Thursday, June 5, 2014

Looking Back and a Little Forward (Karate-Related)

I'm not exactly bragging or complaining here, I was just shocked when I started running the numbers through my head this morning on my way to work of just how long (or short rather) I've been doing Karate and how quickly I advanced during that time.

I mean I was always aware of my start and end points but I never really set the two dates side by side and truly looked at them.

Here's how things lay out:

I started taking Karate in November(-ish) of 2009.
Nothing overwhelming about that: it's four and half years ago

However, I left class in June of 2011.
That means I was only taking classes for a year and a half.  In that time I had jumped up four tested ranks.  (There's a handful of ranks before that but you don't need to formally test for them.)  In fact I received the three stripes on my white belt rather unintentionally: after class one night I asked one of the instructors what one had to do to get the stripes.

"Well," he said.  "Get in a front stance."
So I did.
"Step forward and throw a stomach punch."
No problem.  Took three steps with three stomach punches and then he had me turn around and do some natural blocks; again taking three steps.  Next he asked to see a few groin kicks and then he had me do the first Kata.  And voila, I had three black stripes!  I hadn't even fully realized that that had been the "test".

I didn't have to wait long for my first formal test however.  I got the yellow stripe on my white belt in mid-December.
My yellow belt was achieved three months later and I got the green stripe on my yellow belt three month after that - right before the school year ended.

I was in no hurry for my next rank though.  In fact looking back I don't remember what drove me to work so hard to get my green belt (because I did work very hard for it over the course of a couple months).  I'm not sure if I was out and out invited to test since I'd had my present rank going on a full year, or if I knew I was leaving and wanted the next rank before saying goodbye to Karate for an indeterminate amount of time.

You see, I had started training for a marathon just a few months prior and I felt it'd be too much doing running and Karate at the same time.  I was also taking belly dance classes in parallel to Karate and had hit a point where I needed to choose between the two.  I chose belly dance.  Plus (to be honest), Karate just wasn't fun anymore.

So I took the test and was awarded my green belt in June of 2011.
Then I left Karate cold turkey.
I was content.  I'd made it as far as I felt I could get in a hard-style martial art.  More technique and "aggression" would be required in the higher ranks and I felt I lacked the mettle required to advance further.

So I ran my marathon in August of 2012.
I quit my job at the sign company.
Got a job as an in-home caregiver, then a job at a printing company.  (The caregiver job only lasted nine months; ending when the client passed away due to his illness).
I attended two births as a doula.
I got engaged.

In other words, a lot happened in the intervening years.  I did a lot of growing.

Then something changed: at the start of the 2013/2014 school year I was informed that an instructor I hadn't particularly clicked with had retired and the little gears started whirring.  I wasn't exactly sure if I wanted to go back, but I was curious.  Of course I couldn't just dive right back in anyway - I was working the evening shift at that point which had miserably destroyed my social life and extra curricular activities; so more waiting happened.

I wasn't able to return to class until March of this year.  At this point I'd been gone for two years, nine moths (or three months shy of three years as I prefer to think of it).

I'd really assumed I'd be demoted a rank or two because I'd been gone for so long, but Sensei kept me where I was and I was expected to keep up despite the fact that I hadn't touched this stuff in all that time.  Still, I was surprised at how quickly it all came back.  Yes, the first class or two were a little rough and I was pretty sore for the first few weeks coming back, but a spark had been reignited. 

I was having fun again!

Not only that but it seemed as though some things had soaked in during my absence.  I was throwing punches with some power behind them now.  My front stances were firmer and more grounded.  I was having an easier time keeping the Kata's straight.

I also realized that what was needed for the higher ranks wasn't "aggression" per say but a confidence of technique and skill.  That concept was far less scary to me than the idea of being ready, willing and eager to rip someone's head off.

Sensei must have seen this shift too because it wasn't long after my return that he asked when I would be testing for my brown belt.

That took me aback because as far as class-time went I'd only had my green belt for a month and a half at most.  There were people who stayed with the their green belt for years. 

I told him I'd need to think about it. I then went into a frenzied panic to anyone who would listen.  Slowly though I was convinced that maybe, just maybe I could make this work.

And work I did.  In preparing for my green belt I was only going to class sporadically and taking private lessons to make up the difference.  This test however I threw myself into heart and soul.  I went to EVERY class - showing up early, staying late AND taking private lessons whenever I could squeeze them in.

The results were a test where the performance was very lacking in technique (I haven't been at it enough yet for the muscle memory to soak in), but any black belt would have been proud of my determination and perseverance.  I was winded probably ten minutes into the test (it's about about a half hour, 45 minutes long), but I never once asked for a break.  I didn't cringe when the next section was announced.  Yes, I was about ready to cry when the Five-Man Circle section came up, but I pulled through (messy techniques and all).  I hit the wall during the two minutes of sparring at the very end and actually whispered to Sensei in the last 15 or so seconds, begging him to fight back because he wouldn't hit me (I found out later that he was concerned I'd collapse if he did so). 

Problem was I'd given all I had, I needed more incentive to keep going.  So he half-heartedly cuffed me upside the head once or twice, I threw in a couple more desparate, flat-footed kicks and punches and finally we were done.  Test was over.

Oh I thought I was going to be sick!
In fact I actually was quite ill for several hours after the test (my body doesn't bounce back well from being over-taxed).  About 1:30 in the morning though I was finally able to eat and drink properly and I felt significantly better after that.

Nope, my third degree brown belt test wasn't pretty (no third degree brown belt test is!); but it's not meant to be pretty.  It's meant to push you to your limits of physical endurance and then push a little harder and see how you react.  In that sense I passed with flying colors.

So now I have my brown belt. 
I've joined the ranks of "Junior Instructors". 
I'm someone the lower ranks look up to.

However, I have a lot of "growing into the rank" to do.  Most of my techniques are going to have to be deconstructed and rebuilt, but I knew that going in.  I'm no virtuoso, I just have good pattern recognition skills and pick up on the general gist of physical movements quickly (very handy in dance too!). 

The next test (yes, I'm already thinking about the next one!) is all technique.  I have a whole summer ahead of me to build up my endurance and improve my strength and flexibility.  Being unwilling to quit isn't going to win my next rank.  I now need skill and finesse.  The next test needs to be pretty.  In my opinion that's going to be far harder than what I've just been through!

Fortunately there's no particular hurry. (Of course I thought that with every rank I've had!)
Still, wish me luck; I'll need it!

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