When I tell people I'm a black belt in Karate, most look at me as if I'm nuts. They can't believe I spend $85 a month and three nights a week to do battle in one of those sweaty, stuffy, frill-free schools. Others chop the air and emit the high-pitched wail made famous by Bruce Lee. After six years of this I just shake my head and think, "What a bozo!"
Karate is not about feisty little tumbler superheroes who always prevail against the bad guys. Karate is about balance. Part physical, part spiritual, it offers a way for hyperstressed, hyperactive, hyperachievers to find a peaceful, powerful center.
Mike McCue is the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Paper Software, Inc., which creates products for virtual reality on the Internet. A black sash, he's studied Closed Crane Kung-fu since 1985. "Starting up a business is like being in a long sparring match. You get hit, you get surprised. Kung-fu has trained me to keep going. You learn more, practice more, work harder. You keep your eye on the goal."
The martial arts have as many dimensions as they have students. And there are 10 million people practicing the martial arts in this country — last year 1.5 million new participants signed up for classes.
What they'll find depends on what they're looking for. For many, of course, Karate and the other martial arts build self-defense skills. For others, the study of Karate is a way to focus mentally, to clear your mind of the daily round of endless meetings, political skirmishes, and do-or-die deadlines. In any martial art, mental toughness is everything. Because once you're out on that floor, there's no turning back.
Afternoon, Day One: Walnut Creek, California
My kids ask me if I can do a spinning back kick," says Greg Schultz, 45, a financial adviser and a fourth-degree black belt. "I tell them they've been watching too many Steven Seagal pictures — that's just Hollywood Karate."
I've traveled from Boston to see how Karate is taught at JKA Karate of California, a San Francisco dojo (school). Greg is one of the dojo's top students. He's also the head of two money management firms, Retirement Planning, Inc. and Asset Allocation Advisors, Inc. in Walnut Creek. Greg is one of several businesspeople I know who, year in and year out, devote their Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights to training in Karate.
Greg took up Karate in the fall of 1970, when he was a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Karate was exotic, and that was good enough reason to try it. But it wasn't until he left school for a year, at age 21, that he got hooked. He was waiting tables in Maui when a friend told him about the Hawaii Karate Association. There he discovered the discipline and structure that was missing from his beach-bum existence. It wasn't a spiritual thing, he insists. "Karate was just fun."
Karate is still fun. But it's different. "It's more of a personal quest," he says. "It has less and less to do with other people and more and more to do with me. I'm ultimately trying to test and push and improve myself. It's no longer a question of: `Can I kick faster than the other guy?' The question now is: `Can I kick faster?' Period."
I ask if he's learned anything from Karate that he's applied to his business life.
Recently, he replies, the top six students took the school's sensei (teacher), Kenichi Haramoto, out for his 53rd birthday. Beer and sake were flowing. So were the stories.
"I don't think Sensei fully appreciates the character building he's done for us. So we tried to convey some examples beyond the superficial elements of technique and conditioning. When it was my turn to speak I told them about my business philosophy, which I call the Haramoto approach to business. It's very simple. When you attack, you resolve never to retreat. Sensei has this focus of purpose where it's clear that if he's coming at you he won't take a step back. It really screws up your opponent's counterattack. It becomes a battle of wills.
"It's all tied together," he continues, "particularly in business, where you face a lot of obstacles and it consumes all your energy and you rarely have a clear path. You need to be really focused and have a resolve that cannot be shaken loose."
He pauses and leans back in his chair. "Maybe I'd have the same discipline even if I hadn't trained in Karate. But I doubt it. I believe it's made a huge difference."
Evening, Day One: JKA Karate Dojo, San Francisco
"Line up!" snaps sensei Kenichi Haramoto. We scramble to the back of the room and stand shoulder to shoulder. Greg Schultz, the highest-ranking student, heads the line.
"Seizaaaaaan!" Greg shouts, leading the bow-in ceremony that begins each class. We kneel on the wooden floor. "Mokusuuu!" he commands. We close our eyes and concentrate on our breathing. I try to adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings: the first floor of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in Japantown, where JKA Karate holds its classes. But the hum of a fan distracts me. "Mokuso Yame!" We open our eyes after 30 seconds. Still kneeling, we bow to Sensei. He bows to us. We're ready to begin.
We spread out across the back of the room and face Sensei Haramoto. A traditional instructor, he speaks few words. Instead he demonstrates each move. Then he counts, as do all Karate instructors, in Japanese.
He throws a double-kick combination. "Ichi!...Ni!...San!" In an explosion of white we follow him, kicking out with one leg, then the other, as we lunge across the floor. We react to the count and kick at an imaginary opponent.
"Shi," he continues. "Goh!...Mawat-te!" We turn, executing a downward block. "Ichi!" he begins again. "Ni...no extra motion, no extra motion," he says, instructing us to keep the moves clean. Everyone stops as Sensei steps into a deep front stance and shows us how our kicks are supposed to look. A 53-year-old knee-surgery survivor, he more closely resembles a 35-year-old dancer as he gracefully extends one leg and then the other.
Sensei is teaching us kihon, combinations of basic punching, blocking, and kicking techniques. Through hundreds of repetitions, we are systematically training our arms and legs to control a surprise attacker.
We practice a half-dozen additional combinations. We drill at sparring. Then come kata, or forms, the most graceful part of Karate. We face a side wall covered with calligraphy scrolls and move through sequences of punches, kicks, strikes, and blocks. Some slow, some explosive, they're choreographed to defend against multiple attackers. Resembling powerful dance routines, they develop strength and improve reflexes. The discipline required might even help perfect character.
After three sets of four katas, we form a circle around the hall's periphery. Everyone squats. Greg counts while we do 30 leg lifts. Each person then takes a turn counting off an exercise: 30 push-ups, 30 counts of hip twisting, 30 counts of leg extensions. The class started 90 minutes ago. I'm ready to collapse. After 15 sets, the count returns to Greg.
I get up, thankful that I've made it through the class. Huh? Everyone else is still squatting. Greg begins the entire series again. After 15 additional sets, I'm totally spent.
We bow, meditate, and recite the five principles of Karate: "Seek perfection of character; be faithful; endeavor; respect others; refrain from violent behavior."
At last, the class is over. Until tomorrow.
Evening, Day Two: JKA Karate Dojo
I walk to the center of the floor and face Greg Schultz. We bow and begin. Elbows in, knees bent, we watch each other warily for a few moments — each waiting for the other to pounce. My pulse is racing. I get up on my toes and bounce nervously. It's my first time sparring with him. I don't know what to expect.
Greg is calm. Focused. His brown eyes observe my every move. Watching. Waiting.
Finally my patience gives out. "Eeeiii!" I shout as I lunge forward, concentrating all my energy into the sound. I explode off my right leg, aiming my left fist at his neck. Aha! I think I've got him. Dead wrong. He steps to the side and taps my fist away. In a flash he nails me in the solar plexus with a front snap-kick. My stomach muscles contract instinctively but there's no pain. He held back. A millimeter farther and the kick would've knocked me into next week.
After 20 years of training, Greg's control is masterful. But now I've learned something: he waits for his opponent to make the first move. As in business and life itself, in Karate you're at your most vulnerable when you attack.
Next time, I'll remember.
Coordinates: Crum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Aiki Works Inc. of Aspen, CO.
Natalie Engler (email@example.com), a freelance writer covering technology and business, has studied Shotokan Karate for the past six years at the Boston Karate Club.
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