Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


The temperature hit 50 degrees F. (10 degrees C.). Spring seemed just around the corner even though the paths through the woods were still covered with ice. The last snowfall had been packed down along the most travelled paths from countless boots and dog paws, melting in the daytime and then refreezing at night. The snow was gone alongside the trails. Even in under the shade of the evergreens, it looked like fall, with a blanket of dead leaves spread out everywhere. You could hear the squirrels hurrying about, surprised, I suppose, that anyone was out in the woods today--it was really too icy to navigate the trails. It was a day to bushwhack off to the side of the main trails, looking for landmarks, heading up the hill in the general direction of the ridge with its outcropping of rocks.

Off in the woods in the late winter and early spring, the trees stand quietly, no wind rustling through the leaves, as if they are patiently or perhaps stoically waiting for warmer weather, for the longer days that will tell them it's time to wake up, to "shake off this downy sleep, death's counterfeit," though I don't know why Shakespeare's words should come to mind now. The woods in winter seem far more prosaic, or at least I do, plodding along the trails.

The double-arm kamae shared by
all four kata.
Without the leaves and underbrush, you tend to notice the trees themselves more. Most of the lower branches have dropped, scattered across the forest floor. The ones that have fallen on the trails have been picked up and thrown off into the woods, keeping the trails clear for hikers. The bark is the only thing that tends to distinguish one tree from another in the winter, though there are the odd aspens and small oak saplings that seem to have hung onto a few of their dry, brown leaves. There are oaks here, but they confuse me at this time of year. There are red oaks and pin oaks and eastern white oaks and maybe a chinquapin scrub oak, but I can't tell the difference just from the bark. I'd need to see the leaves, and even then I'd have to bring along Sibley's tree guide. The birches are another story, what with the horizontal striations up and down their trunks, and there are a lot of birches, scattered in their own little groves along the trail. There's the familiar paper birch, though sometimes from a distance the smaller ones look an awful lot like quaking aspens. Then there's the yellow birch and the river birch and the black birch, also known as sweet birch, I believe, because they used the sap for making birch beer.

I used to have two large European white birch trees in back of the house. One had a trunk almost three feet in diameter and must have been over sixty feet tall. But we lost them both to borer beetles and had to cut them down.

The birches are all related, of course--you can see the lenticels on the bark quite easily--but I think it's rare that they inter-breed. Yet the fact that there are so many related species here calls to mind that old discussion about Goju kata origins that seemed to rage for years, and still seems to crop up now and again. The argument that many put forward suggested that originally there were only four kata that comprised the classical curriculum of Goju-ryu: Sanchin, Sanseiru, Seisan, and Suparinpei. The other kata, it was argued, were either from different sources or were added later by Miyagi Chojun sensei, but they were not part of the original system taught by Kanryo Higashionna. It's an easy argument to put forward since there seems to be no documentary proof either way and there is an obvious similarity between the techniques of those four kata. In fact, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to suggest that Suparinpei itself is a sort of composite of the three other kata, which for me, as heretical as it may be, always calls to mind the old chicken and egg question: Which came first, Suparinpei or Seisan and Sanseiru?
One of the similarities between
Seiunchin and Suparinpei.

But those three kata--Sanchin, Sanseiru, and Seisan--are so obviously related to Suparinpei, why not Seiunchin? There are similarities there, too. Look at the opening mawashi series in Suparinpei and compare it to the opening series in Seiunchin, the right hand head grab and left hand "nukite" to the chin or neck. It may not be identical--Suparinpei comes off a mawashi-uke technique while Seiunchin comes off an arm-bar technique--but the application is the same. And neither one is an end in itself--that is, the finishing technique in Seiunchin is only shown after the third repetition and the possible finishing techniques in Suparinpei are shown separately, later in the kata.

The angle technique from Suparinpei.
And what about the opening technique in Seiunchin, the left hand grab release that begins the kata? We see this same technique (admittedly with only a single hand) used later in Suparinpei, one of four steps into shiko dachi done along the  northwest-southeast and southwest-northeast angles. In both cases, the key principle is the dropping of the elbow as the left hand is rotated up and the defender drops into shiko dachi. Both look very much like release techniques from an attacker's cross-hand grab. The difference is that Seiunchin kata is a good deal clearer than Suparinpei, but only because the structure of Seiunchin clearly shows a bunkai sequence with a beginning, middle, and end, or an initial receiving technique, a controlling or bridging technique, and a finishing technique. Suparinpei, because of the uniqueness of its somewhat fragmented structure, only shows the initial technique and the bridging technique, moving from a left-foot forward shiko dachi to a step into a right-foot forward shiko dachi. The interesting thing is that the logical finishing technique for this is the step back into a left-foot forward shiko dachi, attacking with a left arm gedan barai or what is often called a down block. We see this in Seiunchin kata as the finishing technique for each of the four angle sequences.

The forearm attack from Seiunchin,
also done on the angles.
So should Seiunchin kata be included in the "original" kata of Goju-ryu, since it too shows distinct similarities to Suparinpei? And if Seiunchin, why not Shisochin and Seipai and Kururunfa? After all, I'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the leaf of a black birch and an American beech tree, and birches are related to alders and hazels and hornbeams as well. These origin debates may seem pretty fruitless and academic to most people, but a comparison of seemingly different techniques may, in fact, help explain certain techniques that may at first glance seem utterly baffling.

Monday, April 02, 2018

A step at a time...maybe that's the problem

It rained all day. And then it stopped. The sun came out and the clouds drifted off to the southeast. The water just sits there, collecting in pools. I suppose the ground is still mostly frozen. Everywhere you look there are puddles reflecting the skeletal images of winter trees and bare bushes drooping by the side of the trail. Off in the woods, it's damp and the swamp has overflowed the old gravel and dirt road that cuts through the conservation area on its way to the lake. But last year they put some stumps along the side and nailed down some planks so you can make it around the flooded part if you're careful and take your time--the planks are narrow and a little twisted, and the stumps shift a bit in the ground.
How the last mawashi technique in
Saifa often begins.

On the north trail, you have to step carefully from rock to rock to avoid the mud and standing water. In the spring this stretch of the trail is swampy, with skunk cabbage and small wild flowers that cover the rocks and provide a home to a host of little insects, but in the summer it all dries up again, and then the hikers chart a "social path" around the rocks, reconnecting with the trail as it begins to climb up the nearest hill. With the damp and the cold temperatures, however, the rocks are slippery. You have to pick your way cautiously across this little boggy area, scouting out your route, balancing on each slick stone, looking for flat surfaces or somewhere you can get a purchase, as they say, carefully placing one foot in front of the other.

One step and then pause, and then the hands come up, almost like a counter-weight. For some reason it made me think of open training time in Okinawa, when you watched senior students toiling with the nigiri-game (gripping jars) across the dojo floor. At least that's what it reminded me of with the slow and careful placement of each step, keeping balanced and steady. Beginners were over to the side, carefully trying to match their steps with the footprints outlined in white on the floor, shifting their weight from one foot to the other as they practiced walking in sanchin dachi.

I wondered how this sort of care--focusing on one step at a time, one thing at a time--informed our practice of kata and, ultimately, our understanding of the techniques of kata, bunkai. I understand the need to break complex movements down into smaller, more manageable bits, sometimes separating the steps and movements of the feet from whatever the hands and arms seem to be doing, particularly when we're learning something, but I wonder whether this piecemeal approach to the teaching of kata has a detrimental effect on someone's ability to understand the applications of the techniques themselves?

I have often watched senior students, and even teachers, do kata in this sort of fragmented, staccato manner: First they step, then pivot, then the left hand moves, then the right hand moves, then the right hand moves again, turning over as it drops to the knee, then the right hand is brought up to the hip, then the left hand rotates as the body turns squarely to the front, and finally they both push forward. This is how you might describe the last technique in Saifa kata, the step into cat stance (neko ashi dachi) with the mawashi-like arm movements, as it is often demonstrated. The problem is that in attempting to analyze kata movement when it is performed in this fashion--the way we learn kata as a beginner--we often assume that there should be an explanation or bunkai for each separate movement. And this is a problem.

When we do kata this way--breaking each technique into smaller and smaller pieces--and then attempt to assign meaning to each of these pieces, we fail to see the technique as a whole. We fail to see how the arms and legs--indeed the whole body--functions as a whole. We have, in fact, put breaks or gaps into what should be a single, fluid movement. What should be seen as a final, head-twisting technique attached to the previous series of moves (beginning with the sweep and over-hand hammer fist) is instead seen as a series of individual blocks against multiple attacks, culminating in a final push.

It's fine to take the movements and techniques of kata apart in order to teach them. This is the way we learn most things. But you have to put them back together at some point. There really should be no gaps. Someone who has just learned a kata looks as if they are picking their way across a boggy meadow, stepping carefully from rock to rock. Someone who has been practicing the same kata for years, however, should be fluid, without any discontinuity in their movements--you see the connection between the arms and the legs. When they step into the last technique of Saifa kata, for
example, turning to the front in cat stance, there are really only two movements: one to gather the opponent's head, one hand on the chin and the other on the back of the head; and the second to twist the head and attack it with a knee kick. Two techniques. If you were beating time on a drum, you would hear two thumps, and that's it--one, two. Of course, the way most people perform kata they look as though their feet had sunk in the mud and their hands were carefully parting the reeds to get a better view. If we're aware of this, however, if we keep this in mind, maybe it will help when we go back to look at kata applications, and, in fact, maybe it will help us avoid looking as though we're picking our way over half-submerged rocks in a marsh.