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.