Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Well, that's about the size of it.

"Well, that's about the size of it," he said. I realized I hadn't been paying attention. I knew he was summing something up, but I didn't remember what he had been talking about. I was thinking about the conservation area where we found ourselves. I had stopped on the trail to watch a pileated woodpecker and he had been coming up from the other direction when he paused to see what had caught my attention.

The conservation area isn't very big--about 625 acres with over a hundred different bird species and five miles of trails--but it's enough to get away from the sounds of traffic and the general insanity of the world for an hour or two. But as we separated, I found myself thinking about the size of things. After all, the Fitzgerald Lake area is only a fraction of the size of the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument that President Obama designated last year, all 87,500 acres, and that's supposedly only 1% of Maine's woodlands. I can't really even picture things that size. All you can say is, it's H-U-G-E.

But that got me to thinking about martial arts stuff and different systems of self defense. I once knew a guy who said he had studied Kempo (that's the only designation he gave it) for five years or so, and in that time he had learned 300,000 forms. Now, I'm thinking, there's no way in hell this is true, so I asked him to elaborate. His first "form" consisted of a head block and punch. His second "form" consisted of a chest block and punch. And so on and so on. Still, 300,000?!

One of the finishing techniques of
Shisochin kata.
I visited a Shito Ryu dojo once where they told me that their curriculum included over 50 kata. The funny thing was that when one of the black belts was asked to demonstrate a particular kata (Seipai), he demurred, saying he hadn't practiced it for quite a while and worried that he couldn't remember it.

And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Uechi with its three classical kata--Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan.

So how big is Goju Ryu? There are eight classical kata--kata of ancient origin that show bunkai and embody the principles of the system--and, of course, Sanchin and Tensho (and a number of other modern training kata developed by various teachers in the 20th century). Each of the classical "bunkai" kata, for lack of a better term, explores a theme or themes of self defense and illustrates
Double-arm receiving technique
of Sanseiru kata.
them with anywhere from three to five scenarios, each sequence beginning with an uke or receiving technique and progressing to a finishing technique. Some of the themes are more obvious than others--like the double-arm receiving technique of Sanseiru paired with a couple of different controlling or bridging techniques and two or three different finishing techniques. Or the five techniques against cross-hand grabs and pushes we see in Seiunchin, though one might also look at the downward forearm strike as one of the themes of the kata since it is used in a number of the sequences.

So how big is Goju Ryu? It's hard to say. Seipai is fairly straightforward with five bunkai sequences, while Saifa has four, though one of the four is a close variation. Kururunfa also has four sequences. And Suparinpei, though it shows three complete bunkai sequences, is largely made up of the repetition of fundamental techniques, various entry and controlling techniques. How do you count fundamental or basic techniques?
One of the grab release techniques
of Seiunchin kata.

And then there's the question of structure. The sort of fragmented (or complex?) structure of some kata, like Shisochin or Sanseiru, makes them difficult to size up. Shisochin seems to show  four release techniques against a clinch or two-handed grab, with one bridging technique and two different finishes, one short and one significantly longer. But each of these sequences can be taken apart and put together in various ways. The structure itself seems to suggest variations. And really it's all about variations. Seisan kata has only three bunkai sequences but each is a variation of the same fundamental techniques--the same entry, bridging, and finishing techniques.

The really interesting aspect of this idea of themes and variations, however, is that once you see them you can not only change from one sequence to another within a given kata but also from one technique to another between different kata, moving from a receiving technique in one kata to a completely different controlling or finishing technique from another kata. So in that sense, Goju Ryu is fairly small, composed of only eight bunkai kata with a combined total of around 30 or so bunkai sequences, but almost infinitely large if you consider how the different sequences can be broken down and recombined, dependent on the dynamics of a changing situation and the exigencies of a given self defense scenario.

Too big? The fact that it is all based on themes and variations--as opposed to its being an encyclopedic collection of individual techniques--makes it manageable. Provided, that is, you can see the forest for the trees.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Where have you been, my blue-eyed son...

There's crap along the trail. Someone left a half-eaten sandwich--still in its sandwich baggie which I'm sure will frustrate the squirrels--tucked in behind a log. It was a beautiful warm weekend so I suppose it's to be expected, but I still don't understand it. Why dump garbage in a place that's so beautiful? What happened to those old admonitions: Cart it in, carry it out. Or, leave no trace. I suppose it could have just fallen out of someone's backpack. Or some ten-year-old didn't like it and tried to hide the evidence. There was an empty soda can a little further up the trail, along with a couple of cigarette butts and a gum wrapper. Highly suspicious and much less likely to suggest an innocent explanation.

Of course, some would say, it's not nearly as bad as walking around the city. Add to the litter, everything from buildings to bridges to mail boxes and trucks get tagged with cryptic symbols in spray paint, as ubiquitous as a dog marking its territory. But it sort of pisses me off more in the woods. And for some reason, it made me think of something Matayoshi sensei commented on one day in the dojo after I had done a kata. I had stepped back to execute a block, but I was trying to be particularly forceful and demonstrate strong technique--I was young--so I stomped the floor loudly. And I did it again on the other side of the kata, so there could be no mistaking my intention, though in retrospect I'm not at all sure what my intention was. After I finished, Matayoshi sensei told me that one should never be "loud" when executing a block. He said being loud was okay for an attack, but not for a block or when you were retreating. Your opponent would know where you were, he said. Hum...

Returning to the double-arm kamae
after the "punch" in Seisan kata.
I suppose when you think about it, it certainly has wider implications in the martial arts. The more force I put into my receiving technique or "block," the more my opponent can read my intentions. Better to be light. Better that my opponent can't tell where I am or how much force I'm using or what my next move is going to be...until I attack. To me this is one of the ways we can understand " Go and Ju," hard and soft. The receiving techniques (the "blocks" for lack of a better term) are generally soft and relaxed, generally accompanied by off-line or angular movement that doesn't, after all, necessitate a lot of strength. Of course, the attacks are relaxed as well, if you understand the whole idea of using your koshi. But immediately after the attack, again the idea is to disappear, to relax in order to be able to move in response to whatever the opponent does next, sort of like the fast "punches" at the beginning of Seisan kata--they immediately return to a relaxed, double-arm Sanchin posture.
Beginning of the fourth sequence in
Seipai kata.

Or like the beginning of the fourth sequence in Seipai kata, where you are advancing to the southeast corner of the kata with a left block and a right open-hand attack in renoji dachi. The circular forearm block (executed in a clockwise direction) intercepts the attacker's right punch (or grab) and merely moves around it until it ends in a down position. That's why so many see it as a block of a kick, because it ends in the down position. I recently came across a video of a teacher I have the utmost respect for demonstrating this technique against a front kick--blocking and hooking the kick and then grabbing the opponent, sweeping his supporting leg, and dropping him on the ground.

It's funny that most schools see this technique as the block and grab of an opponent's kick. The
Receiving the opponent's attack
 in the fourth sequence of Seipai.
kick would have to be at least at the level of the waist. There's an old saying in Okinawan karate that we never kick above the waist. In fact, the knees are a much better target and are harder to defend. Then there's the principle--seemingly borne out in kata--that we don't kick without having three feet on the ground--one of ours and two of the opponent's, meaning we are holding onto the opponent rather than initiating with a kick. And yet the interpretation of this technique as a block and hooking grab of a kick would seem to require the opponent to initiate an attack with a fairly high kick. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, not to mention that it's really hard to grab someone's kick in a realistic situation.

But if you're intercepting the opponent's punch on the outside and moving to the inside with the circular motion of the "blocking" arm, it's sort of effortless. Then, without pausing, you step in with the right foot along the outside of the opponent's right leg (in the first of these Seipai techniques), carrying the head with the right hand, and do a sort of judo-like hip throw. And, done this way, it all requires very little physical strength, very little for your opponent to "read." So many of the receiving techniques of Goju-ryu are like this; they don't leave a trace for the opponent to sense where you've been or where you might be going...unlike some of the trails through the woods these days.