The word dojo is Japanese for way place. Of course, this can be interpreted in many ways. It can be taken literally to mean a place where you learn the way of karate, or it can be more figurative, meaning where you find your way. I like the second meaning. To me, my dojo is where I find myself, a second home, and where I go to feel complete.
Every week for the past sixteen years of my life I have been walking through the same crystal-clear front door, into the same clean white building. As I open the door I hear the same bebeep bebeep of the doorbell letting everyone in the building know someone has arrived. To the right is Mr. Durkin’s office where, if I listen closely, I can hear a quiet conversation between cellos, violins, and pianos coming from the stereo behind his round wooden desk.
As my mind processes all of this, I am greeted by a cheerful, almost song-like, “Hello, Sara!” (with emphasis on the “He-”) from Mr. Stickney who, as always, is sitting in the blue and gray chair hidden by the old potted tree in the lobby area, preparing his lessons for the day, enjoying the calm before the storm.
Shortly after being greeted by Mr. Stickney, I hear the crisp sweeping sound of Mr. Traynor’s white gi pants shuffling along the flat carpet. Before he is even visible, Mr. Traynor stage-whispers my name from around the corner, “Saraaa!” and I reply with a, “Mr. Traynorrr!” in the same fashion. By the time I finish saying this, Mr. Traynor has appeared under the archway to my left. He greets me with a hand shake and asks his usual, “How ya doin?” After going through the typical small talk, I turn to the right and glance through the seemingly invisible window to the main classroom.
Through the open blinds, I look at the shiny hardwood floor and think about the oddly calming squeaks it makes and the slight bounce it has from the rubber underneath. I think about being a small, shy white belt here for my first class and feeling so insignificant in such a huge room. The students who will be arriving shortly to take class are not far from where I once was. They will arrive with their brightly colored belts, full of energy, wide-eyed, and eager to learn. Back then, I would look up at all of the black belt diplomas around the room and think that I was so far away from receiving my own black belt. Back then, the dojo was just a fun place to go after school. I did not realize that in a few short years it would be my entire life.
Next, I proceed under the archway, past the bulletin board bursting with colorful posters advertising our next big events. I glance at the monthly schedules to see who has birthdays today so I can be sure to point it out if they come to class. As I round the corner into my office, I say hello to the ever-so-lazy fish that is sleeping in the fluorescent plant in his tank, and I flop into the black mesh chair behind my neat desk, ready to get to work. As I go through my day, I answer the phone, chat with parents about their days, and talk to excited children about everything they learned at school. Although the day is busy, all I can think about is going to class that night.
Finally, 7:30 is here. As I walk down the hallway from my office to the women’s locker room, I greet the other black belts eagerly waiting for class and ask how their days were. Once I manage to slink my way through the sea of people, I finally make it into the locker room. I quickly change into my gi and tie my belt, making sure the knot is perfect and the two ends line up exactly. Once I finish that knot, my entire mindset is changed. The paperwork I didn’t finish is gone. The homework due tomorrow doesn’t exist. The argument I had with my boyfriend never happened.
Next, I go into the dojo. My feet make the floor boards creak as I step from carpet to hardwood. I take a few steps in and kneel down. I take a deep breath, put my hands softly on the floor, and lower my forehead to them, then sit back up, back straight, hands on my knees, to complete my kneeling bow.
Waiting for class to officially start, I stand up and walk over to the mirrors lining the wall. I stand with my hands in front of me, finger tips shoulder height, elbows tucked in, feet shoulder-width apart, right foot forward and slightly turned in, back foot pin-straight. I practice stepping, striking, turning – all the basic foundation movements that the rest of the curriculum is built upon. I repeat each technique until I correct all the minute details that will make my stance just a little bit stronger and strikes just that much faster. I become lost in my reflection as I continue practicing each move, each strike.
After some time, Mr. Durkin calls the class to attention and asks us to line up. I hustle my way to the back row in the right-hand corner, the same place I always like to stand in class. Mr. Durkin says, “First Sanchin,” and we all snap-to. We stand in impeccable rows and columns, backs straight, hands by our side, eyes glaring in front of us. Twenty black belts perform the kata while Mr. Durkin’s counting acts as a metronome for the chorus of snapping gis and deliberate breathing echoing through the room. Each person’s kata and form acting as the many instruments of an orchestra coming together to create one intricate style of karate.
If someone were watching the class they would not just see a group of people doing the same kata, going through the same, repetitive motions. They would see twenty individuals performing the same movements, but somehow, in different ways – each person’s form and technique different from the rest. This is the beauty of martial arts. You can have twenty people from differing walks of life, join in one room to practice the same moves, from the same teacher. Each person has a common, yet individualized goal of bettering oneself through the martial arts and tailoring our karate in a way that will work for us if we ever needed to defend ourselves. Finding our own way of adapting techniques and molding ourselves both physically and mentally is why we practice in our dojo. We practice our style, our way. We find our way of doing karate, our way of life, our family, our friends. Everything in one Way Place.
Sara Mersereau began training at Buzz Durkin’s Karate School in 2001. Over the years, her karate has helped to improve her confidence, determination, and strength.