I held my breath as I walked through the physical space a second time. The stench was overwhelming. I had no idea of what was causing it. It seemed to be localized to one small area of the gymnasium. I hoped it didn't spread throughout the gym, or I'd have to cancel the class.
I've had some interesting experiences while teaching tai chi over the years. The first memorable one happened shortly after I started teaching. The class was part of the special interest section of the adult night school program. Previously, I had experience teaching children in the education system. This was my first time teaching adults. I quickly learned that a bit more finesse was sometimes needed with adults.
At the beginning of each class, after we'd bowed in, we would walk around the room twice to warm up. The first time around, swinging our arms to warm up the muscles of the upper and lower parts of the body. The second time around, we did a type of walking from another internal martial art called hsing yi.
The first time around, I gagged as I walked through that corner of the gym. Oh my gosh, what was that smell? The second time around was just as bad. Everyone, including myself, had passed through the fetid air-space. None of us said a word. Perhaps we were stunned by it. Then again, being Canadians, we were probably too polite to say anything.
We finished with everyone back in their original positions. I stood at the front, facing the class, and turned my head to look at the man standing in the back corner to my right. He had to be the source. Then I noticed the people standing in his vicinity were standing further away from him than usual. That was the confirmation I needed. I don't like to center people out, but I had to get to the bottom of the olfactory assault.
I asked him if he was doing something different in his life. He was happy to share his new health knowledge and practice with us. He had read that eating raw garlic was good for one's health, so he was eating several cloves a day. Yes, several cloves of raw garlic every day.
I grew up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, so I was no stranger to garlic breath. It was unpleasant, but bearable. This was not. In addition to his exhalations, it must have been oozing out of his pores and the odor hung in the air. A lot of 'r' words came to mind, like ripe, rank, and repulsive.
I had no way of knowing how long he would continue his newfound health improvement. I had to find a way to mitigate this situation, for everyone else's sake in the class. I didn't want to offend him, so I needed to address the matter as delicately and politely as possible.
I told him that I hoped his new health regime worked and also asked him to refrain from eating raw garlic on the days when he attended our tai chi class at night. I explained that the odor from the garlic was very strong, and unpleasant. Fortunately, he agreed and didn't seem offended. The air was clear after that.
The second memorable experience involved another of the five senses. It occurred at the same location, but a year or two later. By then, I had become more familiar with the students, so I didn't feel the need to be as delicate with them.
We had finished our warm-up. I stood facing the class, as I led them through a basic set of qigong movements. The student standing in the middle of the back row caught my attention. He had white skin. Or at least he did, the last time I saw him. On this night, he looked decidedly different. At first, I thought his skin was tanned. No, I'd never seen a tan that color.
My curiosity got the better of me. I had to ask. "Are you doing something different in your life?" As with the garlic guy, this student was also happy to share his new health regime with us. He had bought a juicer machine, and he was juicing carrots because he had read that drinking fresh carrot juice was good for one's health.
I asked him how many carrots he was juicing a day, and he said a whole bag. I broke the bad news to him. His skin had turned an orange color. He was surprised by what I had told him. I was surprised no one else in his life had let him know. Family, friends, co-workers? It wasn't a slight change, a tinge of color. His skin was orange.
I told him about beta-carotene, the pigment in carrots that gives them an orange color. He was drinking so much juice that the pigment had changed the color of his skin. I suggested he cut back on the amount of juice he drank before our next class. In the next class, his skin color was better but not yet normal. I suggested he cut back a little more. The orangeness was gone after a few classes.
Thinking about the two previous stories, two adages come to mind:
1) You can have too much of a good thing.
2) Moderation is best in all things.
The next story took place a few years later. It was at a different location because I'd started teaching on my own, not as part of the high school night program. Rather than two ten-week sessions per year, I was now teaching year-round. Best of all, I had complete control over the program and classes. I could be more direct with my students.
I was teaching a class for beginners. I've taught people from all walks of life. In this particular class, one of the students was a farmer. I had just finished going through the first few moves of the tai chi form with the class. I turned right to begin the core movements of the form when my attention was immediately drawn to the movements of the farmer.
I stopped and watched him for a few seconds. It was mesmerizing. The movements he was executing didn't look anything like the movements I had taught. My first thought was perhaps he didn't understand. I quickly realized that was not the case. His movements bore no resemblance to the tai chi moves.
Then, I turned my gaze to scan the room. Chaos. Visually, the other students seemed torn between watching me and watching the farmer. Some were following my movements, some were following his movements, and others stood still with confused looks on their faces. And who could blame them? His movements were much more dynamic and expressive than mine.
I looked at the farmer again. He had a peaceful smile on his face. I almost felt bad for what I was about to do. I called out his name to break him from his reverie. A discussion was in order. Here's how it went:
Me: What are you doing?
Farmer: Oh, I made up my own moves.
F: I like them better.
M: If you do that, you're not doing tai chi.
F: But I like them better.
M: I understand what you're saying. And if you do that, you're not doing tai chi.
F: But I like my moves better.
I admired his creativity and free spirit, but not in my class. As the sensei, I had to put the needs of the group over that of one person. He insisted on doing his moves, and I insisted on his doing the tai chi moves while in the class. We were at a standstill. Neither one of us would budge.
I could tell by his facial expression, body language, and tone of voice that he was not intentionally being difficult. He was sincere. He really did like his moves better than the moves I was teaching. So, I suggested that he practice his moves at home, leave the class to never return, and I would give him a refund for the remaining classes in the session. He readily agreed, gathered his things, and left. I wished him well on his way out.
I'm all for people trying new things. If you find something that makes you happy or improves your health, and it doesn't negatively affect or bother those around you, go for it. Life is short, find your bliss. I hope the farmer continued to create his own movements. If so, I'm sure some of them were spectacular.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
We would visit my grandparents every weekend. My great-grandmother had a bed-sitting room of her own on the main floor. I always enjoyed spending time there with her. She died when I was six years old, and my memories of her are as clear now as when they happened.
I distinctly remember that she had a statue of a Japanese woman on a shelf in her room. It was a gift from her brother, Walter, who died during WW1 at Vimy Ridge. He was just a teenager when he died. I knew the statue had a special meaning for her.
The statue intrigued me. It was so different from anything I'd ever seen before. Everything about it looked beautiful to me, the woman's style of dress, the colors, and the fan she held in her arms. Being so young, I didn't have much of a vocabulary. Now, the best word to describe what it meant to me was exotic.
Looking back on my life, it seems odd that my first connection to Japan and its culture was through my great-grandmother. That connection expanded to encompass most of my life. I've studied several Japanese martial arts, which, in turn, have led me to learn about the history, culture, philosophies, and religions of that country.
In the karate dojos where I trained before going to camp, the emphasis had been on physical training, and learning techniques and katas. I enjoyed that very much, and yet, I wanted to learn more. I was looking for the backstory of the martial arts.
Access to accurate information about another part of the world was limited back then. I read Black Belt magazine, which was the only one published at the time. It also focused primarily on techniques. The limited information I had access to was from a western perspective because it was filtered through the English language. I wanted, or perhaps needed, to access information about the martial arts from an eastern perspective.
The first summer camp I attended was the beginning of a new learning journey. Sensei Richard Kim was the head instructor and founder of the organization. He was a unique martial arts sensei in North America because he was fluent in English and Japanese, so he could easily translate back and forth between the languages. He saw the world from a western and eastern perspective.
As a young man, he had lived in Japan for a few years. He trained with some of the best martial arts instructors in Japan and China. And he was a Buddhist priest.
As much as I enjoyed the physical training during the day, I looked forward to the lectures at night. The lectures at my first camp included the following topics:
* 10 Precepts of Buddhism
* Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism)
* Nenriki (mind power, as used by the samurai & later by the ninjas)
* Koans (riddles of life, from Zen Buddhism)
* The Esoteric Meaning of Katas
* Bad Habits & their psychological causes
Over the years, I learned that Sensei Kim was teaching us about the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of being human. He was sharing his experiential knowledge with us. Most of what he taught could not be found in books, or now, on the internet.
It's been almost twenty years since Sensei passed away. I thought the Japanese influence in my life was complete. A few years ago, my body survived the ravages of prolonged stress brought on by dementia caregiver burnout. Ten months later, just as my body began to heal, my brain broke. Prolonged stress also led to severe cognitive losses and some altered brain functions.
My doctor and I discussed the brain's plasticity which allows for the creation of new neural pathways. To bring this about, my doctor prescribed a treatment plan that involved thirty minutes of continuous cardiovascular activity. Within two hours of completing that, I was to do two different brain training activities. I chose Sudoku puzzles and learning the Japanese language.
I was to do it every day and if there was not a noticeable difference in my cognitive functioning within three months, my doctor said he would refer me to a neurologist. Fortunately, the referral was not needed. I gradually improved, with a breakthrough after four months. My full recovery took a year and a half.
My interest and fascination with the Far East have felt like a thread moving through my life. It's been there since before I was school-aged. It's still weaving its way through my life, as I continue learning the Japanese language.
Over half a century later, my great-grandmother's statue
of the Japanese woman sits on my bookshelf.
Note: A special thank you to my student, Lyndsay Dobson, for catching my error. Vimy Ridge was during the first world war, not the second. Lyndsay is one of the best proofreaders I know.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
After I finished my studies at the University of Guelph in April, I started training at a karate dojo in Hamilton. Imagine my surprise when the sensei informed the class that the organization we belonged to had an annual, week-long martial arts camp at the University of Guelph. What? Why had I not heard of this during the four years that I attended the university?
The sensei at the university never mentioned it in class. Then again, other than a core group of a few students who lived locally, most of the class was made up of university students. They would come and go. Some would stay for a couple of semesters, but most didn't. Perhaps he didn't think anyone would have been interested.
The idea of living on campus for a week, with a group of fellow martial artists, intrigued me. It would be new and different. I was all in. After class, I told Sensei that I would like to attend the camp. He gave me an application form, which I took home to fill out and brought back to the next class.
Two months after I was done with school, I was back on campus. I had only lived in residence for my last semester at university because I was working on my thesis. I spent a lot of time at the library, so staying on campus saved me time.
After registering for the camp, I went to my dorm room to unpack, grabbed a bite to eat, and then went to the lecture hall. Being there felt familiar and odd. It felt familiar because I had sat in that hall for a semester for each of two different courses. It felt odd because I didn't know most of the people there.
I knew a few of the people from our dojo, and my sensei from university was there. The majority were strangers to me. Sensei Kim and his assistant, Mr. Leong, came from California. There were people from dojos across Canada, from Massachusetts and Michigan. Little did I know, some of these 'strangers' would be a part of my life for decades to come. And some would become good friends.
The first night, we wrote down the schedule for the week to come. Karate and Kobudo (weapons) training after breakfast and in the afternoon. Lectures for the next three evenings, followed by a banquet on the last night. The last morning was the black belt grading, which took place after breakfast.
It sounded like it was going to be a great week, except for the part about getting up early for the next five days to do Tai Chi, in a parking lot in front of Johnson Hall, the main residence for the camp. It was to take place from six until seven AM. That would mean getting up between five and five-thirty. Was the sun even up at that time? I would soon find out.
Before going to bed the first night, I set my alarm and double-checked it. I didn't want to be late, or worse yet, miss the first class of the camp. I wasn't sure of what to expect. I'd heard of Tai Chi but knew little about it. The impression I had was that it involved moving slowly, and it was for elderly people.
There are unspoken rules to any group that you belong to. I quickly learned that you were expected to arrive half an hour before the start time of any class at camp. One morning, I woke before my alarm went off. I thought I'd take advantage of the extra time by going out early to warm up and stretch before the Tai Chi class started.
As I opened the large, wooden door to exit Johnson Hall, I expected to see few people in the parking lot. I was stunned to see the entire camp standing facing me, except for Sensei Kim. His back was to me since he was already teaching. It was five-twenty in the morning. I was forty minutes early for class, and I was late. I quickly and quietly walked towards and then around the group, trying to draw as little attention to myself as possible. Sensei Kim turned and looked at me. So much for not drawing attention.
After that morning, I always made a point of being in the parking lot before Sensei Kim arrived. It was also a good time to meet people and to get to know some better. Some people would mumble and grumble about having to be up so early, not having had a cup of coffee yet, or breakfast.
I had the general impression that the 'karate' people thought that Tai Chi was less important than karate. They showed up every morning and went through the motions because they had to be there. If you missed a class, your sensei wanted to know why. Attendance was considered mandatory.
One year, I had a roommate who refused to get up in the morning to go to Tai Chi. I kept encouraging her to come to the class until she abruptly told me that she wanted quality over quantity. After that, I let her sleep. For some reason, her sensei let her get away with it. I wouldn't have dared to try that with my sensei. And besides, I wanted the full camp experience. I also wanted to learn as much as I could in the week I was there.
I understand that most people attended the camp for the karate training. That was their main focus. Originally, that my also my main focus. However, I chose to not compare the different martial arts being taught. I didn't see one as better or less than another. Rather, I saw each one as unique and distinct.
I've always had to work hard at Karate. It's a challenge for me. Perhaps that's why I like it so much. Tai Chi was different for me, from the start. I learned the moves and then I did it. One movement flowed into the next. It felt natural to me, the way the world is, where everything is connected.
Over the years, I've noticed that as some of the karate practitioners have gotten older, they've developed a greater appreciation for Tai Chi. One made a point of saying to me, "I wish I'd paid more attention to the Tai Chi over the years." Also, when you practice Tai Chi regularly, you get better with age, like fine wine. You can't say that about most things in life.
Sensei Kim taught many different martial arts. He taught each one with the same level of respect and reverence. He didn't quantify one as better than another. Each was important. It doesn't have to be one or the other. You can study and benefit from Karate and Tai Chi. Doing so helps you to become a more well-rounded martial artist and person.
For me, it's the blending of opposites to achieve a balance. Hard and soft, intellect and intuition. One definition of enlightenment is the fusion of intellect and intuition. I clearly remember Sensei Kim saying, "Karate is like cotton wrapped in steel. Tai Chi is like steel wrapped in cotton. They both get you to the same place."
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
My students especially enjoyed this story. Last month, I shared it with them after I'd finished teaching our Tai Chi class on Zoom. I physically demonstrated a part of it, much to their delight and laughter. Then, one of the students asked, "Sensei, how are you going to describe that with words in a blog post?" My reply was, "I don't know." I've been a writer for less than two years. Finding the right words for this story will be a challenge. So, here goes nothing. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Note: Although I've been writing the posts in the chronological order in which the events occurred in my life, this one is 12-15 years after the one in last week's post. Hence the title. It also describes the behavior of the two people I write about.
I wrote in a previous post that in the martial arts there is an unspoken level of trust when you are working with a partner. You both do your best, and you never intentionally do something to hurt your partner. It's about working together and learning.
We were doing Kumite (sparring) during a training session at our annual martial arts camp. To keep people organized, one half of the group forms a large circle. The other half forms a larger circle around that one. The inside circle faces outward, and the outside circle faces inward. You start by facing a person you will spar with. After a while, you hear "Yamae", which means stop. Then the outer ring moves to the left, and everyone has a new sparring partner. This continues until the training session is finished.
Sometimes you know your sparring partner, and sometimes you don't. I knew my next sparring partner, but not well. We'd never sparred before. Shortly into it, I executed a mae geri kekomi (front thrust kick) using my back leg, which was also my right leg.
Rather than blocking or evading my technique, my partner quickly lifted the palm of his left hand and grabbed my foot from underneath. When I tried to pull my foot back, he tightened his grip. He had a smirk on his face as he stared me in the eyes. He was challenging me. He was no longer my sparring partner. Now, he was my opponent.
I'm not one to pick a fight. And if at all possible, I will walk away from one. This time, however, he had made it impossible for me to do that, literally. Since he wouldn't let go of my foot, I did the first thing that entered my mind. I switched from Karate to Ju-jitsu.
Looking back, I'm surprised I remembered the technique. It had been years since I'd practiced it. It's called tomoe nage. The result is that you and your opponent are lying on your backs, with the crown of your heads pointing towards each other. You are intentionally in that position. Your opponent, however, got there by doing a somersault in the air over you and landing on his back. (We were in a gymnasium, without mats on the floor.)
I bent my right knee to close the gap between us. Then I grabbed him by the lapels of his gi (uniform) and jammed my foot into his abdomen. I pulled down as I bent the knee of my standing leg, dropped to the ground, and rolled backward. My right leg would catapult him above, and then behind me.
My concern was he was bigger and much heavier than me. I hoped that the element of surprise (few people knew I had trained in Ju-jitsu), combined with my momentum would be enough to execute the throw. No such luck. As a reflex, he had grabbed my gi as was I dropping to the ground. He was able to put up enough resistance that we stopped three-quarters of the way through my throw.
His arms were pinned to his sides, with his shoulders on the ground behind me, and his head tucked under him. My shoulders were on the ground, with my hips in the air, and my right foot was still jammed into his abdomen.
We were locked in battle. Neither one of us could move unless the other let go. He was tiring himself, struggling to get free. I, on the other hand, was in a better position. I stayed tucked in a tight ball, holding onto his gi. I was expending little energy. He was fading quickly. After each struggle, his breathing was more labored, and he had to rest for longer periods. I would wait him out.
Neither one of us said a word. Then I heard a voice. Within my tight space, I turned my head slightly to the left. All I could see, out of the corner of my eye, was a man's foot under the bottom pant leg of a gi. I recognized that voice. It was the most senior ranking student on the floor.
He commanded, "Debbie, let go of him right now." My response was, "No. I'm not letting go until he let's go first." He gave the command two more times. I gave the same reply to each command. In the martial arts, there are proper protocols and etiquette. It's important to show respect to those of a senior rank and to follow their orders, which I've always done. It was not my intention to be disrespectful to my senior.
It brings to mind a lesson that Sensei Kim taught. When you're in a fight, don't focus your attention on winning. Focus on not losing. If I had let go first, I would have lost. Fortunately, the other guy let go first. If he hadn't, we'd still be there, fossilized and collecting dust.
A few years later, another guy did pretty much the same thing. The difference was, he didn't grab my foot and refuse to let go. He just held his open palm under my heel, smiling and looking smug. I lifted my foot a few inches above his hand, moved it to the right, and set it down on the floor. He had a surprised look on his face. I bowed to him and walked away, leaving him standing alone for the rest of that sparring session.
I never sparred with either of them again. I saw what they did as a dirty fighting trick, that had no place in a traditional dojo. If either had done it to someone without the balance and flexibility I had, the person could have fallen and been injured, especially if they didn't know how to do a break fall.
Both men had one goal in mind. They waited for the kick, like a one-trick pony. That's all they had. They couldn't see beyond their goal. They thought they had won, that it was over. What they didn't realize was, for me, it was the beginning.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
The most rewarding part of writing this blog has been the feedback from my students. Some of them have studied with me for almost thirty years. I teach the internal martial arts of Tai Chi, Paqua, and Hsing Yi. My students are learning new things about me because, over the years, I've rarely talked about the other martial arts I've studied.
Last week, I wrote about the new dojo I joined, which was located on the fourth floor of a building in Hamilton. There was no air conditioning in the dojo and heat rises, so it was very hot and humid on summer nights. The only possibility of air movement came from the double, floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end of the training room. There were no other windows to open to create a cross breeze, so the air was stagnant.
I don't know what it's like now, but back in those days, the pollution level was consistently high. The two major employers in Hamilton, Stelco and Dofasco, were steel manufacturers. In karate, we train with our bare feet. Even though the floor was swept before each class, by the end of class the soles of my feet would be black from the soot. I hate to imagine what we were breathing in.
At the beginning and end of training sessions, students line up from right to left, in declining order of rank. When I first joined the dojo, I was the lowest ranking student on the floor. This meant that I stood at the far left end of the line. This also happened to be the position closest to the double, floor-to-ceiling windows.
For some reason, during every training session, the entire group would gradually shift to the left. I did my best to hold my position because of my proximity to the window. Inevitably, as each session went on, I could see and feel the group moving toward me, crowding my space.
I always kept an eye on the window. Many times, I could see the street below and it made me feel a little queasy. I would try to catch Sensei's eye, to let him know I was too close to the window. He was usually aware of this and would tell the group to shift their position back to the right.
Occasionally, he was so focused on the lesson that he didn't see my precarious position. I would step back, out of line, and stand in the corner, watching the group drift towards the window. Eventually, my lack of activity would catch Sensei's attention, and he'd instruct the group to move.
As I increased in rank, I moved to the right in the line-up. This meant I was physically further away from the window. In the martial arts, we're taught to have compassion for those of a lower rank, because we know what they're going through since we've already been there. For this reason, I kept an eye on the lower-ranking students to my left...and the window.
Getting to my car after class meant walking through an alley to get to the parking lot. Most nights, I'd walk with other students. Some nights, I'd walk alone. On those nights, I was consciously aware of my surroundings. That's why I was surprised. I heard footsteps and looked back to see two men behind me as I was about a third of the way into the alley. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I knew they were following me.
The red flag was that I had not seen them on the street before I entered the alley. It was as though they had come out of nowhere, which was impossible. They had watched me enter the alley and then followed me. I knew I had been targeted.
I let on that I wasn't concerned with their presence. I didn't change the speed of my gait, as I knew that would trigger their prey drive. If I'd shown fear or ran, the chase would have been on.
As I walked, the words of my ju-jitsu sensei, from years before, came back to my mind. "When you have to deal with more than one attacker, never let them surround you. Keep moving so they are on one side of you." That's what I did. One tried to get on my right side, and the other tried to get on the left. Using my peripheral vision, while I listened to the sound of their footsteps, I positioned myself so the two of them were either on my right or left side.
I continued walking, not knowing how it would turn out. I had almost reached the parking lot when I heard a different sound. I turned to see them running down the alley, away from me. I'll never know why they gave up their pursuit. Perhaps it was the confusion at having a plan that didn't work out as they had intended.
To any martial arts sensei who happens to read this, know that every lesson you teach your students is important. It will enter their mind at a moment when they need it the most. It could be many years later. It may be years after they are no longer your student. The time isn't important. It's the lesson that matters.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
It was the last karate class of my final semester. Guelph wasn't that far to drive from where I would live, to continue training at the university. I'd assumed that was what I would do. At the end of the class, the sensei walked towards me. He reached out with his hand, shook my hand, and told me he had enjoyed having me as a student. He wished me the best of luck and said goodbye.
Crap. So much for that plan. Regardless of what I did in other areas of my life, I knew I wanted to continue my studies and training in karate. I also wanted to continue with the same style, Shorinji-Ryu. Now, I didn't have a sensei or a dojo to train at. I wasn't sure of what to do?
I thought a lot about it. Then I remembered the sensei's sensei. He had been a guest instructor at the university dojo a few times. I knew his name, but I didn't know where his dojo was.
For the life of me, I can't remember how I found out that his dojo was in Hamilton. I must have had contact with someone who knew the location of the dojo. The sensei didn't have a phone, so I would have to drive there to ask him in person for permission to become his student.
I had never driven to Hamilton before, so I studied a map. (That was long before the days of GPS and Google maps.) Before I drive to an unfamiliar place, I memorize the two street names before, and the one after, my destination. It reduces the chance of getting lost.
Fortunately, I found a parking lot close to where I needed to go. I had to walk through an alley, onto a side street, and then onto the main street. After a short walk, I found the address I was looking for. There was no sign to indicate that there was a martial arts dojo in the building, and it was adjacent to a strip club. I wasn't sure if I had the right place.
It had taken almost an hour to drive there, so I decided to take a chance and see if this was the place. I opened the outer door, walked into the small vestibule, turned left, and looked up. That was an awful lot of stairs. I hoped it wasn't at the top.
I started climbing the stairs. I stopped at the first landing, where there was a door to the left. I think it was a lawyer's office. I continued up to the next landing. It was an artist's studio. It had to be at the top, on the fourth floor.
When I reached the top landing, I turned to face the door. This one didn't have a sign to indicate the type of business. I knocked on it and waited. After a few moments, the door opened, and the sensei stood there, looking at me with a penetrating gaze.
He was bigger than I'd remembered, tall and heavy set. I had never stood this close to him at the university dojo. He had a formidable presence about him. He said, "Yes?" with a deep, rumbling voice.
Although I felt intimidated, I was determined to follow through with my plan. I introduced myself and explained my situation to him. Then I asked if I could train at his dojo.
He asked me a few questions and agreed to accept me as a student. He asked me to step inside. He showed me the training hall and indicated where the change rooms were. I was happy to hear there was a change room for women, which meant I wouldn't be the only one.
We discussed the training schedule and class fees, I told him I was fine with both and would be back the next training night. I thanked him and I left.
I stood on the top landing and prepared to walk down the staircase. I paused for a second and thought, "That is a lot of steps". Going up and down once a night would be a workout in itself. And then again, it would strengthen my leg muscles and improve my kicking ability.
And so began the next leg of my martial arts journey, training karate and kobudo (weapons) in Hamilton. I belonged to a new dojo. I was happy and I trained with that sensei for several years.
My first visit to meet that sensei had been during the day. One night after class, I was to learn that what appeared to be a busy and safe area by day, could be very different at night.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
Just before the class ended, Sensei mentioned that there was a karate seminar that weekend in Hamilton. His sensei's sensei, from California, would be teaching. Anyone interested in attending could talk to Sensei about it after class.
I was surprised that I was the only person in the dojo who was interested. Sensei and I discussed it. He decided that I would meet him in a parking lot at the university. I would leave my car there and he would drive us both. I was grateful for that because I'd never been to Hamilton before.
I met Sensei early on Saturday morning. The car ride felt a little awkward at first because I'd never had a long conversation with him. Before that, any dialogue we had consisted of my asking a question at the dojo, and his answering it. As the drive continued, conversations flowed.
I asked a lot of questions about the man who would be teaching, and if there was anything I needed to know before we arrived. I'm curious by nature, and I like to be prepared for new situations. The sensei's name was Richard Kim. He was the founder of the organization we belonged to. The protocols and procedures would be the same as in our dojo.
It was almost forty years ago, so I don't remember the specific techniques or kata that were taught. What does stand out in my mind was the teaching style of Sensei Kim. It was different from anything I had experienced in a dojo.
Rather than standing at the front of the class to demonstrate, he would say 'come around'. The students would form a circle around him. Those at the front would sit, while others stood behind. That made it easier for everyone to see what he was doing.
He not only demonstrated techniques, but he also explained them clearly. He showed the how and gave the why. He also said what not to do, and the reason for it. This required more than just practicing the physical techniques. It required thinking. I liked that.
After the training session, we changed into our regular clothes and went back into the room. There were chairs set up in rows. We sat and listened while Sensei Kim gave a lecture. That was the first time I'd experienced that in the martial arts.
I was intrigued by the topics he talked about. I didn't understand everything because it was new information. He talked about the history and philosophy of the martial arts. And this man was lecturing at the level of a university professor.
One thing I remember was his saying that karate was 70% physical, and 30% mental and emotional. That caught my attention. The degree I was working on was in psychology. When I heard those words, two important areas in my life converged, my university studies and my martial arts training.
I had hoped to attend future seminars and lectures taught by Sensei Kim, but my sensei never made mention of them again. My focus was on my studies. I continued to train at the dojo throughout my time at the university. It gave me the physical and mental stress release I needed. Over time, I forgot about the man I thought of as 'The Professor'.
I had no way of knowing then that, in the years to come, I would become one of Sensei Kim's students. He was the most influential martial arts teacher in my life, and the last.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
As usual, I arrived early at the dojo. I looked around and was surprised that Sensei wasn't there. That was unusual. He was always there. I hoped he was running late.
As the start time for class approached, I realized he wasn't coming. The senior black belt on the floor was in charge. He told us to line up, which we did. After the formal class opening, we spread apart on the dojo floor, ready for the warm-up exercises.
The senior black belt stood at the front of the room, facing us. Rather than start the class, he took it upon himself to share an opinion that he felt strongly about. He said, "Women don't belong in a dojo. They belong at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen."
At first, I thought I hadn't heard him right. Then I thought he might be joking. His body language said otherwise. His clenched fists were firmly planted on his hips. His shoulders were hunched up just below his ears. His scowling face was beet red as he glared at me.
Since I was the only woman in the dojo, it was clear that his message was meant for me. There was dead silence in the room. You could have heard a pin drop.
Before I continue with what happened, let me share a bit of my backstory. I grew up with two brothers, in a neighborhood full of boys. The worst insult you could give someone was, "You're acting like a girl!" I hurled that insult as often and as loudly as anyone else did. It was a sink or swim situation. I learned to swim.
When I was in high school, I thought it would be useful to take the automobile mechanics course as an elective. Although I wasn't driving yet, one day I would, and having a basic understanding of how a car works made sense. When I told my father I was taking the course, he laughed and said, "Girls can't take auto mechanics."
So, I registered for the class. Including myself, there were three young women in the class. I was the only one who completed the course, with the second-highest mark in the class. To my father's credit, he never again told me I couldn't do something because I was a 'girl'.
As an aside, the auto mechanics teacher declared a competition during one class. He was always doing things like that, where you could earn extra marks. During this particular class, we each had to dismantle and then reassemble a differential. All we had to go by was a picture of one that was dismantled and labeled.
As I took it apart, I laid it out exactly as it was in the picture. I finished and put my hand up. The teacher came over, looked at what I'd done, and verified that the differential was dismantled. As I reassembled it, I kept visually referring to the picture. When I was done, I put my hand up again. The teacher came over and verified that I had properly reassembled it.
I had been focusing on the task at hand and ignored what everyone else was doing. Now I looked around and saw a room filled with chaos and mayhem. There were parts strewn everywhere. Some had their parts mixed up with other people's parts. And to make matters worse, the teacher had a rule that if you used profane language, he deducted marks. A lot of marks were deducted that day. And, I was the second person in the class who completed the task.
Back to the dojo. The senior black belt stood glaring at me. I'd dealt with his old world view, of women and their place in society, many times in the past. Like water on a duck's back, his words rolled off me. Besides, I wasn't there for him. I was there for me.
I'm not sure what he expected me to do. Cry? Breakdown and run out of the room? There was a fat chance of that happening. Instead, I stood still and calmly stared him in the eyes. That seemed to fuel his anger.
It was a staring stand-off. I could wait him out. If need be, I'd stand there for the entire class. Besides, at some point, he had a class to teach. The onus was on him. After what felt like an eternity, and was probably only ten to fifteen seconds, he broke his stare and looked away. The class resumed.
I put a little more energy into my workout that night. His behavior had the opposite of his intended effect. I was more determined than ever to continue training in that dojo.
I never said a word to anyone about that night, not even to the sensei. I saw it as one more challenge in life that I had to meet head-on and overcome. I was a member of that dojo for three and a half years. Over time, the senior black belt was civil to me. I guess he accepted that I wasn't going away. I was always as polite and respectful to him as I needed to be. Nothing more and nothing less.
That was over thirty-five years ago. I am still a member of the same martial arts organization, and I belong in the dojo.
I'm also a good cook in the kitchen.
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
It was grading night at the dojo, for the kyu belt ranks only. All the dojos I've belonged to have used the Judo kyu/dan system. There are six kyu levels or ranks before the dan or black belt levels. The kyu belt colors, in order of lowest to the highest rank, are white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown.
I was looking forward to my first grading. I'd practiced the techniques and the kata (form, pattern of movements) required for my grading. I was ready. I knew the material so well that other students would ask me to practice with them before class, just to review the kata. I was happy to oblige. The more practice, the better.
Those who were grading performed the basics as a group. For the katas, each person was to demonstrate that alone. I sat on the floor at the edge of the dojo, waiting for my turn. Sensei called me up. I walked to the place on the floor where I was to start from. I bowed and announced the name of the kata. Sensei nodded his head to indicate that I begin.
I moved into yoi (ready) position and then started moving through the kata. A few moves in, my mind went blank. My brain, and subsequently my body, froze. As hard as I tried, I couldn't retrieve the next move from my memory. Sensei told me to start again. I did, and the same thing happened. The third time didn't go any better. Sensei told me to sit down.
I was frustrated with myself. I had never experienced stage fright before. Then again, I'd never physically performed as an individual in public. I'd only done so as part of a group. I wasn't used to being the center of attention, and it made me feel uncomfortable.
After the grading was over, Sensei called me over to him. He asked what had gone wrong. I told him I didn't know. He said that he knew that I knew the kata. He had watched me do it many times. He told me that he was promoting me to the next rank this time, and if I ever did that again, he would fail me. I thanked him. Although Sensei promoted me to the next kyu belt level, I knew I had failed.
Years later, I was to be interviewed for television about the Tai Chi classes I taught. Before it started, the reporter asked me a few questions to set up the interview. I was calm and relaxed until the interview began.
As soon as the first question left her mouth, I was wide-eyed with a deadpan expression on my face. My voice was robotic and stilted. The woman kept asking questions in the attempt to help me loosen up and talk more freely, to no avail.
To make matters worse, the footage was aired on the newscast that night. It was painful to watch. Yes, it was as bad as I thought it would be.
A few years ago, I was traveling with our martial arts organization in Los Angeles. In addition to attending martial arts events, we went to the Magic Castle. It's a private magicians' club. The head of our organization is a member, and he wanted us to experience this venue.
We arrived at the club, dressed in our finery. After we ate a splendid meal, we toured around looking at the different displays that recounted the history of magic. Then we went to an auditorium where a magician was to perform a magic show.
I'd never been to a live show, so I was pretty excited to be in the audience. I was enjoying the show until 'it' happened. The magician stated that he needed an assistant to help him with the next part of his act. He asked if the lady in the red dress would come on stage to help him.
I wanted to emphatically shake my head no to decline, but my body was frozen. I could hear some members of our group loudly encouraging me to get on the stage. Why did I wear the red dress??? It singled me out. I could feel my mind going blank.
And then something new happened. I decided to not give into the stage fright. I had to look at what I was experiencing differently than I had in the past.
First, I needed to reframe it in my mind. I said to myself, "This is probably the only opportunity you will ever have to stand on a stage with a magician." Next, I needed to think of someone with a good stage presence to emulate. I saw a picture of her in my mind. Then I said to myself, "I am channeling my inner Vanna White."
I stood up and confidently walked up the stairs and onto the stage. I focused all of my attention on the magician and followed his instructions. I lived in the moment. It also helped that the stage lights were so bright that I couldn't see the audience.
Getting off the stage was another problem. The lights were so bright, I couldn't see the stairs to walk down them. I paused, trying to visually discern the location of the first step. Fortunately, the magician was good at reading body language (as I'm sure they all are). He walked over to me, held my left hand, and guided me down the stairs. Thank goodness chivalry was not dead.
Although my stage fright initially led me to failure, it taught me lessons over time:
1) I learned how to turn a weakness into a strength, by challenging my belief system.
2) When you live in the moment, fully present, there is no fear.
3) Being a magician's assistant was fun.
3) The red dress was the best apparel purchase I've ever made,
The most important lesson I've learned in the martial arts is that many of the battles you fight in life are within yourself.
Addendum: After reading this post, one of my students asked if I had passed my next grading. The answer is yes.
Next week: I Belong Here
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.
I knew I wanted to continue studying the martial arts while I was attending university. It would bring a balance to my academic studies and help me to manage stress. Ju-Jitsu wasn't taught on campus, and I'd tried Aikido for a semester, but it wasn't a good fit for me.
So I went back to the list of extra-curricular activities offered at the athletic center. Let's see....karate. I knew it involved kicking and punching. We'd done some of that at the Ju-jitsu dojo. What the heck, I'd give that a try.
The first night, I arrived early. The sensei was already there, along with some black belt students. I watched as the rest of the class filtered in. Then the sensei began the class by telling us to line up.
We lined up in order of rank. The person with the highest rank is at the far right. Everyone else stands to the left of the person who is of a higher rank. Being my first night in attendance, I stood at the end of the line, wearing a white belt.
Although I had a higher rank in Ju-jitsu, I chose to wear a white belt because I was new to this martial art. I had read that this was proper etiquette. To do otherwise would have been disrespectful. You only get one chance to make a good first impression. I didn't want to blow that on the first night.
After the formal opening of the class, we did the warm-up and stretching exercises. This was followed by the repetitive practice of basic techniques. It was so much better than I'd imagined it would be. In addition to the kicks and punches, there were blocks and strikes and proper stances.
The class was challenging. It tested my endurance physically, mentally, and emotionally. Learning the new movements felt awkward and right at the same time. Karate felt like a form of exercise with meaning and purpose. There was a reason for every movement you executed, and you needed to learn how to do each one correctly. I knew this was an environment where I could thrive.
After the class ended, the sensei called me over to him and asked what my previous training had been. After I told him, he said that I could wear the colored belt of my rank in Ju-jitsu. I respectfully declined and requested his permission to begin as a white belt and earn my way through the ranks. He agreed.
I went back to the next class, and the class after that. I enjoyed everything about karate. You trained as an individual, with a partner, and within a group. There was no competition. Everyone gave their best and worked together.
The structure, discipline, and etiquette helped to ground me throughout my time at the university. When I was in the dojo, I always knew what was expected of me. There was never any uncertainty or awkwardness, as there is in some social settings. It was always consistent and reliable.
Out of the three martial arts I had studied up to that point, karate was the one that felt the most comfortable to me. I'm glad I kept looking for the right one. The third time was a charm.
Next week: Learning from Failure
© Debra J. Bilton. All rights reserved.