What to Wear Where

Some groups feel pretty strongly about dress. I used to be in that category. Over the last fifteen years or so I have found myself training outside in my garden, in the courtyards of Washington University. or in parks more often than in proper dojo. There have been stints where this has not been true, but taken in total I think this is an accurate statement.

It is not easy to get grass stains out of a karate gi and they are not cheap. We like to throw each other in TKRI. We like to use strikes to unbalance our partners, we like to grab most any bits of cloth or flesh that happen to be within grabbing range (we are a close group), and it is not uncommon for us to go to the ground when the spirit moves us. Add to this a fair amount of falling practice, some sit ups, push ups, and who knows what else, and you have got gi hell.

It took about a decade (some of us in the karate world are evidently a bit slow) for me to discover that it was not necessary to always wear a gi when training. I found I liked it. There are a lot of advantages to training in shorts, with or without a tee-shirt. Seizing feels much different without the thick cloth of a gi’s sleeves. The sleeves both absorb sweat which makes grabbing much easier, and the material is itself easy to grab.

It is not that unusual, in our Saint Louis club, for our male students to train without a gi top or a tee-shirt, sometimes our female students will wear a sports top. This immediately reveals postural, balance, and technical problems. In yakusoku kumite it allows for much more precise targeting.

Some people may counter that a gi mimics the vulnerabilities one should be aware of when wearing everyday attire. Coats, shirts, jackets, and ties are all easily grabbed more easily than bare flesh and change the nature of many attacks. This is true of course, and I am not advocating the abandonment of the use of the gi altogether, however I have found that old coats, shirts, jackets, and even ties are also effective stand ins for coats, shirts, jackets and ties if one is interested in approximating real world encounters (the similarities truly are striking).

TKRI has several important events every year around which our schedules revolve. Both the Virginia and Missouri branches have special training to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The clubs collaborate on the demonstrations at the annual Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens held over Labor Day weekend every year. The Ferrum Virginia clubs host a weekend long summer camp towards the end of June or the beginning of July every year. Each club tries to host at least one major event over the course of the regular school year. These are all big productions. We often have guests. During these sorts of activities we wear our gi (to be truthful the Ferrum group usually trains in gi) and try to make ourselves presentable.

I spend a lot less money on gis now. It is a big help. I do not want to even imagine how much I have spent over the years on karate. I am more prone to wear my gi at the beginning of a semester when we are trying to bring the group together. Mostly my gi functions sort of like formal wear (with sweat stains).

I tell my students all of the normal stuff about appropriate dress for special occasions and visiting other clubs ; wear all white traditional gi without patches and do not wear jewelry on the training floor. I tell them that regardless of their rank in our club they should be prepared to wear a white belt when they visit any other club (unless invited to do otherwise by the host).

We may get the odd student who does not have the sense not to wear “ninja” gear or tee-shirts proclaiming themselves to be a sensei, master, shihan, grandmaster, soke, or my favorite; ni dai soke, but we nick that in the bud pretty quickly. In fact there is nothing quite like working with a bunch of sweaty, grass stained, very fit, slightly bedraggled looking people who are more interested in how to knock one another down on their butts then they are in ranks, certificates, and titles, to take the piss out of any self proclaimed expert.

Admittedly about half way through the summer the group, when we are hot, muddy, grass stained and bug bitten looks a bit like Captain Jack Sparrow’s crew. I like it though (arrrrrgh).


2 responses to “What to Wear Where

  1. I love this post – especially the video.

    There’s nothing there I disagree with, but I’d add one more benefit to wearing a gi (I don’t know if this is going to occur to everyone, but I think it’s important):

    If I’m doing something intimate like groundwork with a young, mixed-gender group, whose histories I’m probably not aware of, I like the gi because I think it adds a bit of psychological distance (as well as physical covering) and it very clearly separates the experience out into the category of “karate training”, which distances it from more traumatic and less controlled experiences that the student may have had in the past. In general I’ll ease into groundwork very slowly, and there’s no way I’d do, say, triangle chokes for the first time with a group that consisted of one young beginner girl and 5 beginner boys. But even with lots of experienced seniors there to act as models, I think there’s something useful about the gi, in that it contributes to the message that says “yeah, so I’m senior to you, or bigger than you, and you’ve got your head in my crotch (or I’m pinning you to the ground with my body), but this is not about sex, or exploitation, or domination, this is about learning ways to use your own brain, and your own body, to protect yourself.”

    Perhaps later on it’s going to be important for anyone who feels especially vulnerable or uncomfortable doing that kind of thing to get past that, but your first day doing groundwork with a bunch of strangers is probably not that day – we want people to leave the dojo feeling empowered, not confused and ashamed.

    There are other ways to do this too. I always think the fact that you (and Meik Skoss too, I noticed) ask a student to act as uke for you by saying something like, ‘X, would you mind if I borrowed you?’ helps to emphasise to all the students that it’s up to *them* what happens to their body. It’s not as if once they’ve entered the dojo they’ve given up all moral rights to say “no.” Until the student has enough self-possession and confidence to recognise this for themselves, (and knows their teacher and the other students well enough to have confidence in *them*) the gi can be a useful thing for making strange and new groundwork practice seem a bit more under control.

  2. Training without a gi is vital- I started out learning grappling and Brazilian jujutsu without a gi, and only transitioned to gi later on when I started training judo.

    MMA is usually done without a gi (exception being the Royce Gracie- Hidehiko Yoshida bout).

    There are many differences when doing grappling with a gi and without a gi, to the point that two different competitions have evolved to address them ( for example, Abu Dhabi for no-gi, Jujitsu Mundials for Brazilian jujutsu gi grappling). Although the positions of grappling remain the same, there are subtle but important differences (for example, you can use the gi itself to choke, and it is easier to grab).

    When purchasing training films, there are sets exclusively devoted to gi and no gi grappling, and the two are not often mixed on the same tape series.

    Training in gi exclusively does not guarantee grappling mastery- Eddie Bravo shifted training to no-gi, and after 3-4 years of grappling beat Royler Gracie (who has been training all of his life in a gi from as soon as he was wearing diapers) in the no-gi grappling championships at Abu Dhabi.

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