The Karatefecta: Mind, Body, Spirit

Mind, body, spirit.

Mind, body, spirit. The first time I was introduced to the idea as a holistic approach tied to karate, was by Master Kise. I was somewhere around the age of 17, having just tested for my blackbelt. I had just completed something that felt so big– I was indestructible. With the testing completed, the belts handed out, and the hand-shaking finished, Master Kise wanted to say something. I looked around in excitement, seeing something on the other participants’ faces– was it surprise? I got the sense that there weren’t a lot of speeches being doled out by the old master, and what we were about to receive would be special.

The large assembly space was sparsely adorned, but featured a stage at its front, to which the forty-something participants huddled towards. We were in the town hall, and its unforgiving wooden floors echoed the noises within. Upon the stage stood a short, graying old man in a black gi and frayed red belt. His beard full and neatly-cropped, his gaze wandered through his gathered students with quiet regard. He never showed much on his face, other than an occasional smile, which left you always guessing if he approved of what you were doing.

I don’t remember all of what he spoke, but the parts I do remember stuck with me. He spoke of Karate as a family and the bond that is a result– there are few places you can be beaten bloody and thank the person for it. The words I remember the most, though, went something along the lines of, “Good karate is not enough. You must have strong mind. Strong body. Strong spirit. It all goes together,” and he ended with his typical, “more practice.”

It seemed so simple, yet so important.

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What is a decade?

I learned Chinto for the first time as a sandan, somewhere around 20 yrs old. It is beautiful and full of finesse that had been less prominent in the lower ranking katas. It stood out in this traditional style where kata historically focuses on bunkai and practicality, almost exclusively. Here is Chinto though, jump kicking its way into my world.

Some people grow bored of doing the same kata for decades. They get that itch right around sandan to start exploring new styles because they think they have found everything that can be found in doing a kata for two decades. I think that is more of a reflection on the karate-ka than the kata. I practice my kata differently than I did in my twenties; the kata may not have changed, but I have.

I practice my kata slowly, so slow my body fights my mind. I feel every move and perfect my hands within a centimeter of where I want them. You never notice that your foot turns out a little until you are moving at the speed of molasses. You begin to sharpen when to turn your head, and when to move your foot.

I practice my kata with no cadence. Did you know cadence is just a tool to teach a kata? Your kata has no numerical cadence. You can start to feel the energy of the kata without the numbers. When are you supposed to go hard, go soft, speed up, or slow for emphasis? The kata will tell you, after a decade or so.

I practice my kata alone. I study it, pause when I need to break down the bunkai by myself. I am self-studying as a martial artist here, not as a teacher or a student, directing or being directed. Some of the best answers come in the alone moments. That’s when I hear my kata the loudest.

I never really understood what Hanshi Kise meant when he said, “Good job. More practice.” Now, when I watch Chinto done by my teacher, Shihan Lazarus, I see that it resonates through him with so much more understanding than I have. It will take a lifetime of practice to learn my kata the way my teacher knows them, and I guess that was the point Hanshi was trying to make.

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The Death of Protocol

Do you know how to make a traditional glass of Awamori? It’s a very simple question. Do you know what to put in the glass first? Which way to stir? How to pour the bottle? How to toast with your glass? Who has to drink before you can? Who makes the drink for highest rank at the table?

“Traditional karate is a dying art.” -Anonymous

I show up to training and bow as I meet my fellow karate-ka. I wish them good morning, in Japanese, and ask if there is anything I can do to help the class run smoothly. Today it is my mission to wait patiently by the front door of the building. I will be there to hold it open when higher ranks enter the school. This job is not a bother at all. I’ve been to Okinawa to train, and I know that people hold the doors for higher ranks there. It is all part of the art. There is a lower rank reserving a parking spot in the parking lot. That allows the teacher of the school to have a good parking spot. It’s not about lavishing your teacher, but about showing them respect in the same way they show their teacher respect. I’ve watched my teacher do these things for his teacher, and now it is a privilege to extending the same kindnesses to him.

Training commences and it’s the second row for me. I’m not going to lie, I’m glad I’m not in the front row. I may have even pointed out my luck of making the second row to a few high ranks in front of me. (Ha!) Today there are enough high ranking black belts to fill multiple rows. In a traditional martial art that can be difficult these days. People don’t crave the discipline of protocol and nuances anymore. They want to throw their belts on the floor, bow at their own discretion and have a handful of people in their style addressed as Master. PAUSE. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not traditional Okinawan Karate. I promise you that my mission of this blog today is not to criticize non-traditional schools! I am simply in the grievance of watching the traditional ones dissipate with each passing year; some sliding slowly off the cliff that they professed to train on. I wonder if the pendulum is swinging back to the days of fathers teaching their sons in a garage- the privacy of a family art from one teacher to one student. If it is, I’ll be training solo with my teacher until the day he refuses to train me. This is my art.

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As you may have gathered, I train in a very formal style. Out of all the dojos I have been a guest in, my teacher’s dojo has the most strict protocol that I have ever seen. My teacher believes that we should train the same way in the USA that our art is trained in in Okinawa, and so we do. Unfortunately for a dojo, that doesn’t always win you the most students in this day and age. As our numbers dwindle and our higher ranked blackbelts talk of retirement and closing their schools, I can’t help but notice that we don’t have the numbers to fill their future absence. It makes my heart ache.

High ranking blackbelts are paramount to a traditional school. While your teacher gives you your art, it is not their job to be correcting your protocol on a day to day basis. That is the second and third higher rank’s job. That protocol should filter down as high ranks help lower ranks learn how to act and teach. They are supposed to police the rest of the class to allow for an environment of respect. This is just as important as the primary instructions you receive for your kata, kobudo, kumite, etc.

I will touch upon disrespect briefly and concretely. Students who are intentionally disrespectful should be removed from a traditional school immediately. There is no room for disrespect in a traditional dojo. People who are disrespectful shodans grow up to be problematic yondans! A person with poor kata can be corrected, but a person with intentional disrespect is a bad apple, bound to spoil your dojo.

As I worked to co-open a school of my own, I took on the role of second in command. Protocol is one of my favorite parts of karate. I love teaching students about it because it is teaching about the culture of my art. We found that the key to maintaining a strict protocol school is being okay with having less students in pursuit of the ones who want to preserve its practice. Of course, there is a lot more money in laxity. If you want to run a dojo paid for with the student’s tuition you may have to compromise on the discipline. While we are unwilling to do that, I acknowledge that we are not in a financial obligation of providing for our family with our dojo’s income. I’m not judging what people do to make ends meet in a business, I’m just choosing to not compromise my karate under any circumstances. (Maybe I judge a little as that did seem passive aggressive. I’ll work on that.) I find that too much of karate is spent focused on money and politics these days. We have made a choice to not allow that in our school.

We train our students for free at the time being. CRAZY, right? While I recognize we won’t be able to do that forever, it allowed us a liberty to train for simply the love of training for the last two years. We asked nothing in return but their respect and time.  It has inspired me in a beautiful way to fall back in-love with karate without any of the clouding factors. I know it isn’t possible, but I wish all teachers could experience that at some point.

I’m sorry I have no witty words or many things to laugh about in this post. This is one for the people I watch around me, clinging to our art and able to identify with the difficulties of watching it slide away from us. I wish in ten years to write again about this, but maybe in a light of the re-birth of traditional martial arts. Until then I will close by saying that though there are few of us, may you find strength in keeping your art preserved. You are not alone.

Best wishes from our dojo. Kanpai!


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