The short story is that I trained in Kenpo Karate for about 10 years, maybe more. I loved it, but I also struggled. Not just with remembering a new kata (form) or dealing with occasional bruises and sprains, there was always an internal struggle – a question that kept me awake at night – am I good enough?
I wanted to do everything with the same precision, speed, and control that my classmates did. Higher rank or lower, it didn’t matter. I constantly compared myself to others. Hey, it’s human nature to do that, observing and comparing is a part of learning. But with the wrong attitude, it’s costly.
Luckily I had a sensei that was experienced and compassionate enough to know what to do with students like me. He pushed me when I needed it and now and then reminded me not to be so hard on myself. And most important of all he cautioned, don’t to try to impress anyone but myself.
Eventually I realized the question I should have been asking was, good enough for what?
What indeed. Understandably self-defense is an intrinsic part of the martial arts, so questioning my abilities was natural. And I prayed that I never had to find out in a real-world situation. So yeah, those moments of doubt are not always bad; they can lead to taking more care in the practice.
But, did I need to doubt myself that much? Maybe not.
Miracle of miracles, the hours of practice came together and anxieties were tempered just enough the night I tested for my black belt. I worked hard, but also I gave myself permission to make mistakes and tried not to take the whole event so seriously. Earning my new rank was especially gratifying, because I knew I had learned something profound: All the work, all the preparation was for me.
I moved through the drills, the calisthenics, and the memorized pieces without worrying how I was being judged. Well, I’m not inhuman, of course that element of being evaluated was part of my performance, but I had confidence. The additional burden of insecurity that had weighed on me was gone.
What does this have to do with yoga?!
I actually started learning yoga in my karate dojo. One of the students, Beth, was also a certified yoga instructor, and I took her classes in Vinyasa. I really enjoyed it, but a couple times, even in this more relaxed setting, I could feel the prickle of tears when a pose was difficult. Maybe I wasn’t as flexible as I thought? This looked easy when Beth did it, why was I having such a problem? Oh look, I was doing it again. Comparing myself to others. Comparing myself to my instructor, who had been clearly doing this much longer than I had. And so I stuck with it until the six week session ended.
It was around this time that I stepped off both the karate and the yoga mat. My son, then 14, was battling some serious health issues. Life was too weird to commit to a regular schedule for much of anything, even though stressful life events are not the best times to give up exercise. Surprisingly though, being away had its benefits.
The physical lessons still stuck. I could feel it every time I climbed a stepladder, or heaved the car door shut with my hip while carrying groceries. I knew how to position my body and control my power in the most efficient way. It was kind of amazing! But it was the emotional lessons that were the most powerful.
I wasn’t being mugged on a regular basis
Since I couldn’t “do” karate, and I wasn’t being mugged on a regular basis, I still thought about karate a lot. And thinking about karate led to thinking about learning in general. I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter whether someone was striving for excellence in playing the clarinet, kicking higher, or achieving a pain-free boat pose, there would always the attempt, the striving. That’s the great equalizer. No matter how fantastic you think your art teacher, yoga instructor, or sensei is, they too are still learning.
Perfection is an illusion, what matters is in the path of practice, the journey of trying.
And now that I practice yoga on a more regular basis, I still feel a deep connection to karate. Some of this is obvious. I’m on a mat, I’m controlling my breathing, my movements are mindful. I don’t feel embarrassed about loud ooji breathing, in Karate I had to learn how to kiai*.
But the deeper value, for me, is the realization that we all succeed and fail constantly. Our classmates might strike better looking Virabhadrasana 1(Warrior 1), than we, but we are all warriors in one way or another. We all suck at some things, and we all have small graces that allow us to shine in other ways.
Maybe the path from Karate to Yoga isn’t a journey away from one thing. Maybe I am following an adjacent path to something that is the right place for me – right now.
*To kiai is to let out a loud, controlled shout when performing certain actions, mostly some kind of strike. Kiais are more common in Japanese and Okinawan styles of martial arts