My path of empty hand
Continuing in the spirit of classic movie titles I’ll talk about my love affair with martial arts which has started with legendary Bruce Lee back in the 70s when his name was an inspiration for kids everywhere, much like Michael Jordan in the 80s and 90s. Both were, apart from possessing almost unnatural physical and mental abilities, very likable and great in self-marketing on the worldwide scale. I can’t think of a more contemporary person off hand, so please enlighten me if you know in the comments.
After years of steady diet of westerns and martial arts movies I finally decided to start training karate at age of 7, since becoming a cowboy was not an option outside of two days during “Pust” (traditional Slavic carnival every February/March when people wear masks and costumes). My passion burned so deep, that it made me overcome my shyness refusing to go alone anywhere new or unfamiliar. I bothered my parents so much that my father finally took me to the only karate club he knew on the other side of town. He signed me up during the summer and when school started in autumn, I received an invitation by mail to come to first class at 7pm. My parents thought this was a bit late, since that was my bedtime, so they called the club and found out they put me in adult group by mistake. By that time it was too late, because all the groups for kids were already full. The club suggested to come back next year. I remember having intention to do it, but then I got distracted with scouts and other school activities. Few years later my younger sister got invitation to a swimming course and I went with her. I really got into that for about a year and I progressed into advanced group. During the summer vacation I trained with kids my age, who were practicing regularly for 2 or 3 years, so concern was if I can catch up to them. I tried, but I didn’t have the passion or determination I felt for karate few years earlier. I did get a very solid swimming base though, for which I’m still grateful.
Years later I realized that particular small event was a key misstep in terms of my low self-esteem, which I finally overcame in karate class in Finland. One cold day in December 2002 (in my late 20s), I accepted invitation to a free beginners course of Wado-ryu karate in Kuopio, where I lived from 1999-2011. After loosing an office job, I enrolled into Finnish language course. Part of that was work practice in a Finnish work environment, so I asked at a local elementary school to help in their computer class. There I’ve met a teacher, who was practicing karate for years and he told me about a beginners course they held twice a year. I liked the idea of being able to try for 3 months in regular clothes, before deciding to invest into karate gi and a yearly membership. In Finland most martial arts clubs work on voluntary basis, so a yearly membership costs a bit over 100€ (in Slovenia is 30-40€/month and Uruguay about the same).
At that time I was looking for a sport or exercise that would help me with my back pains and headaches as a result of previous two years spending 12h/day in front of a computer screen and no exercise. Both problems went away during the beginners course and furthermore I finally understood what really attracted me towards martial arts so many years ago. After few years of regular practice 2-3 times a week, I started to look for more information about martial arts in general outside of my club, because in Finland karate is treated mostly as a sport. Any spiritual or meditative aspects of martial arts are left to individual to explore on his or her own. There are some practical aspects of self-defense, but rarely are practiced with real situation in mind. In the street no one will wait for you to get ready or show the knife in plain view before first strike. Apart from that there are general benefits common to all martial arts. You will get safe full body exercise suited to your body and fitness, no mater the age or body type. There are very few injuries unless you train full contact style and even then you will use lots of head and body protection and padding. You learn respect towards others as well as yourself, how to better control your body, posture and emotions under physical and psychological stress and that in turn boosts your general self-esteem and confidence. My current style, traditional Shotokan, also emphasizes general awareness and readiness. All that elevates your daily life to another level of well being and if nothing else, helps you sleep better. It is a way of life, not simply a sport or art (like dance). And that is why the learning and training never actually stops for the rest of your life.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about martial arts is a general misconception about black belt. In the old days in Japan there used to be only white and black belts. Color belts were created after martial arts spread to western cultures, because we need smaller milestones to feel like we are accomplishing something. Perhaps that could be said about modern society in general, in which patience, perseverance and delayed gratification has become incredibly rare. So the black belt actually signifies the moment you become a proper student. Before you are just beginner, learning letters, writing and reading. Once you reach black belt, the real study begins, like writing essays, thesis, poetry and literature.
Karate can be divided into kata (forms) and kumite (sparring). Both consist of various basic and advanced techniques, which are also practiced separately. Kata is a key to karate, because it is not just a series of moves that represent a fight with imaginary opponent, but has also encoded multiple applications in almost every step.
I would like to end this with a quote by Pat Nakata talking about bunkai (application of kata). He was taught by Choshin Chibana (founder of Shorin-ryu), one of the last students of Anko Itosu, who is considered by many the father of modern karate. Although the same title is often given to his student Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan), because he was one of the original masters from Okinawa who spread karate throughout Japan.
There are 3 levels of application that were taught. Level 1 was for beginners and the very young students, which was punch, strike, kick, block and cocking – pulling the hand back in the chambered position for the transitional moves. Level 2 was for the intermediate and older students and emphasized body mechanics for more powerful punching, striking, kicking and blocking. What originally appeared to be cocking, now became throws and / or locking techniques. Level 3 as mentioned earlier, was vicious and deadly. The punch, strike, kick and block were now executed to destroy the opponent with a single technique. The throws and locks were fatal if applied correctly. Level 3 was only taught to trusted senior students.