Monday, September 28, 2009

Epiphany: "Distance" Karate

Tuesday night at the dojo, we worked on ippon kumite self-defense technique "add ons." See, coming through the ranks, the 13 ippons we were required to know were taught to us one at a time - as in only one being done at a time. In the dojo this week, we worked on doing two and even three at a time - adding on, if you will.

"Remember," Sensei S. told us, "ippon kumite techniques are only ONE POINT techniques that are designed to defend from one thing: a straight punch to the face. So, after you've countered that, you've really only disarmed ONE of your adversary's weapons (limbs)." The idea, he continued, is to learn to keep attacking and finish until the adversary is neutralized.

OK - so this made sense to me. I jumped in and got to work with those extra empis, sternum strikes and shoulder locks - only to realize that I stopped the techniques just before my uke tapped out. So I started thinking and fell upon this epiphany: I ALWAYS stop before the person I'm doing the technique on can tap. Even when instructed to "stay the course" and keep the shoulder lock or arm bar on until the tap, I stopped just short. Always. What the heck is that about?!?

I know it makes no sense, but I think the idea of stepping into a technique to grab someone and take them down intimidates the snot out of me. Like every other little girl on the planet, I grew up on fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White where the heroine was kind, gentle, giving and nurturing. Sure their gentle nature almost did them in, but in the end, it all worked out, right? I think that's my hope as far as self-defense goes. Perhaps I may even be a little afraid of hurting my adversary, which really makes no sense at all - so I talked to Sensei S about it.

He said that most likely, if I found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time or to protect my child, I'd do what I needed to do to save me/us, not the other person. My concern, of course, is that how I train will be exactly how I actually respond in the face of confrontation. But I'm not sure if that's even the real reason.

So here it is: truth be told, I don't want to be that close to someone trying to do me harm - and shoulder locks and empis to the gut, neck or jaw require intimately close contact. I'm 6'2" with a 41" inseam, so a hook kick to the head or any other wide, sweeping technique will net the same incapacitation that will allow me and mine enough time to get away - and is what I prefer. But Sensei S countered with the idea that an attacker won't really allow me the distance to pull such a technique off as he or she will insist on the closeness as a way to restrict and control.

The something new I learned this week is that I need much work on finishing what is started by an adversary. The learning curve here is huge - but at least the learning continues. Where I'll go from here with it is anyone's guess.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The "Art" of My Martial Art

Before I ever stepped bare foot onto the mat, I watched my son train in karate for almost a whole year. Because I sat in the balcony of the gym while I watched, I got to see patterns of the katas the class worked on from a very unique perspective. Since I was also a graduate student with a ton of reading to do at the time, one of my eyes was always in a textbook - but when I finally did take Sensei up on his offer to give the class a try, I knew mostly all of the first form. It's amazing how much can actually be retained by watching something being done over and over again.

The first seven forms in our style have the same basic foot pattern - just different stances and/or hand positions - so once you learn the first, the next six come in short order. Although the bunkai was explained to me as I learned them, I think I was pretty much just going through the movements and placing my hands and feet where I was told they were supposed to be so I could get through this kata and onto learning the next. Then I saw one of my training partners present Geki-Sai dai Ichi and everything changed. As she moved through the stance and block changes, I could almost see her adversary - and I got it: Sensei F's adage about kata being "motion plus emotion" rang in my ear. The fluidity was fascinating! I didn't know how to make my body do that, but I knew I wanted to learn. Back to the beginning to tighten and refine.

Lately, kata work has been highly specialized. Of course the bunkai is emphasized, but so much more attention is paid to the seemingly subtle things like hand placement, staying "in the dance" and especially breathing timed with the movements. I'm finding that where I used to be thinking about the next move, I'm now thinking about how effective and efficient the move needs to be and what I need to do with my arms, my hands, my legs, my feet and my torso to make it happen. Once more, I'm finding a new need to take them all apart, refine, tighten and clean them up again. It sometimes seems like an impossibly large undertaking, but very necessary. There is always something new to learn for sure.

Each day, it seems that the adage about kata being the art of the martial arts makes more sense to me - and like any artistic endeavor, it takes time, energy and work to make it shine. A musician friend of mine refers to the honing of the skills for his craft as "shedding" - as in taking it apart, doing it and doing it again and learning how to do it better, all in the woodshed behind the house, which is how it used to be done back in the day.

Heading to the shed!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Proud to Fight Like a Girl

Anyone who has ever received any electronic correspondence from me knows that the above is part of my email signature. I put it there in an attempt to flatten some of the negativity associated with doing things "like a girl" - which usually is not meant as a compliment. When I was a kid, it seemed that doing something "like a girl" meant the effort was weak or that the person throwing, hitting, screaming or running wasn't quite up to snuff. Doing something "like a girl" - even if you WERE a girl - was the ultimate insult.

Haven't been a kid for quite some time, but there is still an interesting parallel to "coming of age" in my life these days, thanks to training in the martial arts. Every now and again, one of my female training partners and I have vivid email exchanges about what it means to be a woman training in a testosterone-soaked environment of her home/my sister dojo. Although we disagree with whether our common experiences in the dojo are actually inherently sexist, we both have recognized that, either by design or by happenstance, we are sometimes treated differently than male karateka. Sometimes it's blatant, sometimes it's subtle, but we've both seen it most often when it comes time to pad up and prepare to spar. While the guys often get to round-robin spar for at least four rounds, we women only get to spar that many times if there happen to be four other women on the mat that evening. One night, a third dan who's trained longer than most of us in the dojo, only fought once because I was the only other woman there for her to fight. The seemingly unwritten assumption that women are weak (not weakER) that makes it OK to - well - treat her like a girl is one of the main reasons I have dreamed about training in an all female environment...

So, I often have to get inspiration from outside of the dojo. Sometimes it comes from reading about women like Hangaku Gozen (pictured above), who raised an army in response to an attempt to overthrow the Japanese Kamakura Shogunate way back in 1201. Sometimes it comes from talking to real, live women in the dojos I've visited, who've been there, done that and "bought the t-shirt" so to speak. It also comes from reading the experiences of others I've never even met before - fellow female martial artists who are following their own paths while fearlessly blogging about it. Kudos to Krista de Castella for her "Memoirs of a Grasshopper" blog, Cheri Arbuckle for her "On My Own Two Feet" blog, Michelle for "Just a Thought", Sue C for "Kick Ass SueC" as well as to Martial Arts Mom, The Perpetual Beginner and Black Belt Mama. Thank you for taking the time to share a bit about your journey down the path with others walking nearby. Thank you for posing the difficult questions and tackling tough and such sometimes politically incorrect topics as domestic violence, training abroad and returning to the mat after ACL surgeries.

Thanks for continuing to make me proud to to fight like a girl.