Thirty Push Ups

pushups“Thirty push ups,” Sensei told the class,  “Go.”

I felt the fierce joy surge up in me.

As I cranked out the first few pushups I realized I didn’t care about fair or unfair, hard or easy.

I remembered how earlier in the month I’d tested myself to see if I’d reached my 2016 New Year’s resolution goal of being able to do thirty pushups in one set.  I had.

Fifteen.  In no time flat I found myself halfway done.  I cheered myself on.

Twenty – not so easy now, but I reminded myself that’s two-thirds done.

Twenty two – the number of push ups a friend challenged me to do every day for twenty two days. I was on Day 19. Twenty two was old hat.  At this point, I smiled.  Only eight more to go.

I had another surge of the fierce joy.  At this point I was hoping Sensei was watching.  I must confess I had the mindset of showing off what I could do.  I was determined to shine.  I wanted a witness that I’d reached my New Year’s resolution.

Twenty seven – finish strong.  Twenty eight – I can!  Twenty nine – I will!  Thirty – I did!

With a quick contraction of my abdominal muscles I gathered my legs under myself and jumped up.  Landing neatly on my feet, I snapped to attention and bowed as if I’d just finished a kata (form).  No freaking way was I going to show any more weakness than I already had during the last three reps.  I stood triumphant.  But it’s not entirely my triumph.

I didn’t achieve this ability alone.  I’ve had help along the way.  I have online acquaintances and quite a few real-life friends, acquaintances, and Senseis who invested time into my push ups – whether that be by cheering me on, showing me proper push up form, or simply ordering me to crank out the reps.  If you’re one of those who has helped me, thank you.  You believed in me and I am thankful.

I think it’s time to set a new goal.

More Weight


There’s a variation of a push up that I had not done in awhile because I’d forgotten it exists.  You go down in a regular push up.  After you come up you grab a hand weight in your right hand.  Bring the weight to your chest, turn your body to the right, extend your right arm up to the ceiling, bring the weight into your chest again, turn your body to the floor, then put the weight on the floor again.  Do a pushup, then do the same thing on the left side of your body.

At a training session for Karate I was plugging along with five pounds, which is what I had been using while training intensively earlier this summer.  I came down for a pushup.  When I came back up the dojo Sensei replaced my hand-weight.  It looked bigger.

Sometimes thoughts and emotions take only an instant to process.  My first reaction was dismay.  I told myself to do the exercise anyway.  I wondered just how heavy the weight was.  Eight pounds?  Ten?

Then I asked myself, “Does it really matter?  Sensei thinks I can do it.”

After that heartbeat, I said, “Ossu!” and finished the set with the heavy weight.

After I finished the set, I examined the weight.  Ten pounds.  Twice as much weight as I had started with.

“Strive to reach your limits” is a line from our dojo kun (very rough translation: school motto).  We recite the dojo kun before and after every class.  It’s clear that sometimes I don’t know where my limits are.  I thought it was five pounds for this exercise.  Nope.

I sometimes undermine myself by thinking, “Aw, no – I can’t possibly do that!”  Why?

I’ve done many things I thought I’d fail at.  So why do I still sometimes undermine myself?  I guess it’s human nature to be a little afraid of risks.  Part of my initial dismay at seeing the bigger hand weight was fear of failure and injury.  I guess this fear of taking risks is meant to keep us fully aware that there might be a saber-tooth tiger parked outside the cave entrance. The trick is to deal with this “caveman” brain rationally, like a good little homo sapiens.

The trick is trust.  Trust yourself.  If you’ve already decided your instructor is trustworthy, then be confident in your judgment of him or her.  I’m not saying blindly trust everything – sometimes a little bit of skepticism is healthy.  But do not hesitate to plunge right in and try something difficult.  Your instructors probably took the same risks they’re asking you to take (hint: “Sensei” means, “one who has gone before”).  They know how empowered you’ll feel when you accomplish the feat.

Playing With Fire


In a previous blog post (“Forge“) I drew an analogy between martial arts training and iron being shaped in a forge.

I recently participated in a conversation with a blacksmith who was talking with people watching him work at the state fair’s forge.

Smith4Someone asked, “Did you learn this from your father?”

“No,” replied the blacksmith, “I learned smithing on my own.”

My daughter asked, “Isn’t it dangerous to learn on your own?”

“Sure it is.  I’ve been burned a lot,” answered the blacksmith, “so I learned quickly.”

My child was horrified, so I assured her, “If you respect the fire, that reduces the risk of getting hurt.  But things still happen.”

Smith3The blacksmith added, “You have to really want to learn.  See, I think this is fun – I get to play in the fire all day long.  But yeah, it takes a lot of time to learn – a lot of dedication.  It’s hard work.”

I didn’t have time to do more than meet his eyes and silently communicate that I understood before someone asked a technical question and the smith went into a long, detailed explanation.  My daughter and I moved on to another part of the fair.

What the blacksmith had to say resonated deep within me.  Training is dangerous.  We do get hurt sometimes, and yes, pain can teach us.  And oh yes, we have to want to learn in order to reach higher and higher ranks.  If we’re serious we’ll devote a lot of time and effort to learning.  It helps a lot if we keep our sense of fun.  I think this smith would understand us martial artists.  We are passionate about what we do.  We play with fire and we are shaped by it.


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.