It has been said that one of the greatest things about martial arts is that you can always become a beginner again. Which is true, I think, provided you accept the idea that being in a state of constant beginner-hood is a good thing. Most people (martial artists or not) don’t. They prefer to stay inside their comfort zones, being the expert at whatever they are expert at, and not placing themselves in situations where they have to appear to be (or in fact, are) incompetent.
It’s a very understandable impulse. No one likes to feel incompetent, and if you’ve spent several years having people bow to you and call you “master” or “sensei” or whatever, it’s pretty hard to go back to being the guy doing the bowing. For my part, I’ve spent the last six and a half-years working diligently at Muay Thai. I teach classes. I teach private lessons. I’m not a great fighter, but I’m at least ok, and I’m certainly far ahead of the average person who walks through the door. So I have, in fact, gotten used to being the guy on the upper end of the totem pole.
So why knock myself back down?
When I was a kid, I used to wrestle with my father (as boys are wont to do). And, as boys are wont to do, I usually lost. Let’s face it—a five or six-year-old child has very little chance of outwrestling a grown man. What was notable about the experience for me was that my father seemed to have all kinds of tricks. Ways of holding me and tossing me and twisting me into a pretzel that seemed to be based on something more than just being my dad.
In point of fact, my father was a wrestler and Judo player in college. And so when I set out try out martial arts, Judo was the first thing I sought out. But there were no Judo schools in Syracuse at the time, and so I ended up getting into a variety of other things, and have since managed to meander my way through twelve years of martial arts experience without ever setting foot in a Judo dojo—until yesterday, when my friend professormortis (who was looking to get back into the sport he had done as a kid) and I stopped by the Tohoku Judo Club in Somerville.
I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s been so long since I started at a new school that I had gotten very rooted in the way that Sityodtong (the gym I primarily train at) does things. I’m used to seeing Marie at the desk in front of the door. Heading into the “staff room” to change. Ducati or Fozzi (or both) wandering around the door, hoping for attention. I’m used to the lighting, the fans, the blue zebra mats and the low ceilings, and the constant Thai music or R&B in the background.
Of course, none of those things were present. There was a front desk, but no one was behind it. The mats are not blue, but tan, and are rough to the touch. A children’s class was in progress when we showed up.
It took a few minutes for us to get the attention of someone who could help us, but from there on out, things moved along quickly. Both the professor and I were fitted out with gis (the “pajamas” worn by Japanese martial artists of various stripes for many years now), and sent to the mat to warm up.
The “class” turned out to be surprisingly informal. It basically started when a black belt noticed that a few of us were standing around, having warmed up, and not doing anything. When he realized we weren’t doing anything because we didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing, he took it on himself to show us some basic newaza, or groundwork. We went over a few different turnovers and pins, which professormortis and I practiced with questionable degrees of success.
After that, the class seemed to get formally started, a procedure that basically involved moving us to a different part of the mat, where we practiced the setup and entry to a basic hip throw. There was a little bit of confusion on both of our parts, since professormortis is naturally left-handed, and I apparently stand like a lefty in Judo (the result of differing philosophies on where to put your power hand between Judo and Muay Thai). Still, we got things sorted out, and while I wouldn’t say we mastered anything, we did make some progress.
The class then moved into newaza practice, where we were actually sparring with each other. This was a lot of fun, but it was also a little confusing—no one really clarified what the goal or rules of the sport were, and I have just enough of a background in other things to do something illegal. I managed to get through it without either hurting or pissing anyone off, but it was a little disconcerting. I did get to roll with one black belt, who was very nice, and did not abuse the shit out of me (I’ve seen instructors do this to new guys…).
After the newaza practice, we grabbed some much-needed water. The rest of the class started working on stand up grappling, and a couple of the instructors took us newbies off to the side to work on some basic stand up technique. I ended up getting paired with one black belt, who gave me a very in-depth introduction to Judo stand up, which was amazingly useful, and gave me a whole bunch of things to practice.
The class ended with a couple of students being awarded new belts, a very brief introduction from me and the other newbies, and a quick lesson from the instructor on the rules of Judo while everyone else swept the mats. It was all very nice, though I wish I had gotten that lesson in the beginning, rather than at the end.
Overall, it was a great introduction to a very interesting and deep art. I’m looking forward to continuing.