Dec 14: Fall term at Fairmount Park and Thurgood Marshall ends
Dec 15: Fall term at Cascadia ends
Dec 31: Women's New Year's Eve class
Jan 4: Fall term at Fairmount Park and Thurgood Marshall begins
Jan 3: Fall term at Cascadia begins
Jan 17: Evaluations for Women's Class
Jan 19: Karate 101 for Women begins
Jan 28: 13th Annual Kick-A-Thon
Sept 15-16: PAWMA Camp on Vashon Island
See Google Calendar
By Jennifer Sweigert
I began to study martial arts in college because I admired the grace, strength, and beauty I saw there. And a friend said it was fun. So I joined a Tai Chi class. I wasn’t used to using my body much at all, and I enjoyed the relaxed tingling of my tired muscles at the end of class. I also enjoyed the hunger I felt afterward – the joy of eating to feed my muscles and joints instead of to entertain my mind or soothe my nerves. And I have to admit, I felt virtuous, as well. I was doing something to improve myself. I was learning skills, toning muscles, and expanding the range of my joints and my mind.
When I left college behind, I also left Tai Chi behind. I was sad to part ways with the aging Chinese ballerina who ordered us, in a voice reminiscent of Grover from Sesame Street, to “grasp-us birds tail.” In her flowing black mandarin-collared suit with her long hair arranged in a neat figure eight bun on the back of her head, she was the picture of elegance. But I did not leave behind everything I learned from her.
In graduate school, an ice-breaker activity required us to teach a movement to the group. I chose a simplified version of a movement I had learned in Tai Chi, which I think was called parting the horse’s mane. In explaining it, I told the group how much I had loved my tai chi class.
Little did I know that in that group was the woman who would become one of my new martial arts teachers. Tracey and I became friends and jogging buddies. One Saturday morning, I called her up to see if she was interested in a jog around Green Lake. She was on her way to her karate class and invited me to come. I did, and the rest is history. That was in August of 1998. Aside from a two year gap, I’ve been training in karate ever since.
Why karate? There are any number of answers to that question. One reason is simply because I happened to call Tracey that Saturday morning, or because I had met her, instead of someone else, in graduate school. Another is that as a young woman in a big city, I reasoned it would be a good idea to learn to defend myself. Another is that I wanted some regular exercise.
But more important than the reasons I began are the reasons I stay, the reasons I didn’t know about before. I quickly figured out that karate training was good for me as a teacher. I was working as a high school French teacher at the time, and karate reminded me how bewildering it is to be a true beginner. It helped me empathize with my students and be patient with their struggles. Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, I was engaged in struggles of my own.
I learned that understanding a movement in my mind was different from figuring out how to activate the right muscles to make my body do the movement. Remembering how to activate those right muscles while doing a hundred other things was always the next challenge.
I think I stayed because every once in a while, there was a success. And I don’t mean belt promotions (although I was surprised at how proud I was of my orange belt). I mean the smaller victories. After the stomach crunches at my first class, I couldn’t laugh, cough or sneeze without pain for several days. But by the end of the first week, I could do thirty crunches, and though I groaned at the time, I could laugh about it the next day – pain free.
A mental victory was memorizing kihon kata ichi (first basic form). When I first started, I never knew which way to turn. That’s not a cliché expression; it’s the literal truth. Even if I knew which way to turn, I didn’t know how far or when to stop turning. The phrase “180 degrees” meant nothing to me outside of a protractor and some graph paper. My brain did not know what to do with that information standing in my bare feet on a wooden floor with no graph paper in sight. But I learned, with the help of a stick figure diagram (drawn by Tracey). Since beginning my karate training, I have an entirely new awareness of my body’s position in space. Actually, I think the fact that I have any realistic sense of it at all is entirely due to karate. In school I flunked all the “spatial relations” sections of standardized tests.
Those are just two examples, but because of the almost infinite detail and skill of karate, there are always small steps to master, and that mastery feels good.
I also stayed because of the community. The women of FKU, both the many that come and go and the few that stay for the long haul, have been blessings in my life. In the chatting community of the dressing room and the resting chairs, and the sweating community of the dojo floor, bonds develop. I think as a woman who had never really done the team sports thing, I was used to forming relationships through talking. My experience in karate was that I began to form bonds without talking. In the early days, I quietly became accustomed to spending two evenings a week and Saturday mornings sweating with people whose last names I didn’t know. Beyond the fact that we were trying really hard to get better at karate, I didn’t know whether or not I had anything in common with them. But I began to feel extremely comfortable. Later, the chance to rejoice or complain about the events of the day with my pals became another reason why I keep coming back to FKU karate.
Why karate? Because one time, I quit. Maybe it’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. About eight years ago, I got busy with other priorities, became frustrated, and quit karate. I was a blue belt at the time. I had just started learning pinan ni-dan. For the next two years, any time someone would mention martial arts, I told them excitedly about my wonderful karate school. My face would light up, my arms begin to move wildly, and after a while I would sheepishly realize I had probably been talking far too much. I would remember the cheerful pale green walls, the hard-working, friendly women, and the tired contentment I felt at the end of every work-out. As soon my life settled down, I came back, and here I remain.
Probably the most striking aspect of karate for me was that it was one thing I never regretted. Not ever. When I began, I made a commitment to myself. I remembered the movie the Karate Kid, and Mr. Miyagi’s advice that if you do karate half-heartedly, you’re looking to get squished like a grape. I didn’t know whether I could learn karate, but I did know that I couldn’t learn anything without consistent practice. So I made myself a promise that Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings would be sacred in my schedule. Only mandatory work obligations, or an excuse good enough to call in sick to work would permit me to skip karate class. Some days, it was really hard to make myself get up off my comfy couch, get in my car, and drive to the dojo. But I did. And every time I did, I was glad. No matter how awful – tired, discouraged, upset, distracted, lethargic, sad, whatever – I felt before class, it was always better afterwards.
I had a habit of listening to the jazz station driving home after class, and I soon realized that often, those fifteen minutes driving home sweaty and tired in my car were the best part of my day.
Karate, I discovered, had an amazing ability to clear my mind, as we say at the beginning of every meditation. Some days I would have to force myself to class not because I was tired, but because I was stressed. With five French classes a day, homeroom, parents and students needing attention, papers to grade and all the attendant demands of life as a teacher, there were days I simply couldn’t figure out when I would have the time to even figure out what to do first, let alone get it all done. But because of my sacred promise to myself, I would postpone thinking about it until after karate. And somehow, like a miracle, during the hour and a half I spent in class, things would have sorted themselves out. Driving home, I could clearly see my priorities. Projects that seemed impossible would reveal the secret to managing them. Solutions I had been searching for during the day seemed to magically appear in my brain in the relaxed, post-karate state. Problems that had cast a gloomy shadow over my whole world shrank to their proper perspective. The Great and Powerful Oz transformed into that little old man behind the curtain pulling levers. Life itself seemed to slow down to a pace I could handle. Almost like in the movie the Matrix, when Keanu Reeves easily dodges the spray of bullets. Only not quite that dramatic.
I also began, for the first time in my life, really to value my body for what it could do instead of seeing it as a necessary burden that I used mainly to carry my brain around, worrying all the time about what it looked like. After I’ve been to karate, now matter how sweaty I am, no matter how matted my hair, no matter how grubby my clothes, I feel beautiful.