Diverse Locations Part 2

I’m picking up where I left off a couple of weeks ago by showcasing the places in which I train. Last post was about places where I train with others. This post is about where I train when I am alone. There is a little bit of overlap.

1) Practice time at the rec center

The facility that hosts my “home” dojo (school) is gracious enough to set aside a time and space on Saturdays for us karateka to come in and practice. Sometimes a sensei (instructor) will come in to lead, especially if there is something special coming up like Nationals or if we have candidates testing for Shodan (first degree black belt). Sometimes a sensei will simply take turns working one on one with whoever is there. Quite often, whoever is there simply works on whatever he or she desires, so one karateka might be throwing punches at a bag while another practices kata (forms).

But sometimes I’m alone.

I’ve been going to Saturday practices even before this dojo became my “home” dojo. I love having enough space to perform kata without scootching around after only a move or two. With the nifty pulley system I can hang a heavy punching bag. There are free-weights for arm work and floor mats for ab work. If I’m alone, I can set up “stations” for myself and have a nice little circuit workout.

The room has windows along two walls, so it’s a bit of a “fishbowl.” People walking down two halls can see what I’m doing. That’s OK. I want them to have a look at what karate looks like when there are no cameras, no scripts, no fly-wires, no sound effects, and no editing or computer enhancement. I want people to see that if I can do karate, they can too.

I love it when little girls linger to watch me. I want them to see how powerful women can be. I want them to know that women don’t have to be helpless victims, that it’s OK for women to learn how to defend themselves. I want them to join the beginner’s class and experience karate for themselves.

2) Home

I cleaned out my craft room when the rec center that hosted my old “home” dojo stopped letting people use studios whenever there were no classes. I wasn’t doing much crafting before I started Karate anyway. One niche of the room still holds a desk and some drawers and includes a closet, so I still have a tiny space for crafts. But most of the small room is empty save for low shelves that hold my hand weights, my timekeeping devices, my notes, and the books I read after working out. My tournament medals and the certificate for my current credentials hang on the wall, as does a copy of our Dojo Kun (school motto) nicely done in Japanese calligraphy. I have a radio to listen to when I’m stretching.

In that partly-empty room I have just enough space to do a section of kata, but not enough for a full kata. Weather permitting I go outside to my driveway or my garage for kata practice. If it’s 55 degrees F (13 C) and dry (I don’t want to slip on concrete) I’m good to go even in shorts and tank top. My detached garage has no electricity, therefore no climate control. I tend to kiai (yell) softly so as not to disturb the neighbors.

During warmer weather I might walk to my favorite outdoor practice spots, especially during my child’s summer break when I don’t have to be at a bus stop twice a day.

3) Abandoned school

Not far from my house is a school building that is not currently in use. Construction started in September, then cold weather set in, so lately I haven’t been able to go to my favorite spot at one end of the building. There is a more or less level concrete area, and yes I wear shoes. I spent many hours there practicing for my san-kyu (“low brown” belt) test. The area is fenced off now, and who knows if that concrete area will still be there when construction is finished. The jogging track is still open, but the large concrete blocks on which I did inclined push-ups and tricep dips are gone.

As it so happens, I went to school there for just a couple of months. Sometimes I wonder what my nine-year-old self would think if she could see herself thirty eight years later practicing kata in a quiet corner of the school yard. When I’m on the jogging track I remember learning to ride a bike there. I struggled with that process but I eventually figured out how to ride that bike. It’s a lot like my karate journey.

4) Forest

There is nothing like being alone in the forest. It scares some people, and for good reason. I do keep a watchful eye on my surroundings. I listen for human sounds. Birds sometimes complain about my presence – the trick is to listen to the more distant birds who can’t see me. If they complain, someone might be near. I choose my spots carefully and don’t draw attention to myself with a kiai. Uneven ground, tree roots, grass, and fist-sized rocks are things I must work around. This adds an extra dimension to my kata, and movements sometimes must be adapted accordingly. I figure if I have a penchant for visiting lonely forests I should learn to fight in such terrain.

5) Beach

I love to go to a beach that is pretty isolated. Fortunately, there are houses at each end that I could run to if I had to. Beachfront property owners are often grumpy about trespassers, so they’ll already be calling the police by the time I reach the door. Again, if I have a penchant for visiting lonely beaches I should learn to fight in such terrain.

Beaches around here are slightly sloped and consist of patches of sand and shingle. Shingle is a little dangerous for kata practice, but I have done it very, very carefully a time or two. I like to find a patch of sand smoothed by the tide. I can definitely see the embusen (floor pattern) of my kata. More than that, I like to see what happens if I start the kata with the “uphill” to my left, to my right, to my front, or to my back. Slope changes my stances and my transitions.

Sand is excellent for learning jumps found in kata. I’ve learned one jump for one kata on a beach, and in the future I’ll be learning another. I know where to go.

As you can see, most of the places where I practice Karate alone are outdoors. They are places I already enjoyed visiting before I started training. I often practice in shoes and clothes that I wear every day. It’s different from doing karate in a gi on mats or a hardwood floor. Stances must be adjusted, I have to be aware of what’s underfoot, and sometimes proper body dynamics are absolutely essential to overcoming the friction of shoes on whatever surface I’m on. By studying how to fight in these environments, I’m now enjoying them more because I can let go of the anxiety that sometimes comes from being a woman in an isolated spot. I’m enjoying the freedom.


Diverse Locations – Part One

I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve never even so much as trained on tatami mats.  This is the type of dojo that is “traditional.”  But I have trained in a lot of other dojo and each training space has added to my Karate education even if I’ve only spent an hour or two.  Each has contributed to a wealth of memories that I have.  Here’s a rundown of where I’ve trained with others. I’ll post about where I do solo practice in a couple of weeks.

1) A former elementary school classroom

I actually started out in a parks & rec Tang Soo Do program for six weeks in 1983. My parents shoved a catalog at me and told me to find something to do.  Read more here.  The very small school building (built sometime in the 1950s) wasn’t designed for exercise classes but it was adequate.  Mirrors were installed to facilitate dance and karate in one room. The building has since been taken over by a theater group. Last time I was there a couple of years ago I looked into the room where I first learned how to make a fist. The room looked the same.  Memories flooded my mind – I draw on those same memories when I’m teaching new beginners.  I want them to feel empowered and eager to learn more, just like I did.

2) Strip mall dojo

I wasn’t thrilled about doing Karate only twice a week and taking three-week breaks between quarters. My Dad looked into other dojo(s), including the Boeing Employees Karate Association. If he’d chosen BEKA for me I could have been training alongside some of the karateka who are now my sensei. But my Dad felt that a dojo close to our home was a better fit for me, especially because it was run by a lady sensei.

I have to admit that I got spoiled having classes available 3 times per day M-F and a Saturday class. But one huge mistake I made was relying too much on class time for my own development. I now seek balance between my own practice time and time spent in the dojo.

The space was more or less adapted to Karate. A punching bag hung in one corner, and other equipment was stored out in the open. The floor was hardwood and roughly the size of a tournament square (but that would be a tight fit).  The dressing rooms were barely adequate, and there was a small office for the sensei. The lobby was tiny, and that was where I taught “first lesson is free” people and brought beginners up to speed so they could join the beginners class.

Today the entire building is a multilingual school for small children. I peeked in the window and the hardwood floor is still there.

3) Major university

OK, it was only for one class, but it still counts as one of the settings in which I’ve done Karate. I needed PE credit. Fencing was full, so I signed up for World Literature and Karate for the semester. Karate was in a small gym with plenty of space. The sensei knew right away I’d had training. I remember we did kihon kata the first day, which is highly unusual for most dojo(s). I wish I could remember what style was taught.

The next day, I went to my first World Literature class and had an unpleasant surprise. The instructor announced that he’d be teaching English Literature instead. I wasn’t too happy with that. A spot in the Fencing class opened up so I dropped Karate for Fencing and took some other class instead of English Literature.

4) Recreation centers

Sharing space with other exercise groups makes for a whole new dynamic. The sensei and/or the sensei’s organization has to work closely with the rec center’s management. Equipment needs to be stored in locked closets. There are often time constraints because other classes are held before and after Karate, which might be offered only two or three times per week. When I finally joined my daughter at the rec center I learned how to practice on my own. I also learned to supplement my learning by attending seminars, visiting sister dojo(s), going to Gasshuku (camp), Godo Renshu (unity training), and competing in tournaments. Now I take it in stride that Karate is offered only 2-3 times per week.  In fact, if there’s an imbalance between time spent working on my own and time spent in a formal class I feel anxious and restless.

5) Community College

The building where the Karate class meets was built sometime in the 1960’s and sits downhill from most of the other buildings on campus. The building houses locker rooms, a couple of small offices, a team conference room, and a multipurpose room that is used for many exercise classes. The floor of the college’s multipurpose room is hard, slippery rubber so we must set out tournament mats before class and take them up again after class. The square room easily accommodates a ten-meter by ten-meter matted square with plenty of room to spare. We have locked storage and spacious locker rooms with showers. I happen to be employed on campus in the building next door, so after work I have only a short walk between buildings.

Two quarters of Karate are offered for Physical Education credit. My daughter dropped a class and was looking for PE credit, so she signed up for Karate. I kept finding excuses to watch her. She took the two quarters offered then went on to the rec center program. Three sensei and my daughter kept on nudging me to get back on the mats, so I eventually did. I later came to the college dojo to supplement my training at the rec center. Much to my surprise, in February 2016 circumstances put me in the role of senior student. Now that I’m at san-kyu (“low brown” belt) my credentials finally match my role as assistant to the dojo sensei.

Almost every time I lead the opening ceremony at the college dojo, I marvel at how far I’ve come.  I sometimes “see” myself as I was four years ago, sitting on the sidelines eating my heart out.

6) A major employer’s club

Boeing used to have a recreational facility that housed its employee clubs and included a gym, weight room, and an aerobics room. This was where the Boeing Employees Karate Association used to meet from 1987 until last summer. The room was a long rectangle with mirrors along one of the long sides. Best of all was the wood aerobics floor – it was delightfully springy. Alas, what with one thing and another the facility was bulldozed last summer.

Now the dojo meets in a racquetball court at Boeing’s indoor tennis facility. The court is very small and a kiai is deafening what with all the hard surfaces. So we pretend to kiai.  No mirrors, obviously. However, it is a place to meet and that’s what counts.

I’ve been visiting BEKA throughout the last three and a half years and I sometimes think about how close I came to being a part of that dojo some 35 years ago.

7) Hombu Dojo

Our Karate organization’s Hombu Dojo (headquarters) is in Oregon just west of Portland. It’s in a strip mall and has ample space for working out, loads of mirrors, a small spectator area, a nice office, two dressing rooms, and a storage loft. Mats are almost always on the floor except when they are needed elsewhere, such as for the local tournament. It takes me four hours to drive there (three hours of actual driving, one hour for breaks). I’m spending more time there because this dojo hosts brown belt training. I consider the Hombu Dojo to be my home away from home.

8) Yoshida Estate

One of my favorite events of the year is Gasshuku, held at Yoshida Gardenview Estate. Doing Karate outside on a huge green lawn – oh yes, it’s wonderful! The beautiful grounds are nestled in a bend of the Sandy River. Tall trees sigh in the breeze. I’ve heard eagles piping. An artificial waterfall soothes me to sleep at night when I’m snugly tucked into my sleeping bag in my tent counting sore muscles as I fall asleep.

If the weather is inclement, there is an indoor space we can use for workouts. The floor is built over a pit that used to be a swimming pool, so the echoes are pretty loud if someone accidentally stomps their foot. Some of us joke about monster spiders below the floor.

9) Tournaments – college gyms & aerospace museum

Tournaments are often in community college gymnasiums. One gym is pretty much like another. The college where I work and play hosts the state qualifier every year. The first time I was inside the gym was in 1974.  I was all of four years old and had attended preschool at the college. My Mom had earned an AA degree and I watched her graduation ceremony. I distinctly remember her walking by in her cap and gown. The next time I was in that gym was for my high school graduation. I had no idea that 25 years later I’d be watching my daughter in her first tournament, and the year after that I’d be competing myself.

Speaking of having no clue – a few months after I quit Karate in 1987 I saw the “Spruce Goose” aircraft for the first time. If someone told me then that years later I’d be competing in a tournament under the tail of that aircraft I’d have laughed.  An aerospace museum is definitely an interesting venue for a Karate tournament!

10) A garage

Yes, I have trained in a garage.  The 3-car garage has mats, mirrors, and weight machines.  The parking space in front of the house and garage offers more training space.  Uphill sprints can be done on the shared driveway and jogging on the quiet street is pleasant.  Some of the lessons which have had tremendous impact on my Karate have been learned there.

11) Other organizations’ dojo(s)

Sometimes dojo(s) of other organizations host seminars that are open to all karateka.  It’s interesting being a visitor.  Sometimes the space was obviously designed for Karate and sometimes there’s a distinct feeling that the dojo adapted a space as best it could. There might be posh locker rooms and showers or there might be a changing room little bigger than a closet. There might be protocols for opening doors to changing rooms. One might see a chart hanging on a bathroom wall with the names of karateka assigned to specific chores on specific days. Offices might be nonexistent, Spartan, or filled with memorabilia.

The spaces we train in are marvelously diverse. They reflect the diversity of the world of Karate itself. I feel fortunate to have experienced so much. I hope someday to visit online acquaintances at their dojo(s). Maybe someday I’ll train at a dojo in Japan on tatami mats. But even if I never get to experience that, I know there’s plenty of interesting places that will, in their own unique way, help shape my Karate journey even if I only spend a couple of hours there.

I will continue this theme in a couple of weeks by writing about where I practice when I am alone.

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