“Can you break boards?”
I’m not sure why people ask this when they find out I study karate. The simple truth is that anyone can break boards, by one means or another. It’s not much of an accomplishment in itself. And it’s not a very practical skill, unless you are worried about being attacked by a garage. Tameshiwari, the martial arts practice of breaking boards, bricks, and other inoffensive objects, originated as a way to test a practitioner’s technique, and it’s still used for that purpose now, in rank exams. Since the spectacle of shouting and breaking things understandably attracts a lot of attention from casual bystanders, tameshiwari is also used to draw people into the art and demonstrate its effectiveness—as a PR stunt, really.
I’ve done my share of breaking for tests, and for demonstrations and fundraisers. Some people love breaking, and they’re constantly challenging themselves with new techniques. I don’t love it, and whenever possible I stick with a few bread-and-butter breaks: Front and side kicks, palm-heel strike, hammerfist, maybe a knifehand now and then. The technique you choose doesn’t matter, really; what matters is your focus at the moment of impact, when—you hope—you will break the board.
Yet that impact happens so quickly that it almost disappears. The time before you attempt a break stretches out elastically. You set up the break and take a few practice swings, and then you have to gather your energy, and your concentration, and your nerve. That’s a lot to bring together. Only the breaker knows when she’s ready to strike (she hopes), so the holders and the judges and the audience just wait. More than knowing you’re ready, you have to decide you’re ready to throw the technique. It’s like stepping off a cliff—you can’t go back—and no matter how much time I spend preparing mentally before starting a break, and no matter how fast the break goes, I’m always amazed that there’s enough time, between the start and the finish, for me to doubt myself. And it’s really that millisecond of doubt that you have to demolish, not the board.
Successful breaks feel pretty much the same. The instant before, when the board is intact, and the instant afterward, when it is two boards, seem to occur simultaneously, or even backwards, like a confusing jump cut in a poorly edited film. The first real awareness of the impact comes when your body begins to signal pain—a stinging in the edge of the hand or the ball of the foot as blood rushes to the striking surface. Then there’s an instinctive glance at the body part you broke with, as if the mind has to connect it to what just happened. A successful break is always (to me at least) a bit of a mental shock. I look at the boards and think, “I did that?” Even though I’ve spent weeks, probably, preparing to do that, and may have even bought and cut the boards myself, it’s still startling.
The impact divides a successful break into two parts—before and after. You go through the board and through the moment of impact and come out on the other side, feeling like a certified badass. In an unsuccessful break, on the other hand, the impact stops you. It stops everything.
Failed breaks begin like successful ones: The preparation stretches out and out, and time collapses in the same way when you launch the technique. But when the strike goes wrong, and you bounce off the board, or thud into it and feel something nasty happen to your bones, the jump cut takes you instantly to pain. And instead of registering amazement that you have successfully broken something, the mind instead recoils in astonishment that you tried to do something so incredibly stupid. Instead of asking, “I did that?” you ask yourself, “Why did I do that?” The tiny, fleeting doubt in your mind is suddenly an inarguable, throbbing, fact. And the impact that failed in its purpose echoes in your head and throughout your body. (Ow. Ow. Ow.) And—bonus points for shame!—you have an audience to bear witness to your failure. The average person may not know a good spinning hook kick from a bad one, but they sure can tell if you broke a board or not.
And there you are, stuck on the wrong side of the board. Your options are not pleasant: Give up and walk away, or begin the awful task of re-trying the break, which gets harder with each attempt, and not just mentally—it really starts to hurt. Most injuries incurred during breaking boards happen after the first try fails, and the breaker keeps trying. It’s almost as painful to watch as it is to perform, this dogged attempt to break through the stalemate and re-start time. And if you don’t succeed—well, then you have to find a way to get past the moment on your own. That can take even longer than healing a fractured metacarpal bone (approximately four to eight weeks).
Tameshiwari trains martial artists to deal mentally with impact and its aftermath—admittedly, impact of a very controlled, calculated kind. Outside the dojo, impact is less controlled and its aftermath even less predictable. But we still have to deal with it. Two kinds of impact in particular have a tendency to disorient us: The ones we never see coming, and the ones we dread, but which never arrive. Which brings us to the night I got married.
People inevitably have a hard time believing this story, and frankly if it weren’t for the scars, I would too. What happened was, we left our reception in a horse-drawn carriage, the kind that trolls around downtown on weekend nights, picking up tourists and slowing traffic. About three blocks into our ride, as we were crossing the Congress Avenue bridge, we heard squealing tires and then, a fraction of a second later, we were hit hard, from behind, and I was thrown out of the carriage into a very busy six-lane street. In my wedding dress. The horse bolted with the carriage, the driver, and my husband. (Just so you know: They all survived with minor injuries. The driver of the car that hit us didn’t stop, and was never caught.)
Well, I like to be prepared for every eventuality, but even my Type-A imagination had not conjured up anything like a high-speed auto-carriage collision on my wedding night. Perhaps because the crash was so unexpected, my memory of it is sketchy. I remember the initial impact as a loud, flat noise, like the rendering of an explosion in a comic book. And I remember my sudden change of direction—from moving forward at a sedate six miles an hour to moving sideways, and upwards, about five times faster. Curiously, I don’t remember hitting the street. However, my doctors deduced that I must have rolled, because I came away without head trauma. Instead, I had a series of injuries called “impact abrasions” in a line across my body.
I always learn a lot from ER doctors, and the one I met on my wedding night told me that impact abrasions occur when your body hits something so hard and fast that the skin literally ruptures, like a water balloon. The pattern of my impact abrasions followed the path of contact you’re supposed to make with the ground when you roll: Outside of the forearm, behind the shoulder, back of the opposite hip, outside of the thigh. At the time (this was in 1988) I was training in a martial arts system where we did lots of rolls and falls. Ever since that carriage ride, I’ve lectured students with missionary zeal about these techniques. If you want any practical benefit from rolls and falls, I tell them, you have to practice until they are entirely automatic. Because in real life, by the time you realize you need these skills, you’re probably going to be airborne.
If you hardwire them into your body though, they can really save your bacon. Impact abrasions are no fun, and I also broke the ribs under my right shoulder blade (to this day I carry a wad of scar tissue there that makes my right jab about four inches shorter than my left). But when I rolled to a stop, I was alive, with no brain damage. Unfortunately, I was also smack in the middle of six lanes of forty-mile-per-hour traffic.
I’ve been through some horrifying experiences in my life (most of them entirely my own fault), but the sensation of cowering on the pavement, not knowing quite how you got there, waiting for the car that is surely going to hit you, was by far the worst. It’s a ghastly feeling, and it gave me a deep and abiding sympathy for road kill. Like the moment before breaking a board, that time on the asphalt stretched out forever. It was dark, and I didn’t know where the cars were, which way they were traveling, or how fast. I couldn’t tell which way to go, or if it was safer to stay down, or get up and run. But I could hear and feel cars all around me, so I knew the impact was coming. I have no idea how long I crouched there; I think I must have set some kind of world record for Longest Continuous Flinch.
And I didn’t get hit. Miraculously, all the other cars on the bridge managed to stop in time, and no one hit me. To this day I have trouble comprehending how lucky I was. I came up so close to the moment of impact that I almost felt I’d passed through it, and was on the other side. But I was wrong. And while I know getting hit would have been much worse, not getting hit has, in some ways, made that moment harder for me to get past. It’s like watching the magician’s assistant step, smiling, out of the box full of swords—you’re happy for her, but you feel as if, somehow, there’s a part of your mind that’s going to go to bed hungry.
Once, in an otherwise unremarkable sparring bout with my first Sensei, I was doing a better-than-usual job of keeping my hands up, and using my feet, and working the angles, and—whang—something came out of nowhere and connected with my right temple, ringing my head like a bell. It wasn’t a particularly hard shot; it was solid, but you could tell there was a lot more power where that came from (Sensei was wonderful at getting your attention that way).
As I shook it off, my teacher took pity on me. “You want to know why that worked?” she asked. I nodded, belatedly realizing that she had hit me with a left heito, or inverted ridgehand. She explained, demonstrating, that she had brought her hand in high and slow, from the outside. “You didn’t see it,” she told me, “because you were expecting something fast.”
Impact spreads itself out in waves through boards and bricks and bodies, distorting and fracturing. So too it distorts our experience and our memory. It makes a mockery of our expectations. Sometimes we break, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we’re broken; sometimes we aren’t. Impact can push you through to an entirely new place that you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. Or it can leave you standing right where you were, looking faintly ridiculous. Whatever it does, you have to dust off your gi, or your wedding dress, and get on with your life. That’s a hell of a lot harder than breaking boards.