I first learned about the concept of style in karate after I had been training for a few months. Maybe I had been told about it before but missed the memo because I was so busy trying to get my head around the bombardment of new things I was attempting to learn. Anyway…..as I say, after a few months, a network workshop was advertised, and I made enquiries through the instructor of the dojo where it was to be held.
The Sensei kindly invited me to train with them to meet some of the karate-ka he trained with. I was wanting to find another opportunity to train anyway, since my original dojo only trained once per week. I went to a few classes there and discovered that some things were familiar but slightly different and some things were really unfamiliar and really different. I managed the basics (as well as I could manage them at my first dojo at any rate) but when it came to kata, I was a complete mess, and as patient as the Sensei and Sempai were with me, I decided to limit my involvement to kumite classes (which only very rarely included significant work on kata).
As a white belt, I hadn’t really figured out what the differences I was noticing were, and initially I think I put them down to my lack of knowledge of karate in general. The kata I saw and tried were all different (although there were some crossovers….but even then, the execution of the namesake kata were different). The basics were subtly different. My techniques were so unrefined that focusing on minor details was difficult. Focussing on minor details in 2 different styles was pretty confusing. Having feed back from several different sources put me in a state of internal conflict because I didn’t really know who was right or who was wrong. The thing is I hadn’t got my head around the fact that they were all right, but that it was a matter of context.
I can’t remember exactly when I found out what was going on, or who it was that explained to me that my dojo trained in one style and it wasn’t the same style as the one I was visiting, or even how it came up in conversation, but it certainly got me thinking about it within the limited framework I had to work with.
When my first instructor realised that I was continuing to attend the other dojo well beyond the workshop, he started picking up on things that I was doing the “wrong” way. He didn’t say explicitly that they were wrong but would ask if it was something I learned at the other dojo. After I had been training about 10 months and had achieved my yellow belt (9th Kyu) in Goju Ryu, I tried a 3rd dojo, and a 3rd style. By this time I had well and truly realised that there were lots of styles other than the one I started in and the one the dojo I first visited trained in. My original instructor explained the unwritten rules of “cross training” as gently as he could, though in a fairly black and white terms. Essentially this boiled down to a Japanese version of “When in Rome, do as the Romans!”
I continued my cross training for about another 9 months and for at least the first few months of that I became obsessed with compartmentalising everything to the point where I would wear different dogi to different dojo and attempt to execute techniques in exactly the way each style expected of me. Putting anything in a box is kind of fraught, but let’s be realistic, when you have virtually no context and everything is new, it’s a rational coping mechanism. However, coping was about as far as it went. I held it all together but only just. I am not sure how the instructors managed to hold it all together as I stumbled my way through those months…..but I guess patience is part and parcel in this game……for everyone…..as is learning from one’s mistakes!!
About a year ago I made a decision to change primary styles (and joined that 3rd dojo). Even after I changed dojo I still cross trained at my original dojo as long as it kept going. There were various reasons for my decision to change styles and to be honest the whole cross training thing was only a minor factor, because I really had not worked out the implications of it for me or anyone else short of the expectations which had been set before me.
Once I stopped cross training and started training in just one style, a lot happened, both in terms of my progress in karate, and in terms of my now somewhat more profound understanding of style. It could be argued that these changes are only related to increased exposure, or experience, or instruction, or networking with other karate-ka, and I acknowledge that these things certainly contribute. However, focussing on one style has allowed me the time and head space to achieve a deeper insight into the style I am studying and where it fits in to the picture of traditional Okinawan / Japanese Karate in general. This has helped me to appreciate the differences between it and other styles.
There is no right or wrong; only different. There are no boxes, only fluidity. It’s all karate. It’s all beautiful in its own way, and although there are differences there are also commonalities, not just in technique but in spirit and attitude. Consequently, when I attend workshops run by instructors of other dojo I know “it’s not my style, but there’s a smile on my dial all the while” because I know I am going to learn something a bit different. In the process of all this exploration (likely to be ongoing), I have been able to find a place where I fit in.