Head Games

I miss one class and come back to see the other two white belts have red bands on their belts. Another has a patch on his gi and oh, the beastly concept of competition rears its head. What does the red stripe mean? How can I get one? What else did I miss in class on Thursday? Damn!

That being said, I observed the kids’ class today for an hour before the adult class began. All the kids are yellow belts, so I figured there would be a lot I could learn. Hanshi says the first way of learning is looking, next comes listening. I happen to agree and if I’m observing, I get to do both of these things without also having to coordinate my body at the same time. I felt not an ounce of competition watching this class—just gratitude. So why a little red band can unnerve me is beyond me, but it did, and now I’m stuck overanalyzing it.

Today, our warm up consists of pivoting the fighting stance straight ahead, left, and right while simultaneously throwing a reverse punch. The idea is to snap the punch into completion at the same moment that our new, stable fighting stance is attained. The pivoting warms up the hips but it also challenges us to become more familiar with the stance and tone our leg muscles. Hanshi says in karate we take our strength from the ground, we grip our toes into the floor, we keep the muscles on the insides of our legs constantly flexed and the feet slightly pigeon-toed, making the entire body more centered, more stable.

“If I’m standing like this, I have more what?” Hanshi says, poised in a shoulder-width fighting stance with his right foot back.

“Stability,” the karateka answer.

“And I have less?”


“And if I’m standing like this, I have more what?” Hanshi moves into a hip-width squared stance.

“Mobility, Sir,” we respond.

“And I have less?”


“Right! According to gravity things fall…”

“32 feet per second,” the karateka say.

“Right. It doesn’t matter how big or how small you are, that’s the law of the universe. We can’t change that. Now, why can someone who is smaller in size or not as strong deliver a stronger punch?”

No response from the karateka.

“Because is he’s standing like this, he’s grounded. We call that [?], it’s when the qi flows out and bounces back, out and bounces back, all the way from the roots we plant in the ground and back out. He is stable, firm, his qi is focused,” Hanshi explains. He defines the she-ni-zen (or some combination of those syllables), our natural grounded center. We practice finding it (feet together, then toes out, then heels out, knees slightly bent to find the hip-width square stance). He talks about GRF, the ground [?] force.

There is a woman black belt, Lis, who has just switched from her dojo in BigCity (which she had to travel to) to our dojo. She gets a patch and a certificate and a round of applause and I have no idea what this means. She also works with Sienna on an upper level kata while Hanshi works with the three white belts on the first steps of our very first kata. As soon as he says this I can’t help but smile…a kata…this is what I’m most fascinated with. The attempted mastery of our most formal form. The fluid movement. The refining of a skill set. We being by bowing and opening our stance, move into a high block, then into a reverse punch to the neck.

“Now,” Hanshi looks at the three of us. “Nichon, discover for yourself. Five minutes. Work on this. Nichon, then he leaves to work with the yellow belt student.

Toward the end of class we partner up and practice self-defense moves that start with the hand. I am partnered up with Lis and immediately feel my hackles up. Why is this? Because she is another woman? Because she has a black belt? Because I know her from outside of class? I remember what Hanshi made us repeat last week in class: “NO EGO,” before we began sparring. I exhale a long breath and bow to Lis.

She reaches her right arm out to push me, I grab her wrist with my left hand and guide her fingers into my right hand, gripping her first two fingers. I then flick my wrist down (using my own pointer finger as a guide) while drawing her arm away from her body and downward. We move down together, except that she is disabled because I’m pushing her fingers back and taking away the leverage action she might have had on her right arm, and I’m stable because my hips are square and I’m bending at a slow, conscious rate. This, ideally, is how this movement goes. She falls to the floor and I keep pushing her fingers back until she slaps the floor twice, signaling me to stop. But I’m holding the pose and bending her fingers and she’s not slapping the floor.

“Harder,” Lis says. “I’ve been doing this for nine years. Harder.

She’s fully on her belly on the floor but I do what she says, until she slaps the floor. Then we switch positions, she teaching me as we go along, back and forth, back and forth.

On the next move, we begin with a handshake and end with the opponent completely disabled on his/her tippy toes and unable to punch or kick. Lis and I practice this in the same way, but when she says to me again, “I’ve been doing this for nine years,” something in me gets really ticked off. There is nothing I hate more than ego, and that must be because I possess the kernels of it within myself. But she’s said this twice now, not understanding that I’m holding back for my own sake.

If I let go full bore, I don’t know my own strength yet and I don’t know what these moves that we’re learning can do to someone’s joints. I don’t know how to be steady with what I do and I don’t know how to do any of it quickly and seamlessly yet. If I move through these moves forcibly, I’ll probably hurt us both. She thinks I’m holding back because I assume she can’t take it, but I’m actually holding back because I’m still trying to learn, to see that everything is in position before I push into the most dangerous part of the move.

No matter what, we’ve both got ego and insecurity going and by the time class ends, I feel depressed by the emotional roller coaster. What just happened? How can I be a good karateka if someone else’s agenda can so easily throw my mind-focus off? How can I spar with honesty against someone who I don’t respect? How can I stop myself from projecting some much else onto a fellow karateka?

This, I’m discovering, is one of my weaknesses. I am rock steady against someone who is rock steady, someone who believes in me and reflects my best self back at me. I falter when ego or overconfidence or sloppiness come my way. I need to find my own and keep my own, to maintain my composure in the face of any type of opponent. Proper kokoro, or, attitude. I’ve got to foster this.

After class I ask Lis what the patch means (Hanshi explained it, but it went too quickly for me). I congratulate her, smile, make eye contact. I take a deep breath. I say, “See you Tuesday.” I thank Dori. I walk out the door.

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