What Color Is Your Belt?

Sensei Mae spoke to me last week about the color of her belt. Of course it is black…my black belt is newer than her black belt and the color is darker as the belt has not been worn as often as Sensei Mae has worn hers. Her observation? She is excited that her belt is looking a little worn. She was in Chicago this summer for a tournament and observed that all of the veteran karate senseis’ belts were worn.

We then reflected that as a beginning white belt student we could not wait to get to the next color. We do think that white belts and yellow belts are the life of the dojo which is a subject for another post.

The concept of an “aging” belt as a beginning student was foreign to us. We were just looking forward to and likely pestering Sensei about when we could test for our next belt.

Our Sensei tells the story of the ancient system of belt colors: white, brown and black. Everyone started as a white belt. Over time your belt became dirty as you learned skills and attended classes. Why a brown belt? The answer, according to Sensei, was from being thrown to the ground with sand and dirt—now you are a brown belt! Eventually, with enough time and training, the beginning belt became very dirty and turned black. Congratulations black belt!

Of course this story is a fun one to share. Sensei has also shared with us that colored belts come from judo. The number of judo students increased as they had progressive rewards while the number of karate students decreased. So, karate adopted the colored belt system.

The colors on the way to black were very important to me. Sometimes I felt like I had “earned” the belt and sometimes I did not believe I had mastered enough technique or skill to move to the next level. Someone is always better.

As Sensei Mae and I have learned, once you earn a black belt, it is like starting over at white belt again, but just on a more advanced level.  The black belt is great with the knowledge that the journey is important. As I prepare to test for Sensei this month I am again reminded how little I know and how much my teachers know.

Today, while teaching eight eager white belt kids in class, an orange belt (just two steps above their level) began warming up and kicked the kicking bag at the other end of the room. All of the kids stopped and stared at the orange belt and marveled at his skills. I am sure I would have said as the white belts appeared to be saying to themselves, “there was no way I will ever be that good!”

The lesson for Sensei Mae and me is that we are on the journey and we are always ready to learn from others. Each time I step onto the floor I am happy to practice a drill I have learned so I can begin to master it or to learn a new skill.

Keep an open mind. We do not always go over the material for a belt test. Sensei said on Saturday—you should be happy of the opposite! You should be happy we do not test you on the knowledge shared in every class—just the specific skills outlined for the test. Keep an empty mind during class so the Senseis may fill it up with knowledge. A full cup cannot be filled.

As we look at others’ belts, try not to envy them.  The color of the belt is not as important as the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome along the way. We know that our experiences are not the same as anyone else’s experiences.  This is why a black belt encourages everyone in the continual pursuit of improving the quality of one’s life through the martial arts. As the popular saying goes “A black belt is a white belt that never gave up.”

See you in class soon—with my crisp newer black belt tied on!


Fancy belt colors


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