Karate Brown Belt: ‘Self-image’ and Strength

Brown belt grading  for me on monday evening. It feels significant. As Sensei Kevin says: from here you can smell the black belt. But that depends if I get through. I don’t think I ever imagined I would get this far. Now I can’t see myself giving up until I am just clearly too old. Not that I am looking forward to the actual grading: two hours of incredibly hard work which I am just hoping I manage without losing my wits, being overcome with exhaustion or my arms getting too battered to continue. Hopefully I will get through. If I do it will feel fantastic.

I haven’t written for a while. Partly because all my writing time is going into a book I have been commissioned to write on Feldenkrais for actors (very exciting) and partly because I still can’t write about martial arts in anything other than a personal journey kind of way as I am just not remotely an ‘authority’ and I didn’t have any more to say about it for a while. But recently Sensei Kevin asked me something about what I had learnt from Karate and how it was affecting my Feldenkrais work with clients and my Feldenkrais Trainer, Garet Newell, was curious about aspects of it too and as I think I am the only Feldenkrais Practitioner who does Karate (as opposed to other martial arts) I thought this grading was an interesting time to re-collect my thoughts around those good questions.

In these last two years it feels as though a lot of learning and shifting has gone on: a kind of re-drawing of myself again which in turn affects how I teach and work. Perhaps as significant as when I began Feldenkrais. In Feldenkrais we talk a lot about the ‘self image’. We talk about it technically as the mapping or representation of the different parts of ourselves and their relationships in movement on the sensory/motor cortex of the brain and also in a wider sense of how we see/feel ourselves as being and our relationship to –  and potential in – the world. The two are intertwined. This ‘map’ of ourselves is likely to be partial and/or not entirely accurate, like a real map that has bits rubbed out or missing,  is too small or has bits drawn in wrong. It would be hard to drive from London to Edinburgh on a map like that. Or Edinburgh might not even be on the map in which case you might not think of going there or it might feel too far away – a place for ‘other’ people to go. And however good the map, it can always be re-drawn: clarified, filled in, made more accurate or detailed,  expanded.

Much of the process of Feldenkrais is that work: discovering and filling in and clarifying a map that enables you to do all sorts of things you do or want to do better and opens the door to things you maybe hadn’t imagined doing before or a way of being that you haven’t felt before. For me that was – and still is –  an astonishing process. It gives you a really different experience of yourself. As a client said to me a couple of weeks ago: its about a whole new way of being.  But you can’t just decide to BE differently unless you have some experience of what that might be or might feel like. A good Feldenkrais session can create the conditions in which you can have that experience and so set up that possibility, even that expectation, in yourself. For me a seminal moment was  getting up off Ralph Strauch’s Feldenkrais table after an F.I. (Functional Integration: one-to-one, hands-on session)  some years ago when he had enabled me to let go of so much that I didn’t think my bones could possibly stay together enough to hold me up, let alone function in the world. It felt very different. And it was a shock to really appreciate just how much I unconsciously and habitually did to ‘hold myself together’ that was unnecessary and actually got in the way rather than worked for me and how much the ground and the skeleton really could do instead. That I could feel like that and still function was almost unbelievable and it took something not to just simply jetison it and put all the old comforting tension habits back as I stood up and walked to the door. However something made me have a go at keeping the new sensation with me and I discovered not only could I function but in fact I functioned better. It challenged many of my beliefs about myself and about how I needed to be in the world – the kind of unconscious beliefs that I didn’t even know I had. Of course I had felt this kind of thing in many, many Feldenkrais lessons before which prepared the way, but this was what they call an ‘aha’ moment and made a big – and mostly permanent – shift.  And for me in a different way my experience of Karate has become something like that too in that it is offering me a very different experience of myself and so a different way to be in the world and with other people. And I don’t mean by punching them! Its maybe not as loud as that Feldenkrais experience but it is still very significant.

This re-drawing in Karate also ties in with my many years as an actor where my main interest was in the ways women are ‘imaged’ and how they ‘image’ themselves on stage and screen: the limitations that are imposed and self-imposed – although self-imposed limits usually come about through something we have learnt in the context we live in so the difference is not as stark as it sounds. The good thing about self-imposed limits is that we can, in theory, do something about them, the difficult thing is (as with everything I let go of on Ralph’s table) even knowing they are there.

For a long time, as I said in my last post, I danced about with my self-imposed limitations, not being able to find a place in karate. I felt too small, too light, too weak, too female, too old: sort of insubstantial and as if this wasn’t for people like me. Learnt limitations if you like: the kind of thing that, despite everything, I had managed to internalise about myself for years (well not the ‘old’ bit maybe as that is relatively recently acquired, but the rest).  If it hadn’t been for Sensei Kevin’s patience and ability to simply (and gracefully) let me just get on with being slow, awkward and even a bit difficult at times I don’t know if I would have kept going. I guess also I am not one to give up and hard as it was – even upsetting sometimes – it was also far too interesting  and exhilarating to give up and I could feel there was something important there for me.  Gradually that image of myself is giving way. I can still feel intimidated faced with some man half my age and nearly twice my weight, but my size and weight seem less like insurmountable problems and more like simple structural facts to be worked with and so carry a bit less negative value loading.  It doesn’t make it easy when it comes to take-downs and it means I have to learn to be very skilful as I can’t at any point fall back on force/size because I just haven’t got it to fall back on, but Karate is all about skill not brute force and learning skill and increasing my understanding is really what I am in this for anyway above everything else so in a way having no other option is perhaps an advantage! Being female doesn’t feel like so much of an issue any more either. I have trained with the formidable Sensei Linda (7th dan) and alongside the many women at her very mixed dojo (martial arts training space)  far too much by now to allow myself to hide behind that too much.

 I don’t see myself in quite the same way outside the dojo either. I know I am actually reasonably strong for my size now and getting more so. Its hard to quantify the impact that has but it is noticeable to me. I am sure other people still see me as little but I feel less slight outside the dojo even as I have become aware of just how slight I am IN the dojo – if that makes any sense. I am gradually gathering a sense of substance. Some of that is age and increased  confidence in the value of my work as well but some of it is the sheer physicality of karate. It re-inforces everything from Feldenkrais in terms of balance and grounding but also there is something in there about being able to train reasonably hard now and having to face and at least try to handle /take down larger or heavier people than me on a regular basis. These days I’ll often be the one to open the door when its stiff or lift the thing that needs lifting or whatever instead of falling back in case I can’t. And I don’t even think about it. I can feel the energy of it in me somehow. I get less tired.

I am less shocked by the directness of Karate. The cleanness and clear directionality of it is beginning to seep in. I know I have a long way to go with that still, but it is very powerful. The clear line or sweep of a movement that simply takes down what is in the pathway is not an easy thing to find but I have moments where I feel the possibility and I don’t just dither about fudging it with misplaced politeness that is probably just masking fear. ‘Be more ruthless’ says Sensei as I waver about off target. It’s a ruthlessness that has a bold beauty and precision to it. I can feel I still don’t quite dare to really own it – but there are moments now. My head is less busy with how crap I am in the dojo too. Partly because I am less obviously ‘crap’ and partly because I can see that even on bad days or in difficult moments its not a necessary condition of who I am. I may not be the karate equivalent of Bruce Lee but I can actually learn and improve enough. The door is open.

Technically I am certainly learning more about strength. I no longer see such a division between muscle power and organisation/skill because in karate the two go together all the time: the spring and snap you need are both in the organisation of the skeleton in space and the muscular power and timing that has to be developed along with it. In functional terms they are part of the same thing. It just depends what the function is as to what you need for it. Even Pavel calls strength a kind of skill and he has to be the most unashamedly gung-ho male-oriented writer about strength training I have ever read (very well worth reading by the way if you can just ignore/be entertained by the style). Its only if you are pumping muscles in an isolated way with little relation to whole body function that you can get that strange dislocation I think. Of course everyday movement doesn’t take a load of strength training. It shouldn’t really take any, except for some rehabilitation purposes perhaps. But more demanding or specific activities in sport/martial arts often do. As I write I can see Sensei Linda springing forward to knock an opponent’s attack out of the way and, in a split second, having their throat. It is all skeletal in the line of movement through space but very muscular in the spring and speed. An inseparable combination of skill and speed strength.  

Or take pushing. We learn it in Feldenkrais:  we find/feel the connection of the arms to the back, the  use of the pelvis and the connection to the ground. Its enough for most everyday use and it’s the foundation – the architecture –  for all powerful use.  But in karate you have a person to shock, a person to send flying backwards maybe. It takes power and it also uses impact. So its also quite specific about how you have your arms in relation to your trunk and pelvis to transmit the force suddenly and the spring and timing from your legs so that they can move you forward very suddenly and be quickly under you – and it tests whether you really can connect your arms from lower down rather than tightening up in your shoulders and neck when you are doing something at speed with force. I found it surprisingly difficult even with my Feldenkrais training. I have spent a lot of time pushing and punching while shaking my head recently as in many Feldenkrais lessons so that my neck is free from my arms as well as the pelvis and I HAVE to power my arms from lower down without the all too frequent tensing up in the neck and shoulders on impact. I no longer get headaches after training, my punching and pushing is better and of course it makes a difference to the way I use my arms for giving an F.I. too.

In any fight there will always be the issue for me that if someone big can get hold of me they can just pick me up and drop me or squash me and that’s the end of it and they might not have to be very strong or very skilful for that given what I weigh! But that’s IF they can get hold of me or on top of me. Someone my size has to be all about speed, both so that can’t happen and because you need a lot on the acceleration side of the mass x acceleration=force equation if you ain’t got no mass.  And I start to realise how much speed here  contains the idea of ‘spring’.  I am absolutely nowhere near getting that kind of speed yet, but it does mean I now have a tolerance for karate style strength training that I didn’t have before: jumping, burpees, squats – even press ups (which I find horribly hard in the high reps we do but am slowly getting better at) – and can feel what they are doing over time to the speed, spring and style of movement that starts to become available to me. My instructors may be surprised to hear that as I know its not there much yet but I can feel the difference growing – the possibility that was outside of my imagination before but is there now as I have some experiences of it and it starts to gain some purchase in my self image.

And there are other aspects: in terms of the use of the pelvis and abdomen I start to feel not just the tanden which we know from Feldenkrais but also the difference between what they call a ‘closed’ tanden and ‘open’ and what that means in terms of grounding, movement and power,  partly learnt through a Kata (set sequence of moves) called sanchin all done under tension which is initially a bit of a shocker for a Feldenkrais teacher until you begin to appreciate what it is for. And my favourite piece of karate kit at the moment: the chi shi ( a lump of concrete on the end of a stick) because the strength to manage it and balance it is so clearly learnt. You swing it in various patterns, stop it and balance it and send it forward in front of you balancing the concrete on the top. There are many lessons in there including – guess what? You have to use your back as you cannot do that from your shoulder and neck. I have even learnt to make them (see below for some I made for myself and Sensei Kevin).

So how does it help me as a Feldenkrais teacher? Well all of the above influences how I am and how I teach. My self image is bigger. I can encompass more possibility and that has a knock on on what I ‘model’ and what I am open to in my students – and in turn how they see me I think.  I use myself better, my arms are better connected and that has to help with giving an F.I. The other night a chef who is working incredibly hard chopping and wielding heavy saucepans for stupid hours asked me if doing F.I. so much didn’t stress my arms as he does his. Not at all. That is our good Feldenkrais training of course but Karate has helped a lot too as the volume of work has risen because I have learnt it all again there – under martial pressure! And actually it doesn’t make me pushier or more forceful it just allows me to use my arms from somewhere better so they can carry less tension. Having said that I have to acknowledge that there is always a danger of holding onto the tension/co-contraction that comes at the end of a punch or in resisted rotation eg using the chi shi and in other aspects of karate but its not good practice for karate to do that and its not part of karate.  At the moment I do have to work with that to keep the softness I also need – but for me that is just another part of the learning for everything.  

 I have a better understanding of the kind of sports and martial arts training some people do or want to do or have done and the advantages and limitations of some of the kinds of strength training a client might be involved in which is very useful in making a bridge to what Feldenkrais could do for them and I can see that that will keep growing. I know more of what is involved in specific martial techniques now as well which is helpful for those who come from that world or actors who need to look like they come from that world. Then for some, being able to consider that tension doesn’t mean strength on its own is a more acceptable notion coming from me now I do a very forceful martial art and its clear I am not interested in what they might otherwise interpret as a ‘weaker’ version of themselves, rather than a more skilful version with tension to the right degree in the right place at the right time. I can even use some of it to enable non martial arts people to find their power better when they need it: pushing, pulling, lifting are all important every day functions and one client said to me recently that I had opened her eyes to how a small person like her could use herself strongly too without difficulty and effort. Good. Her self-image just shifted a little too.The ability to push can also be related to an emotional issue: pushing away for example can be a very difficult and very important thing to be able to find in relation to some kinds of traumatic event. Kicking or running maybe too. Its all there in Feldenkrais of course, and that’s what I am using, but I just have a different kind of handle on it now and a different confidence with it as well because of the ways I have to use it in the dojo.

So those are some my thoughts as I head towards my brown belt grading. I could also write about the lessons I have dug out to help with my (lamentable) round kicks but this has turned out to be more about self image and power/strength so I will leave it there. The karate I do is GO JU RYU: HARD SOFT STYLE. It is meant to encompass both in a harmonious accord. I think Moshe Feldenkrais, as both fighter and teacher, encompassed that in himself. Many come to Karate with much Go and have to seek out the Ju. For me it is mostly the other way around. Its an interesting road.

Wish me well Monday evening. I will need it.