t be given new material.  That’s OK, we all go through those stages.  Just start your journey – you’ll find that training with children is either OK or maybe even fun.

Three Words of Capoeira

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:”

Id:  Hide.  Don’t risk looking like a fool in front of everyone. I’m not up to the task.  Let someone else be the sacrificial lamb.


Superego: LIKE HELL!!! GET IN THERE!!!  It’ll be fun!  You’ll learn stuff!





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.

Peer Group

Every once in awhile I get to train with karateka who are, essentially, my peers. Maybe not my exact rank – some a little lower, some a little higher. But all have more or less the same abilities. I absolutely love those sessions, but I recognize that if I trained exclusively with my peers I would be missing out on a lot of other learning.

Because of the way modern American elementary schools are run, we Americans assume that segregating students by age is the best model, and, accordingly, some of us might think that dividing karate classes by belt rank is ideal. We forget that, out of necessity, the norm in American education used to be one-room schoolhouses (my grandfather attended such a school).  And one-room schoolhouses worked quite well.   Most dojo(s) are one-room schoolhouses. Some might have the luxury of having two or three classes divided according to certain ranges of belt ranks. But even in those dojo(s), there’s usually considerable variation in ability among the students in each class. One might have only two or three true peers, if even that.

In American culture, a lot of emphasis is put on one’s peer group during one’s formative years. We’re with kids born within six months of our own birthday, who live in our own neighborhood, and who are in school with us year after year. Then suddenly we’re released into a diverse world and we have to adjust. In the dojo, us Americans are introduced to senpai/kohai relationships somewhat similar to those found in Japanese culture. It’s a bit jarring, and often there’s a learning curve for us American students. Within myself, this culture shock manifests when I am training with my peers. It takes the form of a little wistful longing for all classes to always be like this. But I know better.

Yes, there are advantages to training with a peer group. It’s nice to be able to work on material that is at one’s own level. Exploring difficult new material that would not be presented if there were kohai in class is always a lot of fun. It’s good to be pushed and pushed hard over and over with at least a few different fighters who are close to your own ability. Training with one’s peers can mean you finally have time to focus on the kata you’re learning and explore bunkai specific to that kata. It’s hard for a sensei to juggle this with different belt groups working in the same room. Not to mention, it’s great to see other students of one’s own rank making the same mistakes as oneself! All this is fantastic, it’s wonderful to have some time with peers, but one’s Karate roots grow deep when one mainly trains in a mixed group.

The higher you go, the fewer people will be in your peer group. You will get used to fighting one another. In a mixed group, new fighters are developing all the time. It’s really fun to realize, “She’s a lot better than she was last year. She really made me work hard during our match!” One’s foundational skills always need refreshment, and the lower ranks need to see what they’re aiming for. In a mixed group, all students see the progression in performance – 10th kyu (lowest rank) look like this, 5th kyu can do that, and the 2nd kyu are simply amazing (hahahaha – that’s my current belt rank). Ni-kyu like me get familiar with the expectations for reaching each rank and learn to gauge a student’s readiness for their next belt. This is a skill a sensei must have. Teaching or helping to teach benefits you. You learn how to be a sensei from being in a mixed group.

I need not spell out the advantages of training with one’s seniors. Here’s the thing, though – it won’t be long before any given karateka will be senior to others. Then it is time to do for your kohai what your senpai did for you. A dojo is a community, and all must help out. Of course, like a lot of things we learn in Karate, this can be applied to one’s life outside the dojo. You’ll more easily spot new opportunities to help, to make a difference in the world. It’s called personal growth, and that’s what training and discipline are all about.