Not many people seem to understand Martial Arts the way I do. I don’t know if I had a truly unique experience in my studies, but even those I know who had taken a martial art seem to be completely different in thought and feeling than myself. The way my mind works seems completely different, which is neither better nor worse, but sometimes self-alienating. My thoughts are so different than anybody else that I know, even if most of my actions are the same. My Martial Arts journey brought me almost all my firsts, from glory to sadness, from pride to humility, from anger to disappointment. Martial Arts didn’t just change my life, it was my life.
When I was just four I started taking Kenpo Karate. I quit when I was six. It was fun, but it wasn’t a life changing experience. When I was eight my father told me about a Sensei that worked as a barber where he got his hair cut. A barber and a Sensei may seem weird, but he was a man who co-existed in both real life and the life of a Martial Artist. He made both lives one, something I one day also hoped to accomplish.
When I started out, I started a couple weeks later than the rest of my class. There were two students that were around my age that were ahead of me in rank, my Sensei’s daughter, and another student who was an orange belt when I was beginning as a white.
Karate was fun, but as an eight year old, I had to understand philosophies that seemed dauntingly impossible. There were creeds and pledges and promises that I took that I had yet to truly understand. But, I followed them. The first year was nothing but two punches, two kicks, blocking, and stances. We didn’t learn to fight, or even properly defend ourselves. Why? Because we hadn’t proved we had the discipline to not harm others unless absolutely necessary.
After the first year, the class size dwindled, but another class of students was being brought up. I reached the Yellow belt, and we moved from a garage into a professional dojo. It was amazing to see my Sensei’s dreams come true. Everyone was so happy. It was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to learn more.
Throughout my whole career, I participated in many tournaments, and always did well. It was never a personal victory, however. We were tools of our school, students of the art, winning meant furthering our lessons, furthering the word of Martial Arts, and until later in my training, it never seemed like a big deal.
In the new dojo, I was promoted quite quickly, and actually surpassed the student of the former class who was originally two belts ahead of me. He, and his father, were not happy about such things, and quit. Looking back on it. I don’t quite understand. I mean, the higher ranked members were not your true equals, but they weren’t beings to be revered, even if I had when I revered them when I was young.
My school started a demo team that got us some recognition. It was nothing amazing, but it was another day to train, and it didn’t matter where I practiced my martial arts, as long as I was. I was promoted again, and helped instruct the class, which now consisted of very few of the original students that started out with me. Many of them were naturally talented, others amazing at studying, but I was proud to be contributing to their training as an instructor. I often did the warm ups, and often did a lot of the “tot” classes, which were for children 8 and under.
There were creeds you had to memorize with each new rank, a guideline to swear to in order to continue training, as I stated earlier. One day, I, and the only other student left that started out with me in the original class (his daughter was in the adult class now), could not recite our creeds. We were stripped of our belts. We were nothing. It crushed me, that one mistake could take away what I worked on for years. Having no belts meant that we were less than the beginning white belts, and could neither lead the class, nor be in the front of class. Everyone saw us in the back, without our belts, and it was painful to say the least. I was not the only one who thought that it was wrong. Two brothers who had been training for almost two years were also adamantly opposed to the idea. So, they left. They were so appalled that our Sensei would strip my belt that they left. I realized at that moment what loyalty was. I realized what leadership meant. I had greatly trained these two, and their loyalty to me was so unwavering that seeing me fall was so wrong in their minds that they gave up their training. I hadn’t known that that was the reason at the time, but once I proved myself worthy, and received my belt once again, I was told this by my Sensei. That moment changed my life forever. It was contrary to the nature of martial arts, but I didn’t, and still don’t like people depending on me like that. I don’t like people being so connected with my choices and what happens to me.
So, my life had pretty much been back to normal for a number of years. I was now a Brown belt, and there were no originals left in the group besides me. When the former tots class was promoted to my class, I was promoted to the adult class, being the youngest person to do so. This was invigorating. I would spar and hit and take hits from grown adults. Some of these adults were uneasy with the idea, but once I proved that they would not have to use kid gloves (pun intended), I had some of the greatest battles of my life.
Then it all started to change. The adult group was based more and more on training and less and less on discipline. I noticed this with the other classes, too, and soon stopped helping to instruct them. The change seemed so sudden, but I guess it was on people’s minds for a while. There were no more days of just drills, or just calisthenics. There were no more days of breaking down the mind and relying on instinct, seeing if the techniques were in our bones. There was no more need for creeds or caution in teaching. My Sensei called me the last of the old school, but the old school was certainly gone.
I once confronted my Sensei about the leniency that had infiltrated what was once a deridingly harsh school. He told me that no one sticks around to learn when you break them. He said it didn’t work like that anymore. And it was true. But it was also a moot point. If they couldn’t stomach the training, they shouldn’t learn the art, that was the point of the hardship, to learn something truly beautiful.
So, things got more lenient, and I started to care less. I was in high school now, and after not missing a class in six years, began to miss them left and right. We moved into a new dojo which was much bigger, and then came the rule that you could come in whenever you could make it. That didn’t matter to me on free training days, where people would just come in when they could and practice, and then leave, but a class was a class. The discipline aspect of it was completely gone. The mind was taught to fight, but not to learn, not to think, not to be. So I left. I never came back. What was once a proud tradition of respect and discipline was now just a place to learn a few techniques. Everything I worked for seemed like nothing for a long time.
However, I now realize that the journey had completely shaped me as a man. I still feel no need to fight unless in extreme conditions. Even when I do fight, I do so calmly. I still get riled, but I never get angry by a person, especially one trying to anger me. I am calm, collective, and always learning more. I still live by the code that I swore to. I gave my word, swore my pledges. Even if I didn’t truly understand them then, I certainly do now. I am the man I am because of Martial Arts, and it’s somewhat saddening that there is one less place in life where you can learn those lessons. However, I believe that was the most important step in my journey. I live the lessons I learned despite there being no one to reinforce them anymore. I think that’s the most important thing of all.