It’s hard to say what exactly inspired me to get into martial arts. I could tell you that it was because I had always felt scrawny and had low self-esteem. Maybe it was just because I had seen a few too many Bruce Lee movies. I could say that it was because I was afraid of getting my ass kicked or, as I’ve argued before, that it was all because of a dream about Batman. But ultimately it doesn’t matter how I ended up in my first Shotokan Karate class. All that matters is that I walked into my first sensei’s dojo, was shown basics, and fell in love.
It might be an exaggeration to say that I was hooked on Shotokan Karate from the start, but I ended up staying involved in it for four years. I started training at the age of 18 in my senior year of high school, and I stayed with Shotokan Karate until I had graduated from college in May of 2015. During the time in my life when I learned and grew the most, Shotokan was always by my side. It colored the way that I approached my workouts, my studies, and my life.
For those of you who have never heard of Shotokan Karate before, it is a Japanese martial art that can be traced back to a man named Gichin Funakoshi. Funakoshi was a martial artist in the late 19th and early 20th century who synthesized two styles of Okinawan Karate to form his own martial art, Shotokan. His schools became very popular, and he taught countless students throughout his life. He was allegedly even the first to reinterpret the definition of Karate from “Chinese Hand,” to “Empty Hand.” For marketing purposes, of course. Shotokan would become one of the most popular and widely known styles of Karate in the world.
Shotokan Karate is known for its long, deep stances and explosive strikes. Training, speaking broadly, is broken up into kihon, kumite, and kata. Kihon is the basics: punches, blocks, kicks, and footwork. Kumite is sparring, which in Shotokan comes in many shapes and sizes depending on your level of experience. Finally there is the kata, the forms. These are patterns of movement using techniques put together from kihon and kumite. As a Shotokan student, I drilled these movements over and over again. Over time they became familiar and instinctive, although until the day that I stopped training I always had a teacher tapping my arm to tighten up my hikite or adjusting the direction of my hips. This kind of instruction turned out to be exactly what I needed.
I didn’t play any sports growing up, and Karate was my first real athletic endeavor. Other than my teenaged attempts at weightlifting, it was my first real attempt to use my body. I was clumsy and gangly, and didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing most of the time. Every new technique was a struggle, and I often had to relearn the things that I had trained incorrectly. Nonetheless I kept coming to class and diligently attempting to perfect my movements. The results, when they came, took me by surprise.
I remember sitting in class one day, Asian Studies believe it or not, and talking to a friend of mine who was tossing a water bottle absentmindedly. As we were chatting she suddenly, allegedly accidentally, tossed the water bottle at my head. Before I knew it I had slipped my head out of the way, sat back up, and caught the bottle behind my head. I passed it back to her with a smile and she looked at me as if I had just done the lunch-tray trick from Spiderman. She tried it two more times just to test me. It was not exactly a one-inch punch, but it was certainly not something I could have done before I started Shotokan.
Now as anyone who has ever done a martial art knows, the most difficult thing about getting learning is pushing through plateaus. There are times when every class seems to make you better and better, particularly in the beginning of your training. But there inevitably comes a time when this period of growth stops and progression seems to never come. It can be immensely frustrating. I used to rage against these periods of stagnation and was convinced that I had to train longer and harder to overcome them. My approach to challenges had always been to double my effort to make up for my lack of natural ability. As you might expect, this didn’t work at all.
Finally, after wearing myself out, I would let go of my frustrations and just keep coming to class. Then one day when I didn’t expect it I would find that I had come out of my plateau. I hadn’t understood at first that when you are trying to get better at something, there are times that just suck. There will always be days when no matter what, you can’t seem to get any better or do anything right. These used to leave me furious with myself. But over time I realized that I couldn’t let myself lose motivation or become frustrated. I just had to take a deep breath, let it go, and try again next time. I learned this the hard way when I had my first belt test at my new school.
When I got to my university I immediately joined the Karate club, and became one of its most devoted (and one of its only) members. The school’s club was under a different Shotokan organization that had different ways of training many of the techniques. I had to relearn a lot of what I had learned with my first instructor, and adapt to the new methods. Because of this I was petrified when it came time for me to test under the new school. I was one of two students testing, and the other was a black belt. So I sat there for a half hour while he tested and considered all of the ways that I would likely fail. I finally got up to test, I came just shy of the mark, and was told to work on some things and try again in a few months.
I have always had a fear of failing and I still struggle with it to this day. Before this test I had been able to scare myself into working harder to prevent these failures. This worked for writing papers and studying for tests, but it didn’t cut it when it came to Karate. I was crushed and disappointed. Even though it was just a belt test I was angry with myself for failing. Even worse, I was afraid of what would happen if I failed again. For a few weeks I barely wanted to train at all. I was too embarrassed. Eventually, on a site called ZenPencils, I found the following quote from Calvin Coolidge:
“Press On! Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Since that test I’ve failed countless times in dozens of different ways. Each time I remember this moment, and every failure has been easier to stomach than the last. Like anything else, it wasn’t as frightening after I had done it a few times. I’ve realized that failures are a gift, an opportunity to improve myself. Eventually I would have learned this from any of my other failures, but this belt test flop prepared me for the ones that followed. More than anything about punching and kicking, this is what Shotokan Karate taught me.
In most Shotokan dojos there is a sign or scroll listing what’s called the Dojo Kun. The Dojo Kun is a series of five principles that are essential for the study of the martial art. These five were selected from Gichin Funakoshi’s Twenty Precepts, the twenty guidelines that he felt were most important for practicing Karate. The Dojo Kun goes as follows: Seek Perfection of Character, Be Faithful, Endeavor, Respect Others, and Refrain from Violent Behavior.
These are all important lessons, but the one that affected me most was the first, translated in my university’s club as “Strive for the perfection of character.” I have no illusions about being a great fighter. I’d still put good money on myself getting my ass kicked in a fight. But martial arts challenges me in ways that nothing else does. So often we are given the chance to be comfortable, but martial arts forces us to sample “The Strenuous Life,” as Theodore Roosevelt called it. The satisfaction that comes from finishing a hard class when all I wanted to do give up is one of the sweetest things I’ve ever felt. Shotokan Karate was my first experience with this.
Now like all relationships, my love story with Shotokan Karate eventually came to an end. As I got a little higher up in the ranks, I realized that Shotokan would probably never teach me the things that I really wanted to learn. Even at the higher levels, which I never got to, I felt the sparring was too ritualized and rigid. The structure of the classes and the hierarchy of the ranks began to irritate me, particularly when I learned some less-than-savory things about the sensei of my university’s club. Moreover, I became a fan of Mixed Martial Arts, and found myself wanting to try something a bit more contemporary.
Eventually a friend of mine, a Master’s student in my program, offered to start teaching me some stick fighting and kickboxing. He had taught before and wanted to get a group together to train. I leapt at the chance, and put my Shotokan training on the backburner. By this time I had just gotten my brown belt and was ready to experiment with something new. I stayed in the club as the President and led basics and warm-ups for the other students, but I would say that I stopped progressing at around that time. When I finally graduated and handed over the reins to the University’s club, I decided to leave Shotokan behind me.
For about three months after my break up with Shotokan I was a little depressed. I still trained with my friend on occasion, but we were now in different states and it was harder to train consistently. Without Shotokan to test myself I was frustrated and aimless. I felt down on myself sometimes, because I didn’t feel like I was really doing anything. The fact that I was job-hunting at the same time didn’t help, and I was suddenly left without anything to push myself for.
After a few months of this, I resolved to try something new, and I wandered into a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. In my experience, the final step in getting over a break up is being able to move on to someone new. In that first class I had my fingers shredded practicing what’s called spider-guard, and was baffled by essentially everything that I was shown. The normal instructor was absent, so one of the head students was teaching and offered to let me spar. I was submitted dozens of times by every single person in the class. I left that class sore, confused, and happy. I was in love again, and I’ve been studying BJJ for about a year and a half.
It would be easy for me to use this post to put down all of the things about Shotokan that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu does better. It has undoubtedly been done before. But that’s no way to treat your ex. I think that most people have to fail at a few relationships before they really learn how to have a healthy one. Although we may not think about our old partners, when we move on to the next girlfriend/boyfriend we take with us all of the experiences and lessons that we learned from them.
In my first months of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu there was a lot about Shotokan that I had to work out of my system. I had to adjust to the more relaxed attitude and the less rigid style. Shotokan has very specific training protocols, and it takes time to shake off some of these habits. I had to learn to loosen up and move more freely, and not think about stances. The sparring was something I was completely unprepared for, and I was constantly learning new ways to get submitted. It was an adjustment, and one that I am still working on, but it doesn’t mean that Shotokan didn’t give me anything.
There are moments in class, when someone is trying to take me down or when I am struggling to set up a guard-pass, when I find myself falling back into old habits. I screw my feet into the ground and feel my legs drop into a familiar stance, a zenkutsu-dachi, which gives me the stability I need to keep my balance for just a second longer before I move again. Shotokan developed my balance and flexibility in ways that I still use, even if I haven’t thrown a mawashi-geri in over a year. These little gifts from Shotokan make me glad that I spent all those hours in horse stance and desperately trying to emulate Jean-Claude Van Damme’s splits.
I can’t imagine how the scrawny, uncoordinated mess of an 18 year old would have taken to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I think that more likely than not he would have given up after his first few classes. But in addition to giving me my coordination, Karate taught me those essential lessons of how to work through disappointment and failure. So during my first six months of training, when I was getting smashed in every single roll, I stuck with BJJ because I knew that I would get better in time.
So when I’m tired and feel like my chest is going to explode, struggling to work myself out of a bad position, a part of me remembers Shotokan. I remember drilling techniques up and down the floor until my legs were shaking, and pushing through when the instructor shouted for another twenty kicks. I think about that failed belt test, and how I went back and passed it the second time. So I clench my teeth, fight off the choke, and strive for the perfection of character.