What Do You See?


The odd one out.  Not chosen.  It happens.  It’s not that I’m unpopular, it’s just that we risk pushups if we don’t quickly find a partner to work with.  As a result, sometimes in the mad scramble I’m standing there with my hand raised and nobody finds me.  I don’t get upset about this because invariably, when this happens, I get to work with a black belt.  And that is wicked awesome.

We bowed to our partners, and the Sensei told us to get into fighting stance.  I did so, but he put his hand over my fist pad and told me to wait.  The Sensei instructed the class about the drill and I waited eagerly for my chance to try it out with him.  I turned my attention to watching the pairs of karateka as they worked up and down the floor.  The dojo Sensei worked with me for just a brief while then I had to go back to watching.

I was so absorbed with watching the other students that I didn’t notice the dojo Sensei coming up beside me.  “What do you see?”  he asked.

I told him about various pairs and individuals.

“Look at the class as a whole,” Sensei instructed, “then tell me what you see.”

I watched and thought about what the drill was supposed to accomplish.  I noticed a trend, then gave my opinion.  The Sensei called a halt.

“Joelle and I saw the same thing, but I disagree with her opinion of what should be done differently,” he started.

BeltRankI chuckled a bit and thought to myself, “He’s entitled to disagree – after all, he’s wearing a black belt and I’m not.”

It turns out I wasn’t quite seeing exactly what people should have been learning from the drill.  I only had part of the overall picture.  That’s OK.  As I gain more experience, I’ll have more and better insight.  The dojo Sensei gave his explanation of what he’d like to see people doing and not doing and told everyone what my solution lacked.  Then I got to work with another student.  I quickly caught on to what I was supposed to be doing, so I wasn’t the least bit “behind” because I’d been off to one side watching.  Later on I was able to apply what I’d learned from the drill while sparring.

What if I’d been put off by not having people eagerly jostling to be my partner?  What if I’d moped instead of watching and analyzing?  I’d have completely missed out on an opportunity to learn.  I was given a gift – a chance to think about and analyze a dojo full of karateka just like I will need to do when I myself am a Sensei.  Never mind that I don’t have the insight that a Yondan has, that’s OK – I was given a chance to try.  I had fun, I was challenged to do something I’d never done before, and I learned from the experience.

Later it occurred to me that if I’m ever too injured to participate, I could practice watching individual students and the class as a whole for trends.  So I guess I can knock injury off the list of things that would keep me from going to class 🙂

Kick You Where, Sensei?!?


I was flubbing a block in a kata, so the dojo sensei came over to give me some pointers.  He told me to kick him in the groin.  I was taken aback.  I know from kicking foam shields just how much power I’m capable of generating with a kick.  Timidly, slowly, I threw a wimpy gedan mae gheri (front kick to a “low” target).

“No,” the dojo Sensei admonished, “Kick. me. in. the. groin.  I’m wearing a cup,” (I blush easily, so I probably turned beet red), “You won’t hurt me.”

I reset and went full throttle for, ahem, that target.  I need not have worried about the Sensei’s safety.  He deflected my kick easily with the block I’d been flubbing in my kata.  I experienced exactly what that technique can be used for.

Where does my reluctance to go full out with an attack come from?  When I’m called up to help demonstrate something I go slowly unless instructed otherwise.  That way I don’t inadvertently cause harm and the other students can see exactly what is happening.  But my hesitation to go full speed and power with that kick to the groin was more deeply rooted than that.

Two past experiences clouded my thinking.  I saw a guy racked in a tournament when I was a teenager. Yes, ladies, men do know what real pain is.  I was reluctant to inflict that pain on a mentor and a friend.  I have no doubt I could inflict pain on an attacker with no trace of reluctance, but harming someone I like and respect?  That’s a different matter.  I have harmed someone in karate.  I won’t go into details out of respect for the other person’s privacy.  What happened could have come about at the hands of someone else, but even knowing that, I still felt so awful that I came as close to quitting Karate as I ever have.

I’ve only had two negative experiences that pertained to my reaction to being told to kick the Sensei in the groin.  In contrast, I’ve had many, many positive experiences with throwing techniques full speed and power against a black belt during demonstrations or while exploring bunkai.  I’ve neither been able to inflict harm nor have I sustained harm, and I’ve always learned something.  I should have remembered the numerous positive experiences.

Two days later the Sensei and I were with a group of other karateka.  We were discussing self defense seminars and someone told us he’d been in a big foam suit with angry women kicking him in the groin for an hour.  The Sensei who had taught me said, “We should teach them to go for the knees, not the groin.  Everyone knows how to protect their groin.”  I shook with silent laughter as he grinned at me.

Later, I asked myself if, in that moment when he instructed me to throw the kick, I had trusted his abilities to keep himself safe. Reluctantly, I had to answer myself that really and truly, I had not trusted him.  I should have realized he knew exactly what was coming and there was no way I could throw that kick too quickly for him to block.  But I was too wrapped up in what might happen to realize that I should extend some trust.  I was focused on the tiny chance that things would go wrong, not the high probability that I would be happy about what I’d learn.

I’m used to being responsible for other people.  It’s a huge part of my job as a mother.  It’s part of my professional life too, and I love helping college students get the resources they need.  It’s also part of my karate life as a Sempai (higher-ranked student).  After the little demonstration of what the block can do, the Sensei reminded me that if he gets hurt, it’s his fault, and if I get hurt, it’s his fault too.  This was exactly what he’d told me a few months ago when he was instructing me about the duties of a Sempai.  It works the other way too.  When I’m the kohai, I have to not be paralyzed by the weight of a responsibility that isn’t mine.

This was more than a lesson about that block that I wasn’t doing correctly in the kata.  From time to time I really understand that there is more to Karate than just the proper way to set a stance or execute a technique.  Obviously I’ve thought a lot about this one little part of just one class.  What other lessons am I learning that I haven’t processed on a conscious level?  I’m thinking more than I could possibly know.  What I do know is that I am growing and learning through these experiences.  It’s a process and a journey.

Playing Rough

Forty years ago when I was climbing trees instead of playing with baby dolls a middle-aged lady taking up the art of Karate would have been a huge shock.  Yes, I’ve heard Karate training was pretty brutal in the mid 1970’s, but I guarantee you that even today’s more relaxed expectations would have been deemed far too hard for a lady, especially a lady my age.

Most American women my generation and older were brought up with the notion that rough play is taboo for girls and women.  Meanwhile, boys were encouraged in the types of play that taught them early on that experiencing pain doesn’t necessarily mean suffering lasting harm. Admittedly, rough-housing, contact sports, climbing trees, and activities like skateboarding can lead to serious injury but most of the time only bruises and scrapes are acquired.  When I was growing up little girls were discouraged from such activities.  Women did not learn their capacity for pain until they gave birth.  How many women have wilted under a mild blow instead of rallying and fighting back against an attacker?  I shudder to think.

In spite of a ton of support from my parents to go ahead and climb trees and, later, take up Karate as a teenager, that cultural expectation still lurks in the back of my mind.  It whispers to me when I’m sore, tired, or injured – especially when my middle-aged body isn’t healing as rapidly as it did when I was a girl.  When someone else gives that cultural expectation a voice sometimes it’s hard for me to give a civil, polite answer.  I don’t talk much about mild aches and pains, but there’s just no hiding a limp or a black eye.  People are bound to talk.  Someone might even say to me, “You can’t be serious about keeping this up and earning your black belt.”

I am serious.  I have learned that I can survive.  Training is getting harder.  I’ve noticed there’s a bit more of an “edge” lately.  I’m taking more falls and more hits.  Falling isn’t the end of the world.  My instructors, training partners, and tournament opponents are not trying to hurt me, otherwise I’d be dead by now.  Because my training partners and my instructors control their techniques, getting hit more often than not simply stings, and there might be a small bruise later.  I’m learning to put pain in perspective.  I’m learning these lessons as a middle-aged karateka, not as a child playing with other children.  Most guys my generation and older had this advantage while growing up.


One of the best things that ever happened to my Karate is I was kicked in the jaw.  I fell to the mats, stunned.  When I regained the use of my body I got up and into fighting stance again.  My sparring partner was horrified by what she’d done.  But really, she did me a favor.  I learned that I had it in me to get up again.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget how empowered I felt.

That was only a little bitty hurt compared to what could have happened in a real attack.  Unlike a real attacker, my opponent did not go in for the kill.  If I don’t have the capacity to survive one kick that didn’t do any lasting harm (just a few days of soreness), how will I ever find it in me to survive a real attack?

Learning about falling and taking hits in a safe environment has allowed me to explore possibilities for coping with a real fight.  If I’m unexpectedly taken down, I still think, “Oh, ****!” and might reflexively clutch at an arm.  But now that I’m more or less used to this kind of rough play, I’m finding I can play back.  As I’m lying on my back I might see a perfect opportunity for a backfist to the groin, so I’ll execute it (of course aiming for six inches short of actually hitting).  Because I’m getting used to playing rough, I am increasingly ready for exploring more about my art.  This will no doubt help me as I advance through the ranks.

Slowly, the cultural disadvantage I grew up with is being eroded.  I am doing more and experiencing more than many people think a middle-aged lady can do or ought to experience.  I wasn’t a little boy growing up, but I’m finding that I never needed to be a little boy.  Nor do I need my culture’s approval.  All I need is an open mind and a brave heart as I follow the lead of my instructors and training partners.

Out of the Groove

Just hanging out with a few friends
Just hanging out with a few friends

Last weekend I went to Gasshuku – Karate camp.  About sixty of us pitched tents along the perimeter of a big, grassy lawn.  We came from two states and perhaps ten dojos to train barefoot in the grass under the hot summer sun.    There was training Friday night followed by a belt test (no, I wasn’t a candidate but I do have friends who earned their next belts).  Saturday there were four training sessions, each 90 minutes to 2 hours long.  Sunday morning before breakfast found us training one last time together.  We also had a good bit of free time and plentiful food.

Box vector designed by Freepik
Box vector designed by Freepik

I think the biggest lesson I learned is I take it for granted we have our own way of doing things.  Even when something I haven’t encountered before is thrown my way by one of our organization’s instructors I might think it’s new or different but chances are it still fits within the style or art I study.  When a guest instructor from outside our organization, style, or art comes along with a different way of doing things, I learn that really and truly, I’ve been in a groove.  Learning a different style’s way of doing a particular block isn’t all that difficult but, “Time that block to land at the same time your kick hits its target,” is utterly foreign to me.  But yet for that guest instructor’s students back in his home city, that’s probably the “normal” way of doing things.

ClockMore fascinating to me are the reasons why one might want to do things “differently.”  Fortunately, we got to partner up and apply some of what we’d learned.  I love doing this.  The highest-ranked brown belt, an acquaintance of mine, chose to work with me Saturday evening.  In a usual class, one doesn’t always get to talk during the drill or deviate from it.  My brown-belt friend gave me more than just a target or a chance to practice my skills at being a target.  We had a great time discussing what we were doing, why we were doing it, and experimenting with what we were doing.  This kind of fun doesn’t always happen in the groove of a rec-center schedule.  We had the luxury of time, so we were able to go deeper than usual.

This was also a chance for the black belts to see my brown-belt friend outside of his usual context of advanced training with other brown belts or while he’s teaching a beginner’s class.  Every once in awhile when he and I were working together, a black belt stopped by to watch for a minute or two.  I hope these black belts saw that my brown belt friend was doing a wonderful job with me and that he’ll be a heck of a Sensei someday.  I hope that day is soon.  Just my humble opinion, what do I know, I’m only 5th kyu 🙂

Bo. Not “tooth pick.” Bo.

Weapons training is another chance for us empty-handed martial artists to get out of our usual groove.  We did plenty of work with bo (a long staff), which isn’t as different as some weapons because it involves a good many of the push-and-pull movements we’re used to.  But still…  It’s a big stick and one has to learn to manage it.  Saturday I opted to learn the bo basics rather than attempt to learn the bo kata (form).  Unfortunately, Sunday morning only three or four us from the basic bo class were present, and the Sensei who had taught us wanted to do the kata himself.  So we tried our best to keep up with those who had learned the kata on Saturday.  Yep.  Learn a kata – a weapons kata at that – with nobody breaking it down for me.  That was definitely out of my groove.  Or was it?  Maybe not.  Every once in awhile new songs and choreography are added to the Zumba class I go to on Saturday mornings.  And nobody breaks it down for me.

By Monday afternoon I’d already forgotten both the bo kata and the empty-hand kata we were supposed to have learned.  So if I didn’t learn the two katas, was this camp a waste of time, energy, and money?  No.  Was the camp all roses and song?  Well…  I admit my self-discipline was tested.  More often than usual I had to battle the frustration that sometimes crops up when my dyslexic brain decides to act up.  The muggy heat wasn’t fun.  I admit I got discouraged sometimes.  Overall, though, it was a good camp because I know that one learns a lot when one is knocked out of one’s usual groove.  Being out of the groove is groovy.


Picture this

For this post I’m doing things a little differently.  Usually my posts are text-driven and the pictures are mere decoration.  Also, most of the images I use are not my own.  I was looking through my photos and digital art and decided it would be fun to do the opposite.  Use the pictures to drive the text and use all my own images.  So sit back and enjoy!



In any given dojo, chances are you’ll find people who are just starting out, at least one person who is mature in his or her skills, and some who are in between.  We’re all growing and learning.


In our Karate journey, we go through seasons.  Sometimes we are in “winter” – working through illness, injury, or maybe even a tough situation that the whole dojo is facing.  Sometimes we are bursting with new knowledge and growth.  We can learn from every season.

BroccoliWeird broccoli.  Who wants some?  How about burpees – let’s do twenty right now!  Just like broccoli, there are some things in Karate that are hard to get excited about. But they’re good for us, so we do them.

SeaglassSea glass starts out as ordinary broken glass.  But something magical happens after a few years of being tumbled by waves, buffeted by rocks, and scoured with sand.  Rough edges are smoothed away and the glass acquires a beautiful frosted finish.  A gem is formed.  Karateka are refined through training.



There are times when I feel like a salmon swimming against the current.  Perseverance is hard, but it’s worth it.

WhiteChickLogoRI have to admit, sometimes I’m a little chicken during Karate classes, belt tests, and tournaments…

But then I remind myself that Karate is fun.  Deadly, but fun.  Kinda like a rattlesnake wearing Groucho Marx glasses.  OK, maybe I’d better stop the analogies here, LOL!