I now train alone. Solo. I slowly diagrammed the available space in my very small living room and traced the trajectory of every kata in my Goju syllabus accordingly. It wasn’t easy and it took me some time before I was able to memorize my surroundings to the point where I could forget about them safely and not end up tripping over a rocking chair and flying headlong into my bookcase. But it wasn’t always so.
There was a time towards the end of my dojo experience when I had to allow an hour and a half to make the trek that involved taking a bus to the end of the line and then walking to a plaza to board a “pisicorre” (which is a local mode of transportation to the outer barrios), whose name literally means “step and run.” This was in late afternoons on weekdays and mornings on Saturday. I was able to do this because I was then working freelance. The problem always was hitching a ride back after 9pm when there was no viable public transportation. It was a necessary madness. All this stage transpired in my early 50’s. Life, if anything, was getting harder by the year. Serious injuries distanced me from practice (Terrazzo Tile Dojo) and eventually I had to leave freelancing and take my old “day job” back.
That was the end of those late afternoon treks, there was just no way I could make it back to dojo training even if I wanted to. In the intervening years I tried mixing practice in other small Goju dojos nearer my home but the experience proved to be not worth the effort. It was then I tried to practice at home in an outside terrace. I would do the full class, imagining I was in a dojo, the whole enchilada. I knew of the dangers of solo training and, sure enough, trying to simulate the energy of a full dojo alone in a darkened terrace brought problems of energy control. I didn’t have the protection of my fellow karateca’s energy fields around me. My energy flew around loose in the air and sometimes came down on me like a wallop from a 10th Dan hanshi.
I realized I could not go back to formal dojo training. The thought of giving up the practice of karate (once again) was not an option. I didn’t come so far and through so much shit to now let it all go to hell like so much else in my life. I had made too big an investment. Karate was as intrinsically threaded to my sense of self as writing is and has been. Surfing through the net and seeing others in similar predicaments and others who complemented their dojo practice with their own small home dojo setups, I slowly began considering practicing alone, if just to keep my hand warm, stay in the game so to speak.
And like I said, it wasn’t easy. In time all karatecas see that their practice slowly curves inward as a natural evolution from their young “outward” experience. Then an old sensei said, “Jorge, you’ve been in this a long time, this is just the next step.” This blog, my YouTube videos, it all came from this solo experience. I don’t miss the dojo much, although I appreciate the years and friendships, fully aware that without this foundation what I do now would not be remotely possible. I know now that I cannot go back to the old dojo because my dojo is right here, in this same space where I write this.
So now it all boils down to me. Alone I must do honor to my style of karate, to my teachers, and all whom I have practiced with. I must generate this commitment within myself. All the years and sweat, faces, and memories whir around me as I do kata in my living room dojo.
Rooted to the floor, it dances in my fingertips.
The true fruits of practicing martial arts are long term. One has to be in it for the long haul. The life of a martial artist is an arc that can only be discerned from afar, from the perspective that only the passage of time can give. In my last post I touched on my own personal awareness of this process in the last stage of my formal dojo experience in Las Cumbres. My good friend Dan Djurdjevic commented on the bucket v. thimble paradigm of energy that every martial artist confronts as the years pile on. Dan is a true and serious martial artist with a lifetime of continuous commitment to the study and practice of the martial arts who has had to overcome myriad obstacles to remain true to an art to which he owes so much. He is a long-term warrior. Dan’s commitment and arc reminded me of a fellow karateca and senior black belt in the Las Cumbres Dojo: Ángel Santana.
Ángel exemplified all that was good about Goju-Ryu, all that a Goju karateca could achieve through the continuous and profound practice of Goju (which can also be said of the commitment to any serious martial art). When I met him, Ángel had well over 20 years experience as a black belt, more than 30 practicing Goju, as far back as Ochoa when he was a university student. The point here is that this practice of karate was continuous. He never took a sabbatical from the dojo, never strayed from the path. By the time I met him he was no spring chicken. Ángel was not in the dojo per se for class, but he was a hovering presence of “old-school” karate training in the flesh … and spirit. Professional and family commitments did not allow him to go to a formal dojo session every day, and yet he found time to practice every day. This was obvious in the impeccable execution, relentless energy, and unyielding martial spirit he displayed when he did come an hour before class to practice solo. He was one of the founders of the Las Cumbres Dojo and one of the financial supporters of that old wooden structure atop a hardware store in the outskirts of San Juan. The dojo was, in a manner of speaking, his other home.
Ángel defied the passage of time. I remember now sitting sweating on a bench with other black belts watching how he did ten-step pushups with the ease of a teenage Chinese gymnast. He could do more of these heart-wrenching pushups that anyone there, young or old, and did so after practicing katas and doing drills without rest for an hour or so. Many were the times I saw him running past me up the stairs, still dressed from work in shirt and tie, lugging this huge bag where he carried his assortment of gis, kobudo arms, and whatnot. He’d make the fastest transition from street to dojo that I have ever seen and by the time I sauntered out of the dressing room he had already worked up a sweat. His warm up acceleration was astounding, looking as focused as if he had been at it for an hour instead of the 15 minutes since I saw him going up the stairs. Only years of continuous practice can give this level of performance.
Yet Ángel was the exception, not the rule. There were others with as much time and as much commitment, but not at his level. When he did give a class it was with the same kime he brought to everything, and not from the sidelines barking orders, but from the front leading by example. Ángel was an example of what any young person starting karate could and should aspire to be, physically, morally, and spiritually. But does this mean that if one does not reach his level that one should seriously consider leaving karate, or maybe stepping up the level of practice? Is the “way” of Ángel the only way to be a martial artist? Of course not, and Ángel would be the first person to say so. He believed that karate was basically an individual journey in the company of others.
The acute awareness that martial arts tries to teach us is not only the awareness of danger, of the opponent, or even at the moment of engagement, it is also an awareness of self. Of how one fits into the major scheme of things at any given moment of that arc. Mind you, I say arc, not an ascending straight line. Or forget arc, and think spiral.
I was not Ángel as much as I would have wanted to be. It would be foolhardy to believe that the practice of martial arts has one unbending rule of perfection. The practice of the martial arts is also one of learning to eat humble pie. As my other good friend Shinzen Nelson would say, one cannot go against Nature, but only flow with it.
As one ages, oxygenating the body becomes a prime concern in practicing the martial arts, not only for the obvious health reasons but to regulate the qi that could either flow or bottle up. In other words, growing old could either be a blessing or a curse. Even though I knew about qi, I never thought about it much when I was young because my body would force itself through any quagmire through sheer force.
The Las Cumbres Dojo was witness to the last eight years or so of my formal dojo practice; my passage as a middle-aged black belt raging bravely “against the dying of the light.” Although there were quite a few 40 + practitioners, the dojo, as it always did, catered to the very young at heart … and body. My broken chain of training through the years and the reckless life I led outside the dojo exacted their due. Every session was a coin toss between surviving and a sudden heart attack. I prayed they would skip the warm ups that in traditional Goju are the most grueling. That way I would have a modicum of energy left over for the kumite and bunkai. I never actually attained a plateau of conditioning where I could feel comfortable. Denied the external strength that my youth provided by the bucketful, I had to make do with a thimble of energy that I had to learn to use sparingly and wisely.
I had to learn to breathe and move accordingly with its ebb and flow. I had to put ego aside. It was not easy. As a racing car would square itself behind a lead car, I learned to latch on to whatever energy was around. Usually someone else’s. Qi was an elusive butterfly flitting seductively beyond my grasp no matter what I did or did not do. But ego was my albatross as I succumbed to the fear of losing face and would push myself where my body could no longer go.
In the dojo they drove us hard and my old clunker of a body would have to put back all the spare parts that had fallen off during a practice session, spare parts that I could no longer replace nor retool. Every week I would discover a new ache or sprain, sometime not being able to fully close my fist for days.
Style and technique were the least of my concerns after doing katas 200 times. After an hour of continuous katas you really don’t care if you look good. Just being on your feet after wards is all. Slowly I learned to hold back a bit with the outward kime. In reality, I stopped caring how I looked and started paying attention to how I felt. I gave it up. Didn’t care if I got hit or not. I learned to give up before I started and inch my way up from there, from surrender to survival.
So then Sanchin stopped being a test and became a rest. I took refuge in it to fill up the tank. It became my watering hole. I began doing Sanchin for me instead of the sensei and took the blows in stride.
Karate can either bloom or die in a dojo. Karate almost died for me in that dojo. It was after I left that dojo that I learned karate. There I only learned the katas and how to survive. Maybe that was a necessary step to get where I am today. Sometimes dojos unwittingly foster a boot camp mentality, a survival of the fittest in mind and body. Maybe I question that because I lived it and can now discard it, much like a person that has gone to war can claim then that peace is better.