An Interview with Sensei Dawkins

By Hali Serrian

Sensei Ben Dawkins is one of Athens Yoshukai Karate’s most enthusiastic students. At Athens Yoshukai, he fulfilled a number of roles, including kickstarting the Tate classes, serving as Senior Instructor, and initiating the Instructor Apprentice discussions.  Now he serves as Head Instructor for his own school, Upstate Yoshukai Karate.  I thought there were some tidbits we could all learn from Sensei Dawkins, and so wanted to interview him about his martial arts experience.  Here’s what I learned:

Athens Yoshukai Karate Dawkins Young

Sensei Dawkins is on the right

Hali Serrian: How long have you been studying martial arts?

Sensei Dawkins: I started martial arts at age 6, studying Tang Soo Do in the Atlanta area.  I trained until I was 11 and about to take my first degree brown belt test (3rd keup).  After we moved, I didn’t pick up the martial arts again for years.

HS: What first got you into Yoshukai karate?

SD: In 2010, I was talking with my friend Joel Dover, and the topic moved to martial arts.  He told me a bit about Athens Yoshukai, and I mentioned that I would have gotten back into martial arts years ago if it wasn’t for the cost.  He told me a bit more about the dojo’s not-for-profit philosophy, and I observed a class that night.  I started the following fall, and I began training in Kyuki-do and Hapkido the following spring.  A bit later, I also began studying Judo and IOKA kobudo.

HS: How have you participated in the WYKKO?

SD: Besides work in the Athens Yoshukai dojo, my participation in the WYKKO as a larger body has mainly been through the organization events and making friends with other WYKKO practitioners.  Lately, teaching at Upstate Yoshukai, my dojo, has allowed me to become more directly involved in the WYKKO, and I look forward to being more involved as time goes by.

HS: What made you want to have your own dojo?

SD: I knew fairly early on that I would want to continue teaching martial arts.  They’ve become so important to my everyday life that I can’t imagine not being involved.  Teaching here in Spartanburg is a natural extension of that, and, for a pseudo-selfish reason, I wanted to continue actively training, so I found students I can train with!

HS: How did you decide what to charge for classes?

SD: First, I spoke with the director of the community center where I teach.  I got a sense of the cost of the various activities at the center.  I knew I couldn’t support free classes at this point in my professional/financial life, so I settled on $25, which seemed like a good figure–substantial enough to be serious, but inexpensive enough to incentivize starting right away.

HS: How would you like to see your dojo develop over time?

SD: Once finances allow, I would like to teach martial arts full time.  As for my current program, I would like for it to continue to be an outreach for the martial arts in the area.  I believe strongly in the martial arts as a way to build respectful, healthy, confident citizens, and I hope that Upstate Yoshukai will reach many, many students in the years to come.

HS: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to start their own dojo?

SD: The first important step for those who want to start their own dojo is to immediately partner with their instructors, who are a wealth of knowledge and can get the ball rolling much sooner than feeling blindly on your own.  Ideally, you should have already been teaching and engaged actively with your home dojo.  From there, pick a start date and get to teaching!  There are so many aspects of being a head instructor that must be learned by direct experience.  But, it is extremely difficult to get started without the help of an experienced instructor.  There is no substitute for that kind of help.

HS: What are some of the differences in your teaching style when it comes to kids vs. adults?

SD: With adults/older youth, I am much more content/big picture oriented.  Martial arts have such deep philosophical roots, and they are also engaged with anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology.  I’ve found that many adults find this aspect fascinating, and when adults know why they’re doing the same kick hundreds of times, they’ll do it.

With kids, I couch a lot of training in games.  They’ll be kicking, punching, blocking, and sweating, but as long as they’re smiling and happy, they’ll run until well after most adults are out of gas.  I’ve found that content has to be introduced in a fun and engaging way–kids won’t do it if it’s not fun, even if they see the long-term benefit.  I’ve found my enthusiasm is contagious with kids.  Their parents really seem to enjoy how excited their kids get, as well.

HS: How has your teaching developed and changed over your years of instruction?

SD: It’s hard to describe how my teaching has changed because it’s a very fluid process.  I’m an educator professionally as well, so I’m well in tune with pedagogical strategies and theory.  In practice, I’m finding ways to engage each student at his/her personal wheelhouse.  It’s hard to do, and it requires constant observation and empathy to really find what might excite one individual student vs. another.  I strive always to be positive, but I want my students to know that I’m not going to accept mediocre effort.  Not everyone is a natural athlete, but everyone can give his/her best effort.

HS: What are some of your best memories of martial arts?

SD: My best memories are of great classes, which inspire me greatly.  There have been AthensYoshukaiKarateDawkinsGreenbeltdays that I didn’t really feel like training, but 15 minutes into class, I’ve forgotten why I’m tired and I just get into the learning.  I hope I always love class as much as I do.  Big events and trips are fun, and I love being involved at that level, but amazing classes are really where it’s at for me.

HS: Can you tell us about some of the more difficult parts of your experience as a martial artist?

SD: My more difficult experiences with the martial arts have been at the hands of “bad tough guy” martial artists.  I don’t mind intensity, and I don’t mind people who love fighting, practical training, and really painful techniques.  I mind when a martial artist’s ego gets so wild that he/she has to tear down everyone else on the floor.  Dealing with those experiences has always been hard, and whenever I feel myself getting a bit too “tough guy” in class, I remind myself how it feels to be treated like an inferior by someone who is supposed to be teaching.

Another big challenge was in the development of stamina and cardio.  When I started martial arts, a tough class would really knock me on my behind.  I’ve enjoyed working hard on my physical fitness, and I feel the benefits every day.

HS: What is your favorite weapon?

SD: My favorite weapon is the sai because it is also the weapon I have the most trouble with.  I just want to make it awesome, so I work and work with the weapon.  It feels so potentially effective, and they’re just fun to hold onto.  Nunchaku is fun, and the bo is also beautiful in its line and requisite precision.  But, to me, the sai is the weapon that requires the most skill to even start to use.

HS: What was your hardest test and why?

SD: My hardest test was my 3rd kyu green belt test.  It wasn’t that the test was so much [more] difficult than others, but I was testing in a gymnasium at the East Athens Community Center, and it was so hot that for the most part, I had no idea where I was.  It took everything I had to keep it together for that one!

HS: Your best test?

SD: My best test was my shodan test.  It was the culmination of months of intense training, and I felt like I pushed myself to the edge to get my technique and conditioning ready.  All of that work made the shodan testing experience so fantastic for me, and I’m really proud of how it turned out.

HS: When you don’t have time to train like you’d prefer, what do you do?

SD: If I only have time to run through a form or two, I’ll work through the rest in my head.  It’s a process called eupraxia, and major psychological studies have shown that concentrated mental practice engages the same portions of the lateral cerebellum as the actual practice.  Of course, it can’t all be mental practice, but until I can perform a technique, form, or combination in my head, I can’t be certain I really know it.

HS: Was there a moment when you knew you were going to stick with Yoshukai?

SD: I was a new blue belt at the first annual Athens/Clarke Yoshukai karate cabins.  I was training hard in the grass by a lake, and I felt fantastic about the training and the people involved.

HS: Everyone knows you have an awesome knowledge of kiai. What’s one of the most common mistakes you see with kiai and what are the most important things to developing good kiai?

SD: I think most people think that kiai must first be loud.  I disagree–loudness is a byproduct.  Kiai has to originate from the core.  Some will say “breathe from the diaphragm.”  Again, I disagree.  The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, and an individual has very little control over that.  Instead, I say focus on breathing as low as possible, from the abdominal muscles.  That’s where efficient breath lives, and then from there, experiment with your most natural vocal range–like the pitch that comes out of you when you sigh.  From there, set that sigh on fire and let it go.  That’s a kiai, and if it’s born from that place, it will be loud, distinctive, and real.

HS: Is there some story that should go down as legendary from your martial arts experiences?

SD: There are a few that my training partners will tell–I don’t know if they’re legendary, but they’re definitely fun:

-I once ran a class where literally every student who walked in complained about how cold it was.  I ran a warm-up until I saw condensation running down the mirrors, and then I asked if anyone felt cold.  I still hear about that one.

-I remember a fight class where we all sweated so much that the floors were dangerously slick–that was a lot of fun, and I was extremely sore for the better part of a week.

-I remember watching a fellow student test for 1st kyu while running a pretty rough fever–he didn’t think I knew, but I was definitely impressed.

-I remember several instances of 1,000 jumping jack classes–the dread on newer students’ faces, and the pride of having done it, especially when we did more like 1500 jumping jacks.

-I remember the first time I saw Soke–the man looked like something out of a samurai movie.

HS: Anything else you think we should know?

SD: The WYKKO is a large enough organization to enjoy all of the benefits of camaraderie and excellent training.  But, remember that it is also small enough that *you* can get involved in a substantive way.  Think about how you want to get involved, and talk to you instructor about your options!

So there you have it!  If you haven’t met Sensei Dawkins yet, be sure to next time he makes his way to Athens. He truly is a fountain of Yoshukai knowledge as well as a pretty cool guy in general.

AthensYoshukaiKarateDawkinsNiseishi

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Kata

By Hali Serrian

In Yoshukai, we have 19 colored belt forms, or kata. There are even more after blackbelt. Kata are one of the main units by which we measure progress toward our next rank. But why do we learn kata? Why don’t we just punch and kick and fight each other? What purpose does a glorified stately dance serve?

In the days of old, practitioners of karate may have known three kata, and that is if they were Masters with years and years of experience. Most only knew one, maybe two and these were still considered Masters. This is because, for these learners, the kata was the style. It was a system of martial arts in and of itself. The form was merely the training tool for practicing that system. It put all the techniques together in a kinetic pneumonic so that they could be easily remembered and practiced. Our kata today are derived from that ancient system.Athens Yoshukai Karate Kata

Our more traditional forms like Seisan, Chinto, and Bassai, are the forms that the old Masters might have known. These forms can be studied for years with something new to learn with each repetition. They often include multiple ‘acts’ or sections with a slightly different focus in each. They were created to be practiced alone or with the supervision only of the one who taught it to you.

The forms which are more modern and unique to individual styles (Kihon Kata Shodan, Nidan, etc.) have been created to teach the basics of a style before more complex forms are introduced. For those of us who practice karate for sport or as a lifestyle (we all fall into this category for the most part) this helps us get the hang of things before we advance further. Yoshukai’s classic example is in learning Yoshu, our highest form pre-blackbelt. Without Kihon Kata and Kihon Kata Shodan Nunchaku to teach the weapon’s basics, Yoshu would be too big a bite for many of us to chew.

Forms teach us the basics of our style and they can teach us an entire fighting system if we let them. They are for performance in tournaments and for cardio when performed one after the other without rest. They can be applied to self defense and thought about in the abstract. Kata are an integral part to modern karate and, of course, they’re fun!

A Gift From Sensei

Athens Yoshukai Karate MugBy Erik Hofmeister

Training at Athens Yoshukai is demanding.  There’s an expectation for a high degree of performance and great dedication to the dojo and organization.  When a student reaches green belt, they’re about halfway through the path to their black belt.  In order to test to green belt, you need to learn Seisan, one of the most complex forms we teach.  Earning a green belt is a sincere accomplishment in our school.  Students have invested a substantial amount of time and energy to achieve that rank.  At green belt, I invest a special amount of time and energy in each student in the form of an engraved mug.

When the dojo first opened, students brought their own water bottles to class.  Sensei Blumreich donated the water dispenser we use now, which begged the question as to how I would handle cups.  Would I have a cup dispenser which required refilling and contributed to waste?  Would students just be able to fill the bottles they brought?  I decided to have a rack put in to hold the mugs of individual students who had put in the time and dedication necessary to earn their green belt.  It is a small acknowledgement, but one that indicates that I feel they are becoming a permanent part of the dojo.

The first mugs I made were for Sensei Hines and Blumreich when they earned their green belt.  I wanted to show them how much their achievement meant to me by spending my own personal time to engrave personalized mugs for them.  Thereafter, I kept up with the tradition.  Students who transferred or left the dojo took their mugs with them, and I’d like to think they remember them fondly for the years they spent training at Athens Yoshukai.

I rarely make the mugs on demand, because they require a substantial time commitment to make.  I batch them when several students have earned their green belt.  Sometimes this means a student has to stick around for a while after earning green belt to receive their mug, whereas others get it right away.  The etchings are imperfect, but are not intended to be artistic or precise.  They are intended to convey my sincere appreciation to the student for their continued and ongoing efforts.  It’s my way of showing that I am paying attention and acknowledge their accomplishments by investing even more of my personal self in their progress at Athens Yoshukai Karate.  It a genuine gift from me to them.

 

For those who are interested, my process is described below.

  1. Acquire mugs.  I use a very basic type of sturdy mug acquired at Bed Bath and Beyond.
  2. Print stencil.  This uses an Asian-looking font which has changed slightly over the years.  I use the student’s last names.
  3. Cut out stencil.  I place the paper on a wood cutting board and take a sharp utility knife to cut out the letters.
  4. Use stencil.  I tape the stencil to the mug, then use a permanent marker to fill in the cut-out letter shapes.  After removal, the student’s last name is printed in an Asian font on the mug in marker.Athens Yoshukai Karate Mug Stencil
  5. Etch.  I use a diamond-tipped bit on my Dremmel.  I trace the edges of the ink and then fill it in.  I use a vacuum to remove the glass dust periodically.Athens Yoshukai Karate Mug EtcherAthens Yoshukai Karate Mug Glass DustAthensYoshukaiKarateNProgression
  6. Once the initial etch is done, I go back over it to do clean up and make sure the lines are as smooth as I can make them.
  7. After the entire name is done, I go over it again to fill in any small defects.Athens Yoshukai Karate Finished Mug
  8. I use an ink remover to remove any residual permanent marker.
  9. The mugs are washed and ready to be gifted!

Kyudo

By Ajay Sharma

A colleague and friend sent me this link.

After watching it I was amazed by the “real-life” application of archery as a combat system. The long history, practicality and versatility are astounding.

We often think of martial arts or fighting arts as being primarily eastern or Asian in origin. However, all humankind has engaged in fighting and warfare regardless of geography or culture. This has led to the development of distinct but strikingly similar styles and methods of fighting practices. This makes sense when you think about the universality of physics and human biology. The Japanese form of archery is called kyudo. It is interesting to note that some aspects of original combat archery have been preserved in kyudo such as holding arrows in the right hand and loading the arrow on the right side of the bow. This video also reminded me to continually search for meaning in martial arts and to sometimes question the “modern” modifications in terms of fighting merit. I am glad that Yoshukai and our dojo teaches the historical rituals and emphasizes the practical combat aspects (bunkai) of the martial arts. Excellence in the martial arts requires strength, stamina, flexibility, precision and mastery of technique – Lars Anderson is probably archery’s equivalent of Soke!

Osu!

Instructor Apprentice Program Plan

By Erik Hofmeister

In 2012, I received a small raise due to salary compression.  This was nice, but not necessary- we have the lifestyle we want, we save a bit of money each year, so I didn’t have anything to do with the added salary.  Since we like to give back to the community, and the amount was close to the amount we get from people renting from us, I thought I could comp the rent for a karate student interested in more in-depth training.  Sensei McCandless, Sensei Dawkins, and I would talk often about martial arts topics, since we lived in the same house.  I thought the environment could be enriching for someone else.  Furthermore, Sensei Dawkins would be leaving in the summer of 2014.  We could either replace him with a generic roommate or with a karate student.

Shihan Garduque had introduced me to the concept of an uchideshi years ago.  An uchideshi is a live-in student who usually takes care of the dojo and lives at or near the dojo.  He was an uchideshi for Shihan Torruella, and he also was an uchideshi for Soke for a short period of time.  After searching online, I found many uchideshi programs, but they were all for-pay setups, and not like the more traditional setting I imagined for my dojo.

I finally found the internship program at the Shiramizu Japan Karate Dojo.  They have a blog with a lot of information, have had several interns over the years, and seemed to have a good structure for their program.  I communicated with their program administrator and discussed the idea.  He suggested I not use the uchideshi term, since that implies a kind of servitude which I certainly did not want.  I made several changes- mostly to formalize some of the agreements- and then distributed the idea to the world.

Summer of 2014 marks the start of the Instructor Apprenticeship program for Athens Yoshukai.  It was born out of my desire to make the world a better place and help out students who may be in financial straights.  I was also passionate about sharing good conversations about martial arts with more people, now that I didn’t regularly have Sensei McCandless or Dawkins to talk to.  The program will hopefully serve the dojo, and the Apprentices, in a fulfilling manner going forward.