Louis E. Colón
It's about a year and a half now that I have been practicing Shotokan Karate... at 62 years of age. I have two hip replacements and its attendant consequences in my knees, ankles and feet which make it hard and painful to make some stances correctly and kick well. Still, the whole discipline of karate helps me keep limber(er) and gives me a level of energy I forgot I had. Twice a week I go to my classes, where sometimes two young masters take us through the explosive motions of this martial art, or sometimes two fine examples of older men (older than me) with over thirty years of doing these drills are merciless but with caution and patience guide us students through the minutiae of Karate' classic movements. When I grow up, I want to be like them!
Kihon (basics), kata (formal movements) and kumite (controlled sparring) do not exhaust, but categorize the curriculum we go through every time. Kihon is the basics: how to throw a punch, how to stand, how to transition from one posture to another. We practice these, and they feel awkward and unnatural. I feel awfully stupid: I am not aware of my my heels coming off the floor when they shouldn't. I forget to set my fists in preparation to attack, a set up that my Sensei (teacher) calls "cup and saucer.” I try to think and perform so intensely that I forget to relax immediately after punching or blocking (this tension which makes me get tired too quickly). I try to make the push kick go straight forward, it it usually goes down, or it just looks exactly like my snap kick whose force of impact should go mostly up. I'm constantly learning, constantly being corrected, and, to my surprise, constantly improving... slowly. But I feel good: even the eight or ten black belt students in the class are corrected and encouraged to do better, faster and more accurately.
Kata are prearranged movements, almost dance-like, that string together sequences of movements to be learned precisely and executed sometimes quickly, sometimes deliberately and slowly, where blocks and attacks of various kinds are made. Some moves seem obvious; some are more elaborate and more difficult to understand as self defense moves. Our teachers strive to help us learn the moves, to perform them with the correct intensity and rhythm while we breathe correctly and move our hips as to give these moves power. A kata performed by an advanced Karateka (a Karate practitioner) is a thing of power and beauty. It is my favorite part of karate, since it is a struggle against myself to perform these movements well. Perfection seems very far from me in kata, but I love trying.
Kumite seeks to put into practice in self defense situations all the moves learned in kata and kihon. Sometimes we practice in pairs with or without gloves or striking pads. Sometimes we practice pre-arranged three step attacks and defense, ending with loud kiai (sudden, loud shouts). Sometimes we free spar, but, fortunately for me, in the classes that I go, the free sparring is not emphasized (and I am too old to risk getting hurt by a misplaced kick by an overeager practitioner). The pre-arranged sparring is tricky: you learn to see the attack coming and time your defense and counterattack at the correct distance. It's an odd feeling, but after much practice, you learn to read your opponent and react to the movement.
Sensei LaPlaca and Sensei Pascucci have almost a century of practicing Shotokan Karate between them both. If you add the younger masters Sensei Rick and Sensei Balt, it's almost a century and a half of learning and practicing, and still striving to get better. They have reaped a healthy way of living which shows in the speed, flexibility and power with which theses teachers move. And as a student, I am so grateful to have their skill and care at my disposal to learn, to probe, to encourage. I am also grateful to have people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s moving around with me in unison and intensity.
I practiced Soo Back Do Moo Duk Kwan when I was in my 30s. Interestingly, although a Korean martial art, the basic forms (hyungs) are very similar to Shotokan's kata. I went all the way till I earned my dark blue belt (which is the equivalent in Soo Bank Do to a black belt in Shotokan). Back then, I could almost do complete splits, giving me the ability to kick someone in the head. I could jump up and down quite easily, and, more importantly, I felt healthy and supple. I should have continued practicing this Korean Karate for my own good.
But I am back to Karate, now in my older age. The only way I can kick someone in the head is if I first throw them to the floor. Ha! But my coming back has been motivated precisely because I wanted to do an exercise that challenged me without injuring me. I wanted to do something I like; and I love the tradition, the formality, the intensity of classic Shotokan Karate. Though I enjoy taking the tests and slowly getting a higher rank belt, the classic art of Japanese punching and kicking, moving, evading, falling and getting up, attacking and defending is something of a great challenge for me and a thing of beauty. So, I'm back to karate!