Second degree brown belt

Driving home, drenched in sweat, exhausted and grinning. I got my second degree brown belt today from Tracy’s Karate today.

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One of my resolutions for 2014 was to get this belt. Second brown is the 6th of eight belts (black is the 8th), and the first one requiring sixty self defense techniques (thirty new ones and thirty from third degree brown), plus all twelve kata I’ve learned so far. It’s a lot to memorise. There are three brown belts, third degree, second, then first, counting down towards first degree black.

Tests are done in full uniform, which is heavy canvas pants plus a gi top. Mine is from the same weight canvas as the pants and feels like a winter-weight bulletproof vest. It’s stiff and thick, hot and heavy.

Now I’m on to learning the 1st degree brown belt material. Thirty more techniques, but no new kata.

The night before

My uniform is packed in a bag in my car, the karate pants sticky-rollered to remove cat hair. Calf compression socks and a hairband are under the pants, shirt and sports bra. My staff is lying in the footwell behind the driver’s seat. I’ve got a spare mouthguard in the glovebox, in a hand-knit drawstring bag. Printouts of all twelve kata and sixty techniques are in my work bag, plus the handwritten copies of the stuff I’ve had the most trouble with.

Tomorrow afternoon I take my test.

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Levelling up – Green Belt in Kenpo

Last night I passed the test for my green belt in Chinese Kenpo! I needed to learn 20 self-defense techniques and 8 kata, which are longer display forms, often incorporating some of the self-defense techniques. I started learning kenpo in November 2008 at Tracy’s Karate.

Green belt is the last of the "coloured" belts, the fourth of eight (where the eighth is black), the last intermediate level belt, and the last test where I can have friends and family come and watch. I felt really lucky to have my husband Paul and two good friends watching this test. My next test will be for 3rd degree brown belt, which is the first advanced level belt, and it is a much harder test. Tonight when I go to group class and sparring class I’ll be wearing my new belt and there will be a new photo on the studio wall in the green belt section.

Learning karate has greatly improved my balance and endurance. I feel safe knowing I can defend myself from punches, kicks, grabs and holds. And it is so much fun! I wouldn’t have kept at it this long if I didn’t have fun. Tracy’s Karate has a system of private one-on-one lessons, a half hour a week of your instructors undivided attention, and group classes, where two to fifteen students all work at once. I also go to a sparring class where you can learn how to spar safely by fighting black belts, instructors, and other students in one to two minute rounds. Sparring is done with foam-padded boots, shin guards, gloves, and a helmet, and a mouthguard. Two minutes can feel like forever in the sparring ring.

I’m constantly surprised that I can do this. I was the one picked last at school for sports and I was never athletic. Yet I’m managing over three hours of intense exercise every week and loving it.

Sparring

The karate I learn comes in three parts: self defence techniques, kata (display forms), and sparring. I’ve been back in sparring class since January, and doing sparring lessons with my instructor before then to get me back up to speed after six months away.

It’s an odd thing to walk into a room full of smiling people about to fight each other, about to fight me. Even when I go to the "control" class where light contact is the rule. It requires a level of trust to go out on the floor and fight someone. Trust that they won’t just wallop me. Trust that they don’t intend for me to get hurt. Trust that they’re going to try and teach me something. Trust that I can step away or block a wild strike. Trust that my sparring gear (padded helmet, gloves, shin guards, and boots, plus a mouth guard) will protect me if I don’t get away in time.

I have trouble maintaining eye contact with someone trying to hit me because my reflex is to flinch away and hunch up. I forget to breathe while fighting, which is really bad for a two minute intense workout. I’m getting better at both of those, but standing still when you see a kick headed straight at you, with the intention of absorbing that kick and THEN throwing my counter-attack, feels backwards and vulnerable and flat-out stupid. But as a sparring tactic, it works. In a street fight, I’d want to come in first, hit hard, and get out without taking any hits, but sparring takes place in a universe with very restricted rules, one of which is "Do not try to kill or injure your partner."

In this column, Susan Schorn (a black belt karate instructor in Texas) described sparring as being like a marriage:

The way I see it, a good marriage is a lot like a good sparring match. It’s a formal partnership, an agreement between two people who promise to challenge, protect, and nurture each other. That may seem like an odd analogy but sparring-as distinct from fighting-is very much a teaching and learning process. In marriage as in sparring, you have to agree on certain boundaries, because you are entering into a relationship that leaves you very vulnerable. You have to trust your partner. It’s risky, but the assumption we make when sparring or marrying is that the risk is acceptable when compared to the potential rewards of trusting our partner.

Very early on, possibly even the first lesson with my instructor, she told me that she would not hurt me. She also said that it was possible, even likely, I would hurt her, but she wouldn’t retaliate. I’ve been tossed on the padded floor by her and feel utterly safe, even when we’re sparring, even when she’s teaching me how to break out of a stranglehold with both hands (gently) around my neck. I feel less safe with some of my partners in sparring class, though I know the black belts are safe, and the brown belts (one to three levels down from black) are mostly safe. Two of the black belts who regularly go to my sparring class, one instructor and one not, are fabulous to spar with, because both of them let me practice new stuff, and show me when I can use it safely, deliberately leaving targets for me to strike until I figure it out.

Sparring is the hardest part of karate for me. I like the security of knowing how to deal with attackers that I get from the self defence techniques. I like the opportunity kata gives to hit hard without worrying about hurting my imaginary opponent as I work through the steps of the display form. But sparring is a long way from my comfort zone. Which is why I’ll keep practising at sparring class.

Karate blue belt!

I tested for my karate blue belt on 30th August, and I passed!

I study at Tracy’s Karate, the Kirkwood location. After my test, Karen took me into the sparring class and introduced me as a new blue belt, Ben hugged me, Dan shook my hand, random people I don’t know congratulated me, and my fierce photo is on the wall in the blue belt section.

This is a long way from the day I walked into the studio in November 2008 and asked "Can an overweight, unfit, 33 year old do karate?" The answer was apparently "Hell yes! I can do karate."

Sports injury

I never thought I’d have a "sports injury." At primary school, they made me take my glasses off for Physical Education lessons, so I could never see what I was doing. Didn’t much like team sports in high school, except field hockey. I sprained both ankles badly as a small child so I always had to watch out for them, and I find repetitions in the gym tedious. I don’t have the build to be tall, willowy, and stick-thin, but curvy, fit, and kick-ass strong are reachable goals.

I met Jim at the St Louis NaNoWriMo write-ins. It took a few years listening to him talk about karate before I asked if an unfit, overweight thirty-something could start karate without being laughed at. "Go to the Kirkwood Tracy’s, and ask for Karen," he said. She was there when I walked through the door, we chatted and I came back for my free lesson, then for the four lesson introduction course, then a five month contract, and I was hooked, working out was fun! Got my orange belt, then my purple, started sparring class, and I’m most of the way through my blue belt material.

Several weeks ago, I did a spinning wheel kick, something I’ve done hundreds of times before. This time I did it wrong, resulting in a sprained iliotibial band, and a torn meniscus. I’ve never had a knee injury before and it freaked me out enough to see a sports medicine doctor. While I can still do a slow, low impact version of my private karate lessons, I can’t go to group class or sparring class until I get cleared by the physical therapy torturer lady. I miss karate terribly, the workout, the sparring, and the people. I’m actually more tired when I don’t have that extra three hours of intense activity in my schedule.

The knee seems to be doing better, I’m hoping it will heal without surgery for the meniscus. My reward for feeling better is more repeats of the PT exercises, and new inventive tortures at my PT sessions. I want to get back to karate.