I’m “supposed to” have learned only two new kata – namely, those needed for my next belt test.  Somehow I’ve accumulated five (three of them very recently).  I’m enjoying the new material, but at the same time I am now experiencing the reason why we generally focus only on one or two kata at a time.  It’s tough giving proper attention to the two katas I’m supposed to be polishing while I’m learning three more and reviewing all previous kata just in case I have to teach them to a junior.  My family is now used to me periodically dancing around the living room clutching notes and muttering to myself.  The next-door neighbors hurried their children inside when I was doing this in our driveway.

Yes, at this stage, the two kata I will present at my next belt test need refinement. In case you’re wondering, they’re Nijushiho and Rohai Shodan.  No, I’m not satisfied with how well I perform them.  And no, I’m not bored with them – in fact, I’m getting fond of Rohai Shodan.  Am I a glutton for punishment?  Nope.  Kata is fun for me.  All those reasons are definitely not why I’m tackling three “extra credit” katas.

FryingPanTwo of the three “extra credit” katas are part of my Karate heritage.  I am very fortunate to have learned them, as they are dusted off only every once in a blue moon and not widely taught.  We’ve borrowed a lot of our katas and perform them in the style they came from, but we have three that are our own – Tai Sabaki Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan.  I’ve learned the first two of the three.  They are simple to learn but difficult for an intermediate student like me to execute beautifully.  I suspect these three kata are designed for us to “grow into” them.  I’ll probably learn the third at next month’s visit to Major Employer’s Club Dojo.

The third “extra credit” kata I’ve learned, Jion, is for the test after my next belt test.  Someone was in the mood to teach it, asked me if I wanted to learn it, and I happily accepted the offer.  Just a whim.  I hadn’t paid much attention to others when they were practicing this kata, but once I started sinking my teeth into it I started loving it.  Loads of people hate it because of this, that, and the other.  But I think Jion is pretty nifty.

Yep, my brain is jelly.  I’m not quite in over my head, but I’m darn close.  On the other hand, I absolutely do not have any excuse to skip practicing outside of class time.  I have plenty of material to play with – 16 kata in all.  Five kihon kata.  Five pinan kata.  Bassai Dai, Nijushiho, Rohai Shodan, and Jion.  Tai Sabaki Shodan and Tae Sabaki Nidan.  Maybe I’m not “supposed to” do this.  But on the other hand…  Something has changed.

I’m making connections between what I’ve learned previously and new material.  Embusen and bunkai are more important to me now.  I’m taking copious notes so I don’t have to rely only on faulty memory.  My dyslexia is minimized as I learn how to learn.  I’ve even noticed I’m picking up Zumba movements more easily than ever, and I only do one Zumba class per week.  Somehow I’ve made some sort of a leap forward.

HotHeartI’m loving every minute.  Attitude is key.  I love the challenge.  I love the art of performing, the raw brutality of bunkai, the fierce joy of it all.  It’s passion that drives me to practice, sometimes spending big chunks of time on one sequence or even one or two movements.

I have a feeling that I’m very close to biting off more than I can chew.  But I also know that as long as I employ a good bit of time management skills, balance my priorities, and keep a good attitude, I’ll be OK.  Just so long as I don’t trip over furniture or step on the dog while I’m dancing around with notes in my hand…


My deepest thanks to the karateka who let me train with them during this year’s training for USA Karate Nationals.  This post is dedicated to you.  To those who are competing – best wishes and I can’t wait to hear all about it!!!

Fire.  Hammer.  Anvil.  One foot in front of the other.  One more rep.  Reaching deep into yourself to find what it takes to continue…  And sometimes finding you don’t have it.  What happens then?

Encouragement goes a long way.  When someone believes in you, that’s powerful.  Sometimes I can squeeze out a few more reps if someone is there for me.  If you give it your all and still fail, someone’s commendation for your effort is a great motivation to perform better next time.

Then suddenly you find you’re pushed to the next level.  Like metal thrust into the fire, hammered again, over and over and over – shaped gradually and deliberately into something greater than a lump of ore.  And oh, it’s a process.  You go into the fire and back onto the anvil again and again, pushed to even higher levels.

ForgeBut what if encouragement isn’t enough?  What if your body gives out and you simply cannot do one more burpee?  What if you are trying so hard that you break?  I’m not talking about breaking bones, I’m talking about putting forth so much effort that you burst into tears out of sheer frustration because you’re fighting to do one more pushup and your arms won’t lift you.

News flash.  You have a breaking point.  Some of us can take more than others, but everyone has a point where we hit a wall.  Splat.

It’s pointless to think that you’re so tough that you will never break.  The trick to dealing with brokenness is to make some important decisions before you break.  Decide now, before you break, to remind yourself that breaking is simply an indication that you need to build yourself up in that area.  Decide now, before you break, that after you reach that point you will outline (in writing) specific plans to improve.  Most importantly, decide to listen to those who are cheering you on, not those who are calling you weak.  You will get stronger.  Give yourself time.

You can be re-forged.  You will already be familiar with the fire, the anvil, and the hammer.  Hopefully you will find that you trust the process of shaping even more than you did before you were broken.  If you don’t, find someone who can talk you out of quitting, who can remind you of how far you’ve already come, and who will be there for you in the future.

What eventually comes of the time spent in the forge of martial arts training?  Better performance, obviously.  Belts, medals…  Yes, all that’s nice, but there ought to be more.  There’s a shaping of character – and more.  A desire to pass along the lessons learned from the forge grows in one’s heart.  More than that, one realizes that there are applications to life outside the training hall.  We get knocked down in life.  We grow weary.  Decide now what you’re going to do in the forge of life.

Thank you to those who pushed me so hard that I broke. I found out what I’m made of. Thank you for being there for me.

Thanks also to Ando Mierzwa for passing along the lessons he’s learned:  “Breaking Down in Martial Arts.”  Because of him, I knew it wasn’t the end of the world when I finally did break down and cry during training.

Exhausted and Elated

Dog tired but happy!

Journal from 7/2/16:

Why am I happy about being exhausted?  It’s because I’ve done more today than I ever dreamed possible.  I’ve been pushed hard physically and was literally dripping with sweat after the end of a brutal three hour training session.  Three hours every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday since May 26th.  Jogging.  Sprinting.  Brutal arm, ab, and leg work.  Kumite drills.  Kumite.  Kata.  Kihon.  Today I broke my records for the fiendish variations of push-ups that we do.  On one fiendish arm exercise, I have suddenly gone from 12 to 26 reps.  On another, I went from 10 to 20.  Yet another – five to ten.  I really can’t explain this sudden explosion in ability.

I’m going to hazard a guess.

One week ago today I pushed hard to get to the number we were told to do, but I still couldn’t in spite of weeks of training and, most importantly, doing these exercises at home on non-training days.  Sure I had improved since the first days of training, but last week I couldn’t do the number of reps we were told to do. I fought my weakness and I fought hard.

Something beautiful happened.  Every time I struggled, one of the black belts came and physically assisted me so that I could finish the required repetitions.  He did not let me collapse, which, in some of the exercises, might have resulted in injury.  I was fighting so hard that I didn’t really hear the encouraging words, just the soothing tone.  When I finished each exercise, I allowed myself three seconds on the mats, no more.  I wanted to cry from a combination of frustration, relief, and from the sheer wonderfulness of having someone support and encourage me.

Thursday and Friday of this week the arm workouts were lighter and I did pretty well.  Then came today – we were told to do what we usually do.  And I proceeded to blow my previous records out of the water.  At the end of each exercise I would say, “I can’t believe I did it!”  Maybe it was the psychological boost from last week that made the difference?  What do you think?

Did you win?

150430_MedalThe stars didn’t align in the right way for me to go to the USA Karate National Championships this year.  Nonetheless, sometime in May I was invited to train with those who are going.  I did a tiny bit of this last year, but only on Saturdays.  This year, I’m doing it all.  Three hours on Thursday, three on Friday, and three on Saturday.  Then there’s the “homework” I have to do so I don’t die over the weekend – jogging, sprints, working my abs, arms, and legs…  It’s brutal training but fun.  The format is a little different this year.  We start with jogging for 15 minutes, maybe 20, I really don’t want to know.  This is usually followed by sprints.  We have to meet or beat our record time in three sprints, or else we have to do an extra sprint.

A week ago (Friday, 6/24/16), our coach (Affiliate YMCA Sensei) had us do a variation on our usual sprints.  We were to jog about a block, then jog back, increasing our speed gradually so that we were at a full out sprint by the time we ended.  He said the winner would get a rest.

The results were predictable and by age.  The teenager came in first.

Sensei asked the teenager, “Did you win?”

She beamed back at him, “Ossu, Sensei!”

Sensei asked her, “How did you know you won?”

The young lady said, “Because I was the first one back.”

Sensei had everyone line up again, yes, even the “winner.”  He instructed us to meet or beat our times.

The results were the same.  I pushed myself hard and beat my previous time.  As I fought to control my breathing and my rebellious stomach, Sensei asked a couple of my training partners if they’d won.  They responded that they had.  I didn’t have the energy or attention to puzzle out their responses.  As I was sucking air and trying to hold down the small drink of water I’d had before we started, Sensei turned to me.

“Joelle, did you win?”  he asked.

TensionStill sucking air, I shook my head and scowled in frustration.  Sensei briefly and gently chided me for lack of manners, then continued, “I think you did.”

Sensei went on to explain that we’re competing against ourselves.  I had a “d’oh!” moment when he said that a win or loss doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is what you learn, and if you’re better than you were.  Sensei said we need to focus on our own karate and not compare ourselves to anyone but ourselves.  This is something I know, but I had forgotten it in the face of an extreme (for me) physical challenge.  How often have I blogged about lessons learned that were in accordance with what Sensei said?  Yet in a completely different context, the lessons I’ve learned in the ring went out the window.

150423_WomanI definitely had an eye-opener about myself and the martial-arts mindset, and I have to humbly admit I’m still a beginner.  Andrea Harkins is a master at applying lessons learned on the mats, and I draw a lot of encouragement from her blog.  As much as I’ve read of her writing, and as much as I’ve learned from time spent on the mats, I still don’t always “get it.”  But then again, to use the words of Jackie Bradbury, martial-arts growth is not linear.  I just need to be patient with myself when I don’t quite measure up to my own ideals.

Square Dance Fail

A recent blog post by my online friend reminded me of something I forgot to write about quite some time ago.  Last summer my husband and I were invited to try out square dancing lessons.  We could do three free lessons, then decide if it was right for us.  The lessons fit into my Karate schedule, so this was perfect.  My husband and I had thoroughly enjoyed a semester of ballroom and country dancing back in our college days.

Our first square dancing class was not ideal.  It takes eight to make a square.  There were eight people present, and four were new students.  The caller was an hour late, so we spent half the class without music.  That was OK, by then we were up to speed on a few basic calls, so when music was added we had fun.

Grab yer pardner Smash his face Bring yer leg 'round Turn in place Side kick left and Side kick right Do-si-do Hammer fist To yer right!
Grab yer pardner
Smash his face
Bring yer leg ’round
Turn in place
Side kick left and
Side kick right
Hammer fist
To yer right!

As a martial artist I found it fascinating to be moving cooperatively with a group of people.  I had to continually curb instincts to take advantage of opportunities to throw, joint lock, or strike.  I do have some experience with sparring against two people simultaneously and kata could, if one uses one’s imagination, be a fight against a group of attackers.  Square dance was very different, that’s for sure!

We decided to give the group another chance and went back for a second free class.  This time, the caller was on time, but we didn’t have enough dancers to make a square.  Only two experienced students showed.  The start of class was delayed in hopes more would show up.  I practiced a lot of kata while we waited.  When the caller gave up and started class, we limped along as best we could with what we’d already learned.

I have no idea why my husband and I went back for the third lesson.  The first lesson we wrote of as a fluke.  The second lesson we figured people had stayed home to watch the football game.  We decided to use our last free lesson.  This was it – make it or break it.  Once again we had a dismal turnout with not enough folks to make a square, and only one experienced student.  We quit – the high price tag was not worth it.

It was obvious the senior students were not interested in the success of the beginners.  This is a club that has been around for years and boasts a membership of about thirty people.  I’m betting it’s pretty much the same group that started the club in the first place.

Did you catch that, fellow martial artists?  The more advanced dancers simply weren’t invested in the future of the club.  New students weren’t valued.  We left after only three lessons even though we probably would’ve enjoyed square dancing immensely.  Please teach your senior students the value of coming alongside to help someone who is just starting – even if it’s just to be a partner in a drill or to run through a form before class.