I just recently got back from a four day visit to see Sensei Kris Wilder and his school (West Seattle Karate Academy) in Seattle, WA. I had contacted him about a month ago to see if I could set up some private lessons with him and to determine for myself if he might be the kind of karate teacher I was looking for. Was he?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Well…
I was a bit disappointed that the regular dojo classes were not a continuation of the excitement and insight of those private lessons. I can understand this however. Doing a class “for the masses” and taking individual instruction are quite different approaches. But I was hoping that there would be more adult black belt or advanced level students in those classes (there were mainly teens, pre-teens, and children). Perhaps I just happened to come on the wrong week? Or is it always like that? I don’t know. I just emailed Sensei Wilder asking him the same question. Not that his answer will necessarily determine whether I should move (or not move) to Seattle. I’m just saying that I would have liked to have met more of his adult students (in order to better gauge the overall quality of the school).
Anyway. Although I’m not feeling like super-“Oh my God!”-enthusiastic about the school itself, Sensei Wilder on the other hand was a sheer joy to take instruction from. I was relating to my friends and family that perhaps the single biggest thing I’m walking away with from that experience was actually feeling what it meant to practice a “living karate”. For me, this has to do with the kata. Because it is these forms which is what the art of karate revolves around. To have a shallow understanding of the kata results in a shallow feeling for karate. You go to the dojo and see those old pictures of the masters on the wall and you have no real respect for them because you don’t really know what made them “masters” in the first place. You are told that it is proper to have respect for them because, well, everybody else has respect for them. And it’s traditional to respect your “elders” and the “founders” of your system/style/school, etc. But real respect can only come from having a deeper understanding of what those old dudes passed along to us. The analogy I like for this is music. If you take great jazz musicians for example (Coltrane, Bird, etc) and you let the average music fan listen to them, I’m not so sure you’re going to find that they have a deep appreciation for the creativity and musicianship of these “greats”. They might like the music. They might even enjoy the quality of the sound. But they’re unaware of what makes these people “masters” of their craft. All you know is that the music critics adore them. The marketers put 5 stars on their album covers and talk about their “legendary-ness”. You sort of go along with the crowd on that one. I know because, well, I don’t read or understand music that deeply. I can play an instrument (drums), but I am basically musically illiterate. I couldn’t tell you what makes Coltrane more a musical genius than your average tenor sax player. But I do know this: if I decided to make it my mission to learn how to read music, to learn how to play the instrument that Coltrane played, to learn how to compose music, etc, I can tell you I would probably have far deeper respect for Coltrane not only as a musician but as a human being, because I would be able to better sense the expression of his genius.
This is what I felt when Sensei Wilder helped me to see the combative applications of the kata. For my first private lesson, he had me perform my “favorite” kata. Although I didn’t have one in particular, I told him I was curious about Chinto (Matsubayashi-ryu version) and he sort of broke down the opening movements for me. I’m telling you: what once seemed like abstract arm movements and vigorous body motion became a sudden wealth of empty-handed combat information. There was even a brief moment where I could feel my mind being transported to the past. To be able to feel this was tremendously exhilarating. That’s not hyperbole either. It was as if I could finally understand that it was a language being spoken to me and not some garble.
Although there can be multiple interpretations of the techniques found within kata, the ones that Sensei Wilder showed me were more than sufficient in my mind. It was amazing to see how seemingly minor movements could mean so much more. The elbow smash in Chinto for example wasn’t just an elbow smash. It was a sophisticated series of movements that set up the smash itself. The body acting as a sort of complex network of gears and levers, doing multiple things at once in order to aid in the simple functioning of the task. All things which one cannot see without a trained eye. And all things which an unfortunate opponent would be unaware of as well. SMASH! Ouch man. Hecka big ouch. Debilitating ouch. A stop-the-fight-right-this-instant ouch.
This is karate.
And I thought to myself too that it is an irony of martial arts that in order for a good student to have a profound respect for life, they must also have a deep understanding of the brutal impact of their techniques. When you witness or feel the meanness of these techniques on a human body, you just don’t want to use it indiscriminately on somebody. Karate is no game. It’s not even your most no-holds barred bare knuckle brawl. It is demonic and wicked in its intention. The techniques are designed to incapacitate and cause extreme suffering and long-term damage. It is as dangerous as handling a gun. I looked down and shook my head as I realized this. “Dang man. Karate is just really not for kids!”
But that’s the crux of a modern dojo as business endeavor of course. The kids are where the money is at. Which is how I can understand why Sensei Wilder has so many damn kids. There are just not enough adults in one area who are so enthusiastic about the fighting arts that they come in droves. But hey, how many kids wanna be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
So, my time with Sensei Wilder was not only eye-opening, but empowering. It is true that nothing beats hands-on instruction. Not the best DVD or the best book. You have to see and feel it for yourself. And especially when it comes to an art like karate, where the whole thing revolves around the kata, you just have to know something about that man. You can’t ignore it or pretend you just wanna get good at sparring. The kata contain the living information that you need in order to have true self-defensive functionality. So if you’re a struggling karate student like me, who is fed up with perfecting form for the sake of it, find a teacher who can give to you an understanding of the engine that drives karate. Because I’m telling you, when you find that, you will find yourself re-invigorated to want to keep on learning (or so turned off by its brutality that you take up golf).
Check out Sensei Wilder’s and Kane’s book, The Way of Kata, here.
– ELBOW SMASH!