“Yay, burpees!” — Unofficial Potomac Kempo slogan
Last June, I signed up to study Shaolin Kempo Karate at Potomac Kempo. Two of my sons had been studying there for about half a year at that point, and the dojo offered a special, through which dads of current students could join and study for the month of June for free. I had been fascinated by watching my kids learn this art, so I decided that since it was free — my favorite price for things! — I would go ahead and check it out from the inside.
Tonight, seven months later, I will test to try to earn my purple belt, the fourth step on a journey where the black belt is the twelfth step. And yes, I’m counting white belt as the first step even though they hand you one on your way in the door — after all, making the decision even to walk through the door for the first time is a step, and a big one at that. Now, I’m no expert, but I’ve at least learned enough to know some of what I don’t know, and maybe have some insight into the road ahead. For one thing, while many people talk about earning a black belt in a martial art, that is not the destination, it is simply an important milestone on a journey that never ends.
That brings me to goals. What are my goals as a martial artist? I know a few things that may sound like they would be goals, but at least in my case they’re really not. One is to “level up” by earning belts. The belt itself isn’t the point to me, it’s the knowledge of the art that accompanies it. Put another way, if everything at Potomac Kempo were exactly the same, except with no belt system, I would still stick around.
Another thing that’s not a goal for me is to become better at actual fighting. That may sound strange considering that I’m studying a martial art, but thanks to delightfully sheltered upbringing, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to fight someone physically, and don’t really expect to be in that sort of situation in the future. Being prepared for unexpected situations is always nice, but the likelihood seems pretty remote.
Similarly, I’m not in this to try to be better at it than other people. Sparring is a common activity in class, and a featured event at our semi-annual tournaments. But I find I learn more sparring someone more advanced than I, someone who could easily take me out with three limbs tied behind his back, than I do from tagging white belts.
So if those aren’t my goals what are? Well, whenever a sensei asks in class why we’re doing a particular thing, there are only two answers guaranteed to be correct. One is “to get better at kempo!” The other is “to help other people get better at kempo!” That sounds good, and conveniently it’s even true, but saying that I’m doing kempo because I want to get better at kempo is uselessly circular unless I also explain what kempo really is, at least to me.
Kempo is physical, and mental. Kempo is science, and art. Kempo is the asymptotic pursuit of perfection. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more energy it takes to accelerate. The better one gets at kempo, the more discipline it takes to improve. This is not a drawback, it is a feature. Kempo means learning things that are brand new. Kempo means uncovering things one has always known. Kempo is not an event, it is a process. Kempo is cooperation with other people. Kempo is struggle against oneself.
But some of those things I can simply see from here, as I said, I’m only testing for purple belt. And at a basic level such as mine, the study of kempo is a balance of mental strength and physical strength. In keeping with that I’m gearing up both mentally and physically for my test this evening. Mentally, I’m remaining as low stress as possible, something that I’ve found is a bit easier the more diligently I attend class. Indeed, there have been times when I was upset about something or another, and spending an hour focusing on kempo made a difference — and not just because I was too tired to care afterward! In order to perform moves properly, especially in an environment where other people are initiating a pattern with a strike or kick, it takes a focus that doesn’t leave room for stray thoughts about outside matters. It’s not exactly meditation, although we do that also (albeit briefly), but it’s still a good way to hit the mental reset button. And it takes mental strength to overcome the natural instinct during sparring to back up, and instead try to get as close as possible to someone whose job is to hit you.
For tonight I’ve prepared by scheduling a lesson for last night to bone up on the moves I should know, and they seem reasonably good, although always with room for improvement. Throughout the day I’m taking the advice so often shared among those of us who have done belt tests before, and that is first and foremost to drink lots of water throughout the day. But that’s just regarding this evening. Overall, I’ve noticed a number of physical benefits from my months of kempo. I can do at least a few pushups now, and when I first started the idea of me doing pushups was solely useful for entertainment value. I have endurance when it comes to running — even though I hadn’t gone on a run in nearly a year, when I did so a month or so ago I was able to jog a 5K without stopping or even being overly fatigued. I believe I am more a bit more agile than before. My feet are finally figuring out why step dragging makes sense, and I occasionally twist around to catch objects, reach for items, etc., in a way that may not sound like a big deal, but is still sort of cool.
For this, I have to thank Sensei Chris Santillo, Sensei Cassie Frost, Senpai Charles Murphy, assorted other occasional instructors, innumerable sparring partners, and last but not least, my mom. I appreciate all of the cooperation you’ve provided to make the struggle possible.
So I suppose that’s a snapshot of where I am with kempo at this point. Tonight, if all goes well, I’ll earn a change of uniform, as my current orange belt means I wear a white uniform, but as a purple belt I will wear a black one signifying having reached the lofty point of not being entirely being clueless. Between there and there I’ll have the chance to demonstrate the moves I can do. And of course, there will be burpees. Oh yes, there will be burpees. Yay!