Nine months ago I stepped outside of my comfort zone and started a month of karate at the local YMCA. I didn’t expect to renew for a second month. It turns out that I love it. I’ve gotten to the point that I start dreaming about the things I’m doing, which is scary on one level and very cool on others. At any rate, I’ve had a lot of thoughts that need more time to flesh out and probably will only interest my fellow students, but I do want to share a few correspondences I’ve noticed lately between karate and the number nine.
- There are nine belts, or kyus, between rank beginner and black belt in my school of karate (which is part of the All-Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Karate and Kobudo Federation, or OSMKKF). As of tonight, I have passed three of them. That makes me 7th kyu — what you might call orange belt, except that we don’t actually use the orange belt (or even stripes on the belts); we just have three blue belt kyus, three green, and three brown. I like this because it helps minimize rivalry between students.
- The blue belt kyus use the same basic kata, with what look to be minor differences for each kyu — mostly in the blocking techniques you demonstrate. The footwork, though, is the same, and it requires you to face the nine cardinal points of the compass (the normal eight plus the center position for the beginning and end of the kata). All too often we learn the specific steps of the kata and don’t stop to think about how the overall pattern looks or rhythm flows. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve started dreaming about, and man, it is cool!
- I have learned to examine the first kata at a whole new level with each additional kyu, and I have been told that this will continue. So the very first kata they teach us unpacks to at least nine separate layers! No wonder it takes years to really master this stuff! Some students make the mistake of thinking they’ve learned everything they need to know from the earlier levels; I’ve already had at least case of figuring out how a current technique I was mastering applied to an earlier technique, making both of them stronger as a result.
- In a typical Tuesday evening workout, I will practice various katas an average of nine times. This typically includes polishing the kata I will next be testing for and learning the basics of the next kata. There are days this does not feel like it is enough — and that would be right. So we practice at home too; in fact, there are certain parts that I find myself practicing at work as I walk back and forth from my office to the kitchen or to co-workers’ offices. (Apparently I look really funny walking through the lobby practicing punches.)
- For my next kyu, I start to fold in weapons work (which is the kobudo part; karate is technically only bare-hand work). I will first work with the bo staff, which is six feet or 72 inches tall — nine times eight. I’m tremendously excited to be working with the bo; somewhere in my head, the iconic definition or avatar of martial arts got associated with being a bad-ass with the staff, so now I feel like I’m finally stepping into the heart of what it means to be a martial artist. Intellectually, I realize this is silly, but it still feels true.
Don’t worry; I’m not trying to seriously assert that the number nine somehow has some sort of mystic foothold in karate (that would be number ten, which in Japanese is ju, and controls our workouts). I just noticed these and was amused. What’s been more awe-inspiring has been noticing the changes in the last nine months:
- I’ve continued to lose weight. Granted, I’ve not experienced the same dramatic pace as I did in the first month, but it’s still a slow and steady drop. This is really cool given some of the interruptions and stressors I’ve had during these nine months that have wreaked havoc with my karate attendance.
- My overall muscle tone has improved. You probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but I certainly do. Certain actions are a lot less effort than they used to be, and there is visible muscle definition amongst the remaining layers of pudge.
- My endurance has increased. Right now I’m at that point where if I miss a week and a half of karate, I definitely feel it, but if I attend regularly I can make it through the workouts and not feel completely beat up. More importantly, I’m better able to keep up as the speed of some of the workouts increases; if I slow down it’s to perfect technique, not because I can’t do it.
- My reflexes have improved. This has been the startling one for me, because as long as I can remember my reflexes have sucked. I’m still no Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee, but the other day I knocked a glass tumbler off the counter and caught it without looking directly at it. Whoa!
By some counts, these last nine months have gotten me a third of the way to black belt. I don’t feel that way; I feel that they’ve set my feet on a path that I’ll still be walking for years to come. I’m not worried about belts or kyus; that’s sensei’s job to track, not mine. I just have to get through each workout, each kata, each set of one-steps, each class having given my best and learned everything I can. The rest will take care of itself. I’d never have caught that glass if I’d been trying to learn it as a trick, but by focusing on each step while I’m at it, I’ve gotten my body — as out of shape as it still is — to a point where I can do things I’ve never been able to do before. And that, friends, is magic.