I’m wearing a worn, black pair of gi pants and a Star Wars t-shirt. Far from formal dojo apparel. The sweat has rendered the grey t-shirt black and droplets coming off my forehead splash on the unfinished concrete floor. I just finished a set of shadow boxing and I’ve been using an 8-pound sledgehammer as a workout implement for the past fifteen minutes as my son watches in fascination from the corner. My muscles and joints are all screaming for me to stop, and my knuckles are throbbing from the use of my newly-installed makiwara post outside, but I’m only half way through my workout as the next hour will bring a minimum of three of each of my katas…
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been using my garage as a makeshift dojo. The floor is bare, unfinished concrete and is pock-marked everywhere that something heavy or frequent traffic has damaged it. I fastened a padded punching square to the south wall and have a jumprope, an 8-pound sledgehammer and a small table to hold my water, phone and small training implements as may be required for any given session. I have a small incense burner to provide an ambiance to the environment, but with little to no ventilation inside the garage short of opening the large overhead door, I keep incense burning at a minimum.
When people hear about the martial arts, they have some pretty stereotypical images of a dojo in their heads. For the most part, people imagine a polished, hardwood floor, tatami mats in the corner, punching bags and kanji banners across every wall. Or at least, over whatever walls don’t contain photographs of the style’s masters or some the weaponry associated with the style. It’s clean and pretty and usually oozes a “karate movie” feel. But in fact, most traditional dojos (unless they’re the head of the school) never look like that.
When I travelled to Japan and Okinawa in 2001, one of the things that surprised me was the venue in which we spent most of our time training. Unlike the expected image of a karate school, or dojo as it is properly referred to as, we trained in a variety of different locations, including but not limited to the beach, on rocks, in school gyms, in garages and in back yards. One school we trained at the most was owned by my Sensei’s instructor and was located above his house. It contained some of the fancy elements, such as a hardwood floor and his training certifications, but little else.
There was nothing fancy. The entire ambiance was created by the efforts and energy put forward by the student body. And what energy there was! We didn’t have a single morning or evening where we weren’t drenched in sweat and felling pain along some or most of our body parts. But we learned a lot. I recently sent photos of my garage to one of my friends back home in New Brunswick and identified it as my “dojo.” His response was to laugh at the appearance. The sad part is, he’s trained in my style of karate, as well.
The point is, you don’t need a fancy or expensive location. You don’t need tons of equipment or have your training area look like something out of a bad 50’s samurai movie. In fact, if you study traditional karate, you can perform the majority of your (solitary) exercises within a 1-square metre space. That’s it! You can perform your katas, bunkai and kumites as well as a huge score of exercises too numerous to list out, including every push-up variation, squats, lunges and shadow boxing.
You reach certain limitations once you incorporate a partner or students, but let’s be honest: at that point, you may be using a local school gymnasium or go outdoors to a soccer field or something of the like. Some of the most traditional karate schools in Okinawa are tucked away behind a single, unmarked door in a back alley. Karate is a free-floating art, which can literally be practiced anywhere. ☯