A Last Stand

A photo of “my Dojo” would show a small, over-crowded living room with barely any space to move, much less do katas. Should I dare call it “my Dojo” or just the space where I practice? No Kamidana or other Dojo trimmings. Truly a dojo of the mind, if not despair or need. Or just the way things are.

As I drifted from my last Dojo I used the terrace, a cement concoction outside my kitchen door and overlooking the street. Used it to practice for awhile when I still harbored the belief that this practicing solo was just a temporary solution; that somehow I would find my way back to a “real” Dojo. It was to be a complement to the dojo. When it became apparent that I would never definitely go back to a formal Dojo, I began to practice in the terrace more or less formally; mimicking or mirroring what my formal Dojo sessions were. The whole enchilada. But, of course, alone.

But the terrace proved a problem in more ways than one. Weather, peering neighbors, the accidental cement floor with its occasional pebbles, nails, and slipperiness were all factors in my abandoning it eventually, but the real clincher was something more intangible: energy. The old “chi” kicked in. I was beginning to hurt internally: dizziness, cramps out of the blue, palpitations, etc. I just could not harness the Chi, could not prevent it from dispersing into the night or boomeranging back into me like a wallop, a spiritual and physical thrashing of the senses.

Then I remembered what I heard about practicing solo and with a group. How the group can absorb the excess energy or carry you through a session. How practicing alone one runs the risk of not being able to manage the energy fields around you, especially if you practice as if you were in a full Dojo. So eventually I went indoors.

Mapping the space available was at first a challenge. Laying out the katas so I wouldn’t bump into everything took me a while. Learning how to practice also took a period of trial and error.

I recalled the anecdote of a former Sensei when he was forced to learn a kata from a Master in the confines on his tiny studio apartment, how they had to learn the kata in segments. I was not as confined or constricted but it also posed a problem that I resolved by designing a session suited to the space, my condition, and my age.

It has all been a process of continuous adjustments. I am now fully integrated to this sort of karate practice and Dojo practice is what seems foreign to me. There is nothing on the walls or floor that demarcates the area as my practice zone. I just move one piece of furniture. I dim the lights and put some instrumental mood music. I practice kata and some light stretching and breathing exercises. Sometimes I also include punching and kicking drills, but rarely. I usually only do katas.

What brought me to this was not choice but circumstance. It is not a door I walked through of my own volition. It is a last ditch effort, a foxhole carved out of what is available, a last stand.


The zen of the long-distance karateca

To whom do you bow when there is no foe but yourself?

That very thin slice of time and space where you are between a rock and a hard place is Budo.

Where the jagged beer bottle of life arcs towards your neck and the ground shifts beneath your feet: the precise edge of kata.

Sanchin in a darkened room and the sound of an oscillating fan.


Evolution of a kata

Way back in this blog I made reference to the fact that when I saw Seikichi Toguchi in person do the first basic kata of the Shoreikan syllabus (Tandoku or Fukyu) it seemed like another kata, all together different from the kata that I as a white belt was just learning to do. The ingredients of his kata were the same as mine, recognizable as a stick figure may be to a human form, and yet those same ingredients sieved through his body, mind and spirit tasted different to the eye.

The kata is a static mold, an ideal, a form, a map from here to there. Yet as it moves through one’s body and mind through time it jellies and wobbles, whips and pauses, morphs into the skin of your particular intent. Becomes yours. Becomes you, and you it.

My kata did not become Toguchi’s kata. Impossible.


A Kata is a Kata is a Kata

No boxer fights like he/she spars, does the bag or skips rope. No karateca should fight as he/she does kata. Karate, as a “traditional” martial art, has a more profound purpose than just learning to fight, regardless of all the analytical mumbo-jumbo of the experts on its historical origins that attempt to scientifically package the ineffable.

Kata is the manifestation of the art of karate. It unfolds its meaning through time. Most of a kata remains untold, undecipherable at first glance, most times at the hundredth glance.

It is a ritual of epiphanies and within them the fleeting secrets lie.


“Where are the snows of yesteryear”

Nothing like a spring cleaning where all kinds of memories are rescued from the most secluded reaches of the closet, dusted and viewed anew . This old photo of me dates back to 1973,taken as I was practicing karate with a friend in an old university-years apartment. A perfect place to practice since I had no furniture save a small round dining table , 2 director chairs, and throw cushions. That practice Gi cost me $15, the cheapest in the store.

I was a white belt. This was long before cell phones, Internet, and for that matter, even satellite broadcasts. Practicing a style of karate without knowing there were many other styles of karate, and many other styles of martial arts. All I knew I got from the dojo and it wasn’t much, just the first two katas of the syllabus (fukyu, gekisai ichi). It was all monkey see, monkey do. No Japanese or Okinawan terminology beyond the salutations. Just a mimeographed sheet with a short paragraph on the history of the style and a few others on dojo etiquette. I knew less than nothing and that little nothing I practiced every day and at every opportunity.

A white belt now knows more than I knew at brown belt, can see katas and forms of every style and all the martial arts, the legendary teachers at the click of the mouse, order martial arts books online, chat and comment on all the minutiae that his/her heart desires.

I would practice in that living room the little I knew. I had the space, I had the time, and I had my foolish youth to spend as I saw fit.

I’ve come full circle. I think I know a bit more. At least it is all a click away. Even got a blog, something truly inconceivable, unimaginable in that empty space of my youth in 1973. My living room now is more cluttered of all the things one may accumulate in a lifetime, and I must move more carefully between bookcases and furniture. I know a bit more but not that much more. I have just been practicing the little I know longer, years.

The invisible guy I was practicing with died nine years ago. My youngest son is much older than I was then.

The old guy in the sidebar smiles.

“ … but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now.”