THURSDAY MORNING COFFEE BLOG – my article for the Black Belt Magazine

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This week I have a blast from the past for you. When I stayed in Prague for business in 1998, I’d been able to find a karate school right down the street. My account of my experience with martial arts in the Czech Republic was printed by the Black Belt Magazine in 1999. I didn’t find it on the BBM server anymore, but I was surprised to find it on the Prague Goju Ryu’s site. Enjoy!

Discovering Karate in the Czech Republic by Katerina Stoy Pavelle

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC-Prior to my recent trip to the Eastern European nation that is now called the Czech Republic, I became concerned that I might not be able to continue my shorin-ryu karate classes while abroad. That fueled my resolve to make up for what could be missed training time by finding a dojo (practice hall) in Prague that would accept me temporarily.

As fate would have it, a goju-ryu karate school advertised on the Internet was only one block from my hotel in the historical center of Prague’s Little Town. Although it didn’t teach shorin-ryu, the promise of adventure filled the air when the address of the dojo turned out to be within the historical Tyrs Palace, located on the banks of the Vltava River. As I entered the cobblestone courtyard packed with cars, above me rose the majestic walls and statues that were part of the original home of the Sokol, the pre-World War II national physical culture organization.

Searching for the dojo, I roamed the halls of the palace, peeking into ballrooms filled with gymnastic equipment, offices and a hostel for young travelers. Almost giving up hope of finding the elusive school, I heard a kiai (spirit yell). Two black-belt instructors were teaching a class of about 20 elementary school boys in an old basement gym. They welcomed me with enthusiasm and gave me a copy of the weekly training schedule. I had found karate in the Czech Republic.

Being interested in the history of the martial arts in the Republic, I began probing everyone with questions. The goju-ryu instructors at the school were not native to Prague. Ruda Struhal had trained in a goju-ryu school in the nearby Republic of Slovakia, and Breta Otahal had trained in a sister school in Moravia, another Eastern European nation.

After the nation that used to be called Czechoslovakia abandoned its socialist regime in November 1989, the government no longer suppressed and controlled the martial arts. According to my hosts, goju-ryu was brought into Slovakia by way of Vienna, Austria. Shotokan karate, which was brought into the Czech lands via West Germany, is still the predominant style practiced here. The converse applies to the Slovak Republic. However, judging from Internet listings and the occasional posters I saw at the bus, tram and metro stations, various other styles from Asia have found a warm reception in the new and hungry Czech market.

When Struhal moved to Prague nine years ago, there were no goju-ryu schools. So he built one. “My biggest obstacle was reserving the space,” he said. “It is important for a new school to stay in one location as the word spreads.”

At first, Struhal tackled the formidable tasks of recruitment, teaching and administration by himself. Three years ago, Otahal moved to Prague to teach alongside Struhal. Although they are from different goju-ryu dojo, both had received their black belt from the same master. “it really helps not to have to do everything by myself-especially when a group of new people joins,” Struhal said. “Breta takes the advanced group, and I work with the beginners.”

The third shodan (first-degree black belt) instructor, Zdenek Romanek, maintains the school’s Web site and teaches when his demanding college schedule allows.

Feeling conspicuous in my dark gray gi (uniform) as I stood among all the white ones, I noted significant differences between our styles. The shorin-ryu seisan stance is more squared off than is the linear stance of goju-ryu, which is used to minimize the practitioner’s target area. But standing sideways necessitates making up for lost range. Delivering goju-ryu punches with extreme shoulder and elbow extension makes footwork drills come in handy when closing the distance between oneself and the target. Blocks are made with the limb diagonally opposite to the attacking limb-unlike the mirrorimage blocking I am used to.

Otahal taught several spinning and flying kicks. “Wow, they look neat. We don’t practice those,” I said, knowing that my own athletic ability would elevate me only a few inches – rather than a few feet – above the gym floor.

“We don’t either,” Otahal said. “But I study the moves in the martial arts movies. It’s the next best thing, considering how seldom we see any senior black belts in these parts.” What a different situation from my own, I thought, where I can seek out the advice of one or more senior black belts several nights a week.

On my last night in Prague, Struhal and Otahal requested that I teach class. The differences between our styles interested them, they said. Translating explanations into the Czech language required not only a perfect understanding of the concept, but also being used to juggling all the right supporting concepts in both languages. It wasn’t easy.

The language barrier surprised me almost as much as when the students started to take their gi off to practice the sanchin kata (form). “Do you have sanchin?” I had asked, wanting to close the class with something we all had in common. “Yes! Yes, of course we have sanchin!” they had replied before they started stripping.

I lost the class during the first series of moves. As I continued marching to the sound of my own drum, out of the corner of my eye I saw a line of bare-chested students standing in place, making vague motions with their hands. The rest of us struggled to close the class with a straight face. After we bowed, Otahal tempered the humor of the situation with a somber note: “Every school practices differently. Even the kata may be done differently, but the spirit, the internal experience of doing sanchin remains the same.”

Despite the differences in external form, dojo etiquette and technique interpretation, I recognized that the spirit in which the students of the Sokol Goju-Ryu School practiced was identical to the one I knew so well.

Source: The Black Belt Times

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