by Keith R.A. DeCandido
In 2004, I turned 35, and it seemed as if the warranty had run out on my body. I was 25 pounds overweight, I had developed a hiatal hernia, and my knees and feet hurt so much that my doctor had to prescribe medication to manage the pain.
I also had done essentially no exercising in my entire life. Certainly not since grade school, when I played on the soccer team. After that, and through to adulthood, my life was the textbook definition of sedentary. By profession, I'm a writer and editor, both of which are jobs that require one to spend a considerable amount of time sitting at a computer. My hobbies include watching baseball, watching television, watching movies—generally from a nice comfortable seat. Physical activity simply never played a role in my life.
That changed five years ago, when my doctor told me in no uncertain terms that the best way to deal with my assorted health issues was to exercise regularly.
The next step was to choose what form this exercise would take. Simply joining a gym was never going to work. In order for me to motivate myself, I would need to be engaged mentally as well as physically. Walking on an elliptical or lifting weights would not provide that.
However, I'd always had an interest in the martial arts, and that would have a practical component beyond simply losing weight. I've always enjoyed watching martial artists at work, always been fascinated by the controlled movements and the elegance, and always thought it would be fun to learn.
My reasons for choosing this dojo were rather prosaic: it is walking distance from where I live. I don't own a car, and proximity to my own shower was an important criterion for choosing a place of exercise.
Studying karate under Shihan Paul has exceeded my expectations. Initially, that is because those expectations were not terrifically high. I mainly wanted somewhere that would aid me in improving my health. And I accomplished that. While my weight is actually the same as it was five years ago, it's mostly muscle, and my body fat ratio is quite low. My blood pressure is better than it's ever been, my knees and feet no longer hurt, and the hiatal hernia's barely a factor anymore.
However, I have gotten so much more out of my experiences as a karateka.
The first day I came to the dojo on 20 September 2004, I wasn't even capable of doing more than one push-up. Every moment I did was a tremendous struggle. In the five years since, I've gone through nine promotions, several Kagami Birakis, and countless kumite classes, but none of those resulted in the sheer bone-weary, sweat-drenched exhaustion of that first class.
But I came back the following week. One of the reasons was Shihan Paul (he was Kyoshi Paul, then). From the start, I noticed that his teaching style was very much geared toward allowing you to work within yourself. He didn't force me to do anything I was unable to do, though he did encourage me (not push—an important distinction) to do the most that I was capable of. I have had many teachers in my life, whether in schools and universities or in my professional life, and Shihan Paul is one of the very finest. His compassion and understanding, his skills at demonstrating and communicating, are superb. He is also a truly fine storyteller, whether giving a Zen lecture after a Thursday class or a toast at a dojo celebration. Stories have always been the greatest teaching tools humanity has, and Shihan Paul uses them to excellent effect.
I freely admit that my own stubborness played a part in keeping me coming back as a white belt. I do not like to fail when I set out to accomplish something. My response to that first class was less, "I can't do this, this will kill me," and more, "I can do better than this."
A third factor that continued to inspire me to return to the dojo week after week is the other students. Initially, the others in the white-belt class provided encouragement. I started the same day as three other students, and in those early days we all pushed each other. Three more students joined the class in December, and again, we pushed each other, helping each other out. Two other fellow white belts from those days remain students at the dojo, both now brown belts, and over the past five years the three of us have continued to inspire each other, and become better karateka together than we would have individually.
Our black belts have also provided daily inspiration. In particular I must single out Senpai Cliff—who still assists Shihan Paul during the adult white-belt classes, and whose guidance was invaluable then and remains so now—and Senpai Gustavo—whose Wednesday classes I have happily attended since they began in 2005.
The black belts also remind me that this promotion is not the destination, but another step on the journey. I look forward to continuing that journey for many years to come.