How I came to study martial arts (and why I still do)

Upon observing an Aikido class for the first time and hearing my decision to take up the art, my father’s only counsel was; “This stuff is very dangerous. Be careful.” Which I initially took to mean I should be sure to take care of myself when training and not get hurt and only later figured that he really meant I should be very careful about injuring other people.

At the end of the day Karate is just hitting people. This is what I thought after training in the Shotokan style from fifteen til eighteen and proudly tying a strip of black fabric around my waist and calling myself shodan. Is this all? I felt that there absolutely had to be more. I was restless and would not be satisfied. I attended competitions and freestyle classes and talked to people who I knew who trained in other styles. And I watched an awful lot of youtube and read an awful lot of wikipedia. A teacher once complimented me on my double jump kick. It made me happy that I had taken the time to watch all those Jet Li movies. But I was not as good as Jet Li, and I wanted to be. There has to be more than learning variations on the 540 crescent kick. Martial arts has to contain more than adding an extra 180 degrees onto your spin every time you advance a grade.

When I was 13, a large rugby player and his mates the year above me in school threatened to throw me through a window. I don’t recall exactly what for. I don’t recall exactly what happened either, but I have the suspicion that at some point I punched him in the balls. I did not get thrown through the window. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was unhurt at the end of it. But I did not want to have to rely on ball-punching for the rest of my life if someone nastier came along.

At some point between the ages of four and seven I watched Jackie Chan’s drunken master. As a kid I found it hilarious, even though I had no concept of what it meant to be drunk. It was just funny to see Jackie drink from his gourd and act a bit silly while at the same time laying the smackdown on the bad guys. I did not grasp that the striking sound effects were clearly fake, nor that Jackie Chan was not, in fact, an amazing ventriloquist who spoke English without moving his lips at the right time. Nor did I grasp that at the end of the movie Jackie straight up kills his opponent by crushing his larynx and twisting his head off his shoulders. It was just Jackie Chan being cool.

I do not remember how old I was when this happened, but I used to play a game with my dad. We would sit cross-legged in front of each other and he would tell me to prod him in the chest. Then he would block me and prod me instead. It made me giggle, but it also made me want to win. I loved this game. We played it a lot. I suspect my father let me win from time to time to keep me interested.

In my first year of uni I got into a fight in the student guild club. There was a group of young males who were merrily hurling themselves at the other dancers on the floor. That is, properly taking run ups at us. It annoyed me and I was drunk. With not half a year’s experience in Aikido in me, I had a go at applying one of the basic techniques I had learnt. By some miracle of chance and to my great surprise, it worked and my assailant who had collided with me sharply went flying. It had not occurred to me that his mates would pick him up and he would come back for more. The rest is a bit blurred out, but I know that I kicked one person in the groin, I struck at least one other, I kept moving and I did not get hit. One of my friends swears that I chopped one of my attackers in the neck and he dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. I think he misremembers the event somewhat. My other friends just told me that I was very frightening. At the end of it I know that on something of a combat-high I danced for the rest of the night and when I got back to my room I felt immensely guilty for getting in a fight that I thought in hindsight was almost entirely unnecessary. I was also disappointed. After all this time is it still just hitting peopleHave I not advanced at all? I did not tell any of my martial arts instructors about the incident.

Back when I was a 2nd or 1st kyu in Karate, I fought a yondan in a local competition. I lost and I was outraged. Being a hot-blooded seventeen year old, I was certain I had been robbed. I had landed a firm side kick under my opponent’s guard into his ribs which I thought surely qualified for an ippon. Both myself and he knew I had landed the kick. Indeed, we both stopped and looked to each other, the referees, and back, waiting for a call of some sort. None of them made any response except to indicate we ought to continue the bout as if nothing had happened. My opponent landed a clean reverse punch on my stomach and it was called ippon and the match was over. Afterwards I bitterly called foul play behind closed doors, blaming one of the referees for being biased against me for dispatching one of his students in an earlier round. Honestly speaking, my opponent just had better Karate than me and beat me because he struck me with a well timed precise attack which I failed to defend. In hindsight, his form was excellent. After I had had some time to cool off, I thought about the match again. The first line of the dojo-kun or code of Shotokan Karate as it was taught to me reads: hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto. This translates as something like “to strive for the perfection of the self”. I did not think my attitude towards this competition embodied this part of the code. I thought about what I should do. How am I to fight someone with many times my experience in the same martial art? I had always relied on being young, fast, and flexible in Karate matches. How am I to win when I cannot outpace my opponent? How am I to win when my speed cannot overwhelm an enemy’s technique? If my Karate up to this point had done nothing more than accentuate and make use of a talent already natural to my body, what ought I to do to go beyond that? What ought I to do to go beyond the limits of my body?

I once took classes at the school Karate club, set up and run by one of my schoolmates, who gave me permission to fill in for him and manage the club while he was busy studying for his exams. The things I taught were not at all similar to the style which he taught. In fact, I am sure most of the things that I demonstrated were quite useless in terms of learning quick self defence (which I suspect a number of students were there for the purpose of). In truth, plenty of the things I taught were experimental to me too, I wanted to test out techniques which were ‘beyond my grade’ according to my school’s handbook and whatnot, which meant that really, I had no right to teach such techniques at all. But I did it anyway, and by god was it immensely enjoyable and a great deal of fun. Not least because the teacher who supervised us ask me to teach him too and I got to chuck him around the room as a sort of payback for all those triple chemistry Wednesday mornings.

My university’s Jujutsu club has an exercise known as ‘the V’. You, as the V candidate so to speak, stand at the point of the V shape. The supervising instructor stands in front of you and manages two lines of potential attackers which form the ‘arms’ of the V, armed or unarmed based on reasons. The instructor sends attackers from each line at you in ones, twos, threes, etc. and you are to dispatch each one as they approach. It is similar to what in Aikido is generally known as randori or jiyu waza. The V is part of every grading test at this club. I recall the first time I took a V in a grading I was so excited I almost forgot to bow to the grading panel and wait for the call ‘hajime’ (begin). I also recall having to consciously insert four syllabus techniques into the flow of attacks and defences. The rest I barely remember apart from moving forward, the sound of breakfalls, and the ‘encouragement’ which the teaching staff at the school are assigned to administer which primarily consists of “come on!”, “you can do it!”, and above all “KEEP YOUR GUARD UP!”. In the pub afterwards when we were all congratulating each other, one of the girls came over and told me that she had been heavily winded after taking a throw from me in the V. I apologised profusely and felt quite bad about it. She didn’t seem to mind and bore no hard feelings. I wondered if anyone else had fallen heavily during my V. In my feedback, the instructors gave a somewhat backhanded compliment about my spirited efforts: “You were very fast, and you had this slightly manic grin on your face. We thought you were going to kill someone”. I took it as a compliment anyway… They also praised my footwork.

The first time I graded in Aikido the headmaster of our school told me “you’re very fast”. He did not mean it as a compliment. I have been told to slow down in every grading since then.

“Zanshin” in the Japanese martial arts is generally translated as ‘awareness’, but I think I am right in saying that it should more accurately be ‘lingering spirit’ or ‘lingering mind’. I suppose the distinction is that ‘awareness’ can be interpreted as just remaining alert to things around you, whereas  ‘zanshin’ is meant to contain the idea of exerting a kind of constant psychological pressure. Not necessarily by mystical means or anything like that, but perhaps just through maintaining a good posture and a sort of ineffable relaxed focus which most experienced martial artists I have met seem to exude. It could just be one of those words which ends up being a bit lame in translation. Like how tattoos of chinese and japanese characters can seem cool, but if I just had a normal font English word written on my left shoulder blade it’d look dumb.

Once, I believe during a break from a morning triple chemistry class back in school, a couple of guys I knew got into a bit of a scrap. One I knew was experienced in Karate, the other knew no fighting arts or combat sports to my knowledge. He was also the taller of the two, so we shall call them tall and small (even though small is actually taller than me). Tall challenged small on the practicality of martial arts, a common “what would you do if I did this?” kind of situation. Except instead of waiting for a response, Tall just went ahead and attacked small with a committed right hand. Taken somewhat by surprise, small defended himself and neatly smacked tall in the face with his somewhat bony fist. It did not sound pleasant. The rest of the class were getting quite up for a fight, with cheers and jeers going up from the gathering spectators. Small, apparently feeling quite guilty, immediately apologised and went to see if tall was hurt, as he was crouched over holding his face I seem to recall. In an embarrassed rage, tall proclaimed “you didn’t have to hit me!” and turned and struck small, effectively repaying him in kind with a punch to the face. The crowd fell silent. Small retrieved his glasses which had fallen on the floor, and with much grace and good manners continued to apologise to tall. Though he accepted the apology, I feel there was very little face for tall to salvage in that situation. By general consensus of the boys he had gone too far. Even in the testosterone cauldron of an all boys’ school it is one thing to be attacked and return the challenge and another entirely to strike a man who is offering you his apologies. They made up before the teacher returned to resume the lesson.

One day, one of the boys headbutted the proverbial fat kid in school. It was much talked about. Everyone assumed the fat kid had brought it on himself. To this day I do not know whether the event was entirely unprovoked or otherwise.

In preparation for my Karate shodan grading, I recall drilling blocking over and over and over and over again. I wasn’t interested in the forms too much, but I was concerned with the free fighting section of the test. I would only have to fight one opponent at a time, but they would all be at least nidan and I was expecting it to be difficult. As such felt that my defence ought to be my priority. When it came down to it, I did ok. I took a backfist at one point. It hurt. After that there was a question and answer section to the test. I was glad I had memorised the names and translations of the basic techniques listed in the book. My teacher asked me what I planned to do with regard to Karate after the test. I didn’t really have an answer for him or know what to say so I said something along the lines of “I’ll continue training and pursuing Karate”. This turned out to be not long before I began searching for other martial arts.

In my second year of studying Aikido I was hit by a palm strike in the mouth. The strike caused my teeth to cut the inside of my top lip all the way along. It was painful, and eating most things, let alone stuff with any salt content was most uncomfortable for two or three weeks. I tried to block the strike the next time it happened. My teacher used my blocking arm to flip and pin me on the ground. “Don’t block”, he told me. “It’s better for your reactions if you learn to be relaxed and move out of the way. But don’t move premeditatively, you can’t move as if you already know the strike is coming”. At the time I was only really thinking about the pain and avoiding it. It took a while for me to break the habit of blocking and quite a bit longer for me to grasp the point of the lesson.

During an Aikido class, our headteacher stopped my partner and I and said to my partner “don’t worry about forcing the throw, the technique really ends here”. With me as receiver he demonstrated. He delivered a punch to my throat and as I moved to avoid the strike and recover my balance I almost ran into another strike, this time with his extended arm. The only reason the first strike didn’t drop me and the second strike didn’t hit me was because he pulled them. What. I thought. So the trick is just to hit people. Or rather hit people properly. It had not occurred to me before that there was a distinction.

When I stepped into an Aikido school for the first time there was a bald man with a beard preparing to take the class. He welcomed me in warmly and invited me to join in. I was very excited and warmed myself up vigorously. My younger brother also wished to join, but unfortunately the insurance did not cover him as he was too young. My dad sat and watched. The first technique we did in the class was called ikkyo. It is one of the most basic and fundamental techniques of Aikido. When I saw the bald and bearded man perform ikkyo I could not understand what had happened. The sequence of motions seemed unfathomable to me, not because they were long and complicated, but because it was so short and simple. In a single step, the attacker had been pinned to the floor with seemingly no exertion on the part of the bald man. I did not know what it was, but I wanted it, I must have this technique, I thought. Somewhere in between the teacher taking his first step and his partner hitting the floor I was sold on Aikido.

I graded to 4th kyu roughly a year and a half after I began studying Aikido. I recall it being the most difficult martial arts-related experience I have had. Afterwards my teacher said “you need to relax and slow down. And look after your partner. Try to find that millimetre of control in your partner’s balance”. He also warned me to keep my temper. It was good advice. The next time I graded he told me exactly the same thing. Minus the comment on my temper. I took it as progress.

We had a visitor to our Aikido class the other week who sat and watched. Afterwards, one of our members mused that our visitor may have been put off by the idea of a class that involved vigorously throwing each other around and applying various painful joint locks. I said that, even as a raw beginner I loved the idea of a class which involved that. She said to me “yes, but you’re not normal”. I think that might be the most accurate summary of my relationship with the martial arts in the end.

And that’s it, more or less. Thanks for reading 😀



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