Karate surprised me. As you may recall, I informed Sensei Don at the beginning of the Experiment that I was less interested in the mental aspects of Karate and more interested in the killing people. He was kind enough to tell me some things about the more lethal aspects but also gently guided me back toward the mental and spiritual aspects of the martial art. It turns out that to do the former well, you have to be good at the latter.
This irritated me. I don’t like busy work and the standing basics and kata repetitions were a bit reminiscent of Madonna/Gwyneth Paltrow’s 100-rep workout. Usually it entailed me ordering one of the Gym Buddies to count to 100 while I chattered and used them for free therapy (they’re very good to me!). But somewhere along the way, I started to realize what Sensei Don meant.
Three Life Lessons I Have Learned From 30 Days of Karate
1. When Someone Pushes, Pull Them Towards You. One of the things Sensei Don taught us was a game called “Sticky Hands.” Check out this video to watch as Gym Buddy Allison and I explain the game and give a very giggly demonstration of how to do it (Yes, I know how very unKarate like we look. You think this was bad, you should have seen us in the Dojo. Sensei Don is nothing if not patient.)
The hard part of the game is that it is counter-intuitive. What is your gut reaction when someone pushes you? To push back, of course! But Karate taught me the power in pulling them in closer – not only do you use their momentum against them but it usually unbalances them. And I discovered that this little lesson applies to more than just punches and shirt grabs.
This past month I was having an intense emotional struggle with one of my good friends. I won’t detail the cattiness that ensued but succificeth to say I ended up at the gym in tears one night. As I bit my lip and tried not to look like the 12-year-old I really am, I remembered the Sticky Hands game and something Sensei Don had told me: “The hardest part is giving up control to the other person.” You know what a control freak I am. But I decided that he was right. There was no point in fighting with a person who was dear to me. Instead, I let her decide when and if to throw the (emotional) punches. When she did, instead of retaliating or feeling hurt, I simply drew her into me. I did my best to redirect the hurt and be gentle while she worked through her own momentum. I can’t even tell you what a difference that made. Within days, my peace was restored. I found that to get control, I had to give it up first.
2. There Is Beauty In the Details. This is the part I wanted most to skip over in my Karate training. The kata is like a dance but made up of stances, kicks and punches. A very stilted and formal dance. With no music. Unless you count the funny “ki-ya”s we got to do. And yet because Sensei Don told us it was important to learn, the Gym Buddies and I did our best to squelch our silliness and practiced it faithfully several times a day. Although we may have broken out into Rockette kicks on a few occasions. It couldn’t be helped.
Then one day I realized I liked it. There was a sense of mastery in remembering the order and I felt amazingly accomplished the first time we all got it right. (There was screaming and a few cheerleader jumps. No chest bumping though – Gym Buddy Megan is pregnant, remember?)
But the moment when I truly realized its worth was when we performed it for Sensei Don. He stepped in and showed us what we had really learned: a sequence of moves that was not arbitrary, like I had thought, but was designed to block and attack a certain offense. And when I did it right, it worked! In all the self-defense classes I’ve taken, I’ve never actually ended up with a move that really worked. And now I had three! I was positively giddy. I went home and tried them on my husband. They worked on him too! That is until he decided to just throw me over his shoulder and tickle me until I threatened to pee on him. That little technique isn’t covered in self-defense books but I’ve had good results with it.
3. Unrestrained Emotion Hurts. I wrote early on about how Karate was more emotional for me than I had expected due to my previous experience with being assaulted. Never before have I ever felt so very fragile during an Experiment. And I think it made me stronger. Karate is good therapy.
The first time I felt this strength was during one of the first lessons when Sensei Don asked if he could touch my throat. He had no way of knowing that that is my absolute panic spot. Even now, thinking about it, makes my heart pound and the bile rise in my throat. I don’t let anyone touch my neck, not even my children. I believe my response was to throw Gym Buddy Megan under the bus. “Can you do it on her?” Sensei Don replied that he would but he wanted me to feel where the pressure points on the neck were. And so I said yes. And you know what? I was okay. Not great – I did tear up a bit but I don’t think anyone noticed – but I was okay. And now I know that about myself.
The second time was much more dramatic. After all those weeks of drills, Sensei Don finally deemed us ready to punch something. So he got out his pads and showed us a drill where we did two punches and a block as hard as we could for two minutes straight. Now, I have done intervals. And I will tell you that this rivals the 800m sprint as the highest intensity interval training I have ever done. It had something that sprinting does not though: I got to hit stuff. Within just a few punches I discovered the satisfying thrill of smashing my hand into something – hard. It felt really good. In fact, it felt so good that I didn’t realize until after the first interval was over that my left hand had two split knuckles and I was about to leave blood spatter in the Dojo. I quickly taped it up though because I didn’t want to miss my next interval and Sensei Don was not stopping the clock for me.
For some reason that I still can’t fully explain, all that punching did something to me. Like my knuckles, something inside me split open and while it hurt, it felt good to get it out. I cried when I got home and it wasn’t because of the pain in my hands (although seriously, that hurt! I do not recommend splitting your knuckles). Afterwards I felt lighter than I have in a really long time. It was a high that didn’t leave me for days. I even dreamt about installing my own makiwara (a leather punching/kicking post) in my basement so I could do it again.
I learned that those tides of emotions that overwhelm me at times can be controlled without repressing them. And they can be experienced without being consumed by them.
For a good example of control, check out Sensei Don first breaking a board (don’t blink or you’ll miss it, he makes it look that easy) and then demonstrating the practical application of the move on Good Sport Bill, another student.
So how was Karate as a workout? That was the original point of this Experiment, right? It was fairly rigorous. Like many workouts it is as hard as you make it. Sensei Don kept things tough for us by having us do daily conditioning exercises like push-ups (although never again on our knuckles), sit-ups and squats. At his Dojo he came up with some circuit training that involved functional weight exercises specific to Karate movements that we were training. And of course the repeated punches and kicks could definitely bring on a good sweat. We added some free weights and cardio of our own as well as daily standing basics and kata drills. Despite never targeting specific muscles groups with our Karate training, I found that my shoulders and upper arms got some additional muscle definition.
Karate was definitely one of my most favorite Experiments. Generally as the Gym Buddies and I get to the end of the month, it gets harder to motivate ourselves to do the workout. We’re ready to be done and move on to the next thing. This time however, I wished I had more time to continue it. One month was simply not enough to learn everything that I want to know about Karate. Don’t worry though, Sensei Don and I are in talks to continue with the lessons so I’ll get my punching fix somehow!
For kicks and giggles, here is Sensei Don performing his favorite move on Bill. Kill Bill!
So tell me: those of you who have martial arts experience – was it like this for you? Was anyone else surprised by the mental aspects like I was? Have any of the rest of you experienced a mental or spiritual element in conjunction with a particular kind of workout?
PS> Tomorrow I’ll announce January’s Great Fitness Experiment – and it’s one EVERYBODY can follow along with this time. Perfect for New Year’s Resolutions or just a change up, so no excuses this time! I even enlisted an additional Gym Buddy, Krista, to join us. Also, look for upcoming posts on binge eating and compulsive exercise as requested by several readers in the comments!