A Typical Night at the Dojo, Pt 2
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Jun 2014)

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(Continued from Part 1)

            When our instructor, or sensei, calls for class to begin, the room falls silent but for the frantic patter of bare feet on wood as students rearrange themselves in order of rank, shoulder to shoulder. We face the front, or shomen side of the room, where large, criss-crossed American and Japanese national flags hang beneath framed images of Shotokan karate founder Gichin Funakoshi and his student Masatoshi Nakayama. After this evening’s instructor kneels, crosses ankles, and sits back on his or her heels before us, the highest ranking student commands, “Seiza,” and all of us kneel and sit in the same way. Anyone physically unable to do this stands off to the side.

            “Mokuso.” Meditate. There is total silence as we close our eyes, clearing our minds of all that is not karate.

            “Mokuso yame.” Yame, “stop.”

            “Shomen ni rei!” We bow to the front. The instructor then turns to face the students.

            “Sensei ni rei!” We bow to the instructor. Rei is sometimes translated as “courtesy” or “respect,” which we show by bowing. We do a lot of bowing. There is a heck of a lot of respect in our dojo. We bow before we turn to fix our gis, and we bow when we turn back to face the front. We bow before we announce and after we perform kata or “forms,” the preset sequences of movements against multiple, imaginary opponents. I’ve said before that, if I must have multiple opponents, I prefer them to be imaginary. Whenever facing real opponents for kumite (sparring), we bow before and after, no matter what. Whether it is one-step sparring with announcement of techniques in advance, or free sparring where it behooves us to reach levels of awareness we did not realize were possible; whether it goes well, or we get tagged by an errant punch or kick; whether it was our fault for not blocking, or the other guy’s fault for improper technique; whether we are calm or angry; we bow, as a sign of respect and self-control. Like most people my age who have undertaken martial arts training, I performed my first bows with Mr. Miyagi’s voice in my head saying, “Look eye! Always look eye!” As it turns out, following that advice from 1984’s The Karate Kid can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect in Shotokan karate, suggesting that you do not trust your opponent. Probably a good idea when facing Cobra Kai, but otherwise unnecessary.

            After we bow in, a given class will usually include practicing kihon (basic techniques) in combination, honing them in kata, and applying them in kumite (sparring). That noise you hear is the kiai, the famous karate shout. Why do it? Because it’s badass. It can also startle a real life attacker just long enough to give you a usable advantage. Most fascinating to me is that it can help channel untapped strength. I know neither how nor why. I do know that I was watching TV in my college dorm living room when a housemate walked in squeezing one of those chest strengthening contraptions. You know the ones – three or four coiled wires as parallel lines, handles on each end. He was going, “Hrrrrr!” while bending it. Release. Pause. Repeat.

            I had never used one, so I asked if I could try. He handed it over. I put everything I had into it, and it chuckled at me. Didn’t budge. Dale shook his head and said, “No, you have to make the noise.” I laughed and said “Sure, OK,” rolled my eyes, and tried again with a mighty, mocking, “Hrrrrr!” To this day I remember my utter shock, because it bent. In the same two hands that had tried and failed just moments before, it bent. I was so surprised that it nearly sprang out of my hands on the recoil. He shrugged, gave me a look that said, “Told ya,” then took it back and Hrrrrr-ed onward into the hallway. Thanks to that memory, I have never questioned the concept of generating sound to help generate power.

            We spend our time on the floor attacking and defending, executing punches, strikes, kicks, and blocks at face, chest, and groin level, with knife hand, spear hand, ridge hand, hammer fist, backfist, palm heel, forearm, elbow, sword foot, instep, heel, and ball of foot techniques defined as rising, dropping, roundhouse, inward, outward, snapping, and thrusting towards the front, side, rear, and diagonal while stepping forward or backward, or shifting to the side, or changing direction into front stance, backstance, cat stance, horse stance, hourglass stance, half-moon stance, and, well, you get the idea.

            After an hour and a half of this, we line up drenched, hot, and sometimes panting to repeat the sitting and silence sequence from the start of class, and recite the Dojo Kun: “Seek perfection of character. Be faithful. Endeavor. Respect others. Refrain from violent behavior.” In the more advanced classes, we do it in Japanese. I am pretty sure I am saying what I think I am saying. If not, hey, best long-running practical joke ever.

            Many rush away for the showers or home. Others remain to stretch, ask for help, practice kata, spar, or otherwise postpone the moment when we must abandon our heavy, wet uniforms and rediscover our mild-mannered alter egos in street clothes. Off the floor, you’d never know that the smiling woman serving as your flight attendant can execute a face-level roundhouse kick, or that the bespectacled guy over in ad sales can sweep your leg and drop you before you realize that you are no longer standing. It is as close as we may ever get to being secret superheroes. On my way back to that world, I retrace my path from earlier that evening. The office. The stairs down on one side. The locker room. The stairs back up on the other side. I put on my shoes, stand and bow, then turn to pass once more through the glass doors, now carrying more than I brought in with me. I leave the physical part of the dojo behind – the smooth wooden floor, the mirrored walls – but my mind holds that night’s lesson, as well as the calm echo of our Shihan’s (master instructor’s) voice from lessons past. The words are unchanging because they never lose their usefulness:

“Just keep training.”

“Just keep training.”

“Just keep training.” 

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