The class, dressed in black karate gis, lines up on the blue mats of Centennial Community Centre’s dojo. Together, they face John Millard, who stands at the front of the room. The class bows to John. John bows back.
By day, John Millard is the executive officer at the Cheshire Homes Society of British Columbia. Here, he is sensei of the Leonard Cheshire Budokai Karate Club. The group, meeting Mondays in New Westminster, British Columbia, and on Wednesdays in Surrey’s Semiahmoo House Society, is not a typical karate club. For one, it’s free. For another, every student on the mats is a survivor of a brain injury.
“How can a survivor like me learn self defence?” That was the question posed to John by a friend of a friend — a woman in college who had experienced a brain injury. In his 40s at the time, John had practised Judo and Karate for about 20 years. It was a good question. There were bad people in the world, and — depending on the extent of their injury — a survivor of brain injury might have a hard time defending themselves in an attack. John approached his own karate instructor and together the two of them put together a 16-week self-defence course for the Lower Mainland Brain Injury Association.
It was a hit. “[The course] went over very well,” John says. “We probably had about 25 people and they loved it.”
The course paired traditional karate techniques with combat avoidance. “It was much more focused on self-defence techniques — what do you do if you’re grabbed, for instance. And a lot more practicals, like where you walk at night and how you project yourself. We even had an imitation bank machine and we were working around making people recognize how easily you can be mugged.”
But after the course ended, John and his instructor realized they could put together a club to teach even more. The two developed a curriculum from white belt to black belt and began training students, adjusting traditional karate teaching for survivors of brain injury. “In brain injury, we have a lot of people who are challenged by short-term memory,” John explains. “We added a lot of pieces for that — for example, when we do a particular move we’ll label it with a funny phrase to trigger memory.” John describes one technique that looks like a waiter serving a plate. “We labelled that ‘serving rice.’”
The club also modifies karate techniques to work for people who are partially paralyzed. “I can tell you that in a lot of movements, often they’re done with two hands and two arms — when you have to break free from a choke, for example. With a person with one able side, you really have to look at adapting the moves. Leading with one side always, for example, so you’re never putting the weak side at risk.”
John’s daughter — a survivor of brain injury herself and John’s head student — is currently working to teach self-defence techniques for people in wheelchairs. Classes run twice a week. After bowing in, the students warm up, practise stretching and balance, and practise blocks and punches. They usually end with katas — a series of choreographed techniques. John observes it all. Now 55 — “a young 55!” — he has practised Japanese martial arts for more than 30 years. He holds a brown belt in Judo and a black belt in naha-te, a style of karate from Okinawa, with roots in Chinese kung fu.
As mentioned, membership in the club is entirely free. This is the way John was taught and he believes it is the purest form of martial arts. “From the very beginning it’s been volunteer,” John says. “It’s a wonderful thing to give back and provide the information that’s been provided to me.”
“In another club, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to advance,” says Marco Randi, a blue belt at the club. “There, past a certain point, you won’t be able to keep up. But here I can excel.” At 11, Marco survived a collision with a car. It was on the last day of school before Christmas break. He flew thirty feet into the air and landed headfirst. After the accident, Randi had to learn how to talk, walk, and focus his mind again. At 34, he can still feel the repercussions of that accident.
“The club has made such a huge impact on my life,” Marco says. Marco joined the club four years ago and plans to get his black belt one day. He doesn’t let anything get in the way of his training: Marco is currently dealing with a knee injury, but he keeps on coming. “The surgeon said he’d never seen a leg banged up like mine. But unless my legs are broken, I’m going to come and train.”
The club members come for different reasons: self-defence, fitness, and strength. There are obvious physical benefits to the exercise. “For a lot of people with brain injuries, our balance is really affected,” Randi says. “And martial arts is great for balance.” After stance training, Randi says his left leg — weaker since his accident — has grown much stronger.
There are mental benefits as well. “For people who have problems focusing, it’s a big help,” Marco says. “Short-term memory too,” he adds. “When I was first starting out, Millard Sensei told me ‘Marco, practise makes permanent, man.’” After training rote movements for so long, the lessons stick. Despite memory problems, the techniques find a way into the muscles. “Someone grabs you, you just react to it — boom.”
But the most important part of this program — the element that makes the Leonard Cheshire Budokai Karate Club really something — is the confidence and the connection that comes from being with people, pursuing a passion, and improving a skill. “When you’re brain-injured, you feel quite alone,” Marco says. “Knowing martial arts, being with people — it’s great. I can talk to them. I’m not nervous.”