Saturday, October 29, 2011

Anger, Splits and a Key to the Dojo

At the USAAU National Karate Championships in July, 1975 I was 17-years-old.  My sensei and his sensei had a long discussion about which division I should compete in.  They reasoned that I would do better with a group of my peers - other 17-year-old girls.  They were wrong.

I was only a green belt.  I had been training less than a year.  Some of the girls in this division had been training since pre-school and were black belts.  After getting my butt kicked in kata and kumite I went over to watch the adult women's green belt division.  The competition was much less fierce.  I may have stood a chance there. 

As I walked away I saw something I will never forget.  A teenage girl about my age was doing a complete split and looking very satisfied with herself.  I became furious.  Not only had I not won any medals at all but she could do a split and I couldn't!  I vowed that the next time we met up, I would be doing a split, too.

It took me six months.  In addition to doing endless kata, hitting the heavy bag and makiwara, I stretched and did splits every time I was in the dojo.  And I was in the dojo four nights a week and Saturdays.  By the time I was a brown belt I was doing splits - both ways - and today, 36 years later, I am still doing them.

Anger motivated me.  I was very angry about many things.  Largely, I was unconscious of the exact reasons for my anger, but I felt it in my body and my soul.  The punching bag became the outlet of this angry energy.

One night, after class, I started hitting the heavy bag.  I punched it, I kicked it, I pushed it, then I punched it again.  I saw no one.  I heard no one.  It was only me and the bag and the strikes: front hand punches and back hand punches; elbow strikes; round kicks, side kicks and front kicks.  There was no end to my anger and no end to the energy which was absorbed into that Everlast bag.

All the other students had changed clothes, chatted and left.  I didn't notice.  Sensei tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and I looked at him.  He was dangling a key.  "Lock up when you're done," he said, and left me there with my anger. 

It was a long time before I was too exhausted to continue.  When I got there early the next night the punching bag was waiting for me.  So was the anger.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Five Years Have Passed Since Sensei Pantanovitz Left this World

Today was the yahrtzeit - the anniversary of the death of - Sensei Leon (Yehuda) Pantonovitz, one of the great martial artists of the 20th century.  I've been writing my karate story in order but today I will deviate from this plan to tell you about this great man and the influence he had on my life.

I met Sensei Pantanovitz at the WUKO (World Union of Karate Organizations) World Championships in Madrid, Spain in November of 1980.  He was sitting with the Israeli team, being their coach, wearing a traditional Jewish yarmulke and sporting a wild beard.  Being Jewish and being interested in Israel it was only natural that I spotted the team, went over, introduced myself and spent most of the rest of the tournament - when I wasn't competing - sitting with them.

Sensei Pantonovitz was very friendly.  He invited me out for dinner and we went to a Chinese restaurant.  I was, at the time, a vegetarian and when my host insisted I order I chose only vegetable and tofu dishes.  The food came, it looked great, but Sensei didn't take a bite.  Unbeknownst to me, he kept kosher and since the restaurant wasn't under kosher supervision he wouldn't eat even a vegetable.  It was a struggle, but I managed to finish most of the food.

I looked forward to seeing him and the guys at the WUKO World Championships in Taiwan in 1982 - especially since I had quite a story to tell him - but he wasn't there.  The entire Israeli team had been denied visas.  I wanted to be Israeli, too!  It wasn't fair that as an American Jew I was permitted to enter Taiwan when my Israeli counterparts were forbidden.

The next time we met up was the Maccabea Games in 1985 in Israel.  This time Sensei was a judge and not a coach.  He was on the panel for the women's kata competition.  He played a part in a story that would last almost 20 years.

I took a silver medal in kata at that competition.  I lost to a woman named Kathy Jones, a former professional ballerina who took up Shito-Ryu karate and quickly became an excellent kata performer.  After Kathy's kata the judges conferred quickly before giving her score.  She beat me by a very slight margin - I believe it was 2/10ths of a point - but she got the gold.

I was very upset by this loss for reasons I won't go into - but will become clear later.  I left the gym quickly and hid under a bush where I sobbed for about 20 minutes.   I had lost other tournaments and quickly forgot about them but this one stuck with me and from time to time, every few years, something would remind me of it and the hurt came stinging back.

In 2003 I was sitting in a Netanya coffee shop with Sensei Pantanovitz and a few of his black belts when the subject of this tournament arose.  I admitted somewhat sheepishly how I'd never forgotten losing that day and how it still bothered me.  It was then that Sensei revealed what went on during that judges' conference.

Kathy Jones had learned her winning kata, Superenpei, from her teacher, Julius Thiry, who, in turn, had learned it from Sensei Pantanovitz.  It's the highest kata in the Goju-Ryu system and apparently none of Sensei Thiry's teachers had been willing to teach it to him.  Thiry's Shito-Ryu dojo was on the west coast of the US, the two men didn't meet often and somewhere along the line Kathy had gotten the idea that a certain move which was performed to the north, east, south and west was to be done to the angels, north-east, north-west, etc.

At the end of her kata - which was lovely, a truly beautiful kata - Sensei Pantanovitz moved to disqualify her because of the mix-up in angles.  The other judges out-voted him and she went on to win.  "You won that tournament," he said.  If, in his eyes I had won, there was no doubt in my mind and heart that I truly had, and 18 years of disappointment and hurt melted away as if they had never been.  That's how important to me his opinion was.

Sensei Pantanovitz was honest, a man of integrity, highly principled, loving, kind, a phenominal teacher, an amazingly talented martial artist, intelligent, diligent and one of the most special people I've ever known.  I was privileged to be his student for almost four years.  They were four of the best years of my life.

Sara-Rivka Yekutiel

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Introduction to Women's Self-Defense

Three months into my karate training I noticed a profound change in my life: I was no longer being whistled at by construction workers, followed by strange men and harassed while waiting for the bus.  The fear of being assaulted had left me.  I looked different, walked differently and thought different thoughts.
Before, if I thought a man was following me I’d panic.  What should I do?  Where can I seek safety?  Now I thought, “Make my day.” 
Okay, that movie hadn’t come out yet.  My thoughts were along the lines of, “Get any closer and I’ll ram my fist down your throat.”  Men sensed this and they stayed clear of me. 
One day two women came into the dojo and introduced themselves as students of Py Bateman from the West Coast.  They were touring the USA, visiting karate schools in each city.  My sensei, for some reason, was rude to them.  I apologized.
“You’re not responsible for his behavior,” they told me.  I found that statement interesting.
They gave me a large packet of women’s self-defense materials – statistics, myths vs. realities, safety tips and strategies.  It was my introduction into the world of feminist self-defense theory.  I don’t remember their names, but I’ve never forgotten the gift I received from them that day.
When I read the packet my theory about why I was no longer being harassed by men was confirmed.  Women who are fearful, particularly if they are survivors of sexual assault or an abusive home, radiate fear via their body language.  Rapists and abusers are experts at reading body language and choose these women for their victims.  The tougher you look, the less you are picked on.  It was many years before I would be the target of an attempted assault again.     

Monday, October 3, 2011

Karate Competition and Tequilla; They Don't Mix

My first karate tournament was not a great experience.  The day before my boyfriend (yes, the same one who had forced me to choose between him and karate) and I broke up once again.  I dealt with this painful experience the way I thought best.  I drank four shots of tequilla and passed out.

I awoke in the morning with an awful  hangover.  Unable to eat due to nerves (a problem that would plague me for years) I arrived at the tournament - I believe there was a two-hour drive involved - and sat with 20 other nervous white belts. 

After much waiting I stood up and managed to get through the kata, "Taikioko #1," without throwing up.  Not only didn't I win, I didn't even come close.  I was mad.

Sensei had a saying, "Don't get mad, get even."  I had already been training hard.  Now I stared training harder.  Not only did I attack the heavy bag in the dojo, I also kicked the oak tree at the bus stop where I waited up to 20 minutes every day.  And I did the kata many, many times.

The next tournament was in Connecticut, also a long drive - but this time with no hangover.  I performed "Taikioko #3.  I did it strongly.  I did it with a loud kiai and a mean facial expression.  I ended up facing backwards and improvised an extra move because even though none of the judges were from Goju-Ryu Karate I knew that they knew that there isn't a style in the world that ends up facing the opposite direction from which it starts.

And that was good enough for a large, shiny third-place trophy.  I hugged it all the way home. 

To read about my tournament record see:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Either Me or Karate!

After two months of intensive karate training Sensei Sparks said, "You can stay for the advanced class if you'd like."  This was the first of the five compliments he would give me in the five years I trained with him.  I don't know if he hadn't heard of the term 'positive reinforcement' or he simply didn't believe in it.

I was thrilled.  I had learned the basic blocks, punches and kicks.  I had attended classes five times a week, joking that I was paying by the month and I wanted to get my money's worth.  And now I was being invited to join the advanced class!

In my reverie I had forgotten that my boyfriend was due to pick me up after the beginners' class.  He honked his horn and I ran outside to tell him the good news.  He wasn't impressed.  "All you do is talk about karate, practice karate and come to these classes.  I'm sick of it.  What about me?  You have to decide, either me or karate!"

I didn't need to think about it.  I just turned my back and went back into the dojo for another hour and a half of training.  I didn't need a boyfriend.  Not when I had a punching bag, a makiwara and a new kata.  Not even close.