The Karate Mind

It is 2017, and I have two teenagers in the house. That’s right. An almost 15-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. My 10-year-old spends much of her time wishing she was in her teens. I. Do not. Needless to say…this is the best of times. This is the worst of times. One day, my beautiful daughter could be explaining to me how combustion works as she scribbles away in her journal. She wants to write her own manga and, boy! Can she draw. “Emily,  go clean your room,” to which she promptly and joyously replies, “I’m rebelling!” as she runs through my house with a smile on her face and arms flailing. Within an hour she’ll be curled up on the floor of her room crying, “I want to die. No body loves me.” My son, in the meantime, just flipped from Bruce Banner to the Hulk. One moment, he’s hugging me, “I love you, mum,” and he gives me that smile that reassures me I’m doing something right. The next moment, he’s punching his ten-year-old and screeching like a banshee. “Dan! Smash!”

It was out of sheer desperation that I signed Dan up for Karate class this fall. I had just signed myself up for a 6-week challenge at a local dojo in an eager attempt to lose the 40+ pounds I had gained over the last ten years. On day one we were asked to write down our goals. My goal? “To pin my 13-year-old son to the floor in times of need.” That perked the interest of my coach.

“Pin your 13-year-old son to the floor?”

I gave him the “I have teenagers” look. “Yes. He stands nearly six inches taller than me and he has the emotions of a two-year-old. There are days, I need to pin him to the floor like an unruly pup whose trying to lead the pack.”

My coach gets this knowing look in his eye.

“You know, I teach a karate class that will straighten him right out.”

“Sold!” I didn’t wait to hear the details. Yes. I was that desperate.

Prior to karate classes, I had thought that Karate isn’t just about violence. It’s all about self-defense class and they only teach self-defense before they teach aggression. This is wrong.

8 weeks later (and twenty pounds down on my weight goal), I have finally collected the proper explanation to those who are thinking about karate, but just don’t know what to expect. I have wanted to take karate since I was beaten at the age of 8. My parents firmly said “No. You’ll use it on each other.” Another unfounded concern of non-karate parents.

There are five parts to each Karate class.

  • Physical warm up/Exercise
  • Forms
  • Self-respect/Self-reflection
  • Sparring
  • The Six Pillars of Discipline

Each class takes time out to review each of these. Each of these is practiced at all times. Each of these receives a brief, though constant, spotlight. Let’s take a closer look into the mind of Martial Arts.


Physical warm up/Exercise

Karate is exercise. Any time you use your muscles, warm up is mandatory. When you exercise, endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine is dumped into your system. These three emotions are the greatest cure to depression. One rule is solid when you exercise. Good health. This message is taught by the Sensei in every class.




In the dojo, there is the floor where no street shoes are allowed. In karate, one rule comes before all else. You bow and think “discipline” when you enter the floor and when you exit the floor. This act alone, plants a number of thoughts and an ethic in every mind that enters the dojo.

  • Respect for self.
  • Respect for what we do here
  • Respect for the dojo
  • A promise that we only will give our best.

A bow in a dojo means, “I will honor and uphold the six pillars of discipline.”

In the younger classes, I swear the Sensei makes a point of sending the kids off the floor a number of times during class. “Go get a drink of water! Go get your equipment!”

It’s astounding to watch thirty children all stop at the edge of the floor, they bow and shout, “DISCIPLINE!” They drink the water, hug a parent, then run back to the floor. They bow. “DISCIPLINE!” And resume positions. But it doesn’t end there. After the pushups and jumping jacks, they move on to part 2. The form.



The forms in karate are 4,000 years old. They have been passed on from Sensei to student for centuries. When you learn a form, you not only are learning the core of martial arts. You are stepping into a much greater thing. You are becoming part of a 4,000 year old Japanese tradition. You are becoming part of something greater. Forms look easy, but they command focus. I can’t quite explain what a form is without you really seeing it. I guess, the best way to explain it is in dancing terms. It is like a choreographed sequence of moves. There are three sets of moves, but the moves are much more than just movements. The goal of the form is to sharpen and perfect a warrior’s technique. They are done solo. There is no fighting. It’s very private. And rarely are they done perfectly. It is not possible to do a form without sheer discipline and focus. Either you love doing forms. Or you hate them.



After the forms, the sparring begins. But before you spar, you bow to your partner. This bow is different from the initial bow. This bow is an extension on the first bow. “I respect you. I respect this lesson we are about to begin. I will learn as I teach. I will teach as I learn. I will not harm you. I will trust that you will cause me no harm.”

Free sparring begins. It is not possible to spar without smiling. No matter how young or how old. No matter the gender. No matter the rank. It is not possible to smile when sparring. Furthermore, only in Karate can you start a friendship by kicking someone in the balls. It’s true. It’s weird. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen. It is important to know that violence, fighting, and aggression are not the same thing as sparring. Violence, fighting, and aggression have no place in the martial arts. This is why we call it sparring and competition.

As they spar, Sensei walks the floor and gently, though firmly, corrects technique. Frequently, he’ll say something that will cause him to announce his discovery to the class. He shouts commands. He paces the floor and announces things…Things I’ve never given thought to.


The Six Pillars of Discipline

The Six Pillars of Discipline are the ethics that are taught in martial arts. The first is self-respect. The second is accountability. We’re currently working through the others as we only have been attending the dojo for six weeks. The pillars change with each dojo, but the lessons are still the same though the order and wording do vary from Sensei to Sensei. The message is still the same. Self-respect. Accountability. Courage. Responsibility. Loyalty. Commitment. Strength.

To obey what is right!

“You are to compare your progress only to yourself. Never to another. Look at how you did. Identify your weaknesses, and aim to do better!”

“If you are a higher rank, teach and instruct the lower ranks.” For this reason, no one rank is ever paired up with the same rank. Black belts are paired with white belts. Red belts are paired with orange belts.


Each class ends with a word from the Sensei. Each lesson reflects on a week’s assignment. “You aren’t a black belt, but you’re here to achieve the Black belt. The black belt mind starts now. The moment you start your first class, you begin shaping the Black Belt mind. And the Black Belt Mind does not stay confined within the dojo. It spills out into your home life, your school life, your chores, your grades. Take the initiative. Do as you know you must do. TO OBEY WHAT IS RIGHT! This week, I want you to think of the one thing you are suppose to do, but Mum and dad often has to remind you.  This week, don’t wait for the reminder. Just do. This is the Black Belt mind. This is good discipline. Now. We’ll be looking. We’re not going to remind you again. You have to do this without any expectation for reward. If mum or dad catches you they will post it on the Facebook Student Page and next class you get a responsibility strip on your belt.”

There is also counting in Korean. Commands and titles in Korean. And the all mighty “Yes, Sir.”

Heart of a lion. Voice of a tiger! Let me hear you, “Yes, Sir!”


“To obey what is right!”





Within four weeks I saw my son change. It began with confidence and self-respect. Then I saw more kindness, more responsibility, more courage. My only regret was waiting thirteen years to enroll him. His behavior changed so much, that I wasted no time enrolling my daughters. Again, within four lessons, I saw the behavior change. Confidence, self-respect, and accountability boomed, penetrating every aspect of our home. Do we still have moments of bad times? Yes. Do we still have our set backs. Yes. But every day, they are farther and fewer in between. Occasionally, we have needed to ground Daniel. Do we include Karate in the grounding? No. We found that to ground a child from Karate was like grounding a child from taking prescription medicine. We also found that when he has to be grounded, he requires the Karate classes more than ever.

We are now teaching all our children one vital rule: take your anger to the dojo. There, they convert it to discipline. More than ever I saw the change in Daniel. In the dojo, he releases his rage. He dumps his anger into the 150 pound bags. Best of all, his Sensei, a three degree black belt, is there to help him safely direct the raging hormones of a 13 year-old-boy. Every time, Dan leaves the dojo more calm.


It’s not possible to watch a karate class and not be changed yourself.

About the Author: Angela

%d bloggers like this: