Kimo Wall´s Dojo: White Belt Redux

It was in 1980 when my ¨friend¨told me that Kimo Wall had set up a dojo in Old San Juan, the historic zone of the city by the bay, and very close to where I had begun working as a legal translator in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. I had been out of a fornal dojo for almost 4 years. I knew Kimo was the first teacher of my previous senseis and almost a legendary figure in karate circles on the Island. What I did not know was that he had split from the Shoreikan organization, setting up his own school: Kodokan. And all the time I practiced with him it never occurred to me to ask why all the subtle changes, it was all Goju to me. In retrospect I see why, it was basically a Shoreikan syllabus with a slightly different take. The most important and dramatic change was the sensei himself, Kimo was a whole new ballgame, he was truly the first real sensei I practiced under, and the difference was telling.

Kimo had set up his dojo on the upper floor of a newly opened bar-restaurant called La Violeta on the corner of Cristo Street and Fortaleza. It was an old colonial building with red terrazzo floors, a stone´s throw away from the Governor´s mansion. He lived there as well. The dojo occupied half of an open courtyard, with the practice area in a huge room overlooking Fortaleza street. I remembered going to lunch on the first floor of the building with my father in my early teens in the 60´s when it was still a worker´s bodega called La Danza.

I took off early from work one day for the dojo, hoping to talk with the sensei about joining. I scrounged the house for my Dirty Old Gi, tried to clean it as best I could, and took both my white and green belt to accomodate both my enthusiasm and my fear.

I got there an hour and a half before the scheduled class but the dojo was empty. I let out a timid onegaishimasu, and waited...and waited. Finally students began to arrive, I knew nobody. Suddenly Kimo appeared and smiled my way, asking if I came to practice. I froze and just nodded. That decided the issue. When I finished dressing I took out the white belt and swallowed deeply. Of course, when by habit I yelled out onegaishimasu as customary, Kimo shot me a glance, piercing and knowing. He strode over. White belt redux.


Interlude II: The 10 Terrazzo Tile Dojo

During that convalescence things happened. My sister (also black belt) leaves dojo complaining about how she is treated. Other black belts experience same and follow suit. I was suspected of masterminding with others mass exodus of senior belts. Eventually everything is cleared up, except for bad taste in the mouth. In any case, other personal situations nix any return to dojo. Nevertheless, dojo honors my membership, rank, etc., and allows me to practice elsewhere and I am welcome to return anytime. I shop around to no avail and find that the elsewhere is me.

I formally retire from the Classic Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Dojo and set up the "Ten Terrazzo Tile Dojo" in the humble and tiny confines of my living room. That is where I'm at now. I still keep contact with my last Sensei, Jaime Acosta, and have good relations all around with former brother karatecas. But I fly solo now.

Is this a legitimate vantage point from whence I may opine? I think so. Surprisingly enough, the confines of my karate experience has not limited my growth and appreciation for all that is outside Goju. I've learned that there are basic principles of movement and intent that underlie all manifestations of the martial arts whatever their country or province of origin.

My katas is all I know. The training that brought me to this point is all I know. I have no problem with invention, fusion, reconceptualization of kata or martial arts training in general. There are many roads to the same place. The important thing is walking the path, trusting what you do even if a lot of it remains somewhat a mystery. Some things must always remain so.

But I also believe that the martial arts, in my case karate, aspire to so much more. I also believe that a dojo or any place where people gather to practice should aspire to train the mind and spirit. I also believe that kata is a ritual with its inner laws and dynamics that touch many facets of the self, and where fighting and self defense are at best the least important manifestations.

I also believe that karate should be open to anyone, not just the elite practitioner. And this brings me to dojo class structure. It should be for the most with the least, not the least with the most. I believe a good curriculum with stages provides the best scenario for karate to be inclusive and not exclusive.

Yes. I've seen structured dojos with bad sensei and unstructured ones with good sensei. I've seen dojos with colorful gis and bermuda & t-shirt dojos. I've seen people practice as if they were square dancing and others where people are dying to tear you apart. What I look for is kime, and this can reside in the saddest 4o year old slob giving it his all. Snarky adrenaline is often mistaken for kime. In other words, karate is mistaken for winning and if you lose whatever it is you're doing is crap.

I beg to differ.


Interlude I: Comments on the Fly

Recent blog entries and exchanges by and with Dan Djurdjevic and ZENHG have led me to this interlude from my "karate memoir." They, and others too, have become an important facet of these recollections because through their comments and blogs they have provided me with more insight into just what my karate sojourn really was and is; the points and experiences in common and the different outlooks too. Most of us began in traditional dojos and from there we have embarked on intertwining but distinguishable threads. The breadth and depth of their knowledge of karate and other martial arts far exceeds mine.

Beyond my particular branch of Goju, I had very little experience with other martial arts, and even my knowledge of Goju was very circumscribed to my particular and limited dojo experience. The few magazines available on the Island were long on yarn and short on substance and it wasn't until the advent of the internet, and especially YouTube, that I became fully aware of the enormous variety even within my style. So I am still constantly amazed with all that I do not know. There is also the fact that I have ever only practiced karate in Puerto Rico and so my contact with other styles and approaches was very happenstance. My only formal departure from Goju was a year and a half in Tai Chi Chen taught by a former Goju black belt. The way my dojo was structured I was able to learn the complete syllabus up to suparimpei while still a shodan. Ranking beyond shodan was dependent on other criteria, particularly mastery of kobudo and stints with the main school in New York or elsewhere. I never liked kobudo and shunned it. So nidan I became out of sheer inertia. Katas beyond the syllabus was by invitation only and that realm of the heavens I never reached. But that was fine by me; I had enough on my hands as it was. Relegated to teaching kid classes for beginners, and the odd Saturday free-for alls, as penance proved to be a blessing in disguise. Forced to teach I learned by necessity how to extract the karate from a white belt's good intentions. I was forced to focus on their every move and thus became aware of my every move. It is true what they say that if you can't teach it , you don't know it. But put in a time frame, I was past fifty by then. It is hard. Doing full classes, and I mean on the floor, with green and brown belts 20 or 30 year my junior was getting to be a bit masochistic. I proposed a separate class for senior (in age) black belts and was laughed out the dojo floor ("whose says I'm old?"). Finally two injuries to my groin and a fall that collapsed my chest like an accordion convinced me that my dojo days were over.

I was granted an extended leave of absence.

(will continue...)


Dojo Gaijin

Once you're an outsider there is very little you can do about it. It took me 30 years to finally realize, and accept, a truth that I should have realized long ago when, maybe (big maybe), something could have been done about it. A dojo is a place, especially if crowded, where someone can practicaly disappear. By this I mean: who you are. In a dojo you're a karateca. They take your first name, tag a "san" after it, and that is what you are, plus rank, of course. While there, you don't talk about movies, your likes and dislikes, where you're from, etc.; you do kata or bunkai, you do what they ask. Very liberating, really. You're judged and known by your karate. Really? Of course not. But you can get by on this alone. They can't throw you out if you do your kata. Only if you maim or rape someone. Really? Of course not. You can be ostracized or literally thrown out because they just don't jive with you. I've seen it done. Or you can be a regular Joe Blow Outsider, nice enough to tolerate, but not to party. That was and is me.
So when I left Ochoa, nobody came to convince me otherwise. I was never part of the "After Dojo scene." Now that is a pretty lonely place to be, karate wise. I never experienced a sensei to student ratio of less than 30 to 1. So although I talk of my teachers with fondness, closeness was not a factor in the relationship, it was from afar with binoculars. Thus, humility came easy, there was no place else to go. I was easy with it too. I was an army brat, changed neighborhoods like socks, grew up all over the place, met a lot of people, but just got to know a very precious few, and even then. But I was game and there was someone willing to vouch for at least my commitment and through that one friend, the same who got me into Goju, I met Jaime Acosta, my future sensei 20 years hence, who then practiced Isshin Ryu but had started with Kimo Wall in Goju.
Things didn't exactly work out with Jaime. There was a lot of free fighting in his dojo and a lot of "types" for which I was the Puerto Rican equivalent of a Gajin. But he did let me practice alone, or with my friend, and in time that contact would be crucial.
In time, karate took a second, or maybe third or fourth, place in my life as my work then demanded long hours. Long hours where I also drank and fucked around. But even then karate lurked somewhere inside me, letting itself be seen in street scraps and the realization that I had become somewhat stronger inside. It was all part of what I didn't know I knew. The Goju that remained in me notwithstanding all the abuse I subjected myself to proved vital. When that same friend, four years after I left Ochoa, told me that Kimo Wall was in Puerto Rico and had set up a dojo, with Jaime Acosta as senior sempai, I jumped at the chance.


Outside the Dojo, Outside the Box

I left the Ochoa Dojo under a cloud of misgivings. Looking back I find it hard to pinpoint one or two good reasons for that decision. Toward the end I was in that limbo that comes from graduating from the university and having no viable alternatives. My then wife graduated and was working full time, which afforded me some leeway which I took to finish and publish my first book of poems. On the other hand, the Dojo, after riding the crest of the martial arts craze of the 70's, was falling into hard times. The sensei, a lot like me, were also at personal and professional crossroads in their lives. We were all very young, too young, methinks. Other issues were rising to the fore in the Dojo which I had no knowledge of then but that eventually would split the former Shoreikan Dojo into two opposing Goju schools; one group aligned with Kimo Wall in Kodokan, the other aligned with Kow Loon Ong in Chi-I-Do. Those caught in the middle got lost to time, drifted off to other schools, or came back into one or the other fold when the dust settled. But in the meantime, the Ochoa Dojo became the unfortunate battleground for opposing views of all sorts, political and personal. In this disheartening scenario, I learned I was to be a father and so I had other things on my mind, not the least of them was getting a job. I had been part-timing as a house painter, but with my new job at an Ad agency all thoughts of returning got complicated, there was no Ochoa Dojo when I tried to get back two years later. Eventually, two of the sensei went to the United States to study Quiropractics, and the third, Tony Sensei began touring with a latin jazz group as a conga player (Yes, the congas). After graduating Gusi Sensei remained stateside and, I believe, ran a small dojo, not formally attached with any given school. Efraín returned and set up a private practice as quiropractor and definitely left karate forever. Tony in time went into business setting up stage and sound systems, and finally a party rentals and supply company. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Just what did I do in those years outside the Dojo in terms of karate?

At first it was a relief to be away from those grueling two-hours, three to four times a week. I'd been at it for 4 years. I was a green belt, brown point, and knew all of one classic kata, Saifa. The only good point in my favor , karate wise, was that you could punch and kick me bonkers and I would survive. The training was that hard. But little else. The truth is, I missed the dojo and tried to keep up my individual practice drills, but it was hard, techniques started slipping from my memmory, kumites with invisible opponents were at best a form of kata. Seen from the present I see that although I had years in Goju much of what I learned was fading like a summer suntan in winter. When I relented and tried to get back there was no dojo, it had morphed into other locales that proved too far away to reach if not by car which I've never had. But truth be told again, I didn't try hard enough. I had always been outside the dojo inner circle and had no personal contacts with those chosen few. I took to practicing with whoever let me, my style or otherwise, and took the tour of the local dojos and it was out of this bleak sojourn that I learned a few truths about my Goju versus other styles. It was a haphazard path I chose taking my clumsy green belt Goju out to the street. I had to step out of my school and style to really appreciate what little I had learned. It was another humbling experience that would eventually prepare me to return to the fold, this time with Kimo Wall.


Ochoa Recap 4: Gone is the Goju of Yesteryear?

To equate the social and cultural realities of a dojo today with those of a sensei's garden dojo in the late 19th Century is absurd. And yet from these small, mud-packed gardens came what we today call Okinawa Karate, in all its myriad styles and variations. Does the present syllabus faithfully reflect the old Naha-te and Shuri-te forms from which they sprung? What are the ultimate origins? To whom do we owe the katas we practice today? Do the many kata variations and the different style katas signify that there is no airtight tradition? And, if this is so, can we vary the katas we know or invent new ones entirely? In short, what is tradition?

All these questions in the 1970's in the Ochoa Dojo really were irrelevant. There was no martial arts scholar in our midst to shed light on these and other sundry matters. An American guy talked to an Okinawan guy who sent a Japanese guy to teach Puerto Ricans the Shoreikan style of Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Do. Did we know we were being taught a particular syllabus distinct from others? Yes, but Goju was what we learned.

Nuances and sublteties of stance, whether one knuckle or two, overhead or from the shoulder, slide or simple step, kiai here or there, etcetera, varied for me from teacher to teacher within Goju. So what traditions we learned were from the dojo. The dojo was, I guess, our tradition. Ochoa, in particular, was mine. In the photo to the right I recognize the shiko dachi stance, little else. And yet the look and attitude are recognizable in my tradition. But the little details in the stance, the hook of his wrist, the placement of his feet betrays another Okinawan style. No still-shot of a shoreikan kata would reveal this moment. The words are all there in a different order, although it is a sentence in the same language.

Toguchi was in all my teachers, all up and down the scale whether they migrated to other styles or set up their own. In this historic photo all my schools are represented: Toguchi's (center) Shoreikan, Kimo Wall's (to the right of Toguchi) Kodokan, and Kow Loon Ong's (standing to the left of Toguchi) Chi-I-Do. And all these sensei passed through Ochoa, physically and spiritually. I've always been one man away from Toguchi and we all know who he was one man away from. So tradition is a funny thing with regards to Ochoa, we were steeped in it without even knowing. But I think that regardless of the lack of hard knowledge about the dojo's heritage and lineage from a historical perspective, one sensed a belonging that was somehow transmitted to all of us at Ochoa.

Ochoa for all who were there was our little Okinawan village, living now only in our memories that erases all its shortcomings. All of us have migrated from Ochoa years ago and generations of black belts have trained in other dojos. The Ochoa "clan" is now in its late fifties to early 60's, a lifetime. These are the hard facts. When I read how many are so flippantly ready to vary their styles I wonder about their allegiances, what brought them to contemplate the possibility of changing the very core of what made them, whatever style that might be. I guess there are very good reasons to do so, only I find it impossible in my case.

I've been in the village too long and now that I lost it my Goju katas are all I have.


Ochoa Recap 3: Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Karate in P.R. in the 70's

The Shoreikan school in the Ochoa Dojo was probably the first traditional karate dojo on the Island. But since most, if not all, people wouldn't know the first thing about karate or martial arts in general, when they walk into a dojo they are primarily looking for something they saw on TV or the movies, a finished product. The preparation that might go into achieving that is basically beyond their grasp. So they saunter in looking for: (a) "inner peace;" (b) to get in shape; (c) beat the fu**ng shit out of everybody; (d) find out what's the buzz.
Membership in all karate school skyrocketed in the'70's. It was just the thing to do at the time. It dawned on people after a while in Ochoa that peace wasn't coming any time soon, they could get in shape much less frantically at the gym, and there were lots of kids running around with nunchakus for which the basic kata was "useless."

Then came Bruce Lee, the effortless flying kick, and everybody was "kung-fu fighting." He made it look so easy, and plus, the clothes were that much neater. And the nunchakus on the second day of training, well, who can beat that.

The Ochoa Dojo took a flying kick to the chin. Every Viet nam vet grew a fu manchu moustache and got into the act, nailing a board above their garages announcing some exotic martial art with a "wu."

Trying to stop it was like beating back the waves with a Bo. The Ochoa Dojo with its no competition policy, its slow progress through kihon katas, was just not the "in" place to be. The problem was that the term "traditional" was never used. People were never told why things were as they were in the dojo. Why the sweat, why the conditioning, why no nunchakus, why the basics. In fact, I don't thing the sensei knew they were in a traditional school. They expected everyone to be as commited as they were for no apparent reason. I knew nothing of Goju Ryu, Shoreikan, Miyaji, Toguchi, etc., because, I fear, they knew little themselves. They failed to transmit the importance of our lineage and the philosophy that came atached.

Serious Karate in Puerto Rico in the 1970's fell prey to the quick fix schools that promised superhuman powers in ten easy lessons. I don't think that Bruce Lee actually wanted martial arts to be viewed as a craze, but his swaggering through the media, his continuous put-downs, and constant playing to the crowds, took its toll. Ironically, who was probably the most versatile, complete, and gifted martial artist of his time, was also the person who most contributed to trivializing the art. His death only added to the myth. Maybe he got caught up in his own hype...or maybe it was something he could not control. Nevertheless, Bruce Lee became the prototype, the model of the martial artist everyone secretly wanted to be. But this isn't karate, it never has been karate.

So the Ochoa Dojo thinned out. Tae Kwon Do came into the scene, with its family bonus packages, a free gi with the registration fee, tournaments where everybody wins a prize, two or three katas to learn. Aikido promised seamless self-defense, sweat-free, also family packages, martial arts for the whole family. The Shaolin Arts provided more colorful costumes, with particular care taken to achieve the kung fu stare. Then came the thousand variations of the Okinawan styles, with a few extra syllables thrown in to distinguish one from the other, their lineages lost to time in either the South Bronx or jungles of New Jersey.

Ochoa's fate was in the balance, shakily so.


Ochoa Recap 2: White Belt Rabble

A person walks for the first time onto the dojo floor, does a split, contort themselves into living pretzels and other yoga impossibilities, and half way through the torture exercise routine seems as fresh as a daisy. The person fully grasps everything that is taught immediately and is well into the the third kata of the syllabus within a month's time. In short, a sensei's dream come true. Does this person exist? Yes, I've seen a few, but just a few, kids mainly. But this is not your typical whitebelt. Yet these stereotypes of perfection pervade the psyche of martial artist the world over. They pine for the simpler times of the past when the dark secrets of the Orient were shared only with the carefully chosen few, of which, of course, they are a part. They load up their sparse martial art family tree with pride, and the more oriental sounding names there are the better. They muse on this as they open their dojo somewhere downtown after clipping publicity flyers for their classes on all the lampposts enroute. But alas, the bills must be paid and some left over for R&R. So, please God (or hovering presence) send me some students, of any sort, and let the white belt rabble come stampeding to my dojo door.

The Ochoa Dojo in the 1970's was brimming with students, every inch of the floor was taken by the white belt rabble of the time, the coffers were full, life was good, but oh those white belts, they sure are a sorry lot. I trained during this time and it worked, with all its ups and downs. We came in all sizes, shapes, and attitudes; old, young, pretty and ugly, short, tall, graceful and clumsy. Now they don't come in any size, shape or form, they simply don't come. As they say, be careful what you wish for, it might come true: empty dojo, the chosen few, gray-haired and musky...and bitter. The modern dojo is not your clannish hamlet, all of one mind. It is much more complex. The Ochoa Dojo did not comprehend this complexity and applied the slash and burn of traditional karate, but just one problem, the people were free to go, and they did. Those like me who braved it out did so out of a personal commitment, not because a sensei motivated us, and plus, we paid our monthly dues, they could not kick us out. As plain as that. There were not many distractions in 19th century Okinawa. In the 1970's there were a bit more, and now they are tenfold. What's to keep a boy down in the dojo once he's seen MMA.
The elitist approach to martial arts nowadays is, at best, a well documented rationale of sour grapes. A failed attempt, at first, to keep the hordes outside the castle, and then to keep them in. Karate, like any human endeavour, is vulnerable to the push and pull of the marketplace, it must compete in the real world and not the construct of wet dreams.


Ochoa Recap 1: The Gallisá Bros., The Eternal Brown Belts

[The "Ochoa" years were the genesis of my 30 year trek in Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate but definitely not the most decisive in my evolution as a karate practitioner. But I wanted to establish this initial building block because of the almost "mythical" stature the Ochoa Dojo attained for those who lived that time, becoming a reference point for all kinds of distinctions in the future for the black belts who date from this time, akin to saying I went to Woodstock or had been in Viet Nam. The Ochoa Dojo existed before I got there and for quite a while after I left. My awareness and knowledge at the time were pretty dim, so maybe I missed something in the translation. I can only make an educated guess at what went on there, by comparison to what I later experienced. Nonetheless, I will try in these recaps to be true to what I experienced as I experienced it, knowing full well that the truth could well have been beyond my grasp. One cannot deny one's origins, they are a measure of what one is. Like I might say I'm from Puerto Rico, I say to other karateca, I'm from Ochoa, it explains a lot of things, it is shorthand for the beginnings.]

The Gallisá Brothers, the eternal brown belts.

The Gallisá brothers were the most senior brown belts in the dojo. One was tall, bearded and zen like, the other was short, clean-shaven and hectic. Brothers in name only, and very young. They were senior brown belts when I came in and senior brown belts when I left. In the same span of time I made green, and as I would see later on in other schools guys would go from white to black. Years later when talking about this time, other black belts would confirm that that initial cadre of brown belts in the Ochoa Dojo were really black belts held back. In fact, I could count in one hand the black belts I trained with that were maybe as good as they were. I definitely am not nor ever was. The truth is they were held back. The reason? Many. Foremost I believe was the inexperience of the sensei in dealing with an expanding dojo membership that could imply an opening up of the initial Shinoda group. I also believe that the Shoreikan organization would want to have a say since they would be the first black belts graded by Puerto Rican sensei. Economics I suppose also played a role since then the dojo was a "good" business. It could also have been the Shoreikan crisis in New York where there was a split and everything was put on hold. All speculation because the sensei (Gusi, Tony, Efraín) said little about the internal politics of the dojo to anyone. Because in essence, I believe, they thought of themselves as the dojo and the rest of us were just there learning karate (or were we?). For example, I was a green belt and knew very little of what I was doing beyond the obvious. Of course, I was strong, could take a punch, do the Go of things, but Ju was only whispered in passing. Now I see that the dojo was a quasi-japanese affair of inner initiates, but then, of course, I didn't know enough to see it as a problem. They basically did not want to initiate anyone solely on merit, it was by invitation only. This is not to belittle all that I did learn, and it was a lot, but this clique mentality, however justified then or now, contradicts the open dojo scheme of western karate training. This conflict of purposes afflicted the dojo then as it afflicts many dojos now. There is no easy answer to this. But because of it, two very good karatecas got waylaid. Many years later I was told they left as the Ochoa Dojo passed from one organization to the other. I saw the tall one once selling fruit in a stand by the road, the other I recently heard had died. I've read a lot lately about the crisis in traditional karate schools like mine and some espouse, maybe honestly, that it should go back to that Miyagi invitation only time frame, but probably the person who says this would not have been "invited." He or she just probably walked into a dojo and asked to join. And if it were by invitation I wouldn't be here now writing this and musing on 30 years in Goju.


Ju-Ju Women

Ever since I started in karate I've been surrounded by women karateca, starting with my sister who began with me and who, incidentally, graded black belt with me many years later. They were treated as any white belt, the exception being that they stayed with their tops or halters on during Sanchin Kata. During the many ins and outs of my karate journey I've trained under senior woman senpai, so I had no excuse for being the fool I was and not learning the secrets of the karate that being women they had a natural access to until as I got older I had to let go of the Go and enter the Ju of things. Ego goes with being young as it goes with being stupid. There is a Golden Rooster Kata solely taught to black belt women in Goju Ryu. It does not appear in the syllabus. There is, as well, a knife kata practiced only by sandan women black belts. So why didn't I see the obvious? Macho karate blinded me, top-dog dojo dynamics held me back. Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I would never be as strong as most of the other guys no matter what I did and it was well into my "second" brown belt that I focused on my woman senpai, how they moved, deflected blows, and used their bodies and height to their advantage, keeping low shiko dachis and lateral, almost 90 degree moves into my attacks. I think about this now as I plan soon to get together with my sister to do katas under the shade of a tree close to her home.


A Master in our Midst

It was only years later that I truly knew who was just three feet away from me in the Ochoa Dojo. Seikichi Toguchi, founder of the Shoreikan school of Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karate Do, visited Puerto Rico in the mid to late 70's. Very short, even by Puerto Rican standards, dark complexion, and round like a basketball. I was told (never confirmed) that the sunflower seed-eating welcoming committee at the airport were stunned to zazen silence when they saw him alight Havana cigar in hand to greet them. Later that night (I was told) a scotch on the rocks was added to the props among the chosen few. They had mopped the floor with us a week before to razor sharp Sanchin state to avoid any dojo embarrassments from the white belt rabble. I even washed "my dirty old Gi" and backstitched a few errant tears, alas to no avail as I was told to hide in the back rows.

So one more reverence was added to the beginning of the class. I had never seen the senseis so uptight. Just in case, they ran a watered-down version of our normal exercise routine to keep us fresh for the katas. It was then that he jumped out of his zazen and walked around the class, effortlessly gliding around punches and kicks to correct a wrist here, straighten a back there, and with just a finger push back brown belts to test their balance. A young female brown belt caught his eye. She was as small as him. The girl had the lowest shiko dachi in captivity, enough to elicit an appreciative smile.

Then came the best part for us white belts: the humbling of the sensei. Master Toguchi sat on the floor in a half lotus as the black belts attacked him one by one. They became like dolls in his hands as he flipped one this way, another that way. I don't know how he did it, it all went by so fast. This was no staged show, for the first time in the dojo I saw Gusi sensei sweat.

It took me many years to fully grasp all I saw that day.

His calmness, deftness of touch, the girl brown belt, the sensei's dumbfoundness. This was a man who had practiced Goju practically all his life, it was his very skin. The girl, I suppose, was himself young. The sensei's fate, my fate; some things are fanthomless. I realize now that I could not "know" him then. NowI know, but cannot do. Recently I caught an old sensei of mine smoking. Why? I said nothing. I've become zen in my old age: I look and say nothing, marvelling at the twists and turns of life. I remember he did a basic kata and it looked classic. It was distilled through time, aged in amber.
But I did not know this then.

Now...maybe too late, I have an inkling, just that.


Green Belt...so what?

Just as I thought I reached a pinnacle of sorts, having braved my Sanchin Kime and earned my green, they raised the bar and lowered the boom. Just when I thought I had the Gekisai kata series down pat I was told that wasn't so..."too stiff, loosen up, get down in that shiko, got no balance in your niko, man, you gotta work that kata." Endless bunkai with browns and blacks..."don't tell me you're tired, don't look at me with those sad eyes, block, this isn't a dance, close your mouth, breathe through your nose and out your mouth, Morales, where the hell are you looking, focus." In other words and in the words of the George Shearing song: "Pick yourself up, take a deep breath, dust yourself off and start all over again." Because you're only as good as your last kata, there is no end to learning, no end to training, no end to slipping back, crawling forward, and doing it one more time again and again and again. Karate must be done in any state of mind: sad, happy, tired, revved up, whatever,whenever, however, until it is like breathing or walking...you just do it. Because what's the worst thing that could happen, rhetorically chimes in the Sensei, that you die? Well die with dignity and grace.
Green belt...so what?


Rites of Passage

One goes through a lot of changes from one's first day in a dojo to the day you take your Green Belt Test. In Goju it is the proverbial line traced in the folds of your mind, that if you passed this one you were half way there. Half way to where I still don't know, but it was a turning point in the dojo and it had me scared shitless. It came around my third year. The sensei read out the names of those who could apply for green belt. I declined the first two times, and let six months pass before I could even contemplate what I was in for. The reason? The dreaded Sanchin Shime test, the cornerstone of the ordeal, the very core kata of the style, the boggieman of all katas. No sanchin, no green belt, it was as simple as that. It wasn't the kata per se that had me mentally between a rock and a hard place, it was the shime testing. I'd seen many a candidate buckle up and fold when they felt that whack of palms on their shoulders and the dreaded kick up their wazoo. They finally told me I had to go test for the belt, no excuses. The several "dress rehearsals" I experienced only darkened my gloom. I felt I wasn't ready, that I would never be ready. Woe is me. And to add to the misery, my nemesis Sensei Tony Formaris had made it a point to be there as he grimaced in my direction and snapped a blow to my stomach that had me skipping two meals. No way out. I doubled my sit-ups routine, l did legs raises by the hundreds, practiced with my green belt buddy puching our abdomens and kicking our legs silly. And in between, all the katas, bunkais, and kumites of the syllabus up to that belt. We were ready, but we were not. The day finally came and my friend came to pick me up (the same friend that started in the dojo with me), just in case I thought of chickening out again. I felt like a lamb being taken to the slaughter. Shime testing in Sanchin was still then (erroneously) a grin and bear it situation, and I felt I could hardly grin and much less bear it. By the time the Sanchin test came along I was wasted: a full class, then the test with all the katas, bunkai and kumite with brown belts, and then finally we were told to go to zazen, strip our tops off, fold to the side, reverence...Sanchin Kata. I survived. I was in a daze all throughout, to tired to care if I passed or failed. It was Tony Sensei who handed me the green belt and smiled at me for the first time.
This video reminded me of that day...and many days after.


Kimo Wall : First Sighting

I first met Kimo Wall Sensei when he came to Puerto Rico to do a round of exhibitions at the local University. I was still a lowly white belt in the Ochoa Dojo and knew nothing of the internal politics waging in the Shoreikan School of Goju-Ryu that I was to know much later. It couldn't have made much difference, it was all karate to me then, and is still now. I was duly impressed, not only technically, but by his manner of being; I knew I was in the presence of a true teacher. Kimo is a very charasmatic guy, a little showy (a lot of sensei are) but sincere. All the sensei in the dojo had started with him although they made shodan with Shinoda. So for a week the dojo became a rehearsal studio for the exhibition. Katas were assigned to the different senior belts, groups katas assigned to green belts, and kids were given various routines. My sister was recruited to the female greens and had to learn a "dance kata" to music. I was not chosen for anything, which was all right by me since stage fright would have rendered me a zombie. I was proud that my sensei Gusi González was chosen to do a sanchin while Kimo broke slits of wood on various parts of his deceivingly skinny anatomy. The goal was to seek new members and in this it was a success. It all ended with Kimo and the black belts demonstrating various Kobudo katas which is something I had never seen. What I didn't know then was that Kimo was vying for the dojo since there seems to have been a break in the Shoreikan organization and Kimo was to go on and form the Kodokan school. I was to eventually train with Kimo although I was completely unaware that it was another school. In fact, I would also eventually study in Kow (Kayo)Loon Ong's Chi-I-Do, another who split from Toguchi over Tamano. Politics...politics. I learned great things from all my sensei, in that sense I was privileged. But Kimo was special, I guess he was my true sensei, although I trained with him the shortest time of all. A true sensei is more than a guy who teaches you karate, gives you a belt, or checks your sanchin. A true sensei invades your whole life, leaves an imprint in your soul.


In The Mix: When Different Styles and Martial Arts Clash in the Dojo

In those heady 1970’s, lots of people who had started in different karate styles and even different martial arts would waltz into the dojo to have a look-see at Goju. At the time I couldn’t tell a true martial artist from a wannabe. This was much before I had seen guys humbly shed the black belt of their style and don the white of ours and win our black belt honestly through their sweat and effort. I’m talking about people who had maybe six months to even two years in another karate style and instead of patiently learning our katas would regale us with their own half-forgotten Shotokan or Shito-Ryu, or want to grapple in a kumite as if still taking judo. These weren’t black belts trying to unlearn reflexes and habits etched in stone, but rather godforsaken white belts or yellow belts or orange belts defying the sensei at every opportunity. It was sad. You wondered what in Dojo Heaven they were really looking for. There would be guys in the dressing room whipping nunchakos in katas they invented watching old Chinese Kung Fu movies on TV. The “tameness” of the old Tandoku Kata would warp their minds. There would be the 30-year old guy who last took judo when he was 20 in college wanting to grab your gi and throw you for a loop. Most you learned had either got kicked out of their former school, or were waylaid for six months after ripping their groins on a forced split only to find that their old sensei had closed the dojo and run off with a girl student when they returned, or got their axle greased in a tournament with only six months of training on their shoulders, etcetera. Most Okinawa styles can merge after brown belt, even Shotokan black belts can make the transition, and wise judokas learn how to blend their powerful grips and stance with what they learn in Karate or Aikido. Good Tai Chi practitioners take advantage of their innate knowledge of the soft styles to amazing results. Natural ability in many styles is like a gift for languages, not all have that facility. But there are true and serious practitioners who respect all the martial arts and some excel in quite a few. Luckily, most of the wannabes drop out, saving us the aggravation, and go and practice with their sisters or wives at home. Or, as we see now in many martial arts forums and comments to Katas on You Tube, they invade the Internet, chattering their ignorance like crazy kung fu monkeys, their wrists caught in the coconut of their junk-food-fed inanity. I withstood a lot of snickering from 22-year old masters of the mysterious arts of the orient when I did my practice kata as they skateboarded through the air, gesticulating some evil Zen mudra. And yet, one must wade through a lot of feces in life to find some kernel of truth: one must honor one’s style, and by doing so, one honors all styles. Dixi.


Saturdays at the Dojo

Saturday mornings at the dojo was a special time. You took stock of the week, you made resolutions. You got there early, went through your katas, and practiced with people you didn’t normally see during the week: people from the other weekly group, the students from the University Dojo, and the dojos from the other towns. Also got to see katas from higher ranks since a lot of senior ranks came, black belts you’d never seen before that came to practice alone real early in the morning and when I got there they were pretty much into their stuff they didn’t mind you saw. Classes were from 10 to noon, if enough white belts showed, afterwards the kids until 1:00 P.M. and from there on down black and black-point brown belts and off you go. Mostly it was individual practice and if you were lucky there were just a few white belts and you got thrown in with the senpai and got a taste of that juice. Nothing like a line of trigger-happy browns to knock off any chips you might have dangling from your shoulder. I couldn’t much tell one classic kata from another but it sure didn’t look like anything I was doing and it was something to look forward to. And if you were super lucky, or feeling a yearning to be masochistic if you saw it from another angle, a black belt might set his eyes on you and disassemble your kata like an old jalopy and put it back together again and maybe you learned something in the process; nothing like a Sanchin check by two glassy-eyed senpai to make you feel that there must be a God somewhere, just that you hadn’t stumbled into him yet. Of course there was the possibility that some white belt more dumber than you came a month into the thing that you could drop a pear of wisdom or two on, some poor soul passed out in a pool of his own sweat that gave you momentary flashbacks to another time as you taught him how to wring the mop and the precise way to glide it across the wood floor. Those Saturdays at the dojo, where the sweat ran slow and sweet and that sure feeling you felt walking home afterwards alone with katas whirling in your head, feeling every ache and pain like a song.


The “Soft” Sensei

Sensei Gusi González was thin, olive-skinned, and very quiet. When you reached the Dojo he would invariably be sitting behind an old steel office desk, empty of anything but the book he was reading. His Gi was always starched and clean, his black hair combed neatly in place, not a drop of sweat on his face. From him you’d receive the first of the many onegai shimasu you’d hear throughout the class, for this was the manner of greeting in the dojo, the opening line for anything you would do or ask to do. He was handsome, in a quiet dark “Keanu Reeves” sort of way, a contrast to the other sensei, Efraín Palmer, who was a Chuck Norris look-alike in every sense of the word. They were a sensei yin-yang. Although both were always present, Gusi sensei ran the class Tuesdays and Thursdays, Efraín on Mondays and Wednesdays. Although a white belt took classes with either one at any given time, you were more or less assigned a sensei who would be the one primarily responsible for your overall training. I was in the Gusi sensei group and so trained on his days. Green and brown belts came to any and all classes, they’d be the sergeants, lieutenants and captains according to their rank and seniority. Then, different from now, you could be a white belt for a long time, only acquiring thin green stripes on your belt as you rose through the initial katas and bunkai until you reached “greenpoint,” the stage prior to green belt, where you wallowed and bided your time until told you were ready for the rite of passage. So Gusi sensei was my sensei for what seemed like forever in “dojo time.” Gusi sensei had an elegant and fluid style, his kiai was soft like the hiss of a cat. He was a cat to Efraín’s horse like power. Two apparently different approaches. The toughs obviously gravitated to Efraín who literally looked like he could obliterate you. Girls gravitated to Gusi. He was seductive, like a snake. We saw, without knowing it at the time, the two faces of Goju-Ryu, power and grace. I don’t know why I chose grace to follow then since one unconsciously models one’s self after a particular senior belt or sensei. I was a clumsy bloke and could not even approach Gusi’s sense of fluid movement and speed. But there was a moment during an exercise when facing him I could not for the life of me block anything he threw – hard, soft, or otherwise – and just kept bungling on in sheer frustration. He would say “look in my eyes,” and I would, and get bonked anyway, and he would repeat it and I would keep failing to block him. We were in shiko dachi straddle leg stance and he asked me if I was feeling something. I didn’t know what to answer besides “yes, frustrated.” He kept looking into my dazed eyes and asked “you feel this?” What?, I thought. He said, “This, I’m softly tapping your knee with mine, and the split second you’re distracted by the touch is all I need to go in.” The unseen had an explanation, the trick of the soft paw of a cat.


It Takes All Kinds to Make a Dojo

When after years I read about how in the olden days of the Higaonna-Miyagi Dojos everyone who ambled into a dojo acted in Bubishi reverence, with Zen-like smiles, and mouthing Tao aphorisms, my brain made a sound like one hand clapping. Cultural and historic reasons give weight to this view, but it has rained a lot since Miyagi did his first kata. My experience in the Ochoa dojo, and afterwards for that matter, differed somewhat. The reasons people approach any martial art now is possibly as diverse as the people themselves. There was a boom in the early ‘70’s in the martial arts, fueled by the Kung Fu TV series, the Hong Kong cinema, and by the very exploits on and off camera by Bruce Lee. It was in the public eye. When I looked around the dojo, what I saw was a Whitman’s sampler of Puerto Rico, meaning to say that most would think that Bubishi was the latest style of an Hibachi. There were high school and college girls giggling in a corner, nut cases throwing punches at the mirror, silent types in haphazard zazen, completely lost souls struggling with the first kata (me), barrio types who checked their nunchakos at the door, university professors with an itch to philosophize, persons who were told by somebody to get in shape, and the proverbial guys who got sand kicked in their face and were looking for retribution. A motley crew, to say the least. I guess the sensei felt like the Drill Instructor in a Marine boot camp the first days of training. And like all dojos, membership contracted and expanded according to how each of those persons saw or didn’t see their wish fulfilled. The karate fantasy met the karate reality. The ten-step pushups usually did the trick. Of course, there were those who caught on quick to the inner forces lurking beneath the surface of any martial art, but most just muddled through, changing reasons, attaching others. I dare say that none of us white belts then would have been accepted by Miyagi, or by his wayward cousin for that matter. Another time. As many can attest, any martial art must morph somewhat to the terrain where it is practiced. And where we practiced was an island in the Caribbean, a United States possession, booty of the 1898 Spanish American War. Of course, Okinawa was also war booty. There were points in common, tangents, or so a group of us believed it to be so. But those of us who persevered throughout all the years, surviving the internal politics, the factions, splints, the dry years of no public interest, the competition martial arts that with time took over the Island and attracted the most promising students (our nemesis being Tae Kwon Do that sprouted like crabgrass), were able to cut through the crap and finally realize that is was truly a “WAY,” a sojourn ever evolving in the paths within.


What Goju Do You?

When I started in karate I didn’t even know what that really was, much less that there were different styles of karate, different martial arts, and different origins. That came much, much later. Remember, no cable TV, You Tube, etc. Plus, the sensei were not much given to explaining such intricacies to a white belt. The feeling was, why ask so many questions if you hardly know how to do a basic block right. First things first. The truth is, I had no questions because I didn’t know anything about the martial arts, in fact the words “martial arts” were also absent from my meager karate vocabulary. The point is that too much is given to the names of things, and little to their substance, terms are thrown around like so much confetti. That I did learn: to stop intellectualizing and listen to my body, to observe mine and the bodies of others, as they moved or stood still. Take the word “Goju.” To give it the proper pronunciation in Spanish, one would have to change the “j” to “y.” And, according to whoever is speaking, put an accent on the u. That’s why I smile now when I hear or read about the proper way to say or write the Japanese or Okinawan terms, since there seems to be no consensus as how to say or spell anything in Goju or Goyú, and, anyway, it is all in the lingua franca of karate outside Japan or Okinawa: English. But I must now take a plunge and risk it all for I must mention my Goju syllabus, that like all Goju syllabi, differs somewhat, in order, and in what can be termed the “practice kata,” and by this I mean all that is not considered the “classical" Miyagi legacy(Seisan or sesan, etc.)—I’m getting a bit confused here—but bear with me. Its all Goju you know, so just let go.

My Goju syllabus was set in Shoreikan and was as follows:

Tandoku Kata Dai Ichi, Tandoku Kata Dai Ni, Gekisai Kata Dai Ichi, Gekisai Kata Dai Ni, Gekisai Kata Dai San, Sanchin, Saifa, Seiyunchin, Gekiha, Tensho, Sesan, Sepai, Sishoshin, Sanseru, Kururunfa, Suparinpei.

With Kimo Wall in Kodokan, add two: Kakuha Sho and Kakuha Dan, and eliminate one: Tandoku Kata Dai Ni. And there were others, but basically this is, was and will be my syllabus.

While in Chi-I-Do , under Master Kow Loon Ong (Cayo Sensei) — and where I formally got my black belt — certain practice katas were eliminated, another version of Tensho added, and kiso kumites restructured, and certain bunkai movements altered. Plus, all katas were given a, let us say, Chinese accent (elongated so to speak, etc.)

So you see, I too can further complicate matters vis-á-vis those three guys you see on the blog links. And what I mean by this is than Goju has many faces but still has distinguishable eyes, nose and mouth.

Our Bunkai was the kata with another person, and our kumite was two ways and with multiple steps, ending in one technique, usually five techniques per set. No ju (free) kumite allowed, permitted or tolerated, end of story. And yes, there was a reason for this. There is always a reason. So, what Goju do you?


My First Dirty Old Gi

When I started Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate in the Shoreikan School on Ochoa Street I was an economically-impaired university student and since I didn’t know any better, I bought the cheapest gi I could get, in an off-white color, and it got totally soaked in sweat 15 minutes into the exercise session. Plus, the sweat stains turned gray and resistant to any detergent. The different sensei berated me about it but since I had trouble enough paying the monthly dojo fees, a new gi was definitely out of the question. The problem was that it stayed out of the question for 8 years, through two different schools. The problem was compounded by the fact that I hardly had time to wash it between classes. Most of the time I just hosed it down and hung it to dry, but there were times when it remained bundled up and tied with my belt. Luckily the stink ran so high in that first crowded dojo that nobody would notice unless they got up close and personal. It continued that way, mended and remended well into my second stint in the Kodokan School under Kimo Wall Sensei, who would lend me one of his old gis when I had to give the kid classes as brown belt. By that time it was pretty worn out, most of the sleeves gone for patches where someone grabbed me too energetically or sent me sliding across the dojo floor. Finally it just fell apart during one real brutal practice session and Kimo Sensei peeled what was left off my back. I was forced to work extra at the dojo to pay for an old practice gi Kimo rummaged from his stash. I took it home and washed the by then multi-stained rags carefully by hand and heeded Kimo’s advice to keep it as a reminder of what it took to get where I got. I’ve had a lot of gis since then, none lasted as long. The bag where I stored it got lost in one move or another, although I still got all the belts, some given to me by senior students as was the tradition. I now got two very expensive gis that should now last me to my grave, but I miss that old dirty gi; it had my blood and sweat and that of many I practiced with at the time. It had a story, real up close and personal.


The Ochoa Dojo

On my way to work each day I pass by the street where the old Ochoa Dojo used to be, where I began Goju Karate so many years ago. It went by that name because it was on Ochoa Street in Hato Rey, on the very edge of the expanding Banking Sector known in Spanish as “The Golden Mile.” The street then was still in the rundown part of town, tiny, almost hidden. It was still then a bad and a bit dangerous part of the city, dead after 5 PM, neighboring a workers barrio, “Las Monjas” ( The Nuns). Adult classes started at 6 and ran to 8 PM, when the black and brown belts would train alone. The white belts were told to get there 30-45 minutes earlier to either clean the dojo and/or warm up. Classes were held in groups on either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesdays and Thursdays, Friday off, with Saturday “optional” ( for white belts this meant you had to go). My sensei was Gusi González, (“the soft sensei ”), and he was usually to be found sitting behind a desk reading a book in a starchy white and ironed Gi. He was never seen to sweat, except for once. Once out of the dressing room you looked to the side and if no one else was there that meant you had to mop and clean the training floor and mirror, etc. Although Gusi Sensei always did find something for you to do. If not you had better look busy warming up and practicing your kata and bunkai. As a rule, you could approach any senior green belt or brown for help on your kata. Warming up was a technique onto itself: too much and you might be winded before it really began, too little and you ran the risk of cramping up. If you had worked up a good sweat and there was time left over before the start, you could socialize a bit, but beware a higher rank caught you fooling around without even a bead of sweat on your brow, he or she would have you gushing like a faucet in no time. A loud “Shugo” would call you to formation. You’d shout back “Ai” and run to your place, according to rank, but you had better be fast about it or be called to task. You would then greet your sensei, the brown belts and then each other, and then on the floor for zazen meditation, a very uncomfortable position where you literally (if you could) sat on the heel of your feet. Then karate began, in earnest.


The .45 Kata

A recent essay by Dan Djurdjevic on his insightful blog, The Way of Least Resistance, brought to mind one of my favorite anecdotes of the Ochoa Years (circa 1970’s), about the “practicality” of martial arts, and specifically in the anecdote, of Kata and dojo training in general.

Well into my first year of karate, the black belts usually assigned a green belt to oversee the kata and bunkai training of the “senior” white belts, I among them. There was one particular green belt, a teenager who had been practicing in the dojo since he was a kid, who although proficient in technique was extremely inarticulate. The guys in the group I was in were mostly in their late 20’s and had regular jobs, and one in particular was a union organizer, a union muscle man. Since the kid had to give class and explain technique as part of his grading, he was uptight about it and rambled on more than he needed to, and like I said, the kid had a choice vocabulary of about 100 words of which 50% were “you knows” and interjections that sounded like the grunts of a crazy screeching monkey. We learned to ask little or nothing at all. The union organizer hated his guts because aside from the useless gibberish the kid would pick him out more than usual to make a point, peppering the 200 lb., 6’ 1” union guy with punches, kicking in his knees, and dropping him to the floor with arm locks and foot sweeps. After a particular trying day for the union guy, he stomped out of the training area, yanking his belt off and cussing under his breath. The sensei looked on with a bemused air and with a nod of his head sent the kid scampering after him to the dressing room. When the rest of the class got there the kid was berating the union guy about dojo etiquette and the importance of kata. The union guy had his back to us when suddenly he whipped around, grabbed the kid by the gi and put a .45 pistol to his nose and screamed “this is the only kata I need, the .45 kata.” As you can well expect, this became the white belt mantra for a time around the dojo dressing room, of course, well beyond the earshot of the sensei, mind you.


White Belt Blues

What really got me down after a few months in the dojo was how “unkarate-like” I looked, and by this I mean how “unkung-fu” I moved – this being the only pre-dojo notion I had about how I should look, say in two classes – while all my pals in other styles looked so, well, fancy and impressive in their open-fisted, roundhouse kicking ways. Anyone familiar with the Shoreikan syllabus knows how tedious the training can seem, how repetitive and numbing all the basic punching, blocking and kicking could be. Without mentioning the warm up routine that could well go past the hour, non-stop. I had the White Belt Blues. Just when I though I learned one or two things, I seemed to unlearn four. Sometimes my only goal was to survive the class. I think I stuck to it because I was in fact learning something, something about myself. Things one sometimes forgets. Karate became a relearning experience, a very humbling one, about how little one knows about one’s body, one’s mind, and most important, one’s spirit. And how all those three are intertwined. Before karate, my body, mind, and spirit led quite an autonomous existence. On the floor of the dojo, they were all put to the test, at once, relentlessly. Slowly I perceived, in myself and watching others, that the only way to advance beyond the kindergarten level I felt perennially to be in was to somehow merge them, have them begin to work in tandem, but reverse the order , the hierarchy. So I started listening to my body and how it slowly was tempering my spirit, and watched silently how my spirit would lift my body above the hurdles and through the hoops of the mind. For I learned that my mind, and by this I mean my ego, was the source of my white belt blues. It still is in so many ways.