Hanshi begins with a lecture about katas, “our most formal form.” He says outsiders call them the dance of karate, but really, the katas are imaginative combat versus multiple attackers. Hanshi talks about strong and weak poses, strong and weak qi, he challenges us to stand like we mean it, to stare like we mean it, to stay focused, focused, focused.
“Sienna, come to the front please,” he says to his daughter. Yudansha karateka are often referred to for demos and examples during a mixed-level class. “Now, show me a reverse punch stance…good. Now loosen your wrist, loosen your elbow. And lock your front leg. There. Do you see how weak this looks?”
“Yes, Sir,” the karateka respond.
“Now, tighten up,” he says to Sienna. Sienna tightens her pose with ease, but her look is completely changed. She is ready for whatever comes her way, which is good, because Hanshi climbs onto her back leg and stands on it with all of his weight. Sienna hardly moves an inch.
“That’s 212 pounds on her and she hardly felt it. That has everything to do with the stance,” Hanshi says, “and her state of mind.”
Later, we practice sidekicks, the tops of our feet slapping into the pads with a satisfying unity of thwaps-thwaps. The sound takes me back almost immediately to rugby practice in college, where we practiced with similar pads and in a similarly intense coaching environment, and I am charged up, smiling from ear to ear, really into it.
“What makes a kick?” Hanshi asks, pacing before us.
“A solid surface backed by three consecutive joints, Sir,” we reply.
We practice blocks in unison, combined with a solar plexus punch.
“What’s the first thing a block does?” Hanshi asks.
“Block, Sir,” we reply. He then launches into a speech about how even the readying pose for a block is a block itself, how every movement is useful for something in karate.
With just a few minutes remaining in class, Hanshi teaches us two quick self-defense moves for getting away from an attacker who is strangling us. He demonstrates, explains the rationale, then has us partner up and practice on each other while he moves up and down the line to critique.
“You looked away, now you’re dead,” Hanshi says to one karateka. “Move like you mean it,” he says to another.
At the end of class I am red-face and sweaty and totally in love with this new sport. We take our series of bows and are dismissed, but from across the dojo Hanshi looks at me, points a finger, and indicates for me to walk over to him.
“Yes, sir?” I say.
“Great job tonight,” he says. “You’re a natural. A natural.”
* * *
I walk home up the snowy, icy driveway under a sky that looks cold enough to crack open with a fist, my karate gi buried beneath three layers of clothing to protect against the cold and still, all the way up, I keep my hands on my white belt and smile at this great adventure. It feels as though all the fruition of living in this house on the side of the mountain is starting to come forth. It has been six months and finally, I am reaching a sense of quiet, a sense of bodily confidence and determination, and perhaps, on the cusp of some greater changes in myself. I feel invigorated. Grateful.