Discipline, Motivation, Ego

This is not an easy post to write as I have confessions that I'm uneasy sharing. It wouldn't be like me to let that stop me though especially if there's even a slight chance it could help one of you reading this.

Karate is so much more than self-defense and fitness. In a real way karate tests you, shows you who you are at your worst (and best), and is a vehicle for self-improvement, not just physically, but mentally and at your core. At my core, I've seen some ugly things. Let's take them one at a time.

When I started taking karate in January of 2015, I had periods where I attended classes three to five times a week. I then had periods of injuries and chronic sickness (nothing major, no worries) and I allowed these as excuses to not attend. Now some days with very high fevers, etc., I had good reason not to attend, but more often than not I regret how many times I chose to stay home when I could have gone to class.

Now beating oneself up doesn't help. And the reality is karate IS hard even for young, fit, healthy, uninjured people. Also, when sick or injured it is ever so much harder to force oneself to go to class especially when knowing that the pain in the days after class recuperating will seem so much worse due to current circumstances. 

Something good came from being sick though as at one point something snapped in me and I felt enough is enough and I went to my first class in street clothing and just sat and watched it. I stopped lying to myself and saw the truth -- that even if I was ill, I could still benefit from even just watching the class (it was also wonderful having all that time to take notes). It was after watching that class, that I started to attend more often while sick, but this also ties into ego which I'll cover a bit later.

It's one thing to start a new project all bushy-tailed and excited, but with any project there comes a time where some of the thrill wears off and you start to get a longer view of just how much sustained effort will be required. 

As I posted months ago, as a white belt I was very eager and happy once I had learned all that I was required to know to grade and then surprised, and perhaps daunted, by seeing my progress slow to a crawl. Learning core moves is easy; learning to do moves well can take a lifetime. And now that I'm a yellow belt I'm faced with the slow crawl of trying to do my moves better, not seeing any improvement, and feeling my motivation take a hit as a result. To add to this, I don't know what my requirements are to grade as they've been in flux. So here I am having graded for this belt 10 months ago (having received it 9 months ago) and haven't felt any closer to grading in the past six months.  

On the one hand, motivation is easier when I have a checklist of things to learn and mark off, but on the other hand, as I previously said, such a checklist can be detrimental once one reaches the point of having checked it all off and knowing the next step is to improve with each thing and then failing to see any personal improvement (that's one reason we have instructors of course -- to see our improvement even if we can't see it ourselves). I of course rationalize and realize that I'm still learning new things, trying to improve, and that the biggest truth is that there is no wasted time: any time I spend as a yellow belt will help me (traditionally there weren't even coloured belts in karate). This does bring me to ego though.

Ego sucks. Ego whispers into my ear that perhaps I'm too old/fat/out of shape for karate. Ego laughs at how long I've been a yellow belt with feeling no progress. Ego whispers that perhaps I'm not liked and only once the other yellow belts have caught up to me will I learn what is needed to progress and be taught it. Ego delights in telling me I'm not worthy of instruction, correction, or eventually grading. Ego shows me images of those I admire and shows how I don't measure up. And it whispers that I should just quit, that karate isn't for me. Every time I can't do a full push-up or when I tire faster than the other students, ego mocks me. And when I was sick, more often than not Ego prevented me from going to class -- as when sick even easy things became tremendously difficult and I couldn't take the failure. And even recently I admit I've gone to less classes due to listening to the mad ravings of Ego.

Although Ego often speaks partial truths (like showing us our fears) it amplifies what we fear others may think about us, but these fears are rarely based in reality. And so although I have fallen victim to listening to Ego, know that normally, I am more rational (e.g., I don't actually think I'm disliked.) I do think, however, that fears can be useful to reflect on to determine their truth and how to take action, like taking action to be more worthy if one feels they could be a better student. Ego's ravings, however, only work when one forgets that karate is a personal journey and so comparing with others or fearing what others may think completely misses the point. 

So with all these negative, painful aspects of karate, why learn it? All of these difficult aspects, when worked through, help one to improve. Karate is hard and not just for old/fat/out of shape people, but karate is hard for everyone. We all have our unique strengths and areas for growth -- some are just more visually apparent than others -- but even those I most respect have periods where they have to buck up and force themselves to attend classes and have times where they question their worth. These experiences unite us and it's through persevering in spite of these things that builds our inner strength and this is one way karate holds up a mirror and allows us to overcome our greatest obstacle: ourselves.


Belated Karate Update: Competing, Injuries, Harry Potter, Gradings

It's been months since I last posted and I've experienced much. In short (and not in order), I competed in two competitions, got three injuries (two karate related), volunteered 11 hours for a 24 hour Harry Potter themed karate marathon which was awesome, and had my first belt grading resulting in receiving my yellow belt.


I competed for both kata and sparring twice as a white belt. I didn't place in either competition, but learned a lot.

Competition 1: There was no separate division for 35+ adults, so I competed with people who were much younger and much more experienced (orange belts, etc.). It was wonderful seeing some of them do the same kata I did, but much more polished and impressive. As a note, in competitions we are supposed to be judged based on our own belt level and so it shouldn't matter what belts the other people have.

Even though my school had taught me the procedures for competing, I was still very nervous about making a mistake in etiquette. My goal, which I met, was pretty low -- to not forget my kata part way through. ;)  Unfortunately, during sparring I kicked my partner in the chin. She was okay (thankfully!), but in doing so I damaged my toe which still hurts on and off even four months later. Ouchies.

I stayed until the end watching the black belts compete which was epic. My already high respect for Sensei grew as I watched his dedication, focus, and skill during the competition. It was wonderful showing support for the members of my club.

Competition 2: Whereas my first competition was after having done karate for less than two months, for this competition I had already done my grading and felt much more comfortable with the white belt kata. Although this time I was in a 35+ division, I was very intimidated to be competing against brown belts. Also, the reputation of the person I sparred against was known to me which added to my nervousness as well. 

I had really hoped I would win a medal at this competition especially as I thought it would be my best chance being that I was as 'senior' a white belt as possible seeing that I had already had my grading. Although I didn't place this time, I was happy that I had no injuries and I was happy to share in the successes of my fellow members.

Reflection: I'm not sure if it's a good idea to spar with my lack of skill. I think since I started karate last January, I've only sparred about 5 times (not including the competitions) which didn't seem nearly enough to prevent injury on account of not enough experience adjusting for the different heights of opponents on top of them moving/bouncing. Even during my second competition I punched my partner in the jaw. She was okay, thankfully. Later she hit me surprisingly hard on my head. Not that it hurt, but I was surprised enough she may have gotten another point on me -- a good lesson to really roll with the punches. 


So far I've had two karate related injuries and there's a lesson here as both times it was because I made a mistake. The first was during sparring practice where I blocked a kick and jammed a thumb. This was due to my thumb not being held hard enough against my fist. The second was when I kicked too high, didn't have my toes back, and hit my partner's chin (yikes). This was in the last week of February and both injuries still hurt from time to time. It seems I heal a lot slower now than I did 20 years ago.

I also injured myself outside of karate turning an ankle. It took about two months to heal, but with the flexibility of karate (and the philosophy of working with your limitations) I only missed class for about a week and a half and was able to revise my techniques as needed.

Reflection: Practice proper technique and don't hit outside of our allowable zones. And more specifically you need to -consistently- practice proper technique at all times as during sparring when the adrenaline hits, you will end up falling back to however your normally practice. Practicing sloppy means fighting sloppy with a higher risk of injuries. Also, karate is very forgiving for working within people's limitations, injuries or other limitations.

Harry Potter Themed Mega-Training

This was a 24 hour (including sleepover) mega-training session for kids and it blew my mind in how it exceeded expectations. I mean the kids were sorted into the four houses, got to play quidditch, make magic wands, learn a wand kata, as well as a wand fighting self-defense kata, potions class, and more. It was amazing and the kids loved it. Heck, the adults loved it too with many of us making our own magic wands. It was also so very well organized and I felt I learned a lot as well. I just can't say enough good things about this event.

A picture of my daughter during the spell casting kata lesson
along with one of the wands that the kids made.


Although I succeeded and earned my yellow belt, I also didn't do as well in the grading as I expected. In addition to attending my own grading, weeks before that I also watched a black belt grading that was unique in that one person went for his Shodan, another for her Nidan, and another for her Sandan (1st, 2nd, 3rd degree black belts respectively). It was so very interesting to see the differences, at least during the public portion, for each grading and also to see people at that level of skill and mastery. It also brought tears to my eyes, especially during a continuous sparring test as the crowd cheered along with those who were sparring the person being tested. 

Reflection: Through my time as a white belt culminating in my grading I learned how much I underestimated how much time is needed to do well (even when judged at the level of a white belt as of course it will take years to truly master anything if I ever do). I remember being happy when less than two months in I had learned all the white belt moves and then thought I'd be ready for my grading soon. It's embarrassing, but I should have realized it takes so much longer to fine tune and improve techniques than to learn the basic movements. It's like how I know how to play the flute...but I have never mastered having a wonderful tone when I play -- flute playing, like karate, is so much more than learning the finger patterns/movements and can take a lifetime to master and even then there is always improvement to be made.

Why no posts in the past few months? Life got busy, and then I fell into a procrastination trap. Perhaps you've experienced this one? It's where enough time goes by that I think I have so many posts to catch up on and I must do all those first before I can get to the current update/content. And then not feeling like making many posts, I procrastinate longer. Oops! The only way out is to rid oneself of the need to do everything in order and just do a post.


I was wrong, but that’s a good thing

I'm now one month (15 classes) in and my body was able to handle switching to five classes a week with no injuries from fatigue. Yay! I've done 10 classes since my last post, so there's much to share.

I signed up for the tournament and not just for kata, but for sparring too. I was corrected in my assumption that me doing poorly could reflect negatively on the school—people judge schools on black belts, not newbies like me. Oops. I wasn't thinking clearly there. Good news in that I was taught my first kata two weeks ago and taught my second one last night. If I can build up my leg strength to do lower stances, I will feel good about competing with Taikyoku Gedan.

As for sparring, a couple students told me they both did tournaments only having received their gear the day before. So worst case, I can ask someone for a crash course the day of the tournament, if need be. I'm thankful, however, that some of our classes have incorporated sparring drills (not requiring equipment) to help us learn movement, distance, and timing.

Rather than list what I did for the past 10 classes, I'll instead discuss typically what's covered.

Warm-ups usually involve 10 laps of jogging with doing 10 of an exercise after each lap (pushups, situps, jumping jacks, burpees, lunges, dips and kicks, etc). For the open classes, the exercises have usually been our choice which makes sense as with multiple belt levels there is a wider variety in fitness level. Afterwards we stretch.

Next we typically do basics (strikes, kicks, blocks). After that we may do kata, self defense, sparring drills, or whatever else the instructor has in mind. Students up for a grading may be asked what they'd like the class to work on. And as we get closer to the tournament, we've been focusing more on our tournament katas and sparring preparation (exercises that don't require gear).


Notebook: I can't emphasise it enough to have a notebook and pen with you so you can take notes, if not during class, then immediately after. It really helps to write down what suggestions/corrections you were given, the names of new techniques, theory, names of participants (if you have a not-so-awesome memory like me), etc.

Focus on technique, not speed: For basics, when starting out it's important to separate the movement/stance from the strike/kick/block. Students tend to try to do too much, too soon, and move too quickly sacrificing their technique. I don't know when I will be ready for more, but for now, it's step, pause, block, step, pause, punch, etc.

Breathing: I found I was getting dizzy during kata practice and realized although I was breathing out fine, I wasn't breathing in deeply enough. Likewise, it's also important to breathe out when you punch/block.

Fatigue: If you're pushing your body hard (like not being in great shape attending 5 classes a week), be extra mindful when your body becomes fatigued as the chance of being injured can increase as muscles weaken. During one class, I was very mindful and careful when a knee started to feel a bit off. I ended up taking it easy on that leg (thankfully class was almost over) and elevated it when I got home and it was fine. By being careful, I avoided receiving an injury that could have impacted my ability to train.

Attending Gradings: Although my motivation to attend a grading last Saturday was to support two students I've worked with in class, I also learned a lot. Simply put, you cannot help but learn when you watch 20+ students perform the same techniques. Solid techniques and mistakes become much more obvious when you see many students at once. I was also thrilled to discover that a couple later katas have the same floor movements as the one I know.

I'm still enthusiastically obsessed with karate and am enjoying it tremendously. It's also wonderful meeting so many people I admire in classes and how giving many people are with their time, suggestions, and encouragement.

Last night I had the option to take a single weapons class and, although difficult to do so, I declined as I see more benefit building my foundation (basics and kata) before focusing on weapons. It was tough though (weapons training is fun) and I most likely won't get another chance until I earn a yellow belt.


What and when you eat matters

Last night I did my fourth class and, instead of waiting two months like originally planned, I took the plunge by switching to the premium membership. Instead of two classes a week, I can now attend up to five. This will fuel my obsessive nature well. : )

Unfortunately, even if I go five times a week, that won't be enough for me to learn a kata in two weeks, the signup deadline for the next tournament. Although I'd like to enter just for the experience, I also want to represent the school well, so it's better to wait.

Hour 4
Warm-up: 10 x (10 jumping jacks + 1 lap)
It seemed like it would be an easy warm up; with the fast pace, I was wrong.

Zenkutsu Dachi (front leaning) stance with four blocks: Gedan Barai (downward sweep), Jodan Age Uke (upper block), Chudan Uchi Uke (middle inside), Chudan Soto Uke (middle outside)

Next with partners we practiced breaking a same side wrist grab. It reminded me of my jui-jitsu days and was quite fun.

Close: standing in a circle, each student picked an exercise (sit-ups, push-ups, etc.). Many of these were very challenging for me.

Reflection: Don't eat too soon before class. I've yet to learn the specifics of what too soon is, although last night an hour wasn't enough. Also since starting karate, I'm naturally being drawn to eating healthier (more veggies) as it gets easier to see the effects of unhealthy versus healthy foods on how I feel and perform during class.

With the goal of trying to eat new vegetables, I tried and recommend the following recipes. Note that with the kale soup I didn't have enough tomatoes and so used salsa instead (why my image is different than the ones you'll see at the recipe site). And although delicious, the quiche and tortellini are quite calorie dense.
Bean Soup with Kale

Spinach Quiche

Spinach Tomato Tortellini


Karate isn't just for the fit, thin, and young

I created this blog to be vulnerably honest as a diary of my karate journey but published publicly in case it helps or inspires someone. Let's start: I weigh 230 lbs, can't do a single (men's) push-up, and have been mostly a couch potato for at least the past 4 months. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say my first karate class last week was extremely painful and not just physically, but ego-wise as well. More on that in a moment as first it will be helpful to address why I chose karate and why it might be a good choice for you.

Why I decided to take karate
Although I'm a beginner with karate (this is my second week of classes), I am no stranger to martial arts. 15+ years and 80 lbs ago I dabbled in jiu-jitsu, wing chun, kobudo, escrima, iaido, and tai chi. Wanting a less painful option than jiu-jitsu and kung fu, I had longed to try karate, but, with a huge pregnancy related weight gain, I figured my martial artist days would need to wait until I was in better physical condition. The problem was I never got there. For example, for years each spring/summer I would complete a couch to 5K jogging program, but drop it once I met the 5K goal, partially out of frustration due to not losing any weight.

Now still passionate about martial arts, 2.5 years ago I enrolled my then 4-year-old daughter into a karate program and she's now about to move up to the youth class in spite of her pretty consistently wanting to quit karate the whole time. So I was thinking what could I do to keep her engaged in martial arts. Now add to that some good timing in that I recently decided to stop trying to lose weight (see this TED Talk) and instead focus on fitness and overall health. I came to realize it was time to eat my own dog food and show her, through example, the benefits of karate as well as get her excited about learning together.

Why karate might be a good option for you
Although karate may include some flipping, joint manipulation, and pressure points, I've always understood that those aren't the main features at least at the lower belts. For comparison, in jiu-jitsu even as a white belt, I might be flipped a dozen times every class while giving and taking real pain as we practiced the self-defense moves in pairs. Pain is a great teacher and necessary, but I found it to be too much even when I was fit, young, and thin. To start off with that as the normal routine at my current level of fitness is too scary to contemplate. I could do some real damage to myself.

Similarly with wing chun, I'm just not feeling like I want to work with a partner bashing each other's arms again and again to make them tough, doing push-ups on knuckles, etc. Of course, I fully expect aspects of this to be incorporated in karate, and similar to jiu-jitsu these dimensions are also important, however it doesn't seem to be the main focus of karate, at least not in the beginner levels.

Comparing karate to other martial arts I've experienced it seems to be more friendly to beginners who may not be in great shape. While the warm-ups tend to be more challenging and involve more cardio, the rest of the class (punch/kick/stance drills, katas, etc.) tend to be less challenging at first with pain coming more from student controlled exertion (e.g., lowering your stance, punching harder) than joint manipulation, flips, pressure points, etc.

What you can expect for your first three classes (if your local school does it the same way, which it probably doesn't)
Now I'll give you a rundown of what was covered in my first three classes.

Hour 1
The warm up was brutal and, based on comments from the students, it's not the norm. I suspect it was a way of welcoming students back from the holiday break.

Warm-Up: dips/kicks/running combo: sumo stance, touch the floor, right kick; sumo stance, touch the floor, left kick. Repeat 10 times and then run around the room. Repeat the whole routine 10 times. (A total of 200 dips, 200 kicks, and running around the room 10 times.)

After doing my first 20 dips/kicks, when I started to run around the room I stumbled as my legs almost gave out on me. Because of my past with martial arts, I had tried to do a lower stance. I ended up hurting for almost a week and would advise starting with a higher stance and not overdoing it.

For the rest of the class we learned and practiced moving using three stances: Sanchin Dachi, Zenkutsu Dachi, Shiko Dachi. We also had to hold Shiko Dachi as long as we could while a partner timed us.

Reflection: It's very important not to judge your readiness, or the martial art, based on one class. You need a few classes to get a feel. I'd say months even and also that amount of time will help your body adjust so you can get a clearer picture. Also, although pushing yourself is good, it's good to know your limits: some pain is good; too much pain to practice between classes or do things like walk down stairs can be counter-productive and demotivating.

Hour 2

The warm up was a pyramid of push-ups, sit-ups, and burpees. First we had to do one of each, run around, then two of each, etc., until we did ten of each.

I had some ego pain here as I can only go down like a centimeter for a men's push-up and my crunches were dismal as well. After switching to female push-ups, my ego hurt when I was chastised. I, of course, cannot know what another feels, but that didn't stop my imagination from seeing disgust at how I could let myself go into such a poor state of fitness or that I wasn't dedicated and trying hard enough. I was also told when I signed up that I could do female push-ups. A younger me might very well have responded, 'But I was told...', but over the years I've learned to spot my ego and not react mindlessly to it.

I also wondered if it was a test for reactions to shame, pride, sense of justice, etc. Although not long lived, I felt embarrassment, shame, anger, righteous indignation, and sadness as I feared talk of accommodations weren't accurate and people with worse health than me wouldn't be able to do karate.

Now it isn't easy to share all these insecurities especially as I know, as I knew even at the moment, that this was lame, that I couldn't possibly know what another person was thinking, and that none of it mattered regardless. The important thing is that I was and am taking steps to improve myself. Having said that, I felt I would build more muscle by doing the full range of movement (via female push-ups) than a centimeter of male push-ups, but the critical thinker in me can find all kinds of reasons to do the male version regardless*. Most importantly though, why the heck would I go to the dojo if not to drop what I think I know, be an empty cup, and learn? 

*Like Covey #2: "Begin with the end in mind."

Dear reader, my degree was in philosophy, a strong indicator that I tend to over think things. ;)

For that class we worked on three stances, three blocks, and then did more push-ups and sit-ups. My arms weren't as sore as my legs (from the previous class), but then again, I'm less impacted by sore arms as I don't walk or stand on them.

Reflection: Not just in Martial arts, but anywhere, you will find people with different expectations and need to manage that. Also, know that you are always being watched and tested. Martial arts don't just train the body, but the mind as well.

Hour 3
For warm-up we did a series of sit-ups and running around the room. At the time I felt as if I couldn't push myself any more, but my stomach didn't feel sore the day after.

We learned and practiced three blocks (one of them different from the three we did the previous class) while moving in a Zenkutsu Dachi stance. We also did a sparring exercise where we practiced dodging. It was quite fun and enlightening.

Reflection: From previous martial art experience, I suggest practicing wide angle vision (as opposed to tunnel vision). This can help you catch nuances for each sparring partner to detect their 'tells'. Like in poker, people have various ways they may show where they are going to hit (or alternatively where they think you are going to hit them).

I hope this gives you an idea of what my first three classes were like and what you can expect should you take karate as an overweight, out of shape, older person.

Also, I want to add that I've felt more energetic, have been sleeping better, been more motivated to cook and eat more vegetables, and I'm very, very enthusiastic about the classes even when I'm so red with exertion that Sempai checks in to make sure I'm okay. It's challenging, but I know that in a few weeks my health will improve making it easier.

Finally, if you have any questions please ask away. Although I'm writing this as a personal diary and record of my journey, I'm happy to help others through sharing my experiences.