Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It's not what you thnik

I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird today with my students and we got up to the trial of Tom Robinson. There's this big outburst from the incredibly bigoted Bob Ewell. (I wonder whether Harper Lee used that name because so much of prejudice is based in the irrational and sheep-like following of others--hence the "ewe" part of the name--or whether she was thinking that, at least when she was writing, "y'all," meaning "you all," are prejudiced just like this guy.) Anyway, after the outburst, the judge raps his gavel and says, " People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for..." And I thought, ain't that the truth?!

Pulling the attacker down onto
the front knee in Saifa kata.
People have all sorts of expectations when it comes to karate, and when those expectations are not met, or something comes along to challenge those expectations, they quickly drop into a defense mode--it's fight or flight. We cover our eyes and pretend it doesn't exist. We deny it. We dismiss it. Or we attack it.

But sometimes, it's just not what you think. Goju-ryu is a system of 10 "classical" kata--and I am using the term classical loosely enough to include Sanchin and Tensho. So if this is the case, I would suggest, it's not what people often think or at least not the way you often see it practiced.
Attacking to the back of the
opponent's neck in Seiunchin.

For example: There is no upper target punch in Goju-ryu. And even though you can walk into almost any dojo in the world and find students practicing a jodan tsuki, you won't find it in the classical katas. We don't punch up to the head--we bring the head down to punch it. All you have to do is look at the classical subjects and this disconnect is apparent. In most dojos, we practice "basics" that include an upper target punch. Why not practice "basics" that are actually taken from the classical subjects, not some generic techniques that only conform to someone's expectations of karate? Why not practice techniques that actually prepare students for the movements in the classical subjects?

Blocking and kicking in
Kururunfa kata.
If this sounds as though I'm nitpicking, consider that neither is there a down block (gedan uke), at least not the way you'll find it practiced in most dojos. It's a strike--a body-dropping forearm strike to the back of the neck in most of the classical katas. Who would bother going into shiko-dachi to block a kick like that anyway? Let's be logical.

In fact, the forearm is probably used to strike more often than the standard punch or the back fist. And yet in most Goju-ryu dojos you can find people spending hour after hour punching the makiwara, until their knuckles are hard and calloused. Perhaps we should appropriate the "wooden man" from the Chinese martial arts and start pounding it with our forearms.

And while we're on the subject of confounding expectations...There are probably more knee kicks (hiza-geri) used in the bunkai of Goju-ryu kata than actual kicks with the foot. And the kicks with the foot are more targeted to the opponent's knees than higher--higher targets are easier to block--though when you watch students practice the front kick in most Goju-ryu dojos you will see front kicks waist high...and few knee kicks.

How about that ubiquitous technique: the mawashi-uke? The mawashi-uke seems to me--though this may seem blasphemous--deceptively not so much a "receiving" technique (though we refer to it as an "uke") as it is a finishing technique. In the classical katas, it occurs most often at the end of combinations, and it's usually used to twist the head--i.e. break the neck.

There's no half-fist strike or clam shell fist in Saifa, even though you will find it described that way in any number of books on Goju-ryu. (See Morio Higaonna's Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawa Goju Ryu, Vol. 1: The Fundamental Techniques.) And you will see it used to attack the throat or the opponent's ribs. But it's a grab. It's a half-fist to simulate the look of the hand as it grabs the opponent's collar bone or trapezius
Painting by Magritte

And there's no cat stance (neko ashi dachi). That is, it doesn't seem to be used for anything; it merely signifies where you kick, whether with a knee kick or a front kick. If you think that statement is "out in left field," just try kicking every time you stand in cat stance in the classical katas. See what it opens up for you with bunkai.

And there's no spear hand or nukite strike in Shisochin...or elbow attacks for that matter.

Something to think about when you don't get bogged down with too many expectations.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Mawashi-uke to you too!

Starting position of
mawashi technique
at the end of Seipai.
I’ve read a lot of discussion on the Internet recently about mawashi-uke and neko-ashi dachi. Some of this has been couched in questions about the possible origins of Goju kata—a subject that opens up endless bandying about of theory based on little more than observation, interpretation, or personal bias. Some of this, of course, is prompted by individuals promoting their own lineage or traditions, but there’s little actual evidence to go on other than the perceived similarity of appearances.
And this is what has always interested me in discussions of this sort—they are all based on appearances, and appearances, as we all know, can be deceiving. For example: Some would suggest that Saifa kata and Seisan kata must have similar origins because they both end in neko-ashi (cat stance) with a kind of mawashi-uke. Others, however, would suggest that Saifa was a kata that came not from Higashionna sensei but from Miyagi sensei, because Kyoda sensei didn’t teach Saifa. Some suggest that the Okinawan katas came originally from China because we can find similar postures—cat stance with what looks like the ending hand positions of mawashi-uke--in various Chinese systems, or vice-versa. What really needs to be compared, however, are the applications—the bunkai, if you will—of the various postures.
Final mawashi position
at the end of Saifa.
Starting position of
mawashi technique
at the end of Saifa.
The mawashi-uke is actually not as ubiquitous as it would seem, outside Goju-ryu training kata, like Geki-sai dai ichi, Geki-sai dai ni, Gekiha, or some of the other training subjects practiced in various Goju-ryu schools. A kind of mawashi-uke occurs at the end of Saifa, but it’s not the same as the one we find at the end of Seisan kata. There is no mawashi-uke in Seiunchin or Shisochin or Sanseiru, though there are open hand techniques and we see circular movements. Is the mawashi-uke in the middle of Kururunfa the same as the end technique of Saifa or is it more like the end technique of Seipai?
My point is that it’s difficult, if not misleading, to only compare appearances, when any perceived similarity in appearance is clearly secondary to how a technique is meant to be applied. (This, of course, raises a whole other question--that is, the question of how a technique is meant to be applied, based on its occurrence within the structure and sequence of a particular kata, and how it could be applied, based on one's own creative imaginings.) It’s a martial art, after all, not a dance performance. A number of years ago, there was an article published—and it received widespread notice and still does to this day—that attempted to classify the Goju-ryu classical kata according to their appearances. Did they end in cat stance or horse stance? Were they symmetrical or asymmetrical? But if we are going to study the relationships between the different kata of Goju-ryu, we should be studying the bunkai of the techniques in kata, not their outward appearances. The mawashi at the end of Saifa is meant to capture and twist the head of the opponent—to break the neck (colloquially) or traumatize the spinal cord, if you will. The ending mawashi-like technique of Seipai is intended to do the same thing. So is the mawashi in the middle of Kururunfa.  And the one at the end of Seisan. They are all used for the same purpose, but they are situation specific, so they look a little different. My suggestion: Put kata in its place. It’s a useful method to remember the form of technique and perhaps to study the thematic nature of certain movements or techniques. But put the emphasis back on bunkai, on the study of application. Comparing techniques based solely on appearance is a bit problematic to say the least.
Although this position in Seiunchin
kata and the position above from
Saifa kata may look similar, the
bunkai is very different.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Kata without bunkai is like...I don't know what

People often hold this first position
in Saifa for much longer than they
would if they were applying it.
When I watch kata performed on YouTube, I wonder why there isn't more reality to it. In other words, why isn't kata performed with the same timing, the same force, the same rhythm as bunkai? I see so many kata performed with stilted, punctuated technique. Kicks are performed with little balance or speed. Oh sure, the kick is fast and powerful (sometimes anyway) after it is thrust out from its cocked or chambered position, but a kick has to be fast from a standing position--that is, before the opponent knows you're going to kick. And punches are held in place with little thought to how impractical it would be to leave one's outstretched arm out, inviting the opponent to break it.

Most people hold or chamber their
kicks when they perform Saifa kata--
something that would be too slow
in reality.
Sometimes even the bunkai demonstrations that accompany these performances of kata are just as ridiculously unreal, just as oblivious of the reality that they are ignoring. Grabs and arm-bars are employed against the arms of opponents that obligingly hold them in an outstretched position long enough for the one demonstrating bunkai to step in and execute the technique--what my teacher used to call a "dream technique."

I am not advocating that kata be done at a hyper-accelerated speed. (I'm not sure why Hokama sensei does super fast kata. I'm sure he has a reason.) There are techniques in kata that don't need to be fast. There are grappling techniques and techniques that manipulate and move the opponent's body that would necessarily require less speed. But one doesn't stand poised on one leg before the execution of a kick. And if a grab follows a block, then it must be done quickly or realistically the opponent would withdraw his arm.
The opening move in Seipai
is often done in an overly
dramatic fashion.

I think the same sort of unreality often comes into play with people who profess to attack vital targets with a single knuckle punch or finger strike. A confrontation is fast, dynamic, and constantly changing. To imagine that you're going to be able to hit a small pressure point on an aggressive and moving target may be a bit unrealistic. I always liked Sifu Liu's response to a student who asked about pressure points. Liu Sifu (of Feeding Crane) said he just hits the area with the whole hand, and that ought to cover it.

If kata is meant to preserve technique and allow the practitioner to practice technique when he or she is alone--when there isn't a partner to train with--as a method to perfect technique that we will eventually learn to apply against an opponent, then why don't we practice it the way it is meant to be applied? Why not practice kata with the same speed and sense of reality that we would use in doing bunkai? Instead, we seem to do kata as if it were some separate dance performance. Watch the overly stylized and dramatic performances of kata at tournaments. Even credible and supposedly knowledgeable practitioners of Okinawan karate succumb to the histrionics of this performance paradigm. Where did it begin? Why has it continued? It seems to me that it's one more shroud pulled over the eyes of the unwary--one more thing that makes bunkai so difficult to "see" within kata. Change the rhythm and the speed of techniques and who knows what you may come up with...or not.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

And so, the method...or how we look at kata

We often bemoan the fact that so many people out there don't seem to see the same things we do. Even when you explain it, people just seem to think that it's just another bunkai. But it's not. There's a method to the madness. But we tend to take that for granted. Or we mention it in passing, as if it's incidental. I was reminded of this by a comment a student made:
Receiving or "uke" technique
from Seipai.

"When it comes to science, peer review generally focuses first on the methodology. The criteria and methods applied to the collection, selection and analysis of data (kata) are presented first. Spend the time to explain the development and application of the methods, as it effectively determines the results (bunkai)." (Narda W.)

Now I have learned the occasional bunkai from various teachers. And I have seen seemingly endless examples of bunkai that individuals have come up with on their own. There are videos on the Internet, pictures in books, and it's a part of every stage demonstration of karate nowadays. But there is no methodology behind the analysis. In each demonstration, the attacker punches and the defender suggests that you could do this, or you could do this, or you could do this. And sometimes these scenarios are quite creative. But this is not a system of self defense.

So what is the method we use in figuring out bunkai

Controlling or bridging
technique from Seipai.

When we began a serious inquiry into kata and bunkai, we simply turned around a principle that we had always been taught as students--that is, to attack the center line. It's the same thing, I suppose, as you find in T'ai Chi push hands, finding the opponent's center and then pushing there. So logically we thought that if the attacker is attacking the center line, the defender should step off the center line. The first step then is to look at kata and determine whether it shows how to step off the center line. In more colloquial terms, does it show you how to get out of the way? The way this translates into kata analysis is that the steps and turns in kata take on renewed significance in determining how a technique is applied, where the attack is coming from, and, of course, how to get out of the way. More importantly perhaps, they cannot be ignored. Secondly, it brings with it the corollary that the defender moves in such a way that the attacker is only allowed the one, initial attack. 

This investigation leads one to consider the steps and turns in kata, and where the beginnings and endings of sequences and combinations might be. This may be an assumption--that katas are composed of sequences or combinations--but it arises naturally when we see that the different techniques in kata fall into different categories. There are, on a basic level, defensive actions and offensive actions. But more specifically we begin to see that there are "blocking" or receiving techniques, bridging or controlling techniques, and violent, ballistic, finishing techniques. And that, in essence, is all you need to begin the study of bunkai.
Finishing technique
from Seipai.

There are, however, a number of other caveats we employ while testing out bunkai. The first of these is that the bunkai must follow the kata. That is, in applying the technique, it should be done against an opponent the same way it is done in solo kata performance. That includes both the hands and the feet. It includes any steps you would take in kata or any turns that are part of the technique. They should all be shown in the application of the technique. To be honest, at first we had some problems with this strict adherence to kata. We had originally learned the movements of the classical subjects the way they are done in the Shorei-kan tradition (Toguchi sensei). There wouldn't seem to be terribly overt or significant differences between the three or four major schools of Okinawan Goju-ryu, but even some small differences can greatly affect how one sees the application of techniques, and some katas, like Sanseiru, have very pronounced differences. So over time, and after a visit to Okinawa and training in the Shodo-kan tradition, we began to do all of the classical subjects in the manner of Higa Seiko's Shodo-kan. This certainly does not mean that any of the other traditions of Okinawan Goju-ryu are any less authentic or wouldn't lead one to similar results, but the Shodo-kan katas seemed to suit our purposes.
Receiving technique
from Sanseiru kata.

The second caveat is to understand the structure of the kata, though this may be something you discover on your own. The Goju-ryu classical subjects are composed of entry techniques, controlling or bridging techniques, and finishing techniques (as stated above). Each kata is composed of a limited number of sequences or combinations; some have three, some have four, and some have five or six. It is not always easy to figure out where the combinations are since the controlling and finishing techniques are separated in some kata. In some kata, the entry techniques and controlling techniques are shown on both the right and left sides before the finishing techniques are tacked onto the second sequence. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether a technique is the final technique in a sequence or the beginning of a new sequence--the technique seems to work equally well in both cases. This is true for the final techniques in both Saifa and Seipai, for example. 
Finishing technique from
Sanseiru kata.

The third caveat is that the application of the technique in bunkai should not require excessive physical strength. More often than not, it should only require a thorough and practiced understanding of the technique and very little or no physical strength. If a bunkai seems to require too much physical strength on the part of the defender, we generally abandon the bunkai and start all over again. And usually we have discovered a much better application. After all--and I've said this before--if you're faster and stronger than everyone else, what do you need a system of self-defense for anyway?

And lastly, the application--that is, the full combination of receiving, controlling, and finishing techniques--should be lethal. I don't know how else to say it. Goju-ryu is a system of self-defense, not a sport or "mixed-martial-art-like" activity, with rules and regulations, to be used in mutually agreed upon combat. It was developed for a different age. It may even be a bit anachronistic. But the techniques of this system are meant to finish an encounter, to end a confrontation. They are incredibly violent. Many of the techniques that end a sequence involve breaking the neck of the opponent. These are techniques that you can't really train in bunkai. But that, I believe, is the reality of the bunkai...and the method. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Who you callin' a beginner?

Sometimes I'm startled by some of the things I read. The Internet is such a powerful tool and yet it so often seems to be a showcase for ignorance or at the very least inane discussions. I remember a professor I had back in the early days of the Internet describing it as "a mile wide and an inch thick." I think that's a pretty accurate description of the superficiality I see so much of.

So I got to thinking, not seriously, but rather in a sort of superficial way about how you can tell whether someone is a real martial artist. Or more humorously, how you can tell if someone is not a real martial artist...or more politely I suppose, how you can spot a beginner.
Me as a beginner, carrying
a trophy. 

A beginner always asks questions like, what's the best kata? They collect katas from different systems. It reminds me of this guy that came up to me once--I believe he trained Tae Kwon Do or something--and he asked me if I'd teach him Suparinpei. What for? If you don't really know a system, what good does it do you to know one kata from that system?

They wear really really long belts with their gis. And they buy really heavyweight gis so they "snap" when they throw a punch. They also role the sleeves of their gis up. Then they put patches all over it. That always reminds me of a noted "master" I saw at a tournament once. He had "Budweiser" emblazoned in big, bold letters down the side of his gi pants. I don't really think he was a real master, though I'm sure his students thought so. Particularly the ones who said he was the head of Jundokan in the U.S.

A beginner learns all the terminology and then doesn't miss a chance to show it off, with no understanding that different schools use different terms for the same techniques, making the use of these Japanese or Korean or Chinese terms a serious exercise in obfuscation.

Beginner's put videos of themselves up on the Internet after they've just learned a kata. Speaking of the Internet...a serious beginner spends more time on the Internet talking about the martial arts than they do training it. I know a lot of these. 

A beginner wears an undershirt under his gi top. Some really classy beginners wear gold chains. Younger beginners wear their gis to and from the dojo, belts and all. Some beginners carry their gis in on hangers, neatly pressed and bleached.

A lot of beginners ask what sounds like really significant questions, since they focus on minutia. I read a lengthy discussion once on why a particular high-level Okinawan practitioner straightened his foot out before he stepped forward in Sanchin kata. They scrutinize pictures and chastise people for being too high in horse stance. When they do kata themselves, they put in these very theatrical, lengthy pauses. A lot of them make up their own katas for tournaments. I have even known schools where that was a requirement for black belt. I think those schools were started by beginners. A lot of beginners can practice for twenty years, but they still remain beginners.

Beginner carrying wood.
Beginners say things like "osu" whenever they can. Whenever the conversation gets even remotely close to anything having to do with Asia, fighting, eating tofu, Charles Atlas, how to cook edamame, or the present deplorable state of the world, they will tell you "I know karate." These are the people that skip training on a Wednesday night because they're showing re-runs of "Kung Fu" with David Carridine on AMC.

Beginners tend to argue over which came first, kata or bunkai. They debate endlessly over which master or school should be considered the real lineage heir to the system. Ironically, however, they also carefully avoid calling someone out on bad technique or poor kata or ridiculous bunkai because they may be challenged in turn.

Beginners like to hang up pictures of themselves at seminars with teachers they barely know. Then they list all these teachers on their websites as if they actually studied with them. I knew a guy once who even had a certificate made up and then got the teacher to sign it at the seminar. The teacher was Okinawan and had no idea what he was signing...nor did he really care. That was the part that was funny.

Beginners tend to know everything. But of course, the only people they fool are other beginners. The good part is that at least some beginners mature into good martial artists if they train long enough. The sad part is that most of them stay at that beginner level and never get any better...no matter how long they train.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It's a mystery to me!

We love mystery. I'm reminded of that bestseller from years ago: All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. If only it were that simple! We know differently but it still doesn't stop us from wishing it were so. I remember Fulghum wistfully chiding us to reawaken that sense of wonder we had as children. He reminds us how fascinated we were once, watching the sprouting seed. "Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup," Fulghum writes.  "The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why..."  
The yama-uke technique from
Seiunchin kata or the grab head
and knee kick technique.

But am I to believe that modern-day biologists or botanists don't know "how or why" a seed sprouts? This attempt to reawaken a sense of wonder with the world reminds me of the early 19th century tug-of-war between science and art--a world experiencing the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution decried by the Romantics Poets, each on their Rocinante,  galumphing off on their quest to find mystery in nature. 

A lost cause, you say? But according to a recent Huffington Post article, "45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts." Less than 40 percent think Darwin was right. We love conspiracy theories, whether they're about 9/11 or the assassination of JFK. Heck, we're pretty sure they're hiding something in Roswell, and a sizable number of us are not at all sure we ever landed on the moon. It's almost as if we'd prefer not to know. We love a good mystery. Remember Twilight Zone? It could happen. "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Hamlet tells Horatio. Oh, how true, how true! And how can you argue against any of this if someone chooses to believe. Someone's faith is hard to shake. It has nothing to do with reason and logic. In fact, reason and logic--the cold, hard facts--can be discomfiting. Faith that doesn't have to answer to logic or reason is, on the other hand, comfortable. I don't think Fulghum has much to worry about. I think given the choice we'd choose ignorance every time. 

Take the martial arts, for instance. It's filled with ritual, and we love ritual. Ritual has no rhyme or reason. We get dressed up in strange looking pajama-like clothes and parade around with colorful patches and belts or sashes that establish rank and position and genuflection. We love to bow. We use words that the novice or outsider doesn't know--a special language only for the initiated. We have special names: master, sensei, sempai. We have decorative shrines. We burn incense. And we have faith that all of this is somehow important to our pursuits--that their meaning will be revealed to us in time. But before you know it, we begin to practice all of these things for their own sake. It reminds me of that story by Borges where the tiger comes into the temple and kills someone so often that it is eventually incorporated into the daily rituals of worship. Someone once told me that I should try performing kata outside at night under a full moon. He suggested that I would discover a new level of meaning in my kata--either that or some mystical experience. 

Mystery. People seem to need mystery. Is this the reason that people are willing to give over their own logic and reason, their control, to someone else, someone who must know...the sensei, the master, the soke? Is lineage the answer? Or popularity? Or the size of one's international organization? Or ethnicity? 

I'll never understand why the bunkai that some people do doesn't look like the kata that it is supposed to explain. Nor why the bunkai that they practice is not lethal--why the techniques seem to be just a prelude to a sparring match where, of course, all kata technique will be abandoned. Nor why the steps and turns of a technique in kata do not appear in the their bunkai. Nor why there is so little talk of principles that reflect an understanding of a system of movement rather than a collection of an infinite number of techniques. Nor why so many bunkai seem to suggest that the attacker will not hit you with the other hand--the one you have not blocked--even though you have left yourself in a vulnerable position. Just watch most of the bunkai that's shown on the Internet. It's a mystery to me!?!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bunkai thoughts: Can we please apply logic to the analysis of kata?

Imagine some guy in ancient Greece sitting around contemplating the universe. Maybe he's woken early and trudged the sheep out to pasture. Sitting up on a rocky crag, he looks out over the sea, waiting for the sun to rise. Maybe he's praying that Apollo will harness the horses to carry the chariot of the sun up into the sky or maybe he realizes that all of that's simply an old worn-out myth. Maybe he looks at the world more
scientifically, more empirically, and when the sun finally comes up, rosy-fingered and all, it suddenly dawns on him that the earth is the center of the universe. He trusts his own eyes instead of tired cultural beliefs. It's obvious that the sun revolves around the earth; it comes up in the east and goes down in the west. If he were a little more worldly, if he had managed to make his way into Athens to visit the great academy there, he might have been able to ask one of the great teachers. Perhaps he could have consulted Aristotle himself and had his suspicions confirmed by the great minds of his day.

And yet today, we ask, how could he have been so wrong? How can the observations of his own eyes have led him so far from the truth? And how is it that those who are so esteemed, their venerable positions in the community so entrenched as to be referred to with sobriquets as sobering as "The World's Greatest..." could possibly err, could possibly have gotten it all wrong?

So, if you get my drift, sometimes I wonder if the same sort of thing can be applied to Goju-ryu kata and bunkai (the analysis of kata). Are we--at least those of us who are curious enough about it even to ask--content merely to practice kata the way that it has always been taught? Or the way we have been told to do it by the great teachers of our day? But then what other way is there? What other way was there for those who followed that ancient Greek guy up the hill to watch the sun rise?

Sometimes the theories need to be put to the test--and not just of observation, because we can't always trust what we see. What we see is often influenced by our expectations. We need to apply logic and look for sound basic principles. What else did Copernicus or Galileo have to do? So much of the bunkai I see on the Internet seems to ignore so many fundamental things. It's as if someone in a high school science class merely threw out data that didn't conform to the conclusions they already expected to find. And peer pressure has convinced everyone else to follow along.

How radical is it to suggest...that if one is analyzing the techniques of kata, one should do the moves the same as one does them in the kata? that if the opponent has the opportunity to hit you again, then you're probably in the wrong place? that if your counterattack does not either put the opponent down or make it extremely difficult for him to continue his attack, you've probably got it wrong? that the pattern of angles and turns in any given kata is important in how one moves in response to an attack? that correct bunkai does not need to add anything to finish the attacker off? that, hojo undo training aside, and this is self-defense after all, if the response takes too much strength or speed then you've probably got it wrong?  that punches and kicks are not the most lethal responses to an attack and therefore may be quite minor aspects of the karate arsenal or even the repertoire of techniques one sees in kata? that if anyone tells you the real bunkai is hidden or just have faith or you aren't up to that level yet, they're peddling the same hocus-pocus as an old-time snake oil salesman and you're about to sign up for cult membership?

See it on YouTube:
"Saifa kata and bunkai
You want "proof"? Then every time you do bunkai, ask yourself:  Does it follow the kata, and I mean all aspects of the move in kata? Does the initial move or technique (uke) put you in a safe position--that is, the attacker has only been allowed the one attack (after all, this is self-defense)? Is it lethal--that is, in Goju-ryu at least, is it literally lethal? With one caveat: Remember that if you do stumble upon the real bunkai in any of the Goju-ryu kata, don't try it at home. Too dangerous!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Saifa kata and bunkai

So the summer is finally winding down. The temperature this morning was in the 50s (F.) and there was condensation on the seat of the scooter I had to dry off before I rode down to get the morning paper. Still recovering from a bronchial infection and a cough that has put a serious kink into training for a fall marathon. Probably shouldn't have done that half-marathon last week but....

"Hey, hold on there partner. What's all this drivel?"

My bad self stood looking over my shoulder as I got up for another cup of coffee. "I'm writing this blog..." I started to answer defensively and a little unsure of what I could say that would be at all convincing. I mean, why do people write blogs? For that matter, why do people read blogs? Sometimes I think there's just too much noise out there anyway. Unless you've got something to say, I suppose, and even then, who listens? Or reads for that matter. We've become a nation of watchers. I'm not sure that's necessarily bad, but it sure ain't what it used to be. I remember giving a seminar to a group once upon a time. The teacher was a friend and had seen the first article I had written on the subject of Goju kata and bunkai for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts--"The Lost Secrets of Okinawan Goju-Ryu." This was back in 2002. I wanted to gauge how much he understood of it to get a better idea of where we might begin the seminar, and so I asked him how he liked it and what he got out of it. He said, "Oh, I'm not much of a reader."

And so, for all you non-readers out there. Here's a video of Saifa kata and bunkai.

"Saifa kata and bunkai Northampton Kodokan"

We pulled out the camera after training on one of those very hot and humid days during that heat wave in July. It's certainly not very professional and we were not setting out to perform for the camera. There are mistakes. But it's a training video. It shows a little of what we do. So in the words of Edward R. Murrow, "Good night and good luck." I'm going for a run.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Weeding the garden

The rains finally let up this week, at least for a day. The mosquitoes are still horrendous but with the sun out they keep mostly in the shade. Of course I had slathered on quite a bit of deet, so that may have been the reason. But what struck me, as I was pulling out Creeping Charlie and blades of grass and all manner of unidentifiable weeds from around the oregano and rosemary and catnip, is that it always seems as though the weeds take over. Why is it that the garbage stuff seems to proliferate and choke out the good stuff? Is that just the natural order of things? I read some place that when humans are gone from the earth it will be the cockroaches that take over. Of course, in the martial arts it may be different....

So I was watching a kung fu class training in the park the other day. Just a few people doing "animal forms." The teacher had said that they should just practice moving like the animal that they were envisioning. I didn't see anyone trying to be a cockroach though. A few people were prowling around being tigers or leopards or some sort of cats. And, of course, there were the obligatory cranes, though in this case I think they were black cranes, at least they were dressed in black. There were snakes, but they were walking upright too. I guess they were snakes before the Fall. It was sort of entertaining for about five minutes, before it started to get silly and irritating. I mean, these were all adults.

But I started to wonder about Goju-ryu kata. I've had a lot of conversations with people--some not so friendly--who steadfastly and adamantly argue that kata can mean whatever you want it to mean; that is, any bunkai/interpretation of kata movement that works is good, supposedly because the katas were created with this sort of intentional ambiguity. Look on the Internet some time and you will find all sorts of different explanations for the same moves in kata. Is everyone right? Or are most of them wrong?

I started to picture a couple of people fooling around in a park. Maybe one of them is a particularly good mimic. He starts to prowl around like a cat. Pretty soon he really gets into it, especially as he notices a number of people watching him. His friend thinks it's also pretty cool. Pretty soon they've developed a set routine and they call it the cat...or the snake...or the crane. They teach others. One thing leads to another, and slowly, over time, these random, meaningless movements take on a life of their own.

Of course, that's a ridiculous scenario. Kata did not come first, though there are plenty of people out there who think that this is a point as open to debate as the chicken and the egg. Isn't it far more likely--perhaps one should substitute logical for likely--that bunkai/application came first, and then in order to remember particularly good and effective applications they were put into solo routines so that they could be remembered and practiced in the absence of a partner or teacher? It's hard for me to believe that this is not universally acknowledged, but the larger question is, if we accept this: How do we know which applications are the ones originally intended by the kata? Are yours as good as mine? Are mine as good as some renowned teacher who has books and dvds and seminars?

Some would say you can't, since that would be trying to figure out what the original creators of the katas had in mind. But does that close off all of history to us? We unearth artifacts to learn about past civilizations. We apply the scientific method to problems in the universe. We analyze evidence to solve crimes. Why can't we apply logic and a knowledge of martial principles to the analysis of kata? Without it, it seems to me, we are doing a disservice to the garden, letting the weeds proliferate. Without it, the cockroaches will soon take over, and where will we be then?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sanchin and stuff again

I recently came across this analysis of Sanchin kata.


I'm not sure the link actually takes you to the right place, but it was a YouTube video called "Sanchin Basic Analysis."

Yang Chengfu standing
in the Wu Wei posture
Now I must admit that any analysis of Sanchin--that is, the attempt to find bunkai in Sanchin--baffles me. A number of principles certainly, but I don't believe Sanchin in Goju-ryu was ever meant to be seen as a bunkai kata in the same sense as the other Goju subjects. I've written about this before. It's my belief that it's a futile endeavor--it's a basic kata to study  posture, breathing, and a number of other basic things--or, at best, the techniques are so elementary that it begs the question of why one would spend time trying to "find" applications for Sanchin when the other classical subjects are so much richer with intentional bunkai. I suppose this sort of thinking comes from what seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the oft-repeated statement that Sanchin is the fundamental kata of both Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu. What do we mean by fundamental? Surely that doesn't mean, as I have sometimes heard, that the root of all Goju/Uechi techniques can be found in Sanchin. If that's true, it's certainly putting too fine a point on it for me. That's like saying that all T'ai Chi postures can be found in the Wu Wei beginning posture. I suppose in one sense that's true, as Wu Wei is emptiness or non-action, and all things begin from non-action, but it doesn't really get you very far.
First technique in Saifa kata

But what did interest me about this analysis of Sanchin was that the person demonstrating the techniques was doing the same technique against a right attack or a left attack, moving to the inside of the attacker or the outside. I have heard the same thing from some kung fu practitioners (and other karate people)--that you should be able to execute any technique regardless of which hand the attacker is attacking with. The "logic" behind this, as expressed to me, was that you don't have sufficient time to figure out which hand someone is attacking with and respond with the appropriate hand. I think this is ridiculous for two reasons: one, all techniques do not work from either side; and two, while I may not have sufficient time to contemplate which technique might be an appropriate response in a split second, I certainly have time to move and raise a hand to either the inside or the outside of the attack. That is, though I may not have time to contemplate which "bridging" or "finishing" technique may be appropriate, I certainly have time to respond with a "receiving" (uke) technique. (If I don't, I get hit--which means responding to the inside or outside with the same technique makes no difference anyway.)
What I do from there is dictated by my initial movement or uke (receiving of the attack)--and Goju actually shows a limited number of ways to receive that initial attack--the attacker's movements, and which controlling and finishing techniques fit with my initial response. One thing leads to the other rather
Part of second technique
in Seiunchin
fluidly and without a lot of thought. For example, the opening or first technique of Saifa (a technique that is shown three times to show the other side) is against an opponent grabbing my right hand with his left hand. It doesn't work if the opponent grabs my right hand with his right hand. If that were the case, I would respond with the second sequence of Seiunchin kata. Sometimes techniques are shown multiple times in kata because the kata shows attacks from one side or the other; the message is not, on the contrary, that the same technique (done with the same hand that is) should be able to be applied against any attack. Most of the time in Goju-ryu, this response is fairly easy to see based on the principle that the safest place to be or the safest response is to move to the outside of the attack. Training and logic both provide us with this answer. The problem, I think, is that the training is often not real enough or logic has flown right out the window.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Saxophones and Habitual Acts of Physical Violence

Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV) was all the rage a few years ago.  I haven't heard much about it recently, or at least that particular acronym, which got me to thinking. Why do you need to know 36 HAPV? How do you come up with the number 36 in the first place? It reminds me of Sanseiru, another 36 whose cryptic meaning has spawned all manner of strange interpretations. So is there something inherently magical about 36? I suppose someone is going to say that it's just a way to organize or wrap your head around different scenarios. That makes some sort of sense. But still, acts of aggression happen very quickly. Should I be thinking of which act of violence a particular technique is a response to when I need a quick response? Should I necessarily be thinking at all?

This is where the saxophone part comes in. My son, who has just started sax lessons, had an interesting admonition from his sax teacher the other day. He told him to try to just play the notes he sees on the scale--he said, "try not to say the name of the note in your head when you play it." This sort of by-passing the need to consciously verbalize (or think about) what you are doing made a lot of sense to me.

Back to the Habitual Acts of Violence thing....So you have 36 of these HAPV, and on that list are such things as #32 garment pulled over the head, #24 both hands grabbed from the front, #28 front arm-bar.... Now one would certainly need to respond to these aggressive acts. But aside from the rather obvious--for any number of them can't I just punch or kick the other guy?--my real question hinges on how you got yourself into this fix in the first place. Most of these acts of violence occur when you are attacked by an opponent, and that unarmed attack, I assume, means he comes at me with one or both hands, a foot, or charges me like a bull with his head. So putting the kicks and tackles aside for the moment, how many ways do I need to know to respond to his hands? He can attack with the left or the right, and on the inside or the outside. So I can block (or "receive") each attack with one of four blocks; that is, my left arm to his right arm on the inside or the outside, and my right arm to his right arm on the inside or the outside, and the same on the other side.

This would seem to me to be a much simpler way of looking at HAPVs or the multiplicity of ways one might be attacked. And if we can simplify our perception of the attack, perhaps the initial response may also be simplified and more reactive, spontaneous, or reflexive. It would, it seems to me, facilitate quick responses instead of having to think about, if you will, which "note" is being played. And lastly, each receiving
technique would lead to a limited, but still somewhat open-ended, number of bridging techniques and finishing techniques taken from other kata--thus encouraging a familiarity with variations that are useful in volatile and quick-changing encounters. So rather than expanding the list of Habitual Acts of Physical Violence--and there actually would seem to be more than 36 since the list includes variations of single-handed and two-handed attacks and the same attack from the front and the back--we should perhaps look to reduce them as much as possible. Goju-ryu classical subjects do show responses to attacks from the rear--such as the Shisochin response to #17 rear over-arm bear hug--but for the most part even a #31 single-hand shove is really the same as a #3 straight punch or a #30 single lapel grab or for that matter a #11 single-hand hair pull from the front, etc., etc., etc.  But whatever you do, "try not to say the name of the note in your head when you play it."

Friday, May 17, 2013

People say the damnedest things

I was raised to think that there were no stupid questions...only stupid answers. But I think I may have grown more curmudgeonly as I get older. Human behavior in general perplexes me. Sometimes it's the big things that confuse me--like why would someone place a bomb at the finish of the Boston Marathon? Sometimes it's just stupid little things--like the guy driving next to me on the highway at 65 miles an hour and texting with the phone right up in front of his face. Well, maybe that's not such a little thing either. But here's my list of stupid karate questions, and it's not exhaustive by any means, only the ones that come to mind at the moment:

What's your favorite kata? (If it is a system, should we be focusing on individual parts of the system to the exclusion of others or favor one part over any other part?)
How high (or low) should your shiko-dachi be? (Does it really matter as long as it is stable and functional?)
Do you practice karate or karate-do? (I practice this stuff. I don't really care what you call it.)
Why does this teacher (or was it that teacher) turn his foot when he steps forward in Sanchin? (Sanchin is a kata to train stance and posture and breath, etc. It's not a bunkai kata. It doesn't matter whether you turn the foot before you step.)
Is this a cluster "M" kata or a cluster "H" kata? (Who decided on these categories anyway? Whoops, that's not fair responding to a question with a question. Ah, tough, that's all it deserves.)
How long does it take to make black belt? (As long as it takes.)
What kata is the best for self defense? (Depends, doesn't it?)
Do you kick with the ball of the foot or the heel? (Depends, doesn't it?)
What kata is the deadliest? (All of them.)
Should you cross-train? (Don't we already?)
Did you know that karate was not even systematized until the 20th century? (Not fair--rhetorical! Why do people ask questions they already know the answer to?)
Which do you think came first, kata or bunkai? (Emphasis on you and thinking, as if this is, in fact, open for discussion. It's not. Guess what the answer is.)
Hey, I wonder what it would be like to focus on one kata for five years? Or even one technique for a year? (Stupid. What a waste.)
Do you say "Osu"? (Will it help my karate?)
Do you spend more time on basics, kata, or two-person bunkai? (You do what you need to do, don't you?)
Do you wear a gi at your school? (What for?)
Matayoshi sensei helping my
daughter Emily on her first bike.
Do you practice "flow drills"? (Whatever the hell they are?!)
Do you compete in tournaments? (No, I buy my plastic trophies at the local sporting goods store instead.)
Aren't all styles really the same--they just take different paths to eventually get to the same place? (No, some styles are better than others.  And some are so corrupted that it's hard to see the original intent anymore.)
What the heck is "oyo" bunkai? (Now that's a good question. And while we're on it, what are different levels of bunkai? Bunkai is bunkai.)

The Greeks had a name for it...hubris. Most of these questions reek of hubris. A Greek tragedy in the making. This rant smacks of hubris too, doesn't it? But that's the irony of it, isn't it?

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Marathon training at my age???

This is a bit of a ramble. In fact, I'm hesitant to even write a post like this. I've tried to  keep all of my blog posts focused on Goju kata and bunkai--technique rather than musings about my personal "journey" or what it means to train, etc. I wonder sometimes why people share all that personal stuff. Why should someone else care? What does it have to do with my own training? After all, I'm not trying to proselytize; I'm just training and sharing what I do. What others make of it is up to them. The funny thing about blogs, in fact, is I'm not exactly sure what purpose they serve. You never really hear from most of the people who read your blog, so you have no way of knowing who you are reaching or what they make of what you're saying. Sometimes I think most people only encounter your blog when you mention some well-known person that the Google algorithm can pick up on a random search. The most email I've received has had to do with posts I've written that were critical of Higaonna sensei or Taira sensei or Mabuni sensei. Those individuals are, of course, so popular that any criticism calls into question what you yourself are doing. That is, if I am in disagreement with those individuals who are so popular--and their students and their organizations--then I must be doing something wrong. A minority of one. I never felt particularly uncomfortable being in a minority of one though. After all, the majority of Americans watch "reality" TV. The majority of Americans eat at McDonald's. The majority of Americans, I recently read, believe in ghosts but don't believe Darwin was correct. And we shouldn't forget that the Church (the Roman Catholic Church) only came out a few years ago to say that it had perhaps been wrong about Galileo. I am reminded of something Hamlet says:

"Sure, He that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused."

But all of that perhaps is neither here nor there...the effusive ramblings of the typical blog post. I'm not training at the moment...obviously. I'm actually sitting here typing, with a glass of wine, listening to Bach violin concertos. I wonder how many intense martial arts blog posts and forum comments are written under the same or similar conditions?

But when I sat down, I was thinking of writing about training for a marathon....a 26.2 mile run. I'm not really a runner, but this is what I've been doing--in addition to martial arts training, of course--for the past three to four months. But first-time marathon runners can get really obnoxious, so obsessively focused on what they're doing. It's certainly understandable; the training for a marathon is really really hard. It's an incredible challenge. It's probably not even good for you. But I think challenging yourself is, at the very least, interesting. And anyone who hasn't trained for a marathon can't really relate to it. Sort of like traditional karate training. I've met a lot of people who say, "Oh, you train karate? I did that once." But what they did was a month of Fred Villari stuff or a year at the local American Kempo Institute. What do they know?

When I first started training Okinawan Goju-Ryu with Kimo Wall sensei, we trained two hours a day, five days a week, and sometimes on Saturday as well. Sometimes we would slip shoes on and go out and train in the snow. Often we trained in hallways or stairwells. The club at that time had fifty or sixty members who trained regularly. We would do basics--blocks, punches, and kicks--and count around the dojo, each person counting to ten. And that was followed by kata or two-person paired basics or two-person bunkai with training subjects. We would have speed drills in pairs till you wore yourself out, going home with bruises up and down the forearms. In between training kata and bunkai, we might do shiko-dachi races, carrying a classmate across the floor on our backs. Or we might have races across the floor in push-up position. Or we might have tug-o-wars with our belts. And, of course, there were all of the traditional drills--arm pounding, log tossing, push-ups, sit-ups, breathing exercises, stretching, learning to sit in full lotus, etc.

I'm thinking of all this because it reminds me of a training story I once read. The point of the story was something to the effect that if you didn't train hard when you were young and strong, then you wouldn't have anything when you got old. You would only be a paper tiger. When I'm out on those fifteen or twenty mile training runs--and my feet hurt and my knees ache and my hips are starting to bother me and I'm wondering what the heck I'm doing all this for even for the briefest of moments--I remember how hard we used to train in the old days. It's a reminder for me of the mental, physical, and spiritual effort that karate training attempts to foster in students, and the phrase we often heard: "Ganbatte kudasai!!" Never give up. I'll remember that when we head up that hill at mile fifteen!

Ganbatte kudasai!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Seiunchin "uke" in pictures

Reversing the grab to use an arm-bar.

First Seiunchin entry or receiving technique against a wrist grab.

Trapping the hand to escape a grab.

Second Seiunchin entry or receiving technique against a wrist grab.

Dropping back to avoid the push
and control the arm.

Third Seiunchin entry or receiving technique against a two-handed push.

Side-stepping to block a push
and attacking at the same time.

Fourth Seiunchin entry or receiving technique against a two-handed push.

I mentioned in a much older post that Goju kata are composed of combinations or sequences that teach not only the bunkai (or imi-wa) of individual techniques but also the principles of the system. But in order to see any of this, you have to start with the "uke" techniques or the entry techniques. This, I think, may be what was meant by the saying: "Karate Ni Sente Nashi" (There is no first attack in karate). In other words, karate is a system of self-defense and does not initiate a violent or aggressive encounter. But it would also seem to go further than this--that is, the idea seems to be reflected in the techniques of kata. Each sequence or combination of techniques begins with an "uke" or receiving technique, regardless of which of the classical kata you are considering. From there it is easier to understand the "controlling" or bridging techniques, and finally the "finishing" techniques in kata, and in turn the structure of kata. There are, of course, some who dismiss this view of kata, and there are certainly many more who make their names and reputations on finding hundreds of applications for each subtle movement, an infinite variety of techniques or levels of bunkai, if you will. But one should always approach things with an open mind. So here are the five entry techniques of Seiunchin kata. 

Tying up the arms to escape a grab.

Fifth Seiunchin entry or receiving technique against a wrist grab.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Saifa "uke" in pictures

The five "uke" or receiving techniques of Saifa kata.

Using the elbow to come over the opponent's
arm and pull down.
Splitting a two-handed push to kick and
pull down.
Getting behind the attacker to pull down.
Attacking high and low to sweep the base
and attack the head.
Stepping off-line to capture the head
and attack with the knee.

Friday, March 22, 2013

You have to teach it first

Higa Seiko sensei demonstrating
a technique from Seipai
Is that a problem? Yeah, well, it might be. Now I'm just thinking about teaching Goju-Ryu, for instance, but if you're going to teach it, you need to think about which techniques to teach, and when you're going to teach them. Then there's the problem of what constitutes a technique. That may sound like a silly question, but if a particular sequence in kata involves a number of different movements, where do you break it down? This may not have tremendous implications for kata movement but what about bunkai? How you separate movements in kata may affect how you interpret techniques. What looks like uraken may really be a forearm strike or even an elbow, and yet they may look almost identical when you see the kata performed.

Once you separate the different parts of the movement, you put in artificial pauses or gaps. The sole purpose of the pauses is simply to make it easier to teach, but the pauses may get in the way of understanding how the techniques are supposed to be used. But it's hard to teach a beginner the fluid movement that may be required to execute techniques against an opponent, not to mention one who is attacking with any speed. And yet we teach kata in such a stylized and punctuated manner--as if the important point is to drag the performance out or make sure the judges at a tournament see every nuanced movement.

Once you have the techniques, it's hard to resist giving them names--mawashi-uke, down block, front kick--and it doesn't matter what language you use. Again, the names make it easier to teach. But the problem with names is that the names predispose us to seeing the techniques in a particular way. The names may even mislead us as to their function. The other problem is that when we name the techniques, we tend to homogenize them--for example, we tend to see all of the mawashi-uke techniques as the same, functioning in the same way. It happens with stances too. Stances are much more fluid (and purposeful), but the conformity we use in teaching kata--and this would seem to apply to stances and stepping as well--makes it easier to teach, and especially easier to teach large groups. Maybe that's the problem--the teaching of large groups, the popularization of karate in the 20th century.

Miyagi Chojun sensei overseeing
a large group of students
Then there's built in ambiguity. It's easy to see how ambiguity could be a problem. For example: Suppose the cat stance (neko-ashi-dachi if you're going to name it) is not really a stance at all but merely a teaching indicator. Suppose it was only meant to remind the student that every time there is a cat stance in kata, it indicates where one could kick, either with the knee or the foot. Here's the irony: By suggesting that you could use either one by only showing the cat stance--because if a kick with the foot is shown then a kick with the knee is not and vice-versa--it leaves this particular technique open to interpreting it as no kick at all; as some literalists might put it,  it's a cat stance and it's used to move forward and back, for example. So in order to teach the idea that a technique could be used in more ways than one, the opposite idea is actually conveyed; that the technique is neither a kick with the foot nor a kick with the knee. Again, the fact that we're trying to teach it gets in the way, or to be fair the teaching methodology gets in the way.

I don't know whether any of this was intentional on the part of the old teachers. I tend to think they were doing their best trying to convey something that is difficult to convey. I know it's certainly difficult to put into words. Sometimes I think that the only words one should hear in the dojo are the words that I so often heard in Gibo Seki sensei's dojo whenever we asked any questions: "Kori wa, ko desho?" And then, of course, you'd have to do it.