Something bizarre and wonderful occurred during the morning session with the kokusai senshusei (‘foreign instructor course’). There was nothing to indicate that anything out of the ordinary was about to happen. It was just another day at the dojo. I was standing at attention, observing Jacques Payet sensei, the foreign head instructor, as he demonstrated a technique on Mark Baker sensei, his second-in-command.
Standing at attention was a common practice when teaching at the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo. The unwritten rule stated that, unless a teacher was demonstrating or physically assisting a certain student, he or she had to stand at attention on the edge of the mats: out of the way, quietly observing the session, like the guards at Buckingham Palace, minus the funny hats, healthy paycheck and the tourists who pester them throughout the day.
It is by no means an easy task to stand motionless for a prolonged period of time, especially when one must maintain a fixed, straight posture. The lack of circulation causes the legs to feel heavy and the feet to hurt. Soon after, other joints and body parts, those which are ever so slightly unaligned, but normally go unnoticed due to a constant shift in position, start to ache.
To throb. . . .
To disturb. . . .
To agonize until they reach a pinnacle of pain, and start to scream and beg, demanding you either run away and never come back, walk to the nearest student and correct him for a mistake he hadn’t made, or at least implement some fine adjustments to your posture, such as gently shifting your weight from leg to leg, slowly rotating your lower back and even flexing and stretching your fingers and toes.
As it was halfway through the class, my physical agony was already peaking and I had to summon all my self control in order to try and remain fully focused and alert. I did my best, but found it unusually difficult due to an excruciating pain in my lower back that felt like a burning blade twisting between the vertebrae.
Feeling the need to do something, I implemented relaxation techniques that I had learned in yoga, closing my eyes, stretching my spine and focusing on my breathing. I visualized the air as a bright blue vessel that travelled from my lungs to the sore spot, using the breathing pattern to bestow calm as it reached the source of my pain, dispersing tension as it moved away. It took a few minutes, and then, the pain diminished. Inspired by my success, I let the brilliant blue vessel sail to the edges of my trunk, soothingly overriding all discomfort. I inhaled and the brightness expanded away from the borders of the flesh, up through the top of my head and to the heavens, down from the bottom of my spine and merging with the earth.
It felt as if a straight beacon of light was supporting my body, attaching my feet to the ground and at the same time, serving as a perfect launching pad should I decide to move around. I smiled to myself as it suddenly dawned on me that I had never felt so centered before.
I continued to indulge in the enchanting experience until Payet sensei called an end to the lesson.
I was grinning to myself as we sat in the kitchen, eating breakfast and sipping a cup of coffee. I hardly spoke to anyone, showing little interest in the conversations around me, completely consumed by my thoughts about my earlier discovery. It was only when Payet sensei, who had seemed troubled throughout his meal, started speaking, that I was briefly diverted from my contemplation.
“What did you think of zee lesson?” he asked Mark who sat next to him. “Do you think they understood the points I was trying to make?”
“About the center?” Mark asked.
“The center and how to move from zee hips,” Payet sensei said. “I sometimes worry my English is not good enough for them to understand.”
“Oh, they understand,” Mark smiled broadly. “But if you don’t mind me saying, sensei, maybe you should stop using the word ‘fixation.’ It’s a word that’s used, in many cases, to describe perverted intentions.”
“But that is not my intention,” said Payet sensei with an innocent expression. “I only try to demonstrate the focus and intent they need when moving from zee center.”
“I fully understand your point, sensei, however…” Mark jumped to his feet and stood in front of Payet sensei in kamae. “When you say ‘fixation’ and move your hips in front of the seated students, some might get the wrong idea.”
Mark thrust his hips backwards and forwards in a rather sensual manner. Payet sensei silently observed, then his eyes widened behind the glasses and he burst out laughing. Everyone joined in apart from me. There was the blue light again – this time visualized through the center of Mark and his comical gesture.
“So no more ‘fixation’,” Payet sensei concluded when the laughter died out and Mark sat down.
They returned to their meals, but I continued to gape at the place where Mark had stood in kamae. I nodded to myself, silently enjoying my new realization.
“Plenty of work to do,” I whispered.
“Did you say something?” Mark asked.
“A personal debate,” I answered and Mark chuckled in return.
The blue light became my obsession during the following days. It was present when I practiced, walked, rode on the train and even as I lay in bed before sleep, the light projecting from my forehead to the ceiling. It seemed like there was no limit to the way it could be applied. It taught me endless lessons, brought fresh ideas into my mind and at the same time, freed me from the shackles of frustration that had bound me for such a long time.
I learned how to connect the spine to my limbs, and how to connect my limbs to the center of my training partners. It also made me very aware of the line on which I moved, and the planes through which power was applied on me or by me. In my inspired mood, I created tens of training methods.
‘Power walking,’ for example, was one of my favorites, a drill not only enjoyable, but practical too, especially when maneuvering through crowded places. I deployed it on numerous occasions as I came off the train and walked the underground passes of Shinjuku station, drawing an imaginary line toward my desired exit and then charging forward, my back straight and my eyes focused on my goal, keeping to my path, my intent parting the hordes of people that ceaselessly crisscrossed the tightly packed space, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
“I found my center!” I joyously declared to Tessa and handed her a steaming cup of coffee. We were sitting on the floor of our tiny, tin room. Tessa had just returned from a vacation in England, her suitcase lying on the floor beside her. She politely listened as I recounted my discovery of the blue light, and how I had used it to capture the concept of the center, her eyes closing occasionally. She must have been exhausted from the long trip, and from the devastating effects of jetlag. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t contain my excitement.
“Hooray,” she yawned when I finally finished.
“Hip hip hooray,” I nodded. “Chida sensei is an amazing teacher.”
“Chida sensei?” she asked. “What’s it got to do with him?”
“Didn’t you listen to my story about the way he healed his foot?”
“With the chopsticks. I remember. Still, I don’t understand what the blue light has to do with him.”
“It has everything to do with him. Without him I would probably never had thought of finding a new way to grasp the idea of the center. You would’ve come back and found me standing on my head, hanging from a tree or doing some other crazy thing in order to find the perfect physical balance between the right and left side of my body.”
“I seriously doubt it.”
“What do you mean?” I frowned. I was getting quite annoyed by this stage.
“Look,” she sighed. “I know how much you respect your teachers and how much credit you like to give them for everything you achieve. However, in my opinion, you sometimes give too much weight to them and very little to yourself.”
“Let’s go over your experiences and you will see what I mean, starting from the moment Payet sensei stood in front of you and inflamed your imagination. Now if you think about it, all he did was stand and tell you to find your kamae. You did the rest! You were the one who decided what he meant, and you were the one who figured out the way to do it. Honestly, sometimes one phrase can be very significant, but only if it falls on the right listener.”
She took a sip from her coffee while I contemplated her words.
“Don’t you agree?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Up until now I thought the genius was in the words he chose.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “The penny, so to speak, would have dropped anyway because you were so eager and tuned in for an answer. Your story of Chida sensei and the chopsticks is yet another perfect example. The man came into the kitchen and fixed his foot in a rather silly fashion, and you built a whole theory just by observing him at work. Now I have no doubt in my mind that what he did was very creative; however, I believe you would get the same ideas and benefits from observing anyone else performing something in an unconventional way.”
“Hey, Gadi, why you are you looking so miserable?”
“I don’t like you putting my teachers down.”
“I’m not putting them down—rather, I’m putting you up, silly.” she smiled. “But that’s not all.”
“Well, I know you place a lot of weight on your achievements regarding your center and kamae, but I think that maybe you’re missing out on two vital points.”
“OK. Name them.”
“The first brings to mind Mark Baker, and what he told you a few months ago, that the main goal of studying is finding a way to teach yourself. I think what your stories really suggest is that you have actually achieved that goal.”
Her words shook me to my core. I sat and stared at her as the sequence of events went through my mind, so overwhelmed and absorbed by my own thoughts that it took me a while to realize she was waving her empty cup of coffee in front of my eyes.
“Hey,” she said. “Don’t you want to know what that second point was?”
“Yes? What else did I miss out?”
“That both enlightening experiences, with Chida and Payet, happened in the kitchen.”
“And how’s that significant?”
“Because I’m starving. Why don’t you go and make us something to eat. Maybe something amazing will happen. You never know!”