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.

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