the thirty seconds when I knew something about karate

As I try to prepare myself to test for godan (fifth level black belt) in a few weeks, I've been reviewing more than twenty-seven years of training, looking at every drill and technique and asking myself about it.

And what I find is that I don't know much about karate. I look at my jodan uke (upper block, known to some as "age uke", rising block) and wonder if my shoulder positioning is right, if I've been doing it wrong for over a quarter century. I'm not sure which way my hips should move when I turn my body in the most basic kata series, the Taikyoku. I've been working with the bo staff since I got my shodan (first black belt) in 1995; I'm not sure how to hold it.

I can remember a time when I knew a lot about karate. It lasted about thirty seconds...

Busted Back to White Belt

For the past few weeks, I've been showing up to my sensei's class in white belt. No, it's not because I committed some great offense and was stripped of rank, nor because she's finally decided that I'm just hopeless on anything more advanced. It's because she's gone through with her hints from a few months ago and recommended me for promotion to godan, fifth degree black belt. And as part of the dan testing process in Seido Karate, students go back to white belt for a while.

The hope is that this will remind us of the importance of shoshin, "beginner's mind". Shoshin is an important idea in both Zen and in the martial arts. The idea was perhaps most famously summarized by the Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, who wrote "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." (Suzuki Roshi is not related to D.T. Suzuki, the famous popularizer of Zen.)

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the rewards of teaching kids

Sometimes, teaching karate to kids is a thankless task. You're up in front of a room of bored eight-year-olds, several of whom are there because their pediatrician told their parents that martial arts training is good for their ADHD-diagnosed youngster. (Don't get me started about how much of "ADHD" is a socially created and constructed problem...) You're sure that they're all there because Mom and Dad needed to get rid of them for an hour, that they'd rather be playing at being Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than actually practicing kata. You wonder if you're wasting your time.

And then...one of them goes and immortalizes you in art. And you think, maybe this does matter after all. (Click on the thumbnail for a bigger view in a new window or tab.)

Out of the blue, one of my young students gave me this drawing yesterday. (It's not the first drawing I've been given by a young karateka, but it is the first from one of my own students.) Let me tell you, I've got a big fancy certificate for my yondan ranking, signed by a martial arts living legend, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura. But Kaicho Nakamura has given out hundreds -- thousands, I guess, over 36 years -- of dan certificates. This young student is probably only going to give a drawing to one karate teacher.

This one will be framed in a place of honor.

(Note the attention to detail -- he's got a brace on my right ankle. And I love how I'm depicted as kicking, punching, and laughing at the same time. Ha ha!)

self-defense advice from The Most Interesting Man in the World

Some good advice on self-defense from The Most Interesting Man in the World. (And since "He's a lover, not a fighter; but he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas," what better source?)

This actually fits quite well with the approach I use in teaching self-defense. The "Five Fingers of Self-Defense" is a system I learned from Jun Shihan Nancy Lanoue of Thousand Waves Seido Karate in Chicago. Jun Shihan Lanoue may explain them a little differently, but this is my take on the Five Fingers:

training around an injury

Tomorrow is the 36th Anniversary Tournament for Seido Karate. I won't be competing this year because of an injury: last fall I injured my ankle, what I took to be a simple sprain, but it still hasn't resolved. (I am finally going to get it evaluated by an orthopedic specialist.) But I'll still be doing my part at the tournament as a judge.

sensei/student relationship in the age of Facebook

Last Sunday I got to meet up with my good friend and karate colleague Mike Gurklis. The occasion was the Street Beat Festival in Federal Hill, Mike's old neighborhood. One of our favorite bands was playing, so Mike brought his family down and we got a change to hang out, and then go get sushi.

As we walked around the festival, browsing the vendors and catching up, Mike told me how back when we were mudansha (students below black belt rank) together he had run into our sensei, Neal Pendleton, at this same festival. It was the first time he'd encountered one of our instructors outside a dojo event -- not being Sensei Neal but just a guy hanging out having a beer.

abstract techniques; is karate a floor wax or a dessert topping?

I was recently showing some students the technique we call shuto mawashi uke, circular knifehand block. (Here's a page with a video of a Kyokushin instructor doing this technique, slightly different than the way I learned it in Seido but you can get the idea: http://www.ehow.com/video_2368639_do-shuto-mawashi-uke.html) It's an interesting technique because it has many different self-defense applications, but each one would require the technique be done slightly differently than the basic way it's practiced. It can be a block, a strike, an escape and reversal from a wrist grab, a takedown against a kick , but each of these options requires a bit of variation.

As a software geek, the situation reminds me of the concept of "abstract base classes" in object-oriented programming. As a classic example you might have an abstract base class in a graphics program for a "shape" which would define general operations, but you would never actually create a "shape" software object when running the program, you would create a "triangle" or a "square" or a "circle" -- in programming lingo, you would "derive" these concrete classes from the abstract base class. In the same way, the "abstract" version of shuto uchi uke defines a general pattern of movement, but in an actual fight you would use some variation of it.

"use a little stragedy"

How do you fight a larger, stronger opponent? You have to "use a little stragedy", as Bugs Bunny put it:

"Technique rather than strength, spirit rather than technique." -- Tadashi Nakamura, Kaicho, World Seido Karate Organization. My hero Bugs uses both here.

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