Tuesday, 24 September 2019

1st Kyu (Brown belt) Welsh Retreat

The weekend retreat in Wales was the first for the Zenshin dojo 1st kyu (brown belt) group.  After navigating enforced traffic delays, including the South Wales rush hour, accidents and roadworks, eventually eight members, drawn from across Zenshin dojo, sat together to enjoy excellent food prepared by Lucy.    The idea of the retreat is to bring people together, allowing them to mix and
mingle in a way ordinarily difficult during the weekly practice schedule.
 It doubles as an intensive karate experience and socially enjoyable get together.  Lucy had pre-prepared an excellent chilli; one veggie, one meat, and all the trimmings.  After supper, the group moved outside to the decking area adjacent to woodland and, in the cool evening air, drank, joked and conversed with each other whilst sitting comfortably around a blazing fire pit.

The next morning, after breakfast and posing for a pre practice photo, the group drove the short distance to LLanstefan beach.  The weather was amazing.  The sun shone, the big sky was clear blue, the rolling Welsh hills green and picturesque.  The otherwise deserted beach was a vast open space of golden sand ranging from talc like softness to a yielding firmness.
Practice began immediately with a run to the water line and back before lining up for kihon.  The kihon practice, although simple and basic, enjoyed a magical quality.  The group were encouraged to take advantage of their spacious, open and glorious surroundings, keeping their vision up and out as they moved slowly and methodically back and forth for a considerable distance.  The gang then adjourned to the water’s edge where the group experienced kiba dachi and shiko dachi, rooting themselves to the ground to prevent being blown over by the significantly strong, warm wind racing across the water.  It was as if nature itself was testing their stances.
Later, the group worked their Heian katas and were introduced to the conceptual “circle of excellence”, designed to encourage and improve their understanding of mushin and zanshin.  From Heian they progressed to Bassai Dai, the traditional 1st kyu to 1st dan kata.  Much work needed to be done and the group separated into pairs, working with each other, feeding back and discussing techniques.
Lunch back at the Lodge was provided by Gemma and Bev; a simple but delicious selection of salad, condiments, bread, quiche and cold meats.  Ninety minutes later everyone was back on the beach, thrown head first into fast Sanbon, Ippon, jyu Ippon and jyu kumite.  It was a tough session, but the time available allowed Rob to explain in detail the fundamentals of kumite, its nuances and what was expected.  The group rose to the challenge and after much practice the intensity of engagement and overall understanding grew to a more advanced level.

After a short water break, it was the turn of Tekki drills from the “clinch”.  Unfamiliar for some and a refresher for others.  After explaining these exercises were a form of kumite, but often interpreted as more obvious self defence techniques, as opposed to the more profound skills and qualities found in the previous kumite practice, Rob took the opportunity to place Emily under considerable pressure by organising a mock “clinch” assessment.  Her seven assailants lined up in front of her and attacked with right hooks as Emily defended herself with vigour and searched for the presence of mind to deliver effective responses.

As the clouds began to gather the group moved to the water’s edge for final Bassai Dai practice.  First in groups, then solo, then finally in the cold, River Towy water.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

The Zenshin Dojo Katana

Wikipedia describes the katana as historically one of the traditionally made Japanese swords used by the samurai of ancient and feudal Japan.  The katana is characterised by its distinctive appearance: a curved, single-edged blade with a circular or squared guard, and long grip to accommodate two hands.

The Zenshin dojo katana, was bought on behalf of the club from a dealer in April 2004.  It represents a metaphor for the qualities required to achieve dan grade (black belt), and therefore is not intended to be interpreted in the context of the samurai, combat, or “budo” arts.

The sword itself can be perceived as an object of grace and beauty, and yet it retains the ability to cause harm and injury. Like our art, it relies upon the integrity of the owner to use it without malice; honestly and honourably.    The blade, forged by a craftsman for countless hours, represents the labour; time, care and endeavour required to progress through the kyu grades thus demonstrating there are no short cuts to “forging” both sound character and good technique. The Samurai was never seen without the katana and so should this be for karate.  Recognising its value in all aspects of everyday life is what differentiates karate from other forms of physical activity.

The Zenshin dojo katana blade edge (ha), is sharp and remains hidden, sheathed in a plain undecorated scabbard (saya) it’s exposed only on rare occasions thus signifying that, like the karate ka, beneath the unpretentious façade exists a “cutting edge” capable of significant impact.  The primary occasion for exposure of the blade is the acceptance of a new member into the “Yudansha-kai”, (black belt association).

The age of the weapon represents “history”, “a past” metaphoric of experience.  As a genuine antique it represents “an authentic article” and is thus symbolic of the meaningful nature of dan grade achievement and Yudansha.  More decorative swords can be purchased.  To the untrained eye they are pleasing and impressive, however they lack that certain something necessary to be “the real deal”

The signature on the tang (that portion of a sword that is hidden by the handle), is authentic, engraved by the master smith Sadahiro around 1680.  It was common practice in the ShinShinto period (1764 – 1868) to put an old tang on a new blade, basically to give the blade more prestige in an attempt to increase its value.
It’s a Tsugi Nakago which basically means that the original nakago (tang) has been removed and replaced with a different one. The signature is gimei (gimei swords are those that bear a fake signature) to the blade (as in Sadahiro didn’t forge this blade) but the signature was declared authentic by sword expert Steve Smith of Liverpool Museum. This is quite rare in itself as there’s an old Japanese saying “11 out of 10 signatures are fake”. The Sadahiro tang was probably taken from a fatally flawed or broken blade. The tang from the other katana was removed and welded to the new one.  An old blade by a master smith is worth a lot of money. It was probably done during shin-shinto times but possibly it could have been done as late as World War 2. 

During the forging process, when the smith folded the steel, he mishit the blade once with his hammer letting air into the fold thus giving the club blade its one minor flaw.

The blade is forged in the Mino Tradition, a collective name for sword maker’s schools in the Japanese province of Mino, which had similar characteristics in varying degrees. The centre of sword making schools in the Mino tradition was the city Seki near Gifu.  The blade has a Sugu-ha hamon (straight pattern) Suguha is one of the oldest patterns of hamon; and muji hada (grain).   Muji means a "plain" or "unfigured", ji (blade surface). This is a hada (grain) with a very small, very tight pattern which is very difficult to discern. The boshi of this blade is also perfect; quite a lot of Katana’s are fire damaged on the boshi from the Samurai cooking food on the end of the blade! (Boshi is the shape of temper line in the point of the sword).
 The tsuba (sword guard) is not original to the blade.  The original tsuba was a very plain circular open work one.   The current tsuba has not been appraised therefore unfortunately not much is known about it.  It’s authentic Japanese and very old, probably 18th Century but could be much older.
The saya (scabbard or sheath) is probably from the 1960 /70s.  Whenever a Japanese blade is polished there is a need to replace the old saya with a new one as the slightest bit of dirt or grit in the saya can damage and spoil a freshly polished blade.

Within Zenshin dojo Rob holds the official title of Sōsetsu-Shihan  (founder).  He currently has responsibility for the maintenance, safe storage and use of the club katana.  In due course, this responsibility will pass to the elected Zenshin dojo President.

All new Zenshin dojo Yudansha have their award commemorated with an official picture, sat formally in seiza behind the unsheathed katana.  The club website, members only area, displays the photographs and records details of the individual Yudansha members.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Kelly's Journey

Where do I start? It was a year ago I tentatively took my first steps through the door.  I was a newly wed of a few weeks and had unfortunately fallen into a rut,gained weight, doing a college course that was making me truly miserable and was becoming very jaded with the way my life was heading.  Now,by nature I’m a very confident and outgoing lady but it at times can be a mask to conceal the little girl underneath who never felt quite like she fitted in.  Rob immediately enveloped me in a hug and made me feel welcome right from the get go,as did all the other black belts.  Unlike all forms of physical extracurricular activity I’ve partaken in as an adult, karate doesn’t just work on the outer shell because as I say, skin is merely there to stop your insides from slopping out!

But more importantly it teaches you to look deep within yourself and approach life in a more meaningful and person centred way.  I will always be nuttier than a lion bar but I can honestly say since joining up with this wonderful group of individuals and turning the dreaded 40 at Christmas, my soul has never known such inner peace and it has impacted outside of karate too! 

My health has improved massively, I’ve lost weight, I’m doing things with my body I couldn’t have envisaged even attempting a year ago with my crippling back pain. 
These wonderful people make you feel like you have wings and nothing is unattainable.  With karate, I leave all the worries outside the dojo and when the class is over, I depart feeling ten feet tall.  It even gave me the courage to go into a completely different career which makes me happy EVERY day to give something back. 

I have made some wonderful friends and suffice to say, am definitely in it for the long haul and cannot recommend it enough to anyone, regardless of race/gender/size/ability.
Karate changed my life completely.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

A Tale of Love and Loss

I’ve never been someone who covets personal possessions and always favoured a minimalist approach to material wealth.  One of the original attractions of karate was the lack of any need for equipment or expensive clothing; all that was required was a plain white karate gi (karate uniform affectionately known as pyjamas), an open mind and willing heart.That said, the karate and wider martial arts world, like most sports and leisure activities, have its fair share of accessories and adornments. Gi’s costing many £100’s if not more, gi’s of every colour and design, belts of quality and symbolism, medals, cups, badges, patches, weapons, weapon cases, the list is endless and manufacturers are quick to seize a marketing opportunity and tap into the popular culture of materialism and tribal identity.But for me none of this held any value and I revelled in the simple bliss of a plain white karate suit and belt. Nothing special, cheap but comfortable, and suitable for my needs.

After over 25 years of regular practice, in 2009 I was fortunate to be invited to a karate camp near Mount Fuji in Japan. My hosts were men who I respected enormously and held in the highest esteem, not only for their undoubted karate wisdom, but as human beings they possessed all the qualities I hold most dear, integrity, warmth, humility and an open, giving nature. 

During my stay, I felt honoured to be ceremonially presented with an unusual, personalised black belt. The kanji recorded my name and the occasion and was thoughtfully handed to me by Tetsuya Koibuchi Sensei and Isao Ariga sensei, men whose karate skill and wisdom is only eclipsed by their personal virtues.Japanese culture has a unique approach to quality; well made items such as the katana sword are appreciated, treasured and sometimes even revered.  So it was with my new belt. Purchased from a reputed supplier in Tokyo, traditionally made using a rare thread weaved carefully to form a belt which oozed quality. Wrapping it around my waist one could almost sense the craftsmanship and hours of labour needed for such a fine item. 

For the first time in my karate career I possessed something I valued and my emotional investment was intensified when news of the untimely death of one of the men who had passed it to me. Rest in Peace Isao Ariga sensei.
A handshake from the wonderful Isao Ariga Sensei

Returning to England from that first Japanese camp experience I proudly wore my new belt to every session. It became my constant companion, worn three or four times a week accompanying me when I taught and when I learnt; a fellow traveller in my bag as I practised my chosen art throughout Europe and Japan.So precious was this simple cloth belt that when writing my Will I informed the solicitor I wanted the belt to be bequeathed to my only son and kept in my family in perpetuity.

After nearly ten years, the constant tying and untying began to have an impact and the threads were becoming increasingly prominent. For many karate practitioners this overt display of use advertised their experience for all to see but for me thoughts of retiring such a precious object started to become louder.

Receiving the belt from Koibuchi Sensei
Each year I lead a residential weekend of karate training. Situated in the peaceful and scenic Gloucestershire countryside, the seminar allows for intensive and concentrated training for all those attending.  I decided that after the 2018 event I would retire my belt and preserve it for the future. Of course I would wear it on special occasions but I didn’t want to risk degrading the weave to such a point that the kanji and overall integrity of the material was compromised
One Sunday evening, a week prior to the annual Gloucestershire retreat, I taught my normal class of teenage students. The dojo for this particular Sunday was a school gymnasium; a regular and convenient location for many of the classes delivered by our club instructors.By 7pm the last student had departed and I gathered my belongings and headed for the door. It was an unusually warm and humid night but as usual I gave a last look around the room to ensure nothing had been left by students, parents or instructors.
Two days later I prepared for my regular evening class. Packing my bag I was surprised my belt was not in its usual place.  Time was against me so with no more thought I grabbed a spare and left for my class.  I have a young family and I was fairly sure one of the children had found daddy’s belt and used it as a slide or lasso or just thought it would be fun to hide it.

The next morning the continued absence of the belt spurred me into action and I began searching the house. One by one (I have four), I asked my son and daughters “have you seen or moved daddy’s karate belt?” They had not. At this point my concern became real. Could I have left it in the Sunday evening hall? The school caretaker, Martin, is a particularly helpful and friendly character. Still doubting the belt was truly lost and believing it was somewhere in my house I contacted him and requested he check the school for me.Twenty minutes later Martin called with bad news.My belt had been found on Monday morning by the school cleaner. She had handed it to a Physical Education teacher who had in turn left it in the school’s PE Office. Unfortunately a member of staff had little regard for the worn and threaded belt and threw it in the bin. In desperation I told Martin I would be willing to search the school bins to recover my precious item only to be told the bin had been emptied by the local authority and contents on their way to land fill.
And so my love affair with a piece of black cloth had come to an ignominious end and my dream of handing down a meaningful family heirloom was over. I was desperately sad and disappointed in the actions of the school staff who demonstrated little or no regard or empathy to the possibility the belt may have a value, financially or otherwise, but I guess one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. My seven year old daughter enquired why I was sad.  After explaining she said, “don’t worry dad I’ll make you a belt.”  The love from a child can never be underestimated and if she presented me with a piece of string to tie my trousers, I would treasure it, but I know nothing will replace what is lost. Life goes on but my karate life is a little poorer.

At my moment of greatest disappointment I’m reminded of the Buddhist creation and subsequent destruction of beautiful, complex and labour intensive Mandalas, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving ritual geometric patterns made from coloured sand. After careful and intensive work by three or four monks, the sand is ceremonially swept up symbolising the impermanence of all that exists.
Emotional attachment to inanimate objects is endemic in our society. There is much wisdom to be found in the sand mandala.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Karate and an Older Woman

Fliss has been a regular karate practitioner for over a year. It's not been easy and many challenges lie ahead. Here's her story.

Karate and an Older Woman

Good grief, why karate? This is something that a few people have asked me since I started practising at the beginning of last year. The glib (but sort-of true) answer that I give them is “because my neighbour got me drunk and made me do it”.  She is a Yudansha who had taken a break, was thinking of restarting, wanted someone to go with her, and suggested this late on New Year’s Eve after plying me with as much alcohol as I usually drink in a whole year. My reactions dulled by a very pleasant sparkling Moscato or three, I didn’t say no quick enough.

Being a woman of a certain age, as the saying goes, I do care about maintaining my health - I am well into that stage of my life where it is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. Furthermore, I had a period of about 10 years or so - basically the whole of my 40s and early 50s - when I was quite unwell and totally unable to exercise, to the point where, for a while, even a flight of stairs was a challenge. Having recovered from that, I am especially grateful to have regained my fitness, it is a precious thing which I do not want to lose until I have to. I’m also spurred on by the fact that my mother’s family has a very dominant Alzheimer’s gene, so all of my generation have started to look at each other and ask ourselves, with wide eyes and worried voices, ‘who’s next?’. Whilst we cannot change those genes, there is plenty of research to suggest that regular exercise, and mental chal-lenge, help to delay the onset of that cruel disease.

So - I run regularly, to keep fit and hopefully to keep the dementia demons away for a while yet at least; but sometimes I crave variety. Yup, karate could tick that box - lower impact, different mus-cles, a challenge for balance and coordination, new learning so a mental challenge too, just the job. I had learned a little bit of a couple of other martial arts (judo and kendo) in my teens and 20s, even taught some generic basic self defence in my early 30s, and enjoyed these things so, even after I had woken up on January 1st, I thought “yes why not, I’ll give it a go”.

Meanwhile, something else that happened in my 40s was a traumatic event which, although I was physically unhurt, left me with very troublesome short term memory problems. After a year or so, it became clear that these were not going away. Luckily, around the same time that it became apparent that those problems were long term, smartphones hit the market, and mine has been of great value in enabling me to function pretty much normally; the bingly-bong of my alert tones have become the soundtrack to my daily life. Work - on the iPhone, wake UP, bingly-bong. Dental appointment - on the iPhone, time to leave, bingly-bong.  Karate class (which is exactly the same time every week but I could still forget given the chance) - on the iPhone, bingly-bong. You get the idea. I just have to remember to not leave the phone on silent. If there’s something I can’t put on the phone I can usually scribble a quick note there and then, so as long as I don’t lose that scrap of paper I get by.

But - I was totally unprepared for the challenge that karate presents. Physically, yes of course. Dif-ferent moves, shapes, precision, balancing skills (hmm, the less said about that the better!), using different muscles, accommodating a dodgy middle-aged spine; all of that is difficult enough, but no surprise. The fact that I run helps, there is at least some reasonable core fitness to fall back on. But mentally ... oh, my days! Mercy! I have to remember stuff! Immediately and without making notes! Words. Moves. A sequence. Details.... Anyone who has trained with me could - quite probably through gritted teeth - vouch for the fact that I learn slowly and get muddled constantly. I am al-ways grateful for the patience and kindness of my training partners and would take this opportunity to thank each of you for that patience and support. There are just so many people in the club who are good and generous in this way, it’s wonderful. Also, Zenshin’s video tutorials have been really helpful with learning kata because I can watch them and practice nearly every day and gradually - I think - some things are starting to sink in. It’s a very, very slow process.

Sarah, Rob, Fliss
But, karate is a mirror that shows us ourselves. How true. What it has made me do is face up to just how rubbish my memory is, which is easy to forget (ahaha) with the ready availability of the gadget in my pocket. Furthermore, what really gets me is just how that makes me feel - stupid, SO flustered, and panicky. It is seriously embarrassing being so forgetful! I felt so inadequate that I nearly didn’t come back after an unavoidable spring break for work reasons. But, my neighbour chivied me along and I did return. Every time there is a new thing to learn, or else a previously-learned thing to recall (i.e. one way or another, every class), I have at least a few, and sometimes many moments when I feel those nerves kick in, and I freeze, because my mind has gone blank yet again. Occasionally I could cry with frustration because it just won’t stick. It is also a challenge insofar as that as well as feeling stupid, I do also feel like a bit of a burden, and sometimes think I should stay away so that people can train with someone who is a bit less daft. But then I get selfish and think, well it is doing me some good, so I think you may be stuck with me for a while yet.

That may not be the most obvious thing for a person to be learning at a karate class - managing a bad memory and the feelings it generates. But I think it is a massively useful lesson for me to be learning, not least because as an issue, it is not about to go away, and I hadn’t really noticed how much it was getting in my way until I started classes.

People think of karate as being about self-defence. Being able to react to a threat or danger with something other than simple panic and freezing. And yes, for sure, it can do that. But for me, it is not about reducing the panic caused by a threat. It is about reducing the panic caused by having to remember stuff. A mirror to myself.

Thanks for reading

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Tales of a Blue Belt assessment

Saturday, April 8th is a date I’ve been eagerly awaiting ever since Rob first informed me that would be the date of my Blue Belt assessment back in January. This assessment is something that I’ve wanted to do for over a year and I know during that time I wasn’t exactly shy about voicing my opinion that I was ready to do it. Now that it’s finally here there’s only one word to describe how I’m feeling – terrified. I haven’t been this nervous since my University exams back in the days when Y2K was still a genuine concern.

I feel ready for the assessment, if anything I’ve taken my preparation too seriously. By nature I have quite an obsessive side to my personality and this has certainly come out in the two months leading up to my assessment. I’ve kept written logs of what lessons I’ve attended and what I’ve done in those lessons. I‘ve attended a few Blue Belt assessments before, but as anyone who has done an assessment will tell you it’s completely different when it’s your own assessment.

When it comes to doing any type of physical activity despite any nerves that I might feel I’ve always been extremely confident in my abilities. I may be terrified, but in all honesty I don’t envisage any scenario in which I don’t pass my assessment first time. Looking back now I cringe a bit at my thought process approaching that first assessment. I may have put all the hard work in physically, but as Rob has told me on a few occasions there is a lot more to Karate than just the physical. Physically I was prepared, but mentally it was a whole other story.

When the assessment starts I feel like I’m performing well and everything is going according to plan. As the assessment progresses my confidence is growing and the nerves are long gone. When it’s time for the Sanbon Kumite I can’t help but think about the Blue Belt assessment two weeks previously. After failing to pick up on Rob’s initial first attack I got punched in the face for my troubles. The nerves are now back in full force and when I get a stitch while working with Lisa, I for lack of a better term completely lose my head.

I know people have overcome far worse things than a stitch during assessments, but unfortunately my reaction to this isn’t good. I become increasingly frustrated at not being able to perform at 100%. I’m getting hit far too many times for my liking and with each hit the red mist descends a little further. I’m being countered on my third attack while I’m over reaching and off balance which is resulting in me literally stumbling seven or eight feet across the hall. I know it’s going badly, but I don’t seem to have the ability to turn it round. The Sanbon Kumite seems to go on forever and I remember thinking to myself at the time that I just want this to stop so I can get the heck home.

When it’s over I’m pretty upset as I know the Sanbon Kumite was a complete disaster. I remember various people such as Toni, Chris, Justin and Lisa trying to console me, but unfortunately it doesn’t make me feel any better. I know there’s no way that my performance during the Sanbon Kumite was good enough to meet the requirements of a Blue Belt. In fact the first thing I do when I get home is email Rob saying that I know I’ve failed the assessment and that I need to re-do it as soon as humanly possible.

At my next lesson on the following Tuesday, Phil tells me that I received a partial pass and that I need to re-do the Sanbon Kumite section of the assessment. Whilst disappointed I didn’t pass first time I’m relieved that I will only have to wait a few weeks to try again. Donna and Simon also receive partial passes so at least I won’t be doing the re-assessment on my own.

After getting my feedback from Sarah and Dave there’s a general consensus that my issue is more a mental one than a physical one. It’s something that has been an issue in my time at the club – getting frustrated when things don’t go well. I take Rob’s advice about meditation, something that I used to practice regularly and book myself onto a meditation workshop (I do listen to you occasionally Rob!). I know that I need to get my mind-set right before re-doing my assessment as it wasn’t where it needed to be the first time.

Over the next few weeks I work a lot with Dave Pope on my Sanbon Kumite and the importance of staying calm, focussed and not getting frustrated when I get hit. On the Tuesday before my second assessment Dave gives me probably the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me at the club. He tells me that he wants to see “Yoga Keith” at the assessment on Saturday. I know exactly what he means by this; the more I think about it the more I realise that I’m a very different person at Yoga to what I am at Karate. I think it’s a combination of adrenaline and the fact that Karate isn’t something that comes naturally to me. This results in my becoming frustrated when I struggle with certain aspects of Karate.

When I arrive at the dojo I’m surprised at how calm I am. I’m a little nervous, but it’s night and day from last time. When it comes to the Sanbon Kumite section I’m feeling relaxed and confident. I remember thinking ‘Yoga Keith’ right before I start the Kumite with Toni. I’m feeling a little tired when, after Nick, I have to work with Pete. I’m struggling with Pete due to his technique and the fact he is so ridiculously fast. He hits me a few times, but I resist the urge to try and hit him back. At the end I’m not sure if I’ve done enough to pass. I know that I’ve done much better than the first time, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear.

I’m told that I’ll find out the result at my next lesson which will be on Tuesday. When I arrive at the lesson I’m feeling more nervous than I was for either of my assessments. When Rob tells me to come and get my Blue Belt my initial feeling is one of overwhelming relief, soon followed by sheer joy. The fact Donna and Simon also passed really was the cherry on the cake as the three of us have spent so much time practicing and helping one another over the last three months.

Looking back on the whole process a few weeks later one thought really springs to mind. When you reach the higher grades you really do need to be a well-rounded practitioner. Previously I knew my temperament and focus weren’t the best, but I always believed that my physical abilities could make up for any mental shortcomings. The assessments showed me that if you have neglected any one area of your Karate you will be found out.

I remember a few weeks back Dave saying to me that it could work out for the best that I didn’t pass first time as it would force me to address certain issues I had with my Karate. I do believe this to be the case as I know in the last 18 months or so I had allowed a certain level of arrogance to creep into my Karate. The fact that I didn’t pass first time has humbled me a bit and made me look at certain things I was doing in more detail. I don’t think I would have had this level of self-reflection had I passed first time.

My advice for anyone doing an assessment in the future would be to not get themselves into the state I was in before my first assessment. I know it’s easier said than done, but it really does make a huge difference if you’re calm and relaxed. Also if you don’t pass first time it’s not the end of the world, as Rob said to me I wasn’t the first person this has happened to and I won’t be the last.

In saying all that though I really do hope I pass my next assessment first time!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Ruby's Italian Adventure

My first time experience of a karate course in Italia. I went along with four other practitioners from my club, altogether there was eight of us from England representing our country. I felt nervous about the travel aspect but I knew the karate side would be hard but enjoyable. We landed a day or two ahead of the course so had some time to sight see beautiful Italy checking out Sienna. Pisa is where we stayed in a hotel; it was beautiful but quite basic. The course was from Thursday to Sunday; it was a magical time being be part of a bigger circle of the karate clubs, out on the beach. A different black belt instructor led the warm-ups with all of us standing in a huge circle, it was magical looking around seeing everyone doing the same moves and passer-by’s watching, I think they liked seeing people being together and exercising together, one guy came along and in the middle of a demo wanted to know more about us, some of us giggled finding it hilarious- that's how much of an influence we all had on this guy. (BRILLIANT)

We enjoyed (?) mokuso on the beach (30 mins) of meditation, being still. One sensei at the Sunday evening meal said "allow your thoughts to just come and let it go again, not to be completely silent" so for me I kept thinking about my life and one person in particular who has a huge influence in my life, I felt like crying but then I concentrated on the sand and waves and let my thoughts be washed away and the only person that mattered right there and then was me, only me. The course was led by a Japanese and Italian sensei.
They split the time and lead for an hour each, both of them were gentle and clear in their explanations demonstrating very well each move, the whole course was broken down into two practices each day apart from Thursday and Sunday when time only allowed one keiko. However the practice itself was two hours each and even then it was broken down further into stages so meditation, kihon and demos. I made sure I partnered and worked with different grades and different nationalities. I was offered lots of help by black belts and Kiyoko San deserves special mention, as her guidance was very calm and she didn't make me feel like I was rubbish and couldn't get it first time, they all praised me said I was a good learner and calm.
During the demo it was important for me to sit and stay still. It was very hot and I had to concentrate and keep my focus for the each part, Nakano sensei the Japanese master leading didn't speak English so there was translating from Japanese to English, Italian and a little French, for me English is my second language so it can be hard to process, but I enjoyed listening to all languages; Nakano San  knew one word in Italian, when he finished his demo he said " capire? " and everyone giggled Italians heckled which made Nakano giggle so even if you don't know the language you have to sit next to someone that does, and get them to translate. "We all may speak different languages but we all smile in one" beautiful.
I worked with two Japanese people black belt Junji san and white belt Ninomiya San, even though Junji didn't speak English I read his body language and could understand everything. We worked on "aura" and the three of us sat crossed legged on the beach, I had to block and vice versa; the aura from what Junji San mentioned, in my own words, meant how we need to anticipate the movement even before the attack moves, your hand moves before her hand. It really felt like I was being blessed having two Japanese people and watching them sharing knowledge and practising the technique, it felt like a karate kid moment. I have learnt lots and can't wait to get back and practise and be with other karate practitioners to continue a lifelong journey of this martial art and reminding myself to keep grounded, feet stretch towards the sand, head stretch towards the sun and keep the whole body in the centre, "no tension, just relax"
From here on out I've began my journey and the destination is somewhere in sight, out into the horizon and I can't wait to start this new chapter in my life (ciao Grazie) (origato go sai mez) (merci) thank you for this truly wonderful experience.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Chris - My Journey So Far!

My introduction into Karate came by chance, I was visiting one of my clients and as we do, we started talking about our interest.  I mentioned to him that as a 63-year-old I still try to keep active, playing squash and regularly going to the gym.  I also mentioned how boring gym work was, doing the same routines 2-3 times per week.  He mentioned his interest and explained he was a black belt in Karate; I was interested in talking to him about it as I thought it was all about breaking pieces of wood and shouting loudly!  After explaining what is was about I thought that I would be interested in trying it, but still had some concern due to my age and the demands that would be needed to actively participate.  Showing an interest my colleague Googled looking for venues near me and came across Zenshin Dojo.

Having the contact details, I emailed explaining my situation and concerns and had a reply from Rob stating that he thought it would be a good fit for me and that it offered in his opinion, a good blend of exercise for both body and mind. He also said it can be intellectually stimulating as well as physically challenging and presents a really good alternative to traditional “keep fit.”

I decided to give it a go and during a few taster sessions I decided to join the club.  The first couple of sessions seemed straight forward enough just a few stances and blocks, what could be easier.  However, a few weeks on I did start to find it difficult as there appeared to be no connection from my brain to my limbs, why was I going in a different direction to everyone else?  This became a very frustrating time, why could I not do what seemed to be the simplest moves and there was a time during Kihon when I was completely lost and at the end of the session felt very low.  

I guess if everything was easy we would all be doing everything and there would be no challenges, no mountains to climb, no journey to embark on.  I wasn’t finished yet, time to reappraise, could I do what was being asked of me? Of course I could, it just takes a little bit longer and lucky for me I am a patient person.  Time to step things up and although I still attended the gym I needed to mix things a bit more and try other classes and more practice; not just in the Dojo, the gym, living room and even the bedroom where all practice grounds. 
Cotham, sessions with Greg and messing with my head, doing things in reverse, then to Keynsham with Nick’s class, going giddy doing kicks in a circle, then to Warmley with Phil (why such early starts!), trying to exhaust everybody and that’s just the warm up!  Then the Friday morning session started and a good chance to grab two regular sessions a week and although the new class was mainly for beginners it was what I needed as I realised how I had not grasped some of the earlier concepts.  Staple Hill continues to be my regular practice venue as I continue to move on slowly.

I see Karate as being a jigsaw; I don’t know how many pieces there are or the picture I am building.  However, in order to build up a picture I need to first look for the straight edges and corner pieces, these are the blocks, strikes and stances (Kihon), as I start to build the puzzle I look for more matching pieces, these are the Kata’s.  Next, as the pictures builds I hope to add more pieces, the techniques and applications.  I still don’t know where my journey will end or what the picture will be, but when I see the blue edges of the puzzle pieces, I will know that the sky is the limit.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Steel Fist, Silk Glove

Steel fist in a silk glove

I joined Zenshin Dojo around a year and a half ago with no previous martial arts experience. I didn’t really know what to expect, but in my head I imagined that alongside the physical training there would be a lot of nonsensical proverbs delivered by an ancient sensei. Imagine my disappointment then when for the first few months the not so ancient Rob taught Karate in a very practical and understandable way. I was starting to think Hollywood had made up this stereotypical teaching by riddle method until one cold Tuesday evening Rob dropped the following gem on us:
“You want to have a steel fist in a silk glove”

It was just what I had been waiting for. The paradox is clear, and it left a number of us scratching our heads at the time. However the meaning soon became clear after some more explanation and practice. The steel fist is the power behind the technique, but the silk glove took a bit more time to understand, and much more time to implement. It refers to the way we perform a technique, blending our movement with an opponent’s rather than just being a steel fist crashing into them. 

It’s all about finesse and control while remaining relaxed. It explains how a smaller practitioner can throw all 6’3 of me around with ease if I take the Jeremy Clarkson approach of “POWER”!!!

Once I understood this I had a light bulb moment, and realised this is transferable to almost any sport. I immediately saw the parallels with swimming, which I have taught and coached for almost 10 years. You can only go so far with pure power (steel fist) before you plateau. You also need to be able to relax into the stroke (silk glove), placing your hand in the water in the perfect position to deliver the power.

Although I now understand what Rob meant, it will take many more hours of training and practise before I master the skill. Until then I will keep working away, eagerly waiting for the next time Rob shares some of his wisdom in a riddle.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

In Conversation with Iain Abernethy

Recently Iain Abernethy led a successful seminar in Bristol hosted by Zenshin dojo.  During a 20 minute break Zenshin member Justin Richards seized an opportunity to ask Iain questions.  In part one of the interview Iain provides an honest and personal  account of his karate journey so far and his thoughts on karate as an Olympic sport.

What do you find more satisfying, teaching or practising and why?
I enjoy both, but in terms of my practice is just for me, whereas my teaching is for others, and obviously others will outlast me, so I would have to say that I probably find teaching more satisfying as in that will have the longest influence, whereas my own personal practice that obviously dies with me, but my teaching hopefully doesn’t.

 What has been your biggest karate challenge so far?

Probably early on getting used to the discipline of regular training, when I wasn’t a child that would do that, but when I realised I can train consistently and get results from that, that was something of a revelation to me, so I would say that it was probably those early days once I got that habit it’s just never stopped and since then things have been pretty easy karate wise because I enjoy it greatly, there’s a few bumps along the road injuries, you have to overcome and stuff, but that would be it originally, disciplining myself to train regularly.

What has been your biggest success (or what are you most proud of)?

Probably my first book, simply because that was my first attempt to communicate the ideas I had with a wider audience, so although I don’t think it was my best book, and it certainly not my most popular book, it was the one I was most proud of because that was the point where I put my head above the parapet and said I think I’ve got something I want to say, so my first book is probably the one I’m most proud of today.

Were you affected by the 2005 or 2016 floods?

Not directly no, my house is on the edge of the town but obviously the town was badly affected and therefore people I either know or my family, my father lost a car in it, Fred who people might know through the books and DVD’s, his house was flooded out, so people we know, were, and obviously the town I live in was, but personally I was very lucky and got away with no damage to my personal property or anything like that.

What are your thoughts regarding Karate as an Olympic sport?

I’m indifferent to it. I’m happy for the athletes because I know how hard they work and the people around them the referees, the political organisations and I know the amount of effort that people have put in to wanting that to happen, so I’m pleased for them. But for me it’s an irrelevance it’s not what I do, it’s not what I practice, I don’t think it will have a big influence on karate generally as well, because at most we’ll be talking about 30 seconds of highlight footage, once every 4 years, so I don’t think, as some people do, that it will have a big influence on the way that karate is perceived, I don’t think it will. We’ll just turn up at the dojo and do what we’ve always done. So I’m pleased for them but it makes no difference to me.