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Shotokan Karate, Pain, and Cancer... A Close relationship

One of the great ironies that I find when I am teaching karate is to ensure that, of course, all health and safety rules are observed. In this "let’s sue anybody that we can world” that daytime TV, and commercial radio propagate every few minutes. We have an immediate duty of care to ensure that nobody falls over, bangs into pillars, or indeed accidentally hurts themselves, so leaving the instructor open to insurance claims. What I find deeply strange is the fact that having prevented slips, trips, and falls, and all that goes with it, we then teach people how to, well, if honest, hurt each other, as effectively and efficiently as possible, through our study of budo, or, in my case Shotokan Karate Do.

It is vital that we follow the insurance and affiliation rules, ensuring that nobody ends up punching the edge of the dojo walls. However, in the meantime, it is our sole job as senseis to ensure that we actually spend the next hour and a half training to hit each other. This is precisely why they have spent their hard-earned money, and this is what they want.

So teaching people to kick, punch, and block, is all part of that learning curve, and it is a source of wonderment to people like me, that we carve amazing life-long friendships out of this warrior training that we all choose to follow. Where we train together, sweat together, quite often bleed or bruise together, then go back to normal life, a place where we never really meet each other.

What I find incredible in many ways is that when we are in the dojo, training as hard as we can, honing our skills to be as sharp and effective that we can possibly be and standing toe to toe, pushing ourselves to the edge of our being, we quite frankly go hell for leather at each other, and the cuts, bruises and blemishes are there for all to see.

I will never forget my dear friend and former MD Ken Mills, saying to me once when we attended a public meeting about bus service cuts to members of the public, when I arrived with a large bruise across my left eye, and a cut on my chin: "For God's sake, son, why do you do this to yourself?" In fairness, it is hard to explain to people who do not train. All I could say was unless you are part of it, it is truly hard to comprehend just why you are so committed.

After an especially intense kumite session with the senior Dan grades at Halesowen Leisure Centre one day, where Shihan Cyril Cummins would be relentless in his expectations, I would go home and would not notice any more until the next day. Then huge bruises would appear that I hardly noticed. And when we did our kumite demonstrations, myself and Shihan Cummins, we really went for it. No holds barred. Indeed, the videos of BHSKC stand testimony to the intensity, violence, and control that was exercised by a man who was truly, a master of his art. Something I can merely aspire towards.

However, since cancer, my relationship with pain has been interesting. Elements of pain are so disparate that it is hard to remember what pain means. Karate pain is real and instant, and trust me it requires strength when you don’t block a strong punch to your face or ribs. Or even worse, a strong kick to your torso, or dare I say, having your foot swept, and end up on your back with a large foot or fist hovering above your face. That then is a definition of pain that in my experience hardens you up to dealing with medical or cancer pain. It is without doubt a different realm, and if I am perfectly honest, the karate exposure has helped me more than I ever realised as to how I would ever cope with the cancer journey, and the pain that it brings with it.

The wonderful expression that the nurses use when you have a blood test - "slight scratch" - is genius in my opinion. I can not think of a better description or clever marketing campaign.

I remember when I was in hospital after my tumour was cut out. I had a student nurse remove my metal staples. She did well at first, then the senior nurse disappeared. Suddenly, this young girl lost her confidence and for the last six staples, she basically tore my skin away. The pain was horrendous and I dealt with it by using the medium of the kiai. Slightly awkward, as I was on a ward at the time, but hey ho. And there were so many other pain experiences that I went through that you actually forget.

But, if perfectly honest, compared to my life in the dojo, all manageable from that day to this. So, my friends, never underestimate the value of the dojo, and your training and more important, your spirit.

Until next time.


Sensei Austin

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