Karate: My Way
By Kyoshi Mike Robertson
My first Karate class took place in the basement of the Elora Public library during September 1985. There were books lining the walls, tables and chairs stacked in the corners. Kyoshi J Purdy was pushing a dust mop around in circles. Kyoshi Purdy was a sandan at the time and was about to become my Sensei. I was 12 years old and had very little exposure to the Martial Arts. With the exception of "The Karate Kid", "Star Wars", and a mysterious chimney-sweep (who preferred to break wood with his hands, rather than use a saw), this was my first experience with Karate. At first, the classes were difficult. As my understanding of what we were doing increased, so did my enjoyment. I came to realize that the more I put in, the more I got out. These were my first steps in the way of Karate.
By the time I was approaching green belt, Sensei moved the dojo to the Elora Community Centre. This was the same space where he held his annual tournament. It was at this tournament that I first witnessed Hanshi Bill Hind perform Sanchin. It was an experience that I will never forget! It was outstanding, and I remain inspired to this day. During this time, sensei began his studies at the Meibukan in Okinawa. There was a lot of change going on in our approach to Karate. Our training became more balanced with regard to kata and sparring. Before, classes would consist of 30% kata and 70% sparring. The Okinawan influence was evolving our understanding of the benefits of kata practice. At the culmination of our stay at this dojo, I received my Brown Belt. Within moments of putting on my new belt, Sensei announced to the class "In one year Mike is going to grade to Black Belt, I want everyone to throw him on the ground and hold him there until he stops fighting, each and every time you spar with him." And so the year began.
In 1989, Sensei built his dojo. The students of the dojo volunteered their time and energy, and the building was up and running within a year. What an incredible experience that was! The feeling of community and camaraderie that was developed during the building of the dojo propelled us into a very exciting period of training. We were in a brand new traditional dojo that was dedicated solely to Karate study. It was in an inspirational setting, perched over the serenity of the Elora Gorge. It was go time! A year later, Sensei took me to Toronto to grade to Black Belt. I had been training for 5 years and had been pushed to levels I never thought were possible. My training regimen consisted of running, heavy-bag hitting, weightlifting, kata, and stretching. I was 17 years old and ready to rock and roll! Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. Waiting uncomfortably in the training room at Canada Goju's Danforth Avenue dojo, Sensei approached me and asked me if I was ready. Promptly I responded with the correct answer and assured him that I absolutely was. This was when I first met Hanshi Bill Hind. He popped out from behind my shoulder to assure me, that I had now gained the privilege of grading first. The rest of the day was a blur, somewhere in the midst of which I received my Black Belt. The next morning I realized it was time to start training, and I went for a run.
July of 1992 changed my life forever. My trip to Okinawa opened my eyes to the world. Sensei brought a small group of students with him on one of his regular visits to the Meibukan dojo. It was here that I was introduced to Hanshi Meitatsu Yagi and Dai Sensei Meitoku Yagi. Hanshi Meitatsu's consistency was astounding! Training continuously with the same sensei from childhood to adulthood was a new concept to me. Most of the senseis I had trained with had many influences in their study. Dai Sensei Meitoku Yagi had presence unlike anyone I have ever met. I remember him entering the dojo and instantly turning in his direction and bowing, without thought. We had the privilege of being present a few times when he would work with Sensei J. On occasion he would ask us to perform a kata. I still practice the two corrections he gave me every day: "slowly" and "block to the outside, strike from the inside". My perspective of what Karate is, was greatly enhanced by this experience. In Okinawa Karate was not cool, interesting, weird, mysterious, or different - it was normal. It was what it is, Karate.
After returning home from Okinawa my appetite for knowledge was insatiable. I had been completely unaware of how little I had known! The dojo was a sanctuary for me. Sensei had given me a key and I took full advantage of it! Being in my early twenties, this was very beneficial. Without the opportunity to do this type of training, I would not be the person who I am today. I practiced, watched, listened, read, and absorbed everything I could. My confidence began to build as my success with dojo relationships improved. I felt very comfortable in the dojo and loved to be there, all the time! My ability to communicate and express myself within the dojo was beginning to mature. And then, I left the dojo and didn't come back for a year. I was concerned that my new found life skills were only the product of the dojo environment and would not apply to the outside world. Life pulled me through many adventures - I practiced kata with rivers, lakes, oceans, gorges, mountains, and a treetop platform in a rainforest. Eventually I came to see that karate was the same everywhere, it wasn't outside me, it was inside me. I returned to the dojo and fully committed to my training.
Kata, heavy-bag hitting and running was the core of my training for the next 3 years. I practiced all 17 of my katas 4 times each. Each repetition I would do facing towards a different wall of the dojo. Some days I would rotate through the walls clockwise, other days I would go counter-clockwise. Some days I would go front-back, left-right. And occasionally I would simply allow the inertia of the universe to dictate which direction I would face next. Sensei had a 250lb leather heavy bag that bit back if you didn't hit it right! My bag workout consisted of 500 repetitions - sets of 50 per side for standing reverse punch, body shifting lunge punch, hopping front kick with lead leg, step up side kick, and back leg round-house kick. I ran everywhere I went. I attended as many classes as possible, sometimes taking 2 back to back. Then I lifted weights to put myself to sleep. My training during this time was more intense than it had ever been, and the results started to happen. I felt more alive than I have in my entire life. One February day, when Sensei was driving me to the White Dragon Championships in Walkerton, he suggested I consider opening my own dojo in Elmira. My mind being a little preoccupied, I didn't fare very well at that tournament! In March of 1998, I opened Elmira Karate Dojo.
During this period of my life I had limited resources. All I had was the money in my pocket, my body for transportation, and no business skills. Sensei extended his guidance and gave me the building blocks necessary to develop a successful dojo. He drove me to Elmira and helped me to find and rent a space for teaching We went to the newspaper office to place an ad and then to the printers to get flyers made up. Without Sensei continually supported me and my dojo, I wouldn’t have made it through the first 3 months! When opening day arrived, I was faced with the reality of living in Elora while running a dojo in Elmira. There is a 20km space between the two towns! Panicked, I started searching for someone who could give me a ride to my very soon to start first class. I found an old friend who had a car and was willing to exchange a free Karate class for a ride to and from Elmira. What a relief! That first night I taught 30 students and started to understand what I had got myself into. The next day I bought a used bicycle for $20 and resolved to ride back and forth to Elmira. I rode through thunderstorms and darkness, pain and angst. My resolve was tested many times on those backcountry roads. But I had committed myself to introducing Karate to Elmira and providing the community with a dojo for generations to come. I was not going to quit and I did not. And so I began to understand the value of following through.
Four locations, 500 students and 12 black belts later, Elmira Karate Dojo is now located in the gymnasium of St. James Lutheran Church in Elmira. I was fortunate enough to have met and wed my soul mate, Barb Lamble. We have a beautiful child named Cole, who we have been sharing our lives with for 3 years. Sensei Barb, has graded to sandan level and opened her own dojo in Elora.
Karate-do has brought me somewhere I never anticipated - exactly where I want to be. I am myself, Karate is my way.