September 28, 2011

How far can you go?

Karate training can be exhausting, no matter how many years you've been doing it. There is always a strong focus on lower stances, contraction and expansion of muscles, and big hip movements. Many people that train do so after a long day of classes or work. This can add to the feeling of exhaustion, and even an hour of training can seem strenuous. However, karate is about pushing ourselves harder than we normally would. And in order to do this safely, we must understand the nature of exhaustion. There are two main forms of exhaustion: mental exhaustion and physical exhaustion.

Mental exhaustion is a feeling of fatigue that you get after exerting yourself. During a particularly rigorous training, throwing the next punch or performing the next kata can seem like a daunting task. This is when we need to exercise our willpower and give our maximum effort despite the fatigue.  We need to focus our full attention on our training.  From a self-defense perspective, any potential attacker won't care how tired you are when he or she strikes, and you must be prepared to defend yourself. In a life or death situation, you cannot let your exhaustion overwhelm you. That is the same thinking that must be applied to training. If your body can go further, don't let your mind stop you short.

Physical exhaustion is when your body itself starts to break down, and may be due to fatigue, injury, or other muscle or joint pain. These are situations that require you to know and understand your body, and where willpower may have little effect. Part of training is pushing ourselves beyond what we thought was possible, but this needs to be done safely.  If you experience pain when training, you need to evaluate the situation.  If your pain is in your joints, you may need to stop training or adjust your training to prevent injury. Ignoring it for the sake of being tough will only lead to damage. Depending on your injury, you may need to take some time off training to allow for recovery. It is extremely important for us to recognize our own limitations.  There may be times when the mind feels stronger than the body, when we feel that we can work through the pain. It is then necessary to take a step back and determine if our bodies really can handle the strain, or whether we risk injury.  Especially as we age, our body isn’t always what it used to be and we need to make adjustments.  Discuss with your Sensei your situation and proper ways to adjust your training.

We are ultimately stronger than we realize. If we put our minds to it, we can push ourselves to go further than we could have imagined. However, while exhaustion of the mind can be overcome through strength of will, exhaustion of the body requires caution and an understanding of our own limitations and capabilities. Having both a strong body and mind will help us to continue our quest for perfection and allow us to continue lifelong training.

Submitted by: Arpan Ghosh, Shodan

September 22, 2011

Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.

Katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyo.

This is Master Funakoshi’s 12th entry in the Niju Kun, and this principle can be related to partner training, training intensity, and training attitude.  This is only one potential interpretation, and the beauty of the Kun is that they apply to many aspects of life and training.

Karate is about understanding ourselves and controlling our behaviors and interactions with others.  Understanding must come first because you cannot control what you do not understand.  Know yourself; then you can control your thoughts and actions.  Know others; then you can harmonize your interactions with others.  In partner training, an aggressive, passive, or assertive approach may be taken in relation to one’s partner.  The aggressive partner throws techniques without regard for their opponent’s movement, position, or strategy, and tries to impose their will on their opponent.  This person is trying to win.  A passive partner throws techniques without intent or spirit, and shows a similar lack of regard for their opponent’s movement, but with the goal of avoiding the confrontation.  This person is trying not to win.  If we look beyond the false dichotomy of passiveness versus aggression we can approach conflict with assertiveness.  Assertiveness is when we seek to control a conflict through understanding and harmony between ourselves and our partner – we are thinking of not losing.

Taking kumite training as an example, an aggressive attacker may seek to damage their opponent or throw their strongest and fastest technique without a care as to their opponent’s health or safety.  Their training partners may become injured as they impose their maximum strength on every opponent regardless of size or rank.  This attitude has no place in karate, because we should seek to control ourselves and respect our opponents – never do we intend to cause injury.  On the flip side, a passive attacker may not even come into range with an attack and will not pursue an opponent as they dodge and shift.  The partners of the passive opponent will be unchallenged in their training and will have wasted valuable time going through hollow motions without the feedback of a spirited opponent.  The passive opponent will never learn control because they never challenge themselves to control their technique.  Karate should be training us to have control, not to avoid or disregard the issue.  Our karate training should instead be assertive.  An assertive opponent will adjust their technique and strength to give the most spirited attack appropriate for their partner.  Regardless of age, gender, size, and rank, a spirited and controlled attack can be executed without injury or danger to our opponents.  Thus our opponents can safely test their technique and extract valuable feedback from a spirited engagement.

And we shouldn’t stop there - self-control applies to many aspects of life.  Consider reaction training where you must synchronize your movement to a count.  Consider slow motion training where you must execute techniques at a snail’s pace.  Consider having a conversation – Do you dominate the talking? Do you quietly nod even though you disagree? Or do you have a true dialogue?  Neither the aggressive nor the passive approach to conflict will do anything to develop control over oneself and harmony with others.  If you train aggressively or passively (and we all do at some point), then you are not training at all.  Instead, we must train assertively.  As Master Funakoshi said, think of not losing.

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Nidan

September 14, 2011

Putting the Dojo Kun into the Dojo

At the end of training, we recite the Dojo Kun.  This serves as a great reminder that we should carry these principles out into the world in our daily lives.  But we must also incorporate these principles into how we train, so it is important to reflect upon what we’re saying so that we can bring these principles into the dojo. 

We are all familiar with the shorter English translation of the Dojo Kun: seek perfection of character, be faithful, endeavor, respect others, and refrain from violent behavior.  But the longer translation can help to provide some additional insight and help us interpret what these precepts mean for our training: strive for the perfection of character, defend the paths of truth, foster the spirit of effort, honor the principles of etiquette, and guard against impetuous courage.  While there is certainly overlap between precepts, each one has a different lesson in relation to our training. 

Strive for the perfection of character:  Karate training is not easy and takes a lifetime, so what is perfection in training? To really understand this principle, we must look beyond technical skill. It is important to understand why we train, and why we perform certain movements and combinations. To be able to perform a technique or a drill in training is easy, but to really understand it takes much longer and much more effort.  It takes an attitude of always wanting to be better to force us to understand why it works, why we do what we do, and to focus on making those little changes that can make a big difference. Similarly, we must aim to understand the reason behind the etiquette we follow, the protocols that exist in karate.  It takes a great deal of humility and effort to admit that we’re not perfect and yet to always strive for perfection. Ultimately, we must aim to constantly better ourselves through our understanding.  Each day that we train, we should learn something new, discover something new about ourselves and our training. We want to always try to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today.

Defend the paths of truth: Truthfulness and honesty help us to become better people, and honesty in our training is the only way to become better karateka. We must be honest with our fellow karateka, as well as Sensei, but more importantly, we must be honest with ourselves. Every time we step onto the dojo floor, we make a commitment to do our best. Do you keep that commitment? Or do you look for any opportunity to be lax? Even if Sensei's eyes are not on you, you know the truth. Similarly, we must accurately assess our own strengths and weaknesses in training. If we make excuses or try to hide our shortcomings or act like we're better than our ability, we only fool ourselves. Obscuring the truth only makes it harder to see what can be improved upon.

Foster the spirit of effort: As karateka, to get the most out of our training, we must make karate training a priority and do everything we can to keep that commitment.  We know that when we miss a class or don’t give our best effort, it doesn’t just affect our own training, but also affects our training partners.  So we make every effort to make it to training and once we're there, we're always putting in our maximum effort. We should not only push ourselves, but also our partners so that they try their hardest.  Training time is our time and is limited, so we should always make the most of it.

Honor the principles of etiquette: We must always show respect for our Sensei, our Senpai, and our training partners.  But respect is not just observing specific rituals.  Etiquette is revealed by our words, actions, attitude, and overall demeanor.  Our understanding of etiquette is shown in many things, including how we approach class, how much effort we put into training, how we treat our fellow karateka, and how we bow.  We must bow properly and have the proper feeling within ourselves each time we bow.  We must listen to our instructors and to our seniors.  If we are always giving our best and pushing others to be their best, we are respecting their desire to train. By setting a good example for our juniors and encouraging them to improve, we show them respect. We may be friends with fellow karateka, but life outside the dojo is different from life inside the dojo, and within the dojo we need to understand, follow, and respect the hierarchy that is integral to karate training.       

Guard against impetuous courage: Training is about self-improvement, and helping others improve. It is our goal to train with intensity and to push our fellow karateka to their limits, but never with intentions to harm them.  This principle is strongly related to respect, where we need to push our partners to improve while having a humble and respectful attitude and treating our partners with respect.  We need to think about our words and actions instead of just reacting, and must always be in control of ourselves, in both body and mind. 

The Dojo Kun is meant to aid in focusing our training, to give us something to aim for beyond physical improvement and exercise. Reciting the Dojo Kun at the end of class keeps it at the forefront of the mind, but if we do not think about what it means, or strive to follow the path it lays out, then it is little more than a set of words. By always trying our best, with complete honesty, respect, and control, we can reach a step closer to perfection, and the ideals of karate-do.

Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Nidan and Arpan Ghosh, Shodan