Martial Arts Blogs A Journey to Shodan

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What it's like to hit something.

I've spent a lot of time giving an invisible enemy the one-two punch. After all these years, I still need to remind myself during basics and Kata that there is supposed to be someone there, someone on the receiving end of each technique; I'm not meant to just punch and kick the air. In order to do it with feeling, it must be done with intent.

I hope I never have to use what I've learned, but even as a Shodan I sometimes doubt my ability. Do I really know what I'm doing? If I ever needed to defend myself would I be capable of actually hurting someone? Could one of my punches really inflict an injury or stop an attack? All valid questions considering a large percentage of my training involves kicking and punching...nothing.

It is important to know what it feels like to hit something, so occasionally in class we'll get out the pads and partner up, which gives everyone an opportunity to haul off and see what we're made of by combining technique with power and focus. Clearly my right side is made of a lot more than my left and I'm sure it shows in my technique. My right side feels good, sounds good and (I think) looks good, but why is it that my left hand punch feels like the first one I've ever thrown? So awkward and void of power. Before each punch I even stop to tell myself - through the pad - focus and hit! Then it feels like I just tap the pad. Why is that?!

Clearly this is something I need to work on. Hitting something other than an invisible enemy.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

My First Seminar.

Two weeks ago I travelled to Bellevue Washington with my Sensei’s and three other students to attend my first ever Shotokan Karate seminar, which was taught by Sensei Kyle Funakoshi and Shihan Funakoshi.

On Friday night we went as a group and watched a Shodan and Nidan grading, and on Saturday morning I went to the Dojo early to watch the advanced class Seminar. Although I wasn’t participating, I find that as much as I love being on the floor practicing, I also enjoy sitting on the sidelines to observe; watching other students and paying attention to what the Sensei is teaching, improves my own technique by reminding myself what I should or should not be doing.

When it came time for the Brown and Black Belt Seminar, the five of us took the floor amongst all of the other local students – I think 20 of us in all. We started with a typical warm-up session, followed by basics and then Kata: my two favourite parts of Karate. I had heard that we may be learning advanced sparring techniques, but I was glad there wasn’t time for that – I’m not a huge fan of sparring and the more time spent on basics and Kata the better. That’s just me being selfish. Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, Empi and Unsu. This was my first time doing Unsu so I’m sure I was a hot mess trying to follow along, but we repeated the double kick from the floor and practiced getting up into proper stance over, and over, and over and over. I am confident that when it comes time for me to fully learn this Kata, I’ll know what I am doing in that regard. It is very difficult, but it is now committed to my memory – I’ll just need my body to actually do it! The session lasted and hour and a half, and I wish it could have been longer. I learned so many new things, mostly small adjustments to Kata and tweaks to stances, but I definitely left the Seminar a better Karateka.

Highlight of the day: I was told by Shihan Funakoshi that my sidekicks are ‘Good, good, good’, there simply is no higher compliment than that in Shotokan Karate.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Slippery Slope.

Lately, Karate has been taking a back seat to my increasingly busy schedule.
Before my Shodan grading, training was priority #1 for obvious reasons. I was at the Dojo four days a week, staying late after class and committed to polishing every technique. After it was over, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Perhaps I'm still breathing that sigh of relief. Without a grading looming over me and consuming every thought, feeding my need for perfection, I find it much easier to talk myself out of class - and it's a slippery slope. I need to stain the fence, I need to do yardwork, I need to just take a night off, I need to... there are so many things on my to-do list that every moment of my life could easily be consumed.

What I really need to do though, is go to Karate, it is my me time. It is how I have always cleared my mind. When I'm in class I don't think of that list and I don't think of work, all I think about is my technique and training. Above being physically beneficial, I also find it mentally beneficial.

Lately I've been learning a lot of new Kata - Kanku Sho, Bassai Sho, Jitte, Chinte, Tekki San Dan - and to keep them top of mind, I need to go to class consistently. Maybe I don't have to go four days a week anymore, but I can at least commit to two or three. I don't want to lose what I have, I've done that once before and the uphill climb was extremely difficult. 

I will not allow myself to slip down that slope, no matter how bad the lawn needs to be mowed.

Friday, May 4, 2012

How does it feel?

I was recently asked how it feels to be a Shodan – does it feel any different?

It does feel a bit different, now that I’m in the front row. But still I look back.
I look back on the days when I first started at this Dojo as a Brown Belt (3rd Kyu), after having taken such a long break. I was frustrated because I didn’t remember Karate to be particularly difficult, but so many things had changed: the stances were different than I was used to; I was now required to learn Japanese commands; basics were no longer in full stance, they were in High Kamae; Katas wouldn’t stick and YouTube was a constant source of information. I was trying to regain the knowledge I once had, and learning that Karate is a skill one acquires over a very long period of time; some make it look easy, but it certainly takes a lot of hard work to make it appear that way.

It took months before I felt any degree of confidence, and a year before the movements started to feel natural. Later still, Gradings would come and go and I wasn’t on the list; every class was frustrating for me and there were times I considered finding a better way to spend my time.

Gradually things were coming back to me, and I began to remember why I had once loved this sport so much. My name started to appear on grading lists (and I passed!), I stopped doubting myself and looking at others to see if I my technique was correct, or if I was in the right stance in a Kata (by the way, never do that – it causes doubt and you’re surely going to mess up). My fear of being alone on the floor with everyone watching began to fade, and finally I felt like I deserved to be standing in a senior position as 1st Kyu.

When my Shodan Grading was announced I immediately felt anxious, which soon turned into feelings of ‘lets just get this over with and move on!’ By the time my Grading night arrived I was ready, and when I entered the building I was a 1st Kyu who had trained her butt off for the opportunity to grade for Shodan and loved (almost) every minute of it.

I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold of sorts. I’m on the other side and can relax, learn new Katas and enjoy this wonderful sport without constantly thinking of the next grading.

So in short, yes it feels different. But I think that feeling has been slowly evolving over the years and didn’t just change on February 24 at 8:20pm.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More International Study.

While still in South Africa I took time to visit a second Dojo and participate in class. This was not the same Dojo I went to two weeks prior and I must say, I did notice a vast difference in teaching style between the two.

Sensei Jon Williams was very helpful with directions, as our first attempt to find the Dojo location was a bust and we ended up in Cape Town, circling the bus depot and taxi stand for half an hour before giving up and going back to Stellenbosch. The last thing I wanted to do was show up late for class, especially as a guest in this Dojo, so I resolved to try again the following week.

Upon arrival I immediately recognized two of the students from the previous Dojo I attended. Once they saw me, they greeted me and took the time to ask my thoughts on the other class. I was honest and told them I felt a bit out of place, and was trying to follow along as best I could in an unfamiliar environment. I then asked if I could expect the same structure in the upcoming class, or if this one is a bit more relaxed. Both students looked at each other and laughed, telling me this is far from a relaxed class, and they have seen students visit from local Dojo's and leave very shocked at how hard the class is compared to what they are used to.

I'd be lying if I said this didn't concern me just a bit. I thought the previous class was quite difficult ... not in an 'I can't handle this' sort of way, but just the approach of the instructor and the way the class was run. I did find it hard to keep up - there was a routine and it was clear I was not familiar with it. Now I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't made a mistake coming to this class, after all, I was on vacation, and I should have been taking it easy and instead I found myself at Dojo number two worried that the next hour and a half would be embarrassing and if I would be able to keep up.

Class started with a typical warm up and basics and then moved into offensive and defensive techniques which were fun. All students in the class gave 100% and the instructor was very attentive and gave many examples of how these techniques could be utilized. A bit of sparring ensued, but remained focused on one individual being on the offensive and the other on the defensive, and then we switched, giving everyone a chance to try each combination of techniques. Class ended with my favourite Kata - Empi, which we did in small groups while the other students and instructor watched.

Perhaps I used the wrong word when I had asked if this would be a more 'relaxed' class. When all was done, I felt like I had just taken a class at my home Dojo - not relaxed perse, but I guess the style of instruction made the difference. This class was not as rigid, and while the students were still very focused, they also seemed to enjoy themselves.

Overall I found the class to be well structured, and the instructor keen to share his knowledge and experience. Students asked questions and were really keen to understand and execute the various techniques correctly.
Now this is a Dojo I could fit into, if I ever move back to South Africa this is surely where I would end up. What a great experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

International Study.

I'm currently in South Africa and prior to arriving, my Sensei had contacted a few local Dojo's to request permission for me to participate in some classes.

Last night was my first of these two classes. I went in expecting high calibre Karate, simply from the profile online, and was looking forward to a new experience. Well, for better or worse, I got what I was looking for in this Brown/Black belt class - 13 black belts and 3 brown belts.

I am used to the martial arts community being very welcoming and friendly, however at this location, not one student approached me, looked my way or greeted me in any fashion. In preparation for the class I began to stretch and roll up my sleeves, but after a quick glance around the room, I noticed nobody had rolled up their sleeves... so I casually rolled mine down; as they say - When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Their bow-in procedure is one I am not familiar with. Everyone lines up on one side of the room, shoulder to shoulder, and not knowing the various students and their Dan ranks I'm not entirely sure I was in rank order, but again nobody said anything to me, so I guess I'll never know.

Once class started, I immediately knew I was in for  a good one. This Sensei accepted nothing less than 100% from his students, was very firm in his instruction and his expectations. When in ready positon, one is NOT to move, and eyes are to face front at all times.
All students loudly yelled 'Oss Sensei' throughout the class in response to his every instruction.
After warm up, we began with the repetition of one combination for about 15 minutes and when we finished the Sensei admitted that what we were doing would have no practical application in the 'real world' but the exercise was all about muscle memory - repetition of these things will come in handy should we ever encounter a situation where we are required to defend ourselves.

Next came the sparring. Now, in our class at home we very rarely spar - maybe only once every few months or so. Here it seems very common and everyone was well prepared and ready to rumble. I had not packed my sparring gear for my trip to the other side of the planet, so I was less prepared - add to the fact that I still have a swollen and injured knuckle from my grading, which I was made to tuck behind me into my belt and spar with one hand - things weren't shaping up to go very well for me.
The first person I sparred was a female and she was very serious - ready to clean take my head off. None of this "I see you're new, lets feel it out and gauge your level" it was more like "You're a black belt? It's ON!" Thank goodness kicks are my strong suit in sparring because I feel I fared pretty well in that department and managed to stand my own. The next few partners were a little less aggressive, but again, not there to make friends.

Finally we moved on to Kata and focused on Jion. Again, to compare: in our dojo, we are taught that during group Kata, one should pause if you see another student too close to you, just let them move through until they are out of range, and then continue with your Kata. Apparently that isn't an international courtesy. People were stepping on my feet, hitting name it, it was every Karateka for him/herself and 'get out of my way' all around.
I was corrected a few times on some of my movements, so there were slight differences in form between the way I have been taught, and the way this Sensei teaches the same Kata, which is to be expected.

It is clear some Dojo's are much more serious than others. Don't get me wrong, ours is serious and I am personally very serious about my training and progression, but I also enjoy every minute of it, otherwise for me there is no point. This Dojo seemed like any non-serious Karateka had been weeded out long ago and only the strong have survived.

Once the class was over, I was glad I had taken the opportunity to have this experience, but it has certainly made me appreciate my fellow Karateka in how they greet and welcome new students, and also my Sensei even more for his serious yet kind approach to teaching.