Up and Down at the Dojo

Tai chi class has just let out and Nate, Jeff, and I are changing into our gi’s for adult karate class. Hanshi peeks his head around the corner and says, “Jeff, we’re going to rest you for brown belt tonight. It needs to happen. You’re ready, ok?”

Jeff’s eyebrows raise and he takes in a quick breath, as if to speak. Then, “Yes, Sir.”

The last I heard, Jeff was possibly going to test in September, so this is more than a surprise, it’s a compliment and a shock. That being said, I’m not alarmed—Jeff’skills are solid and his refinement over the past two months, even, has been remarkable. He moves with a power and firmness that I didn’t see in him when I first started training. (Not as if it’s my place to critique my senior.)

So, Jeff dashes to the bathroom for some water and perhaps a last look in the mirror before what he knows will be 80 minutes of physical and mental challenge. But after we bow in, Hanshi turns to all of us and says, “We’ll begin together. Consider it a test for all of you, in a way. Like you are retesting for whatever belt you have right now. Show me your best!”

We begin with basic movements, but everything is taken up a notch. Hanshi’s voice is resonant and twice as loud as usual. He shouts numbers in Japanese faster than usual and he paces, paces, checking all of us for accuracy of movement. My intention in tonight’s class had been to take it easy—my knees are still sore from Tuesday’s workout—and these are the thoughts running through my mind as he shouts commands. Too late to back out now…

We move for about half an hour, beat-red and dripping sweat. Then we move into kata, but Sienna is leading us and it’s a black belt speed. That’s all find for her, since she’s nidan, and it’s fine for Nate who is also nidan. Moving at that speed is also fine for Jeff, since he’s testing for brown belt and has much more experience than me. But moving at black belt speed for me is difficult, of not clumsy, and I hate it when I’m asked to do this. It just feels so wholly counterproductive, but I think it’s a side effect of being seriously outranked in my own class and nobody of equal or lesser (or even nearby) rank to train with and compare myself to.

We’re working the forms and Jeff is full-blown blasting this hard core chi energy (as he should be) and kicking some serious ass. The rest of us are doing fine, but he’s stands out and already, I can tell he will pass. We’re at the crucial juncture in Wunsu kata just after the throwdown. In sync and on cue, we each spin kick and finish with a kiai.

Except me—because someone between the spin and the kiai, a sharp, electric pain bolts across my knee and terrifies me. I’m barely on one foot when I turn to Hanshi (totally out of line in the kata formation) and bow, then limp off to the side of the tatami. Tears are streaming down my face and my hands are fists trying not to hit something out of anger. My lips are drawn tight as the string on a bow and pace back and forth, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible. I don’t want to talk, but when Hanshi pauses the kata and says, “You ok, Ms. Katey?” I have to respond, all teary-eyed and frog-throat, “No sir, just need a minute. Just need to walk it off.”

The other karateka continue and within a few minutes I’m back on the mat, this time to the side of their formation so that I can move at my own pace. I finish the remaining kata with them but I do it at my own pace and without any spins or wide stances or power in my movements. Tears won’t stop falling down my face and I’m so angry I could bow off the mat right now, just get the hell out of there.

Sure, my knees have problems. But seriously—why am I being asked to do these things at black belt speed? Why can’t I get a training and a lesson that’s at my level and challenging, which is what I’m paying for?

After the kata, Jeff and Nate spar, grapple, run through take downs, and a few chokes. Then we all line up to test Jeff with ukemi (the art of falling). The last few minutes are always grueling—pushups, sit ups, leg lifts, etc. But when it’s all over, Jeff’s a brown belt and the tatami is a shiny mess of sweat. We celebrate with beer and toasts all around and I’m genuinely proud and happy for him.

And I’m also genuinely at a loss for what the hell my place is going to be in this training now—me, a lowly blue belt who can’t practice at home anymore because of knee pain, plus two nidan and now one brown belt. Wont’ I just be holding everybody back or risking further injury if I keep going?

I don’t want to quit. And I don’t want to be a whimp and ask Hanshi for special treatment. But I also don’t want to subject myself to too much training, too fast, and too over my head. But I also know that I hate this feeling.

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