The 31 flavors of Bask….Shotokan Karate

My three boys will often coyly approach me, invariably in the presence of their rival siblings, and ask who the favorite is….

My answer has always been, “You three are like my favorite three flavors of ice cream…sometimes I’m in the mood for vanilla and sometimes it’s chocolate or strawberry, but those three flavors will always be my top best picks!”

Many people ask me what I like best about karate, or they ask me to define what I mean when I say we teach traditional shotokan karate-do. This is a simple yet complex question, with equally varied and opaque answers…and the questions and answers  can similarly be reduced to ideas within karate…for example what is “fighting spirit”? To me, fighting spirit is the voice that tells me to get up in the morning and fix my bed. To others, that may be a joke and it may mean something entirely more physical or macho.

So what is traditional karate? Does the fact that we, at Shoshin,  have eliminated competition and tournaments from our curriculum make us more traditional…or conversely those who participate in tournament karate, less traditional? What is it exactly that makes shotokan karate traditional, especially when shotokan itself is a mishmash of shurite, nahate, tomarite….of Okinawan sensibilities mixed with mainland Japanese values?

I know I might sound like a used car salesman when I give different answers to the same question, but in all honesty those answers are not to placate the questioner…they genuinely reflect my sentiments at the time. Maybe an example would help.

Sometimes I go into the dojo and just feel like hitting the bag…violently. I use my elbows, knees, I slap it and have even head butted it. I don’t care if it looks pretty or if its precise. I just hit. Its ugly, but you should see how the bag looks!

At other times I go to the dojo and fixate, and obsessively repeat the minutiae of a movement requiring fine motor skills…knowing full well that in a “real” situation all fine motor skills (hell even control of my bowel movements) will be lost, and therefore utterly useless. And yet, I’m there man, deriving manic pleasure like a man with ecsema and his pumice stone!

And then there are those unicorn and rainbow days…The dojo is all mine, I shut the shades, and off I go to la la land with my katas. I am zen. Broke? Pfft…Divorced? Pfft…Permanently looking the exact opposite of Brad Pitt? Pfft…(come on sing the tune, you know it) ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…you get the picture…

So what’s my point with all this silliness? Karate needs to be relevant to the practitioner, and that relevance can change from time to time. On days that I want zen and peace, I may not want to head butt anything. A good karate school will harness those few flavors within the framework of honesty, hard work, and mutual respect. The fact that shotokan karate can extract relevance is what makes it traditional to the practitioner, and assures its viability for the needs of the next generation.

Now ask me next week, and I may be lactose intolerant and give you a completely different answer!




I Failed My Student

I recently conducted our bi annual testing for the students. Typically I use the  “B” pass or full pass method to measure my students progress. Rank is awarded not on athleticism or physical prowess, but upon an assessment of   (1) time spent  training at the  dojo, and more importantly, (2) whether the student has pushed himself or herself to the limits of their personal potential.

I often tell my students, the actual test is just like the period at the end of the sentence…the sentence itself, the crux of matter, is all the time and effort, and attention to detail you spent in the dojo honing your skills (physical and otherwise) for the previous 6 months.

In fact, testing is as much a testing of me as sensei, as it is of my students, and as my students will vouch, I am an ornery, nervous wreck for the month preceding testing! A student can have a one off and perform poorly on an examination, but knowing that he or she has diligently plied his craft and trade to maximum potential, he knows exactly where he stands. For me however; the test is a deadline for assessing if I was able to tap into whatever it takes to motivate my student to reach their potential.

For me, the test is a moment of truth…did I convey the message I was tasked to convey….or did I fail my student?

The Place for the Way….Dojo

I would often ask Sensei for updates about so and so’s training, abroad.  Sensei would look at me with a sense of sadness and resignation and say…” Well, he is training…but he’s picked a dojo, conveniently near his house where after training, he and the “blokes” go out for a drink. You know… the atmosphere is casual and fun, like a club.”

Sensei’s look was enough for me to understand. He was teaching me, warning me, and rightfully so. Here in sunny California, the casual style is part and parcel of our identity. you know…flip flops, shorts, maybe a T-shirt… Oh no, I’m not kidding!  Just think about it…you don’t see signs warning people “no shirt, no shoes, no service” in the UK, or the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world? So it is an unexaggerated reality.

Admittedly, while there is a comfort and ease to being casual, there’s also a lurking danger with being too casual. It is the natural danger of being lulled into complacency.

The separation of ways must be made in some place. A place where  paths diverge from one’s norm. It may be a church, it may be a temple, or a mosque. Equally so, by its definition it must be the dojo. “Do” meaning the way, and “Jo” meaning the place of, suggests  a place, not of destination, but of travel. A place for the way. A place for the way (dojo) suggest one is pursuing change, betterment, enlightenment. Otherwise we’d call it a gym or studio, or a club, and Sensei would be called, God forbid, a coach or a trainer.

We take measures to ensure that “the way” is enforced. We remove our shoes, we wear our dogi (again the term “do”), and we perform zazen. All these are changes from our norm, prompting us to pursue the “do”.

If one lacks this understanding, and continues the usual casualness, one has lacked the fundamental premise of why they are doing karate-do, even before they have stepped foot in the dojo! Lacking a respect and understanding for the dojo and its way, means believing one has no need for a way, presumably because one already believes they are all that and a bag of chips! For such people, the only way… is the way out. Leave. Find the exit. you’ll be doing yourself a favor by not wasting your time.

Camaraderie may be a by product of the dojo, not the reason for going to the dojo. Camaraderie  comes after the dojo, outside the dojo. In the dojo it’s all about formality, and seriousness and introversion. Even those who train to get a “good workout” at the dojo, have completely missed the point. One comes to the dojo to submit oneself and one’s ego to the way of karate with the help of their sensei, for the betterment of one’s character; therefore, if all you’ve satisfied is a physical workout, you’ve lost.

I encourage myself first, and then all karateka to be mindful and aware of the sanctity of the dojo. From the very moment you wear your dogi you should feel as if something has changed. when you  bow to enter the dojo, feel as if you have entered a different realm, and feel that a way with tremendous depth is about to be presented to you. Follow what your sensei teaches, and submit to the way.

This latter statement will be the topic of my next blog, namely the need for a skill called emotional intelligence. Stay tuned!


Psst…Hey Kid, Why Ya Doin’ That Stuff Anyway?

Every once in awhile, a Sensei is lucky enough to have a student that fully grasps the ethos of traditional karate-do, its structure, its intent and its relative significance to themselves and others within the larger scope of life. Such students, by virtue of their awareness, become quite close confidants to their Sensei.

In a recent conversation with my student, (to save him embarrassment, I’ll leave him anonymous) I lamented the fact that not one of the students in the kids class were there to train on their own volition…and if given the opportunity they would all quit posthaste, including my own sons.

The response he gave was quite revealing and insightful, and I must say I agree. He said it was important to communicate to the students in class, the reasons why they train…the reason why they are pursuing a traditional karate curriculum where training is difficult, austere and repetitive, rather than fun, exciting and entertaining. Furthermore one has to constantly set bars and goals, and remind students that at such and such a stage much more is required and expected of them. Those bars, for example, can be their belt, and one can say…” you are now a yellow belt and I expect yellow belt stances from you”.

He continued by saying (and I am partly surmising and adding my own feelings)  that for him and his family, karate-do represents a microcosm of life, and the struggles one faces in life are played out on a smaller scale on the dojo floor. Overcoming the challenges in the dojo…facing fears, frustrations, boredom, failures even, helps to face similar challenges later in life. But this must be communicated and explained to the kids. If a child wants to quit, for example, one can remind them that their actions today will reflect on how they will cope with challenges later in life.

As the parent and Sensei of three boys, I am in an even more difficult position to get serious training out of my kids. It is no wonder that traditionally, Sensei have sent their kids to train with other Sensei. I have bribed, chided, argued, threatened, rewarded, and “friended” and “unfriended” my boys to get them to the dojo…until recently.

It all began with my 14 year old son. After 5 years of training, reaching the rank of 1st kyu, he met his first big challenge…and came up short (I personally think this was the biggest asset he gained, but that’s for another blog). I awarded him a “retest” for his shodan in 6 months. His initial reaction was that he wanted to quit…and frankly I was so tired of “forcing” the boys to train that I stopped resisting and told him and the other two, that the choice was theirs. I had done my part, and if they wanted to quit, they could do so. I walked away and didn’t address issue.

The next day, as I was preparing to come to the dojo “solamente”, to my surprise, I saw all three boys up and ready to come to the dojo. Nothing was said, and I haven’t since, pried to see why they decided to come back…but they have come back, for now.

Maybe I was lucky…maybe the kids really do know that karate is good for them, but I do think, I could have saved a lot of grief…and bribe money… had I explained the reasons and benefits of traditional karate training for their future challenges and endeavors.

Not completely satisfied, I called up a famous and high ranking Sensei, and told him that none of my young students were there to train, because they wanted to train. He beamed and he said, “that’s a good sign, Hessam”. He continued by telling me that he himself and many other senior karateka, started karate because they were forced into it by their circumstances or parents, and boy were they grateful for it today. It was his feeling that kids are too young to grasp the significance of their training, and sheer discipline was the way forward. He said the nature of traditional karate-do training will leave one  with few students anyways, noting that he himself only had less than a half dozen or so students, and that most other famous traditionalists also had very few students. He finished by saying, “In a world of commercial dojos, where people have to cut corners to increase enrollment to feed themselves, I should see it as badge of honor that I have few students, and that I’m carrying a torch that few can carry.”

…Now to find a way to get back all that money I used to bribe my boys…. :))

Strengthen Your Core, Wear Socks!

Years ago when I was training with Sensei Moshfegh, I recall a particular moment when he corrected my front stance. As I was in stance, ready to vigorously move to the next stance, Sensei Moshfegh kindly looked me up and down and said…” Your front foot toes, what are you doing with your toes?” Recalling my conversations with students of Nishiyama Sensei, I responded…”Sensei, I’m gripping the floor with my toes. Like a tiger, I use it to pull and push into the next stance!” He smiled, and said, “Relax your toes…” As I did so, I felt a slight imbalance in my stance, and recovered.  Sensei smiled again and said ” When you relax your front toes, you lose balance, but if you engage your core instead, you regain balance. That is better for the body and better for balance.”

As years went by, that simple lesson had a profound impact on my own personal training, and I tried to observe the minutiae in others as they perfected their karate . Watching them encouraged me to try different methods to improve my own karate.

One method that has been particularity beneficial to me, has been the use of non stick socks whilst training on wood floors. The socks obviously create more slip, forcing one to slow down moves to prevent falls, but also creates a fluidity to one’s motions.

Mostly though, I’ve noticed that the use of socks forces extra work on the core muscles, especially in outside pressure stances like front stance or back stance. In these stances, with socks on, the feet no longer are the sole (no pun intended) stabilizers of the stance. Since the feet feel like they are slipping, one has to rely on the tightening of the core and gluteus maximus muscles to maintain balance.

I encourage others to try different methods in their personal training, be it the use of elastic bands, weighted vests, or ankle weights. My experience has been that performing kata in socks, more fully engages the core, and forces the body to control the muscles that are being used, by moving a degree slower…it is also a great way to clean the dojo floor!


Kicking And Punching Your Way To Becoming A Better Person

The notion seems counterintuitive at first glance, but intention is everything, here. One might kick and punch to exercise one’s ego and reinforce one’s inferiority complex, or conversely,  one may do the same to exorcise the ego in hopes of attaining  superiority over the self.

The repetitive nature of karate-do, the continual breakdown of techniques to its most elemental form and the insistence of rebuilding it with perfection, with awareness,  all lends itself to becoming the ideal tool for transformation. But as with any tool, karate-do can be used to build or to destroy.

Sensei Moshfegh used to tell me, “karate is therapy…the kick and the punch, and what you see is like the surface of the ocean viewed from the beach…but the ocean isn’t what you see from the beach. The ocean is all that life and activity, deep under the surface that you cannot see, and karate is the same.”

At the time I was young and immature. When Sensei Moshfegh told me karate was therapy, my mind only fathomed physical therapy. What I pictured was my limbs, and I assumed the depth of the ocean was my, at the time undiscovered, ego driven infatuation with the depths of my sinewy muscles, which I all too often wanted others to admire! Oh what a waste of precious time!

But thank God I matured! Through karate-do, through the insistence of my Sensei, in particular Sensei Johnston, a transformation occurred. Repetition, specifically solitary repetition, where the only stimuli was internal, forced me to look at myself. One move of a kata, and more often, one part of one move of a kata was “mind numbingly” repeated to exorcise the idea that I was there to be entertained…that there was anything there other than me.

With nowhere to go but within, I began to pair the external technique with the internal feeling. For every move that Sensei made me repeat because it wasn’t  good enough, I peeled away a layer of my ego, and in time…a  long time, I noticed a more relaxed and humble self…a self that I began to actually like and enjoy. As Sensei pushed me to become more present and aware of technique at that moment in time, and only that moment in time, a picture began to emerge of a true me, a real me. A me that was sincere and not hiding behind a facade.  A me that could transact a relationship in the moment as it unfolded, just like the technique, without preconceived notions or barriers.

As awareness of the “me” grew, awareness of “other than me” began to diminish, and reaction turned to action, hardness turned to softness and  I noticed qualities in me that I had long admired in my sensei over the years.

Though the process is always ongoing, and my progress has been just a drop on the bucket, to this day I smile and debate to myself whether the repeated physical movements made me more humble, or, the discovery of my insignificance relative to the world, that made me more physically relaxed. Either way, I can most assuredly say, if the intention is right, you can kick and punch yourself to a devastatingly more softer and gentler self!

Manufactured Discomfort In The Dojo: A Good Thing.

Karate-do is many things to many people, and yet there are certain truths to one’s training that are inescapable. One of those truths happens to be the idea of conflict resolution.

On some level, be it small or large, internal or external, manufactured or organic…karate-do brings the practitioner face to face with discomforts that need to be addressed. Sensei Ed Ottis says (and I paraphrase), karate-do is not meant to be practiced in preparation for ideals. In fact, it is meant to be practiced for a time when everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong. Your karate training should prepare your mind and body for a time when, for example,  you are confronted and accosted while you’re  stressed, late, stuck in the rain with your two little kids complaining of hunger, and you’re struggling to hold on to heavy, finger numbing plastic bags of groceries, while nursing an injury.  That’s when you need karate, not when everything is hunky-dory! How one deals with those types of conflicts, are directly related to the discomforts provided to you in the dojo.

From the beginning, karate-do training is arduous and austere, gently pushing the limits of physical, mental and psychological comfort. The student is constantly cajoled into zones of discomfort by the sensei  who manufactures the conflict through (among other things) increasingly complex physical movements that stress the mind, or increased pace and repetition of movements that stress the body, or by creating an environment of relative heat or cold that stresses the psyche, etc…

These incremental stressors provide an arena for conflict resolution for the student, and the student’s success at addressing these discomforts has a direct and positive correlation with that student’s ability to properly resolve conflict in the real world.

I have seen it first hand, where a student’s insistence on making excuses and being the exception in class,  has later led to a complete inability to accept responsibility and properly address organic, real conflict…be it in the dojo, or outside. Invariably the student has a melt down, blames others, or simply “packs his toys and goes home”, leaving the conflict, and growth opportunity unresolved.

To those students who feel frustrated, who feel stress, who feel like karate-do is too demanding, or too boring, or too whatever….I say keep pushing yourselves and don’t give up. Sincerely and methodically apply yourselves to the challenges ahead, put your nose to the grind and crush your ego. Your  sincere effort is a step in the ultimate conflict resolution against the self. And really that’s all there is. We are simply mirrors to one another, reflecting our own flaws.

Your growth under duress is building not only physical strength, but a wisdom to properly cope with future conflicts… and isn’t that the very definition of Mekyo?


A Tribute From Mark Tarrant, ISKF Chief Instructor Mountain States Region

Hello Hessam,
A quick note to express my regret at not being at your celebration of Sensei’s Johnston’s remarkable life. Short notice and a busy schedule (and yesterday was my birthday) just didn’t make it easy to fly out and be with you today. Jeff also sends his regrets and hopes everyone has a nice celebration.
Some of you may know that Sensei Johnston was my first karate instructor. It seems like fate brought us together — him from England, and me from a little town in western Colorado, when I was 15 years old. I have known him for 40 years. Over that time he remained my teacher in karate and in other areas of interest, such as music and art and literature, and he also became my friend. I’ve known him longer than just about any friend I still have in my life. I will miss our conversations — even the ones when our worldviews clashed. I will miss climbing with him. I will miss lunch in Laguna Beach. I will miss him as a teacher. I will miss him as a friend.
I would like to thank everyone at the San Juan dojo for welcoming me to your camps over the last 13+ years. I have looked forward to those camps more than anything else during the year. A special thank you to Robert Anderson-Shoepe who made it possible for me to come out to California, and for your enduring care for Sensei. And deep thanks go out to Hessam and to Rephael & Deb for all you’ve done for Sensei over the years and especially during his last few months. And I thank all the students at the San Juan dojo. You’ve been a devoted family for Sensei, and he loved you — I know this, because he told me so. A karate instructor comes to know his students perhaps more personally than teachers in other arts. Karate students also become very close to their instructor. And in many cases an instructor’s students become like family to him, and that closeness becomes a deep caring for each person that extends far beyond one’s proficiency in karate and the training in the dojo. Just know that Sensei cared as much for you as you do for him.
So, I wish you all a grand time today as you remember Sensei David Johnston. I do wish I could be there with you. I’m sure that Sensei’s one hope for all of you would be those familiar words of encouragement in karate circles: Keep Training! You have a wonderful instructor to carry on Sensei’s legacy in San Juan. I propose a toast in thanksgiving to God for placing David Johnston in our lives. May God bless him, and may God bless you all. I hope to see you again soon.
With gratitude,
Mark Tarrant

A Tribute to Sensei Johnston

I wanted to post this beautiful, heartfelt essay from one of Sensei’s amazing student (Tony A.) . Sensei is so proud of all of you.

Sensei David Johnston died yesterday. Outside of my family, no person in my life did more to shape me as a young man than him. I simply can’t imagine my life without him and Shotokan playing a role.
Sensei was the truest of originals. Born and raised in the Lake District, his first love was rock climbing in the early days of the sport. He continued with it until the very end, marking each milestone birthday with an impressive new climb. He was masterful at violin since childhood, and again until the very end, practiced alone multiple hours per day. As a young man, Sensei moved to London and briefly worked as an ad man during the counterculture heyday. Proud of his snakeskin boots, bell bottoms, three-martini lunches, and the fact he’d regularly see the Stones and play a bar the size of the dojo, as he’d tell us decades later over sushi or his favorite pizza. His own band auditioned Robert Plant and passed on him, shortly before Mr. Plant met a guy named Jimmy Page.
In the mid-1960s, Sensei’s life changed forever as he watched a karate demonstration from Senseis Kanazawa and Enoeda. These were the first instructors to leave Japan to spread Shotokan, having learned themselves from Master Funakoshi and Nakayama. True pioneers. Sensei gave up everything for karate, and he lived in the moment the rest of his days. Over his career he was the right-hand-man to Senseis Eneoda, Kanazawa, Okazaki, and Yaguchi (all mythical in karate stature, each now with their own wikipedia pages), spanning from the UK to the East Coast to Colorado, before moving to Los Angeles and then Orange County, removing himself from the politics of martial arts and teaching Shotokan independently.
When I say Sensei gave up everything for karate, I mean it. There was never any money to be made. There were no “brand ambassadors” or sponsorship, and there certainly wasn’t any social media on which to brag, humble-brag, or project an image. Sensei could barely bring himself to advertise locally with small flyers; it’s a miracle I and others found him. The *only* reality and reward to him was hard work in the dojo and respect for the art. Full stop. Sensei lived and died in the oldest tradition, dedicated to his art, touching the lives his many students, while living the life of a content pauper in the most purposeful and dignified of ways.
I first met and trained with Sensei in 1999, and I never worked harder for anyone ever. His final dojo was still new back then, and there were some classes where I’d be the only person to show up. I was all of 17 years old, Sensei was somewhere past 60. I’d push myself until my vision would go black. Then he’d tell me to start the kata over from scratch, or do another round of sparring, so I did. The details he could see (and be right about) were endless. The work was never finished. His longtime students would travel 90 minutes from Los Angeles or Ontario on Sundays, and they were the best karate-ka and people I’ve ever trained with. When I needed the dojo most, it was there, and when I’d catch my breath after class, Sensei and I talked Zen Buddhism, we talked Minor Threat, we talked Tarantino movies. He’d describe his favorite line in Repo Man, then walk me through a Chopin piece, because that came up too.
Sensei expected a lot from everyone in life. Too much sometimes, realistically speaking, but no more than he had earned or expected from himself. You simply couldn’t argue with the man. He worked so hard, sacrificed and forewent so much, stared down heartbreak and the early loss of his wife, and continued on following the truest spirit of karate. No glory except his dojo, the legacy of his students, and his tattered black belt, five decades old and turned all but completely white by the end.
Knowing and training under Sensei has been a rare honor, the likes of which in this world are fewer by the day. More than anything, Sensei’s high standards stay with me, and I think that’s how he’d like to be remembered. His passing has made me reflect on how much of his teaching I still carry, and how much I’ve changed, and processing it all won’t happen overnight. For now, I’m thankful he’s at peace, and I’m grateful to all his students for caring for him in his final days. I’m lucky to call you friends and dojo-mates, and Sensei was very lucky and grateful to have you in his time of need. Oss.