On Staying Put

I have a confession to make. I haven’t been practicing karate. This feels like an impossible situation because I can barely tolerate not moving, let alone not practicing karate. I once read that Philip Roth posts a note above his work desk that reads “stay put”. He is, of course, reminding himself to persevere. But he’s also referring to the physical act of sitting. I cannot “stay put”. I often wonder if I have what it takes to be a writer, since I find it agonizing to sit for a half an hour, let alone the requisite four or five hours a day necessary to write a book.

In December, I injured myself. The mistake I made was that after it happened, I didn’t pay it any attention. I kept training, thinking the pain would go away by itself, as it usually does. But this time, it didn’t.

It started when I experienced more-than-usual tension in my shoulders. In class, I practiced break falls and rolls. A couple of times, I landed awkwardly. Then, one day, I threw a punch and I felt a sharp twinge on the left side of my neck.

Cue in the throbbing headaches, the tingling back ache, the needle-like neck pain. At this point, I decided it was a good idea to cool things off. I decreased training. I focused on lower body techniques such as kicks and stances. I hopped onto the cross-trainer at the gym and worked the machine with my legs only.  Trouble was, even when I wasn’t supposed to be tensing my neck, I was. And the pain wasn’t going anywhere.

I did what had to be done. I took a complete break from karate. I started walking. I embraced a regimen of shiatsu massage, acupuncture, and physical therapy.

As a result of not practicing karate, here are some of the things that are happening: I’m slightly depressed. I’m impatient with my kids.

Clearly, I’m addicted to training. I love the pure joy of doing kata: the movements, the “phrasing”, which, if you’re a musician, is like what you experience when you play a piece of music with the intent of bringing it to life. I love the sensation of elongating my limbs, which reminds me of leg extensions I did in my childhood ballet classes. And, as I told a friend of mine when I was preparing for my black belt test, I love working hard.

Not training is making me miserable. On the plus side, since I’m not training, I have more time to do other things. I’m writing more. I’m spending more time with my kids. I’ve also learned a couple of lessons.

The wise and talented shiatsu masseuse who’s been treating me has told me:  “You need to balance will with relaxation.” I’m starting to think about how this applies to everything in my life. I’m also thinking about how it applies to karate. If you’re a karate-ka, I challenge you to think of it too. When you’re practicing karate, are you alternating tension with release? Are you pulling your punches back too stiffly? Ask yourself, too, if you’re using the right muscles. When you’re kicking, for example, are you using your neck muscles when you should be exercising your core, legs, and feet?

I’m looking forward to going back to karate class, to teaching my students about relaxing their necks. I’m excited about all of us rethinking how we train. I’m hoping that we can all pay attention to the nuances of Roth’s words, his admonition to “stay put”: persevering, then letting go.


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