Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ki ai *

I've been a student of kempo karate, also known as Shaolin chuan fa,for 9 years. It's unusual for somebody to start in the martial arts in their late 30s, perhaps, but I'm not lonely—in the dojo in which I train, there are several students in their 40s and older (though nearly all of them have trained longer and hold higher ranks than I).

I've probably reached the highest level I will ever attain in the system, but I'm not ruling anything out. Hell, even the progress I've made to date is far beyond that which anybody who knows me (including me) would ever have predicted. Who knows: even as my fifth decade on this planet draws to an end, maybe there is one more rank left in me. But, regardless of whether or not I ever earn another official stripe, I am improving, ever so slightly, with every lesson, every new technique, every sparring match.

One of the most emotionally complex experiences I've had since beginning my training took place about a year ago, on my last belt test. This was an important test, a milestone, and I'd prepared for it with a vigor and focus that are, frankly, kind of unusual for me. Let's face it: I'm no athlete. Even with my extra training, and even though I'd dropped at least ten pounds in the weeks leading up to the big day, I still carried several handicaps: my weight, my asthma, and my chronically injured back, to name just a few.

As it turned out, though, the actual difficulty, when it arose, came from another area entirely.

Mr. Miyagi never made
Daniel-san do 5 hours of forms
& techniques before sparring!
As the test began, I was very confident. I knew my techniques, I knew my forms. I was ready. But I began to notice a problem, and it started early, during the first stage of the test: I was becoming dizzy. I felt weak and exhausted, in spite of my training, in spite of my comfort with the material.

I was confused. What was happening here? I'd survived, and passed, a number of six-hour tests that seemed specifically designed to make a grown man (specifically: me) cry. I normally trained for 2-4 hours at a time, and yet, here I was, barely half an hour into the program, already wondering if I was going to be able to continue. One of the Masters approached me and asked me if I was OK—apparently, I was pretty pale. (A few days after the test, my own Sensei told me that, when he had stopped by to see how I was doing, expecting to find me red in the face, he had been surprised to see instead that I was white as a sheet.)

Pale, dizzy, exhausted: what the hell was going on?

It was only months later, after another bout of similar symptoms, that I got my answer: having lost weight, my blood pressure had dropped. Because I was taking medication for hypertension, my blood pressure was now too low to support intense exercise. I stopped taking the meds and the symptoms disappeared.

During the test, though, all I knew was that I was in danger of not finishing, of failing. As the morning wore on, the vertigo and exhaustion worsened. During the final portion of the test, sparring, I performed dismally, which is to say: I got my ass kicked by a lesser fighter. Sparring requires creativity, adaptability, and explosiveness, none of which seemed to be available to me.

Nonetheless, when the sparring was over, I had made it all the way to the end of the test. And when I left the building, I carried a brand new belt with me.

An earlier test: sweaty but happy
So what did I learn? Well, first of all: training pays off. Had I been less thoroughly prepared, the symptoms would have done me in. I performed my techniques and forms instinctively; if I'd had to think about them, I simply could not have executed them.

More importantly, though, I realized that there is a reservoir of will within me, a driving energy that I can access, giving me the ability to persevere when my body is failing and my mind is crying out for surrender. It was the search for just this internal strength that had led me to martial arts in the first place. Yes, I'd struggled during tests, even during training, many times before; but I'd never faced any obstacle close to the one with which I was confronted that morning. In the end, it turned out to be this very trial that finally revealed what I'd set out to find eight years before.

*) Ki ai (pronounced "key eye") is a Japanese term that I use here to mean the outward expression of one's inner strength or energy (ki, sometimes known by its Chinese equivalent, chi). I was pleased to discover a very nice, brief article on ki ai in Wikipedia.


  1. Congratulations! I don't know anything about martial arts, but this sounds like an incredibly daunting challenge. Personally, I think you might have another belt in you!

  2. Great post! Now that you're through the test (and successfully!), just remember that one of the side effects of low b.p. is fainting, and one of the side effect of fainting is urinating.

    I'm just sayin'!

    (Love the happy photo, too.)

  3. Mary: Thanks! I think it'll take me another couple of years until I recover enough to want to do anything like that again.

    Marty: Thanks! But I would say that I was much closer to puking than urinating. By the end of the test I was so dehydrated that I could probably have only peed dust anyway. :)

  4. Daniel: Wouldn't a fly swatter be easier?
    Miyagi: Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.

    You achieved another level in karate, a brand new belt despite a grueling six hour test intensified by symptoms of hypotension. Novel writing should be like using the fly swatter.

  5. I dunno, Kristi. Some days I think I'd rather face down the entire Cobra Kai than write another page. ☺☺☺