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Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Am Now A Black Belt In Karate – Officially!

I have mentioned before that my sensei had wanted to administer a black belt test to me and move me up a first degree black belt sometime last year.  I had asked him to administer a test at the end of June if he thought I was ready for it.  Well, unfortunately, the test at that time did not happen.  I had wanted the test at that time so that I can get it out of the way before I went on my vacation to Peru.  But my sensei did not feel that it would be good to rush the test just for that reason.

Since I was in the karate class more for exercise (and learning a few self-defense techniques along the way) than for earning belts, I did not pursue it further.  I trusted my sensei’s judgment and if he wanted to give me the test later, that was fine with me.  I was not waiting for my black belt in any real sense since I was not going to make any changes to my training regimen or program, or anything else related to my karate practice based on getting my black belt.  In that sense, it was not going to be like a graduation from college:  I was going to continue learning there whether I had a black belt, a brown belt or a flaming neon pink belt!

After that, things got a little out of control in the karate class for various reasons.  My co-student who was supposed to take the test with me, had an accident and broke a couple of bones in her legs.  This is the same student who had bad luck with the stairs in her home and had broken one of her legs earlier.  This time, it was the other leg!

We had always taken our tests together and advanced at the same pace, so out of respect for that convention, I told my sensei that I would be willing to wait until she was feeling better before I tested for my black belt.  It would probably also take some pressure off me if I was not testing all by myself.  My sensei reserved the right to administer the test to me separately, but he never did.

And then, when she finally made it back to class, we started training together again in preparation for the inevitable black belt test.  She had fallen behind on her katas, and also came back with some mobility issues.  So, slowly over time, she was trying to catch up with me so that we could take the test together.

And then, my sensei had an accident and broke one of the toes in his left foot.  He is a tough person and did not let the broken toe interfere with his regular exercise routine.  He still warmed up with us in the karate class and trained us as usual, but he wanted to make sure his toe was healed before he sparred with us.  Sparring can get quite spirited in my karate class, and it is difficult to control it fully.  He knew he would probably end up damaging his toe at some time if he sparred with us while it was still vulnerable, so it was understandable that he would want to protect it and give it a chance to heal.  Since our belt tests include a good bit of sparring, this also meant that he did not want to administer my black belt test until his toe was alright.

Our last class of the year was on December 15th.  I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to wait till 2011 for my black belt.  It was not a big deal to me anyways.  But, when I walked into the class on December 15th, I noticed immediately that my sensei was wearing his original, old black belt.  This is the belt that had been bestowed on him by his sensei, and it shows its age.  Parts of the black fabric have become threadbare, with the underlying white fabric showing through.  It looks venerable and respectable, like a man with locks of grey hair on his head, unlike the flash of a brand new black belt!

My sensei usually wears this belt nowadays only when he administers belt tests.  My fellow students had not noticed this, but I knew something was up right away when I saw that old belt on him.  We did a very abbreviated warm-up (which was another sign that he wanted more time in the class for something important), then he left us in the room with instructions to practice all our katas once or twice.  We ran through all of them once, and he came back and announced that he was going to test us.

I was up first, and was asked to perform several katas.  I did most of my katas except for the first two or three, then moved on to the weapons katas.  I was somewhat nervous (more nervous than I would have expected to be, given that nothing monumental rested on my being promoted to a black belt), and did mess up in a few spots.  I was asked to perform some of the katas more than once, especially the tsai kata since I messed it up the first time somewhat obviously!  I was then partnered up with another student and had to demonstrate my self-defense techniques against punches, kicks, different types of knife attacks and different types of gun attacks.

After that I sparred with the sensei.  It was not even a full two-minute round though.  We just danced around each other, threw a few kicks and punches at each other and then he stopped it.  I went back to doing a couple more katas, and that was it.  He then asked another fellow-student to do all his katas and sparred with him, then moved on to my long-time partner, who was still struggling with some lingering mobility issues and was not as thorough with her katas as I was.

And that was it.  After we were done, the sensei left the room for a few minutes, then came back and announced that I had been promoted to black belt (Shodan) and so was my partner.  The other student had tested for purple belt, and he was promoted to that belt level too.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by the whole turn of events.  The test itself was quite unexpected.  And it was much less rigorous than I had expected it to be.  My brown belt test had been several times more demanding than what I had been put through in this test.  During that earlier test, I had done all of my katas, not once, but twice.  I had been forced to do some of my katas a third time.  I had been asked to demonstrate most of my foot and hand techniques (all my blocks, punches and kicks).  I had demonstrated all my self-defense techniques against punches, kicks and knife and gun attacks.  I had then sparred in long rounds with every person in the class.  I had also sparred a couple of rounds with two people at the same time.  By the time I was done, I was badly winded, and was moving like a zombie.  This time, I had not run through all of my katas, I had repeated only a couple of them, and I had sparred only one abbreviated round with only my sensei.  I was not asked to demonstrate any hand or foot techniques at all.  I was barely breathing hard!

Obviously, I was quite relieved too!  I had been mentally preparing myself for this test for a while, and was still not sure if I had the stamina to last through a grueling 45 minute test if it came to that.  So, I was understandably relieved that I had come through (though probably not with flying colors) after a brief 20 or 25 minute test that did not really even begin to test my endurance.

Why did he decide to spring a surprise test on us and promote us (in spite of rather than because of our less-than-compelling performances)?  I think he had mentally committed to moving us to the next belt level in the middle of last year, and had been frustrated by all the delays that crept on his plans during the latter half of the year.  He did not want to go back on his commitment even though it was a commitment he had made only to himself (which certainly we were not going to hold him to).  So, he just decided to administer a test in the last class of the day, and promote us as long as we did not do egregiously badly.

Well, anyways, that was last year.  Yesterday, I attended my first class of the new year.  And I took a black belt to class with me.  Before we got down to business, my sensei tied the new belt around me and gave me my black belt certificate.  I usually ask him to write stuff in the certificates in Japanese, but this time I requested him to give me one certificate in Japanese and another in English so that I can show it to my friends and have them actually understand what it says!

And for the rest of the class, I was a black belt.  I did not suddenly cross a magic threshold when I was told that I had been promoted, or even when the black belt was tied around me for the first time.  I am still learning karate and intend to practice the art for as long as I can.  Perhaps, some day, I might even teach karate to others.  But it certainly closes one chapter in my martial arts practice, and opens another!

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