Leilani Heno fell in love with the mindfulness and physical aspects of karate when she began training at LKA in 2009, and recently earned her nidan (2nd degree black belt) this summer at the Japan Karate Association/American Federation National Training Camp in Metairie! She’s an active fitness and health advocate and entrepreneur in New Orleans, as the founder of X-Trainers Personal Training, a healthy meal service, author and healthy lifestyle public speaker. She shares her karate journey and examines the mindful and physical aspects of the art and exercise.
How did you first hear about karate?
When I was a kid, I’d seen every Bruce Lee movie you can imagine! My brother and I would reenact the scenes with nunchucks sounds and try to levitate. One day I was training a client at the University of New Orleans gym and while I was there a karate competition was going on downstairs. The action below piqued my interest, and I watched a woman with long black hair doing a kata (form). It looked so beautiful and strong. She won first place! The next week, I was playing ultimate frisbee, and a friend was leaving to go train karate. He invited me to join him, so I arrived at LKA with him, and the woman from the tournament was teaching class! It was meant to be.
What about it inspired you to start training?
I began practicing meditation at 7 years old, and the mind-body transcendence thing stuck. Through meditation, I’ve experienced ‘levitation’, not literally, but with the sensation of transcending your mind. It’s the same feeling while training karate; it’s almost a meditative process.
Tai chi is just too slow; it doesn’t fit my personality. Karate, as fast as the techniques are, force you to slow your mind, so that you can be fast. The juxtaposition of that is fascinating -- Being slow makes you faster! I’m so type A, and Shotokan style karate calms me down. I love when I get in that ‘zen space’ in class, not thinking, just gaining the feeling for the kata (form).
Karate has enhanced my meditation practice. I feel like I don’t always have time to sit and meditate because there’s too much to do. With karate, I’m able to get in cardio, push my body in ways that surprise me as I get older, and still feel like I’m sitting in quiet. I’m pulled outside of myself, but I’m still moving. It’s similar to a runner’s high. Training kata makes me feel like that.
Why did you choose the LKA?
I love tradition. I love that our Sensei is the oldest top-ranking instructor in the US. Anyone who gains rank in our national organization goes through him. If I compete outside the US, since I’ve trained under Sensei Mikami, I have confidence that I have the technical info straight from the top guy. That’s authentic.
As much as I like change, if the original is good, I like to see that followed and built upon. Because this karate style developed a certain way and is effective, I choose to be a part of that style and method moving forward.
What is your favorite type of karate training?
The 4 direction drill (1 person in the center with 4 opponents on all sides. The attackers take turns moving in with a technique & the center person blocks and defends). Because that’s what life is like! Something’s coming at you from all directions.
Why do you still train?
To push myself. It conditions strength and cardiovascular, and it deepens my meditation practice. It doesn’t feel like work; it feels like fun. When I’m having a bad day, I can release that energy through training. You may have pent-up stress, but when training together, you exercise control and don’t
actually hurt your partner. To me, that’s the most powerful form of mindfulness.
As a fitness professional, how do you see that karate transforms the body?
As a sport, karate is the closest discipline to my training system. Karate follows high-intensity interval training, so it builds strength, mixes cardio and uses a lot of fast and slow movements. I also use karate moves, like punches, in my fitness routines.
Fast-slow-calm-intensity. I believe in the contrast. Opposing elements are needed to balance your mind and body. It’s an oxymoron, but when you train moving slowly, you’re actually building the ability to move fast. That’s what fitness industry is lacking: only yoga, or just tai chi -- it doesn’t give you balance. I like that karate offers that contrast.
Karate is best for people with what kind of fitness goals?
All around conditioning. It’s flexibility, strength, cardio, everything. You move from where you are, wherever you come in. Anyone can start karate. The cardio training is great because you can take breaks between sets and not hurt your body. It’s a mix of aerobic and anaerobic workout. Karate’s a fun and serious workout that allows you to move at your own pace.
How do you feel that karate trains the mind or spirit?
Concentration. Karate teaches that. You have many things on your plate, so we don’t want to add something else. Ironically when you add karate, it enables you to do more. It calms your
mind and promotes balance. It’s physical but also develops your mind and spirit.
Any advice you have for new beginners to karate?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Even if you’re good at other sports, your body may not do what you think it should do initially. We all start as a white belt. It takes time to develop the skill.
What is your proudest accomplishment in karate?
I have two. 1) When I competed in my first competition and placed 2nd in the Kata division with Heian Godan. 2) I entered a competition and didn’t realize all other women were 2nd degree black belt & higher! I sparred against a 4th degree and swept her! I had been working on that technique a lot. I lost the match, but still got better from the experience.