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Sensei's knees have been bothering him lately; he couldn't get into seiza anymore, and he'd bow the class in and out by standing in front of the shomen. He would start demonstrating a technique and then remember that he couldn't get down into a seated pin, so he'd change it into a technique that didn't need one. At the end of class when it came time for our usual closing of kokyu dosa, he'd have two Sempai demonstrate it instead of calling up an uke. After class when some of us students would get together and practice for our tests, he'd sit aside in a chair and preside over us. He'd gaze onward with a look I know well--that "being on the sidelines" look, that uncertainty of whether an injury will ever properly and fully heal, that look of longing for what his body was capable of before. It's the chink in one's armor, the realization that there exists a kryptonite to our otherwise unwavering practice.
But despite his reluctance to demonstrate seated techniques, I still see Sensei's passion in the art, his dedication toward his students, and his determination to pass on his own teacher's legacy. When a white belt was struggling with the concept of te-katana during kokyu dosa, Sensei gingerly got down on his knees to show him the proper alignment of hand blades and hips. When another student couldn't quite bend at the knees low enough to do a proper shihonage on me, Sensei had me hold on to his wrist so he could demonstrate. Mentally, I protested, "Don't do it if it hurts,
I remember when she had just joined the dojo, a female comrade amidst the sea of men, a bit bumbling and awkward, not unlike myself, questioning her own techniques, muttering self-criticisms through training. I remember her bowing into me, holding onto her narrow wrists, feeling out the movements of her body, seeing her potential. She showed up regularly to train and progressed fast through the ranks.
As I sit in the middle of a line-up bifurcated by the shomen, I try on this role of being Sempai like new clothes, these attempts to explain techniques for the first time to curious Kohai. I pay closer attention to where to put my hands and feet and thumbs, how to stand in correct posture for various techniques, and how to point the toes, so I can tell them correctly when they ask me. In my dojo, junior-ranking students initiate the attack, and I get used to those little things like allowing myself to be grabbed first at the start of each new techniques, or positioning us so the uke falls to the outside of the circle and not clash into those training behind us.
Sometimes I hear my Sempai's voice in my head as a self-reprimand, or hear him echoed through my own words: "Stay on the matódon't throw off." "Switch feet." "Twist your hips." Kohai tell me, "You make that look graceful," or "I wish I could do that like you," and I remember thinking that about my Sempai before me. Familiar now with the basics, I am not frantically trying to memorize what to do when Sensei demos;