My Rookie Year in Karate

woman performing a side kick in a dojo

Written by a student of The Vancouver Dojo

Why Learn Karate? 

The idea of karate classes came to me in December while I was on a trip to southern California visiting family. My teenage niece was training karate regularly at a traditional martial arts dojo in the Shito-ryu tradition.

She took me to her dojo for the first time and I watched through a glass window while she walked on to the floor, joining up with kids of all ages and abilities: yellow belts, black belts and everything in between.

During the warm up, she jumped up and down to silly music blaring over the speaker, with the other kids following her lead. The music was cartoonish but judging from some of the grimacing faces, the warm up was intense.

After warm up, the class broke out into smaller groups, some practicing kata, others grabbing head gear to practice sparring. 

Watching their training, what struck me most was the relaxed but focused attitude of the students. Smiles and laughter were abundant on the dojo floor, and with any group of kids comes at least some horseplay, but there was never a need for any intervention by a sensei or anyone.

My niece also demonstrated this attitude outside the dojo. I never heard about her being too stressed over a belt grading or competition but she also didn’t underestimate the work she needed to put in. She just kept going to the dojo, day after day, week after week, year after year.

I liked the idea of making progress in a challenging pursuit but with a relaxed attitude. It made me realize that a relaxed attitude usually meant I was vulnerable to distraction, and a focused attitude often came with an underlying tension.

I’d played sports and joined clubs before but few activities were interesting enough for me to pursue long-term. And while I preferred solo sports to team sports, the post-COVID era made me think it would be nice to be around a group of people for a change.

I hadn’t tried martial arts yet, besides one intro to Muay Thai course I took in university, which hardly counts. Even learning Muay Thai was a stretch. I had an aversion to combat sports because I was scared of getting injured, but at the same time, I wanted to learn self-defense.

Inspired by my niece and her dojo, I decided to give martial arts a go.

Beginner Karate: First Impressions

I started beginner karate classes at the Vancouver Dojo at the beginning of the following year. This was just as the fitness clubs in BC opened up after multiple closures during COVID.

vancouver dojo karate classes

In my first few classes, there was a fraction of the typical students in attendance. It was the tail end of Christmas break and some still hadn’t fully returned after the COVID hiatus. 

As a result, I got more focused training from the Sensei and other students which was good because I needed it. I didn’t know how to punch or kick. Even at a sloth’s pace, as it was during many of our partner exercises, I didn’t know how to react to an incoming punch. I blame my big brother who never beat up on me when we were kids.

Not gonna lie, karate was frustrating. But I forced myself to keep coming back. It’s not that I was instantly sold on it as much as I was motivated to CONQUER it. 😤

Over the next few weeks, more students returned to the dojo. There were kids of all ages, university students, international students, and adults of all ages too.

Up until this point, I’d mainly been working with Sensei and senior students, so when the more junior students returned, the nature of my training changed. Instead of always following someone’s lead, I found myself in a situation where we’d figure things out together by trial and error.

It wasn’t until this point when certain concepts started to sink in.

Learning My First Karate Kata

The first kata that everyone learns at the Vancouver Dojo is called Pinan shodan. It is the first in a series of five kata that beginners learn.

“Pinan” is the romanization (pinyin notation) for the Chinese word 「平安」 which means peaceful and calm mind. In Japanese, the same word is pronounced “heian”.

Heian Shodan Kata

I obsessed over books and YouTube videos on kata. With my spotty memory, there was just no way I was going to remember even a fraction of any kata I was taught in the dojo in any respectable amount of time.

I also became obsessed with knowing every single kata name that was taught in the dojo, even if it was beyond what I needed to learn at my level. Fact is, had I invested the time I spent researching and watching YouTube videos of kata into actually practicing the kata I was taught, I probably would have been better off.

Which brings up another point: rate of learning. There was absolutely zero emphasis placed on learning kata or anything for that matter, fast, but that fact had no bearing for someone with my sensibilities. 

I needed a goal to shoot for. To figure out this goal, I made one simple calculation: I asked the keenest student in the dojo how many kata he knew in total, and divided by the number of years he’d been training, and voila! I had my first year goal. (This is not a dojo-sanctioned method of goal-setting, by the way).

With the winter season of karate classes under my belt, we headed into the spring.

In a future post, I’ll cover outdoor weapons training in the park.

Click here to check out some of the weapons.

If you’re thinking of trying out tai chi or karate classes, my advice is, don’t wait for the perfect time because it’ll never come. Don’t let a minor injury or insecurities about age or fitness level get in the way. Injuries can be worked around and insecurities are only in your head. Just jump in with both feet.