The Teachings Without End
Hanshi is counting so high in Japanese I don’t even know which number we’re on but still, inhale-prepare, exhale-impact, inhale-prepare, exhale-impact, we are going, going, through a series of all the punches we know for today’s warm up. This is the first time I’ve worked without facing the mirror and I want to constantly check my feet and knees for alignment but instead I have to use my sense of balance to determine whether I’m in the correct stance or not.
Front to back we are 70/30 and side-to-side we are 50/50. This is a fighting stance with the knee always over the big toe.
“What’s the weakest position your knee can ever be in?”
“Above the heel, Sir.”
With the back heel down, this stance is called one thing, with the back heel slightly up it is called leopard. All stances in karate, no matter the distribution or foot/knee alignment, are meant to be wu ji (I think that’s what it’s called), or, the center where all things are possible. The character for this word is a circle with a single dot in the center of it. In other words, you are solid as a rock but prepared for anything to come at you from any angle. In karate, you never lose this bodily focus and in fact, it is inherently linked to mind focus. The two are tied together in an unending knot.
With sweat already pouring down my face, we rehearse our opening bows. Hanshi gives another speech about chi, about points in the body that open up. About signaling respect and preparedness with our bodies. With feet together and hands at our sides (the middle finger touching the middle point of the outside of the thigh), we bow at the waist to a 45-degree angle. The neck does not move. The eyes shift to the floor.
“Oost,” we say. Always, we are saying “Oost, oost, oost,” and I have no effing idea what this means. “Hi! I’m about to kick your ass!” or “I bow to you and your divine light,” or “Yo, high five, man!” I’m counting the days until the handbook is printed!
I have the edge of a cold-bug tonight but still, I’ve been looking forward to class all day and come prepared to give it everything I’ve got. Sometimes, when Hanshi speaks it feels like whatever he says is being directly poured into me. His eyes are a penetrating blue, cut with the fierceness of a gemstone yet sparkling with as much adoration and preciousness as well. He has absolute confidence in what he says and does, and this confidence has somehow trickled down into me, fostering the belief that I can do whatever I put my mind to in karate. How did this happen? I don’t care. It feels like the best thing I’ve done in a long time.
And isn’t that what we’re all searching for—to be believed in?
“Face the front wall,” Hanshi says, “left foot back, and watch the black belts. Now, Sienna, Johnson, come to the front. The reverse punch, show them.”
They work in time before the mirror, standing in a row in front of the rest of us, exhaling on impact, back knee dipping slightly with each blow delivered (without dropping the head at all), and then returning the back heel to just above the ground. The reverse punch is called “reverse” because it comes from the side of the body that is held further back (giving it that much more momentum). It still moves forward though, and the shoulders still shift in a four-inch plane.
We hold our stances (it’s hard!) while they demonstrate, adding in a block with the right hand. At first, it looks like you’re supposed to swat the right arm downward to block a blow, but effectively, you are blocking with your forearm and you block like you mean it. You block because you know what it feels like to be punched or kicked. You block seamlessly, keeping your arm in contact with the attacker’s limb, at the same time that you shift your back leg at the knee and thrust forward into the reverse punch. Another two-part move that comes together in a single, fluid movement.
Hanshi makes a game of this and we partner up to spar (my first time). “White belts, give three inches,” he says. “You may thing you’re punching the same distance every time but you’re not.” The game is harder than it looks, but essentially we’re trading blocks and blows with a partner. One punches to the solar plexus and the other blocks it, then punches to the face. Reverse roles, reverse feet, and you’ve got the potential for a total mind fuck synapse crossover.
But from all the sparring, the most valuable thing I learn has nothing to do with the reverse punch or the block that blocks. It has to do with the energy of my partner, the imaginary attacker. I see quickly that with speed comes confusion. Not only do we tire ourselves out more quickly, but we get sloppy. I want to go slow but Hanshi is rattling up the numbers again and damn if I’ll miss a beat. Later, when he stops counting, I catch my breath and tell my partner I need to go slower. When we move slower together, there is more learning.
Form first, then speed, then power. Form plus speed equals power. This is Hanshi’s equation and it took only five minutes of sparring to see the wisdom in it. We spar again and Hanshi warns: watch your stance.
“You just went to an orthopedic surgeon and had a reconstructed knee,” he says to one karateka. “Johnson, work with her,” he points to the student then grabs the sleeve of my gi. “You, come with me.” We move to the front of the class and he works slowly with me in the game of sparring and that is where I feel the energy shift. His moves are clean, steady, slow enough to teach while also implementing. I remember to breath with my movement, I remember to keep my head at the same level, I remember to bend at the knee and just barely keep the heel off the floor. It’s as though he’s the container and he’s reflecting what he’s taught right back at me as we move through the blocks and punches.
“Shit begets shit,” my old rugby coach used to tell me. And therein lies so much truth. Sparring with Hanshi, for just one minute or so, and already I feel my brain stretching.
Next, we do some sort of sensation warm up (I forget the name), where we’re basically moving our wrists around our partner’s wrist, feeling where each will go and leaning into the movement. “You resist it and that’s when you get hurt,” Hanshi says. We move, lean, breath, move more—all with the simple joining of our wrists.
There is more, so much more. We learn some a block where you begin in stance two and end in stance four, and while you get from one to the next (skipping horse stance), you block by bringing your forearm parallel and dead center with your body, the fingertips as high as the top of the head. As this hand comes down into a Shuri-fist at the trigger point, the other arm comes up in a punch that blocks, protects the core, then turns outward to shield the forehead, concluding in an upper block. The upper arm holds steady with the center of the forearm above the center of the head.
We start our final bows with more “Oost” this and “Oost” that and then Hanshi interrupts us. “You know what, try this first. Punch as fast as you can for sixty seconds, GO!”
I punch aiming at the solar plexus from horse stance and I don’t go that fast, focusing on form first. But still, it is fast enough that I’m worn out quickly and trying to hold the pace I set for myself. I exhale with each impact, which makes me feel as though I’m going to hyperventilate but still, we have to keep going. Punch, punch, punch, and Hanshi paces before us and behind us, walks right by me and whispers, “Excellent,” then yells, “STOP…That was 45 seconds.”
Stopping at 45 seconds (totally beat) was more of a teaching than pushing us to the full 60 seconds. We bow. We clap. We say thank you.
I tell Hanshi that I have to miss class on Thursday unless he wants to see me try and side kick after two glasses of wine.
“That’d be interesting,” he says with a smile.
“What can I do to make up for it? Can I observe the kids’ class? I’m totally in love with this.”
“Yes, yes. You can observe anytime…”
And he goes on and on, instilling confidence in me. I accept his praise but am humbled all the same. What is it that I want so badly? Where has this fierceness come from? Hanshi told a story today about how some students come in and you can tell by their level of focus and dedication that they can earn a black belt in 36 months. “I’ve had three students do it, and recently,” he says. “Others, it will take then seven or eight years. You’ll see.” And as soon as he said this, I wanted to learn everything thoroughly and quickly. I want it as badly as I want my writing published in certain magazines—but I’ve been writing for eight years and I’ve only been doing karate for five classes. What lives in me that feeds this? Hanshi looked as his karateka with the eyes that cut, the eyes that soften.
“What happens after the black belt, Sir?” someone asked.
“The beginning,” Hanshi said.