dojo – literally, the way place or, the place where the way of Karate is taught and learned; within the school, the formal teaching space is the “dojo proper”
gi – Karate uniform
kata – Karate forms or predetermined sequence of movements
Sensei – teacher
In the latest in a long line of my harebrained ideas to do something positive for myself, this morning I started taking Karate. Good exercise, I figure, and of course good self defense for anyone, especially women. And because, more than a little bit, I want to prove to myself that I might actually be able to do this thing that never would have occurred to me a few years ago. But then I met new friends who were students and teachers, and then my son became a student himself last September. But he (my son) fits the profile: he is athletic, balanced, and solid. He is confident in his physical abilities, and full of ambition from watching all manner of computer-generated super heroes knock the bad guys across the rooms with impressive kicks and punches. He thinks he already knows enough self-defense on his own, and that Karate class is all about learning the longer, formal sequences of the kata.
Me, on the other hand, well, I’m a different story. At 46, 5’11”, 135 lbs., I am too tall and skinny to ever have felt well balanced. Never athletic, never with enough endurance even for slow jogs, which so many of my friends enjoy to de-stress and stay in shape. Though I can walk for miles and am passable at grounded (read: flat on the ground) activities like yoga.
Karate, though. Really? Balance while kicking? Kicking how high? Punch straight and with enough force to have any effect, whatsoever, on anyone? Who am I kidding? Not Sensei, apparently, who is encouraging and positive, and tells me I have better control over my movements than I think I do, that I have more potential than I give myself credit for. He’s been a martial arts student himself 40 years, has taught thousands of students over 30 years, holds black belts in five different martial arts, and has owned his own dojo for 27 years. I guess he should know. So I decided to believe him, skeptically, tentatively, at least for now.
After I’d made the decision to try Karate, I began to look forward to learning this stuff, grew excited, even. Marked my calendar. In the weeks before my class was scheduled to start, I had all sorts of lofty ideas about going religiously to the gym to get heart-pumping aerobic exercise three times a week, about getting back into yoga for flexibility for those kicks I’d eventually be learning. About getting in shape. Even though Sensei and all his publicity say it’s not necessary, that Karate can be taught, learned, and practiced regardless of what sort of shape or condition the student is in. That part I didn’t believe.
And then, of course, life got in the way of my best intentions, as did my lack of stick-to-itiveness. So, as the first class day approached, I was in even worse shape, less conditioned, less stretched out than I’d been only a few months earlier.
Downstairs in the changing room this morning, putting on my t-shirt and stretchy shorts – an actual gi will need to be ordered – I had to fight the urge to flee, the same urge I’d felt when I went to observe a class at a different dojo last fall, when the first inklings of the idea began to whisper in the back of my mind. My being here now was ridiculous. What could have possessed me to think I could do this? I’d always thought of myself as uncoordinated and clumsy, and have the childhood scars on my knees to prove it. Sensei said to try it, to be positive, that maybe I would surprise myself. In those moments before class, I was going surprise myself most if I even ended up “on deck,” as they say, beginning to learn anything.
* * *
My clothes all changed, I sit down for a minute on one of the funny wooden fold-down chairs in the changing room. Am I really going to do this? Have I really run out of stalling tactics? It’s time.
I pull myself back upstairs and wait at the door of the dojo proper, the room where we actually will hold class. The two other students haven’t shown up today: one because of a cancelled babysitter, one for some other reason. So I am the only student in this bare bones beginners’ class. As if I’m not already self-conscious enough. But here I am anyway, and my now-private lesson is starting. I watch and listen as Sensei shows me how to bow to the learning space and again inside to show respect to the old, severe-looking Okinawan masters whose photographs hang on the wall. I bow. Awkward, odd. I am a pretender to this process that I’ve watched others do without even needing to think about it.
Don’t run, I tell myself. Don’t laugh. Be serious.
Once we’re both inside, Sensei begins a primer of a few basic Japanese phrases. “Please teach me.” “Thank you for the instruction.” Phrases I barely can catch until he writes them on the white board, with phonetic spellings. I take a deep breath. I struggled through French in high school and again in college, took one year of German, and forgot most of both by the time I graduated twenty four years ago. A few winters back, I took Introductory Korean at the community college because my two children were adopted from that country. As babies. So they never did speak any Korean at all, even though many people, not thinking, asked if they did. For learning Korean my motivation was strong – I work hard at my kids’ cultural connections – but the East Asian language proved even more impenetrable to me than French and German, which at least shared an alphabet, plus a few accents, with English. Over the years I didn’t learn much of any of these three other ways of speaking, but I did learn this: languages – besides English – are not my forte. Now I have to learn to balance, kick, punch, AND to describe them all in Japanese? Right.
Again, Sensei says not to worry, that the phrases will come, that soon they’ll be so familiar I won’t have to think about them, either. Maybe they’ll be like the basic ballet terms I heard all those years ago when briefly – and unsuccessfully – my mother enrolled me in dance classes to improve my balance. I came to appreciate the other girls’ grace and abilities, rather than achieve much of my own, but I did remember plié and changement so that the lilt of French was marginally familiar by the time I started trying to learn more of it with Mrs. Cusomato in the 2nd period of 8th grade.
Now Sensei shows me the ready position, how to count out own my proper distance for the basic stance. For the next hour and a half we will work on these, on stepping, turning, a basic punch, a basic kick, one simple wrist release as a self-defense technique. I have to pay attention to every single detail of every single position, every single time I try it. Again, I’m beating back self doubt. This is a nice little experiment today, I tell myself, but as soon as class is over (has it really only been 30 minutes, with another whole hour to go?), I’ll return to my ordinary life in which Karate is for 19-year-old athletes who are serious and driven.
But then, about halfway through class, something happens: Sensei leaves me alone to practice for a few minutes while he goes to check on something. I concentrate on my every movement, checking myself, getting it as right as I can before shifting my body to the next position, remembering more of the details than I thought I could. And I start to feel like I am learning something, that my body is trying to do what I’m trying to remember to tell it. Just the basics, just the very, very few things Sensei has shown me thus far, but I’m getting at least that much. Which is something. Which is so much more than I ever expected. My legs are holding me up, close to where they should be, and not straining too badly. My arms are moving through the air in vague imitation of the punches I am barely beginning to learn. Wow, I think. This might actually be possible, to learn a little of this martial arts thing, for it to become at least familiar enough that I won’t be embarrassed to put on a gi.
Sensei returns and shows me more, watches me practice, gently corrects me and tells me my mistakes are the same ones almost everyone makes at the beginning.
By the time class ends, I think, “Already?” Where have the last 45 minutes gone?
* * *
My kids were thrilled, of course, when I got home later and told them about it. “Show us, Mom,” they said, so I did. And then I had to listen as my son corrected the positions of my feet, critiqued my punches as too slow, and asked why I hadn’t yet learned his most recent kick, the one that precedes testing for his third belt.
“First class, honey,” I said. “First class.” And now I think there will be a second, I tell myself. And a third.
“Is your goal to earn a black belt?” chirped my daughter, with a child’s eager confidence that her mom can do anything.
I laughed. “No, sweetheart. Not a black belt. At least I really, really doubt it. My only goal right now is to take classes for a while.” Long ago I learned not to make promises to my children that I have no idea whether or not I can keep. And even longer ago I learned not to promise myself anything regarding exercise, or schedules, or dreams that may be completely beyond my reach, no matter how much I may want them.
Black belt? Maybe not. But maybe I’ll manage to learn enough to feel stronger, and more balanced, more able to defend myself or my kids if – god forbid – such a thing ever is necessary. And who knows? Sensei says, from long experience, that when someone starts classes you never can tell if the bug will bite. That the surest, most gung-ho beginner might drop out after a few months. And the most skeptical, least ambitious student very well may become one of the most determined. So who knows? As I say all the time to the kids, “We’ll see.”
(c) 2010 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.