Three Words of Capoeira

One of the biggest Karate lessons I’ve learned is how to function while I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone.  More often than not that push comes from a sensei (instructor), but sometimes I deliberately seek out martial arts experiences that will get me way beyond my comfort zone.  Such was the case when I signed up for the Capoeira workshop offered as part of my employer’s Professional Development Day.

Capoeira is a martial art that was developed in Brazil by African slaves.  Singing, clapping, drumming, and playing the berimbau is integral to the art.  To an unenlightened European slave master, Capoeira looks and sounds like dancing.  But Capoeiristas know that this is a fighting art.  Participants in the workshop I attended were taught the chorus of a song about a man who went away to war.  A man who told his family not to worry, he had the art of Capoeira to protect him.  Not just physical protection – just as with most martial arts there are mental and spiritual sides to the art as well.

Our workshop instructor describes playing Capoeira as a conversation.  This was familiar territory for me.  If I do this, how do you respond?  What if I seek to deceive you?  Can I maneuver you into doing this so that I can do that?  I recognized that this is an area of my base art (Karate) which I need to develop more.

My fellow workshop participants and I were taught three very basic “words,” as our instructor described them.  The ginga, as near as I can tell, can be used as a baseline or default mode.  In dance class it would be a basic step – analogous to the box step in Foxtrot.  Next we learned an evasion from a kick, and just like the word “tomato” has two different pronunciations, there are two similar ways of doing this evasion.  The third “word” we learned was a kick.  Throughout the lesson I drew analogies to Karate. I wasn’t the only one drawing comparisons to their base art.

For partner drills I paired up with a Hapkido practitioner who is roughly the equivalent rank I now hold.  In our first exercise we were to synchronize our movements, each mirroring the other in the ginga.  I quickly realized that this was all about “flow.”  My new friend and I recognized that our skills of reading our sparring partners were coming into play.  After we had learned to evade and kick, we paired up again in order to apply what we’d learned.  Now we had to read intent and respond in a “language” neither of us were familiar with!  We had a blast.

Near the end of class, all the workshop participants and our instructor formed a circle. This space, called a roda, is considered sacred and is symbolic of the world.  There is etiquette for players entering the roda.  These concepts were familiar to me even if the format and emphasis were different.  Our instructor called for volunteers to play with him in the roda.

To describe my feelings in that moment, let’s drag out a couple of characters I’ve used in past blogs:  “Id” and “Superego:”

Id:  Hide.  Don’t risk looking like a fool in front of everyone. I’m not up to the task.  Let someone else be the sacrificial lamb.


Superego: LIKE HELL!!! GET IN THERE!!!  It’ll be fun!  You’ll learn stuff!





I was the first to volunteer.  The clapping and the music began.  The instructor walked me through the preliminaries and we began play.  I went back to my white belt (no rank) days and remembered what I learned while sparring with sensei(s): all that matters is that I try.  I knew I was out of my element, I knew my tools were limited, but by then I had the measure of the man who was in the roda with me.  Like any good sensei, he was there to teach, to let me experiment, to show me what is possible, and yes, to push me a little bit in order to show me that my capabilities are more than what I think they are.  All that happened in our play.  The instructor ended my time in the roda with a lunge that I evaded neatly even though he hadn’t shown us how – I simply modified something I’d just learned less than an hour before.  I was very, very sorry that time didn’t allow for more.  I returned to the outside of the roda grinning from ear to ear and urged my new Hapkido friend to give it a try.

Capoeira is about as different from Karate as you can get – or is it?  I admit I drew analogies – “Zenkutsu dachi but with the back heel up, shiko dachi is the transition, then step back into zenkutsu dachi with the opposite leg forward…”  “Modify the crescent kick thusly then step back zenkutsu dachi…”  The concept of flow and the art of reading and manipulating people were there too.  But let’s look beyond mere physicality.  Respect, personal development, camaraderie, community…  All these things happen in both Karate and Capoeira.    Are these not the most important aspects of any martial art?  I certainly experienced these things during that workshop.

I came home with a lot of takeaways.  Every once in awhile it’s good to be a white belt again, to be reminded of what learning a new skill is like.  That reminder will make me a better teacher.  I’m aware that I need to flow more (when applicable) in my art.  I really ought to build my “conversational” skills for kumite (sparring) – my sensei(s) have been telling me that for quite some time now.  I have a greater appreciation both for the things martial arts have in common and for the diversity in the world of martial arts.   I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to expand my understanding of Capoeira in particular and martial arts in general.

Peer Group

Every once in awhile I get to train with karateka who are, essentially, my peers. Maybe not my exact rank – some a little lower, some a little higher. But all have more or less the same abilities. I absolutely love those sessions, but I recognize that if I trained exclusively with my peers I would be missing out on a lot of other learning.

Because of the way modern American elementary schools are run, we Americans assume that segregating students by age is the best model, and, accordingly, some of us might think that dividing karate classes by belt rank is ideal. We forget that, out of necessity, the norm in American education used to be one-room schoolhouses (my grandfather attended such a school).  And one-room schoolhouses worked quite well.   Most dojo(s) are one-room schoolhouses. Some might have the luxury of having two or three classes divided according to certain ranges of belt ranks. But even in those dojo(s), there’s usually considerable variation in ability among the students in each class. One might have only two or three true peers, if even that.

In American culture, a lot of emphasis is put on one’s peer group during one’s formative years. We’re with kids born within six months of our own birthday, who live in our own neighborhood, and who are in school with us year after year. Then suddenly we’re released into a diverse world and we have to adjust. In the dojo, us Americans are introduced to senpai/kohai relationships somewhat similar to those found in Japanese culture. It’s a bit jarring, and often there’s a learning curve for us American students. Within myself, this culture shock manifests when I am training with my peers. It takes the form of a little wistful longing for all classes to always be like this. But I know better.

Yes, there are advantages to training with a peer group. It’s nice to be able to work on material that is at one’s own level. Exploring difficult new material that would not be presented if there were kohai in class is always a lot of fun. It’s good to be pushed and pushed hard over and over with at least a few different fighters who are close to your own ability. Training with one’s peers can mean you finally have time to focus on the kata you’re learning and explore bunkai specific to that kata. It’s hard for a sensei to juggle this with different belt groups working in the same room. Not to mention, it’s great to see other students of one’s own rank making the same mistakes as oneself! All this is fantastic, it’s wonderful to have some time with peers, but one’s Karate roots grow deep when one mainly trains in a mixed group.

The higher you go, the fewer people will be in your peer group. You will get used to fighting one another. In a mixed group, new fighters are developing all the time. It’s really fun to realize, “She’s a lot better than she was last year. She really made me work hard during our match!” One’s foundational skills always need refreshment, and the lower ranks need to see what they’re aiming for. In a mixed group, all students see the progression in performance – 10th kyu (lowest rank) look like this, 5th kyu can do that, and the 2nd kyu are simply amazing (hahahaha – that’s my current belt rank). Ni-kyu like me get familiar with the expectations for reaching each rank and learn to gauge a student’s readiness for their next belt. This is a skill a sensei must have. Teaching or helping to teach benefits you. You learn how to be a sensei from being in a mixed group.

I need not spell out the advantages of training with one’s seniors. Here’s the thing, though – it won’t be long before any given karateka will be senior to others. Then it is time to do for your kohai what your senpai did for you. A dojo is a community, and all must help out. Of course, like a lot of things we learn in Karate, this can be applied to one’s life outside the dojo. You’ll more easily spot new opportunities to help, to make a difference in the world. It’s called personal growth, and that’s what training and discipline are all about.


Wait – what?!? Yes. It finally happened. Growing up sometimes means growing pains.  I experienced burnout. Don’t worry – I’m on the mend. I’m still with my home dojo, never fear. Let’s just get this out there – no, dear readers, you don’t need to know the specifics. Rest assured someone is making sure that I’m staying the course. Many others are completely unaware that they are helping me. Most of these are children who don’t need to be burdened with the knowledge of my struggle. I don’t think any of them read this blog, but if they do, maybe they’re ready to learn about a very real thing that can and does happen.

I have experienced burnout both as a parent and as a caregiver to my late grandparents. It took me a few hours to recognize what I was feeling in connection with my karate. Up until that moment, I never thought I would go through this with karate! Yet it happened just the other day. I am human. I’m glad I was able to catch it quickly. Burnout is a sign that I am investing heavily in my karate, which is a good thing! But burnout is also a sign that things are out of balance. Changes need to be made. I’ve taken measures, rest assured.

Recommendations to remedy burnout are many. Make time to get away and take care of yourself. Keep a journal. Talk to someone about what you’re going through. Pray. Exercise. Spend time outdoors. Have at least one person keep tabs on you. Get professional help if needed. These are great general recommendations, but what can be done about karate-related burnout specifically?

For some, burnout could indicate a need to change dojo(s). It’s a drastic step. If you’re considering it, make sure you’re leaving for the right reasons. Make sure you’re not viewing the dojo with a consumer mindset.  See your dojo  as a community, not a commodity.  That shift in view alone could put things in perspective.  That said, abuse of any sort is a good reason to leave. Dysfunctional relationships, illegal activity, neglect, unsafe conditions – these are all great reasons to get out. But if you’re simply running out of fuel because you’re dealing with things that most dojo(s) go through to one degree or another – tell someone about it and stick with it. You could learn and grow as a result.

For some, burnout could be a result of not making enough progress or making too much progress too quickly. Plateaus happen – just do a search on the Web for “performance plateau” and you’ll see it’s a phenomenon that is not exclusive to martial arts. There’s loads of good and bad advice out there, I’ll let you decide. A huge upward spike in performance can be stressful and lead to burnout too. Also doing too much of anything, really, can burn one out.  The remedy for that is deceptively simple. Scaling back sounds easy, but, as with any human endeavor, it’s complicated. My best advice is to find balance.

I’m not qualified to address the specific needs of a sensei (instructor) who is burning out. The most I can do is offer some general things I learned from home schooling my children. Put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Don’t be a slave to the curriculum – tweak it, mold it, knead it, pound it if necessary. Always search for fresh ideas and new activities. Ask your students to come up with something and have them lead the class for ten minutes or so. Don’t be afraid to step outside your culture and experience what life is like for others (this is what seminars are for). Be innovative – some things you try won’t work (and that’s OK) but more often than not you’ll find your intuition will lead you and your students to success. Trust yourself. Whenever you don’t trust yourself, read whatever records and journals you are keeping (you are writing stuff down, right?) to see your school’s growth and success. Most of all, get help when you need it. Your students need you and vice versa.

Ohhh yes. Never forget that you need your students. They can help you even when they don’t know they are doing so. The very next class after I recognized that I was burning out I looked for things to be happy about while I was assisting with the Intermediate class. I found plenty of things to be glad about, and my bucket started to fill again. One small student asked me to put my hand out as a target for him to kick – he recognized that this had helped him earlier. Another had a breakthrough with a kata (form) and appreciated me teaching him the concept of embusen. There was a belt test the next week, and the candidates were looking sharp. I remembered the pride I felt when the dojo sensei told me I was a big part of their success.

The big picture is hard to see when one is burning out. The other day when I experienced burnout, my perspective got skewed rather badly because emotions are powerful things. Immediately after recognizing what I was experiencing I read some articles on my blog. This included the post that was scheduled to publish just two days after I was hurting. In that post I wrote that making the world a better place is really the heart and soul of what I do in Karate. Oh my. It’s a lot to live up to, but it is so true. I had lost that focus. I asked someone to keep tabs on me and remind me of all that I’ve gained and about the fun I’m having. I’m willing to do the same for that person. Burnout happens. Fall down seven times, stand up eight.


Every year the facility that hosts my “home” dojo shuts down for a week for maintenance and deep cleaning. That is a smart idea and there is always a visible difference throughout the facility when it re-opens. I don’t mind that I have to find an alternative to going to my Karate class. I simply visit a sister dojo. A couple of weeks ago while the host facility was shut down I visited a sister dojo.

Whenever I visit that dojo I always think back to how I almost started my first journey there, way back in late 1983. After six weeks in a little Parks & Rec Tang Soo Do program, I was hooked. I was completely dissatisfied with meeting only twice per week and with the long, 2-3 week breaks in between sessions. My father did some research that included the club that I now visit when I can. Ultimately he decided that a storefront dojo closer to our house and headed by a lady sensei (instructor) was a better fit for me. It gives me an odd feeling whenever I think that if I’d started at what is now my sister dojo and if I’d kept up with Karate all these years, by now I’d probably be senior to quite a few karateka in our organization.

But then I wouldn’t be having the adventures I’m having now. Worse, maybe I wouldn’t be studying Karate at all. Maybe I’d have sustained a more severe injury than any I’ve had so far. Or perhaps I’d be burned out from juggling too many responsibilities while raising babies and, later, helping my mother care for my grandparents. Of course it’s equally possible that I’d be sitting among the highest ranked karateka of our organization today. I don’t mourn for that lost possibility because I am content with my journey.

I hope the love I have for my art pervades this blog. I’m tickled pink that I, a slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron, who “should be” doing more passive things am enjoying this “strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies” (as fellow blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it).  Every once in awhile I get a little sad when I think, “I don’t have enough decades left in my life to accomplish [fill in the blank] like so-and-so has.” Maybe so. But is that so important?

No. It isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I respect and treasure everyone who has achieved more in Karate than I have. I admire their accomplishments and I emulate my mentors and heroes as best I can. It’s just that there’s an immensely important thing that absolutely everyone, martial artist or not, can achieve starting right now. It’s called making the world a better place. And that, dear readers, is something I can do every single time I enter the dojo. I am touching lives. I am helping to bring about those “Aha!” moments that light up people’s faces. I help sweep the floor before class. I treat a child with respect, and that respect could be like water in the desert for that child’s life. Simple things, yes, but the results are magic.

That is the secret to my contentment. I still push myself to the top of my game. I still try for those tournament medals. I still train for my next belt test. I still do conditioning exercises early in the morning. I don’t mourn for the decades that were lost, the things that never happened, the honors I might never earn. I focus on the here and now. I can make the world a better place one small act of love at a time. It’s a fun benefit to training 🙂


Metacognition is the process of analyzing what goes on in one’s own mind. A few weeks ago I realized I was nearing the fourth anniversary of this blog, and the word “metablognition” popped into my head. Yep – blogging about one’s own blog. At the time, I was in a motel room journaling that day’s experience at Nationals, so I simply jotted the word down and let it percolate throughout the weeks that followed.  I knew by the time I reached my fourth “blogiversary” (yesterday, 9/6/18) I’d have a blog post.

Four years ago when I started this blog I’d been reading and commenting on three other blogs: “Karate by Jesse (The Karate Nerd),” Andrea Harkins’ “The Martial Arts Woman,” and “Happy Life Martial Arts” by Ando Mierzwa. I have to admit my comments were long and autobiographical. Accordingly, Andrea and Ando encouraged me to start my own blog (yes, go ahead and laugh, it is funny). I’d just finished reading an autobiography of a martial artist who had begun her journey as an adult. It was a good read, but it was clear the author was missing details from her early years. She was writing from the perspective of a seasoned yudansha (black belt). I wanted to chronicle my experiences right from the start, with an eye towards writing an autobiography later. I want to see how my perspective shifts over time.

It turns out my blog is a potpourri. I set a breakneck pace at first and explored a number of topics. Then I saw the wisdom of slowing down and settled into biweekly posting.  From time to time I’ve taken inspiration from other martial arts bloggers. At one time I was active in a martial arts forum and saw how people argued, so I wrote a little series on logical fallacies  based on a book I’d used to teach my children. Sometimes I tackle broader topics such as gender and inclusion. I’ve always kept the autobiographical theme running.

The trouble with my original idea of writing an autobiography is that some things are better left unsaid. I must respect the privacy of other people. I absolutely must not blog about things that karateka have told me in confidence! Also, I admit that sometimes my perspective is erroneously skewed towards the extreme end of negative. New to me this year is my responsibility as a judge to remain neutral about the athletes who enter the ring where I’m working. As a sensei-in-training I have to maintain good relationships with everyone from the host facility’s janitor to the highest-ranked yudansha of any organization, not just my own. In this blog, I can’t just spout off about stuff I don’t like. That said, every once in awhile I’ll play with fire and address the broader concepts that are related to whatever negative situation I’m in.  Sometimes I’m scared when I hit the “Schedule” button.

Putting myself “out there” is actually a little scary to me, believe it or not. For about three years I was really shy about sharing my blog with people I actually know in real life. Considering this blog has been up for four years now… Yeah, I was “somewhere between bed-wetting and a near-death experience” (as Rizzo in “Muppet Treasure Island” puts it). I don’t remember clearly, but I think very shortly after I joined Facebook someone quite highly placed in the Karate organization I belong to  discovered my blog. I do remember receiving a commendation and a jump in readership for my post about Gasshuku 2017. Ever since then I’ve been both more confident about my writing and more aware of my responsibilities.

So what’s the future of this blog? Honestly, I don’t think much will change. I’ve settled into a groove. I’ve slowed my initial pace, and have been comfortable with biweekly posts for quite some time now. That said, sometimes I hit writer’s block and slip a post in just under my deadline!  Judicious autobiography seems to be working so I’ll keep that up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to cover broader topics without repeating myself – I’m already starting to search my own blog to see if I’ve already written about something. I’d like to figure out how to get people to look to the right of the PC screen (or the bottom of the phone screen) and buy something I’ve created on Zazzle 🙂 But one thing I know – I won’t stop this blog (“A Beginner’s Journey”) if I earn Shodan (first degree black belt). I’m watching karateka make the transition from i-kyu (rank just before black) to Shodan, and I’ve talked to more seasoned yudansha, so I can say confidently that Shodan is not the end of the journey. It is the beginning.