My Karate journey
by Víctor López Bondía (2013)

Like many others, I started Karate at a young age. Not as a little child though, but as a 13-year-old teenager. As funny as it seemed some time later, I remember I had a bit of a complex about being a white belt while fellow students who were around my age were blue or even brown belts, and even little kids who had been practicing for some time wore colorful belts around their waists. However, I had a lot of enthusiasm from day one, and I was determined to catch up soon enough. Taking up Karate was my decision, it wasn't my parents who dragged me to the local Karate club to do some out-of-school activity, and even though I obviously knew very little about Karate at the time (actually all I knew about it probably came from "The Karate Kid" and Jean-Claude Van-Damme's movies), for some reason I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Being skinny and wearing glasses, I probably wanted to overcome the figure of the nerd I was and I thought that learning Karate could prove to be the best way to do it.

There's a funny story here: I bought and read my first Karate book a couple of weeks before taking my first lesson in October 1995. It was a book on Goju-Ryu by Tamano Toshio. Reading the book I got the idea that Higashionna Kanryo was more or less "the founder of Karate", so when I joined the local Karate club where I started (which was a Shotokan club by the way) and I found there a big picture of an old Japanese master with a beard, I was convinced it was a portrait of Higashionna Kanryo Sensei... It turned out to be a picture of Aikido's founder, Ueshiba Morihei Sensei, since the club used to host Aikido classes as well.

I was eager to train and learn, and really enjoyed the lessons right from the outset. Kids' classes took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the four days between the latest Thursday class and the next Tuesday class always seemed a long wait. Thankfully, as I was already a teenager, after a few months I was invited to join the junior class on Fridays too, and so I got to upgrade my training schedule to three times a week. I never missed a class, and by 'never' I mean NEVER. I would even give up on leaving town on holidays in July in order to be able to attend my Karate classes.

I was never a one-off or a natural talent whatsoever, but I learnt and improved fast in the first stages, which are of course the easiest ones. You never feel improvement better than when you are moving from 'nothing' to 'something', even if that 'something' is not 'much'.

After a couple of years I once again upgraded my training schedule, and started to train five times a week, from Monday to Friday. Junior and senior classes took place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and anyone who wished to do some extra training was allowed to use the tatami for individual practice once the children classes were over on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When I was 16 years old, I read Funakoshi Gichin's autobiography, "Karate-do: My Way of Life", for the very first time. The book made a big impression on me, and I remember feeling overwhelmed and closing it halfway through the reading to stop to ponder for a moment and think to myself "is this the same thing I'm doing?" I was reading about a man who had devoted his life to Karate, while to me, regardless of how much I enjoyed it, Karate was just... a hobby.
The book became my favourite one and I would read it many more times in the years to come. I would always discover something 'new' in its pages, and found value in Funakoshi Sensei's example and teachings; but when he talked about the way he learnt Karate from his teachers on Okinawa, I couldn't really relate that to the way I was learning. No big deal actually, everybody knows things change throughout history and I just thought that Karate was no longer learnt and practiced that way. For example, Funakoshi Sensei talked about the makiwara. To begin with you could not find such a tool in modern clubs, and whenever somebody brought up the term in conversations the seniors were quick to point out that it was an obsolete tool, no longer necessary, and even harmful to your hands. The stories of Japanese instructors with calluses on their knuckles and the fact that nobody seemed to actually have and use one regularly reinforced this idea. Reading about history was OK to learn about the past and get some inspiration, but students were not supposed to be interested in practicing "cavemen's Karate".

Once I became a brown belt I stopped looking forward to the next grading. At 13, I felt "too old" to be a beginner, but at 16 I thought I had finally caught up: I felt my kihon was OK, not perfect, of course, but good enough for someone with short experience; I knew my kata quite well; I could kick high; and I was a 16-year-old brown belt, which was all right since you could not test for shodan (1st degree black belt) before 16, so I was just a few months behind the youngest dan grades. Furthermore, at that point I already understood that skill and knowledge was important, a length of cloth around your waist wasn't. So when I got my first degree black belt a year later, in December 1999, I was happy, but not that excited. I knew I had been training to the best of my ability for the last four years, my skill and physical fitness had improved as a result, and that was all that mattered, a piece of paper and a new belt didn't really add much to that.

seiza
(c2005)

I also took part in some competitions during my teens. I never really stood out. I was an average competitor who was rather dispassionate about it, as I'm not a competitive person. When I was there on the competition mat, I tried to do my best, but I wasn't concerned with the result as I wasn't training to become a champion. Others found their motivation in competition, I didn't. I was training because I enjoyed it, and all I wanted was to become a well-rounded karateka; being considered better or worse than others didn't really matter. I've always thought that the fact that others can do something better than you doesn't make you 'bad', and in the same way the fact that others do it worse doesn't make you 'good' either. I was (and I am) interested in improving myself, not in comparing myself to others (unless it is to learn from them). Some might say this is "loser's mentality", and they might be right, but I would argue that if 'winning' and being 'the best' is all that matters, we'd better brace ourselves for failure and frustration as only a handful of people can become 'World Champion' and absolutely no one can hold that title forever. I didn't believe in training for competition either; I didn't like things like training harder just because there was a competition around the corner or just training the things you were going to be doing in the event. My philosophy (more in line with Budo) was "train as much and as best as you can so whenever the test comes you'll be naturally ready". Anyway, at 18 I didn't see the point anymore and I just stopped competing.

yoko-geri
(c2005)

I kept training Karate every business day, and I ran or lifted some weights on the weekends and whenever the club was closed for holidays. I also attended seminars with renowned instructors and read virtually all Karate books available in Spanish. However, I stopped improving, or at least that's how I felt. In fact, a couple of years went by since I got my shodan, and I didn't consider going for nidan. "Why would I test for nidan if I don't feel I'm any better than I was when I tested for shodan?", I thought.

In time I realized grades meant very little and I didn't need them. I saw people around me whose training was based on rehearsing the routine they would perform at their forthcoming grading, disregarding everything else, and they would only train hard a few weeks before the test, and then relax or even stop training altogether once the test was over. I couldn't help wondering why they wanted to become a higher grade and if they had learnt anything and/or improved as a result? On the other hand, the judges were very indulgent and they would normally pass 99% of the applicants, which made me think that one didn't have to earn his grade any more, just buy it. I didn't agree with any of this so I decided I wouldn't take any more gradings and I'd just stay shodan forever. I happen to still hold this same opinion nowadays: Grades in Karate are, at best, useless.

Dogi - Obi
I wanted something meaningful embroidered on my belt so I ordered "Karate ni Sente Nashi" rather than "Shotokan Karate-do".

I did not want any certificates, I did want to improve though; but I wasn't improving, despite all the training. This was starting to become a bit frustrating, but I knew progress in Karate required patience and many years of practice, so I just kept training.

When I started to have access to a larger amount of information thanks to the Internet and reading Karate books in English, I started to discover facts I didn't know, and also new ideas and points of view. In 2006 I created the website 'shotokankaratedo.es', where I sorted and exposed the information I was gathering and also published my translations of many articles I had found interesting and useful. The pieces started to fall into place and I gradually began to better understand and also seriously question what I had been doing up to that point.

I was young and I had been training hard in Karate for over a decade, but I wasn't confident that I could handle myself in a physical confrontation. I had to believe kicks and punches would work as long as they were delivered with speed and power, but trusting those blocks against real attacks required too much faith. I started to realize that far too many things were a matter of having faith: "if I'm fast and strong enough, techniques will work", "if I do endless repetitions of kata, their meaning will reveal itself", and so on. And many things just didn't make much sense: Why placing so much emphasis on kata while the applications of their techniques were never compellingly explained nor practiced? Why were some kata considered very important while others were barely taught and practiced? Why did beginners and seniors train the same way? Why were kata and kumite so different from each other? Why having Funakoshi Sensei's portrait hanging on the wall while his teachings were totally disregarded?

Nobody seemed to have or need answers to these questions, and thinking out of the box wasn't something instructors appreciated.
Thanks to my research I managed to eventually find answers to most of my questions, and the conclusion was that the kind of Karate I had been practicing was not the martial art it was supposed to be but a modern Japanese sport disguised as a martial art which had lost much of its original intent and many of its early practices.

shuto-uke
(c2008)

Once I realized this, I couldn't keep practicing the way I had been doing it, since that was no longer fulfilling. I had to try to train in a more meaningful way. I had to start to not only practice my kata but also analyze them, thinking of function rather than form. Not understanding the kata meant not understanding Karate so bunkai could not be ignored and neglected as it was in modern Karate. I had to introduce hojo undo into my practice too, as it was now crystal clear that just training in thin air would not help me develop the strength and ability needed to make techniques work. I was convinced I had to get back to the origins in order to improve.
Unfortunately, this meant detaching from mainstream Shotokan, so I had to make a very difficult decision and leave my lifelong club, the place which had seen me grow as a karateka up to that point and that which had been a second home to me for over 14 years.

And that was how in December 2009 I became a 'ronin' and started to train by myself, at home. In the beginning I started to use a small room at my grandparent's flat which had been turned into a home gym, but I soon realized that I needed more space for Karate so I started to use the terrace as my "dojo" in the absence of a better space. It took some time to get used to this. I was used to training under a roof and the idea of training out in the open seemed quite eccentric. It was quite useful to remember Funakoshi Sensei's words "any place can be a dojo" and imagine his early training at the courtyard of Azato Sensei's house. I also discarded the dogi. It is funny because I used to think that training without a dogi was not serious; but at that point I already understood that it was not your uniform but your attitude what made your practice serious. Again, it was useful to remember that Karate wasn't always practiced in a dogi on Okinawa. Now I only use the dogi in formal training with other people, and I find it rather uncomfortable.

Home-dojo
Training in my first "home dojo": a small room at my grandparent's flat.
(2010)

I never considered joining another club. I knew how Karate was being taught in modern clubs and, honestly, I wasn't willing to commute daily to a faraway place just to be drilled in basic techniques and carry on with the same shallow practices which no longer helped me improve. If I felt like doing this, just perform many repetitions of techniques and kata I had been doing for years, I could just do it on my own, I didn't really need anyone leading my training if all they did was just counting out loud and not providing further insight. In short, I knew I wouldn't find authentic Karate-do in a modern club, so there was no point in seeking out one.

I didn't plan to give up on Shotokan; I had been doing it for many years and I was fond of it. I just wanted to get to understand Karate and practice it in a more meaningful way. To do this, I needed to borrow from classical Karate though, since modern Karate didn't seem to have the answers.

As far as I knew there was only one person practicing classical Karate and teaching a few students in my area. This happened to be an old friend of mine who was also a former Shotokan practitioner, and I did have the opportunity to experience a bit of Uechi-Ryu Karate under him a couple of hours a week between February and June 2010. It was my first time practicing another style and I found it very very different from Shotokan, and extremely difficult! I was helpless trying to move and stand that way and I once again felt like a white belt. On the other hand, striking with the thumb and the big toe is not something any karateka can do all at once. It was very interesting, I learnt quite a few things, and I was obviously not even scratching the surface, but I was going through a period of transition with huge changes in my Karate and at that time I wasn't ready to leave all my previous experience behind and just devote myself to practicing Uechi-Ryu.

I got my copy of Michael Clarke's book "The Art of Hojo Undo" around that time. It came in timely. I have mentioned how modern practices in thin air had made me grow very unconfident of my techniques. When I found out about hojo undo I was excited to have found what I thought was the 'missing link', a major piece of the puzzle, the answer to how to keep improving and develop the ability required to make techniques work. It is funny that the increasingly popular "functional training" we now find in modern fitness and sports science has been part of Karate since ancient times. It's a shame though that this essential aspect of Okinawan Karate was abandoned in some circles to the point that the majority of modern practitioners hadn't even heard about it. I needed to learn how to make the tools and how to use them, and I had never learnt anything about it as a Shotokan student, so Michael Clarke's book was very useful. Among the wealth of information provided in the book, there were some references to "Richard Barrett's private dojo in Almeria (Spain)" which didn't go unnoticed. This person seemed to be a very experienced karateka, living in my own country, and yet I had never heard anything about him before...

Terrace Dojo
My "Terrace Dojo"

Some months later I started to correspond with Clarke Sensei since I wrote to him in order to ask for his permission to translate some of his articles for my website. I introduced myself and explained a little about my background and current situation and he said that if I was ever keen to sample authentic Okinawan Karate training, without the expense of going to Okinawa, his close friend Richard Barrett might be happy to help me find some sense of direction in my Karate.

I made contact with Mr. Barrett and he agreed to meet me and introduce me to his Karate so I drove down to Almeria on September 30th 2011. Barrett Sensei showed me his dojo, the Shinsokan, and then we had a pleasant conversation where I could further explain my background in Karate and what I was looking for. The next day we carried out several training sessions starting with a comprehensive introduction to the junbi undo exercises which took one hour and a half. Sensei also checked my Sanchin which must have been really terrible at the time and it indeed brought about more than a few strange looks from Sensei. We had a break and I helped Sensei with the work he had undertaken at the back of his house: digging out a cave which would become his new dojo. The next training session focused on working with the traditional tools and the last one covered kata. I had some tools at home and I knew the pattern of a few Goju-Ryu kata, but I had very little experience in Goju-Ryu and the little I knew I never learnt it properly and was quite underdeveloped, so that first experience training with Barrett Sensei felt like starting from scratch. Something I wasn't unfamiliar with was zenkutsu-dachi stance, which is one of the main stances in Shotokan. At some point Barrett Sensei placed his hands on my hips and pushed me off the floor and against the wall. Sensei explained the difference between having a stance on the floor and in the floor and I realized my stance may have looked correct but was just a dead pose. Once the training was over, I thanked Sensei for his time and hospitality and we said goodbye. I drove back home with a lot of things to think about and a big smile on my face, I knew how fortunate I was to have been able to train in a real dojo with an authentic karateka, one of those I thought were extinct.

Barrett Sensei said he thought I needed to pick one school of Karate to study and then stick with it. He implied he would have no problem in providing guidance should I choose to continue with Goju-Ryu. At this point I was ready to move on and the decision wasn't that hard to make. I had found authentic Karate and had been given the opportunity to learn it properly from a knowledgeable teacher; wasn't that all I had been aiming for ever since I started to drift away from modern Karate? Yes, it was. From that point on I started to focus on just Goju-Ryu. I could have kept practicing Shotokan as well, but I didn't really feel the need. Goju-Ryu presented more than enough avenues of study, Shotokan was no longer fulfilling, and the only thing holding me back would have been my attachment to something I had been doing for a long time.

In Goju-Ryu Karate as it is practiced and taught by Barrett Sensei I found a complete and well-balanced system where all the aspects of training are connected and enhance each other. We are expected to not just train and sweat but to engage our minds and study what we are doing, always asking "why". We strive hard to better understand our kata and our Karate, and everything is put to the test in order to check whether it works. We try to achieve efficiency of movement and effective techniques, and we are concerned about how a technique feels as opposed to how it looks. We attempt to preserve tradition by walking in the footsteps of the founder and his peers rather than just worshipping them and pay lip service to what they taught.

Some modern Karate instructors claimed that old Okinawan Karate was crude and unrefined, and that was the reason why modern Karate looked so different, "now we know better". I've found the exact opposite to be true. Classical Karate is in no way easier nor less developed than modern Karate, it has a lot of depth and it relies upon well-established theories and principles. In fact, I think that Karate was not improved but diluted once it left its home island.

I have to say that there's nothing wrong in modern Karate, and you can enjoy it as much as any other sport or recreational activity. But you need to know what you are doing and be honest with yourself. The problem is that they try to sell it as something it is not, and this eventually leads to a lot of confusion, disappointment and frustration.

Budo Karate and sports Karate have different goals, principles and training methods, and more often than not they clash with each other, so pursuing both isn't really possible.

Most people involved in modern Karate mistakenly think they are practicing an actual martial art, and many even believe what they are doing is somehow "traditional"! Some don't even try to prove what they do is the real deal and just advocate that people are no longer warriors who need to fight on a daily basis so Karate doesn't really need to be effective anymore and these days martial arts should serve another purpose, like providing its practitioners an opportunity to have fun and leave the stress of their busy lives behind for a little while... I don't understand why people who think this way bother with Karate instead of just going to the pub?
Karate needs to be a martial art, an effective method of self-defence, because that's what it was meant to be, that's its reason for living. If we remove this from the equation, then it doesn't make much sense and one has to wonder what the difference is between Karate and dancing or floor gymnastics - actually, we could tell there isn't much of a difference judging by what we see in tournaments. A car without an engine under its bonnet may look the same but, is it of any use? Is it still a car once it has lost its ability to serve its purpose?

Training with ishi-sashi - Shinsokan Dojo - 2012
Training in Barrett Sensei's Shinsokan Dojo.
(December 9th 2012)

On the other hand, I've discovered something else in Okinawan Karate beyond the physical practice and new training methods, and that is how to take Karate out of the dojo and into your daily life. We always hear that Karate is "a way of life" that can "develop our character" and make you a better person... Big words that sound really good and make for great slogans, but how exactly do you achieve this? Just through hard physical training? If hard physical training is all it takes, then any physical activity would do? Is training in Karate, or any other martial art for that matter, harder or more difficult than training to run a marathon, climb the Everest, cycle at the Tour of France or take part in any event of the Olympic Games? Is Karate something special? If so, what makes it special?
No, physical training, regardless of how hard it is, is not enough, and we only have to look at all those many practitioners who after many years of training show character traits and behaviours which leave a lot to be desired. I clearly remember telling Barrett Sensei on the day we met that when I started to practice Karate I used to look up on all the high dan grades, naively thinking that they were not only strong and capable of defending themselves but also special people, role models. But in time I realized they were just ordinary people who happened to practice Karate - well, some didn't even practice themselves, just "taught"! Barrett Sensei was quick to point out that just because they didn't encapsulate the values of Karate this didn't mean Karate didn't have those values.
Now I understand that in order to actually develop your character through the practice of Karate-do you need to pursue this as actively as you pursue the perfection of technique. The sensei has to point out the flaws they see in your personality and make you face your true nature so you can make the adjustments needed to hone it; if you are willing to improve, of course. This isn't pleasant, and you feel like you are not good enough, constantly failing, letting yourself down, but this is the way to improve and nobody said it was going to be easy. Of course Budo is not the only way to get to know yourself better; philosophy, or anything else involving some degree of introspection which makes you reflect on life will serve the same purpose. Karate-do is just another tool we karateka have at our disposal, and doesn't it stand to reason that we try to make the most of it?

I am approaching two decades of Karate training, and I'm nothing more than a beginner. I have a myriad of things ahead and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to go past the superficial layers and reach deeper levels of understanding, but I'm determined to prove myself that I'm not the kind of person who gives up. I do Karate for me and only aspire to carry on with my daily practice, do my best, and see what happens. Hopefully, my Karate practice will help me improve both my health and my personality, and my life will be enhanced as a result.

Víctor López Bondía
July 2013

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”