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Posts tagged ‘kenpo’

Claiming Space

“Unless I’m crying or bleeding, you don’t need to apologize.”

I found myself uttering this odd phrase the other day during Kenpo class when I was practicing techniques with a girl who was about 12 years old (and taller than me). Our dojo in Granada Hills is still small when it comes to adults, and often teens and adults practice together. It works out well: the adults challenge themselves to keep up with the teens physically, and the teens are challenged to behave more maturely.

After my young partner had said “I’m sorry” for the tenth time or so, I finally told her stop apologizing. The training philosophy at our school involves making contact with strikes and kicks while doing techniques, but withholding power—the thinking being that you can always add power, but targeting is difficult under duress. (I have been at other dojos where the philosophy was the exact opposite: full power but deliberately miss your target, because power is hard to develop, but targeting is easy. Go figure.)

At any rate, sometimes you hit harder than you intended, sometimes you hit a target you didn’t aim for—hence you some days come away with a few lumps and bumps, and some days you give a few bumps and lumps. This is to be expected, and unless someone has done something truly egregious (that back elbow right on the spine last month might count as egregious), constant apologies are not only unnecessary, they are detrimental to progress. Unfortunately, most young girls and even grown women have a lower threshold for what requires an apology than their male counterparts. We try to soften the requests we make of others, to be polite, to appear non-threatening, because we’ve learned that we don’t particularly like it when we are labelled rude, bitchy, or aggressive. We apologize when we disagree, when we have a question, when our job requires we interrupt our colleagues to give them timely information, when we ask for help (“Sorry, can you pass that piece of paper to me, I can’t reach”). This constant need to make sure the feelings of others aren’t ruffled if we do some daily thing we have every right to do—to apologize for existing—subconsciously puts us in a subservient position. This habitual submissiveness is not only a hindrance to improvement in our Martial Arts training, but in an actual physical confrontation, it can be life threatening.

The Kiai
Once of my favorite moments in watching a young martial artist develop is when they finally find their kiai. A “kiai” is the loud shout martial artists make when executing a strike or receiving a blow. I’ve seen several ways to translate it, but it basically means “Spirited Yell.” There are several practical purposes to a kiai: it regulates your breathing in such a way that your strikes are more powerful and tightens your stomach so when you receive a blow you are less likely to be injured; it can startle or frighten your opponent; and it can call attention to your confrontation so others can help you. Most beginners, children and adults, are timid with their kiai initially. Fear of embarrassment generally keeps them from belting out a solid yell. Then slowly, after enough nudging from their instructor, they start delivering a perfunctory kiai—not really impressive, but enough to keep the teacher off their back. Then one day, they get it, they embrace the kiai. No more the dutiful half-hearted shout, but a full, powerful gut-wrenching yell comes out of them. This is a turning point. Their skills are always different—better—after this. They have found their kiai.

It has been my observation that ‘finding their kiai’ can sometimes take longer for young girls, especially those who have been taught to be apologetic about being loud. These same girls struggle with sparring in particular, because sparring requires a kind of aggressiveness they have not yet embraced. When they find their kiai, they are entirely transformed—because it’s not just about the shouting. I can’t speak for others, but for me, the kiai is an unapologetic affirmation of my right to exist, unmolested; to take up physical, emotional, and intellectual space in the world; and to use my voice in any way—loud or soft—I deem fit. It lies outside the realm of apology; it is a repeated mantra of power. It makes the strikes I give stronger, it fortifies my body to allow me to survive attacks. Sparring is still a challenge for me, but I like to think of sparring as claiming not only my own space, but taking yours, because by claiming more space, I not only protect myself, I force you to respect my physical presence. I exist, I claim space, I kiai.

And I’m not apologizing.

Wins

Winning feels amazing. Speaking as someone who doesn’t win often, winning makes me want to do my happy dance and shout from the rooftops. American culture loves winners—we have no patience for second place. But there are all kinds of ‘wins’ in life that go unrecognized, and some winners who, frankly, aren’t really winners at all.

This past Saturday I competed at the Bryan Hawkins Kenpo Karate Invitational Tournament in Granada Hills. I won some, lost some, cheered my friends, explained the formalities to newbies, offered advice when requested, commiserated when things didn’t go our way, contributed to the fundraiser—about the only thing I didn’t do was chow down on the yummy hot dogs they were selling.

In short, I had a blast.

The tournament is about competition, but it is also about camaraderie, community and sportsmanship—something we see too infrequently in professional sports. I met some lovely people from other schools, often while we were competing against each other. One incident stuck out, however, mostly because it was such an anomaly.

As I was warming up, I overheard a young man, maybe 18 or 20, coaching a little 7-year-old student. The young man was a black belt from another school I was not familiar with. “You’re doing it wrong. Do it again. No, it’s still wrong. Again.” His tone was angry, harsh and full of contempt. The little boy executed an imperfect spinning kick, and was rewarded with, “That’s not good enough. Do it better.”

I moved away from this pair and looked around to see other black belts gently coaching their youngest students, smiling and nodding, giving firm but kind final advice. I saw teams of young people working together to make sure they were in sync. I saw mothers and fathers checking uniforms, tying belts and whispering encouragement.

Later, I saw the young black belt in competition. His kata was beautiful, his weapons form impressive. But I couldn’t forget his interaction with the young boy earlier. I’m certain the black belt placed well in competition. And though he performed flawlessly, he blew the most important moment of the day—beyond the trophies, beyond the amazing execution of physical skill, he failed his young student.

Rei

Karate beings and ends with rei. Rei means respect. It is one of the Seven Virtues of Bushido. It is why we bow at the start and end of every class, every sparring match and every round of competition. It permeates the culture of a healthy dojo. It is the antithesis to contempt. Respect is both given freely and is earned. Respect can only be two-way; students respect the knowledge and character of their teachers and good teachers respect the dignity and efforts of their students. When “respect” is demanded without being returned, all a student can give is fear.

The masters of many different martial arts know that the purpose of training was never simply to be the best fighter. Hollywood may try to convince us how cool it is to have to the best fighters, but the purpose of the martial arts has always been the improvement of one’s character—to be the best human being one can be. By challenging ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually, by learning to accept loss with dignity and victory with grace, by learning patience and trust, by forgiving others for their mistakes and by becoming part of a community of people on different legs of a similar journey—all this and more is part of the perfection of one’s character.

When competition makes us forget our purpose, the art is lost. We become part of a martial sport—much like the UFC—focused on winning first place and demolishing our opponents. I take no issue with martial sports for adults, but they hold only a limited interest for me, and have no place in the way we teach our children.

The culture of a dojo comes from the top. The character of the grandmaster, chief instructor or school owner shines like a beacon to their students. Every student, but especially black belts, is a reflection of the ethos set by their leader. When the ethos changes from becoming better people to winning at all costs, there is no winning to be had at all.

I saw plenty of true ‘wins’ at Saturday’s tournament that had nothing to do with trophies. I saw kids (and even a few adults) who fell on their butts jump up, dust themselves off and keep going. I saw moms and dads teaching their children who didn’t place how to accept defeat without letting it define their self-image. I saw first-time competitors pledging to come back next year, filled with new ideas about how to train. I saw young girls put on their pink (gah!) sparring gear and take on the boys—and the boys being totally ok with that. I saw an entire community rise to their feet to honor and applaud a martial artist, who, having given a lifetime to his students, was now facing medical difficulties. I saw my teacher turn part of the day’s profits to assistance for his colleague and friend.

Winning feels amazing.

Fight like a Girl

I took my first martial arts class in 1999. Since then I have earned black belts in two different styles, and am currently studying Kenpo Karate.  In my previous style, I was fortunate to have taught kids for almost seven years, and I am sure I gained more wisdom from my students than I ever imparted to them.  While teaching I noticed (to my delight) that a good half my students were girls.  As children, the girls were absolutely physically equal to the boys, and, to be frank, their ability to focus often made them better students.  I have great hope for future generations.
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