The biggest problem I have with most fitness regimens is they get boring. There are only so many ways you can push, pull, lift, and lug heavy pieces of metal in a gym. A stationary bike gets old fast, and even pedaling around your neighborhood (at least if you live in the sticks like I do) gets repetitive. Running — if I were a runner, that is — has the same problem. I really don’t understand how people can stick to their routines day after day for months on end, much less years.
That’s one of the things I love about karate: the variety. One day we’re working techniques, the next we’re sparring. This time we’re concentrating on self defenses, next time it’s katas or weapons.
The ranking system takes it a step further. The Midget and I earned our yellow belts at our last review several weeks ago, so we’re learning a new kata and an array of new stances and techniques. The rank requirements from white belt through brown belt were recently posted in our dojo, and looking ahead we can see there’s going to be no end to the variety any time soon.
Our new kata is called Wansu. I found a YouTube video of a Seibukan (Shorin-ryu) master running Wansu (aka Wanshu), which is very similar to the way we run the kata in Shuri-ryu. The biggest difference I’m seeing is the lack of a shotei (palm-heel strike) after throwing the opponent to the ground, which, in my opinion, is one of the coolest parts of the kata. There are several other videos of practitioners of other styles running Wansu, but most of them seem to have a very different interpretation.
Running a kata is far better exercise than I first imagined. If you’re hitting your stances properly, working at speed, and putting 80-90% power behind the strikes and blocks, you’ll be improving flexibility, coordination and muscle tone and you’ll get a good cardio workout to boot. We typically run it three times in class, and our sensei recommends we do it three times per day at home (they find after three times your technique gets shaky if you’re putting full power into it, but I sometimes shoot for four or five runs at home).
I’ve recently taken up the sai to give me yet another option for my home workouts. I was introduced to the say by integrating them into my first kata, Taikyoku Ichi (close enough), but once we started doing more sai in class I bought my own and now I’m practicing a sai-specific kata called Ni Cho Sai, seen here on YouTube as Ni-cho-zai. The differences between the way it’s run in this video and the way we run it are very subtle, so I’m not sure the average Joe on the street would even notice them. When you see him spin and point his left sai at the floor near the end, that’s actually a throw to pin an opponent’s foot to the ground. I practiced actual throws for the first time outside yesterday, which added a new element of fun to my workout.
And again, these katas are in addition to practicing new techniques and drills, practicing what little sword I know, and beating on the bag (which, admittedly, I’ve done less of in the August heat and humidity). As a result I’ve changed more than just my karate belt colors: I had to buy a new, smaller belt to keep my loosening pants up. I’m still trying to get over that twenty-pound-loss barrier, but I’m down two pants sizes and appear to be on my way through a third. I’m down a shirt size, and I’m also thinking about ditching the goatee (which I’ve kept in recent years mainly to hide a double chin).
I’m most impressed with a change in my muscle endurance, which I noticed during a recent trip with the family. For some time now, if I took even a short walk (a few blocks, maybe), my legs would start to hurt. It felt as if the muscles along the outside of my calves went taut and cramped up, and it was especially painful if I put any speed into the walk. It was irritating and embarrassing when I had to stop every couple hundred yards to stretch out those muscles, which was only moderately helpful.
Last weekend I had a long walk ahead of me, with a stocked cooler in tow to boot. To my surprise, I walked a mile and a half with that cooler without a single complaint from my legs. I made the return journey not long after, with the cooler’s contents hardly touched, and thought “this is when they’ll get me.”
Nope. No sign of pain or cramping. I was half tempted to go out and walk it again. I thought my legs would ache the next day for sure, but that didn’t happen, either. We work from kiba dachi (horse stance) for minutes at a time in class, often with Sensei Miller’s constant encouragement to “Drop it lower!” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because my stance has gotten lower, and my legs don’t shake like they used to when I first started. (Now if only I can get my toes to curl back on those front kicks like they’re supposed to…)
I’ve been studying at the Academy of Okinawan Karate for just shy of six months now, which is probably longer than I’ve stuck to any particular fitness regimen, and it’s been the most fun and has had the most impact of anything I’ve tried before. My excitement hasn’t waned a bit, and I still look forward to classes every week.
I suspect I’m in this for the long haul.