It looks like a piece of minimalist art, but those are samples of the seven, ascending achievement belts (white, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown, and black) hanging on one wall of Shotokan Karate Club of Maryland.
It takes on average 3 1/2 years to progress from white to first-level black belt. Only about one in 300 students gets that far, according to Farid Amin, who regularly teaches at the club.
Karate is a demanding pastime. Those who stick with it say the key is to not become too color- conscious. Don't get hung up on belts. Rather, train for the intrinsic joy of pursuing perfection.
Barbara Royster, a retired Baltimore County lawyer, took up Shotokan karate six years ago at 54 as "a way of staying fit." Along the way, she picked up a black belt and now finds herself practicing kicks while cooking or watching TV, but good health remains her primary motive.
"I've kept up my flexibility and I'm in very good shape for my age," says Royster. "I attribute it to continuing karate. You're more alive, so to speak."
Joe Mathias, a 45-year-old electrician from Arbutus, began studying under Najib Amin two years ago. He was overweight and in an emotional funk, searching for something that would be "all-around good for me." He apparently found it. Mathias has earned a purple belt while dropping 35 pounds, and says he's "much more" patient and confident. "I wish I started doing this when I was a kid."
There are many varieties of karate. Shotokan is considered "hard" karate, meaning the workouts tend to be old-school vigorous and defense-oriented. You won't find a lot of the grappling and tossing of opponents common to "soft" karate, which Mathias describes as Hollywood action-movie karate.
You can find out more by visiting the Web sites of Shotokan Karate of America (www.ska.org) or the USA Karate Foundation (www.usakarate.org).
Shotokan Karate Club of Maryland (3522 Brenbrook Plaza, Randallstown; 410-521-0144) has an open-door policy: There's a seating gallery about the size of a jury box from which visitors can observe classes. Children's and beginner-adult workouts are held three times a week. Advanced classes are offerred too. Call for price information.
This particular dojo (the proper term for a karate school) keeps a low advertising profile, but takes pride in its diversity, currently boasting members from 13 countries.
"If you find out about us and come here," says Farid Amin, "we welcome you."