Having practiced Karate for just over four years, I reached that phase were I questioned my relationship with the art. Am I still under its spell, am I progressing fast enough, is Karate effective at all or am I wasting my time?
Decision to quit was made, my Gi was ironed, folded and put away, along with my gloves and protective gear.
My mind was clear, and unbiased. Timing was right to start my own evaluation process, analysing few aspects of Karate I deemed most meaningful to me, and to come to terms with my decision.
What follows is my own personal and humble opinion, and not reflecting my clubs or system’s philosophy.
Karate for fitness
Anyone who tried even few Karate sessions will notice improved fitness. Moving in all directions, jumping and kicking at random intervals will raise heart rate and keep it where it should be for fat burning and conditioning.
I still recall my early days when I gasped for air during warm up alone, and was just grateful to make it through the 1st third of the session without embarrassing myself too much. With time, persistence paid off and my fitness level increased substantially.
Beside obvious weight control and fitness benefits, Karate is also focused on building strong core muscles and good flexibility. These two elements on their own are source of good health and great well-being. Both contribute to good form and posture, preventing back problems, muscles injuries and well founded strength.
Some Katas low stance, provide iso-metric exercise very similar to Yoga. This is particularly good for knee joints. Isshin-Ryu Sanchin kata also comes to mind, as an excellent conditioning and breathing control kata, if not the best.
Karate for self-confidence
When you practice Karate for a while, depending on your style or system, you would have learned basic self-defence, some locks and throws. You would also have had enough Kumite rounds to get used to striking, as well as getting punched, kicked and swept.
These drills and exposure build a self confidence which gradually starts reflecting in the way you walk and carry yourself. “ I can handle myself” will be written all over your forehead, this in its own is a good deterrent.
Many persons subjected to either bullying or unprovoked attacks fall into depression, in extreme cases even commit suicide. Psychologically, this is caused by feeling vulnerable and realising their safety was an illusion. At this point, control is given to the aggressor
A martial artist can still get his ass whopped, the difference is, he will not take it as a victim. This is a simple state of mind achieved by fighting back and resisting. This is about retaining emotional control and refusing to be a victim. After bruises heal, there will be no emotional scars, and life will go on.
This self confidence is also about having nothing to prove, one learns to walk away from a stupid argument and potential fight simply because he knows he can fight if it comes to it. A large number of fights kick off because someone wants to prove something to himself and massage his own ego.
To Kata or not to kata
The web is full of articles about this topic, I am not any different than those who wondered about the point of punching and kicking the air at imaginary attackers who happen to be kind enough to come at me only when I am ready, and one at the time.
This has been one of the hardest points in my evaluation of Karate effectiveness. Katas did not make sense; I found them boring, pointless, their almost religious precision requirements were frustrating.
I held the above views until one evening, minding my own business in a bar, I was cornered by an agitated man. Talking my way out was not working, few seconds later I had him on a choke, and as he got more agitated I proceeded to lower my stance, tighten my grip and released just as he started going to sleep.
I was very impressed with myself. It is not the fact that I neutralised a guy 50% heavier than me that was the highlight, but the fact that my body reacted with a certain precision, and my mind kept calm. The situation was dealt with in a controlled manner and did not escalate into a brawl.
Only then I started looking at Katas and Bunkais differently, but what benefits did I see?
You practice your Katas and follow up with Bunkais over and over again. Muscle memory is built and the body can react, freeing the mind to focus on the moment. Your breathing is normal, or at least adequate for the move.
Emphasis in good form and stance, subtle calculated transitions from one stance to another teaches us to use body bio mechanics most efficiently, thus generating more power and force even against a stronger opponent.
Besides the fun of fighting in a controlled environment, learning to move, cutting angles and evaluate opponent distance, I chose to take a philosophical angle on Kumite for my evaluation of Karate.
Taking inspiration from my coaches and Sensei, I realised a good Kumite is not that different from aspiring to a good life.
You stand your ground like a bear, you protect and brace yourself and when time is right you move forward. If not, you create opportunities and strike.
A good opponent, just like life challenges will test your stamina, endurance, and determination.
You will get punched and kicked, yet just as is the case in life you have a choice. Do you dwell on the pain and feel sorry for yourself, end up losing focus and getting hit again. Or do you accept the kick, and move on keeping focus, and mindfully staying in the present. I found that accepting a strike makes it less painful somehow.
Putting it all together, it became clear to me that the cliché “karate is a way of life” became more evident than ever before. My failed attempt to quit karate paid back as I now train and practice with conviction.
In my humble opinion, Karate is more than just a sport, it has given me a great deal and improved my life and the way I look at it in many ways.
My fitness level improved beyond my expectations, my reflexes and awareness are constantly challenged and my confidence carries me well. Martial arts confidence is not to be confused with cockiness, it is a calm and serenity knowing one can, and will commit to a strike without hesitation if necessary.
Katas and Bunkais, the quest for an illusive perfection. This quest transfers to our daily lives, be it relationship with others, or professional life. We learn to improve ourselves, we learn to be diligent and aim for precision, quality and excellence. We also accept, this will always be a quest and never a final destination.
For Kumite and sparring, mindfulness and awareness comes into play. The fighting spirit is forged here, not necessarily to win the fight but to cope under pressure, to never give up, to keep on moving forward.
Lessons such as accepting, letting go and moving on whether in Dojo or in life will make you a better fighter and more resilient person when faced with life challenges. At the end of the day, you will not be fighting the person in front of you, but your own imperfections, doubts and weaknesses.
I am glad I doubted, questioned, and analysed. I am even gladder that I saw what Karate means and gives me. Sure, other sports and disciplines can give similar benefits and rewards, but in my case, Karate fitted my character and personality, I just did not fully understand this until going through this process, now another important milestone in my life.
Photo/Text: Samir Meftahi – Holstebro