After kids’ class I bow off of the floor mats and start putting on layers for my run between classes. But it’s a cold, blustery night and snow has been falling all day.
Hanshi peeks his head around the corner and looks at me. “You ducking out?”
“No. I was going to go on a run and then come back for class,” I say.
“Everyone called and cancelled for Tai Qi. Stick around and I’ll give you a private lesson.”
“Really? Yes, Sir! It’s pretty windy out there tonight, too. Let me change into my gi and I’ll be right there.”
First thing, he wants to work the shino kata. “Have you learned this yet?” Hanshi asks.
I nod, explaining that we ran through it once before I left for my trip and I’ve been practicing it.
“Good,” Hanshi says. Do it alongside Sienna here and I’ll watch.”
We work the form and I am eager to show what I’ve learned but humbled by how far there is to go. When I have to kick and prepare a hammer fist, for example, my focus divides and my form falters.
“Every move in kata is in the present. It is the most important thing you are doing right in that moment and one move now should not reflect the next move that is to come. You never want to give that away to your opponent and you always want to do each move as best as you can,” Hanshi says.
I’ve barely made it past the bow and into the moves versus the first attacker and already, he has pointed out I need to correct. Bow at 20%, not 5%. Open your stance after your hands cross, not during or before. Keep your ready position fists up and away from your body, not too close to your belt. Turn your wrists so you could aim a punch at any moment. Hands and feet only stop together, but hands move faster so snap your kick back and only begin to move your fist off the trigger point just inches before your foot touches the ground. Bend your thumb with a hammer strike to strengthen the qi in your palm. Front kick uses the ball of the foot as its weapon. If you try to use the entire bottom of your foot your entire kick will be weak.
Sienna leads me through the kata a few more times. The precise attention I’m getting it invigorating but intense. At one point, Hanshi comes to touch my foot to help me understand how to aim it so that I may kick with the ball of the foot and nothing else, and it is in this moment where I feel myself weaken.
“Up higher, higher. Onto the balls of your feet,” Hanshi says.
I do as I’m told but, psychologically, I am wincing. “You know I had a sesamoidectomy on each foot, right?” I say, and immediately regret it. Putting voice to my weaknesses only reinforces them. I feel as though I’ve effectively complained and disrespected, since I did not call him Sir.
Hanshi says nothing. I attempt the kick a few more times, stretch the joint, kick again. Hanshi walks to the side of me as I’m flexing the joint, trying to train my foot to deliver a blow in the very spot I’ve protected instinctually for years. I am being asked to kick with the ball of my foot when I had a bone taken out of the ball of my foot – even the thought of this cripples me – which is why, perhaps, when he steps a little closer words just spill out of my mouth and I don’t even think about them:
“Don’t step on the back of my foot,” I say – even though he’s nowhere near it – “because it really freaks me out.”
My voice wavers. This, my first formal admission. And here. Now. When I’ve been given the grace of a private lesson.
I spend the next ten minutes on autopilot, following Hanshi and Sienna’s lead but trapped in my own mind and regretting already what I’ve said. Hanshi appears totally unphased, and he is – but I feel haunted. Up until this point, I had not known how deeply imbedded the old wounds of the surgery were in my psyche but now they’re out, for the person I respect the most to see.
And what would Hanshi say if he knew I felt this way? He would probably say all the better. What better place or person to show weakness to? And then he would say: Drop it. Let it go.
Sienna and Hanshi and I move to the board for a chalk talk. There are concepts (abstract ideas), principles (undeniable, irrefutable, universal laws—such as gravity), and technique (the forms). There is kuchi (the reasons we do what we do and being able to talk about that), kata (forms), and bushi (putting this to work, applying all that we know). There is a two-sided coin: demonstration and application. There is observing, giving, and receiving.
Then, there is spirit and vision. Hanshi says it takes a skilled and dedicated student 3 years to get a black belt, under auspicious circumstances. It takes an above average student 4 years. It takes an average student 5 years. He write these number on the board, then circles the number 3. He caps the pen and places it against the board. “I don’t mean to blow up your ego, but you,” he says, “you can do this is in three.”