The Karate Relationship
I consider my time spent as a kyu rank (colored belts) as dating; It’s the start of a brand new relationship. Karate and I dated for three years, and I was always doing: a new kata, new weapons, new responsibilities. I was committed to 3-4 classes a week. I was a kid when I became a karate-ka, so the progress grew as I did at this point. Each year I got a little taller and a little better at holding my own in a fight. I was hooked.
Along came my blackbelt when I was 16 years old. I think of a first degree blackbelt as an engagement to a style. You’ve decided this is the style you want to pursue, and you’ve announced your commitment to the world. Oh man is it exciting! I learned how to move my body in more sophisticated ways. I appreciated the newness of the moves, but it would be a decade before I really appreciated the subtleties I had begun to incorporate into my practice. This engagement separates the “I did karate,” from the martial artists. A lot of people leave after their shodan. That’s okay. A wise blackbelt in Okinawa once said to me, “karate is always waiting right where you leave it.” I hope the shodans come back someday to begin again.
My nidan (2nd degree blackbelt) came and went, and I felt karate beginning to shift into more of a lifestyle. Maybe lifestyle isn’t the right word. Karate just becomes an inseparable part of yourself along the journey. I loved the new katas, pai sai dai now, and I began to accept a larger role in teaching. I felt like I knew my kata. Looking back now, I laugh a little as I type that. To know a kata. In the beginning, knowing is synonymous with memory.
Many people would argue that Yondan (4th degree blackbelt) is a marriage to karate. I disagree. Sandan (3rd degree blackbelt) is the marriage. Sandan is where karate becomes routine. You settle into your karate, or in my case, develop a little complacency. This is where the new wears off.
Somewhere between here and yondan is where you see people floundering. The newness is gone and the normalcy has become boring on some level. I still loved karate, I just wasn’t in-love with karate. I had begun to find some frustrations in politics (fucking politics) and didn’t want to go to classes most days. I’d been training about 15 years at this point, and started considering a divorce. Not because I wanted an affair, though I’ve seen that happen a million times. Look at that pretty style. Those look like nice new exciting fight moves, and they don’t yell at me because the dishes aren’t done! No, I didn’t want an affair. I just wasn’t sure I wanted karate.
I think this is the pivotal moment in a martial arts career. It’s deciding that you’ve made a commitment and that you will stick to that commitment. I went to class as a duty at this point, and I slugged through some really tough months, which surmounted to just under a year of forcing myself to train. Classes sometimes left me feeling worse than when I went in some days. All of the little nuances wore on me as only a great relationship can after that long!
Want to know the best part? I fell in-love with karate again. It was a slow creeping-in of these tiny moments. Little mental pauses during training where I started to realize that all of karate was interconnected in ways I had not seen before. There weren’t basics, and kata, and fighting. It is all the same. The more I looked, the more of the overlapping spectrum I found. I was beginning to put the puzzle together and see the whole of karate.
My kata began to change too. Rather than monotonously marching moves, I began to feel what the kata needed for an ebb and flow. It was a beautiful transition of thought and performance. My kata are still so humble compared to those around me, but I began to see what the kata needed. Each kata needs something different. It’s the difference between someone who practices memorization compared to those who actually practice their kata. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but if you’ve been there, you get it.
When people say that the first through third degree of blackbelts are what karate can do for you and fourth degree up are what you can do for karate, I respectfully disagree. I think the fourth degree up are when you begin to find new parts of old karate. It is what you are able to discover if you persevere and don’t give up. I don’t think you can find this until you’re well into a second decade of training and teaching, and I am sad for those who never see it.
Best wishes from our dojo. Kanpai!