In Teaching Others, We Teach Ourselves

I can’t recall where I read the proverb I used in my title, but it’s pretty accurate. If there’s an important lesson I’ve learned in almost four decades, it’s that we gain almost as much from teaching and passing on our knowledge as we do from obtaining it.

I’ve previously mentioned the martial arts ladder, and the importance of helping other students climb beyond you, once you’ve reached a certain level. Some “old school” martial arts teachers will often claim that it’s important to hold something back; keep that secret technique to yourself so that you always have a finishing move to fall back on. I was raised on a system of martial arts where the students have the potential to learn EVERYTHING the style has to offer.

Shintaro-san showing me some specifics of a kata
Okinawa – 2001

Humans are competitive by nature. There’s no getting around it. Something about “survival of the fittest”, and one of the aspects of that competitive nature is showing off your skills. Most people are inclined to show others what they’ve learned and showcase their skills. That’s why most sports are competitively displayed for spectators. Although some instincts are hard to fight, one can easily turn that competitive nature into an instinct to teach.

One of the best times of my martial arts career was when I had a school of my own, back in New Brunswick. It was a wonderful feeling, opening the class with all the students bowing to me and following my instruction. There was a deep feeling of satisfaction in knowing that these people were learning and progressing based on what I was teaching them. Seeing their progress taught me a great deal about how I was learning.

Leading a junior class in Sanchin, sometime in the early 1990’s

I was reminded of all this when I saw a Tai Chi group practicing in the open hallway of a local shopping mall this morning. The group was a bit on the smaller side, maybe more than a dozen. I don’t like using the term “elderly” but the group was a touch on the older side, and you could see that the person leading the group was deeply invested in coaching a guiding the people that were there.

I had to close my school in early 2009 as I had to move across country for my career. Since my job usually moves me around every few years, I’ve never had the stability to open another school. It wouldn’t be fair to any prospective students to start training with me, only to have me leave after a few years.

But it got me thinking about decades down the road, and wondering if perhaps eventually I’ll be teaching my own group once I retire and finally settle to a permanent home.

Learning any new skill is exciting and loads of fun. But should you ever have the opportunity to teach what you know to others, I highly recommend it. Like most thing in life, teaching has its difficulties but can offer great rewards and satisfaction. ☯

Do Not Get Burned…

The other night I was broiling some lovely T-bone steaks in the oven… Yes, yes, I can hear all the meat aficionados screaming that a steak is better prepared on a grill. But the reality is that the winter makes such things a little less cozy than I would like. But I digress…

I took the pan out of the oven in order to check the steaks and I noticed that the wire rack the steaks were sitting on had slipped off the pan slightly. I used the tongues I was working with to steady the wire rack, but somehow managed to graze the edge of my middle finger along the side of the pan. I felt a searing pain and dropped the tongues. Clumsy? Probably. Painful? Without a doubt.

We already know that any injury can be made worse and/or aggravated by Type-1 Diabetes. But burns are a particular bastard, because they tend to cause other issues when they happen. Besides blistering and hurting, burns can cause reddening and peeling of the skin, as well as swelling, charring and cause the body to go into shock (depending not the severity of the burn)

According to WebMD, there are three common types of burns.

  1. First-Degree Burns: These are the superficial ones. They can be identified by slight pain, dry skin and redness. These burns usually don’t go beyond the first layer of flesh and can be treated with skin care products like aloe vera;
  2. Second-Degree Burns: These are worse than first-degree burns as they penetrate to a deeper layer of flesh. Second-degree burns will usually blister and can potentially require something a bit stronger, like an antibiotic ointment;
  3. Third-Degree Burns: These are the worst, and will usually result in charred or whitened flesh. Third-degree burns won’t always be painful as they can sometimes be deep enough to burn away nerve-endings that transmit pain. These can often require skin grafts or surgery.

The big problem with burns is, left untreated, they can cause infection and even dehydration. And we all know how much fun THOSE are for someone with Diabetes. Even minor burns should be closely monitored and proper attention paid.

Ultimately, my burn was pretty minor, though it did blister, classifying it as a Second-Degree. But I was able to treat it and it’s already healed. It’s important to keep an eye on any injury and how well it heals when you have Diabetes. If you have any injury, burns or otherwise, that start to turn red and swollen, refuses to heal and shows signs of discolouration, it might be time to visit your family practitioner. ☯

Accept The Knowledge, Or Get Out!

I don’t know how to do yoga. I know, shocking right? Can’t do it. I know it involves specific poses, stretches and stock ownership in LuluLemon apparel, but if you asked me to stand in front of a group of folks and try and teach them yoga, three things would happen: my pants would likely split from the attempt, all my joints would create a sound likely to frighten all those who hear it and last but not least… You wouldn’t learn yoga! Plus, picturing me doing downward dog is likely causing all the angels in heaven to simultaneously throw up…

Learning a new skill or art can be fun and exciting, but there are certain steps to acquiring that knowledge. If I walked into a yoga class today, I wouldn’t expect exclusive lessons and mentorship from the instructor. After all, he or she would have a classroom full of people to take care of. One would be inclined to assume that one would have to simply follow along and gleam what learning they can as they go along until they acquire the basics they need to start advancing. Some classes are like this. Another option is that you would perhaps need to accept coaching from someone not too far above your skill level. This is more likely.

And the case would be the same for the martial arts. If you walked into a karate class on your first night of training, you could hardly expect that the lead instructor would be the one showing you the basics. Maybe they would; it depends on the school you train in. But unless the school you’re starting with is overrun with black belts (in which case, you should run from that school as fast as possible and find a different one) the safe bet is that you’ll likely be learning from a junior belt, perhaps even a white belt. And not everyone is okay with that.

I’m reminded of a class from just a little over twenty-five years ago… I was stretching and shadow boxing, preparing for the gruelling two hours that awaited me. I was early, as usual, and I noticed a new guy in class. He was wearing a loose t-shirt and sweatpants, looking awkward against the backdrop of students in crisp, white karate uniforms.

Sensei walked up to me and introduced me to the new student (I honestly don’t remember his name. It’s been over twenty-five years, give me a break!) He asked me to show the new student our ten basic exercises and aiding movements as well as the opening of our first form. I gladly agreed and introduced myself as Sensei walked away.

I noticed that the new guy seemed a bit distracted as I spoke to him and I asked him what was wrong. The exchange went a little something like this:

ME: Is everything okay? You seem distracted…

New Guy: No, no, it’s fine. It’s just that… Shouldn’t I be learning this stuff from him? (points to Sensei)

ME: Well, Sensei usually takes the first fifteen minutes before class to stretch and has one of us teach basics to new students. Is that a problem?

New Guy: Honestly? No offence, but I didn’t join karate to learn from a white belt! I want to learn from a black belt… (walks away and starts stretching in imitation of what Sensei was doing)

Now in this guy’s defence, I WAS wearing a white belt! At the time, I had a white belt with a solid green bar, meaning I was ready to test for green belt. I was far from new and was more than capable of teaching what was asked of me. But from this guy’s perspective, I was a white belt and unfit to be showing him the ropes. Ah, that lovely perspective…

Once class was in full swing and we started doing the actual form I was supposed to show the new guy, his confused look and the fact he was looking around in a vain attempt to mimic the other students did NOT go unnoticed. Sensei stepped up behind him and asked what the problem was, since I had shown him these steps. The new student replied that I had shown him nothing.

Once we closed and students started filing out, Sensei approached me and asked what I had shown to the new student. “Nothing,” I replied. “He decided he didn’t want to learn from a white belt. Sensei shrugged and instructed that no one provide guidance to the new student until he asked for it.The guy attended another two or three classes then dropped out. Seems that karate isn’t all that easy to learn when you aren’t willing to listen.

Was it a harsh elimination of an unwanted student? Perhaps. But the lesson here is that if you truly wish to learn a new art or skill, you’ll take the knowledge from wherever you can. If that student had followed my guidance on the first night, he likely would have been able to follow along and progress. Instead, he allowed his preconceived notions about the belt around my waist to negate any possibility of his ever training in the martial arts. A great loss. For him, not for us.

Be willing to accept knowledge from whomever is willing to share it. Sometimes you may lose nothing. Sometimes you may lose a great deal. But unless you’re willing to accept it, you’ll never know. It’s like Sensei used to say, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth, so you should listen TWICE as much as you talk!”

Sunday, Lazy Sunday…

Yesterday was a bit of a hazy day, with temperatures barely reaching the minus teens. Some light snow was falling and the sun was nowhere to be seen. I woke to my wife already on the couch with our newborn son, Alexander. He had been up, off and on during the night to feed.

I was all talk twelve hours earlier, and had bold plans to take the entire family out for the last day of Black Friday sales at Chapters bookstore and some other locations. But once we woke up, the story was much different.

Although my wife had no work today and my older son Nathan woke up when we did, we opted for a lazy morning. I made a solid “traditional” breakfast of eggs, hash brown potatoes and maple bacon (could I BE any more Canadian?) and we sat at the table for a quiet Sunday morning breakfast. Well, my wife and Alex did… Nathan ran off to his room like a butt-hurt teenager until he was hungry enough to scuttle out for his breakfast.

I cleaned up the kitchen after the breakfast I made and watched Batman Begins, which led to me sitting in my rocker for the morning. Once I finished the first movie, I moved on to The Terminal. My wife and I relaxed with coffee in the living room and neither of us did anything. You read that right. We did nothing.

Once the second movie was done, my son Nathan returned to his cartoons and everyone else enjoyed an afternoon nap. We never did make it out to the bookstore… Not particularly necessary in light of the thousands of books my wife and I own. But considering it was a cold, snowy day, it was hardly a wasted day.

Sometimes it feels nice to simply take a day to sit back and replenish your batteries. Apparently it became a family thing, which can also be nice. Although it’s of the utmost importance NOT to allow yourself to become complacent or lazy, there are measurable benefits to occasionally taking a day to do absolutely nothing. ☯

Dampen Up That Dry Spell

It is SO easy to slip off the rails and leave your fitness and physical well-being behind. As I write this, it dawns on me that it’s beena week since I worked out. It isn’t that I’ve “gotten lazy” or have decided to no longer take fitness seriously, but with everything that daily life involves, fitness habits sometimes slip off to the side.

The important thing to remember is that this happens to everyone. Even the most disciplined of athletes will sometimes have dry spells where they go without working out for days at a time. As long as you come back to it once you realize the lapse, things can continue on smoothly.

Fitness doesn’t have to involve a huge commitment. A lot of people tend to have the perspective that “I’ll work out this afternoon” and assume it will take the afternoon. But you can maintain your fitness in a lot less time than that.

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/expert-answers/exercise/faq-20057916) There are conditions and add ons to that, if you expect to lose weight, gain muscle mass or have specific goals in mind.

Fitness can be as easy as going for a light run, bike ride or swim for a half hour or more. On more intense days, you can get into HIIT or circuit workouts and push for about 75 minutes if you’re looking to reach certain goals.

Even on days where I forget to slip a workout in, I usually remember to take a short period of time to go through my forms, kicks, punches and blocks. This usually works up a mild burn and gets me at least a bit sweaty in order to maintain my physical fitness.

Now is a good time to remind everyone that regular fitness will help with weight management, blood sugar levels, muscle mass and sleep patterns. No matter how much or how little you do, ANYTHING is still better than NOTHING. Keep at it and don’t be afraid to feel the burn. ☯

The Power of Will

People often don’t take into consideration the very essence of one’s will. The human body is more than just a sophisticated machine, it’s an almost perfect machine, despite our many imperfect uses for it. For the most part, we depend on modern medicine and doctors to fix our problems and rarely take into account our body’s ability to mend and heal just about anything that life has to throw at us.

First, I should start by pointing out that I’m not taking anything away from the people who have suffered and even succumbed to the the effects of any illness. Despite the point I’m trying to make here, sometimes the body can only take so much. And I’ve seen a lot of that in my life.

For the past twenty years, I’ve been friends with a guy who is about ten years younger than I am. His father, who was also Type 1 Diabetic, was about ten years older than I am. A bit of a strange scenario, as it kind of puts me in range to have a reasonable friendship with either party.

The father spent his life living with nothing but positivity in his heart. He and his wife had only the one son, and he spent his life living the way he wanted to. However, he suffered from many complications normally associated with Type 1 Diabetes. He had heart problems, vision problems and suffered amputations on both of his legs.

On the negative side, he was a very sedentary man… Reasonably overweight, never exercised, ate like a trash can, smoked and drank heavily; none of which are good components for healthy Diabetes management.

Towards the end of his life, he had lost both feet, suffered severe failure to his eyes and cardiovascular systems and no longer had any measurable control over his Diabetes or his life. Sadly, he passed away in 2014. I don’t know what the exact cause of death was, but given all his complications it could have been anybody’s guess. Such is the Diabetic life…

The passing of my friend’s father was devastating, not only to him but for the fact that it’s usually an awakening to people with Type 1 that perhaps they need to take a look at themselves and examine what they’ve been doing to maintain their health. So, what makes me different from the many folks who seem to struggle and fight so hard against the ravages of this condition?

I was diagnosed with type 1 Diabetes in 1982, right around the time I started kindergarten. Although insulin and other therapies were in existence in the early 80’s, I was lacking in several key areas that could have changed the course of my life from the very beginning. I had just joined the Beavers (before anyone decides to be funny, the Beavers are a pre-cursor to the Scouts) and my school life was still raw and new.

My teachers did what was expected of them, they explained to the class that I was “special” and that if anyone saw me acting strangely or appearing to be ill, she should be told immediately. Great. Thanks, teach! You just set me apart from the pack and ensured I was a loner for the foreseeable future. Fantastic. I had to drop out of Beavers because I was still in a stage where I didn’t have control and proper management of my blood sugars and I was left vulnerable.

If I hadn’t taken my life in hand and started taking steps towards improving my health, I likely would be in same boat as my friend’s father. Certainly, I suffered from insulin resistance and a number of Diabetes comas. But at some point early on, I decided to make some drastic changes, even at a young age. I started to focus on fitness and health. I got into the martial arts. I studied and got on board with nutrition and eating better. I made a difference in my own life.

Through my own will, despite being told I wouldn’t live beyond my teens, I improved my health and have managed to reach my 40’s without any loss of neural function, clean cardiovascular system and strong blood glucose management. Am I so different or better than anyone else? Of course not, I’ve simply chosen not to lie down and let my condition take me. And that’s something any of us can do.

I repeat it in most of my posts, but the important things in life are eating well, exercising often and be willing to always learn something new. New treatments and therapies keep coming out and you have to stay on top of them. Most of us always say that we don’t expect to see a cure within our lifetime, but life is strange. One truly never knows. But how this all plays out is totally in your hands.

Do I acknowledge that my life has been shortened by a decade or more from Diabetes? Do I understand that this condition may debilitate me or render some of my organs useless? Sure, I do. But it doesn’t mean I have to go down easy. If my time comes because of Type 1 Diabetes, it will be because I fought the good fight until the very end.

I encourage you all to do the same. Whether you have Diabetes or not, the lethargy and sluggishness that life breeds doesn’t need to have a hold on you. Through your own strength of will, you can change the course of whatever may have a hold on you. ☯

Too Many Ingredients Will Spoil The Stew…

I grew up in Northern New Brunswick and my entire family on my Mother’s side were Acadian. This meant that I was bought up around a certain number of… shall we say eccentricities surrounding some of their customs and habits. One of my most hated customs was Sunday dinner at my Grandmother’s house. That probably sounds way harsher than I mean it to. The reason I disliked it so much was because of the Acadian “cuisine” my Grandmother would serve.

In her mind, feeding a room full of family members involved piling meat, potatoes and maybe two or three different vegetables into a large pot with water and boiling the entire thing until everything was soft. Usually served with rolls or plain white bread, it wasn’t what any person would consider a savoury or satisfying meal. But it was food, and having raised a family through the Second World War, she was raised on the concept of feeding as many people as possible, as cheaply as possible. So she can hardly be blamed.

I remember that on one occasion, I decided I wanted to try “spicing” things up a bit and politely suggested that she add something other than beef, potatoes and turnips. That’s when my Grandmother, without stopping what she was doing or even looking up at me said, “Too many ingredients will spoil the stew!”

At the time, I was mostly pissed off at the prospect of another bland meal (I know, I know… unappreciative little jerk), but the words somehow stayed with me and have applied to a number of aspects of my life. Not least of which is the martial arts.

Studying the martial arts is a life-long endeavour. Hey, I’ve been studying the same style for over 31 years and there’s still a lot I have to learn. Something that’s been asked of me on a few occasions is whether or not it’s possible to study multiple styles at once. I can tell you from experience, it is not.

Just to be clear, when one chooses to begin studying, it’s important to find a style that suits your needs and personality. Martial arts is subjective to the practitioner. A kick boxer may swear by their art, while a karate practitioner believes their style is tops! Ask them to exchange places and they would be lost.

But once you’ve chosen your style, it’s important to stick with it in order to stay consistent. For example, although I study Okinawan Karate, I occasionally dabble with other styles and techniques. As Frank Dux once said, “never limit yourself to one style.”

Although I can agree with that sentiment, there are certain signs that may point to the fact that you’re watering yourself down in your training. If your style mainly involves strikes, it can be beneficial to spend a bit of time studying some grappling. Although it can be good to add to your repertoire, if you find that what you dabble in is starting to interfere with your main style, it may be time to back it off a notch.

I, for one, have studied 8 different styles over the past 30 years and have obtained black belts in two. Although not simultaneously. And for each of those styles, once attempted, I had to make peace with the fact that they didn’t suit me. I could never study any two of those styles at the same time as many of them would have conflicted with each other.

Too many ingredients will spoil the stew. Without even meaning to, my Grandmother taught me an important lesson about the martial arts that I’ve carried with me for decades, once again proving that we can find knowledge in the most unlikely of places. ☯