Only four classes and already life has gotten in the way. I haven’t practiced, haven’t gotten in better shape, and was glad when Sensei was called out of the room in the middle of the last class and we could rest for a few minutes. And I have a doozy of a summer cold, to boot, that is sapping my energy and dulling my brain.
“We” because one of the others now has joined class, after the first two sessions accidentally turned into private lessons for me. Ron is about five years older than me and supposedly a beginner, too, but not really because he holds a belt of some color or other in Tae Kwon Do, and even studied Karate, many years ago. Maybe “re-enroller” is more accurate for him: even with my “white belt eyes” I can tell that his body already understands the nature of these sorts of movements. During class, he kept looking to me for guidance about what to do and how to do it, and all I could do was shrug and nod toward Sensei. I need so much guidance myself.
But my body knows a little bit about this, too, I keep forgetting. Fifteen years ago, I studied Tai Chi Chuan, the slow, energizing Chinese moving meditation. The short form, I remember the teacher calling it, as I drilled the dozens of movements into my resistant head and wondered how long the long form must be. I enjoyed classes for most of a fall and winter, into spring, but gave it up when the form got too complicated and too spread out for me to push aside the straw chairs in half of my living room and practice on the then-new rug. At the time I knew I was missing something in my experience of Tai Chi. Not because of the teacher, whom Sensei turns out to have known and respected, but because I never could quite let my mind go enough to lose myself – or find myself, maybe – in the meditative aspects of the art. I had to work so hard at remembering the sequences that crossing the line into a peaceful emptiness just wasn’t going to happen.
I wonder about that now, too, with Karate. I have new friends and acquaintances who have been learning and practicing for twenty years or more, and they speak of Karate as life changing, as full of insights and breakthroughs, but – as my son lately is fond of saying – I have no clue what they’re talking about. So far, after these couple of weeks, during class I sweat and concentrate and wonder how much my muscles will ache the next day. And the next day, at home, I struggle to remember what I began to learn, get frustrated when I can’t, berate myself for not paying more attention, for not finding enough time to practice so that I will remember next time. Peaceful? Hardly.
And, yes, I ache a bit. Not that I didn’t expect it. Not that I don’t realize the truth in the “no pain, no gain” thing. After all, exercise is what I was after, wasn’t it? When Sensei says, “This is good for working the thigh muscles,” I know how my legs will feel the next day. At least we haven’t started pounding our forearms together yet. I had a brief flirtation with Karate in college and the arm bruises were what stopped me then. It was a free class, held in the old wooden gym on Wednesday nights after supper, taught by the hippie art professor and John, his tall, graceful, serious, intelligent assistant who was also a student at the college and was a year older than me. What the specific style was, or how qualified either of them was to teach it, I have no clue, but looking back now, knowing what little I do from the way Sensei operates, that art professor guy should have stayed in his studio with his oils and clay, and left the martial arts instruction to someone else. Rather than telling me to glide my feet gently into one step and then the next – as though sweeping a grain of rice along the floor, as Sensei says – John showed me how to slide my feet so forcefully that my soles squeaked against the hardwood and my knees ached, then and for a long time afterwards. And when the art professor paired me with his tall assistant for punching practice before I knew the first thing about how to do it, I genuinely feared getting hurt. After only a few weeks, I quit with the sense that this martial arts thing either: one, wasn’t for me, or two, wasn’t being taught properly. Both, I think now, though at the moment I’m committed to suspending disbelief on “one.”
In class, Ron and I have learned several stances, the names of which sound poetic and imaginative in translation: horse, cat, half moon. Each session, Sensei teaches us a certain number of new things and reviews the old ones. And now he’s adding new pieces to my fragile knowledge of the basics as we review. When I hesitate he says to trust my body to understand what to do.
Only all of them, when this infernal cold is done and my head clears enough to register. By which time I will have forgotten these four ways of stepping or the three sequential pieces of the release from last time.
Sensei smiles kindly. He seems to believe I can do this, says I’m getting it. Though I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember what he just demonstrated thirty seconds ago. In mirror image, no less, so I don’t even have to transpose my right and left when I try to imitate him. He repositions my fist half an inch closer to center, moves my elbow an inch closer to my ribs, and I try to make these corrections the next time he says, “Step!” and I try it all again.
How the heck did I get through college and grad school, if my recall isn’t any better than this? I did and did it well, both times, but you wouldn’t know it by how dense I feel now. Here’s the difference: then, I wrote down everything. Even on days when I had a cold or a cough or not enough caffeine, as long as my pen worked and I got it on paper – every single word out of every single professor’s mouth – I knew I could go back and understand it when I felt better. I am a cognitive, visual learner. Paper first, brain later. Karate, Sensei says, is somatic. Body learning, like Tai Chi. Except that I don’t trust my body and never have.
But I won’t go there right now, won’t let my brain spiral down into the ways I’ve felt my body betray me over the years.
Instead, I squint to help myself concentrate, and I try not to sniffle or to cough. Sensei has introduced informal meditation to start and end each class. Breathe in through the nose (ha! not mine!), hold it, breathe out through the mouth, hold it. Cough, clear my throat. Repeat.
Class ends once more. Bow to each other. Bow to Sensei. Arigato-go-zai-mashita (“thank you” in Japanese). Bow to the masters. Bow to the room. And breathe, as Mr. Miyagi says in “The Karate Kid.” Very important to breathe.
(c) 2010 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.