I have been with the E.S.K.K dojo now since the start of 2010 and I've attended all but a few of the quarterly gradings since then. Last Sunday’s grading was the fifth time I've graded myself so, for a change, I thought I’d write this one up from the perspective of a prospective 5th Kyu (Blue Belt) rather than as a spectator.
Although the focus is on the day itself, the grading really starts the moment the last grading for my 6th Kyu finished and the preparation started for this one. That’s always been the case although as I progress that preparation becomes more conscious, more structured, better planned and much more focussed. Between each grading there are targets to achieve. Some are set within the formal grading syllabus for new basics to learn, new blocks, bunkai and new kata; some are personal targets to just improve on fitness, strength, flexibility, just improve those roundhouse kicks, or just cure that problem with cat stance or that troublesome technique. There’s always a long, long list of things to concentrate on.
By a few weeks before the grading I’ll know myself if I feel I've reached the targets I set and if I feel I'm prepared for the challenge. This, of course must be confirmed by my Sensei. Feeling I'm ready and able to perform to the right standard is one thing; dealing with the pressure and stress of a formal grading under the watchful eyes of my Sensei, Sempai and usually a considerable audience of Kohai and friends, is a whole different challenge! The feelings from the rush of adrenaline in the body is not dissimilar to how it would feel to face any tough challenge in life or indeed, a dispute or confrontation. So in some ways, the grading itself can be good preparation for the very situation the art of Karate was developed to avoid, but deal with if ever necessary.
On Sunday, like previous gradings, I arrived in time to help my Kohai prepare for their challenges as the 10 am lesson started and after registration, quickly moved into the challengers for red, red stripe, and then yellow and yellow stripes. I've always found my kohai more than grateful for a little help, guidance and just support to practice a little as they calm their nerves for their grading. This is one of the most rewarding parts of being a part of the E.S.K.K dojo; that “family” feel as everyone seems to want to help each other. It helps me too, to prepare for my challenge a few hours later, when I focus some time on helping out. I’d get time for last minute practice a little later.
As ever, on Sunday there were pretty high numbers challenging for the red and yellow ranks and the audience of family and friends packs out the back of the hall. It added to the “pressure” but created a fantastic atmosphere for the brilliant displays we were treated to as a new group of red belts and yellow belts punched, kicked and “Kiai’d” their way to their new rank - including no less than three first class passes (David Jones, Garet Mair and Daniel Brooks), which were well and truly earned!
After presentation of belts, it was the turn of the prospective orange and orange stripes to focus their minds and bodies and show the panel and audience what they had learned and practiced and be put through their paces. The audience was a little smaller as some of the earlier challengers had left with their families but there was still a considerable audience to add to the pressure and create an atmosphere. Although by this time I and my fellow green, blue and purple belts, had been there for a long time, the sights, sounds and tension of a grading still captures the attention. There’s always something else to learn from watching others perform, no matter what grade. We can always spot faults that cause us to question if we have the same ones (or remind us to try harder to overcome them). We can always spot exceptional performances and be inspired by the dedication that has gone into producing them too!
By mid afternoon it was time for the prospective green, blue and purple belts to bow-in ready for their challenge. The sound of my name being called out caused my adrenalin charged bloodstream to be given a final boost of that nature’s own preparation for action! The first part of the bowing-in etiquette is to perform “mokuso”, a short period of meditation to help clear the mind of clutter, focus on the task at hand, and control of the mind to perhaps silence the doubts, worries, concerns and fears about the tough challenge ahead. By the time I obeyed the command to move to “yoi” or “ready” stance it felt like I was alone in the room with just the panel members. The audience and the others grading were no longer in my mind or vision.
The grading itself is something of a blur. I can remember how I felt more than what happened. I can remember feeling tense, trying to put mistakes out of my mind, being very tired and so tired I felt I lost balance a few times (knew I should have practiced the back kick combination more!), wondering where I was going to find grip for my feet as I was sweating so much, concentrating on keeping up my guard whilst facing my sparring partners towards the end of the gruelling test.
Grading can be a tough but rewarding challenge and an integral part of developing as a karate-ka. No matter what grade you are you will always appreciate the support of fellow members, friends and family watching and the fantastic teaching at this fantastic dojo! If you haven’t been to a grading I hope this encourages you to come. If you have been as a spectator then I hope this helps you understand what’s happening out there on the dojo floor!
The full list of those who were awarded with new ranks are listed below:
Congratulations to everyone who graded and now it's time to start working hard again in the dojo, as karate is a never ending journey!