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The Many Stages of Karate


The Many Stages of Karate

The sustainability of karate verses the sustainability of the gym.

Joe Whipp

Karate in the Eastern world is said to be ‘a way of life’ (dô) and not just a pastime participated in the evenings or weekends as it would seem in the West.

There are many different stories on how karate came into being over thousands of years but the reasons many become interested in karate in the West are somewhat lesser but equally as important because it is these reasons that make karate sustainable.

After the self indulgent period of Christmas, Easter or any other festival, religious or not, comes the self remorse of losing the weight built up during this time. Countless people start their journey at a local gym but as the enthusiasm soon wanes in the following few months, as the repetition of the subject soon takes hold, their years membership that seemed so reasonably priced is no longer utilised but like migrant birds, they return again the following year, almost becoming a ritual.

Stage one is the craving to learn something new. Karate is not that dissimilar to other types of workout, based upon repetition carrying out a move more than a thousand times and still not mastering it until at least a thousand more when it is then concatenated with another move and the cycle starts again. So what makes karate different that the initial enthusiasm does not diminish so easily? Obviously the answer is subjective, and can be different between juniors and adults, but analysing the reasons why people begin their journey less travelled into the realm of the ‘Dojo’ is a good place to start.

It could be said to be the thousands of years of eastern history or the spiritual nature the craft pertains. However, for the vast majority of students that makes those initial steps into the ‘House of the Waving Pine’, are unaware of these traditions but common to those starting at the gym, most want to stay in shape and keep fit. The one addition to these thoughts that make the karateka (student of karate) different from those that choose to frequent the gym is the craving to learn something new.

Stage two is evolvement. Despite the thousands of years of eastern tradition the western world would need something more to sustain its longevity. Whilst in the gym modern technology was introduced. Technically advanced machinery that count the miles travelled whilst not leaving the gym or calories burnt. TV screens to keep their patrons engaged to avoid boredom setting in and the introduction of music; creating aerobic steps to different beats. Karate’s method was more subtle, introducing the grading system using different coloured belts to indicate competency in the craft. The initial karateka would see the black belt as the pinnacle to their journey, although by the very nature of stage two, this would also evolve in the karateka’s mind in a later stage.

Stage three probably seems the most important; drive and progression. Whilst in the gym progression is visually shown through the development of body shape in the form of ‘muscles’. For a large contingency of adults that are still sticking with the activity, this is then the motivation to carry on. There are still some participants that use the gym to ‘keep in shape’ and do not wish to develop such facades. An air of competition or friendly rivalry develops to keep the motivation alive, ‘one does not want to give up until the other one does’, so it becomes more of a mental agility test until one has the strength to ‘give it up’ and wait for the ritual to start again next year.

In karate, progression is tested through the belt system and visually demonstrated by the development of basic techniques. Although there are styles of karate where the aim is one of competition between karateka, traditionally the contest is the achievement for oneself to master the karate techniques. Nevertheless, the belting system allows a visual competition between competitors, especially the juniors, as they progress through the belts. It is at this stage both the gym and karate seemed to fight the same battle of how to keep your patrons interested, as mental agility is the mêlée at hand.

Whilst there is more substance to a workout in the gym then the obvious physical elements, it does not stretch to the depth of karate and other forms of martial arts. As karateka develops through the belts the visual motivation is clear but what may not be so apparent to the occasional onlooker is the development of the mental strength that starts to expand.

Obviously with junior participants it could also be associated with maturity. Although it is no coincidence for many parents that see their child’s development and general behaviour improve in areas outside of the Dojo since their karate journey began, especially students with special educational needs. The discipline and respect that other recreation activities have to work at is at the very core of karate so is instilled from day one. Karate starts and ends with respect (rei) which is the first of ‘Twenty Precepts of Karate Dô’ as written by Gichin Funakoshi, said to be the Father of Modern Karate Dô. Junior karateka not only have their own self motivation to drive them they also have their parents that clearly see the positive mental worth to also push their children to continue with their karate journey.

For the adult karateka the mental strength also manifests in their advancement and understanding of a karate technique and its correct deployment. There becomes a continuing desire to master each movement, breathing precisely using kime and kiai correctly to aid in the delivery and execution of the perfect technique.

As an adult karateka achieves the level of brown belt and ever closer to achieving black belt status their attention starts to turn to the philosophy and spiritual side of karate. “If the spiritual side of karate is ignored, then its physical aspect is meaningless”. (Mas Oyama, This Is Karate, 1965) This adds a further dimension to karateka’s journey giving further sustainability.

In the East Karate is said to be handed down through the generations of a family. Whilst in the West we may not follow the same traditions but many families do take up the art together giving karate a further dimension. Unfortunately it has to be said, not one that is sustainable for most due to the costs of such a venture for the whole family.

Stage four is the most important, choosing the right Sensei. Without an expert Sensei (Teacher) to look up to and draw inspiration from, a clubs life span is somewhat limited. Your Sensei is the life and soul of your club and whom, although may be assisted by other black belts, will be where all the directions will come from to master the craft of karate. Traditionally in the East once you have chosen your Sensei, if indeed you have the choice as it is understood your Sensei chooses you, he will hold this position forever, even after death. In the West we of course have the choice but it is equally important to make your decision carefully as this tradition still holds for those in the West that take their karate seriously. Even for those karateka’s who start their journey young and go on to University; continue with the art at another Dojo still return whenever possible due to the draw of an expert Sensei. Like most things in life, you never forget your first... Sensei.

Whilst in the gym Teachers are referred to as instructors, the muscle clad figure set before you on your initial visit. Initially it is their infectious enthusiasm to be your driving force together with the thought of having a body shape like theirs. However, unlike your Sensei they are not with you every step of your journey; instructors come and go, so the initial enthusiasm soon starts to erode.

Stage five is reaching that ever moving summit. In the gym as you fast approach the pinnacle of a muscle clad body like your original instructor you soon realise this is now just the beginning of your journey, you now have to work that much harder to maintain such a physic or once where stood bulging biceps will hang drooping ‘chicken wings’.

When one makes those initial steps into the Dojo, whether young or old, they see their summit as achieving their black belt. Initially their own personal goal may be something not as challenging such as obtaining their first belt but as this joyous occasion is soon surpassed their sights are soon averted and the ‘holy grail’ of the martial art world, the prestigious black belt, soon becomes their driving force.

As you crusade through the gruelling Shodan grading and are handed your black belt, the acme of your karate career, you soon realise the Castile that has been bestowed upon you. Just like the gym you begin to understand this is where your journey starts and if you have been teaching your fellow students for some time you realise the respect and belief they have of you and now expect you to impart all your accumulated knowledge onto them. Just like any other grading, Shodan has a specific syllabus that you have to meet but it is surprising once presented with a black belt, instantly your fellow students believe you to be the fount of all karate knowledge. You then realise this is how you see your Sensei and thus start to appreciate the path you now need to take.

Stage six is enlightenment. What you started as a path of ‘getting fit’ and learning something new, repetition of a blocking technique closely followed by an attacking technique, has become more a way of understanding. Uke for block and zuki to punch, exhaling, focus and tensing at the crucial point (kime), using one’s centre of gravity and inner strength (hara), having the correct timing and distance (maai) is all required for optimal performance. Understanding yourself first to allow you to understand others (fourth in the Twenty Precepts of Karate Dô) and to realise ‘mukin shôri’, “The way to success has no short cuts” (Tanaka Masahiko).

Similar to those that choose the gym, understanding the mechanics of your body is important for both situations but this is where the similarities seem to end. Whilst those at the gym start to parade their bulging physique, traditionally those from the dojo ‘hide their light under a bushel’ and tend to recognise that teaching others is their rewards. Dôkan, “The way is a circle”, you have been taught now you teach others.

However, karate is not just about the physical being; ‘shin-gi-tai’, Sprit-Technique-Body; good technique wins over pure strength but the spirit dominates everything.

The first introduction to the spirit within karate will probably be at the end of a lesson when the words of the Dojo Kun are read out and repeated by each karateka in unison, quickly followed by Mokusô, a time for meditation. Up until now a karateka would simply comply and repeat the words of the Dojo Kun with little or no thought to the meaning, then shut their eyes in what might simply seem as a warm down period as in a gym workout.

However, during the stage of enlightenment one starts to see meaning where there was none before. Where a karateka once deployed a thousand repetitions of a karate technique, laid the Spirit of Effort. The determination to master a basic technique is crafting the Perfecting of one’s Character. The Principles of Etiquette instilled within since that first day in the Dojo has brought real meaning to the phrase ‘Defending the Paths of Truth’ whilst showing respect a karateka has shown to oneself and to others, ‘Guards them Against Impetuous Courage’.

Channelling back into karate this spirit through a state of mushin, (without thinking), continues a karateka’s development. Understanding Zanshin, (a state of awareness), now starts to improve one’s physical techniques being able to defend an attack without thinking (mushin) what technique to deploy.

Although you are enlightened throughout each stage of your karate life it is at this point which is the most prevalent. What you once thought to be the apex of your karate career, where expectations of a fanfare of notoriety will be bequeathed, becomes a humble beginning of a way of life (Zen) thus not that dissimilar to the traditions from the Far East from whence the art began after-all.