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. ☯

You Gotta Break In The Sneakers

Last night, I had a special opportunity during karate class that hasn’t happened in years.  I had the chance to train with a new student on his very first night of karate.  You would likely ask, “What’s the big deal?”

There’s something special about training with someone when they’ve walked into a karate class for the first time.  Everyone has a different reason for joining the martial arts.  Some do it for exercise, some are looking to learn the art and some have a seriously deluded idea about what martial arts actually is!

But regardless of the reason, there’s a palpable anxiety that people have when they train in karate for the first time.  The mysterious movements, the unknown techniques and the awkward attempts at trying to follow along.  I got to train with a young man tonight who came in with the hopeful gaze of someone looking to learn the martial arts.

He struggled throughout the stretching and the warm-up portion.  Once we started working in pairs, he got some pointers from a few different students and we eventually got to working together.  As his frustration grew while trying to learn some techniques we were working on, I compared his training to buying a new pair of sneakers:

“At some point, you’ve chosen new sneakers, right? Well, even when you find a pair that fit you just right and look good, you have to break them in.  They’re brand new, and the first number of times you wear them, your feet will adjust and shape them to your specific steps and the needs of your feet.  Karate is very much the same.  You have to break it in.  The first few times you do it, it’ll be a bit awkward and it’ll take some time to adjust. But once you do, it’ll feel comfortable. Just like a decent pair of sneakers…”

The class ended with the young man ready to come back the following week.  It’s just one of those things…  When you start learning something new, you have to be prepared to work at it and get used to it before you decide whether it’s for you or not.  You gotta break in the sneakers… ☯

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. ☯

“Sight” Is More Than Just What You See…

The room is dark, impossibly dark.  The only light comes from a small 40-Watt black light that almost causes my white karate gi to glow in the gloom…  My eyes can’t adjust and I can’t see a thing.  There are audible creaks in the floorboards, telling me that I am not alone in the room.  I sit still, trying to let my ears, nose and skin “feel” the room.  My legs are braced and my hands are posted. I close my eyes, since I can’t see anything anyway.

Then I feel it: an almost imperceptible movement of air against my skin…  I instinctively block, but I’ve miscalculated.  Something strikes at my calves and I fall to the floor.  I roll out of the way before the strike I know is coming drops down on my chest.  I turn and post in the direction of the attack but nothing reaches my ears but silence. Then, something strikes my head. Suddenly there is too much light as all I can see are stars fluttering in the darkness.  I can feel my body twist around as my head snaps from the punch…

Once again, my other senses try to fill in the gaps of information caused by the darkness; a light movement of the air and a rustling of sanforized cotton coming towards me.  I block and feel the strike of another person’s limb against my arm. Without through, I grip the opposing limb and throw out a focused front kick that impacts against something that feels like concrete.

“Enough.”  The lights come on and I’m temporarily blinded by the sudden change.  I see my Sensei standing there in a dark, black gi, removing a black face mask that covers everything but his eyes.  My head is ringing from the punch he delivered and I’m grateful that the lesson is over, despite the impression it left…

That was a sparring match I had with Sensei almost twenty years ago.  Most of us are limited by the visible light we see around us. We rarely consider that the world exists, whether the light bounces off of it or not.  This means that the world can still be perceived if we’re willing to open our other senses to it.

No, I’m not gifted with some mystical skill and I wouldn’t bet sure money I’d win a fight, fought in total darkness.  But because of the light that surrounds us, we often take our other senses for granted. There is so much of the world that can be opened to us if we acknowledge our other senses; our hearing, sense of touch, sense of smell…

Don’t forget that the world doesn’t exist because of the physical light that allows us to see it.  If you open yourselves up to the other possibilities, you’ll be surprised at what you may have been missing. ☯

All About The Books, But…

It’s been a quiet few days and all things considered, it’s good to take a step back and let your mind cool and relax a bit.  This is not the easiest task in the world with a newborn and a destructive 4-year old in the house.  But one of my very favorite hobbies just happens to be reading.

I’ve tried not to limit myself in regards to what medium I use when I read.  I have an e-reader, my laptop, my smart phone and I share a collection of several hundred books (likely close to a thousand if not more) with my wife.  Our books cover just about every genre imaginable to some extent or another.

But the book I want to talk about in this post is James Clavell’s Shogun.  Written in 1975, it’s the story of a Dutch ship that gets lost during a sea storm, only to land in feudal Japan.  The English pilot, John Blackthorne, ends up befriending many of the samurai and daimyos and becomes a trusted advisor to one of the local Regents who retains him as a trusted advisor.

Cover of the 1st Edition, which is the one I originally read.

The book is quite lengthy and I read it for the first time in the mid-90’s.  When I eventually made my way to Japan and subsequently Okinawa, I had the opportunity to really appreciate how accurately the book portrayed some of the Japanese culture and how many similarities Clavell included in the novel.  The novel is about 1200 pages long, but if you’re looking for a solid read, I would highly recommend it.  I’ve read it three times since first picking it up, and the rich story allows for something new to be noticed every time I read it.

The book was made into a television miniseries that was a little over 9 hours long, in 1980.  I didn’t discover it until years after the first time I read the book.  I’ve always been a touch leery about movies based on books, considering how much they usually shave away from the full story of the book. But the television series covered just about everything as accurately as possible.  It was impressive, considering the lack of special effects and such in the early 80’s.  They also released a 2-hour feature length movie, but if you’ve seen the mini series, the movie pretty much sucked.  They cut out so many important details it no longer resembled the actual book.

I focus on this book because the story covers many aspects of life that I hold dear.  This includes aspects of Buddhism, martial arts and Bushido’s code.  But whatever genre of book you enjoy, reading helps to reduce stress, has a calming effect and can even lower blood pressure and help you sleep better.  Not least of which is the fact that it allows a person to stretch their imagination and explore worlds that would otherwise be impossible. ☯

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. ☯