Many of us have been there: it’s after midnight and everyone in the house is asleep, but we’re at our desks reading, thinking, writing. Keep it up for a string of nights and things can get weird. The mind plays tricks and the body turns languid. Perhaps it wasn’t odd that, many nights into revising a manuscript, my body began almost automatically moving from one position to another: I was performing a kata – a formalised pattern of karate movements. I had done Seido Karate for several years, but by the time of this unexpected nocturnal practice I hadn’t trained for five years and thought I’d forgotten everything.
Maybe the lack of sleep led my brain to recall the pattern. Perhaps muscle memory kicked in, guiding me through moves I had formerly practiced over and over. Whatever went on inside my brain and body, this surprising experience was a perfect ending to a long night’s work. And it told me I needed to get back to karate training. I dragged my gi (karate uniform) out of storage and walked back into the dojo (the training hall), taking my place in the line of students. A feeling of comfort and familiarity confirmed I’d made the right decision.
I’ve now spent nearly thirty years practising and teaching this form of martial art. Karate styles such as my own emphasise karate for life, regardless of age or ability, and I’ve had students take up the practice in their fifties. Physical fitness and self-defence skills, often viewed as fundamental aspects or benefits of this type of activity, are by-products rather than core elements, especially as the years pass. Sure, there might be press-ups and fancy kicks – somewhat less spectacular as the body becomes creakier – but this is not what keeps people going back to the dojo week in, week out, for decades.
My own commitment to this art doesn’t seem a long time in the scheme of things. After all, my karate teachers, and their teachers in turn, have been practising for 50 or 60 years. ‘Practising’ is apposite, for there is discipline in being a martial artist. Here I don’t mean the forms of discipline observers often comment on and which are cornerstones of good martial arts: the rules and rituals of the dojo, how students interact with each other, the systems of obedience and respect.
As karateka (karate practitioners), we repeat the same move or pattern many times, and then for variety we do it some more. This is a disciplining or training of body and mind, doing the same move repeatedly until those particular motor tasks morph into memory and become second nature. But practice also has to have thought and an intention to do something well. As one instructor said to me, ‘Doing a thousand bad kicks just means you’ve got good at doing a thousand bad kicks’. We speak of ren ma, a Japanese term meaning constant polishing, of practising a technique to try to improve it each time. It’s another way of referring to learning and of having an open, active mind. Viewed in this way, karate is more of an approach to living, a matter of good mental as well as physical health.
Let me return to the midnight hours. One ritual at annual weekend camps in my karate style is for everyone to get out of bed around midnight, put on their gi, and together do a thousand kicks, each one accompanied by a kiai or loud shout. Legs and hips, generally unwilling at this hour, begin rebelling at about 400 kicks. A couple of hundred later, the kicks become automatic and I share in the collective energy of the many people around me. I invariably feel a calmness at this point, as if I could carry on forever in this constant process of polishing.
Bronwyn Dalley has been practicing and teaching martial arts since 1985; she is also a historian and writer.