Welcome to the Dojo – but leave your ego at the door


This article, by one of our senior students,  describes the experience of starting out and training at Woodlane as an adult student. 

In 1988 I stepped into the Woodlane Dojo for the first time.  Then in my early thirties, I arrived at the Sports Centre with my two (primary school age) children, anticipating a new pastime that would maybe increase my fitness as well as keeping my two youngsters occupied on a Saturday afternoon.

Thirty years later and I’m still here.  Karate became part of my life and has changed me in several very positive ways.  These notes are my personal view on Karate training from the point of view of an older student – me being an example who continues to train into my sixties.

Nowadays I see many Karate students come and go.  Most are children who stay a while and then move onto other interests (a bit like my own two – they lasted about 6 months!)   New adult students are rarer beasts – they don’t arrive in the same numbers as the kids, but when they do arrive, they seem much more likely to stay.   The challenge is to get more adults through that Dojo door.  That first step into the Dojo is a big one and not to be under-estimated.  I’m hoping my own experience might persuade others to also take that first step.

My first memory as a newbie white-belt was that Karate hurt.  Not because I was being punched and kicked – that doesn’t happen to a white-belt (at least not in a respectable Dojo).  The pain came from using muscles I hadn’t used for a long time, if at all, and from stretching and pushing parts of my body in new and ‘unusual’ ways.  Also, my brain hurt – all the techniques were described in Japanese and I struggled to understand all those commands that, it seemed to me, had to be carried out instantly and without hesitation.  I remember getting pretty good at watching more senior grades from the corner of my eye and trying to anticipate the next move – but I still got things wrong on a regular basis.

Occasionally, as I struggled through my various aches and pains and misunderstandings, I glanced up the line.  There I saw green, blue, brown and black belts who were executing techniques with a speed and strength that, to me at that time, seemed amazing.  More than this, I sensed something else.  A concentration and a commitment that I had no name for (it was much later that I learnt about Kime).  Amazingly, some of these students were as old (and older) than I was.  Maybe – just maybe – I could learn some of that skill.  So, I carried on with the hope that one day it would become easy; that one day it would stop hurting; and that one day I too would be able to perform these techniques without any effort.  I have to say that day hasn’t arrived yet – but I continue to live in hope.

When I first trained, I was a little disheartened to see 7- and 8-year olds picking things up so much quicker than I could (i.e. my kids).  Even today, shown a new technique, I will struggle to execute it smoothly until I have slowed things down, repeated it many times, and maybe returned to it a day or so later.  I used to be very frustrated by this as a new starter, thinking that I was not, or never could be, a natural Karateka (whatever that might be).  Nowadays I never let it worry me.  Experience has taught me that it will come over time.  The adult brain is very different from the flexible and compliant brain of a child or teenager – we learn in different ways.  Just like learning a new language, it’s always easier for a child.  But adults can also learn new skills, and to a high standard.  We just need to understand that it’s a different process.  As an adult student you must never become disheartened if progress seems slow at first.

My instructor back in 1988 was an inspiration to me.  A few years older than me, extremely fit, very flexible, and with (to me) an aura of power and invincibility.  At the same time, he was also very patient with us new starters.  While back then he seemed almost super-human to me, he never ever claimed to be so, and on at least one occasion I recall him holding his black belt and saying that “anyone can get one of these”.  His point was that anyone who puts in the time and trains correctly and hard enough should be able to reach black belt grade.  I believed his words – but I didn’t quite believe that I could do it.

Another revelation to me was the discipline and tradition in the Dojo.  This was a great eye-opener to me as a new starter.  The bow as you enter the Dojo; the bow to senior grades as they enter; the line-up and the formal introduction and end to each lesson.  This sports hall that, just minutes before, had been host to a bunch of footballers swearing and insulting each other, was suddenly transformed into a place of respect and reverence.  It had become the Place of the Way.  It had become the Dojo.

And within the Dojo we students all became the same.  All dressed in the same style Karate Gi – our outside lives were left behind us.   The only differentiator in the Dojo is the belt grade.  The higher the belt, the higher the level of skill and experience you should expect.  The belt is the one and only indicator of status or hierarchy within the Dojo.  We stand in belt order; we bow to black belt grades as they enter the Dojo.  Lower grades show respect to higher grades irrespective of age, sex, religion or any other attribute you could think of.

I subtitled this piece ’leave your ego at the door because some older students might find all this a little uncomfortable.  In today’s society people often define themselves by the job they do; by their achievements; by money and material things.  In the Dojo we are judged differently, and everyone starts from the same base.  Children of course are naturally comfortable with this – they are used to being told directly and sometimes forcefully what to do.  I for one have always found this loss of ego in the Dojo to be very liberating.  In the Dojo I feel I am judged purely for the effort and commitment I demonstrate – If I fall short then I will be told so in no uncertain terms by more senior grades.  This is how it should be.

Life is simple in the Dojo – the hierarchy is clear and at the top of that hierarchy sit the senior Dan grade instructors.  During a course I once attended a very senior Karateka talked about his early days under Japanese instructors whose mastery of English was not always the best.  For example, they might command “Use Elbow! Use Elbow!” when describing a kicking technique with the knee.  As this instructor explained; “it would be highly inappropriate to correct your teacher in this situation”.   The point is that in the Dojo your Sensei is always right and you must never forget that.  This implies putting a very high level of trust in your Sensei – someone who is ‘always right’ is also able to easily humiliate and bully students.  This is where choice of Dojo is so important and why for me, Woodlane has been my choice of Dojo for 30 years (and our instructors are very clear on the difference between knee and elbow).

In a sense you give up your external life as you enter the Dojo, and this is a good thing.  What better after a tough day at work (or looking after home and family) to put everyday worries aside and focus 100% on something else – that is, the training.  If you train correctly and with focus everything else will be pushed aside.   No matter how tough the Karate lesson, I walk out of that Dojo mentally relaxed – any worries of work and home forgotten for those 90 minutes.  Nothing else does this for me – going to the gym doesn’t do it – sitting in the arm-chair watching TV definitely doesn’t do it.

As I reflect on 30 years of Karate training at the Woodlane Dojo I am grateful that it has kept me fit and given me a real sense of accomplishment – especially when I received my black belt at the age of 48.

But Karate has also given me a whole lot more.  For a start, a group of friends who I might never have met outside of Karate – friends with a shared experience and respect for each other and who are not restricted to a single age group or type.  As an aging businessman in the corporate world, my friends and work colleagues tend to be of the same mould – same backgrounds, same views, similar opinions.  But in the Dojo, I get to mix with groups that I might not otherwise get the opportunity to mix with.  For example, teenagers.  My work colleagues might complain about lazy, hoodie wearing yobbos.  But what I see are young people who work and train hard in the Dojo – young people with ambition, talent and commitment.  I could go on – the point is that for me Karate has opened up interaction with people I might not normally come across – this can only be a positive thing.

A typical question from my non-karate friends when they learn about what I do is “but have you used it for real” meaning have you clumped someone lately using your karate skills.  I usually decline to say.  However, what I can say is that the extra confidence and awareness that Karate training has given me has enabled me to handle some situations that might otherwise have become a problem.  No one wants to get in a bad situation, but it happens and one day your Karate skills might save you in such a situation.

So what advice would I give to an adult about to start training?

Firstly, If you join as an adult and start to compare yourself with the youngsters, you could easily reach the conclusion that it’s not for you.  Resist this – stay with it.  If you feel the need to compare yourself with others, make sure these comparisons are made with people of your own age group.  At Woodlane we make this easier by giving dedicated lessons to new adult starters.

I know from my own experience that Karate is very beneficial for the adult student.  The hardest part is that first step through the Dojo door.  My advice to new students is just do it – you will never regret it.

And what is it like to train in the same Dojo for 30 years?  Difficult for me to put into words – but here’s how T S Eliot might have put it …

“We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know that place for the first time”