So there I was, nervous and uncomfortable, barefoot in a Peterborough gymnasium, and clad only in a pair of white pyjamas. The floor cold and hard, adrenaline spiking in my veins. The only source of comfort and security was the belt wrapped round my waist – my name and my old club embroidered on it – that and the months of extra training I’d put in during lockdown, pacing up and down my living room as I practiced. Somewhere in that practice I had tapped into muscle memory, and what I knew slowly started to flow back. They say that what you learn never truly leaves you. They say that any art practiced for ten thousand hours makes you a master. I’m no master – maybe I’d not spent ten thousand hours in practice, but four or five hours a week in class (at least) plus everyday practice for over ten years had made me solidly proficient.
Flashback: When my eldest son was younger, we rocked up to a traditional Shotokan karate class at a nearby school having seen an advert in the local paper. Some very tough years of training followed, with one or two injuries, and struggles with co-ordination, flexibility, speed and my innate lack of timing.. but eventually both he and I made it to our coveted black belt. And a couple of years later, I graduated again as a second dan black belt. But when I set up my own business, something had to give and, sadly, at that time karate was the thing I ended up giving up. But it felt as if a part of me had gone missing.
They say that black belts are masters. They say black belts are the ultimate fighting machines. Black belts know they are not. They know they are just at the beginning of the journey – that the only thing they had achieved after years of training was simply the right to be on that journey – and I had taken time out from that path to focus on other things.. important things, for sure, but now it was time to get back into the dojo, to put the gi back on and to train hard again. This was a new club, new instructor, new syllabus, and a new beginning.
And in the end, I was better than I feared, and probably even better than I had hoped. I could hold my own – not particularly because I had the skills, but because I had the determination to make it happen, and because that which you’ve learned never does really leave you. I had done my preparation work – reviewing what I had learned before, practicing over and over again in my cramped training space. I’d re-read my old books, watched the videos and went through my old applications and bunkai. But in the end it came down to turning up one day, leaving my pride, my ego and my fears outside the dojo doors, and starting again.
I’m nowhere near as good as I used to be – but it’s coming back, piece by piece, as I install new memories of old favourite katas and of fearsome sparring drills. My flexibility and speed need some attention, and there are katas to refamiliarise myself with, but there is progress, simply because I had chosen to turn up and try.
And suddenly, in that moment in the dojo, there was a deep knowing, and a deep sense of calm settled on me – something felt fundamentally right – as if I was putting a shard of who I am back in its right place. So it is that every time I pull the heavyweight white cotton fast around my shoulders, every time I tie the simple ties securely at my side, and especially when I knot that precious black belt firmly round my waist, I know I have come home, and that a piece of my life – a piece of who I am – is back where it belongs.