Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Review

Seems like we were just toasting in 2010 and it's almost gone. Where does the time go?

But what a year it was. Between the old-to-new school chaos and broken bones, there were lessons gleaned about learning techniques on the fly, getting them to flow, ground fighting, avoiding confrontation and appropriate resistance. I had some pretty good discussions with myself here about violence against women, facing an adversary in "girl" shoes and refining the reflexes, as well. Thanks to all of you who posted responses for stopping by!

I've also waxed poetic about my loyal dog, K, tackling a new art, the find of the century :-), my favorite martial arts quotes and my reasons for stepping on the mat in the first place. Hope I haven't bored you to tears with my ramblings...

Saw some neat things, too, including a shodan grading in NYC, Bill "Superfoot" Wallace in Atlantic City a fellow blogger grade for her black belt in Japan (whoo-hoo!).

2010 was spectacular - and here's to an even better 2011! Happy New Year :-)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Up in the Club

Unlike in the picture, clubs tend to be kinda dark spots. Because they also serve alcohol, the potential for bad stuff to go down is there, for sure.

Perhaps sick of hearing me harp about learning to kick in shoes or throw other techniques in "regular clothes," Sensei S told us to not even change into our gis for class a few weeks ago. He lined up some chairs from the hallway, turned off all but the disco ball/strobe light in the studio used during kickboxing class and had us sit down. "What would you do if you were here and someone made unwanted advances?" he asked. When trapped between the wall and the "offender" (which was Sensei S - and the only way "out" was through him), we all had different solutions for getting away safely - from using very dramatic physical force to the more subtle "Could you please remove your hand from my thigh?" non-confrontational approach. It was very enlightening and had us all talking about appropriate resistance for the rest of the evening.

What would YOU do to ward off unwanted advances in a dark bar or dance hall?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rolling With the Punches: Blending With Aikido

With so much going on in my non-karate world (final exams and papers to grade, college applications for my son, a very sick grandmother, the holidays, finances resulting from the pending holidays - you get the drift), I decided to take a little time away from the dojo to just clear my head and re-vamp. I've literally been on the mat almost non-stop since November of 2004 - save for six weeks in 2007 after breast reconstructive surgery - and I think both my mind and body needed a bit of a break. Karate was on the fast-track to becoming SOMETHING ELSE that had to get done in a day and my ancillary training away from the dojo was looking more and more like "going through the motions" which wasn't good. I told my sensei that I think I needed to miss it for a little bit in order to step back into it with the intensity it deserved.

To save the dojo fee for December, my last class was on November 29. That was also the day I found out I would not be grading for nidan in the spring with my training partners. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but I wasn't surprised at all. Still playing catch-up from my years spent gleaning elsewhere. My arsenal is still missing a few things, for sure. As a result, I've been thinking about training in another art - like aikido, MMA or even Krav Maga for a minute. Which one, though, is the issue...

Anyway, in trying to avoid the pile of papers I know I need to grade, I stopped by training partner Ed's place yesterday afternoon. He has begun taking aikido classes and told me that he'd already talked to his sensei about a two-week free trial for me. Ed knows where my head is regarding training and thought the "something new" might be good for me. (His real motive, I found out, is getting me to fall and roll a bit better so he can toss me around the dojo when we train together, but that's another story.) This morning's 10AM class was my first formal non-USA Goju martial arts class ever, save for a few Kung Fu and Judo training sessions during summer martial arts seminars.

Since all my regular gis are black, Ed lent me one of his white ones to wear, complete with all his school patches. I strapped on my white belt and was promptly questioned by the senseis when I stepped out of the changing room and they saw the patches their regular students had to earn the right to sew on their gis (via grading). Here I was trying NOT to be disrespectful and I end up being disrespectful anyway by default. Sigh...

After a brief warm-up, Ed was sent to work with his classmates and I got to work with Sensei W., whom Ed had warned me was a talented instructor but a stickler for detail. Since falling comes with the territory in aikido, I couldn't really do anything until I learned how to fall and roll properly. We worked front, rear and side falls and front rolls for almost a hour. Always, my feet were too close together, my hands were too far apart or I just didn't keep my body rigid enough after landing. My quads and triceps were literally shaking from squatting down to fall or roll, pushing up to a standing position then repeating over and over. It wasn't too physically challenging - meaning I wasn't out of breath or sweating buckets - but it was very different from my norm.

Next we moved to wrist and jacket grab escapes. After about 10 tries with me being the uke/attacker, my wrists were begging for mercy. In fact, I don't think I ever tapped out so fast or so hard before. Funny thing was that everyone - even the brown belts tossing each other - and yellow belt Ed - around the room were hollering as they slapped the mat when a wrist lock just got to be a little too painful. It was kind of melodic, actually...

Finally, Sensei W. took me back through a review of everything we'd covered. My front fall actually improved a tad while my front roll deteriorated. Guess I have some homework to do.

There is something about being a white belt again that is both intriguing and intimidating. Because the belt tells the world that you are a newbie, expectations aren't really high for your ability to do a specific technique right out of the box. You are expected to stumble, struggle a little and make mistakes, which is kind of neat in a way. But it can be intimidating, too, if you're used to being able to control your body and have it do what you tell it to do. It's like being able to do the latest hip-hop dance to the nines and going to a ballroom dancing competition to show it off. The music is different and you're out of your element.

It's also easy to forget that the instructor showing you the techniques with such grace and fluidity has been practicing them for ages, which is why they look so smooth and effortless. Plus some of my karate footwork kept creeping in. Sensei W. had to keep reminding me to keep both feet pointing forward, not towards each other like in sanchin - a simple concept that was really hard to do. More homework, it seems...

But save for a few rug burns on my knees, elbows and shoulders, I'm none the worse for wear. I had a blast and learned a lot, which was the point, really. I'm probably going to give it another whirl Friday morning - right after my grades are posted. Wish me luck with both!

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Heels and I

I recently got the following email:

"This might sound serious, but I have been sent a slightly silly question and want to do my best to answer it. The question is: If you were wearing high-heeled, pointy-toe boots, would they be a help or hinderance in defending yourself?"

I've struggled with this question lots. As a matter of fact, since the cold weather has once again hit the northeastern U.S., it has become my dilemma each time I am about to step out the door for my journalism classes and have to decide what to put on my feet. My running shoes would work best, of course, but that doesn't really speak "professionalism" in the land of academia. So I zip up those ankle or to-the-knee boots and question that decision all the way from my car as my boots click-click-click across the campus cobblestones. Since the first rule of self-defense is awareness, I'm aware of how difficult a time I might have moving around in those boots if a "situation" went down or if I actually had to run away. And with the second rule of self-defense being avoidance, that I've spent a whole lot more years running around an oval than learning self-defense combinations would probably make trying to get the heck out of Dodge quickly my first inclination. Any kind of heel - for clumsy me, anyway - would most likely prevent me from doing that very effectively.

So, yeah, my first impulse was to answer the email question with hinderance - with a capital "H."

With that being said though, I do know that being aware and trying to avoid won't necessarily keep you out of harm's way. Crazy happens to good people all the time, whether by happenstance, poor planning or missed warning signals. Maybe the question the emailer really wanted an answer to was "How could you use those boots if you're already aware that trouble is eminent and avoidance isn't a real possibility?"

In that case, those shoes might totally help you do whatever it is you'd have to do.

Every self-defense seminar I've ever sat in on has been consistent with one message: much of the stuff you already do/have at the ready can be your best weapons if you need them to be - like your house and car keys carried in your hand instead of in the bottom of your pocket or purse, or the little voice in your head insisting that something isn't quite right, or even the knowledge that the pointy parts of your elbows (or boots!) shoved into any soft spot on an attacker (inner thigh, calf, gonads - you get the point - and the pun is most certainly intended) could net enough incapacitation for you to get away. Just remember to make some noise while you're doing your thing, as doing what you have to do is not the time to be dainty and lady-like. If you have to take off that boot and pound someone with it, well...

The reality is that when the crazy begins, there are no rules.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grace, Power, Beauty, Strength

My son - aka "Squirrel" - is a senior in high school. As application deadlines will be here before you know it, we've visited five colleges in the last month and a half. Yesterday, we visited the school that is number one on his list.

He's thinking of majoring in performing arts and is looking for a school with a program that integrates drama and dance. While touring the school's dance conservatory yesterday, we ran into Ashley, a dancer in her last year at the school who invited us to watch a rehearsal for an upcoming performance of "The Nutcracker Suite." What she didn't tell us was that she was one of the principle dancers.

Once she slid into her pointe shoes and began her warmup on stage, Ashley transformed from a quiet, gangly college kid in sweats and a headband to an amazingly bold and very talented dancer. It's been a long time since my weekly grade-school tap and ballet lessons - so my reference for the names of specific techniques was way off - but as my son began whispering them in my ear, I started relating them to something a whole lot more current for me: karate techniques.

Sure there are differences, but it's amazing how similar dance and karate really are. Ashley's beautiful kicks were really high and done with pointed toes and arms that were far away from each other, but her shoulders were always over her hips and she always landed with balanced precision - even when both feet left the ground. Her movements were very graceful but extremely powerful at the same time, making her fluid transitions from one corner of the stage to another look effortless and almost simple - which told a lot about how much time she'd put into training and perfecting her movements. When the music stopped and the dance was complete, she and the other dancers either sat down immediately or leaned over with their hands on their knees, breathing hard and sweating as if they'd just gotten off the gym treadmill. You can tell they left everything on that stage each time they went through the dance. It so reminded me of watching the best karateka go through kihon drills, move around a ring during kumite or across the floor while presenting kata - because after they rested and talked over the parts that needed to be ironed out and improved, they got up and did the whole thing over again - with the same intensity and feeling. Of course the graceful and beautiful lines were there, too. Each time. Just like it should be in the martial arts training hall.

My senseis always tell us that how we practice/train in the dojo will be exactly how it will be done outside of the dojo, if ever needed. Although I hear them each time they say it, the Purchase College Conservatory of Dance students rehearsing yesterday really hammered that home for me.

Domo arigato goziamasu, Ashley :-)

Friday, November 12, 2010

What Was YOUR Black Belt Test Like?

Do you remember all the things you did to prepare for your black belt test? If you have a few minutes to share, fellow blogger, SueC, is compiling a list of tips for the karateka in her organization preparing for their grading and needs your help.

How did you prepare? Is there anything you wish someone would have told you but didn't about the preparation and the actual grading itself? What would you tell someone who is about to grade for black belt if you could?

Here's your chance. Read SueC's most recent post and share your thoughts if you can.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On the Road Again: Tournaments and Tradition

Much of my Saturday was spent in a van full of kids, driving up the New York State Thruway for a martial arts tournament upstate. Because it was the first tourney I'd competed in as a black belt a year ago and because it had relatively small competition groups and was well-run, my training partner (Ed) and I thought it would also be a good first tournament for the young white belts we've been training at our local Salvation Army since May. A good time was had by all the karateka as well as their parents, as none of them had ever been to or competed in a tournament before. They all did very well and learned a great deal, which was a very good thing.

But there was a little weirdness during the day. Since the tourney directors required that all competing black belts - regardless of age and/or experience - judge under-belt kata, weapons and kumite rounds, we saw both the absolute best and worst judging ever. Some of it was blatant - judges voting for their dojo-mates simply because they were dojo-mates and even black belts who seemed totally unfamiliar with any style other than their own. Some of the black belts weren't even in their teens yet and it was obvious that judging of was something they hadn't done much of at all.

Because it wasn't billed as a traditional or single-style competition, many different styles were represented. But no matter how solid the techniques and fluid the Okinawan forms were, they lost almost every time they went head-to-head against 25+ step forms from other systems that had jumping kicks and shoulder rolls.

It sometimes feels like martial artists who study Okinawan/Japanese systems are at a bit of a disadvantage in mixed-style kata competition. Rarely flashy with high kicks, single-leg, leaping or spinning techniques, our kata tend to have intricate hand movements but are often much shorter than other systems' forms. I guess if you're used to seeing forms with a million steps that move all over the floor, when a karateka presents a kata like Seiyunchin - which has absolutely no kicks - it might look like something is missing, As I presented Senchin, the USA Goju version of the kata this weekend, this was my reality as well.

A Kyokushin sensei commented on my kata after the trophy was presented (I finished second to a martial artist whose kata had the obligatory shoulder roll and a couple of leaping front kicks). He assured me that my kata was solid and that my hand techniques were done as the kata prescribes. I admit that it was nice to hear, but I still kinda felt like I showed up to a black-tie event in my shimmery best but without the tiara everyone else wore. But that's what traditional Okinawan kata is about. And I think it's beautiful.

Ed won his kata division with Hangetsu, but opted not to even enter the kata grand championship because he said he knew he'd probably have a difficult time winning against what he called the "flash and awe school of kata."

Are we just too cynical or just more traditionalist than we realized?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Refining the Reflexes

My sensei has given everyone in the dojo a nickname and my son's is "Squirrel" - because he is very jumpy when someone is throwing a technique at him. I mean, VERY jumpy...

But I've noticed that I'm not "jumpy" at all in the dojo, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Like when class is done and we're just sort of standing around chatting before we grab our gear bags and head back into the real world, I've been "sneaked up on" from behind and have hardly reacted at all. Not an empi, not a parry, not a chamber in prep for a strike - nothing. I just kinda turn and smile, not in fight or flight mode at all. Perhaps it's just that I feel safe in the training hall - in that I know no one there is trying to hurt me ever - but maybe that's not such a good thing, either, because how I commit it to muscle memory will be how it will be done if I ever need to use it, right?

An example: since Fall is here, it's now dark as I head to my evening classes on the college campus where I teach. Last night, I really tried to make myself aware of my surroundings, aiming to kinda "feel" folks moving around near the corners of buildings or in the vestibules that aren't too well lit. Too many times, I didn't notice someone was in my immediate vicinity until they were almost close enough to reach out and touch or grab me - especially when they approached me from behind, like the young woman on her bike who rode up on my left and crossed in front of me to get to the bike rack. Didn't even realize she was there until she was almost right next to me. Not good. I don't know how to train to make it better.

Not that I want to whip around and yell like a crazy person when I'm approached, but some awareness would be nice. I'm stumped, though. Any suggestions?

My nickname, by the way, is "Neo" - as in the questioning fella in "The Matrix." Hmmm...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Karate Training: The Introspective Approach

Last week when rei was done, the class stood in yoi waiting to be officially dismissed when Sensei told us to close our eyes. "I want to ask you a rhetorical question - and I want you to think about it," he said. "Why do you train?"

The first time someone asked me that question, I hemmed and hawed before eventually articulating some half-baked thought about what a good workout it was. But truthfully, it has always been much more than that.

Most of you know that karate began for me smack in the middle of radiation treatments for breast cancer. What got me onto the mat then was the need to do something other than work, go for treatment and study my graduate school lessons. Then, the actual hitting of pads (and sometimes people) helped me feel like I had at least some control over a body that had totally betrayed me - and that betrayal pissed me off to no end as I'd been a competitive athlete since I was a freshman in high school, I didn't eat red meat, I watched my fat intake and still my cells somehow decided to mutate. All that made me really, really want to hit something and scream as loudly as I possibly could. So eventually, my explanation of what karate meant to me included the "It's cheaper - and a whole lot more fun - than therapy!" line I still use today.

I had some physical problems as a result of radiation and surgery, including mobility and chording issues, but I consider myself lucky because I know too many breast cancer survivors whose treatments resulted in lymphedema and/or frozen shoulders. Knowing what I know now about how those things develop, I'm convinced that had I not thrown myself into such a physical activity as karate (which also led me back to the gym for regular weight lifting and running so I could be fit enough to train the way I wanted to), I might have had those difficulties, as well.

But back to Sensei's question: Why do I train - NOW?

Fellow blogger Sue C tackled the same question in her recent post about self-defense training. And I'll ask you here what she asked you there and my sensei asked us the other night: Why do you train?

For me, the answer is simple: I train because I can.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Quotations, Quotations, Quotations

For whatever reason, most writers tend to have lots of reference books laying around and I'm certainly no exception. On my book shelves are a very dog-eared AP Stylebook, actual print copies of a dictionary and thesaurus (I know, right?!?) and several quotation dictionaries - including one with inspirational entries for African-Americans, authors, women and athletes.

If I were to edit one for martial artists, it would definitely have sayings I've heard over the years from my senseis and fellow karateka in it, like:

"The three rules of this and every Goju Dojo are: Everyone works. Nothing is free. All start at the bottom."
- every USA Goju sensei I've ever trained with

"It's karate, not knitting, so expect there to be some contact."
- Sensei Maloney

"Nobody gets hurt in my dojo. Understand?"
- Sensei Maloney

"Avoid before block. Block before maim. Maim before kill - for all life is precious."
- Sensei Rinaldi

"Kata is the art of martial arts. Kata is MOTION plus EMOTION."
- Sensei Fiore

"There are two types of Black Belts: those who HAVE one and those who ARE one."
- Sensei Dammann

"The most powerful techniques are delivered when the body is relaxed."
- Sensei Suggs

"I tell my students that when someone who knows absolutely nothing about the martial arts watches you execute kata, he or she should see two things. First, you are in a real fight, not just dancing - and that should be evident. Second, you are winning."
- Sensei R. Murphy

"It is better to have one sharp weapon than many dull ones."
- Sensei Fiore

"Not every technique will work for every BODY in EVERY situation."
- Kyoshi Williams

"Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're probably right."
- Sensei Suggs

"Do the best you can with what you've got."
- Sensei Sullivan

"Hold your tongue for a moment and avoid 100 years of sorrow."
- Sensei Suggs

"I always view the ring in tournament as MY ring. In my head, I think my opponent has absolutely no right to be in MY ring. And I fight accordingly."
- Sensei Ansah

"A ship docked in a harbor is safe, but alas, that is not what ships were meant to do."
- Sensei Suggs

"What do we do pushups for, class?"
"Punching power, sir!"
"And WHY do we do pushups?"
"Because they're FUN, sir!"
- Sensei Sullivan

"Martial artists are strange people. We train for hours at a time on something that we hope we never have to actually use."
- Sensei E. Williams

"Better to be safe than sorry is what we practice and preach at [our] dojo."
- Sensei E. DelDuca

"We are the same but different; different but much the same."
-Nakamura Sensei (on the differences between Goju-Ryu karate and USA Goju)

"Don't ever forget to use your hips."
- Sensei Maloney

"Master yourself and another master will be hard to find."
- Sensei Suggs

"[The student/teacher relationship] is like a finger pointing at a beautiful sunset. The teacher is the finger - not the beautiful sun. The sunset is the principle and that is what the student should try and see. To only look at the finger means the student will miss the best part."
- Grand Master Kim Soo

"Marital arts is to the dojo like faith is to the church. If you have faith and your pastor is not giving you the food you need, find a new church, but keep the faith. If your dojo is not feeding but you still have the martial art desire to learn, find a new dojo that feeds you and allows you to continue growing. It's not about the dojo or the sensei, it is about the student and the learning."
- Mudansha Griffin

"The single most fascinating thing to me about the martial arts is that no matter how long you train, there's always more to learn. It's never ending."
- Mudansha Miench

"Karate ni sente nashi (In karate, there is no first strike)."
- Gichin Funakoshi

"That's it, in a nutshell."
- Chrissette Michelle (a singer/songwriter - but it summed up everything very nicely, I think :-)

What would you add?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kata "Flow" Drill

Thankfully, I've been fortunate enough to have trained with some truly amazing martial artists and instructors. One of the third dans I train with on occasion will soon represent the U.S. in a tournament in Portugal where she'll be doing both bo and empty-hand kata. In fine-tuning her presentation, she's been working with others who have been helping her smooth out her footwork, transitions, cadence and timing. In turn, she's passed the drills she's gotten from them onto us.

One of the drills that I like working is the kata "flow" drill. To smooth out transitions from, say, hard to soft, she was instructed to go through her kata at one speed a minimum of 10 times a day. All the movements were relatively soft and without dynamic tension or cadence changes. She got to pick the speed, but it had to be consistent throughout - no speeding up or slowing down allowed. Although she said she hated it at first and had a hard time erasing the speed an ferocity of Seipai as she'd learned it, eventually she forgot to think about what move came next and how hard or soft it had to be. And when her brain shut off and her body just moved, she had an easier time working the subtleties like foot placement in shiko dachi (horse stance) and hand positions.

In other words, when she stopped thinking and started doing, her kata began to flow.

As I have a tournament of my own coming up in November, I thought I'd give working it for the long haul a try as she's doing in preparation for competition. For the past two weeks, I've been flowing Senchin - Peter Urban's USA Goju version of Seiyuchin - every morning. What I've found is that without the abrupt changes in tempo the kata calls for, I've had cerebral epiphanies regarding my angles, head movement, stances and the efficiency of my hand positions. In other words, the rush to get from here to there is gone and instead I find myself thinking of the best ways to move so there's no wasted motion. For example, I've always had difficulties lining up my rear foot correctly when doing a neko ashi dachi (cat stance), but suddenly I'm nailing all of the three done in this kata - including the one the form ends with - without a lot of "oh no - here it comes!" thought and effort. It was a full month before the third dan who taught me this drill was allowed to do her kata full-speed - and like her, I haven't done my kata full speed yet, either. I'm excited to see what it will become when I put the cadence back together!

It's really an very cool tool that can also be used to iron out problem spots in a kata. To do that, you'd flow the part of the form that gives you grief. Vary the speed so that a few times it's done relatively quickly and a few more super slowly. Even cooler is that it only takes about 15 minutes or so a day.

If you're feeling adventurous, give it a try for a bit and let me know how it works for you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Make Some Noise!

Meet my dog, K. I introduced him (here) about a year ago, but today I learned a valuable lesson while walking the dog I didn't want: the importance of using your voice and how necessary it is to sometimes stand your ground.

K is a lab/husky mix, we think. He's only a year and a half old but weighs about 70 lbs. This morning as we were taking our regular stroll through the development, a neighbor's Rottweiler broke its lead and tore out of his back yard towards us. I sunk into a fighting stance and seriously considered a half-baked plan to kick this 100 lbs. beast in the head - until I remembered that I was tethered to K. The thought of somehow protecting us both was truly an OMG! moment. How could I kick one dog without hurting the one leashed to my arm? What should I do if the Rottie somehow latched onto K? How the heck was I going to get us both out of there safely?

K simply turned and faced the dog. He didn't growl or bark - he just stayed between me and the other dog. When the Rottie got to us, he opened his mouth and tried to get behind K, who simply shifted his position so he could stay between me and the other dog. Finally I remembered my voice and started yelling "Come get your dog!" hoping that someone -anyone! - would come and get this big brute away from us. One gentleman ran from the backyard and another from the front of the house to grab their dog's lead. The one from the backyard just kept saying "It's alright! He's not going to bite! He just wants to play!" Tell that to the heart that was trying to leap out of my chest...

Perhaps K knew that already, because shortly after the other dog got to us, he and the Rottie began doing what dogs do when they are trying to get to know one another: sniffing and rubbing against each other in that "Pleased to meet you!" kind of way. He wasn't jumping all over the place as he usually does when squirrels are near by, but he made sure he was always between me and his new friend. When the Rottie's owners finally got there (and yes, it seemed like it took them daggone near forever to cross the street), they had to use every ounce of strength to pull their dog away. He, I found out, is just a big puppy, too...

The few self-defense seminars I've been to have all talked about one thing: using your voice. The immediate threat of a dog charging towards me and my dog almost made me forget I had one, but, eventually, I did yell like a lunatic. Although standing your ground isn't generally recommended, I knew that running from a dog was probably not the best idea. But that my dog did in a way that made sure I was as safe as possible was a nice surprise.

Yeah - he got lots of hugs, kisses and even a treat when we got back home :-)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Taking It to the Streets

In the dojo, uniformity is the thing: We dress alike (in gi and obi) - right down to our shoe-less feet. Japanese culture and Okinawan tradition aside (meaning I understand the reasons behind being all gi-ed up and barefoot in the dojo), I don't think training in my baggy karate uniform and without my shoes emulates any kind of true self-defense situation at all. Really, the only time I'll probably ever need to defend myself like that is if I actually get jumped in the dojo, in my living room as I'm packing my gear bag and preparing for class or if I'm on the beach (where my swim suit would have to substitute for my gi).

I've mentioned before how some of my outside of the dojo clothing choices have caused me a bit of concern over the prospect of getting away from an attack or fighting back if necessary. A pencil skirt and kitten heels - my usual work attire - hardly make it easy to run away, throw a spinning kick or even be all that steady on concrete or cobblestones. But, since I wear that stuff for more hours each day than I'm in gi or sweats and a t-shirt, I guess chances are that a "man jumping out from behind the bushes" attack would probably happen when I'm wearing my "girl" clothes.

Earlier this spring, Sensei S held class in the dojo parking lot. I'd worn some sweats, a t-shirt and my favorite pair of slides to class - which made movement not so restrictive - but I soon found out that shoes change the game a bit. Unable to grip my toes into the ground, the very first front kick I threw sent my slide flying over Sensei's car. My uke was a brand-spanking new white belt who had been training for about three weeks and was still learning what the heck appropriate resistance/strength meant - which meant there were no gentle takedowns onto the blacktop at all. And since we were all so used to having the cool wooden dojo floor or the comfy mats underneath us (which make slapping out a whole lot easier), we all got a few scrapes that night if I remember correctly.

All that made me never want to go for realism on the "street" ever again. Sensei keeps telling us that one winter day, we're going to train in boots, long pants and coats - and I truly hope he forgets by the time the cold months roll around again. And he might, as he says we don't do the "real clothing" training more often because anything you can do barefoot in gi you should be able to do in espadrilles and a mini-skirt, but I'm not so sure.

To test that theory a bit, at a recent Women's Self Defense seminar I attended, I did the class in the jeans and a button-up shirt I'd worn all day. So not to soil the dojo's mats, we all kicked our shoes off at the door, but the belt of my jeans as well as my earrings, necklace and watch felt weird, as those things usually gets removed before we bow in. A little more "real" than the gi/no shoes scenario, but still not "pencil skirt and brief case" real, y'know?

Have you ever trained or thrown some techniques in regular clothes? Did you like it or miss your uniform?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Me + Sit-Ups in a Gi = Sore Hiney

In class, our ab-work is mostly about leg raises and crunches, but occasionally, we do pair up, lock legs and do partner sit-ups. And every time we do, I end up with a rug burn-like rash on my tailbone. The funny (as in ironic, not comedic) thing is that I usually don't notice it until after class is done, I've driven home and jumped in the shower - because soapy water on a raw skin is not a pleasant experience, let me tell you.

No one else in the dojo seems to have this issue for some reason. I figured it had something to do with the seam in either my gi bottoms or the bike shorts I wear underneath, but since I had no live person with a similar experience to compare notes with, I couldn't really put my finger on what the issue was.

Until I stumbled across this blurb on Sorry to find that others have also had issues with "the wound" but happy to hear they had solutions, too! Misery really does love company, I suppose.

I guess I'll be adding a roll of gaffer's tape to my already over-loaded gear bag...

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Common Sense Self-Defense for Women

Some day, I'd like to instruct self-defense classes for women. Eventually, that means certification, I suppose, but between Fight Like a Girl, R.A.D., S.A.F.E. and other systems, there're a lot of different types of programs out there, it seems. I think I know what the type of course I want to teach should contain, but I haven't quite found it yet. So I'm still looking.

In addition to the research, I've decided to check out a few workshops and seminars. Last week, I traveled upstate to the Red Dragon Karate School for Sensei Jeff Melander's seminar in Ballston Spa. I met him at a seminar a few years ago when I took his kicking class on the advice of my sensei. I still do many of the drills I learned from him then when training today.

His Women's Self-Defense seminar was for folks who had no previous martial arts training or experience. Most were mothers of Sensei Jeff's younger karate students or teen daughters of some of his adult students. All were dressed in sweats and t-shirts but I took the opportunity to actually try something I've always wanted to do: throwing techniques in something other than what I'd wear in the dojo - hence jeans, a button-up top and sandals.

Awareness was the key word of the day, as Sensei Jeff discussed ways to be more observant of what's happening around you. He also talked about the importance of walking confidently, keeping your hands free/keys at the ready and parking in well-lit areas. Unlike martial artists who are used to yelling/kiai-ing on a regular, he told the group to get used to using their voices before, during and after an attack. Two of his female black belts helped him as well - meaning he was their uke for wrist grab, rear bear hug and hair-pulling attacks. He used their natural responses - hands open and in front of the body, boxing the ears, elbow and knee strikes to segue into escape tactics the group later worked on individually.

Then he slid into "the suit" - you know, the protective full-body armor that enabled the participants to actually try the techniques with full speed and power without actually hurting the attacker. All of the women had a difficult time warming up to that at first - and several even commented about how much more menacing he looked dressed in a shiny black suit and helmet - but after a few tries, strikes were flying towards his eyes, ears, groin and shins. So used to being "nice" to my uke in the dojo, he actually had to remind me to NOT be so controlled and delicate when it was my turn to keep him at bay/get him off me. I had no problem engaging him, but I found that I pulled every single knee and elbow strike. Gotta work on that!

Any certified self-defense instructors out there? How did you decide on the program you ultimately chose for your certification?

For more information on how to chose a self-defense program, click here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Looking "Pretty" vs. Being Practical

Since the school year has again begun, I dropped by my sister dojo last night after my journalism class. The first night of training - especially for college students who probably took most of the summer off from anything karate-related - can be tough on the ol' cardiovascular system, and after about two hours of kihon, Sensei G mercifully cut his winded karateka a break and moved to Aiki Jitsu techniques, which in our system are escapes from wrist grabs and chokes.

When you're in the thick of training in any Okinawan system, it's sometimes easy to forget that the techniques we study were designed by and for body types that are very different from that of the folks on the mat with you. I'm sure that Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu, created his hard/soft style with smaller Okinawan male body types in mine. I guess then it would stand to reason that the students in the dojo last night who were over 5'5" tall and/or female might have some difficulty executing the techniques the way they were originally intended to be executed - which of course included my 6'2" self, my 6'3" uke and about 95% of the class.

Of the 12 of us on the mat, six were brand new 6th kyus who were just learning the Aiki techniques Sensei G called. Since he'd matched us up with ukes based on body size, all the pairings were relatively even - which meant that if the tori/nage had issues with the grip, punch or kick based on the uke's body type, their partner had the same issue when it was his or her turn to execute the technique.

In other words, when problems arose - and they did - the nage had a decision to make: do the technique as described/demonstrated or make it work effectively for them with a little modification. My uke and I modified like crazy - enough so that when waza go (technique #5) called for a 45-degree angle step off the centerline to the right followed by a punch to the face then a spinning hook kick to the gut, we ended up having to step 90-degrees in order to not be too close to get the hook kick off. Interestingly enough, two of the shortest students decreased the angle so they could not only reach the face with the punch but reach the body with the kick. If you studied just our angles, neither of us would have looked like the textbook demo of the technique, although each of us was effective as all get out. But I could hear the murmurings of the group: should it be done like it was originally shown or like we'd done it?

The answer, unfortunately, might depend on who you ask. If the technique was to part of a presentation for, say, a grading, my first sensei always said it's best to follow the "letter of the law" and do the technique exactly as it has been demonstrated (he also encouraged "looking pretty" during kata - you know, holding poses and really making sure the techniques LOOK good - but that's another story). Sensei S doesn't encourage what he calls "Kodak moments" (as in pausing to smile for the camera, LOL), but the idea is the same. But do I really just want to LOOK like I'm doing an effective technique or do I actually want to DO a technique that actually is effective for me?

At a grading once, I got chided for making another Aiki technique work more effectively for me. An escape from a front choke, the technique called for reaching across my body and over the choking arms of my uke before grabbing one his/her wrists then using my forearm to pin his/her arm to my chest. Worked like a charm when my uke was my size or smaller, but against my larger training partners who offered even an iota of resistance (which is what a real attacker would most likely do), my skinny little arm didn't even move theirs, much less pin it. Instead, I reached under one of my uke's arms to grab the wrist. I was still able to lock the wrist and finish the rest of the technique, but my grader insisted that I do the technique the "right" way. It looked good, but I'm sure it wouldn't have worked for spit against someone trying to do me harm and who was lots stronger than me. Extremely frustrating to say the least - because the way I see it is this: how I train to do it will most likely be how I will actually do it when I need it to help me get out of a bad situation. I realize the two aren't mutually exclusive, but it seems like sometimes they can be.

Which do you do in training - "pretty" textbook techniques or effective ones that get the job done? How do you rectify it when the two aren't one in the same?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Battered and Bruised

As I type this (my 50th post, BTW - whoo-hoo!), I've got ice on my Achilles (both of them), a neoprene sleeve on my right hamstring, a heat patch on my lower back and Tiger Balm on my achy left hip. Getting up to go to the kitchen or bathroom - both of which are upstairs from where I'm sitting - is an exercise in pain management. Just thinking about it makes me say "Ouch!"

In my life before karate - when my discipline was track and field and I spent many, many hours a day running in circles (OK, the track is oval shaped, but you get the point), doing plyometric drills, lifting ridiculous weights and jumping over things (my event was the high jump) - my body would cry uncle and tap out like this right before the end of the competitive season, which was around the end of July. For years, the only way I could get my body back on pointe for the next season was to take the month of August completely off - as in no running, lifting or jumping at all. My lungs sounded like a Mack truck when I returned, but my lower body injuries had time to heal, which gave me new wheels, so to speak.

Karate training is intense but in a very different way. I still lift weights and run, but not the same way as I used to when training for track. But still, it's training, which can be kinda rough on the body. Even with proper conditioning, break falls, spinning weapons and blocking/striking things with bare forearms and shins can take their toll over time. Resting the achy muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones is the one sure way to help keep things in good working order.

Yesterday, when I was prepping my body to get out of bed (seriously - I had to flex my ankles a few times to keep the Achilles from screaming at me in protest), I realized that the last time I'd taken more than four days off from training was in June - of 2007! - and that was because I had reconstructive surgery that forced me away from the dojo, treadmill, bike and weight room for almost six weeks.

These days, a month seems like an awfully long time to me. Those last six weeks away almost made me lose my mind! Trust me, had I been physically able to bend over, I probably would have waddled into the dojo with my stitches. I actually did go to class around week four, but I sat in a chair in the back - and it was worse than staying home. It's not a "no pain, no gain" thing at all; I just really hate missing the instruction.

But maybe my body is trying to tell me something.

Do you ever take time away to give your body a chance to rest and re-coup? How frequently? For How long at a stretch? Do you find it difficult to get back into the flow of things?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Shout Out to Gai.Ninja!

Join me in sending some "kick some booty and do the damn thing!" vibes to fellow karateka, blogger and Prince fan extraordinaire Gai.Ninja, who will be grading for shodan tomorrow (or in a few hours as she is literally on the other side of the world from me - living and studying in Japan). Can't be there to physically cheer her on, but I figure through the blog and with your help, we could be there in spirit...

All the best, Ms. F! I'm betting you'll look great in black :-)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

If All Else Fails...

My training partner, Ed, says that we martial artists are strange people. We train to learn all we can about our respective arts only to hope that we never, ever have to actually use the techniques we work so hard to understand. We train through sicknesses and most definitely in health. Classes are a given when "richer" is par for the course - you know, when our jobs are secure and finances are sound - but when things get tight (cough* POORER * cough), we do what we can to figure out how the basic necessities - food, clothing, shelter and training fees - can be covered. The masters we train under and with have been studying their respective arts for most of their lives and seem bound and determine to train until their bodies just can't anymore - meaning they are being placed in their coffins or urns. Sounds a lot like a marriage, doesn't it?

And just like any partnership, life on the mat isn't always rainbows and waterfalls; sometimes you give more than you get, do things you don't enjoy or get pushed to - or even past - "the line." In the training hall, that means you may teach more than you learn, tear apart a form you absolutely loathe for a whole class or spar a senior who forces you to step outside of your comfort zone and thoroughly kicks your booty. Hard to look forward to that, huh?

Thursday night in class, Sensei had us pair up, face our partners and slap them in the face. My partner was a 16-yr-old white belt who started training about two months ago. Because my son is also 16, his face is the one I saw every time I reached out to slap my uke. And it most certainly sucked.

But then it was his turn to hit me. In the face. Over and over again. Yeah, temperance was my lesson for the evening as I found out that it's a difficult thing to keep your temper in check when someone is popping you in the face. I'd never been slapped before - and I quickly found that I hated it.

While my cheeks were getting redder and I was trying to ward off the instinct to block the slap, a quote I heard boxer Mike Tyson say once echoed in my mind: "Everyone thinks they can fight - until they get hit."

That, I think, was exactly the point Sensei was trying to make: You have to learn what is it to be hit in order to know what your response will be. A slap in the face doesn't necessarily warrant breaking someone's arm or choking them until they pass out - although it may feel like it while your face is stinging. Sometimes, getting hit, holding your temper and looking like you weren't phased may be all the fighting you need to do.

And trust me when I tell you that, even in the most optimal situation - say, a sparring round or training session where you are on top of your game - you will get hit. As Sensei M used to say, martial arts is not knitting but a live, contact environment. In the controlled setting of the ring or the training hall, your partner isn't trying to knock your lights out - but a "real" situation is a totally different story.

As fellow blogger Charles C. Goodin put it in a recent post, no karate technique is 100% effective 100% of the time. Only avoidance is.

The adage my training partners and I hear at the end of class about it most often is this:
Avoid before block...
Block before injure...
Injure before maim...
Maim before kill...
Kill before die...
For all life is precious.

But notice what it all starts with.

If all else fails, walk (or run!) away - and live to avoid another day.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My $10 Gi!

I bought a new gi at the tournament last weekend - a brand-new, fresh out of the package one for just 10 bucks!

If you've ever shopped online for a karategi, you know that you can find lots of size 000, student weight (seven ounce), white uniforms for that price - but the one I got was a 12oz size five in black - the color used in USA Goju. Usually, the relatively large size and darker color add another $20 to the cost even before shipping, so imagine my happiness when I found the one that would soon be mine on one of the tourney vendor's shelves.

For the longest time, I've trained in 8.5oz gis. I know that heavyweight gis give that amazing "POP!" during kihon and drills, but they end up doubling in weight by the end of class it seems because they soak up so much sweat. Since the 8.5 oz made just enough noise for me, I was perfectly happy until I noticed that my training partners at my new (now year old, LOL) dojo all donned heavy- and even super heavyweight gis. Interested in seeing what all the buzz was about, I saddled up to the Internet one evening with my credit card in hand only to find it wasn't easy to score a heavy-weight gi without a traditional wrap-around drawstring waistband in the pants (I'm kinda partial to elastic waist gi bottoms) - in a black size 5 for less than a small fortune.

Could a $10 gi possibly fit the bill? When I opened the package to try on the pants (because we know that all size 5 gis are not created equal, that's for sure), I found my elastic - and felt like doing a happy dance right in the aisle. Best part was that the pants covered my ankles without making my almost four-feet long legs all but disappear, the jacket fit my shoulders and the sleeve length was comfortable - even though it was stiff and made me walk like a mummy. Heck, even if one sleeve was noticably shorter than the other, I was going to buy it at that point because, well, it was only $10.

My sensei kind of smiled when I told him of my find and showed him my purchase - before mentioning that he'd never heard of that particular brand of uniform and reminding me of the old "you get what you pay for" adage. I only plan on using it to compete and grade in as I will stick to my lighter gis for his brutal two-hour classes. But seriously, if it fell apart after one washing, I think I'd be able to say I got my money's worth, don't you? And did I mention it was only $10?!?

But my gi hunt still may not be over. One of my training partners told me about a new gi by Century designed specifically for women's narrower waists and shoulders. Might have to look into it...

Do you wear a different gi style, type or weight for competitions or gradings than you do for regular class? Are you partial to a particular brand or weight or am I just thinking about this too much?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Road Again: Glitter Sticks and Musical Kata

Saturday, two of my female training partners, my sensei and I headed north to our state capital for a tournament. Billed as attracting martial artists from as far away as Canada and the mid-west, there were about 50 different divisions in everything from synchronized group kata and musical forms to creative board/concrete/brick breaking and about 300 competitors total. Although I traveled with my gear bag and competition headgear (I wear a shield for tournament kumite), the second I walked in, I'd totally changed my mind about jumping into the mix.

The biggest reason was because of the price: $60 for one event and $5 for each additional event. That is kinda close to the norm (usually about $50 in this area for two events), but waaaay steep when you consider that in the advanced (brown and black belt) female 35+ age division, there were probably only going to be a handful of competitors, if that many. So, I decided to stow my gear and watch the happenings.

Most of the competitors were from Tae Kwon Do schools. Not that there is anything wrong with TKD, but I think there were uniforms of every color imaginable in the room! Lots of competition glitter as well, mostly on the bo staffs, nunchakas and kama. The Shotokan (one competitor) and Kung Fu (three competitors) karateka donned more traditional uniforms and weapons is all I'm saying, so no hate mail, please, as I love my TKD sisters and brothers!

In the ring my sensei judged, we saw one bloodied nose (from a fluke head-butt), a badly strained hamstring that forced a competitor to withdraw and a knockout from a well-timed kick that was one of the most controlled techniques I've ever seen (no joke!). Of course that was all in the men's 18-34-yr-old divisions. The women's 35+ division had three competitors for kumite (surprise, surprise). Sigh...

I jokingly told one of my training partners that we should organize an all-female tournament in our area soon. She joked back that it would probably last about 10 minutes - and she's probably right. What is it about female martial artists competing in large tournaments? How come there just aren't many of us there?

For those of you who compete, what do you look for in a tournament? Low fees? Traditional vibe? Lots of different styles or just your style represented? Glitter sticks and creative forms? Close to home? Just wondering...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Have Bo, Will Travel

I finally made it to my first kobudo class last week. McCauley Sensei last visited our dojo in April. "Fluent" in Okinawan Goju-Ryu, he took us through the basics of bo reishiki and yoi before teaching us the beginning of kata Kihon no Bo. Thursday night, it was our turn to visit him.

His dojo is about 20 minutes from ours, which is about an hour from my house. Because his class began an hour and a half later than we normally start, he suggested we "warm-up" with a short class at "home" then swing by to work with his students. His is a very traditional dojo (I'm talking rice paper doors, tatami on the floor, etc), but still I didn't expect to see a room full of adults with bos in hand, ready for kobudo when we arrived. When I tell you there were 30 folks of every rank, shape and size imaginable, I'm not exaggerating. Everyone was most gracious and courteous, anxious to assist in any way and equally as eager to learn our names. The hour and a half literally flew by and before we knew it, we'd worked up quite a sweat from bo drills/running through the entire kata about a million times and it was time to formally end class. But my training partner, Peg, Sensei S and I stayed after a bit to chat with McCauley Sensei - who, although tired after teaching for most of the evening, generously presented the kata for us at what is supposed to be its normal cadence. Suffice to say it was a bit faster than we'd been doing it all evening. Now - if I only had another day each week, I'd perhaps be able to squeeze in a kobudo class with McCauley Sensei and his students. That's not too much to ask, right?

The most ironic part of the evening was the name of the dojo: Go No Sen, which means to wait for an opening or respond after being attacked (i.e. you get hit and you hit back). When I taught my first "theory" class at Sensei S's, the lesson and drills I chose focused on the koshi (hips) but the "sens" (go no sen, sen no sen [to strike back at the same time you are attacked - sort of like a simultaneous counter attack] and sen sen no sen [a pre-emptive strike]) were featured prominently throughout.

As my sensei so often reminds me: You can't make this stuff up...

Friday, June 4, 2010


Last night's class featured a special treat: Sensei S's sensei - Kyoshi K! Part amazing practitioner, part comedian, Kyoshi took us through kicking and punching drills as well as kata for three solid hours - but the self-defense intro that preceded all that was incredible. He still chided me for "fighting like a small person" but he recognized that some of the scenarios and add ons to the one-steps (ippon kumite techniques) we'd created on the spot might not work for someone my height (6'2"). Same for my 5'4" training partner - and he let us modify them accordingly, which was really cool.

But I noticed something while we were plowing our way through the ippons with various ukes: the three females in the room seemed to face a little bit more of a challenge when it came to making the techniques flow one into the next. The guys - the two senseis, a black belt (training partner, Ed), a brown belt and a green belt (two of Kyoshi's students) blended those suckers with hardly a hiccup. Although we worked similar add-ons two nights before and do them quite regularly in class, they didn't feel quite as familiar to me as they seemed to for the guys. Perhaps the fact that I've never been in a physical confrontation before except for sparring in the dojo or in competition had something to do with it?

Guys, it seems, kinda grow up tackling, wrestling or play-fighting. Constantly! I remember when my son was about three or so, his four-year-old cousin came over for a play date once and about two seconds after they said their hellos, they started wrestling. They slipped into it so naturally that is almost looked liked they'd coordinated a plan to play fight until they were sweaty and tired well beforehand. It was interesting to watch - especially since my son's female cousins never did anything like that when they got together for play dates. There doesn't quite seem to be a female equivalent to grabbing each other around the neck and wrestling each other to the ground. Eventually, the boys separated and played with Matchbox cars or something, but I still remember their impromptu match - 13 years later - like it happened yesterday.

A few weeks ago, my cousin, Mick, who is very much like a brother to me as we are close in age and hung around each other a lot as kids, came downstate for a visit (he lives in Rochester). Our family went out to dinner after church and while sitting in Chili's, his mom leaned over and asked him about an old scar he had near his eye. He said he'd gotten it way back in college when he was in a skirmish with a few guys. Five of them, he said, attacked him at once. He is quite a quiet and unassuming guy so it was sort of shocking that he'd been in an actual fight that drew actual blood once upon a time. Most every guy I know has been in a fight at some point in their lives. Not one of my female friends or relatives can say the same.

So perhaps things like reaction times and movements that don't look so forced or unnatural are easier for guys because many of them have actually been in real-life "block of get out of the way" situations before. Like most of my female training partners, I don't really have a strong reference point for that. My real-life "block or get out of the way" scenarios have only come in the dojo while facing an uke who is throwing a technique from a side he/she's already told me will be used. In other words, I usually know what's coming, where it's coming from and how hard/soft it will be arriving. My reactions are sort of rustily learned on the fly at age 43 - perhaps the same reactions that many of my male training partners started learning when they were three or so.

Getting the techniques to flow one into the next, I'm finding, is a bit more complicated for the ladies than the guys make it look.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

16 to 24

Here in the states, it is a holiday weekend. A time to reflect on the service men and women who lost their lives fighting for the rights of others, Memorial Day is also the official kick-off of summer - which means people fire up the grills and BBQ or hit the road bound for the beach or someone else's cook out. That translates to lots of folks in the grocery store stocking up on picnic or travel essentials.

After class today, I was in line with most of them, waiting to pay for my potato salad and Vitamin Water for our trip to the beach tomorrow. Long lines left me with some time on my hands, so I tried to pass it by reading the last People magazine on the rack. On the cover was Yeardley Love (pictured above), the 22-yr-old University of Virginia lacrosse player who was beaten to death a few weeks ago - allegedly by her former boyfriend who was also a student and lacrosse player at the school. She was reportedly found by her roommate face down on her bed in a pool of her own blood with one of her eyes swollen shut. Threats apparently precipitated his kicking in her door, tossing out her computer and pummeling her to death. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten physical with her the reports say, but it was, unfortunately, the last. Both of them were weeks away from graduation and playing with their respective teams in the NCAA tournament.

People gave all kinds of domestic/acquaintance violence statistics, but one nearly made me fall over: women age 16-24 suffer three times higher rates of domestic violence than any other age group. Can you believe that?!? I still have a hard time digesting that information.

Lately there have been too many stories of young women who went out for a run, a walk to school, a night out with friends, a rock concert, a trip to the local deli or whatever and never returned home. Many of them were abducted and killed by folks they knew while some of them were accosted by complete strangers. The end results were exactly the same.

I've asked before, but I'll ask again: what can we as martial artists, as instructors, as women, as humans do to help stop the madness so that we don't have to keep burying our daughters, sisters, friends, cousins, neighbors, class- and team-mates? What we're doing now isn't working or just isn't enough, it seems...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Product Review: Ringstar Full Coverage Sparring Foot Pads

Prior to ever stepping foot on the mat, I had THE most horrendous looking feet on the planet. Seriously - with bunions, scuffed up toes from squeezing them into cute "girl shoes," Morton's Toe (my second toe is longer than the big one) AND baby toes that kind of lay on their sides (due to an unfortunate mishap as a toddler with those hard-bottomed baby walking shoes from back in the day), they just plain looked JACKED UP. I learned to live with it by keeping my shoes on or wearing the most ornate sandals I could find when the weather heated up and my toes had to be exposed. Amazing what a little bling and nail polish can do...

But then I started kicking stuff with my bare feet in karate and they got that much worse. I've dislocated my right big toe, broken my right baby toe and badly bruised the next-to-baby toe on the left foot, all while sliding around the ring in the dojo practicing kumite and tai sabaki techniques. Nothing like making an ugly situation that much uglier.

Dipped foam sparring kicks helped keep my feet from getting any more roughed up, but my toes always felt like they were being strangled as once I strapped them on, as I couldn't really move my digits around very much at all. Plus the plastic strap that ran along the bottom made me slip and slide all over the place, so I switched to the padded elastic instep guards. Sure they kept me from slipping and my feet didn't feel like they were being choked to death, but my toes were also taking the brunt of the force when I kicked, too (hello, pain!). I needed to find a solution for my aching tootsies with a quickness.

At a tournament in NYC late last year, there were a few competitors wearing the Ringstar Full Coverage Sparring Foot Pads pictured above. Unlike martial arts sneaker-type shoes, they are heavily padded like dipped foam kicks which helps keep the foot safe while keeping the person being kicked from getting blasted too hard. The most appealing thing about them to me though, was the actual textured bottom which gave them the sole of a sneaker. Wow - the best of both worlds!

I finally got to try out a pair. They arrived in a shoe box - not a plastic bag like all the other foot gear I'd ordered for my son or myself over the years - with actual tissue paper separating the left shoe from the right one - plus they had that "new shoe" smell! They still fasten with an elastic and Velcro strap that wraps around the top/underneath the shoe and secures at the back of the heel, but they also have an additional Velcro closure where the laces of a traditional shoe or sneaker would be, which allowed them to completely hug the instep of my somewhat narrow foot. And once I got them on, I could actually wiggle my toes a bit. It was at that point that I think I thanked the genius who birthed the idea for this shoe and pushed to get his or her somewhat unorthodox design to the masses.

After strapping them on, I jumped around in my kitchen for a bit (the only floor in the house that emulates the actual dojo wood) and they felt pretty good! Moving on the ball of my foot to throw a spinning kick or even pivot for a roundhouse, side or hook kick was kind of tricky (because there was a little more friction to deal with than I was use to), but I hoped it would be something I'd figure out how to negotiate in time. I tossed them in my gear bag with the idea that I'd begin that negotiation when it was time to next work sparring drills in class...

About three seconds after last night's warmup in class, Sensei had us pad up and get ready to do just that, so I strapped on my new sparring accessories and got ready to work. We tackled blitzing, a few hand and foot combinations to drive an opponent back and also learned to target a moving adversary using the knee (to block if he/she charged forward) or move into a side, roundhouse or hook kick (if he/she moved off to the side or back even further). Next we did some line sparring before moving into light contact/high intensity round robin fighting, which was an absolute blast. For over an hour we fought - and not once did I even think about my feet. The shoes felt like they were a part of my body, not dangling extensions that I hoped would do what they were supposed to do without causing me to fall on my butt. I could bend and move my foot with no issues at all. My tootsies were happy for the first time in a long time (cue angelic "Ahh-ahh!!" here) - and so was I :-)

None of my training partners noticed any difference in the force of the kicks either, which is good. My buddy, Ed, even tried them on (yes, my feet are THAT big) and liked them too - so much that he'll be ordering his own pair from karatedepot next week. After class, another of my dojo sisters talked about how her foam kicks always seem to split near the heel from being pulled off after sparring rounds. Because of the soles, the Ringstar pads kind of have to be pulled off from from the bottom, so I think they'll hold up well. The only drawback of the night was the short, black streaks I left on the newly polished dojo floor. So much for the "skid mark resistant" bottoms...

At $59.99, they are a bit more expensive than foam kicks, but to me, they are well worth it. If you are having have problems with your sparring foot gear or just want to sample something new, give them a try.

An interesting aside: since tossing the shoes back into my bag last night, I've stubbed my toes on door jams TWICE and dropped a bottle of water my foot (ouch!). Perhaps I need to be wearing them around the house now, too...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kata Time!

No longer straddling the fence between two different schools/training philosophies, I'm finally back to exclusively training in one place again - and it feels great. Although the road to get here was a bit on the bumpy side, it's time to get back to the business of training in full effect again. While the transition was happening, my gym time and solo kata/kihon training dwindled down to almost nothing as I dealt with the fallout, licked my wounds and figured out what the heck the next move should be. As a result, the stress and off-kilter eating patterns caused me to lose about six pounds I could ill-afford to do without. Suffice to say I slipped into a bit of a funk for a minute. But now that I'm back to my regular ancillary training routine, not only has my mood changed, but so have the patches on my gis :-). Time now to earnestly start working on some other changes as well - specifically when it comes to kata.

Training like we did for so long, my training partners and I have an entire curriculum of kata that we know how to do at least two different ways (my buddy, Ed - who came to the school we just left from yet another USA Goju school - actually knows three ways to do most of our kata). It got so bad that when we trained on our own and somebody called a particular kata, we'd have to ask them to clarify "which" Empi Go, Gesaku Sho, Gesaku Dai or Empi Ha they were referring to. Crazy, right?

Sometimes the differences between the kata are subtle, but more often that not, the changes in target as well as the arm, hand, foot and leg positions and even some of the techniques and transitions are pretty big. It was a challenge trying to remember what school we were training in when a kata was called, but the absolute worst was the frustration of being introduced to something one way, doing it the gazillion times it takes to commit it to (muscle) memory, then being introduced to a more efficient way only to have the hardest daggone time trying to erase the other memory and get the new one to stick. Grrrrr...

Such was my reality in class last night doing Sansero. A USA Goju brown belt kata, we spent over an hour last night with Sensei S tearing it apart - all to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of its complexities. I originally learned the kata as a third kyu - back in 2007 - but uncovered a whole 'nother layer last night. Ironically, it was one of the few underbelt katas we hadn't "torn up" since I began going to Sensei S's class last year. How apropos is it that the kata refinement "finale" comes almost a year to the day after shodan promotions - and hence the real beginning of my training.

Like I've done with all the other kata we've dissected, I've written lots of details about Sansero down in my notebook, but now is where the real fun begins as I've got to make those changes stick in the ol' grey matter. But for the first time in a long time, I won't have to struggle to remember which dojo I'm in when I'm presenting it. :-)

Too cool!

Friday, May 7, 2010

What's in a Name?

I haven't shared this before, but for the first karate class after my shodan test, I actually forgot to pack a gi in my gear bag (ironically, I'd been dreaming about forgetting my gi for weeks before the grading, too)! Running back to my house made me a few minutes late for class. When I got back to the dojo, Sensei F had the class stop what they were doing (with a "Courtesy to Sensei!" command) and bow in my direction - the norm whenever a black belt enters the dojo. But because the rank was so new (as in all of two days old), I stopped, turned around and prepared to bow to whatever dan was entering after me (duh!). I wasn't thinking of myself as a "sensei" yet.

When I first started teaching as a college adjunct instructor many years back, hearing "Professor H" from my students literally made me pause for a split second and try to figure out who the heck they were talking to (duh again!) - because I wasn't really thinking of myself as a professor yet. Putting PowerPoint presentations together, grading mountains of papers and making up exam questions have all helped changed my view, but I still giggle a bit on the inside when I hear "professor" before my name.

When I was having all the dreams about forgetting my gi last year, Sensei S questioned me on what I thought the dreams meant. "Is there magic in that gi or do you get power from your belt?" he asked. His point - about the uniform having no affect on the karateka I was - was well taken. Perhaps the same point can be made about one's name...

The few times Sensei S has had to call and leave me a voicemail, he's said "Hey there, this is K." Not once has he ever referred to himself as "Sensei S." Funny thing is that I've only ever heard Sensei J call him "Sensei" - never by his first name. And these are two of the most amazing practitioners and teachers I know, but still the black belts they wrap around their waists to train in have no stripes or way to signify that they are sixth- and fourth-dans respectively. Maybe they are the most humble, too...

Whether my sensei refers to himself by his first name or last, it doesn't change who he is, what he's done and the amount of respect he's afforded on the mat. Even if all his students developed amnesia and could only refer to him as "Hey, you!" he'd still be the same great instructor and man of Tao.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, I'm sure of it :-)


Last night marked my one-year shodan anniversary. How did I spend it? At a karate grading, of course - the very same one I was a participant in last year.

This time I only helped grade self-defense techniques and tamishiwara. I also sparred a little as well, but the main reason I was there was to cheer on some of my training partners. For the last four months or so, I've had the pleasure of training with my alma mater's Goju Karate Club after my Monday evening class on campus. Mostly students and recent alum, the karateka ranged in rank from seventh all the way to first kyu. Many nights I was asked by the lead instructor to work with the underbelts on kata. I think I learned way more from them than they learned from me because their enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

Six of them earned their green belts last night, two moved to fourth kyu, two others to first kyu (official shodan candidates!!) and one - a tri-athlete and water polo player who stopped training as a fourth kyu years ago and returned to the dojo a while back in his purple obi - earned a crisp, new black belt. They all did an amazing job...

Here they are donning their new belts and certificates (their Sensei - another Sensei S - is kneeling in front). Congratulations!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Learn It Right and Learn It Early

I try to spend the mornings after karate class writing down specifics about techniques and recapping what we learned or reviewed the previous night. Before I did that this morning, I reviewed new posts from my favorite martial arts bloggers and found a great post on "Honoring Technique" from my "across the pond" MA friend, Sue. Great minds think alike, I guess...

Last night when I was visiting the dojo that meets on campus after my editing class, I ran into my own "honoring technique" situation when I was asked to help the underbelts with Ippon Kumite (one-point sparring) techniques. The group has a grading coming up later this week and the class was one of the last fine-tuning opportunities they'll have before promotions. There were only two women there - a seventh kyu and a fifth kyu. Close in rank, height and weight, they paired up and worked on their ippons together.

It became quickly apparent, though, that the two of them were just sort of falling to the ground when they were the uke (person having the technique done to them) and pulling techniques/punching past each other when they were the nage or tori (person doing the technique). I could see that they knew what they were supposed to be doing, but whether or not they could do it effectively in "real time" wasn't so obvious.

My mention of it to the sensei led to a discussion about appropriate resistance. Sure the uke needs to offer some resistance, but too much can make executing the technique almost impossible. But how much is too much for a white belt? For a green belt? I remembered one of my early promotions with my green belt uke who absolutely refused to be swept or taken to the ground. One of the senseis I'd been training with whispered to me to give Mr. Iron Man a gentle but firm push with my foot on the back of his knee to assist gravity a bit. Worked like a charm (he literally dropped like a rock), but I remember feeling kinda of surprised that I wasn't able to work the technique as I'd learned it for squat. Strange - because my uke in the dojo always fell right on cue. Hmmm...

It seems to me that we do each other a terrible dis-service by just falling to the ground when a punch comes into our vicinity. If I totally lose my balance when my tori simply touches my gi, it may give a false sense that the technique he/she is doing is actually working when in fact it might not be. Especially for women and others who may be faced someday with an evil-doer who is bigger and stronger, learning how to make the techniques as effective as possible is absolutely key - but not just so it looks good for grading. I think it's best to begin learning that as the technique is being learned. Because I've been there, done that, the idea of learning something one way then having to re-learn it so it works whenever you need it to is not the best way to grasp a concept, I'm thinking. The "it will make sense/get easier as you develop and grow" school of thought is totally to the curb when it comes to learning karate, in my humble opinion.

But that's not to say that there aren't techniques in our system that I didn't have difficulty learning or that would ever be my "go-to" ones in a real, live situation - especially if my adversary is bigger than I am. To try to understand how that might play out, I tend to seek out the solid guys with the strong hands when working self-defense and wrist grab escapes (thanks to Sensei J, Rob, Mike and Ed for indulging me :-). If I can't make it work with them when they know what's coming, chances are I'm probably going to have issues making them flow smoothly in the street against Chester the Molester, too.

I'm going to channel Sue here (who asked the same question of her readers): what does "honoring technique" mean to you?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Internal Dragon Martial Arts Grading in NYC

We hit the road again on Saturday (you probably think we NEVER stay home!), traveling to one of Sensei S.'s instructors - Kyoshi Williams' - promotions in the Bronx. About 25 kids and six adults graded - including two for shodan. It started about 10:30am but didn't end until after 3pm. Minimal injuries (a cut eye and an asthma attack during sparring and a hurt wrist from a successful cinder block break) - but a good time was had by all.

Before their belt presentations, the children waited patiently as Kyoshi and SBN Slader look on.

4-yr-old Destiny gets her Yellow Belt from Oba-san Solomon. Her mom (in the red print shirt) gets Sensei S. to bend down so she can get a picture.

One of the shodan candidates contemplating the cinder slab before his final break.

Here's what his wrist looked like after the cinder broke but before Sensei S. applied Dit Da Jow and White Lotus ointments.

Welcome to yudansha!