Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

Have you ever had this experience: When a day of work goes really well, not necessarily in the sense of all or most of your efforts resulting in success, but that you worked with a silent focus, actually went after stuff that needed to get done (instead of cleverly dodging some of the more difficult stuff, procrastinating on it, and fiddling with the easier tasks) and put in a good amount of effort instead of getting distracted with this and that, you feel nice and complete inside. You know within that you’ve been good, that you’ve put in an honest day’s work. It’s an unbeatable feeling, isn’t it? That’s how I was feeling that day when I finally logged out at about 5:30 PM, picked up my bag with the Gi packed inside and took off for Lambert Hall.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, Gi is the traditional name for a Karate / Martial arts uniform. I had just started training in Shotokan Karate and my batch would line up on the training floor (Dojo) at 6 PM sharp. Lambert Hall was only about a ten minute walk from my department. That would give me about twenty minutes to change into my Gi and maybe stretch for a few minutes before the command to line up was given. Being late was of course out of the question. You simply would not be allowed on the floor if you were not there and ready to go at line up time. It’s remarkable how discipline sets in nice and proper if the Master in charge of the training is clear that it’s required and implements it unapologetically and crisply. And Sensei Jaqueline Martinez, 3rd Dan black belt at the time, founder of the Challenge Karate Club at Purdue and the Master I trained under, was all crisp. And all unapologetic. You didn’t like any aspect of the way she ran things, you were absolutely free to be gone.  As simple as that. No problemo.

But if you saw and realized that every bit of discipline she required from you and every bit of gruel she put you through was only and only because she wanted you to be absolutely the best you could be, and this was so obvious that you had to be a complete nitwit to miss it, then you would stay. And listen. And train. Train hard. Very hard. There was just no other way with her.

(If anyone is wondering about men training in the martial arts under a woman, please don’t bother yourselves too much. It-does-not-matter. In any case, as far as Sensei Martinez was concerned, every one – man or woman – on that training floor knew that she could take down a handful of men single-handedly any day. The strength and spirit she exuded was unmistakable and we all knew and understood very very clearly that the kind smile that was normally on her face could get replaced by a grimace and a frown in a flash if we stepped out of line. We didn’t.)

I was only a beginner at the time and used to line up with the other white belts. As was the usual practice, she started us off with stretches to limber up our bodies. Then came the front snap kick practice. You would repeat them over and over again as she counted out in Japanese : Ichi, Ni, San, Shi … Ten with the right leg as you balanced yourself on the left with the knee slightly bent and then ten with the left leg. Each kick accompanied with a loud Kiai (a shout along with a tightening of the stomach muscles at the point of focus). Then back to the right and again to the left. Over and over again. Of course it would get tiring, and sometimes boring. But we knew why we were doing it: so that the technique would go so deep into our minds and our bodies would remember it so well that if we ever needed to kick in real life, we would be able to do so instinctively, correctly and effectively the first time around. Throughout the repetitions she would walk through the rows patiently and make small corrections to our postures and movements till we started getting them right. She had trained hard in her life herself and had the moral authority to demand an effort to strive towards perfection from us.

After the kicks came the punches. Same strategy: there was a technique to be mastered, a right way to deliver a punch with maximum impact and precision, and once she taught us what that was, it would be all about practice. Over and over again, each punch accompanied with a loud Kiai, till we started getting it right.

(This is something that holds true right across all the arts, doesn’t it? Music: once you know what the notes are, you practice them over and over again till you can play them instinctively, without thinking. That’s when you can start bringing in the element of “expression” into your playing. Sports too. You gotta practice those cover drives over and over again in the nets before you can unfurl them in a game. I’m guessing Messi, Beckham and all the soccer stars that can make us go “Ah!” on their day must have hours and hours of practice serving as foundation to their greatness and genius. 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration –Thomas A. Edison. Funny how so many of us keep missing this point in our lives. You should, for example, see the look on some of my Math students’ faces at times when I assign homeworks :)!)

When all the kicking and punching started getting our muscles sore, we were in for an even better treat: Stance training! This is as deceptive as it gets. To put it briefly, there are specific stances that help in moving with stability and efficacy when fighting an opponent. And once again, if one is to use these stances in an actual fight one must practice being in them for extended periods of time during training. That day she put us in what is simply known as the “front stance”: feet shoulder width apart, right leg forward by about a distance of two shoulder widths, right knee bent to make the hips drop low, left leg stretching just enough to leave a little slack in the knee, hips at 45 degrees. Then we were to hold the stance. Just hold it. No movement, no rising up from the stance till we were told to do so. Believe me, if anyone watching thought we were having it easy for a few minutes they were completely off the mark. The bent front knee and the thigh of the front leg start feeling the stress of the stance within a minute or two. And then one still holds the stance so that the requisite muscles can start getting stronger. Pretty soon our front knee would start shaking a bit and the right thigh muscle would begin to have a bit of a burning sensation, urging us to cheat a bit, just a little bit, and rise a little so that the pressure on the knee and thigh would reduce. That was Sensei’s favourite time to take our attention to the Dojo Kun, the ideals of Karate training that were placed in front of us: 

  1. Seek Perfection of Character.
  2. Be Sincere.
  3. Put Maximum Effort into Everything You Do.
  4. Respect Others.
  5. Develop Self Control.

Just reflect on these five points. Try and feel the amount of dignity they carry. It was made clear to us right from the first day of training that we were to hold these ideals before ourselves relentlessly. Needless to say the techniques we were learning were meant to be used only in self-defence. Using them to hurt anyone or even to just show off is an idea severely frowned upon by anyone serious about the Martial arts. But focusing on the Dojo Kun set our goal even higher. It was now a matter of training not just the body but the whole personality. That was what being a Karateka meant to us.

At the end of the one hour training session we were drenched with sweat and our muscles were groaning. But there was a fulfilment of having given it our best. We lined up again, bowed out of the floor and changed back into regular clothes. I wished my fellow Karatekas a good night and headed home.

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