First off let me say I hate when people say “the old days” a lot in teaching or sit and tell tall tales of how the old days were better/harder/more of something….anything than it is today. If your Karate is not enough of a challenge you have two things to look at…is the instructor going easy on you or not know what they are doing…or more to the point, am I actually trying as hard as I can?
Most of the issues with today’s training can be boiled down to two things, not enough training…not training hard enough personally. If you can’t figure out how to make a whole hour of stepping punch hard for you and a personal training high….then its you not the instructor that needs a good mental looking at! I remember classes were all we did was reverse punch for a full hour in Zenkutsu and I can tell you I still have nightmares about how hard that class was!
What I want to show is how the class structure has changed from old classes over the years and what we can do as a Karate-nation to bring them back…if your classes are set up differently now that is. The fact is that Karate has not changed in structure and function in over 300 years, hell maybe longer depending on your belief system! However….How we teach it has changed a lot over the years and this is a bit of a break down and hopefully some ideas on how to get back to the old ways.
First off the classes started on time…but work outs started long before the class started. Sensei would post the official class time as say 5pm, but the Dojo would begin to fill up about 30-45 minutes before that. Everyone would change out and start their warm up routine and get a good sweat on.
Everyone had a personal set of things they did habitually, most did Kata, stretched, did some work on technical things like recoil in Mae Geri or Hikite in Gyaku zuki or Jun kaiden with hip control ext. You had people stretching on the back were the “Dance bar” was (a great idea sensei took from a dancer he had train with him), you had people working in front of the small mirror we had, punching the Makiwara and the punching bag (whenever it was not broken or torn to bits) and people working with the big “bat” that sensei had (Essentially a long bat that was used to strengthen with. We had a body frame machine used to do sit ups on and lots of people just stretching and working out on the floor.
Time before class was seen as the warm up time and time to do Hojo undo (body conditioning or calisthenics). We never had people showing up 2 minutes before a class started and I remember the odd occasion that someone was late, they would suffer for it by being put with the seniors that would show them how disrespectful it was to be late…and no one…ever was late often. We used to say if you were not there to warm up 10 minutes before class MINIMUM you were late.
Sensei would call us to line up right on the nose…or just before the start of class was posted. So if we started class at 5pm you were darn sure in line bowing in about 4:55 or dead on. The line up was simple, he called “Shugo” and we rushed…..and I mean rushed into line. Seniors sat in the front closest to the door and Sensei would stand watching as we lined up. Then he would turn and sit, the order was given and we joined him in sitting down. Quick Mokuso and then a bow, Sensei pointed at a senior and we did the Junbi Undo or warm up.
The Warm up was fast, not a long drawn out stretching work out akin to Yoga. That kind of fooling around would not have been accepted by Sensei. Pushups, squats, big stretches and we never missed the Front stance stretch and side stance stretch or butterflies. The three exercises that made up the core of the work was always those stretches but every senior did something different to warm us up and it only took about 5 minutes, that’s all. Anything more and Sensei began to pace and that was never good!
Some seniors did 5 minutes of hard callisthenic type work outs, others had us moving around doing big swinging motions and rotations of the torso like an old aerobics video…of which I am sure they watched and thought “Darn that will be fun”.
The Warm up was a position or job with prestige, if Sensei liked your warm up you did it often, if he was not a fan you were kind of thrown to the back of the choices and would not do them often. One particular senior did these crazy warm ups that most of us hated with duck walks and strange movement skills and did them as if he was teaching the class. You could tell Sensei was not a fan because that guy only did them when there was no other choice for warm ups in class. Often I would do a bit of the warm up then go and talk to Sensei and do my own stretching, as a senior I had that option but everyone else was forced to do the weird warm up.
Often Sensei would not even have warm ups, in fact in the old days when I started we never did them. He felt that if you were at class before and you did the pre class rituals and such you were warm enough and it was down to business. At some point in the distant past he started initiating this warm up ritual and we just kind of kept doing them. Often you will see old school teachers just teach right off the hop and slowly warm up the class with Kihon or Kata training and some seminars have no extra time and you find instructors not warming up classes and just going slow in the start of class. This is more common than not actually.
Kihon and Taiso Dosa or basics and exercises were the first thing we did in class. The class started every time with some kind of Kihon work, lots of times it meant 20-30 minutes nonstop of basic work in a line Kiai every time. This was the start of a grueling work out. Sensei demanded that you go the hardest you could and that you pushed yourself to do your very best. Not everyone was physically gifted or young, the class had older people, young athletes, people in fantastic shape and those trying to get into shape. But, everyone busted their asses trying to push themselves to do their best.
We did exercises like leg pulls (think of Over chambering the leg) partner work, drills, games of “tag” and such but everything went into building stronger, faster and sharper basics. We did our basics in lines, circles, against the wall, moving, stationary, with partners very far away and really close but we used to do so many exercises and worked on basics from every angle. And the whole time Sensei would be walking around with his Shinai and your ankles tasted its violent snap if you were not moving quick or if you were not working hard in class.
Often the work outs had set reps of things and followed with a callisthenic, like you would do 10 front kicks with a reverse punch each side then the dreaded “10-10 and 10” or ten push-ups, ten sit ups and ten squat kicks. Does not sound at all hard right…10-10-10…so what its 30 reps of different things! It’s not like you had to do 100 push-ups….oh, wait…did I mention it was done with 10 sets of each…meaning 100 Right front kick reverse punch, 100 Left front kick reverse punch, 100 push-ups, 100 sit ups and 100 Squat kicks…..and that was still part of the warm up!
Sensei would then get into the meat and potatoes of the class. He would focus on one of the three K’s for the class and basically we were already working on what he wanted to do in the Taiso Dosa training. If we were working on a specific Kihon like Mawashi Geri or Jun Kaiden ext, we would just smoothly transition into that work and keep going for the class. But if we changed to Kata then he would work on weak points with students in the Kata. First he would tweak the class and walk around with everyone doing a specific Kata like Heian Yondan. He would count and walk around while we held a position so he could make corrections. He would show us what we had to do once then count and get us to set up the move, sometimes we did the same move 20-60 times till he was happy , then we could move on.
If he was working Kumite, which I have to say was kind of rare, we would find partners and we never ever used safety gear, it was just kind of not something we did. You would rotate through and he would tell us what we were doing and then we were off. He would walk around and give tips, but the seniors drove the juniors and no counting unless it was at the start of Sanbon Kumite.
He would be busy fixing issues and giving tips and often spending time showing how to properly find angles or snapping you with a shinai to get you moving but the class was very focused and quiet. And NO ONE talked…ever! The one time a senior started teaching his partner Sensei smacked him over the head with the shinai and told him “Less talking more showing” and embarrassed the hell out of that guy!
It did not matter what the focus for the class was the whole Dojo was focused and by the end of the classes hour (often hour and a half) we were all soaked and tired, the kind of tired that a great work out produces. And not once did we stop for water or to stretch out unless Sensei was going to move us to another drill or something. We just went at it and gave our all. Slackers were just not present, if you did not give it your all you were not expected to last very long and most did not.
If you showed you had ego in class, you were beat on and taken out. If you hit someone with out “permission” you were beat on, if you were dangerous to work with because you were sloppy or did not pay attention…well you got beat on. Now saying that the beating you got was not physical violence really it was being pushed really hard to the point that you were going to pass out or puke, and often everyone in the dojo was suffering the same lesson…but we all knew who it was aimed at.
Sensei had a way of weeding out lazy and silly people and if you were not serious about Karate you were punished with classes that would break you, and if you learned and came back to work hard it was a sign of growth, but most that were targeted by this kind of training just faded away. Those of us that stuck around were sure that our ranks were worthy of at least what they were supposed to represent.
Most classes just kind of ended. You found yourself dragging your butt into line after being punished and beat down and prayed that you could sit still and not fall over during the end part of class, but often Sensei would stop class about 3 minutes before we lined up and he did Seiri Undo, or cooling off exercises. Sensei tended to go all Zen at this point and have us do big stretching and breathing, normally raising our arms up so after big work out we could fill our lungs, but this was not easy as you were so tired that you simply could not raise your arms.
The cooling down was still mostly left up to us for after class stretching but most students rushed out the door to grab a shower or towel off and get into street clothing to run out for the bus or drive home. Not a single person that was in class had a lot of energy left and I remember in the 90’s a lot of power bars, goopy sugar gels and power drinks were consumed just to get your blood sugars back up.
For those of us who stuck around after class we got to stretch out and do some work with Sensei and God forbid he grabbed you for Kumite. I know of a few times I was so tired that my body was shutting down on me, I was goofy with dehydration and then had the task of defending myself against his attacks, which were not held back. More times than not he however would get you to do Kata and your body, still tired, was beat on by the Shinai to ensure you were doing the moves right.
You almost always left class with that light feeling, the one were you could not possibly do another rep of just about anything and you were fairly sure even everyday tasks would be fairly impossible to perform if called upon. You were both heavy as a brick and light as a feather.
The classes were different back then as were the typical student. We did not do sport Karate at the JKA nor did we shy away from it. The tough classes we do now adays were the laid back versions of the classes done on Albert street in the torture room of a Dojo. The summers saw the walls weep with perspiration and the winters were so hard on cold tendons and steam would literally come off of you when you left the Dojo for hours.
I remember more than one class first sitting on the floor, then laying on my back wondering if I was going to pass out or if I could muster the energy to get up and go to the change room and put on my street clothing. The cold water that I would splash on my face did nothing to cool me off but it felt amazing to do this, and often I would start with my face then splash it on my chest and neck to try and get some kind of energy back.
I often find myself longing for the old style classes, but realize that my body probably is not able to do them anymore now that I am much older than when I first started. But I try and give a bit of that back to my students and I also try to push myself to get that kind of training in whenever I can, if not at a modified level.
Before I close this out I want to be clear. The old days training had its faults as well. Lots of lose teeth, bruised faces and limbs twisted fingers, snapped tendons and most of us old timers have battle scars from the old days and some of us limp a bit. Now you can say it’s the fact of getting older but the truth is that the brutal old classes may have been fun but they also left their mark on us.
As instructors we need to heed Sensei’s words and explanation. He once told me that classes were like that because we did not know any better. We did not have fitness guru’s and nutritional gurus to follow who would make us better without beating each other up and now a days the Dojo is a more family centered place so we can’t do this kind of harsh training and keep the doors open. People are different and in some ways training is much smarter. But I think it could use a look back before we move forwards.