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A Journey to Shodan

On Monday, March 8, 2010 a student of mine named, Karen, started to write a journal in order to detail her personal feelings and thoughts as she worked towards her Shodan exam. In order to share her entries with others Karen created a blog and posted updates there regularly, but not every day. Her Shodan grading took place on, Friday, February 24, 2012. 

With Kareen’s permission I have made a copy of that journal and reprinted it here. I hope you enjoy this very interesting and thoughtful journal written by a dedicated student of Shotokan Karate-do.

Monday, March 8, 2010 - Starting to reflect.

Since returning to Shotokan Karate in 2008, after a rather long break (7 years), I have found a renewed passion for this sport. It took me the better part of a year to finally remember what the heck I was doing and reach the point of actually progressing.
Although it was a frustrating year, I am proud of myself for overcoming that obstacle and sticking with it. If I had started this Blog to document my progress back then, it would certainly be an interesting (and probably humourous) read. While attaining the rank of Shodan is not my main goal, I thought it would be interesting to record my experiences along the way. I'm sure to have ups and downs along the way, and what better way to reflect on my journey than to capture it here. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - Some of you are confused.

Ah Kobudo. Not my favourite form to practice at the dojo considering Karate means Empty Hand - hmmmm. Anyways. I didn't bring my Bo Staff tonight and of course it would be the night Sensei decided we practice Kobudo. Note to self - always bring your weapon!

With a full class of swinging Bo Staffs, I found myself ducking every now and then to avoid taking one to the head. Even with that distraction, I felt pretty good considering the Bo Basics are relatively new to me - I'd never done them prior to joining Olson's, and they aren't easy! I am slowly catching on and don't have to look at the students around me to see if I'm doing everything right - a major accomplishment from when I started at Olson's two years ago. I might not look as sharp as I would like, but at least I'm getting the hang of the moves and direction.

Patting myself on the back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010 - Karate is practiced from the ground up.

Practicing Karate is like riding a roller coaster; some days leave me feeling sky high on adrenaline because I'm doing so darned great, and others I can't wait to get the hell out of there and forget the experience ever happened. Tonight was one of those nights. The main difference is that when I come barreling towards earth on a roller coaster, I'm usually waving my hands in the air, screaming with reckless abandon. My emotional plummets in Karate - not so much.

I was feeling OK about our Bunkai tonight, until we had to perform in front of the class - then one wrong move and it all went down hill (a very steep hill). Yes, I KNOW I messed up, and I was frustrated enough with myself that it certainly didn't help when my Senseis pointed it out for the class to see - I understand, it's a learning moment for everyone. I usually don't mind being the centre of attention, but this was not one of those times. Enough already, I know I sucked!

I guess I need to keep reminding myself that I am there to learn. I am fortunate to have the ability to practice a sport I love, and the ups will come with downs. I just have to understand - I mean really understand - that I'm not going to be perfect - oooh, I can feel my eyes welling up...I repeat, I am not going to be perfect. That is one of my biggest challenges on this journey.

Deep breath.

Friday, March 19, 2010 - Get out of the school zone and onto the highway.

I focused on Jion for 1.5 hours tonight - the perfectionist in me doesn't like to move on until I've learned how to do everything just right, but let me tell you, it'll take more than 1.5 hours to get Jion just right. Sensei Lindsay enlightened me and pointed out why I lose my balance and why I over rotate - not just in Kata, but all around; I'm moving too slow, trying to get everything in place before the next move.

So after plenty of repetition it became apparent that when I move faster, I don't lose my balance. When I move in the direction of the attack, I don't have technical problems. My upper and lower body need to work together, faster. I need to stop thinking so much and let my body take over.

Tonight I learned the secret to Karate - connectivity.

Shhhhhhhh

Monday, April 12, 2010 - Take it with you when you leave.

Tonight was dedicated to Kata, and it is interesting that it took almost a full hour to go through four Kata plus the 'bonus' (Taikyoku Sandan) for good measure. I enjoy the details, and there were plenty pointed out this evening: posture, balance, timing, stances. Come to think of it, I'm sure I've heard all of this somewhere before... hmmm.

Tonight's lesson learned:
Heian Godan - take that Oi Zuki with you when you leave, and load it!

Again with the little things, I'm starting to see a pattern.

It's the little things.

Once upon a time I learned a series of Kata named the Heian Katas. Sometime after that, I'm not sure when it happened, small portions of each slowly left my memory, one by one, until somewhere within each Kata lies an area of uncertainty. This grey area prevents my body from doing the Kata with confidence, as I think three steps ahead wondering if I'm going to mess up once I reach that point of uncertainty. When you lose focus and think too much, you'll always run into trouble; my most recent class confirmed that.

What did I learn? or should I say - what was I reminded of? Mostly little things.
Heian Sandan - don't bend your wrists.
Heian Nidan - relax your shoulders and DON'T bring your feet together for the yoko geri.

Losing focus on all these important little things is a direct result of the areas of uncertainty. Regardless of how frustrated I felt after that class, it has pushed me to become more invested in what I should already know. So now, with my slightly obsessive personality, I have been repeating the patterns in my mind - on the bus, at work, as I try to fall asleep at night - and jumping into each Kata at every opportunity which includes the grocery store aisle when nobody is looking. I should be at the point where my body does the Kata, not my head, and I'm not quite there. However, with this recent reality check, I'm actually getting there, and I look forward to the day that I can post, without hesitation, that I know what lies at the end of Heian Nidan - a gedan barai, age uke - NOT two shuto ukes! Yes, it has happened - more than once.

Practice. And the little things will fall into place.

Monday, April 19, 2010 - Don't overthink, just do.

I don't usually go to class on Monday nights, but with my grading coming up on Friday, I thought I should get in as much training as possible - and with the way I felt about my stances this evening, it's a good thing I went. I clearly need to keep working on those.

That darned open stance has been a thorn in my side since day one at Olson's, it just feels wrong, so tonight, with some help, I finally go it feeling... well, not quite so wrong. With each move made, there is so much to think about: are my feet pointing in the right direction? is my stance rooted, too wide or too narrow? are my shoulders relaxed? The more I focus on one thing, the more the rest of it falls apart. Sheesh.

Something to remember: use your hips to open your stance, NOT your feet. Easier said than done, but again, with enough practice I'll stop over-thinking every single movement and just do it. I look forward to that day.

Thursday, April 29, 2010 - Grading. (Brown Belt)

Well, it's been almost a week since my grading and I haven't found the time to actually sit down and capture the experience here.

The short version: I passed!
The long version: Where to begin...well, I went in feeling I was as prepared as I could have been; I really put in the time and practiced on my own - a lot.

The grading itself lasted about 1.5 hours and started with quite a number of elements I have not practiced in - lets see - 10 years! After receiving my Brown Belt oh so many years ago, I took a loooooooong break. When I finally arrived at Olson's, I immediately went to work catching up on lost time, but basics in full stance have not been touched on - until the test. Not fair - but they warned us to expect the unexpected, and I was definitely not expecting that. I fumbled through and breathed a sigh of relief when that portion of the grading was over.
Senseis 1. Karen 0.

My basics were half decent, but of course I messed up here and there. What can you do? I wasn't anticipating perfection - I did my best and I'm happy with my effort.

As it turns out, I only had to do two Katas out of the nine I had been practicing, but I'm glad I had them ready, I didn't want to be caught off guard and mess up on Heian Sandan or anything crazy like that.

Sunday, May 16, 2010 - Moving forward.

Kanku Dai.
Until now I've not been focused on learning this kata because it has been beyond my rank level. For me, it is a personal decision of which some do not agree - in fact I have had many a friendly disagreement with a dear friend of mine over this very issue - I choose to learn rank appropriate kata and focus on doing them well. I am not easily bored with repetition - this is my journey. 

Now that I have reached 2nd Kyu, it's time for me to begin the process of learning Kanku Dai, so on Friday night I did just that. The blocks and strikes are familiar, but the sequence is completely new, so focus is key in this kata. Repetition and focus - oh, and a little something that can't be taught - patience. That's on me.

Friday, July 23, 2010  - The same but different.

So, here I am in Rome Italy fresh from my first international Shotokan experience.
It would seem that no matter where I train, I will receive the same comments:
1) Relax
2) Don't lean
Both are things I have been told repeatedly, but still manage for some reason to elude me.
I will also notice differences such as stances, various movements in Kata and although all commands are in Japanese, if the instructor has an accent (as was the case for me here in Italy) - even a simple word like Rei, doesn't sound like the word I am used to.

I arrived at the dojo at 7pm, ready for the 7:30pm start - only the class didn't start at 7:30, it started at 8pm - slight change in schedule, but after waiting for 45 minutes, I was sure it had been cancelled and actually packed up my things and went to change out of my gi!  Luckily I passed a gentleman in the hall wearing a gi (who didn't speak English) and I managed to mime my way through a conversation, and learned that class would begin shortly. As it turns out, the summer sessions are much the same as they are at home - sparsley attended due to vacations etc, so it was myself and two Shodans training for the evening. 

Sensei Castellani is very kind, however I can imagine that in a fully attended session, he would be a very firm instructor respected by all students.  He speaks English well, but is much like Sensei Lindsay, he doesn't actually need to speak in order to teach, one can understand simply by watching.
The session lasted just over one hour and was extremely hot, I think the hottest I've ever experienced while training and I felt nautious. I didn't want to be the wimpy foreigner, so I sucked it up and managed to last the entire class without passing out! I learned afterwards that some students actually do, so I wouldn't have been the first. The floor was well padded - about three times as thick and soft as Olson's - which caused me to trip up a few times which was slightly embarrassing, but overall, I think I did OK, didn't embarrass myself TOO much and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Next time I travel, I will absolutely search out a Shotokan dojo and request to join in.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - Room for improvement.

Each class I attend I do my best take something from it, big or small, I take something. Tonight's class was no exception.

It makes sense that at this point in my training I should recognize things within my own skill-set that need improvement, and consciously work on them at every opportunity. The trouble is, there are so many things that I know I need to work on - basic things - where to start!?

  • Don't lean

  • Relax my shoulders

  • Stances! Knee over toe

  • Stances! Hips rotate to open the stance, not the knee

  • Kata - keep the forward momentum

  • Shuto - don't tuck my elbow so close to my body

  • Don't 'place' my kicks

This is just my short list of things that continue to frustrate me; I'm sure I'll come up with more things to add after next class.
With all this to think about, it's a wonder I'm not tripping over myself constantly. Supposedly there will come a time when my head will stay out of it, and my body will just 'do'.  I guess there is another one to add to my list - Don't overthink.  Aaagh.

Monday, August 9, 2010 - Getting the 'Goodies'.

Some of my friends like to tease me for going to Karate on Friday nights (what, doesn't everybody?!?).
These friends of course are not Karateka, and do not understand why I have such a passion for this sport.  The truth is, I learn more in one Friday night class than I do any other night of the week - the class is two hours long and attendance is generally lower so there is more opportunity to focus on details. In short, I go to class on Friday nights to get the 'Goodies'.

This past Friday night I worked on my front stance. To the non-Karateka, practicing a front stance for 20 minutes might seem like an odd way to spend an evening, but this is the kind of focus I need for things to sink in. I still need loads of practice before this feels natural, but I'm slowly getting better.
Front stance tip of the night: Forward and down, let gravity settle you into your stance.

I also worked on Kanku Dai for over an hour - all the little bits that bring it together and elevate me from just going through the motions, to performing the Kata with skill. Paying attention to the movements within the movements...or...the Goodies. I'm sure my head will still be in this Kata for the foreseeable future as I remind myself every step of the way that there is only now. Ichi go, ichi eh.
Kanku Dai tip of the night: too many to list here! I just hope I can remember them all.

Some people say practice makes perfect, but that's a pretty lofty goal, so for now I like to say:
practice makes me better than I was yesterday.

Thursday, September 2, 2010 - Mistakes are the most important part of learning.

Kata is something I need to practice more often, and tonight was certainly confirmation of that.

I still find myself thinking too much, and being too critical of myself during the kata – the second I start to think "shoot, my toes pointed up on that sidekick" BAM, I've lost my focus and I immediately mess up. In turn, I am frustrated with myself for making a mistake, and there is simply no recovering from that, as I find myself standing on the sidelines watching a yellow belt complete the kata that I couldn't - which is a very humbling experience indeed.

I've mentioned this many times in my previous posts: supposedly the day will come when I stop thinking and my body will take over and get me through the kata thoughtlessly. Tonight, wasn't that night. Repetition is the key for me to learn something inside and out, so if I only do Heian Godan once a month, I cannot reasonably expect my body to know what to do. I know exactly how it will play out: my mind will take over and think "It's been a long time since I've done this one. How does it end? I hope I don't mess this up..." It will be over before I even start.
Tip of the night: Practice all of my kata. Often.

If mistakes are the most important part of learning... well, I did many very important things this evening.

Thursday, September 9, 2010 - I'm in control...kind of.

One of the many things I enjoy about Karate is that by nature, it is an individual sport. I have a choice in how far I take my training, and how fast or slow I progress. If I choose to stay late and continue training after class has ended I personally benefit. If for some reason I choose to not give 100%, I am the only one affected by my actions.

For a sport that I love so much, sadly there are some things about it that do not appeal to me, and ‘performing’ in front of a group tops the list, in fact, I feel so strongly about it, that it takes the top five places on that list. My friends would find this ironic, because I am someone who has spent a great deal of time on stage performing: acting, improvising and singing. After a few minutes, the audience disappears and it’s just me out there, but for reasons I cannot explain, Karate is different. When asked to stand in front of the class and ‘perform’, I unravel. I really do not like all eyes on me, watching my every move. Maybe the belt I wear puts pressure on me to prove that I have earned my rank, or maybe it is that I don’t want to let my instructors down because they have spent so much time working with me; if I make mistakes it appears that I haven’t been paying attention or taken my training seriously.  

One thing I do know:

On the spot + Karen = a performance I surely will not be proud of.

Stop looking at me and I'll do just fine. Really. I will.

Perhaps over time this will change, but so far, no such luck. It is part of who I am.
It's actually a wonder I've made it through any promotions at all with such a thorn in my side.

Friday, September 24, 2010 - Bring the darkness with you.

I talk a lot about Kata in my blog, and the reason is that I know it gives me a fair share of trouble. Rare is the class that I leave on a high note after doing Kata.

My body doesn't seem to have too much trouble with kicks or punches, and I think I do a good job of letting it take over through basics. I am able to maintain focus and make my way through without over-thinking everything – I dare say I feel somewhat relaxed with these elements.

Kata is different. I am so busy thinking 'don't lean on the next kick', and 'don't fall into another Kata', that I only go through the motions to reach the end. I don't put feeling into what I am doing. Perhaps this is because I'm not confident enough to really put emotion into it – throwing a lot of emotion into a Kata that is sure to be full of mistakes...now that would just look silly. Bassai Godan anyone? "But she looked like she really meant it...."

The most helpful piece of advice I have received regarding this obstacle, is to put on my Kata mask and bring the darkness with me. Not so much literally (although it helps for the purposes of a good demonstration, and makes for a class people wish they hadn't missed), but more figuratively. With my mask on I can transform myself into someone truly ready to kick ass. In the darkness I don't have to feel self-conscious and worry about making mistakes, I can do the Kata full of emotion, purpose and forward momentum.
The trick is to remember to bring my mask with me, and to mentally turn off the lights before each Kata. Tune everyone out and not care what they think, because they make mistakes too. 

Imagine how great it would look, if everyone did Kata with their masks on.

Saturday, September 25, 2010 - There once were three raccoons...

..because of their mischievous nature, these poor raccoons were blamed for something they didn't do, as a dog sat unnoticed under the car eating the missing wieners.
But, you see what you see.
Not following? Well I'm sorry, but you missed a stellar class this evening.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 - Ignoring the voices.

Some nights I need a little motivation to get me to the Dojo. After 10-hour work days, I often arrive home and would love nothing more than to lie on the couch and close my eyes 'just for a minute'.  There begins the struggle to ignore the voice in my head: "If I don't go tonight, for sure I will go on Thursday", or "I've been going a lot lately, I deserve a night off."  Surely, I'm not alone in this experience.
Sometimes that voice gets the better of me, and when it does, I spend the rest of the evening feeling guilty and wishing I had gone after all.

If I had listened to that voice last night, I wouldn't have been reminded how to avoid a narrow stance while stepping through a shuto. I also wouldn't have had the opportunity to help Daniel Bunkai Jion and Empi in preparation for his Shodan grading in December.

When I do manage to ignore that voice, I'm always glad I did.
I'm seeing a pattern here though – voices in my head disrupting my focus during Kata, and trying to talk me out of going to the Dojo...someone is trying to sabotage me. Who would do that?

Monday, October 4, 2010 - The common purpose.

Every time I attend class, I am reminded that each student (including myself) learns at a different pace and excels in a different area. Where one person performs Kata with fierce determination, another will routinely land an admirable front stance. In short, each student brings his or her own unique quality to the Dojo.

Gender aside, first and foremost I am a Karateka. I am dedicated, I focus my energy, and train with passion every time I enter the Dojo. This is my journey and my motivation is to better myself, not to be better than anyone else. I believe we are all training in a sport we mutually enjoy, and we should afford each other the respect we deserve for simply being there.

Next time you enter your Dojo, take a moment to look around and appreciate that everyone, regardless of their gender, age or physical ability, is there for one common purpose.

Monday, October 25, 2010 - A new approach.

With another promotion night looming in the near future, I find myself once again thinking of all the things I need to focus on – basics, kata, timing, technique, stances, and posture to name only a few.

This time however, I’ve decided to approach the grading differently – dare I say – with confidence. Not an arrogant confidence, but through the simple act of believing in myself. It is time to put self-doubt aside and enjoy the journey. I know my list of requirements; I’ve trained them repeatedly. I know there are things I need to work on, and I do. Every time I take class I learn something new and finesse my technique, so my skills are constantly evolving. So too should my strength of mind.

Now, lets see if this works.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010 - The Notebook.

One of the many things I have learned about myself in my years of Karate training is that I learn through repetition. Doing specific moves over and over to build them into my cell memory seems to be the only way I am able to retain information. If I only do something two or three times, forget it. Literally.

Take bunkai for example. Everyone on the team has a part to play, and those parts come and go quickly which doesn’t really afford time to embed them into one’s memory. If you practice one section over and over, the rest of the team is left waiting, so generally sections aren’t repeated more than three times before moving on. For me personally, by next class I won’t recall what my specific movements were, and if you mess up in bunkai, you risk taking a shot square in the face. Enter – the notebook.

At first, I was shy about bringing my notebook along with me to our bunkai training sessions. Instead I would excuse myself, take my notebook out of my gym bag and write feverishly before I forgot what I just did. When that became inconvenient, I brought the notebook with me and left it nearby to jot things down as necessary. People would tease me for using it, others wondered what the heck I was doing, and one of my Sensei's once threatened to burn it.
The truth is, that notebook got me through my first bunkai group last April. I could reference my notes, practice my sections at home, and arrive to the next class prepared. I didn't have to re-learn everything the next time our group met.

Being on two teams now for a December grading brings the pressure of remembering four different bunkai, but this time, I'm not shy about bringing my notebook. I've learned its value and apparently so have others. Now, when the team forgets what we did last week, they are actually asking me what the notebook says.

These days, I don't go to class without it.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - The Shotokan resolution.

Some months ago, after mental blocking on a few katas during class, I decided that the only way I was going to really build them into my body memory was by practicing each kata once every morning. I envisioned myself soaring through kata, never stumbling, finally doing them with confidence and feeling, beginning to end, no mistakes - I would practice my heart out and reap the benefits. This sure sounded like a good idea at the time. Actually, it was a good idea, but have I done it? No. Well, I did a few times but then my early morning enthusiasm faltered. I liken it to a new year’s resolution; one has high hopes and all the heart in the world – for the first two or three weeks.

This utter resolution failure came to light last night when I had a mental block during Bassai Dai and Jion, both katas I know well. Or so I thought. As I stood there wondering what the heck comes next, I thought to myself – if only I’d stuck to my resolution and practiced my kata once every morning, I wouldn’t be in this position now. I hate that feeling, standing clueless in the middle of a kata - I get disappointed in myself and extremely frustrated. I was able to finish each kata on my own, after everyone else had finished, but you can bet your last dollar I went home and repeated each of those kata until I worked past my blocks. As it turns out, I was inventing a new kata: Bassai...Nidan. What???

This got me thinking: how does one stay committed to a resolution? What it really comes down to is self-discipline, so it's all up to me. I'll have to work through my excuses, the main one being that I don't have enough time...if I'm serious, I'll make the time.

So - I have two new resolutions:

  1. Arrive to class early enough to practice two kata of my choice, on my own.

  2. I will practice each kata once on Saturday and Sunday morning (caveat: morning = after  I get up, if that happens to be noon, well then, that’s when I’ll do them).

I'll report back in a few weeks.

Sunday, November 7, 2010 - Go punch yourself.

Of the thousands of punches I've thrown in my years of training, none have ever felt perfect. I often wonder if I was ever in a situation where I really had to haul off and punch someone in self defense, would it actually do damage?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

This past week has been a great lesson for me regarding just that. Last Friday I was shown a secret: an effective punch is more than just hip rotation and muscle. Now each time I throw a punch, whether it be in kata or basics, I feel a marked difference.

In another class, we were told to go practice punching ourselves in front of the mirror. Watching myself revealed a lot, mainly the difference between how I thought it would look and the reality of how it really looks. This gave me the opportunity to study myself, and of course from there, learn where I can improve. For me, the improvement comes when I punch in the same space - simple yet effective. This, combined with the secret from the previous week (I'm still not telling exactly what that is), has taught me something very valuable and I am excited that my technique is improving.

So, no more going through the motions, I've been given this new tool, and I intend to use it.
Another secret? It works for blocks too - such a nifty and versatile little technique.

Friday, November 12, 2010 - Crazy man's kata.

Last class we were taught a new kata, one that doesn’t exist in any Shotokan syllabus. I’ve never done Heian Shodan with age uke stepping backwards, or shuffle stances when turning, by the time class ended I still hadn’t mastered the movements. I left confused and tried to mentally erase what I’d ‘kind of’ learned.

I suppose I’m relatively close minded when it comes to this sort of thing – while I enjoy a challenge, I enjoy one that will improve my skills and technique. I have an inherent resistance to learning something I don’t absolutely need to know, and my walls immediately go up. I am currently focused on practicing the nine kata required for my 1st kyu grading next month and I just can’t stuff anything new and obscure into my memory at this point in time. The grading list involves specific items, and this particular kata isn’t one of them. Walls officially up.

This has really been bugging me; in fact it is so annoying that I can’t stop thinking about it. I find myself randomly visualizing the sequence of movements – as I try to fall asleep, on the bus, during the day at work…if I’m alone I try to piece together one or two of the turns. Away from the distractions of class, I’ve had time to slow down and think about what I am doing.

Perhaps the point was to get me thinking.

I think it worked.

Darn it.

Friday, November 19, 2010 - Bunkai

My arms are sore and a rainbow of unflattering colours blot my forearms – here we go again, it’s bunkai time.

For the second time this year, I find myself on a bunkai team gearing up for a Shodan grading. On one hand I am learning a lot, it is certainly preparing me for the day I must assemble and train with my own bunkai team, on the other hand, I find it quite stressful with so many things to remember. Thankfully I’m only in four different katas, but still, timing, distance, and accuracy all play a part in bringing them together, so lots of hard work and many hours of commitment are involved.

The most difficult part for me is focusing on the kata itself. At times, I find myself thinking ahead to my own next sequence and I lose track of the kata – then I scramble to keep up when it’s suddenly my turn. More than anything, this is the part I need to practice – being in the moment, not ten steps ahead. If I can get that under control everything will flow a little easier for me.

Now, if only we’d stop changing the moves – agh. For now, though, it’s a good thing I’ve got my notebook to remind me what the heck to do, otherwise I’d be on the losing end of a few exchanges, guaranteed.

Sunday, November 21, 2010 - Proper punctuation, ; ! .

Like any writer, sometimes I get hung up on punctuation. First, I write, then I fuss over the details. Did I use a semicolon where a comma was more appropriate? Did I really complete that thought, or should I remove the period and add a few more words? It can be tedious, but in the end, I'm usually happy with what I have written.

It's interesting how something like punctuation can be present in kata. I'd never thought of it that way until the idea was presented to me in class this past Friday night. It's important in kata to pause (comma) in just the right places, know where to insert a Kiai (exclamation point), and certainly to end strong (full stop/period). When I break it down like that, I know there are sections of my kata where punctuation doesn't really exist, simply because I'm busy trying to get through it without making mistakes (reference the many entries I've written about self-confidence). Now that it has been explained to me in a way I can relate, I look forward to seeing my skills improve in that area.

Kata shouldn't be one long run-on sentence; proper punctuation will take it to the next level full stop

Wednesday, December 1, 2010 - Hands up.

“Hands up if you think you’re ready to be graded”.
Well, that’s a tough one. In terms of basics, yes, I think I’m ready. There are a few things I will brush up on before next Friday night, but I’m confident that I know what I’m doing. To get through this portion of the test successfully all I need to do is listen and focus, and I’ll do just fine.

Kata is a different story. Kanku Dai – the longest kata in Shotokan Karate – is my kata for 1st kyu, and no amount of practice will make me feel like I know it well enough for grading. Take last night for instance – in the very first move my foot was out of position, repeatedly. This would be frowned upon in a grading, in fact I frown upon it the second I feel myself doing it. I expect a lot from myself and I want to know it well, and perform it well. On the other hand, if I wait until I perfect the Kata I’ll probably be at 2nd kyu indefinitely because there will always be more to learn.

I suppose if the grading is based on how much I have improved since my last promotion, then yes, I’m ready. I am confident I have done that. I know perfection is not sought by my Sensei's, nor is it expected. I put that on myself. If this is the case, ask me the question again and I’ll put my hand up without hesitation.

Sunday, December 5, 2010 - Let your conscience be your guide.

Am I ever glad I went to class this morning; I learned so many new things, including how to sing.

Now, one might think singing has nothing to do with karate, however, by doing so today I learned a valuable lesson on how to breathe properly during kata. When you sing a song as you do your kata you will be forced to breathe, rather than hold your breath which many people do. Most of the time I find I have the opposite problem, I breathe out on every move and before I know it I am completely winded, this exercise really helped me to control that. Another unexpected benefit, was that while singing, I wasn't thinking about every move I was doing, and my body did the kata rather than my head. FINALLY! 

Eventually this lesson evolved into 'singing the kata' so as Sensei stood behind me, saying "Turn, hit, hit, block, punch, breathe, go now!" like my conscience sitting on my shoulder, I felt inspired to really push myself. I think my kata today improved exponentially. Wow, that conscience of mine can really light a fire.

Tidbits to remember:

  • Kanku Dai - remember the new leg/foot positioning when dropping down to the floor.

  • Kanku Dai - finishing move is no longer crossing arms - left hand stays on hip, while right blocks - then finish. 

  • Sing every kata.     

Monday, December 6, 2010 - The Shotokan resolution - an update.

It has been brought to my attention that I've been remiss in writing an update on the progress of my Shotokan resolution, although I've been meaning to do so for a few weeks now. Thanks to Terry for the gentle reminder - so here goes...I'll lay it all out there.

To recap the resolution:

  1. Arrive to class early enough to practice two kata of my choice, on my own.

  2. I will practice each kata once on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Resolution number one:
Update: Admittedly, this has been difficult to maintain.
Excuse: Arriving to class early has proven to be a challenge for me - 45 minutes after arriving home from work, class starts - most days this feels a bit rushed.
Reality: My dojo is 4 minutes from home - I need to try a little harder on this one.

Resolution number two:
Update: I'm happy to say, hasn't been as difficult as number one. I have a small personal dojo in my basement and I've been practicing my kata...ok, maybe not each of them as the resolution specifies. Why not? Shoot, what's my...
Excuse: I can't really think of one. Recently I've been focused on my grading kata for my promotion coming up this Friday night, so Kanku Dai has been top of the list, with secondary focus on Jion and Bassai Dai to keep them top of mind. So yes, I've been practicing, just not all of them. That’s something right?
Reality: I might be asked to do Heian Godan or one of the other lower level katas in my promotion, who knows. Am I ready for the unexpected? I think so, but that's not good enough. I need to be confident that I can do any kata asked of me without falter.

Back to the resolution. This time I'll do it. Really, I will. Starting by showing up early for class tomorrow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010 - 1st Kyu grading.

Well, my long anticipated 1st Kyu grading is now complete; it's an experience I will never have again, so I'll record the good, the bad and the ugly here for prosperity.

I went in feeling really good after deciding the best way to approach it was to look at it as just another class. I wasn't about to be asked to do anything I wouldn't normally encounter in class, so my nerves didn't get the better of me.

The Good: I was prepared! I am so glad I stuck (as best I could) to my resolution and practiced my kata. I was asked to perform all of them, and without that additional practice I'm sure I would have stumbled or lost my way here or there. I was able to start and finish each with the confidence that I knew what I was doing.

The Bad: I was the only one grading for 1st Kyu, so I had to do Kanku Dai on my own, in front of a generous size crowd. I messed up after the third move (forgetting my kick), however, I was allowed to start again, only this time I had to turn around and do it facing the aforementioned crowd. Typically I get super confused when asked to do a kata facing a different direction (luckily I'd practiced that too), and nervous when people watch me – but I managed to put on my kata mask, focus, and with the help of a little conscience on my shoulder yelling at me to punch and turn, I did just fine - although it did forget to tell me to kiai once :-/
So, I guess this part can be considered 1/2 bad, but with a good ending.

The Ugly: Admittedly there were a few ugly parts – such as doing Bunkai for Jion with only a few moments notice. It wasn't pretty, but I fumbled my way through it. That was actually the first time I'd really been in the middle of a bunkai, and if I was being graded on that alone, well, there is no way I would have passed, I admit, it was pretty ugly.

I didn't display perfection, but I did my very best and am proud of my effort and the result...I passed!

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - My nemesis - Hangetsu.

Well, I guess the time had to come – and to be perfectly honest, I really haven’t been looking forward to it. It’s time to learn Hangetsu.

I really love kata, and I’d even venture to say it is my favourite part of Karate. Despite the many challenges they present, and no matter how frustrated I am while practicing them, I’m always eager to tweak the details and make them look as good as I can. I personally think they can be a thing-of-beauty to watch - with the exception of Hangetsu. In my years of training, this is the one kata I have never enjoyed watching, and have actually avoided learning until absolutely necessary – and much to my chagrin, it seems that time has come. CURSES!

It’s the leg positioning. Simple as that. From the waist up, I anticipate it will be somewhat enjoyable to learn, but I’ll certainly need to get over the foot, and leg position. Not that I won’t be able to do it, it just looks…well…not right. Legs staggered, toes pointing in, knees together… it’s meant to defend against a kick to the groin – but I don’t know. It just looks wrong; I’m all about the aesthetics.

This is going to be one of my biggest challenges yet. I really enjoy karate, and of course kata, and to practice something repeatedly that I don’t like – I will have a hard time with that. It is a necessary part of my Shodan grading, so I foresee spending a lot of time on it, who knows, maybe it’ll grow on me.
Only time will tell.

Monday, January 10, 2011 - 2011 Goals

Well, it's 2011 and I'm going to try something new – set myself a few goals regarding my training this year, so here goes:

  1. First and foremost, this will be my Shodan year. It's a lofty goal, so I best train with that in mind each and every class.

  2. Give 100% every class.  I admit sometimes I slack off a bit: lazy with my back stance because my muscles are tired and object, I don't execute punches and blocks in basics to the best of my ability because it can be exhausting – you know the general excuses.

  3. Stance. I will finally nail my open front stance once and for all. It's time to stop over-thinking it, and get it into my muscle memory. If I have to dedicate entire classes to doing just that, I will.

  4. Yoga. I've never really had any interest in yoga, it's far too gentle – I much prefer to punch and kick things. However, I've recently been told it would do wonders for my flexibility and reduce the possibility of pulled and strained muscles – ultimately helping me....

  5. Have an injury free year. If I stick to number three on my list, this may be attainable. So once my two injuries from 2010 are healed (right wrist and arm), this new goal will kick in.

It will be interesting to look back on this list one year from now and see how many I've managed to attain. Hopefully all of them, so having this in writing will be a good frame of reference for me and keep my goals top of mind.

One year – starting now.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - And so my journey continues.

Class last night really felt like the first night of my Shodan training as I practiced the three new Kata I must know for my grading: Empi, Tekki Nidan and Hangetsu.

Tekki Nidan is new to me. I’ve seen others do it in class, and even tried to fumble my way through without success, so I’ve been looking forward to learning this one. My brain was working overtime to get the pattern down, making sure my hands and feet were positioned correctly – this is one where I should be practicing a nice deep stance, knees out, and good posture from the outset. Note to self: No lazy stances in this Kata!

As the time ticked by, I noticed that I was consciously avoiding Hangetsu (to fully understand, read my previous post regarding My Nemesis). I know I should be practicing it, but chose Empi and Tekki Nidan instead... I need to learn those as well, so I wasn’t really doing anything wrong, but my internal judge was making me feel guilty. So, alas with 15 minutes left, I tried to remember the pattern of Hangetsu and slowly went over it a few times.

Something I’ve thought about often is that I should actually be enjoying the frustrations of learning new things, rather than letting it get to me. Once I allow myself to become frustrated, it's an uphill battle and that energy is best spent elsewhere. I love Karate and so too should I love the process of learning, no matter how many times I stumble, mess up and draw complete blanks.

So as of today:
Empi – I know the pattern well, it still however needs the details and a little less thinking.
Tekki Nidan – The pattern is getting there, it needs rhythm and a lot less thinking.
Hangetsu – Still mental gaps in the pattern and the last sequence of moves for some reason won’t stick. Once I get that down, I need to start practicing it with the proper stance (ugh) and breathing.

Monday, January 31, 2011 - Tekki Knee-dan

In yesterday's class I spent a solid hour working on Tekki Nidan. Aside from simply learning the pattern, I've made a commitment to myself to always perform the kata in a proper kiba-dachi – which is easier said than done, considering it is the only stance in the kata and it appears eight times throughout.

Each time I land the stance I do a four-point mental check:

  1. Feet facing forward

  2. Back straight

  3. Hips forward

  4. Knees out

If my knees fall in, it is a sure sign my posture is poor and my hips aren't in the correct position. When in a proper, deep stance you can bet I feel it – my quads burn a little, my ankles feel the pressure, and my knees will ache the next morning (if I've done the kata for an hour, so I learned today). If I feel nothing, I've cheated myself with lazy stances.

For now, as I'm still learning the kata, it can be a bit distracting to do this check every time; sometimes after correcting my stance I've forgotten where I am in the kata and have to retrace my steps. This being said, practicing in full stance will pay off in the end because I want my body to learn it as well as my mind. And when my body knows it, my mind won't have to.

Thursday, February 10, 2011 - It’s a Cha, Cha, Cha. Not a slow dance.

I was fortunate enough to have some one-on-one time on Tuesday during and after class. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of that to finally ‘get’ something.

Lesson number one – stances. They can be frustrating to master and a bit uncomfortable to hold, but I really enjoy the challenge. Kiba Dachi, in my opinion, is the most uncomfortable stance of all, if you’re doing it right. I endeavor to always practice with the below points in mind so it will become easier with time, but at this point, I cannot hold this stance for very long. As a matter of fact, I am in a proper Kiba Dachi as I write this one sentence, and feel like I just can’t type fast enough – I’m ready to collapse.

One trick I learned was to practice by standing against a wall for posture:

  • If your back and shoulders aren’t touching the wall, you’re not in the correct stance.

  • If your quads aren’t burning, you’re not in the correct stance.

  • If your inner thighs aren’t tightened to tilt your hips forward, you guessed it, not in the correct stance.

Final Tip: When in a proper Kiba Dachi, simply shift either of your feet 90 degrees outwards and...voila, you're in a nice Kokutsu Dachi! Amazing.

Lesson number two – basics. I continued to work on my own after class ended, at which time my conscience stopped by with some pointers and kicked me into gear. Basics at my level are about three things:

  1.          Technique

  2.          Speed

  3.          Momentum

It is time for me to build on my skills by adding speed and momentum to the technique. No more rhythmic ‘slow dancing’ through the moves, making them look all pretty – hit ‘em, chase ‘em down! If I do it correctly, I should have extra momentum after my final technique and will need a few extra steps to bring myself to a stop – like a little cha, cha, cha at the end. After practicing this for only a few minutes, I was winded.
Note to self: step up your conditioning!

When you receive something of value, you should find a safe place to put it. This blog serves as my safe place. With so much valuable information being passed on to me, I know I could never rely on my memory to recall it when needed. How else could I possibly hope to remember it all?

Thursday, February 17, 2011 - My Signature.

When I first came back to Karate I was very unsure of myself, and rightfully so. I’d missed many years, and memories of what I’d learned in the past had all but faded. Relearning everything was difficult and Kata was certainly no exception; I used to know what I was doing, but now I was watching other students for queues on what came next. I soon learned that relying on other people was risky, because although everyone looked much more confident than I, they are human and make mistakes too. I wasn’t improving by following others.

Once I had learned all my Kata with a certain amount of confidence, I fell back into a similar pattern. When the class was asked to do Kata as a group, I would try to keep up, and finish with everyone; I didn’t want to finish last and have everyone watching me. My form was suffering. By trying to keep up, I was cheating my stances, shortening my blocks and not completing one move before moving on to the next. I needed to slow down, regardless of what everyone else was doing. I’ve come to learn that it isn’t a race.

Every kata is mine. Mine to learn and mine to interpret. Where I might pause after a sequence, others may continue right through. I might rip through the first five or six moves and then slow down, it all depends on where I think my attacker may be coming from. No longer does a pause in my kata mean ‘Crap, what’s next? Where was I? What kata am I doing???’ Although admittedly, that is exactly what it has meant in the past. Now, it’s my signature.

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - Form vs. Function.

There are two ways to do a kata: one for form and the other for function, or in other words – Bunkai. I’ve done enough bunkai to know that every move in a kata has more than one function, the tough part is figuring out exactly what that is.

I am used to doing kata for form, trying to make my movements as sharp as possible and letting my body take over instead of my head. I feel with bunkai I am taking a step backwards though, because suddenly my head takes over again and I’m constantly thinking about who is standing where and at what level the next attack will be placed. Adjusting the more precise moves for functionality can be mind-bending to say the least.

With the prospect of some serious bunkai training on the horizon, I feel myself slowing my katas down slightly as I actually visualize someone standing on the receiving end of my blocks, kicks and punches. What exactly should I use that shuto for? A block? A strike? Both? Is my gedan blocking a kick or punch? Is it even a block? I probably should have been incorporating this into my training all along.

Two of my problem areas are being creative (coming up with unique bunkai moves) and remembering things (retaining said bunkai moves in my memory for longer than 10 minutes). I have had some challenges in the past, but to come up with my own individual bunkai for six kata is going to be the biggest challenge of my karate experience to date.

Thursday, April 7, 2011 - Karate of the mind...and spirit.

I’ve been out of commission for the better part of a month, and Karate has been on my mind the whole time. I really don't like missing class, so I am actually going through Karate withdrawal.

First, a bad cold in early March lasted for two weeks and then turned into a terrible cough, which in turn re-fractured my rib – an injury I originally suffered two years ago. The pain is indescribable. Sigh. I admire UFC fighters. How in the world can they take repeated kicks to the ribs with the force of a semi-truck, and keep going – when I cough and fracture mine, sidelining me for a month or more? Note to self, take more calcium supplements!

So here I sit – trying not to cough, breathing shallow, no sudden movements, reading other peoples Karate blogs with envy, as I anticipate another few weeks of recovery time. Time away from the Dojo = time away from my Shodan training. Very frustrating.

The other day I attempted to very slowly perform Kanku Dai – or at least go through the motions so my patterns are still top of mind upon my return. When that proved too painful, I began practicing Karate of the mind. This is where rather than physically performing the kata, I do it in my mind, and wow, trust me it's not an easy thing to do! My mind wanders and I have to force it back on track by starting the kata over again in my head. It takes a very long time to complete a kata this way.
Admittedly, it isn't quite the workout that doing the physical kata is, but it's the best I can do at this point – and I have to do something. My mind and spirit are willing, but my rib fiercely objects at this time. I need to pay attention to that and take it easy.

Two things I've learned:

  1. Protect your ribs at all costs - even T3's don't touch this kind of pain.

  2. At the first sign of a cough - take Buckleys. It does taste terrible, but it's a very small price to pay.

Monday, May 2, 2011 - What I've been missing.

Well, the day finally came! With my rib almost healed I returned to the Dojo for a two hour class on Sunday. I had planned to wait it out a few more days and go back to class on Tuesday, however, after watching a grading on Friday night I was inspired and realized just how much I've been missing over the past seven weeks.

The majority of my time was spent practicing Bunkai which was great, it's the thing I am most worried about for my Shodan grading. Kata, basics, combinations and kicks I can practice on my own, but - I believe I've mentioned this before - I have a tough time remembering things (hence my Notebook) and the thought of having to be creative enough to develop, and then remember Bunkai for six different Kata is enough to make me slightly nauseous.

After about an hour of Bunkai, Sensei Barry transitioned us into one-step sparring. I suddenly found myself standing alone with a line of five students who had been instructed to each take a turn and attack chudan, and for each individual attack I had to think of a unique block or series of blocks and strikes. I blanked! Sensing my distress, Sensei Barry gave me some sage advice - draw from your Kata. Immediately I thought back to a comment from Doug on my Form vs. Function post in March. Draw from your Kata, practice it slowly and figure out what works. So rather than being stressed about being put on the spot, I slowed down and blocked the punches. Not everything I tried worked flawlessly, but then when it came time for the others to take a turn, theirs weren't perfect either - we're all there to learn and learn from each other as well.

I'm so glad I went back a couple days early, it was a fantastic class.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 - The Secret

Sunday’s class was exactly what I needed to get myself back on track after missing so many classes due to injury – two hours devoted to working on my own kata. Besides a temporary mental block where I’d combined Yodan and Godan I’m feeling really good about where I’m at. I’m really focusing on keeping each kata top of mind so my days of drawing blanks in class stay behind me.

Kiba Dachi is present in many Kata and I’ve been working hard on my posture, making sure my knees aren’t falling in, and keeping my hips in the proper position. I also try to be aware of the proper foot placement every time I move; both feet should be facing forward. While this sounds simple enough, it has never felt quite right; my ankles have always felt a bit more strain than I think they should.

On Sunday however, came a revelation that with practice will finally have me feeling completely comfortable in my Kiba Dachi. The secret lies not just in your feet facing forward, but how they face forward and exactly which part of them should be facing forward. One very important detail I was missing. It was seriously a slap myself on the forehead “NOW it makes sense” moment. I really wish I’d clued in to this a lot sooner, however, I guess it is all part of my Karate journey – I can’t learn everything at once now can I?

On that note, I'll refrain from revealing what the secret actually is and leave it to individual students to discover as part of their own journey. I'm just thankful it has now been passed on to me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011 - Intent.

After class last night, I felt like I was well on my way to polishing up a couple of Kata, and it really helped to think back to some words of wisdom I’d been given in the past, but for some reason never recorded here in my blog.
To do Kata well, you must have two things: mental intent and physical intent.

Here is my interpretation of those words:

  • Mental Intent. Focus on the Kata every step of the way – let your mind and body connect and be in the moment.

    A benefit of training this way is that I find my balance improves dramatically. Balance is sometimes a problem for me, especially when turning quickly to move in another direction – I tend to over-rotate. Staying in the moment, not three steps ahead, keeps me in check.

  • Physical Intent. Visualize why      you are doing the Kata as you are doing it, there is someone attacking you. If you simply go through the motions as a means to an end, your Kata will suffer.

Mental and physical intent carried out through the entire Kata will always elevate your form, and set you apart from others. To put it simply: it looks way better. If you’ve got these two things mastered, then the hardest part of Kata is behind you – seriously. I’m nowhere near mastering these, but knowing is half the battle – practicing is the other half.

Friday, June 3, 2011 - Touching the ground.

When I was moving up through the lower ranks, I admit, belts were a serious motivation. I didn't want to stay yellow, orange...even purple wasn't good enough. When I finally hit blue I felt like I was getting somewhere – looking back, I think that is when I really began to take it in. Now as a 1st Kyu, belt and rank don't mean as much to me. I am focused on learning, challenging myself and enjoying the details, I'm at a point where I feel like I'm accomplishing something in every class. Frustration has given way to enjoyment – and for me, personal satisfaction means more than the colour of the belt around my waist.

Having said that, I know I can't sit on this 1st Kyu fence forever, naturally Shodan is the next step. With that in mind I have been focusing on what lies ahead – Empi, Tekki Nidan...I've even been thinking its time to fully learn Hangetsu. In fact, I've been spending so much time looking ahead, that I have been failing at my resolution to look back – and by this I mean practicing the fundamentals that got me to this level – I need to remember to 'touch the ground' more often. Go back to the root of all Kata and work up from there, practice Heian Shodan with all the determination I grant Empi. Yondan, Godan, Tekki Shodan...don't leave them behind because I passed that level so long ago. I still need them.

As my Sensei told me last night: "When you get close to the top, don't forget to go back and touch the ground once in awhile".

So as of today:
Empi: Feeling really good.
Tekki Nidan: I need to think less about my stances, just let them happen. Time to focus on the top half. 
Hangetsu: need to get on that one.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 - Karate Geek.

Another great Friday night class has come and gone. It was particularly great because I was the only one there! Of course it helped that it was a holiday long weekend, but for the most part, Friday night classes are not well attended. Why more people don’t take advantage of this I can’t understand – if not every week, just once in awhile – polish up on techniques that need extra work. It is the perfect opportunity to get one-on-one help, and on this particular Friday night, I learned so much it was like three weeks of classes in one.

I followed the Shodan grading sheet and went over all of the required basics. It's funny – no matter how well I think I know a technique it never ceases to amaze me how much room there still is for improvement. After two classes this past weekend full of personal attention, I feel like I have so much more control over my techniques. I learned a number of things that I believe will really elevate my overall form if I consciously practice them each class, and silly as it may sound, it's exciting! Perhaps I'm a bit of a Karate Geek...

(Some of the) things I need to work on:

  1. Gyaku Zuki / Mawashi Geri – don’t let my hand drop during the kick.

  2. All punches and blocks – in basics and kata, pull down on lats when executing each punch and block. The result is a technique that feels and looks way better (if I do say so myself).

  3. Yoko Geri Keage – draw it up properly, snap it out and draw it back to the knee quickly - don't try to make it look pretty.

  4. Heian Nidan - after the last shuto, complete the kata without pausing.

  5. Continue to practice breathing properly during kata.

Friday, July 15, 2011 - Find the flow and paddle down the river.

Sigh. I love Empi. When I tested for my 3rd Kyu this was my grading kata, I practiced it endlessly and it quickly became my favourite, it has such great movement and flow. Of course, during the years of my 'Karate break' my body memory buried it deep and it is only in the last year I've asked it to recall this lovely Kata. I'm always told "don't think, just do" when it comes to Kata, and this is the one where I fully understand what that means. I don't think about it at all, from start to finish - it just comes to me and I do it, and it feels fantastic. Other Kata, not so much.

Since I was recently reminded to touch the ground once in awhile, I've again been making a point to practice all of my Heian Kata to keep the patterns front and centre. With relative confidence that they will no longer drop from my memory when I'm feeling pressure, my next challenges are to breathe properly and find the flow, my own flow, in each Kata. This can be difficult, as I begin with great intent to do this, and then before I know it I've finished the Kata. I'm left thinking: was there any flow? did I simply breeze through it from beginning to end without proper pauses and Kime? I don't remember. With time and practice this will become easier as I strive to make each Kata my own - one at a time, I'll find the flow. From there, I'll paddle down the river until I reach the end: when I reach rapids I'll 'give 'er', and when I reach calm water I'll slow down...breathe.
Simple as that.

Saturday, August 6, 2011 - Please don't strike me down.

This week was a funny one for me. I went to class on Sunday and practiced Hangetsu for a full hour and really started to get the hang of it. I left class feeling like this Kata really isn't as bad as I've been making it out to be. Then on Friday night I thought I'd ride this wave and continue where I'd left off, actually starting to enjoy this Kata - however, this time I became frustrated very quickly. Perhaps it was because Sensei was away on Sunday, so I had the hour to foolishly let myself think I was actually getting the hang of it and in reality I wasn't. I was probably making up some of my own moves and throwing them in here and there - no wonder it was feeling so good!

It's the stance, plain and simple. I'll probably be struck down by the Karate Gods for saying this, but I seriously dislike this Kata. The form itself and my feelings toward it should be improving by now but they aren't. I've thought about this long and hard - why is this Kata still my nemesis after so long? Is it because I've told myself I don't like it so many times that my mind and body resist learning it? I've really tried to like it, really I have. But when you don't like something, you don't. I've tried to like Brussels Sprouts in the past too, and have never developed a taste for them - perhaps this is the same.

This Kata just isn't for me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011 - Learn. Polish. Sharpen.

As a 1st Kyu, I've reached the point in my training where I have learned all of the required elements I need to know to test for my Shodan (with the exception of Hangetsu, but I'm not going to go there right now). The next step for me is to continue to practice and polish all of my techniques from Basics to Kata, everything needs tweaking here and there to make the leap from just knowing how to do it - to actually performing it well. For me, this is the fun part, stopping during a Kata or Basics and analysing where my feet are vs. where they should be, adjusting my shuto hand to the precisely correct level, or making sure I'm not just in a decent front stance...I'm in a proper one, and making mental notes as I go (and actually running to my Notebook to jot them down).

At some point I will transition from polishing these details to finally sharpening everything up in preparation for my test. This feels like it is such a long way off for me, but I'm sure it will be here before I know it. I can feel a crispness slowly starting to creep into my techniques more and more as I practice - is crisp the same as sharp? Hmmm, perhaps it is part of the transition - and it is starting to feel good.

Things I need to polish:

  1. Back stance: weight distribution is 70/30 - really practice this one.

  2. Front stance: nail this in every Kata, don't brush over it to keep the momentum. Too many people really ignore this stance throughout Kata and practically walk upright for the duration.

  3. Empi: don't step out so far on the first move.

  4. Nukite: relax/lower shoulders and pull down on lats.

  5. Heian Nidan: the last two gedan are narrow stance - don't over-rotate the turn.

  6. Right down to the littlest thing...even your toes need to be touching when your feet are together as you bow.

Thursday, August 25, 2011 - Hit!

One recent Friday night class, I put a lot of emphasis on my Kihon and was lucky enough to have one of my Senseis read from the Shodan Grading list as I worked through each set. Even though I had asked for his assistance, I got WAY more than I had bargained for. This being a Friday night, attendance was low and the other students had left early, so I eventually found myself the last student standing with two Senseis putting me through my paces. It really can't get much better than that.

The key to proper Kihon is to visualize someone as the recipient of your strikes - focus, aim and execute as if you were actually hitting your opponent - every time. If this very important element is left out, one is simply going through the motions. I can still hear their voices ringing in my head yelling "HIT!" every time I threw a punch. The frustrating part is that I thought I was hitting! I don't know how much more I could have put into it, I near threw out my shoulder I was punching so hard. I guess I'm not meant to perfect this particular technique in one intense lesson, but I really felt like in that short period of time I had improved my understanding of each technique and kicked it up a notch.

Things for me to keep in mind:

  • Don't drag my back foot - bring it with me.

  • Stop after each combination and make sure I am in a comfortable stance before proceeding.

  • HIT!

Sunday, September 4, 2011 - (Wo)man in the mirror.

When training on my own, self-correction is very important, so there are a few things I do to determine whether or not my technique is as it should be.

The first is by feel. Sometimes I close my eyes and execute a move – immediately I can feel if my stance is too wide, narrow or just plain wrong, if my punch is at the correct height, or if my shoulders are relaxed or not etc. I've learned to trust this approach, because my body will always tell me the truth, whether I want to hear it or not.

The second is by looking in the mirror. That (wo)man in the mirror is never perfect darn it! She's always got something that needs fixing and it is my job to change her ways – I often become frustrated though at how easily she becomes frustrated, but I do try to remain patient with her. I make sure to take the time and really look closely at every detail - of course this slows the training down, but there are days when you just have to take a step back and work from the ground up, making sure everything from toes to posture is correct, in other words: take a look at yourself and make that change.

However, when all else fails, sometimes it is better to let Sensei step in. He's much more kind to her than I am.

And one final note for today: Happy Birthday.

Friday, October 14, 2011 - The flickering light.

I've made no secret that Hangetsu is my least favourite Kata – in fact, it falls to the bottom of the list like a very heavy brick. Something happened tonight however, that may have... dare I say it... started to change my opinion. (gasp).

It dawned on me that I've been approaching Hangetsu all wrong, and the best way I can describe this is that I feel like I've been practicing it in the dark. I've been worrying too much about how everything looks instead of how it feels.

There is something to be said about skillful instruction, and how one simple phrase or idea can make a world of difference to a technique that has been dogging me for months. In particular it is the stance – and when Sensei pointed out the importance of the heels in this technique, slowly, very slowly the lights began to flicker.

Where once I was so frustrated that, despite my best efforts, my knees and toes were pointing in the wrong direction, and obsessing about how I hate the way the stance looks, it now became crystal clear that I must lead with my heels, and a subtle 'gripping' of my heels once I'm settled in the stance will help it fall into place.

Tonight, the lights flickered for a brief moment in time and it just stared to feel a whole lot better. I'm optimistic.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - Stop being so nice.

Well, it's official, I'm too nice.

I've written in the past about the Karate Mask, but have a really hard time walking the walk on this one. I'm totally focused as I bow in to begin my Kata, but soon after the first move the mask falls off; I do the Kata fine, with some form of rhythm and good technique, but the emotional, mental and physical intent all seem to slip away. By the time I'm done, I am left wondering where it went and it is very frustrating. This is also true of my basics. I enjoy what I'm doing and it shows, but just last week I was told (in a nice way) to stop being so nice.

To combat this kindness, I have recently started envisioning someone standing in front of me while I execute my punches and kicks – not naming any names, as it varies depending on how my day went :).  Wow, what a world of difference this has made, or at least it sure feels that way. I'm no longer looking in some general forward direction, I'm actually focusing on the space directly in front of me and hitting with intent, right to the chest or face. I know, I should have been doing this all along, but I guess I've just been too nice until now. This is all part of what the Karate Mask should be – just let go, bury the enjoyment of doing something you love, and for that small moment in time, become a more aggressive and determined version of yourself. Don't just hit, HIT – and hurt the person! I need to start walking the walk on this point, so come grading day it feels more natural to me.

Hmmm, who will I punch in the face tomorrow?

Hangetsu Update:
I've finally got the pattern down and am no longer intimidated by that darned stance, so last night I was focused on tweaking everything in-between – including the tension and breathing. I'm still not loving it, but I am finally seeing progress. I never thought I'd be writing THAT in this blog.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - My impending grading.

Well, the date has been set for my Shodan grading – Friday, February 24.
When training through the ranks you know that if you stick with it the day will eventually come, but it always feels so far off. It is officially 94 days off for me.

One word: Yikes.

Each class has now been spent focusing on the details, from foot and knee position, turning without over-rotating, and adding Kime to everything I do. It really feels like my training has been kicked into overdrive and I’m no longer just ‘going to Karate’, it is more purpose-driven than ever.

Requirements and things to remember:

  • Basics: Kime, and don’t let my lead knee fall in as I push off back foot.

  • Kata: As long as I practice 'from the ground up' and turn my brain off during the test, I should be OK. Put on my Karate      Mask and find a rhythm.

  • Bunkai: We rarely spend any time on this during regular class, so the prospect of having to do this for my black belt test in front of an audience is causing the most anxiety for me. It feels like I need to spend lots of training time learning something completely new.

  • Sparring: Again, we so rarely do this in class that I feel like if I am asked to do it in a test, it would be a hot mess – all form would fly out the window and self preservation would kick in. 

I guess it does come down to caring what other people think, and assuming people expect someone testing for their black belt to be sharp, crisp and in control – I certainly would. I believe for Basics and Kata I can pull this off, however, Bunkai and Sparring are a different matter, both I consider relatively new skills I need to develop. My opinion? These are skills that should be introduced and practiced regularly throughout the ranks, and with only 94 days to go, I’m just not comfortable cramming and exhibiting either of them, alone, in front of a crowd.

Thursday, December 1, 2011 - Too much information.

Why is it that after I miss a couple classes, the following class is always so frustrating?

I went away this weekend and missed Friday and Sunday classes, when I returned on Tuesday I experienced 1.5 hours of frustration.

  • “This is Godan, that should be a front stance, not a back stance.”

  • “Is that your back stance? It is way too narrow, move your foot out further.”

  • “Is that your back stance? Why is the weight distribution 50/50? It should be 70/30.”

  • “Look at your feet, your back foot is slightly at an angle.”

  • “Your over-rotation, is over-rotated.” Huh?

I only missed two classes! How did everything fall apart so quickly? I was quite deflated come end of class, so I stuck around and did some kata after everyone left to try to leave on a good note, but even then… “What was the long pause for?”
Aaaaaaaagh!

I understand the purpose of me being there is to learn, and if someone weren’t there to kindly highlight my deficiencies what would be the point? But there are just some days when it seems no matter what I do, it will involve a glaring flaw. Very frustrating.

Some classes you leave on a high, some you leave on a low. For me, Tuesday night was a low.
I hope tonight is better.

Monday, December 5, 2011 - Looking back.

Last January I wrote about my goals for 2011. Since the year is coming to a close, I thought it might be interesting to re-cap and see how I made out with those.

First and foremost this will be my Shodan year. 
This didn’t exactly pan out; however, I have been given a date of February 24, 2012 – so this is close enough for me. Focused training has begun.

Give 100% every class.  
I do try to keep this in mind, and push myself if I feel I might be getting a bit lazy – it happens.

Stance. I will finally nail my open front stance once and for all.
I wouldn’t say I ‘nailed it’, but I certainly think about it a lot less. The open part is OK, but I routinely end up too narrow or too long which obviously needs work. So, the ‘once and for all’ has not been accomplished.

Yoga. 
I never did go to yoga. It was a great idea, but for some reason I didn’t add this to my routine. I really should have – it probably would have resulted in a better update for the next goal I had…

Have an injury free year. 
Well, this didn’t happen either. After I recovered from the tendonitis in my wrist, I proceeded to re-injure my rib, which was very painful and I sat on the sidelines for the better part of a month. Then there were the minor pulls and strains throughout the year – I’ve actually got one now in my right tricep from repeated back-fists in one training session. I thought it was better until last week when I did Empi too many times and tweaked it again during a punch sequence. Thus I’ve been hesitant to really give 100% in the block and punch department – in doing so my overall performance is affected. Sharp hurts right now, which is bad timing, as I need to get ready for my grading! SO frustrating.

Having now reviewed the past year, it appears I’m chock full of good intent but the follow-through seems to be a problem. Although I recognize I have accomplished plenty of things that were not on my list, I’m still a little disappointed. After all, I had a whole year!

Sunday, January 1, 2012 - Grading Prep

Recently I was put through my Kata paces in a scenario similar to what I will experience in my Shodan grading. The table was set up, the table cloth spread out (not ironed as usual, but my neat-freak side will have to let that go), chairs in position and my Sensei sitting on the other side with a pen and paper.

I did my 13 Kata one after the other, and only momentarily blanked on one of them - Tekki Shodan - which I acknowledge I haven not been practicing on a regular basis. The rest seemed to just come to me which was a relief. When I was finished, my Sensei shared with me his notes explaining what I did well, and not so well.

To my horror, I would have been made to repeat seven out of the 13 katas. Thankfully all for minor things that I can work on leading up to grading day, but frustrating just the same. Here is the list of notes (as far as I can remember). Now, I would be able to reference my Sensei's notes had he not immediately chewed them up and spit them out after sharing them with me...(to my own surprise I actually resisted the urge to fish it out of the GC after class).

Taikyoku Shodan - passed
Heian Shodan - passed
Heian Nidan - augmented block is in a front stance, not a back stance, all momentum moves forward (oops)
Heian Sandan - don't let my knee fall in as I make my turn for the last two moves
Heian Yondan - passed
Heian Godan - passed
Tekki Shodan - blanked momentarily, but have since practiced the H-E-C-K out of it
Bassai Dai - back stance!! slow them down and make sure to complete each one properly
Jion - hmmm, trying to remember... but I know there was something I needed to fix... shoot
Kanku Dai - don't step up into the sidekicks, draw back with hips
Empi - back stance!! after the double punch, make sure I hit all back stances properly when doing the shutos
Hangetsu - passed (huge victory for me on this one, as my relationship with this kata has never been a good one)
Tekki Nidan - passed

Overall comments: 1) Remove the pauses in my kata, 2) Watch that my lead knee doesn't fall in on front stances and 3) Don't let my soto uke fall too flat, fist should be shoulder height.

So, I feel like I'm about where I should be in my training. Next big step is to focus on Bunkai, I better get that in gear. Now that I have had a countdown put on my blog, I get nervous every time I look at it. Don't know if that is a good thing, but it keeps me focused and stops me from thinking 'I have loads of time...'

Friday, January 13, 2012 - How low can you go?

Over the last couple of months, with the help of my Sensei, I've been working hard to improve my overall form, training four days a week and staying overtime to get every everything I can out of the time left before my grading. In my opinion it has been going really well, and all of this hard work has really helped build my confidence.

Then I went to class last night and my confidence loudly crashed to the floor, rolled away and has found itself an incredibly good hiding place.

How did this happen?

My 'Other' Sensei took the Brown belts through the Shodan grading, and pulled up a chair right in front of me to monitor my preparedness. This didn't bother me at all - after all, I was feeling confident!
We went through most of the test at a decent pace, repeating things here and there. Once it was done, he shared with me his list of comments. Not a long list, but he has a way talking down to you that can suck the confidence and joy right out of you - it's a personality thing - which I don't respond well to.

Summary:

  • My front stances are too narrow, I need to fix this before my test - this includes in all basics and Kata. So really, not a big deal (sarcasm dripping from that last statement)

  • Watch final hand position in Jion - don't leave thumb out

  • Something about Tekki Nidan made him want to vomit, but I'm not exactly sure what

  • My Mawashi Geri needs work. I tend to bring my knee straight up in front of me to start the kick instead of around the outside as it should be. This is how I was taught for many, many years, and has been difficult for me to change

  • I haven't memorized the grading requirement list in its exact order - apparently, shame on me and I better get it down before grading night. I guess this somehow this affects my skill level, or perhaps it will be a self guided test? Memorizing this list, isn't on the list... so I'm confused.

  • I over-think      everything. This I already knew, it is who I am. I've been doing this for      30+ (no need to reveal the + here) years. It is who I am, and I'm afraid      this isn't going to change come Feb 24.

I already know I don't respond well to situations where I am under pressure no matter how well prepared I am - I tend to draw complete blanks - I might even forget my own birthdate if asked. Talking down

to me and making me feel like an idiot isn't helping. So I've not been looking forward to this upcoming test, actually, I'll say that I am looking forward to it just being over.

This is my low point. Hopefully my confidence reveals itself again soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2012 - Stick it, don't flick it!

I remember in elementary school our teacher used to make us write lines if we had done something wrong. I guess this was to get it into our little heads that what we had done should not be repeated. I think this technique must have worked for me, because I don't remember writing too many lines.

I tend to execute my Ushiro Geri too quickly and not finish the full technique before returning the kick. I've been told this a number of times but for some reason I still focus too much on the spinning technique and less on the kick itself - and as a result, I flick it when I should instead stick it.
So, hopefully this will get it into my head...

I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.
will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.  I will stick my Ushiro Geri.   I will stick my Ushiro Geri.

That ought to do it. Crossing fingers.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - Self Preservation.

One of the things I find myself really trying to work on these days is my back stance. With so many other things to focus on, some will naturally fall to the side and this is unfortunately one of them. I'm now wishing I had made it more of a priority earlier in my training, since I'm finding it hard to get it just right.

One tip that has helped me fall into a better back stance is to think of if as Self Preservation. If I'm in a front stance and someone is attacking with a straight jab I'll most certainly eat the punch, but I simply need to shift into a back stance and suddenly... I'm out of range. I don't have to lean away, or physically relocate myself, just shift my stance. Brilliant!

Weight: Back 70%, Front 30%.
Knees: Don't let them fall in.
Posture: Don't lean.
There you have it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012 - These are my bruises.

When training Bunkai, whether attacking or defending, necessarily one will end up with bruises. I’ve been on three Bunkai teams over the last few years and each time my forearms and wrists tell the same story – endless hours of training and dedication to be part of someone else’s success. They look terrible, hurt, and I sometimes have to explain that “No, my husband is not abusive... really he’s not!” They’ve always been the worst part of the Bunkai experience for me.

Now that I am training for my black belt, and my Bunkai partner and I routinely exchange blocks and punches, the bruises are coming back. Yes they hurt, a lot, but they’re different this time; they no longer belong to someone else, this time they belong to me. I don’t look at them and cringe anymore; I look at them with pride! I’m earning every one of these bruises and with each one I know I’m one step closer to achieving my Shodan. This time it is for me and it feels good – figuratively speaking.

Friday, February 10, 2012 - Two weeks and counting...

Well, I guess the countdown is really on now. Two weeks until my Shodan grading – how time flies. When I break it down, it would seem I don’t really have a lot of training time left to polish everything up. Part of me is eager to just get the night over with, and the other part wishes time would slow down. I hate tests.

2 weeks = 7 classes
7 classes = 11.5 hours (or more if I stay as late as I have been after class these days)

Overall I feel like I am ready. I know my basics, I know my kata, and bunkai is coming along nicely. The trick for me will be to keep my mental and physical focus in check during the test.

Mentally:

  • Don’t let anyone ‘yipping’ at me get under my skin

  • Be determined, not frustrated

  • Stay in the moment during bunkai

Physically:

  • Slow down and focus on the rhythm of the kata

  • Take my time, don’t rush through everything

  • Breathe

Hangetsu Update:
I'm happy to say I have finally made peace with this Kata. It is still not my favourite, but I’ve learned to co-exist with it.

Monday, February 20, 2012 - Four.

Four more days until my grading.
Yesterday Sensei and Sempai set up a mock test and took me through the list of grading requirements in succession, without breaks. Let me tell you, my lungs felt like they were the size of walnuts (without the shell). It was all I could do to fill my lungs with air, and even then it was very uncomfortable and I felt like gasping.

I’ve been training four days a week, and admittedly it isn’t a real cardio buster. So on my off-days I have been going to the Y for spinning classes a few times a week, as well as skipping at home and sometimes for a while before class. It would seem that my efforts have failed me – which is concerning.

Now I’m no longer worried about forgetting kata, drawing blanks, or messing up my basics and bunkai, I’m worried that I will pass out!

Just when I was starting to feel like I was actually ready...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - Three.

Three more days until my grading.
Tonight in class I intended to work almost exclusively on Bunkai with my partner because there are a few sections that still trip me up, so I felt I needed to practice them repeatedly in order to drill them in to my head. Well, things didn’t quite go the way I’d intended, as my partner rolled his knee and ankle during warm up, spent some time on ice and then went home. It's not looking too good, and I wouldn't expect him to assist me while injured, so there is a good chance I will have no Bunkai partner on Friday night. Things will be what they will be.
I wish him the best and hope for his sake that it is only a minor injury that will heal quickly.

I instead spent some time reviewing all of my Kata just to keep everything fresh, going over the grading list, working on my combinations and tweaking the dreaded Ushiro Geri (back kick). And that’s it.

This was my last official class before my grading. No more instruction, no more tips, no more guidance - I’m now on my own.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - Two.

Two more days until my grading.
Time has gone by so fast. I remember when it was three months away, 96 days seemed like loads of time and now my counter says I have one day and XX hours. Makes my stomach hurt just looking at it.

I am not going to class tomorrow night so I can let my body have some rest before the test. I pulled another muscle doing those darned back kicks - I knew they were trouble!  So, ice and heat have been my friend for the past 24 hours - so far its not been helping, but hopefully within the next day it will ease off. I'm guessing on Friday a few extra strength Tylenol will be on the pre-grading menu.

As of today, I'm feeling OK. I just have to get through it, that's all.
1.5 hours of my life is but a blip in time - although when I'm in the midst of it, I'm sure it is going to feel like a really, really, long blip.

Thursday, February 23, 2012 - One.

One more day until my grading.
Something dawned on me today. I realized that I have been so consumed with the date and practicing for the test, that I really haven’t given much thought to what it actually means or the belt itself. I’ve tossed the words Shodan Grading around very loosely thinking only of the process and not the fact that soon I will remove my Brown Belt for the last time, and join the ranks of the people I have looked up to throughout my journey.

Tomorrow night I will be a Black Belt. I’ll let that sink in when it is finally around my waist, but for now the test is still a hurdle I must first clear - and with this nagging groin pull I'm not sure how high I will be able to jump over the hurdle, but I'll claw my way over it somehow.

When this is all over, my mind will certainly appreciate the rest. Tomorrow will be just another day – not ‘another day closer’.

Friday, February 24, 2012 - Zero.

Tonight is my grading.
Well, this is it. The day I have been focused on for months. The day I secretly wished would disappear from the calendar. The day I didn’t want to come, but knew was inevitable. February 24, 2012 has indeed arrived.
What am I?
I’m nervous. If I wasn’t nervous I’d be nervous so this is, I believe, a natural feeling to have at this point.
I’m excited. Excited to finally take my place on the floor and prove I have earned and deserve the rank of Shodan.
I’m nostalgic. I received my Brown Belt SO long ago, and it is as a Brown Belt that I feel I really began to learn Karate and appreciate the sport. Anything before that time, I look back and consider myself to have been a different person. I’ve grown a lot from the day I was given the rank of 3rd Kyu Brown.
I’m Proud. So very proud of myself for sticking with Karate and not letting my own frustration or busy schedule take away from that which I truly enjoy.
What am I not?
I’m not perfect. If I remember that throughout, I’ll do just fine

Friday, February 24, 2012 - My Shodan Grading.

When I left my house I admit I was nervous, but as soon as I walked in the door and bowed into the Dojo, my nerves seemed to disappear. It felt like any other night; the space looked the same, smelled the same, felt the same and I managed to push aside any feelings of anxiety I'd been suffering from during the preceding weeks. I looked at the clock and reasoned with myself that in two hours, this would all be over, I just needed to get myself through it in the best way I know how. I knew my Basics, I knew my Kata and my Bunkai was prepared. I knew I would make mistakes and was at peace with that.

At 7pm myself, my three Sensei’s and Sempai lined up and I bowed us all in – and then it began. Basics lasted about 25 minutes and thankfully I was allowed to omit my back kicks due to my lingering groin injury. I was so concerned about the injury (or making it worse that night) that I completely forgot about the kick combination I would be expected to do, which had a back kick in it – and when I was called to do the combination I froze... I hadn't thought of what I would replace that kick with, so on a whim I threw a set of four kicks together and went with it. Not the shining moment of the evening, but I was allowed to move on, so perhaps it wasn't all bad.

Next came Kata. I was asked to start with Heian Shodan and continue through Tekki Shodan. I had to start each one at a new 90 degree angle, so I was really happy that I had practiced all of my Kata facing different directions. It certainly came in handy and I didn’t blank out or become disoriented due to the change of direction. One of my biggest concerns about the test was that I would draw a blank in a Kata I had done hundreds of times. I’m happy to report that didn’t happen.

For a change of pace, the Katas were stopped and out came the boards. I was told to break boards however I chose, so I started with a Gyaku Zuki. Now, we never practice breaking boards – ever – and my feeling is that without being properly taught how to break boards, it is an injury waiting to happen, and case in point I was in the hospital on Sunday getting my still-swollen hand X-Rayed for a possible fracture.
However, this being my Shodan grading I didn’t want to object in front of a crowd so I broke four boards, one by punch, two by hammer fist and one with a side-kick. My right hand has certainly seen better days.

Then it came time to spar. I was expecting to spar with a fellow student, however one of my Sensei’s stood up and put his gear on. He definitely got the best of me, but I did manage to get in a few good kicks and punches to the head and body which felt fantastic. By the time it was over I was relieved and out of breath, so I removed my gear very slowly in order to catch my breath in preparation for what was to come next.

My pre-Shodan and Shodan Katas were next, still facing different directions. Again, I’m happy for the practice because this second set of Kata didn’t disorient me either. Mixed in amongst the Kata were my Bunkai – which I admit could have gone a bit better. I did draw a few blanks but I won’t beat myself up over that, I was simply asked to start again and each time I was able to recover and get through it.

My cardio was decent as well - but I took the time to breathe between sets which I'm sure helped. I was so worried after last Sunday's pre-test that I think I really slowed down and paced myself - I didn't want to be gasping for air through the whole test.

As expected it did seem to go by fast and at some points I was thinking - "wow, I'm done that Kata already...I barely remember doing it!" I just really hope I didn't rush things and miss the details, I practiced so hard for this and the point is to 'show what you know', not rush through it.

After my last Kata was complete, I thought the test was over, but I was asked to perform one final Kata of my choice for the audience and to make it the best I'd ever done. I chose Empi – my favourite. I felt like I really rocked that one out, knowing that I was only moments away from receiving my black belt. I finished, kneeled down and closed my eyes.

Then came the moment where I stood up and accepted my certificate, and next my belt. Only the belt was being presented to me in a beautiful leather case - which I'd never seen happen with other students receiving their Shodan. As my Sensei was removing it from the case he told me that this was a gift from my husband, and he presented me with a Satin black belt with an embroidered Shotokan label. It is beautiful! Certainly an unexpected surprise.

I was SO relaxed come Saturday I couldn't stop smiling. I actually spent a day NOT thinking about February 24, the list of grading requirements, breaking boards, sparring, my cardio, kata, bunkai, combinations, basics....

What's next?

Well, I'll give my hand another few days rest and then I'll be back at it - it's time to learn a new Kata.

Shodan Achieved. - What Karate means to me.

My Shodan assignment.

I look back to the start of my journey, where I’ve been and where I am now, and realize that along the way Shotokan Karate has taught me something very special. It has taught me to be kind to myself.

Karate is not a team sport, I cannot defer blame if my stance is too narrow, or if I forget where I am in a Kata; every mistake I make lands squarely on my shoulders and weighs heavily. I am my harshest critic, my own worst enemy and I will always strive for perfection, that’s who I am – I wear this trait on my sleeve.

Somewhere along the way, a wise man told me “Mistakes are a part of learning”, and although I’m sure I’ve heard that phrase many times in the past, this time I finally listened. I started accepting my mistakes instead of beating myself up over them. I learned it’s OK not to get things right the first time, or the second, or even the third. It’s OK not to be perfect – I now accept this, forgive myself and move on. Dwelling and obsessing over my imperfections only held me back.

To put it simply, Karate has enhanced my life.
It has provided me with many years filled with personal goals and challenges.
It has tested my patience (and as it turns out, I do have some - very deep down, who knew!?!)
It has also given me a real sense of pride in the commitment I made to myself to make it this far in my journey.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - International Study.

I'm currently in South Africa and prior to arriving, my Sensei had contacted a few local Dojo's to request permission for me to participate in some classes.

Last night was my first of these two classes. I went in expecting high calibre Karate, simply from the profile online, and was looking forward to a new experience. Well, for better or worse, I got what I was looking for in this Brown/Black belt class - 13 black belts and 3 brown belts.

I am used to the martial arts community being very welcoming and friendly, however at this location, not one student approached me, looked my way or greeted me in any fashion. In preparation for the class I began to stretch and roll up my sleeves, but after a quick glance around the room, I noticed nobody had rolled up their sleeves... so I casually rolled mine down; as they say - When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Their bow-in procedure is one I am not familiar with. Everyone lines up on one side of the room, shoulder to shoulder, and not knowing the various students and their Dan ranks I'm not entirely sure I was in rank order, but again nobody said anything to me, so I guess I'll never know.

Once class started, I immediately knew I was in for a good one. This Sensei accepted nothing less than 100% from his students, was very firm in his instruction and his expectations. When in ready position, one is NOT to move, and eyes are to face front at all times.
All students loudly yelled 'Oss Sensei' throughout the class in response to his every instruction.
After warm up, we began with the repetition of one combination for about 15 minutes and when we finished the Sensei admitted that what we were doing would have no practical application in the 'real world' but the exercise was all about muscle memory - repetition of these things will come in handy should we ever encounter a situation where we are required to defend ourselves.

Next came the sparring. Now, in our class at home we very rarely spar - maybe only once every few months or so. Here it seems very common and everyone was well prepared and ready to rumble. I had not packed my sparring gear for my trip to the other side of the planet, so I was less prepared - add to the fact that I still have a swollen and injured knuckle from my grading, which I was made to tuck behind me into my belt and spar with one hand - things weren't shaping up to go very well for me.
The first person I sparred was a female and she was very serious - ready to clean take my head off. None of this "I see you're new, lets feel it out and gauge your level" it was more like "You're a black belt? It's ON!" Thank goodness kicks are my strong suit in sparring because I feel I fared pretty well in that department and managed to stand my own. The next few partners were a little less aggressive, but again, not there to make friends.

Finally we moved on to Kata and focused on Jion. Again, to compare: in our dojo, we are taught that during group Kata, one should pause if you see another student too close to you, just let them move through until they are out of range, and then continue with your Kata. Apparently that isn't an international courtesy. People were stepping on my feet, hitting me...you name it, it was every Karateka for him/herself and 'get out of my way' all around.
I was corrected a few times on some of my movements, so there were slight differences in form between the way I have been taught, and the way this Sensei teaches the same Kata, which is to be expected.

It is clear some Dojo's are much more serious than others. Don't get me wrong, ours is serious and I am personally very serious about my training and progression, but I also enjoy every minute of it, otherwise for me there is no point. This Dojo seemed like any non-serious Karateka had been weeded out long ago and only the strong have survived.

Once the class was over, I was glad I had taken the opportunity to have this experience, but it has certainly made me appreciate my fellow Karateka in how they greet and welcome new students, and also my Sensei even more for his serious yet kind approach to teaching.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - More International Study.

While still in South Africa I took time to visit a second Dojo and participate in class. This was not the same Dojo I went to two weeks prior and I must say, I did notice a vast difference in teaching style between the two.

Sensei Jon Williams was very helpful with directions, as our first attempt to find the Dojo location was a bust and we ended up in Cape Town, circling the bus depot and taxi stand for half an hour before giving up and going back to Stellenbosch. The last thing I wanted to do was show up late for class, especially as a guest in this Dojo, so I resolved to try again the following week.

Upon arrival I immediately recognized two of the students from the previous Dojo I attended. Once they saw me, they greeted me and took the time to ask my thoughts on the other class. I was honest and told them I felt a bit out of place, and was trying to follow along as best I could in an unfamiliar environment. I then asked if I could expect the same structure in the upcoming class, or if this one is a bit more relaxed. Both students looked at each other and laughed, telling me this is far from a relaxed class, and they have seen students visit from local Dojo's and leave very shocked at how hard the class is compared to what they are used to.

I'd be lying if I said this didn't concern me just a bit. I thought the previous class was quite difficult ... not in an 'I can't handle this' sort of way, but just the approach of the instructor and the way the class was run. I did find it hard to keep up - there was a routine and it was clear I was not familiar with it. Now I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't made a mistake coming to this class, after all, I was on vacation, and I should have been taking it easy and instead I found myself at Dojo number two worried that the next hour and a half would be embarrassing and if I would be able to keep up.

Class started with a typical warm up and basics and then moved into offensive and defensive techniques which were fun. All students in the class gave 100% and the instructor was very attentive and gave many examples of how these techniques could be utilized. A bit of sparring ensued, but remained focused on one individual being on the offensive and the other on the defensive, and then we switched, giving everyone a chance to try each combination of techniques. Class ended with my favourite Kata - Empi, which we did in small groups while the other students and instructor watched.

Perhaps I used the wrong word when I had asked if this would be a more 'relaxed' class. When all was done, I felt like I had just taken a class at my home Dojo - not relaxed perse, but I guess the style of instruction made the difference. This class was not as rigid, and while the students were still very focused, they also seemed to enjoy themselves.

Overall I found the class to be well structured, and the instructor keen to share his knowledge and experience. Students asked questions and were really keen to understand and execute the various techniques correctly.
Now this is a Dojo I could fit into, if I ever move back to South Africa this is surely where I would end up. What a great experience.

Friday, May 4, 2012 - How does it feel?

I was recently asked how it feels to be a Shodan – does it feel any different?

It does feel a bit different, now that I’m in the front row. But still I look back.
I look back on the days when I first started at this Dojo as a Brown Belt (3rd Kyu), after having taken such a long break. I was frustrated because I didn’t remember Karate to be particularly difficult, but so many things had changed: the stances were different than I was used to; I was now required to learn Japanese commands; basics were no longer in full stance, they were in High Kamae; Katas wouldn’t stick and YouTube was a constant source of information. I was trying to regain the knowledge I once had, and learning that Karate is a skill one acquires over a very long period of time; some make it look easy, but it certainly takes a lot of hard work to make it appear that way.

It took months before I felt any degree of confidence, and a year before the movements started to feel natural. Later still, Gradings would come and go and I wasn’t on the list; every class was frustrating for me and there were times I considered finding a better way to spend my time.

Gradually things were coming back to me, and I began to remember why I had once loved this sport so much. My name started to appear on grading lists (and I passed!), I stopped doubting myself and looking at others to see if I my technique was correct, or if I was in the right stance in a Kata (by the way, never do that – it causes doubt and you’re surely going to mess up). My fear of being alone on the floor with everyone watching began to fade, and finally I felt like I deserved to be standing in a senior position as 1st Kyu.

When my Shodan Grading was announced I immediately felt anxious, which soon turned into feelings of ‘lets just get this over with and move on!’ By the time my Grading night arrived I was ready, and when I entered the building I was a 1st Kyu who had trained her butt off for the opportunity to grade for Shodan and loved (almost) every minute of it.

I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold of sorts. I’m on the other side and can relax, learn new Katas and enjoy this wonderful sport without constantly thinking of the next grading.

So in short, yes it feels different. But I think that feeling has been slowly evolving over the years and didn’t just change on February 24 at 8:20pm.

 Monday, July 16, 2012 - A Slippery Slope.

Lately, Karate has been taking a back seat to my increasingly busy schedule.
Before my Shodan grading, training was priority #1 for obvious reasons. I was at the Dojo four days a week, staying late after class and committed to polishing every technique. After it was over, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Perhaps I'm still breathing that sigh of relief. Without a grading looming over me and consuming every thought, feeding my need for perfection, I find it much easier to talk myself out of class - and it's a slippery slope. I need to stain the fence, I need to do yard work, I need to just take a night off, I need to... there are so many things on my to-do list that every moment of my life could easily be consumed.

What I really need to do though, is go to Karate, it is my me time. It is how I have always cleared my mind. When I'm in class I don't think of that list and I don't think of work, all I think about is my technique and training. Above being physically beneficial, I also find it mentally beneficial.

Lately I've been learning a lot of new Kata - Kanku Sho, Bassai Sho, Jitte, Chinte, Tekki San Dan - and to keep them top of mind, I need to go to class consistently. Maybe I don't have to go four days a week anymore, but I can at least commit to two or three. I don't want to lose what I have, I've done that once before and the uphill climb was extremely difficult. 

I will not allow myself to slip down that slope, no matter how bad the lawn needs to be mowed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - My First Seminar.

Two weeks ago I travelled to Bellevue Washington with my Sensei’s and three other students to attend my first ever Shotokan Karate seminar, which was taught by Sensei Kyle Funakoshi and Shihan Funakoshi.

On Friday night we went as a group and watched a Shodan and Nidan grading, and on Saturday morning I went to the Dojo early to watch the advanced class Seminar. Although I wasn’t participating, I find that as much as I love being on the floor practicing, I also enjoy sitting on the sidelines to observe; watching other students and paying attention to what the Sensei is teaching, improves my own technique by reminding myself what I should or should not be doing.

When it came time for the Brown and Black Belt Seminar, the five of us took the floor amongst all of the other local students – I think 20 of us in all. We started with a typical warm-up session, followed by basics and then Kata: my two favourite parts of Karate. I had heard that we may be learning advanced sparring techniques, but I was glad there wasn’t time for that – I’m not a huge fan of sparring and the more time spent on basics and Kata the better. That’s just me being selfish. Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, Empi and Unsu. This was my first time doing Unsu so I’m sure I was a hot mess trying to follow along, but we repeated the double kick from the floor and practiced getting up into proper stance over, and over, and over and over. I am confident that when it comes time for me to fully learn this Kata, I’ll know what I am doing in that regard. It is very difficult, but it is now committed to my memory – I’ll just need my body to actually do it! The session lasted and hour and a half, and I wish it could have been longer. I learned so many new things, mostly small adjustments to Kata and tweaks to stances, but I definitely left the Seminar a better Karateka.

Highlight of the day:
I was told by Shihan Funakoshi that my sidekicks are ‘Good, good, good’, there simply is no higher compliment than that in Shotokan Karate.

Thursday, March 21, 2013 - What it's like to hit something.

I've spent a lot of time giving an invisible enemy the one-two punch. After all these years, I still need to remind myself during basics and Kata that there is supposed to be someone there, someone on the receiving end of each technique; I'm not meant to just punch and kick the air. In order to do it with feeling, it must be done with intent.

I hope I never have to use what I've learned, but even as a Shodan I sometimes doubt my ability. Do I really know what I'm doing? If I ever needed to defend myself would I be capable of actually hurting someone? Could one of my punches really inflict an injury or stop an attack? All valid questions considering a large percentage of my training involves kicking and punching...nothing.

It is important to know what it feels like to hit something, so occasionally in class we'll get out the pads and partner up, which gives everyone an opportunity to haul off and see what we're made of by combining technique with power and focus. Clearly my right side is made of a lot more than my left and I'm sure it shows in my technique. My right side feels good, sounds good and (I think) looks good, but why is it that my left hand punch feels like the first one I've ever thrown? So awkward and void of power. Before each punch I even stop to tell myself - through the pad - focus and hit! Then it feels like I just tap the pad. Why is that?!

Clearly this is something I need to work on. Hitting something other than an invisible enemy.

Note: This was Karen’s last post.