There are many elements to karate training left outside of a technical discussion of the art. Some of those elements can make a meaningful difference in your capacity to absorb and enjoy your training. Here are a few.

Awaken to your Imaginary Opponent

By practicing karate, you are training to be ready at any moment to defend yourself efficiently. You cannot defend yourself unless you recognize you are being threatened. The drudgery of daily tasks, poor nutrition, distractions, and other internal and external factors bring us in and out of alert awareness. Therefore, you must practice awareness. The dojo is an excellent awareness training center.

As you bow onto the dojo floor, wake up to all that is around you. Strive to maintain that consciousness until the time you bow off the floor for the night. Your awareness should be at its utmost when you are practicing your techniques.

The next time you are standing in line waiting for a command in the dojo, set your eyes on a point on the wall opposite from you. Your practice is to focus on that one spot, thereby enabling all spots to come into your consciousness. You can visualize that spot as the eyes of an imaginary opponent: someone of your age, gender, weight, and height, with just a little bit more karate skill than you possess. Then, as you execute your techniques, you can make your experience more real as that person defends and counterattacks against you.

Awareness is a skill that all advanced karateka have worked hard to develop. It will benefit your karate tremendously if you do so, too.

Develop the Nobility of Zanshin

There will be many times you've completed your kata and Sensei callously leaves you struggling to maintain your final stance. Though your thighs and shoulder muscles may wail in complaint, hold your position diligently until Sensei says, "Yame!" indicating that you should return to shizen tai. This should be your practice at the end of any commanded drill, not just kata. It is within these moments that you will develop your capacity to hold out past the point you think you can—a skill karate practitioners are known for. In this context we call it the practice of zanshin, or "perfect finish." Zanshin also means "relaxed awareness." Its practice brings benefits to both mind and body that will be needed for the unusual and specific challenges karate will demand of them. When you hear the "Yame!" command, refocus on the imaginary opponent in front of you and recover to a perfect, strong shizen tai. It is in this moment, most of all, that you will seek perfection of character.


There have been many, many times I just did not want to attend karate class! In those moments I had a dozen reasons not to go, ranging from kids to work to temptations of a less noble sort. During the years I lived an hour from my dojo, the commute often added to my list of "good" excuses to not train.

I had a dear friend, Daniel Rodman Walker, who passed away in 2001 from complications related to a lifelong struggle with kidney disease. He was a brilliant poet and a deep thinker. We had many tenacious, happy debates. Occasionally I posed what I thought was an unbeatable argument and sat back in my chair, contented with my high-mindedness. Calmly, and only when I needed a good and appropriate drubbing, Danny would trump my point by saying, "You only think that way because you're healthy. Try being unhealthy and see if things change for you." Karate avoidance, I thought in times of reluctance, was one such application of my "healthy thinking" that Danny was unknowingly talking about. I would think of him tethered to a dialysis machine three times a week for six hours. He couldn't even attempt karate. What in the world did I have to whine about?

So I would play a game with myself. I would "see what happened." I wouldn't go to karate, I would simply go to the car and see what happened. As soon as I turned the ignition key, the book-on-tape would pick up where I'd left off and I was immediately involved. Why not drive and listen at the same time? My goal would then become to drive to a certain point on the journey to the dojo and see what happened when I got there. Invariably, when I'd reach that point, I was already too far along the way to reasonably turn back. Before I knew it, I was in my uniform and in class. Even at that point, there were times I felt less than enthused about being there. But I'd long since developed a mind-set that I'd fall over dead before walking off the dojo floor— even for reason of injury, exhaustion, or anything else—prior to the end of class. I knew once I was on the floor, I was in it until Sensei deigned to release me.

I can't recall for you how many times I felt this reluctance to attend karate. I can tell you, though, without any hesitation and with complete certainty, that every single time I manipulated myself into going to class, regardless of how much I didn't want to go, at the end of class I was glad I had attended it. Sometimes the desire to avoid karate was pronounced (doubting my competence as a karateka), sometimes the reasons seemed quite good (injury, money). Even at those times, when we closed our eyes for mokuso at the end of class, I'd feel the blood pumping through my limbs and the weight of my sweat-drenched gi and be overcome with gratitude. I'd be contemplating the incredible activity I had just participated in when suddenly I'd remember I hadn't wanted to come that night! What if I'd given in to my reluctance? I'd have missed the entire experience! At times the contrast between my initial resistance and my final accomplishment left me emotionally overwhelmed.

An old proverb says, "It is impossible to describe the taste of blowfish to one who has never eaten it." It should always be kept in mind that karate-do cannot be grasped through the eyes and ears alone; it must be experienced and comprehended through physical training. —Master Gichin Funakoshi Karate-Do Nyūmon, 1943

Regardless of your physical condition when you begin your training and despite all the hurdles you'll encounter during it, strive to keep in mind that you are, underneath it all, an athlete. We all are, by virtue of 300,000 years of evolution. Now you are invited to awaken muscles you've never used (even if you are athletic!) and see what they can do.

You get to do this. Many people can't. Be grateful.

The above is an excerpt from Welcome to Karate: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Beginner's Mind by Bruce Costa, publication date September 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398414.