That Towel Won’t Throw Itself…

I’ve written a number of posts that outline the importance of knowing why you’ve joined the martial arts. These reasons can include improving one’s health, learning to defend oneself or simply the curiosity that many have relating to the martial arts.

There really aren’t any BAD reasons to join, unless your goal is to become a bully or beat the crap out of people. Barring that, a subject that anyone rarely covers is when to step away and quit! Seriously, how do you know when your time in a dojo has run its course and it’s time to walk away? Here are some thoughts…

  1. The school doesn’t meet your specific needs. This is a pretty common one, and it happens much more than we think. Each martial arts school is unique and their rituals, protocols and rules may not suit you. Some people try to “tough it out” because they’re paying tuition, but it’s better to lose a month’s worth of payment than stay with a school that doesn’t;t fit your needs;
  2. You spend more time yawning than sweating. Most new things take a certain amount of effort. But karate requires focus and concentration, as well as a certain amount of precision and speed training. Combining all those aspects can be a touch overwhelming and take some time. If you’re getting bored with what you’re being taught, perhaps it isn’t for you;
  3. You’re in conflict with the instructor’s teachings. Oh boy, where to start on this one! Having been a Sensei myself, I can attest that there’s always the occasional student who decides to “test” the instructor… Either they question the knowledge being quoted or they doubt whether a technique genuinely works or not. This leaves the instructor in the awkward position of either trying to prove his or her point or losing face in front of their students. Losing face shouldn’t matter, but it’s very difficult to teach a fighting art to a group of people who question your skills and abilities. If you feel that you might not be buying what your instructor is teaching, don’t create conflict; just get the hell out!
  4. You’re being forced to be there. I’ve had a lot of students who have come to class because their parents are “making” them. That royally sucks, because most of the time the student drags on the overall mojo of the class because he or she genuinely doesn’t want to be there. I’ve had to have some heart-to-heart conversation with some parents over the years where I’ve gently “suggested” that their kid shouldn’t be back! If you’re being forced to be there, do yourself a favour and talk to your Sensei about it;
  5. You’re “surviving” the class rather than training. I’ve saved this one for last, although it certainly isn’t least. It’s one thing to push yourself and work through a session even on days when you don’t feel like it or during times when you may be feeling a little off. But if you’re checking clock every ten minutes, if you’re loathe to leave the house, knowing you’re going to class and the interest simply isn’t there anymore, it may be time to re-evaluate why you’re going.

The martial arts is like everything else: it should suit your needs and fit your lifestyle. There’s no shame in trying it out and walking away if you discover that it isn’t for you.

I’ve had periods in my training where I felt as though I wasn’t learning anything, or I simply wasn’t advancing the way I thought I should. Sometimes a break is needed, but it shouldn’t be permanent. The idea is that remaining part of a martial arts club that doesn’t;t suit you may take away from the club as a whole. A kind of “only as strong as your weakest link” kind of deal. ☯

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The Right Path Isn’t Always The One Of Least Resistance

Gene Dunn once said, “Your technique means nothing if you’re not using your talents for the betterment of humanity.”  

I began studying the martial arts what feels like a very long time ago.  Thirty-one years ago this year, to be precise.  Although I started this journey with the intention of improving my health and saving my own life against the complications associated with Diabetes, it would end up becoming who I am as opposed to something I was doing.

Martial arts have provided me with more than I could possibly express in written word.  I have carried and used my skills with dignity and with respect for others. Through my study of the Way, I came into Buddhism, which became the central focal point of my faith.  I believe that as a people, we have an obligation to give as much as we get.  And on the occasions where the only possible response to prevent harm to others or myself was violence, I have been swift but just.

My chosen career has carried me far from home and away from my dojo over the past ten years.  Although I have never stopped practicing, it’s been a lonely road considering the rural areas I’ve lived in generally never have martial arts schools.

When I moved to Regina, I was elated to hear that there were several schools that I could explore and I was excited at the prospect of training among other students of the way once again.  I visited MANY martial arts schools over the course of a few weeks and observed several classes.  None of them seemed to be a fit.  Although I wouldn’t presume to classify any one style better than another, I believe a style should call to the person and fit their requirements.

That’s when I walked into the Regina Institute of Kempo Karate.  After observing only one class, I came to realize that it would be a good fit.  Not only because there were some techniques and aspects similar to my own, but because of the ambiance and the manner in which students were taught.

Without hesitation, I was accepted as a student despite being an outside black belt (something that many instructors would not allow).  When I decided I would be testing for my next degree of black belt, I was allowed to step outside of protocol and practice my forms during class even if they were not of the same style.  

For the many who believe that learning the martial arts is simply about learning how to fight, it’s important to look at the quality and value that comes out of a dojo’s students. The growth, maturity and knowledge that is imparted on a student is truly the trademark of a quality dojo. If you consider training, be sure to do your research and find something that is a good fit for you. In the long run, you’ll get much more out of it. ☯

We’re Only Human

We all get old, eventually.  It’s one of those few uncontrollable aspects of life that none of us can escape.  We can, however help to alleviate what happens as we age.  Most of this involves having good eating and fitness habits and staying away from the nasty things that can potentially bring our existence to an end.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no illusions of being “old” per se, but some age is often felt rather than gained.  I have to admit that in recent years, my blocks have gotten a bit slower, my techniques a little sloppier and my ability to get up and go has got up and gone (Yes, I just referenced an earlier blog post of mine!)

The shirt I just got yesterday

It really doesn’t take a great deal…  A few too many break days, skipping meals or lack of sleep and your health can easily start to fall off the rails as you get older.  This is especially true for Type 1 Diabetics who depend on a proper balance to keep things in check.  And balance really is the key!

Start by getting proper rest.  The average adult requires between 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.  As long as you’re getting it all at once (unlike me, who occasionally cluster naps) it should go a long way to helping you rejuvenate yourself.  Many of your body’s systems are working at resetting and/or resting while you do. This is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t eat heavily before bed.

And while we’re talking about food, make sure you’re getting your three meals a day and that they’re properly balanced with vegetables and proteins to help with muscle repair and growth.  It’s okay to have some cheat days now and again, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Last but not least, get some damn exercise.  Even when you’re sore, tired and just plain fed up… it gets exponentially worse if you just sit back and do nothing.  You have to keep moving.  Movement is life.  Even if you just start by doing some light stretches first thing in the morning, it’ll help to get the blood flowing, make you more alert and start your day off properly.

All of these points become increasingly important as you collect more birthdays. Muscles become less flexible, joints are less limber and if you don’t keep up with everything, you may find yourself seizing up. ☯

When It Doesn’t Make Sense Is When You Need To Keep Working At It

One of the weirdest lessons in life is how things have to be the opposite of the result you seek to achieve in order to realize you have to change it.  For example, most people won’t necessarily realize it’s time to change their diets and hit the gym until they gain a noticeable amount of weight and start experiencing health issues.  Or we often won’t eat properly until we are diagnosed with some measurable health deficiency or dietary issue caused by eating too much junk food or making bad health choices.

I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “If you don’t understand it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  There’s a depth of truth in this that applies to all persons, regardless of their goals. Here’s the simple truth: you shouldn’t wait until you fall out of shape or gain weight to start “getting into shape” or exercising.  You shouldn’t wait until your blood sugars run rampant or your health falters before you change your diet and eat better.  And live better.

That’s an important aspect as well.  It’s not all about diet and exercise (although they are two of the most important factors and the focus of this post).  You have to be well within your own existence.  You have to be able to wake up in the morning WANTING to face the day instead of dreading the next 8 hours that may be coming.  Trust me, when I say that this is not always an easy aspect.

But let’s focus on the two first factors, diet and exercise.  I once read that the only way to get in shape is to show how out of shape you are.  What I interpret this to mean is, there’s nothing impressive about the 250-pound muscle jock benching huge amounts of weight and screaming with every rep. Sure, he no doubt worked to get to the state he’s in, but what’s more impressive is the brave soul who steps onto the treadmill and sweats within a minute and has to struggle to speed walk for five minutes.  Then they come back the next day.  And the next. And the next.  And before you know it, this person is losing weight and becoming stronger, faster and better.  That’s how change is made.  By showing up and doing it!

Your diet is the next big aspect.  It has to be specific to what you’re trying to accomplish.  The athlete training for a heavy weight boxing match won’t have the same diet as someone trying to slim down and lose weight.  And most people seem to be confused about what diets can work and what specific foods can do for you and/or against you.

Let’s discuss carbs for a moment.  Carbs are a Type 1 Diabetic’s biggest nemesis.  Why? Because carbs are the reason we need to take insulin.  The more carbs we ingest during a meal, the larger the dose of insulin that’s required. That’s an over-simplification, but carbs are meant to provide energy for the body.    This is true for all people, Diabetic or not.  So it’s usually not advisable or healthy (unless instructed by your health practitioner) to try and be completely carb-free.  Carbs get broken down into glucose or stored as fat.

Carbs get stored as fat when we take in more calories than we require or burn within the day, and get stored in all those lovely areas we hate to look at when we hop in the shower.  That’s why many professional athletes will “carb load”, because they know they’ll need the energy and it will all get used up, as opposed to being stored as fat.

The lesson here is that in order to lose weight and get into shape, you need to combine exercise AND diet.  There’s no getting around this.  You have to fire up your metabolism to help you along, and there’s no magic pill that will accomplish this.  You just need to get off the couch and do it.  You can’t diet but sit around like a lump and expect t lose weight.  You can’t exercise like a pro athlete then go out and eat the entire value menu at your local fast-food restaurant and expect to stay healthy.  You have to combine both aspects.

You want to avoid refined carbohydrates and sugars such as pastries, white breads and pastas as well as sweetened drinks and sodas.  Base the amount of carbs you ingest on your level of exercise.  If you are just starting, then keep your carb intake on the lower side in order to prevent increasing those fat stores.  Eat plenty of fiber and lean protein to help with muscle repair and development and the continuance of “friendly” bacteria in the digestion.  Lean protein means meat options that are low in fat and provide the healthiest totality, such as skinless chicken or fish (sorry vegetarians, cutting out meat does NOT help you lose weight).  And last but not least, don’t make any major changes to your lifestyle without consulting your health practitioner and/or professional trainer.

All pebbles seem small until you have one stuck in your shoe.  I forget who said that, but it’s true.  Getting into shape and reaching your health goals always seem like a HUGE challenge… until it’s not.  Then you get to maintain that health instead of trying to fight for it, and you can look back on the days you wished you were in the shape you are now. But you have to start.  One step, that’s all it takes.  Then once you get moving, you’ll be amazed at how difficult it is to stop! ☯

I Practice The Way Of The Empty Hand, But I’m Not Always Empty-Handed

For the most part, when people ask me what martial arts I study, I tell them I do Karate Do, or the Way of the Empty Hand. “Karate”, as it’s known in the Western hemisphere, is a striking art that predominantly includes punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes as well as a variety of blocks and open hand techniques (hence the name).

Although different schools will tell the history differently, all karate is descendent from Chinese martial arts.  This is a hard reality.  In fact, karate was create and adopted on Okinawa in the mid to late 1300’s, after large groups of Chinese families moved to the Ryukyu Islands and introduced aspects of their culture, including martial arts.  There have been some mild exceptions, such as the originator of my style having migrated to China and studied with the monks, who subsequently taught him the style of Kung Fu he brought back and adapted to become a style of karate.

But before I get lost in a history lesson, many schools of karate include the use of weapons, but they mainly focus on empty-hand fighting because, well… karate MEANS “empty hand”!  But there have been a number of weapons incorporated over the decades including, but not limited to the tonfa, bo staff, sai and nunchaku.  But the primary style I’ve studied over the past three decades, Uechi Ryu,has not included the use of weapons.

So what do you do if you find yourself in a self-defense situation where your opponent has a weapon in his/her hand?  Sure, it’s great to have confidence in your hands and feet but let’s be realistic: if someone swings a baseball bat at me, I’d feel a lot better if I could block it with a similar weapon (especially if getting the hell out of there isn’t an option).

An aspect of my martial arts training that I have rarely spoken of, is my weapons training.  I’ve always been a firm believer that one must focus one’s attention on one style at a time.  But realistically, should you be lacking a piece to this puzzle, you should make every effort to fill that gap.  That’s what brought me to Kendo.

Without slipping into ANOTHER history lesson, Kendo or “The Way of the Sword” is a Japanese martial art that focuses on the use of the sword.  It is a descendent of Kenjutsu.  The carrying of swords by the samurai and warrior class was outlawed in the late 1800’s during the Meiji Restoration, but police and military were still permitted to carry a sword. In an attempt to try and standardize the style of sword techniques that police would use, certain techniques and forms were uniformly adopted, and this birthed the art of Kendo.  More or less.  There’s a long history involved, but it’s too long for me to write all of it.

Back in 1994, I began studying the sword under an instructor back in New Brunswick. I had a couple of options, such as a local school of Kobudo,which is the Okinawan style of weapons training.  I felt this would be a good addition to my repertoire, since I was studying an Okinawan style of karate anyway.  Made sense, right?  But the multiple weapons and all their associated forms and techniques left me confused and I quickly lost interest.  It flew in the face of my belief that one must focus on one aspect in order to master it.  So when I found the Kendo school, I was enthused.

I studied for about 11 years, if memory serves correct.  During that time, I was exposed to techniques, forms and strengthening exercises that used the sword.  I thought a sword was pretty badass, if I’m being honest.  I had the benefit of focusing my attentions on one weapon, and it was a cool one.  If you think about it, most civilizations have had swords included in their history at some point.  So it was a fluid and practical weapon to learn.  My parents even bought me my first sword, as they had learned their lesson many years before about how effective “forbidding” me to study any fighting art had been for them.

I also considered it the best weapon to adapt to non-bladed situations.  What I mean by this, is if I find myself in a self-defense situation, the Kendo techniques can be applied to just about any length of material I wrap my hands around; a stick, broom handle, a pipe… anything!  In fact, even though it’s been almost 20 years I still remember enough of my Kendo training to apply some of the basic concepts to the kali sticks I use in Kendo while doing escrima.  And one of the defense tools I use on the job also allows for the application of Kendo techniques, even if it is not a sword.

So yes, it’s always best to focus your attentions on one style of martial arts at a time.  It’s exceptionally hard to master techniques from multiple style at the same time. Eventually, the techniques and forms begin to blend together and become convoluted.  But there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to keep an open mind to other possibilities.  And supplementing one “type” of training with another is certainly not a bad idea either. ☯

Shut Up, Kryptonite!

In all my travels, I’ve yet to meet someone who isn’t at least VAGUELY familiar with Superman.  Even folks who aren’t into comic books and such will have at least some idea of who this iconic superhero is.  And why wouldn’t they?  Incredibly powerful, but still noble and true…  The best of all things with none of the bad.  Truth, Justice and the American Way… (you’d never guess that Superman is actually Canadian!)

But my point is, as strong and powerful as Superman may be, he still has a weakness: Kryptonite.  Able to weaken and even kill him, kryptonite was the one thing that Superman could never overcome.  And even though it’s a comic book, there’s an important lesson, there.

The importance behind how hard you train should be directly related to the fact that no matter how strong or skilled you get, there will always be someone stronger.  That’s just a fact of life.  But by giving your training the maximum effort you can muster, you ensure that you can continue to grow and progress, and should the day ever come that you face an opponent, your odds of getting out in one piece are much better.

One good example of this is Diabetes.  Diabetes is my kryptonite.  It weakens me, leaves me vulnerable and gets in the way of even some of the simplest joys in life.  But I’ve trained and conditioned myself for decades to overcome and outsmart my kryptonite. And through training, education and help from the appropriate healthcare professionals, I’m much better prepared to deal with it (even though at times, it still weakens me!)

Sometimes overcoming our weaknesses means taking steps and pursuing treatments that we personally don’t approve of.  I can certainly attest to having been prescribed medications or been put on diets or treatment regiments that I haven’t liked or wanted to do. But sometimes getting over one’s kryptonite requires swallowing our pride, and recognizing that it’s for the greater good.  It’s not a weakness to accept these treatments or the help that comes with them.  In fact, recognizing that you need the help and accepting it takes more strength than we usually care to acknowledge.  Especially if you find yourself in a life situation where there are many loved ones who depend and count on you.

There are always ways to be fit, get stronger and stay healthy.  The trick is finding what works for you, then sticking with it no matter whether you like or not.  Because no matter what personal kryptonite you face today, there may be bigger fish to fry tomorrow. ☯

Run Or Keep Up, The Debate Of Machine Over Muscle…

Cardio is an important aspect of fitness.  Like any other part of working out, there are safety guidelines and recommendations as to how one should perform their cardio.  One point of discussion I had with a colleague recently involved the difference between running under one’s own steam or using a machine, such as a treadmill, elliptical or tread-climber.  So what, if any, is the difference?

Here’s the thing:  I hate running.  Like, with a passion!  I have the center of gravity of a boulder and I tend to move like one as well.  Cardio is simply a reality of my workouts and I often push myself to perform at least SOME level of cardio when the opportunity arises.  For example, I make frequent use of my bicycle during the appropriate seasons.  But you’ll very rarely see me run.

When I do run, I tend to favor the treadmill.  The reasons behind this are quite simple.  I get to have my water bottle and my music nearby, I can control the pace and incline AND I don’t have to deal with weather, stray animals or bad drivers.  But there are significant advantages to running both on machines and outside.

For the most part, the important thing is to just get out there and exercise!  If all you do is run on a treadmill, great! You’re already doing more than the average couch potato who does nothing.  Treadmills are fantastic for a number of advantages, such as speed training.  You can adjust the speed to increase or decrease at specific intervals, making for a nice interval workout.  A treadmill provides a controlled environment.  Treadmill and machine use in general tends to be a bit easier than running outdoors because the machine is technically pushing you along.  That’s why it often feels as though you can run faster on a treadmill than you would outside.  On the other hand, treadmills and cardio machines tend to be easier on the joints and body as they have more “give” to them when your foot hits the pad, as opposed to running on pavement, sidewalks or paths.

But before you go out and splurge on a machine to stick in front of your television, running outdoors has some significant advantages to it, as well.  According to an article from WebMD, running outdoors will provide a better overall workout for a number of reasons.  When running outside, you need to adjust for the terrain and changes in surface.  This works different muscles in your feet and legs in a way that a treadmill can’t. The article also points out that running outdoors provides the opportunity to run downhill, which engages different muscle groups than flat running will provide.

Another difference is that you’re the one physically pushing yourself off the ground, as opposed to a machine that’s trying to push you backwards.  As the article describes, “running outside stresses the body in a variety of ways […] Outside is tougher, but more rewarding.” The benefit of running on hills is also significant, since you can normally max out a treadmill at a 10 percent incline, but this doesn’t compare to running up a real hill.

The article also explains that if your primary goal is simply to improve your cardiovascular health, a treadmill is just fine.  It also allows you the opportunity to run after dark or in inclement weather without having to face the elements.  It’s an interesting article and worth a read, if running’s your thing: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/is-it-better-to-run-outside#2

I still hate running. Nothing will likely change that, but as I always say, the important thing is to get up and do something.  Whether you use a cardio machine, hit the outdoors or get in some weights or any other kind of workout, variety is the spice of life and what matters is that you do it.  I’m sure if I had a treadmill sitting in front of my television, I could run while binge-watching Star Trek on Netflix.  But the important thing is to stay active. ☯