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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Surprise, Surprise...

The three new people who signed up for my karate class the previous week actually returned for more abuse this week! I was quite surprised that none of them had gotten discouraged by the tough warmups, leave alone the actual karate!

The sensei later told me that he had talked to someone who told him that two of the students dropped out of a different class to join this class because the other class was too easy and not challenging enough. I guess that makes them pretty motivated to stick it out in this class.

Being one of the senior members of my class, I am assigned teaching duties quite often. I trained with a young student yesterday to get him ready for his next belt test. This student has all the moves down pat, and knows what he is supposed to do, but he is one of those people who does not want to try too hard. His punches and kicks are weak as water, his fist is never tight, his stances are always a little sloppy, etc., etc. After the session yesterday, my sensei took me aside and asked me whether he was ready for the next test. And I told him honestly that he had work to do. What happens if he is never ready to do that work? As one of my senior classmates suggested to me, perhaps I should have the sensei work with him directly, and give him a piece of his mind. I give him all the advice I can and tell him repeatedly what he needs to do, but ultimately he needs to shape up himself. I don't want to shout at him and I know at least my sensei would not be shy about that.

I have been in this karate class for right around 11 years now. I am still not a black belt. People tell me that most other classes promote to black belt with about 5 years of training. Why am I still not a black belt? I think there are several reasons for that.

First of all, I did not join this class for the belts. I did not care one way or the other what my rank was. I wanted the exercise, I wanted a motivation to continue exercising on my own.On top of that , if I have some tools I can put to use in a tough situation, all the better. The actual belts and ranks were secondary and just icing on the cake. Many other classes meet multiple times a week and concentrate solely on training for tests. We meet only once a week and often end up doing things that have nothing to do with tests. We do new self-defence drills often, making up situations where certain moves would be useful and practice them on each other repeatedly. We train with various weapons like knives, guns, sticks, etc. We also practice throws and grappling on mats when the facilities are available. My sensei is a stickler for perfection in katas, so we practice katas extensively.

I have told my sensei that I am not there for the belts. So, he is not under pressure to move me along. He is not afraid that I would get discouraged and drop out just because I haven't been administered a belt test in a year or two. Before every belt test, I take the sensei aside and tell him in no unclear terms that I know I am not perfect and I have various problems with executing various moves and techniques. I am not a born fighter, so I will never be a master sparrer. If he feels that I don't measure up to the belt level he is testing me for, he can fail me without the slightest hesitation. I have made it abundantly clear to him that I will not take offense or stop coming to his class because I failed one of his tests.

And he has never failed me in a test so far. After every test, he pulls me aside and tells me that I may not be perfect, but then he knows of no perfect martial artists. He always compliments me on my spirit and my willingness to lend myself to the program. He tells me he likes my attitude in class and my wilingness to learn and experiment with new techniques. And he appreciates the fact that I show continuous improvement.

His tests are not choreographed events like I have found at other places. My daughter took Shotokan Karate, and went to several tests on her way to a blue belt. Before each test, the instructor let her know precisely what was expected of her in the test. There are choreographed self-defence drills, half or a full kata and demonstration of some basic techniques. Nobody breaks a sweat and the whole test (for several dozen students) is over in about an hour. My daughter is actually on the floor for barely 15 minutes. Except for the stuff that they have been told will be on the test, they don't have to prepare or know anything else.

My tests on the other hand last a full 2 hours. I can be asked to do anything I have been taught starting from basics all the way to every kata I have ever been taught. We are frequently asked to do them over and over again until we get it right. We are also asked to answer questions about the style and about martial arts in general. Then there is the sparring. Every test taker has to spar with every other student in the class in 2-minute rounds. Every other student is out to impress the sensei, so you are sparring against fresh students who are out to mop the floor with you if they can. After about 10 minutes of this, you are ready to curl up on the floor and go to sleep. After sparring with all the students, you get to spar with the sensei himself. It is absolutely brutal. In my last test, I also had to do a couple of rounds of 2 on 1 sparring where I was told to defend myself against 2 assailants rather than just 1. And sometimes when you are all drained and exhausted after all this sparring, you may be asked to do some more katas and basics. I think I lose a few pounds of weight during every belt test I have taken.

My sensei is an extraordinary sparrer. He can seemingly keep going for a dozen 2-minute rounds of sparring without showing any signs of exhaustion. Obviously, he was fighting against students well below his rank, so he probably got enough breathing room not to exert himself too much. But he did have a couple of other black belts in his class until a couple of years back to help him in running the class, and even they did not seem to faze him much. Most of my early sparring bouts with my sensei were pretty one-sided and I barely got a couple of punches or kicks in during an entire round while taking a barrage of punishment from him. One thing I can say proudly is that our bouts nowadays are a little more balanced. I have improved in sparring to the extent that it is more of a standoff with him rather than me acting like a punching bag for him. I have learnt several tricks from him and have observed his sparring enough to anticipate to some extent what he will do and react before he does it. He will still get the best of me if I am inattentive in the least, so the bouts are pretty exhausting both physically and mentally. And my sensei is proud of the fact that he is a dirty fighter and knows more street techniques than any of us, so if push came to shove, he could probably kill me if wanted to anyways!

After every test, I have felt that I don't deserve to be promoted to the next level because of how poorly I performed in the sparring rounds. I will also remember vividly every goof-up I made during the basics, self-defence drills and kata demonstrations. But my sensei has been kind enough to move me up after giving me some advice on how to improve. Now comes the big test. Probably within the next 6 months. And if I pass, I become a black belt. I am still not sure what exactly that means.

My sensei once asked me what a black belt would mean to me. I told him that the black belt is just an acknowledgement by somebody else of what I know and demonstrate. My knowledge or ability is not enhanced by the color of the belt. It enhances your confidence in yourself, but confidence alone is not the key to being able to defend oneself in a tight spot.

My sensei, however, told me that getting a black belt is like getting an advanced college degree, or learning to communicate fluently in a foreign language, or starting and running a successful business. It is not about my abilities and skills at that instant of time. It is an acknowledgement of the effort I was willing to put into the endeavour over extended periods of time and succeeding at it without giving up. It is validation for the multitude of classes attended, the hours spent practicing and years spent in developing a martial artist attitude towards all aspects of life (ability to be in complete control of any situation that presents itself, healthy body, clear and healthy mind, the tools to anticipate and avoid trouble, and last but not least, extricating myself from trouble if it can not be avoided). It is all about the mental and physical fortitude to stick with a program through thick and thin, with patience and a long-term vision.

Will getting a black belt help me defend myself under all circumstances? I don't think so, and neither does my sensei. It gives me an important advantage over my adversaries, but ultimately, nothing happens the way you think it should. As they say, sometimes you are the windshield, and sometimes you are the bug. But has my attitude towards life been changed permanently and for the better because of my martial arts training? I think so, and ultimately, that is what matters.

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