Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, July 20, 2018

Video of first Seiunchin sequence

My son tells me I should post things on Instagram--the younger generation, I guess, and I suppose the general direction of the world is more into Instagram than these formats that actually take longer to read and perhaps a bit more effort to understand--but I’m not sure whether that’s the right format. Can you really investigate kata and bunkai in a 60 second format? I’m not sure.

And does it leave questions unanswered and things unexplained? Does it become "just another bunkai," like a 10 second sound bite, that gets viewed passively as we scroll through things on the Internet or social media, searching for anything that will provide a quick minute of entertainment.

So I went out to the barn dojo and filmed a kata sequence with him: first the kata movements and then the bunkai. I decided to start with the first sequence of Seiunchin kata, only because the conventional interpretation of these moves is...well, the conventional interpretation has always seemed to me to be so bad, so illogical.

But in a short 28 second video clip how can I explain that any bunkai that doesn't show why you step forward into shiko dachi is ignoring an important lesson from the kata? How can I explain that thematically the kata is showing a series of responses to a cross-hand grab and that the defender doing kata brings both hands to the outside? And I can't really show that this bunkai echoes a similar technique we find in Suparinpei--that is, it's a variation, because it's a system where the applications from different kata all seem to fit together and reinforce the same principles. The effort in practicing kata and bunkai should be to discover (the original intent) not to create.

But I tried to explain things in the book, The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-Ryu: the essence of the Heishu and Kaishu kata. And since I can't seem to figure out how to upload a viewable video on here, I'm going to put a few videos on my Facebook account (under my name) and on Instagram at "Kodokangoju." Nothing professional, just some amateur videos that show technique. I hope they prove useful and perhaps even spark some discussion. And if you try any of them out, please be careful.

Check it out:

Instagram: Kodokangoju

Monday, July 02, 2018

Looking at oak trees

Up the hill on the far side of the conserva-tion area where I often walk, the oak trees predominate, taking over for the pines and hemlocks that seem to prefer the other side where it's shadier and the ground is wetter, with a number of small streams or rivulets trickling down towards the lake in the early spring. There are also outcroppings of granite here, covered in moss, and mountain laurel that grows so thick along one side of the path that it almost seems as though someone had planted hedges. This is where the butterflies gather in the late summer. At the top of the hill, the forest floor is covered with oak leaves all year. It doesn't matter what the season; the look is still the same, with a carpet of brown leaves everywhere--mostly red oak and pin oak, though I think there are some white oak and chinkapin oak, too.

The oaks are wonderfully durable looking, of course, craggy and almost avuncular with their gnarled branches and patches of blue-green lichen that seem to have colonized the bark on one side, looking like alien spoors that have fallen from the sky and splattered the tree trunks. Of course, the oak trees endure all of this; that's their nature. They're steadfast and long-lived, firmly rooted and unwavering--symbols of strength and endurance. The oaks are a hard wood, unlike the pines that share this forest. We use its wood to make floors and furniture. The Okinawans used the red oak to make rokushaku bo.

This sort of personification of the oak always reminds me of how we often seem to think of Sanchin kata in the curriculum of Okinawa Goju-ryu classical subjects. It is almost universally recognized as the foundation (or at least fundamental) to the practice and understanding of Goju. And yet I have often wondered what exactly is so foundational or fundamental about this kata. Its techniques are so basic--composed of only a few simple and relatively straightforward movements--that it would be difficult to argue that an understanding of Sanchin, no matter how complete, would lead one to a more thorough understanding of the techniques contained in the other classical kata. But its position within the curriculum seems so sacrosanct that any questioning of its purpose or nature seems somehow blasphemous.

But few teachers do anything more than document the outward shape of the kata--that is, confining themselves to a brief description of the stance, the stepping, the position of the arms, the posture, and the coordination of the breath, with some explanation of shime or body checking. Most, I suspect, offer no explanation at all; the students merely follow along, mimicking the movements of their teachers and the other students in class. There are a few, of course, who indulge in suitably vague and cryptic references to meridians or descriptions of how one should guide one's breath to travel along the internal energy paths in order to be able to nourish and project one's qi. But in practice, this aspect of training Goju appears somewhat mystical or at the very least confusing, and I shy away from the mystical. I think that aspect of one's training is best left to each individual to work out for him or herself.
Sanchin kata

For some years now, in addition to my regular training, I have set out to practice Sanchin kata three times a day, every day, not blindly as if I were merely going through the motions, but with an eye to understanding what this particular kata was trying to teach me. When I was younger, I spent many years undergoing both "hard checks" and softer checks of my kata. Sensei would step up on our legs, throw punches at the latissimus dorsi, bring his palms forcefully down on our shoulders, and break boards over our thighs and extended arms whenever we put on a demonstration for the public. All of this "checking" seemed to solidify the general impression that Goju was a "hard" style of karate that emphasized physical conditioning and toughness. Over the years, however, I found myself questioning many things about the oak-like hardness that seemed to characterize the practice of Sanchin.

After all, Goju-ryu was supposed to be both "hard" (Go) and "soft" (Ju). But I also started to wonder what the intention must have been if the kata was originally, as oral tradition tells us, a completely open hand kata. Were we meant to strike with the open hand or push with the palm? The double-arm kamae posture, with both arms held up in front of the body, hands at shoulder level and elbows down, was also the beginning posture of Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei, and I had come to believe that the techniques of these kata were largely based on close-in or grappling confrontations. Then there were all of the apparent contradictions. What purpose could an immoveable stance serve if one of the first martial principles we see illustrated in the other bunkai kata is to get out of the way or to move in such a way that your attacker has only the one opportunity (the initial attack) to attack you?

The hard checking, I believe, really conveys the wrong idea, not just to the general public who may be watching a karate demonstration, but to the practitioner as well. But the checking itself, presumably passed down from teacher to student over the years, may help one's understanding if we can understand the things that such checking is trying to point out.

Most of the checking, whether hard or soft, should be done at the point where the movement has been completed--that is, for example, at the full extension of the "punch." At that point, stepping on the back of the rear leg or pushing down on the calf is used to signal the one doing the kata that the energy of the "punch" or push should come from the heel of the rear leg, through the body, and out the arm. If the energy is not being projected up from the foot through the leg and waist to the arm, the  rear leg will be weak and easily bent.

Slapping or pushing down on the shoulders should remind the practitioner to keep the shoulders relaxed and down, making the transfer of the energy through the waist that much easier. If the shoulder is too tense or raised up, the different parts of the body cannot work together.

Similarly, pushing or punching the abdomen is a reminder that the belly is relaxed and the mind (and the center) is in the dantien or tanden. Checking the small of the back or the straightness of the spine is the same thing. If either of these is not correct, the posture is weak and you will not have the balance or sufficient coordination of these elements to affect your opponent or to withstand your opponent's attack.

Pushing or kicking against the side of the front knee is a forceful reminder that as the student pushes out, with the force beginning from the heel of the rear foot, the front leg rounds out, with the knee over the foot, with a kind of elastic tension, not stiffness. This affects "grounding" oneself far more than simply spreading one's toes and gripping the ground.

And lastly, we often see the teacher hold one hand up against the student's punch while the other pulls lightly on the student's other arm. To me, working against this sort of counter-motion reminds me that whether we are pushing out or pulling in, we must use the waist or koshi--that is, all of these upper body movements must be generated by the waist. As it says in the Chinese classics: "The millstone turns but the mind does not turn. The turning of the millstone is a metaphor for the turning of the waist." So often, because of the perception that Sanchin kata is teaching one to be solid and unmoving, like the oak tree, we see students locked in place, immoveable, with the trunk of the body as rigid as a toy soldier at Christmas time, as if the message here is to stand straight in the face of an attack and be able to withstand any punishment someone is able to mete out. But that's not what Sanchin training is all about, I think. I love to look at the oak trees out in the woods, but I don't want to look like an oak tree when I'm practicing Sanchin.