Some days, when it all seems a bit too much — when the tidal wave of information, good and bad, and the onslaught of anxieties, real and imagined, swirl around in my brain like debris in a windstorm — I seek out a few square metres of space. 

It could be anywhere, at any time of day, or even night. 

I prefer for it to be somewhere private. 

In a perfect world, it would also be somewhere quiet because I want to remove the hum of humanity. 

I’m looking for what my karate sensei, quoting Bruce Lee, the Thich Nhat Hanh of martial arts philosophers, calls “a mind like still water”. 

As any mindfulness practitioner will tell you, such a state can be attained sitting still on a cushion.

But the right kind of movement can also impart a still mind too. So let me tell you about kata.

Karate, which I have been studying for a long time, gives me many things. 

I am by nature a lazy man. Karate, a single activity, gives me a modicum of cardio fitness, strength, and flexibility, and hopefully ensures the kind of movement that will prevent me falling down and breaking a hip sometime soon. 

Thanks to my long years of training I should have a better chance the next time I’m swarmed by a street gang down on Hollis Street. 

Going to the dojo is training for life: by learning how to do something small, like bowing or throwing a punch the right way, I will hopefully become better at the big things, like being a husband, father and friend. 

Karate does something else: it helps keep me sane. Allow me to explain.

Have you ever seen a kata, one of those extended series of predetermined karate movements that can be as elegant as modern dance, or as ferocious as kabuki theatre? 

My sensei, Tony Tam, a partner at McInnes Cooper, who has an eighth-degree black belt and has been teaching Shotokan karate for 45 years, says kata, which can be performed in a big group or all alone, is the essence of karate because it “combines everything that is important to the training and development of the mind and body.”

By that he means that while performing a kata you do all of the strikes, blocks, kicks, stances and movements that our martial art requires. 

In time techniques get stronger. With practice you grow faster, learn when to expand, and discover the optimum time to contract.

But katas are good for the head, too. 

The ones in the Shotokan style can involve more than 60 movements; I’m hoping that having to remember all of them will help keep dementia at bay. 

In the meantime, I’m happy that doing a kata can help me get through the day. 

You can’t sweat the small stuff while performing one that is supposed to be graceful like Empi (“flying swallow”), or powerful like Bassai Dai (“penetrating the fortress”). 

If you’re worried about getting your winter tires on before the snow hits, you may well lose your way somewhere in the 65 movements of Kanku Dai (“to look at the sky”).

I’ve done kata on beaches in Bali, atop a hotel in Toronto, outside a fishing cabin in Cape Breton, wearing snowmobile pants and a parka outside in the high Arctic.

When conditions are right — when you’ve been able to suppress the panic about your underperforming RRSP portfolio, and when you know the movements well enough that you don’t have to think hard about them — you can reach that state that athletes call flow, and Tam refers to as “moving Zen.”

If you read this on thechronicleherald.ca and click on the accompanying video that shows Tam performing a kata called Nijushiho, you will see the aptness of such a description.

But in my own way I know what he means. When I do a kata, it’s more than a bit of exercise, or preparation for when the zombie apocalypse hits. 

I’m also, perhaps for the only time that day, actually in the moment, even if just for a moment. 

Tam finds his moment whenever and wherever he can: on a warm beach hoping to mimic the movements of the ocean, or at sunrise, his favourite time of the day for such an activity, performing Kanku Dai (“looking at the sky”). 

Once, when trapped in a broken elevator, he did kata for two full hours. 

Often he can be glimpsed in the morning on the wharf beside his law offices on Halifax’s Upper Water Street, going through these movements that are nearly a century old. 

I feel the same sort of compulsion. I’ve done kata on beaches in Bali, atop a hotel in Toronto, outside a fishing cabin in Cape Breton, wearing snowmobile pants and a parka outside in the high Arctic.

I’ve made compromises when compromises are necessary so that I can go through my paces, rearranging the furniture in tiny motel rooms, stealing a few minutes while walking a picket line, punching and kicking in the pitch black in places where coyotes are known to roam, even while walking a baby in a Snugli.

I’m under no illusions. I don’t remotely resemble a flying swallow, or a crane on a rock (Gankaku). But I feel like that is not the point, anyway. 

On some level, the point is really just to be out there. There’s something powerful about doing the exact same movements that people with the same needs and hopes and ambitions have been doing for generations. 

There’s something wonderful about experiencing a brief moment of calm in this breakneck world, however and whenever you can find it. 


Kata names as elegant as the movements

Katas, those pre-determined sequences of techniques that are the essence of karate, are elegant in their efficiency, but also beautiful in the fluidity of the movements, and the choreographed way in which they are put together.

So, it is only fitting that the kata names are also evocative, finding inspiration in nature, as the underlying movements are meant to do.

Members of the Halifax International Shotokan Karate Federation perform 26 different types of katas, the shortest of which, Heidan Shodan, has 21 different movements, while the longest, Gojushiho Dai, has 67.

Some of them are truly memorable. Empi, for example, requires the practitioner to be up and down and left and right as they punch, strike and block, making its Japanese name, which translates, appropriately, into English as “flying swallow.”

While performing Gankaku, the karateka has to repeatedly balance on one leg. Fittingly the kata’s name, in English, is “crane on the rock.”

On the other hand, one of the first movements of the Kanku Dai kata involves looking skywards through a triangle formed by the thumbs and fingers of the practitioner’s hands. In English it means simply “looking at the sky.”

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