The Karate Adventures Begin
Just off the main thoroughfare in Tinyville, NC, I find the Martial Arts Academy where I will begin karate lessons three times a week. I’ve never glimpsed the building before, and even as I walk through the doors it is difficult to believe that behind this humble building façade there is a class full of various ranking students hard at work.
Class at the dojo (training hall) begins Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to noon and it is immediately clear that I have a lot to learn. Hanshi’s (instructor) daughter, Sienna, is yudansha (holder of dan rank, typically black belt) and it is she who teaches me how to wear my karate gi (uniform). I have already washed and dried the gi, hemming the pants and jacket, and saving the belt for specific instruction.
In the dojo, I peel off my sweatshirt, tie the inner and outer ties of the jacket, and hand the belt to Sienna, who measures about six inches shorter than myself and is a senior in high school.
“First,” she says, “you have to bow. Like this, see? Do this before you enter and whenever you leave the practice room.” She sets her hands at her sides, bending the first knuckle on each thumb and holding it parallel to her rigid row of fingers. She bows to approximately 45 degrees, then looks at me to do the same.
“For your belt, you never wash it and you never let it touch the ground.”
“Ok,” I say.
“Then you start by folding it in half twice…Now, put one end of it behind you, pressing it into the small of your back. Then wrap it around your waist two times. Did you do it twice?”
“Next, you pull the loose end straight out in front of you, then bring the back end toward the front. Cinch the belt so that the ends are even. You always want them to be exactly even.”
I’ve followed her to this point, but as I cinch the belt it gets longer on one side and increasingly shorter on the other. Sienna smiles, an easy smile, and helps me. The final step is a two-step knot, which I believe is a square knot.
“Thank you,” I say. She nods her chin and walks across the mats, bordered on one end by a wall with a faux gate (the significance of which I will learn later) and on the other end by a wall of mirrors. I follow Sienna and begin to stretch, as Hanshi helps the other newcomer with his gi.
Coming out of a quad stretch, Sienna leans toward me and says, “You’ll want to practice on the far side of the room. We stand in order of rank, white belt to black belt.”
I find my place as the first student nearest the door of the dojo, and wait for class to begin.
* * *
The style taught and practiced at this academy is called Shuri-ryu Karate and comes from Okinawa. It has the longest unbroken history of any system of karate and its origins can be traced back to Taishi Bodhidharma, who was the founder of Zen in the 6th century. A quick search in Wikipedia tells me that, “In addition to the punches, blocks, and kicks of karate, Shuri-ryu also incorporates joint locks, take-downs and throws, and kobudo (traditional weapons)…Shuri-ryu has 15 core forms (katas)…[and] one identifying feature of the Shuri-ryu is the use of the Shuri fist.”
In my first class, I learn the Shuri fist, which Hanshi says is more than 2,000 years old. Rather than curling the index finger with the other fingers in a tight fist, it is layed flat against the palm with the thumb curled over it between the first and second knuckles. I also learn the reverse and lead punches, how to find my proper shoulder-width and hip-width stances, and how to breathe. Later, I learn that these are all part of the kihon (basics or fundamentals).
Between punching drills, which require us to stand in a line facing the wall of mirrors, Hanshi quizzes his karateaka (us, the karate practitioners) on the principles behind the kihon. Not much taller than myself, his presence towers above anyone in the room as he paces from end to end of the dojo, shouting questions, impatient for answers. Yet his impatience is hopeful, expectant…there are many things to learn, and he understands this. He is grateful for the students he has, grateful for the lineage in which he was trained, and by the way he teaches, he is grateful to have made his practice an art.
A 7th degree black belt and Vietnam Vet, Hanshi is well versed in the call and response required of karateka. His entire attitude, or kokoro, is instantly attractive to me and I am reminded again of how I learn best. When there is someone I respect that wants me to prove myself, I will do everything I can to meet and exceed what is expected of me. When the bar is set high, I perform better. When too much is asked of me, I do more than I ever thought I could. Likewise, when asked to put my mind to a single task, I can achieve things with intense focus. The combined athleticism and mind training in karate, I think, will be the perfect fit for my sensibilities, which is why, when Hanshi counts from one to ten in Japanese, demanding another round of reverse and lead punches from his row of karateka, I am apt to please.
I stare at my own reflection, aim the thrusting fist at my chin, yanking one shoulder forward and the other back in a plane that shifts four inches with each thrust. I exhale with each punch, inhale with each (imagined) impact, and keep my elbows in.
“What’s the fastest way from point A to point B?” Hanshi asks.
“A STRAIGHT LINE,” the karateka respond.
“Palms up?” Hanshi asks.
“PALMS DOWN,” we reply.
I maintain a 70/30 balance posture, my knee over my big toe, and do not shift my gaze. I keep my shoulders low, my muscles tight, and my back heel lifted at all times. I find the entire experience meditative, demanding, invigorating. And when Hanshi steps forward and into my face, holding the line of karateka in a lead punch pose, I do not flinch:
“Have you taken class before?” Hanshi says.
I resist the natural urge to turn my head and meet his gaze.
“No,” I say.
Hanshi repeats the question, louder.
I pause, then recall: “No, SIR!”
“Well,” he says. “Very good.” He steps back, turns to the class, and counts off another round of punches. “Ichi, Ni, San…”