Green Belt is a belt that feels simultaneously cool and weird.

It feels cool for a lot of reason. Remember how for Blue Belt, I said that the techniques get longer? That trend continues! Some of them are short, while others go up to ten moves. And the moves themselves are assuming even more coordination and complexity, along with an ability to do precision striking. There are a lot of eye strikes (done with either the index finger, the thumb, or four fingers held in a position like you’re ordering four drinks stiffly) and key strikes (make a fist and then move your middle finger up so that the fingernail is resting on the pad of the thumb, so you hit with just one knuckle of that finger), and while we had those in earlier belts, they were either grace notes (coming after you’ve reliably done more “I am elbowing you in the face, and no matter how tough you are, elbowing you in the face is reliably going to leave you a little staggered” moves) or safer/redundant strikes (where we actually did one with each hand simultaneously, dramatically increasing the chances of at least one connecting and really ruining your attacker’s day). Now, though, those eye strikes are coming by themselves. At Green Belt, there’s an assumption that you’re going to hit those eye strikes in the right area, and if your attacker is wearing goggles or something, well, you should be doing a different technique.

The weird part was one that took me a while to work out, because the techniques felt harder, but I couldn’t put my finger on why for a long time. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that while we’re mostly doing the same types of strikes and blocks, we are in many cases doing them from different stances than the ones we used in earlier belts. Like those eye strikes, for example. If we had a four-finger eye strike in a technique at Blue Belt, odds were pretty good that we were stepping in toward our attacker, so that we could put our waist into it.

At Green Belt, though, we are just as often throwing that eye strike from the front hand of a fighting stance. If you watch American or Canadian football, you’ve probably seen a quarterback under pressure, trying to throw off his back foot. This often leads to interceptions or at least embarrassing highlight footage, because the quarterback’s balance is all off — he’s used to turning his waist as he throws, and shifting his weight from his back foot to his front, and now he might as well be throwing a big egg-shaped dart.

Throwing strikes without the weight shifting we’ve gotten so good at is a little like that. They key difference is that while the quarterback is doing it because his offensive line has collapsed and he’s trying not to get sacked, we’re doing it at Green Belt on purpose, because at Green Belt, we are trying to learn to trust the strikes more, and to get power from new places.

I don’t know if that makes sense, so to possibly overexplain:

When I first learned Green Belt, one of my least favorite techniques was Key to Darkness. It just failed to make sense to me. We were doing weird stance shifts, it felt like we went way too long without clobbering anyone, and then we ended with these weird dinky strikes while still too close to the attacker. I mean, I learned it. I did it. But I also thought it was a weird technique.

At a later belt, one of the requirements was to write a short paper about a technique, analyzing what the technique does, and why. I somewhat spitefully chose Key to Darkness.

And then, several years after having learned the technique, it turned into one of my favorites.

Key to Darkness:
Defends against: Left punch, left leg forward, from the front.


  • Step forward and left into a forward bow, right leg back, and do a right vertical outward block.
  • Shift into reverse bow, left side palm strike to the attacker’s head.
  • Shift into square horse, right inverted key strike to attacker’s solar plexus.
  • Left four-finger eye strike (to, you know, attacker’s eyes).

Okay, so while first learning Green Belt, like I said, I was bad at this technique. In the earlier belts, we almost always stepped into either a basic fighting stance as our first move, and then into a bow (which is a stance with one leg straight), and that shift into a bow would get you power on your strikes. This time, we had to go right into the bow, and all that power was going to, what? A block? And then after that, the shift into the reverse bow feels like it takes half an hour, during which I’m imagining the attacker doing more strikes before I can, and after one palm strike to the head, we just finish with a key strike and an eye strike? And then we’re just still standing there? How does this one not get me killed?

Coming back to it years later, I realized how much more sense the technique did when you trusted in your strikes and were better at getting power from different stances.

That forward bow stance isn’t to give you a bunch of power on the block. It’s literally there to move your head ever so slightly farther out of your attacker’s original targeting line. If you phone in your bow stance, then yeah, you are in danger, but if you actually do the stance well, your head ends up at a different angle and distance. (This is especially good because one of the combos taught in almost every style of boxing or punching martial arts is “Left jab, right punch.” If the attacker’s left punch was actually more of a jab, then their big right punch is either going to go at where your head used to be, because your attacker is punching on instinct, meaning it misses just like the first punch; or it’s going to go toward where your head is now, which means the attacker will have to punch across their body with no power and your blocking arm still in the way.)

That side swinging palm strike comes as you shift from a forward bow to a reverse bow, and once you finally do enough leg day to become good at those stances, it can absolutely wreck somebody’s day, even if it’s a left-hand strike and you are, like me, significantly weaker with your left-hand strikes. (My left punches were decent, but anything fancier than that took awhile. My teacher had me break boards with a left chop to build my confidence.) And as an added bonus, shifting stances also means that you’ve gotten your head into a new place, so if your attacker is still trying to recalibrate, you’re a moving target (with your arm still in the way).

And then those two little bits on the end, the key strike and the four-finger eye strike? Okay, so the key strike is actually a bit more powerful than it seems — you’re shifting to a square horse, and you can get a surprising amount of power from that shift. But it’s a key strike. You are literally hitting with one knuckle. The only targets we ever hit with a key strike are the solar plexus, the ulna of a straight arm, and the ribs (where we strike sideways to slot in between individual ribs). And the next strike is an eye strike. There is literally only one possible target for an eye strike.

(Okay, two targets, unless you’re fighting Nick Fury.)

When you hit someone in the body with a strong punch, yes, you want to have the power of your whole body behind it, because that’s the difference between a good punch and a bad punch. But how much body weight do you actually need to put into a single-knuckle precision strike to the solar plexus? How hard do you need to hit your attacker when you are jabbing them in the eye?

To be clear, the answer is still “reasonably hard”. But you can get to “reasonably hard” with speed moves, the quick flicks that move like a boxer’s jab, rather than power moves that strike more slowly but with a ton of power behind them. In fact, putting a ton of power into a move meant to be delivered with speed will at best make it look like you’re that one soprano in the chorus who holds every high note for half a beat too long, and at worst will throw off your aim. There are very few scenarios in which putting all of your power into an eye strike results in you punching through the lab goggles your attacker was wearing and then making his skull explode due to the sheer power of your badassfulness.

And that is what Key to Darkness is trying to teach. We got our head out of the way of the punch and made a follow-up punch harder. We delivered a palm to the head that is going to stagger the opponent (while shifting to a stance that keeps your head moving). And then we hit them with a key strike to the solar plexus, which is going to take a lot of the fight out of them, followed by an eye strike, which should take the rest. (And if it doesn’t, this is still Kenpo, so we have plenty of moves we can go into from here.)

Once you put in the work, the techniques are fun — more fun than the earlier belts, in fact. It’s just that the learning curve is growing.

On the kata side, we get a fun empty-hand kata that is similar to the one we had at Blue Belt, except that now we’re doing each technique on both sides — the right-handed version and the left-handed version.

We also get our first weapon kata, Staff Set. The staff is a great first weapon — it’s one piece, so you’re not forcing a student to learn to do two different weapon movements simultaneously like with a pair of sticks or knives. It’s solid, so you’re not forcing a student to learn how to deal with a flexible weapon like the fricking nunchaku. It’s blunt, so that when the student gets the spin wrong, the most common self-inflicted injury is whacking themselves in the knee — which is an injury that can be treated with an icepack rather than stitches.

And when the student finally gets the moves right, it’s five to six feet of wood whirling around with little whoosh noises. It looks and feels cool.

And let’s be real. If Green Belt is gonna make us learn all these finicky “Okay, here’s a new way to use a stance to generate power, and here’s a body shift you hadn’t thought about, and it’s all counterintuitive and good for character growth,” bits, it had better end up looking cool.