Going for the Green

Standing at attention, Hanshi began with a quiz on the basics: What is the name of your style? What does each Japanese word mean in English? Then a fill-in-the-blank run down of all our major principles: natural body alignment, hands and hands, hands and feet, zen hara ashi, power, momentum, and so forth.

Promptly, he asked me to perform ippons 1-5 on both sides of the body, then kihons 1-5 on both sides. We then progressed to moving basics, which begin simply with low blocks and grew increasingly complicated with low block/reverse punch/snap kick/repeat moving up and down the tatami. Speed and power mattered tremendously here, as he counted my movements like a metronome and I willed my body to keep pace. Fifteen minutes into the test and I dripped with sweat.

Next up: Katas. I began with Shino and ran through the whole gamut…Wunsu, Anaku, Empi-Sho, Nai Han Chi Sho, and Basa Dai. How many movements? How many attackers? What is Wunsu named after? (A Chinese emissary.) What is another name for this form? What is a kiai?

Hanshi had me rework several moves in Anaku and Empi-Sho to prove a point: Three times the reverse action equals three times the power. I know this conceptually but I don’t always demonstrate it with my body. Dissect a kata into small phrases of movements and I excel with power. Put it all together and I tend to falter, storing my energy rather than making every move count. Point taken.

The next two forms are more advanced and not required for my green belt, but Hanshi put the challenge forth anyway. He dissected Nai Han Chi Sho in great detail as I moved, held my position in a low (and difficult!) horse stance while he talked, then repeated moves at his request. My legs began to shake. Finally satisfied, we moved on to Basa Dai and I finished the kata portion of my test.

Breathless, I looked at Hanshi.

“Tiger form 1!” he called. I moved. “2!” I moved again. “3!” Moved again.

And so forth, through all 15 animal forms. Holding my hands in the final crane stance with only one leg on the ground, I noticed the tips of my fingers quivering. I tilted my hips forward and lengthened my spine, telling my breath to keep flowing and go where it mattered most.

Enter: physical contact.

Nate stepped forward and Hanshi called out numbers: “Ippon number 2 left side…Kihon number 4 right side…now left side…Kihon number 5 right side…Ippon number 3 left and right sides…” and so forth. Engaging in these high-powered series of movements with an attacker coming at you is entirely different than practicing them at home. Timing become an undeniable factor, as well as aim and distance. I repeated several of the forms until they were exactly right, or right enough, as some of these I’d never done before against an attacker. He had me rework several to prove a point: Never forget your other hand and keep it at the trigger, keep it brushing past your ribs, and get it on a straight path to the target. Duly noted. Nate diligently stepped forward again and again with a straight punch to my face as I brush blocked his fist aside and executed the kihons and ippons until Hanshi said we were finished.

This, I suppose, was the warm up for sparring and by then I was certainly warmed up. Fifty minutes into my test and my breathing was audible to all in the room. I wiped my face on my gi, then stood at attention. Nate turned to get the sparring gloves and onward we went.

“Bow here,” said Hanshi. “Bow to each other…Kumite!”

Now…I had it mind that I MUST spar with determination for this test. I haven’t spared very much and the last time I spared Nate I slammed the top of my foot (in an attempted round kick) into his shin. I sat out the rest of the night after that. That portion of my foot is STILL purple. But I refused to think about that as Nate and I began our work. I am fortunate: I completely trust my teacher and I completely trust Nate. No one was going to hurt me. The point was to learn and to perform my best. There is nothing certain in kumite, but I did know one thing: That it was within my power to throw the first punch, and that much I did. Better to try and fail than never to try at all.

We sparred until I was noticeably out of breath and moving slowly because of it. This is where I wish I had pushed myself even more. Not knowing when the end of the test would be, again, I felt myself reserving my fuel a little. Best not to do this, I think, but now I know. Hanshi called the end of the fight and we bowed to each other, then stripped off our gloves.

“Next, kimenokata!” said Hanshi. “Ready?…Double lapel grab!”

Nate grabbed my gi and we began the jui jitsu part of the test. This is unique to Hanshi—not all schools mix karate with jui jistu and in fact most don’t. But our teacher understands that 80% of all fights end up on the ground and so he trains us to be prepared to fight no matter where we end up. And so it is.

I stepped in and “smacked” Nate’s head then framed his ear, broke his balance, and took him down. Arm bar as quickly and safely as possible. Next, same technique on the other side. Then rear forearm choke and side headlock, both sides both times.

Stop, shock, take down, control. Stop, shock, take down, control. I chanted this in my mind as we moved on the mat, fell, then moved again. It all seemed to go quickly yet with each breath I felt things were taking forever at the same time.

And the surprise? (Because there always is one.) GROUNDWORK. Had I thought about jui jitsu at all, I would have understood Hanshi would include this in a green belt test. You work the forms, you work your basics, you work your standing self-defense, and then—dammit—you’d better well know how to deal with things once you’re on the ground.

Onward we went: mount, guard, cross mount, taking the guard. Elbows into thighs, hands strapped around necks and heads. Then the branch up lock, the triangle choke, the scissor choke.

“Ok, good job,” said Hanshi. “Very good…I think that’s it…No, how about 20 push ups and 50 sits ups.”

I dropped to my knees and formed my hands into Shuri fists. In our dojo, we do push-ups on the first two knuckles of our fists. Anna counted while I pumped away, trying to touch my nose to the floor each time (I didn’t, but I tried). The last five faltered in form but I made it to 20, cursing the weights we lifted in class 36 hours ago, and rolled back into sit up position. Anna stepped forward and stood on my toes and I pumped away, up-down-up-down-up-down …Hanshi left the room, fiddled with something the office…up-down-up-down-up-down…His wife whispered something from her desk…up-down-up-down-up-down…Hanshi re-entered the room. I could see his feet out of the corner of my eye…up-down-up-down-up-down. I exhaled a final breath at fifty and rolled up and onto my feet.

“Congratulations,” Hanshi said, smiling. He held out my certificate and read from the inscription: “Be it known that Katey Schultz has earned the rank of Gokyu, Green Belt…”

  • alessa

    OUS! I knew you could do it, fellow karate geek! Now you get to break in that green belt. Remember, it’s a new way of life, not a marathon. Breathe, learn and love it, even when you hate it. Very Zen of me, I know. But you will know what I speak of soon.

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