by Garry Parker

Editor’s Note – Training in the martial arts is a very personal thing. Sure, most people begin in a group class, following along. But as the years pass and the “Martial Way” becomes part of us, we each find a path forward on our own time. One of the best ways to train solo is with equipment. An old Okinawan karate training post is called the Makiwara, and it is telling. There is no “faking it” with the Makiwara. You hit it correctly, or you feel it. Today, Sensei Garry Parker, an American trained in Okinawa, gives us a glimpse into why the call the Makiwara “Sensei” (teacher). Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. Enjoy!
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The most intimidating attack on my senses as a brand new karate student was the makiwara (striking post); I watched as my senpai hit that board over and over again. Each strike brought a loud “thump” or “thwack” depending on which one was being used; One was more flexible and had a “thwack” sound when struck; the other was much firmer and resonated with a deep loud “thump.” We were encouraged to train on the makiwara every time we were in the dojo; I didn’t ask questions, I simply gave the standard “Hai Sensei” and followed orders. Corrections were given and details of body mechanics, alignment, and power generation were taught. Little by little, I learned from my mistakes, and gained enough skill and confidence to make my own “makiwara music.”
Being young and inexperienced, I made the same mistakes that many impatient young men have made, and paid the price with bloody knuckles, injuries, and standing in front of my NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) more than once, to explain my scabbed and swollen knuckles. Like many young servicemen at that time, I presumed that large protruding knuckles were expected as side effect of hard and heavy makiwara training; I pushed way past my limits, didn’t allow enough time to heal after injury. The results were disproportionately large and protruding knuckles, and I was proud of them too! Now I looked like a real karate man… or so I thought. 
One evening after class, I stopped in the store around the corner from the dojo for a refreshing Aquarius Neo, my favorite sports drink at the time. As I was waiting in line to pay for my drink, an older lady behind me began to strike up a conversation. She asked me where I practiced (I was sweaty and still wearing my gi (uniform) pants and a t-shirt), and I told her that I trained at the Hamagawa Dojo around the corner. She grabbed me by the hand and ran her thumb across my knuckles: “You’re still a beginner, aren’t you?” How did she know that?
“Hai, roku ka getsu mai kara hajimarimashita
(I only started about six months ago).” 
“Jaa, mada wakaran, ne. Mouto yuukuri dayo; Amari isogan-de
(Well, you don’t understand yet. Don’t be in such a rush).”
“Hai, nifuedebiru.” It was my turn at the register, so I paid and left. To this day, I don’t know whom the old lady was, but she certainly knew more about karate than I did. Perhaps her husband or father was a teacher, who knows. Her advice stuck with me, and bothered me so much that I arrived extra early at the next class to speak to Takamiyagi Sensei about it. I told him what had transpired, and asked if it was true. Sensei just laughed and shook his head. “I told you already, but you listen to an old lady.” Wait, I don’t remember Sensei, gomen-nasai (I’m sorry). Takamiyagi Sensei then reminded me that he had told me on day one to be patient, avoid injury, and build up gradually. I vaguely remembered that conversation, apologized again, then excused myself to go train.
There are many teachers that we’ll encounter throughout our martial arts journey, but none as strict and unforgiving as the makiwara. You can’t cheat on the makiwara. You can’t force results. I have found that the mistakes I’ve made in distance, timing, or alignment were immediately corrected by the makiwara. This simple tool forges the spirit of determination, ensures proper patience, and breaks bad habits without prejudice.
Read more insights into traditional karate training and what it’s like to be an American living and training in Okinawa, in Garry Parker’s book, Chanpuru: Reflections and Lessons from the Dojo.
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