Enter the Dragon (Part Two)

I haven’t posted a thing to The Lemonade Chronicles since March of 2020. It’s been a crazy, unpleasant couple of years for just about everyone. Problems on top of problems, it seems. No doubt about that. One of the themes I’ve focused on in this here blog, however, is the notion that if we look hard enough, there are always opportunities somewhere in the midst of those problems. Some way of, dare I say, making lemonade out of lemons. So in the middle of this mind-numbing pandemic, I found an opportunity to practice what I preach.

Allow me to elaborate: Nearly 10 years ago now, I published a blog post about my experience with karate–Shotokan Karate of America, specifically. In that post, I bemoaned the fact that I had let this valuable thing slip from my grasp when we moved to the west coast back in 1999. I got busy with work, busy with kids, busy with coaching little league, etc. I stopped practicing karate, cold turkey. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether I might somehow, some way, some day, find my way back to Shotokan. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy to pick things back up. (Probably that has always been one of the main attractions of the whole thing to me–it isn’t easy.)

Welp, I’m here to report that during the dark days of the pandemic, I came back. I dusted off my blackbelt in a cardboard box found in the corner of the garage, and joined the San Francisco dojo’s virtual Zoom practices back on Election Day in November 2020. I joked that it was like regaining consciousness after being in a “karate coma” for 20 years. When I last trained, the current century had not yet turned up on the calendar. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Apple iPhones did not yet exist. That’s how long it’d been since Shotokan was such an integral part of my life. It was a strange experience reliving the mindset and movements from a time before I had kids, when I was a newlywed, before I had really lived much of a life at all, in fact.

I threw myself into knocking the rust off. Re-learning much of what I had practiced with some proficiency two decades ago. Softened skin became blisters. Blisters became callouses. I was amazed when things came back on their own, naturally, as though someone else were controlling my body. And thoroughly humbled when I just couldn’t remember how to do this or that thing. One thing of the humbling sort is a unique, very traditional practice our karate group does, called “Special Training.” A whole bunch of 90-minute-plus, grueling workouts deliberately bunched up over the course of 3 or 4 sleep-deprived days. When I was a younger man, these were the most physically-demanding experiences I had ever struggled through. I’ve done a bunch of stuff since then–Ironman-distance triathlons, marathons, long bike rides, long open water swims, yada yada–but Special Training inspired in me a different sort of fear altogether. I knew I’d never really be back, legitimately back, until I participated in this bedrock element of Shotokan practice.

Mind you, the last time I participated in an SKA Special Training, I was 29 years-old. I learned a great deal from those early Special Trainings–in particular, facing myself and my fears with strict eyes in a way that can only be delivered up by a 90-minute kiba dachi. Kiba dachi is a “horse stance” in which the hips and thighs are dropped down into a deep squat shape. Deep enough that over the course of 60-90 minutes, folks sometimes pass out and fall over, or maybe vomit, and definitely there’ll be some legs jack-hammering. It’s a heavy experience, for sure. Mostly mental, trying to overcome things when the body really really really wants to quit. But back then, I could only learn so much from an experience like that. Because I had yet to live much of my life. Ironically, it was living my life that would pull me away from karate for the next 20-plus years. 

When my wife and I moved from Boston to San Francisco in 1999, we both worked in big law firms, happily signing ourselves up for long hours crouched behind our desks. I later started a handful of modest entrepreneurial ventures. We had one son a month before 9/11. Then another 4 years later. I embraced the life of a Little League coach with gusto. All the while, I scratched the itch for physical endeavors that triggered the feeling of wanting to quit by dabbling in the aforementioned marathons, triathlons, and long open water swims. These all afforded me fleeting glimpses of hardship. Stripping away the nonsense, pushing my limits, and being reminded of who I really was and who I really wanted to be. Always in the back of my mind, though, was Shotokan, and especially that kiba dachi horse stance. I had to admit that something was missing. A void in my life. Something that I was maybe afraid to face again. (Hence that blog post in March of 2014.) I told myself that some day I would come back to karate. I hoped I was telling myself the truth.  

It took a global pandemic to deliver me back to SKA. The SKA organization and the SF dojo leader graciously took me in, despite my 20-year layoff. I spent nearly two years trying to recapture my 29 year-old self, experiencing aches and pains I never experienced as a 29 year-old. And loving every minute of it, because that something was no longer missing. Or was it? Sure, I had been banging away polishing kihon (kicks, punches, and blocks), kata (forms) and a little bit of Zoom kumite (sparring), but that’s not exactly kiba dachi, is it? So when the opportunity to participate in West Coast Summer Special Training earlier this Summer materialized, things got real. I felt a healthy mix of excitement, uncertainty, and fear.

I could write about each of the 11 practices that came and went in a perfectly-sized field on the campus of Cal State Channel Islands. They each left an indelible mark on me (literally, in some cases, and of course I wouldn’t have it any other way). And then there was kiba dachi. I honestly had no idea how things would go once I joined the circled-up group and sunk my hips. My heart initially skittered like a baby bird’s, until I embraced the moment and focused on my breathing. Lengthening each exhale as if it were my last. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then…nothing. As I texted my senior a couple days later, at some point I felt like I had simply disappeared. I felt no pain. My thighs weren’t jack-hammering. I was at peace. An oddly intense peace, but peace nonetheless. When the 60 minutes had passed, I realized that I had completely lost any sense of time. It was all just a single moment. And at the same time, it felt like twenty-plus years lived in those 60 minutes.

Standing back upright, a wave of gratitude washed over me. For the beautiful environment in which we practiced. For all of my seniors who inspired me as a much younger man, and for those who continue to inspire me today. And for the opportunity to dance with kiba dachi once again. An opportunity found right smack in the middle of a global pandemic.

So take a look around you, folks. Sure there are problems. There are always problems. But look more closely. There’s something special in there for you, too. I hope you find it.

Thanks for reading.  

 

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