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Posts tagged ‘kenpo’

It’s the Journey

This March, in 2019, marks 20 years since I first stepped onto a dojo mat as a student.

My first thought upon making this realization is, “I really should be better at this by now.”  My second is, “Who the hell could’ve predicted that?”

To be fair to myself, I had a long way to go. Growing up I was one of the smallest kids in my class, never did any sports, and PE was pretty much a nightmare. I was terrified of the kickball. I never could serve a volleyball over the net and I still have physical scars from the basketball unit. After I hit the tennis ball over the fence and out of the court three times, my father gave up. Badminton was more my speed. I liked dance, but I didn’t have a dancer’s body nor the flexibility for dance or gymnastics, though I did learn to turn a mean cartwheel. Backbends were never going to happen for me.  Even my ‘movement for performance’ teacher in college didn’t think much of me as a mover.

But life takes us on strange and wonderful unexpected journeys when you stop worrying about what you are good at and just do what you like. I’ve studied three styles now and earned a black belt in each. I have stories I doubt I will repeat unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Each time I stopped training in a style, I swore I had no intention of starting again.  My current instructor told me once he recognized me right off the bat as a “Lifer,” so I’m pretty sure by now this is something I’m supposed to do, though to what end, I sometimes cannot fathom. I’ve never been, nor do I expect to be, any kind of national champion with a room full of trophies. I’ve known some of those folks and they are amazing martial artists, and I am nowhere in their league.

So, what have I learned in 20 years? I mean, aside from multiple ways to inflict bodily harm, what have I really learned?

I’ve learned to own my space. The space my body takes up, the space I need around me to feel safe. I’ve learned not to apologize for taking up space. To hold my space, advance and take my opponent’s space, control where I want my opponent to be to give me the greatest advantage. I’ve learned not to freeze when my space is invaded, how to turn that invasion to my advantage.

I’ve found my voice. Not just the one I always had, the one that can recite Shakespeare or sing a show tune, but my wild, ferocious voice. The one women aren’t supposed to use. The one that can initiate an attack like the roar of a lion or fortify my torso when taking a blow. The one that yodels out strange mysterious sounds as I practice, a cacophony of synchronized breath and movement, impromptu. Unplanned. Weird. Powerful.

I’ve learned to let go of perfection. Not the pursuit of it, but I’ve learned to let go of the crippling disappointment in myself when I can’t achieve it. Knowing I’m only in competition with the woman I was yesterday. Accepting the joy in improvement for improvement’s sake. Understanding it’s a journey, and every day is just an opportunity to get better.  

I’ve learned how to face fear – how to breathe through it, accept it, let it pass through me, let it become information, a passenger in the car but not the driver. Fear is a part of life, but like ambition, fear is a good servant but a bad master.

I’ve learned to take charge of my education, even if I have to annoy people to do that. I’ve learned to be ok with the possibility that I might be annoying. To ask people to show me things, not to assume they will get to it, eventually, one day.  To ask them to repeat it, until I can see it, understand, replicate. And I’ve learned how I learn, how I need movements to have names, how I need to write them down, how I need to organize my thoughts. And that my way of learning is unique to me, and others may learn differently.

I’ve discovered that a black belt is only as meaningful as the work you’ve put into it. There are so many differences between styles, schools, and the requirements for a black belt, that your black belt is really only truly meaningful to others within your martial arts community, as they are the ones who really understand what you put into it.

I’ve learned the highest ambition in martial arts isn’t really to be the best fighter (despite what Hollywood likes to tell us). If that were the case, we’d all have to be demoted after age 40 as Time does his wicked routine on our speed, strength, joints, and stamina. (Although, I have seen a diminutive 80-something-year-old grandmaster drop a young buck to the floor with a single touch – it’s creepy as all get out).  No, the highest goal in martial arts is to become a teacher, able to pass on what you’ve learned, help others making the same journey.

Which of course brings us to the question: what is the goal of the journey? What is it we pass on? The great masters knew, have always known. Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, said:

“Through physical discipline, mental and spiritual discipline becomes the most important aspect of the martial arts.”  

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, said:

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”

Spiritual discipline. Perfection of the character. That’s the true north.

And it’s only taken me 20 years to figure that out.

The Other Door

Not too long ago, a yoga studio opened up next door to the martial arts studio where I train.  The two businesses share a parking lot in the back, and both have a rear entrance, along a narrow path about five feet below the level of the parking lot.  One day, I parked and headed in, dressed in gi pants and tank top, karate bag stuffed with sparring gear and weapons over my shoulder.  Another woman approximately my age was just ahead of me and as she got to the yoga door, she smiled and very courteously held it open for me.

She was also blocking my way.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m going in the other door.”

Going in the other door is not always easy, and you don’t usually like to let people know about them.

Those hard days can catch you by surprise.

You go in thinking, I’ve got this, just another class. You’re aware that others might look to you to be a role model, whether you want to be or not, because there are not many of you, so you feel you have to represent well for everyone else, but some days… some days class gets going and suddenly you feel too small, too weak, too unprepared, and you are bruised and dazed and trying to keep your head together and too much is coming at you too fast, and everyone means well and that almost makes it worse because you are struggling, and you’re mad because you are struggling, because you are not PERFECT, because you practiced and practiced but not enough, it’s never enough, and not the right way, and why didn’t you practice harder, and there are too many voices there trying to help and you can’t think, and now you are bruised again but don’t say anything, don’t let them see it might be too much because you want to keep up, you will keep up, you can’t let anyone know it hurts, everyone else takes it, and you can be tough too, so you bear down and take it, but your eyes are stinging and OH NO don’t let them see you cry, but you are not really crying it’s just your body responding, but they won’t know that and OH SHIT that was too fast, I wasn’t ready and FOCUS and now your face is even more flushed, and GOD why is this guy such a jerk, no, he’s only trying to help, but he isn’t helping, and does he think scaring me is going to help, and maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I should be going in the yoga door, where people like me are supposed to be, where it’s all ‘you’re perfect just as you are’ and ‘be here now’ and ‘breathe’ and ‘namaste’ and I’m bored out of my skull but not this not falling apart, not this failure, and after class you stay in the dressing room by yourself, because of course there’s only you in there and you wait for your face to stop being so flushed and the tears to stop and you want to howl in frustration, but you are frustrated at yourself because what are you doing, what are you thinking, maybe you shouldn’t have spent so many childhood years playing fairy princess prancing about until the day in the bramble bush when you realized price charming wasn’t going to save you, wasn’t ever going to save you, and even if he did, do you really want that, do you really want to be saved, that’s so humiliating, so you start that day saving yourself, over and over you save yourself, and you go from fairy princess to warrior, but you still kind of suck at it because swords are heavy, and so you try to get stronger, you build your muscles and what comes easy to them has to be worked for by you, and you get up on the bar and you pull yourself a little higher each day, just a little bit, some days the improvement’s barely noticeable, but you still try because what else is there, and you try to remember the days when you felt like you were flying, when it all seems to flow… and back in the dressing room you finally feel your face is not longer flushed and your eyes aren’t red anymore and you pack up your bag and head out the door and make a new plan to practice harder, smarter, because you CHOSE the other door, you chose something hard and maybe it will take longer than you thought and maybe you won’t ever be as good as you want, but you know that even if this is not where you are expected to be, this is exactly where you are supposed to be.

And you come back next class, back through the other door, and do it all again.


P.S. While I don’t practice yoga on a regular basis, I have tremendous respect for it, and for its practitioners. It’s just not the thing I need. 



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.


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.


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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