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Not Without My Justice: The Aaron Boyd Story: Part II: Crisis in the Ashes
Part II: crisis in the ashes
As expected I took my first class that Tuesday, alongside a ten year old ballerina and a creature borne from some ghastly experiment in creating a human-douche hybrid. The ballerina was cute and pudgy and obviously destined to not last more than a week. Douchenozzle had spiked hair and wore a Tae Kwon Do uniform, complete with black belt. Even in my virginal state of martial innocence I couldn’t help but notice how particularly douchey wearing a black belt to your first class was. As the rest of the class lined up for warm-ups, Douchenozzle, Ballerina and I were pulled aside to be given an introductory speech by none other than Sensei himself.
Not wanting to appear undisciplined (karate guys love discipline, right?), I puffed out my chest and clamped my legs together in my best imitation of a Marines commercial. Sensei was unimpressed. He said this sort of unnecessary posturing was counterintuitive to Isshin-Ryu’s philosophy of natural body mechanics. And while this was a Traditional Dojo, it was also relaxed. This wasn’t one of those places where a squat, angry man with a red face screams orders at you and hits you with a whiffle bat. The only etiquette here is common sense. You simply bow when you enter the dojo, bow whenever need to leave, bow when approached by a senior belt, bow when approaching a senior belt, bow when told to line up, bow when a higher-ranking belt is finished talking to you, bow to sensei at the end of class, and bow to a picture of the style’s dead founder. And when you line up at the beginning or end of class, do so in order of seniority. And never walk in front of the line, always behind. And bow in tandem with everyone else. And make sure your toes are all on the same line. Otherwise you’ll have to do knuckle pushups on the tile floor.
But aside from that, yeah, pretty relaxed.
We were taught the basic training stance, semi-relaxed upright with our fists resting on our hip bones. From there we were shown proper way to step forward in a fight. You drag the ball of your rear foot in a small arc to meet your front foot, then in another arc to bring it forward, shoulder-width apart. The idea here was that when your feet were together, you’ve stepped off-line of any potential attack, and when you resume your standard fighting stance, you’re closer to the opponent. This movement, called the Crescent Step, formed the basis of about 80% of the footwork utilized in attack and defense.
After becoming sufficiently comfortable with the Crescent Step, we were taught the Isshin-Ryu Straight Punch. Now, you have to understand the Isshin-Ryu punch is fundamentally dissimilar to the reverse punch taught in most karate schools and not even on the same radar as the boxing jab. Thrown off the hip without any sort of rotation and the thumb resting atop the fist, the Isshin-Ryu punch eerily resembles Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, but with stiffer knees. The idea here was the punches snapped back faster than corkscrew punches, could be thrown in rapid succession, and as a neat little bonus, the thumb knuckle could slip in between the ribs and strike the xyphoid process.
Having been taught our stances, steps, and punch, sensei left us alone to practice. By now class had finished warm-ups and dispersed as everyone partook in free time. Douchenozzle took it upon himself to educate us on what we were doing wrong and correct sensei’s history trivia. His generosity and willingness to teach after a whole half-hour of study was not lost on the watchful eye of the instructor, and when class was called together for technique demonstration, Douchenozzle was selected as the dummy. He was accidentally-on-purpose hit very, very hard. “With one hand, I strike,” intoned Sensei. “With the other, I catch his vomit.”
At the time selecting a rude, pretentious cockbag as a punching dummy seemed like the best kind of frontier justice. He had a bad attitude and got it beat out of him. He came back humbled or didn’t come back at all. Either way the dojo won, and I looked at my new sensei with fresh respect. Did it bother me at all his victim wasn’t fighting back? That the sensei betrayed the implicit trust involved in any drilling? That hitting a compliant student isn’t really that impressive?
I’d quickly discover the class structure wasn’t hard to follow; about a half-hour of warm-ups, followed by an hour of free time for independent study, and maybe half an hour at the end of class for the actual lesson. Time permitting. The bulk of our training came from camping in front of a mirror for an hour and hoping a black belt came around to correct your form. There was little to no physical exertion, no sparring, no bagwork, no alive training, and it wasn’t uncommon for sensei to just extend free time until the end of class, without any lesson at all.
And yet…the school had a sparse, romantic air to it. The absence of all the training materials, so unnerving at first, became part of the school’s rustic charm. Throwing endless repetitions of straight punches in the mirror with nothing else to study for hours on end fostered a raw, visceral appeal that I was learning something pure, something untainted by modern commercialism. Every class felt like a training montage, its drama heightened by the setting sun’s low rays burning glowing golden patches in the tile floor. Sometimes pools of sweat would grow in small concave portions of the tiled floor, and hit at the right angle, burned bright yellow, radioactive sweatsuns dotting the ground. After a few weeks I was proud of my ugly little school in the squat little building. It was like I was learning The Real ****, and everyone else was learning watered-down point sparring from fat gaijin.
It was great. Over the course of the next few weeks I breezed through Isshin-Ryu’s basics, a canonical selection of fundamental blocks and strikes. Kindly black belts familiarized me with the principles underlying each technique, showing how to use circular motions to offset an attacker’s balance, how to strike multiple times with a single clean motion, how to utilize absolute economy of motion to deliver maximum damage to my phantom foe. They were teaching me these ideas the same way they’d be taught, through ultimate ideal of faith through technique. Several times I asked black belts how they knew they could perform X technique in a real fight, given they never sparred. I was told to just believe in the move, to perform as you have countless times in class, and it would come to you when you needed it. “Train like your life depended on it,” Sensei once told me. “Because some day, it just might.”
As my training advanced, more and more rules, principles, and dogma revealed themselves to me. I learned how to use push-pull motions to accelerate my punches, how to squeeze my fist at precisely the right second, how to fold my thumb over my index finger, the precise ratio of weight distribution between front and back foot (lost to the ages, I’m afraid), how to use my toes to “grip” the ground and create better foundation, innumerable ways to check my stance, and how to kiai so fearsomely that I wouldn’t even need to fight because my opponent would have freaked the **** out. It was intoxicating. Centuries of silent refinement, the distillation of the wisdom of a thousand monks literally being spoon-fed to me by middle-aged men in pajamas. I wasn’t just learning how to fight; I was learning how to fight with style and verve, vim and vigor.
Once I was finished learning the basics, I moved on to kata, or “interpretive dance”. If you’ve never formally learned kata, it initially seems to be an odd beast. You learn how to string together a series of vaguely-menacing steps with somewhat combative arm motions, then you’re later told what those steps signify, what terrible wrath is contained in these arcane dance moves. Sometimes it’d be as straightforward as a series of punches and kicks. Other times the footwork would be so ornate, the hands so flowery you’d scarcely know you were watching a martial arts demonstration. In all there were eight kata, each containing dozens of individual techniques.
Each of these techniques, I was taught, existed as a motion independent of context. I may throw a low block and think “I am blocking a punch”. And that’s fine, but I could use the same motion to deflect a kick. Or I could block inside, blocking and moving towards the stomach, or outside, towards the flank. Ideally, a single motion creates a response to countless scenarios.
This “blank slate” theory, that any given move could contain infinite applications, was explained as bunkai. You can attach any application to any move you want, just keep it simple and effective. Hell, you could literally make up moves, and so long as they adhered to the motions contained within kata. It wasn’t uncommon for a day’s lesson to be some convoluted wristlock Sensei had discovered the night before, simply by playing around with his kata.
I was inspired. My repertoire was rapidly expanding, and the dull days of throwing reverse punches in front of a mirror for hours on end were fading. Now I was doing kata in front of a mirror for hours on end. Now I’m learning how to fight, I thought, and out of the corner of my eye watched Sensei practicing his punch before a mirror, just as I was, his uniform snapping under awesome velocity.