1 year, 3 months, and 14 days. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen anyone from my dojo because of the pandemic. This morning I met with my sensei. He had some good news for me – starting this Thursday our dojo will begin meeting again. Because my next test will be for my first degree black belt, we agreed that he would assess where I’m at so that he’ll know how to shape my training.
After the first couple sets of moving basics my sensei (instructor) told me to relax. He assured me, “I know, you’re feeling like ‘uh oh, sensei is watching me so I’m gonna kill myself five minutes in.’ It’s very normal and natural to feel like that, especially now.”
Tensing up when sensei is watching is a normal thing that every karateka goes through during ordinary classes. But because I was in a room with a sensei for the first time in over a year the feeling was far more intense than I was expecting. I’m glad my sensei said something about it. If you have not yet been back to your dojo yet be forewarned: you might have to monitor your internal state more closely than usual.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. A few weeks ago during my first time sparring with a friend I was tense as all get out. I ran out of energy quickly and had to ask for a break several times. I was scared that I might hurt my friend after a year of not sparring with anyone. It turns out I didn’t need to worry. My friend is quite capable of minimizing his chances of getting hurt. But I also should have known that my practice time hitting a piece of cardboard has preserved my ability to control my techniques.
Back to this morning. I did much better with kata (forms). Performing an advanced kata three times in a row with only three seconds break in between is grueling. My sensei has had me do this a few times in the past but until this morning I didn’t really understand that it’s not simply a test of endurance. Yes, the sensei gets to see the kata three times, but this exercise is also more than repetition. Having the student repeat the kata three times allows the sensei to see what the student needs to work on most. The student is so tired that it’s obvious which things break under pressure. Believe me, the third repetition is tough and I could feel for myself where my performance was breaking down. That said, I think I did better than I ever have with this exercise.
I’ve put in a lot of kata practice over the past year.
I am a bunkai junkie. Bunkai is interpretation of the kata (forms) that we memorize. This morning I finally had a live person to work with so I could (gently!) see how some of the techniques might work. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have missed being able to physically explore these techniques with another human being. In my basement “dojo” I have an eye bolt sunk into a wall stud and a rope attached to that eye bolt. I think of the eye bolt as being a shoulder joint. I marked an “elbow” and a “wrist” on the rope using my own body for measurements. This morning I realized that in spite of that rope (or maybe because of it) I had completely misinterpreted a movement from a kata. I never did get around to installing an eye bolt lower down to simulate a leg.
So, where is my karate at after a year of only online classes and some improvised equipment? All anyone, including myself, needs to know today my sensei has seen how my karate has changed in the past year+. I would like to think some aspects of my karate have improved in spite of COVID-19 lockdowns. I told the sensei who has been teaching me online, “If my own sensei doesn’t see improvement that’s my fault because you are an excellent teacher.” Let’s assume I have improved at least some aspects of my karate. OK, fine. But I think it’s more important that my sensei knows where I’m at and where I need to go. He can help me get there in the most effective way possible – in a real, in person class setting.
Don’t get me wrong, I do continue to place value on the online classes. I will still be attending one online karate class a week and a monthly bo (staff) online class. The online bo class will probably endure indefinitely because the karateka involved are scattered geographically among three states. There are plans to include some time for us to have a bo session at our next organization-wide gathering so that we can do some two-person drills. To clarify, kobudo (weapons) isn’t something we include in our belt tests. Online classes with an occasional in-person class is perfectly OK if only a handful of karateka are studying only because they find it interesting and fun. Yes, that is valuable in its own way.
But when it comes to things I need to know and do for my next belt test (which will be Shodan as of this writing)… No way can I expect to reach that significant milestone without in-person help. There is no substitute for a sensei, a sparring partner, and for someone to explore techniques with you. It’s been quite a year. There’s been a lot of making do and improvising. A basement rearranged. Classes on video conferencing platforms that were never meant for more than business meetings. A piece of cardboard. A rope marked with electrical tape. I won’t completely abandon those things, but now it’s time for life to get back to normal.
Normal is now more precious to me than it ever was and you bet I gave my sensei a great big hug after this morning’s training session.