IOGKF Thailand Gasshuku with Sensei George Andrews

I arrived in Koh Samui on Thursday April 14th for the 2011 Gasshuku with Sensei George Andrews. It was my third year of being here. Koh Samui had called to me in a dream, which I had followed to the 2009 Gasshuku, and then gone back in 2010. It was a dream that had first called me to Karate and dreams continued to guide my path. The earlier two gasshuku’s had given me a lot, both in deepening my Karate training and my self-knowledge. I was looking forward to the next 5 days and I was also strongly feeling the loss of Sensei Geoff Pickup. It was difficult being at his dojo resort without missing his warm and unique presence. Sensei Geoff’s dojo is built on a height has a gorgeous wooden floor and large open windows on three sides from which the elements shine in. It feels like an ideal space for a beginner like me to strive to reach that elusive perfection in Goju that is both an end in itself and a means to another more inexplicable end.

The Gasshuku began with a bang at 10 am Friday morning, in Sensei’s usual style, with fifteen minutes of running followed by 100 push ups, sit ups and squats. This was followed by junbi undo and an intense warm up that stretched every muscle as well as challenged the mind to stay focused on the sometimes fast paced movements. With five days, ten sessions and only thirteen participants there was plenty of time to cover a lot of different aspects of training as well get Sensei’s personal feedback. The sun was already hot and humidity high when Sensei began with kihon and san dan gi. He made corrections and when he was satisfied with our efforts he started checking our Kata. He began with the black belts and us kyu grades got a chance to rest and observe. As I caught my breath I saw that there were five kyu grades and eight black belts. The seniors were role models for us in the way that they went all out to continuously integrate the feedback Sensei gave them. Soon it was our turn. Sensei watched making corrections and observing where we needed to improve. He separated us into different groups and had the senior black belts help us with the Kata that we needed to work on. I was sent with two others to learn shisochin. Time seemed to fly and I was surprised when the morning session was over and Sensei had us do the usual ending of 100 star jumps from our knees.

We trooped out to the café bar where Sensei Geoff’s wife, had plates of local fruit ready for us. She was very pleased that we had come for the Gasshuku, which had been Sensei Geoff’s dream and an annual event for many years. The morning session had been intense but it was still the first day and energy and enthusiasm was still high and everyone was looking forward to the evening session which began at 5 pm. Every session began and ended in the same way though the other content of each had different elements and emphasis. On Friday evening we did punches, kicks and combinations on bags with a partner followed by more Kata training. By the end of the first day not only was everyone tired but some of us also had blisters beginning to form on the soles of our feet. I was pleased to have had a chance to get a lot of feedback and tips on shisochin from Sensei and the other seniors. After every session I would sit down and pull out these corrections and other new learning’s from my tired brain and write them in my training journal.

The Saturday morning pace continued to be fast and severe. After the warm up Sensei began teaching self defense techniques: escapes, locks and throws. He pointed out nerve points and moves to first daze and disarm an attacker before using another technique. We repeated these over and over in pairs till the moves felt natural. We also did the Gekisai Dai Renzoku Bunkai, more impact work on the bags and Kata. The pace and intensity of the first two days was very demanding on my body and it was stretched to its limits. I felt as if my body was being prepared for the long haul and remembered the Buddha’s advice that one needed to have a healthy and fit body to maintain a clear and strong mind. As my body got more exhausted my mind would drift off but Sensei’s booming voice yelling out my name would bring me back. The group was small enough that his penetrating gaze was on all of us at all times and I realized that I had to be present every moment. In the evening we continued with what we had already been doing and Sensei started us on practicing Kata bunkai. My muscles had begun to stiffen up at the end of the second day, now time seemed to drag and everything felt harder than normal.

I woke Sunday morning to find that every movement hurt. I felt panic, as I feared even getting through the next hour and wondered if I would last through the full Gasshuku. I drew courage from my experiences with meditation retreats where even when my mind was ravaged by all kinds of storms I had learnt to just show up and be present. When training began I was relieved to find that the pace was a bit easier this morning and the body had space to recover. Sensei spent a lot of time on Sanchin in the morning. As he explained that the word meant three conflicts, between the mind, body and spirit, I felt it was so apt to be doing Sanchin then as my body, mind and spirit were scattering off in different directions. I needed to pull them together. Even though Sanchin had been taught and demonstrated to me often I still found that it felt new each time it was explained. Sensei first described the movements and posture in detail. He then had us sit down and do the different breathings. As I practiced the breathing I felt my awareness sharpening and I felt revived. We then put it all together and I found I was able to concentrate again. Whenever I felt very tired I did the movements of Sanchin in my mind and it helped me focus. Sensei also taught us several Kakie applications and had us practice them in pairs. We did a lot of bag work with moving kick combinations, more Kata training and Kata Bunkai on Sunday. I found my body was beginning to adjust to the rhythm of the Gasshuku and was flowing once again.

On Monday morning Sensei spent some time teaching Tensho. Each day Sensei added something new and built on what we had been doing. The emphasis on Kata training continued but we did a lot of impact work and partner training of different sorts. Some were practicing specific techniques while others were doing moving drills. The partner drills helped me with timing and distance and every partner I had assisted my learning while challenging me to improve. The seniors were very generous with their advice. Sensei also had us do some group drills where one person would be in the centre surrounded by four others and would be doing different techniques in each direction. I found this kind of drill helped me to move between focused and diffuse attention. The group was small enough that I got to interact with everyone in some way. This too was important, as it was not everyday that I got the chance to spend time with others who were passionate Goju practitioners. Another useful drill Sensei made us practice was moving swiftly in different stances in all directions.

When the Gasshuku ended on Tuesday evening at 8 pm I felt very full but sad that it was over. Each gasshuku I attend has been an amazing gift and I felt I had received so much from this one, from Sensei and from the other participants. I had a journal full of feedback and learning’s that would fill up many hours of self-practice. On another level I had internally confronted self-defeating beliefs and explored taking responsibility for my inadequacies and for following my dreams. I also had the experience of being intensely present in every moment both during the training and outside throughout the five days and I wondered how I could hold on to this heightened awareness as I slipped into normal life. During the Gasshuku Sensei would push us to our limits and then a bit further so our limits expanded and I pondered how I could continue doing that on my own.

Last year when I went to Koh Samui I felt I had just been circling around the same spot. This year I felt I had taken a few steps forward on the Goju path. I eagerly wait for the 2012 gasshuku.