Black Belts ~ Only a Beginning

“Are you tired?” he asked, lifting my left hand from my right shoulder with two fingers, by my sleeve, as if disgusted at having to touch me. “No, Sensei” I whispered, lifting my arm into its proper placement in a knife-hand block. “What?!” he asked, grinning condescendingly. “No, Sensei!” I replied, trying for a full ‘kiai’ shout.

I have been training for three hours. From the hour-long Saturday morning class into private training for my first black belt. Shodan. One of the hardest tests there is. An examination as much or more psychological as it is technical or a physical challenge. And it is those things. Very much those things.

I have trained for nine years now. My contract jobs in the tech industry keep me traveling, as does my mystery school teacher. The longest I’ve been able to stay at any one dojo has been two years. No instructor in his right mind will test someone for black belt with that track record. I won’t be there to give back to his school, so why should he bother? This one did.

He asked me, when I first showed up at his school, why I was still a brown belt? I figured it might have been the length of time I’d been training, from my signup sheet. I found out it was because my skills were too solid for him to let me rest at my current rank level, first degree brown belt. The last step before black.

The heavy canvas of my karate-gi is soaked through as I struggle to hold the deep forward stance, spear-hand strike and knife-hand block of one of the moves of Kanku-Dai. One of the five katas, or forms, one has to know for black belt examination. Kanku-dai is lovely. Looks best on tall people, which I am not. The head of my organization has been filmed performing this kata countless times. He is said to have ‘perfect form’. My instructor has been his student for half my lifetime.

I lift my arm from my shoulder to its proper position with new determination. I won’t let it shake or weaken. This is the 50th repetition of Kanku-Dai this morning. I don’t know how many times we went through the others. He saves this one for last because… ‘he’s sadistic’ my mind supplies. “Shutup” I tell it. Don’t think. Train. This one is hard for me because I must expand my body and my energy so much without losing strength. “Expand from center!” I’ve heard that shout hundreds of times. “Again!”

I have been holding this stance for many minutes now. My legs are wet, too hot/too cold and my muscles are cramping. The next move is a jump. My mind tells me it’s impossible. It isn’t. I’ve just done this 49 times this morning. I can do it… one… more… time… there. Heaving my body with what feels like will alone, I lift, drop down, then jump back into yet another back stance.

Until your body finds its way, this stance feels like torture, especially the way it is taught to women. Our pelvic structures are different. Once I found the way, I taught it to every woman I met who studied this art. Not cheating, a different skeletal-muscular alignment that works for us. My students learned it naturally. Everyone else dropped into it and said “Oh!” smiling widely. I love making that kind of a difference in someone’s training!

I went through the motions of this last repetition of Kanku-Dai with as much focus, determination and will as I could muster. I had transcended physical limitation at least an hour ago and was training on ki alone. When Sensei said “Once more” (it is never once… you learn that early) I replied “Hai!” energy bursting from my hara. He smiled, finally. “Okay, enough for today.” (I was too exhausted to weep but felt like it) “Want to go get breakfast?”

There is a really lovely breakfast spot a short walk away. The idea of undoing the wet canvas ties of my gi trousers and struggling my sweat-soaked body into dry clothes was making me want to sit down and pant for at least a day. Walk to breakfast? “Hai, Sensei. My treat.” There is an etiquette to mentoring. Especially in the warrior’s way.

Three months and many many hours of forms and sparring later, I stood my shodan test. I made a really stupid mistake on Heian-Nidan, the form you learn when you test from white belt to one of the first colored belts. A kata I’d known for years. How could I have done that? Everything else, all of the high level requirements, had been at least adequate if not well done. My kumite had been especially sharp tonight. Darn!

After I’d changed clothes I encountered my sensei at the door. He was on his way to take the senior examiners out for dinner. Black belt candidates are often asked to go along, as a privilege or maybe compensation for what they’ve just been put through. Sensei said “He failed everyone,” meaning the head examiner. “No one passed. See you at the training tomorrow.” My post-testing high vanished into oblivion.

Sitting in ice water at home afterwards, I contemplated everything I’d just been through. Aaaaaahh! They say no one passes the first time but that’s not true. I’ve seen lots of the guys do so. Is this a gaijin thing? A woman thing? Or was I just not good enough? Not good enough my inner judge responded immediately. There is another test in three months. I can try again.

At training the next morning, this weekend being a special seminar, the colored belts were tested. I was responsible for helping out. The kids I’d been helping to train were all curious. “How was your test? Do you think you passed? How hard is it?” shivering with anticipation. “They never tell you right away” I answered. “Get ready now.”

I got through that day by being there for the younger students. Encouraging them when they were scared. Bandaging and splinting little Jimmy’s toe when an older student broke it accidentally. It bled a lot but wasn’t too bad really. His mother wanted to rush him to hospital but, in martial arts, that’s not the done thing. Not for something ‘trivial’ like a bashed and fractured toe. The head examiner asked him if he wanted to quit, if he wanted to test next time. Game face through tears, he walked onto the mat. And won. Needless to say he passed with flying colors. A new brown belt. Two years and two more tests and he’d be my equal. He’s eleven. Don’t think about that.

I didn’t think about any of it while I was driving the examiners to dinner. I didn’t think about it while they were congratulating the lower belts who’d passed their tests. I didn’t think about it while driving the examiners to the airport the next day. What good would thinking do?

I got out of my car slowly and carefully for Monday night’s training. Everything hurt. I was sore in muscles I couldn’t name. Stretch and train. Don’t think. Focus. It hurt to put on my karate-gi. Shrugging the stiff canvas over my shoulders, I felt how much I would have to stretch and warm up. Start now. Warm up slowly. Do it before class begins.

I lined everyone up and we bowed in. Sensei pointed to me and shouted “Warm up!”. I could have led the warmup in my sleep by now. Today I was grateful for it. Loosen. Bend. Stretch. Bring blood and ki into the muscles. Ready the body for the work. Karate is high intensity training. My thirty-something body needed the preparation, especially after a day of sitting at a computer. I so envy the kids. Jog around the room twice and they’re warmed up.

I ended the formal warmup and Sensei shouted “Line up!”. He handed out new colored belts to almost all of his students. It had been a good examination. He was proud and happy. I could tell from the way he yelled louder and how hard training was that night. At the end of training, as we lined up again, he stopped before bowing out. Unexpected. “Four tested for black belt” he stated sternly. “No one passed.” Eyes straight ahead, I felt the disappointed looks from my juniors. I clenched my teeth. Here it comes. “You,” he pointed at me. “Probation”. Probation? “Not pass, not fail.” He took a deep breath. Sensei comes again next month. So soon? “You test again. He says yes, you wear your belt.” Suddenly, the row of juniors to my left was grinning surreptitiously. Wow. You’re going to be a black belt.

Not only was I not asked to perform the kata I’d messed up the first time, I was asked to do four others that have the same move within them. Tricky but anticipated. I’d been training them ALL, all eleven of them, every day for three and a half weeks. I was dreaming the forms every night. Moves, applications, everything I’d trained for, for months, every possible waking minute for three solid weeks. I wasn’t afraid exactly. I was damned if it would be my fault if I blew this. Let them be as biased as they chose to be. I wouldn’t give them any reason to be able to fail me. I want this!

Years ago, at my first computer job in Boston, I’d written an essay for my mystery school teacher. For some reason I didn’t then understand, I wrote that I was going to study martial arts. It had something to do with intensity and discipline, and I wanted to be that fit. Now I am that. What most people don’t know about serious martial artists is that we train like Olympians. I was in top condition!

Standing in line after my re-test, taken after a two-hour kumite (sparring) seminar, I work to control my breathing. I’d tested alone and that means no breath-catching breaks. The head examiner had given me ten seconds between two of the hardest katas to ‘breathe’. Kind by his standards. One of the top senseis in LA, he taught some of Hollywood’s most macho how to perform fight choreography. Everyone was in awe of him.

Sensei looked at me. Here it comes. “Hai. Come get belt.” !!!!!!!#$@$%!!! Holding my game face, I bowed appropriately and walked toward the examination table. “Change your belt” he said sternly, handing me a new black obi. Bowing deeply I accept the belt and back off the floor, turning my back to strip off the old brown one and don the new. I stepped back into line, now at a diagonal, indicative of my new status. I squared my shoulders, staying focused, not thinking. Sensei smiled at me. “Well done. Ganbatte, ne?” In English the expression means something like ‘keep at it, keep trying harder’. “Hai” I answered as the internal back flips began.

I’ve done it! I’ve done it! I’ve done it! “I need to talk to you” my Sensei was saying. Surrounded by the other students, laughing, clapping me on the back, I barely heard him, he spoke so quietly. He motioned them away with a gesture. Taking me aside, he asked “Do you want your nidan?” The next level black belt. “What?” I know I can attend black belt training now. I’ve been asked to assist with the white belts. What can he mean?

“Do you want nidan?” he repeated. “I’m going to keep training” I answered, not sure where this was going. “In six months, there is a special event in Japan. The new headquarters dojo is opening in Tokyo and there will be a very special testing.” “But Sensei, I have to wait a year. It is a year wait between shodan and nidan. Mandatory.” “Not this time.” he replied. “Do you want it?” “Yes!” I almost gasped, thinking of the six new forms and twenty-five new kumite combinations that are mandatory for that test. Not to mention how much harder it is physically. Not enough time!

“Good”. He patted my shoulder. “We train.”

I’ve never been on a flight this long. Two meals and two movies. Twenty-eight hours of travel time and that’s just to Narita airport. Now there is a bus to Tokyo. Another two hours or so. Then a taxi to the hotel. At midnight, Tokyo-time it is mid-day in California. I was wide awake.

There was a knock at my door. “Want to train?” Sensei asked. I laughed. It was so absurd. The length of time between tests. The flight. What I knew was going to be monster jetlag. My mystery school teacher, who’d actually been proud of me that I was asked to test in Japan and so soon. I know my ki has increased but this is ridiculous! “Ok” I answered, and went to fetch my karate-gi.

Sensei had spoken to the hotel manager and obtained permission to use a staff area between corridors to train. Our practice was constantly interrupted by hotel staff of various types, walking in and out with laundry and other items. Not a large space but enough to work the kinks out of flight-stiffened muscles and to allow the training to take over from the anxiety. I jumped, throwing one leg over the other into a flying roundhouse kick and landing low. As I twisted, my back gave. I landed on the floor, gasping. “Stand up!” Sensei ordered. “I can’t!” I replied, making tiny motions in different directions, testing which muscles were not spasming and could actually move. “Ice” he said, leaving to fetch some. With the help of my friend and training partner Marcel, I limped slowly back to my room. “You have to test, you know” he said sympathetically. “You can’t come all this way to give up.”

Marcel was right. But I couldn’t stand up straight, sit comfortably, or twist at all. How could I train, let alone test? The ice arrived. Bucket and bag to make an ice pack in hand, Sensei entered my room. Several hours with the pack in place and two excruciating shiatsu sessions later I could move. I could stand. It hurt and my back was sore as anything but I could train.

Sitting to meditate this morning is painful. Not the first time the inner voice reminded me. I let the meditation take me, guiding the light into my pulled and spasmed muscles and nerves, asking for healing. Give it back to me I thought I heard. Just the briefest whisper. What? ~ Give your back to me, louder now. Oh. I don’t know what to do. Let go. Trust this.What choice did I have, really? The timer beeped at me, letting me know it was time to dress and go.

I entered the women’s changing room slowly, folding my outdoor shoes into a corner of the pile in the hall. Five other women, all asian, were changing as well. Smiling, they surrounded me. Greetings in Japanese, Mandarin and a bit of broken English warmed me. I was welcome here. How strange.

Responding to the command to line up, I found my place. In a room filled with black belts, as far as the eye could see, I was last in line, of six lines. The lowest ranking black belt in the room. I might have laughed again if it hadn’t been for straining to hear or see the instructors in front and at the examiner’s table. Holy…! There isn’t one instructor below a 7th Dan ranking. The senior members of the organization worldwide. The elite. What am I doing here?

At the Shinto blessing for the new headquarters last night, I had met a few of the participants. Black belt candidates from all over the world. A gentleman from South Africa was practicing the same kata I was. He smiled and walked over to me. “We are both doing Jion” he smiled. “Maybe we will test together!”

I was a little worried about my kata. It was one of those learned for shodan (the first belt) not nidan (the second) but my sensei had assured me that anyone could do whatever kata they chose to for this special test and this was my best. I loved it. The name Ji-On translates as “the power of the Buddha”. Practicing it always empowers me. Its moves are deceptively simple and must be performed precisely, almost perfectly. I felt ready. And overwhelmed.

Standing at the very end of an impossibly long line, almost in the hallway with the pile of shoes, I began to train. We warmed up in the standard way. The examiners took their seats. Then, one of the assistant instructors for headquarters began to speak. My japanese is sketchy if functional, but I got the gist. The floor is brand new and was freshly sanded just this morning. There are piles of wet rags at each corner of the training floor. We would please wet our feet before performing our forms, so that we would not slip.

We had washed down the floor before beginning training so it had been damp and I hadn’t noticed that I would be testing on the equivalent of a skating rink. This was getting better and better.

A funny thing began to happen. I felt uplifted. I was still nervous but not afraid. My stomach settled down and I was acutely aware of the soreness in my back. luckily, Ji-On has many stance shifts but not a lot of twisting moves. I started to feel more confident.

Lower ranks always test first. There were quite a few of us testing for nidan and my new South African friend was not one of them. He was testing for a belt above mine. That made me feel better about my choice of kata, but not about the row of examiners at the table. Some of the highest ranking martial artists in the world. They’re smiling. I must be dreaming. Let’s get this over with.

I stepped up to my starting mark and glanced around me quickly, getting a sense of the space. Lining the walls, thirty or forty (all male except for the four Asian women) black belts were nodding their support. I would have grinned if it had been allowed. This was so surreal! The other tester on the floor was my training partner, Marcel. I knew his style and how he moved. I wouldn’t have to be concerned for floor space. We began and I felt the surge of ki move through me. I do this form better than he does. He won’t make me look bad, I thought uncharitably. Tough to be the only gaijin female in an ancient boys club.

I still can’t remember doing the second pass through the middle of the kata. I only know I ended up in the right place, facing the right way. My last drawn-out deep stance and kiai were correct. I thought I’d messed up a block in the middle. Not ninety-degrees perfect. Sloppy. It was over.

I bowed out, forgetting Marcel had been on the floor at all and looked over at my sensei. He nodded encouragingly. “Good” he mouthed silently. He’d never said that before. I moved to the wall, to stand with all the others and found a space next to a huge Iranian guy. “Good” he nudged me, almost knocking me over. He really was ‘industrial-sized’. I nodded my thanks but he sensed my feelings. “GOOD” he whispered more loudly, and smiled.

Everyone here wants everyone else to do WELL! I realized. I’ve never felt this before. I’m supported!

When the testing finished I was loaded onto a tour bus with everyone else to be taken to a special celebration. I was radically thirsty, having emptied my water bottle hours ago. They were serving beer. The other women had quickly grabbed the few bottles of juice in the coolers on board. The guys were all throwing back cold beers as fast as their workout-depleted bodies would allow. Celebrating.

As the bus filled, I found a seat next to my sensei and one of the other women. A member of the Hong Kong competition team, she was used to this. “Have some juice” she smiled. Relieved, I leaned back, feeling the soreness in my pulled muscles, knowing they were healing quickly.

“Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow we all fly home” she said laughing. “Better not to drink alcohol.” I agreed. Thank goodness English is spoken in Hong Kong. I don’t speak Cantonese.

During the dinner party, served in traditional tatami style, I was entertained by senior instructors wobbling on their knees, serving sake. At the high point of the evening, Kanazawa Shihan, head of the organization, addressed the party. Dressed in an honorary samurai robe, he sang a favorite song, then made an announcement. Everyone had been promoted. I was a second degree black belt!

We dashed for the airport the next day. I was glad I hadn’t had too much to drink. Another unimaginably long flight was ahead of me. Storms were in the forecast.

Marcel and Sensei had dozed off when the cabin lights came on. “Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts” was as far as the attendant got in her announcement. The plane bucked twice, throwing people’s drinks inches into the air. I was wondering how that splash hadn’t landed in Sensei’s lap when the Captain’s voice came over the intercom. He sounded urgent. Sit down and strap in! We had hit a pocket of extreme turbulence over the sea and the storm was making it hard to level out. Something like that.

The plan pitched again and began to dive, nose down. For longer than was ok. Next thing I knew, I felt Marcel’s hand covering mine, clenched on the handrest. “Wahl”, he exhaled slowly, drawling in his flat Brazilian accent, “No one is gonna know we are nidan”. He grinned at me as the plane leveled out, letting go of my hand. Sensei had clapped his palms together in front of him and was praying. I laughed. I laughed until I cried.

“Ladies and gentlemen we are on the other side of the storm. It should be clear flying to San Francisco.” The passengers around me burst into applause. Sensei was trying to get my attention. Trying not to giggle I looked him in the face. “Did you understand what Kancho was saying to you when we left?” (Kancho is another name for the head of the organization) I hadn’t. I had been too busy bowing politely and looking for aspirin in my bag. “He wants you to train for sandan. Two years training and you test. Instructor’s level.”

Standing next to my mystery school teacher in the lobby of the Four Seasons in LA, I told him about the test. “Of course you passed” he said. “Well, it was a special event. They passed everyone.” I countered. “And now they want you to train for the instructor’s level?” “Yes.” He was grinning now.

“Mm. You have spent lifetimes studying and teaching empowerment.” As he said the words, I felt the expansion, the confidence I’d felt in Japan. Something clicked. I have memories of Samurai lifetimes. I never assume that they’re mine. This felt different. A softness. A steely gentleness as powerful as the universe. My teacher grinned. “Regardless of how or when, you’ve become empowered. More is possible for you now. Use it wisely.” He laughed. He loved that saying. I grinned in response as I walked at his side, escorting him to his car.

Two years later I trained for, peaked and passed my third degree black belt test. I trained hard. I studied. I focused. I practiced having no mental distractions. I grew in heart as I trained others to do the same.

I remember that night in Boston, writing the essay on wanting to study martial arts and not knowing why. I dug through my files and found a copy. “I want to hold a third degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, specifically the SKIF organization”, I’d written. “Black belts aren’t really skilled until that level. They are still sloppy at nidan but become super-skilled at sandan. I want to know why.” I’d forgotten that during the years of training.

The real learning had just begun.

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