My Journey to Black Belt
by Richard Johnson
It was roughly fourteen years ago when my journey began. It started quite unexpectedly since I had not set out to obtain a black belt in martial arts but to relieve stress and anxiety which had crept up upon me unexpectedly. Being quite athletic in my younger years, I had always been quite active in some sort of sport throughout the year which had apparently allowed me to circumvent the stresses of life. It wasn’t until after I graduated college, was working full time and had attempted to return to college to obtain a Master’s degree that I realized that I was no longer impervious to stress. At that time in my life, money was very tight, of course, as a result of renting an apartment, driving an ‘85 Toyota Supra and commuting roughly 35 miles to work one way, each day. Although I continued to press on with my ambition in college, I did not realize that the more I pushed forward, the less I was mentally able to handle the stresses that were slowly building.
“The stress and anxiety in my life had finally reached a plateau”
I believe that I was extremely lucky one evening when I was driving to college for class. Like most people in New Jersey, I like to drive fast (my wife would vouch as she yells at me all the time about it). I had received a notice from the school that my classes were to be cancelled due to my lack of payment for the semester. I thought that I would get there earlier to straighten the financial issues out with the Bursar office, but instead I drove home. While driving very fast on the highway, I blacked out. The stress and anxiety in my life had finally reached a plateau. However, I must have been guided that evening because I didn’t remember the two exits I passed or the busy traffic I awoke in, but I was still within the lane I was originally driving in. I realized at that point that I needed to do something and it had to happen fast. I couldn’t drive fast enough to get home while my heartbeat hastened to a point I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I couldn’t watch the TV that evening without dripping in sweat with elevated body temperatures. From that point, life had changed and quickly.
Being an avid Howard Stern listener at the time, I would constantly listen to Howard discuss Tiger Schulmann’s Karate and Fitness Center on the radio. After listening to the commercial every day, I decided to call the number provided. I was directed to the school in Hackensack, where I attended under Sensei Tirelli’s direction, since this school was the closest to Belleville where I had been living at the time. Although I was still strapped for cash, I sprung for the instructions the good ‘ol American way by using my credit cards. Of course, the expenditure didn’t make my financial stresses go away, it had augmented them, however at least I now had a means of working those stresses from my body and mind, so I wound up feeling better although I shouldn’t have. I had always wanted to take karate lessons as a kid after watching Kung Fu Theater every Saturday, but other sports had always taken precedence. I never realized the total body workout that could be achieved until the first week I attended classes. It was a good school with good people who always pushed your abilities and/or limitations to gain better results. Besides, the feelings of relief after class were such a welcome release from the stresses and anxiety of the day that I was hooked immediately.
I attended classes in Hackensack until I reached my yellow belt and was testing for my green belt. However, life has ways of turning things upside down and sideways as it had done for me roughly two years later. We are always told in class not to kick with our toes when executing the round kick, well I did anyway. The result was a broken big toe on my left foot. As I recall, I was Joshu Bop’s first injury. I laugh about it now, but didn’t find it funny at the time. With the broken toe, increased responsibilities at work, the end of my lease in Belleville, and a move eminent, I attended classes more infrequently. I ultimately stopped when I realized that I could no longer gain the benefits of karate while making sacrifices with my new family, my wife, and daughter (she now attends class also). We were renting a house in Morris County at the time and found that travelling, and late nights which had resulted, were becoming more burdensome to my family. I also needed to have second job to assist with our new financial woes. No longer attending classes became an obvious choice. In lieu of TSK, I turned to a local karate school which had exhibited a similar style to compensate for the lack of exercise I so desperately needed mentally.
The local school was a short distance from the house we rented. It was convenient, yes, but not really worth it, although I didn’t pay much for classes. I say that only because I did not receive the full body workout I yearned for, although I did receive a well structured, traditional karate lesson. I left class more intelligent, but still stressed. After about a year, I stopped going. It had lost its luster. Of course, the choice to stop attending class resulted in weight gain caused by the lack of physical exercise and more time to eat.
“I waited patiently for the TSK”
Several years had passed, about fifty pounds were gained, we bought a house, we had a son (he also attends classes), and I found myself at the doctor’s office one day. The doctor’s tone during our conversation was one of concern. He insisted that I lose some weight because of the blood test administered days before did not come back with the anticipated results. Instead, several items tested were high and/or above the desired limits recommended. I had only taken the blood tests as a result of mistaken identity. The doctor’s office had pulled another’s chart with the same name. Again, life was playing with me, however, this time for the best. Ironically, around this time, I had received some news that a TSK was opening not far from our house in Rockaway. I convinced my doctor, after my second visit and the same results, to allow me an extended period to attempt to lose weight and correct the issues he saw without having to take daily medication. He finally agreed as he advised me of the upcoming outcome if I hadn’t improved, and I waited patiently for the TSK to open.
I finally started to attend classes once again. I made an impression with my yellow belt and black stripes on my white pants on my first day, since the school was full of white belts. Apparently the Black Belt Club was a thing of the past as were the stars on my shoulder, although I stood out because of them. I maintained my yellow belt status until Sensei Phillips felt I had regained and exceeded the requirements to obtain my green belt. It had been roughly ten years since I had been promoted last and was exuberant on the day it had happened. The follow up visit at the doctor’s office yielded better results so I was able to stay medication free, which was an added plus.
I have and continue to train hard and to learn from my instructor, Joshu Castro. Now, fourteen years later, I am finally at the end of my journey. However, I have always considered my ever winding road to black belt as the first chapter of my life in karate. As this chapter ends, another begins as it is my intention to continue with karate as a Joshu. I’m not sure that being a Sensei is currently in my path, but as one can see, life has a way of changing, and quickly.
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