The first lesson I learnt this week, I learnt about an hour before the lesson itself;
Lesson One: I have a negative body image. A fairly huge one.
There’s a cheap joke I’m not making here about how that seems only fair because I have a fairly huge body.
See that space? Up there? That’s where the joke I’m not making would sit.
This realization came to me six and three quarter days after being told at the end of the last session that we wouldn’t be able to wear t-shirts under our gi jackets from this week. The gi by the way is the thick, cotton suit you wear when you train or compete in Judo. It’s deliberately outsized because a lot of the sport is about getting a grip on the jacket in particular and using that to put your opponent where you want them. It’s an iconic garment, bulky and designed to protect you and baggy enough to give you freedom of movement and the jacket comes undone constantly because that’s where you and your opponent are holding onto each other.
Opened jacket and no t-shirt meant exposed manflesh. My exposed manflesh. My white, chubby exposed manflesh. I was not happy about this, in the slightest, to the tune of getting panicky to the point of a lump in my throat on my way down there. I didn’t want people who actually have muscles on their body to see my Baron Harkonnen from Dune-like torso and recoil in horror or laugh, or both. After all, I’m a nerd! Look at my shiny brain! Pay no attention to the meatsuit!
So that was lesson one and I decided to attempt to deal with this by telling Steve, my training partner. Steve sympathised, told me he had a similar problem and, whilst he had a gi left over from the period where he took Karate, was quite happy to stand in front of me whilst I grabbed one of the club jackets and slung it over my white, pallid torso. I thanked him for this, told him it wouldn’t be necessary and only later did it occur to me that this was the first piece of Judo I learnt that night; sometimes you get someone to go where you want them to go, by agreeing with them. Reverse psychology for fun and profit, or in this case, fitness. Or, to be more accurate, lack of fitness, which led to lesson two.
The first section of each session is a warm up, which always starts out the same way. We jog around the mat and do exercises that the teachers call out to us. These start out with things like touching your right hand to the mat, then your left, then both, then your right ear.
Then running side on, then backwards, then forwards, all of which is designed to teach us how important it is to:
A)Have rock-solid cardio vascular fitness.
B)Be able to move quickly whilst keeping your feet as close to the ground as possible. The bigger the gap, the easier it is to trip you, pull you, push you, put you on your arse or your back.
C)Make me see a white tunnel of light with my ancestors beckoning me towards them.
This became particularly apparent, weirdly, during what should have been a relatively easy exercise. After managing three forward rolls in a row instead of two like last week, we were told to commando crawl down the mat towards the red section, then do five sit ups and five press ups. This I can do, crawling I can do, press ups I can do, sit ups? I can impersonate. But, after everything else this just blindsided me, the crawl became me dragging myself down the mat and by the time I got through the press ups I was about done. But, of course, I wanted to keep going, no pain no gain, that which does not kill you makes you stronger and all that other masochistic nonsense. Then they called out the next exercise which filled me with terror, or would if I still had any part of my body that wasn’t filled with the desperate need for oxygen.
There’d been a seminar the previous weekend taken by Craig Fallon, an international-level Judoka which meant that after the usual stuff, we were told to pair up, one person on all fours, the other standing on their back as they walked across the mat and back again.
I’m six foot one. Steve is six foot three. Neither of us are small. Even through my ridiculously bad vision I was able to see Steve walk over, kneel by the side of the mat and say ‘You know what? I think we should sit this one out.’
We did. And the one that followed it where one person had to crawl on all fours across the mat whilst the other did a handstand on their back. Later, Steve explained to me that this was something he’d learnt at Karate; there is never any shame in knowing when you’re going past the red line into full on exhaustion and sitting out on an exercise you know you can’t do. Hence;
Lesson Two: Get a training buddy. TRUST your training buddy.
After warm up we were taken off to one side by Phil, one of the instructors who works with beginners. He very, very sensibly took us through the hold down we’d learnt the previous week as well as breakfalls and then moved us onto two new throws. One of these, tai otoshi or ‘body drop’ is a fascinating, and elegant move where you grab your opponent, turn in place and use their momentum to carry them over your outstretched leg to land neatly on the mat, or near the mat. We are, after all, beginners.
Phil walked us through this movement by movement, repeating each one until it was second nature before folding the next one in and finally, executing the move. It’s not perfect, not close, after all, I’ve had ten minutes to practice the thing, but…I really, really like it. It’s the combination of grace and strength, physics and motion that really appeals to me, and the fact I was good at it, first time, is really pleasing to me.
Lesson three though, comes from how I was taught it, motion by motion, repetition building on repetition until it’s second nature and you, or your opponent, are sailing through the air before landing on your side on the mat.
Lesson Three: Every move is made of smaller moves. Learn them first, chain them together,.
By the end of the session I was tired, I was sore (I’d pulled a muscle in the bottom right hand quadrant of my chest which, unfortunately, I described after the lesson as ‘spraining my tubby’, a term which has stuck) but I was warmed up, I’d had fun and I was ready to wind down and go home.
The last ten minutes of each sessions is randori or free-sparring. This is where the instructors swap people around and use different restrictions (Throws only, ground fighting only, that kind of thing) to allow people of various abilities to train together and try out the techniques they’ve learnt. I did not want to do this. Steve did, I followed. See lesson two.
I was asked whether I wanted to spar with Wes, an American who worked at a military base outside one of the nearby towns. Maybe I was tired, maybe I was a little ashamed because I hadn’t wanted to compete and maybe it was the fact everyone is a pink blur to me without my glasses, but I volunteered. We bowed. A large blue blur came towards me, we locked up and began turning, both trying attacks, trying to push the other into a spot where a throw could be landed. I think I managed about eight seconds before Wes dropped me on my arse. Then helped me up, and asked Phil what I’d learnt. We bowed, locked up again, and I tried tai otoshi on him. I threw my not inconsiderable bulk into it, threw every ounce of mass and speed I knew how to into turning in and to the side and pulling him over my thigh.
He moved about half the distance he should, there was a split second pause and then he went the rest of the way himself. He landed perfectly, we bowed, he said well done, I walked off the mat and was almost sick I’d been working so hard. Then, Phil chose to tell me Wes had competed for the US in Judo.
I had just spent two minutes sparring with a US marine fireman who competed internationally in Judo. He hadn’t killed me. He hadn’t injured me. He’d had dozens and dozens of ways out of every single thing I’d thrown at him in what, to him, must have looked like slow motion. He’d let me throw him. He’d helped me.
Lesson Four: Be polite, be courteous, be helpful, learn from everyone and everything.
I’m writing this two days out from the session and whilst my tubby sprain has largely healed, my right knee is complaining very loudly and I don’t care. Because I learnt four lessons on Monday and I’m looking forward to what I learn next week.