“There’re new things every day to learn,” Aniis tells me. “If you repeat it, then you become better at it. That’s what I like.” Tayla agrees with him: “With karate, you’re always doing different stuff,” she says. Tayla used to go to ballet but stopped in favour of karate as “it was just a bit boring.” She’s now the current British champion, so it’s fair to say that she hasn’t looked back since.

The number of trite self-help books with catchy titles marketed at the typical twenty-something are a clear testament to the fact that struggles with confidence can continue well into adulthood. However, karate’s emphasis on focus, acceptance and respect seems to go hand in hand with developing the kind of healthy self-confidence from an early age that many are still striving for in their adult years. “Tayla used to be quite quiet,” her mother Lisa explains. “Since starting karate she’s really come out of her shell.” Aniis’s mother, Magol, has a similar answer when I ask her what, in her opinion, is the most important thing her son has learnt during his time practicing karate. “To be confident,” she says. “It teaches him not to judge people quickly. Focus, think about what that person is really saying to you.”

At the end of the day, people often forget that karate has its social elements too. “Have you ever fought against each other?” I ask Aniis and Tayla. Aniis laughs, “Every day.” “In class though,” Tayla hastens to clarify. “And you guys are still friends?” I question. “Yeah,” says Aniis, “I think so.”

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The philosophy that underpins karate is often overlooked. And yet Funakoshi - often seen to be the founder of modern karate - interpreted the kara in karate to mean “to purge oneself of selfish and evil thoughts”. Those unfamiliar with martial arts are often guilty of conflating the different practices the title encompasses, viewing them interchangeably when the differences between them are often more marked than their similarities. For instance, Judo is the art of grabbing; karate is all about striking. When we lose sight of these distinctions, we reduce these practices to their physicality, ignoring the mental and spiritual benefits of the philosophies they stem from. “Learning karate isn’t so much about learning how to fight,” says Magol, whose son, Aniis, attends a karate club. “It’s about learning an art.”

Terry Daly travels to Bethnal Green multiple days a week to teach karate at the East London Uechi-Ryu Karate Club. “The most valuable thing I teach them is how to focus,” he tells me. “If I can get them to concentrate, it helps them in school as well. In fact, if I can get my kids to knuckle down and focus, it’s a lesson that helps them for the rest of their lives.” Even to an outsider, it’s easy to understand the harmony found in the act of practicing a move until it becomes not only familiar, but second nature. I ask him what the most rewarding part of teaching the class is. “Watching them get better,” he replies without hesitation. “It’s so subtle. I can’t explain it.” Aniis and Tayla attend the club regularly, sometimes every day. Aniis is 11 and has earned a green belt, Tayla - age 12 - a black belt. It doesn’t take a long time with them to see how much dedication and respect they both have for their art: they clearly see the benefits of their practice and it makes them strive for more.


Words: Catherine Karellis

Photography: Magdalena Siwicka