Different at the Dojo

Hanshi is in Atlanta with the black belts for the annual PAMI conference and Jeff (green) is in charge of running the show. I show up for adult class to find three fellow karateka already suited up and sparring with gear on.

I’m not two steps onto the mat and, already, the dojo feels inherently different. How odd to be here without Hanshi, without any yudansha for that matter and yet…There’s Steven (blue) over there in the corner practicing side rolls in circles around the tatami, totally cracking himself up. He stands, wobbles on his feet, then rests against the wall to regain his sense of balance. Jeff comes across the mat in mock attack and Steven, who never talks in formal class, is all gags and gore, falling in mock death the mat.

Ben says, “Hey, how about these?” putting on a pair of what looks like boxing gloves.

Jeff grabs a similar pair and faces off with him. “You hold them here and here,” he says. “To the side of your face…Then jab, punch, jab punch.” They strike back and forth, one hitting and the other holding up his gloved hands to take the impact just inches from his face.

It seems a shame to bust in on them like this, for this is the most casual talk and movement I’ve seen in the dojo ever. I mark it immediately as that lovely way in which men communicate with each other through the bodies and almost ask if I can just sit back and watch, but Jeff will have nothing of that.

The men stop goofing around long enough for us to bow to the kamiza and say our opening “Osu’s” and then we do about 200 sit ups in six different styles. We count by tens, going down the line and to humor ourselves we try it in English, Spanish, Japanese, French, grunt, by twos, and so forth. By the end our bellies ache but we’re all smiling.

Next, we practice falling about ten different ways and work the shino kata. Steven takes off to go snowboarding and Ben nods Jeff and I over for a huddle.

“What I can’t figure is how to just let all that other stuff go. I’m just up and down, all over the place. I never know what I’m going to be like when I get here,” Ben says.

“Hanshi says all of that is like our baggage and we leave it at the door.” He puts his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “When you come in the door and you’re taking your shoes and socks off, imagine that’s your baggage. That all of it, your work day, your kids, whatever, it’s all just slipping off of you. You bow onto the mat and that’s it. You’re here. You bring only yourself and a willing mind.”

“But I can’t seem to shake things anymore. I get angry too quickly. I snap at my kids sometimes. My wife says there’s something different about me. Something not right. I’ve been talking to a doctor,” says Ben.

Jeff pivots on his feet and walks to the wall, shutting off the lights. He leads us through a tai chi exercise where you find your center and hold your seat, breathing into it. “This is it. This is all you need at this moment in time in order to survive. Just this; the breath you’re taking in and letting out. One thing at a time.” We hold our posture for several minutes, then come together again in the center of the kamiza, the lights still out.

“Did that help at all?” Jeff asks Ben. Rectangles of light pour in through the small, high windows along one wall of the dojo, backlighting the two men as they talk.

“It did,” he sighs. “I do believe it did.” Ben puts his palm to his forehead, then drops it to Jeff’s shoulders and they stand their, backlit, hugging belt to belt. My mind snaps a photo, then they turn and hug me. We stay there, in the half light, and talk with Ben for another half hour.

  • Felicity

    I mark it immediately as that lovely way in which men communicate with each other through the bodies…

    There’s an episode of the 90’s British sitcom Spaced that you should see. I mean, I’m crazy enough that I love every single episode, but the very best one hinges on exactly what you are talking about. It’s called “Gone”. Mebbe some day I’ll have an opportunity to show it to you.

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