When I was a kid, my parents made it clear that I was always going to be involved with some sort of sport. I worked my way with increasing fumbling through baseball and soccer, somehow managing to fail hard enough at each one that I was able to opt out eventually. I did swim team for awhile, and wasn’t terrible at it, but the one that eventually stuck was martial arts.
From about 15 to about 30, I headed from Pleasanton (and later from wherever in the California Bay Area I was living) to Livermore on Tuesdays and Thursdays for my lessons with the Warrens at Livermore Kenpo Karate. My friend and I chose Kenpo as opposed to any of the martial arts within biking distance of our houses because in the book my friend had, the people doing Kenpo got to wear black uniforms, which in our minds made them the closest we were gonna get to ninjas.
It turned out that at Livermore Kenpo Karate, you didn’t get to wear a black uniform until you were a brown belt, but we decided grudgingly to give it a shot anyway.
Livermore Kenpo Karate was specifically an offshoot of Tracey Kenpo, which itself was an offshoot of American Kenpo (Ed Parker’s Kenpo), which in turn goes back to Hawai’i and then both to China and Japan. The style the school taught wasn’t particularly flashy — the joke was that the only time you kicked someone in the head is if you’d kicked them in the groin first to bend them over. On the rare occasions when someone would come to the school with a chip on their shoulder looking to challenge them, my teachers would invite them to warm up first, and then do push-ups until the challenger gave up.
I ended up sticking with Kenpo as the thing I did to stay in shape and healthy. My parents said that that was when they saw me suddenly start walking with confidence, although I never ended up in a fight. Part of it was the imagined practicality, where I wasn’t just lifting weights or biking — I was preparing for if I ever got attacked. (Spoiler: I never got attacked.) Part of it was how much I loved imagining fight scenes in my mind, and training with katas and techniques as “beating up imaginary bad guys.” Part of it was the fact that it wasn’t a team sport.
I tried to keep up my training when I moved to Canada, but it turns out that when you’re renting a house, you don’t get a lot of inside room to do katas, and when you live in Canada, there are at least six months of the year where it is challenging to do a bunch of katas outside unless you’re really excited about learning to do Staff Set in the snow or on a ice-covered sidewalk. I was also a new parent, and being a new parent in a country a couple thousand miles from your parents means that you’ve got to spend a lot of time doing parent stuff.
I stayed in semi-decent shape with stationary biking and elliptical machines, though, at least until late 2016, where unnamed political events in the United States broke me from my diet. I subsequently took 2017 through mid-2022 as Cheat Years as far as diet and exercise were concerned, until my doctor told me that my health was suffering.
When I decided to unscrew my health, I thought about what I wanted to do — more biking and weights? I’d done those off and on, and they’re not awful by any means, but they don’t grab me. Then I remembered that Kenpo was the one form of exercise that did grab me, and it was what I did when I was in the best shape of my life. I dug out the old materials, emailed my instructors back in California (the school itself is gone, but they’re still teaching in a different part of the state now), and went to work.
Something I found funny was that when I shared this with my partner and my parents, all three of them independently said something like, “Oh, good call. Kenpo really works for you, because it uses your brain as much as your body.” I had 100% never thought of it like that when I practiced as a teenager, but memorizing around two hundred techniques and twenty katas takes a ton of focus and mental work in addition to all the physical demands. I practiced Kata Number 4 in my high-school chemistry room at lunchtime, and Stance Set in the gym at church. (Stance Set was the one I could do in the church gym because it didn’t have any strikes.) When I’m on the stationary bike, I am usually watching television or playing a video game to distract myself from the fact that I’m exercising. When I’m in a zone doing Kenpo, though, I’m focused entirely on the moves I’m doing. Is my stance correct, and when exactly do I shift it to get more power into my next strike? What series of moves do I do when I’m done with this section? How’s my breathing? Where would the bad guy be standing right now? How close am I to the wall? It gets my brain out of work/life/my current novel and into my body in a way that very few other things do.
As of writing this, I’ve gotten back up to 1st-degree Black Belt* material, doing one belt each week, and I’m excited to keep going and get stuff cleaner. I’ve been interested in talking about it, now that I’m looking back at the material a little older, but I didn’t post anything before, because it would have been pretty awkward to make one post about getting back into it and then let it fizzle out again. I don’t feel like I’m going to fizzle, though, so maybe this website will end up being used for something.
* I do not want to make a big deal about my belt rank**. Unless you’re in a style with strict principles everywhere it’s taught, your belt or sash or whatever only really means anything at the school where you’re practicing. A green belt at one school might only have the coordination and skill of an orange belt at another school, and neither of them will know any of the moves that even a yellow sash learns in a school with a different style. I’m training to feel more comfortable in and with my body again, not to compete in a UFC match, so for me, this is somewhere between exercise and meditation, something to make me feel better about myself, not something to declare that I can beat up anybody of power rank X or lower.
** Okay, for reals, I totally want to make a big deal about my belt rank, but also, that way lies dickery.