Blue Belt, Blue Kata

We just finished review week at my karate school, and I’ve officially been promoted to rokyu, or blue belt, in Shuri-ryu. With it comes a new kata called Anaku, which I learned in class yesterday and which I’ll be practicing intensely for the next few months.

You can get a look at Anaku (aka Ananku) on YouTube. Shorin-ryu and Shotokan are similar to Shuri-ryu in many respects, and as such our interpretation of the kata is very similar to what you see in the video. The pattern is the same, but some of the blocks and strikes along the main axis are different. I’ve been practicing the yellow belt kata Wansu (aka Wanshu) for 18 weeks, and there are two adjustments that I’m going to have to work hard to change for Anaku.

First is what we call an augmented shuto uke. This is a knife-hand block, and we bring both hands together at the ear to build tension before firing the block. If you watch the linked video, it’s the slow technique where Shimabakuro moves his hands outward with his fingers straight (we execute it fast like a block, but I’m guessing their interpretation is a scan). In Wansu, this technique is executed from the left side and is used a total of four times. Running a quick-and-dirty calculation, I’ve executed it that way a minimum of 1600 times since becoming a yellow belt, but probably closer to 2000 or more.

Now I have to execute it from the right side. One wouldn’t think such a small change would feel so awkward, but it really threw me the first few times. It’s the first movement in Anaku following the opening gestures, and if I’m not concentrating I automatically fall into doing it from the left. This throws off the entire kata.

The second change comes at the finish. In Wansu, there are three points where you execute a simultaneous oyugo uke (swim block) and punch, then immediately follow it up with a reiken zuki (backfist punch) to the groin. I now automatically flow from the combo to the strike, especially after several runs of Wansu in rapid session, or with attackers. Like the knife-hand block, I’ve probably done that 1500 to 2000 times now.

In Anaku, the swim block-punch combo is the final technique before doing the augmented shuto uke (and a return to the left side) as a scan for more opponents. Furthermore, it involves a 180-degree turn rather than another step forward. This too has really thrown me for a loop.

This is after day one, of course, but it’s a good demonstration of how muscle memory works, how it develops, and how strong it can be. The retraining will probably be tough for the first couple of weeks, but that’s no different from how it felt learning Wansu the first time. It also proves that in a few months it will all become second nature, particularly if I continue to run Wansu with Anaku (which I intend to).

In addition to the new kata, I’ll be learning several new techniques, more self defenses, and some judo. It will almost double the variety of moves I can practice in a workout session, making my home workouts that much more interesting and engaging. This variety keeps me working, which in turn keeps the movements from stagnating. That, in turn, keeps the body from stagnating.

Which was the whole point of this endeavor in the first place.

For those who are curious, there are five more steps before black belt in my style: green belt, purple belt, and three degrees of brown belt. It’s at ikkyu, first-degree brown belt, that things slow down. As my sensei put it, it’s when things “come to a screeching halt.” If I nail every review from here on, I’m looking at about a year and a half before I hit ikkyu. From what I’m told, it could be three to five years after that before I’d be looking at black belt, dependent upon when Shihan Walker decides I’m ready. In that sense, it’s almost like going through a college program, and thus it’s not hard to see why some think the martial arts is a young man’s game.

A lot of people get their black belt and drop out, and there have been several ikkyus in our program who got tired of waiting and gave up. There are several black belts at my school, however, who are as passionate as ever about their karate. They approach their new katas with the same excitement and energy I approach mine, and they still find they learn new things in all they have learned thus far. These are the people who feel that, at black belt, they are just beginning to learn.

I hope to be one of them.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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  1. John U says:

    In my system, when you reach black sash (or belt) is when you are really beginning to learn. You’re always a student.

  2. Mike says:

    That’s the way my sensei puts it: the black belt says you’ve masted the basic techniques you need to start learning. There’s a cool metaphor involved in the way a black belt turns white over time (with wear), about moving back toward purity and emptiness. I found a great description here:

    “The symbolism for transforming from novice to black belt comes from starting white – blank – with nothing. In old Asia, you would not wear white to a wedding, but to a funeral. White is the emptiness. Black is the fullness. We all start with nothing, represented in our belt. As you work and learn and train, your belt turns yellow with sweat, red with blood, brown with your toil in the earth, and eventually black with the richness and fullness of your learning. Then you know enough to begin. You continue your dedication as your belt begins to fray and grey with age and wisdom, eventually turning white again, full circle. Zen.”

  3. Conway says:

    Congratulations, Mike! Keep at it.

    I remember my shodan test. Afterwards, I broke down and cried! Blood, sweat, and tears.

  4. […] he’ll be learning his next kata, Anaku. It didn’t change his focus in class much Saturday morning (the kid’s only 6, after […]