Wednesday, October 21, 2009

be prepared

There is a weekly tai ji jian sword class which I like very much, though work sometimes interferes. Sometimes I can only stop in just long enough for a talk with the teacher – in tonight’s case, my plan for a group xing yi quan demo at an upcoming local tournament.

Until now, about two of us have done solo xing yi quan demos at the tournament but now that the class has been going for 5-6 years, I suggested that we have a group demo featuring several aspects of xing yi quan. So everyone might demo the 三体式 standing posture and the five basic fists 五形拳. Then we could break into small groups and each group could perform one of the twelve animal forms 十二形 of their choice (probably dragon, chicken, and monkey, since those were the focus of Liu Jing Ru Laoshi’s most recent visit.

Then, splitting into halves, we could do the 连环拳 and 八势 routines. Finally, I hope to run through the spear work we have covered so far, 形意枪. The teacher is very supportive but other class members are a bit reluctant. Anyway, I think we should be ready to demo and have tried to create a 10-minute performance that will showcase what we have been working on while allowing each person to choose only some parts to focus on. Alas, I will have to do 杂式捶 another time.

So my intention had been to simply attend the sword class (late), watch carefully, and discuss my proposal. As I should have expected, the teacher came right over with his sword and insisted I join the group for one last run through the 32 jian form. I duly protested. He duly insisted.

We have been through this ritual before and I should have known it was coming – and should have drunk less beer with dinner. I have not been practicing this 32 form much at all, as I have been quite focused on the Sha family tai ji jian forms for some time. And sure enough, at one of the places where the 32 form overlaps with the first Sha (24) form, I went into the Sha style, going off 45 right instead of forward after an overhead chop (劈剑), downward block along the side, downward flicking cut (点剑) sequence.

I quickly hopped in place to adjust my angle by 45 degrees, and couldn’t help but notice the smirk on the teacher’s face. Apart from that little glitch I gave a good show, but that one flaw stood out to those two who knew and betrayed my lack of preparation, the readiness to do any form at any time.

It’s a good thing I finally have a morning off work tomorrow. You’ll know where to find me.

Friday, October 9, 2009

karate memories (1)

Had a nice long solo practice at home tonight, spent most of it on kobudo. Somewhere in the blur of motion my mind began wandering. I took a break and let it go where it would.

(I) There was one visit, a friendly visit to another karate practice. Was it in the Dallas area, on a visit to relatives there? A very small group with a male teacher, a female top student, myself, and some beginners. We three continued after the beginners had finished their paces.

They were also Shotokan karate, though of a different line. Everything was the same but slightly different. He had the lead student and I start running through each of the Shotokan kata, side by side. Both brown belts, we were in the best of condition and the hungriest of spirit.

The three taikyoku kata. The five heian (pinan) kata. And so on, one by one. The three tekki (naihanchi) kata. Not a word said, just the name of the next kata after a short rest between each. Both bassai kata. Ji’in, jion.

It was the best kind of competition, both of us showing our stuff while respecting the other. We just wanted to show good kata, not to be better than the other person. Jion, nijushi. I began to wonder how far we would go, when he would say something. I hadn’t yet learned either of the gojushiho kata. If memory serves, I knew a couple more kata than she did. I hesitated, looked at him, got no signal of any kind, which I took as a go-ahead. He called a couple more kata, but I think it was getting clear that my breadth had exceeded my depth and there was no purpose in going further.

He never did say much more and I was uneasy, unsure what his purpose had been , what he had been looking for. Yet there was nothing negative, either. We finished off with some basics, bowed and exchanged thanks and goodbyes.

(II) All of this comes on the heels of an excellent practice last week (already blogged) in which we spent over two hours on a single weapon, the nunchaku, rather than the usual run through several weapons. Depth to balance out the breadth, and much appreciated.

(III) Sometimes I get little blasts from the past, very specific memories of places where I practiced. One late night outdoors in Texas, in the space between my parents’ house and the neighbors, as the air conditioner whirred into the night. I can still feel that night’s breeze cooling me between kata. I had taken my bo staff with me on that trip, and ran again and again through the selection of bo kata I knew. No one was watching, but it felt like anyone could be watching, and I knew that my kata were good.

Another visit, this one to a dojo inside a sweltering Quonset hut in summer in Bemidji, Minnesota. A karate / kobudo class with one teacher, two students, and me. And about twice that many onlookers outside, occasionally jeering but not venturing inside. I was a bit wary upon leaving, but found no one looking to jump me.

And another visit, to a long-running dojo which had only recently opened its doors to men. A friend of a friend was a long-term member and arranged for my visit. I was very impressed with the practice and have always wanted to return for another visit. It was an unplanned visit and I was treated exceptionally well, loaned a karate-gi, the works.

Other practices surface: striving in vain to hold kiba-dachi horse stance in the late night waves on a North Carolina beach, striving in pain to hold kiba-dachi in calf-deep snow in a backyard in Nebraska. The surface of the snow had iced over and I found blood running down both legs upon going inside – but had felt nothing outside, numbed by the cold.

The blood that had slowly accumulated on a makiwara punching post in the basement. And the giant, swollen tick I found on the carpet backing / punching pad I found one night under the single light bulb which illuminated the whole basement.

My first karate summer, was it 20 years ago? I had been through the university class, which captured me from the start, 4 ½ months in the spring and a bright new yellow belt. I knew from the first day it was for me and jumped in all the way.

I was the epitome of the bookish nerd, had been for 20 years. And now my body was moving and growing strong like it never had before.

Remember the kid who had perfect grades and shunned all the sports and athletes? That was me. The kid whose only athletic accomplishment (apart from a long and relatively undisturbed stint in right field in elementary school softball) was joining the cross-country track team and coming in dead last at every day’s practice except that one glorious day when the Always Second-to-Last kid had a cold and I swept past him in glorious victory (blogged about way back when)….that was me.

Maybe all those years of no physical activity, all the piles of science fiction novels, all the games of chess, had been building up to something. Because once it started, it couldn’t be stopped. I practiced like I had done nothing before in my life, as if fully awake for the first time. It consumed and shaped my life.

Too much so. My social life was arranged around an endless practice schedule. Staying the night at one place on a bitter cold winter night. I arrived after karate, of course, and hung my stinking dogi up to dry in her kitchen. The sweetest cup of hot chocolate in the history of the world – but that aroma had to dance and waft around the stench of a karate gi / uniform. If I only knew then….That was long before I knew that Practice sometimes has to take a back seat to more important things.

After that first semseter’s class, I continued in the sparsely-attended summer classes and spent afternoons pouring sweat in our sauna-like attic: multi-colored shag carpet and a wavy, broken line of foot-wide mirrors bought at various thrift stores. I ground those taikyoku and heian kata into my body. Our Sensei had written a text for the university classes and it was my guide day after day as I spent the afternoons preparing for the nights.

After more than the usual four or five years, I graduated university with three majors (I’ve never been one for focusing too narrowly….) and High Distinction. But the real story was not written on my diploma. My real passion and endeavor through it all was karate. What I really learned at that time was Japanese budo. It was played out there in the dojo and was written on and in my body over seven years, all leading to my coming to Japan.

Strangely, it was never quite right after coming to Japan. Long stories there for another time and place. Many things I might have, should have done differently. Many opportunities missed.

Fast-forward past all that. Now in Japan twice as long as I practiced karate and other budo in the US. I now find myself immersed in the Chinese martial arts, having found that one teacher and training environment which are right for me at this time. The Chinese martial arts world tends toward breadth (with depth) in just the way that the Japanese martial arts world tends toward depth over breadth. Maybe I have found my place after all.

(IV) What is my first, strongest karate memory? Maybe one from the end of that first semester. It was the last class before our paper test. Of course we had a practical test with kihon basics, kata forms, and kumite sparring. But there was also a written test which covered a wide range of material. On the last day, one of the teachers was drilling us. She asked a question about the meaning of the name of our branch of karate, Kenkojuku Shotokan.

No one else raised their hand. So I, in all my introverted glory, cast my eyes about and shyly raised my hand. I think she knew that I knew that answer, as she looked around for someone else to call upon. No other hands went up. She nodded, I answered, almost too completely.

I could feel way too many eyes staring at me. Was it the last question? Maybe so. We rose, bowed and said a final “osu!”, and left the training hall. I knew at that time that I had found something which would shape and guide my life.

(V) 2009. It has been too long since I have gone back. An ocean away and farther, as I move ever deeper into a different world. But on nights like this, I can pull out those taikyoku and heian kata and take myself straight back to the attic where I first burned them in.


Thursday, October 1, 2009


I have been thinking about resistance in terms of my 6-year-old daughter lately – she seems to have entered a new / higher stage of resistance to parents. Most days are pretty good but once in a while trouble unfolds.

They are little things, mostly – stomping up the stairs when told to put her toys in her room, ignoring parents when they call her, steadfastly refusing to comply with innocuous requests….surely I wasn’t such a stubborn child! I tell myself it is all a necessary part of her growth and development, but it is scant consolation after a long day at work and unnecessary poopiness at night.

Anyhow, last night I suddenly had to look at some of my own resistance. I practice martial arts because, well, I like learning and practicing martial arts. My goal is to absorb what the teacher has, bring it into my body and my motions. So I usually try to do what the teacher says. Pretty simple stuff.

The starting point is having chosen a teacher whom I respect and that I feel has mastery over the motions and concepts they are teaching. So, like most students, I go along with what the teacher says and strive to understand it and make it part of me.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel right at all.

We were working on Maezato (Mezato) no Nunchaku and Akamine no Nunchaku last night. It was great, an (almost) all-nunchaku night, over two hours of detailed reps. One of the core moves in both kata is a combination block which sets up the attack to follow.

You block across horizontally (the front stick is held vertical and the rear one at about a 30 degree angle, with the rear fist reinforcing the inner forearm of the lead arm. From there you add in another hip rotation and take the lead hand up inside the other arm to block overhead. The other hand moves across the body slightly, toward the opposite side of the torso.

The lead arm finishes with the stick held horizontal overhead, parallel to the floor (the teacher was stressing last night) and the other stick is held vertically, out near the shoulder. He was also urging us to keep the horizontal stick much lower, about eyebrow level.

My long-time habit is to block higher overhead, so I must assume this is more of a ready position. That is also because as the lead stick is going upward, the other stick pushes across to the side a second time– this functions as a strike to drive the opponent’s weapon (a six-foot wooden staff or bo) off to the side, following up the block just before.

My habit is also to block overhead with an angled stick – the idea being to let the blocked weapon slide downward off my weapon, absorbing some of the shock and helping get the opponent’s weapon out of my way.

So I was trying my best NOT to block, but merely to assume a ready position for the next motion, a downward strike from this cocked position (add a slide forward with yori-ashi). Trying to keep the overhead stick (a) parallel to the floor and (b) much lower.

I couldn’t let go of the blocking concept. I managed to get the motion down, but I was blocking it out in a way – not accepting it as correct. Even as my body did the motion, my mind was not accepting it.

My own little rebellion stage, I suppose, or just another issue to work through. Thinking about this, I have gained a bit more patience for my daughter as well.