Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Photo credit:  Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

There was something missing in my Judo. My techniques were fine, my fitness was great, I got into every randori with spirit, and yet that special ‘ooomph’ of what makes some judoka such a joy to watch was missing. Believe me when I say I tried really hard to imitate my heroes- Koga, Nomura and Tchrikishvili to name a few. I spent countless hours watching their videos, trying to figure out that special something in their style. Unsuccessful, I set my target lower. After all, these guys were the Judo greats, and I felt that I should aim lower, and imitate the good judoka at the local clubs I frequented. This too didn’t work. While I managed to learn some new techniques, the aesthetics was still missing.

Sensing my despair, my sensei called me aside for a chat. He is an eight dan in his seventies and is renowned as a great teacher who has taught thousands of judoka. In his enigmatic way he smiled and said to me: ‘there are as many styles of judo as there are judokas- you must find your own style, and once you do, then your judo will become beautiful.’

It took me a long time to figure out what he meant by this. At first I was confused. Here was a man who is a perfectionist, who spends hours with his students insisting that the techniques are performed with exactitude. So how could he possibly say that there are many styles of judo? At the same time I had also seen him sit back and nod with approval when senior judokas performed techniques in randori that despite their effectiveness, were in no way text-book examples of how the technique should be performed. These judoka had adapted the techniques to suit their body structure, flexibility and temperament.

One day during a particularly gruelling training session, I finally got it. I was doing a long  randori, and my exhaustion levels were so high that I didn’t have the energy to be self-conscious. My body seemed to move by itself, having developed an awareness that was quite apart from my mind. I was relaxed, techniques flowed easily and I was oblivious to the passage of time. I was in the zone or in a flow. After the randori, sensei came up to me and said: ‘see, now you are doing your judo.’

There is a lesson here for life off the mat too. Judo is a bit like writing. You have to get the generic skills of reading and writing correctly, just like you have to get your techniques right. After that some people choose to write poetry, others stories and some others news journalism. Even in each of these genres of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, there are several different styles. There is no one-way of writing and as readers, we enjoy different writers for their unique styles. 

As in Judo, so in life, the important thing is to get the basics right, but then to find our own style and tokui waza (favorite or special techniques that suit us as individuals). This means that we put in the years to learn the essentials, develop skills, get an education, gain experience, try on different ways of living so that we can figure out what works best for us. There is no short cut here. But after our searching and seeking, we begin to naturally gravitate towards ways of being, doing and living that suits us best. In my experience, choosing careers or lifestyles or activities that suit our personalities best, brings out the best in us. There is nothing sadder than living somebody else’s life because society tells us to. Many of us are stuck with the wrong jobs, partners or lifestyles simply because we don’t know ourselves. We haven’t asked ourselves: ‘what is our tokui waza?’

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that once you figure out what works for you, it is roses after that. While our unique personalities come with their unique gifts, we also come with our unique shadowy sides. As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says: ‘Our neurosis and wisdom is made up of the same material.’ So just because I find my style of Judo and my favorite techniques, it doesn’t mean that I will not come upon someone who has a way of unravelling me. We judokas all have horror stories of going into a match; confident of our style only to come across an opponent with a gripping technique or a way of moving that completely messes with our best-laid plans. What happens next is a classic story of a match meltdown where our shadowy traits of anger, anxiety, panic, self-pity all conspire to ensure that we have performed our worst ever.

So, finding our gifts also means getting to know our unique challenges, which are really gifts in disguise. Most Judo journeys or life journeys begin with working on our neurosis and finding our gifts through the work. All of us remember our first forays into randori where we are confronted with the various shades of fear, frustration, anger and self-doubt. For some of us, that is still the case. But it is only by not turning our face away, staying on the mat and showing up for more, do we ever so slowly discover ‘our style of Judo.’

The thing about Judo is that it is always more than just Judo. It is an art that pushes you to confront yourself in the most truthful way possible- at the level of the body when grappling with another person. There is no retreat here into excuses. How you deal with what comes up on the mat is the person you will become- and paradoxically the person you’ve always been.