Yard Work and Karate

Do you remember the old (1984) Karate Kid movie?

Daniel, the main character, slaved for four days in Mr. Miyagi’s house and yard.  Mr. Miyagi, Daniel’s Sensei, kept fussing at him to do everything in a certain way.  All the while, Daniel was building muscle memory for Karate without even knowing it.

What is it really like to work in a Sensei’s yard?


One of the black belts in our organization was moving and needed help sprucing up in preparation for selling his house.  Another black belt called for a work party.  I happened to have the Saturday free, so I packed up my tools, put on my grubbiest clothes and mud boots, and off I went.

Senseis are incredibly skilled at Karate and are usually good leaders.  But they’re also regular folks.  Sure there might be a few trophies and a pile of Black Belt Magazines in their garages, but other than that, they live just like you and me.  They have neighbors and friends, and from time to time, they need help.  Just like everyone else.  After a few hours of yard work, they ache too.  And some of them use baby talk when speaking to dogs.

But what about wax on, wax off?  Were there some secret karate moves I learned without knowing it?  I did learn two new skills that will prove valuable throughout the rest of my life.  I learned to pick up stray stones and put them onto a piece of cardboard instead of tossing each one back into the border.  I learned how to use a pressure washer to get moss and bird poo off a garage door.  I suppose one could use the pressure washer as a weapon – that would sting!



I think the best thing about the time I spent working was getting to know the Senseis as human beings.  The “normal” formalities expected in a dojo were loosened.  Conversations flowed – sometimes about karate, sometimes about fitness in general, sometimes about just whatever.  I was the lowest ranked present and one of two colored belts, but it was OK for me to take initiative and make suggestions about the work that needed doing.

Did I learn any Karate at all?  Well, after the day’s work was done, three of us did “geek out” by talking about Karate.  The discussion eventually turned to  an advanced kata which was a bit beyond me.  But that’s OK.   I had fun watching my Sensei in street clothes teaching an advanced student from another dojo.   A wild rabbit in the park across the alley watched them too.


So that’s what it’s like to spend a day working in Sensei’s yard.   I’m not more gifted in Karate as a result.  Nobody used reiki on me to ease the ache in my muscles.  But I do know this – I have friends.  That’s what I gained, and it’s priceless.

Inner Dialogue


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


You know those cartoons where an angel sits on one shoulder and a devil sits on the other, and the bewildered main character is caught in the middle of a dialogue?  My daughter, who aced Psychology 101, tells me Freud would interpret the angel as the super-ego and the devil as the id.  I’ll run with that.  Here’s what my super-ego and id might say to each other in the dojo…

150409_AngelSuper-ego: No, you can’t run off and hide in the locker room! Spar with her. You’ll learn stuff!

 150409_DevilId:  She outranks me by three belts, she’s taller than me, and she’s half my age.  She’s gonna clean my clock!

 150409_AngelSuper-ego: It’s time!


150409_DevilId: But I’m not ready!  I’m not good enough!  I’m OLD!  OW, I got hit!

150409_AngelSuper-ego: Relax and play.


150409_DevilId: But I’m in a FIGHT! OW!!!


140912_Graphic1Super-ego: Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water….

150409_DevilId: If our mind needs to be empty, quit trotting out Bruce Lee quotes and shut up already!

150409_AngelSuper-ego:  I’ll be quiet if you stop freaking out.


150409_DevilId: Deal.  Hey!  WOW!  FUN!  YIKE!  COOL!

An Obligation to Heal

Let’s face it – Karate isn’t about arranging flowers.  We get hurt.  Now that I’m older, I’ve discovered I don’t heal in ten minutes like I used to when I was a kid.  More like ten days!  I’ve come to realize I have an obligation to heal myself.  When I’m sick or injured, I often feel I must keep bulling through my normal routine when in fact, it’s better to do the opposite and rest.

Awww!  I know how he feels.
Awww! I know how he feels.

 If I truly love Karate, I mustn’t ruin my body by trying to be brave and work through the pain.  A little time off makes me even more eager to practice and learn!  Unseen hurts of the psychological variety need to be dealt with too so that I don’t drag emotional baggage into the dojo, where it doesn’t belong.  In the end, if I take time to heal myself, I’ll be more effective at healing others.

Huh?  Wait – Karate is about taking people apart, right?  Well, yeah, and accidents do happen.  I’ve just started training in CPR and First Aid as required by my new job.  If an emergency situation arises I am under obligation to start healing others.  Fortunately, emergency situations are rare even in Karate, so I won’t have to fulfill my obligation to help with physical healing very often.   But our obligation to heal isn’t limited to first aid.  There’s another kind of healing all karateka are obligated to participate in.


Karate is also about building people up.  This is a form of healing.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the kid who recently discovered she can pack a powerful punch.  She doesn’t fear being pushed around by the playground bully anymore, and indeed she’s gained so much self confidence that the schoolyard bully is backing off.  That is healing.  When we take the time to teach her, to spar with her, to tell her that her punch is amazing, we are healing her.  It’s our duty to heal where we can.

Our obligation to heal can be extended even further.  Pick up trash.  Smile.  Plant a tree.  Donate.  Say something kind.  Give someone the benefit of the doubt.  Volunteer.  Karate gives us the discipline we need to reach beyond ourselves.  Let’s use that ability to heal our world one small corner at a time.


So there you have it.  We are under obligation to heal ourselves, others, and our world.  Yes, we are learning to maim and kill.  But we’re also learning how to build and heal.  Let’s not lose sight of that.

Tail Whuppin’


black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!


With whom do I prefer to spar?  The people I can beat up easily?  Those who are roughly the same rank as I?  Surely I’m not so crazy that I prefer getting my tail thoroughly whipped by someone who vastly outranks me?

I have no preference.

Sparring with brand-new beginners is a chance for me to teach.  I’m careful to go at my opponent’s pace, then I look for opportunities to push a little – maybe two face jabs in a row, maybe a kick aimed four inches short of the head.  If I need to go slowly it is a chance for me to work on form and precision.  It’s encouraging to receive a great punch or kick in the gut when the beginner is good and confident about actually hitting me.

When I fight with those who are the same rank as I, it stands to reason I’ll win some and I’ll lose some.   At this stage clashing shins is the norm.  I can’t wait for my rank-mates and I to “outgrow” that.  Pain is an excellent teacher so I’m sure sooner or later I’ll learn.  It’s great that we’re all going through the same challenges and developing the same skills together.   I can compare myself to my peers and assure myself that I’m doing just fine for my rank.

Because I’m only a bit over 9 months into my training, most karateka outrank me.  Therefore any number of people can whip my tail with both hands behind their backs.  Some of them are shorter than I am, some are taller, a few are, well, pretty darned big and scary – especially if they also outrank me by two or more belts.  I learn a lot about my weaknesses.  Techniques and combinations of techniques that I’ve never dealt with before are thrown at me.  I find my skills are improved after a few sound thrashings.  I am more confident when facing those my same rank and I learn a little more about how to teach brand-new beginners.   The highest ranks usually instruct me on how I can improve, and that is priceless.

Let’s face it – some of us beginners are scared to death when faced with the prospect of sparring a black belt.   We might lose the fight even before it’s begun with thoughts like, “I doubt I’ll land even one punch,” or “even my fastest kick won’t be fast enough and she’ll sweep me for sure!”


Feel free to laugh at my expense.  The first time a Sensei chose to spar against me, I was scared spitless and had very few skills to draw on.  All he had to do was stick out a fist or whip a kick and I’d run straight onto it.  It wasn’t much of a sparring match at all because I asked for a halt and then asked what I was doing wrong – which led to some coaching.  That was about five months ago.  Fast forward to last month.  Another black belt chose to play cat and mouse with me (it’s pretty obvious who the mouse was).   I wasn’t terrified – maybe a teeny bit scared but mostly determined to do my best.   Yeah, I got my tail whipped, but…  I had lots to think about afterward, including something to try next time I see his signature move (I know, I should’ve thought of something to try long before he chose to spar with me).

So to all my fellow beginners out there – learn from everyone.  Be a good sport no matter who you’re up against.  And take heart – you will survive and you will thrive the more you get your tail whupped by those who are better than you.  Ask questions and get feedback, then practice.  You’ll be proud of your bruises.

Winning the Game, Keeping the Friend

I remember the first time I fought against a friend in a tournament.  I was a teenager up against another girl from my dojo.  We were both a little scared, I think.

After we did nothing but bounce around for too long, the judge called a halt and admonished us, “Ladies, this is not a tea party.  Throw some techniques!”


I decided then and there I would win the match even if it meant losing the friendship.  I also knew that if she was a sore loser maybe I didn’t really have a friendship after all.  I proceeded to score point after point and won.  I was so scared that I’d lost her friendship.  She was fine.  Remembering this experience helped me a lot this past weekend.

My daughter has seasonal volunteer work that is a bit of a drive away from home, so after her work, rather than rush all the way back to our “home” dojo to maybe make it on time for class, we visit a sister dojo closer to her work.  Last Fall I made a new friend roughly my age and sometimes the same rank, sometimes my junior, maybe someday my senior, LOL.  We missed each other during the long winter when my daughter didn’t have her volunteer work.  My friend didn’t go to the tournament last month but she was at another tournament just a few days ago.  Sure enough, we were in the same division.

We know each others’ karate pretty well by now.   In fact, in preparation for the tournament, we critiqued each others’ kata (we did the same one).  We’ve sparred together nearly every single time I’ve visited this dojo and we’ve critiqued each others’ favorite moves.  The Senseis even had us do our kata together as if we were in a tournament and pronounced us very closely matched.   I knew I had some real competition on my hands for the tournament.  I also knew neither of us were about to simply bounce around, too scared to throw the first technique.  When our division was called to staging, we learned it was just the two of us.  No other ladies in our age group/experience level showed up.

So how did we do?  Who won?  We both did – this was her first tournament and she did very well indeed.  It was a close match in kata followed by some pretty fierce kumite.  What exactly did I win?  Glad you asked!


I think my friend and I are closer than ever now.  The exchange of sheepish grins after the judge (her Sensei, who has trained both of us!) called fouls on both of us at the same time.  Bear hugs immediately after we were dismissed.  Complimenting each other.  Our eyes shining with pride at each others’ achievements as medals were hung around our necks.  These things are priceless.  That is the best thing I won.  But that’s not all I won.

When I performed my kata in this tournament I really felt like the kata was a part of me and I was a part of the kata.  I don’t know how else to explain this.  I was coached pretty intensively after class one day, and it made a huge difference.  I still have my scenario of a bar fight and my specific cast of characters and what they’re trying to do to me, but now there’s something more.  It’s more like if I let go and trust what I’m doing, the very movements of the kata will tell me that I have a considerable amount of control over how the fight is going .  So in my imaginary fight I’m less reactive and more proactive.  I feel like this is a clumsy expression of what’s going on.  I wish I could pin it down with words, but maybe that’s the beauty of kata – that it can’t be pinned down.  Anyway, performing that kata well and realizing there are depths I’ve never sounded is another thing I won in tournament.


How about what I won in sparring?  I’m taking baby steps forward in improving strategy.  A few minutes after I knew my friend would be my competition, I realized she knows what I like to do in sparring.  I decided then and there to fight completely differently than what is normal for me.  I took a leaf from my daughter’s book – she loves her kicks.  So I practiced kicking while waiting around in the staging area (I practiced lots of other things too so that my friend wouldn’t catch on).  I’d already put in hours with the punching bag in the garage.   Changing my game gave me an edge.  Let me quantify that edge.  Three points.

Throwing a kick to someone’s head can be deadly.  That is scary to me.  I recently came close to accidentally killing someone with a punch.  I’ve long since known my kicks are quite powerful, but didn’t worry much about them until I could actually kick at my chin height.  While sparring in the dojo if I want to throw a kick to the head I deliberately aim for four inches short of making contact.  Up until the tournament I never once made contact.  I saved contact for the punching bag in my garage.  I didn’t go full-out, but practiced the very light, very controlled contact that would score but not injure.  When I pulled off that precisely controlled kick to the head during the tournament, it was a fantastic feeling.  I knew when my foot made contact my friend was just surprised and not hurt.  I relished the judge’s call of three points and the wild cheering from friends on the sidelines.  Except for the tallest guy, all of them had experienced my four-inches-short-of-contact kicks to their heads.  I won that.

OHHHHHHHHHHH, you want to know what medals I got… OK, I get it!


Gold.  And this wasn’t like last tournament where I would’ve gotten silver if I had been born three months earlier.  My friend made darned sure I had to work hard to get first in both kata and kumite.  Maybe next time she’ll win.  All I know is both of us will be working very hard to incorporate what we’ve learned from each other into our training.  We’ll both get better.  We’ll make each other better.  Isn’t that what friends are for?