Sex and Karate

Now that I have your attention… Gender, people! Gender! What were you thinking?!?

Here’s where I’m coming from. For the vast majority of my life I have been hugely ignorant about the multitude of real live human beings who don’t fit the rigid definitions of “male” and “female” that I grew up with. This is actually pretty silly of me because I’ve always been ever-so-slightly transgender, and so has my husband. The unkind labels given me were “tomboy” and “butch.” My dear husband was “sissy” and “fag.” And here we are now – a monogamous heterosexual couple with a little over 28 years of marriage under our belts and two grown offspring who are quite obviously our natural biological children.

28 years of marriage means my husband and I are NOT transgender, right? My husband and I are “normal,” right?

What is normal?

One psychologist asserts that “normal” is merely a setting on the washing machine. The word is meaningless when it comes to human beings.

This is the lens I’m looking through as I write about gender and Karate.

Up until the class schedule was changed to a time that is incompatible with my work schedule, I helped out with the Karate PE class at the community college. This college is one of the most diverse in the nation, so my little white bubble has been expanded. Maybe two years ago, we had two students who, I saw, were at least friends. One day I happened to be eating lunch in the student union, and… Oh! It was pretty obvious they were more than just friends! I squished down some stupid ideas I’d learned somewhere along the way and decided to keep on being the best assistant instructor I could be.

It’s called respect, and it’s a key component of martial arts.

A couple of months later, one of these youngsters got a job at the grocery store. They were most definitely a part of my community for a season. I was sad when they moved away, as young people often do. Even when you’re just an assistant instructor, most of the time you form ties with students. Often you learn from your students, and sometimes the lessons are unexpected. My world was expanded by those two students. They were people I cared about.

I’ve recently finished an autobiography of a martial artist (Searching for Grasshopper by Cathy Chapaty). Her sexual orientation was an issue in a dojo she once studied in. That chapter was tough for me to read. Fortunately, years later Cathy and her former sensei reconciled. But oh, the pain of those lost years! I shudder to think of how much damage I could have inflicted on those two young college students. I read about the damage done to Cathy and I’m now very firmly committed to respecting every student.

If you think gender isn’t a big deal, think again. You need to see your student or your fellow karateka holistically in order to begin to comprehend where they are coming from. It’s the first step in seeing the world through their eyes. That’s called empathy. Empathy is the polar opposite of those careless remarks, those little hurtful things that might slip out when we are not thinking about the other person. The discipline of dojo etiquette is a great conduit of empathy. Communication between student and sensei and communication among students must be respectful, and brevity is encouraged. With such restrictions in place there’s less chance of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth. In other words, we have to think before we speak.

I can hear it now… “Oh, but they should have thicker skin than that, especially because they’re karateka. After all, I was only joking when I said…”

Stop right there.

A dear friend of mine explained this truth to me. Maybe I’ve been stung a few times in my life because of who I am. But she gets stung at least once every single day of her life – some days several times. Yes, Karate gives us strength of character to withstand that. But those stings shouldn’t come from our fellow karateka.

So, don’t discriminate. Right? Well… Here’s an uncomfortable truth for everyone involved. There are still practical things that must be addressed when it comes to gender and karate. What about tournaments? What about belt tests? What about training requirements? I have few ideas, and maybe I’m still ignorant about a lot, but I’m trying. Here are my opinions, for what they’re worth.

I am grateful for the fact that we’re making progress in accommodating transgender individuals in formal competition (Google search International Olympic Committee transgender policy). It seems like there are a lot of restrictions and rigid definitions in those policies. But it’s a start, and I see it as a positive development. There are no easy answers, so I’m sure the IOC is doing the best it can.

Belt tests:
In the United States of America, this is strictly a matter for students and their sensei(s). Some organizations’ testing requirements differ for men and women. Some don’t. There is absolutely no interference from any local, state, or federal government agency. This is a good thing. It allows each organization to grow and develop as it sees fit. Lack of government regulation allows each student to discuss their upcoming tests with their sensei(s) confidentially. The last thing that anyone of any gender needs is to have to go to some stupid government office to file paperwork about their identity and their upcoming belt test!

Training requirements:
I know what it’s like to run a class full of people with diverse physical types and fitness levels. The college PE class I used to help with gets an almost entirely new group of students every quarter. I’ve helped out at regular dojo(s) too. The best advice I have to offer is to simply think of your students as collections of strengths and challenges. Don’t think, “Oh, she’s female, her strength is in her legs but she won’t be able to do push ups worth jack.” No. You could be wrong on all counts. If you see a student of any gender who can do thirty push-ups but can’t hold a deep horse stance for longer than 20 seconds, you know where they need work.

And, ahem… As far as “equipment” goes… Protect yourself where you need protection. Mmmkay?

So. Maybe I’m still an ignoramus when it comes to gender issues. Perhaps I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth multiple times in this post. In my defense, I offer this. What would things be like if nobody were examining these issues? I grew up in an era when we didn’t talk, we didn’t form ties with people who were different from us. It was unhealthy at best, deadly at worst. The dojo is supposed to be a sanctuary for those who feel the need to learn how to defend themselves. We’re supposed to be building self confidence in our students and fellow karateka. Let’s do it. Let’s build those communities. Whaddaya say?

Not There Yet

In Karate we come face to face with our flaws and weaknesses. We learn how to overcome them, work around them, or to simply put one foot in front of the other in spite of them. Lately, I’ve thrown myself headlong into various opportunities to learn and grow, and often I’ve come up short of expectations – both of my own and of others’ expectations. I’ve been trying, and failing, to be patient with myself. This has spiraled into negative self-talk. Uh oh – a weakness.

I had a bit of trouble coming up with a title for this post. I thought about, “Facing Failure,” “Not Good Enough,” “Missing the Mark,” and even, “The Swamp of Mediocrity.” Oh, the drama! Pity party for me!!! But then I asked myself how I could sum up what’s been going on and give it a positive spin. I realized something important. All these learning experiences that I’ve been stepping into lately are things that, one day, I will be able to tackle with relative ease. But for the time being, I’m not in a place where I can breeze through the particular things I’m taking on now. Not yet. But I will be.

That concept is a game changer.

I thought back to college. That journey wasn’t easy either. There were times when I cried from sheer frustration and heartbreak. I hadn’t graduated yet. I wasn’t as skilled at handling those particular challenges yet. But by my final year, I knew more about handling the challenges that I was facing.

There is a “someday.” I’m not stuck. My development as a karateka, a future sensei (instructor), is progressing, even if it’s at a slower rate than I’d like. Last week a sensei whom I hadn’t seen in over a year asked me, “Isn’t it incredible to have that [black belt] in sight?”

Yes, it is incredible. I admit that lately I’ve lost sight of the sheer wonder of being as close as I am to achieving Shodan (first degree black belt). I’ve been so focused on the areas where I fall short that I’ve forgotten how much I’ve done, how hard I’ve worked to get to where I am today. If my white-belt self from nearly five years ago could see me now, she’d be thrilled. That white belt didn’t make this journey alone, and neither will this i-kyu (“High Brown” belt).

I need to remember is that my sensei(s) care about my development, and the evidence for this is they will tell me where I fall short. Sometimes it’s hard for me to hear that feedback, and even harder for me to improve. But it’s a lot better than never receiving the feedback in the first place.

I wouldn’t be receiving half this feedback if I hadn’t taken on some extra challenging activities in recent weeks. Did you catch that? It was my choice to take up the challenges. So honestly, I brought this on myself. Be that as it may, I think I would be more unhappy with myself if I had said “no” to the opportunities. It’s easier to push past growing pains than it is to live with regrets.

Until I get through the growing pains, I have to be patient with myself and keep going. That’s how I got to where I am in the first place! I should reflect more on the wonder of the journey so far, and look ahead with eager anticipation to what is to come. Lately, I’ve forgotten that part of the purpose of this blog is to help myself and others see the joy in the journey. This isn’t an easy path to walk, but it’s totally worth it.

Lessons from Winning

I’ve written plenty of posts about my tournament participation – mostly about losing in tournaments. When I have written about a tournament in which I won a medal, I’ve downplayed it. And… it’s been awhile since the last time I earned a medal. Part of that is due to where I am in my journey relative to the divisions I’ve competed in. It’s fairly easy to earn a medal if you’re almost ready for Intermediate but are still in the Beginner/Novice division. It’s not so easy to earn a medal if you’re new to Intermediate and are in the Intermediate/Advanced division. Advanced includes yudansha (black belts) so… Yeah.

I have plenty of bronze medals. There aren’t many ladies my age who compete. Most tournaments only three or four show up. There are various good reasons for awarding two third place medals, and I have some that I received for just being there. A part of me is uncomfortable with the medals that I got just for showing up. One of my sensei(s) (instructors) disagrees. “If nobody else showed up it’s because they didn’t have the [guts] to show up. You showed up. You earned that bronze medal.” At some level, I have accepted that opinion – the evidence for my acceptance adorns a tucked-away corner of my home.

I have heard that many karateka hide their medals and trophies, or even throw them away. This comes from a desire to stay humble. Some believe (correctly, in my opinion) that a medal or trophy does not indicate that someone is a better karateka than someone else. I understand this better now that I have earned a silver in an advanced division out of a field of eleven competitors (more below). I understand this especially when it comes to those of my bronze medals that feel, to me, like participation medals. But I still choose to keep my medals, to display them on the wall in a mostly empty spare bedroom that I use for practice.

I keep my medals – all of them – to remind myself that I am vibrantly and passionately alive. I’m looking at turning half a century old in twelve and a half months. I’m working against a lot of cultural baggage that still nags at me, probably because of what society told me when I was a child in the 1970s. I’m doing things that, from my late teens to five years ago, I never thought I’d do at nearly fifty years old. I’m more of an athlete now than I was in my twenties. I’ve given my children wings, now I’m finding my own wings. I’m loving almost every minute of training. As for the parts I don’t love, well – I love the results (ex: push ups build strong arms).

So now for the story of my latest medal. St. Patrick’s Day (2019) found me at a tournament our karate organization puts on every year. I spent most of the day in a judge’s chair and was glad to be up and moving after I changed into my gi and warmed up in the staging area. I didn’t pay any attention to who was in my division until we were ringside. I was too busy being silly with my older daughter, who was volunteering in staging. I walked immediately behind my daughter when she led us to the ring. Once my division lined up for competition, I was delighted to see eleven ladies, not the usual three or four. I hadn’t seen that big a field in my division since Nationals in July (read about my experiences here and here)!

I was grateful for the class I’d had before the competition. For the last half of that class, my sensei had us students practice our kata (forms) three times in a row, full speed and power. When we finished we were to move to the back of the room. I was the last to finish and the first to be called up to perform my kata in front of the class three times in a row full speed and power. I’d had maybe thirty seconds or less to take some deep breaths. Six times in a row with a 30 second break halfway through. I was exhausted but elated when I was done. For the tournament, I performed three times with maybe 2 minutes break in between as other ladies performed. Then, after another roughly 2 minute break while the other ladies finished up, I performed a different kata for the medal round (in accordance with USA-NKF rules). Every single time I stepped onto the mats, I thought, “This is easy compared to what I did on Thursday!” But at the same time, I couldn’t get cocky. I knew I was up against some stiff competition.

If the repechage sheet had been drawn up differently, I would not have won a silver medal. So there is an element of luck. Of course I have some skill after nearly five years of study: I won three rounds and I have a nice shiny silver medal. Yes, I earned that medal – I performed one difficult kata well three times and another kata once. But it’s that element of luck that is keeping me humble right now. I darn well know that sometimes, one’s best isn’t good enough.

That’s life.

Oh, and um… I got thoroughly trounced in kumite (sparring). Lost the first round pretty spectacularly. Long time readers of this blog know that I learn from losing. A field of eleven meant no participation medal for me for kumite. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about only having one medal (although I will work hard on my sparring). I’m tickled pink that all those ladies showed up to compete. I hope to see them again and again this season. The more the merrier!

Trying Tai Chi

Every once in awhile it’s good to be a “white belt” again (no rank, new beginner). I’ve visited self-defense classes taught by instructors whose base arts are different from mine (read more here and here) and a couple of self-defense seminars taught by a sensei from a dojo in our karate organization. It’s been interesting to see the common points and the differences in those one-off self-defense seminars. Often these have little to do with the instructor’s base art. One thing I intend to do more of is to go to one-off workshops introducing martial arts that are not the style of Karate that I study. A few months ago I participated in a Capoeira workshop. Last week I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tai Chi.

As expected, most attendees were elderly. I spotted a seasoned warrior in a 2017 Judo tournament T-shirt and made a mental note to talk to him after the workshop. My daughter, who trains in Karate with me, was by far the youngest in the room, and I was maybe the fourth youngest. I saw a variety of physical challenges that can be accommodated easily by a “soft” art such as Tai Chi. I’ve been known to grumble about adult women not taking interest in martial arts, so I was pleased to see that women were the majority in this workshop. It’s pretty obvious that Tai Chi is the martial art that women are inclined to try!

Our instructor, an amiable young woman ( Dr. Hansie Wong), right from the start made it clear that Tai Chi is a martial art. I know I wasn’t the only one making comparisons to another art during class. After class, the Judo warrior and I talked about our observations with Dr. Wong. She explained to us that the soft arts, like Tai Chi, focus on the internals – breath, center of gravity, flow, whole-body movement, etc. and the “hard” arts like Karate and Judo focus more on the externals. I was quick to point out that in Karate we don’t put much emphasis on the internal aspects of our art when we’re teaching new beginners, but as an advanced student I am now learning more about those internal aspects. The differences in emphasis and curriculum are due to each art’s purpose and philosophy of teaching.

Dr. Wong explained at the beginning of the workshop that Tai Chi is a means of healing one’s own body. The art’s gentle movements are a great way to build and maintain strength, balance, and mobility. Accordingly, the emphasis for new beginners is on breath, flow, awareness of one’s center of gravity, and whole-body movement. The things Dr. Wong emphasized are exactly the things I’m now refining in my Karate, as befits a 1st kyu student. At times the feedback Dr. Wong gave me and other workshop participants sounded quite familiar!

I’ve briefly watched other Tai Chi classes and practitioners before, and can’t help but see some movements in the context of self defense. Certainly I will be exploring possible applications of the movements we learned in the workshop. I also drew parallels – “Oh, that’s hanzenkutsu dachi,” or, “That’s almost like a movement from Kanku Dai kata.” I sometimes had a hard time keeping my body from lapsing into more familiar movements from kata (forms)! And just as with Capoeira, the Tai Chi transitional movements were a little challenging for me because, well, we don’t have those transitions in Karate. Just like almost everyone else in the room, I was learning something new.

One thing that surprised me was qi, or, as we call it in karate, ki. I am a huge skeptic when it comes to ki energy. Now there’s a little chink in my armor. Before Dr. Wong mentioned it to the class at large, I’d felt a bit of what I’d describe as heat in the palms of my hands during a particular movement. As Dr. Wong mentioned to the class moments later, that’s supposed to happen along with that movement. Maybe there’s a purely physiological explanation for it, or maybe it could be ki. I don’t know, but I’m going try to be aware whenever I’m at home practicing Karate. Don’t worry, I’m still going to maintain a healthy skepticism. But maybe, just maybe, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

I definitely had takeaways and things to think about after the workshop. I think the biggest takeaway for me from this workshop is encouragement to keep working on the internal aspects of my art. Dr. Wong gave the workshop participants a few interesting little tools for that, and I can incorporate those Tai Chi movements into my warm-up exercises at home. Something that Dr. Wong touched upon was yin and yang in the context of movement. I’ll most definitely look for that in my own art. Such a mental exercise will yield some interesting insights. I was definitely seeing my own art in a new light, but at the same time, I was on familiar territory.

Breathing, balance, smooth transitions, integrating the whole body into each movement, flow… All this is foundational stuff that both karateka and Tai Chi students learn – whether it be right from the start or later on. As the late Grandmaster Remy A. Presas (founder of Modern Arnis, a Filipino martial art) would say, “It’s all de same.” I’ve seen this every single time I’ve gone to a self defense seminar or a one-off martial arts workshop. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to compare and contrast!

The Dream

I was alone. Bright sunlight glinted off glass and chrome. Cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans parked outside the warehouse gave off soft clicks as their engines cooled. I caught glimpses of two or three familiar vehicles, but I could not spare time to look for more. I was barely on time and had to hustle. My heart rate was up and I’d broken a sweat from a light jog around the windowless warehouse. In one hand I carried fist pads and a mouth guard in its case. I removed my shoes and socks and left them outside the doors. I tugged my dogi jacket and tightened my obi in order to make myself as presentable as possible. I was ready.

I remembered my instructions were to enter the warehouse through the right hand door and place my fist pads and mouth guard on a chair I would find in front of the left hand door. With a grunt, I pulled the right hand door open. Sunlight sliced into the darkness of the warehouse interior, but did not reveal anything but the chair beside the other door. Evidently I was not supposed to know who was there. Well, I knew at least three: I had seen their vehicles. Mindful of my instructions, I stopped trying to see what was inside the warehouse and laid my fist pads and mouth guard on it as I let go of the door.

The metal door boomed shut and I was in utter darkness. I knew the dimensions of the warehouse from having jogged around it. Now I tried to guess its contents. Empty, mostly, judging from the echoes. Before the echoes faded entirely, a powerful light somewhere in the middle of the warehouse ceiling snapped on, illuminating the mats of a karate tournament square. I saw no one.

I gingerly crossed the gloom between me and the mats, listening for any human sound, minimizing my own noise. I quieted my breathing, my heart rate slowed. I placed each foot carefully in the semi-darkness as I traversed the smooth, cool concrete floor. Sweat trickled down my back as I strained to listen. Somewhere beyond the light the whisper of a bare foot sliding and a slight creak of a folding chair indicated someone had shifted their weight. I peered into the gloom beyond the mats as I came to the edge of the square. Yes, very faintly, I could discern glimers of white dogi just beyond the square of mats – possibly four karateka, seated. I suspected more karateka were standing behind them.

“Step forward,” a familiar voice ordered.

I stepped onto the mats, entering as if for a tournament, then came to attention and bowed, breathing deeply as I did so.

“Announce your kata and begin.”

I performed Seipai as I have never performed it before. It was perfect from beginning to end. In real life I’ve never come anywhere close to performing any kata as beautifully as in this dream. The echoes of my kiai rolled triumphantly throughout the darkness. I felt the fierce joy throughout my performance.

Immediately after the final bow I woke up mystified. The dream had felt so real, but I know that I will have to put in a good bit of hard work on Seipai just to look decent for my next test. When that day comes, my real audience won’t see what the audience in my dream saw. I think it’ll take at least ten years until I can perform Seipai like I did in my dream. So how did I know what to do, what it would feel like? I’ve pondered it and came to some interesting conclusions.

I’m no psychologist, I know next to nothing about neurology, and even the top researchers in those fields can’t fully explain dreams. I do know that the brain stores information and makes connections among bits of information. Maybe, for the purposes of this dream, my brain put together the best of my memories of Seipai and of karate in general. There are memories of the few times when I’ve recognized that I’ve actually managed to perform a technique perfectly. My brain has also stored memories of videos and live performances of karateka who perform Seipai far better than I do. Mix those memories up with memories of my sensei(s) telling me what to do, and hey presto. A wonderful dream performance. From this dream I’ve learned that memory is powerful. It’s all in my brain somewhere – and the vast majority of it is maddeningly out of reach. But it’s there. I just have to coax my body into doing what little I can consciously remember, and trust my subconscious to help. Sigh – as I said before, that’s going to take at least ten years, if not more.

What else have I learned from this dream? I learned that I am brave. Did you notice the setting? A dark warehouse, a dramatic bright light, people observing from the shadows, their identities hidden? It’s a setting designed to intimidate, especially if there’s going to be fighting involved. Why else was I to bring fist pads and mouth guard? But I was not frightened. Nervous, yes, but I overcame that because I had an idea of who was there.

I recognized specific vehicles parked outside, recognized the voice that gave me orders. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened that warehouse door. I had no idea why I was being put to the test in a setting designed to put emotional pressure on me. But I trusted those who I knew were in attendance and those who I suspected were there too. That’s another thing I’ve learned from this dream – I trust my sensei(s), and I trust them at a pretty deep level. In the dream, I knew nothing bad would happen in that big, scary, dark warehouse. It was simply another thing to push me out of my comfort zone.

It’s really too bad I woke up before I was required to spar with someone, or maybe even spar with multiple karateka simultaneously. Dreaming about perfect kumite would have been a lot of fun! But maybe it’s OK that I didn’t get to dream about kumite. I learned what I really needed to learn from this dream. I will, someday, be able to perform Seipai kata like a boss. I am brave. I trust friends and mentors at a deep level. Maybe there’s more to this dream that I will see in the future, maybe not. For now, I take it as a sign that my training is coming along nicely.