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Local Karate Students Awarded Black Belts

A black belt in karate is like a Zen koan, or riddle. It is the hardest thing you may ever do but, paradoxically, anybody can do it. Even the name of a certain style of karate - Goju Ryu, meaning “soft and hard”- seems to be contradictory. For Val Joa and Darren Davis, grading for their black belts in Toronto this summer was a milestone, yet these two students of Central Alberta Martial Arts (CAMA) in Sylvan Lake say “its just the beginning.”

Sensei Christine Braun compares black belt training to completing a university degree, saying “Now they are ready for graduate studies, or a PhD.” Bearing the logo “life skills through karate”, CAMA offers not only self defense and tai chi instruction for individuals and families, but also bullying awareness programs, thai yoga massage, life coaching, and special programs aimed at fostering self esteem and confidence in kids. The Centre is a recipient of “Community Innovation and Involvement Award”.

Braun points out that the dojo kun, or karate school motto, reflects values which their students strive for – modesty, courtesy, respect, and spirit - and which have a positive influence in other areas of the karateka's, or student's, life.

“Its been a very emotional time,” says Braun, referring to the grading experience.“The gift to the community is that we can see that everyone can create changes. They inspire others to find the confidence to discover their path, and to ask how can you make yourself and the world better. “ Braun points out that one of the black belt candidates at the grading in Toronto was legally blind, underscoring her belief that karate is an internal, as well as technical, process.

Braun explains that the Japanese word karate means “empty hands”, but the translation of the term karate do is “way of the empty hand”, a subtle yet powerful difference that points to a life path, rather than simply sport. “This school concentrates on life lessons and the big picture. It molds a person, so I always have it in the back of mind about the fact that there is a proper way to act, and to present myself in this way,” says Davis.

“We all need a way in life to connect to,” Braun says. “We look at [the black belt candidates] uniquely as people, and we have helped them not only technically but in their character as well, leveraging their strengths and helping them to learn how to manage weakness. There has been lots of goal setting, discussing what they need to do both in and outside of the dojo.”

Of his ten year journey toward his black belt, Darren Davis says “it has been an interesting challenge. Its something that I never had to work hard to get out the door for. It was always a goal that I gave myself to keep training for, to get to that point. After a couple of years, it looked possible that it would become a milestone, not only to get there but now to go beyond as well.”

Davis feels that karate suits his tenacious personality. “You get out of it what you put in,” he says. “If you just go through the motions you are not better off, but if you give one hundred percent you will get one hundred percent back. Karate can be stressful, because of the challenge, but I always do the best I can.

Like Davis, Val Joa says the community at CAMA enmeshes with her personality. “I like the whole package, being taken out of my comfort zone. It has made me a stronger person, or at least it has made me recognize my strengths. Maybe its the discipline: its intensive, nothing else exists during that time I am in the dojo.” Joa discovered karate while attending college, then took time off from her practice while raising a family, always hoping to get back to it at some point when family commitments lessened. Her dedication and focus intensified over the past 3 years. “When I wasn't working, I was at the dojo,” she says, adding that this past year she added extra cardio conditioning as well as tai chi to refine her mental focus.

Davis and Joa are two of a total of five individuals who have attained black belts at CAMA since the days of part time lessons in the lower level of the Sylvan Lake Legion building approximately 15 years ago. Braun says black belt recipients must be at least sixteen years old, and that it takes about six or seven years to obtain this rank. In June, the two Sylvan Lake students participated in a three day belt grading with the teachers and other members of an associated dojo in Brampton, Ontario. Along with written assignments, attending seminars and practice, the formal grading consisted of performing basic self defense, sparring, demonstrating kata – a series of memorized, focused self defense movements – and use of special karate weapons.

Coincidentally, the pair happened to be among the older of the participants, but Braun says this was “a beautiful opportunity for them to provide patience and wisdom as a complement to that freshness, that dynamic thirst for life of the younger students.”

Davis, who is asthmatic, says that sparring three times back to back, made that component of the grading a challenge, but for Joa “going on the ground” during the self defense component was a mental demand. “I have been frustrated at times with that, and have an emotional response to grappling and ground work. It has taken me a couple of years to get past that,” she says. Both Davis and Joa are emphatic, though, that giving up was never an option. “You just keep going,” according to Davis. “At this level I wasn't going to ever stop. The worse thing is to quit.” Joa adds that all their mental and physical training up to this point has taught them to push through nervousness and doubt.

“There has got to be a lot of trust between a student and their Sensei,” she says. “And you know that they won't ask you to do something that they don't believe you can do. So, if you are invited to a grading, you just know that is what you are going to do. In fact, I was the most nervous at my yellow belt grading, because I didn't know what to expect back then. But you don't have to be perfect, you just have to come to it with all you have, and then make of it the best you can.”

The physical demands, the essay writing – never mind having to complete 1000 push-ups over the days of the grading - would be more than enough for most of us. But Joa says she was inspired by the other belt candidates of all ages and physical conditions, making their passion for martial arts a priority in their lives. Upon their return from Toronto, the pair gave a grading and board breaking demonstration in Sylvan Lake, attended by friends, family members, and other CAMA students. They were then presented with their black belts by Sensei Dennis Braun and Sensei Christine Braun, who noted that it was a great pleasure to present a black belt to another woman.

“The biggest thing I learned was that I have so much to learn!” says Davis, of the experience. “In a gym, full of aspiring black belts, I would look at the depth of knowledge there, whether a new kata or in knowledge of the weapons or tai chi, and it was mind blowing to know that there is so much to learn, I can do this the rest of my life and still not learn it all.”

In the past, the pair have assisted in teaching at Sylvan Lake and Rimbey dojos, and both state they will continue to look for ways to serve. “I'm a big believer in giving back to the community, and this community really supports us,” according to Joa, a sentiment seconded by Davis, who adds that karate teaches one to be humble. In fact, he says, “The higher you get, the more humble you become. Black belts are among some of the nicest people I have ever met. They go out of their way to help you, and totally lack arrogance.”

“Although the modern age stresses a sport or tournament competition in karate, the traditional art aspect embraced the internal process of perfecting your character, as well, “ Braun explains. “Beyond the technical aspect, it is important to have awareness, and focus, to never, ever give up, to put spirit first. Combined with technical growth, the development and strengthening of character can give you a positive outlook. When you learn how to cultivate your spirit, you create a positive life, and a positive impact on others.”

“A black belt student commits to the Samurai kun to serve,” says Braun. “They have a responsibility to know their own self, to heal themselves, to live with passion, and to help others do the same.”

 Article appeared in Central Alberta Sports NewsSylvan Lake News September, 2011

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