Karate. Why I do it.

I took up Shotokan Karate in January 2004. Sam had been doing it for just over two years (he started aged 7), and Jamie had decided to start as soon as he was aged 6. They somehow convinced me to start also. The club, Torashin, specialised in training children, and the two instructors seemed nice enough, as did the other adults training there, so I thought I might as well give it a go. Little did I realize, back then, what an effect this would have on my life. So now, with the benefit of almost two years' experience, I have decided to put pen to paper, as it were, and describe how profound an effect this was.

My first memory of Karate was of watching Sam one time. They were practicing one of their 'Kata' (these are fixed sequences of movements that include many of the basic moves of Karate - as if one were fighting an imaginary foe). It seemed an awful lot like synchronised swimming, but without the water, and with pyjamas instead of swimsuits. But watching Sam, and the others, I realized that I'd quite like to join in.

And so I started. And around the second week I remember saying to my instructors: "there will probably come a time when you'll need to take me aside and say: Gerry, you've tried, you've done your best, but you don't need to try anymore". To which the answer, which surprised me at the time, was "that won't happen: it's up to you whether you succeed, not us. If you want to get to black belt you will. It might take a little longer than it'll take the young ones, but you'll get there."

I was stunned. Karate, after all, was (to me) the stuff of action movies. It would surely require the kind of stamina and dedication that I was congenitally lacking. At school I couldn't even climb a rope, or jump a box. And whenever there were teams to pick, I was always picked last. And yet here was the promise of something I had assumed would be completely out of my reach. Could I really aspire to this?

At about this time I was starting to get to know some of the other people in the club. One person in particular made me think this was something I could aspire to. He'd had a bad fall (a parachute accident, I think), and couldn't easily bend one of his knees. But that didn't stop him from being, at that time, within one grade of black belt. Evidently, his injury, and the limitations it placed on what his body could or could not do, were not an impediment. So I gritted my teeth and persevered.

Two years later, and the aspiration is slowly (very slowly) becoming a reality. I wish I could spend more time training. Even starting each day with the stretches that precede the training sessions would be a plus. But life, and children, rush past too fast. On those few days I've done it, I've felt like a different person through the day (though that may just be the Glucosamine Sulphate tablets I take each day! - Supposedly to help flex those inflexible joints of mine). But that's definitely the next stage I need to get to, when I do get up each morning those few minutes earlier and start those stretches...

So what has Karate given me, or shown me, that makes it so different from the other walks of my life? The Karate itself is only a part of what I have learned. And therein lies the secret of Shotokan Karate - it's as much about you as it is about the Karate that you learn (I think, but I may get this wrong, that what I'm really referring to here is 'Budo' - sometimes translated as the 'Martial Way', as distinct from the 'Martial Art').

The Karate skills themselves are, of course, the most outwardly visible of the things I've learned. Not that I've learned them particularly well, but I am better at them than I was even a few months ago. What I hadn't realised was just how little control we normally have over our bodies. I barely know which way my feet are pointing! And as for standing on one leg, and kicking with the other without putting it down - I still can't do that without wobbling. But I can (on a good day) do it without completely losing balance. What I can't do, and no doubt never will,
is a side kick with my leg out straight and my foot at head height... I can barely get it to hip height! - But as I keep getting told 'it's about technique, not height'. Which is why only being able to sideways kick to knee height isn't an impediment (from a self-defense perspective, knees are not bad targets; in fact, I believe that the side thrust kick, or something like it, was originally developed with knees in mind, but again, I may be wrong).

But it's those things that are not outwardly visible that have had most impact on me. First and foremost, is the realization that something that I believed was fundamentally out of my reach is, after all, within my grasp. I'm gaining control not simply over my own body, but also (and perhaps more importantly) over my mind. As my instructors told me way back, it's up to me, not them, whether I achieve the goal I aspire to. I don't need to hide behind my age, or my inflexibility, or my non-athletic build. I'm in control of what my body does, not the other way around. My body will adjust to this new role (I already can do things I was unable to do before, and there is no doubt that I feel fitter and more supple than ever). The adjustment (physical and mental) is not easy. But the result is that I feel as if I've been given back some control over my life - we can become such slaves to our work (or indeed, to our children!) that it is all too easy to no longer notice what control one has. Or indeed, what choices one has.

It has given me, also, a physical confidence I never had. Sure, I'd be rubbish in a street fight. But given that I'm probably going to spend 99.9% of my time (and hopefully more) not street fighting, I'm happy to find myself more confident during that 99.9%!

I've also learned something more of my limitations. Having taken up Karate aged 44, it is hardly surprising that my attempt at the splits is pitiful (only the other day, the guy leading the warm-ups (it's always one of the senior grades, not the instructors themselves) told someone else: 'Come on, Gerry can do better than that!'). More surprising is how difficult it is for me to learn combinations of basic moves. A slight change in the sequence, and I'm all over the place - I can't easily modify a sequence I have already mastered. And more surprising still is how nervous I become before the twice yearly gradings! And yet I have never seen a more gentle form of assessment. I'm content to stand up in front of hundreds and deliver a lecture. But make me stand up in front of the grading examiner and I become a nervous wreck! No doubt my students will be thinking how good it is that I now know how they feel when they have to stand up in front of their class and give a short presentation.

But there is one other feature of my experience with Karate that has had a profound effect on me. Perhaps, of all the things, it is the most profound. And it is not about me, but about the reaction to me that I experience in the dojo (the name given to the training hall, and often translated as 'the place of the Way'). We have an extraordinary respect for each other - juniors respect seniors for the skills they have already mastered, and seniors respect juniors for wishing to learn those skills. There is a degree of support and encouragement I don't think I've ever felt before. As the seniors never tire from telling the likes of me, they were juniors once too, and had the same problems and made the same mistakes. Age doesn't come into it. We come from all walks of life, but are bound together by the dojo. So no matter how terribly I perform, no one laughs; 'been there, done that' is the reaction instead. It took me a long while to realise that it isn't failure to have to stop part-way through a sequence, or to turn left instead of right. And it took me as long to realise that my instructors would not give up on me. I learned that there is no shame in not succeeding the first, second, or even third time. So whilst I am always slightly nervous at the beginning of a training session, invariably by the end of it I feel I have progressed, even if by only the smallest of amounts. But no matter how small the step, you advance. It may sound terribly touchy-feely and new-age, but I do think I'm a better person for these small steps I take. I can only hope that I do continue my slow advance. I think I've now understood that it isn't the goal that counts - it's trying to get there that is the achievement.

Finally, I would have experienced none of this were it not for my two instructors (my Senseis). Ian MacLaren and Josie Wynn founded our club in 1997. Josie took up Karate at the age of 37 - she knows what it's like to start older. And Ian, who's been training forever, knows what it's like to train someone who's starting older. Josie claims to have gone through many of the anxieties that I've experienced. I'm not so sure! But it would certainly explain her (and Ian's) patience. On a good night, there may be 30 students (Karateka) in the dojo, with ages ranging from 6 to 45, and each one of us gets individual support and encouragement. It was with their encouragement that I (and Sam and Jamie) attended a 1-week intensive Karate training course over the summer. We trained with, quite literally, the best. The week was marred by the fact that I knew I would be grading at the end of it, in front of the top people in the sport. I barely got through the grading. But when it was over, Ian and Josie were standing there, holding my new belt for me. It may not sound like much, but that kind of support is too often lacking elsewhere in our lives. I have a long way to go, but together with my existing family, and with the new family I have acquired in the dojo, I think I shall finally enjoy going there.

Epilogue: The piece above was written in the autumn of 2005. The grading I barely got through was for my yellow belt (7th Kyu). Since then, I've graded a few more times, and I'm currently 1st Kyu (there are three levels of brown belt, and this is the top one). My next grading will be for 1st Dan (the 1st black belt grade - Shodan). That won’t be anytime soon, though, as I still have much to improve on and much to learn. Karate continues to be an important influence on me, and I do believe that what I have learned in the dojo has spilled over into other areas of my life.