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Stepping up the intensity: Kangeiko winter training


AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

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At numerous dojo in the Chicago area and around the world, Judo, Kendo, Karate, and Aikido practitioners are beginning an annual tradition that reaffirms their commitment to their art.

The annual event is called kangeiko, or literally "cold training".  Kangeiko challenges both the minds and bodies of the participants through practice under adverse conditions, in unheated training halls or even outdoors.  The tradition has its roots in the ascetic practices of Mahayana Buddhism, and was later adopted by the warrior class.  Orginally, the intent was to strengthen commitment, fire up the fighting spirit, and exorcise the inner invertebrate.

Today, the practices vary among the different arts.  Judoka, who follow the Kodokan tradition, train all day in an unheated dojo, beginning at 6 AM, for two consecutive days.  Most Aikidoka practice for ten consecutive days, with some attempting to attend all the classes.  Often, even in this modern age, dojo windows are sometimes thrown open to allow the Chicago winter to permeate the dojo.

Why do these practitioners do this?  Some simply see it as a test to be overcome, a challenge to be met, and to find one's limits.  Others use it as a mechanism by which they can renew their commitment to their chosen art, believing that a commitment made under adverse conditions creates a stronger bond. 

There are also traditions of abstinence during this period, and some practitioners use this as an opportunity to cleanse or detoxify their bodies.  Then, there are those who seek to create a new habit of frequent practice and build momentum for the new year.  And then, there are the dojo rats, for whom this is business as usual.

Regardless of various reasons and practices, the sustained activity during this period will increase your level of fitnessHowever, there are a few precautions the you need to take, especially when practicing in the cold.  Remember that you are renewing your commitment and not having one last fling with your art:

  • Warm up and stretch thoroughly to prevent injuries.  The combination of low temperatures and constant muscle and joint strain will increase the possibility of injury.
  • Hydrate, even if you don't feel thirsty.  Your body requires hydration during cold weather, but the thirst reflex may not be triggered.
  • Eat properly.  Fuel up with complex carbohydrates and protein before classes, but also make sure that you eat properly afterwards to ensure recovery.
  • Eat moderately.  A common mistake is to eat too much and wind up actually gaining weight during this period. 
  • Pay attention to hygiene.  Always wear a clean gi, clean supportive gear, and wash your hands frequently.  The intensity of the training may suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to everything from skin diseases to H1N1.
  • Be alert for symptoms of hypothermia in yourself and others.  Symptoms include shivering, confusion, clumsiness, and more.
  • Pace yourself.  Try to ignore the urge to go all out at every class.
  • Get adequate sleep to ensure proper recovery and healing.

Kangeiko, for those who make the commitment, builds camaraderie and a sense of joint accomplishment.  Bonds amongst practitioners are strengthened while their ties to their art are strengthened.   Kangeiko is an ordeal, but the rewards are great, the process can be fun, and the stories come will come in handy in your old age.

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