Back to Basics

Sarah (that’s my teacher friend and our new white belt) walked into the dojo this morning at 10:59 a.m. and just barely made it onto the mat in time to bow in. Of course, Lis, Jeff, Nate, and myself were already warmed up from helping with kid’s class, so when we moved straight into a series of spider push ups, then lined up at the mirror for a full set up full-chi basics, Sarah didn’t know what hit her.

Hanshi paced the line and called out numbers, stances, blocks, kicks, and punches. We moved together and quickly—the fastest he’s asked us to move in a while—and Anna was at the end of the line moving at a snail’s pace, eyes darting from one karateka to the next, trying to decipher the moves. I think today was her 8th class all totaled.

I felt empathetic toward her situation immediately, though I couldn’t exactly address that in the middle of an upper block and try to make her feel better. I did, however, call her after class and see if she wanted to hang out tonight and practice basics. She delightfully obliged and when I got to her house, we shared a snack of organic sliced fruits and veggies, then talked about the rollercoaster of training, the honor of it, and the ins and outs of some of the basic moves.

Then we rolled up the carpet on her living room floor, swept the hardwood, and got to work. It must have been almost two hours before we stopped, and while we never worked up a sweat, we were working the whole time. I broke down the basic kicks, punches, stances, and blocks for her. We practiced each together, then I watched her do them. I showed her how they could be used and why certain things mattered even though they looked like they weren’t doing anything. I told her some of the important words in Japanese, and encouraged her to move at her own pace in class, even if it was psychologically difficult to be the only one in the dojo with a white belt.

I pointed out that her legs are two inches longer than mine even though she’s two inches shorter, which means if she can make her kicks her strongpoint, she can keep attackers at a safe distance because they won’t even be able to reach her at that distance. I commented on her defined arms, remnants of her former potter’s lifestyle, and she smiled, appreciating the benefits.

By the time we finished her legs were shaking and her hips were sore. I tried to encourage her—it’s about muscle memory, I told her, and training in places you’ve never trained before. You’ll get to a place where front stance feels like home and you could do it with your eyes closed, I told her. You’ll start to form the Shuri fist faster the more you practice it, I reassured her. You’ll feel overwhelmed, you’ll feel like things aren’t always fair, you’ll feel incompetent, and you’ll feel uncertain.

But you’ll also walk out of the dojo smiling more times than not. You’ll forget yourself and the stress of the day for the sixty minutes you’re on the tatami. You’ll have karate dreams and when you’re unloading groceries from the car and your hands are too full to close the door, you’ll do a crescent step to kick it shut.

To all of this she smiled, asked more questions, and smiled again. Yes, she’ll make a fantastic karateka. She already is.

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