I wrote this piece on 23 March 2013, after the second day of my promotion to second-degree black belt. I’m reprinting it here mainly because I like the discourse on kata in particular, and it’s a nice reflection of my views on karate and on my own journey from overweight, underpowered 35-year-old white belt to the in-much-better-shape 50-year-old third-degree black belt I am today.
The second day was less grueling than the first, but that was partly because we’d already been through this, partly because we were doing the stuff that I know and love best: kata and various self-defense and prearranged fighting drills. This is my favorite part of karate, especially the kata.
We have three sets of kata: First are the basics, the three Taikyoku katas and the five Pinan katas. These are common karate forms — the links in the previous sentence are to YouTube videos of those eight forms being performed in the style of Kyokushin, from which my style derives, and while there are differences in how we do certain parts, the overall feel of the katas are the same as how we do them. Then there are the five katas that were developed by the founder of our discipline, and then there are the makuso katas.
The makuso, or meditation, katas are my favorite, as they are complex and graceful: Sanchin (the oldest known kata), Geki Sai Dai, Yantsu, Tsuki No, Sai-Ha, Tensho, Geki Sai Sho, and Seiunchin. That last one is the one I and three other shodans performed at our dojo’s 20th anniversary party, and I also adore Yantsu.
Of course, the real test comes during Sanchin and Tensho. Those two katas are primarily done with ibuki, or deep breathing, where movements are slow and strong and the body is tight and firm. Both kata are spent in sanchin dachi, a very stable stance (here’s a picture). During promotions, it’s kicked up a notch, as we did both those katas while several black belts do everything they can to destabilize us: punching us in the stomach (with or without handpads), hitting us in the back or thighs with handpads, kicking us in the thighs and stomach, pushing against our punches, and so on. (Here’s me getting pounded during my shodan promotion three-and-a-half years ago, for an idea, though the picture does not do it justice, particularly the part last night where Senpai Ryon used me as his punching bag for the second half of Sanchin Kata.)
What was especially amazing about that experience was how little I moved around during that part of it. I remember my shodan promotion — that picture I linked to in the previous paragraph has me at a 90-degree angle to where I started because I got moved around so much. This time around I was being abused much more than I was three-and-a-half years ago, but I barely moved from my original spot.
You have to understand, I was the stereotypical weakling who got sand kicked in his face by the bully on the beach. In high school, we did a production of West Side Story, and I was cast as Gladhand, the nerdy guy who ran the dance, because honestly who the fuck else would I play? The idea that I could be in any way physically strong has never been a part of my worldview.
And yet, there I was last night, several black belts (some of whom are fighters who score high in international fighting tournaments) were just wailing on me. These are the people who would’ve kicked sand in my face not that long ago, and here I was barely being moved by them.
That’s weird. Seriously. Eight-and-a-half years of karate, and I can’t even process the notion that I’m strong, even though I spent last night not only doing that, but also dozens of pushups and any number of other physically intensive activities for two hours straight. It just doesn’t fit with my self-image, y’know? I’m still surprised when people tell me how strong I punch during fighting class, too…
Anyhow, that was the first part of the evening. The second part was when we each discussed our essays. Once the promotion’s done, I’ll post my essay here, but mostly I talked about how helping Shihan teach and teaching myself has been an incredibly enriching experience. It was also great to hear Jorge, Charles, Cliff, and Rey talk about how karate has affected them, through the ups and downs of their lives. It’s a pleasure and an honor to go up with these people, who have become good friends, and it was especially nice to hear their stories about their lives.
What especially struck me was a story that Cliff talked about Senpai Joe, a black belt who helped him immensely when he was starting out at our dojo, telling him to calm down and take it easy and just generally looking out for him. It floored me — and I got to say so in front of everybody a few minutes later — because I could tell the exact same story except substitute me for Cliff and Cliff for Senpai Joe. It fit nicely with the theme of my own essay, which was about how you learn from the people who came before you and you try to pass that on to the next bunch of people. And, as I’ve mentioned on the blog before, Cliff was hugely inspirational to me when I started out. Shihan was the teacher, but Cliff was who I wanted to be when I grew up. And in a way, I have, as Shihan talked at length about how grateful he is to the two of us for all the help we give him especially with the kids classes (which have grown quite large).
Tomorrow morning is sparring. Tomorrow afternoon, I stumble home and lapse into a coma……