The Wider Perspective
In addition to practicing at home, I’ve taken to stretching and warming up before I drive to class, just to focus my mind a little bit. I sing along with my recording of Khenpo Tsultrim’s “Songs of Realization” on the way to the dojo, and by the time I bow at the entrance to the hall, I’ve been gearing up for the class for at least 45 minutes.
Hanshi flew to Orlando to practice for two hours with a Grandmaster, so Sienna leads our class this morning. There are only three of us, myself included, all white belt. We move right into punches, practicing the straight punch, vertical punch, uppercut, side punch (angle punch?), and round punch. I learned a few of these last week with Hanshi, but that was they day he taught Leslie and I so much it was difficult to remember anything. The review is helpful, and the attention we get with just three of us in class is priceless.
Sienna calls out the numbers, one through ten, in a voice that is loud for her but still sounds about as soft as a silk scarf and just as soothing. Still, the karateka respond by punching in time, exhaling on impact, switching arms at Sienna’s command.
Next, we practice the low block, where one hand covers the groin (held about 12 inches away from the body in a Shuryi fist) and the other arm comes across the chest, bends at the elbow, and curls the first to turn and face parallel to the head. This starting position protects to parts of the body while also preparing strike. We have to dissect the move into two steps at first, but eventually we can move seamlessly between the cover and the block so that they are one and the same. Hands and arms protect, then the upper arm drops to a low block while the lower arm comes into a mid-body block that looks a bit like an uppercut punch. We repeat, switch sides, hit the pads, repeat again, work in slow motion, work up a sweat.
The next block begins with the upper palm open, the back of it held parallel to the head and arm bent at the elbow. In the move, this hand pulls downward, staying close into the body and curling into a Shuri fist as it reaches the trigger point (arm pulled back, fist just above the belt at the waist, ready to strike). The lower hand covers to the core of the body and is held parallel to the other forearm, first firmed, wrist strong and arm turned in towards the body. It pulls up and into a punch that ends with a bent elbow at 45 degrees and looks a lot like an upper cut.
The blocks are the hardest, mentally, and we spend about half an hour on these two moves. While I know that I’m only supposed to flex and apply all my strength upon the impact, I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. I’m either all slack or all tight, and in class I choose to be all tight because it is a formal learning environment. But this means that the muscles in my arms, shoulders, and upper back are flexed the entire time we punches and blocks. When Hanshi comes back I need to ask him about this. Where to the muscles rest and breathe in each pose? Do they ever?
Finally, we learn the six standing poses. One, feet together, knees straight, hands at your sides. Two, toes out from there. Three, heels out from there, feet slightly pigeon-toed. Four, step the right foot in as your cross your hands, then release your right foot out into a shoulder-width stance, hands held in Shuri fists at the trigger points. Knees bent over the toes, hips squared. This is horse stance. Five, curl the right foot inward making the letter C with your foot and ending with the right foot behind you, so that your feet form opposing corners of a perfect square. Hands up, ready to fight. Six, shift the entire body and feet 45 degrees, keeping the hips square, so that you’re at an angled horse stance.
We end class by reviewing the punches, blocks, and standing poses, then going through a series of push-ups (on your fists) and sit ups. We bow and give our appreciation, and one of the other white belt students asks Sienna what the white pine patch on her gi is, and here, the aspect of conditioning is opened up to me.
Apparently, in order to get this patch (which Sienna has earned and re-earns every year), a karatkeka has one hour to: run three miles, complete 500 front kicks, 30 push ups, 30 sit ups, a 2 minute free-for-all punching/kicking/headbutting frenzy at the punching bag, pulls ups on a bar, some other insane number of some kind of punch, and a few other things. There are no breaks, and no water between the run and the karate moves. After that, the karateka takes a written exam outlining the 23 characteristics and 8 somethings and what each branch on the white pine means, what the trunk means, what the needles mean, and then some. The written test can occur outside the limits of one hour, but must always occur after the physical part, and all of this usually occurs around the time you are green belt.
“You’ll be in the best shape of your life,” Dori says coming out from behind the indoor window that separates the office and the practice room. Dori is Sienna’s mother, Hanshi’s wife. I have been curious about her role in the dojo, in the family, as a support and manager. What is her passion? What does she dedicate to? After she talks, I can see clearly: her five children are her best work, her passion, and she has been with them every step of the way, including the oldest daughter who went on her own path—not as a black belt karateka but instead as a thespian and dancer.
The pushups were the hardest thing for me to do today, even though I’d been doing them on my own at home. After half an hour of punches, to get down and do pushups was a challenge. I can see now how much work there is to do with the body, besides just working the kihon. There is a level of total fitness demanded in this sport, a level I know I will not be able to fully dedicate to until after I graduate. For now, one step at a time. Hanshi will be back for Tuesday’s class and already, I have work to do, moves to practice, and things to think about.