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.


Someone I know broke her nose last month. She is a karateka, but she didn’t break her nose doing karate. Nonetheless, her experience can serve as a cautionary tale for us karateka. A broken nose is not an injury to be taken lightly. The consequences are extensive for a severe break. Anytime someone is injured, it impacts their life and the lives of those around them.

I’ll summarize her medical treatment. Paramedics did an initial evaluation that included a screening for concussion. She spent a couple of hours in the emergency room. A CAT scan taken there revealed her septum was shattered. Nine days later, when the swelling had gone down, she paid a visit to an ear-nose-throat doctor. Soon after, she underwent surgery under general anesthetic to put plastic braces inside her nose. Those remained in place for two weeks. Because of the nature of her pain medicine, a family member managed it for her. She spent nearly a full month not being able to breathe through her nose and she was in constant pain. Granted, the pain diminished over time, but still – not pleasant. The plastic braces inside her nose put pressure on her palate and the roots of her teeth, so she ate soft food for two weeks.

A week ago today, the doctor removed the plastic braces that had been inside her broken nose for two weeks. She returned to Karate this week. However, the doctor doesn’t want her sparring until May. Because of her injury, she missed class for an entire month. She most definitely will not be testing for her next belt this month.

This is what a broken nose does to a person. And it’s not just the person whose nose was shattered. Others are impacted too; they need to step up to the plate in order to help. I’m going to throw out a rough number here – I estimate twenty people were involved in this karateka’s care, whether that was for four minutes or four weeks. Five are family, three of them were the most intensively involved. One family member missed work to take her to surgery and appointments. That person’s absence meant co-workers had to pick up the slack. The consequences rippled outwards, and will continue to spread, at least via myself.

If I serve as shushin (referee) during a tournament and you’re competing in my ring, be warned. I am not feeling very charitable towards any competitor who does not exercise good control when striking to their opponent’s face. Because I understand the impact of a broken nose I am now willing to risk losing my license by imposing harsh penalties if I see a river of blood streaming from a swollen, purple nose.

Here’s what you can do to help prevent broken noses. Grab a buddy and practice protecting your face. Do this on a regular basis: at least once per week. Beginners – make absolutely sure you are not leaning forward (“leading with your face”). To practice controlling your strikes, make a simple target. Tie a small piece of cardboard on thread and hang it from the ceiling (use clear “Scotch tape” in case the thread winds around your finger or wrist). Try not to hit the cardboard, but come as close to hitting it as you can. Believe me, the extra practice will be worth it. Yes, I know – Karate is a rough sport. Stuff happens in spite of precautions. But we can try to minimize the odds of hurting our sparring partners.

Am I saying to never hit someone full speed and power? Absolutely not. Let’s face it – one of the main points of karate is learning how to hurt people. That’s what a punch to the nose is for, right? Outside of classes, seminars, tournaments, etc. – yes! Breaking someone’s nose could be an option if you are afraid for your life (check your local laws). From what I’ve heard, a broken nose is quite painful. That might discourage an attacker at least long enough for you to get away. If you want to be sure that you are capable of generating enough power to break someone’s nose, have a buddy hold a focus mitt for you, or work with a heavy bag.

There’s value in developing finesse and control, and there’s value in generating devastating power. Just be sure you know when and where to use which ability. Keep control of your temper in class and in the ring. The consequences of injuring someone reach beyond the moment of impact and affect more people than just the injured party. Guard your face, and be careful of your partner.

Maintenance Mode

I’m glad this month (February) is short.  So far, this has been a challenging month in my personal life.  This has affected my Karate.  Due to this, that, and the other, my attendance in class and my practice time at home has been sparse.  I’ve been in “maintenance mode.”  I’m hanging on to what I have, and improvement is something I simply hope for.  My tendency is to berate myself for not practicing more at home and for not taking better care of myself (I did get sick, and it’s still lingering a bit).  But when I write out everything that happened so far this month, I’m amazed I did any Karate at all.   Any one of the things that happened this month would have a significant impact on my class attendance and practice time.

Sure I’ve lost ground – in “wind,” or endurance, and in upper body strength.  But I know I can get back what I’ve lost.  It won’t be easy.  Easy has never been part of the equation anyway, so what else is new?  Yet it’s frustrating to lose ground at a time when I’m supposed to be gaining ground.  My sensei are not berating me, so why the heck should I berate myself?  But I do.  Maybe I’m discouraged.

Part of our dojo kun (school motto) that we recite at the beginning and end of each class is “Be patient, and not discouraged.”  I like how our dojo kun presents patience as the opposite of discouragement.  This is a time when I have to be patient with myself.  It’s the fastest way out of the funk that I’ve wallowed in from time to time this month.  Reminding myself to be patient is how I’ve been maintaining my drive to succeed in karate.

Keeping one’s motivation up is key.  I know there are life circumstances where that might be impossible.  It’s been a hard month for me, but not that hard.  Back to the point – if it is possible to maintain your motivation, the next step is to figure out what you can do with whatever resources you have.  Here’s some tips I’ve learned:

  1. Be super flexible.  When there’s tons of stressful things going on in your life take the time to do your Karate whenever you can find it.  When things settle down, you can go to class and you can buckle down in your practice time.  But for now, just do what you can when you can.
  2. Visualizing/Meditation.  This is something I learned from Andrea Harkins and from Elisa Au Fonseca.  Andrea spent six weeks in the hospital on bed rest, so all she could do was practice kata in her head.  Elisa Au Fonseca led  Gasshuku (camp) in 2017 and taught us how to meditate our way through a kata.  Visualize yourself performing flawlessly, take as much time as you need for each move.  Imagine every detail – how your gi (uniform) feels on your body, the texture of the mats under your feet, your muscles moving under your skin…  I’ve found that meditation works for kihon (basics) and sparring as well.
  3. Quick walk through kata.  This should take a minute or less per kata.  For the purposes of this exercise, don’t do the stances but do position your feet.  Kicks should be slow and to knee height.  Hand techniques should be more suggestive than effective.  This is good for when you’re almost over a cold.  This very mild exercise is just a way of reminding yourself how the kata is supposed to go.
  4. Kata practice – for real.  It doesn’t take long to warm up and then perform four or five kata full speed and power.  If all you have is 15 minutes, kata is a great way to make the most of it.  Kata is cardio, strength, kihon, self defense, and more.
  5. Bathroom breaks at work.  Don’t laugh.  The handicapped stall is big enough for honing blocks and other hand techniques.  Lately I’ve been getting quite a few tips on refining my techniques, so any chance I get to practice those changes, I take it.  Ten reps is better than nothing.
  6. Speaking of bathrooms, brush your teeth while holding a stance. Switch lead legs (if applicable) when you switch from upper jaw to lower jaw.
  7. WATER!  You’re not exercising as much, but you still need it.  During times of stress it’s easy to forget to drink your water.  Keep your water bottle by your side at all times.  Seriously.  It only takes a few seconds to take a quick swig.  You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated.

It’s hard to think creatively when one is busy, stressed out, seeing to the needs of another person, and maybe even ill on top of it all.  While you are in a time of calm and order, write a list of ideas of what you think you can do while you’re in “maintenance mode.”  I’ve already got you started.  It helps to think of strategies while you are not in one of those months.  Once you pull through, you might find that the time you spent in “maintenance mode” was a lesson in adaptation and perseverance.


Why now?  Why not sooner?

Lately I’ve been made aware of many little not-quite-ideal habits that have either crept into my Karate or that have been there all along. Of the former, that’s on me. I know better. I’ve taught better. So what about the little not-quite-ideal that have been there all along? Part of me is sometimes tempted to ask, “Why wasn’t I taught the proper way to do this right from the beginning?” Please note I have no desire to make an implication that there’s been a deficiency in my training. Right off the bat, I can think of three answers to that question. There are probably more answers and I’ll probably discover those answers as time goes by.

1) I wasn’t developmentally ready until now.

I have a long history of teaching both in karate and in home school. Some would argue that because I don’t have a master’s degree in education and have never taught in an academic institution, I can’t make any claim to teaching. OK, I admit I can’t just walk into a fifth-grade classroom, get them focused(!) and teach them how to solve story problems without using algebra. But one thing I do know both from home schooling my daughters and from teaching beginning karate students is this. You can’t force growth – your students will be ready when they are ready. Most fifth graders aren’t developmentally ready for algebra. Even though using algebra is a fantastic way to solve story problems, details about solving story problems using algebra will only confuse fifth-graders. The kiddos must slog through rote memorization for another three or four years. Not unlike new beginners in Karate.

2) There are too many details for anyone to absorb all at once.

Computers can store huge amounts of data nearly instantly. An entire college-level textbook on, for example, quantum physics can be loaded into a computer in a matter of seconds. Human minds do not have that capability. Knowledge and skill need to be built over time, through study and practice. It’s true that new adult beginners can understand and remember more details than their child counterparts. But even though an adult can intellectually grasp concepts that a child cannot, adults and children alike must build muscle memory and refine techniques over time.

3) Muscle memory must be built gradually

Now that I’m getting to the point where I have to be more aware of all the little details, I appreciate the foundation that I have. Pianists build their foundations with finger exercises, scales, etc. A beginning piano student fumbles through these drills and can play only simple melodies. But it takes time to develop the coordination necessary to play more complex music. So it is with karate. If a student wobbles her way through Kihon Kata Ichi (Basic Form #1), there is no way she can handle the more complex and refined movements of Bassai Dai (one of the advanced, “black belt level” forms). If my piano skills were at the same level as my karate I’d be playing recognizable, maybe even enjoyable tunes. But I’d still be a long way from playing at Carnegie Hall, or even with the local city orchestra. I’d know my scales and arpeggios, and my friends wouldn’t be cringing if I played for them. It’s time to build on and refine what I know.

Details.  Details.

If I tried to bombard a class full of new beginners with all the details I’m getting now, they’d probably run screaming out the door. Yes, even the adults.  But what happens over time? Students become more confident in what they know. They’re physically and mentally capable of learning just a little more. Time goes on, and they start to figure out what questions to ask. They start making connections between this technique and that technique. They start comparing kata (forms). This is a fun stage of development. But even still, intermediate students don’t need to be bombarded with everything there is to know about Karate. And what about myself? I probably would have gone to the locker room and wept if, on my first day of Karate I was bombarded with thousands of minutae. I would have thought, correctly, that it was too much to live up to, too much to remember, much less execute with muscles that hadn’t moved that way in a little over a quarter century. What about a little later, after I’d earned a few belts? No, I wasn’t ready even then. I was still working on my foundation. I still am, to be honest.

It’s time to tighten up those little things that have slipped. Time to refine. Time to start performing more and more like the yudansha (“black belt”) that I will some day be. Even the smallest of improvements make a difference. Little by little, I’ll get better at karate if I pay attention to all the little details. It will be a lifetime study, I’m sure.