My Karate journey – by Nick Cromwell

The author, Nick Cromwell at Dojo Staro Wieś in Poland in May 2010
The author, Nick Cromwell at Dojo Staro Wieś in Poland in May 2010

What you have been taught by listening to others’ words you will forget very quickly; what you have learned with your whole body you will remember for the rest of your life” – Gichin Funakoshi

I started training in Shotokan Karate over thirty years ago, shortly after my twentieth birthday. A long time before that, my mother sent me to learn self-defence at the local Judo club when I was eight years old. Unfortunately, the only defence I learnt was to run away from my mother when she called out that it was time to leave for Training. I absolutely hated it. My mother’s intentions were positive – she wanted to help me survive in a potentially tough world. Unfortunately, the lessons were not geared towards children or at least, I thought, not to me. I didn’t understand at that age that it takes time and effort to achieve your potential, while the instructor did not understand ways of working with different groups (in this case children) to get the best out of them. It seemed to me that if you were big (which I wasn’t) it meant that you always won and if you were small (which I was) it meant that you always lost. The only purpose seemed to be to be sat upon by a bigger kid. It wasn’t until much later through Karate that I learnt how it is possible with good technique to overcome physical disadvantage.

Sensei Dennis Dalby, 1987
Sensei Dennis Dalby, 1987

I did not revisit the Martial Arts again until 1984. Following a conversation with a friend and Martial Artist, I enrolled at the Sheffield University Karate Club where Sensei Dennis Dalby and Sensei Mick Smith taught Traditional Shotokan Karate with the Shotokan Karate Association, later affiliated to the Amateur Martial Association.

I was studying for a degree in English literature and I was looking for something else to do at the same time. Both Sensei Dalby and Sensei Smith had trained with the Japanese instructors who had come to the UK in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, following them around the midlands and north of England, attending as many seminars as they could. As a result, there was a real connection to Traditional Karate. We did not train for competition. We trained for effective technique, delivered with power and precision. We also incorporated many open hand techniques into our training. Many of these are now no longer taught as standard, with the emphasis in many karate clubs today on competition where open hand techniques are banned as being too dangerous. We also studied basics and kata, which for me has remained a favourite aspect of my Karate, albeit one that I do not spend enough time perfecting.

The training in Sheffield was very hard. I’m pretty sure, looking back that Sensei Dalby was not interested in presiding over a big class. For the first few weeks of training after I started, all we did were countless press-ups, sit-ups and exercises designed I now believe to force those who Sensei Dalby deemed not serious enough to drop out. I wasn’t especially fit (although I was thin, light and certainly not unfit) and I had not been very good at sport at school. I’m not quite sure why I kept going and I did nearly give up on a number of occasions when it might have been more tempting to go to the pub with my student friends. But something in me was hooked. Perhaps it was the desire to get fit or a conscious reaction to my belief, held up until then that I was no good at ‘sport’. Perhaps it was that Karate for me is not a ‘sport’, but an Art and I became interested both in its history and the spiritual side.

At first, I was not interested in grading. I don’t particularly like tests and I wanted to train to learn, not to pass exams. However, I discovered that it was only by grading that I was able to learn new things by moving up the class. As a result, I became determined to get my black belt. I trained regularly and achieved my first-degree black belt in May 1988 with Sensei Mick Smith.

After gaining Shodan, 1988
After gaining Shodan, 1988

I have no shame in admitting that when I was awarded my certificate, I could feel the emotion well up and it was all I could do not to burst out crying in front of the class. Finally, perhaps I wasn’t so bad at ‘sport’ after all. In fact, of all the people who started as beginners with me in September 1984, I was the only one still training. Interestingly, the Japanese only introduced the system of grades and belts for Western karateka, apparently to satisfy our need for recognition. Originally, a black belt was merely a white belt that had got dirty over time. When actual black belts were first introduced, there was no system of coloured belts and students were awarded a black belt when their teacher felt they were ready.

I’m not sure how ready I was to get my black belt, but I did feel I deserved it. However, it wasn’t long before I realised just how little I knew. Sensei Smith on awarding me my Shodan, told me something I have heard many times since – that the award of the black belt is not saying that you are good enough to be a black belt, but it is now time to go and prove that you can be that belt. If I’m honest, while I know from what others tell me that my Karate is of a reasonably high standard, there is always a part of me that questions my ability. Perhaps this helps to keep me learning.

After leaving Sheffield I moved back to London, where I am from originally and where I now trained with Sensei Anderson in a dojo in the Notting Hill Gate area, near to where I was living at the time and later with Sensei Majo Xeridat at her club in Herbal Hill. After Sensei Anderson returned to his native Scotland, I inherited his club, along with another student, as the most senior grades. I was only a Shodan, but the club was mainly geared towards beginners. I found I learnt a tremendous amount about my own Karate through teaching it to others. However, my work at the time, which was in a residential home for people with drug problems, meant that it was difficult to balance my irregular working shifts with teaching. I also found after a while that I did not have the time to learn anything new. So, it was with reluctance that I stopped teaching.

I have been a bit of a Karate nomad over the years, partly through circumstances and partly through a desire to learn from as many different people as possible. I have trained with Senseis Enoeda and Ohta at the famous Marshall Street dojo, Senseis Kawazoe, Mick Springer, and at the Budokwai and I have attended courses with, among others Sensei Otiz of Finland, Sensei Jonathan Mottram and Sensei Dave Hazard as well as attending the KUGB summer school in Crystal Palace. I spent some time living in Madrid in the early nineties where I trained with Jorge Romero. More recently, I have attended seminars with Sensei Kwiecinski in Poland and Sensei Avi Rokah in Poland and Germany. I have learnt valuable things from all the instructors and through training with different people at different clubs. Mostly, with a couple of notable exceptions, Karate people have always been friendly and welcoming.

It was under Sensei Somigli of Italy that I achieved my Nidan in February 1994 with Sensei Vic Charles’ British Sport Karate Association. I had initially failed my basics (of all things) and passed at my second attempt, which in itself was a valuable lesson in perseverance.

As well as studying Karate, I had from my early twenties been interested in Individual Psychology (a system developed by the psychiatrist Alfred Adler) and other areas of personal development. I had always trained hard in Karate and been keen to develop myself on both the physical and spiritual side, yet this had somehow been separated from my other life, away from the dojo. I knew there was a connection but I couldn’t always find it, despite also reading many books around the subject.

 It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t until I started to work towards a qualification in Counselling that I began to understand the link between my Karate and self-development in other areas of my life. I became more and more fascinated and went on to study Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – a psychological system developed in America by the thinkers Richard Bandler and John Grinder, and Coaching. I am still working on developing the connections and I now Coach managers and leaders professionally in organisations. I am amazed by how often I go back to the principles of Karate for my inspiration, while I also use what I have learnt through Coaching to develop the state of mind necessary for performing Karate, especially Kata. My Karate benefits my work and my work helps my Karate.

Training November 2013
Training, November 2013

For the past seven years, I have also trained in Jujitsu under Sensei Alan Unwin at the Wanstead Garasutora Jujitsu club and I now hold a first-degree black belt in Jujitsu, obtained in December 2016. As part of my Jujitsu practice, I am learning weapons, the Bo staff, nunchaku, sai, tonfa and katana. I especially enjoy performing the katana kata, which is an extremely meditative experience. The Jujitsu compliments my Karate, adding to my knowledge of technique. About twelve years ago, I trained very briefly in Tai Chi, which added a new dimension to my Karate and the ability to sense my inner power (Chi) in a way I had not experienced previously. I have recently gone back to Tai Chi training under Master John Ding at his Academy in East London. Famously, Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, as well has being one of the world’s leading karateka and one of the few people still alive to have trained with master Gichin Funakoshi, is also a strong advocate of Tai Chi. One of my teachers Sensei Sauro Somigli was also a practitioner of Tai Chi.

I had a long break from karate following a potentially serious eye injury and the birth of my first daughter in 1996 when I trained hardly at all, if ever. However, I maintained a love of Karate and a deep sense of regret that I was no longer training properly. I gradually came back to train in Karate more regularly when I started training at two clubs in East London, close to where I was now living. These clubs were Sensei Rod Butler’s Shotokan Karate England club and Sensei Mark Durham’s Chingford Traditional Shotokan Karate Club. Sensei Durham is a student of Mick Billman, one of the founding fathers of English karate, who I have had the pleasure of meeting.

With Senseis Odysseus ‘Tony’ Christou and Mark Durham, October 2006 in a photograph used for an article I wrote for Traditional Karate magazine

It was while training with Sensei Butler that I met my current Sensei, Andrzej Czyrka, who I now count as my friend as well as my teacher. We have both commented about how when we first met, we saw something different and interesting in each other’s Karate. It is through meeting Sensei Czyrka that I have been lucky enough to travel to Poland on a couple of occasions and more recently to Germany to train with Sensei Avi Rokah, where I learnt a tremendous amount about the importance of ‘connection’, stance and posture in everything we do in Karate. Unfortunately, I never met master Hidetaka Nishiyama, Sensei Rokah’s inspirational teacher who could trace his Karate routes right back to master Gichin Funokoshi, the founder of Shotokan. But I see his principles demonstrated admirably by Sensei Czyrka through his teaching.

Here I am (second left) at Dojo Staro Wieś in Poland in May 2010 with from L-R my instructor Sensei Andrzej Czyrka and Senseis Mario Kali and Steve Palmer attending a seminar with Sensei Avi Rokah.

Karate teaches focus and power and yet it also needs to be adaptable to circumstance. For example, as I get older, I have had to change my style to suit my body. While we may lose flexibility, if we are intelligent about the way we train then we will gain insight, power without effort and the ability to relax, which will compensate for the ageing process. I now know how to breath far more efficiently than when I was twenty years old. There is a saying, ‘less is more’ and I am increasingly interested in how to achieve good technique and power by trying less.

There is no doubt I have learnt from all my teachers and that my confidence as a person has been developed through Karate and this is of tremendous benefit to me. I can only speculate how things might have been had I known at eight what I now know. Perhaps I would have gone on to study Judo for many years, but in a funny sort of way I am convinced that this first experience of Martial Arts, although brief and apparently not very positive at the time, was nonetheless instrumental in beginning the process of self-development that continues within me today.

I am struck by something that Master Gichin Funakoshi said, that “only through training will a person learn his own weaknesses” and “he who is aware of his weaknesses will remain master of himself in any situation.” This reminds me of how I continue to be mindful of the paradox of the Martial Arts – the more I know the less I know. It’s what keeps me both training and learning.

Nyuanshin Traditional Karate Club, Enfield London, April 2017 (Sensei Andrzej Czyrka is behind the camera)
With Sensei Avi Rokah (3rd from right) and in Germany February 2019

Nick Cromwell; London, October 2019

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