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.