“It’s Just a Little Hematoma”
I suppose I was slightly aggravated when I walked in the door. My mind had been racing all the way to the dojo, despite the fact that I tried singing along to my Buddhist “Songs of Realization” for the short drive. I think my mood had something to do with not having enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on my to-do list. At any rate, by the time we bowed in and faced the mirror for a series of kicks, I was tight-mouthed and pissy and my hamstrings, which I’ve been working a lot in PT, were mirroring my mood. We kicked and kicked and I had to duck out of the line to stretch. I could feel the muscles along the back of my left leg snapping and pulling like fishing line on a tangled reel.
Tonight we worked sambon kumite, or three step sparring, that is a type of yakasoku kumite (promise fighting). The moves are determined in advance and both partners know them. We move forward fiercely but always with the promise never to hit. This does not mean that we aim our fists improperly, hardly. It means that we stop just a few inches shy of the face/chest/gi with each move.
What’s the primary mistake, no matter what belt you are, in this type of drill? Proper ma. In Japanese, ma means distance or timing—same thing. Think about that for a minute. Someone throws a punch at you and it missed your face by a foot, although if you look straight at the fist it’s right in line with your jaw. Is this the result of too much distance or bad timing? Some say the attacker was too far away, others would just say the attacker moved too soon. Timing and distance are inherently and forever related in this way.
The second mistake most people make in sambon kumite is the first action of the body. In karate the first movement is always down, but the first activity is in the hips. Your vision is metsuke, seeing without looking, and your feet move as soon as the attacker’s feet move. If you trust your stance, you will move down and crescent step away from the attacker, rotating your hips to do so. Most people, subconsciously at least, do not trust their stances and so they lift slightly into the attacker to adjust their weight, then shift their feet. This is equivalent to sticking your head into somebody’s punch and it is discouraged.
So we move in pairs, brush blocking and crescent stepping and kiaing and I can’t seem to get it down quick enough. I’m trying my best but Hanshi is there with every move, correcting, nit picking, showing me over and over again how to do it. He barely gives me a chance to complete once sequence of the three-step movement before stopping me, correcting me again, then making me start over. It’s aggravating because I understand what he is saying and I know what I need to do, but I’m not likely to get it on the first try. I need to be able to try several times, at least, before incorporating his corrections immediately into my movements. He seems oblivious to this or, at least, he seems not to care. “No,” he says. “Like this.” [Demo.] Then, “Stop,” he says. “Like this, see? Simple.” [Demo again.] “Yame,” he says. “You’re not getting it. Like this.” [Demo again.]
It occurs to me that he might be pissing me off on purpose. And it wasn’t just me that he was correcting but, to be fair, the moves were more difficult for me than for anyone else in the class. So much is still new to me and I’m still really struggling making the shift from beginner concepts to advance (or even intermediate) concepts of basic movement. Finally, he directs his attention elsewhere for a bit and I can make the movements without interruption. I start to gain a little speed, but not much power. The brushblocks are difficult for me to believe in but by the end of the night, I can feel their relevance and see why they are necessary.
Also by the end of the night, my forearms are throbbing. Now, don’t get me wrong—I gave four years (and two surgeries and one concussion) to a sport that was all about getting bruised and not giving a fuck about it. So I’m no wuss when it comes to the concept of “No pain, no gain.” But, when I sparred with Steven, his second block was strongest, not the first (brushblock), and it took only a few sequences for a giant welted bruise to start forming on my right forearm. This is because the second block is a rigid block (bone to bone) whereas the brushblock is a perry (sp?) block – softer but totally effective. Steven was relying heavily on the rigid block and it did the job, but also did a job on my arms.
I asked Hanshi after class if the brusing was from my resistance or from blocks that were too hard and he said neither. Better to be slightly bruised there than on your face. Those bruises meant I was doing my job, he said, and then he told me to put some ice on it when I got home. I didn’t have the nerve to explain in more detail what I was feeling—that the first blocks should have been harder (but no bruising) and the second blocks must a follow up (rather than bone on bone smacking repeatedly). As they say, “In the dojo you have no opinion of your senior.”
No opinion—fine. But if we do that drill again I’m telling whoever I’m with to brushblock my punches out of the way like they mean it, because now I know what happens if they don’t. In the meantime, the aggravation I felt served a purpose: the more we moved, the louder my kia got and the more Hanshi corrected the more determined my punches became. I wouldn’t put I past him to infer that he intended to provoke us, mildly, all along…and all for the sake of learning, which I’m sure he knew we’d come around to in the end.