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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Martial Arts Musings

I had fun at my Karate class yesterday as I always do. I consider it the highlight of my week. I have been going to this class since 1998. I am one belt test away from a black belt.

How did I get started with all this? I have always been reasonably physically fit and loved outdoor activities like hiking and trekking. All this kept me reasonably trim, but I hate exercise for the sake of exercise. Exercise as part of some fun activity is fine with me, but I just find it very difficult to motivate myself to run or jog just to exercise my body. And I have no control when it comes to eating. I snack constantly and eat large meals too. I am genetically predisposed to having a high rate of metabolism, but as I got older, that rate was going down while my calorie intake was not. I need exercise to stop myself from becoming a part of the obesity statistics.

Then, I moved to a part of the country with not much opportunity for hiking and trekking. My fitness level started going down and I started developing a paunch. My wife has always been quite fanatical about everyone in the family eating well and taking care of their bodies, etc. So, she decided I had had enough of setting on my backside and enrolled me in a Karate class.

I had never been too interested in the martial arts before. I had never taken martial arts or self-defence classes. Even though I know I need something like that. I was bullied for several years during my school years and I still remember with embarassment bursting into tears once in the middle of class because of the incessant physical abuse I suffered at the hands of one of my bullies.

I also remember a confrontation I had with a truck driver on the road once. He honked at me and I got mad and hopped out of my car at the next red light. He jumped out of his cab too and we faced each other with his face about 6 inches from mine. He asked me to get back in my car and not even think about looking back. I practically soiled my pants as I jumped back in my car and pretty much ran away. My wife was in the passenger seat with me, and I was not even embarassed. My heart was racing and my fear suppressed pretty much every other emotion, including embarassment.

So, I went to this class a few times, somewhat reluctantly. It turned out to be a large class and I did not get much attention from the instructor or anyone else. I went through the motions and learnt a little bit of karate. Sure, I had some fun too when the instructors decided to have little physical competitions like running across the dojo floor to chase after and retrieve footballs, etc., but ultimately, I did not like the class.

But there was a different karate class that caught my eye and when my wife insisted I continue my karate even if it was not this particular class, I jumped to this other class for the next session. This other class was quite small and I was only one of about 4 or 5 students. I liked the format of the class and the personal instruction I received, as well as the much more vigorous and intensive physical activity involved in this class and have stuck with it for the past 11 years.

Now, I could say that I have become a great martial artist and would have no trouble dealing with bullies or honking truck drivers anymore. The truth is a lot more complicated. Yes, I probably know some self-defence tricks that would make a habitual bully pick a different target. I might even be able to stand face to face with a truck driver who has a foot and a half and 150 pounds on me and not quake in my boots. The fact is that I am a slightly built, short-to-medium height individual. There are always going to be people who are stronger and bigger than me. And there are always going to be people more skilled at the martial arts than me. And there are quite a few out there who are all three put together. No, it is not the ability to fight that keeps me in my karate class.

The simple fact is that I like the exercise that this class provides me. It is very physically demanding for a couple of hours. In addition to the warm-ups that include 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups (in addition to various other stretching and strengthening exercises), there are drills, sparring, weapon fights, etc., etc., that keep my heart rate up throughout the evening. The fact is, I would not be able to get through the class very gracefully unless I kept my fitness level up. The class provides me the motivation to keep myself in shape by exercising at other times also. So, now, I run a couple of miles a day on the treadmill or walk up a 12% incline for a couple of miles so that I get my heart rate up and am breathing hard.

I would say that this has practically saved my life from becoming the typical middle-aged man's life. I am still physically fit (I completed a hike last summer that involved about 5000 feet of vertical gain), my stomach is still flat and I am a lot more flexible than people younger than me (even though in my karate class I am one of the least flexible). The karate class shames me into taking care of my exercise needs so that I don't embarass myself in class.

My instructor is a greying sexagenarian who retired from a life of skilled manual labor a few years back. He has been practicing karate for more than 35 years and was trained as a boxer before that. He has also dabbled in judo, jujitsu and taekwando. He is surprisingly well-read for a blue-collar worker. He is of European descent, but he speaks fluent japanese and has traveled to many parts of the world.

Given his qualifications, it is a little surprising that his class is so small. The problem is that he was never trained as a teacher and does not have the best teaching manner in the world. He is old-fashioned and believes that his karate class is not a baby-sitting class for people to pretend that they are getting work done when they are not. He makes no bones about the class being physically challenging to new people who show up. He makes sure they understand that they have to practice at home since we meet in the class only once a week. And when they don't practice, it shows in their lack of progress and he is not shy about pointing that out too.

In class, he expects people to behave like a in real Japanese dojo, talk only when spoken to, address him loud and clear as sensei, etc. He also does not like explaining things very many times even to newcomers, so when they make mistakes, he has sharp words for them. It is a good thing I have a thick skin, because I have been shouted at many times in his class and told to "put my mind on my business" because I did something wrong or stupid. Essentially, he comes across as rude and brusque, and not many people stick around for too long to take that kind of abuse. I consider them to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Now, make no mistake. The vast majority of these people who quit would not have stuck with the class even if they had been babied instead of being exposed to this sensei. They just don't have the motivation and/or desire to take care of themselves and their bodies. They come to class already out-of-shape and they decide that getting back in shape is just too hard. They just get more and more out-of-shape and I guess, it is their body, so who am I to complain about that?

But for people like me, this sensei is like a breath of fresh air in a world gone insanely politically correct. He does not mince words and will let you know clearly where you stand and what you need to do to advance. There is no grade inflation in this class and no building of self-esteem for sake of building self-esteem even when all you are doing is making a nuisance of yourself. And he presents himself as the benefit of following his program fully: he is 62 years old, but can spar with the youngest and fittest of us for 20 minutes without running out of steam. He is more flexible than most people he teaches and may even outlive me even though he is more than 20 years my senior.

And he knows what he is talking about. He has more martial arts tricks up his sleeves than anyone I know. I have benefited immensely from his classes over the years, and may even be able to defend myself in a tight spot. If I only kept my head about me when it is required, ...

Yesterday, there were two new people in class. They were not grossly unfit, but they were huffing and puffing quite obviously by the end of the warm-ups. After class, my sensei was talking to the regulars about the new students. He predicts that they will not show up for the next class, and I tend to agree with him, given the past history of new students. It keeps the class restricted to serious students instead of being over-crowded with people who are too bored to know what to do with themselves.

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