Tag Archives: karate

The Purpose of Kata

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If you talk about martial arts long enough, someone will eventually say, “What’s the point of kata? You can’t use it in a real fight. The only thing kata is good for is tournaments.”

I mightily disagree.

Kata is, in simple terms, a series of choreographed movements — punches and kicks, stances and turns, blocks and attacks and evasions. From the outside, it looks as if one fighter is taking on multiple attackers coming at her, one at a time, from different directions. Many martial arts use them as a training tool, with some arts and schools putting greater emphasis on them than others.

A friend recently asked me about the purpose of kata. I gave a short answer, then realized how different today’s answer was from the answer I might have given ten years ago, or even five years ago. My understanding has changed — not only because of my training, but because of my teaching experience.

At first, kata serves to instill rudimentary body awareness and muscle function. We’re talking very rudimentary here. The student must learn, at the bare minimum, to be aware of and in control of what her body and all its parts are doing at any given moment. Most people can stand up and throw a punch with their left hand, but will not be able to say what the right hand was doing without looking at their right hand. Ask if the knees were bent or straight, or if the chin was lifted or tucked, and she will have no clue. Ask her to keep track of all those things while moving from one technique to the next with at least a smidgeon of intensity, and things quickly fall apart.

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Just Us Women

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After a stumble-start last fall, my experiment with a women-only karate class is off to a fantastic new start.  The first class was on Tuesday, with seven women in attendance.

Most uncomfortable moment: Making it clear to my own (male) teacher that he needed to leave the dojo before we started class.  I’d made it clear to the women there would be no men, no husbands, no children in the dojo at all.

Most awesome moment: When everyone walked out the door saying, “See you next class!”

Once upon a time, I was uncomfortable with offering a women-only class.  I’m a staunch believer in men and women training together, and see huge benefits come from that.  Then I chose to listen to the women who expressed a passing interest in karate, but never actually took a class.

Body image.  Fear of judgment.  Fear of failing.  Fear of being the worst one in class.  Discomfort with a physical sport.  Discomfort with being seen enjoying an aggressive sport.  All those reasons and more, I heard over and over from women who murmured their interest in karate to me when no one else would hear them.

I pride myself in creating a safe and supportive environment for new students who are, more often than not, nervous stepping on the mat.  I’ve had kids cry crocodile tears at the start of class, and beg to come back for more by the end of class.  I’ve had adults hesitant at the beginning because of physical limitations realized at the end that I’ll work with them to reach their goals.  But whatever atmosphere my methods and personality create, it wasn’t safe and supportive for a subset of women who wanted karate training enough to mention it, but feared it enough to never try.

So I set out to create that environment.  No men.  No witnesses.  That was a big deal for all of the women who committed to showing up.  Then we talked about the physical stuff, and I shared my Ultimate Karate Dork stories as well as the problems my hip dysplasia caused.  We talked about things women don’t often discuss with men: boobs that get in the way, post-pregnancy body problems, hitting other people.

On the mat, we not only worked hard on technique, but we laughed.  Laughed and shared and enjoyed everyone’s company.  We started on the basics of dojo etiquette, chatted about the boundaries of Sensei-In-Dojo and Blair-In-Supermarket, and acknowledged that it feels very strange to say “Yes, Ma’am/Yes, Sir” at first.  We worked up enough of a sweat that everyone was at least a little sore the next day.  And we spent time listening to one woman sharing an issue she’d been struggling with all day, and we offered support.

Unlike six or seven years ago, when most women I spoke with wanted “self-defense” without all that “karate stuff,” these women want the whole thing.  They want to earn the black belt.  They are working hard, asking questions, making mistakes and corrections.

Three to six months from now, I suspect they’ll all be ready to transition into the standard classes at least once a week.  By then, all those preliminary fears will have been encountered. Best of all, this group of women is helping me refine these ideas by giving me honest feedback.

…and I have to back up, because my hopes are running away with me. 🙂  The true test will be how many of those seven women commit to a longer-term program.  The decision point will be this coming Thursday.

In the meantime, I am thrilled with the two classes we’ve had so far.  I come home happy, energized, and grinning.  It feels like the beginning of a community.

And in the writing news, I suddenly wondered if I should end Sand of Bone 20K words deeper into the larger story.  This is not all that helpful to my stress level, alas.

Seeing My Own Bias

If we’re paying attention, what we write tells us a great deal about ourselves.

This little dialogue exchange and I went back and forth for two days:

 “Besides,” Luke said, “I’d hate to tell the Old Man I let you leave town without even getting a little sparring in.”

“Nothing manipulative about that statement,” she muttered, and narrowed her eyes when he gave a guilty shrug.  “First of all, you don’t let me do anything, Sensei Luke.  Second, don’t call him the Old Man anymore.  I don’t like it.  Respect matters.”

She expected him to give the eye-roll of irritation or the cocky grin of indulgence most men would have responded with.  Instead, he offered her a solemn nod and met her gaze.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Text me the address,” Jack said.  “If I’m still in town, I’ll drop by.”

Why was it so troublesome?

I was worried the main character, the woman who goes by Jack, would sound too bitchy.

That’s a problem, really.  My problem.  I don’t much like discovering how deeply certain biases sit in me.  It isn’t comfortable.  But it is real, so there ya go.

There isn’t a thing Jack says to Luke that isn’t true.  Luke is being manipulative, he has no right to imply he has authority over her despite their relative rank in martial arts, and calling a past teacher the “Old Man” does strike Jack as disrespectful.  But she isn’t asking Luke to change, nor is she offering him the chance to realize he ought to change.  She tells him—point blank—what’s wrong with what he is saying.  There is nothing “bitchy” about it.

I say many things like that in real life, but I realized I say them with the notion, “And if you think I’m a bitch for saying so, I don’t care,” in the back of my mind.  That’s a problem as well, but a realistic one.  People–and more often than not, the “people” refers to women–who draw lines and limits without couching them as optional deeds or giving the other person “credit” for acquiescing are often named pushy, humorless, angry, bitchy.

My decision to self-publish was and is driven by many reasons.  But at the core, the decision comes from wanting to tell my stories my way, as professionally as possible, and connect with readers who like them.

Jack is a woman who has decided she will no longer put up with the little falsehoods expected of a woman who gets along by getting along.  She doesn’t want to play nice anymore by couching honest criticism in sweet diplomacy.  She still has plenty of insecurities, faults, and demons from the past, but she’s going to call bullshit when she hears it, and she expects the other person to be adult enough to handle candor.

I’m sure I’ve come across these writerly decisions before, but I can’t remember being quite so aware of it.

Full-time Person, Part-time Writer

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This is what it looks like when my pups decide I’ve been writing–and thus not paying attention to them–for too long.  They aren’t the only creatures in this world to hold such opinions from time to time, but they are the only ones permitted to express it by shoving their noses in my face and panting in my ear.

The last three weeks have been productive on the writing front, though more on the non-fiction side of my projects.  (For information on those, check out Wellness for Real Life.)  But this last week, I set aside most of my writerly time for fiction.  Sand of Bone is, at long and long last, shaping into the story it ought to be.

I am not a full-time writer and, though I daily wish for a little more writing time, I don’t think I want writing to be my sole employment.  I love my other work far too much to give it all up.

Teaching karate not only enhances my own training, it permits me to see and partake in a life-changing process for children and adults.  I watch children who believe themselves incapable begin to realize they can make changes in their own lives.  I watch teens find solid footing while transitioning between child and adult.  I watch adults discover their bodies are capable of so much more than they imagined, that they don’t need to move like a twenty-something to be a success, that training to fight is also about learning to play.  I get to be witness to, and a part of, the process of trust-building.

The experiences–day to day, and cumulative–inform everything I write.  It’s easy to point to a fight scene as evidence of the last dozen years I’ve spent in martial arts.  Less easy to see and understand are the character relationships and personalities.  While I certainly don’t see my students under life-or-death pressure, I see them responding to fear and shame and shock and embarrassment and anger and frustration, as well as experiencing arrogance and confidence and joy and satisfaction and understanding and enlightenment.  I see what happens when those emotions are encountered by people of all ages, who come from all different backgrounds.

If you want to understand a character’s journey, watch a ten-year-old who has never been physical go from being deeply afraid of doing jumping-jacks to smiling with a partner during an intense solid-contact sparring match.  Watch a parent learn to let their own children fail.  Watch an adult discover that tension doesn’t translate into power, then apply that lesson to their personal relationships.  I get to see that sort of thing happen over and over, chapter by chapter, as my students work their way up the ranks.  I can’t imagine doing anything more enjoyable with my life.  I can’t imagine what my writing would be without it.

Er, actually, I can imagine it.  I can read it, in fact, since I recently found some of my writing from twenty years ago.  It is so, so bad.

Trust me, Readers.  Karate–specifically, teaching karate–has helped shape my writing as surely as the benevolent writers and editors who patiently taught me storycraft.  Giving up one would deeply damage the other.

Plotting Again

I spent last week at karate camp, where much of my time was given to coaching upcoming black belt candidates on kata and self-defense.  (Sparring isn’t part of our testing process.)   Black belt candidates are my favorite group to teach.  Despite the heat and humidity, the week flew by.

An added benefit of karate camp–the hours coaching students on the strategy of defending against multiple attackers, other hours considering the best strategies to communicate with parents, and yet more hours determining what motivates kids to make good choices under tough circumstances–was the ability to see my plotting with a sharper eye.

So why doesn’t Syrina tell her Big Secret to the exiles at the earliest opportunity?

Because I hadn’t thought to do that in the first draft, then just let that choice ride through all subsequent revisions.

Why did I let it ride?

Because I couldn’t figure out and manage the consequences of her revealing the Big Secret.

Then I began to wonder about that last answer. How many stories have a “Why didn’t she just do X?” moment because the writer was unable to think through the consequences of X? Because the writer cannot–due to inexperience–see what would follow said revelation? (And I mention inexperience because I found those at the foundation of my own un-choices.) How much of it is a hesitation to reveal because, in real life, the writer would herself hesitate to face the changes such a revelation would cause?

Or is it just me?

So now I’m on a kick of analyzing my “revelation” choices all over the place–determining if keeping a secret enhances the plot or manipulates it.  Looking at the reasons behind the choices.  Forcing myself to consider if the choices were made for convenience.

In this case, revealing the Big Secret creates a massive ground shift in the motivation and outlook of several characters, and greatly alters the reasons later choices are made. But–as with the worldbuilding changes I made earlier–it doesn’t change the story I wanted to tell.

Oddly enough, I chose to work on Sand of Bone because I thought it would be a relatively simple task to edit. Instead, I’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of revisions.

The Dream Job

This should have gone up last night.  Alas, I got carried away with gardening and yardwork yesterday and thus spent the evening trying to ignore the spasms in my back.

Vegetable gardening is not my dream job, even though I do enjoy it and its results.

I cannot choose a single “job.”  I’ve never been the single-career track type.  I enjoy and take satisfaction in many things.  I don’t have a single favorite, but two.

Writing would, of course, be a significant part of the mix.  I love storytelling.  Were I able to devote more time to those endeavors, I’d love to experiment with scripts as well as novels and short stories.  As the coming year unfolds, time for writing will become easier to come by mostly because I’ll no longer be driving my son all over the place day after day.

Teaching must be part of it as well.  Whether it’s at the dojo or at a conference, I love sharing information, watching the student’s process of understanding, and hearing of successes that come when the new knowledge is put to work.  Teaching changes people.  That’s a remarkable evolution to watch and be party to.

My goal over the next three years is to establish a working base that combines the two.  I think I can make it happen.