When the Going Gets Tough

Most of the time I blog about the good things that are happening. I’m growing and learning from all the fun things I get to do. I sometimes touch on the negative, but my tendency is to draw the positives from it. Maybe I’ve given the impression on this blog that my karate journey is entirely comprised of roses and song. It’s not. Stuff does happen from time to time. Yes – surprise! Human beings, including myself, are imperfect. If we have a customer mindset we walk away when there’s something that needs to be worked through.

Customers feel they deserve the best for their money. If a restaurant serves a bad meal, we don’t return. If the landlord decides to bulldoze his strip mall, we find other places to shop. This isn’t bad, it’s just the way it is. But many people are so used to everything being customer-oriented that they find it hard to understand why someone would stick with a dojo through the “speed bumps” (presuming the dojo is a good one). A lot of people don’t understand that Karate is (or should be) relational.

Americans have almost no concept of senpai/kohai relationships  and unfortunately Americans have a tendency to treat teachers with less honor than they deserve. I don’t for a minute think that the relational dynamics among American karateka are exactly like the relational dynamics among Japanese karateka, but a good American dojo will at least echo the Japanese norms. Teaching one’s kohai and being taught by one’s senpai not only is good for growing in the art, it also creates camaraderie and fosters loyalty. The focus shifts from individual to group.

Assuming a good dojo, it’s not about the value you’re getting for your money. Your focus should be on the group as a whole.  It’s about you doing your part to:

1) Make sure the dojo can meet its fiscal obligations (rent, staff and instructor salaries, utility bills, etc.)

2) Promote harmony by treating everyone with respect

3) Transmit the art of Karate to the “next generation” to ensure the continuation of the art

4) Develop future leaders

It doesn’t matter if a sticky situation originates from inside the dojo or from without – if you’re focused on these four responsibilities you’ll find ways to survive and yes, thrive even when things aren’t optimal. Of course one can grow from wonderful, positive things that happen. Heck, my blog is full of sunny, happy, everything-is-hunky-dory examples of that. But can you grow from challenging situations that make you feel anxious or frustrated? Yes. Absolutely. Adverse circumstances are the fires in which we are forged. But one has to decide to go along for the ride.

When the decision is made to stick with the dojo during tough times, it opens one’s mind to engage in positive pursuits such as

1) Coming up with creative solutions

2) Encouraging others

3) Building bridges

4) Asking questions and actively listening to the answers

5) Understanding all perspectives and rendering sound judgment

6) Tempering one’s own knee-jerk responses

7) Not exceeding one’s authority

Doing these seven things during hard times is hard. Sometimes the resistance will be so strong that you might not make any headway. Things might break down past all repair in spite of everyone’s best efforts. But you at least will know that you acted with integrity. And you might discover that the next time something comes up you’re that much better equipped to deal with it because of what you’ve been through.

I’m going to borrow some inspiration from an internet acquaintance, Clifton Bullard, who posted about pearls on his Facebook page yesterday.  Think about pearls.  A grain of sand gets inside an oyster’s shell, and the grain of sand irritates the soft, pink flesh of the oyster.  We all know what the oyster does about that situation – it coats that grain of sand in layer after layer of aragonite and calcite, making a lustrous smooth sphere that most people value as gems.  Making a metaphoric pearl out of an irritating situation isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

Disclaimer: I’m not targeting this to any one particular group or individual. OK, that’s a lie. I’m pointing my finger at myself. I’m human, and I’m not perfect – never will be. Someday I may need my own words to be “in my face” so that I can persevere in making the right choices. If this writing benefits even just one other person, I will be happy.

At last!

I’d dreamed of going to brown belt training for a little under two years. Being with a cohort of “advanced” students every other month was something I really looked forward to. Now it’s no longer a daydream but a reality. I earned san-kyu (low brown) in August during Gasshuku (camp). Gasshuku counts as brown belt training, as does Godo Renshu (unity training) held two months later. At last, the first Saturday of December, after nearly two years of anticipation I made the three hour drive to our Hombu Dojo (our Karate organization’s headquarters/school) and participated in my first brown belt training.

I could give a narrative of the entire class but I won’t. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprises for any of my kohai (anyone lower-ranked than oneself). I was out of my comfort zone but I already knew that the end result would be growth so that didn’t bother me. I found out that I’m now better at something that used to vex me no end – yeah, I still struggle but not nearly as badly. And of course I got feedback – “homework,” if you will.

There are three degrees of brown. The first is san-kyu, the rank I am now (low brown). The next is ni-kyu (middle brown), and the last one before black is i-kyu (high brown). So if I’m a brand-new san-kyu I’m one of the lowest ranked karateka at brown belt training. It’s almost like being a white belt (brand new beginner) again both in etiquette and in the difficulty of the material presented relative to my present abilities. The sensei urged me to ask questions, and I soon found that, like a white belt, I indeed had questions.

“Please show me this again.”

“What is the name of that kata?”

“Do my arms go like this?”

“Oops – how do I make that turn?”

Do any of those questions sound familiar to any of you who have had more than, oh, say four lessons in any given martial art? Do these questions sound familiar to any of you who teach a martial art?

The beginner’s mindset keeps us from stagnating or (worse) becoming arrogant. I love Wikipedia’s definition:

Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism which means “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

If I’d come to brown belt training with whatever the opposite of shoshin is, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I certainly would have been miserable during the last hour, which we spent doing something that has been an especially challenging thing for me all of my Karate career. The sensei wanted to learn who I am, what I am made of, and what I need to work on. I was, after all, a brand-new student to him. I not only survived, I not only learned, but I also had a smile on my face at the end. Not a relieved smile but a smile of happiness with what I’d gained from the time.

Brown belt training was everything I anticipated. I am looking forward to more in the future. There is a lot for me to learn and three more difficult tests to take before I tie on a black belt. I intend to enjoy these years, and I’m glad to have this training available to me.

Gender and Age

Just another Saturday informal practice time. One of my sensei  was showing me a way to set someone up for a crescent kick to the head. As I watched I casually put my gloved hand up to the side of my head whenever I saw Sensei’s leg come up for the kick. As Sensei explained the movements he repeated them again and again so that I had plenty of opportunities both to watch carefully and to try and see what it might look like if I didn’t know what was coming. At one point I stepped outside myself and thought, “Wow, this is actually kinda funny – a woman my age letting someone kick to her head and she’s just casually blocking like it’s no big deal.”

I admit that I still have a persistent vision of what typical middle age looks like for women. Saturday morning could mean sitting in a chair reading a good book and sipping hot cocoa – maybe call Mom and see if she wants to go to the antique store later. This contrasts sharply with my Saturday mornings filed with weights, calisthenics, basics, forms, sparring, bruises, and gallons of sweat. Maybe I’m laughing at myself when I find humor in the contrast between what my life is like and my vision of typical middle aged womanhood.

“Brave” is how one friend outside my martial arts circles describes me. Why? Because as often as possible I get into a tournament ring to spar with karateka who outrank me. Because I am not scared to explore beaches and forests with only my little dog for company. Because I risk injury every time I spar or am thrown. Because I consider most bruises to be badges of honor. Because I’ve taken the first of the “really hard” belt tests. Is this brave? I’ll bet many of my martial arts “brothers” take these things for granted. But for an average middle-aged woman… Different story. We’re “supposed to” be well on our way to retirement.

I’m not the only middle-aged lady acquiring bruises for funsies (as Jackie Bradbury puts it). Heck, two middle-aged lady martial artists are in my dojo and they outrank me. There are more in the Karate organization I belong to. I’m acquainted with even more from tournaments and seminars. There are a few who are Internet buddies of mine and I hope someday to meet them in person. But if one were to ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial artist looks like, that person will most likely describe a young, buff male. Go a step further and ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial arts student looks like and you’ll probably hear a description of a little boy. Not a grown woman who’s started the next half of her life.

Admittedly there are some physical things I do that are concessions to my age. I have noticed it takes me longer to heal from injuries than when I was younger so I take even minor twinges seriously. Paying attention to proper form in stances and adjusting one stance ever so slightly should help stave off knee problems. It takes me longer to build muscle and I must be content with small gains over long periods of time. I absolutely must fall properly when I’m thrown. I have to watch what I eat and carefully time when I eat on workout days. I’ve got to stay hydrated. I must go to bed on time. Taking naps between work and Karate has become a habit. All that said, there are young people out there who can’t do half the things I do. I might have to work around some things but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t pursue my art. I know this, but sometimes my past still whispers to me.

Old thought patterns die hard. I was born in 1970, and society was quite different then. Little girls were supposed to be cute and fluffy. They were supposed to play with dolls and tea sets. In most literature for children boys had wonderful adventures. Most books about girls bored me to tears. Ice skating was an “acceptable” sport for my mother, and knitting was an “acceptable” pastime for my grandmother (who was only 42 years older than I). Women were supposed to have big hair and wear the latest fashions. I was bombarded with movies and TV showing women as silly little sex objects who were often in need of rescuing (mostly because they did something stupid or failed to take action). Most telling – I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college. I’ve fought hard to be who I am today.

Still… The other day I came home from Karate class and mused, “What a strange hobby I have,” as I flexed my upper back to ease the ache from being thrown about a dozen times. Then I realized my gender and age bias. As I wrote above, old thought patterns die hard. What’s strange about someone finding something he or she likes to do? What’s strange about that someone setting goals, achieving them, and setting new goals? What’s strange about someone becoming more physically fit, more mentally disciplined, more confident? What’s strange about anyone acquiring knowledge of how to survive if attacked? Everyone deserves opportunities to pursue excellence. Karate is my “way,” and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Related reading:  Gender Inequality

Another Self Defense Seminar

See my last post for an explanation of why I chose this image.  I reversed the image this time because, after all, one must train both sides of the body!

The day after my last post published I put in a full day. It wasn’t enough to go to Saturday practice time at my dojo. Oh no, not when there was more fun to be had! A local dojo (not from the organization I belong to) was hosting two women’s self-defense seminars. I skipped the first seminar because I really needed to put my own dojo and my own practice in top priority. I had enough time to rinse off in a shower, gulp down a protein bar and some electrolytes, drive, and change into a clean set of workout clothes upon arrival. I found my way through the unfamiliar athletic club and into the studio perhaps ten minutes before the first seminar ended.

The first seminar was billed as basic but from what I could tell it had been different from the basic seminar I’d attended two weeks prior from this one. The ladies were drilling a sequence of defense and attack. I’m guessing that the skill-set was built gradually, movement by movement over the course of half an hour or more. My first inkling that I might be using skills I’ve learned from Karate came when I recognized a movement from the kata (form) we label as Pinan Yondan. Students were carefully grabbing their partners’ head and slowly bringing a knee up to simulate smashing an opponent’s face.

I joined in the closing meditation. The instructor led us in this, reminding us how and when to breathe. She’d say things like, “Know that you are powerful. If someone who wants to do something harmful sees you, they will feel your power and they won’t mess with you.” I thought this was a nice touch for this context. Guided meditation is not generally done during Karate meditation, so it’s good to experience something different.

After the end of the first seminar the dojo sensei (karate school head instructor) and the self-defense instructor came over to greet me. I’d “met” the dojo sensei online after I commended him for offering a free month of karate classes to women following a rape attack in the community. We’d had a little online “conversation” going off and on for a few weeks so it was nice to finally meet him in person. The self defense instructor is an impressive woman. Not only does she teach Kung Fu, she also teaches Krav Maga. Awwww yiiiiiiisssss!

Three other women stayed to take the advanced seminar. Four students – perfect.

“You’re all pretty fit, so let’s get that blood pumping!” the instructor announced.

It’s a good thing I’ve been to other seminars and camp and such. I’ve learned to go, go, go even if I’m tired, tired, tired. I learned a new movement to bring to the table next time I lead warm ups at my dojo. The warm up was vigorous but not beyond me. It turns out we would be demanding a good deal from our bodies so I was glad that the instructor had us thoroughly warm up.

I learned right away that my Karate skills were both going to work against me and work for me. Right away I was fighting the instinct to do something different than what was taught. No sooner did I overcome that when the dojo sensei requested that I slow down in order to reduce the chance of harming my partner. My immediate positive response to his request indicated that my Karate training was also working for me. One incident in particular highlights this mixture of blessing and hindrance.

We’d reached a point where we could drill the three of the sequences we’d learned. The instructor had us circle up and asked for a volunteer to stand in the middle of the circle. I tried to hang back but I got volunteered anyway. My understanding was that everyone was going to attack me in order “to simulate being attacked by a group.” I’ve done this sort of thing before. When I’ve done this at my own dojo the rule was only one attacker at a time. Small mercy because you don’t know what technique the attacker will use and you don’t know who’s attacking next. I knew I could handle that but I didn’t think I could reliably use the defenses that I’d just learned. They weren’t hammered into my muscle memory, unlike quite a lot of other things I could do without thinking. So I asked, “Do we have to stick with the techniques we learned in the lesson?” It turns out I completely misunderstood what we were about to do. I only had to go around the circle to each person and the attacks were predictable. Yes, go ahead and laugh.

I started thinking about the basic principles of what we were doing. Leverage. Kime (look it up). Weight distribution. Load-bearing stances. Smashing joints.  I started to hear the voice of the late Professor Remy Presas (founder of Modern Arnis) whispering, “It’s all de same…”

Next up was ground work. This was totally and completely unfamiliar territory for me. Sure I’d been taught some throws as part of kata bunkai (practical application of movements from our forms). But so far I hadn’t been taught about what to do once I’m on the ground. I also had never been in a situation where some guy I’m barely acquainted with is, you guessed it, straddling me and “choking” me while I am flat on the ground. Not just in one position but three. Because of my size, strength, and martial arts experience I wasn’t rolling the petite lady instructor – oh no, I was rolling my gentleman acquaintance, the dojo sensei. I was a little unprepared for the mixture of dark, negative emotions that crashed through me. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

I had to fight myself to even lie down on the mat. I had to sternly tell myself that yeah, I was learning from watching the other ladies but actually doing this stuff would be infinitely better. The rush of elation after my first escape was fantastic. I learned to channel the negative emotional reaction to being in these positions into motivation to learn the lessons well and execute the sequences quickly. I relaxed and started thinking about leverage, push-and-pull, hip rotation, and using your opponent’s natural reactions to your advantage… Yes, it’s all de same. Ground work suddenly didn’t feel alien to me anymore.

After this it was back to more familiar territory. The instructor had us expand on something we’d learned earlier. Before this one of the ladies had to leave early. That left me paired with my gentleman acquaintance, the dojo sensei. He let me throw him a few times while the instructor worked intensively with the other two ladies on the sequence (and they weren’t allowed to throw each other). When it was clear I had a good handle on the sequence and the throw, the dojo sensei smiled, changed his position relative to me and to the padded mats, and said, “Now do it on the other side.” I grinned – every good sensei has his or her students train both sides of the body 🙂 Using my non-dominant side was a bit awkward at first but after awhile I managed just fine.

We ended with another circle drill and this time I knew how to proceed. It was a good review. When it was my turn to attack with a rubber knife I received the last sting of the day to my forearm. Earlier, we’d drilled that defense quite a bit so everyone got hit repeatedly when it was their turn to wield a rubber knife. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a bruise. I was willing to repeatedly take that pain so that others could learn, and learn they did. There are women in my community who know they can defend themselves against a knife and I was part of their learning. It’s a great feeling. For this knife defense we were essentially using juji-uke, a block that is very familiar to me from kata (forms). So as a bonus my kata will be that much better because I got to experience this block both on the striking and receiving ends.

I found out from the instructor that there’s an organization centered around women’s self defense.  I can see myself someday registering as an instructor. Meanwhile I have a lot to learn. Throughout the seminar I kept thinking about the principles behind what we were doing and comparing what I was learning to things I’ve learned from Karate. I’m more eager now than ever to keep building my skills in Karate. I have a deeper appreciation for the foundation that my sensei have laid. Our kata are our textbooks.  The self defense instructor showed me how to apply what I didn’t know I knew.


If you’re in the Seattle area and are interested in taking a self defense seminar from Kimberly Bowen, please click on this link:  http://www.macabeeseattle.com/  Thank you to Greg Sommers-Herivel of Northwest School of Karate (Burien) for hosting and for letting me try some wicked awesome stuff on you.

A Self Defense Seminar

I’m not making fun of the seminar with this image, although I do find the image amusing on several different levels. It’s just that when I was searching for “self defense” images most of what I found was 1) white ladies beating up black men (racist), 2) ladies kicking guys in the crotch (um, there’s more to self defense than that), and 3) ladies attacking guys who are wearing outfits that match their own (black tank tops mostly).  Apparently rapists try to find ladies whose outfits match theirs – so don’t dress like a rapist and you won’t get raped.

A couple of weeks ago the community college where I work shut down all normal operations for Professional Development Day. Faculty and staff members ate free food, listened to a speaker, and then ate more free food. After lunch we had our choice of one of several seminars. Most seminars were geared specifically towards faculty, but there were a few that weren’t. Among the choices was a self defense seminar.

So why would I need to go to a self defense seminar? Surely by now I can at least manage to give someone a bloody nose, right? I have any number of really brutal techniques hammered into my muscle memory from practicing kata (forms). I’ve hit and kicked bags using my fastest speed and all the power I have.  And I’m a brown belt – that’s right before black so I should be pretty badass already, right?

It’s true that I was hoping to pick up at least one new technique. I did – swiping thumbs across an opponent’s eyes in lieu of gouging.  I also learned a combination of techniques that could very well work “in the street.”  I had Japanese names for nearly every technique the instructor taught and most of the other techniques were very slight variations of what I’ve already learned. I felt free to expand on a couple of things – for instance swiping thumbs across the opponent’s eyes (from the opponent’s nose outward) led very nicely into the double kidney strike featured in the kata (form) named Bassai Dai. On the surface it looks like I didn’t get much out of the seminar.

I remember being at a seminar on leadership and the speaker said that if he spends hundreds of dollars to spend four hours cooped up in an airplane, spends hundreds of dollars more on a motel room, food, and transportation, then sits through five hours of a seminar that cost him a couple hundred more dollars and all he learns is just one thing that sticks with him for the rest of his life… It’s totally worth it. Yes, that one combination of techniques will stick with me, as will my expansions and improvisations on other things that were taught. But that is certainly not all that I gained. I gained a lot more.

My main objective in attending the self defense seminar was to learn about one-off self defense seminars. I’ve never been to any self defense seminars. Teaching self defense seminars is something I might want to do in the future.  There are huge differences between studying a traditional martial art and taking a one-off self defense seminar. This was an alien world to me. I’ve taught new beginners in Karate with the presumption that they’ll stick with the Karate class for at least a month or two, if not longer.  I lead them through a gradual progression of skills.  Teaching people you might not ever see again is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I wanted to learn how it’s done.

I was very glad that we didn’t line up in rows as we would for a formal Karate class. The instructor had us standing in a circle. This meant that I could observe everyone in the room. There was a glaring gender disparity – a male instructor, one male student, and about twenty female students. The male student was smirking a lot – I would like to think he was smirking at the thought of how much well-deserved pain an attacker would receive but I have to admit it’s entirely possible he was mentally mocking the proceedings. The women showed a wide range of emotions. Some were a little nervous but warmed up nicely, and a couple of these turned out to be quite ferocious later. A few women had perhaps taken a self defense seminar before – this was familiar territory. One woman was overconfident and later ended up hurting her foot against the punching bag. And one woman was silently soaking it all in and evaluating absolutely everything (that would be me).

I paid attention to everyone, not just the instructor. I listened to the questions that the students asked. I evaluated the answers the students gave to the instructor’s questions. I myself stayed silent – this was my time to learn. I asked myself later how I would reach the students, “where they were at,” so to speak.  Because I picked up on techniques and combinations quickly I was able to look around to see how well the students were learning them. When students rotated through stations to practice on punching bags, a BOB (man-shaped Body Opponent Bag), and a kick bag there was plenty of time for me to observe others as I stood in line.

I surmised that even the students who were not generating much force with their techniques would still hurt a real person with what they were doing. More force, of course, would be ideal but the main point of a one-off self defense seminar is that even just “stinging” one’s opponent can give one an opportunity to escape or follow up with another technique. This wasn’t a continuous marital arts class where ideal body mechanics could mean a tournament medal or moving up in rank. This one-off seminar was about giving people a few tools they could use to save their lives.

After class the instructor spent time with me to answer my questions and to give me pointers about learning and teaching self defense.  I really appreciated that.  I have a lot to think about, research, and learn in the years to come. As I’ve said before, my vision of my Karate future is kinda fuzzy right now. Perhaps teaching one-off self defense seminars is something I can specialize in after I earn Shodan (black belt – and along with that the credentials to teach without in-person supervision).  I treasure both male and female sensei (instructors), but not every woman shares my sentiment. Some women prefer to learn martial arts and self defense from other women. Maybe that’s a need I could someday fill.

Aside from all that, this seminar was just plain fun.  Most of you who are reading this understand the “weird little obsession with acquiring bruisies for funsies” (as Modern Arnis blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it).  So you know how much fun it is to try empi uchi and teisho uchi out on a BOB. You know how much fun it is to try something new, or to put familiar things together in new ways.  Some of you teach so you know the satisfaction of watching first-day beginners learn something (even if they’re not your students, LOL).  You know how fun it is to pick up new teaching ideas. And yes, it was fun to hit things and yell.  That never gets old (in the proper context, of course).


P. S. – I have the opportunity on Saturday to go to a more advanced self defense seminar.  Different instructor, so this will provide even more learning opportunities.  All I have to do is get over this stupid sinus infection that has been plaguing me all week.  Stay tuned!