Friday night means another kyu exam. Sitting on the board, watching students ¬†perform their katas and basics, giving all that they have in their pursuit of their next belt can sometimes be an emotional task. I know it will be tonight. A special child in my life will be testing for the first time – striving for their orange belt. To those who’ve traveled the road to black belt it may not seem like a lot. Others will understand. The feeling of stepping onto the mat and testing for the first time is nerve racking. It can be scary and intimidating. That’s where confidence comes in.

This young man will test for the belt then take off halfway around the world, moving to a new country where he knows absolutely no one other than his parents. Taking this test will send him off with a sense of accomplishment and, more importantly I hope, with the confidence that he’s ready for something new. That working hard and staying focused has its benefits. It will also be a reminder he’s connected to his karate family in Southern California. He has a home to come back to and people who believe in him whether he’s near or far.

I’m proud of this young man. Proud to have been his instructor and to have known him outside of the dojo, too. He’s my beta reader for my middle grade books and my current hero. You’ve got this, ‘P’. Adventure awaits. You’ll have to write me stories and tell me all about it.

In the Stillness

There are moments when my passions intersect, unexpectedly and deliciously. Today, one of those collisions occurred, bringing me another step forward in my karate training. Let me back up and explain, just a little bit. Last night, I was teaching my creative writing class, explaining to students the value that stillness brings when you’re trying to create tension. The story zooms along this thing and that happening to your hero and then, in the quiet, the reader absorbs it all and tensions are amplified. For example, the phone rings in a horror movie. We all scream “don’t answer it,” but of course, the actor does. Tension has started mounting in us but doesn’t come to fruition until the “hello” is met with silence. Who’s there? What’s going on? Tension mounts.

And poof, I went from thinking about this to an instructor I used to know. He ran around the room bellowing at the top of his lungs, a constant barrage of words assaulting the students. The words bounced around, deflected, creating a false sense of energy, none of it generated by the students. Oh, believe me, I know and appreciate the value my voice can bring to a class. That’s actually my point. Ramping up the energy, getting the students to move and respond. I can be as loud as the best of them. But I also need to give my students moments for their energy to fill the void. To let them settle into the stillness, reflecting my words. To do the best karate they can do. In the stillness.

Some of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken have been a quiet study of techniques. Holding them for long periods of time. Studying the hip movement associated with a solid punch, the hip vibrations, as the punch settles on its target. Inside blocks. Outside blocks, all the same thing. Up blocks, the twisting and turning of the torso to maximize power. These moments come when I focus on me. Not on the instructor. They happen in the stillness.

An instructor who fills every atom of space with their voice demands the attention be on them, instead of focused on the karate. The best karate happens in the stillness of time and space, when the student becomes one with the technique. That’s how I see it, anyway.

Black Belt to Black Belt

This morning I went into the dojo to do a bit of extra training. I’m working on a couple of katas and wanted the floor space to really be able to move, instead of shoving the couch out of the way and battling the dog who thinks she’s part ninja. My son wanted to go in and work on katas as well, which was pretty cool. We ended up working together, not as mother and son, but as black belt to black belt. This little kid who rolled his eyes and groaned when he was told to pick up his socks or to write neater has grown not only taller than me but he’s evolved into my peer.

Even though I outrank him, he’s always willing to lend me some help when I need it. He offers the help with humility and a quiet confidence. To be honest, he’s one of only two people who can talk me through a move when my brain simply refuses to allow my hands or feet to do what I want them to. It pleases me that the coaching works both ways. Today I coached him through three katas and with each suggestion and instruction he listened and changed. With a student just learning it’s usually bigger things to fix, like “use the other hand” or “change your feet”. At the Shodan level (and higher) it becomes the tiny finite things. Training like this can sometimes feel like you’re being inspected under under a microscope. It’s hard and occasionally frustrating, as though you can’t do anything right. Perhaps that’s why I’m so amazed at what happened today. He listened. He processed. He changed. No eye roll. No arguing. Not once did I hear, “I didn’t do that”. ¬†He put his trust in me and I helped him use his body dynamics to improve his power and strength.

I’m proud of him. His execution of the moves was great. But that’s not what makes me proud. He demonstrated the attitude and spirit a black belt should strive for. A chip off the ole block…it’s in his blood, I guess. I’m looking forward to more moments working black belt to black belt.

Training Through It All

Life happens. Vacations crop up, homework intrudes and lethargy holds us hostage on the couch with an oversized glass of lemonade and a NCIS marathon to watch. Seriously, there are a million and one reasons to not train. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” is the lie all martial artists tell themselves at one point or another. Even black belts. How do I know this? I said those very words yesterday. And I didn’t train. There were too many client projects to get finished. Work comes first, especially when it helps to pay the bills.

But training still has to be high up on the list. I will train today and I’ll realize how much I missed it yesterday when my tootsies hit the mat and sweat puddles up on my brow. Perhaps that’s the difference between a black belt and just another student. Somehow, its become a part of us. Well, not somehow – through hard work and persistence we’ve trained our muscles and our minds and now, without karate, we’re a little bit lost in our everyday lives.

I tell students I’m just like them. They tend to look at me as if I’m half crazy. They have a tendency to see the belt and think I’m different, special in some way. I’m honest with them. There are days I just want to stay home. Days I’m feeling too lazy to put my gi on. But I do it, and the moment I start either teaching or training there’s no place else I’d rather be. I’m no different from them. I’ve just kept my feet walking on the path, one step at a time. They can do that, too. The other part of what I tell them? They can pass me up – they’re younger and have more time. The student in turn becomes the teacher, it happens all the time. But most of the time I tell them how much I’m looking forward to presenting them their black belt one day. The sparkle in their eye and the belief that they can do it motivates them on. I believe in them. They should too.

Humbled and Excited

Oh my goodness, what a plethora of emotions charging through me today. Tonight there’s a Dan exam with five students each standing to take their Shodan or Shodan-Ho test. And I’ll be sitting on the panel, watching and commenting on them. That, in itself, is quite the humbling experience. I remember so vividly my Dan exam filled with butterflies and nerves.

Even more exciting to me today, though, is the fact that I’ve watched each of these children from the time they first walked into the dojo as white belts until now. They have each been in my classes. The have listened and grown both figuratively and literally. Last night one of the parents called me over after class to show me a picture on his phone. There I was presenting a yellow belt to his son. His son, who tonight tests for his black belt. What changes there have been in this young man! He’s always been studious, serious about his karate, but now he has more confidence and experience. He’s grown into the black belt he’ll earn tonight. Plus, now he towers over me. It’s an odd feeling, watching kids that I’ve helped to train walk the same path I’ve traveled. I’m honored to have been a part of their lives.

The best of luck to all five black belt candidates. You walk in the footsteps of others, on a path few dare take to the end. You’ve got this. May you be as humbled and excited as I am.

Violent Behavior

The last of the dojo kun seems to confuse many a new student: “To refrain from violent behavior”. After all, isn’t karate about kicking and punching and inflicting pain on an opponent? Sure, when you HAVE to defend yourself. Any true martial artist will tell you, however, that you want to do everything else in your power to avoid striking someone. It’s your last recourse. It’s the thing you only do when you have NO choice.

A black belt truly practices with the hope they never have to use their martial arts skills. There are few things we learn hoping not to have to use the skills. So, it’s a unique individual who hones their skills for years on end with that kind of mindset. Perhaps, that’s one of the things that sets martial artists a part from other types of people.

As I practice, focusing on my techniques and studying body dynamics I also work on being more aware of what’s going on around me and learning to identify routes of escape, should I need to use them. Trusting in the feeling in my gut telling me something isn’t right is invaluable.

As a black belt I’d find it inexcusable if I used brute force to defuse a situation without first trying to engage the other party, using strong verbal skills to subdue the person. There’s more than one way for a martial artist to take control. Think about that the next time tempers are exploding around you. Give yourself some distance to allow your words to control the situation.

Refrain from violent behavior. Unless you have no other choice.


“To show strong spirit.” It might be third on the list for the dojo kun but I think when it comes to your actual martial arts training it’s “Spirit First”. Why? Very simply put if you demonstrate a strong spirit while doing your techniques they are going to be better. Can you defend yourself if you don’t exude confidence? Of course not. Any indecision, any wavering of the spirit will show. That’s all your opponent needs – they’ll seize on the opportunity and you’re in an uphill fight.

Isn’t that the same for every other aspect of your life, too? If you think about it, a strong spirit and confidence can take you places you’d never expect to go. Now, I don’t mean you should brag and be overly confident. Not at all. By strong spirit I mean letting your soul shine through your eyes, your confidence and positive energy flowing into the universe.

Life is going to knock you down. It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not. How we handle it, that’s the difference. “Spirit first.” Don’t dwell on the negative, find solutions, be proactive and take opportunities that present themselves. What the heck, create your own opportunities. Show strong spirit. You can’t lose.

To Be Sincere and Honest

Once again, the dojo kun reaches into every aspect of our lives. Being a martial artist isn’t just about kicking the hardest or throwing the most powerful punch. It is so much more than that. Ask yourself this. Are you sincere and honest? Not just sometimes but in every aspect of your life. Each day I strive to be as sincere and honest as possible with all I meet and I do that to be a good human being, and the best black belt I can be.

Personally, I think humility is tied into this part of the dojo kun and being humble is an aspect of the martial arts which isn’t talked about enough in my opinion. Humility and sincerity go hand in hand. We’ve all seen them – the black belts who have to show off before or after class, trying to impress others. Especially the junior students. Look at me, their antics scream as they cavort about on the training floor. What lesson are you teaching if you do that? Certainly not humility and I’d hazard a guess that the black belt isn’t sincere and honest, either.

Being a black belt means always being on the path to learn. Sure, we teach what we’ve learned to others, but we don’t brag about how much we know. Humility and sincerity of spirit keep us in check, reminding us how much we still have to learn. If the show off were being honest, he or she wouldn’t be so braggadocious.

So many parents put their children into the martial arts to learn how to throw punches. I wish more understood the qualities karate instills into them. Qualities that will carry them through their lives, setting them apart from others. I’m proud to say all five of my children trained and learned the most important things. To be sincere. To be honest. To be humble. Being a good person is the key to a great life. At least, that’s what I think.