Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kate's Martial Arts Journey

This blog entry is a guest entry by Kate Mulcahy, with her kind permission. It originally appeared in the Australian Jiu-jitsu, Judo and Chinese Boxing Federation of Instructors' newsletter: Kunoichi.

I thought that Kate's story would resonate with a wider audience. Enjoy!

My parents encouraged their children to always do at least one sport during school. As I either did not enjoy or was uncoordinated at most sports I tried, I stuck with swimming for several years. Finally, after some interest which stemmed mostly from television clich├ęs, I began Karate at the age of thirteen years and nine months at a dojo in Hobart at a school recommended to me by my uncle.

There were people of all ages, but I was acutely aware that I was the lowest grade by far for someone my age or older. The only other white belt, in fact, was six years old. I passed the first grading, but was still absurdly ashamed of my level. Not being remotely competitive by nature, something like this should have been a put off. Here I was, spending hours at a time making awkward, jerky and unbalanced movements for reasons I was aware I didn’t really grasp, and generally feeling abnormal and uncoordinated. And yet I loved every minute of it. I wanted to do it for no other reason than to do it. The concept of improvement was lurking in the back of my mind somewhere, but I found that each time I did a technique it was enough to just concentrate on trying to get the movement right. Indeed, it was more than enough. It felt fantastic. I had never felt this passionate about something before, and indeed only once since.

During class, Sempai would often move to one of the students to correct a block or strike. I dreaded that it would be me she would have to correct. I hated standing out in class – I was happy to just repeat the same techniques over and over, trying my hardest to copy what I saw others do. More often than not, it was me that needed correcting. I clearly remember the first class where Sempai didn’t have to explain something to me even once – I was near the back, next to an insurmountable green belt. I also remember the first time I was asked to help instruct a new member of the class. And the first time I was the highest grade at a class. Even the first time I taught a class. All the while, I found it increasingly difficult to explain certain things: the way one moves their hips, the way one tenses the core muscles, the way one uses qi during a technique. None of these had been taught, although they had all been mentioned at points (and so I could be certain others experienced the same things), and yet they all seemed to develop naturally after training properly for long enough. Eventually it became apparent that there are many things, indeed a great portion of the martial art, which cannot be easily verbalised, despite seeming to be natural developments.

Hayashi-ha Shitoryu-kai Karate-do, my first martial art, originates in Japan (specifically, Okinawa). Unlike a sport, it comes with a deep mentality. After going to Japan myself, I began to see that many of the strange unnamed concepts that were cropping up in karate were much easier to explain in Japanese, and indeed had links to the Buddhist philosophy from the area. These strange ideas had already been heavily studied and developed by many others. Although I hadn’t realised it, finding out about this had taken a load off my shoulders. I had desperately wanted to find out more about these things, but had felt that it was impossible. I could train all I liked, but there are many things that one cannot learn alone.

In 2005, I moved to Melbourne to pursue a Science degree. This meant being away from my home dojo for most of the year, so I began to look for another place to train. Although I knew my first dojo was superb, it wasn’t until I saw others up close that I was able to fully appreciate the impact the teacher and his attitudes has on the students. At this stage I was able to learn by training by myself, but not at a high level. One and a half years of searching proved fruitless. I could not find a dojo where I could learn martial art rather than sport.

In 2006, the annual AMAHOF Awards Ceremony was held in Hobart, and so of course I attended with my dojo. The event itself was spectacular, but I did meet someone very important there. A man who I could tell from how others treated him was very respected (which is quite a feat at an AMAHOF event) was speaking with my Sensei and happened to find out that I was living in Melbourne. He explained that he taught Judo, to which (he asserted) the female body is ideally suited. After a brief five minute talk, he gave me a business card and said I was welcome to train at his dojo.

In my for a good school in Melbourne, I had previously only considered Karate dojos. Not once had I considered another martial art, but I liked the way this man had explained things – he clearly didn’t just teach the movements, and he clearly understood martial arts much more than I did. Upon my return to Melbourne, I looked up a train timetable and visited the website on the business card (which I still have) and set off to see how things looked.

I arrived half an hour before class was due to begin so that there would be time to talk. Unsure of which title to use, I resorted to “Sensei” until told otherwise (‘you can call me “Kancho”’), and explained why I was there, with the expectation that he wouldn’t remember me. The rest was completely unexpected. It was not just a good dojo; it was more than I could have imagined. I began learning Judo hoping that it would fill the gaps in my understanding of Karate. Having at the time learned only Karate, I was unaware of what these gaps were, but was sure that they existed. After all, nothing is complete by itself.

Since then, I have found that Judo has not simply helped my karate. It is a whole other world, but connected very intimately. As I am beginning to learn Judo, I am remembering things about when I was beginning to learn Karate and understanding things I could not have before.