Transcending Tradition — Becoming You

About six years ago, my kids and I started learning karate. It began with the desire to do something fun together that would help us all to grow and learn new things. Like many who embark on martial arts training, I was mostly focused on learning techniques that would help me and my children defend ourselves and maybe get a little exercise too. What I didn’t realize back then was how much I would learn about myself and life in general.

Karate students are typically taught the basics when they start – strikes, kicks, blocks, etc. Gradually, we learned to do choreographed sequences of basic techniques called katas and one steps. The next level of difficulty was to use these techniques in non choreographed ways doing things like sparring or self defense.

One day, we were asked to perform something called a Shuhari kata. This was rather unnerving, because unlike the choreographed katas we had been learning, a Shuhari kata is entirely created by the person doing it. I found myself standing in the middle of a floor by myself with people expectantly watching me. A command was issued, and I was to create my own sequence and flow using basic techniques I had learned.

The expectation is to break free of tradition and anything that has been done before and invent an distinctly unique and original application and creative. Each person’s Shuhari, we were told, would always be different from everyone else’s – and we would never do the same Shurhari kata twice. The logic is that these creative katas are an extension of each person’s imaginative and inspired impulses in each moment, which constantly change and evolve.

My first Shuhari kata was pretty choppy. I was self conscious and preoccupied by a desire to get “right” something that I was told there was no right way to do. I feared I would do something completely inappropriate that would have everyone laughing at me. And I wanted it to get it over with as soon as possible.

I still feel a little anxious about doing a Shuhari kata. But over time, I learned that something freeing and exhilarating happens when you give yourself completely to something – when you stop worrying about who’s watching and let go of needing to do anything in particular, just give yourself license to create and do whatever you are feeling in the moment.

As I think more about it, I realize how similar Shuhari is to life itself. As kids, we’re taught how to survive in the world – what’s appropriate and what isn’t, how to speak and act at school, at work and within a variety of other social settings. The “Shu” in Shuhari is roughly translated as ‘learned from tradition”, which is what we all start with from an early age.

At some point, we recognize that independent thought is necessary. The rules we were taught as kids don’t always apply. We have to use some discernment to figure out what behavior will best meet the needs of both our environments and ourselves. We begin to appreciate the individual styles and preferences we all have and how they sometimes go against the “norm.” The “Ha” in Shuhari means to break free of traditional training. When we take a stand against a status quo we believe no longer serves the greatest good, we have reached this new stage of development.

At some point in our lives, I think each of us will feel compelled to transcend all that we have been taught and conditioned to do and to recognize and flow with our own unique gifts and creative inclinations. The “Ri” in Shuhari represents that stage in martial arts, when the student is ready to go beyond tradition because of their understanding and insight into the martial arts. All of the greatest artists and masters – in any discipline – have at some point risen above emulating the techniques and styles of others to discover and apply their own.

It won’t always be easy. Like martial arts students who are asked to perform a Shuhari kata, we will be carefully observed by others who utilize and may have even taught us the traditional ways. We might feel anxious, vulnerable and we may lose our nerve. But the more we learn to give ourselves to our unique inner promptings, the freer we will be, and the more beautiful the world around us will become – because of what we have given to it from the very core of our beings.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate… Every great man is unique.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Image credit: Nicola since 1972

About Diane Bolden

Diane Bolden is passionate about helping people actualize their brilliance in a way that inspires others to do the same. In addition to being the author of The Pinocchio Principle ~ Becoming the Leader You Were Born to Be, Diane is an executive coach, speaker, yoga lover and mother of three. Join Diane On the Road to Real, visit her Synchronistically Speaking blog, follow her on Twitter;, or visit her YouTube channel for more.