Thursday, June 28, 2012

Girl Power: An E Squad Adventure

News flash: I'm female! Not an extreme "girly-girl" female (although I do rock the occasional haute couture - complete with heels, manicured nails and enough sparkly stuff to blind a rabbit), but I do feel naked without toe nail polish. And although I have trained with a few female senseis, my instructors for all things martial (and track-related way back in the day) have mostly been male. I've never been in a training environment where everyone on the mat - the students and the instructors - were female. Sometimes, when the testosterone in the dojo gets to the tipping point, I tend to daydream about how cool it might be to train in an all-female space.

Please don't start the chest-thumping arguments about how realism in self-defense is best attained when the person you are working wrist grabs, locks, strikes, blocks and take-downs against is bigger/stronger than you. I get that - but my desire to experience an all-female training environment has little to do with the physical and technical aspects of the art (heck, it isn't that difficult to learn to hit something/someone HARD using your hips) - it has more to do with the vibe/energy in the training hall. Not that it is any better or worse, but I'm sure it is different, for lack of a better term.

In other words, taking a step off the the strength-based "Do it hard or die!" path that modern - OK, I'll say it: Western - Martial Arts seems to sometimes overly emphasize intrigues me. But don't get it twisted: feminine does not equal weak in my opinion, nor do I think female instructors are automatically nurturing, soft and sweet. The training may not automatically be better, either - just...different. Or so I imagine it might be, as, again, I've never experienced it before.

Last weekend, I came close. Two women from a sister dojo came to our side of the river to train with us. Our little space is usually filled with a bevy of 6 to 18-year-olds on Saturday mornings and it is a good thing, I think, for them to see the folks their instructors train with and under on a regular basis. It is also good for them all - both the young ladies and the young men - to see as many powerful, dynamic and graceful women on the mat as possible giving instruction, doing drills and getting sweaty like the rest of us.

After a little bo, our students bowed out as did training partner Ed, who had to run to a family function. The three of us women had lunch planned for after class, but we decided to work a little kata before we changed out of our gis. So we did - and I even learned from my training partners - a fourth-dan, international bo and empty-hand kata competitor and her shodan student - the bunkai of a kata I've been dying to learn more about. Suffice to say a good - and interesting! - time was had by all. It was a very good thing.

I love all my training partners - the males and the females - because they help make me a better martial artist by challenging, encouraging and prodding me to ask "Why?" and "Why not?" always. But there's something about being surrounded by nothing but women that is hard to put into words. The energy isn't better, it's not worse. It's just...different.

Looking forward to training with them both again :-)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Clearing the Fog: Working Out of a Karate Rut

As a writer, sometimes the words just don't flow. You know it as writer's block and it is absolutely one of the most difficult and frustrating things any wordsmith encounters. It happens in some way, shape or form to every writer, I'm sure - and I've found that the only way out for me is to keep writing, as contra-indicated as that seems. When that big cloud of nothing moves in, I try to head it off at the pass by entering a poetry contest or submitting something to a new market - be it pet or tech-savvy publications (all are a little outside of my comfort zone). Hey - the worst that could happen is the editors or contest judges aren't feeling it and don't publish my piece; it's not like they can take my first-born or anything. And by the time the contest winners are announced or the publications have sent out the "Dear Contributer" emails, the fog has lifted and the words are usually flowing from my fingers again.

Ironically, I do the same thing in karate. When in a rut - be it a training stagnation or a post-competition or post-grading lull - I find things to concentrate on to get my mind out of the ditch, give my body a chance to rest or even to try something new, like small-circle Jiu Jitsu, Aikido or Krav Maga. What I've discovered, mostly via trial and error, is that a new goal or challenge helps me re-focus and approach my training from a different perspective, allowing the fog to get gone already.

Well, karateka's block has recently decended on my path. I'm in a karate rut and I'm planning on kata-ing myself out of it.

From my friends at Harlem Goju, I learned a beautiful Shotokan kata about six months ago that they require all of their shodan candidates to learn called Gankaku/Kankaku (it used to be refered to as "Chinto"). I learned it from Master Dave Thomas who, like me, is tall with long limbs. The kata translates to "crane on a rock" because the single-leg balance movements resemble what the majestic bird looks like when it is preparing to do its thing. Those movements, Master Dave said, would allow me to fully use both my arm and leg length in a way no other kata (of the 20 or so in my Goju repertoire) could.

Another great thing about the kata is from a purely competitive viewpoint: since Goju katas are not known for their high kicks (most of our kata kicks are below the obi; heck, one of my absolute favorite katas - Seiuchin - has no kicks in it at all!), competing with them at open tournaments (where practioners from Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu and other styles are letting the spinning hook, high crescent and vertical roundhouse kicks fly) presents a bit of a challenge. Gankaku has a bevy of face-level side kicks and even a big tobi mae geri (jumping front kick) to boot :-) See for yourself:

The balance required is amazing and looks so effortless when I watch the kata. A bit of a different story when I'm doing it, but I'm flowing it everyday and oiling the sticking points. Polishing it in hopes of competing with it at the Diamond Valley Classic in November is actually helping me chip through my current karate block.

In karate, there is always something new to learn, tweek, refine or tighten. I can frustrate myself to distraction waiting for the fog to clear or I can move around and look for a way to MAKE it clear by learning something new, tweeking, refining and tightening things I already know.

I'm chosing the latter :-)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

By Any Other Name...

After my very first class following my nidan grading, training partner Ed handed me a new belt he'd ordered a few weeks before, embroidered with two shiny new red stripes. Although it is absolutely beautiful (it is much thicker and heavier than the belt I was given at my shodan grading) and I was quite flattered he'd thought of me, I promptly tucked into my gear bag where it slipped underneath my sparring gear. For class two days later, my very first black belt - Ol' Faithful (the brand without the stripes) - was the one I tied around my waist.

The next week, Ed had switched bags and forgot to grab his belt when he packed his gi. When we got to the dojo - which is an hour away from home - he asked if I had an extra one he could borrow, so I left both the one he'd given me and my old one on top of my bag when I dashed into the locker room to get changed. I had a mild panic attack when I came out and found he'd taken Ol' Faithful and left the new belt for me to wear.

Now, I'm not even remotely superstitious or feel like my obi has any magical powers or anything, but I hafta tell you that tying that new belt was a hard thing for me to do - not just because it was so stiff, LOL, but because it was so BIG and had TWO STRIPES on it. Strappng it on felt a bit pretentious, like I was shouting to anyone within earshot that I was a nidan now, damnit! - and that just ain't me.

Everyone in the room was at the grading. They saw me do kata, miss one of my breaks, get pummeled by the seniors I sparred and eventually get a new certificate. But no stripes were added to my belt during the grading. It seemed to go without saying that no further outward recognition of the new rank was needed - which was totally fine with me.

But as I stood there trying to tie that new belt and remember which side the stipes had to start on to end up where they belonged (hey, it had been years since I'd had any stripes, for crying out loud!), I felt so conspicuous and, well...showy.

There are only a few folks I train with who wear their full rank on the mat. My sensei is not one of them. We all know his rank - but most importantly, he knows his rank. Although some of the other seniors I train with occassionally don their stripes for promotions, seminars or other formal functions (and I don't see anything wrong with that), my sensei never does (and I don't see anything wrong with that, either). It is what it is.

Last weekend, I headed to a tournament in Connecticut and met a karateka I'd only known before via the Internet. A fellow Goju practitioner, she and I talked about all things karate between rounds of her watching the competition me jumping into the mix for kata and kumite. When I noticed that one of the judges in the ring we were watching had eight stripes on her black obi, I asked my compadre what she thought about the wearing of full rank after shodan. She said she thought practioners should always display who they were - meaning it may be a bit disengenuous to suit up in an unadorned black obi if you are actually a yondan - and that makes sense to me.

But still I wore Ol' Faithful last night to train. It is what it is, I guess.

If you a nidan equivalent or higher, do you wear your full rank on your obi when you train? When you compete or travel to other places like seminars to learn? Why or why not? If you haven't yet gotten that second or third or sixth or eighth stripe, will you wear it/them when you do?