May 10, 2015
Just one week ago today, my sai arrived. The week prior, at our monthly beach workout, I had requested some minor custom modifications to the shape of these weapons, based on my very limited experience with sai. The shape of the factory delivered sai prongs felt too square, were spaced too wide, and looked too generic for my feminine hand. Apparently, the baton fit my arm perfectly since I am not built like an Asian waif. The pair I chose felt heavy, like they had substance and heft to them. I didn’t want the hybrid material tournament versions of the sai, they felt much too light and not durable at all. I wanted to feel the solid weight of the metal and hear the loud “clank” when they struck each other. If I am going to train, I want to do it like a badass.
When Sensei Butch brought my sai to our dojo last week, my face lit up and I beamed like someone had just handed me a five pound bag of red, white, and green gummy bears (my favorite flavors and the only ones I eat) that were zero calorie. It felt exciting to have my own weapons to train with and to use in competition. The faster I started training with them, the faster my mana would become a part of these sai. Mana is energy, power, and strength. We learn about mana as a concept in hula. Wearing the same practice pa’u (skirt) to dance rehearsal allows your mana to permeate the pa’u. Dancing low to the ground draws mana from Mother Earth. Extending your arms shares your mana with your hula sisters dancing next to you. There is power in working and sweating together towards a common goal and a shared mission. Weapons training is an individual task and the mana in my sai will come from my own hard work and dedication and sweat. And I am all for that right now.
A few weeks ago, Sensei Butch had shown me how to flip and twirl a sai (singular, we only had one to practice with in the dojo, totally not sure who walked off with the other one) but we hadn’t started working on an actual kata yet. I’ve already committed to entering the weapons division in an upcoming tournament, representing Togisala Shorin Ryu so I cannot back out now. Since I have never competed in a weapons division and implements complicate things in terms of needing better coordination (something I feel that I lack), nerves and uncertainty filled my head and heart. This would be a multi-pronged challenge for me: physically, mentally, and much to my surprise, emotionally. Neuroscientist tell us that adults need to work different parts of our brains to continue developing and growing. Throughout this year of great turmoil and change at work, karate serves as my mental WOD by helping me stay grounded and giving me focus.
When I worked out at his dojo in the mid 90’s, no one in my class trained with the sai. My Sensei, Grand Master Richard Rabago told me that sai were one of his favorite weapons. I didn’t even know how people held them much less used them to strike or do kata. In my eyes, the sai looked like clunky and over-sized shrimp cocktail forks. While studying weapons training with Sensei Richard, we all learned the bo kata first and many students moved on to the kama afterward. But I clearly remember Sensei Richard wielding the bo, the kama and the tonfa. He always showed so much discipline in his weapons demonstration. Discipline plus power and speed, like a badass Jedi. I asked him about the sai and whether he thought they would be a good weapon for me to learn. Sensei looked directly at me and took a long pause, a painfully long pause, which made me wonder whether I should have even asked the question. He simply replied, “You have to be strong to learn the sai.” I still wasn’t sure if that was a yes or a no and stared back at him, blankly. Sensei followed up with, “Finish the bo and I will teach you the sai. You’re plenty strong.”
My weapons training ended abruptly when I discovered I was pregnant and I never finished learning my basic bo kata. Thankfully, Sensei Richard’s words rang true, I was plenty strong as a single mom. I know the discipline and self-confidence that training in the dojo taught me has served me well in my career, my life and in motherhood. I feel like I learned so much from my martial arts training 18 years ago and not all of my learnings were evident to me at the time.
Although I’ve begun training for a competition at the end of June, these sai mean more to me than a pair of tournament weapons. Training with the sai works my brain and my body, reminding me how much I love karate. I am rediscovering the joy in training, just like I felt when I was studying with Sensei Richard. Class was always physically demanding and I was in the absolute best physical shape of my life because of karate. My body was strong, lean, and super fit. Today, karate grounds me and provides a sense of emotional security. I’ve had a lot of heartache and let-downs in my life: a boyfriend physically abused me, an ex broke into my house to steal jewelry, and my car, and more recently, I had an unexpected near death experience. That shit is real and that shit truly impacted my heart and emotional health. Trusting people is really hard for me and learning how to trust is a part of my emotional development from karate. I still work to Live Aloha and give to others and leave the world a better place, unconditionally. But I have a very hard time letting people help me because of all the broken trust I have endured.
I feel love when I train on the dojo floor. That might not make sense to you, especially if you don’t work out in martial arts, but it makes sense to me. What made me realize this strange “love” fact happened on Mother’s Day, while I worked with Sensei Butch on my weapons kata.
I already had a keen awareness of how much I had respected him as a teacher when I trained with Sensei Richard. Sensei Butch consistently won tournaments and travelled the world to compete. He could have been an arrogant ass but totally wasn’t. He always showed so much patience and humility with students. Sensei Butch worked especially well with the kids in class and pushed them to improve without making anyone cry or want to quit. But I never had a chance to work with Sensei Butch other than when he dropped in to teach an occasional class or came to serve as a judge for belt testing days. I definitely never had a private lesson with him, one-on-one. Even when he teaches our group classes now, I haven’t felt this way. This epiphany didn’t strike me until today but because of it, I feel blessed to study karate again. That is the only way I can describe what I experienced. I realize that I trusted Sensei Butch’s skill as a teacher and I also trust him as person who has been in my life for almost 20 years. Sensei Richard held Sensei Butch in very high esteem. And when Sensei Richard regarded someone at that level, it felt natural for me to feel similarly.
Now I feel even more excited to continue my training. Sensei Butch has said that this may be the time for me to earn my black belt to start teaching. He trusted me enough to say that to me and I don’t take that lightly. I hope to continue to feel safe enough to trust and I never lose that feeling. I would like to encourage and nurture students to love martial arts in the way Sensei Richard and Sensei Butch have inspired me.
Interestingly enough, my competitive nature does not drive me to beat others or to win, I only want to beat myself and see improvement in my own performance. So it is easy for me to support others and cheer, I don’t feel compelled to be the star or win the trophies and take home all the ribbons. Sensei Richard instilled in me the belief that the only purpose of a belt is to hold up your pants. A true martial artist doesn’t need to be called “Master” and the color of one’s obi does not reflect one’s skill level. I allow student’s performance and drive to shape my opinion of them, not the color of their belt, just as a person’s behavior, not appearance, should influence your opinion of them.
Despite all of this, I find myself being hypercritical of my own progress and training. Why can’t I show myself the same grace that I show others? When I watch Sensei Butch with the sai, I want to be able to flip, spin and manipulate them the same way he does. But today, instead of getting frustrated with myself, I relaxed my wrists AND my attitude enough to follow the simple directions that Sensei Butch gave me. I found myself so open, more-so than I have been in months and maybe even years, like my heart was exposed and I trusted that Sensei wouldn’t let anything hurt it. And my sai flipped and spun properly. Even when I dropped the sai, I didn’t beat myself up with negative self-talk or discouraging words. I laughed, quickly moved my feet out of the way, and picked my sai to try again. “Fall down seven times, Stand up eight” applies to my weapons flying out of my hands, too.
Speaking of inspiration, I bought a simple 3mm silver band for myself last week and it says, “dream”.
My thought was that the ring would be appropriate to wear during the summer months while I work out and I wouldn’t have to worry about a diamond falling out of the setting in one of my more fancy rings. It certainly wasn’t clear to me last week why I selected this ring. The other choices were words and phrases like “believe”, “friend”, “forever”, “be strong”, “never give up”, “choose joy” and “peace”. “Dream” isn’t a sentiment I thought of much in my younger life, I was all about “work” to handle my business and make enough to live the lifestyle that I want for myself and my daughter. Today, after karate, I was compelled to purchase two more silver rings to create a custom Pi’ilani set. The second ring is another tiny 3mm band that simply states, “love”.
And the third one, an adjustable silver ring, 1/4” wide, with two hearts, a half moon and a star. The inside of that ring reads, “I believe in you”. This set of rings is a lovely reminder for me to train hard because I truly love karate and I believe in myself.