Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Friday, December 28, 2012

What did he say???

Mabuni sensei shows this as a
block rather than grabbing the
head and kneeing because
one is in cat stance.
Over the holidays, after the feasting and the festivities began to wind down, I sat down for a few minutes and reached for a magazine and chanced upon a copy of the New Yorker from last year. After reading the cartoons, I turned to a short article in the "Hearsay Dept." which they described as "a karma chain set in motion by Lama Pema at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature." At this gathering of some 300 people (if my memory is not too faulty after a Christmas dinner and a few glasses of wine), Lama Pema whispered a sutra to the first person in line, who then passed it on to the next and she to the next and so on, until it came at last to the end of the line, where, of course, it bore very little resemblance to the sutra that set it all in motion.

The changing gate uke
from the Shodokan
version of Sanseiru
but not found in
many other versions
of the kata.
This reminded me of karate and particularly of the transmission of kata and bunkai--as of course everything reminds karate practitioners of kata and bunkai. But in that I don't suppose we're much different from gardeners or zen Buddhists or motorcycle mechanics.

When I was in Okinawa, we trained in a number of dojo, and the method of transmission always seemed to be the same--through observation and imitation. The teacher did not often "explain" anything, and the words we most often heard were "kore wa ko, desho" or, in a rough translation, "it's like this, okay"; the teacher would demonstrate, and you would do your best to reproduce what he did.

This reminds me of an old article I once came across in Classical Fighting Arts magazine. It was a short article titled "Aikido Memoirs" by Alan Ruddock. In it, he says, "I do not think that O-Sensei actually taught anyone, anything, in our western understanding of the word." He goes on to say, "I never saw any inkling of teaching, instruction, correction, or coaching....He did it; you saw it, and you had to figure it out. He went round smiling at everyone, with no clues, correction, or suggestions" (Vol. 2, No. 11, pg. 46).

Though all schools of Goju
end Sanseiru this way,
some turn to the left
and some turn to the right
to get here--a significant
difference for bunkai.
The implication, of course, is that each individual's understanding of what the teacher is showing, in either case, might vary...and it might vary considerably. You could say that that variation is fine as long as something works (though I wouldn't) or you could say that a certain amount of variation within well-defined parameters is okay--after all, people are all different. But what if some people got it wrong? What if change slowly crept in over time--as it clearly does with the telephone game? What if some things, particularly bunkai, were never taught in the first place, only imagined by the student after the kata was learned because there is very little instruction in the western sense of the word? And then what if the imagined bunkai informed (read altered to fit one's understanding of) the kata rather than the other way round? So, what are we left with? An impossible conundrum? A Gordian Knot? Thousands of teachers and practitioners merely fumbling around in the dark for some understanding of kata and bunkai?

The scenario begs the question of whether all versions of Goju kata (and here one might include Isshinryu as well), regardless of school/kan, are the same. And, of course, whether just any bunkai is good or real...whatever that means. Transmission is a tricky subject and perhaps not always the answer. I used to have a classic old Saab that had an automatic transmission and I could never get anyone to fix it so that it didn't slip. Everyone, it seems, can claim some sort of long-standing lineage--the easiest answer to any questioning of transmission. But the question for me has always been whether the bunkai is based on sound martial principles (see Principles blog post)  and whether it follows the kata. It should be lethal and real--not one of these applications where the training partner dutifully stands still while you apply some dream technique to their outstretched arm or they fall down because you're the teacher. And, since kata is a means of preserving technique, a bunkai should be executed against a partner the same as it is shown in kata--and not just a part of a technique, but the body movement, stepping, etc. Otherwise, you're doing something else. There are a lot of people out there who are very good at doing something else. I don't know what you call something else though, 'cause a lot of the time it ain't Goju-ryu.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Martial arts forums, talk, and such

The place where questions
 are answered.
Why is everyone so damned polite on the Internet? Is it because of a cultural tidal wave of political correctness that we have forgotten how to be critical without ad hominem attacks? Wouldn't the martial arts benefit from some critical analysis, from some peer review? I watch videos on YouTube of people demonstrating kata that are down right horrendous and no one can say anything other than "nice" things. And these aren't beginners. I could understand if it were beginners, but I'm talking about people who have supposedly been training for years. Is it because of a recent case where someone was hit with a libel suit because they had written a scathing review of a business on their blog site? I suppose that would be chilling. Who's to blame? Is society to blame? Or the people with the hubris to put themselves up on YouTube?  Or the teachers who masquerade as experts?

Not the dreaded ridge-hand
at the end of Saifa kata.
And I'm not even talking about bunkai! There's some pretty silly stuff out there. I know it's been said before--and I do think the Interent has the potential to be a wonderful resource--but there's no filter on it. Perhaps the problem is that there are many many karate practitioners out there who subscribe to the view that there are many applications to every move in kata. Or as it says over and over again in Kane and Wilder's book, The Way of Kata, "more than one proper application exists for any given movement of any given kata....Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." Of course there is some ambiguity here. What do we mean by "proper application?" But, for example, do we mean that the final technique in Saifa--the mawashi uke if you will--can be used to break someone's double-handed grab? Or as a push? Or as a ridge hand attack to the opponent's ribs? Sure you can use it in any of these ways, but is that what was originally intended? 

This sort of view is only a small step--a little sliding step if you will because it's a slippery slope--from the notion that a technique can mean anything. And it's not too hard in the confines of the dojo--with a compliant junior student--to make anything work. Or to change certain aspects of the technique shown in kata and say that you're showing variations or hidden techniques or oyo bunkai or the more advanced levels of this that and the other. People say all manner of things when pushed into a corner. But whatever the bunkai, it should be logical, lethal, and conform to the principles of martial movement. It's easy to dismiss bunkai that isn't based on sound martial principles.

And to some degree, the same thing applies to kata. You can "see" the bunkai in a good performance of kata. I would argue that some of the performance kata one sees on the Internet may be appealing to the eye of the inexperienced--excessive use of dynamic tension, moves that are held too long, overly large and sweeping arm movements--but they only underscore the lack of any real understanding of bunkai on the part of the demonstrators. Okinawan karate, if done properly, is probably not very pretty to look at--certainly not very stylish or flamboyant--but it is effective.

So rant aside, what I am suggesting is that martial arts needs some critical rather than polite discourse. We need to argue with each other and scrutinize. We need to debate and defend and be a little less thin-skinned or politically correct. I think everyone would benefit from more open discourse.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Seventh Principle...in no particular order

Don't look at the final position to explain a technique.

I think this happens a lot when it comes to interpreting kata--that is, people tend to look at the final position of a technique to explain its application. It's almost as if they are looking at still photographs in a book. Where does the fault lie? I'm actually not sure one can assign blame in this case. Karate is a movement art. In order to learn it, we follow the instructor, moving from technique to technique, stopping at the end of each until we begin the next. But we need to keep in mind that what is really important is often what happens between techniques--how we get from one position to the next.

Seipai kata
This technique from Seipai is not a block of a kick, even though the final position shows the left hand in a gedan or down position. From the previous position--with the left hand "chambered" on the left side at the ribs--the left arm moves in a clock-wise circular motion, crossing the centerline, ending in the final position that we see in the photograph. Most traditional interpretations show this as a block of an attacker's left front kick--as if someone is going to initiate an attack with a front kick to the midsection. The right hand is often sa id to be a block of the same attacker's left punch. So the attacker, supposedly, has attacked, rather awkwardly one can imagine, with a left kick and left punch. If we remember to look at the entire movement or how one gets to this position, however, we see a circular block of the opponent's right punch and a right open hand attack. The block is a kind of "changing gate" block that first blocks on the outside of the opponent's attack and then, because of the circular nature of the block, opens the opponent for the counter.

Sanseiru kata
Neither is this technique from Sanseiru a block of a kick as many have suggested, even though this "final position" might suggest that the left forearm is blocking a low front kick. If you try to block a front kick this way, however, chances are the opponent is going to punch you in the head--that is, unless they are quite compliant and agreeable. But if the technique actually begins before you think it begins--which is usually the case--then you will find an effective arm bar.

Which all goes to suggest that nothing is really hidden...but things are not always what they seem.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Sixth Principle...in no particular order

To find and to properly understand the techniques, it is important to see how the attacker would respond to each of the defender's techniques.

This takes a bit of imagination on the part of both the attacker and the defender studying bunkai. So often, because we are either schooled from standing in front of a stationary post (makiwara) or perhaps because we are used to engaging in continuous two person drills where the agreed upon idea is not to end the encounter but to continue demonstrating technique, we fail to see how a technique is applied simply because we can't imagine the reaction of the opponent. And the opponent doesn't react to the techniques because the opponent is our dojo training partner and we have "pulled the punches!"

Opening technique of Saifa.
The opening technique in Saifa provides a good example. If the arm bar technique is really dropped over the attacker's elbow--in this case the opponent has grabbed our right wrist with his left hand--then the effect of this heavy dropping arm bar is to bring the opponent's head down. The next move then--the defender's left open hand coming forward and over the right forearm--is not, as is sometimes demonstrated, a block of the opponent's right punch, since the opponent is not in any sort of position to punch. Nor is it a grab of the opponent's arm or shoulder. The opponent's head has been brought down, and since Goju-ryu is nothing if not a lethal self-defense system, the head is grabbed with the left and the back of the neck is attacked with a dropping forearm.

First kick sequence in Saifa.
The next sequence in Saifa further illustrates this point. This begins with a step to the northwest, blocking an opponent's double-handed push. The defender kicks with the right foot, bringing the opponent's head down. Stepping in and to the right, the defender's left open hand then brings the opponent's head down as he brings his left knee up into the opponent's face.

Not to confuse the issue--certainly not my intention--but perhaps this is not really a principle in the same sense as keeping one's elbow down or the idea that one should step off the line of attack. The principles that I've been referring to in these blogs are simply ideas that one should keep in mind when trying to look at kata to find bunkai. I've been called an iconoclast by some, and I'm sure worse things by others. But I'm a strong defender of kata--more so, I believe, than many of the people who have disagreed with me. I strongly believe that your application of kata techniques or bunkai should look exactly the way it looks when you do kata. What is kata for if it's not a sort of living historical record of how a technique is meant to be executed?  So often I see what some call bunkai that strays so far from kata technique that it's difficult to guess even what kata the technique is taken from.

I don't know whether techniques were ever intentionally hidden or whether in the effort to popularize karate in the late 1930s and 1940s the more lethal bunkai of Goju-ryu were down played and less lethal techniques were substituted, ones you could actually do against a training partner in the dojo. Is that why we see the mawashi-uke technique applied today against an opponent's arms instead of used to break the opponent's neck or twist his head off? In any case, and before I become too long winded here, I think that we can at least be made aware of these bunkai, even if we can't actually train some of them realistically in the dojo or we have to significantly pull our punches, if only we can look at kata and bunkai in a different way.

It's quite amazing what you find when you start coloring outside the lines. Or, as my teacher was fond of saying: "Open mind, joyful training." Now there's a principle!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fifth principle...in no particular order

"In Goju-ryu katas, entry techniques and controlling techniques are followed by finishing techniques, but the finishing technique may sometimes only be tacked on to the second combination or sequence."

The bridging technique in the
opening sequence in Seipai.
Goju kata analysis can be confusing--that is, analysis that considers the structure of kata. Individual techniques can occur in kata without repetition, as in the opening of Seipai kata. These are fairly clear, but one must still recognize the sequence or combination--that is, the opening with the "uke," the controlling or bridging technique, and the finishing technique. The opening in Seipai is the initial move stepping back into horse stance with the sweeping, circular arm movement--the left hand blocks, while the right hand attacks. The controlling or bridging technique is the step with the hands together. And the finishing technique is the drop into horse stance again with the hands brought into the chest and the right elbow out.

The opening technique of the
 second hammer-fist in Saifa.
But techniques can also occur in pairs, and these sequences may be a little harder to see. These are techniques that are repeated on the right side and the left side, or against a right attack and again against a left attack. This is shown in the sweep and overhead or standing hammer-fist attack in Saifa. It is first shown against a right attack and then against a left attack. The opening is a block and hammer-fist attack by the defender, followed by a grab and upper-cut. The controlling and finishing techniques are only tacked on to the second (left) hammer-fist and upper-cut sequence.

The finishing technique of the
opening threesome of
Seiunchin kata.
To make it more confusing, techniques also occur as threes--that is, they are done first on one side, then on the other, and then repeated once again as they were done initially. These threesomes, however, occur, for the most part, at the beginning of katas, showing a kind of basic technique that may be explored in the rest of the kata (though there is a threesome in Kururunfa and Suparinpei). This is done in most of the Goju-ryu katas. However, to further confuse any analysis of kata structure, this sort of threesome repetition also shows some variation (a curious note that may argue for a variety of sources or kata creators over a long period of time). Saifa kata and Seiunchin kata both show threesome repetitions at the beginning, but Saifa's repetitions seem to be complete in themselves, whereas the opening techniques of Seiunchin have a single finishing technique tacked on only after the third repetition of the opening sequence.

And we see repetitions of four of the same techniques in Shisochin and Suparinpei, which leads to the question of why one needs any repetition at all. If kata is a means of preserving and remembering technique--which I believe it is--then why does one need any repetition at all, whether it's two times, three times, or four times? Obviously one can take a technique out of kata and practice it on either side. Kata should not be viewed as a means of practicing or perfecting a technique. If that were the case, every time we did kata there would be some techniques we would only be doing once!

In any case, kata does have structure, and once one sees this structure the analysis of individual techniques and an understanding of bunkai becomes a lot clearer.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Fourth Principle of kata analysis...in no particular order

"Since Goju-ryu is a system of self-defense...it should seem effortless."

Even though you train to be stronger, faster, more flexible, or just plain tougher, self-defense techniques, or a self-defense system, should require little of this to work. You should put the effort into developing your strength and speed and flexibility when you are young; otherwise, you won't have much of anything when you are older it is sometimes said, but the techniques themselves shouldn't depend on strength or speed to work. In the first place, there will always be someone bigger or stronger or faster. But more importantly, your self-defense should work for you when you are old, when you may be least able to defend yourself.

Twisting the head in
Seipai kata.
Knee attack to the head
in Saifa kata.
Instead, Goju-ryu relies on technique, and that technique is based on principles of movement. This is what makes it seem effortless. For instance, we step off-line to "block," and most of these off-line movements may be accompanied by a spinal rotation in the trunk or core of the body. The receiving techniques ("uke") of Goju-ryu are, for the most part, "soft" because they can be, generally meeting the opponent's attack with circular "blocks" that deflect the attack. In addition, the position of the arms first encountered in Sanchin training is applied, in principle, to many of the receiving techniques in Goju, and when this "immovable arm" is used in conjunction with stepping off line and the rotation of the trunk, any effort or energy the defender uses can be saved for the counter-attack; though these counters can be just as effortless if the same understanding of stepping and rotation is used there as well.

Shoulder attack
to head in Seisan.
Lastly, so many of the techniques of Goju-ryu are effortless because Goju-ryu attacks vulnerable parts of the body. The finishing techniques of Goju are against the opponent's head or neck, either striking the neck with the fingers, the knife-edge, or the forearm, or grabbing the head and chin and twisting, as in Suparinpei. Or we attack the head with the elbow, as in Seiunchin. Sometimes the knee is used to attack the head, as in Saifa and Kururunfa, and sometimes even the shoulder is used, as in Seisan kata. 

Whatever the case, it should be effortless. And it is usually effortless because we have moved in such a way that the opponent is not given a second opportunity to attack, our first block/attack is often simultaneous, and we bridge the distance to attack the head or neck.

Relax, relax, relax...you'll be faster and stronger.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Words, words, words.

 Forum post: “…at the very end of katas gekisai, saifa and [seisan], when retreating backwards into neko  ashi dachi and the block shuto enkei uke is performed, I have noticed on youtube that many teachers drop their weight (and height) as the shuto uke is performed.”

Someone responds: Toraguchi/mawashi uke is a general multipurpose block (very close to brush-grab-strike in FMA). It is usually finished with a two hand press, which can represent a whole plethora of strikes.”

End Mawashi-uke in
Saifa, blocking with
the left and attacking
the head with the right.
Here is a whole debate (over 40 posts!) on this forum over a question of technique and what it could mean in application; that is, a question of bunkai. The person that initially poses the question is trying to figure out why some teachers seem to sink into a low cat stance when they do this technique in kata, which is really a question of bunkai or, in other words, what function does the low cat stance have in application. The funny thing to me is that sometimes we make all sorts of hidden assumptions that may color the way we interpret kata. This person has already assumed that the technique he is doing is a “shuto enkei uke.” What if it’s not? What if it’s not a “toraguchi/mawashi uke” either? What if it’s not a “multipurpose block”? What if it doesn’t end with “a two hand press”? What if it’s not a strike at all, let alone “a whole plethora of strikes”? Why would one execute a shuto strike in cat stance anyway; it lacks the grounding to have very much power? Someone else goes on to suggest that the cat stance is there for mobility. I have certainly heard that argument before, but is it really as mobile a stance as basic stance? Isn’t there any other function of a cat stance that might be more practical—like you use the knee for a knee kick by simply raising it up or the foot to kick with since it doesn’t necessitate any shifting of weight?

And while we’re asking questions, should we really assume that the so-called “mawashi-uke” at the end of Saifa is the same as what we see at the end of Seisan? In Saifa we are stepping and turning with the mawashi-uke. In Seisan the mawashi-uke is preceded by other techniques and is done either shifting back or simply dropping into a cat stance. In fact, the hands and arms don’t really move the same way either.

Final Mawashi-uke
position and the
"hidden" knee attack.
If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that neko-ashi (cat stance) is really just an indication in kata of a knee attack, perhaps that will lead us off into another direction. For example, if the knee is attacking in cat stance, then what is it attacking? The most lethal target would be the opponent’s head. This begs the question, how do we get the opponent’s head into a position where we can attack it with the front knee of neko-ashi-dachi? And there we find “mawashi-uke.”

So often the words we use to describe things end up getting in the way.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Third Principle...in no particular order

"Block the hands, protect against an elbow, but attack the head."

Attacking the head in the last
technique of Sanseiru.

The sequences or combinations in the Goju-ryu classical subjects begin with how to block or receive (uke) the opponent's attack, whether it is a punch/strike or a grab. But in the Goju kata, the defender will always go for the opponent's head or neck. These techniques are far more lethal. The idea, of course, is that this is a system of self-defense; it is not meant for sparring or sport. I have already spoken about this idea in reference to the "dreaded arm bar" of Seipai kata. But it is also true of the last technique in Sanseiru, for example.
Attacking the head
in Saifa.
Or this apparent middle-level punch in Saifa.
Or this elbow technique to the back of the neck or head in Seiunchin.

This is something to keep in mind when analyzing kata or looking for bunkai. The initial technique blocks or receives (uke) the opponent's attack. Sometimes this initial technique may be accompanied by a simultaneous attack with the other hand. However, whether the attack is simultaneous or not, this is followed by a bridging or controlling technique.  Once you have bridged the distance, or have hold of the attacker, look for the finishing techniques. These finishing techniques almost always involve an attack to the head.
Attacking the head in Seiunchin.

Even the seemingly ubiquitous mawashi-uke is mostly used against the opponent's head and neck when we see it in kata.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Second Principle...in no particular order: kata analysis cont.

"Much of the stepping--particularly in the initial "uke"--indicates how the defender steps off line and consequently the direction from which the opponent's attack comes."

Taking Saifa--the first classical subject in the Goju-ryu canon--as an example, and imagining that one starts the kata facing north, the first sequence, repeated three times--a wrist grab release and arm bar, followed by a grab of the opponent's head, a step back and down into shiko-dachi, and a forearm strike to the back of the opponent's neck--shows the defender moving in along either a northeast tangent to the opponent (in the first and third repetition) or a northwest tangent to the opponent (in the second repetition).

The second sequence--beginning with the block of a two-handed push, followed by a front kick, and ending with the lower-level hammer fist--also shows an initial movement in along the northwest tangent.

The third sequence--the turn around to the south which again ends with a lower-level hammer fist--shows a 90 degree off-line initial movement with the attacker stepping in from the west with a left upper-level punch.

The fourth sequence, which shows an initial left hand block and right hand hammer fist strike and is repeated on the other side with a right hand block and left hand hammer fist strike, again shows a 90 degree off-line movement with the attacker again stepping in from the west.

The fifth and last sequence, the step and mawashi uke, again shows a 90 degree off-line movement with the attacker again stepping in from the west.

Saifa kata shows two of the directional off-line movements found in the Goju-ryu classical subjects. One can see an example of stepping back directly to the south in Seiunchin kata (with the defender facing north and the attacker stepping in from the north). One can see an example of stepping back at an angle to the southwest or southeast in Kururunfa kata (again facing north with the attack from the north).

Last sequence in
Seipai showing 90
degree step off line.
So what one should see in kata is a demonstration of how one steps off line. The pattern of kata doesn't show turns because one has run out of space but because it shows both where the attack is coming from and how one should avoid it in applying the technique. What should be apparent then is that in analyzing kata (bunkai) one should always start from the end of the previous sequence, because it is the movements and steps between sequences that show how to move off line, and, consequently, the application of the techniques may be different from what one previously imagined.

End of throw in last
Seipai sequence.
For example, in the last sequence of Seipai kata, if we begin from the undercut in shiko-dachi which ends the previous sequence, one steps and turns in a clockwise fashion to face the original front. But the off-line movement shows us that the attacker is not coming from the north or original front but from the west. This changes the way we might see the hand techniques applied. In this case, as one steps off line with the left foot, the left arm blocks an opponent's right punch. At the same time the defender's right hand comes across the opponent's face to the right side of his head. Then, turning towards the front, as both arms move in a clockwise fashion, taking the opponent's arm and head with them, the opponent is spun around and thrown. The sequence finishes with the low hammer-fist.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The First Principle...in no particular order: or, a basic primer on kata analysis

"If there is no first attack in karate, look for the block or uke at the beginning of each combination or sequence of moves."

Seisan block and attack
that begins all three bunkai
sequences only this is on
the opposite side.
I read someone once--a very senior karate practitioner--who said that Seisan kata showed 13 kamae postures. What does that even mean? I assume by kamae postures he meant "ready positions," which implies to me that these techniques were viewed not as uke or receiving techniques or for that matter application techniques at all!!! Well, what the heck?! But perhaps that's a rant for another day.

For me, each kata (of the classical subjects in Goju-ryu) is composed of combinations or sequences of moves. Not counting repetitions, therefore, Saifa has five combinations. Seiunchin also has five combinations. But Sanseiru only has three combinations, though it does show some variation within them. Seipai, on the other hand has seven. Most of these combinations begin with a block or uke and simultaneous attack, followed by a bridging or controlling technique, and ending with a finishing technique or techniques. In Seisan, each of the combinations begins with a sweeping semi-circular right-hand block and a left open-hand palm strike. At the beginning of Seipai kata, we see a left open hand block and right open-hand attack with the controlling or bridging technique being the left step forward and the left hand clasping the right hand. The finishing technique comes with the drop into horse stance. It is, of course, obvious that Seipai kata begins with a bunkai combination, whereas Seisan begins with basic punches and other techniques that appear later in the kata as part of actual bunkai sequences, as if the creators of Seisan were suggesting that it was important to practice these individual techniques on their own prior to applying them in bunkai.
Bridge technique in
the first sequence
of Seipai kata.
Since each of these combinations begins with a distinct receiving technique, block, or uke, if you will, there are a fairly limited number of ways Goju uses to "block" an opponent's attack, and that is perhaps as it should be. But because of stepping shown in kata and directional changes, each uke should leave the defender in a relatively safe position, with the attacker unlikely to be able to easily launch a second attack before the defender can move in to control or bridge the distance.

But the first step is to study the receiving techniques--how to move, how to step, how to block. I remember talking to a good friend in Okinawa once. We were looking at a book with a formal portrait of Miyagi Chojun sensei. He pointed to the inscription in kanji underneath the picture and said it was very important since these were the words of Miyagi sensei. When I asked him what it said, he said, "Don't get hit..."


Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Principles of Bunkai or Kata Analysis

I came across a video recently discussing the "principles" of Goju blocking techniques. It made some good points, and it got me to thinking that few karate practitioners seem to discuss principles at all, or if they do they only give the most cursory acknowledgement to the notion, as if the principles themselves were so obvious and so universally practiced that they didn't warrant any discussion. But I don't think that's the case. I think that most karate practitioners don't think about principles at all, or, if pressed, would only mouth what had been posted on the dojo wall in framed kanji or repeated training mantras. "Karate Ni Sente Nashi" or "There is no first attack in karate," for example. Now certainly there's nothing wrong with these words of wisdom--not what I'm suggesting at all--but principles, it seems to me, should inform, or be the basis of, how one analyzes kata.  Our practice, it seems to me, should be more about practicing and reinforcing principles of movement and self-defense. The moves in kata are merely the vehicles by which we practice those principles. So here's my preliminary list of "principles" that one should use to analyze kata--that is, to do bunkai:

  • If there is no first attack in karate, look for the block or uke at the beginning of each combination or sequence of moves. Now some may say that that in itself is an assumption--that katas are composed of combinations or sequences. But this seems to be borne out. Often, these "blocks" are done simultaneously with an attack or "bridging" technique with the other hand. In any case, the block (uke) or receiving technique together with the controlling or bridging technique, along with proper stepping, should leave the defender in such a position that the attacker does not have a second chance to attack. Caveat: This is not necessarily true of the opening sequences of threes, such as the three punches in Seisan or the three nukites in Shisochin. These are basics.
  • Much of the stepping--particularly in the initial "uke"--indicates how the defender steps off line and consequently the direction from which the opponent's attack comes. The principle here, followed in almost all cases, is that the attacker is attacking one's centerline and the defender is stepping off the centerline to avoid the attack. This is safer and makes blocking easier. In analyzing kata (or looking for bunkai), how you step off line with the initial block should show you the direction from which the attacker is attacking. You should have moved your center off line. The kata shows these steps and movements in a variety of ways and along various angles--stepping to the front tangent (northeast or northwest), stepping off 90 degrees (to the west or east), stepping back at an angle (to the southwest or southeast), and stepping directly back (to the south).
  • Block the hands, protect against an elbow, but attack the head. The attacking techniques of Goju-ryu always seem to go for the head or neck of the opponent. It's generally much deadlier than simple punch-kick responses. Even middle-level punches are often at this level only because the opponent's head has been brought down. Even the fairly ubiquitous mawashi-uke is mostly used against the opponent's head and neck when we see it in kata.
  • Since Goju-ryu is a system of self-defense, when one employs a technique correctly it should seem effortless. This is, of course, facilitated by turning and moving off line. If a bunkai seems to require too much strength or depend on seemingly too much speed, it's probably not right. Obviously you need to practice and learn techniques, but if a technique (the bunkai that you think you've found) doesn't seem to work and your response is, "It'll work but you just have to get faster or stronger," then go back to the drawing board. 
  • Speaking of combinations: In Goju-ryu katas, entry techniques and controlling techniques are followed by finishing techniques, but the finishing technique may sometimes only be tacked on to the second combination or sequence. Additionally, once you have found the combination or sequence of techniques, the movements within the sequences should be continuous and uninterrupted. No gaps.
  • To find and to properly understand the techniques, it is important to see how the attacker would respond to each of the defender's techniques. In other words, if the defender blocks the attacker's punch and then kicks to his knee or groin, it is often important to "see" the response--that the attacker's head is thereby brought down--in order to understand the techniques that follow it. In some cases, this may be difficult to actually demonstrate on a friend or training partner, as some techniques are particularly violent--especially ones which involve grabbing and twisting the head.
  • Don't look at the final position (meaning the still photograph of a position one might see in an instructional manual) to explain a technique. The real explanation needs to incorporate the movement of "getting there" from the previous position. The circular block one employs may end up in the down (gedan) position, but it may cross one's centerline (what the attacker is attacking) in the upper or middle level.
  • Do the move in bunkai, against a partner, exactly how it occurs in kata. This should include any steps or directional changes. If kata, it may be assumed, is the means that karate teachers chose to preserve and remember technique, then all of the keys for learning how to apply those techniques are in the kata themselves. Nothing is really hidden. It's just that sometimes we don't know what we are looking at.
Those are some of the basic principles of kata analysis or bunkai. Of course, not everyone is of the same opinion. Then again, many people that I've seen don't seem to base their bunkai on any principles. Then there are whole schools of Goju-ryu where the bunkai doesn't look anything like the kata. What's that all about?

Anyway, there's nothing really new here--I mentioned most of these in articles in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts--sadly no longer publishing, though still available in back issues.

So that's about all I have to say on the subject--or at least that's it in a nutshell. Any questions?

Best regards,
(I have to go train....this blogging stuff takes up too much time.)

Friday, August 03, 2012

Shisochin...what four?

Hokama book
Many years ago, in a country far, far away...I'm thinking of this because I saw a discussion of Shisochin recently...Anyway, at the time I was sitting in Matayoshi Shinpo sensei's dojo with a number of other students from the States, when Hokama Tetsuhiro sensei came by. Not so unusual, I suppose, since he had trained kobudo with Matayoshi sensei. This was just after he had written his first book on the history of Okinawan karate. He had a stack of books with him, which he brought in, very generously autographed, and gave to us. I think we actually bought them, but it was certainly worth it. The pictures are great, though I still can't read it!

Later, on a walk back after visting the Shuri museum with him and Matayoshi sensei, we had an opportunity to ask Hokama sensei about the meanings of the different Goju-ryu kata names, among other things. I wish we had been savy enough to ask more meaningful questions, but we were relatively young in age and experience. Anyway, I remember Hokama sensei saying that he believed Shisochin got its name form the four-direction palm strikes, since there were four of these techniques and they were done first to the south, then to the north, then west, and finally to the east.
A plausible explanation, I suppose, but I have since come to think that the kata was called Shisochin (four direction fighting) because it shows responses to attacks from four directions--from the front, the back, and the sides. Certainly most of the other classical kata of Goju-ryu show a variety of ways to respond to attacks from the front and sides, but Shisochin seems to me to show a response to an attack from the rear--not such a common scenario in Goju-ryu, I think--though I don't subscribe to the idea that the over-the-shoulder "punch" is an attack to the rear. Rather, I believe, the movement of the arms simply shows a release from a rear bear hug attempting to pin the defender's arms to his sides. The dropping motion of the body along with the rear thrust of the hips facilitates this release. The counter-attack, however, is in the turn around into the final position. The upper left arm of the defender's release grabs the attacker's head on the turn around, while the defender's right hand drops, first attacking the groin and then bringing the attacker's left arm up while bringing the attacker's head down with the left arm. The final position is in cat stance (neko-ashi) to show that the knee is brought up into the attacker's head or face. The end. Of course, I could be wrong.

The interesting thing, however, is that this bunkai or analysis of kata takes into consideration not just some aspects of the moves in kata but all of them--the hands, the feet, the body, the directional changes, etc. I hate it when someone calls it bunkai and it doesn't match the kata?! Call it something else. Flights of fancy (or experimentation) are fun and even often instructive, but if kata is a tool to remember how to do techniques, then bunkai should show how those same techniques are applied, shouldn't it?
Something similar to Shisochin technique just before the turn from the Bubishi.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Not the dreaded arm bar!?

Once and a while I'll come across a video link that someone sends me. Like this one:
The dreaded arm bar! What's wrong with that? To begin with, who initiates with a front kick?

But suppose they do. What's the purpose of the left hand tucked under the elbow of the right arm as it blocks the kick? Then he says, " Let's assume that he's not going to punch me...but he's going to grab my right arm." Now there's a pretty convincing assumption! And not just with one hand to deal with a potential threat but a grab with two hands. The way to get free of this two-handed grab--what the kata presumably shows--is to use the support of that left hand under the elbow to wrench this around in a circle and back up to kata position. Seriously? The whole operation is unrealistic--takes too much time and too much strength. Would any of this work against a non-compliant opponent? And why wouldn't the grabber let go immediately?

The next step is to apply the dreaded arm bar. After switching to a grab of the grabber's wrist, the defender steps around, punches the head with a hooking punch for good measure, and then locks the opponent's right arm up. (If I'm able to attack the head of a seriously threatening opponent, why would I go on to attack a single arm?) In the meantime the opponent has been good enough--and good natured enough to play along--not to punch the defender in the head with his left hand, or to simply flex the right arm by dropping the elbow to nullify the arm bar. And, while we're on the subject of bunkai (to analyze kata), Mr. Hill employs "chin na (qinna)"..."all the way from China," we are told. Is the Goju technique that we are supposedly applying somehow insufficient? The last part is to step back around and slap the attacker in the groin.

Now, from what I've seen, this is a fairly widespread interpretation of these moves in kata--dare we say, the standard bunkai interpretation. But for a million reasons--some of which I have already implied--it seems completely unsatisfying. How did this come about? Is it because it's safer? Sometimes I think that all of these bunkais were developed so that very brutal and dangerous techniques could still be practiced in partner drills in the dojo. Afterall, it would not be very helpful to injure one's training partners, always going after an opponent's head.
Seipai kata

But that said, what about this? Perhaps the first "block" of a kick is not a low block of a kick but a punch. The left hand blocks and the right hand punches. This brings the opponent's head down. Then...maybe the grab of the opponent's wrist is a grab of the attacker's head, which has already been brought down as a reaction to the block and punch. Now I can step around and put the dreaded arm bar around his neck, driving up against his windpipe with the left forearm and pulling the head down with the right. Then, finally, I can grab the chin, pivot, and twist the head off. Afterall, if I'm being attacked, let's assume that it's a lethal attack, intending to inflict grave bodily harm, otherwise I'm going to walk away from the encounter altogether...as fast as I can. But remember: Don't try this at home...or in the dojo apparently!?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Saifa bunkai...really?

Watch this:

Saifa 2-person drill - Bryson Keenan

Opening move of Saifa
I don't know whether this is just based on Taira sensei's ideas or whether the person presenting the seminar has taken some of Taira sensei's ideas and run with them. Anyway, he says at the beginning something to the effect that when one of your hands touches your other hand--as it does in the opening sequence of Saifa--that it really means you are touching your opponent. I think he says: "...with a hand on my hand, usually we're touching the opponent rather than us."

I heard this and I thought, "Wow, that's great...absolutely correct." But then he doesn't go any further!? He doesn't take the next logical step; that is, when my hand touches my own hand or elbow or forearm or wrist, the kata is showing me how and where I am touching the opponent. The kata is a learning tool and a teaching tool. It is an aid to memory. When your left open hand closes around the right fist at the beginning of Saifa, the kata is telling you where you grab the opponent's hand.

Now it seems in the video that the presenter is doing something to this effect. However, he simply pulls away from the opponent's grab. Without controlling the opponent, you are left back at square one. The idea one should strive for in figuring out bunkai is only to give the opponent one attack, the first attack--Karate ni sente nashi. The presenter in this video pulls away and then has to block again with the left. If the first technique is, however, over top of the opponent's elbow, one can see that the left hand reaches over for the head--which has been brought down by the attack over the elbow--and the following right attack is a forearm to the back of the opponent's neck. Done. Why would I want to allow the opponent multiple attacks...just so I can do some flashy continuous bunkai???

Friday, June 29, 2012

The question is....

"The nail that sticks up gets pounded down." --ancient Japanese folk wisdom.

I was wondering the other day what it would be like if Socrates had practiced karate. A simple stonecutter known throughout ancient Athens for his knowledge of martial arts. Of course, Socrates would not have taught martial arts in the traditional manner that we have come to associate with almost anything Eastern. We watch, we imitate, and we progress through the ranks, most of the time rarely questioning anything. Socrates, I fear, may have been different. This was the man, afterall, who was sentenced to death, to drink hemlock, for corrupting the youth of Athens. And what did he do? He taught them to question tradition, to question the way things had always been done, and he did it by asking questions himself. What would he have said about the karate that we so diligently accept--without question--from our revered teachers.

Socrates: Why do you chamber your punches? Isn't it slower? And if true speed comes from relaxation, why are so many karate people so tense? Why do they seem to hold punches locked out in some pretense of strength when a really fast and strong punch is relaxed until the moment of impact and then immediately relaxes again?

Student: But appearances are important aren't they?

Socrates: Do I really need to answer that? Not to change the subject, but why are there turns in kata? I mean, if you're doing it for yourself or even if you're demonstrating for someone else, why would you turn around unless the turn itself has meaning--that is, unless the turn actually shows you how to step off line?

Student: Didn't they turn around when they ran out of room?

Socrates: Didn't they train outside? And speaking of techniques, if some techniques seem quite a bit more lethal than others, don't you think it possible that the katas are composed of combinations of techniques--that is, the sequences begin with a block or receiving technique (uke) and end with the opponent down?

Student: But karate training will teach me "the one punch kill," won't it? I mean, if any one of my techniques will kill, then how is kata anything more than a collection of individual and unrelated techniques?

Socrates: Do you really think your one punch can disable an opponent that's not standing there like a makiwara post? Are you really that naive? And how long will it take you to train that killer punch? And you'll be how old then? And speaking of punches, why all the punches to the chest, not a very lethal technique is it? Isn't it more logical that the punches are really to the opponent's head and you should back up in the sequence of moves to figure out how you got the opponent's head down to chest level? And speaking of hidden techniques...why all the cat stances? I mean what good is a cat stance if not to allow you to knee kick off the front leg? Really, isn't it possible that all the supposed down side kicks in Goju-ryu are really knee kicks?

Student: Is that why we train with the iron geta?

Socrates: Did you ever try to do a front kick with one on? And speaking of strength training, shouldn't a viable system of self-defense be most efficacious for people who may most need it? That is, should you be able to use your self-defense when you are old and least likely to be able to defend yourself with strength and speed? Then logically, shouldn't sound technique require little physical strength to apply it effectively?

Student: Do you mean the study of koshi and spinal rotation rather than meeting all attacks head on?

Socrates: Speaking of head on, is it logical at the beginning of Sanseiru to step back and block a kick? Aren't you bringing your head down, inviting the attacker to punch you in the head after you block his kick? Is it even logical for someone to initiate an attack with a kick? Why would you move to put yourself in danger of a second attack? Is it possible that something else is going on here? And in Seipai, with its 270 degree turn, why would you turn your back on the opponent as some well-known teachers do, when they attack with a double punch, its blocked, and they turn almost all the way around to attack again? Isn't it more logical to suppose that you are not actually turning your back on the opponent but throwing him?

Obviously this could go on and on. The heretic Socrates was told that he could "take it all back," in a manner of speaking, or he could drink hemlock. It's strange to me that someone asking questions--whether it was 2500 years ago or today--could so upset the powers that be that they could be viewed as heretics spewing blasphemy, but that is the nature of the beast. We don't tend to question what we are doing, and if we do, we often don't ask the right questions. I think true learning only occurs when we ask questions--that is, when we question what we do. Of course, there are often answers, but some answers are better than others.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forgotten Bunkai or lost bunkai?

Seiunchin kata
"If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you've got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change." --Richard Leakey

I was reading the newspaper a couple of days ago and I came across an Associated Press story quoting professor and anthropologist Richard Leakey. It struck me how appropriate this might be when thinking about bunkai and what may have befallen karate in the 20th century. I have often wondered--and been alternately perplexed and exasperated--about the different schools/kans of Goju-ryu and how there are noticeable differences in their kata. Why, if they all studied under Miyagi Chojun sensei or even, in some cases, under Higashionna sensei? Some people have suggested that the katas differ because the teachers are emphasizing different bunkai. But if a kata is meant to aid memory--that is, if the kata itself is a memory aid so that one doesn't forget the bunkai, it doesn't really make sense to change the kata. Rather, I've come to believe, though admittedly on scant evidence, that the different ways of doing some of the katas--there are exceptions--were different ways of doing the same bunkai. But all of that's perhaps neither here nor there.

Seiunchin elbow technique
What Richard Leakey's quote really suggests to me is how quickly things can be lost. I have had four students train with me--out of many, many others--but four who have trained with me long enough to really understand most all of what I was trying to teach them--that is, to intellectually understand not only the katas and the bunkais, but the principles and reasons behind them--that is supposing I know any of this myself, which of course is not the point either. But three of those four people aren't teaching and the fourth one has one student. Now I have taught some of this to others, but they only have a partial understanding of it. My point is--and I don't mean this in any arrogant or egotistical way, as if I had all the answers or as if I was the only one who knew anything--but if this is at all typical of what went on in Okinawa in the turbulent 20th century, how quickly can an understanding of a system like Goju-ryu, for example, be lost?
Seiunchin elbow bunkai

If, as Richard Leakey suggests, extinction is more the norm and preservation the exception, could this be what happened to an understanding of karate in the 20th century? Certainly we have the forms/katas, but the wide disparity in bunkai--in the analysis of kata--suggests to me that perhaps something has been lost. Perhaps true understanding has been lost. Or principles. Or bunkai. The "environmental change" that Leakey refers to in this case would be the atmosphere in pre-WWII Japan. Read the notes of the 1936 gathering of karate masters and how discussion turns to de-emphasizing the martial or lethal nature of karate and turns to stressing physical fitness for the public. The climate and the environment was changing and this may have driven karate to change as well. It may not have died off. It may not be a case of extinction, but it is very likely that something may have been "lost," left to the archaeologists to recover, to piece together from the scant evidence we have, the bones. But it's a guess in any case, isn't it?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kata themes again?!?

"Seisan seems to be a thematic exploration of the 'sun and moon block.' But one of the problems here is that the Higa dojo (Shodokan) seems to be the only school of Okinawan Goju-ryu that even does the sun and moon block in Seisan kata."

I actually said that. It was a blog post on kata themes. Not that it's wrong, but I was thinking no one who practices Goju outside of Higa lineage/Shodokan people is even familiar with the "sun and moon block." Most of the other schools, I believe, do this short series of palm strikes to the opponent's face--one hand going up to attack as the other hand comes down to block. This is right after the three punches at the beginning of the kata. Now, either of these techniques is very good and effective. But if you're looking for theme, I thought at the time, the "sun and moon block," at least in variation, occurs in some form throughout the rest of the kata. So thematically, the kata becomes a study in the variations on how one can apply the "sun and moon block."
The other block/attack.
The funny thing is that one can look at the "other" block the same way--it too occurs again and again throughout the kata--not so much in variation, but it does occur repeatedly.

So, as has always seemed the case and is a lesson in itself, the structure of Goju katas seems to put basic or thematic techniques, occuring in threes, at the beginning of the katas.

The interesting thing to me is just that implication when one is analyzing or trying to understand kata and its applications--that we should look carefully at the opening techniques. One teacher may put the emphasis on one technique and another teacher may put the emphasis on another.

Again, however, the problem this suggests or the question that begs to be asked--and I'm sure I've brought it up in many other places--is that if you accept this way of looking at the structure of kata, is the principle the same for all of the other katas? That is, are all of the katas of the Goju system structured the same way, with basic or thematic techniques occuring at the beginning, usually in series of three moves? If it differs and some katas don't follow that pattern, does that mean they are from a different source?
Take Sanseiru, for example, which is really the point of this whole ramble, not to give too much away. Sanseiru begins with what looks like three double arm positions, like Sanchin, each with a slow "punch." So if this way of looking at the structure of kata--with opening basic or theme techniques repeated three times--is correct, what does it tell us about the other techniques in Sanseiru, particularly the ones where we see something similar to these arm positions, like in the middle section of the kata? That's the question. How could what appears to be a double kamae position be all that important or basic or thematic?
Middle section block/kick.
Well, if you work backwards from the technique as it occurs in the middle section--turning into a left single arm closed-fist block followed by a kick and then a right elbow--we have arm positions that look pretty similar to the opening double kamae. Now if you apply the principle that turns in kata are used to indicate how one steps off line to avoid and block the opponent's attack, what we now have with this first block on the turn around is an outside block of the opponent's left punch (he's stepping in from the west) with the defender's right forearm and a trapping block with the left arm. The defender's right arm comes to the outside while the left arm is on the inside of the opponent's punch. We now have the double kamae that we see at the beginning of the kata. (This, of course, all happens very quickly in application.) If pressure is applied here, it has the effect of turning the opponent towards you for the kick. (Almost an involuntary movement to avoid the pain.) If done correctly, it's quite uncomfortable for the attacker.
First move in changing gate block.
We see this bent arm blocking position followed by a punch in the last sequence of the kata also, though this "changing gate" block may also only occur in the Higa/Shodokan version of the kata.

Well, anyway, that may be a bit cryptic to describe in words, but that's my latest thoughts on themes in kata. Hope it helps. It would be a lot easier to explain if I had a picture of it, which I don't....but kata and bunkai should really be taught in person, shouldn't they?! What the heck are blogs for anyway?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Kata anyone?

Why is it that some people who practice karate regard kata as some sort of mystical experience? They seem to invest these movements with a spiritual significance, as if they are doing some pagan dance under a full moon to charm the karate gods. And I'm not referring to training itself, but kata. Certainly training--whether it's rock climbing or running or biking or yoga or any number of other training regimens--can feel as though it's somehow spiritual. Who knows, maybe it's the endorphin rush. But watching some people's kata feels very removed from reality. After all, isn't kata merely a means to remember techniques, applications, and principles of self defense? Some people--and they're not all Westerners either--do moves in kata as if they were baseball players standing at home plate admiring their own home runs...only the ball drops in for a single! They put on these "frightening" faces as if they were performing in a grade-B kung fu movie, trying to scare their villainous foes with fearsome faces. They pause or emphasize techniques with slow, dynamic movement in places that--in application--don't call for slow movement at all. They slap themselves and wear thick, starchy crisp uniforms (gi) to highlight their "power" as though these were the sound effects in a bad movie.
Is this just our infatuation with all things Eastern? Is it because so many people have no idea what kata is for? Is there some sort of connection we make through movement with all the others before us who practiced and performed the same thing? Or is it merely the connection it manifests with all the other paraphernalia--the incense, the costumes, the hierarchy, the rituals, so like the Church? After all, you can see real power--witness some of the Chinese stylists in silk or satin cloth--without always hearing it. Watch a video of someone's demonstration kata some time with the sound turned off. And this was a young Okinawan karate-ka that I was watching!
And you see it with kobudo as well. The people who decide to make the kata really long and "complex" looking by repeating movements ad nauseum just to make it look long and complex looking. If a kata is a repository of technique, why is it necessary to keep repeating the same techniques over and over again?
Anyway, this sort of "posing" I find annoying. This is the image that many people--martial arts practitioners and the general public alike--have of karate. It's also the expectation that new students may have of karate when they seek out a dojo. But so much of this is a meaningless distraction. So much of this is actually contrary to proper movement--movements that are flowing, generally a lot smaller, and a power that generates from the whole body and may not be accompanied by the snap of a canvas "dish towel." Okay, done with rant. I sort of wish I hadn't watched that video. I hate ranting.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hey, you can attack now 'cause I'm stepping back!

I was recently reading someone espousing principles of kata analysis on a discussion forum and I was reminded--because they were repeating things they had been told--of something Toguchi sensei said in his second book: Okinawan Goju-Ryu II: Advanced Techniques of Shorei-Kan Karate. Of course, I've never been quite sure what may have been lost in translation, since it says right under the title that the book is "compiled by Toshio Tamano and Scott Lenzi." Since Toguchi sensei is dead, who's to know? But so much of Okinawan karate has been passed on by word of mouth. So much is learned in the dojo just by watching, and I've often wondered how many times we may have gotten something completely wrong, or only partially understood something. There was a wonderful description by Alan Ruddock of an Aikido class with Ueshiba sensei in an issue of Classical Fighting Arts (Vol. 2, no. 11, issue #34), where he describes Ueshiba sensei as stepping on the mat, demonstrating a technique, and then not saying another word! Ruddock says, in his memoir, that O-Sensei "went round smiling at everyone, with no clues, correction, or suggestions. There was no teaching as we understand it" (p. 46). The implication is that everyone interpreted what the teacher demonstrated in their own way. I find this fascinating in its broader implications.
Anyway, Toguchi sensei lists three rules of kata analysis:
1) Don't be deceived by the Enbusen Rule. 2) Techniques executed while advancing imply attacking techniques. Those executed while retreating imply defensive or blocking techniques. 3) There is only one enemy and he/she is in front of you (Toguchi, p. 49.).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but each of these "three main principles" is a little suspect. At the very least, they are ambiguous enough to leave one with serious questions as to their meaning. For example: Toguchi sensei (if we can indeed attribute these ideas to him and not to some intrepretation by those who have "compiled" his notions into book form) says, in explanation of the first principle, that "applying kata movements directly to kumite is a mistake" (p. 50). Why then do we have kata? To my way of thinking, if you apply the movements of kata exactly the way they occur in kata, you will not only have a very effective method of self-defense, but you will also thereby learn the principles--they just may not be the same sort of principles that Toguchi sensei refers to. Or was there something lost in the translation?
His second principle is that "techniques executed while advancing imply attacking techniques. Those executed while retreating imply defensive or blocking techniques" (p. 49). It is, of course, very difficult to separate out offensive and defensive movements in Goju-Ryu. For example, the first move in Seiunchin steps forward to apply an arm-bar to release one's hands from a wrist grab. Is this offensive or defensive? Sanseiru steps back (after the three slow "punches") to apply an arm-bar. But if we look at one of the more obvious examples of a technique that seems to show a defensive or blocking technique as the defender or kata practitioner is stepping back--the apparent "down block" in shiko-dachi that occurs in the middle of Seiunchin--we see that in this case, as in a number of others, one is stepping back to attack. In other words, there are enough exceptions for this rule to also be called into question.
Toguchi sensei's last principle--"There is only one enemy and he/she is in front of you."--seems on the surface to be the easiest to digest. There is one attacker, not multiple attackers. We turn in kata to face a single attacker, whether we are "flanking" them or fighting them on an angle, as is often the case, or facing them, kata does not show one surrounded by a gang--that's not the meaning of the turns.
So, I guess, one out of three ain't bad, is it?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Forums and stuff

Sometimes when I read posts on the Internet about Goju-ryu (or perhaps martial arts in general), I imagine the people actually having conversations face to face. One I read recently would go something like this:
"Hey, I'm thinking katas have themes...ya know, personalities that make them all distinct." (Does that mean the katas are different...not all the same?!)
"I can see that," his forum friend answers in a non-judgmental way, not wishing to offend. (Sometimes, IMHO, I wish people would be a bit more offensive.)
"So what do you think about Saifa?"
"I'm thinking the name pretty much says it all...you know, 'to destroy and defeat,'" his more knowledgeable friend replies. "The first three moves are the signature of the kata," he adds. (Signature? What's the rest of the kata?)
"Yeah, that helps when I'm visualizing techniques," the other agrees. (Really?! Helps what?)
"What about Seiunchin? I've always been told it means 'to control and pull into battle'."
"Maybe, but I think a more useful translation is 'attack, conquer, suppress'."
"What about Sanseiru? I mean I know that it translates as '36 Hands', but how does that help one understand the techniques of the kata?"
"Well, a very knowledgeable teacher once explained it this way: Thirty-six represents six times six. The first six is the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and spirit. The second six refers to color, voice, smell, taste, touch, and justice." (Whoa, those things all fit together, don't they?! What do you suppose my ten-year-old son would say if I gave him that math problem?)
At this point in the conversation, a small boy in karate gi and clutching a frayed copy of "The Emperor's New Clothes" comes into the chatroom. He just catches the last response and asks innocently, "How does that help one's understanding of kata?"
To which the older student responds, "If you have to ask, obviously you're not ready to learn. Face it, Junior, you don't even know Seipai yet."
"Okay, what's Seipai kata all about?" he asks.
To which the knowledgeable student responds (and here I'm quoting) "The true meaning of kata becomes clear only when one learns the application of it...In Seipai, and the three that follow, the applications are not immediately clear. Techniques were deliberately masked within these kata so that bystanders were not able to fully comprehend the depth of the applications being practiced." (Oh. Wow! Depth? I suppose that means there are all sorts of 'levels' of bunkai...level one, two, three, four...there's always one more. Did you pay your dues this month?)
"And Seisan?" the young boy asks.
"Seisan means thirteen hands. This kata contains many unusual techniques and demonstrates the difference between Go (Hard) and Ju (Soft)." (Well, that's suitably vague, isn't it? Don't all the katas contain go and ju techniques--afterall, it is called Goju-ryu, isn't it? Don't they all contain many unusual techniques? Of course, the discussion continues...but patience only goes so far. Hey, I didn't make this stuff up. Well, at least not all of it. Of course, by repeating it I'm no doubt offending a whole lot of probably very nice people.
But seriously...so many discussions of kata seem to provide so little useful information. Maybe I'm just getting old and my patience for stuff like this has deserted me over the years, but don't you wish people that said something actually said something?