Sunday, September 11, 2005

Somehow It Happened; But an Unexpected Setback

Yesterday I made it through a tough class and then our dojo's "moving up" day. It's not referred to that way, but that's the name of an event I remember from college. There would be a small ceremony at the end of one academic year, marking the senior class' moving out into the world and everyone left behind going on to their next academic year. Selected juniors would walk in procession in a central part of the campus, and there would be a handoff of some symbolic document. I'm not sure of any other details of the event, just that I happened to be sitting on a park bench watching this on a sunny May afternoon.

I made Green 4, the level before Brown 3, and now the task of moving up again just gets harder. In a lot of ways I'm well over my head, with my out of shape legs giving me problems with making effective kicks. Over the last few months I've been able to work hard on my kata (discussed more below), and it's been noticed in class. I've adjusted on the placement of my gaze (more firm, raising my chin a bit), getting my shoulders back (I've had a habit of leaning forward too much and would often be off balance), and getting lower in my stances (not much good in leaning forward and being low; all of these things go together). I also worked on making each movement more convincing and harder,and working on the constant "loose-tight" movements and getting the stiff robot-like movements out of my kata. Concentration makes things better of course, and I can't say it's really concentration the way I thought it was, but more learning to ignore everything around you and stay on course no matter what.

For my "moving up" kata, I was assigned Wansu, and I'm told I did it well. It's just a blur in my memory, the kind of blur that just happens when you trust what's happening but perhaps think too many movements ahead. I remember taking a deep breath and a slow exhale to start and that my side block and punch felt good. I have no idea if they actually were. My turn and throw with my kiai weren't what I wanted, but seemed to be functional. I remember feeling that I wasn't low enough in the kata. At the end of the event I was told my kata extremely good by some of the black belts,who are always encouraging me, and not prone to hyperbole; or at least I hope they weren't.

I thought it was interesting that I was assigned this kata, since I learned it when I was a yellow belt. But as one learns fairly quickly in karate, your kata are never the same as you progress upward in rank. There as subtle things that are introduced as your technique becomes better, and as you become stronger and more confident physically. Punches and blocks are harder and firmer, and execution of them is much better because your body is more relaxed and looser. You also lose unnecessary windups and wasteful movements.

The past summer, I worked hard on my kata, but for an atypical reason. I've been afraid of losing them. A student who had attended for a while had left and then returned. It wasn't all that long, but it was clear that even the earliest kata seemed uncertain or just forgotten. I was afraid it might happen to me if I wasn't careful. After all, the more kata you learn, the more you have to remember. Kata is not like riding a bike. It's far too nuanced for that. When you don't ride a bike, what you lose is mainly stamina and strength. You can quickly adapt to bicycle operation, and unless you are big into cycling, there is no real aspect of subtlety or nuance: if you haven't fallen, you're functional, and you don't have to concentrate all that much to get where you want to be.

Punching and blocking are generally much easier to remember. Sure there are fine points to them, but the gross movements are easily remembered since they are discrete movements, not attached to any others. Kata is different; it's all about sequences and each movement builds on the past one or prepares for the next one,while retaining the integrity of each movement. It would not surprise me if someone were to stop practicing for months and in about 15 minutes be doing decent blocks and punches again. Not the best, but functional at least. But kata? Not at all. My fear of forgetting them, to get to higher level of muscle memory with them seemed to have paid off in interesting ways. I found it allowed me to concentrate on specific issues more easily. The frequent repetition seemed to let my kata "happen." I was able to concentrate on stances, or on hardness, or on focus, without having to obsess about what the next movement should be.
There's much to work on, and if I ever get to Brown 3, it will require totally different conditioning than I have now. It's no different than so many things, as you have to graduate from arithmetic to understand algebra, and without that you can't go near calculus. The skills are different, but you build on them, and the older skills improve as you learn new ones.

It seems that karate has presented a new challenge. Physically, I've been managing an unexpected gastric issue. Back a few months ago, I was having chest pain. After a night of hospital observation, tests indicated my heart was just fine, and the pain was from something else. After some more tests, it seems that I have developed a permanent case of heartburn. After looking at various potential causes, I now strongly suspect that hard karate practice makes some stomach acid splash into my lower esophagus. Biopsies taken during an endoscopy in August. They were negative for other conditions, like the precancerous "Barrett's esophagus," thankfully, but the idea of another physical setback is yet another reminder of the problems one can have starting to get in shape so late in life. No food had ever given me heartburn, and this is a factor that makes me think working out is a likely the cause. A problem has been that two of my karate classes during the week are after dinner. So in addition to taking a prescription medication every day, I take antacids before class; I even pop a Tums now and then during short breaks. I also eat less before class and try to eat earlier. So far things are manageable. Two steps forward, one step back. That's common when you start this kind of study when you're not in your teens or twenties.

In this case, the esophagus is so irritated that it will take weeks for it to "calm down" and determine what's working or what's not. It might not even calm down at all. Knowing it's definitely not heart-related means that I just ignore the pain (one of those situations where you acknowledge that it's there and you just move on) and keep going. But at least there's a plan, and by trial and error some optimism I'll find the right balance. Or perhaps not.

It's been strange dealing with this because people in the dojo think I'm out of breath when I stop doing something and that I still struggle with stamina. Instead it's significant and painful discomfort of my latest complication (it was obviously enough to send me for a heart evaluation). I was "written up" (and verbally "dressed down" so to speak) by one of the young black belts for putting my hands on my knees when waiting my turn in line for some kicks across the dojo rather than standing straight up in immediate seisandachi, or even standing up at all; I didn't explain what was going on; if I need to stop I just have to stop, and I have to deal with it.

One of the problems of being an older student is that younger ones with higher belt levels haven't been this age before (but there's hope: I had a business mentor who used to have a notepad that said "old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill"). In most cases, if they stick with karate to this age, they'll avoid all kinds of physical problems, since they won't have to overcome these problems I've had because of neglect. Stamina is hard for older students, but it always gets better the more you push yourself consistently. As far as the "dressing down," I know it comes from a desire to get what's best for me, and to reach to a higher level of karate. I've been chewed out plenty of times in my career anyway, deserved and not. You just keep pressing ahead. Nil illegitimus carborundum.

Karate is full of surprises, and this gastric thing is certainly an unwanted one. All parts of life are connected, and we have to accept that progress in some areas create setbacks in others at times. That's just the way life is.
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