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Keith Johnson

Keith Johnson

Fourth dan

When did you start training with Ishigaki?
December 10th, 2001. I remember it well.

Why did you choose Ishigaki?
Iíd done various forms of exercise over the years, but they were always the solitary kind. When I came to London in 2001 I wanted to find something a bit more sociable. Iíd had a boyfriend a few years previously whoíd done karate and it got me to thinking that martial arts might be something I could do. I found this very website by chance and resolved to give it a go, partly because of the martial art, and partly because itís a club for gay people which seemed to offer the opportunity to be more sociable. .

Did you do other sports before jujitsu?
Swimming, yoga. Nothing that sporty really, though Iíve always tried to stay fit and active. My Dad is a martial artist so Iíd done judo as a kid but never really thought of it as something that related to me until I came across Ishigaki.

Tell us about your first class.
I had emailed Sensei Simon, and he was the first person I met which made me feel a bit relieved: it can be daunting turning up to something for the first time, knowing nobody, and Iím quite shy. But the way the class is structured means you can just fit straight in. I remember being impressed by the combination of informality and focus. I knew as soon as I did my first breakfall that I was going to love it.

Was it easy to fit in?
Well as I say Iím pretty shy so it took me a long while to join in socially, though when I did people were very welcoming. On the mats it was easier as I just got stuck into learning the techniques just like everybody else. Ishigaki for me, I have to say, is the first group of gay people in my life where I felt like I belonged. Weíre all there for pretty much the same reason which in the end has a bit to do with our sexuality, but much more about our interest in ju jitsu.

When did you think about getting your black belt?
I donít know! I guess I just always thought about the next technique, the next grading, and then the ambition to get my black belt just sort of formed itself as I went along. It wasnít an epiphany of any kind. Because I loved it from the word go it never occurred to me to stop learning or going forward. I did at a certain point resolve to get my black belt before I was 40 though, which I managed to do with 6 months to spare.

Was it difficult?
I wouldnít say it was difficult, thatís not really the right word. It was very challenging. But itís the case with this kind of martial art that you go along at your own pace: you only do as much as you can do, so youíre always just at the edge of your ability. In that sense itís always difficult, thereís always someone saying, no, do it like this! But thatís part of the pleasure of it for me, and the black belt was no different, though the training itself is qualitatively different both physically and mentally.

The hardest thing I guess was having the confidence. Doing anything to expert level is an internal thing as much as it can be about learning a body of techniques. Itís only now that I begin to realise the changes that happened: it sounds cheesy but a black belt isnít something that someone else awards you when they think youíre good enough, itís something that at some point you find it in yourself to be. But of course you still have to pass the grading!

Ishigaki upholds high standards, particularly of its dan grades, so it was hard to feel that I could live up to that. I did end up crying in the toilets after my assessment, though I maintain that it was just exhaustion! Once Iíd had a banana and a sit-down I was fine.

What do you like about Ishigaki?
Itís a great group of people who I feel at home with, the ju jitsu is fantastic, and it makes the beer afterwards taste all the better. I like being able to pass on what Iíve learned, and that in teaching I discover more. I like the fact that itís a not-for-profit organisation which keeps class fees low so low-waged people can afford to train. The instructors are there because they want to be: we donít get paid for it. This is one of the most quietly impressive things about Ishigaki. I have always admired the dedication of the senseis who freely give their time and expertise to help teach other people. Iím very glad to have reached the point where I can do the same.

Why do you like jujitsu?
I have discovered since doing ju jitsu that I have an almost addictive need to be physical. If I donít train for a while I get a real bodily need to do something. Ju jitsu is a proper physical discipline. It changes you, without having an overt kind of Ďphilosophyí like some eastern disciplines do. It arises out of the practice. You learn to breathe in a particular way, for example, because it makes the techniques possible, not because you do breathing exercises or any kind of meditation - Iíve always had a practical focus, and ju jitsu really agrees with me in this sense.

Iíve also always been quite a clumsy person so I really like the attention it gives to economy of means, balance and control. The idea of form and style, of making a movement beautiful and efficient appeals a lot to me too. I like the fact that I rarely feel really apprehensive about my physical safety anymore.

Ever had to use jujitsu for real?
I guess once Iíd been doing it for a while, I became much more physically confident, which I think communicates itself to potential aggressors, so no. Iíve come close to it a few times but never had to go all the way as it were.

Tell us about the Ishigaki social events.
Theyíre fun. We all get together and have a bit of a laugh and a drink and celebrate all our successes.

Do you enter competitions?
I have done, but Iíve never really enjoyed doing things in public. I did it to prove to myself that I could, and that was enough for me. Itís a shame in a way because itís an enjoyable part of the ju jitsu calendar, but thatís just the way I am.

Has Ishigaki changed your life?
Very much so. I discovered it at a time in my life where I was lacking confidence. These days Iím much more socially and physically confident. I never thought I would be able to stand in front of a group of people and lead them in a particular activity like I do now when Iím taking a class. I owe a lot to my senseis. Itís given me a sense of progress in my life as well, at a time when other things werenít progressing quite so well. Iíve met some wonderful people, you know, friends for life.

How much time does training require?
Because everyone goes at their own pace, it varies totally. Itís a truism, but you get out what you put in.

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