Old Dogs, New Tricks

"...learning a different martial art is quite like learning a new language."
Dan Djurdjevic
Dan wrote a very interesting post on his blog (link above) riffing on a question I posed to him. It basically had to do with the difficulties in learning other martial arts beyond one's original or primary martial experience. It is something I have had to deal with and, in my case, a situation which I was not able to overcome at all. The reasons are many but all point to a fact I had to face even in learning the basic Goju syllabus. I have a hard time learning anything at all.

This fact became more obvious when I returned to dojo practice for the third time with Jaime Acosta Sensei. When I left Kimo Wall's Kodokan school I was a senior brown belt, yet in the intervening years I only practiced Sanchin, Tensho and a few of the basic Kihon katas. Coupled with the fact of my age, the physical conditioning drills and the katas presented a problem of overcoming both pain and the problem of retaining the sequential order of the katas I was striving to learn. I hated to be reminded of how dumb I really was. Plus youth could not carry me over as it once did.

Everything was more or less ok until I had to learn the classic Goju kata syllabus. I was becoming dyslexic in my "adulthood." Everything took longer to learn and cement in my brain. I neither fulfilled mine or others' expectations about my return. I felt a disgrace to the Ochoa class of '74. I no longer mentioned my karate past and tried to keep a very low dojo profile.

I had to forget the old Jorge and familiarize myself with this "new"gray'haired blubbery bastard Jorge that I had unknowingly become. Karate is a continuous rediscovering where you are in the cosmic scheme of things in a very gut level sort of way. No longer could I easily do a lotus positition and raise and swing myself on my fingertips. Aches and pains arose that stayed for weeks on end. My old nemesis, the 10 step push-up, finally vanquished me forever. My feet went to sleep while in zazen, from which I could no longer leap to a shiko dachi but rather groan my way painfully upright, praying I would not faint in the process.

Learning Goju anew was in effect like learning a new language, one I thought I knew but was not more fluent than a tourist fingering his pocket dictionary of pet phrases. So it was with a wisdom born of failure that I read Dan's post, knowing full well that I could no more learn any other martial art than sing in the opera.

I had my hands full learning Goju. I had to learn who I was and what I was willing to sacrifice, which was some shaky point between my dreams and my shortcomings.


So now its Chi-I-Do

It was when I began practicing under Jaime Acosta Sensei that I realized that in my martial arts experience I have actually practiced under three distinct Goju Ryu organizations. As I explained in the beginnings of this blog, I began karate with practically no prior knowledge of the martial arts back in the early '70's when David Carradine's Kung Fu Tv series was all the rage. Although I had reached senior green belt back in the Ochoa years I had no real knowledge of the history of my style, other martial arts, or even much about the Shoreikan school. This was due to the scarcity of material then available in Puerto Rico and, I must confess, my own lack of curiosity. I took my sensei at their words, and their words were few. And so it was that I passed on to Kimo Wall without an inkling that it was a different school. Of course, I did notice differences, but these were very subtle. As I now see it, the core reason was that I was basically practicing Toguchi's Shoreikan Goju.

Chi-I-Do is Kow Loon Ong's (Kayo) take on Shoreikan. Kayo is an impressive and formidable practitioner of Goju Ryu. His style of Goju is a more fluid and "elongated" approach, chinese if you will. So what did I notice different returning to Goju? Well, in the katas all "extended" positions were elongated, lower. Transitions were more "corkscrew", more "sliding". In essence, the clasical kata syllabus would take "more space" on the dojo floor. But other than that, it was Shoreikan in structure with only a change in the two man kumite drills where the takedowns were eliminated in answer to possible personal injury litigation, or so I believe.

Of course, the information highway had expanded during my hiatus. I was now an old man practicing karate in the cybernetic age. Martial arts were slowly creeping onto the Internet. There was information galore. I had a lot of catching up to do.


Elitism by default ?

The third time around Goju I noticed that the class had a pronounced lack of young students. The few teenagers or kids I saw were either brought by their mothers as an after school activity, a bonding experience, a disciplinary measure, or were the sons or daughters of practicing karatecas. And even so, these were few and tended to drop out after a few months. So the median age was over 30. Scarcity of new blood is a dangerous thing for a karate school. I saw the Sensei desperately seking his successor among the few young people there, and there were some very good candidates. But, alas, in time, these would also abandon karate for school, marriage or work. Why? A young person now has many alternatives in which to distract him or herself and the attention span is shortened. What there generally was were "old school" karatecas, molded in another time, with other ethical parameters foreign to younger generations. This created a vicious circle, as young people entered an "aging" school and were inevitably turned off by the clear generation gap. Who would want to practice with old fogies. When I began karate, the median age was 21. Thus I was now practicing with people with 10 or more years of some karate experience, but that held jobs, had families and other pressing commitments.
The truth of the matter is that the young mostly gravitated to TaeKwondo or martial arts schools that competed in fighting and kata tournaments. Young people did so often drop in but would soon tire of our traditional curriculum and outlook.
So what we had was a few seasoned practitioners. But the school was still fashioned with young students in mind, so we were put through the grinder as if we were kids, but we were not.

When I took my black belt, all of us were over 40, just one was under twenty.


A bitter tea

Before me is a black belt that years ago was a white belt standing before me, then a senior brown belt. Exercises in humility do not come cheap. He is now going to tell me all the things that I do wrong, he is going to school me in the ways of Goju, alert to any doubt in my eyes as to his evident superiority.

A bitter tea indeed. But that wasn't the half of it. My knees and elbows buckled during the infamous 10-step push up. My legs became rubbery at the fiftieth count of a mae geri drill. I snuck a peek at myself in the faraway mirror and what a sorry sight my eyes beheld. But paraphrasing an old tune: pain is just another word for nothing left to lose. And of this bitter tea I sipped.

More than relearning katas, I had to relearn spirit. Letting go of who I was once but was no longer and finding who I was now and living with it, through it, around it.


After all these years

Although Jaime Sensei introduced me and my sister as veteran karateca from the Ochoa days, I think what he meant to say was our white belts could be misleading as they saw us merrily traipse through our Kihon Tandoku. You never really go back to white belt as if nothing has happened in 20 years. You revisit a zone of your imagination where you once dwelt, making the necessary mental and physical adjustments. Yet these are many. Your body wants to go where it cannot anymore, your mind reluctantly lets go of another chunk of your past. My son René, however, was flailing about like a new-born chick. His was a world of discovery. Ours of rediscovery. But regardless of our journeys, all ended elatedly wasted at the end of the class, in the shared epiphany of bone-tiredness.

Humbleness is a bitter tea that we must all sip in reverence. Ego is a deceiving mirage that takes you nowhere.

To retread and relearn that which always escapes us the previous times around. To re-see is to renew commitments, or to discard them. Why one takes karate is a deep question, but only one that I can make after many years. My son cannot pose this question, he is still an empty vessel. And this is where I differ from Garry Lever's seriously thought-provoking essay Elitism in Karate. Garry is right from the standpoint of the seasoned practitioner and it is an issue that sooner or later every sensei must confront. But up front, every person should be afforded the opportunity to try karate and it is the sensei's duty to be true to his legacy and tradition. But, nonetheless, what Garry says is all too true. Even more so in my third time around I saw a lot of people with ranks above their true station. It is always a problem that strikes at the very core of the martial arts. Because, you see, karate marks even those who do not stay the course. And those who return even more so. The problem lies with the sensei, as Garry well states and I second. In Jaime Acosta we had a merciless teacher. He is there as the bar you must cross. My son René and my wife were now realizing all that I had said about karate, beyond the jumps, kicks, and howls.

Once again and for the third time in 20 years, I had to pose this question to myself. The answers were many and fluid. Why karate? Why now? Why ever?


A most tiny Dojo

Jaime Acosta's Dojo to which I returned was in a small leased space in a dance school. Two times a week the karate class was preceded by jazz dance class, two other days the Sensei gave a Chi Kung class prior to ours. The floor was covered in linoleum, pliable but slippery and funky with sweat. The dojo was under the Chi-I-Do organization run by Master Kow Loon Ong (Kayo). Kayo, as was the case with Kimo Wall, was previously in Toguchi's Shoreikan school, so basically the curriculum was the same. With some very important exceptions, Chi-I-Do in Puerto Rico was actually the old Kodokan sensei, who were before that the Shoreikan sensei. In other words, the core of instructors, senior students, and sensei dated back to the old Ochoa school. That was the continuum, a very crucial continuum to understanding Okinawan Goju Ryu in Puerto Rico. Through the years, the initial core of sensei and students remained basically the same. Chi-I-Do had four schools on the Island: the Las Cumbres, the San Lorenzo, Mayaguez, and Jaime Acosta's Dojo(actually an offshoot of Las Cumbres). No matter where they drifted or splintered off to, most Okinawa Goju practitioners had this same genealogy. This gave a uniformity in attitude if not style. We were all steeped in a very traditional and formal training atmosphere that remained constant whatever the organization that the dojos were linked to. I would venture to say that even within the Chi-I-Do organization, Puerto Rico was the most "old school" in dojo etiquette, dress, and other formalities.


The third time's a charm Pt. 2

Familiar faces. First impression that hit me when I walked into Sensei Jaime's very small dojo were the many familiar faces of dojos past donning gis, the old ceremonies seen through the prism of absence, an exile ending. I just went to watch. My son René stripped down and went in. I looked on with my wife. The basics, the katas, the kiai, all coming back to me in waves of nostalgia. Seeing myself in my son many years ago and thinking how foreign it all may seem to him. The dojo experience, stripped down to its essence, is the brotherhood of karate, that sharing in unision that establishes unbreakable bonds.

There is a time for everything. That weekend, my wife, son, and I went shopping for cheap gis. There never was a time that I had a good gi starting, I said to my son.

A beginning for them, a homecoming for me.


Third time's a charm

We have a name in Puerto Rico for that time between the cane harvest. It is called the "Dead Time." When there is no work. That dead time between the Violeta Dojo and my next dojo experience was relatively long, more than ten years. Although, as I've said, I kept practicing somewhat during that period, I didn't yet have that degree of training and skill to nourish myself alone. But my return to a dojo came in a roundabout way. Curiously enough, it was that same friend that introduced me to karate in the first place who opened the way for my return.

At the time I had my youngest boy, then a teenager, living with me, and I was thinking about getting him into karate. When I mentioned this to my friend, he said that he was on his way to a lunch date with Jaime Acosta sensei, who had a small dojo in downtown San Juan. It was a nice reunion. Jaime had been outside the Island, training in New York with Kow Loon Ong (Chi-I-Do) for several years, which explained why I hadn't seen him in a while. Jaime ran his dojo, under the Chi-I-Do organization ina rented space in a dance studio (typical situation on the Island and elsewhere). He made a counter-offer,that I come and train too. I confess that although I was intrigued in returning, I was also scared and a bit put off about starting in Goju anew for the third time.

When I got home and told my son, he was curious and game, but so was my then wife, and also my sister when she got wind of it. So, much like the first time I walked into a dojo, I went in as part of a group. this time: son, wife, and sister.