At the start of practice in the Birch Bay Activity Center, six karate students kneel facing their instructor Eric Henry, who kneels silently in front of them on the hardwood floor. Sunlight slanting in through the gymnasium windows reflects off their white robes as everyone breathes silently, with heads slightly bowed. A minute passes.
“Ok, let’s go!” Henry yells, and all seven men, women and children jump to their feet and sprint towards the door. They run laps around the outside of the gym before coming back inside and commencing a series of aerobic and stretching workouts.
The purpose of the energetic start to practice, Henry says, is to get hearts pumping and muscles loose, which helps prevent injury during the rest of practice.
The rest of practice is focused on perfecting specific movements. The movements are used in Kata, a series of martial-arts
moves joined together in a fluid display like an intricate, partner-less dance, and sparring – the hand-to-hand combat most people associate with martial arts.
Birch Bay Shotokan Karate Club is unlike most martial arts clubs because the training emphasizes karate as an art, not a sport.
“We do not do ‘sport karate’ or have 10 different colored belts. Our instructor does not get paid. We don’t break boards unless we’re out of firewood,” said Jesse Haines, a member of the club who sometimes helps lead the class.
Birch Bay Shotokan Karate Club is a part of Shotokan Karate of America (SKA), a non-profit group that has been dedicated to teaching traditional karate in the U.S. since 1955.
Henry has been practicing the Shotokan method for more than 20 years. He began practicing in college, discovering SKA after becoming dissatisfied with the form of karate he had previously trained in. He heard of a man who was giving SKA lessons in a racquetball court. The man was a student of Tsutomu Ohshima, the first person to teach the Shotokan method in America.
“I took one lesson and knew it was exactly what I had been looking for,” Henry said. “There was nothing contrived about it. The movements were fluid. The way they started and ended practice felt solemn but natural. It was a very genuine, realistic practice.”
Henry carries on the tradition of realistic practice in his own dojo. He began instructing several years ago when a friend asked him to teach his son. Word spread, and Henry taught several students, renting spaces around Bellingham as they became available.
One of the tenets of SKA is that it is not for profit and non-commercial, so any money Henry received went towards renting space to practice. Too often, a space would be closed to Henry and his students and be repurposed for another use.
“Eventually we found the space in the Birch Bay Activity Center, and we’ve been there for the last year,” Henry said.
Currently, Henry instructs seven students. The age of members ranges widely.
“SKA offers very serious, mature practice that you can do for a lifetime,” Henry said. “Some dojos are only focused on kids, but our techniques have benefits for people of all ages. It’s about understanding how your body moves, and connecting mental intent to body movement.”
Practice provides an aerobic workout and improves fitness, but Henry said the benefits are more than purely physical.
“There is a sophisticated mental component as well. It requires focus and discipline,” he said.
Occasionally, practitioners of SKA will hold spontaneous mini-competitions, but they don’t generally compete with other karate organizations.
“The feeling is that competition, though an important practice, is not the main point of SKA,” Henry said. “It’s less of a sport and more of an art, and competition is a training exercise, not the goal.”
The goal of SKA is much more useful, Henry said.
“The goal of our training is to make ourselves better human beings. More physically fit, more mentally fit and better able to respond to the situations that life throws at us.”
While some people might see karate and other martial arts as a promotion of violence, Henry said the truth is just the opposite.
“I’ve seen people who come in because they want to learn how to fight, and they do learn that,” Henry said. “But in the process, they must face themselves. The goal is to become better human beings, and in facing themselves, people learn self-control and discipline.”
New members are welcome to join the club regardless of prior experience. Classes are offered twice a week at the Birch Bay Activity Center, run by Blaine-Birch Bay Park and Recreation District 2 at 7511 Gemini Street in Birch Bay.